The first part of a feature on Swan River Press that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-
SWAN RIVER PRESS
Swan River publish distinctive and beautiful books, and with five titles released last year, plus two issues of The Green Book, a journal devoted to the Irish Gothic tradition, 2014 has to have been their most productive year yet. I can’t fault them for the quality of either their written content or production values, with each book a thing of beauty, the care and attention to detail evident on every page.
Among the 2014 output is the publisher’s first anthology. Edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers, DREAMS OF SHADOW AND SMOKE (SRP hc, 195pp, €30.00) is a selection of stories inspired by the work of Irish writer J. Sheridan LeFanu, the bicentennial of whose birth it celebrates. After ‘A Preliminary Word’ by the editors, the anthology proper opens with ‘Seaweed Tea’ by Mark Valentine. Pitched as a true story related to a group of friends by the narrator, it tells of how Nash found what he believed to be an error in a book of tide tables, and in trying to get to the bottom of the matter discovered that there are other types of tide. Quietly and confidently going about its work, this is a story that gets a grip on the reader’s imagination as the author lays out on the page the bleak setting where his protagonist’s moment of epiphany occurs and hints at things far more terrible, simply because they are unknown, Valentine using simple devices to achieve a notably unsettling effect.
The protagonist of Angela Slatter’s story is a wife and mother who inherits an old house and a cache of valuable books, visiting with her children, one of whom goes missing inexplicably. There is a powerful subtext here, touching on the character’s resentment of the one child who does not share her love of reading and a suggestion that this is what makes him vulnerable, with a final chilling image that puts a whole new slant on the story’s title, ‘Let the Words Take You’. There’s a very matter of fact tone, almost reportage, to ‘Some Houses – A Rumination’ by Brian J. Showers, with information provided about the present and past of an abandoned house with an unsavoury atmosphere, and the reader left to decide if there is anything more to it than coincidence and imagination.
In ‘Echoes’ by Martin Hayes, paedophile Patrick must seek new lodgings after being “outed” at his former crib, but the house in which he ends up is haunted by the spirit of a mother who killed herself after the disappearance of her daughter, and as the story progresses we learn that Patrick may have had a connection to the missing girl, setting the stage for a moment of catharsis and revenge. Hayes makes a good job of dealing with an unsympathetic character, showing Patrick as a monster, with the full extent of his evil only gradually revealed, but also giving hints as to how he came to be this way, before finally lowering the boom in a gratifying end note of poetic justice. A feeling of loss and tragedy informs Sarah Le Fanu’s ‘Alicia Harker’s Story’, whose narrator has to endure the loss of her parents, bullying at school, and a horrific discovery at the house where she lives with her aunt and uncle. The subtext here seems to be that there is always something far worse than what happens to you, that human nature can always sink that bit lower. It’s revealed in an engrossing story, one where no real truth is imparted, but in which the note of ambiguity enriches the whole enterprise.
Derek John’s ‘Three Tales from a Townland’ is an artful and absorbing confection fashioned from Irish legend and folklore, as an archaeologist out doing a survey hears the stories of the area in which he is working from a local. But engaging as this triptych of tales undoubtedly is, John has one more trick to pull out of his hat by way of an end twist, so that both we and the character see past events in an entirely new light. There is about the story the feel of the raconteur, of tales being told for the simple delight they bring, with no lessons to be learned or purpose beyond that of entertaining and enthralling the listener. Annie stays in ‘The Corner Lot’, but it appears to be infested with rats, have a boiler that doesn’t work, and other unsettling things manifest themselves. The American abroad protagonist of Lynda E. Rucker’s story also has personal problems; not just that of being a stranger in a strange land, but also a family history of mental illness and a broken relationship behind her, so that there is elbow room for the reader to consider what happens a projection from her psyche, at least until the final effects are unveiled in this clever and chilling ghost story, a ghost story in which the protagonist appears to be haunting herself.
A somewhat more traditional ghost stalks the confines of Carkham Abbey in ‘Rite of Possession’ by Gavin Selerie, with the new owners of the house uncovering a troubled past and wandering through secret passages, while a deadly curse works itself out, the story holding the interest with agreeable characters, confident writing and some nice spectral effects. An artist is swept out to sea from an isolated building in Holland, the pivotal event in Emma Darwin’s ‘A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous’, but those who witness the occurrence see things that convince them something more sinister and inexplicable has taken place. In the future one of these people has to consider a funding application to open an arts centre on the site, this twist used as the framing device for a story centred on the bleak scenery and brooding atmosphere of the isolated setting, one in which tragedy seems destined to occur.
