‘Get in Trouble’ by Kelly Link or prepare to have your senses exploded like a jar of pickle

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A strange kaleidoscope, full of societal interactions giving validation to the marginalised

Kelly Link has been on my radar for quite a few years, ever since noticing her short-story collection, ‘Pretty Monsters’ on the Canongate website. While I should have just gone with my instincts and ordered a copy, the fact that I hadn’t heard about her from anyone else kind of made me hold back (stupidly). I am sure we have all found reassurance from, and been swayed by the kind of enthusiasm espoused by a fellow book-loving compadre, that follows when they have discovered a new author and sing their praises from the rooftops- the kind that infuses you with same said enthusiasm and hurtles you out the door to the nearest bookshop to secure your own copy. Through my then clearly limited literary circles, this had not yet crept onto my bookish radar- so any inklings I had weren’t verified or acted upon. Fast forward a few years and the bookish world has become much more global and open, with bookish communities on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and You Tube. Now here is something a literary purist, like me, never thought they would be saying- thanks to such sites and being opened up to a much broader pool of recommendations, new titles and authors are springing up and grabbing my attention all over the place.

Step forward Kelly Link. One fateful day, guided by some unseen force (Canongate Books Twitter feed) a poor, neglected author weaselled her way to the front of my readerly awareness. Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it clever marketing. Whatever it was it worked! Canongate were offering to send out promotional copies of ‘The Summer People’, so of course I intervened and saw this as the opportune time to become more intimately acquainted with her talents. Like an over enthusiastic school-girl, hand straight up, I jumped the queue and got my hands on said copy and was immediately enamoured. Couple this with reading ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ in Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘Ghostly’ and it was pretty apparent I had made a grave error in ignoring my initial instincts *note to self- be bolder in your textual selections and don’t seek reassurance in future*. Purchase of ‘Get in Trouble’ swiftly followed, to join my ridiculously large to read pile, vying for pole-position with several other urgent reads- because, well aren’t all reads urgent?

Luckily for Kelly Link, her curious cover kept winking at me ensuring she didn’t have to wait long. Good old fate also somehow entwined this process with the announcement she had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, should such validation really be necessary. I’m sure Kelly Link, would give no never mind judging by the curious and singular approach she brings to each and every story. She gives the impression that she is all about the process and the creativity that seams through each one like a particularly zingy lemon. You get the impression that she really enjoys her writing, and just like her title, ‘Get in Trouble’ implies really isn’t all that interested in conforming. You only have to look at the surreal blends that take place in her stories. It is almost like she has a giant jar of random story ideas that she dives in to to gain inspiration and mould her ideas together in response to. In a less masterful writer, juxtaposing subterranean pyramids with some kind of weird Stepford children vibe could fail dismally. Instead, Link takes our puzzled curiosity and makes us examine the consequences of this universal drive for perfection and makes us start thinking about how this is detrimental in our own lives.

Yet this dysfunction also takes us to more unsettling places, like in ‘The Summer People’. Right off the bat we are disoriented as we try to make sense of what is happening, through the flu- addled eyes of the central character: home alone Fran. Through her delirium we try to work out who the Summer People are; this is more dark fairytale than the sanitised Disney versions we expect. You almost wonder who you should be feeling sorry for. Or take the unsettling premise of ‘Secret Identity’ where a 15 year old girl has snuck away to meet with a man in his 30s, that she has met in a chat room. With all this latent subtext, you await exploitation- yet it is the reader whom is exploited when the plot takes an entirely different direction: exploding your expectation. Both stories contain delightfully imaginative elements, whether it is the world of superhero comic cons and a greasy fight or the miniature battle reenactments with unseen enactors and dangerous weapons! Both stories transcend their hybrid structures by making you use their fantastical material to consider much deeper (albeit disturbing and unsettling) questions. Particularly, ‘Secret Identity’ made me wonder about who people really are, who they show to each other and whether any of us really know each other. Is life really just about a series of characters interacting with each other?

