Filler content with ghostly collections

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-

GHOSTS: THE COLLECTIONS

Maynard Sims, the writing duo formerly known as L. H. Maynard and M. P. N. Sims, made their bones writing ghost stories of a Jamesian cast, though they’ve extended their reach considerably in recent years. The self-published A HAUNTING OF GHOSTS (Enigmatic Press hb, 144pp, £10) is produced in a limited edition of 150 and is certainly a nice looking book, slim and elegant with evocative photographs accompanying the stories, though I think the duo need to tighten up a bit on proof-reading.

There are six tales between the covers, four of them linked by the convention of having two retired gentlemen relate the tales, a device that sets the work firmly in the tradition of the English ghost story, but at the same time can come to seem slightly contrived, with an element of repetition (the description of ‘the two P’s in the pod’ appears to have been copied and pasted into three of the stories) and questions raised as to how the raconteurs can possibly know so much.

The first Pulford and Priestley tale, ‘The Man Who Wore the Wrong Coat’ involves a vengeful spirit that takes the coats of workmen engaged in what it regards as an act of desecration, the story well told but with an air of artificiality about it. A similar plot unfolds in ‘What Lay Hidden Behind the Whispering Wall’, with an overbearing vicar getting his comeuppance when he ignores local superstition and presses ahead with unwelcome church renovations. It’s a by the numbers piece, entertaining enough on its own terms, but hardly inspiring. Much better is ‘The House with Too Many Windows’ in which two women on a walking holiday come across an isolated house where one of them at least seems uncomfortably at home, the story deftly revealing a history of spousal abuse and denial, with an existential subtext of sorts that hints at how we can become so overpowered by another that our own individuality is negated.

Another highlight, ‘Love Lies Floating on the Water’ is the story of Dunbar, on holiday in Venice to recover from the death of his wife, but gradually we get signs that not everything is as it seems, until ultimately the question is raised as to who actually is the ghost, with competing realities overlapping, one in which Dunbar’s wife got out from under his influence and found happiness with her lover and he was the one who died of cancer. We’re back on sacred ground for ‘The Church with the Tower that Moved’, another by the numbers piece in which an artist suffers because of his vicar brother’s determination to piddle about with the architecture, invoking an ancient curse by doing so. It was an engaging read, but again nothing that most readers of this type of material won’t have seen done before and better. Last and not least, we have ‘The House that was Too Grand for Laughter’ in which an unhappily married and childless couple move into a suspiciously cheap desres, where three children died, and make their own peace with its spectral inhabitants, the ambiguity of the ending conferring a real power on its final twist.

In conclusion, these are decent enough stories with nothing to offend a reader’s sensibilities, but most of them recycle familiar themes and ideas, and I’d have to say that the authors have produced much better. More details at maynard-sims.com

IN A SEASON OF DEAD WEATHER (eBook, 37pp, free) is not only self-published but available for free download from Smashwords, which should set my reviewer sense tingling, but author Mark Fuller Dillon has a decent track record, and four of the seven stories on offer have either been previously published or accepted for publication.

As it’s free, and space is at a premium, a minimalist review seems in order. In ‘Lamia Dance’ a student views an obscure film that appears to tap into his own true nature, revealing to him desires he hadn’t realised that he had, the final image suggesting some terrible or comedic revelation. ‘Never Noticed, Never There’ shows us how people come to disappear, their bodies going out of sync with reality, hinting at a world of the unseen, its final vision one of nullity. Something similar happens to the protagonist of ‘Shadows in the Sunrise’, her reality slowly expunged by falling snow, like correction fluid erasing a mistake of some kind.

‘When The Echo Hates The Voice’ opens with the account of an obstetrician, one who has an unsettling vision while delivering a baby, and then reveals the brief, troubled life of the child, before reprising its initial shock. The world itself is out of kilter in ‘Who Would Remain?’ a story set against the backdrop of some never clarified disaster, and in which everyone heads north to some unknown destination like the lemmings of popular belief, with a woman who cannot follow left behind. A man’s obsession with an old house is his undoing in ‘The Weight of Its Awareness’, while ‘The Vast Impatience Of The Night’ is set in a community of widows, with hints of something terrible in the background of the story, and a woman’s vision of giant sculptures in a snowstorm revealing to her that her own time is at hand.

The stories are more complex and detailed than my précis of each one would suggest. Rather than James, it seems to me that the genius loci of this collection is Aickman, with a similar sense of skewed reality and the unsettling feel of madness and irrationality bubbling away beneath the surface of the text. Mark Fuller Dillon is an original talent, whose precise use of language, obliquely disturbing imagery and meticulous world building single him out as a writer to watch. My advice is to nip over to Smashwords and download this one now, before the author comes to his senses and stops giving it away.

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