Tuesday 28 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The King of Seatown' by Emma Devlin

 As I write, a gang of chancers, bigots, and giftless clowns known collectively as the British government is endangering peace in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that I've come to the end of this anthology of strange stories from 'Norn Iron'. Certainly the last story in the book does not, on the fact of it, treat of Troubles, sectarians, the strange evolution of nations. Instead, its subject is the sea and the shore, a theme that never goes out of style for islanders, be they British or Irish. 

A man takes his child to the beach to see stranded whales in a narrative that is truly dream-like. There is more than a hint of magic realism in Emma Devlin's tale. (There's more about Devlin here.) But at its heart is a terrorist bombing and the way the King of the title found the sound of the sea soothing, a way of dealing with the noises in his head by hearing the eternal noise of great waters. 

There are beautiful passages, here, but the central image is that of the beached whales. Efforts to save the animals seem futile, as the sea itself seems to be retreating, rejecting the land and implicitly the human world. But, at the very end, in the last sentence of the book, there is a hint of hope. It is as much as can be expected, reasonably or otherwise. 

I don't think my running review has done justice to this book. Post-Covid my brain is not as sharp as I would like. I recommend that you seek out The Black Dreams and see for yourself. Dream for yourself, too. Nobody else can do it for you. But, it seems, they can come close.

The Black Dreams - 'Redland' by Aislínn Clarke


The picture above is from a book of photographs of a British army training area in Germany. Red Land, Blue Land refers to the standard NATO colours given to friendly and enemy units. In this case, however, the squaddies were sent into the zone to train them for operations in the UK during the Troubles.

The story concerns a woman in the Northern Irish town of Redlands who is haunted by the barking of a phantom dog. The mental stress this causes her gradually accumulates, alongside her quest for the truth about the mysterious creature. Eventually, her quest leads her to the book, with its grotesque images of civilians and terrorists posed around a replica of her neighborhood. Dummies stand at the bar inside the nameless pub, a hooded rifleman crouches behind a bin. And a dog strains at its leash, barking endlessly. 

There is more than a hint of what might be termed unsympathetic magic, here. There's a sense that a fake community created to simulate a low-intensity war zone has impacted the real place it was modelled on. History can never be truly past if people are forced to live in its detritus. The story also, all too pertinently, contains a concise depiction of the collapsing NHS. 

I was not surprised to find out that the author is a film director as well as a writer, and I will be seeking out her work. You can find more about her here

Sunday 26 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Quizmasters' by Gerard McKeown

The antepenultimate story in this anthology of Strange Stories from Northern Ireland concerns the dangers of ignorance. A man recalls how, as a youth, he was riding his bike along country roads when he was subject to a strange interrogation. It becomes clear that he is not merely being asked a few random questions by the mysterious man in the mud-caked Fiat. The pub quiz-style posers are something far worse. 

This short story packs a lot in. The English accent of the quizmaster (the other one doesn't talk and is in fact barely glimpsed). The way in which the commonplace and trivial becomes a life-or-death situation. The impossibility of appealing to any meaningful and trustworthy authority when confronted with extreme violence. The general sense that nothing can be resolved or clarified. A story about the Troubles, then, but also one that might become more generally relevant in a world where traditional certainties are being revealed as neither certain nor particularly traditional for most of our species.

So, another story that offers a dream-like experience but one that has the brutal immediacy of some nightmares. It's also admirable for its cool, almost detached tone. 

Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Wink and the Gun' by John Patrick Higgins

A genuine horror story, now, with all the ingredients of more conventional tales - strange children, a lonely protagonist, time out of joint, and a cruel assault. But the Northern Ireland setting gives 'The Wink and the Gun' a distinctive twist. It is almost Kafkaesque in its portrayal of a world where things almost make sense, but not quite. 

A first-person narrator goes on a routine errand and runs into someone he went to school with and didn't know at all. But she is an attractive middle-aged woman, he is alone in the world, and she seems pleased at the thought of seeing him again. He revises his decision not to go to the school reunion. But, on the way home, he sees something strange. A 'crude, wooden ziggurat' made of wooden pallets.A bonfire, but at the wrong time of year. An odd hallucination, perhaps.

The horror comes courtesy of two boys who don't look like other children in the district. The boys are hollow-eyed and malnourished, and simply stare as the narrator trips and drops some of his shopping. No laughter or jeering. The boys reappear later. Twice. The third time they see him, they do laugh. The story is arguably a nightmare, a conte cruel in which the impossibility of normal life is laid before the reader.