Throughout this collection, which is full of similarly intriguing and enchanting tales, we get glimpses beyond such clever story-moulding and character realisation as to precisely why Kelly Link garnered a much deserved Pulitzer nomination. Here is a writer so in control of what she wishes to say and with such confidence in her use of language that she can afford to be quirky. She can pepper together ideas that should not work in combination. She can play with our perceptions via her structural choices ( such as in ‘I Can See Right Through You’ where the narrative is sliced like an editors cut- like a disappointed lover seeking the perfect memories- wow this works in so many ways) to add further meaning than the main narrative drive. She can just delight us with chilling or laden images, such as ‘everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they’ or ‘muddy violet clouds, silver veils of rain’ like an ingognito poet. What she always does is intrigue us and make us work for the meaning that we come away with:through a surreal psychedelic labrynth that can only be Kelly Link!

I for one will be revisiting these stories and devouring her back catalogue. I will be singing her praises from the rooftops. She had moved to pre-order territory! Roll on this novel she is working on.

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Shakespeare and me or why I love the Bard and I cannot lie..

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The Bard- still electrifying after 400 years

 

My first encounter with Shakespeare must have been when I was around age 6, when I was given a picture book of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In theory it should have engaged me and captured my interest, with its comic strip approach and the option to select different outcomes (choose your own story books were popular at the time) but I just couldn’t understand why two young people would want to kill themselves or why their families were so mean- but I guess that was kind of the point! Without realising, I had grasped the key to any reading of Shakespeare: injustice, unfairness and the devastation that can follow as a result of prejudice or corruption. I did enjoy being able to select different courses and seeing how choices could influence different outcomes ( again this puts us in the shoes of director- whose interpretations influence the meaning a particular performance imparts to its viewers) which again must have planted an understanding of one of the key strengths of Shakespeare’s works: their ambiguity and adaptability.

Fast forward to my 14th year on this earth: that painful teen period that we have all gone through. All angst, full of hormones and struggling to work out who you are and your place in the world you see before you. A shining light was my GCSE English class. Here a deep love of books and a burgeoning realisation that analysis could unlock untold meaning and understanding was fluttering into existence. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ had already tapped into our collective taste for the unjust and unfair. ‘Macbeth’ swiftly followed and capitalised on this enthusiasm and our secret desire to put right our own injustices and to triumph, in the midst of all our unspoken and unshared insecurities. What better introduction to Shakespeare than a power-driven couple on a path to self-destruction. Corrupt, bloody, murderous, dark and brooding. Here we had writ large, the consequences of choices and actions driven by such senses of unfairness and injustice that we ourselves were feeling. Macbeth encouraged us to look beyond our own feelings and consider those of others- that reflection had to outweigh any desires or drives we had to put things right. Essentially that there was a right way to go about things: that you don’t have to kill people that get in your way (that last part is a joke, for those that don’t know me). Along the way, we learnt about irony and insanity, the power of language to convey a whole host of meaning if the right words are selected and not to be afraid of archaic language. We learnt that we could each interpret a passage or phrase in slightly differing ways and that listening to each other could allow us to reach even greater insights, or see things our own experiences had not yet brought to us. We loved the eerie spell cast over the play by the malign influence of the witches; how their passages were much more lyrical than that of other characters and held us in sway much like the effect that they roused in terms of the plot (thus introducing us to the concept of layers of meaning). We were absorbed by the psychology abundant in the text- discussion on motivations were electrifying. Hallucinations became outward manifestations of conscience: ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ and ‘out damned spot’ being two key phrases that grabbed us. We wondered how Shakespeare could have understood such psychological symptoms so long ago, before the advent of modern psychology- thus holding him in a new sense of respect and reverence removed from our initial disdain. No longer was he a fusty, archaic figure but one who fired us up and excited us. In fairness, our teacher must have been some genius/director managing to orchestrate all of this. Her knowledge, insight and passion for her subject was passed on to all of us lucky recipients. It could have been very different if we had studied ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at this point: she knew that we needed the gore, drama and horror of ‘that Scottish play’ to get the point of Shakespeare. She knew her audience and she knew her writers! Thanks Mrs Hiskens, wherever you are.

