Where to start with this one… I love Simon Unsworth’s fiction. His portmanteau collection Quiet Houses was a formative book for me as a writer. His mixture of ghost story sensibilities and the more explicit descriptions of Clive Barker, struck a chord with me. Check out my review of Quiet Houses over at This Is Horror for more details.
Ever since then, I’ve craved more of Richard Nakata, the reluctant ghost hunter at centre of Quiet Houses. And I’m not alone. Unsworth teased us with a story about Nakata in Diseases of the Teeth, his excellent collection from a couple of years ago. However, to hear that Nakata would be back for another book was genuinely music to my ears.
Which brings us to The Martledge Variations, a new three-story collection from Steve Shaw’s brilliant Black Shuck Books (buy the books, buy all the books). Again, Nakata is at the centre of the piece, linking the stories together in a web of his own making. This is a more cautious, thoughtful Nakata who is wary of his previous mistakes and notoriety. He’s empathetic and vulnerable. An interesting man who continues his arc from Quiet Houses, a few years down the track.
The individual stories in The Martledge Variations are all well crafted. In “The Dancers”, Unsworth leans on a real life experience of smashing a piano (I’m jealous) to bring us a tale of a haunting, but also a tale about the haunted and the damage such an experience can do to a person. The Smiling Man is the creepiest of the three and has its origins in local folklore. Here, the spirit is malicious and a serial lech. He’s bloody gross. Lastly, The Meadows features an amorous young couple that experience something sad and frightening in the darkness of a secluded park.
Martledge itself is a charming little town, if not one that is plagued by a few wayward ghosts. Unsworth prefaces the book with a brief history ripped from the past of Chorlton, the town he grew up in. At first I was a bit skeptical of the history lesson, but it worked. I’ve always said that one of Unsworth’s skills as a writer was his sense of place, how he uses places as a character using its influence on others, and it holds true here.
It’s interesting to see how Unsworth’s style has evolved across all of his books. His superb Tom Fool books show a vocabulary of the grotesque that is up there with the best of them. Whilst this is toned down somewhat here, he comes up with some truly intriguing flourishes of description. Unsworth knows how to build a horror story and his delivery of those killer lines of description that bring the reader a chill are always spot on.
The Martledge Variations is one of the Black Shuck Shadows series. Pocket sized books showcasing between three and six stories by a particular author. I’ve picked up a few of these, including the one from Phil Sloman which I will be digging into soon. My only criticism of The Martledge Variations is that it left me wanting more, obviously that’s no bad thing for a writer and I can take heart from the fact that Unsworth has always stated his love for Nakata as a character. Hopefully a return to Martledge won’t be too far away…