This is proving a good anthology not just in terms of the quality but also in its unpredictability. I had expected tales of 'the Troubles' galore, but now I think it though (duh!) why would people write about such things in a matter-of-fact way? Instead, we are offered exactly what it says on the cover, the black dreams of a 'landscape out of joint'.

Thursday 16 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Missing Girl' by Reggie Chamberlain-King

Subtitled 'Extracts from an Oral History', this story from Northern Ireland deals with identity and the ancient, yet always somehow fresh, theme of the double. Two towns in the province sit side by side, two communities separate but in theory equal. In both, a girl goes missing at the same time - one Catholic, one Protestant. In both towns searches are undertaken, theories formulated, gossip flourishes, and theories abound. The story is told in fragments, as different people - some intimately involved, others on the margins - give their accounts. 

This might almost be a magic realist tale. It transpires that the posters supposedly show two missing girls, but they are the same girl. Eventually, a body is found. Which girl is it? The implication (I think) is that on top of the terrible tragedy, a crime or accident that might happen in any town, anywhere, is an extra layer of suffering caused by the terrible evasions and ambiguities of sectarian culture. Time passes and the vanishing(s) gradually become part of history and folklore. 

As editor of this anthology Reggie Chamberlain-King offers this in his introduction. 'Really, these are dream stories... Dream stories, such as the dreamers tell themselves as they march the streets of their imagination.' This story has a dream-like quality, one that could haunt a restless night. 

Sunday 12 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'Now and Then Some Washes Up' by Carlo Gébler

Well, we finally got there. Nine stories into an anthology of weird fiction from Northern Ireland and we confront the Troubles almost head-on. Almost.  'Now and Then Some Washes Up' is a tale of folklore in the making, linked to the terrorism that flourished on both sides following the failed suppression of the NI civil rights movement. 

At first, though, the story is anything but political. Indeed, it could be argued that it actually demonstrates how anything resembling politics, in the sense of rational debate and attempts to achieve progress (yes, I know, but you get the idea) is rendered impossible by the mindset of terrorism. It permeates everything while going largely unmentioned and thus removes normal political discourse from everyday life. But let's consider the plot.

It's actually the life story of a fairly ordinary, decent bloke. Peter goes to university in Belfast, gets a degree, does a teaching diploma, and has a long and fairly successful career in education. He marries Mary, a fellow student, and they have a son. When he retires they decide to leave the city and buy a new-build house by a lake. They have their own little private stretch of water, as they see it, and Mary is taken with the idea of skinny dipping. But Peter is not so sure about the lake. He is never quite certain that they are alone and unobserved.

Eventually a rusty box washes up. It contains relics of The Troubles. More revelations follow, as a friendly local explains why nobody from the village swims in the lake. It is, perhaps, haunted. Someone who got in too deep with paramilitaries ended up even deeper in a more literal sense. It is a gentle story which does not buttonhole the reader, merely invites them to look and ponder. This is how life is, for many. Like the old lady and her great-nephew who must revisit the lake to leave flowers and retrieve relics of violence, Peter and Mary are part of a pattern that, while faded, is still there to be seen, and felt.

So, another good story from this impressive anthology. I'll continue this running review next week.

Saturday 11 June 2022

CUSTODES (2021) - Low-budget Italian Gothic Horror

How low can you go? What's the smallest amount that's ever been spent on making feature film? Custodes doesn't look particularly cheap, or at least not all the time. It is in fact rather 'arty' in that Italian way. Set in one location - a run-down villa and the surrounding woods - Custodes is a simple, traditional tale of a haunted house and a naive person who arrives to spend a few nights there. Or at least, that's what it seems to be at first. In the last half hour or so, things take a rather different tur

Young and impoverished Ada is invited by estranged cousin Umberto to come to the Villa Artemisia to help catalogue the contents for sale. Ada has been cut out of her uncle's will. Umberto feels guilty and wants to share this part of his inheritance. However, when she arrives at the villa (traipsing through the woods lugging her suitcase) she finds Dante, the less-than-jolly caretaker whose tinted sunglasses more than hint at some deception. Nothing daunted, Ada gets out her notebook and starts listing contents. The villa is one of the stars of the movie, here, with its faded grandeur and murky interiors. 

Soon Ada unearths a mysterious bas relief that has a slightly Lovecraftian feel about it. That night she dreams of a mysterious woman performing a mysterious dance while wearing a sinister cat-like mask. (There is a real cat in the film, named Milli, who does some excellent lurking about.) Ada wakes to find a mysterious bruise on her arm, and feeling weak and light-headed. We know something occurred in the night, but what? Eventually, we get the full Monty of dodgy archaeology, hell dimensions, murderous madwomen, and a fair amount of blood that isn't kept where it should be.