Having had an English teacher such as Mrs H, it will come as no surprise that I signed up for A Level English! Rebellion and indifference were key facets of my outward expression to the world, yet in books I was allowed access to a rich and fertile plain: here I could see beyond my own experiences into the thoughts and experiences of others. This is something that those who are not keen readers may miss out on and it remains an ardent belief of mine, that to give others the gift of reading gives them to key to understanding themselves and the world that they live in. Books help us to understand that we are not imprisoned: feelings and situations can be changed. Studying Shakespeare, again, was a master-key that helped me unlock my own personal propensity for reflection: ‘Hamlet’ being the game changer. He is the ultimate, disaffected youth struggling with his grief and behaviour from responsible adults that he does not yet understand. He is plagued by his Mothers’ speedy remarriage to his Uncle Claudius, after the death of his beloved father also Hamlet (deceased King). I am sure a lot of teens can relate to his depressed melancholy, and indeed having to adapt to new family situations that they are not happy with. What was surprising, to me anyway, was the consideration that it had always been thus: the modern family may not be so modern after all (again drawing my burgeoning understanding and appreciation of the big Bard to who is universality- speaking to all across time and experience). Here I learnt the appreciation of staging and a carefully timed plot device- what more dramatic start can there be than a ghost luring soldiers across a cold, isolated battlement on a starless night? It gives me chills just thinking about it! This eerie portent, not only focuses its audiences attention by heightening their senses but by also causing us to question why a ghost might need to appear? All is clearly not right and we are set firmly to question all events put before us. My teen eyes alighned me squarely with Hamlet’s sense of indignation and allowed me to gloss over his own selfish actions- he shuns poor Ophelia who is then driven mad to end up floating face-down in a pool of flowers. It is not until much later ( a re-reading at university) that I grasped the true art of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted writing: Hamlet too was an orchestrator of destruction because he only thinks of himself (stereotypical selfish-teen behaviour). So here we have a tragedy filled with flawed characters that will speak to different members of its audience in different ways, at different points in their lives AND in different eras: mind blown. No wonder the plays hold such universal and enduring appeal. No wonder directors can draw such different things out of them. No wonder he still holds court 400 years later.

But then, he has always held court. While he deserves to be revered for his linguistic and literary mastery: for his beautiful prose and dramatic ability, he also should be recognised as an extremely savvy pioneer- or as one Lecturer facetiously referred to him as ‘a Brummie on the make’! A bit like a Richard Branson of his day, he recognised an opportunity to make money and he seized it- setting up a collective to perform plays outside the boundaries of the city, to circumvent strict censorship- culminating in the founding of ‘The Globe’ theatre. Opinions of Shakespeare continue to ebb and flow, evolving to their contextual perameters. To me he is a brilliant, subversive pioneer full of insight and word play and wit- something I only truly comprehended once I began honing my analysis at undergraduate level. Here contextual understandings added a new layer of meaning to my interpretations. I appreciated Shakespeare’s comedies all the more, because I saw that they allowed greater subversion of extant social mores, thus enabling audiences to question the structures within which they existed. The Fool in ‘King Lear’ becomes wise, when considered this way. The cross-dressing confusion and displacement in ‘Twelfth Night’ allows us to question the identity and position of those in society: does their position mean we should blindly accept them and follow their word without question? Here Malvolio (my favourite comic character) postulates round like some self-important social climber misenterpreting a letter from his mistress to be encoded to express her secret love for him, causing him to proclaim; ‘some of us are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’ to no doubt raucous effect on the audience of the time! It’s bawdy thrusting would have implied a sexual element to his meaning, further undermining his ardent declarations. All of the layers of humour, draw the audience into a conspiratorial understanding of the true meaning behind the words- that we shouldn’t feel limited by the position in society, from which we are born into. Like Shakespeare, we can overcome the cultural imperialism that still abounds today (look at the ridiculous insistence that the Department of Education has today that Primary children MUST know parts of speech, such as subordinate clauses, or they will not meet the required grade or are somehow lesser because they don’t- like that is a measure of your ability to write or communicate) we can use our initiative, work hard, be creative, NOT conform. We can have a goal and find our own way there. What this phrase conveys to this audience (or any audience) is the ridiculousness of these perameters, within which we are judged and constrained. We all need to bust loose.

