Fantasy-Faction Game of Thrones Discussion: Season 8, Episode 1
 

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Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019
 

Gene Wolfe

(1931 – 2019)

 

This Dreaming Isle edited by Dan Coxon – An Anthology by Unsung Stories

This Dreaming Isle edited by Dan Coxon – An Anthology by Unsung Stories
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Book Name: This Dreaming Isle
Author: Edited by Dan Coxon. Stories by Catriona Ward, Jenn Ashworth, Andrew Michael Hurley, Tim Lebbon, Aliya Whiteley, Stephen Volk, Kirsty Logan, James Miller, Robert Shearman, Jeannette Ng, Richard V. Hirst, Gareth E. Rees, Alison Moore, Gary Budden, Alison Littlewood, Ramsey Campbell, and Angela Readman.
Publisher(s): Unsung Stories
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Horror / Fairy Tales
Release Date: August 30, 2018

This Dreaming Isle by Unsung Stories is a collection of supernatural short stories by different authors inspired by British folklore, British history and the British landscape. Not quite one thing or another, it wanders back and forth across the shadowy borderland between urban fantasy, gothic horror and grown-up fairy-tales.

Dreaming is the operative word here, this is the world of superstition and nightmares where logic will not save you and a narrative doesn’t need to follow conventional rules. We explore strange and dark forces through the eyes of ordinary people and are rarely offered an explanation as to what is truly going on. Sometimes the experience is frightening or disturbing, sometimes it is wondrous. Occasionally it is all three at the same time.

There’s a lot of fine writing talent on display here, from established authors and rising stars alike. It’s probable that at least one story will stay with you for a while afterwards, whether because you’re still puzzling out its meaning or you’re struggling not to let it trouble your sleep at night.

The front cover is wonderfully moody and achingly beautiful. My compliments to the artist. A longish introduction discusses the nature of Britishness, laments the damage and uncertainty inflicted by Brexit and talks a little about the themes that surface again and again in this anthology (despite its contributors being given free reign so long as they tied their story to British folklore and a particular place in the United Kingdom). Things like strangers appearing in a small community, the power of mirrors, isolated hillsides and the inscrutable nature of folk horror.

The rest of the book is divided up into three sub-collections: Country, City and Coast. I’ll introduce each section then talk a little about each story in it. I’ll try not to ruin the endings but be wary of mild spoilers here and there.

Country

Stories of bogeymen out in the wild parts of Britain, of the magical nature of the land itself and of the secrets kept by villagers, which strangers may learn at their peril.

“The Pier at Ardentinny” by Catriona Ward

A sharp and spooky little tale about a troubled bride-to-be staying with her fiancée up in Scotland. She is a careful and calculating woman who is determined to rise above her traumatic childhood but she is not ready for the intrusion of supernatural forces into her life.

Ward draws on myths of water and silver and their ability to show the truth of things. The end of her tale is abrupt and unsettling and left me with many questions. That was the point, I imagine. (Please comment if you can explain what on earth was going on with the light in the cupboard.)

I’d definitely call this a gothic tale, best read on a cold and windy night while sat in front of a cosy fire. It features seething emotion, fainting and the threat of madness. It’s also a story to return to and sift through, trying to find new meaning in the little details that Ward shares with us. It is a story of primal and irrational fear, experienced by a woman who was once in control of her life and now believes that the water, the sky and even the Highlands themselves view her with hostility and menace.

“Old Trash” by Jenn Ashworth

“Old Trash” concerns two women who have gone camping. My first thought was they were a couple on the verge of a breakup since the viewpoint character was so desperate to please her companion. It was a few pages in before it became apparent that they were a mother and a teenage daughter. A mother and daughter whose relationship (the real focus of the story) was destructive, dangerous and on the verge of collapse.

“She must not stare. It irritated Mae and was likely to provoke an argument.”

This bubbling cauldron of tension leaves the two women ill-equipped for an encounter with the gnomic figure of Old Trash itself.

