The new collection from First to Knock, Echoes of a Natural World: Tales of the Strange & Estranged, is edited by Michael P. Daley, who was one of the co-editor’s behind Boo-Hooray’s Jack Womack book, Flying Saucers Are Real! That alone was enough to get me interested, but upon seeing the book’s cover—resembling as it does nothing so much as a ‘60s-era private press weird science pulp paperback designed by Nick Ferreira and illustrated by Kevin Barry, I knew I had to take a look.
It turns out that Echoes of a Natural World is even more retro than one might think from the cover. The book, as the publisher explains, “represents a strange literary tradition spanning 150 years,” featuring as it does “four newly translated mindbenders from 19th century French Decadent legends [and] a once lost occult story from the early 20th century,” alongside five new works of strange fiction, all covering “a continuum of discomforting reactions to a world perpetually out of whack.”
The result is a collection which mirrors the pulp collections I used to pick up from the grocery store magazine rack when I was in my hardcore sci-fi / fantasy phase once I hit double-digits—stories which stretch the possibility of what can be done now alongside works which show just how folks have been doing it for years. Alternating as it does between the classic and the modern, the collection Daley has edited creates a sense of companionship between these stories.
Had the works been presented in chronological order, there would have been a disconnect in linguistic style and taxonomic choices, especially given the works translated from the French. As it is, the stylistic differences come across less as ones of temporality or mother tongue, but instead reflect the various choices made by the authors. Many of the works are in the first-person, allowing for a through-line of sorts, alongside a few in third-person omniscient—but there is one in the second, “Journey to the Ills,” by Mark Iosifescu, and not for nothing is it one of the most distressing stories in the whole of Echoes of a Natural World.
Reading through these stories, taking on one or two each night after I crawled into bed, (but before I turned out the lights) allowed for a certain amount of reflection on each of the stories in this collection. The subtitle, Tales of the Strange & Estranged, definitely came through in each piece, and I feel as though if you were inclined, you could easily breeze through this in an afternoon, but there’s something far more satisfying in reading one or two pieces, letting sleep take over, and awakening the next morning to ponder on them over the course of the day, allowing connections to be made as you tackle the new ones the following night.
Over the course of the week I spent reading Echoes of the Natural World, I would frequently find myself flipping back to previous stories to check on details which I saw reflected in the tale of which I was currently in the middle. Marcel Schwob’s “Lucretius, Poet,” and its themes of a powerful man’s corruption through the influence of another, and the resulting demise is seen again in “Little Brother” by Janice Law, despite the author of the former having passed over a century before the writing of the latter.
Honestly, as I was writing this review, I found myself taking far longer to get it written than I’d originally thought, because every time I went to reference a story, I’d get caught up in re-reading it once more. I finished Echoes of a Natural World well over two weeks ago, actually, and it’s been sitting by my bedside ever since. Despite working my way through a couple other collections of vintage weird and supernatural short stories, I find myself coming back to this one.
Maybe it’s the talent involved. Maybe it’s the subject matter. Maybe it’s the changing of the seasons putting me more in contact with the natural world by sheer virtue of spending more time out-of-doors. In any case, Echoes of a Natural World will certainly liven up your evenings and present a sense of the strange that’s far more intriguing than our current day-to-day.
Echoes of a Natural World: Tales of the Strange & Estranged can be ordered from First to Knock.