This complexity, and ability to frame ideas in such a clever and probing way, is precisely why I love the great Bard in the sky above all over writers. I could tell you about the many things I have learnt from studying his plays and sonnets over the years- but this would detract from the overall point. Don’t listen to people who assuage him as a boring, irrelevant, fusty, archaic relic (Google theories of his dark lady or gay lover). Don’t let a bad first experience of his work put you off- you may have been put off by being introduced to a particular play at the wrong time in your life, or by someone who was not the masterful director I was fortunate to have. No, get out there and WATCH a performance or DVD of one of his works, because after all they were written to be performed and this is how you will understand them best. Don’t delay, you are missing out on Magic. He is a paragon of Englishness- but not in the way the real fusty, stuffy, archaic ‘members’ of our society would like to impart. He is a rebel, an innovator, a creative genius and someone that allows us all to open our minds and to question. All this 400 years later. William Shakespeare, I salute you.

‘The Seed Collectors’ by Scarlett Thomas or be careful where you plant things

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Are we all just propagation?  Or is there some higher meaning that eludes us on our journeys through life?

Scarlett Thomas, I salute you! I salute your mastery of our lexicon. I salute your dedication to the research process. I salute the big questions your books always ask. I salute your evolving and exploratory approach to your writing. I salute your storytelling skills! If writing stories was my talent, I would be learning from the best at the University of Kent.

Thankfully, you are writing the sort of stories I long to read. Ever since being mesmerised by ‘The End of Mr Y’, I have been savouring your works and recommending them to everyone and anyone: including my Mother. How often, as an adult, do you read a book in which your imagination is so ignited that you actually feel it with all of your senses? The pages literally fizzed and the edges faded into a brown, circular vortex- transporting me (via some sort of literary black- hole akin to the tunnel Alice enters wonderland via) to the troposphere. It is a rare and accomplished masterpiece. ‘Pop Co’ asked big questions about the way our consumerist, capitalist monstrosity of a society operates without losing an inch of the narrative pace it’s gripping plot presented. The non-story approach of ‘Our Tragic Universe’ delighted me in its delivery and in the way it framed questions about the meaning our lives hold: is everything meaningless in the end? While all of these books are unique, they share a sense of mystery and intrigue, an ability to expose us to new concepts and philosophies that challenge us as readers and leave us ruminating for a long time afterwards: they all delight. You always have something valid to say and you say it well.

While ‘The Seed Collectors’ is of course different to your preceding works (as of course it would be) it does not disappoint. It’s narrative flow reminded me a little of Woolf and her ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, something that really frees the writing up and allows you to deliver your meaning more effortlessly. Your study of ethnobotany infuses your writing on many levels. I am in awe of the many unusual and unexpected characteristics that plants manifest, in their battle to survive and how their deployment mirrors the human need to survive or perfect themselves as writ large in the vanishing nature of your generational protagonists. You do not shy away from exploring primal or base desires in your characters, despite the fact this may repel the audience- yet when you consider this more deeply, it mirrors the need we have to reproduce and propagate, which plants do unashamedly. Is the walking palm really so different to Charlie Gardner? Both are adapting to the challenges that are thrown their way.

