With the current vogue of European influence in much independent
fiction, it is not surprising how most of novelist Helen Grant's first
short story collection should be inspired primarily by her former
abodes in southern and eastern Europe.
Fantasised from these landscapes are the strong echoes of its
traditonal voices. 'Grauer Hans' convinces as a Grimm tale tinged
with Hoffmann. Her narrator recalls her childhood fear. After her
mother insisted upon sending her off to sleep to her croon of a
warning lullaby, an aged, seemingly benevolent, goblin subsequently
'appears,' scratching at her window for access. We already know he
cannot truly be as he seems, but Grant well maintains the narrator's
retrospective naivete, allowing space and time for us to share in the
build-up of its horrific revelation.
The title tale holds the collection's greatest scare as an aging, mono-
syllabic but experienced diver becomes increasingly obsessed by an
unaccountable wreck. So obssessed that his capacity for underwater
exploration takes an impossible turn, leading to a nightmarish
encounter. The retrospective horror here is in something much more
subtle than in 'Grauer Hans.' The reader's realisation that "one of the
most laid-back people I have ever met" on the first page and the "dark
shape in the fading light" at the end are minimally rendered through-
out as one and the same.
'The Game of Bear' is an incomplete MR James tale previously
turned by Grant into a competition winner in Ghosts & Scholars,
wherein an actual nightmare ambiguously manifests as an out-of-body
'Self Catering' is the prankster in the pack. A man intent on a change
from his usual holiday destination stumbles across a high street travel
agency - with a major difference; one offering "spiritual journeys"
with "a range of unique supernatural experiences" by its exotically-
named and slightly sinister proprietor. (Think an occult 'Mr. Benn').
Its one-joke pay-off the reader may well have seen coming but it's no
less enjoyable for that.
'Nathair Dhubh' Grant later cites as her first published tale.
Redolent of 1920s' / 30s' Buchan, it atmospherically paints that world
of rock-climbing derring-do and how some aspect of nature always has
this nasty habit of claiming he who oversteps its mark.
Grant's effortlessly simple prose style is already set in this otherwise
well-trodden, haunted path of loss and guilt.
It is these topics of loss, guilt, possession and nightmare which
combine in 'Alberic de Mauleon'; what Grant calls a 'prequel' to
James's 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook.' A very unexpected type of
brotherly retribution is played out from a devil's bargain in this 17th
century period piece that leads neatly to the door of its subsequent
In 'The Calvary at Banska Bystrica' we're back in the present, in
Slovakia, where the atoning search for a hateful brother is replayed.
Only there is a greater mystery here as to the brother's true raison
d'etre, his fate only part-revealed at the end of an ascending path in
some grotesque, physical sublimation. It is perhaps the most
sophisticated tale in the collection, yet as simply rendered as the rest.
A mix that often makes re-reading a repeatable pleasure.
Coming soon . . .