I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time it is of Simon Kurt Unsworth‘s story collection LOST PLACES (Ash-Tree Press 2010). I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt.
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
There is no guarantee how quickly it will take to complete this review. This is no idle warning as I am due to be away from the internet in future weeks for large periods of time.
Jacket concept and design – Jason Van Hollander
A Different Morecambe
“From further away Huw could hear the ocean heaving, even though, when he looked, the strip of grey sea visible between the buildings was motionless.”
This story tells of a father (in marital difficulties) taking his very young son for a trip to contemporary Morecambe (a seaside resort in Lancashire not too far from Blackpool). The two of them arrive amid an effective vision of a ‘different Morecambe’ that the son had glibly requested to visit (as a sort of childish joke) but one that now takes on an evocatively sinister and decaying feel, with eventual repercussions (I infer) for deficit hit UK.
I lived in Morecambe for the most of 1967 – 1969 and my memory of that past Morecambe (when I was young and often had hangovers) is not dissimilar from this story’s ‘different’ version. The implied future version is also ‘different’, I fear. For me, it’s the father’s vision of the usual Morecambe that is the real ‘different’ version, perhaps, that we shall never see again. Frightening. (14 Sep 10)
“I am only thought,”
From one deficit to another – death. This is a genuinely impressive story, both delightful and frightful. Wholly original, too, in my book. Original yet traditional. An exquisite blend of a simple but teeming prose and a clever essay on death seen from the point of view of the dead person. To treat it solely as a Dickensian transposition is to make a mistake. The physically tactile reconciled with nothingness, surrounded by life’s reality as the dead person once knew it, but now a ‘reality’ expanding before his consciousness (and ours) into realms beyond that reality – to the deficit of us all. But, incredibly, it has a positive tone, too. Optimistic, even. Optimism and Pessimism in counterpoint. I’m not sure how this story actually achieves all these things. It just does. Can you tell I’m enthusiastic about it? The best way to cut into deficits.(15 Sep 10)
Already, at this early stage, I have a sense this is a special book. It has a tangible charm – with its cover design etc – that makes it something really pleasurable to handle and look at and own. The sort of book I envisaged when borrowing Utility books in the Fifties, one I dreamed of having in then some unknown future. The contents so far seem to underpin this sense of mine. It is a ‘Lost Place’ itself – a pre-Kindle treasure that we shall see so few of, sadly, as the Deficit kicks in. (15 Sep 10 – three hours later)
The Derwentwater Shark
“Tom’s stories populated his home, a place whose economy was based on transient visitors, low wages, and minimal opportunity, with the kind of things he wanted to be there, smothering the mundane reality.”
Not a promising title for me, but I am soon won over by this Chinese Whispers truth conjured via a Blair Witch Project version of JAWS in a fresh water lake in the Lake District (not too far from Morecambe). It all fits. A perfect gem of a story. But its power is not owned by the author, but by its readers. I can’t keep saying this, surely, about each story, but I loved it. Both its style and its dark shark soul. (15 Sep 10 – another 2 hours later).
When The World Goes Quiet
“The sheer difference in the place that had been my home for more than three years brought me up cold.”
A separately engaging yet despairing post-holocaust scenario of another human deficit as an emptying plague, one that horror books these days often deploy. Yet in tandem with the previous stories, it becomes uncommonly powerful and suspenseful (almost optimistic): i.e. the ‘difference’ depicted in the area one lives, the dead (not this time exactly as a ghost) acting with indeed suggestible doubts as to whether one is dead oneself, and the developing unwelcome truth via Chinese Whispers (like a virus of truth) and…
“The dark opening into the bushes gaped at me like a shark’s mouth and I was more afraid, staring into its terrible throat, than I have ever been.” (16 Sep 10)
Old Man’s Pantry
“When Cally ran, his problems fell behind him like exhausted dogs.”
