Review: Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan


Margo Lanagan’s electrifying stories take place in worlds not quite our own, and yet each one illuminates what it is to be human. They are stories of yearning for more, and learning to live with what you have. Stories that show the imprint love leaves on us all.

If you think you don’t like short fiction, that a story can’t have the depth or impact of a novel, then you haven’t read Margo Lanagan. A writer this startling and this original doesn’t come along very often. So for anyone who likes to be surprised, touched, unsettled, intrigued, or scared senseless, prepare to be dazzled by what a master storyteller can do in a few short pages.


I don’t normally read short fiction, but my love for Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island and my desire for something different encouraged me to pick up Red Spikes, a collection of ten short stories. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but feel cheated as I read the stories because as soon as I’d connect with the character, develop a guess as to where the plot was going, or lose myself in Lanagan’s lurid and ambient settings, the story would end.

Lanagan’s writing is beautiful and her ideas are so endlessly creative, so all I wanted while reading these stories was to see them fully realized as feature-length works. Though short stories are, by definition, short, these stories seemed exceptionally so. They are better defined as sparse, atmospheric vignettes, captivating but woefully incomplete. I was particularly disappointed with “Under Hell, Over Heaven,” my favorite of the collection, because it would have been an incredible novel. The idea is that a troop of kids living in Purgatory deliver souls to Heaven and Hell, hoping one day that their work will result in a promotion from Purgatory to heaven. The three realms of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are exquisitely imagined and described, but the story was too short to develop any long-term intrigue. Its premature ending left me unsatisfied.

Other highlights of the collection (again, almost all of these would be wonderful scenes/starting points for novels):
-“Baby Jane,” a portal story featuring childbirth in between fantasy realms.
-“A Good Heart,” a medievalesque setting with focus on love and women’s choices and positions in such a society.
-“Winkie,” a terrifying Boogeyman type story.
-“Forever Upward,” a society where a colonizing force has taken away all the men and a little girl and the remaining women must appeal to their disappeared gods for help.

Mostly, this collection made me hope that Lanagan is writing more novels. I suppose I can take solace in the fact that I have not yet read her award-winning novel Tender Morsels.

3 out of 5 stars