Filler content with lost places

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-

Simon Kurt Unsworth has had a couple of stories appear in Black Static, been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and had work chosen for various ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies. LOST PLACES (Ash-Tree Press hardback, 195pp, £29) is his first collection, and this selection of eighteen short stories offers a splendid showcase for the author’s work.

In the book’s afterword Unsworth talks about, but refuses to identify, themes in his work. I don’t know that I’d call it a theme as such, but certainly parents and their children, especially father and son relationships, feature in many of the stories, with the child bringing the destructive element to the story almost as often as he is the victim the adult needs to protect. That’s certainly the case with lead story ‘A Different Morecambe’, which opens with a convincing picture of a fragmenting family unit and the father trying to build bridges with his son by taking him to his favourite seaside town, but as the story progresses it becomes apparent that this is a changed Morecambe, so that it becomes emblematic of all the things the father fears losing, and his own son is the catalyst for this transformation. This is a cunningly wrought text, with subtle shades of meaning and a minatory undercurrent, the seaside town seen through a lens darkly and becoming one of those ‘lost places’ referenced in the book’s title, though the suggestion is that this is a side effect of the story’s emotional weather.

Similarly in ‘Flappy the Bat’ the subconscious fear adults have of children is dealt with when a child starts throwing tantrums and the efforts of his parents to contain what is happening spiral out of control, so that they fear their own loss of restraint. In a thoroughly modern twist, back of it all is a vampire of sorts who has become a star of children’s television and is subtly turning his young viewers against adults, the supernatural aspects of the story muted to the point where they’re almost negligible, but used to highlight the influence of the media on impressionable minds, and the subtext that our beloved glass teat has become a vampire draining us of vitality and destroying our will to resist. Flash ‘The Baking of Cakes’ is another subtle piece in which baking is displacement activity and a way of grieving over the death of a child, the story playing its cards close to its chest until the devastating final line with its palpable sense of loss. ‘Stevie’s Duck’ is a huge, malevolent creature that is only seen by a young boy, though its destructive aftermath is witnessed by everyone in the family, and if the idea of a monster duck makes you smile, then you have no idea what Unsworth brings to the beast. The story builds and builds, the situation growing ever graver and nothing to be done until Stevie realises his own role in empowering the monster and that it can only be vanquished when he releases something even more terrible from his imagination, the resultant showdown like Godzilla vs. Mothra in miniature. ‘An Afternoon with Danny’ is probably the most straightforward story in the book, with a father taking his son out for the day and the boy disappearing when a jape at Pirate World goes horribly wrong. There is nothing much to this, but it is well written and moving with its depiction of parental love and the feeling of loss, and at only six pages doesn’t outstay its welcome.

A couple of the stories seem rather mundane, as with ‘Old Man’s Pantry’ in which a jogger is shadowed by and driven into the lair of a century’s dead killer, while the traditionally slanted ‘Scucca’ is the story of a taxidermist working on a ‘Black Shuck’ type beast and the resultant spectral vengeance. These stories make me think of the literary equivalent of the pianist’s finger exercises. There’s nothing much new about them, nothing to surprise a veteran reader of supernatural fiction; they are satisfying variations on a theme, with the sense that the writer is exploring the limits of his ability through retreads of the familiar before embarking on his own charted course.

Other stories touch on similar territory, but here Unsworth starts to bring something new to the mix, to give the material his own twist, as with ‘Haunting Marley’, which with that title can’t help but make you think of Dickens’ classic ghost story, but this is a revenge from the grave story with a difference, in that the phantom is intent not only on haunting the eponymous Marley, but all those who knew him and keep his memory alive, and with a final twist that cleverly implicates the reader. A man starts a rumour about ‘The Derwentwater Shark’ and is then horrified to see it become a reality, finding that he cannot put the genie back in the bottle, the story touching on the power of suggestion, the appeal of urban legends and matters of consensus reality, but regardless of the intellectual freight it carries never losing sight of the need to wrap the message in the sugar coating of a cracking tale. There’s another familiar set-up in ‘When the World Goes Quiet’, which concerns a foraging expedition in a world overrun by zombies, but counterpoint to the ‘action’ is a quiet ending in which, rather than struggle against hopeless odds, a man looks round for a way to spare his wife and child further suffering, so that despair is reified as compromise and acceptance of the inevitable.

