Adam Scovell, ‘Nettles’ (Influx Press, 2022)

Set in his native Merseyside, Adam Scovell’s third novel, Nettles, is a story centred on childhood rituals and pacts with the landscape, whether real or imagined. These rituals, invoked at a turning point in a boy’s life, when he feels he has nowhere left to hide, are depicted all the more powerfully for being situated in the edgelands of a post-industrial landscape: the concrete underbelly of a motorway, scrubland with distant pylons, the roar of the rails and the roadway. At the heart of the book is a tale of a boy bullied mercilessly and what he ultimately does, or what he thinks he has done, to escape and restore some sort of bearable, natural order in his life.

As a result of its subject matter, the main narrative isn’t a comfortable read: descriptions of the claustrophobic and isolating nature of the bullying are dealt with realistically and in fairly unflinching terms. But Nettles is more a tale of sacrifice than any sort of brutal, coming-of-age novel, although the brutality is there. We don’t particularly sense the main character maturing and overcoming adversity during the narrative in the way these things normally play out; instead the reader is drawn back and forth 20 years between childhood and adulthood, connections are made in a deliberating fleeting way, and there are strange, and slightly jarring, interludes about a local climber which eventually resolve at the novel’s conclusion.

Both the narrator and his tormentor remain unnamed, although Scovell uses the curious literary device of capitalisation of Him and He for the boy’s antagonist. This reverential use of pronouns suggests that what exists beyond a sense of fear and hatred is some kind of god-like awe at the bully’s power and his consequent hold over the main character and others in the school.

There are many instances of sacrifice in the story, both large and small. The book suggests that children believe they make such sacrifices all the time and perhaps they do. The perennial question of cause and effect is left unresolved, but that doesn’t make the story’s conclusion any less haunting and uncertain.

Scovell is most convincing when he deals with the place setting of the story, its otherness and the protagonist’s unclear role in it all. Landscape, as it often turns out to be, is a very unreliable narrator here. I got the sense that the locations were written with such a deft touch because they are well known to the author or at least versions of them are. Indeed, much of the story seems drawn, in some cases perhaps worryingly so, from semi-autobiographical events in Scovell’s own life. The protagonist’s return to his childhood home after 20 years, passages of which are woven throughout the book, is punctuated with blurry Polaroids of meaningful places in both the then and the now. This may be a nod to the conceit used by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and other works, and while the pictures are nice to see, I didn’t feel they were necessary to give more flavour to an already well-conjured landscape.

I enjoyed this novel and the resonance of its imagery, particularly that of the landscape in which the story unfolds. There is a finely-written ambiguity in the bearing of the modern-day protagonist, which leads the reader to question exactly what effect the childhood trauma has had on him and what really happened two decades earlier. Scovell’s work seems to get better and better and Nettles is probably his most satisfying work yet.

Nettles is published in April 2022 by Influx Press and is available to preorder now.

Andrew Humphrey, ‘Trick of the Light’ (Nightjar Press, 2020)

Readers of Ghosts & Scholars will be familiar with Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, which publishes individual short stories in a uniform and very attractive signed and numbered chapbook format. Its authors frequently explore the territory of the unsettling and the uneasy, the nightjar being, of course, a bird of supernatural repute.

The cover photograph of Andrew Humphrey’s Trick of the Light features a 1970s era Penguin paperback of M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary lying atop an Ordnance Survey Landranger map—number 156, covering Saxmundham, Aldeburgh and Southwold. They might have spilled out from the glovebox of a car, and the front of the paperback is partly obscured, its cover image limited to a blaze of blurred light. And so, before the reader even has a chance to open Humphrey’s slim volume and step into its pages, she is offered a signpost to a familiar Jamesian territory which the tale might occupy. But does it?

At first blush, there are only a few parallels with “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, the story alluded to in the cover’s combination of map and browning paperback. This tale’s context is modern, mundanely so: a couple, on the brink of a breaking point in their relationship, spend a few days away at a cottage in Southwold. Gayle is an amateur digital photographer, while Dan is guilty of having an affair and responsible, it seems, for their drift apart. Humphrey alludes to the difficulties between them, and that very fact sets this quite far from the typical Jamesian set-up. The couple even clashes over the TV adaptations of the original story: Dan prefers Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version.

The prose is carefully honed and devoid of unnecessary ornamentation; its angularity heightens the tension across every page. “It’s after dark that the world switches off.” The couple’s clipped dialogue does little to defuse the oppressive mood of the piece. Within just a few pages, the reader begins to sense that this couple may be doomed, either in their future together or in any future altogether.

