The first part of a feature on anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
Like all the books I’ve seen from Ireland’s Swan River Press, the two volumes of Uncertainties edited by SRP head honcho Brian J. Showers are things of beauty, handsomely produced hardcovers with dustjacket art from Chris Priestly that captures perfectly the mood of the work they contain, a winter chill with the sense of life in retreat but containing within itself the seeds of future rebirth.
As the curtain raiser to UNCERTAINTIES VOLUME 1 (Swan River Press hc, 203pp, €30.00) we get an introduction by John Connolly in which he explains the genesis of his own affection for tales of the supernatural and their like, followed by a rather apt quotation from David Bowie – “Turn and face the strange”.
And the first attempt to provide material with that mission statement in mind is ‘The Faerie Ring’ by John Reppion. It’s the story of artist and photographer Olivia, whose fascination with a particular turf maze and desire to learn more leads her off the map entirely. Reppion is excellent in creating the underpinning for his story, with information about mazes and labyrinths that sounds entirely plausible, and perhaps is factual (I haven’t checked), before then seguing off into strange territory, with Olivia finding out rather more than she wishes regarding local customs, the whole infused with a whiff of The Wicker Man as an ostensibly harmless folk ceremony plays out to its bitter end. And after that we are left with ambiguity and, naturally, uncertainty as to what has really happened to Olivia. Derek John’s story is told as a series of newspaper clippings ‘From the Archives of the Westmeath Examiner’ stretching back over a hundred years and relating events attached to a local house that has a reputation for being haunted. It is a sobering account, with details being handed out in reverse order so that the reader can fill in the blanks and draw his or her own conclusions, as the reality shapes itself, and reminiscent of similar work by Ambrose Bierce in its approach, if memory serves correct (and it seldom does at my age).
Guilt haunted Loralie flees to the coast in ‘Wellaway’ by Martin Hayes, but an enigmatic photograph in her room, a sinister woodland, and the strange behaviour of the landlady’s son sees her in dire trouble. This is a deliciously sinister concoction, with hints that by cheating on her girlfriend Loralie has become vulnerable to outré forces, and in the figure of the softly malevolent Alfred we have a memorable and disturbing villain. So much of the story takes place at right angles to what we know of the real world and there is a thick strand of ambiguity running through the narrative, but that only serves to make it more effective. In ‘On a Clear Day’ by Robert Nielson the owner of a seaside book and coffee shop takes an interest in the life of one of his customers, a strange man who stares off into the mist and claims to see a town that nobody else can perceive. There is a gentle quality to this story, a true sense of wonder, as the unknown becomes a friend, a source of comfort. At its heart there is the feeling of somebody finally going home, even though their destination is one that is truly terra incognito.
There’s a nasty undercurrent to John Kenny’s ‘Last Love’, the tale of child murderer Gerry who is seeking a truth about the nature of death and regards his murders as an experiment, and thinks that his victims are a price worth paying. Ultimately this turns out to be either a case of revenge from beyond the grave or, if you prefer a more prosaic version, a man driven mad by guilt. What elevates the story above this common or garden scenario is Kenny’s depiction of Gerry, the unsettling details that he gives and the insights into the mind of somebody who is totally insane by any normal standard. One could even argue that his experiments are simply a means to excuse and aggrandise more base instincts, that he is at heart simply a paedophile. Whatever interpretation you give, and for all his talk of showing reverence to the dead children, it’s hard to read this story without feeling somewhat soiled by time spent in Gerry’s mind, but at the same time it’s a character study that is intensely felt and absolutely fascinating.
We get warped humour and blackly comedic characterisation in ‘A Letter from McHenry’ by Reggie Chamberlain-King, a sense of the absurd that is tempered with an underlying malevolence. The reader is left adrift and guessing what truly happens, as the recipient of the letter, an amoral but also fearful man, finds a way to drain the life energy of its sender. In a way it seems to be a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray, the plot driven by a fear of old age and all that it entails. Maura McHugh’s ‘The Light at the Centre’ has three friends attending a rave at a half built housing estate, and grabs our interest with zestful dialogue and vibrant characterisation. It’s only at the end though that McHugh lays her cards on the table, with the true purpose of the rave revealed. Deftly written and blindsiding the reader until the last minute, this was one of the most powerful stories in the collection, thematically similar to the stories in Ellison’s Deathbird Stories, with its engaging characters and a thoroughgoing sense of modernity that grounds the action in our world even as the age old genius loci of the story makes its appearance.