Rachael, the mum, is written well. Her frenzied fragility becoming more apparent with every page, you empathise with her and share her fears for her daughter, while also coming to distrust Rachael herself. This parental paranoia melds seamlessly into the paranormal elements of the situation. A couple of suitably gruesome similes help things along nicely too.

“In My Father’s House” by Andrew Michael Hurley

Another troubled family relationship here. This time between an adult man and his estranged father. The father has had an accident, which has tugged on the strings of familial duty enough to bring the two together, but not to mend the wounds between them. The father is not a nice man and had abandoned the son and his mother when the boy was around ten.

“[The pills] seem to keep him calm. At least, he doesn’t swear quite so much.”

It’s very easy for the reader to resent the father, even as the son tries hard not to.

The two take a car journey across the Fell Road to a mysterious wooded hillside, which brings matters to a head in a most curious way. More fascinating than frightening, this is absolutely the stuff of fairy-tales and folklore and defies explanation or understanding.

“Land of Many Seasons” by Tim Lebbon

A painter seeks peace and solitude in the mountains near Abergavenny, in Wales, taking only his border collie for company. The painter is half in love with loneliness and half at war with it. The beauty of the landscape and simple companionship of the dog bring him comfort.

Slowly, a sinister presence called The Walker insinuates itself into the artist’s paintings, a creeping taint that will not leave him alone. Once again, the motivations and goals of the encountered being are quite unfathomable.

Overall, it’s a quiet, contemplative piece that encapsulates the vision of Britain that this anthology presents—a land of dreams and dark figures where reality, memory and superstition blend like paints on an artist’s brush.

“Dark Shells” by Aliya Whiteley

This story had such a wonderful opening line that I feel compelled to share it here.

“There’s a feeling amongst the villagers that I should stop talking to the river.”

“Dark Shells” is set in that semi-mythical era of the long-distant past known as ‘The 80s’ and is narrated by an old woman in a care home. The old woman is fascinated by water in all its forms. Her descriptions are evocative and meandering, like a poet’s idea of a river or a stream.

Other characters treat the old woman as though she is senile; with kindness and condescension and affectionate exasperation. In her own mind she is quite lucid. Just as long as you don’t try to pin her down to a particular point in time. Her life no longer flows, it drips by, one scattered moment after another.

There’s no sudden shock here, no looming monster. Only the gentle exploration of one woman’s legacy, bound up with secrets and sadness but now, perhaps, unfurling.

I’ve always loved stories and images of water so I’m inclined to call this my favourite entry on general principles. Still, it is well told and contains descriptions that suit the rhythm of the telling very well, so you may like it too.

“Cold Ashton” by Stephen Volk

This story opens with a very dry description of the village of Cold Ashton, its location, geography, architecture and (most interestingly) its history.

Based on the style of the prose and the lack of any reference to modern technology I guessed the story had a Victorian setting, though it could have been a bit earlier or later for all I could tell. As a Victorian the narrator was very believable, which is not at all easy to pull off, even in a short story.

I was amused to note that, historically accurate or not, the other characters found the narrator a bit too wordy and academic as well. In fact, he described himself as somewhat obsessive and incapable of letting a mystery be until he’d run it to ground. A good and characterful motivation for a paranormal investigator!

The previous few stories all concern unfortunate souls who unwittingly encounter supernatural events. So, the change of pace to a careful and intentional investigation of the paranormal was quite refreshing. Though not everyone will be swept away by the narrator sifting through old records and speculating about the provenance of names.

Don’t worry though. Things liven up when the narrator finds what he’s after—a tale of a 16th Century Witch Trial and its bizarre consequences. “Cold Ashton” is more intriguing than chilling and more creepy than visceral. I did enjoy it though.

