In recent years I have become something of an afficionado of short stories, partly thanks to those published in Interzone and Black Static magazines, the former devoted to science fiction and the latter to horror. Anthologies abound, but you would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying horror collection than the seventeen stories published in This Dreaming Isle, edited by Dan Coxon and published by Unsung Stories.
To be specific, the cover blurb describes these as “horror stories and weird fictions” that draw upon “the landscape and history of the British Isles”. Actually, as the singular term of the title suggests, all of the stories are set on the mainland rather than the surrounding isles, but such quibbling aside it is true that these tales have a very British feel to them. In fact, the stories are grouped into three sections: Country, City and Coast. Within these we have a range of familiar physical environments, including angry skies, roiling clouds, rolling hills, a treacherous reservoir, turbulent seas, traffic jams, a lethal industrial development, a smart Kensington apartment, beaches, fossils, cliffs, seagulls and old country houses. The supernatural or strange entities include a legendary nuisance ghost dog, a pre-Christian tribe in the hills near the Kent coast, a kind of human caterpillar, a mysterious Twitter account, a mythical hill-walker, a dead artist who may or may not live within his paintings, and a siren.
Frequently, these landscapes and phenomena (real or imagined) are the backdrop to ordinary human concerns (e.g. a woman escaping a difficult background maneuvres herself into marriage with a financially successful man; a mother and daughter try to repair a difficult relationship by holidaying together; a son finds himself manipulated by a difficult, but sick, father; a right-wing internet troll rages against the world; an aging actor is made to feel young again by a beautiful woman). In the way that a walker in unfamiliar country might start out happily in the sunshine, but then misread their map whilst ignoring or overlooking the signs of the weather turning, eventually realising they have no idea where they are just as the storm breaks, so the sense of unease in many of these stories builds up gradually until the protagonists are literally or metaphorically out of their depth.
I was impressed by the consistently excellent quality of the contributions. Also, there are no “long” short stories, which I assume was due to editorial guidance (the longest, I think, was in the region of twenty pages). For myself, as someone who often likes to read a story before going to sleep, these were of an ideal length: I never once found sleep creeping over me before I reached the end of a story.
The book comes with an interesting introduction by editor, Dan Coxon, who notes that the book was conceived before the referendum on EU membership and with no expectation that the vote would go the way it did. He is at pains to point out that none of the stories in this collection create a nationalistic fantasy of some past golden age of Britain. Rather: “The past is a dangerous, cutthroat place, filled with violence, injustice and inequality”. Quite so.