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Thursday, August 11, 2016

UNCERTAINTIES VOLUME 2 edited by Brian Showers -- a review


Edited by Brian Showers

Review by Gary Fry


I have both volumes of this anthology, but in typically perverse fashion I read the second volume first and now plan to share my thoughts about it. (I’ll get to the first volume soonest.)

In his introduction, the editor sets out his mission statement: to publish fiction which tends towards the uncanny side of dark material, the eerie, enigmatic and suggestively spooky. It’s an ambitious goal, involving reference to such authors as Aickman, Blackwood and Machen. This is perhaps the most elusive of models, the things which make it work almost impossible to assimilate. And so how have this headline-grabbing range of authors fared here? Well, let’s have a look.

The book opens with Peter Bell’s ‘The Swing’, a short and punchy tale of centuries-old horror effectively combined with a very modern social landscape. It’s a strong tale, with memorable imagery, and one which hints at time changing but the times remaining very much the same.

R. B. Russell’s ‘The Mighty Mr Godbolt’ revives that staple form of transportation in classic English horror fiction: the railway train. His sensitive narrator, finding herself aboard a non-scheduled journey, confronts a group of men lamenting the passing of their colleague, and the events which unfold certainly hint at some spooky resolution. And come the end, Russell doesn’t disappoint.

‘Then and Now’ by John Howard is perhaps the most Aickman-like tale here, with its narrator prowling the streets of Berlin after the passing of a former lover. Photography – another familiar component of the ghostly tale – is used effectively to hint at issues outside the scope of such an intimately personal portrait, and the whole builds to a creepily enigmatic conclusion. One of the best stories in the book.

I quite enjoyed Steve Duffy’s icy tale of demonic horror ‘The Ice Beneath Us’. The visitor’s backstory was suitably evocative, and the tale’s mythic undercurrents work well. I also liked the final line, which hints at things beginning to stir. Solid work.

In ‘Closing Time’ by Emma Darwin, the ghosts of figures bound up in British history are evoked, and with some effective aplomb. The prose is memorable for its turn of phrase – a light going on has the room rather fittingly wrapping itself around her character – and the final images are both poignant and spooky.

Rosalie Parker’s ‘Homecraft’ is a subtly suggestive piece about two youngsters occupying a house together without anyone else’s awareness. Its allusions to dark acts are kept to an effective minimal, and the piece steadily advances to a quiet end…maybe even a bit too quiet for my tastes.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s tale of imminent death contains some good descriptions of that inevitable state, the feelings of violation and even paranoia. This felt like a personal piece, like listening in on somebody’s terminal ruminations. A necessary experience, I guess.

Mat Joiner’s ‘Imago’ is more like the kind of headlong storytelling I prefer, and its evocation of nasty things lurking in both a secret place and the past ends with a memorable image of cosmic forces conjoining with the earthly. This is a powerful story, with more going on beneath it than it directly shown.

Similarly, Helen Grant’s ‘The Edge of the World’ involves a depiction of forces just beyond the quotidian realm, seeking to violate all our small, private lives. Its final sequence, with the central character succumbing to…well, to something, is brilliantly written. I loved this tale (though reckon it needed moving away from the Joiner).

In ‘The Court of Midnight’, Mark Samuels summons the spirits of Poe and Kafka with an arch and bitter narrative about the fate of artists in a kingdom bereft of aesthetic values. It’s a caustic piece, and clinically written. We need more from Samuels, and this is a good reason why.

So far, so suggestive, and so here’s Gary McMahon to add a dose of unflinching horror. ‘What’s Out There?’ opens with a guy grieving, his quite life simmering with a barely contained despair which is mirrored by strange occurrences outside his home at night. These hints gradually accumulate and lead to a truly nasty vision which leaves the reader with a skirmish in the gut. It’s a strong tale, and a nice contrast to other, more restrained pieces here.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Adam Golaski’s ‘Ruby’. Its descriptions of drugs and music and the states they can invoke were slightly lost on me, but that is probably an issue that I should address rather than the author. Sorry!

In V. H. Leslie’s ‘The Murky’ the Finnish landscape is evoked, with its quiet lakes and steaming saunas and towering trees. I was in Jyvaskyla a few years back, and can confirm that Leslie wonderfully captures such places’ chilly majesty, their otherworldly beauty. The tale itself has an effective development – a woman emerging from the woodland is vividly manifested – but I couldn’t help feeling as if it ended a bit early.  Almost a wonderful piece, then.

Finally, we have Reggie Oliver’s ‘Love at Second Sight’. Now, this kind of fiction – folk going back to periods in the past in which wistful events occurred – is often my favourite, and Oliver does a wonderful job here of capturing that sense of passion rediscovered, the way we can reignite feelings we’d imagined were long ago stamped out. All the same, although Oliver includes a nicely Aickmanian image of a figure at a distance (I’m thinking of a similar onlooker in ‘The Same Dog’), I don’t think his story quite gets past its familiar trick, one known to all ghost story readers. It’s a brave attempt to do something new with this formula, but for me it only nearly worked. But full marks for those passages about love lost and refound!

So that’s the lot. As you can probably gather, I did enjoy this volume. Its highlights – I’m thinking of maybe the Howard, the Joiner and the Grant – are truly excellent, and a good handful of the other tales are extremely good, too. The few tales which didn’t quite work so well for me are not without merit, and either didn’t click with my own experiential preferences or involved aspects I couldn’t quite grasp. Probably my fault. So it goes. All in all, though, this second volume of the anthology is a great read, and I’ll be back for more. Just watch this space.

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