“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012
I love stories that explore old-world traditions, bringing to light the customs and techniques that are fading fast in the technology-driven world we live in today. In “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” Angela Slatter writes about burial customs that are all but lost to us – the covered mirrors, the coffins stuffed with lavender and locked with gold clasps to make sure the dead stay buried. Those traditions are far removed from today’s sterile, brightly lit funeral homes, the polished sheen of mass-produced caskets, and the impulse to expedite the grieving process rather than embrace it.
In times past, bucking tradition was done at one’s own risk, which is part of what makes Clatter’s character Hepsibah so compelling. She’s a woman in a man’s trade, brought up in the craft of coffin building by her father, who passed his knowledge to her reluctantly after realizing he’d never have a son to teach. Hepsibah is also courting taboo by falling in love – or, at the very least, lust – with the daughter of a recent client.
Hepsibah’s infatuation with the young Lucette appears to be mutual at first – at least, until Hepsibah’s job is done. It’s then that the coffin-maker discovers Lucette’s attentions may not have been as genuine as first believed. It’s also then that young Lucette comes to discover that Hepsibah’s knowledge can be used for dual purposes – either to break the spirit’s tether to the earth, or to leave the door open for them to come back home.
“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” is my first exposure to Angela Slatter’s work, and I truly enjoyed the way she works in the tradition of quiet, gothic horror. Succinct and atmospheric, it’s a welcome introduction to an author I hope to read more of in the future.