Review: The Abolisher of Roses

By Rebecca Stefoff

Fry, Gary. The Abolisher of Roses. Spectral Press (May 2011). 21 pp. Limited-edition chapbook, press run of 100.

Common sense answers the question – “What is art good for?”  – by exalting the cabbage and abolishing the rose. Or so says James Russell Lowell in the epigraph to Gary Fry’s The Abolisher of Roses, a story published as a slim chapbook by Spectral Press. The questioner in Fry’s story, a middle-aged and eminently commonsensical businessman named ‘Peter’, discovers to his dismay that art has uses he never imagined.
Peter’s wife Patricia’s latest passion is painting. Although Peter has no use for art and believes Patricia’s interest to be “a mere passing fad”, she has become part of the artists’ community in their North Yorkshire town. When Peter does

Patricia the kindness of accompanying her to her first exhibition, he notes with pleasure that his Mercedes is the best car in the parking lot and that his wife’s “pretty” watercolours of “charming scenes” are the most stylish works in the group show.

But this is no ordinary art show. The artists have set up their work along an “art trail” through the forest around an old stately home that now functions as an art gallery. One installation – red cloth wrapped like bloody bandages around trees – provokes Peter to ask Patricia what could possibly be its point, or its use. The resulting argument leaves him at a loss, feeling that he doesn’t know his wife of 30 years as well as he thought he did. Printed map in hand, Peter plunges ahead along the art trail.

As so often happens, when an emotionally distraught person goes alone into a dense forest late on a dreary day, Peter takes an unexpected turn. One of the finest things about Abolisher is Fry’s command of the setting, which he evokes in naturalistic terms, even while he imbues it with steadily increasing alienation and shadowy menace. Onto this ominous backdrop, Fry projects Peter’s memories and reflections: his life with Patricia, betrayals and disappointments, what Peter has gotten out of life, and what he may have lost. Art, he learns as he follows the trail to its horrific end, has power – and so does the artist in his life.

Abolisher is the second in a series of short-fiction chapbooks to be published quarterly by Spectral Press, available individually and by subscription. The series is devoted to the ghostly or eerie tale, well-exemplified by the oblique, deepening dread of The Abolisher of Roses. Fry has previously published the haunted-house novel The House of Canted Steps (2010) and several collections of short horror fiction. The World Wide Web and Other Lovecraftian Upgrades (2007) delivered a novella and half a dozen stories inspired by – or riffing on – the Master. But you’ll find no Lovecraftian elements or references in The Abolisher of Roses, only a dark, disturbing reminder that art holds a mirror up to life, whether you want it to or not.

The Abolisher of Roses is offered by Spectral Press.