With allusions to ‘Carmilla’ and a feel of the fairy tale to it, Peter Bell’s ‘Princess on the Highway’ has Bridget and her daughter Nell taking a well-deserved break at a remote country cottage, which turns out to be the setting for an encounter with the numinous. Again, as with many of these stories, the setting is perfectly realised on the page, the beauty of the landscape brought to life, but with an undercurrent of menace and a strong sense that the border between realities has worn very thin in this haunted place, as personal concerns about the things left behind meld with present danger and play off of each other. It is a strong end to an excellent collection, one in which every story earned its keep and more, but it’s not the end of the book as there are author biographies and, as a bonus, ‘Story Notes’ in which the writers talk about LeFanu and give the genesis of their own work.
Also by way of marking the Le Fanu bicentennial, we have REMINISCENCES OF A BACHELOR (SRP hc, 132pp, €30.00), a volume containing two linked novellas by the great man himself that haven’t seen the light of publication for over one hundred and fifty years. Pitched as “reminiscences of a bachelor”, they are ‘The Watcher’ and ‘The Fatal Bride’. The book has an introduction by Matthew Holness extolling the virtues of Le Fanu and afterwords by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers detailing the author’s use of the bachelor persona and the publishing history of ‘The Watcher’.
‘The Watcher’ is the story of Captain Barton, who one night while walking down a darkened street has the impression that someone or something is following him, but though he attempts to discover who is causing the mysterious footsteps that echo after nothing can be seen. The next day he receives a warning that he must not use that street again or something bad will happen to him, but being a military man he ignores the warning, and thereafter is followed by a mysterious shadowy figure, a presence he can neither approach nor throw off the scent, not even by leaving the country, at least not until the latter is ready for a confrontation.
Le Fanu gives no explanation for what is happening, other than hints of some act of spitefulness in Barton’s past when he commanded a ship in the navy. There are elements of the story that will now seem almost tiresomely familiar to readers of supernatural fiction, such as footsteps following in the night, the door that won’t open etc., and yet here they mount to a subtle and disturbing crescendo, one that is dazzlingly effective, with the possibility that nearly everything can be accounted for by Barton’s sense of guilt over his past misdemeanour. Everything but not all, as some events are witnessed by others, and the reader must decide how much credence to give to their testimony.
The companion novella ‘The Fatal Bride’ has no supernatural element, instead focusing on the doings of Dublin’s social and aristocratic elite. The dashing Captain Jennings is besotted with Mary, daughter of Sir Arthur and Lady Chadleigh, even though her father has banned his attempts at courtship because of their very different social and financial standing. He manages to get round this obstacle and form an alliance with the lady in secret, though the possibility of scandal is never far away, and not necessarily from an obvious source.
This piece doesn’t quite hold the interest as its predecessor did. Our bachelor’s inclusion in the tale seems slightly contrived or forced, and at the end of the day to modern tastes it will probably all seem rather like much ado about nothing, with the story somewhat artificially stretched, as with the scene in which the bachelor is drawn into assorted night time shenanigans in a case of mistaken identity. All the same, it’s an absorbing piece, well written and with some excellent characterisation, deftly using dialogue to reveal each person’s true nature, and underlying all this is a convincing portrait of the social mores of the time, conventions that can’t help but seem old fashioned and alien to the modern reader, and all the more alluring for that.
Described by the publisher as ‘a volume of supernatural impressions and quiet vacancies’, HERE WITH THE SHADOWS (SRP hc, 165pp, €30.00) contains fifteen subtle and evocative ghost stories by Steve Rasnic Tem, one of the modern masters of the form.
Title story ‘Here with the Shadows’ begins with a father and daughter planning his move to a new house, with memories of the past and family life there, including the deceased wife/mother, the dialogue pitch perfect at showing the love and respect between these two people, but then moves on to a wider meditation on the nature of mortality and the implications of living in a world where everything around us is a sign that we are haunted by the past. Sad and joyous at the same time, it has a philosophical bent, offering a perspective on life and death in which one threatens to swamp the other but at the same time confers greater value on it.
