Welcome to my spot on the blog tour for Ariadne, I Love You by J. Ashley-Smith. Thank you to Meerkat Press for the spot on the tour. Read on for more info and my review!
ARIADNE, I LOVE YOU by J. Ashley-Smith
RELEASE DATE: July 20, 2021
GENRE: Dark Fantasy / Horror
Jude is dragged out of Alt-Country obscurity, out of the dismal loop of booze and sadness baths and the boundless, insatiable loneliness, to scrub up and fly to Australia for a last, desperate comeback tour. Hardly worth getting out of bed for—and he wouldn’t, if it weren’t for Coreen.
But Coreen is dead. And, worse than that, she’s married. Jude’s swan-song tour becomes instead a terminal descent, into the sordid past, into the meaning hidden in forgotten songs, into Coreen’s madness diary, there to waken something far worse than her ghost.
If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know when a book comes into my email fitting the dark fantasy and horror genre, I’m going to do what I can to make it work in my schedule. I am so happy I had the chance to review Ariadne, I Love You by J. Ashley Smith!! It’s easy to give this five stars.
I am always very impressed by novellas that are this tight. I was drawn in, immediately, and the execution of the story was plotted perfectly. When you think about reading a novella, this is the standard they should be held to! I couldn’t put this down. Easily one of my favorite reads of the year.
This took me through all the emotions while keeping that dark atmosphere clouded around me. This is wonderful. I can’t think of anything else to say except that you need to buy this one. Highly recommended.
Thank you to Meerkat Press for the review copy and opportunity to honestly review this book on the blog tour. All opinions are my own and unbiased.*
The ghost of the engine still roared in my ears as I popped the car door, swung my legs to the ground. From the gully below, the chimes of bellbirds echoed the tantrum of clunks and pings beneath the bonnet. I staggered, stretched, felt my knees creak. Reached back in to grab my cigs. That first blue-gray exhalation was pure reverence and I savored it, stood with one hand on the open door, not ready to commit to the fresh air, the open sky, the back-arse-of-nowhere vibe.
The abandoned train carriage was a dreary beige, with smoky windows, blank and hollow. Beyond its weathered deck and the turning circle of dust and weeds, the bristling wilderness stretched in all directions to infinity. Proper bleak.
“Mate, it’s yours,” Ben had said. “You can stay there till your show, or as long as you need.”
Magnanimous bastard. Like I had a choice.
I tossed the butt and went looking for the key. The sun was long down and my denim jacket was no protection against the prickling cold. Chill gusts from the gully made the dry leaves rattle like a thousand tiny bones.
The key was in a rusty can below the deck, just as Ben had said. It had a plastic tag and a handwritten label. Her handwriting. The back of my head tingled like I was being watched, and I turned around quickly to catch—I don’t know what—some movement. But there was nothing. Only the gentle marionette gestures of branches, the soughing of leaves like the ocean in a seashell.
Up the half-rotten stairs and onto the deck, I found double doors laced with cobwebs, took out the key and felt my heart tumble again over Coreen’s writing on the tag. The door was jammed, so I shouldered it and stumbled into the carriage. The smell of dead air struck me at once—not damp, as I’d expected, but old and absent, the smell of forgotten things. Mildew bloomed in the double-glazed windows, distorting the view and dimming what remained of the daylight.
I found the old fuse box, decorated with stickers of rainbows and unicorns that half-glittered as I pulled it open. Inside were more keys with more handwritten tags and a ring binder with instructions for visitors. I flicked through the pages: water tank, gas cooker, pit toilet, air bed, flick, flick, flick. I could sort all that out later. I stepped through the bead curtain into the carriage’s main compartment.
The lounge was scattered with the detritus of family life. A game of Hungry Hippos, unfinished on the carpet. Drawing paper on the coffee table, big shapes scrawled in brightly colored crayon. A neat stack of line drawings in black felt tip—a crow, a lizard, an animal that might have been a wombat. On the arm of the couch, a pile of books: Tender is the Night; The Beautiful and Damned; Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Coreen’s old postgraduate bedfellows.
