ARTICLE (June 2018)

REVIEWED: The latest stories in a supernatural series influenced by Arthur Machen

‘THE TUNNEL’ by CATHERINE FISHER

‘THE WORD’ by MATTHEW G. REES

Newly added to The Wentwood Tales series by Three Impostors press

‘Compelling beauty’

‘THE TUNNEL’ by Catherine Fisher

Reviewed by CLARE RAMSEY

Tunnels have qualities that separate them from perhaps all other feats of human engineering. Towers and bridges are tame in comparison, cathedrals and castles intolerably fussy. Maybe it is their animal-like quality: their ‘doing away’ with the pretence of human civility that clings to other seen structures.

Catherine Fisher has chosen well with the motif for her contribution to the Wentwood Tales, a series of supernatural short stories being published by The Three Impostors press that feel the influence of Arthur Machen, noted for macabre fiction such as The Great God Pan. The word ‘Wentwood’ comes from the forest in the district of his upbringing in his homeland of Wales in the second half of the 19th century.

A supernatural story featuring an abandoned tunnel would seem to sit well with Machen’s canon. As some with knowledge of current events in South Wales may know it also coincides with a similar, if rather happier, ongoing operation to re-open the old, closed railway tunnel that burrows deep into a mountain and which, when re-opened will re-connect the Rhondda and Afan valleys. Some readers may also sense a kinship with the one-time Wye Valley railway line, now derelict and sylvan in Machen’s beloved Marcher country of the borderlands with England.

The powers that tunnels possess are a strange swirl of temptation and terror. Past disasters – collapses, crashes, atrocities perpetrated by human hands – mean we are not merely in the territory of mind-games either. Understandable then that tunnels can also be seen as a metaphor for the human life journey.

In Fisher’s tale it is one such former tunnel that works its dark magic.

Our introduction to its structure is achieved through some wonderfully tactile writing.

‘… the entrance looked like some medieval castle long abandoned. Ivy had encroached, hanging down like a curtain, and small bushes sprouted through the brickwork and in the cracks between the stones.’

We learn that the tunnel has been abandoned mysteriously… forsaken after the hasty shelving of a railway project abandoned by its workforce.

The local squire (the period is Victorian) seeks to re-commence the tunnel and with it establish a line to transport coal to the sea ports of South Wales.

We learn obliquely that some years previously a girl went missing and was never found.

Amid the plans to re-open the railway and talks between the squire and his engineer the tunnel begins to exert a deepening hold on the engineer’s young son. Rather like Machen in his own childhood and Lucian Taylor in Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams the boy (who loathes his school and dreads returning to it) explores not only the countryside surrounding the tunnel but the squire’s own house. He discovers that he is not alone.

Catherine Fisher presents a tale which is not only compelling in itself but beautifully told.

At times her phrases – ‘the vast hanging forest’ – carry the clear echo of Machen. The tunnel is brilliantly evoked:

‘… curving walls of brick oozing with grey puffy growths and hanging mosses’

A comparison might be hazarded with Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’. But this would be inaccurate. In language and enigma, Fisher, a native of Gwent, is much closer to Machen and perhaps also Kipling at his best (as in his story ‘They’). The period and setting bring to mind Henry James, but the style of writing is much different.

It is surely a triumph for the Three Impostors – a small, independent press – to have secured such a finely written story from an author of the stature of Fisher (Incarceron, Sapphique and more).

In this reviewer’s judgment they have landed a real treat for readers.

What will this compelling series produce next?

 

‘The Tunnel’ by Catherine Fisher has been published by Three Impostors press, Newport, Wales, as part of their series of short stories The Wentwood Tales.

 

Reviewer Clare Ramsey is especially interested in supernatural literary fiction, and contributes to Horla.

COPIES of the stories so far in the Wentwood Tales – ‘Creep’ by Jon Gower (reviewed elsewhere in these pages), ‘The Tunnel’ by Catherine Fisher and ‘The Word’ by Matthew G. Rees (reviewed opposite) – can be obtained from Three Impostors press here:

www.threeimpostors.co.uk

‘Dark… richly poetic’

‘THE WORD’ by Matthew G. Rees

Reviewed by EURON GRIFFITH

Nick Drake has a line in one of his songs about the fact that sometimes we feel safe and secure amongst ‘the books and records of a lifetime.’

