Strange Secrets by Mike Russell

Strange Secrets by Mike RussellRussell adds a dash of the strange to reality, creating worlds like our own that are fantastical yet plausible.

This collection contains seven stories of everyday life with a weird or surreal edge.

  • ‘The Constantly Empty Pool’ Rumours of the purest water in the world draw Mary Lou to a remote town in the United States. The inhabitants admit it exists, but instead of telling her where, tell her tales of impossible objects.

  • ‘The Puppeteer’ Every day, an old man, tired but immaculately dressed, dances in the square with a puppet hanging from his left hand. To the casual observer, he seems like any other busker, but each evening when he leaves, he leaves any money passers-by have dropped on the floor.

  • ‘Arnold’s Melting Foot’ Arnold is a nervous man, bound by rituals that stave off panic over his very existence. Doubts that seem unfounded until he attends a lecture on things that don’t exist.

  • ‘Missing Persons’ Tina’s father and several of her relatives have disappeared, part of an ongoing series of missing persons across the town. However, her mother and neighbours seem utterly disinterested, instead obsessing over wardrobes.

  • ‘Reality’ Lisa is filled with the certainty that her house and even her husband are actually fakes. Rushing from her home in a panic, she searches for something real; but can find only more perfect fictions.

  • ‘Maps’ When Billy goes down to breakfast, his mother isn’t there. However, when he asks his father, his father claims she’s right there next to him and tells him to stop messing around.

  • ‘The Forest’ Jeremy and Samantha are happy together. However, what starts as a disagreement over what species a tree is escalates as their perceptions disagree over more and more.

Russell crafts worlds unlike our own by taking a single thing to its extreme: how might water behave if it were utterly pure? If the only world we can experience is the one we sense, then can we be in the same world as someone who sees something different? This both grounds the reader in the real, making the story feel plausible, and exposes them to the fantastical, delighting or unnerving but certainly stimulating them.

Unfortunately, Russell’s prose risks deflating this embellishment of reality, at least for some readers. Rather than follow the common narrative technique of describing the critical and leaving the reader to assume the trivial, he errs in the other direction, having characters speak extensively where a real person might give a half-phrase or not at all, and mentioning the parts of an common action that people tend to think of a single thing. This over-detailing risks both ringing slightly oddly in the reader’s mind and burying the reader in information so they are unsure which things that are important; this latter risk occurs especially in ‘Missing Persons’, where Russell seeks to use obsession with the mundane for effect.

Russell’s characters have a sense of realness to them and display traits and perspectives appropriate to their nature, resulting in children and adults who present very differently but are each sympathetic.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection. I recommend it to readers who are seeking the weird or surreal free from pretension or inaccessibility.

I received a free copy via a review request service asking for a fair review.

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