The story plays with the waymarkers of ‘Whistle’, too: Gayle translates “Who is this who is coming?” from the Latin, and Dan responds:

“’Indeed.’ I think of MR James’ quiet, unsparing prose. The words crawl across the flesh on my hands, my arms and up to the base of my neck. ‘Should be good,’ I say.”

That throwaway “Should be good” is a curious line, and one wonders if it’s Dan’s admonition of himself against straying further in their relationship (you really should be good—should be better—Dan) or merely his approval of Gayle’s intention to infuse her photography with some authentic Jamesian chill on a windswept and lonely beach. Or it could be something darker – that whatever approaches should be—for their sakes—something truly momentous, something to break the cycle one way or another.

Back at the cottage, the radio is playing a song by The Fall. The late Mark E. Smith, that group’s famously contrary svengali, was an aficionado of James, as well as writers like Machen and Lovecraft. There is a sense that Humphrey is toying with us, giving glimpses of reality through fractured glass: a traditional ghost story filtered through the prism of late twentieth and early twenty-first century angst and the trappings of supernatural literature that post-dates James.

Trick is not overly self-referential in Jamesian terms, but it is undoubtedly a homage and there are obvious nods to the master and in particular to aspects of one of his most celebrated, and most adapted, tales. Humphrey plays with the reader, hinting that for Gayle and Dan their fate might be to be trapped in a story within an older story: “They built the church inside the ruins of the old one.”

Trick of the Light appears at first to be a straightforward narrative, a story of a break- up and a possible redemption—until its closing paragraphs, at least—but it has deeper tendrils that run through the soil of James’s earlier story and take its ideas in radically different directions. In James, Parkins is saved, physically at least; for Gayle and Dan, the outcome is much less certain, and the story’s conclusion is deliciously Aickmanesque in all its possibilities. This is a fine tale to add to the canon of modern supernatural fiction, and Humphrey achieves a pleasing synthesis of the best visual and literary markers of the two TV adaptations, too, creating something that reaches the delightfully unexpected in its tone and ending. I will be looking out for more of his work on the strength of this one.

This review first appeared in Ghosts & Scholars,

Richard Skelton, ‘The Look Away’ (Xylem Books, 2018)

The Look Away is musician and poet Richard Skelton’s first lengthy work of fiction, a novella clothed in unconventional garb. Fleetingly available as a limited edition hardback from Corbel Stone Press earlier in the year, it now appears in paperback from new imprint Xylem Books, established by Skelton and Autumn Richardson to make some of their key publications more accessible.

The book has an intriguing structure. At first glance, the focus is its nameless narrator, a damaged man fleeing something unspoken—past violence and the dread of violence to come, it seems—the story revealing in anxious, often agitated fragments the inner monologue which punctuates his hermetic escape from the world. Wearing the mantle of the fugitive, he hides away in a shieling, the resonantly named Hollowscar, a tumbledown stone hut barely fit for human habitation. Although this is a fictional narrative, that place turns out to be a real location and an odd mid-19th century map of the area actually exists, preserved in the National Library of Scotland. The protagonist’s retreat might even be from life itself: “Are you come here to die?”, asks the woman who provides him with basic supplies in exchange for what money he has.

There are few characters besides this broken individual. Other human agents are glimpsed only from the corner of the eye or appear as uncertain figures dredged from memory. Those familiar with Skelton’s work won’t be surprised that landscape plays an integral part in the story, its sinews tightening around everything. It might be the book’s most solid and threatening presence. Significant also is the spectre of isolation, an antagonist as fearful as whatever has forced the man to seek shelter in Hollowscar on the boundaries of civilisation. “I am an island lost in an infinite sea.”

The animal world here is not the stuff of typical nature writing; clothed in the pelt of the supernatural, in the sense of being beyond the natural, it is strange and menacing. Death’s shadow looms large over both the man’s seclusion and the grey tracts of this undiscovered country. Prey to his own insignificance in the surrounding wildness and beset by nightmares of hunter and hunted, he is “heir to a land returned to nature,” a brutal inheritance that might engulf him forever.

