Day Sixteen of our Advent Calendar and Tim Major’s Shade of Stillthorpe is the fourth consecutive novella from the Black Shuck Books stable to take a turn in the limelight, with two more titles waiting in the wings.
In a bonding exercise, Key takes his son Andrew on a camping trip in Stillthorpe Woods, where he used to go with his friends when a teenager. Key wakes in the morning to find Andrew missing. Growing increasingly upset he searches for his son, but there is no trace, until wife Alis phones to say Andrew has turned up at their house. The boy is dishevelled and goes into a coma; on recovery he has no explanation for what happened to him. In the weeks and months that follow questions arise about his paternity. Key becomes convinced that he is living with a stranger and returns to Stillthorpe in search of his ‘real’ son.
This is a nicely crafted novella that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end. At first it appears to be about a haunted wood, but then the fairy changeling trope raises its head, later to be replaced by a science fictional trope. And of course as a contributing factor and further cause for blurring of boundaries there is Key’s own mental state, which grows increasingly disturbed as he refuses to accept all the evidence that Andy/Andrew is just going through the usual teen changes.
While the feel of Stillthorpe Wood as a liminal place, a place where the walls of reality wear thin, is vividly realised, the heart of this story lies in the human interactions. What happens stands as a metaphor for the estrangement of father and son, the way in which people who were once so close can become alienated from each other. We see signs that Key is capable of bonding with Andy, as with the guitar lesson, but each time he draws away and further damage is done to the relationship as a result. His reaction to Andy sharing a bed with Alis seems to embody the fear he has of being replaced in his wife’s affections, and later comments about her not taking his name in marriage reveal a vulnerability that this situation can only exacerbate. But in Key’s mind it’s not just Andy/Andrew who is changed. Key sees signs that his whole reality is twisted out of shape, emphasising our fears for his mental state.
Shade of Stillthorpe is an engrossing character study, one with hints of the weird or supernatural, but not allowing them to run away with the story, only using such things to highlight the human nature of what is taking place.