There’s something very comforting about this collection, despite the huge carving knife that gleams from the front cover. Perhaps it’s the title. Gentleman’s Relish is an acquired taste but one I associate with this time of year, with high tea in hotels, sheltering from the nasty weather. The jacket blurbs dish up an excess of culinary puns, involving words like “spiced”,“tenderness”,“sharp” and, with less subtlety, “succulent titbits”. Yes, one of the most satisfying stories in the collection is Cookery, but it can be best described as a homily to domestic vengeance, as the hero extracts a sedate and then savage price for his father’s life-long homophobia. “Cookery is power,” his mother teaches him. By the time Perry turns ten “his creation of a puffball and bacon roulade has seduced a new neighbour and demoralized the neighbour’s wife”. Perry’s father doesn’t approve of his son as an apron-wearing domestic god, however, and packs the poor boy off to a boarding school “handpicked for its sporty philosophy and lack of opportunities for any science more domestic than the use of Ralgex and Universal Embrocation.” Perry survives this indignity and the remainder of the story is told with the perfectly-pitched voice of the semi-repressed, bitter young survivor he’s become. We don’t guess how bitter until the end of the story. Gale establishes a dark strand of humour early on and maintains it throughout, never once hitting a wrong note. Perhaps this is where the comfort comes from: these are new stories told in an old-fashioned manner, easy to read but painstakingly alert to human strengths and weaknesses. Several of the stories deal with subjects that Gale knows inside out. The Lesson is about what it’s like to be living close to a prison without being an inmate. Jane, the wife of a prison governor, strikes up a friendship with a prisoner who teaches her how to fish. The story is woven through with loneliness, with optimism and its opposite. There’s a hint that the inmate pays a price for his friendship with Jane; “an act of violence” results in his privileges being taken away overnight. We never find out what happened, or why. More than once in this collection we sense a hidden story unravelling somewhere off-page, just out of sight. This sensation isn’t always frustrating, but in The Lesson I did yearn to know more. Gale draws again on his personal experiences in Petals on a Pool, which tells of two writers bonding at a convention in Hong Kong, both suffering the same humiliating lack of interest from the invited audience. The ending is unclear. Did the heroine Edith imagine what she saw floating among the petals in the pool, or did her new friend meet with a terrible fate? I was unsure of the effect Gale was trying to create. I felt no such uncertainty at the ambiguous ending to Obedience, where a hint of suspicion falls on the hen-pecked hero for the murder of an unpopular village resident. I didn’t believe for a minute that he was the murderer, but it was interesting to see how the idea of suspicion altered his wife’s attitude towards him: “from something in her voice he sensed the distinct possibility of sex.” You don’t need to know whodunit, in other words, in order to enjoy this story. There are some fine horror stories in this collection, told with genuine wit and relish. Making Hay tells how an elderly woman takes her revenge for the dumping of her grandchildren at the home where she’s living. She tells the two very modern kids a tale of family folklore that unfolds into a gory story that has them (and us) gripped. “The trick,” she confided in Prue as Nurse wheeled in the tea things and wheeled out Miss Tregenza, “is to spike the narrative with just a seasoning of solid, agricultural fact.” Like Perry in Cookery, the grandmother in Making Hay is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the “trick” Gale refers to is one he’s mastered wonderfully. Each of his horror stories has just enough solidity to draw us in before he deals the deadly blow. Hush’d Casket is a small masterpiece, comic and compelling, with a light touch that makes it great fun to read. Chris and Hugo are on honeymoon when Chris discovers an old tea casket in an abandoned church. Forcing its lock, he releases a macabre spirit that transforms Hugo into an irresistible sex magnet. There’s a beautifully played moment midway through the story when the reader guesses what will happen if Chris succeeds in passing the cursed casket to a new owner. Chris, bless him, remains oblivious. Sleep Tight is the most unsettling of the horror stories here. A small boy fears the Moth Lady will take him in the night. His taciturn uncle dismisses the child’s fears, but the story swiftly moves from domestic unease to full-blown nightmare. Not every story has a horror component, but each dissects the impact of people trying to come together or break apart. Freedom is a lovely history of a family caravan that’s helped generations of the same family escape from the limits of their lives. The Excursion deals with the tyranny of prejudice and small-mindedness (you could call this a horror story, because of that subject matter). There are stories about music festivals and strange dreams, and a quirky bonus story in the shape of Fourth of July, 1862, written to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. This is a solid collection that shows, above all else, that there’s merit in the traditional form of story-telling: lure your reader with the familiar, and thereafter you can deal what (strange, perverse or poignant) cards you like.