The writing in The Look Away is striking and memorable. Each passage plays out note perfectly, descriptions given room to breathe on the page, empty space marking time between the narrator’s bouts of introspection. Cadences fall as in the quietly insistent coda to a requiem Mass, the strains filling the room. Phrases loop back on themselves in a fashion similar to the way Skelton’s music is constructed, evolving and building as the tension builds. Familiar refrains flow like a turbid river across the page, are reified in different configurations, their call and response helping to fashion a lattice on which the more linear aspects of the narrative are encouraged to grow. The author interpolates parts of the twenty-third psalm in the text in a remarkably unnerving way. Stripped back, these biblical excerpts find an uncanny significance in the narrator’s menaced inner torment: his cup may overflow, not with goodness or mercy, but with a cleansing flood which erases all trace of memory and existence.

As the book moves across its two distinct sections, fear of the man’s pursuers evolves into a terror of what surrounds and imprisons him. He longs to be discovered; his desire for a new escape becomes more palpable, but one realm of violence is replaced by another, a more ancient one. The imperative to look away, rooted in memory and a child’s awakening to the relentlessness of nature, becomes the central core of the book. He cannot turn from fate, because he is swallowed whole by it.

The Look Away is a bold, poetic meditation on the power of nature to forget, to erase the past, and to renew, even if that renewal is unforgiving and indiscriminate. I have rarely read anything so emotionally compelling in so unusual a form. Skelton has crafted an unsettling and finely-wrought tale of red-in-tooth-and-claw metonymy, and I hope there is much more of this to come from him.

[The original review for Caught By The River is here.]

Robert Marasco, ‘Burnt Offerings’ (Valancourt Books, 2015)

9176952.jpgOriginally published in 1973 and adapted three years later for a film in the US, Burnt Offerings is described by Valancourt Books, the publisher of this new edition, as “one of the most original and scariest haunted house novels ever written”. That’s quite a claim, but I’d say it’s just about accurate. It’s certainly original and, in places, utterly chilling. Naturally, such originality proceeds from the fact it’s not a haunted house tale in the traditional vein. 

Ben and Marian Rolfe yearn for an escape from the oppressive, boxed-in nature of their Brooklyn apartment. Marian’s aspirations for higher standards of more genteel living are contained and constrained by the size of the apartment and their means, and when the opportunity presents itself for them to rent a country mansion in Long Island filled with antiques for what seems a meagre asking price, it all seems too good to be true. But Marian feels that fate, for once, is smiling on her. Her innate acquisitiveness compels her to fall in love with the house from almost as soon as she’s walked through the front door. And of course it is all too good to be true: the single condition attached to the family’s tenancy of the old house for the summer, aside from generally acting as caretakers of the place, is that they also need to look after the aged Mrs. Allardyce.

When the Rolfes arrive to view the property, the custodians Roz Allardyce and her wheelchair-bound brother assure them that their mother never leaves her room and needs just three meals a day. They won’t be aware of her at all; they won’t even see her. To Marian, it all seems so straightforward, although Ben is unconvinced. However, the house is a dream-come-true for his wife and any negative reaction to the oddness of the Allardyces’ condition is clearly overshadowed by her desire to live a lifestyle she has only ever read about in the style magazines and covets almost beyond anything else. Ben’s scepticism is won over, at least partially, and they up sticks and move to the house with son David and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth in tow, the promise being that Marian will deal with all of Mrs. Allardyce’s requirements.

That may all sound more or less like the opening of a typical haunted house story but Burnt Offerings is something else, and its horror is a more subtle and insidious thing. The imagery and atmosphere of the book is striking and memorable; its characters similarly well-drawn and credible, with the family dynamic especially convincing in its exploration of dysfunction and conflict. I can’t say too much about how the narrative darkens and develops because I feel that would spoil the story; suffice to say, it had me reading on until I’d finished the book very quickly indeed.

Does the reader ever encounter the matriarch of the house? You’ll have to read it to discover, but the gradual build-up of unease and horror into the novel’s final pages is, for me, masterfully done. What I really enjoyed is that Burnt Offerings’ conclusion is as enigmatic and ambiguous as the opening description of the prosaic city life of the Rolfes is humdrum. The story’s creeping arc of destruction is perfectly handled by Marasco – it moves at a fair pace – and what frightens in this is, arguably, the fabric and hunger of the house itself rather than its closeted, unseen inhabitant. But is she in control of, or controlled by, the mansion; from where does the malign influence emanate? It’s difficult to reach a final view on that, but that’s just part of what makes this novel so enjoyable: it’s a book that has stood the test of time over the last 40 years and will, I’m sure, delight readers looking for something a little different from the typical supernatural tale.

Burnt Offerings is available direct from the publisher, in both print and ebook formats, as well as from the usual other outlets.