A suspenseful fear of being stalked by a runner in the deserted Fells, deserted except by the legends. A well-described frantic rite-of-passage that had me on the edge of my chair – a story that, for me, led to a ‘lethal chamber’ where death lives with tactility and smell (Cf: ‘Haunting Marley’ above).
Seriously – give yourself a treat. Read this real-time chase story alongside two others that I real-time reviewed recently HERE and HERE respectively, i.e. ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ by Carole Johnstone (in Black Static #18 – TTA Press) and ‘The Daftie’ by Paul Finch (in ‘Where The Heart Is’ – Gray Friar Press – that also contains, incidentally, another S.K. Unsworth story). (16 Sep 10 – four hours later)
“The food was pie in rich gravy, and whilst I enjoyed it David clearly did not.”
Despite Unsworth’s typically polished evocative prose that can satisfy as much as the plots it describes can satisfy, this, for me, is a run-of-the-mill story of a legend turned into horror. Still I am a sucker for taxidermy stories (cf. ‘Lucien’s Menagerie‘ by David M. Fitzpatrick in ‘Null Immortalis’) and, furthermore, I was brought again towards thoughts first evoked by ‘Haunting Marley’ and later by the legend-turned-horror in ‘Old Man’s Pantry’ , i.e. thoughts of the sticky, smelly, tactile ‘lethal chamber’ within death – as extrapolated vis-a-vis the the stuffed animal in this story. And thanks also for introducing me to the wonderful word ‘scucca’. (17 Sep 10)
Flappy the Bat
“…and cavernous open mouth. Deep in its recesses something fat and darkly red moved as he spoke, like a worm wriggling in clinging, bitter mud.”
Wow! Back on track with a vengeance, and a small boy standing by that track. This is a very effective story of childish tantrums (just a glimpse of which we saw earlier in the repeated pleas to visit a ‘different Morecambe’) – bad behaviour caused dierctly by a TV programme featuring Flappy the Bat. This story is even more powerful by its context from the previous stories – hand-puppets I used to watch, as a child, on old black and white TV thinking of the human flesh inside them, but here it’s a variation of a man in a bat’s skin – a mutant taxidermy of sorts? All connected with the death chamber in so many ways. I won’t give any more away. Just follow the trail of Chinese Whispers from screen to soul…
“…Flappy’s feet under the table were clawed as well, flexing and prehensile and lethal.” (17 Sep 10 – ninety minutes later)
A Meeting of Gemmologists
No quotation will give you a clue to this story so I’ll leave it bare. Ostensibly, a Gentleman’s Club tale where a narrative emerges in the smoky atmosphere akin to that of M.R. James. I tread lightly as I do not wish to spoil this compelling masculine masterpiece of its kind. And I don’t say that lightly, either. A gem (like a ruby) – even an incredibly valuable one with a curse required by such stories – will give you no real clue. Other than that such a gem’s nature is surely the furthest one can ever be from the heat, stickiness and smell of the death-chamber, the furthest one can be from death’s inverse taxidermy that concupiscently envelops its potential victims with tweaks, nips, engulfments and suctions…. Surely.
The only criticism – I was so engulfed by this man’s man of a story itself – its gentlemanly narration – that I forgot to follow the plot and had to look back at its beginning to understand its ending. But that didn’t seem to matter. How do stories like this hide away? Has anyone else read it? Do say. (17 Sep 10 – another 4 hours later)
Where Cats Go
“…bursting its stomach and releasing grey loops of its intestine. They were strewn across the tarmac in curls and twists that looked like writing…”
From one gem to another. A dense textured confessional stemming from engagement with a place where cats go to commit suicide. It gives even darker light to the smell or meatiness in the ‘death-chamber’ gestalt I have identified ( – and its developing connection with love and sex?). Highly original and effective. I’m getting tired of treading on eggshells for fear of being accused of over-praising these stories. But this tight, ominous tract is a gem of crafted words you won’t forget easily. (18 Sep 10)
The Baking of Cakes
“Cakes are a way to communicate at a level where language has lost its meaning.”
