Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-
SWAN RIVER PRESS
THE SEA CHANGE & OTHER STORIES (The Swan River Press hardback, 144pp, £30) is the first collection of short stories by award winning novelist Helen Grant. Meticulously written and with carefully calculated chills, but with nothing of grossness or the modern penchant for gore, the stories contained in this slim, elegant volume owe much to the influence of M. R. James in mood and approach to supernatural fiction, and indeed at least two of them were directly inspired by his oeuvre.
A case in point, opening story ‘Grauer Hans’, an eerie and understated account of childhood encounters with the bogeyman and how as an adult the narrator must return to confront the thing that so beguiled and terrified her as a child, with a local legend given a compelling twist. Offering a conflation of urban myth and the phenomenon of the imaginary friend, this is a tale in which our perspective is at odds with that of the protagonist; what seems amiable enough to her childhood sensibility is wholly minatory to the reader, so that we fear for her, and yet Grant offers little by way of comfort when the nature of the threat finally becomes clear, instead introducing a cycle of terror that is set to be repeated without end. Title story ‘The Sea Change’ is told from the viewpoint of the friend and colleague of a diver who discovers what appears to be an ancient wreck unearthed by changes in the current and becomes obsessed with it. But what we are dealing with in this slow burn tale is a truly alien menace, one made all the more effective by the writer’s reticence in describing it, wisely leaving the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps, only to finally pin us down with a scene of corporeal dissolution as chilling and repellent as any to be found in the work of Machen and Chambers once we have been lulled into this false sense of security.
Picking up on an unfinished story by James, ‘The Game of Bear’ captures perfectly the feel and tone of its source material, as one gentleman unfolds to another the story of why a children’s game disturbs him and the curse that befell Henry Purdue, a grim and unsettling account of spectral revenge that does the master proud. The shortest story in the book, ‘Self Catering’ introduces a humorous note as an overly fussy man seeks a holiday in a haunted house only to have his requirements met in a rather novel manner, the tale replete with literary references that add vim to a narrative that makes up for what it lacks in credibility with an adroit and deliciously tongue in cheek telling. ‘Nathair Dhubh’ reads like a Welsh version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, two young men scaling the eponymous peak with unlooked for consequences. Not so much story as an account of unusual events, the kind of thing Charles Fort would have appreciated had it been ‘real’, it’s a narrative that is shot through with a sense of the numinous, an awareness that reality holds untold and unimagined potential to mess with the lives of we mortals, that in the end there is only mystery.
James is an inspiration again with ‘Alberic de Mauléon’, which gives us the back story to the creation of a certain canon’s scrap-book, an ingenious tale of two brothers and the sibling rivalry that led to a horrific fate for one of them, or a gratifying comeuppance if you’re not feeling especially charitable. Finally we have ‘The Calvary at Banská Bystrica’, in which a man tells of his journey to Slovakia in search of a missing brother, and finds subtle hints that Robert had got lost in time as well as geography, the story unsettling and made all the more effective for what is not shown to the reader, a subtle evocation of spectral grace notes. Rounding out the collection are some ‘Story Notes’, with Grant detailing the history of her tales and explaining the ideas behind them, a fascinating codicil to a strong collection of supernatural fare from an assured writer, one who takes familiar material and tropes, making them her own.
John Howard’s WRITTEN BY DAYLIGHT (The Swan River Press hardback, 170pp, £30) casts its net a little wider, stories of an unabashedly genre provenance rubbing elbows with work that is slightly more experimental in nature, tales in which a sense of existential dislocation stands in lieu of more obvious supernatural mechanisms. If the restless spirit of M. R. James ruffled the pages of Grant’s book, then for Howard the ghost in the machine is of a more Borgesian complexion, the mood changing as the volume progresses, the comforts of haunt and home merging with some terra incognito of the writer’s psyche.
In opening story ‘“Where Once I Did My Love Beguile”’ a young man’s friendship with an older one leads to an attempt to alter the past and travel in time, with some eerie caves at the centre of this gentle, intriguing piece, one in which belief can alter reality, though not always in the way we imagine, the final twist pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet. ‘Westenstrand’ is an island whose shape and very existence is dependent on the whims of the sea, and with a story set in the Germany of the 1930s and against the rise of National Socialism the topography of the tale mirrors the shifts in a relationship between two lovers, Howard demonstrating the uncertainty of both our feelings towards each other and the ground beneath our feet.
Beautifully written and observed, ‘Silver on Green’ is the story of political exile Miklos, the temptations laid before him and how he managed to evade them, the undercurrent of ambiguity leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding issues of morality and pragmatism, the snares of realpolitik sidestepped by a higher concern. Forgotten composer William Winter is the subject of ‘Winter’s Traces’, a journalist piecing together the tale of how he came to write no more work in a compelling story that celebrates a past age of elegance and more innocent way of life. A tourist finds his way to an isolated group of islands in the enigmatic ‘Out to Sea’, with strong hints of the ineffable in the leisurely narrative, culminating in a vision of acceptance and being accepted.
The relationship between inner and outer worlds is investigated in ‘Time and the City’, with Kayler an explorer in time visiting a metropolis of the far future/distant past and reporting back on what he witnesses, but there is also the suggestion that he creates the thing he describes by observing it, that the City is contained within him, coded into the DNA of mankind. In ways the story brings to mind the cyclopean cities of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but with a subtext that renders their threat to our sanity more existential in nature than the Rhode Island bard allowed. We are the monsters in the maze, the Elder Gods and Great Old Ones of our own devising. From a cosmic perspective to the wholly mundane in ‘The Way of the Sun’, with a man travelling abroad in search of much needed respite from the world of hustle and bustle, but like Kayler in the previous story, James carries the ‘disease’ inside him, and he cannot achieve his aim until he accepts that he must first escape himself, in which he is hindered by the attentions of helpful/interfering compatriots.
In ‘The High Places’ a man discusses the career of his friend the wartime artist Averill Turner, giving us a fascinating insight into the mind of a creative person and its response to a time of national catastrophe, but peeping out through the bars of the narrative is the possibility that by drawing various buildings Turner was able to save them from destruction. Art is considered as an act of sympathetic magic, given a ‘purpose’ of sorts, with a wry and delightfully ironic twist at the end of the story. The protagonist of ‘Wandering Paths’ is trying to reconnect with his lost love, but he comes adrift in reality as he searches obsessively for a path that will take him to where he wishes to be.
Power politics and diplomacy intertwine in ‘A Gift for the Emperor’, as two Prussian aristocrats try to figure out the implications of a gift from their emperor, what it means and what is required of them in response, the whole hinting at a backdrop of secret history, of momentous events set in train by the slightest movement. And finally we have ‘Into an Empire’, in which a numismatist appears to alter reality by varying his postal ritual, so that coins from a lost empire find their way to his door in a story which is shot through with sympathetic magic and, like several of these works, addresses the links between our inner worlds and those in which the machines of flesh we call our bodies manoeuvre and have their being.
Before closing a word about the books themselves seems in order. Each is produced in an edition of 400 copies with full colour dust jackets, and they are among the most attractive volumes to come to me for review, the care that has gone into their making and design self-evident. Publisher Brian J. Showers has served his authors magnificently.