Stephen Volk, ‘Leytonstone’ (Spectral Press, 2015)

LeytonstoneLeytonstone is the second in Stephen Volk’s trilogy of Dark Masters novellas based on notable figures from the world of cinema, following the excellent Whitstable from 2013. That work was a sensitive portrait of Peter Cushing living out the twilight of his life in the novella’s titular town, and portrayed Cushing in a way that could only engender protective feelings towards the well-loved actor. As a Cushing aficionado, I couldn’t help but fall under Whitstable‘s spell and become drawn into its dark narrative.

In contrast, and it’s a contrast of many facets, Leytonstone presents us with a fictionalised account of the very early years of Alfred Hitchcock and is told with a closeness and attention to period detail that’s compelling. But the story here is, if anything, even darker than in the first volume of the trilogy.

As with Whitstable, there’s no supernatural aspect to Leytonstone; instead, there’s real horror born of the human soul, no more apparent than in the way young Fred is depicted. At first, what one assumes is loneliness and isolation is revealed as something more insidious in his character. Any sympathy for this ostracised, unusual little boy falls away. To say there are aspects of sociopathy already at play in the seven year old’s psychological make-up might not be straying too far from the truth.

One tantalising question which Volk seems to posit is whether or not Hitchcock’s remarkable flair as an auteur virtually unequalled in film history is thanks in part, or perhaps even in whole, to a sacrifice in early life that is truly shocking (the veritable ‘twist ending’ for which the director became so well-known). It’s not the boy’s own sacrifice, but one made on his behalf; to protect him; to save him. Wouldn’t any parent do likewise? And does the family’s expiation elevate the subject of the sacrifice to the level of godhood, as the Master of Suspense? The parallels with Hitchcock’s Jesuitical upbringing are interesting, and I found myself reminded of the Christian concept of the sacrifice of the Father of his only Son, reversed here in the sacrifice of the mother for her son. Fascinating concepts for sure.

Throughout Leytonstone there are subtle, fleeting references to some of the great director’s best works, hinting at that question of nature versus nurture and what shaped Hitchcock, including the famously apocryphal night in the local police cells to demonstrate to the young lad what happens to wrongdoers. Is the boy’s innocence at the point at which this happens then overshadowed by his desire to do something that would have merited such punishment? He has been punished having done nothing wrong; why not do something wicked to balance things out? This sequence seems pivotal in the story and the policeman who does Hitchcock senior the favour in providing the boy’s night away from the bosom of his family is a grotesque caricature, but no less chilling as the book’s final frames play out.

The writing here is superb and I experienced a voyeuristic pleasure in reading this fascinating narrative, an aspect which would not have been lost on Hitchcock qua director, I suspect. I particularly enjoyed the home setting and the author’s credible portrayal of father, mother and son, a trinity of souls trapped in a dysfunctional family grouping with hints of an Oedipal bond between Mrs. Hitchcock and her beloved boy. Ironically, the bond between mother and son seems far stronger than between husband and wife. That’s so at least until the ending when the strength of the Hitchcock family’s resolve and its desire for self-preservation is brought to the fore.

Leytonstone comes highly recommended, whether or not you’ve read Volk’s earlier Whitstable (but do seek that one out too; it’s brilliant!). The novella is due to be published by Spectral Press in March 2015 and is available to pre-order now.

Adam Scovell (with Katie Craven), ‘A Screaming Breeze’ (Sphinx Media, 2014)

A Screaming BreezeFor many years, I’ve been both fascinated and horrified by those towering wind turbines you see perched on remote hills, scattered across swathes of empty countryside or punctuating the seascape. I’ve no quarrel with alternative forms of energy; quite the reverse, in fact. But, for me, these towers are the eerie sentinels on the horizon: brooding, menacing, waiting. Something about their quietude (at least as I perceive it) troubles me, their huge rotor blades slicing through the air, endlessly turning. The fascination is such that – wearing another of my hats – I’ve long desired to record the sound of what they do, to stand beneath one, contact microphones attached to the alien shell just to hear inside: would there be a deafening and deadening silence within?

You can imagine my pleasure then in stumbling upon this little volume by film-maker and writer Adam Scovell. A Screaming Breeze is, for want of a better expression, an offshore ghost story, illustrated very fetchingly and atmospherically by Katie Craven. And it’s rather tiny: 15x10cm in size, with small (8pt), dense type across its 26 miniature pages.

