A Kind Of Review: Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘Lost Places’ and ‘Quiet Houses.’
The Pennine Tower Restaurant
The Pennine Tower Restaurant is one of the most frightening short stories to come out of the genre in the last ten years. Whether the story is true will make very little difference to the reader. You might read the story on a crowded train, or in the comfort of your own home, either way the strength of the story will have the same shivering inducing effect regardless of the environment. As always Unsworth’s choice of location is inspired, a motorway restaurant reminiscent of a flying saucer caught in mid-flight atop a concrete column, an eyesore to some, a delightful relic for others, but which is in fact home to an ambiguous and terrifying supernatural entity. The power of the story lies in the meticulous matter-of-fact narration. The narrator of the story, or as I prefer to think of him, a compiler and documenter, lays out the story in wholly believable terms, enumerating and listing the names and the events as they are related to him, either through first hand sources or witnesses to those unfortunates who never made it out alive. The story feels like, and is, a throwback to the ‘true’ ghost stories of the 1970’s, those anthologies and collections which adorned many of the libraries of my own particular youth. And yet Unsworth makes it all feel undeniably modernistic in its approach. The story is layered in such a way, that the narrative ‘visibly thickens’ as the tension becomes unbearable to the point that mere discomfort is secondary. The authenticity of the story is not the point here, atmosphere is. BUT, if this story happened to be fiction, then this is all the more a success in terms of writing and effect for Unsworth. Smart and intelligently put together, the result is a genuinely frightening piece of modern horror tipping its hat to the past with elegant aplomb.
The Church On The Island
Rightly nominated for a World Fantasy Award, The Church On The Island tells the story of a young woman on holiday in the final throes of a disintegrating relationship who unconsciously finds herself looking for ‘something else,’ which arrives in the form of an old church in small islet off the shore of the Greek town she’s holidaying at. From the start Unsworth displays his eye for capturing the truth of relationships on the decline, carefully employing a empathic restraint which presents us with fully rounded people rather than the staple dramatics of characters so often a feature in genre stories. Unsworth cares deeply about his characters, even those we might not sympathize with so much.
It would be remiss of me to give too much away about the story, other than this not your run-of-the-mill haunted building story, in which the architectural outweighs the importance of the emotional. As much a character study as it is a supernatural story, it reads like Machen, Blackwood and Lovecraft got together and produced this startling gem.
Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Second Collection: Quiet Houses
Unsworth’s new collection is a departure from his first in terms of structure and narrative. On the surface it appears we have a portmanteau offering wrapped up in 21st century trappings. But on closer inspection what we have is something much more emotionally involving. That’s not to knock portmanteau story collections. I love them, they remind me of childhood. But Quiet Houses is a much more sophisticated collection of interlocking stories, whose significance in meaning is not reached until the very last story. I have chosen to write about three of the stories from this collection. And like the first collection this is not a reflection on the other stories, merely an expression of those I thought I could do justice when writing about them.
Richard Nakata is collecting ‘evidence’ from people who have answered an advertisement asking for eye-witness reports to supernatural events.
The Elms, Morecambe: (the title of each story is the name of a place or building or location) is perhaps the least aggressive of the supposed hauntings in all of the stories in Quiet Houses, and yet retains the right to be judged as the most potent and deeply unsettling of the accounts. The Elms takes the oft used haunted hotel, and the oft used ghost that haunts these buildings, and completely reworks the idea that any haunting, no matter how often viewed with good humour by those who’ve become accustomed to its presence (such as hotel staff), is not an amusing anecdote for late night ghost story telling, but is quite capable of becoming a permanent haunting in which the unwilling, and well-meaning victim, finds themselves on the very edge of madness.
This story uses simplicity in making the seemingly innocuous palpably overbearing. What appears to start out as one kind of tale entirely transforms, so that by the last scene in the seaside café as the eye-witness leaves with their ghost in tow (or so we are led to believe), it is not wonder or fascination but outward dread which permeates the story, and the reader.
The Ocean Grand, North West Coast:
Probably my favourite of the collection. Three architectural restoration experts sleeping over on in a turn of the 20th century hotel for which they’ve been hired to evaluate (among other things), do not realize the supernatural residue and ghosts literally waiting within its very walls. Here Unsworth works his considerable talent for detail, the Ocean View brought to life not just by the ghosts in the story, but by the intricate descriptions of the physical. The reader will come away from this story feeling like they’ve just been stepped out of The Ocean View.
Beyond St Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head:
The conceit of this story might very well in the hands of a less accomplished writer have stumbled into unintentional comedy. Footprints that pursue. Or invisible supernatural entities whose footprints are the only evidence we have. And yet again, Unsworth faultlessly builds and constructs each particular scene, each preceding scene outdoing the next. Unsworth shows why he’s one of the most exciting and innovative writers working in horror today. It’s to his credit that he manages to whip up such a momentum of rapidly overwhelming horror from the simplest, and on brief inspection, the least worrying of hauntings.
To understand Quiet Houses the stories should be read in order. That isn’t to say they cannot be read as stand alone stories, they can, and undoubtedly will be, but I urge anybody to buys this wonderful book to start from the beginning.
Final Word: Just to reiterate. This isn’t a review. It’s a sort of review. And PLEASE go out and buy Simon’s collections, and anything else he writes. He deserves a wide fan base/readership for the excellence of his prose, the tightness of his plots, and the genuinely frightening, if not, terrifying atmosphere he creates.
Simon Kurt Unsworth is relatively new on the horror literature block, but he’s certainly going to become an established and a respected name.