StrangeBooks is an innovative and unique small publisher based in Brighton. And to me, knowing Brighton as I do, StrangeBooks is a phenomena that could only have been conceived there. The culture and community in England’s seaside city is an eclectic mix of spiritual and surreal self-expression – and that’s exactly what’s on offer from Nothing Is Strange, the press’s first collection of bizarre short stories by Mike Russell.
Opening the third eye and peering into the mouth of the universe, we enter the strange world of Russell’s otherworldly imagination – a world that’s made all the more strange by its uncanny familiarity.
Having made our way through the first story, Cream Tea – which epitomises the style of this collection by giving a multi-dimensional twist to an ordinary story about a couple in a tea shop, and ends up reminiscent of an extract from the Bhagavad Gita in which Arjuna beholds the entire universe within the mouth of Krishna – we turn next to The Diaries of Sun City: a kind of bizarre take on a 1984-style dystopian world. Many stories veer between the utopian and the dystopian as they unfold.
Some stories – The Meeting, The Warehouse, Barry and The Triplets – read as fragments from an unrestrained imagination. Exercises in ‘what if…’ scenarios that seem to be developed beyond any kind of logical conclusion. Yet the characters are presented through dialogue and attention to detail that renders them real enough to believe in, whatever the improbable situation.
A theme that can be traced within the collection plays itself out through the motifs of the mask and the stage. Stories such as Mask Man, Extraordinary Elsie, Dunce and The End of The Pier, among others, ask unsettling questions about the nature of reality and illusion, and the true location and identity of the self.
Mask Man, in particular, is a story that’s so visually rich and unsettling it continues to haunt me long after reading.
The stories are simply told in a straightforward, traditional narrative style with matter-of-fact narration and dialogue that brings the characters to life and helps to anchor the unbelievable situations they find themselves in. Sometimes they can come across as too simplistic, and Russell’s desire to press home a spiritual message can be over-expository from time to time. Whilst The Shining Flower has a warmly meditative quality to it, it also feels overly didactic. The strongest stories in this collection are the ones that pose the questions without actually having to ask them, or indeed provide an answer.
However, as a collection, these stories are funny, quirky, bizarre and thought-provoking. And I appreciate the desire to tell new and consciousness-awakening stories that seems to be at the heart of Nothing Is Strange.
I’m looking forward to reading more from Mike Russell, and I’m interested to see what’s coming next from StrangeBooks.
About the Publisher:
StrangeBooks is a small press with a big desire to unleash the transformative power in fiction. Offering readers the strange, the weird, the extraordinary, StrangeBooks want their fiction to be both memorable and magical.
Mike Russell says: “For me, creating is discovering and storytelling is bringing into the world dreams that are universal. They come from a deep place; they want to be known and they want to help us. Storytelling is a way of turning the world inside out, which I believe it desperately needs.” Mike Russell