Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Heaven Tree & Other Stories

It's been a good year for collections and anthologies. The rude health of the supernatural tale is a bit surprising, but heartening. Here we are at the end of 2013 and I'm surrounded by excellent new stuff. The Heaven Tree is a case in point. New from Sarob Press, it's the first collection of stories by an author who has been writing for many years. Why it took so long for Christopher Harman's work to get between hard covers, I don't know. Writing has always been a chancy business, I suppose.

The book consists of five long-ish stories, all offering Harman's dense, impressionistic prose. Some authors sketch in pencil, but Harman lays on thick layers of pigment in dark, surprising colours. His work is slightly reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell in this regard. But his prose also reminds me of Mervyn Peake's fantasies - it is artistic and poetic, shaping language beautifully rather than merely using it for an obvious purpose.

It is a somewhat cinematic approach, but we are never given a God-like perspective; Harman only allows us to see through the eyes of one character at a time. Here is a typical passage:
His headlights gave him the rising approach to Connerstone in instalments; a cattle-grid, box-hedges, the spire of the Catholic church, sudden devil masks of sheep in the shelter of unravelling dry-stone walls, the shock of bright yellow daffodils on a verge,  gnarled cottage doors, the pebble-dashed surgery and community hall, slate new-builds, then the garage, the bridge and the roofing of alder and oak over the stream.
Connerstone (not to be confused with real-life Coniston, I'm sure) is the setting for 'The Heaven Tree', which is - on one level - a familiar tale of a secretive community and an unwary outsider. But the Lovecraftian weirdness of the central premise and the quality of the writing lift it above routine horror. Indeed, this is the sort of thing Lovecraft aspired to and admired in Blackwood, among others - weird fiction without the paraphernalia of black magic, ghosts and so forth. The bizarre entity of the title (excellently captured by Paul Lowe's cover art - see below ) is unearthly in its awe-inspiring strangeness.

'Hoxlip and After', the second story, is similar to the first in its premise, though very different in execution. Here a senior citizens' coach trip to the Cotswolds offers a shot at romance for a lonely man, who doesn't pay enough attention to a bit of local folklore. As with 'The Heaven Tree', this is an ambitious story that would have fallen to bits in less able hands, but Harman's skill creates an absorbing tale with enough outré ingredients and interesting characters for a novella. This one manages to combine the Lovecraftian with the Aickmanesque, a task I'd have thought well nigh impossible.

'Bad Teeth' is a slightly more frivolous tale, though I should note that a sly humour is evident throughout the collection. It concerns an elderly woman who takes part in a local library reminiscence group, and the wartime experience that returns to haunt her when a local building is demolished. It's a nicely-judged study in old age, and the way that childhood fears can return to haunt us. It's also got an ending that takes an already disturbing image from an M.R. James classic and makes it considerably more unnerving.

'Scrubs', by contrast, deals with young people and offers multiple perspectives on the self-involved lives of several students at a university in a fictitious 'grim up north' industrial town. What's assumed to be a Rag Week stunt involving a tent turns out to be something altogether more outlandish. Here again Harman takes a familiar notion - dabbling in the occult leads to unwary youngsters being bumped off one by one - and runs with it in an interesting direction.

The final story, 'Deep Water', is set in East Anglia, and one might expect an outright tribute to M.R. James. Instead - though Monty gets a nod or two - it invokes strange aquatic entities that are partly revealed through the unfinished work of a missing children's author. Set in and around Aldeburgh, the story is a superb evocation of the Norfolk coast and landscape as well as a satisfying depiction of a descent into something worse than madness. An especially nice (i.e. nasty) touch involves mysterious patterns created on the beach.

Here, then, are five substantial stories by a writer who deserves to be better known. Christopher Harman's first story was published in 1992. All credit to Sarob for being the first to collect some of his fiction. I only hope we won't have to wait over twenty years for a second book!

Meanwhile, you could do worse than invest in a copy of ST#25, if you have not already done so. It's packed with rather excellent stories, among them Harman's 'Dark Tracks'. You can buy a reasonably-priced print copy here, or a nice cheap PDF here.

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