‘A Treasury of Brenda and Effie’ reviewed

❉ A witch and the actual Bride of Frankenstein live in a B&B in Whitby. These are some of their adventures…

In Matthew Bright’s ‘The Ragged School,’ Brenda gently wobbles the fourth wall in response to Robert’s behest to let someone else write a book of her adventures: ‘One was quite enough. Who’d want another bunch of people coming in and mucking up the story?’ And thus far Paul Magrs, her creator, has kept fairly firmly to that. But A Treasury of Brenda and Effie opens the door to nine other authors – with a look-in from Magrs himself – and (with apologies to Brenda) I must say she’s quite wrong in her assertion.

Those unfamiliar with the leads of Magrs’s series can catch up within a few pages of any of their stories: the title characters live in Whitby, running a B&B (Brenda’s) and an antique shop (Effie’s) next door to each other. There are just a few things that keep this from being your run-of-the-mill small-town comedy: Effie is a witch, Brenda is literally the Bride of Frankenstein, and Whitby is a hellmouth. Together, the pair of old friends keep Whitby safe from paranormal disasters, all while Brenda occasionally gets flashbacks to her various adventures prior to her current ‘quiet’ life.

The bite-sized adventures collected in this volume don’t arch into any sort of metaplot, and can be read casually. As with any good series, the characters introduce themselves via familiarity rather than exposition, so even someone new to the series could pick up this collection with no trouble. (Naturally, a bit of foreknowledge always helps – and I recommend the books and audios to anyone who hasn’t encountered them yet! – but if this is your first foray into the happenings of Whitby, you likely won’t find yourself befuddled.)

Magrs kicks off the anthology (which he also edited) with ‘The Notorious Horkum Asylum,’ practically the only one that begs any sort of foreknowledge. It’s an expanded version of a Halloween short from Magrs’s blog in 2015, and while it’s probably accessible to new readers, there’s a name drop that packs an extra punch for long-time fans.

From there, the various writers present all manner of stories, with the daring duo facing off against fairies, frackers, aliens, cultists, man-eating plants, trolls (literally and metaphorically), and – the horror – Shakespearean actors. The stories are peppered with nods to characters both within Magrs’s works and outside of them (Jay Eales’s ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ makes a clever running reference to The Producers, for example), but the references and humour never swallow up the stories.

A series like Brenda and Effie lends itself to a broad array of surrealism, and the writers definitely make use of their sandbox. No one story is truly like any other. Some go full horror, others lean sci-fi, and Nick Campbell’s ‘Eff the Unknown’ is presented as a review on a travel website. It’s also extremely gratifying to see the levels of creativity with which Brenda’s various flashbacks are handled. The lives the writers have imagined for her are clever, heartbreaking, and sometimes downright heroic.

Usually with anthologies, you find yourself encountering a ‘low’ beat here and there – one that’s not quite as strong for one reason or another. But the authors collected in this volume are all at the top of their game… it just so happens that their games are many and varied, meaning that the beats are measured less by quality and more by tone. And the variety of authors means a variety of ‘baddies’ with multiple inspirations. Even stories with similar inspirations never actually tread on each other’s toes. Will there be stories that don’t resonate with a reader? Potentially – but if so, it will only be because of genre, and certainly not as a matter of quality.

I hope to see Brenda and Effie in more such outings in future. In a setting where the paranormal is so inherently a part of the plot, it’s entertaining to see new writers play and bring their personal tastes and inspiration to the table. It’s clear that Magrs’s leads have quite a bit of spark left in them (literally, in Brenda’s case), and more adventures for them from his mind or the minds of trusted writers would be fantastic. So, with apologies to both Brenda and Effie, may the Bitch’s Maw continue to open whenever it is most convenient. Or inconvenient, as the case may be.

❉ ‘A Treasury of Brenda and Effie’ was published by Obverse Books on 28 February 2017. http://obversebooks.co.uk/product/be-treasury/

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