Friday, February 4, 2011

Dark Corners

In the afterword to his first story collection, Dark Corners, Stephen Volk writes, "Whether, en masse, these diverse fragments tell you anything about their author, I honestly have no idea.  Other than the 'Venables' stories, they all seem quite diverse to me."  He goes on to acknowledge that some readers may notice connections that he hasn't, but for me the most striking thing about these stories is indeed their variety.  From traditional ghost stories to more modern monsters to non-supernatural tales of psychological suspense, Dark Corners runs the gamut of horror fiction, and does so in style.

The "Venables" stories to which Volk refers all feature Mr. Venables, an early twentieth-century investigator of the supernatural, and are written in the style of Victorian and Edwardian masters like M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.  The first paragraph of the earliest of them, "The Latin Master," gives some sense of their general tone:
The last time I met Bairstowe was at ten o'clock on New Year's Eve, ten years ago, in the library of the Ludlow Club in Chelsea, then as now frequented almost exclusively by authors and artists of varying degrees of repute, and talent.  Only now, writing this up on a dreary Sunday evening, has it occurred to me that I never saw Bairstowe but in the Ludlow Club.  As far as I know, he ate, drank and slept there, as if it were a self-imposed prison, which perhaps it was-- I shall let the story he told speak for itself.
I'm a big fan of traditional antiquarian ghost stories, but I'm afraid that on the whole I found the Venables stories a mixed bag.  Their period language, while perfectly accurate as far as I can tell, sometimes feels rather stiff, and the hauntings are often too predictable to be frightening.  The ones I most enjoyed, "The Anamorph of Hans Baldung Grien" and "A Pair of Pince-Nez," succeed because their ghostly encounters include a psychologically harrowing element that I could almost call Lovecraftian.  Not in the narrow meaning of tentacled, noisome creatures, but because of the sense they create of the vastness of time and the smallness of humanity.

I was more consistently impressed by the pieces with a modern setting and sensibility.  The collection opens with one I'd read previously, in one of the volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. "31/10" is a sequel of sorts to Ghostwatch, the infamous Halloween hoax Volk (also a screenwriter) wrote for the BBC in 1992.  (I haven't gotten around to watching it myself, but it's on Google Video if you're curious.)  Ten years later, Volk and several others connected with the programme are invited to spend the night in the studio where it was shot.  As you might imagine, this doesn't go well.  The story, written in first person present tense and separated into sections by the passage of minutes, is thoroughly gripping.  Not so much for its concrete horrors, which are limited to the last couple pages, but because of Volk's elegant prose style.  It records his fictional alter ego's reactions to events and the associations they bring up, so I could call it stream-of-consciousness, but it's so finely honed and focused that the word hardly seems to apply.  This style does so much to put the reader on edge that by the time events take a dark turn, even the simplest strange behaviors become chilling.

A similarly stark prose style enlivens several other fine stories from the collection.  Here, by way of example, is the opening to the brief but potent "Three Fingers, One Thumb:"
Frankly, I wasn't taken in the by the castle.  It looked fake.  But of course, that was what it was all about.  Fairytales.  Make believe.  Fake.  Of course, it didn't matter.  Our five year old, Elize, was completely spellbound, and that was what counted.  This was her world.  Their world.  Children.
Somewhat to my surprise, given my usual indifference to non-supernatural psychological horror, those are the stories from Dark Corners that come to mind when I think of favorites.  This is perhaps because Volk's gift for language enables him to find tension and drama in situations that might otherwise seem mundane, and because he often manages to hide his true intentions in such stories until near the end.  "Indicator," for instance, seemed to me to be going nowhere in particular until the very last line, when it all came together with the force of a thunderclap.  And even though I'd been expecting some version of the ending to "No Harm Done," the description of what actually occurs is so effective that I'm willing to overlook the literal implausibility of the story's last few pages.

Most of the stories in Dark Corners are, well, dark.  The lone exception, "Curious Green Colors Sleep Furiously," is also the longest of the included stories.  A wordplay-laden surrealist fantasy about a detective hired to locate the mysterious artifact known as the Fi, it has some hilarious moments and is, on the whole, very clever, but it's also a little too meandering and random for my tastes.  I think that, contrary to what one might expect, nonsense must be strictly controlled if it's to be entertaining to a reader, and "Curious Green..." is having a little too much fun with itself.  I should admit, though, that I'm not a great fan of comic surrealism in any form, and that may be biasing me against the story.

Precisely because the stories in Dark Corners are so varied, it's difficult to feel I've done them justice without discussing each one in detail.  So far I haven't even mentioned the power Volk finds in the everyday events of "Time Capsule," the dark irony of "The Best in the Business," or the ghoulish game played by the children of wartime London in "Blitzenstein."  But I think I've said enough to communicate the range of Volk's talents.  I'd encourage all horror fans to seek out a copy of Dark Corners, which, unlike many contemporary short fiction collections in the genre, is available as an inexpensive trade paperback.  Its scope almost guarantees that it will offer that most common of marketing cliches: something for everyone.

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