“Weirdo” by Cathi Unsworth

Nowadays horror fiction spends a lot of time pretending to be other genres. We’ve all seen those bookshop Crime Fiction shelves groaning with books full of occult, weird and even outright supernatural content, but which are being marketed as “noir” or “thrillers” to avoid alienating the horror-phobic modern reader. Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo is one such book. It does have a conventional crime plot, with a disabled ex-policeman, Sean Ward, hired to investigate a miscarriage of justice surrounding Corinne, a woman who was found guilty of murder back in the 80s and is still in a psychiatric facility. However, it has a distinctly gothic flavour – witchcraft and Goth culture are the major themes, and some passages are very hard to explain away without resorting to the supernatural.

The book is set in the little Norfolk coastal town of Ernemouth, and the intrigue skips between the 80s and the present day, as Ward visits the town to dig up old skeletons. I like this kind of structure, but in this case the 80s section was a lot more compelling than the modern, more crime-y part. On the plus side the descriptions of Ward’s physical and mental suffering relating to his disability are convincing, and I liked the social worker character. 

I was more interested in the parts set in the 80s, though even here I didn’t find the book worthy of the exorbitant praise heaped on it by the mainstream media. The evocations of Goth culture are disappointing, and I say that as a Goth myself, who grew up dowsed in the post-punk music of my older sibilings’ record collections. As I had feared from this music-themed interview with the author, the type of Goth she is selling is the dour, politically preoccupied, borderline punk end of the spectrum. The bands that loom the largest here (apart from the ineluctable Sisters of Mercy) are New Model Army, Killing Joke and, yes, Echo and the f*cking Bunnymen. None of these are actually bad bands – some are very good – but together they form a rather narrow slice of Goth culture, a slice that, in this book at least, is so studiously devoid of humour, playful imagination or flamboyance that it almost beggars belief. The camp side of things is only represented by a very brief nod to Soft Cell, and Heaven help you if Unsworth catches you approving of Madonna, who she views as a perverter of youthful innocence. I am prepared to accept that this anarcho-punk-by-another-name was the reality of what the Goth scene was like in places like the fictional (but all-too-recognizable) Ernemouth back in the 80s, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading on the whole.

Generally speaking, I do love a good East Anglian setting. Unsworth’s version, however, only scores averagely in terms of vividness and originality. Having been personally scarred by the almost Lovecraftian horror of Cromer I had been bracing myself for something a lot more piquant. ( My dentist saw me reading this book in the waiting-room and, seeing the darkening wasteland on the cover, asked me if it was post-apocalyptic. No, I replied, it’s just set in Norfolk.) I can’t comment on the representation of small-town Norfolk language (my mother, who comes from that world, didn’t find the dialogue convincing, but she’s quite a bit older than Unsworth so that might account for it.)

Now for the strong points. The 80s parts of the book are enlivened by a couple of good characters among the many uninteresting ones drifting blackly around the godforsaken seaside town. Corinne herself is a really likable character with a decent amount of depth and some believable flaws, and her mother, a damaged, abusive, leather-knickered  proto-Goth biker tart, is definitely a memorable depiction of female evil. In this book the female characters are more convincing than the men – even the clique of corrupt townsmen that constitutes the Bad Guys are very standard and forgettable. So if you like strong (though not necessarily nice, or sane) women characters, you will be well-served here, and Unsworth’s heart is in the right place with regard to social justice issues.

As a whole, the novel is certainly not what you’d call badly written, but it felt vague and aimless, and scores poorly as a whodunnit. It feels like a missed opportunity, and strangely, provides no real insight at all into something that non-Goths are often curious about: what makes teenagers become Goths? Corinne’s fondness for a New Model Army song is described in terms of a desire to hit back at the bastards in her life, but that’s hardly saying much, and you could have written the same scene using the music of almost any punk band. Still, I will probably give Unsworth at least one more go before writing her off, since she’s written a lot of noirish books of various kinds, some with paranormal themes.