‘Fran’s Nan’s Story’ by Sarah LeFanu is the closest we come to a classical ghost story. Set against the backdrop of the foot and mouth fear in Ireland, it tells of a sheep farmer and his love for a three-legged dog, the quaint, raconteur like style of the telling holding the attention in a grip of iron and setting us up for the delicious but devastating end twist. In ‘Flyblown’ by Timothy J. Jarvis, Kate investigates the disappearance of her old girlfriend Silvina, a woman who was perhaps not of the soundest mind. A disturbing trail of clues leads her into the web of a serial killer and something even more minatory. With larger than life characters, this is one of the more unsettling pieces, throwing up imagery that lingers in the mind and a plot that unravels with a compelling series of twists and turns, bringing us to a realisation that there is another world bordering on our own, one where the same rules and regulations do not apply.
In Mark Valentine’s ‘To the Eternal One’ a conman who sells forged ancient documents to the gullible finds that he has bit off more than he can chew when seeking to exploit the god worshipped by the people of Palmyra, the story holding the attention and with some nice touches of humour and a sense of the author’s knowledge of the distant events and places of which he writes. It was fun, and with an ending that touches on the ineffable as our protagonist gets his just desserts, finding the genuine where he sought only to exploit superstition. Lastly we have ‘The Séance’ by Lynda E. Rucker, which was the best of the stories on offer. The story’s protagonist is obsessed with learning more about the life and career of controversial artist Anthea Wainwright, who she briefly knew as a child. But in trying to get inside the mind of the dead woman she unleashes powerful occult forces. Superbly written and characterised, this was a story that pulled it all together, giving us a compelling study of obsession and the artistic impulse, while the episodes set in childhood bring the characters to vivid life, with hints of the greatness that is to fall upon Anthea in later years, and also the seeds of her downfall. It was one of the best stories about artists that I have ever read, making Anthea’s work and ultimate fate seem all too plausible, and providing a dazzling conclusion to a very strong collection of tales.
Editor Showers himself performs the introductory honours for UNCERTAINTIES VOLUME 2 (Swan River Press hc, 207pp, €30.00) making a strong case for the idea that as regards fiction (and life) the mystery can on occasion be more important than its answer, and that sometimes to seek the answer is to miss the point. After that we open proceedings proper with ‘The Swing’ by Peter Bell whose narrator recalls seeing a photograph that claimed to show a ghost when he was only nineteen, and this is then linked with present day reports of poltergeist activity. It is a powerful and very effective illustration of the editor’s thesis, the matter of fact narration, with a wealth of small details to reinforce the central premise, working splendidly well to elicit belief and unsettle the reader.
In ‘The Mighty Mr. Godbolt’ by R. B. Russell, Tonya mistakenly boards a funeral train, only to discover on returning to her departure point that nothing is quite what it seemed. The boarding the wrong train ploy stretches credibility a tad, especially given the reason for doing so, but once that is accepted the rest of the narrative has a horribly unsettling feel to it, a sense of wrongness in play that only gathers momentum as the train crashes on, though nothing overtly threatening takes place. We share Tonya’s unease and applaud her decision to jump ship. John Howard’s ‘Then and Now’ tells of a grieving man who learns something about the true nature of Berlin from studying the photographs taken by his lover before he died. While the events portrayed are certainly outré, the story is a very positive one, with layers of time overlapping each other and the hope that lost ones may be reunited again in ways they could not have suspected possible before death. It is a ghost story and a sad story, but all the same one in which there is the chance to atone for past mistakes.
Past and present also overlap in ‘The Ice Beneath Us’ by Steve Duffy as two ice fishermen recall the horrific events of the previous year, leading to blows between them. The atmosphere of the story is as chilling as its setting, with Native American myths and legends woven into the text and the presentiment of a terrible curse that lives on into the present day, but at the same time it could simply be an illustration of the old adage that violence begets violence. There’s a lovely, almost nostalgic feel to ‘Closing Time’ by Emma Darwin, the story of a woman who is selling her photography studio and the memories that a sealed door bring back to her of a time long gone. While the supernatural elements, if any, are muted, the sense of strangeness makes this story every bit as weird and ghostly as any of the others, with the historical background sketched in convincingly and some intriguing characterisation helping to make it memorable.
