Figured it was long overdue for me to talk about something other than myself again, so here goes:
Point of interest- I've been familiar with the ever-reigning Cate's (TM) work for a good thirteen years now, and have not only spoken to her a couple of times on the phone but actually got to meet her recently. Back in the late '90s both Cate and her fiction had a bit of a Gothy thing going on, but in 2010 that's a thing of the past. These days the scariest thing about Cate Gardner is that she doesn't look scary, or strange. She just looks... nice. And- dare I say it?- normal. You could pass her in a crowd and never guess who just walked by.
Thankfully, though, Cate is not normal. I say 'thankfully' because... well, have you seen what counts as 'normal' behaviour these days? Watching X-Factor? Regarding Simon Cowell as a personage of importance, rather than an emissary of the Antichrist? Giving a toss what Cheryl Cole thinks about... er... anything?
Nope, Cate's no more normal than I am, and thank goodness for that. Quite understandably, she spends as little time as possible in a world where that kind of behaviour is considered acceptable or even (god help us) mandatory. Wherever possible, she resides in Cate-land. Now, I have no more idea than you do where exactly Cate-land is, but I can hazard a guess at what it's like. It's a world where robots are lovesick (or wage war with fairies in a greenhouse.) It's a world where you have (and may well need) zombie decapitation insurance. A world where serial killers relax on the bed of the local canal between victims, and breakfast on a bucket of crabs.
It's also a world, funnily enough, with rather a lot of strange men. In pinstripe suits.
But you probably guessed that.
How can I describe Cate Gardner's work? Well, the short answer is that I can't. She isn't really quite like anyone else. Her stories often have the feel of strange, dark little fairy-tales. Perhaps there's a little touch of Angela Carter there, then? Hm... not exactly. There's a quirky, inky-dark humour that darts through her tales that isn't quite like anything Carter ever did- I defy any reader to finish The Sulphurous Clouds of Lucifer Matches, for example, without a ripe, rich chuckle- and a deceptive easygoing lightness of touch that recalls Rob Shearman (which I can assure you is high praise indeed as far as I'm concerned.)
But quirky, humourous, even whimsical though the stories can be, they're not all light. The endings of Parasol Dance With The Chalkstripe Man and Other Side Of Nowhere are anything but twee; they're fiercely bleak. Burying Sam, a clever and typically Cate-ish- by which I mean idiosyncratic and not quite like anyone else- take on the zombie theme, grows more poignant with each reading. And it's only a page and a half long. But then again, the opening story, Dandelion Fluff, isn't even half a page in length, and yet it's another piece that packs a sting; one, again, that deepens with successive encounters.
Now there's one of the notable characteristics of Cate's fiction; brevity. The longest of the 24 stories in this book is about 14 pages long. There are others of 10, 11, 12 pages, but most are far shorter. Black Heart Balloon is 3 pages; Opheliac a mere 4. Both are little wonders of dark wit and bizarre invention that pull you through the looking glass into a darker world than anything Lewis Carroll envisaged.
Another defining feature is a child's-eye view of the world, but one that never escapes into naivety or refuses to grow up. A quality, perhaps, of innocence. The protagonists of The Graveyard Of Dead Vehicles and The Sulphurous Clouds Of Lucifer Matches (did I mention she's great with titles too?) negotiate hostile worlds with difficulty, seeking ways to emerge with their integrity intact. In the first, the protagonist needs to recapture a childlike belief in magic and reject the nullifying logic of a nightmarishly prosaic world; in the second, the protagonist is a child who uses guile and wit to win through, in the best traditions of fairy stories everywhere.
That quality of innocence is fundamental to Cate's work. If there's an overriding theme to Strange Men In Pinstripe Suits then it's the struggle to preserve it in a grim, inimical world. It's a struggle to do so; it would be so easy to let that quality be extinguished for the sake of an easy ride, a quiet life. But do so, and you're lost forever.
Perhaps these stories come, simply, from a fundamentally gentle soul, dramatising its own struggle to preserve itself. Perhaps they're intended as survival guides or the rest of us. Or perhaps they're just a collection of- literally- wonderful short stories that are like nothing else you're likely to have read this year. Whatever the truth of the matter, we have Cate Gardner and Aaron Polson of (aptly) Strange Publications to thank for giving these funny, touching and magical tales what they deserve- a home more permanent and enduring than the various magazines and websites they have graced.
For, as Cate Gardner knows so well, some things are more than worth the struggle to preserve.
In case you hadn't got the message already, I loved this book. Get yourself a copy. In fact, with Christmas coming up, it might be worth ordering a few.