One of my New Years Reading Resolutions was to read more small press fiction. The vast majority of the small press stuff I’ve read has been from Apex, a small press publisher of weird science fiction, fantasy and horror. This collection of short stories falls pretty firmly into the horror category, though there’s smatterings of science fiction thrown in there for good measure. THE GRAND TOUR tells the stories of the performers and hangers-on of a travelling circus seemingly not bound by the laws of time and space. Each story takes place in a different time and location, from silver rush Colorado, 1880 and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 2001, all the way to ‘your hometown’, 1946. While some of the participants come and go with the times, others don’t seem to age or change much at all, ever-present fixtures of Jackson’s Unreal Circus & Mobile Marmalade.
This is a pretty great book. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of short story collections, but my experience so far has been that some stories definitely shine more than others, and while that was definitely the case with THE GRAND TOUR, every story was, at a bare minimum, a good, enjoyable read and some were actually pretty incredible. I will say it took me a couple of stories to feel like I’d really settled in, possibly because the first story (Vanishing Act) set some expectations that weren’t consistent with the rest of the book. Vanishing Act is the story of Rabi, Vanisher and Vanquisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. This story was good, though not one of the better stories and I think the collection should perhaps have opened with one of the stronger entries, especially as this is more of a supernatural science fiction story and the rest of the book is very much horror, or horror-adjacent.
The next few stories follow two conjoined twins, who are part of the carnival, tracing their story from life into something not quite life and beyond. These stories are really quite fascinating, as we get to follow them on this journey, feeling very differently about them at different points along the way. I ran the whole gamut from compassion, to pity, all the way to downright abhorrence and back again. These are the stories where I started to really settle in, and by the time I got to Blow The Moon Out I was fully invested, but still not quite ready for this incredible story, following the journey of four young friends braving the horrors of the forest at night in order to visit Jackson’s Unreal Circus.
This story was matched by Lady Marmalade. Beth’s famous marmalade is referenced in many of the stories preceding this one, and while hints are dropped about its strange, memory-inducing qualities, this is the part where the titular Mobile Marmalade element begins to make sense. And while there’s still an element of horror to this story, I honestly just found it very wistfully emotional and teared up a couple of times during this one. A beautiful story that highlights the literary range Tobler is clearly capable of. There was a large element of this to the story Every Season as well, which tells the tale of a man long drawn to the idea of the circus as somewhere he feels he can truly express who he is without judgement or reproach.
All in all, this collection definitely has that dark overtone that I’ve come to expect from a lot of the stuff Apex publishes but there really is a lot of heart to this collection as well. As my first foray into E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction, I was very impressed and will definitely read more from her. This is a strong recommend from me.
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