The tale’s protagonist, Horace, is a technician for a wind-farm off the Norfolk coast, ferried out to a turbine, left to carry out required checks and maintenance, and then collected again by boat at an appropriate point later in the day. Sounds all rather straightforward. But it’s whilst he’s at one of the structures (and indeed in it and on it) that he experiences a little more than he bargained for. What transpires is unsettling, surreal, dreamlike and – yes – frightening.

I enjoyed Scovell’s story very much. Its setting is unusual and defiantly modern, and yet the atmosphere generated by the isolation of the location conveys that pleasingly familiar sense of dread we experience in the best antiquarian ghostly tales, whether set in decaying mansions or on windswept hills at dusk. Perhaps there’s also the symbolism of environmental concern and activism running through this tale: Horace, like it or not, represents the sometimes unwelcome presence of wind-farms in more ancient landscapes, and of course the sea is older than any of us and infinitely more cruel.

This handsome little book is available (at a price that made me do a double take, so inexpensive did it seem!) from here. I’m tempted to buy some more copies and give them out to friends. A warning to the curious, though: despite its diminutive size, there’s a reasonable length to this story, essentially because of the small font size used. It may cause eye strain, as well as those welcome shivers!

S. J. Moore, ‘Untitled Ghost Story’ (Salt, 2014)

Untitled Ghost StoryHow could I resist a publication with such an ironic title? You’re right: I couldn’t. In fact, I purchased this a few weeks ago (it’s been available for a couple of months now), but have only now got round to reading it. On starting it last night, I finished it in one breathless session.

Untitled Ghost Story is a short novella by S. J. Moore, published by Salt in its Modern Dreams line. This is Moore’s first foray into supernatural fiction from what I can gather; he already has a series of well-regarded Arthurian fantasy novels behind him, the Children of the May series, although I suspect the writing here covers some very different territory to those books.

The Modern Dreams series is an ebook-only range focused on ‘gripping urban drama’. I confess that wouldn’t normally be the first thing I would reach for, but Moore combines the after-hours grit of a working-class pub and some salt-of-the-earth characters, with a real sense of the weird and a disturbing undercurrent that reaches its apogee in a very convincing and distressing denouement to the book.

Our story centres around Gav and Steve, both working to close up the Ben Lomond pub in Jarrow, a (now) post-industrial town in the north east of England.

Jarrow was of course a focus of the shipbuilding industry in the north east, and the book is threaded with the emotional baggage attached to that: pride in the hard work and hardship endured when shipbuilding was at its peak, and the sadness and anger at its decline and eventual disappearance, as well as the politics behind all of that.

It takes a few minutes to get into the swing of the dialogue, and indeed some of the narrative, which is in the Geordie dialect. Once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it works well. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for those who are really struggling with it, but I don’t think you will if you give this a chance. And interestingly, in this context, it’s not used for comic effect as it can be in M.R. James and the like. Make no mistake: these two men are not dusty antiquarians, nor the tugging-of-the-forelock yokels those antiquarians frequently encounter.

Untitled Ghost Story also has the accolade of having the most swearing I’ve ever read in a piece of supernatural fiction (and in many other contexts, probably, writers like Irvine Welsh aside…) – but it works in context. Yes, Gav is crude and foul-mouthed, but it serves to make him more credible and to bring his insecurities and prejudices to life for the reader. Would a working-class man, an assistant manager in a down-at-heel pub in a distressed town, talk any other way than Gav does in the book? I don’t think so. At the start, he is difficult to like. By the end of this short work, I cared about him, and I cared about Steve, the pseudo-intellectual student who’s working in the pub to pay his way through his degree and the writing of his dissertation, ‘Unknown Ghost Story: The Working Class as Demon in English Weird Literature’. Steve, naturally, thinks he has uncovered a previously untested angle in his research; Gav, naturally, couldn’t care less.

There’s a veritable sense of place in this novella: the Ben Lomond is a real pub in Jarrow and it obviously has considerable history. Perhaps you could go there and experience the events of the later part of the book; but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone… What follows the closing up of the pub at the start of the book is a heady cocktail (quite literally, in places) of hesitant and guarded reminiscences of school days (Gav and Steve were, it seems, peers), drink and drugs, relationships and the inevitable problems with relationships, acute cultural differences, politics, Marxism and much else. Spurred on by drink and Ecstasy donated by Gav, Steve becomes a walking, swaying, encyclopaedia of the historical and the theoretical, unburdening himself to his fellow worker with impunity. It’s only a matter of minutes into the book when you realise he and Gav are very different.

