Book cover: Winter Tales - ed. Margret Helgadottir - a drawing of a cottage nestled in firs with the moon rising above on a field of purple)Christmas Eve is when Icelanders given books to one another and winter is when we Brits historically told ghost stories by the fire. I’m celebrating the season with a collection of speculative horror stories chosen by Margrét Helgadóttir.

Winter Tales is an extensive selection of short stories and poetry, with beautiful, almost woodcut-style cover art that seems entirely appropriate. Many of these tales are stories to be told in the dark or by the flickering of candlelight, as chilly as the season they celebrate. A few are by well-known authors, but most were new to me, which is always exciting.

Best of the bunch

The collection gets off to a fine start with The Frost Sermon by Mat Joiner, whose work I shall eagerly seek out in future. A travelling performer brings winter to the hearts of those ready to listen to him, told in a style that would raise goosebumps if performed aloud. It’s a brilliant opener and sets a high bar that the following tales don’t quite match, although Su Haddrell comes close in The Bothy with her excellent grasp of place and her use of mundane detail to ground her chilling ghost story. I loved that she was able to keep me guessing as to how badly things would go wrong as her hikers found themselves stranded on the heights above Glen Coe (I know the glen and the mountains above it; it’s beautiful when snow is falling, but absolutely deadly to be caught out in unprepared).

Winter in the Vivarium by Tim Major was the next to catch my attention, a frosty tale set in a near-future Ice Age where the rich are sealed into warm habitats and everyone else muddles through. I would have liked a few more world-building tidbits and clearer characterisation to explain Byron the duct cleaner’s loyalties, but I liked the outcome. Similarly, Among Wolves by B Thomas had moments of excellence, but felt like a glimpse into a larger work rather than a short story.

However, I very much liked Yukizuki by Eliza Chan, which subverts the traditional yuki onna tale by gender-swapping the winter spirit (and why not). I enjoyed the evocation of love and loss that permeates the tale, and the fairy tale emphasis on promises and consequences. I look forward to reading more of Eliza Chan’s work.

Cold-hearted by G.H. Finn slowly won me over with its deployment of Scandinavian folklore to tell the tale of a young disabled woman determined to murder her dastardly neighbour. Spiky, feisty characters and a good deal of magic provide entertainment as the situation rapidly escalates out of control.

The next tale, David Sarsfield’s Voliday, is very different, but intriguing. Britain has become a totalitarian state, our curtain-twitching instincts deployed to rat out those with unconventional preferences. Our heroine is a lesbian who longs for a winter holiday; it can’t end well, but arguably it’s a happier ending than it seems. I’d love to see a sequel story in which the volidaying rebels find a way to overturn the regime.

My favourite tale of the collection came second-to-last: Adrian Tchaikovsky’s response to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t as subversive as The Problem with Susan, but is a timely reminder that we shouldn’t rely on a fairy-tale conviction that it’ll all be alright in the end. The polished prose and measured narrative stand head and shoulder above the rest of the collection and – like his other short stories I’ve read – makes me rue that I never like the sound of Tchaikovsky’s novels (I just don’t like insects as much as he does).

Honourable mentions

While I enjoyed the characters, themes and build-up of tension through Masimba Musodza’s When The Trees Were Enchanted, I would have preferred more hazard and/or more ambiguity at the climax. Lizz-Ayn Shaarawi’s Snow Angel is less ambiguous than I think it hoped to be, but was a neat execution of a dark fantasy trope. Honorable mentions also to shapeshifter feud Shaman Red by Jan Edwards and transformation horror The Frost of Heaven by Verity Holloway, both of which were well written even if they left me largely untouched.

The other tales I found less successful, with less polished prose or less satisfying narratives. Several were too simplistic for my liking and few had truly mastered the tricky art of short form storytelling. Consequently Winter Tales felt like a very mixed bag, and my enjoyment suffered towards the end where there was quite a gap between stories I enjoyed.

Ultimately, I tend to measure the excellence of short stories in the number of tears that I shed, and my eyes stayed stubbornly dry through this collection. That said, there’s enough here – and in brilliantly bite-sized servings – to provide an amusing diversion and get to know some new voices in the genre as they flex their storytelling muscles.

***

Winter Tales is available now.

I received a free copy from the editor in exchange for an honest review.