Some letters aren’t supposed to be read. Have you ever wondered if that’s why they go astray?
Editor Conrad Williams, winner of both the British Fantasy (One, 2009) and International Horror Guild Awards (The Unblemished, 2006), assembled an all-star lineup of seventeen fantasy and horror writers, all with ties to the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, for Dead Letters: An Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing, the Returned . . .
The premise is simple:
I sent the writers an actual parcel that was constructed to look like an item of mail that had done the rounds and accidentally landed on their doorstep. Inside was the prompt they would then use as a trigger for their own story. The one stipulation was that they incorporate the concept of dead letters, however tangential, into their fiction.
They all delivered.
It is clear that Williams sent a similar parcel to each writer, for the descriptions of it find their way into more than one story. Ramsey Campbell (hailed by the Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (2007) as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) presents his contribution, “The Wrong Game,” as a letter addressed to Williams. Campbell invents a story about himself coming to terms with a long-ago Faustian bargain this parcel forces him to recall.
Most of the stories involve someone receiving a mysterious package. The narrator of “Over to You” by Michael Marshall Smith (author of Only Forward, 1994) receives a bishop from a chess set. The narrator of “In Memoriam” by Joanne Harris (Chocolat, 1999) receives a photograph of himself as a child beside a girl he doesn’t recognize. The narrator of the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Buyer’s Remorse” by Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock Holmes series, 2010-15) receives a fragment of the occult Pnakotic Manuscripts.
In other stories, like Christopher Fowler’s “Wonders to Come” (a prequel of sorts to The Sand Men, 2015) or “Ausland” by Alison Moore (The Lighthouse, 2012), it is an inability to send a letter by the protagonists that move the plot.
A couple of stories were probably not written in response to the prompt. “And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere” by Kirsten Kaschock (Sleight, 2011) features bouquets of socks that reach their intended recipients, but no dead letters. In “The Hungry Hotel” by Lisa Tuttle (Lost Futures, 1992), the sender ignores the post altogether, yet succeeds in getting his letter delivered.
Williams concedes the anachronistic nature of this project. After all:
There are many different ways, these days, of getting your message across. Quick tweet. Fire off an email. Too busy for words? Click on the thumbs-up button.
And so, too, do the protagonists in these stories recognize how old-fashioned the premise is. After all, there is no dead-email office. The sender knows immediately if an electronic message failed to deliver, so what kind of mystery could result? Indeed, most of the characters in this collection respond to their mysteriously misfired missives with a Google search.
Most of the protagonists express some misgivings in opening mail intended for someone else, but give in to the temptation. “Change Management” by Angela Slatter (The Girl With No Hands and other tales, 2010) tells of wallflower working in the Dead Letter Office itself, a woman who becomes a different person after violating her professional obligations. These dead letters tend to inspire a sort of mania in their recipients. The narrator of “Astray” by Nina Allan (The Race, 2014) admits, “My actions seemed to have passed beyond the realms of the rational and into compulsion.”
Most of the stories are playful, like “The Green Letter” by Steven Hall (The Raw Shark Texts, 2007). There recipients might “discover a pet, spouse or child living in the property who did not exist previously” or worse, “have sex with a relative within 100 hours” of receipt of the letter. “The Days of Our Lives” by Adam LG Nevill (Lost Girls, 2011 – see our review), who also writes erotica, is a kinky horror version of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-92). “Ledge Bants” by Maria Dahvana Headley (Magonia, 2015) and China Mieville (The City & the City, 2009) imagines an immortal Merlin nursing a broken heart while working for the Royal Mail.
There is even a playful tone to “Cancer Dancer” by Pat Cadigan (Synners, 1991), who dramatized her own terminal cancer diagnosis in a story about a woman receiving a mysterious invitation to the Eternity Club. “London” by Nicholas Royle (First Novel, 2013) similarly blends humor and pathos in a story about an editor working with a difficult writer.
Others are darker. “Gone Away” by Muriel Gray (The Trickster, 1994) emphasizes the dead in dead letters as the narrator comes to terms with her family’s dark history in the slave trade. Claire Dean (writer featured in Best British Short Stories, 2011 & 2014) tells a haunting tale rooted in folklore in “Is-And.”
In the best stories (like Allan’s “Astray” or Cadigan’s “Cancer Dancer”), the characters come to life as they interact with the dead letter. As with any anthology, the quality of the stories is uneven, and there are some flubbed endings. But on the whole, the all-star writers who contributed to this volume did indeed deliver.