…like the cat’s viscera that created words on the pavement.
Here not so much a birthday cake but a ‘celebratory’ cake for another ominous coincidence of ‘epoch’ in the pattern of crumbs later to be scried. This very short prose piece is almost a perfect incantation to how ingredients are more vital than the single thing into which they accrete after they are taken from the oven-chamber. (18 Sep 10 – eight hours later)
The Lemon in the Pool
“Unexplained tastes were a symptom of brain tumours, she remembered.”
I give up. There is no way I can assume the sole responsibility of extrapolating upon the gestalt of this book. It’s more than one reader can shoulder. Here – just take my word for it – there is a Lawrence-Durrellian feel about this cleverly built-up and believable character of Helen and her swimming-pool in exotic climes. This story, for me, is a notch up from any Horror story as such – it is a cocktail, starting with a lemon…. It then tentacularises and carries, like a foetus, the erstwhile ‘dark shark soul’ I identified earlier above. The story has filters that work both ways, filtering what comes in and what goes out, and it’s the same substance that flows in and flows out of the heated, sometimes rank, pool of our existence, in Jungian relief. It fits so sweetly into this book’s foregoing context, you don’t need me to force comparisons or contrive serendipities.They are simply there, in their own right, by their own parthenogenetic strength.
It is perhaps apt that I review this story at the height of the Pope’s visit to the UK. And at the height of Fantasycon in Nottingham. (18 Sep 10 – another 2 hours later).
“In the flower bed on the other side of the path was a streaky white mass of bird droppings which he quickly covered with soil, scuffing it over using the side of his foot…”
A giant duck in a pond like that which followed the lemon into the pool. Real or imaginary, this duck is created by what I call the ‘Chinese Whispers’ (cf. ‘The Derwentwater Shark’), now as connections within the mind, the mind here of a small boy whose family suffers from the visitations, and in interface with a feral terror-suspense sensibility I noted in ‘The Lion’s Den’ by Steve Duffy. (Steve Duffy is another great modern writer of Weird Fiction). From this story, I also wonder if Unsworth is a reincarnation of Saki?
Tactility reaches a ‘descant’ of sound here, as well as the world subject to the vanished sun’s still “pumping out waves of heat”. And Terror reaches into the ‘secret places’ of one’s body… (19 Sep 10)
“…I decided to have a bath. Not a quick splash with the water up to my hips, as I generally had at home, but a proper bath, with the water so deep I could float and so hot it would appear to be smoking. I would allow myself some ‘luxury’, as Dad had put it, soaking in the water until I pruned.”
As in ‘A Different Morecambe’, a father and son take a trip away from the father’s marital difficulties, leaving the mother at home. This time, however, told from the point of view of the boy not the father. There is nothing I can say about this ostensibly traditional ghost story that wouldn’t spoil it for you. It is substantial, full of character of place and person…and of Terror. It is interesting to me, as an aside, that the first sight of the traditional ghost is from the hot bath, one that suddenly turns cold. But that gives nothing away. A very accomplished story that will no doubt be anthologised again and again following its appearance here. Fontana Ghosts and more. (19 Sep 10 – three hours later)
The Station Waiting Room
“The women were quieter, sadder, more downtrodden, and the children were puling things that looked as weak as old milk.”
Like “A Meeting With Gemmologists”, but unlike it in so many other ways significant to both stories, ‘A Station Waiting Room’ has much of the plot-driving narrative evolve from someone speaking to another or others in a traditional setting, here waiting for a train in a railway-station (straight from the pages of ‘The Signalman’?) with a derelict waiting-room on the opposite platform. Inbreeding and Economic Re-organisation in a spiritually depleted part of the country (with echoes of Awols from the War) as just some of the ingredients in this cake of seediness … as the ultimate version of this book’s erstwhile ‘deficit’.