There wasn’t much to the “master bedroom.” A deflated airbed gathering dust and clumps of hair. A coil of fly-paper dangling from a blackened air vent. A shabby wicker chair piled with old music magazines. Hardly the fucking Ritz. And the air, so still and close. I was on my way to throw open the back door when something above the bed caught my eye.
The photo was set in a handmade frame of warped bushwood. A selfie of them both, looking just how I remembered. Ben, with his gawky, boyish face, his ginger mop and trademark newsreader specs. And her, Coreen, with her pale skin and chaos of black hair, her arm off to one side holding the camera, mouth twisted into that half-frown I knew to be a grin. It must have been taken only a couple of years after they left London, because they were still young. Before kids. Before—
It was a candid shot, perfectly captured. A private moment of intimacy between two people very much in love.
I put up my hand, laid it over the picture, cutting off Ben. Even through the lens of the camera in her hand, even out of that frozen instant and across the years that separated us, there she was. Her fierce blue eyes fixed on mine.
“She told me she wanted a cat,” Ben said. We were in the kitchen of his Newtown terrace. The windows were steamed. Ben’s glasses, too. He reached into the pot with a slotted spoon and teased out a quill of pasta, tested it, pulled a face.
I was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, beneath a rack of dangling pans. Ben uncorked another red, raised his eyebrows and waved the bottle in my direction. I nodded and knocked back what was in my glass, held it out for him to fill.
“And she banged on and on about it, wouldn’t let it go. You know what kids are like.”
“I can imagine,” I said, but was only half listening. Since I arrived that afternoon, Ben had talked about nothing but parenthood, the quirks and foibles of this or that offspring. I stifled a yawn between pressed lips, washed it down with another glug of red.
“Anyway, I was this close to going down the shelter and picking one out, when I twigged: it wasn’t a pet she wanted, it was a cadaver.” Ben tasted the sauce, started laying out bowls for us and the girls. “I said no, of course. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
“Is this all since . . .” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. We hadn’t yet spoken about Coreen.
Ben shook his head. “Nah, Margot’s pretty much always been a dark one; ‘scientific,’ she’d call it. The bones thing started with a wombat skull she found last time we were down the train. This kitchen’s been like a mortician’s lab ever since. We’ve had birds, rats, lizards, all stretched out on the chopping board to be skinned and dissected, the bones boiled clean. I’m not even sure they’re all dead when she finds them.”
I pulled a face, hoping it conveyed the expected emotion. I’d caught a glimpse of Margot’s room on my last piss stop. The velvety purple walls, the gleaming bell jars, the displays of mounted animal skeletons and antique taxidermy. It was more like a ghoulish private museum than an eight-year old’s bedroom.
“Couple of months after I shut it down, she came home with something in a plastic bag. It stank, and flies were buzzing.” Ben shook his head again. “Our neighbor’s cat had been hit by a car and Margot scooped it out of the gutter and brought it home. Christ, what a mess! I had to help her disembowel it, and the bloody thing was so big we had to go down the hardware store for an industrial-size pot.”
I glanced over Ben’s shoulder at the pot on the stove, wisps of vapor curling from the rim.
“The kitchen stank for weeks. And I still can’t look the Habibis in the eye.”
“Is dinner ever going to be ready?”
Peg erupted into the kitchen, a five-year-old whirlwind of strawberry-blonde hair and rainbow tie-dye. She seemed to explode out of another dimension, where standing still was a capital crime and every object on the floor a stepping-stone. I scooped up my bag and put it on the stool beside me.
“Just serving now,” said Ben. “Go tell your sister.”
Ben laid the table and invited me to sit, spooned pasta and sauce into the bowls, garnished all but one with some chopped green stuff. He was just tearing the bread when Peg burst back in, Margot walking stiffly behind her.
My heart stopped when I looked up and I prickled all over, like I was seeing a ghost.
Margot was the mirror image of her mother, but at the same time not like her at all—a waxwork, both identical and wrong. Her hair was the same midnight black, but unlike Coreen’s it hung in a straight, neat bob. Her skin had the same powdery whiteness, but on Margot it looked ashen, almost consumptive. And the thought of Coreen in a starched white blouse and old-style charcoal pinafore was absurd.