Yet where plants are purely primal, the boundary that is created in contrast to human motivation is where the greatest opportunity for rumination occurs. In stages, the novel explores the secrets that all the characters hold: the private drives and insecurities that they manifest in their own destructive ways, instead allow us to transcend our human existence and consider even bigger questions relating to spirituality and enlightenment. This is tightly mirrored in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the parents of the main protagonists and their quest for a pod of magical propensities.

This exploration of enlightenment blew my mind all the more, in light of the synchronicity it threw upon my own current experiences. A friend recently felt compelled to purchase us both a book, despite it creeping her out for reasons unfathomable: ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’. She felt it was something to do with my deceased Gramphs- made all the more uncanny by the fact it was a book I had been thinking about, of his that I had perused many years before, one that felt like it spoke with some omnipresent voice in its exploration of enlightenment and had forgotten even what it was called.To my furtive imagination, this book feels like a gift from the other side: a focus from the most enlightened person I have ever encountered. I can imagine my yoga loving, Transendental Meditational Gramphs whispering ‘read this girl, it will put you on the right path’. Imagine the resonance then, of being stuck at the point of Yoganada’s work that states that life is an illusion (a maya), a prison of your own making that you must see beyond in order to reach enlightenment and immortality (not being distracted by the material world) when reading ‘The Seed Collectors’. Perhaps these books are my own mysterious pod, indeed missing manuscript and the key to my own enlightenment!

Perhaps I do have a story in me after all… An imperfect girl finding her way in an imperfect world, just like the Gardners. Namaste

‘Ghostly’ by Audrey Niffenegger (ed) or be careful if your torch backlights it’s pages

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Read at your peril: torchlight reveals it’s haunting properties in ways fragile imaginations cannot take

 

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Behold: A book ghost!

 

 

Now Audrey Niffenegger clearly knows a thing or two about the dark, macabre and the gothic. Hanging out in Highgate Cemetary can only result in a more fervent eye toward such matters- something that any reader of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ or ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ would eagerly concur with. If you want a brooding story with an unsettling tone and haunting sense of yearning then she is your author! Imagine my delight, then, last Halloween when it became abundantly apparent that she had curated and illustrated an anthology of haunting stories. If you are beginning to know anything about me, then it will come as no surprise that I was straight into my nearest bookshop to snatch up a copy of ‘Ghostly’ as fast as my greedy and expectant mitts could cooperate (basically immediately)!

It will also come as no surprise to you that this rapid determination, could not follow through when it came to said reading. Not because this collection somehow diminished in appeal (as if) but purely because I always have an astronomical to be read pile, that just keeps increasing like some sick, but albeit pleasurable joke. While I did tuck in with gusto, somehow I got waylaid- something it took several months to rekindle. This is not because the selection was somehow lacking. Indeed, Niffenegger has weaved together the selected stories with real sensitivity. They ebb and flow with a respectful reverence toward their accordant subject matter, in a way that both heightens and draws contrasts in meaning as one story ends and the next begins. It really must be noted that this is a mark of her skill. Great ghostly stories are often placed in such anthologies: rarely do they weave together in such a manner. Rarely do we then consider them as a whole- for ghost stories, in their usual short- form are written to be enjoyed alone in more ways than one. No, instead my pause was garnered by the particular effect the centrepiece of this collection rendered on my poor senses: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ rendered me mute and unable to continue.

As anyone who has encountered a particularly powerful story will testify, sometimes you must cease and allow your subconscious the space to process and recover from such an unexpected effect. While I am not entirely sure why it held such magnetic sway, well apart from the psychological malaise it infused via its central protagonist and the brooding, oppressive atmosphere that seeped through its pages and into my psyche as it’s dank, maudlin environs overpowered those that resided in its pages, what I do know is that it felt better to wrap myself in less affecting prose and allow myself to detangle from its grasp. Yet, like all compulsions it was only a matter of time before I once more immersed myself in this tome and surrendered myself to whatever awful fate may befall me.

