This is a review of The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas.
There’s a subgenre all about dissatisfied suburban couples, families breaking apart or struggling to hold together, the emptiness in people’s lives. Think Margaret Atwood, or in film, American Beauty.
Now imagine this subgenre with a touch of the fantastical. Sometimes it might feel more like horror, sometimes magic realism, sometimes pure fantasy, once in a while science fiction, other times straight-up realism.
That’s what it’s like reading this collection.
In the title story, a city couple goes for a drive in the country, stops at an antiques store, and finds a Victorian-era wreath made of human hair. One of them is fascinated, the other repulsed by the possibilities it represents. The wreath pushes them apart and brings danger into their lives.
These themes are explored again and again in the stories. Sometimes family togetherness wins and the gap between people closes. Other times the strange item (or building or person) prevails, and the split becomes final, irrevocable. The endings are all different, and therefore unpredictable.
My favourite story in the collection was “D in the Underworld”, a wistful piece whose mythic resonances are revealed slowly and subtly. It’s not quite a retelling, more an echo or an extended metaphor – something I’ve not seen often, and I love it.
Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was “Twenty-First Century Design”, about a family that moves into a modernist house built by a famous architect. It’s a haunted-house tale updated from the classic Victorian mansion to the empty, sterile concrete spaces of modernist architecture, to great effect.
There’s a little too much horror and creepiness in the collection for my personal taste – hauntings, dead children, possession, blood. Not something to read at night or alone in the house, if you’re like me. But it’s all very well done, especially if horror is up your alley.
I also found that the stories started to sound the same, exploring the same territory and proving the same themes, but then that’s the risk of picking up a single-author collection. It’s why I don’t generally barrel through a series all in a row – I prefer to mix up my reading.
Still, Villegas has a fine and subtle hand, and she writes evocative stories. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her in the future.
Final note: I got this book as part of the freebie packet for World Fantasy Convention members. It’s the first I’ve read from ChiZine Publications, and it won’t be the last – I bought three more from their table in the dealers’ room. After The Hair Wreath, I’m excited to read the others.
What’s the best short story you’ve read recently?