Illustration by Fran Eisemann as it was created for CRES for Stemple’s “Still Life” using public domain and creative commons images.

Happy belated Halloween, my darklings!

Hands down and without any doubt whatsoever, this is my absolute favorite time of year. The cooling weather, the scent of fall hanging in the air, the rustling of dried leaves in the breeze, and the marathon of both good and terrible horror films on every platform are just some of the small signs that several days of awesomeness are on their way. Both the Celtic Samhain, Norse Álfablót, and the Día de los Muertos celebrations start on October 31 and run through November 2, leaving me in shadowy bliss for three whole days.

(Note: I should mention that, to my knowledge, Álfablót didn’t have a particular day ascribed to it, like Halloween. It was simply celebrated after the harvest was over, which could range from the start of October through the beginning of November. I personally celebrate all month long, so timing is not an issue for me.) 

To that end, I’m back with my latest review. We’re looking at a short horror story published by Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on October 31, 2019, “Still Life” by Adam Stemple. Like many of my other reviews, I wrote this for Tangent Online and you can visit them to see it there in it’s full glory. Here, I’m including just the highlights.

The unnamed protagonist of Stemple’s story “Still Life” is a lonely man who makes money as a living statue. For those of you unfamiliar with that particular form of artistic expression, it’s basically an actor covered in body paint and sometimes cloth meant to mimic one famous sculpture or another. They can stand motionless for hours on end, much to the amazement of passers-by.

The narrative opens at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland where our narrator is at work. Each day, as the festival-goers wander home and the shadows grow long, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger who steps forward from the departing crowd. Because of the pose he’s in, he’s not able to see the speaker, but the voice is familiar. It reminds him of one he often heard as a child that would tell him to stay still. Finally, on the last day of the Fringe, the stranger asks him to meet behind the cathedral after the moon has set. He agrees, uncertain of what to expect when he arrives.

“I have been watching you.” The voice was old, graveled, but it triggered a memory from my childhood: a dark corner where my father never looked, an unseen voice soothing me, “Be still, child. Be still and it will be all right.”

 

— “Still Life” by Adam Stemple

Now, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a bit of a weird one (as if the intro to this post wasn’t enough to tell you that, right?). I have always love gargoyles. In fact, I’ve got a gargoyle wind chime hanging on my front porch that a friend gave me years ago.

But you just don’t find gargoyles in the starring role of fiction works very often and it really is a shame. They have an fascinating history that stretches beyond the rooftops of 13th century cathedrals, going all the way back to antiquity. While the word “gargoyle” didn’t come into existence until 13th century France (and even then it was “gargoule” according to Entomology Dictionary Online), they’ve been used for thousands of years as water drainage and to scare away evil spirits—even if they did look a little different in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece than those currently gracing the roofs of Gothic-style buildings.

Frankly, Stemple has made good use of this legacy. What we’re given as readers is the birth of a gargoyle, the creation of those mysterious grotesqueries that stare down at us from on high.

And while I would classify it as belonging to the horror genre, don’t expect a terrifying tale. This is an eerie, quiet narrative that creeps slowly and steadily forward, promising the kind of beauty and transformation that can only be found in darkness.

All said and done, I think you’ll really enjoy Stemple’s story. It’s a fitting note on which to say goodbye to a month that’s become synonymous with spirits and monsters.

Well, what do you think? Have you read “Still Life”? If so, what did you think?