At 66, Charles Wilkinson is one of the strange tale's old school, making him contemporaneous with the likes of Reggie Oliver and Steve Rasnic Tem and a name that's been gradually garnering quiet fame in the autumn of his years. Yet, so far, you'd be easily forgiven if, like me, you'd never heard of him.
According to his publisher biog., the Birmingham-born writer attended school in a small town on the Welsh Marches, later studying at the University of Lancaster, the University of East Anglia and Trinity College, Dublin. His publications so far include The Snowman and Other Poems (Iron Press, 1987) and The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). A Border Poet member, Ag & Au, a pamphlet of poems, appeared from Flarestack Poets in 2013. Today, he lives in Powys, Wales, "where he is heavily outnumbered by members of the ovine community." A line from the text of one of these tales, the cliff-top wildernesses of his home country featuring heavily.
The feted Mark Samuels has written the Introduction. Wilkinson shows himself a less pessimistic writer than Samuels - his dystopian settings occasionally have utopian overtones - while sharing his claustrophobic embrace by the weird.
This title's collective strength is in the genuine unpredictability of its 'twists.' Most are excellent and few disappoint. 'In His Grandmother's Coat,' relates the weird legacy of an unknown curse left by the narrator's grandmother, who bred mink for unspecified cross-breeding. 'Night in the Pink House' – by far the most sinister tale – relates a mutual pleasure of sadism, between a cold, professional state torturer and his equally enthusiastic, wheelchair-bound patient, sharing their interests like a pair of anal collectors from the latter's small, cliff-side haven; one that seems to hide still greater past atrocities. The aloof tone of the torturer's narration is compelling as is the ambiguous nature of his ward.
'An Invitation to Worship' starts out as deliverence of sanctuary for a wife from a seemingly domineering husband, gradually revealing intimations of a place less of refuge than of cult-influenced capture. 'The Investigation of Innocence' is the sole SF entry where replicant humans' now exist to supply the bees as a means to propagate a new Eden. A very clever concept.
Then there's 'A Lesson from the Undergrowth.' After burying his father, Neil returns to the isolated home of his young adulthood. It seems still inhabited, almost, if in a state of untended entropy. Memories of events past and present seem to merge into some eternal purgatory from a particular incident revealed only in the final lines. Like the previously quoted titles, the concept only truly reveals itself on reflection, such is the subtlety of the writing.
Being a collection of above average length (sixteen tales in all) it's perhaps not surprising that only once does it miss a beat; in 'The World Without Watercress,' where-in the conceit of who is the haunter and who the haunted is purposely ambiguous, but doesn't quite convince in connecting with this reader, feeling rather unfinished. 'Hands,' the final tale, is a – literally – touching ghost story of a widower who finds comfort from a spirit able to act out in death their apparent gift in life.
Impressive conceptually then, the best tales mature and gain increased effect days, even weeks, after their reading. We need not only idiosyncratic voices in fantasy lands of topsy-turvy – there are plenty of those – but voices such as Wilkinson's, taking credible topics and characters and running with them to the furthermost reaches.