As it is still the time of year for things that go bump in the night, this week’s recommended book features numerous encounters with ghosts and other supernatural beings. `Young Woman in a Garden’ is a collection of fourteen stories written by American author Delia Sherman over a period of twenty-five years. The 2014 paperback and ebook were published by Small Beer Press – do check out their short but superior Fantasy list.

One of the words I would use to describe this collection is – diverse. The stories in `Young Woman in a Garden’ feature a remarkable variety of settings, supernatural beings, genres, moods and styles. The settings range from Tudor England to contemporary America by way of 19th century Paris, London, Louisiana and Massachusetts. In this book you will encounter both helpful and dangerous ghosts, witches, fairies and loup-garous (French speaking werewolves), a merman, the daughter of a seal-maiden and a wizard, and a girl made out of printed pages. One of the tales is a Steampunk adventure (`The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor’) and there are horror and ghost stories which teach useful lessons such as always be suspicious if an old house is too cheap (`The Red Piano’),  avoid wearing gems which belong to eastern idols (`The Parwat Ruby’) and don’t become a lighthouse keeper – it never ends well (`Land’s End’). There are love stories full of gender and sexuality surprises and there are stories, such as one about a choir which sings up an angel (`Sacred Harp’), which don’t easily fit into any known category. Some of the tales are light-hearted with plenty of humorous touches (`Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride’, `The Fairy Coney-Catcher’); others are melancholy (`La Fée Verte’, `The Maid on the Shore’).

Sherman is capable of writing in many different voices and styles. Almost too capable, as if the author is hiding her true self below this surface cleverness. If it wasn’t for Sherman’s talent for characterization, some of the stories would read like challenging exercises set to a creative writing class – such as write a story in Elizabethan English (`The Printer’s Daughter’) or in Bayou dialect (`The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’). In `The Printer’s Daughter’ a magical helper speaks in the words of the two books she is made from, one religious and one bawdy, and her salty dialogue is very convincing. I’ve no idea whether the narrative voice in `The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’ is authentic (`Come here, cher, and I tell you a story’) but it charmed me. In `The Parwat Ruby’, the challenge was to write a Horror story in the style of Anthony Trollope set in the world of his Palliser novels. Fortunately, I think this amusing story works even if you’ve never read a word of Trollope and aren’t familiar with characters like Lady Glencora and Sir Omicron Pie. If you are, there is added pleasure in finding out how Sherman manages to inject magic into the prosaic lives of the Pallisers and their circle.

Another word that I would use for this collection is – leisurely. Sherman’s writing is the literary equivalent of the `Slow Food’ movement, so if you are the sort of reader who is always in a hurry to get to the exciting bits of any plot, `Young Woman in a Garden’ won’t suit you. Even I find a few of the stories, such as `La Fée Verte’, too long and sluggish. You’d think that a love affair between a courtesan and a prophetess in war-torn Paris would make for an intense and thrilling read but it doesn’t. In other tales, such as `Miss Carstairs and the Merman’, the slow pace and absence of melodrama seem right and necessary. Years ago, I was privileged to read an early draft of this story and I remember being mightily impressed by the quality of the background detail and the solidity of the central character – frustrated amateur naturalist Miss Carstairs, who on the day of her mother’s funeral `ordered a proper collecting case, a set of scalpels, and an anatomy text’. When Miss Carstairs manages to collect and study a live merman, he seems as real as any specimen described by Charles Darwin. A lesser writer might have made Miss Carstairs younger and nicer and developed this plot into a romance but Sherman gives us a more mature and interesting heroine and a more profound type of interspecies communication.

This is a collection full of memorable female characters. Some are formidable, like the crotchety choir mistress in `Sacred Harp’, kind-hearted swamp witch Tante Eulalie who treats werewolves for rheumatism and mange, and quilt-maker Nanny Peters, a woman with such cool nerves `she didn’t need an icehouse – she’d just put the milk jug under her bed and it’d keep a week or more’. Others, like the brutally orphaned `Maid on the Shore’ and abandoned albino girl, Cadence (`The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’), are fragile and vulnerable but find the strength to defeat their enemies. One of my favourite stories is the delightfully titled `Walpurgis Afternoon’ in which a mysterious house with a fabulous garden suddenly appears in the middle of an ordinary suburb. It is inhabited by a couple, Ophelia and Rachel, who happen to be witches and the unsatisfactory lives of several of their neighbours are transformed during an eventful wedding party. That brings me to my third word for this collection – transformative. In almost every story, a supernatual encounter transforms the outer or inner life of the central character. The down to earth narrator of `Walpurgis Afternoon’ claims that, `Fantasy makes me nervous.’ Parts of `Young Woman in a Garden’ probably will make you nervous (especially if you have a piano in your home) but this collection may also surprise and enchant you. It could even transform your outlook. Until next time….