“Domestic Magic (Or, things my wife and I found hidden in our house)” by Kirsty Logan

Being a soft southern Englishman (albeit with Scots ancestry), I got just two pages into this story before I had to look up a word. (Clarty, which means ‘muddy’ apparently.)

The story is told by a woman who has recently married and moved into a little cottage in the Scottish Highlands with her wife. The cottage used to belong to the wife’s grandmother, who never quite accepted their relationship. The story is framed in an unusual way. As the title suggests, each chapter is about an item the narrator has found in the cottage.

Some of the objects seem harmless, others are actively malevolent. All of them give hints of a ghostly presence that once inhabited the area and has returned to haunt the house’s new occupants. This presence is a classic creature from Scottish folklore. Logan presents a rather different take on it than any I had encountered before and I found the tale fascinating.

City

Weirdness and wonder in London, Manchester and other great British cities. This section tends to make less use of folklore and rely more on distortions of modern British culture. Fans of Black Mirror may particularly enjoy it.

“Not All Right” by James Miller

The protagonist of this tale is an angry young man who manages to combine racism and misogyny into a single self-entitled package. The young man is paranoid and dislikes light, crowds and face to face interaction but has thousands of followers on Twitter and is dedicated to promoting Far-Right views. His preferred pastime is getting into savage and sweary debates with saner people online. He’s just moved to his uncle’s luxurious flat on the 37th floor of a London skyscraper. His mother believes he isn’t doing anything with his life.

I admit at this point I would have quite liked to introduce the young man to Old Trash. What actually happens is that a strange blank Twitter account starts following the young man. It only tweets a single phrase, over and over again, “Are you scared yet?”

He very much is and with good reason. The skyscraper has a tragic past and now something has awakened, something even angrier than the protagonist.

By the end of this story I felt very sorry for the young man. Not that he displays any redeeming features, far from it. But he is so clearly mentally ill—riddled with delusions like the idea that Sharia Law holds sway in London.

The conclusion of the story switches from first-person narration to a transcript of a Twitter conversation, a neat trick and very thematic.

Overall this story left me feeling rather sad and a little jittery. So, it certainly did its job as a horror tale.

“The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand” by Robert Shearman

Another story set in London. Shearman starts out by confidently describing the different characteristics of people from several London boroughs. His protagonist has been commissioned by an elderly woman full of “Kensington confidence” to form the centrepiece of a party. He has to strip off and lie face down on the carpet in a particular position, mouth open, eyes as blank as possible, imitating a bearskin and a tiger-skin rug which have been placed either side of him.

After that things get properly weird. Trippy even. Shearman shows us a satirical fever dream of lost identities and talking animals and horrible party guests and abject, vicious, sexual humiliation. The story may be set in the near future, possibly in a Britain that has been fatally wounded by Brexit.

Shearman has a very good turn of phrase and his main character is a philosophical sort, which serves to make the unpleasant things that happen in the story a little harder to swallow. Like a dream “The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand” has no true end, the dreaming is an end in itself. That’s the best I can do to describe Shearman’s story without spoiling it. Go and read it yourself.

“We Regret to Inform You” by Jeannette Ng

Ng’s entry is a series of emails between two academics. Extracts from books and leaflets are included as well. It’s all very civilised at first. They talk about translation and palimpsests and lacunae and necromancy.

(Trust me, I was at least as confused as you are now.)

One correspondent, Evangeline Hilda Aldrich of Durham Cathedral School, confesses that the imprecise movement of the sun, moon and stars troubled her greatly as a child and continues to cause her pain. (This sort of thing seems to be a pet fascination of Ng’s, considering the fact that she is the author of Beneath the Pendulum Sun.)

The thrust of the conversation is Evangeline’s translation of a work by The Venerable Bede, an incredibly influential medieval English chronicler. Bound up with this is a discussion of the way that history and time are structured and recorded.

Hints of dramatic current events filter through the academic discourse and magic and strangeness seep into the narrative as it progresses. By the end this is a wild, disjointed tale of dark rituals and the reordering of reality.

