Saturday 11 December 2021

The Ghost Sequences by A.C. Wise, Undertow Publications / The Black Dreams: Strange Stories From Northern Ireland, Edited by Reggie Chamberlain-King, Blackstaff Press / Albertine's Wooers

Editorial: Greetings Panners! So, we come to the last issue of the year. Sadly, it must also be the last issue for the foreseeable future. Yes, a second sabbatical calls. Reason being, a historical novel begun in 2020 has made little progress in 2021. Since I need to ensure I do better than another year of only meagre scribblings, I therefore need to 'get my head down' and commit to the completion of a draft, with no other (or next to no other) writing commitments forthcoming. I can't believe 'Pan' won't return eventually, so I ask my kind readers to keep a look out next year and keep the pagan faith. In the meantime, I hope you all have as good a Yule as is possible in these trying times and as productive a 2022 as I hope to.

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Wise – another new name to me – has had two collections published, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, with Lethe Press, and a novella, Catfish Lullaby, published with Broken Eye Books. Her debut novel, Wendy, Darling, was released by Titan Books in last June. Her assuredness across genre – based upon this evidence – impresses. 

Here, for example, she handles the horror folk tale ('The Nag Bride') as well as the SF ('Lesser Creek') and the ghost story. ('How the Trick Is Done'). Five of the best reveal the assured consistency of a novelist. 'How the Trick Is Done' - a stage assistant takes revenge on behalf of her late, love-lorn predecessor against their much feted, but arrogant, magician. 'Harvest Song, Gathering Song' - Soldiers meet after battle as a controlling nectar-like drug takes physical possession for an alien race's future survival.

'Crossing' – A child's early fear is tested by an underwater naiad of ambiguous intent, whose silent eerie presence will play a key role in her chosen path as an adult. 'Lesser Creek: A Love Story, A Ghost Story' – A lovely description of young lost love, eternally played out upon a trestle bridge overlooking the waters at which they met their end.

'The Nag Bride' is a folk-horror classic and the standout tale in an already strong collection. On the night of a Halloween party, a tale told by a boy to a girl resonates later in life, first as a found true crime story, and subsequently as an ongoing curse from the seemingly immortal Nag Bride.

I have to hand it to Alison Wise; the feminist angle of the curse ensures reader sympathy with the title character, rather than any distancing from it, despite her uncanny, supernatural presence. For it is a curse, self-inflicted by the mercenary actions of those who'd so casually used and abused her.

*The cover – alongside that for Kay Chronister's 'Thin Places' – is one of this publisher's best; a pareidolia of a skull upon a jet-black background by Olga Beliaeva. In fact, over the past two years, Undertow's output generally has risen from creditable to something close to essential. Future releases of this quality should ensure a readership deserving of it.

*Since writing, this excellent cover has deservedly won for Undertow Book Cover Of The Year by Electric Literature. My congratulations to Alison Wise, designer Vince Haig, and to cover artist Olga Beliaeva.

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'I don't recall if I saw my first gunman in my childhood nightmares or on my childhood streets. There were plenty in both and they looked very much like each other.'

So opens Reggie Chamberlain-King's introduction to his latest themed anthology; one which, in the annals of western uncanny fiction, perhaps only Lord Dunsany mirrored in his most moving novel, The Curse Of The Wise Woman; as 'The Troubles' act as the ominous, omnipresent background to both rural and urban tales of paranoid hallucination and dread.

Chamberlain-King is a regular contributor to Swan River Press's excellent bi-annual Green Book and the paranormal anthologies Weird Dublin: A Miscellany, Almanack and Companion and White Noise & Ouija Board. Pleasingly, other than Chamberlain-King himself, all contributors to Black Dreams are new names to me.

In Jo Baker's 'Original Features,' a cheap two-up-two-down harbours a door, which seems out of place and only discernible to the young wife moving in. Moyra Donaldson's 'The Woman Who Let Go' sees a woman left distraught by a break-up, finds sanctuary in a remote cottage and her own company.

Jan Carson's 'The Leaving Place' is an eerie tale parallel to 'The Woman Who Let Go' sees a case of incurable pain where the only curative is final. Michelle Gallen's 'The Tempering' has a daughter discovering how death has different meanings and motives after her loving father suddenly suffers a life-changing event.

Gerard McKeown's 'The Quizmasters' presents an 'old, muddy Ford Fiesta' drawing up beside a cyclist and its driver asks him a couple of innocuous questions about the intended destination. When these become relentless, the cyclist realises a wrong answer could hold a darker consequence.

Chamberlain-King's own entry – 'The Missing Girl – Extracts fron an Oral History' – is written as a brief vox-pop account over two young May Queens' mysterious disappearances between the neighbouring but socially isolated towns of Bancarrick and Carrigbawn.

You may glean from these examples that Ireland's recent political history is eschewed, instead utilised as a social backdrop to personal tales. The tales themselves are definitively uncanny, where the encroachment of danger is quietly threatening and undeniable while barely acknowledged. An admirable collection.

Albertine's Wooers

The sainted George Berguno's The Sad Eyes of the Lewis Chessmen is the eighth pocket-sized entry in Egaeus Press's Keynote Editions. Also from this publisher comes Songs Of The Northern Seas, described as “an anthology of thirteen tales of the Arctic north." Undiscovered Territories, an intriguing series of metaphysical fantasies by Robert Freeman Wexler (PS Publishing). Steve Rasnic Tem's eagerly-awaited latest collection Thanatrauma (Valancourt Books) is now available. Editor Daniel Corrick presents Ghosts and Robbers: An Anthology of German Gothic Fiction for Snuggly Books. Zagava are producing Singing and Sighing: Collected Stories Vol 1 by DP Watt. The evergreen Tartarus Press has released The Gypsy Spiders and Other Tales of Italian Horror by Nicola Lombardi (translated by Joe Weintraub), described as “a masterpiece of Italian fiction, and a must for all readers of intelligent contemporary horror. Lombardi’s novelisations of the Dario Argento films Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, are well known." Reggie Oliver's eighth collection for the publisher, A Maze For The Minotaur and Other Strange Stories, has just been released in paperback. Finally, as Pan went to 'press,' the very welcome news came through that the very long-awaited first-time reprint of Flora Mayor's 1935 collection, The Room Opposite, is out next month in limited edition hardback from Sundial Press.


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