Lauren goes in search of her estranged sister Karen, but finds only ghosts and sour regret in ‘A House by the Ocean’, a story that marks both the ferocity of the natural world and the storms that pass through human life also. Yearning for a baby and an unhappy marriage are at the heart of ‘The Cabinet Child’, with the union seen from both sides in a manner that wrong foots the reader, and then offers the shadow of what is longed for, the “ghost of a chance” in a tale illuminated with beauty and longing. In ‘The Still, Cold Air’ a prodigal son returns home to take up his inheritance, the old house in which his parents lived, only to find that he has been given more than he anticipated, the story gradually building its effects, showing how neglect can bring terror into a life as you reap what you have sown.
Lewis is hired to gut an old house in ‘G is for Ghost’ and discovers a document that tells of a past haunting, or perhaps it is an account of the madness of a father and mother who just cannot let go of their dead son, the story grabbing the attention with its ineffable feel of sadness and ending with a chilly note of ambiguity. OCD of a peculiar kind is taken way past the point of madness in ‘Breaking the Rules’, as Raymond invites a young woman to dinner only to find that she cannot adapt to his standards, superstitious rules and regulations that are enforced by his mother. With touches of Psycho and at times a manic comic energy to the narrative, this is a chilling picture of a fractured personality, somebody whose parents truly have, in Larkin’s words, fucked him up. There’s a similar feel to ‘The Slow Fall of Dust in a Quiet Place’, whose protagonist is a bibliophile whose love alienates him from life in general and his family in particular. The story is written as a monologue, Tem maintaining the matter of fact tone through right to the end and unsettling us with the implications of what is being set out before us, so that we come to wonder about the fate of the too noisy daughter who disappeared over twenty years ago, to ponder why the man is so fascinated by the fall of dust and what things he sees in the patterns the dust makes.
‘Inside William James’ is told from the perspective of a mentally ill man in a hospital ward, one who believes that his dead mother speaks to him and is haunted by the images of burnt faces, the story moving elliptically and powerfully to the revelation of an act of betrayal and what followed, and yet for all the horror of what he did we can’t help but feel William James was more sinned against than sinning. In ‘Back Among the Shy Trees’ Tyler returns to the family home, with all its unpleasant memories, but only as a prelude to an encounter with the relatives of the father he remembers as barely human, the story rich in atmosphere and a growing sense of menace, but a little too oblique for my liking. A woman going blind moves to a cottage on the border of a forest and memorises the landscape in ‘Seeing the Woods’, only to have it destroyed by a fire, but she can still recall the shapes and forms, and so lives on in a ghost forest, the tale keenly evocative and touching on the power of memory, dealing with family relationships and how we are to react to news of our own coming death.
As Christmas approaches a man returns to the family home in ‘Smoke in a Bottle’, the visit bringing back memories of childhood poverty and his drunken father, but then he comes to a new understanding of past events, realises what was really taking place,. It’s a rich, beautifully realised tale, with an elevating sense of sadness underlying the narrative, and probably the story that affected me most deeply. Loneliness is at the heart of ‘Est Enim Magnum Chaos’ in which a group of friends make an agreement to notify each other of illness and death, gradually growing apart until the only one remaining appears to be sending notes to himself and believing they all made a terrible mistake. It is a sad story, but ends on a note of hope with the realisation that the great void of the title does not have to be faced alone.
Trina in ‘These Days When All is Silver and Bright’ is haunted by the death of her son, the story offering a moving picture of grief and showing the ways in which it can undermine a life, the things we are not able to cope with. There’s something of James’ ‘The Mezzotint’ about ‘Telling’, with an artist and her husband trapped in an old and minatory house, one that she has painted all her life, and with the realisation that there is something coming out of the picture to threaten them, the story deftly weaving past and present to create a disturbing vision of the horror underlying everyday life and ready to burst forth when summoned by our memories. Finally we have ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ in which Dan and his mother annually revisit the place where his sister vanished many years ago, and this time finding closure of a kind, though not one which offers much in the way of comfort. It’s a downbeat ending to a book in which there is much of grief and sadness, but woven into the text of each story a still resounding echo of hope. One of the best collections of 2014 and highly recommended.
(TO BE CONTINUED)