R.B. Russell collection

I’ve long been a fan of the Tartarus Press, and although it was over a decade ago I still remember how delighted I was to receive my first ever TP book, the purple and almost impossibly beautiful hardback of the Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley. So I’ve been following the subsequent writing careers of both the editors, R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, with some interest. TP have been doing more paperbacks recently (a move I applaud!) and they’ve recently put out a “Why Take Two Books Into The Shower?” compilation of Russell’s first two collections of short stories, Putting The Pieces in Place and Literary Remains. (apologies for the Abebooks link – the TP website doesn’t seem to exist anymore so I couldn’t link to that.)

Putting The Pieces in Place, which originally came out in 2009, contains only five stories, but they are quite long. The title story, about a music collector who seeks to recreate a youthful encounter with a gifted violinist, gets things off to a weak start – an excessive amount of background information is conveyed in the dialogue, which feels stilted and unrealistic as a result. Fortunately things pick up immediately with ‘There’s Nothing That I Wouldn’t Do’, about an architecture student whose study visit to Eastern Europe includes an awkward affair with a local boy, ending in further alienation and horror. This is one of the best stories in the collection, with a nice John Howard Mittel-Europa vibe, psychological realism and a light touch that makes the ending even more impactful. ‘In Hiding’ is another good one, somewhat reminiscent of John Fowle’s The Magus with its sunny Greek island setting, preoccupation with identity and disorienting plot twist – but more economical in style! The remaining two stories are okay – ‘Eleanor’ is a fairly light-hearted, modern riff on the familiar theme of a writer haunted by one of his characters. ‘Dispossessed’ is darker and deals with a woman whose precarious living conditions are involved in the warping of her perception of the world, with sinister and surreal consequences.

Literary Remains only came out a year later, but there are definite signs of Russell developing as a writer. The type of quiet, slightly dreamlike tale that forms his stock-in-trade is well-represented here. The title story is good, and again deals with writers and old cultural artifacts, since it’s about two literary types going over the flat of a deceased author. This is certainly not a typical antiquarian ghost story though: the malaise is augmented by sexual anxiety and it has a very close, personal feel. The dance between the haunters and the haunted as they negotiate the past-choked apartment is impressively well-done. I also liked ‘An Artist’s Model’, especially for the insight it gives into life as an art student. I don’t know if Russell himself has any artistic training – though the excellent black-and-white illustrations that used to grace the old Tartarus Press books all seem to be credited to him – but he certainly seems to know what he’s talking about.

Similarly, ‘Asphodel’ is an interesting look at the world of vanity publishing, told from the point of view of an editor who works in such a company. It would’ve been easy to make such a person into a hate figure, but Russell eschews the obvious here. Other good stories in this collection include ‘Loup Garou’, which makes deft use of the fascination of old film to convey a tale of rustic romance and tragedy, ‘Llanfihangel’ (an original and convincing haunted-house number) and ‘A Revelation’ (a shorter, darkly humorous tale about the weird stuff that goes on within the walls of other peoples’ houses.) Aickman is an obvious influence, though in general it’s the softer, more gently mournful and romantic type of of Aickman story, rather than the more overt horror of stories like ‘Ringing The Changes’. The subject matter is often quite reminiscent of Oliver Onions too, with all that art and literature and clinging, nebulous influences.

The collection as a whole does suffer from a certain sameness of tone, and some of the longer stories have a muffled quality which began to pall after a while. Many of the characters seem to be living in a constant state of flattened affect, which is almost certainly deliberate, but the way they tend to drift through their stories makes you want to give them a good shake occasionally. That said, I don’t think this would be half so much of a problem if one were encountering these stories in an anthology with other authors. Overall this is a highbrow collection of gentle, elegant writing that avoids anything lurid or coarse, and when the tales are successful they do have the sort of lingering effect on the mind that many authors strive to achieve.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

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