PS Showcase #11: Stardust [hc] by Nina Allan
A COLLECTION by Nina Allan
PUBLICATION DATE April 2013
COVER ART Ben Baldwin
PRINT RUN unsigned
Michael Gomez is thirteen and he is a chess prodigy. He has no experience of losing until now, and as he struggles to come to terms with a major defeat, he finds himself drawn into a world he thought existed only in the movies.
The woman of his dreams is Ruby Castle, a charismatic beauty famous for her roles in horror films and then notorious for murdering her married lover in a jealous rage. Ruby’s glory days are long behind her, but for Michael she is the only escape he knows from the world of chess. Walking home across Blackheath Common he is apprehended by the Puppeteer, the evil genius of the film that made Castle famous. The man should not exist and yet somehow he does.
The stories collected in Stardust are themselves the story of Ruby Castle, told in snapshots and fleeting glimpses and secret histories, in tales repeated and reinvented by those who fall under her spell: her childhood sweetheart, an antiquarian bookseller with a passion for magical artefacts, the mistress of the poet who was once Castle’s lover, a young girl in a future Russia who dreams of the stars. Worlds collide, and the boundaries between the real and the fantastic begin to break down. Is Ruby Castle a living person or a collective fantasy? By the time the final page of Stardust is turned, the world that Castle created through her films has become dangerously indistinguishable from our own.
Stardust is the lure of fame, the fallout from a burning rocket, the evanescent glister of a vanished dream.
Nina Allan Biography
I was born in Whitechapel, London, grew up in the Midlands and West Sussex, and studied Russian Literature at the universities of Exeter and Oxford. The language of a story is deeply important to me, and if I had to describe my writing in just a couple of words I would probably call it visionary realism. Recurring obsessions include old clocks and empty houses, forgotten manuscripts, reclusive scholars and the psychogeography of both urban and rural landscapes. The many writers who have inspired and continue to inspire me include Iris Murdoch, J.G Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Emshwiller, M.John Harrison and Christopher Priest.
My fiction has appeared regularly in magazines such as Interzone, Black Static and Albedo One and has featured in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Volume 2, Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best SF #28 and Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction 2012 as well as in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Dark Currents and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women. I have been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award twice, the BSFA Award three times, and my story ‘Angelus’ was named the winner of Ireland’s Aeon Award in 2007. My debut collection, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by my story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. I live and write in Hastings, East Sussex, where I am currently completing work on my first novel.
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Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories is a collection of beautifully written stories, tenuously linked by largely fleeting mentions of the actress Ruby Castle, and by various themes of illusion, carnival, failure and loss. The stories are carefully-observed reflections on human nature, each with a macabre or horrific twist. The settings range from London to post-war Germany to a future Russia following a range of characters all of whom, in their own way, are chasing ghosts.
The tone is often claustrophobic. In “Laburnums”, a frustrated poet who lives with her ageing mother is haunted by apparitions of her old school-friend Amma. But is Amma dead, or is she in fact a successful actress, who escaped the dreariness of everyday life? In “The Gateway”, a letter from an old friend sends Andrew chasing down memory lane to the day when he took young Claudia to the carnival and allowed her to enter the hall of mirrors alone… Don’t look for closure in these stories. Most of them end on an ambiguous note.
In the opening story, “B-Side”, a young chess-player, obsessed by a fear of failure, is on his way home through a night-time park when he is accosted by two of the villainous characters from Ruby Castle’s movies. This fantastical and frightening incident offers the reader the first of several sparse glimpses into the actress’s life. As the protagonists of these stories grasp at fragments of the lives of others, so the reader will find, scattered through the stories, fragments of the life-story of Ruby Castle: just often enough to justify the book’s subtitle, never quite enough to satisfy.
Allan’s clean, spare prose lends her stories an immediacy and authenticity that is spine-chilling. Ambiguous ghosts surface repeatedly, haunting the narrators of almost every story. But are these the ghosts of the dead, or manifestations of people who are still living and only lost? Perhaps it is the narrators who are lost, and the ghosts who have moved on with their lives. Because in the end, for all their fantastic elements, what is truly spine-chilling about these stories is Allan’s pitiless exposure of human frailties, our capacity for self-delusion, betrayal and cowardice, and the degree of courage it takes for us to overcome our failings.