Book Review: ’13: The Anthology’

By October 22, 2013 July 4th, 2014 Book, Reviews

Ah 13, that inscrutable number that holds such great sway over our humble race. It resonates with us all in different ways and conjures images of superstition, faith, historical tragedy and triumph variously. What does the number mean to you? Perhaps the seats at the Last Supper or the missing law of the Code of Hammurabi, or that pesky end date of the Mayan calendar (although we’re still here which just goes to show that you can never trust a Mayan)? It in is our fascination with these two digits that the basic conceit of ’13: The Anthology’ lies.

the anthology

Here 13 authors have been selected and pitched a very open writing task – give us a story inspired in some way by the number 13. Concept-based anthologies can often be a rather shrug-worthy affair with writers trying to shoehorn a basic conceit into their art or vice versa, but the seemingly endless allure and abstract openness of the number affords these chosen apostles great freedom in their creative processes. The result is one that is certainly worth the extremely meagre entry fee (you can literally snap this tome up for less than 80 of your digital English pence right now).

Editors (and contributors) Francesca Mansfield and Nick Keller have done an admirable job in putting together an extremely disparate collection of tales which may excite, disgust, baffle, and entertain in fairly equal measures. Obviously literature is an incredibly subjective entity, and one always expects to find an anthology to be a very mixed bag. While that is certainly true here, it is also the case that with such a varied collection there is definitely something in here for everyone.

The very much international selection weaves itself beautifully through genres and styles but it is always held together with that one seed of inspiration and this ensures that the collection is never less than endearing. We have tales that deal with the lowest rungs of the down and outs, we have tales of romance, of speculative worlds, of ‘New Weird’-esque occurrences in the most ordinary places, but the writing (though some will appeal more to certain people than others) is of a consistently high standard and reveals frequent bright flashes of inspiration.

The manner in which the 13 concept is utilised by the creative minds here is something that I thought I would find particularly jarring. I expected to be getting swept away in a character’s adventures only to suddenly spot the 13 element and that this would thrust me out of the experience. Instead, and full credit the authors for this, it became a joy to note with some surprise how that one spark of inspiration had embedded itself in the process. In one particularly notable example there is the utterly compelling characterisation of 13 as a convincing female lead, driving the narrative of the speaker forward.

In addition to the oft-held belief that in an anthology one will find as least one story that particularly resonates with them, the most remarkable thing about this selection is that there is something in each one of the stories that ensures they are all worthy of your time and attention. The convincing journalistic voice of the second story is a tricky thing to pull off and many better-known authors have done a far less admirable job. The brutal and bloody tale of a man fighting for pocket change will stay with me for a long time. The use of a list-type form for the structure of story number 4 becomes far more than a clever plot-handling device.

Life is often depicted here with exacting perspicuity. We see the unpleasant reality of existence within the walls of a homeless shelter, complete with the tastes and smells of the bodily waste that coats its floors and walls. This is life, but it is life painted in the raw. It is not all drunken fights and bodily fluids though. ‘Salty Dog’ is a beautifully told story whose eloquence skilfully disguises the darkness which is the true centre of the tale, and William Reid’s sci-fi narrative arrests immediately with ‘The looming crystal spires of a dead alien city…’

For the genre buffs amongst us it is not only speculative fiction that gets some deserved attention, editor Nick Keller’s horror story is a gem of traditional gothic imagery filled with creaking steps and a house that utterly drips with darkness.

Elsewhere the number 13 is treated with a tongue firmly wedged in the cheek and encourages a spirited toying with the idea of superstition, before a tale of school time friendship brings us back to the realm of realism. Towards the book’s close we are treated to a playful tale of mile-high folklore that guides us unwittingly toward possible tragedy, and Max Watt’s eerily convincing yet horrific tale of bad choices and a student’s life spiralling out of control will probably make you want to offer the author a massive hug.

The collection closes with another tale that would sit easily alongside books of the ‘New Weird’ ilk with a shot in the arm of arresting surprise not unlike Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’. There’s a huge amount going on in here from new voices and some more experienced writers and it’s a perfect way to have a sample of some of the independent storytelling currently happening away from the shelves of major bookstores. As a reviewer I got this copy for free but I will certainly be purchasing a copy as a thank you for the efforts that have gone into making this arresting collection. At less than 80 pence you’d frankly be daft not to do the same. My only complaint? I wish I’d been one of the ‘lucky’ 13.

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