‘Where Cats Go’ reminded me of a Bev Vincent story I read a while back, only that concerned dogs. This story is about a place where felines throw themselves under cars, the narrator becoming obsessed with the idea of some great beast out there in the night which stalks the cats, this theory consuming him to the detriment of his relationship with the woman whose residence overlooks the spot. It’s a double whammy of a story, with the supernatural and the human aspects of the narrative playing off of and reinforcing each other. In the marvellously titled ‘The Lemon in the Pool’, a woman’s dream retirement villa is subjected to a barrage of apports that begins with the eponymous citrus. It’s a slow burn story, holding the attention all the way, as the mundane and even amusing circumstances of the opening passages steadily mount to a crescendo of terror.

‘The Station Waiting Room’ is a Cthulhuesque tale in which a man learns the background to the blighted village in which he has come to work, being told what happened there during the Second World War and given a scarcely credible explanation of why nearly all the inhabitants look so wan and drained. Presiding over the text is an air of malaise thick enough to cut with a knife, with the characters never less than believable in the desperate things they are driven to do. In ‘The Animal Game’ the members of a therapy group are asked to imagine themselves as animals that reflect their true natures, and then one night they actually turn into these beasts and attack each other. It’s a silly idea, but Unsworth elicits our suspension of disbelief with some cracking and wonderfully evocative dialogue in the early phase of the story, as the characters get the measure of each other, and then having carried the reader to this point of acceptance unleashes their full savagery in what seems almost like a cathartic process, allowing them to assume the worst in their nature with no sense of responsibility or thought of consequences. ‘The Church on the Island’ was short listed for the World Fantasy Award and picked by Stephen Jones for The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best of New Horror, and that should speak well enough as to its quality without me having to recycle my comments from last issue. By way of précis: it’s really very good.

And now for the stories I felt were the very best of what Lost Places has to offer. ‘A Meeting of Gemmologists’ adopts the club story format, with a group of gemmologists meeting to discuss a supposedly cursed ruby and one of their number revealing his own encounter, the ruby inhabited by a spirit that, if not actually a succubus does a reasonably good impression of one, and his near death from her relentless sexual assaults. Erotically charged, but not quite in an enticing way, this was a superb tale, one where the style and inflections of a natural raconteur keeps the reader every bit as enthralled as the characters who hear his story, and with a novel, one might even say feminist, take on the idea of a curse and haunting. ‘Forest Lodge’ was perhaps my favourite story in the whole collection, its relative simplicity a great strength of the narrative. A young boy is taken by his father to a hotel where he is haunted by the ghost of a woman who disappeared many years ago, undergoing horrific visions that his father is blind to and chides the boy for, the story informed with a sense of the son’s understanding of the father, begging the question of which is the more mature. And then in the last few paragraphs Unsworth turns it around, and brought a tear to my eye as the full and terrible truth of the situation was revealed. Presented as non-fiction, ‘The Pennine Tower Restaurant’ records a series of incidents that have taken place over the years and combine to form a menacing picture of the eponymous eatery, with the suggestion that something dreadful is loose in its confines, or at the least using the place as a conduit from its reality to our. Of course we know it’s a story, but all the same, as with The Blair Witch Project for instance, the wealth of detail and straightforward delivery of the supporting material, give rise to uncertainty and unease, not least because no claims are made and no easy closure provided.

Nicely produced by Ash-Tree Press (this is the first volume I’ve reviewed from them) and with story notes explaining the genesis and some of the thinking behind each tale, this is a very strong collection which marks the arrival of a major new talent in the horror genre and should be essential reading for lovers of weird fiction.

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