Shortlisted for a 2021 ReLit Award in the short fiction category!
John O'Neill's gothic short stories, set in the Canadian Rockies, are haunted by the violence inherent in nature and humans. The mountains are majestic and impassive. The characters are surprising, bent, but also empathetic. Their survival is tenuous. A two-sister team of goth tour guides offers guided excursions up switchback mountain trails; a paroled convict thumbs his way into the life of a family driving west; and an animal pathologist, while performing a necropsy on a grizzly bear, has an unusual encounter with both technology and humanity.
Goth Girls of Banff is a superb collection, sharply written, with plot turns as consequence-laden as those on an iced-over mountain road.
About the author
John O'Neill is the author of the novel Fatal Light Awareness and four poetry collections, Animal Walk, Love in Alaska, The Photographer of Wolves, and Criminal Mountains. He was raised in Scarborough, Ontario, where his parents worked for many years as building superintendents, an aspect of his history explored in The Photographer of Wolves. He was a winner in the Prairie Fire Long Poem Contest and Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize, and the recipient of a 'Maggie' - a Manitoba Magazine Award - for Best Story for his "The Book About The Bear." John was a finalist, with his manuscript Goth Girls of Banff (Newest Press 2020), for the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. He taught high-school English and Dramatic Arts for 29 years, and now lives and writes in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto. He and his artist wife Ann make frequent trips to Canada's Rocky Mountains, and this landscape continues to be a major influence on his writing.
- Short-listed, ReLit Award for Short Fiction
Excerpt: Goth Girls of Banff (by (author) John O'Neill)
GOTH GIRLS OF BANFF
Wanna add some edge to your mountain experience? To sharpen the dull blade of things, and let darkness descend, like beautiful sleep but with your eyes wide open? Call the Goth Girls of Banff. Available for photo shoots, social events, hikes, campfires, singly or in groups. Fully outfitted in deepest and darkest Gothwear, we can be more or less Vampiric, more or less Victorian, more or less Silent Film Man-Eaters and Vamps, and more or less Necromantic and Living Dead, according to special requests. If you're tired of silly Tilley hats and Gore-Tex, cotton and khaki and crave a touch of leather and lace, we're the gory Goth girls dressed up just for you. We're all about Goth aesthetics, no funny business, no sticky situations, no touchy-feely or long longing gazes, and absolutely no fiddly long-term relations. Interactions start at $100 per hour. Prices negotiable for entire afternoons. Can talk evenings for a fee. Request times, locations and nature of encounters. Terms and conditions apply and must be set prior to engagements. Goth Girls of Banff. We'll wrap dark wings around your wilderness day.
So this is a reckoning - yea, sort of a dead reckoning of how and why our Goth life ended. At least, how Linda's Goth career came to end. Linda, my alpha and omega, omega in the ascendant now, but not entirely. After all, she was the one got us started as Goths in the first place, and she was always the one, the first and foremost, you'll see. But I didn't think things were so, excuse me, grave. We had some good and bad times and Gothic experiences that were naughty and nice. That's life all over, isn't it? Light and dark, sweet and mean: a dog's soft belly or a dog's bum and breakfast. That's how it goes and that's what I think. But Linda always said, pushing her little sister down, "Jessie, leave the thinking to me. Your brain isn't equipped for figuring things out in these dark matters."
When we were on a job, she didn't want me thinking or speaking at all. She didn't want our clients to talk either, to get up close and personal. "It's about mystique," she'd say, spraying me with the word. "Make no mistake. The image is what drives the business, just as the ghost drives the machine." She'd make a spooky-film noise, stick her face close. I wasn't sure what she meant, but grinned anyway.
The last few months had been strange for sure. The first bad experience in those last days, the one that pushed Linda over the edge and round the big bend, as she said, took the shadowy shape of our 7th client that summer (scary number 7, like the 7th seal unsealed in our little lives), a WW II vet named Elmer Spragge. He was sweet as his goofy name, bristly and old as a BC Douglas fir but cute as a pencil. And he looked like a chewed up pencil, forehead scarred below his eraser-hair, with a red thumbprint on the nape of his neck. I guess he'd done the dye job himself. He had the darkest, bruised-blue eyes I'd ever seen, and they matched his Canadian Legion jacket, lapels clotheslined with medals. The weight of them pulled him forward, as if some deathless demon had taken his beef-jerky arm and was hurrying the old soldier along.
