Fear not, this book isn’t—despite its title—a collection of goth fantasies or undead horrors. The setting is the Bow Valley and surroundings, and the 10 stories well capture elements of this mountain environment: its peaks, forests, creatures and human characters who evoke humour and pathos.
In the compelling opening story, “What is Written or Talking to Keep the Bears Away,” we roll toward the mountains in an old Volkswagen van on the voice of hitchhiker Don, a man with a less than savoury past. He is picked up by a family—mom, dad and two daughters. Mom Gale is sharp-tongued and blunt, dad Bob is crude but caring, the young sisters are frank. There is little polite correctness in their snappy yet affectionate repartee. Narrative tensions emerge through Don’s internal and external observations, cleverly rendered here—the reader motors along unwittingly, on an undercurrent of tension, to a startling end.
O’Neill is a skilled stylist. His use of language and image is vivid and crisp, the narratives are deeply imaginative and unpredictable. He is adept at point-of-view, shifting convincingly—first person to omniscient, past to present and to male or female gender. The title story, “The Goth Girls of Banff,” for instance, depicts the “career” rise and fall of sisters Linda and Jessie, who hire out as decorative companions, goth in attire and attitude, to clients with varying agendas. One of these clients, Will, tells a touching story that breaks through the girls’ fabricated aloofness. As a mountain hike unfolds, we learn that the characters—and we readers—have been (spoiler alert) fooled. Will’s story is just that—a tale—within a tale.
“From Castle Mountain” is a hybrid narrative that juxtaposes imagined scenes drawn from historical reality with a contemporary story. It’s set in the First World War internment camp at the Cave and Basin above the Banff townsite. The camp held Ukrainian, German and other Eastern European men—deemed threats—who were, in essence, forced labour. A present-day thread features an adult son and his father on a visit to the camp’s site, where a family member had been held. The father–son relationship, both grating and tender, is rendered convincingly, and the 1916 scenes in the camp—the characters and prisoner conflicts—feel revealingly authentic.
The further terrain of the collection includes the Athabasca Glacier, aching reflections at the scattering of a loved one’s ashes, and more. One annoying tic for this reader was the recurrent dropping of the personal pronoun in both dialogue and exposition. In everyday speech this does occur, but, overused, it jolts like potholes. The trails and trials navigated by O’Neill’s distinctive cast are gravelly enough on their own.
—Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer and arts journalist