#7 in the Black Shuck Shadows series, The Martledge Variations by Simon Kurt Unsworth has something of the concept album about it, containing three stories and other material linked by the presence of psychic investigator Richard Nataka, the presiding spirit of a previous Unsworth collection, Quiet Houses (check out my review of that work elsewhere on this site).
In “Prologue” we have a potted history of the town of Martledge, one that is detailed and thoroughly engaging, giving us just enough information to make the place seem real and ground the stories that follow. In “Martledge: The First Interlude” we are introduced to Nakata and his fascinating theories about the nature of ghosts, which he intends to research while resident in Martledge by creating and placing in the public domain three ghost stories that are alleged to have occurred in the town, then seeing what effect the public reaction has on the material.
First story “The Dancers” opens with Minahane destroying a piano he has acquired from the estate of a dead neighbour, one who was thought mad by others thanks to her habit of playing this musical instrument late at night. Minahane’s act of destruction is inspired by what he has discovered about its back story. It’s an engaging ghost story, one with a moral dimension and touches of humour, while the nature of the titular dancers is such as to elicit sympathy in the reader, and the ambiguity of the ending hints that Minahane might not yet be in the clear.
For “Martledge: The Second Interlude” we get more of Nakata, his motives and relationship with his father. “The Smiling Man” concerns a man who was a lecher in life becoming even more so in death when his grave is disturbed by the local clergy. This is the sort of story M. R. James might have concocted, but with a thoroughly modern feel that is all Unsworth’s own. George Dent is an engaging spectral creation, a combination of the menacing and slightly ridiculous (a Benny Hill character with added creepiness), albeit the menacing aspects appear to be escalating as the story progresses, while the clergy’s attempts to undo his depredations are compelling.
More of Nakata in “Martledge: The Third Interlude”, a brief word picture of the investigator relaxing. Two young lovers visit “The Meadows” and have a vision of drowning sailors, only to realise that they have witnessed a paranormal event. This has about it the feel of the sort of thing you might read in true ghost story accounts. The characters and setting are engaging, while the back story and its account of spirits trapped in servitude to each other is, to use an appropriate term, haunting.
Finally we have “Martledge: The Final Interlude” with Nakata reflecting on the stories he has planted in the common consciousness, and which we as readers can see have already grown beyond the seed that was laid, while there are hints that, having taken on a life of their own, the ghosts of Martledge are now zeroing in on their creator. Enjoyable as the individual stories are, not least for the restrained nature of their telling, it’s the overarching theme and the person of Richard Nakata that make this work stand out.
The author also provides some intriguing “Story Notes”, giving us the history of Nakata, the inspiration for the town of Martledge and the three stories set there, all of which I found fascinating. Unsworth claims that he is not done with the character of Nakata, and for that all lovers of original ghost stories with a thoroughly modern twist should be grateful.