Monday, 16 February 2015

Friends of the Dead

Please note that this review contains a few spoilers. I hope I've avoided giving away anything important, but the butler did it.

James Doig's new collection is an interesting demonstration of how wrong-headed I can be about writers. I often categorise ghost story authors in one of two mental files. In one I tend to put writers I consider to be 'pragmatists', in the other I put the 'poets'. A pragmatist is essentially an ideas man (or woman), whose stories pivot on a central conceit or depend on a crucial twist. A poet is not devoid of ideas but his/her stories are more lyrical and depend to some extent on atmosphere for effect.

James Doig, though, proves my little system to be inadequate, because while many of the stories in his first book are idea-driven, they are all dependent upon a well-evoked atmosphere to work. This is true even of vignettes, of which there are several good ones here. 'The Land Where Fairies Linger' is a very effective evocation of the way strange, numinous creatures can impinge upon the lives of practical people. 'The Kindness of Strangers' offers every parent's worst nightmare - or one of them, at least. 'The Dead Heart', at just over two pages, still manages to convey a sense of loss, of a life not lived as it might have been, via a seemingly supernatural event. And in 'Threads' the author conjures up a compelling vision of colonial misrule in Australia, seen through the prism of a terrible family secret.

Among the longer stories we find the same lyricism, but with the bonus of fascinating historical research. James Doig currently works for the National Archive in Australia and he has a Ph.D in mediaeval history. But, again, the author surprises us (or me, at least) by taking a different line on the (M.R.) Jamesian world of dusty library catalogues and obscure documents.

In 'Malware', for instance, an IT security expert is called in by a firm making big bucks from helping people trace their ancestors. Of course the firm relies on a brigade of volunteers - many of them experts - to scan in old records of the census and so on. But what can this have to do with the way certain records are vanishing from all the company's servers? What can they have in common? The answer is a new twist on an old idea, and a very good one.

Several stories concern the last leader of an independent Wales, the remarkable and mysterious Owain Glyndwr (Shakespeare's Glendower). In 'The Wild Hunt' a student probing what he assumes to be 15th century propaganda has a rude awakening in a library during a storm. Glyndwr also features in 'Out of the West', with its list of strange and terrifying beings evoked by a sorcerer to harry the Saxon.

Glyndwr was of course a big man in the Welsh Marches, a region that clearly lies close to Doig's heart. In 'Mathrafal' an archaeological dig at a border castle yields more than academic information, and features a nicely-handled horror. The same can be said of 'Wolferton Hall', where the investigation of a family crypt stirs up something best left alone. These stories are bound to please fans of the traditional ghostly tale. They are also effective examples of 'quiet horror', as is the title story. The different is that 'Friends of the Dead' goes somewhat further than James or his disciples ever did in one key respect. I was genuinely surprised by the climax of this one, and that's not so common an occurrence as it used to be.

Overall this collection ticks all the right boxes for me. James Doig is a skilful craftsman who constructs narratives that gradually take his protagonists - along with the reader - into darker and darker territory, until eventually they find themselves lost to what we are told is reality. At least some of these stories should scare or unsettle you. All credit to Sarob Press for bringing a very good and somewhat overlooked author to discerning readers.

And here is the excellent Paul Lowe cover. I think I know which story is referred to here, but I dare not look too closely...




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