It’s certainly true that ‘stuff’ has a potency – it can trace our history, our lives. A diary of sorts.

Objects of all kinds can be Proustian keys to certain periods when we were happy, sad, suicidal or ecstatic.

So, in light of this, it’s a brave soul who decides to chuck it all away – to ‘de-clutter’ their homes and to kick the habit of acquisition and dependence. It’s a bold statement that underlines a need to start anew, to scrunch up the roadmap of the past and take a step into the unknown.

Well, it’s certainly a ‘thing’.  The lifestyle gurus in the glossies and the Sunday supplements have all, in their time, advocated this latest trend. And, if the task is too onerous or too painful, worry not – there are people who will do it for you. Slip them a few quid and they’ll turn up in a van and denude your shelves and rooms in just a couple of hours.

The main character in Matthew G. Rees’s dark and richly poetic story is such a figure. Cynical and unburdened by sentiment he and his partner Cat prowl the ‘borders of Wales, the Somerset levels, the moors of the North and the East Anglian Fens’ searching for that elusive glint of gold in the huge piles of personal belongings people have decided to throw away. These areas have been specifically chosen for their perceived unsophistication. London and the big cities may have got wise to the habit and ‘stuff’ may have been pre-pruned by valuers and experts. Here, as the unamed protaganist tells it ‘Time has stood still’ and ‘possessions had stayed put, sometimes for hundreds of years.’

Such a place is the remote Welsh farmhouse ‘Y Gair’ (which translates as ‘The Word’). Initially turned away by a protective daughter, our professional de-clutterer is unexpectedly called back to the windswept holding by its owner – Old Man Llewelyn – and instructed to strip the house.

‘“We want it gone,” he said with finality. “All of it,” like he was expelling a ball of phlegm.’

The sheer ‘otherness’ of Old Man Llewelyn and his world – a world expressed for hundreds of years through the medium of Welsh (a language which is here represented almost as something dangerous – it is ‘barked’ or ‘snapped’) – is beautifully rendered in almost gleeful Dickensian rapture:

 ‘All afternoon I splashed back and forth, arms laden: horse brasses, mantel clocks, books that spoke of Livingstone and Stanley as if they still lived, silver-backed brushes, pewter plates, prettily-painted china, stuffed songbirds under glass, the masks of foxes and badgers…’

The relics of a world which has vanished forever and which will now be only valuable to the eyes of the auctioneer and the collector. Even the harp is taken – ‘the wind drew a faint sound from its strings as we carried it over the yard’.

The only item our hero or anti-hero holds on to after this exercise (if only out of curiosity since the austere Welsh text is incomprehensible to him) is the family Bible, which he also removes from the house.

And, a week or so later, whilst lounging in his houseboat in Camden, he reaches for it after reading in the paper that Old Man Llewelyn had taken de-cluttering to a more extreme level by expunging not only objects from his life but also his animals and his family.

The news of this rocks our protaginist’s world (quite literally!) and suddenly the old family Bible with its curious and ancient doodle of a serpent (which some long-dead member of the Llewelyn clan presumably scribbled on its pages a century or so earlier) takes on a peculiar life of its own.

One may try to de-clutter and disown the past, but sometimes the events and happenings of our lives which these objects signified are indelibly etched onto our memory. And, sometimes, creepily,  on our very bodies.

 

‘The Word’ by Matthew G. Rees has been published by Three Impostors press, Newport, Wales, as part of their series of short stories The Wentwood Tales.

 

Guest Reviewer Euron Griffith (left) is the author of three Welsh language novels: ‘Dyn Pob Un’ (2011), ‘Leni Tiwdor’ (2013) and ‘Tri Deg Tri (2016). His English language prose and poetry have appeared in various periodicals including ‘Ambit’, ‘Poetry Wales’ and ‘The New Welsh Review’. His first short story collection in English, ‘The Beatles in Tonypandy’, appeared in 2017 and was adapted for BBC Radio Wales. His next novel will be about Beelzebub and a stolen pie. He lives in Cardiff with some cats.