Ultimately, Steve can’t handle the combination of booze and drugs and has to leave, but not before there’s an odd accident with the bottle fridges behind the bar. Gav is furious; Steve is confused to be blamed. The former eventually sends the latter away and starts to clear up the mess on his own: there and then, Gav seals his fate and is assailed by a presence we never quite get to see. I found this final sequence of the book truly terrifying and the timing and narrative flow is striking: the pages turn and turn at a fair speed. I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would genuinely spoil it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Untitled Ghost Story for its keenly-wrought sense of pace, the very black humour, the realism of the awkward dynamic between Gav and Steve and for the unseen and unwritten horror of its conclusion. This last is expertly handled by Moore. He understands that too great a revelation can ruin a piece like this, and the bare hints the reader is presented with leave an altogether more chilling picture. This book is a rare thing: properly a work of folk horror, I think, but contextualised not in the commonplace rural setting but in the heart of a depressed area of high unemployment and low morale, and with a real historical basis at the core of its horror. I enjoyed this ‘gripping urban drama’ immensely.

The novella is available, very inexpensively, for Kindle (UK/US) and apparently in ePub and Nook formats, although I wasn’t able to find a link in a quick search online.

Dennis Parry, ‘The Survivor’ (Valancourt Books, 2014)

The SurvivorI received a copy of The Survivor a few months ago as a gift from Mark Valentine, who has penned the new introduction to this, Parry’s third novel originally published in 1940. Mark has written a little about the book on the Wormwoodiana blog.

This handsome reprint is by Valancourt Books and the publisher describes it as ‘a classic story of the supernatural’. That’s an intriguing way to describe this novel, or at least the use of the adjective ‘classic’ is unusual. The Survivor doesn’t strike me as being typical in the sense I’d normally understand the term ‘classic supernatural fiction’: it’s not particularly Jamesian or like anything by, for instance, de la Mare, Machen, le Fanu or Blackwood. The ‘supernatural’ aspect to the story is placed upfront, and quite clinically described by Parry from relatively early on in the narrative; the remainder of the piece takes on quite a different kind of fictional clothing, akin to a period thriller with a race-against-time theme, I think. The events which unfold don’t particularly frighten or chill in that classic sense, and I didn’t really have that delicious sense of creeping dread I get from rereading those authors I’ve mentioned above in the context of classic supernatural fiction. However, I don’t really think that’s Parry’s intention with this novel. I’ll grant you, The Survivor’s revenant is not to be underestimated for the manipulative and cruel way it strives to destroy the family at the heart of the story. The novel’s conclusion also struck me as rather bleak and uncompromising.

The book’s story of spiritual takeover by a ruthless though brilliant doctor, James Marshall—for a tale of vengeful possession is what The Survivor is at its core—is told very well and with great gusto. I imagine parts of this must have been rather shocking for an audience in the 1940s, although to my more modern eyes, I confess some of the cultural references and the eccentricities of the family date the book a little, unsurprisingly perhaps since the ambit of the story is also one of parodying social mores and of railing against certain societal norms.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a negative reaction. I enjoyed The Survivor a great deal and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it: Parry’s writing is dense and articulate, particularly in the early descriptive passages of the winter- and epidemic-stricken fens, and his characterisation is splendid. James Marshall, the powerful, complex, flawed doctor at the centre of the narrative will remain in my memory for a long time as a larger-than-life and close-to-sociopathic ‘villain’, but who has, for all that, flashes of humanity (at least while alive!). There is something cinematic about his brand of cynicism and manipulation.

Mark Valentine makes the point in his introduction that The Survivor is a rarity precisely because it is a successful novel-length tale of the supernatural (how many others can you name?). And I think he hits the nail on the head by positing that “[Parry] has written a modern and ironic ghost story.” I think that’s a truer set of descriptors for this book, rather than classic supernatural fiction per se.

On the strength of the writing here, which is sharp and witty and dosed with a cruel irony, I would like to read more of Parry’s work: there’s no doubt he was a fine prose stylist. This is the first time The Survivor has been republished since its original outing in 1940. Parry had written ten novels by the point of his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 42 and seems to have been largely forgotten after that, which is a pity. An obscure author then, but this is a novel which I’m glad has been brought back to public notice by Mark Valentine and the good people at Valancourt. They state on their blog: ‘If you like intelligent, interesting, out-of-the-way fiction, give Dennis Parry a shot — you might be very pleasantly surprised.’ I think that’s a very fair summation of The Survivor, and one I’ve very happy to echo here.