Perhaps such an extended pause was really about allowing myself time to process the explicit mastery encountered in this particular tale. The best of any ghostly fiction must surely recognise that success comes from creating the requisite atmosphere to compound our uncertainties and fears- which it must do in such a way that does not reveal to us how it drawn us in or suspended our disbelief. Confusion and uncertainty are then key ingredients. That Niffenegger would include this story in exactly the position that she has in this collections’ chronology only further highlights the mastery and knowledge of this genre AND of how fear works. This reveals her skill in all its glory. Such confidence then also allows the full range of writing that this genre can muster to sing together and educate us- showing us all the directions that great ghost stories can take. Who could not enjoy the humorous departure of a bachelor haunted by the fear of marriage in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ (light relief at just the right moment). Or the art of the twist in the masterfully short ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. Kelly Link’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ just makes me want to read her work voraciously (especially after scoring a promotional copy of ‘The Summer People’ from Canongate- which was bloody excellent): who says ghosts are in charge of the scares! Enough said.

While I could explore EVERY included story in miniatuae, it has to be A S Byatts’ haunting ‘The July Ghosts’ that had the most emotional impact. The beautiful prose adeptly explains the yearning that loss brings with it, so lightly that you cannot help by be moved. It truly is haunting. In many way, Niffeneggers’ own work draws much from this approach- it makes you wonder how influential she has been in informing her particular style of writing. In any case, it has certainly made me want to read more of Byatts’ work. In much the same way that Niffeneggers’ particular proclivity for weaving has made me eager to see how she will continue to weave her own writing. Let us not forget the beautiful artwork that also compliments and provokes us as readers: from the smoke -like wisps of the cover to the deceptive sway of the feline fatale.

Just be careful if you read by torchlight. Your eyes may deceive you if you turn the pages too quickly: behold any book ghosts that may reveal themselves…

‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’ by Sarah Winman or you find magic in unexpected places

Ok, I admit it. I am a sucker for an attractive cover design. Here  orange fireflies contrast perfectly against inviting sea greens, hinting gently at the magic that the pages of this novel contain, mesmerising by association (because fireflies are always magical and more than a little mysterious). The title too is intriguing, and you could be forgiven for missing the fact that Marvellous Ways is actually the name of the central protagonist and not just a clever turn of phrase to sum up the main driver of the story. As publishers well know, covers need to entice book browsers, much like pretty flowers lure insects. Thankfully, this one drew me as it is not an author I had previously considered. If it hadn’t I would have missed out on a thoroughly delightful, cockle-warmer of a story. The kind that makes you feel fuzzy and renewed: determined to live your life that much brighter and more purposefully.

It’s all thanks to Marvellous Ways! She is a quirky, fiercely independent Octogenarian full of spirit and determined to end out her days living her life in the unique way she always has (which means living off the land in an all but deserted tidal creek in Cornwall). It is clear from the narrative, that she is a very wise lady whom we could all learn much from- especially the grace and kindness with which she ceaselessly conducts herself. Having had a quirky Granddad, who followed his own path and was comfortable in his own skin (even though most would have dismissed him for superficial reasons) these qualities are something that I cherish in such people, should I be lucky enough to encounter them. They usually see or understand something magical or significant, that passes the majority of us by. So rather than dismissing someone with dishevelled clothing or bottle-stop glasses fastened by elastic bands we should try to see beyond these trivialities and listen to and watch them- we will usually be surprised at all the things we learn. It goes without saying, that my Grandfather, with his dusty unkempt house and visiting goats to mow his front lawn (in an inner city area) and meditating at 3pm every day for world peace (things that some would scorn at) was the most evolved person that I have ever been lucky enough to be in the company of. Reading about Marvellous reminded me of him, and I knew she would bring joy to my soul and show me the beauty of this world, just in her existence.

