Lost Places, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Horror, at its best, takes the mundane and every-day, and then corrupts it through a distorting lens beyond what it’s built to withstand. The safety of the normal world is left behind, replaced by a tangential, edgy unfamiliarity. Allied, of course, to a heightened sense of skin-crawling fear (but not necessarily gore, although it has its place, but only in the right measure). Each of the eighteen stories in Lost Places, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s first collection (from the excellent Ash-Tree Press of Canada), carves moments out of life, and then stretches them out to beyond their (and the character’s) natural endurance. (Note: in this review not every story will be touched upon, but representative examples will be highlighted instead).

At the heart of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s writing is a temporal and spatial disruption, a dislocation of reality, inflicted on characters whose worlds and realities have been fractured. The veils between this world and the one next door are often much thinner than we bargain for: Lovecraft realised this too, and very effectively utilised the idea in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle. Simon uses this device superbly, bringing home to us that it wouldn’t take much, a twist in space here and a break in the flow of time there, and chaos would surely ensue. This theme is emphatically emphasised by the opener, “A Different Morecambe”, where a simple day-trip to a familiar haunt reveals how fragile reality is: and “The Station Waiting Room”, where a village’s unknown malaise is discovered to have an origin beyond our knowledge and understanding. The disruptive influence in “The Lemon in the Pool” is the all-too human fear of rejection and of not belonging, being out of place and time: “Old Man’s Pantry” is where the veil alluded to is at its thinnest – a runner, practising his sport within a myth-infused landscape, becomes entrapped in a frightening fusion of the two worlds, when a figure out of legend is given the flesh of a terrifying, relentless, unforgiving solidity and reality.

Relational disruption figures prominently in this collection, too: in the “A Different Morecambe” story mentioned above, for example: also, that very real fear, mixed with the unholy prospect of losing someone precious (who is essentially a link to a normal, grounded life), motivates the chilling “An Afternoon with Danny” – a tale that’ll make any parent empathise with the adult character’s situation. “Flappy the Bat”, as well as charting the breakdown of a couple’s parental relationship with their young child, doubles as a cautionary tale: what effect do the programmes our children watch have on their fragile psyches? “Forest Lodge”, superficially a tale of a spectre threatening a young teenage boy, becomes a studied delineation of the fractured, fractious relationships between, principally, a husband and wife (although she’s only alluded to very briefly in the story), and secondarily, between the man and his son. Unsworth builds up the mounting atmosphere of menace magnificently in this particular story – a truly thrilling ride.

Some of them are simply good solid, scary fun, in their own macabre, horrific way. “A Meeting of Gemmologists” reminded me of a segment in an Amicus portmanteau film – fabulous stuff: “Stevie’s Duck” – preposterous as its premise might appear at first glance (a giant, menacing duck terrorising a small boy), actually made me wonder what would happen if nature decided to get its own back on our wilful rapine of its bounty. “The Animal Game” is a brutal meditation on how we see ourselves and how others see us – and yet, there is something blackly humorous about its savage dénouement and the truth of its underlying subtext.  “Scucca”, a story of malign, ill-intentioned forces just out of reach of the mundane world, is simply classic horror storytelling at its best, entirely (and brilliantly) reminiscent of MR James and EA Poe.

However good these tales are, however, there are three stories which are absolutely outstanding, even in amongst what is already a marvellous set. “When the World Goes Quiet” is a sideways glance at a zombie apocalypse, but without the hordes of shambling, shuffling decaying creatures to blunt its utter hopelessness and stasis-inducing fear – how would you cope in such circumstances? “The Baking of Cakes” is, simply, one of THE best short stories this reviewer has read in a very long time – the ending packs more punch than many a book-length novel, made all the more powerful because it inspires sadness and empathy in great measure, and is a tour-de-force of compact writing. Finally, the deservedly World Fantasy Award-nominated “The Church on the Island”, is a tale of, once again, temporal and spatial disruption, but makes much more obviously, chillingly and very weightily the consequences of rending that veil which protects us from the reign of chaos that would doom humanity. Its brightly lit location only serves to highlight its chiaroscurotic nature, throwing into sharp relief just how fragile the dividing line really is, and the malignity of the forces ranged against the world.

To reiterate, horror, at its best, takes the mundane and every-day, and then corrupts it through a distorting lens beyond its prescribed limits. Every story in this collection does that and more, delivering darkly, deliciously condensed thrills and shivers. Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to even make the daylight dangerous, giving it a sharp, steely edge. In these days, where style over content is often the consensual measure of ‘quality’, it’s reassuring that there are still those who swim against the tide, producing original, thought-provoking and deeply satisfying stories. Simon, hopefully, will one day go beyond the small-press and make the jump into the mainstream – he certainly deserves to.

Read the original review here.

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5 Responses to “Lost Places, by Simon Kurt Unsworth”

  1. RIJU GANGULY Says:

    After I had read the stories in this book (being amongst those fortunate few who got hold of the WHC special Paperback), I had experienced something similar: very-very mundane activities often hide potentially horrific stuff that nightmares are made of, and the author has shown how some of them can become too tangible. The reviewer has done a great job, and Simon Kurt Unsworth is worthy of such praise. May the author grant us many more such jewels in future.

  2. Excellent review, Simon.

    This is next on my ever-growing TBR pile (it’s jumped the queue of quite a few books!) and I’ve yet to hear a bad word said about these stories.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this, and I know I won’t be disappointed.

  3. When you’ve read all Hornblower, It’s reassuring to know there’s Alexander Kent. Likewise, when you’ve been through the full works of James, Lovecraft, Machen, Smith and all the rest, there is still Unsworth to hold the flag aloft.

  4. Oh – great review. Says it all, especially the ‘dangerous daylight’ !

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