The film is arguably a little too slow to get started and, towards the end, shoehorns in too much exposition. But these are minor flaws in a production that is always absorbing and frequently delightful. Part of the pleasure comes from the limitations of location filming and having a very small cast (with the writers/directors doubling as actors in some cases). It gives the whole thing the feel of a 70s BBC Ghost Story for Christmas. You know there will not be big-budget effects so you wait to see what can be achieved with lighting, soundtrack (which is very good), and of course, that oft-neglected thing called the plot. 

As you can see from the pic of Ada above, the setting is period but timeless - almost certainly 20th century but there doesn't seem to be a landline phone and we see no cars or trains. This gives the film a suitably weird, dreamlike feel, as Ada is drawn deeper into the mystery of the house and eventually uncovers a fairly mad conspiracy.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Custodes is unlikely to be considered a classic like, say, Carnival of Souls. But it shares such films enthusiasm for the genre and is a perfectly good way to spend 90 minutes of an evening. 

Wednesday 8 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Tempering' by Michelle Gallen

A collection from Northern Ireland is going to mention a certain issue, as sure as night follows day. We're a good way into The Black Dreams, and finally the Troubles arrive. But not in any conventional way. No, instead 'The Tempering' is a tale of the terrorism that a man practices upon his family after what may be a near-death experience. It's a tale of cruelty in which a child plots vengeance upon their father, only to have circumstances solve the problem of domestic abuse in an unexpected yet very credible way.

'I tried not to hate him when he taught us one lesson after another, like how we must wear woollen tights to hide the bruises he had made bloom on our legs.'

Michelle Gallen's prose is passionate and efficient. Anyone who has experienced the kind of tyranny she describes will recognise the gamut of feelings a tormented child must run. It's not an easy story to read, but it is a good one by any standard. 

Sunday 5 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'Silent Valley' by Sam Thompson

My notion that this anthology from Northern Ireland tends to shun the city for the (often illusory) simplicity and beauty of nature is sort of born out by the next story. Here, however, nature has come back with a vengeance. Great swathes of new and mysterious growth called plantations (a very charged word in Irish history) have appeared and with this incursion of greenery came something else. A tribe of non-human entities referred to as 'the other fellers' and 'the kindly folk' have whisked away half the population. The whole world may be affected, but who knows? Modern tech has failed. People are on their own as society degenerates into frightened, isolated communities defended by local militias. 

The story bears a passing resemblance to The Road or The Mist, in that it's a tale of a father desperately trying to protect his son as they embark upon a perilous journey. The protagonist's wife has been taken by one of the strange creatures - a huge, terrifying entity that seems to defy normal human perception. It seems that the father's quest is futile, suicidal even, but he has no choice. Dreams draw him on, while the last vestiges of society fester and molder around him.

This is borderline fantasy/horror/sf. The story is a fragmentary account of a world that's disintegrated, and some might be disappointed that nothing is explained, only described. However, given the tale's provenance, I think that is fair enough. Knowing why something destroys your community, wounds your family, does not restore one or heal the other. 

Thursday 2 June 2022

The Black Dreams - 'Bird. Spirit. Land' by Ian McDonald

A familiar name in this anthology of tales from Northern Ireland - familiar because for many years I was a reader of the sf magazine Interzone. 'Bird. Spirit. Land.' begins with a quote from the late Robert Holdstock, which puts down a marker, in a way. I was expecting something 'Holdstockian', and I was not disappointed. 

The story concerns Ria, a carer for Mrs Fogel, an elderly, disabled artist who avian-themed pictures are fashionable and correspondingly expensive. 'Ria had no opinions on Tilda Swinton, but she appreciated Nicolas Cage in an ironic way, and was curious as to what he saw in these wall-filling canvases of purples, blacks, silver and diamonds. 

As the artist's death approaches Ria has a series of uncanny experiences that border on the mystical - and unpleasant. All are bird-themed. Mrs Fogel claims her paintings depict 'Bird Spirit Land', a strange realm of chaos and life. Starlings, in particular, are imbued with this quasi-magical power she draws upon. Ria sees a huge murmuration of starlings moving over the town like a single, vast entity. 

Not long after, she steals one of the paintings as a hedge against poverty. This seals her fate, in the manner of an old-school horror story. But McDonald rings the changes with cool deftness so that Ria's fate seems not only inevitable but also somehow just. A cruel tale, perhaps, but no crueler than the average magpie. And just as clever. 

Supernatural Tales 56 - contents

The next issue - due out in the autumn - will see a mixture of familiar names and some newbies. I hope, as always, that the stories find fav...