Friday, 9 January 2015

Aickman Redux: 'Curious Tales' in Poor Souls' Light

Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious TalesPoor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales (November 2014) by various authors

Curious Tales is an author collective, specialising in the supernatural, the uncanny, and stories 'that use landscape in interesting ways', which came to my attention at the end of last year. Some of the authors I've never heard of before; others - such as Jenn Ashworth, who's published three novels (all of which I've read), and Alison Moore, whose The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - are quite well known. Poor Souls' Light is their second collection of Christmas ghost stories, and is a tribute to the work of Robert Aickman (whose Cold Hand in Mine I recently reviewed); it follows last year's The Longest Night, inspired by M.R. James. I bought this as a sort of treat to myself - the beguiling combination of authors and the ghost story factor persuaded me, and of course there's a unique (slightly smug) pleasure in buying a limited edition publication from an independent author collective. There are seven stories, each designed to 'uphold the tradition of the Christmas ghost story' and dedicated to Aickman.

Dinner for One by Jenn Ashworth - 5/10
Ashworth's name was one of the main reasons I was drawn to this anthology, and indeed to Curious Tales. However, while I thought this opening story was perfectly fine, I wasn't enormously excited by it. I'm not sure it fits into the tradition of 'strange' or 'weird' fiction as written by Aickman, as it's basically a very typical ghost story setup in which the twist can be guessed almost immediately - so much so, in fact, that I can't even write a basic summary of the plot here without making it obvious. Okay but, due to my high hopes, disappointing.

The Spite House by Alison Moore - 8/10
This starts well and it gets better; it's one of the standout stories in the book. Claire returns to the family home after the death of her father, and is besieged by memories of her brother Connor, who died when they were both young. She recalls her mother's fear that the house, and there's a wonderfully eerie moment with the radio (I always find haunting by music so effective, even though you'd think it wouldn't be possible to render the impact of it very well in a written story). She realises the novel she's been writing is nonsense, and the house seems to be crumbling away; the kitchen 'smells of the river, of water thick with weeds, water in which a sheep once drowned'. Finally, Claire's disorientation builds to a climax of destruction and collapse.

Blossom by Johnny Mains - 6/10
Hmmm. Again I found this somewhat... the word 'undercooked' springs to mind, although I appreciated the fact that it's basically a shout-out to the Aickman story 'The Hospice'. It's about a truly awful husband who, eventually, gets a truly awful comeuppance. While the deliciously sinister setting for the denouement is nicely done, the central character is so horrible that it's difficult to care what happens to him at all, whether it's good or bad. I felt the story would have worked better if he'd been a flawed, at least partly sympathetic man.

The Exotic Dancer by Tom Fletcher - 8/10
Another very strong story. The Exotic Dancer is in fact a boat, which the protagonist, Saladin, walks past every day. He finds the combined presence of the boat and the nearby salt works threatening and disturbing, but is unable to articulate exactly why; his nightly phone calls to his sister become increasingly incomprehensible to her, especially when Saladin is cornered into speaking to 'the person' aboard the battered boat. The ending is wonderfully surreal and hits exactly the right Aickman-esque note between weirdness and pathos, the uncanny and the very human.

And the Children Followed by Richard Hirst - 4/10
My least favourite in the collection. Confusing (although I'm sure it's supposed to be) and closer to horror than a ghost story, it follows a grieving woman who is (apparently randomly) forced to take in one of a strange group of children. The children become more and more sinister, and the protagonist's fate is so gory that it detracts from any possible effectiveness here. I didn't realise straight away that this story was set during the Second World War - the historical setting isn't made clear at all, adding to the confusion that already seems to define the plot and, as all the other stories have contemporary settings, it does need something to differentiate it. The repeated usage of 'unwell' to mean vomiting also really got on my nerves.

Smoke by Emma Jane Unsworth - 9/10
Unsworth was the other author that attracted me to the idea of reading this, even though I haven't actually read her recent novel Animals yet. I wasn't disappointed: 'Smoke' is by far the best, and most original, story in the collection. In a mere ten pages, it establishes the protagonist and her history, gives you reasons to care about her, outlines the intriguing nature of her work - in 'the block', where the showers are 'fifty years old and had never been used', next revealed to be part of a Cold War-era bunker beneath Berlin - and introduces a very uncanny and original type of haunting. Wonderful beginning and ending, wonderful characterisation, tight and controlled use of dialogue and style to create shocks. I'd be so happy if I ever managed to write something as good as this.

Animals by M. John Harrison - 7/10
The collection closes with its most understated story: this tale of a woman staying in a holiday cottage has an almost gentle feel to it. Her imaginings about the place's previous inhabitants gradually becomes a series of voices and movements heard in the night, then the day, as if she is listening to a conversation through the wall or watching these people on TV. Her spiral into madness, strongly implied to have no 'weird' or supernatural cause at all, provides a sombre, but not spooky, conclusion to this volume and almost demands a re-read because it so deftly upturns the reader's expectations.

I almost wish I hadn't known about the Aickman connection; I think it encouraged me to look for references and nods to his stories, or just his style, that weren't necessarily there. The good stories are great in their own right, and I don't know that I'm convinced they all really link to his work - they all have something uncanny or weird or unsettling about them, but so do all ghost stories by anyone! But I suppose without the Aickman connection, I (and others) might not have bought this.

I will buy more from Curious Tales: I've already written about Ashworth and Hirst's forthcoming Bus Station: Unbound in my books to look forward to in 2015 post, and I wish I'd known about the first ghost story collection at the time. While I found faults with a few of these stories, the overall experience of reading it was genuinely interesting and somehow felt quite special - perhaps an illusion created by its limited edition status, but it made a difference nevertheless - and £10 (including postage) for something like this feels like a real bargain.

Overall rating: 7/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy the book from Curious Tales

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