Welcome back to Spooktastic Bite-size Reads, where my 2022 challenge to read (some of) the amazing anthologies on my shelves embraces the darker side of fantasy. This week I’m completing my journey around This Dreaming Isle with uncanny tales inspired by British cities and coastline.
This Dreaming Isle is an anthology of British talent invited to contribute darkly fantastical tales rooted in the island’s geography, history, and folklore. While the stories are collected geographically, the land itself isn’t always central. Where it was – Tim Lebbon’s mountains, Aliya Whiteley’s river – it delivered some of my favourite stories of the first week. This week the stories cluster in City and on Coast and the stories that have stayed with me did so by virtue of being so unnerving that I can’t stop thinking about them, however much I might wish to…
Not All Right – James Miller
The first story of the week is wildly uncomfortable, delivering a first person narrative from a radical right wing influencer – but are some of his delusions real and stalking him both on and off line? Objectively this is a sardonic, nasty little tale of comeuppance. Subjectively, I hated it for its relentless stream of cucks, snowflakes and racism. YMMV.
The Cocktail Party In Kensington Gets Out Of Hand – Robert Shearman
Of all the stories in the anthology, this is the one that has haunted me the most. Wholly surreal, it is the experience of a man who accepts a job as a rug at a party – yes, literally – and enters a nightmarish existence of judgemental animal skins and insufferable rich people. Or does he? It’s a hell of a metaphor for complicity, merciless in reflecting the way we accept humiliation and allow ourselves to be harmed in exchange for empty promises. It may be the most on point depiction of English society I’ve ever read (right down to the woman’s insistence that she did only did these terrible things to make her – dead – husband happy), and it absolutely destroyed me.
We Regret To Inform You – Jeannette Ng
Any epistolary short story that opens with a casual reference to the Prime Minister’s necromantic sublimation has my immediate attention. In the end, I was left with nothing but questions about the implied world-building, but I enjoyed the exchange of letters on the Venerable Bede and his writings about time as Ng plays with folklore and academia, magic and history. The result is as surreal (if less disturbing) as Kensington.
Lodestones – Richard V Hirst
If I’m honest, I’ve no idea what this was aiming for although I’ve spent enough time trying to cross Manchester in rush hour to have some small sympathy for its hapless protagonist. The drift is that a bloke accepts a lift to work from a colleague, who has odd ideas about short cuts. I couldn’t really decide whether it was intended to be metaphor – in which case they flew straight past me – or if I just missed the point of the plot entirely.
The Knucker – Gareth E Rees
Moving from City to Coast, Rees gives us a geographic horror of liminal places and timeslip nightmares. I loved the set-up – a body found drowned on a perfectly dry stretch of road – but was dissatisfied with the ending, which was more interested in what was happening than why or what next (or even the perspective of the bewildered police investigator). Perhaps I was looking for a more human angle, or one where the humans could be more than victims.
The Stone Dead – Alison Moore
My second favourite story of the week – my reading notes are simply fucking brilliant. It juxtaposes the repressive criticism of a judgmental grandmother and the vivid imagination of he grandson who believes that the dead turn to stone and their ghosts escape if the stone gets broken (right there. That right there. It’s genius. I still don’t know if I’m creeped out or delirious with it as a sort of liberation). This is both a perfect snapshot of an unhappy family and a brilliantly laid trail of breadcrumbs to rival The Sixth Sense.
Hovering – Gary Budden
A melancholy tale of a down on its luck coastal town and a man trying to reacquaint himself with being single, both steeped in history. There’s not a lot to this except atmosphere, but it’s a brilliant evocation of place and past. Besides, it has a throwaway nod to Detectorist, bonus.
The Headland of Black Rock – Alison Littlewood
A self-absorbed, middle-aged man begins an affair with a young woman who definitely isn’t a hungry seagull or an angry mermaid. There are no particular surprises here – the reader is far more likely to draw conclusions and get out the popcorn than the protagonist is to take himself in hand – but it’s an enjoyably dark little tale about thinking with your brain.
The Devil In The Details – Ramsay Campbell
An uncomfortable family holiday to a faded seaside town captures the awkward politesse of a family who don’t really want to spend time together; all chiding and no fun. This is excellently creepy, and left me desperately sad for young Brian who seems unlikely to get the help he’s clearly going to need. I’m suddenly glad I don’t have a house full of photos of other people.
Swimming With Horses – Angela Readman
The anthology ends with a short story I loved, but that felt different to the rest: a melancholy, beautiful tale of a faded resort, the isolated young people who never escaped it, and the gorgeous kelpies who like to visit. It’s reminiscent and evocative rather than uncanny; a little slice of modern folklore.
This Dreaming Isle is clear there’s little joy to be found by the sea (it’s not that sort of anthology, after all), and just as much terror lurking in our hills and cities. While I didn’t love every story, it’s an excellent anthology – I could hoover up several stories in a row or dip in and out of across busy days and always feel like I had sidestepped into a slightly alarming mirror world. My particular favourites featured human rugs and vengeful kelpies, the restless undead and the unhappy living, but there’s a fabulous range from folkloric nightmare to entirely human horror to the merely unsettling. Editor Dan Coxon opens by telling us the past is dangerous – but so is the present. Watch how you go.