Friday 18 August 2023

Saturday 5 August 2023

BLOOD WOOD by Christopher Harman (Sarob Press 2023) - Review

Blood Wood is a substantial collection of longer stories and novellas by Christopher Harman, a former librarian who lives in Preston, Lancashire. He’s been writing for decades now, but this is only the second collection of his work – the first being The Heaven Tree in 2017 (also from Sarob Press). Surprising? Perhaps. Harman’s work is relatively low-key and makes demands on the reader thanks to his intense, borderline hallucinatory style. Nobody ever just drinks a cup of tea in a Harman story. There is symbolism in every chipped cup, every soggy teabag. These require immersion, acceptance, and a willingness to sink into the world of seemingly commonplace events that soon acquire disturbing and eventually terrifying implications.

Thus in the first story, ‘The Children’, a man with a regular office job moves to a location to cut his commute time. This is as banal as you can get, but from the start you get the sense that things are not quite right with the area. The walk from the new house to the local supermarket takes the protagonist through a small woodland area. Very nice. Maybe see some squirrels. But no. A series of encounters suggest that there is Something in the trees. An old man with a knowledge of local history tells a tale of a woman who was ill-used and whose now-demolished house one stood in the forest. The protagonist finds a doorknob embedded in the earth. A chance discovery? And what lies behind the legend of Mother Grace?

While I wouldn't call Harman an Aickmanesque writer, it is notable that both tend to focus on isolated individuals who are not in sync with their surroundings or other people. Thus in ‘Passengers’ a visitor to a country house tries and fails to connect with the pretty girl at reception. Instead, he finds a very different kind of intimacy when he boards a miniature railway constructed by an old-time tycoon who defies locals’ warnings about a particular feature of his estate. Railways, especially tunnels, are a traditional setting for ghost stories, but this one works far better than most of the tales in this sub-genre.

‘A Better Place’ is another winner, in which a detailed description of mundane events – a car breaks down on a motorway – meshing carefully with local folklore and strange phenomena. Again we have what might be termed a Harmanesque character, somewhat lonely and yearning to make a connection with an attractive woman. Is this why such men (and they’re usually men) are so vulnerable? The supernatural element is very well handled, and the parallels between the modern hoodie and garments of earlier centuries is a neat device.

‘In the Fields’ owes a little (I suspect) to an M.R. James tale involving a kite. The possibilities of drystone walls as a setting for quiet horror are thoroughly explored, and while the story remains enigmatic – or I’m stupid and didn’t get it – the atmosphere of a walking holiday is well evoked. There’s also some solid characterisation, not least of an eccentric chap in a long coat.

‘Dinckley Green’ is unusual in that it begins in media res with the protagonist already in trouble, before flashing back to the time when things went wrong. Or at least, one time. Harman is good at using frail characters, in this case a man who has suffered a serious mental breakdown and is trying to recover. What better occupation that the gentle business of photographic historic libraries? But in the quaint village of Dinckley Green, it seems that the location of the library proved problematic, causing some pushback from earlier occupants of the site…

I mentioned Aickman earlier, aware that for some there is no such thing as an ‘Aickmanesque’ story. However, it’s arguable that in ‘Sleepers’ Harman comes very close. Two hikers in the north of England come to a strange place, discovering a mystery involving the (now defunct) railway. The setup is similar to ‘The Trains’, not least because the protagonist is not getting on very well with his hiking companion. There, however, the parallels end. This one is a stonking example of the railway ghost story which took your humble reviewer in a surprising direction – without a valid ticket.

‘By Leaf and Thorn’ is somewhat lighter in mood, but only just. Here the obligatory lonesome bloke is the deputy editor of a provincial newspaper with a new, thrusting editor. The latter wants to ditch the eponymous natural history column. The eccentric, tweedy lady who supposedly writes the pieces warns that their true author will be miffed. Strange things happen. Here the conflict is clearly between human vanity and arrogance and nature’s power. It’s a recurring theme, but that’s because it’s a good one and unlikely to become outmoded in our time.

Very different in theme and outcome is ‘The Last to be Found’, which is a Christmas story without the slightest hint of warmth or jollity. A house party of a familiar type (imagine an updated ‘Smee’ by Burrage or ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ by Carr) is gathered and stories are told. Not exactly ghost stories. A game of hide and seek is recalled, in which Something Bad Happened and much remains mysteries. A shadow on the wall hints at a strange terror. The situation is recreated, albeit unwittingly, and the situation in the house becomes even less cosy.

One of Harman’s virtues is his grasp of folklore – how very specific, local, and messy it can be. In ‘Jackdaw Jack’ the legend of a dodgy village character intertwines with the life of a young woman researching family history. The weird presence of the eponymous watcher is nicely evoked, and the overall feel is close to the folk horror TV classics of the Seventies.

The same can be said for ‘Dark Tracks’ which I had the pleasure of publishing in Supernatural Tales. It’s the quintessential Harman story. Isolated protagonist? Check. Bit of quirky history/folklore/culture? Yep, it’s a disused ghost train. An oddball supporting cast? Oh yes. A growing sense of something strange and menacing? In spades. What I particularly like about this is the way it combines the grubbily commonplace with the sense of Something lurking beneath provincial England. A Lovecraftian gem.

‘Hill Shadows’ is another story set in the North of England, where I reside, though on the other side of the Pennines to Cumbria, where a key event occurs. Two students – one awkward and a bit dreamy, the other an urbane charmer – go to an art gallery that is showing paintings by a deceased artist. The latter had a strange experience in the wilds of the Lake District, one that somehow infected his landscapes with a strange, ominous presence. It has one of those endings. You know the kind I mean. I enjoyed it a lot.

‘Blood Wood’, the final story, is previously unpublished and maintains the high standard of the earlier work. And it was while reading this one that I finally grasped something that had been niggling at the back of my ‘mind’ for a while. It’s the story of a mobile librarian who – as the title suggests – encounters something disturbing on his travels in a rural district. And I suddenly thought ‘Alan Bennett’. Christopher Harman is the Alan Bennett of weird fiction. His lonely, socially awkward characters do not have bittersweet encounters that change their lives, but strange fixations that destroy them. I could be wrong, but it’s as good a place to end a review as any.

If you can get your hands on this book (it’s already sold out), you will not be disappointed, if you prefer the subtle side of the genre.

Another excellent Paul Lowe illustration for the cover!

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...