Filler content after an unexpected absence

Just to ease myself gently back into the waters of the blogosphere before, hopefully, posting something more substantial tomorrow, here’s a review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-


Sarob Press hb, 173pp, £25                                      

The first collection from Maynard & Sims since 2002’s Incantations, the fourteen tales in this collection, ten of them previously unpublished, represent something of a return to their ghost story roots for this talented duo after the more visceral horror of their novella The Hidden Language of Demons.

Opening story ‘Images’ is a classic example of what these writers are about, a well crafted supernatural tale with strong atmosphere of menace, believable characters and adroit plotting, as a photographer taking pictures of an old house on spec finds that what surfaces in his developing tray is slightly different from the building he’s seen through the eye of his lens. The reality of the situation creeps up on the reader just as it does on the protagonist with a denouement that comes with a satisfying reversal of fortune.

Unhappy relationships are central to many of the stories, with the suggestion perhaps that these ghosts take their substance and grow fat from human misery. In ‘Dead Men’s Shoes’ the protagonist’s jealousy of his wife’s previous husband takes tangible form and causes the idyllic life he has dreamed of to unravel. ‘A Victorian Pot Dresser’ crosses Jamesian terror with the cosmic awe of Lovecraft, to give us a beautifully constructed story in which an antique piece of furniture is the conduit through which eldritch beings enter into our own world, the tale’s verisimilitude bolstered by subtle foreshadowing, countless tiny details of the dresser’s provenance and the broken marriage of its owner. In ‘Sand Castles’ we meet Ben Maddern, a masterly depiction of yuppie pretension on its uppers, who retreats from his high flier lifestyle to the countryside, but brings the ghosts of his past with him, finding a kind of solace in their company. A similar protagonist, a man self-obsessed to the exclusion of everyone else, meets a somewhat less happy end in ‘Shortcuts’ as he is lured into one of those old curiosity shops beloved of ghost story writers and comes away with more than he bargained for, the emotional tension in his relationship with his girlfriend and the strange events of his dream life playing off of each other to powerful effect. ‘October Cries’ is another tale of city folk moving to the country, a chilling Pied Piper variation, with a couple’s child lured away by a woodland spirit of some sort, the palpable air of menace the story contains intensified by hints of paedophilia. The splendidly named ‘Flour White and Spindle Thin’ was my second favourite piece in this collection of gems, a story every bit as elegant as its title. A man seeking a new start as a marsh warden and his wife are lured to their doom by a spirit of the wilds that appears as a young child, both characters and place perfectly evoked, the bleakness of the marshland setting reflecting the wife’s barren condition, her desperation for a child the engine that drives the story on with such conviction, and so much more suggested than is actually revealed.

These writers know the form inside out and everything they write reveals the same care and delicate craftsmanship. There are no bad stories here, though some are perhaps less good than others, as for instance ‘Calling Down the Lightning’ in which the finely judged prose and characterisation almost convince that there is more to the tale than the familiar account of a spectral curse coming home to roost that it actually is. And ‘Caviso Gamo’ was a bit too enigmatic for my liking, as a man returns to Africa on an annual pilgrimage to revisit the sacred cave where his parents died in mysterious circumstances, the prose gaining a vivid hallucinatory quality as the story reaches its climax but, for me at least, the whole lacking a bit in focus.

Maynard & Sims are seasoned entertainers, and like all such they know how to bring down the curtain. The last story in the book, ‘Sliding Down the Slippery Slip’, is a showstopper and one of the finest horror stories I’ve read recently. The first person narration of a disturbed soul, its obliqueness brings to mind the rituals and ceremonies of Machen’s classic tale The White People, but tainted with a perverse sexuality that is thoroughly modern, the story made all the more effective by the narrator’s unreliability, with the hint that much of what happens could just be in her mind. It is a virtuoso performance, insidiously suggestive and rich in ambiguity, the ideal note on which to close this collection and proof of what these much underrated writers are capable of producing when at their best.

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