Sarah Winman, did this lovely character absolute justice both in the magical, redemptive tale she weaves for her and in the beauty of her lyrical prose which both forwards the narrative and develops the characters so nimbly, that all of your senses become involved in the world that is being evoked. I really felt the healing powers of the water, which invigorated and restored me by proxy (along with the resolution of this intricate plot). There is much to be said for a writer who can encourage her readers to open their eyes wider than the story they are reading, to consider the magic that can be lurking all around you: such people could be right under our noses and we might not even know it. Apart from being thoroughly moved by Marvellous’ last adventure, it left me wanting to appreciate the beauty of life, nature and people all the more. To seek the unexpected. To be more open- which is not an easy feat in our cynical world.

Humbled.

I urge you all to read this book and I dare you not to be caught up in its magic. Smile at strangers. Take the time to help that old lady crossing the road- you can bet she has some wisdom to share and some interesting stories to tell. Stop rushing about. Sit next to a river or a tree. Breathe. Really look at what is around you. You may be surprised. This novel clearly is a gateway drug to enlightenment!

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Magic is all around you. You can see it if you start looking at the world the right way: Marvellous Way

 

‘The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral’ by Robert Westall or stay away from rickety scaffolding..

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So what does any sensible Ghost Story afficionado choose to read on a bright, yet biting spring afternoon? For the first time this year the dank, morose and brooding atmosphere that this pervading weather system has been imposing, gave way and offered us a chink in its oppressive armour. Did I race outside to eradicate my vitamin k deficit? Did I choose a bright and breezy beach-fest? No. I settled down with Robert Westall. Having thoroughly enjoyed ‘Miss Peregrine’- with its emphasis on the power of stones- my subconscious must have drawn me towards this masonry -weighted tome like a fly into a web. While it is more cathedral than cairn, the end result was the same: top of the to read pile and unrelenting menace.

Normally, any bright sunshine speckling my favoured reading- spot would massively detract from the required brooding atmosphere that the reading of such books are best accustomed to, should you wish to maximise the expectant effect of terror and unease. A dark, shadowy corner in a rickety old pub, with rain battering its exterior, whilst wind whistles through any nook that it can find would be near perfect locale from which to evoke the mood required from such material. No matter for this tome! Despite the sunshine, I found myself completely lost in its isolated, decaying towers. The ordinariness of the narrator and his steeplejack companions neatly contrast the extraordinary experiences put forward: both validating and exposing the uneasy events that follow. Such a no-nonsense character could surely not be prone to flights of fancy- what he proposes no matter how improbable must hold weight…

While such juxtapositions are commonplace within the genre, combining this approach with the unsteady arena of the steeplejack, working away from our known zones of experiences up at cloud-level allows us to marvel at something unsettling without a desire to question its validity (perhaps because we have no experience here with which to measure it). By drawing on the phobia-laden arena of heights, whose dizzying effect only serves to enhance our apprehension: reminding us all too easily that the boundaries between the safe and comfortable exist all too near to our sanitised existences. The uncommon becomes accepted; a suspension of disbelief settles easily. Indeed many fears are ably exploited in our search for the source of unseen menace. Our fears as parents, of the masons, of loss- all exploiting that unseen, yet seemingly collective menace all the more. Feeling that there is a supernatural explanation for the strange magnetic pull the tower has on young boys, in tangent with unexplained deaths and accidents becomes the logical explanation-albeit a deeply unsettling one with a knarled, grotesque face.

Indeed while reading, vertiginous feelings prevailed alongside the even more disquieting sensation of being malevolently watched. If this is Westall’s particular prowess I will certainly have to seek out Valancourt’s other addition ‘Antique Dust’. Especially, when the accompanying story showcased within this collection  impressed itself upon me even further than one as powerful as ‘Stones’. ‘Brangwyn Gardens’ adopts a tongue in cheek approach that can only be deemed as verging on some rather black humour. Here Westall clearly delves into his undergraduate experiences, to conjure a disturbing story that borrows from the universal experiences of students: grotty digs and mysterious landladies-as seen through the eyes of a selfish, lazy and unreliable student. Furthermore said male students insatiable lust is lambasted and cured by the implementation of a genius, albeit grotesque, twist involving an impressionable imagination and a very disturbing extended exploitation of the senses. The cathartic release of laughter accompanying the resolution is a welcome release of all the heady tension that is built: perhaps an intentional symbolic summation of the moral fabric of the story! Be careful what you lust after.