He'd seen our ad in the mountain paper The Bergschrund. Elmer was intrigued, hired us for an afternoon. When we met him, Linda whispered in my bejeweled ear: "He looks like he'll croak in the middle of the job." I wanted to say, "What a way to go," but didn't. We spent the first fifteen minutes outside the Royal Canadian Legion hall on Banff Avenue, examining Elmer's medals (the only medals I'd ever seen were fake ones, gold wrapped chocolate discs in Sugar Mountain). He had ten or so on his scooped-out chest, hanging from a rainbow ribbon. The one he was really proud of was pinned high, separate - a white metal badge, maple-leaf shaped, inset with tiny rhinestones and a number 2 in the middle. He'd served in the Queen's Own Rifles. I tried to get interested, but when I got close, almost nibbling his lapel, he smelled bad, with a ripe, cemetery stink. Where did he live, in a grave, tomb or crypt, place unsealed so he could seek us out, hoping we were from the same smoking hole? I admit I kind of liked the idea.
We always drew a crowd. We made quite a scene, an irresistible tableau, like a daguerreotype portrait. Or maybe more like a 3-D image from one of those old stereograph viewers: an ancient soldier, frail but spry, and me and Linda flanking him in all our Goth glory - me in a lace corset with a thin minstrel top over it, flared sleeves and black fingerless gloves, she in a medieval gown with a laced-up V-neck front, high slits up the sides, and crosshatched with lace. Linda also wore a crown of thorns made from leather. Both of us with dungeon eyes and bee-sting lips. Regular folk halted on the sidewalk right in the pedestrian traffic flow and gawked, charmed or appalled or both - we were avenging angels come to fly the geezer either up above the bright mountains, or down into one of Satan's sulphur pits.
As he led us inside the Legion hall, Colonel Moore Branch #26, Linda leaned into me, bit my tender ear with, "Don't get the old coot talking. Got a bad feeling about this one. He'll blab about how many men he killed in the war. Just some pics and we're gone. You sit close to him." Hadn't occurred to me that Elmer might have killed men. Now I wanted to hear, and pictured Elmer cracking an eggshell corset, post-battle, looking for comfort and love. Sex and death, what else is there, anyway?
Praise for Goth Girls of Banff
"The depth and variety of perspectives O'Neill writes make this collection a staggeringly endearing pastiche."
~ Courtney Eathorne, Booklist
"The characters who populate this winning collection make the pilgrimage to Banff with expectations, usually of salvation. What they find is something distinctly less divine. Any hope of communion with nature is either thwarted by mundane human interference or the revelation of violence that lurks just below all that beauty."
~ Zachary Abram, Canadian Literature
"Whether looking for a story about the Rocky Mountains' breathtaking (often literal) nature, or for some stories to pull on your heartstrings and teach you about what makes us human, O'Neill's Goth Girls of Banff is a collection that has something for everyone."
~ Skylar Kay, FreeFall Magazine
John O'Neill's characters are thoughtful, at odds with their environment, and above all, deeply human. His prose is lyrical and imaginative, empathetic, with surprising moments of humour. The distinct Alberta landscape is depicted with precision and awe. Well-shaped, character-driven plots build towards powerful emotional endings, in these stories that explore loneliness, fate, and subtle, prickly, human relationships."
~ Shashi Bhat, author of The Family Took Shape
"O'Neill's Goth Girls of Banff should be as essential to the mountain visitor as The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide."
~ Lee Gowan, author of Confession and The Last Cowboy
"Beautifully executed and organically driven, these stories borne of the Canadian West captivate from the beginning and linger long in the mind. From Marilyn Monroe to encounters with wildlife to Castle Mountain Internment Camp, O'Neill is a storyteller whose tales carry an edgy grace and shimmering surefootedness. A compelling and visceral read."
~ Catherine Graham, author of Quarry and The Celery Forest
Other titles by John O'Neill
Essential Imaging in Rheumatology
Fatal Light Awareness
The State of Childhood
A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading
The Photographer of Wolves
Love In Alaska
The Missing Child in Liberal Theory
Towards a Covenant Theory of Family, Community, Welfare and the Civic State