This is perhaps the most magical story in this anthology; steeped in mystery and almost certainly taking part in a secondary world.

“Lodestones” by Richard V. Hirst

The viewpoint character here is called F, for reasons which escaped me.

F is waiting for a bus in the middle of a freezing Manchester winter so that he can go to his accounting job. He is going to be late and his boss will not take this well. The city is gridlocked and there are three red dots in the sky. No one can agree exactly why the dots are there. F must find some way to get to work, nonetheless. His journey, alongside a friendly colleague, is a bizarre and roundabout one, with dialogue along the way that switches between mundane and philosophical.

This is an ominous story. Not in the sense that it is frightening but rather that it is full of omens. It is a story to share with friends and then to chew over, to see what significance might be drawn from it. I think that to reveal more would be to spoil the story completely.

Coast

Returning to a focus on folklore and the places that inspire it, the final part of the collection explores the borders between land and sea, past and present, mortals and magic.

“The Knucker” by Gareth E. Rees

A dead body clad in fluorescent lycra is found by a local farmgirl on a road that crosses the Pevensey Levels. He appears to have drowned, even though the sea has not touched this part of the Levels for centuries. His bike is found a mile away, stuck in a tree.

We then skip back in time to a pair of similarly weird cases of apparent land-drownings. This time though we follow the action from start to finish. And after that we get to find out what’s really going on.

The titular Knucker is said to be a fire breathing sea-dragon. As to its true nature, I won’t ruin the twist, I’ll just say that it’s a good one, very neat.

The writing in this story is third person and a little more formal than most of the other entries in the anthology. The descriptions are beautiful though. Rees’ words are big and they are clever.

“The visible world reduced to an amorphous interplay of densities, shifting and warping as they advanced.”

Love it!

“The Stone Dead” by Alison Moore

Brief, even by the standards of a short story, Alison Moore’s tale is about a divorced woman with a domineering and unpleasable mother and a young son who believes that people turn to stone when they die. The son also believes that a person’s ghost remains trapped inside the resulting statue and wishes to get out, though even freeing the ghost will not make it happy.

A normal, if fraught, family day out ends in a disturbing fashion that may lend more weight to the boy’s beliefs.

I was left wanting to know more about this family. Moore presents a very original and intriguing take on the concepts of ghosts and psychic powers and the legacy of the past. I think there is great potential for future adventures for at least one character (if adventures is really the right word).

This is mainly a character study, so seek it out if you like veiled insults and quiet family dramas with a supernatural edge.

“Hovering (Or, a recollection of 25 February 2015)” by Gary Budden

This tale is set in coastal Kent, in the town of Ramsgate and the nearby Pegwell Bay. Ramsgate was once a thriving seaside resort and is still rich in natural beauty. But the town is poor with few job prospects for the younger generations and has been targeted by Far-Right political groups. The area is rich in history (Saxons, Vikings, Victorians) and thick with urban legends (phantom hover boats, ever-present comets, creatures of sackcloth and straw).

Unusually, the narrator of this story is not the protagonist, but not the direct voice of the author either. A friend of the protagonist has written up his story for him. The friend reveals the protagonist, Iain, has left Ramsgate and sworn never to return to either town or bay.

Iain had moved to Ramsgate from the South East after his girlfriend of eight years kindly, but firmly, told him that they were through. His heart was, if not broken, certainly battered and bruised and he was intending to restart and reassess his life. Already out of sorts he found even the most mundane and harmless objects in the town sinister. His sleep was plagued with vivid and bizarre dreams. Time, history and myth swirled around him, leading to a curious and mystical conclusion.

“A Victorian sense of the restorative power of the coast had always been in him, bone-deep and innate.”

Budden’s offering is a well-researched, cleverly written and prettily described tale. He has managed some impressively complex characterisation, considering that he only has a few pages to tell Iain’s story. His descriptions of this half-forgotten patch of Kentish coastline are charming and laced with a nostalgic melancholy that doesn’t outstay its welcome or romanticise the poverty that afflicts this area. Another contender for my favourite entry in the anthology!