In conclusion, you could not wish for two more different but equally as effective Ghostly stories. They hint at the validity of Valancourt’s selection in Westall, to be discovered anew by fresh generation of readers- instilling confidence in their publications, should you be looking for more interesting reads than the mainstream often has to offer. Seek them out, like I do, and you will not be disappointed. Valancourt and Orrin Grey know their stuff! Let’s hope Antique Dust is still in stock….

‘The Trees’ by Ali Shaw or if you look the right way, you will see the whole world is a forest

 

Now there is no getting away from the fact that ‘The Trees’ is graced with an amazing, eye-catching cover and it would be foolish not to recognise the vital part that it played in capturing my attention. David Mann’s evocatively imagined fox, in the style of a Wodewose or Green Man carving, employing leaves and burnt, autumnal shades to conjure the danger that the Forest contains, does so with verve. Somehow the eyes glare at you, with just the right level of menace- almost commanding you to read it. Yet this is not a book that has relies merely on tricks: it is a book, which follows through on the promise it puts forward, visually. It is a novel of great reward, which takes you on such a strange and unnerving journey- deep into the heart of the forest and all that it represents-literally and metaphorically.

It is testament to Ali Shaw’s writing, that I am still mulling the story over a week later. Not only am I haunted by trees everywhere I go, in that the idea of their strange animate forms infuses their ordinariness (I beg any of you to look at ‘The Stick Man’ by Julia Donaldson in the same way, when it comes to story time) but I am also more focused on the myriad ways that we disrespect or disregard the superior power of nature. It is all too easy in our sanitised, modern lives to forget that we are vulnerable to and reliant upon nature to survive. Perhaps this is the point.

Much like in the forest we encounter in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummers Nights Dream’, natural order is reversed here. Events are infused with a pervading air of confusion; magic weaves it’s spell over our perceptions. Disbelief is suspended and like Shakespeare, Shaw thus enables us to consider ideas too threatening to our complicit everyday acceptance of the ways we live our lives- blindly working against nature, so that we may feel safe. By using fable and metaphor we may more easily tap into these ideas and ask deeper questions and provoke thoughts about how we live our lives: a change is necessary.

While the big questions are an integral part of the novels’ message, it is also amongst the flawed characters that drive its plot that I found the most relief. Our cowboy-loving couch-potato becomes the unexpected hero of the piece: Adrien Thomas. He is braver than I would be, when it comes to taking responsibility of the sinking-ship. It made me feel hollow *shudders*. I related to his initial helplessness. I applaud his ability to follow, watch and learn from others . I applaud his ability to reflect and adapt. I warm to him rediscovering his skills and being of comfort, by helping the children find comfort in learning (a really valuable and under-appreciated skill- both in the novel and life: teaching). I am in awe of his ultimate sacrifice.

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A fable of terrible beauty and guaranteed sleep deprivation: you will not sleep again, consider yourself warned!

So, if you are looking for an engaging read that takes you to strange and ethereal places whilst it’s perameters allow you to question the structures of your life, then look no further. If you aren’t, I urge you to read this novel anyway. It is a thing of terrible beauty and has a story within it that deserves, no must, be heard. I urge you to face the fears it rises. Whatever you do, bloody keep your logs outside. Don’t live near any trees. And invest in sleeping tablets or some methylated spirits. The thought of being skewered in your bed by mutant marauding branches is like something out of Poltergeist: there will be no rest again!!

Thanks Ali Shaw, you have done for trees what Hitchcock/ Du Maurier did for birds.