Rosalie Parker’s ‘Homecraft’ has two runaway children sheltering in an abandoned house, and turning it into a protective deity of sorts. Again what makes the story is the characterisation of Sylvie and Jonathan, the subtlety of Parker’s portrayal, and also what she doesn’t say as regards the plot, the things the reader is left to infer regarding the behaviour and fate of Uncle Jack, and the nature of Jonathan’s illness. ‘Half-Light’ by Steve Rasnic Tem is a brief portrait of a woman on her last legs, her spirit reaching a state of peace with the life she has lived and fighting the doctors to bring it to an end, the story poignant and moving. Mat Joiner’s ‘Imago’ is the tale of Rhys, who as a child took shelter from bullies in an abandoned house, but returns in later life to discover the chrysalis creatures he saw before, this time releasing them into the wild. It’s an eerie story, juxtaposing a very human evil with something that is both wonderful and strange, and whose full potential and intent is still unknown at the end of the tale.
There’s a Lovecraftian feel to ‘The Edge of the World’ by Helen Grant, with the personal and the cosmic melding. Frustrated in love, archaeologist Duncan destroys an artefact of unknown purpose, and in doing so breaks a barrier between our reality and another, allowing something monstrous access. Grant does an excellent job of merging a tale of unrequited love and one of cosmic horror, with the final fate of lovelorn Duncan adding a terrible end note, but perhaps also emblematic of those who forever travel in hope. Strange but in a way that doesn’t quite gell with the other stories here, ‘The Court of Midnight’ by Mark Samuels tells of a plague that has undermined society, and to which those of an imaginative bent of mind are especially susceptible. Reminiscent of Ligotti’s work in its mood and approach, but informed by Samuels’ philosophical concerns, it disturbs with its imagery of degeneration and decay, while at the same time fascinating for the conceit that lies at its heart.
A woman returns to haunt the husband who failed her when she suffered from an incurable illness in ‘What’s Out There?’ by Gary McMahon. The tension builds well, with some nasty violence and memorable imagery, while the portrait of the suffering protagonist, a failed Everyman who blames himself for everything, is typical McMahon, but overall while I enjoyed the components of the story I didn’t really feel that they combined to offer something greater than the sum of their parts. There’s mystery here, and uncertainty, but it all feels a bit random. Adam Golaski’s ‘Ruby’ has a man who is fleeing a lost or failed love undergoing some sort of hallucinogenic experience, but again while I enjoyed the story for its effects it was another case of travelling in hope rather than arriving anywhere satisfying at the journey’s end. The story felt like an attempt to throw as much strange shit as possible at the page, and I guess it succeeded on that level, but I struggled to find any overarching design, a sense that the author had a destination in mind.
‘The Murky’ by V. H. Leslie is set in Finland, with a stranger in a strange land bringing something unusual back to the sauna. The feel for Finnish culture comes over quite clearly and is never less than convincing, while the protagonist’s curiosity, which is the undoing of him, seems perfectly plausible, and the creature that comes back from the marsh is suitably foreshadowed and appropriately strange/menacing. Finally we have the longest story in the book ‘Love at Second Sight’ in which a man is given the chance to once again fulfil the romantic dreams of the woman he loved in youth, even though he didn’t fully realise it at the time. With its double entendre title, this story is a typical Reggie Oliver vehicle, an assured and measured account of the outré set in a cultured and urbane setting. The protagonist’s desire to revisit his past in the wake of his wife’s death is eminently believable, while the train of circumstances that lead to his meeting with Anna, grounded in reminiscences of their past relationship, only stretch credibility a tad. What follows makes sense of them though, and events unfold in a way that unsettles but doesn’t seem entirely illogical or unnatural, until Oliver pulls the rug out from under our feet in the final reel. It was a wonderful end to a superior collection, one that affirms the ghost story is alive and well and in capable hands.
TO BE CONTINUED