This story sort of sucks … sucks at you and brings you down … strangely, for me, in an increasingly attractive way. Let me explain. I live in that part of town that has traditionally been known as ‘God’s Waiting-Room’. Full of old people… However, one can see comfort in that slow sinking into nothingness as a sort of relief from life and the fear of Death. The easy way to die like succumbing to sleep when tired without fear of waking up to all the usual worries. Maybe this story has cleverly brain-washed me, though, in liquid shadow? It’s left me smiling. (19 Sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
The Animal Game
“It meant nothing. Nothing.”
As ever, beautifully Unsworth-baked. Possibly a satire on self-help groups. Otherwise Horror for Horror’s sake (nothing wrong with that) while also emerging from the feral den or chamber of some previous stories with the human-filled ‘hand-puppets’ of Flappy (and the giant Duck?) – and the accrual of things in the Jungpool like fleshy whispers from dangly ear to dangly ear. Not my favourite story in the book, but I’ve been spoilt! (20 Sep 10)
An Afternoon With Danny
“The noises of the bouncy castle were surprisingly loud when the two of them were hiding. There was a heavy rustle from the floor and walls as they shifted and gave around them, mingling with the distant sound of the generator. Its hum sounded like the far wash of a relaxed ocean to Alex, almost hypnotic in its rhythm and roll.”
Another father, taking his very young son, this time on ‘access’ from a broken marriage, to a pirate themed world. Then the ultimate nightmare – losing a toddler. But to what? All very well conveyed with the Ligottian waxworks working towards their plunder.
There seems to be an almost wilful suction here towards The Station Waiting Room just to spite the world that made the father need to wring his joy from brief seconds of contact with his son. But it’s a bit more complex than that. This brief story is OK on its own. But within this book’s context, it’s a gem. (20 Sep 10 – three hours later)
The Pennine Tower Restaurant
“THIS IS NOT FICTION.”
Indeed, it isn’t. I can vouch for that. And I don’t review non-fiction but I will say, nevertheless, that this is another excellent Chinese Whispers – Blair Witch Project project in prose, with much footnoted research material, about the haunting of a Motorway Service Station in Lancashire called Forton. And another Danny-like vanishment, inter alia.
I was at University at Bailrigg from 1966-69 and nearby Forton with this restaurant (newly built then) was a favourite haunt of students like me when one felt hungry – especially at, say, 3 a.m in the morning. This was the very begininning of 24/7 life that has now become so common. I can add to the research for Unsworth and I shall write to him accordingly. I deny any responsibility for anything, however … retrocausally or otherwise.
“Looking at separate events, I was struck by how easy it is to take random things and make them into a chain, creating links that do not exist. […] Once you have an idea that a pattern exists, everything starts to fit the pattern. It has a name – confirmation bias…” (20 Sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
The Church on the Island
” ‘…My name is Babbas,’ …”
I know this story has previously had some good press, but I have not read it before … till now – in this eventual full context of ‘Lost Places’. It is a very effective story, needless to say, and also a culmination of the ‘deficit’, of the light expungeable by darkness, Jesus by Barabbas, the love of a child by the liquid shadow of ‘The Station Waiting Room’. A Different Morecambe. A dark shark soul. The human-stuffed ‘hand-puppet’. The lethal chamber.
The church and its environs are exquisitely told within a great Horror story that stands on its own. But, for those who work towards it, as I have, it carries hope and peace, too. A calm sinking back into the loving arms of death. When the world goes quiet. Only religion has the last whisper.
I shall now read for the first time this book’s Introduction by Barbara Roden and the Endword/ Story Notes. But I won’t be back here to tell you about them. I am sure they will give me further food for thought, though.
(20 Sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
All my previous real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
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A review of SKU’s Quiet Houses: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/quiet-houses-by-simon-kurt-unsworth/