In two details, though, she was completely identical, and it was these that held me dangling over the pit in my own stomach. Her mouth was pulled down at the edges in a frown that I knew would express both amusement and displeasure. And her eyes—
I realized I was staring and flicked my gaze around the walls, as though Margot was just one piece in a gallery full of other, more diverting exhibits.
She looked at me without interest.
“You must be the one from Daddy’s band,” she said.
I ignored the slight, forced a smile. “The one and only,” I said. “I’ve known your dad since back in the day.”
“His name is Jude, Margot,” Ben said. “Peg. Fork.”
Peg’s head was tilted to one side as she shoveled pasta into her mouth by the handful. Her face, from cheek to chin, was slick with smears of bright red sauce. She looked at me and grinned, her wide-open mouth a grinder of tumbling, half-chewed food.
“I brought the old album.” I turned to Ben, though it was for Margot’s benefit that I said it; for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. “Thought it might be good for a listen.”
“Yay yay yay!” Peg went manic. She was out of her seat, stomping and jumping around the chair, food flying as she yelled. “The album! The album! Let’s listen to Daddy’s album!”
“You still with Mack?” Ben asked.
“Pretty much,” I said, protecting my glass from Peg’s flailing. “He crawled out of the woodwork fast enough when this show came up. Said he’d be over in a week or two, to crack the whip, take his cut.”
“You got anything on the way?”
“Nothing new. Though Mack was pushing for a Best Of to tie in with the show.” I shrugged. “Not going to happen now, unless he plans to burn them himself.”
Ben laughed, topped up my glass.
“I enjoyed your last one,” he said. “Couple of nice little numbers. Not a patch on Troubled Heart, mind. But you must’ve known that was a one-off; pure bloody magic from go to whoa. What was the single again?”
“‘Baby, Leave Your Man,’” I said, and felt my heart pound to speak those words aloud in front of Ben. “That was the big one.”
“With the harmonies? Bloody magic that one.”
Peg had forgotten about dinner, twirled round and round the table like a runaway drill. It made me tense and giddy, but Ben didn’t seem to notice. Margot watched her sister without interest, lifting penne to her mouth one quill at a time.
After dinner, I snuck off to the lounge while Ben and Margot did the washing up. I sat back on the faded leather couch, knocked back more wine, picked a tune on Ben’s old acoustic. I was thinking of Coreen and didn’t notice what I was playing until I felt the pull in my chest, the crack in my throat. I would have stopped, but Peg joined me then with a toy bongo, marched, yelling, round the living room, pounding the drum not quite in time to the music. I couldn’t bring myself to sing.
When Ben came in at last, I was knelt by the stereo, sticking on the CD. He picked up the case, had a laugh at the photo. The Böring Straights. Me and Ben and the others from the old band, all done up in black-and-white suits, half corporate, half Reservoir Dogs, trying way too hard to look rock’n’roll.
Ben tossed back the case and I looked down at it, realized I was stalling until Margot was in the room. I looked at my younger self, felt a twinge of something that might have been sadness, might have been just the hollow feeling of lost time.
I pushed play, cranked the volume. The opening bars of “I Wanna Be Incorporated” blasted out and Peg went nuts, full-on moshing round the room. Ben lay back in an easy chair, eyes closed, an almost-grin tweaking the edge of his mouth. I stretched along the couch with my feet up, half caught in the mistakes I’d obsessed over since the album was first pressed, half checking the others’ reactions. Margot was perched on the pouf in the corner with an unreadable expression.
As each song juddered to a stop or rang out in a squall of feedback, I found I was holding my breath, my right hand clenched into a fist. And my mind was clenched just as tight, second-guessing, as each new song started, what Margot would like about it. Or dislike. Trying to gauge, from the smallest reactions, what her feelings were for this thing I had created. Or whether she had feelings for it at all.
When she got up in the middle and left, I felt as though part of me had broken.
J. Ashley-Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award.
J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.
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