“The Headland of Black Rock” by Alison Littlewood

Littlewood’s entry begins with a vividly described dead seagull. It has been discovered by a first-person narrator who does not introduce themselves. We soon learn that our guide is a man who has tasted fame but isn’t comfortable with it. He is aging, a little angry at the world and has more cynicism in his heart than empathy. He is holidaying in Cornwall.

He learns the tale of a young Irishwoman who was shipwrecked off the Pedn-Men-Du, the Headland of Black Rock, and managed to cling to a stone outcropping, for a time. The storm that took her ship was too strong for anyone to reach her and the locals were forced to watch her die. The Irishwoman’s tale becomes entangled with myths of mermaids and their lures and with the plight of a malformed, orphaned gull chick. A passionate encounter draws the viewpoint character inexorably into this eerie world of sea and shore and seductive spirits.

It is a poetic story, a little frightening but quite beautiful. The chills are emotional and come not from fearsome spectres or blood-spattered monstrosities, but from contact with the Other—a confusing and cruel world that exists outside modern rationality. I could say the same about the anthology as a whole, but it’s particularly noticeable here.

“The Devil in the Details” by Ramsey Campbell

We start in the middle of a conversation about where to go for a family holiday. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy called Brian. His parents are going out of their way to make the holiday fun for his aunt (recently divorced). His role is to be a good boy and do as he’s told while convincing his aunt that he’s having a great time too. Brian takes this patiently enough, though his discomfort and tweenage embarrassment with the situation is made quite plain.

During a tour round a chapel to view a fresco depicting angels Brian witnesses a terrible accident and becomes aware of something horrific that lurks behind the paint, something that stalks those who dare to enter its domain.

This story disturbed me more than most because it was seen through the eyes of a child. The adults in the story alternate between being oblivious and being overbearing while Brian’s sense of wrongness builds to a crescendo. There is a clear sense of the consequences of the evil the family has encountered.

Brian and his aunt are well-drawn, believable characters, which increases the horror of their situation.

“Swimming with Horses” by Angela Readman

Readman doesn’t beat around the bush, this story is about kelpies and her narrator tells us that pretty quickly. She is less forthcoming about the nature of the small bundle that Kiera, a young woman and friend to the equally young narrator, gives into the water-horses’ care as the story opens. Or as the story ends, you might say. Because the protagonist then goes back to tell us how she and Kiera came to this point.

“Swimming with Horses” is told in a colloquial style and set somewhere on a drizzly seafront in Scotland. It is a story about burgers, chips and boredom as well as swimming, friendship and secrets. And a beautiful man who captures the heart of every woman and girl he sees but may not be as human as he first appears.

This is a good story and a great ending to the anthology. The imagery is fantastical, fanciful even, but not intimidating, albeit with a note of sadness and danger. It felt to me as though, after all the darkness and savagery of many of the previous tales, this final entry establishes an uneasy truce between the mystical, dream-haunted island of Britain and the flawed and feuding humans that inhabit it.

“Horses galloped to the shore, carrying the moon on their backs.”

Final Thoughts

To conclude. This anthology is like a box of chocolates—not everyone will enjoy everything it has to offer. Some of its stories are thrillers and chillers, others offer food for thought, some are uplifting and many are tragic. Fans of folk horror and weird fiction may find more to enjoy than fans of fantasy. Those who like splatter and cheap thrills should look elsewhere.

But I challenge anyone not to find at least one tale in This Dreaming Isle that speaks to them, that touches their heart or sets it racing. This is a gorgeous book. It is wreathed in terror and enchantment and it presents the supernatural as it should be—wild, inexplicable, beautiful, but never, ever safe.

Come on, join me in exploring This Dreaming Isle.

If you dare.

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