The Good Unknown is a new collection of eleven stories by Stephen Volk and is published by Tartarus Press. The collection spans twenty five years of Stephen’s writing career, with the oldest story to feature first published in 1998, and also contains three new stories.
Unrecovered is the opening story and concerns Project Orinoco, a scheme by which ex members of the armed forces are given experience in new trades and skills which they can hopefully use for future employment. The project also has a rehabilitation aspect to it, the participants victims of both physical and psychological trauma resulting from their time in combat zones around the world. In this case, the work experience is an archaeological dig and the story is told in first person narration by Zoe, the dig’s supervisor.
The title of the story is the official term for the bodies of the dead which are left on the battlefield – an account of which occurs within this tale, one rendered in disturbing detail – but, as all good titles are, is applicable to so many other facets of the story. Most notably, it’s a perfect description of the soldiers themselves; traumatised by what they’ve witnessed and still recovering from the impact of those horrors. It’s also applicable to Zoe herself, still in recovery from pre-cancerous changes in her breast, the chemotherapy she is undergoing - and the brain-fuzz it causes - adding a nice note of ambiguity to the scenes in which she catches glimpses of ghostly figures as her relationship with the soldiers, and one in particular, progresses.
Fittingly, the dig unearths a military burial site; soldiers discovering soldiers. The wounds on the excavated bodies are still obvious although only skeletal vestiges remain, a potent reminder that conflict, and its outcomes, has always been a part of human existence.
As the finds are uncovered, so too are the layers of the soldiers’ stories. Subtexts are revealed alongside the subsoil until the ghosts of the ancient past, the recent past and the present come together in a denouement which is as moving as it is profound.
There’s a first person narration in the second story of the collection too. In The Waiting Room that voice belongs to Thomas Frank Heaphy, a painter of miniatures who shares the narrative with a slightly more famous artist of the time, Charles Dickens. The use of real people in fictionalised encounters is a feature of Stephen’s work of course, most notably in his wonderful Dark Masters Trilogy which features Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley (as well as Aleister Crowley). The Waiting Room has an added air of authenticity by dint of it being based on a real incident; an accusation of plagiarism by Heaphy against Dickens for publishing a story that was identical to one he had himself written based on his own encounter with a ghostly figure in a train.
The story is a marvellously rendered pastiche, the voice employed entirely authentic (with suitably Dickensian names for the supporting cast such as Erasmus Egg) and one which you can imagine being read out in front of a roaring fire at a Gentlemen’s club. The ghost story at its core is suitably creepy but there’s more to it than simply being a spooky tale, with ruminations on art as a psychic ability (whatever the “medium”) forming a discussion between the protagonists. It also has something to say about the power of storytelling, specifically its ability to act as a release, that term used here in a most literal sense.
Three Fingers, One Thumb is the third story in the collection and continues the trend set by the first two with its first person narration. This is the story which was originally published in 1998 – making it the oldest of the collection – and it’s also the shortest, coming in at under 1500 words.
It’s also the first story of Stephen’s that I read (though probably a few years after its initial publication). I remember how impressed I had been at the time, amazed at how much could be achieved with such a small word count and my feelings about it reading it again are exactly the same.
This is a truly wonderful short story. Its construction is brilliant; setting the scene in the first couple of paragraphs before tracking back in time to provide a back-story that tells you everything you need to know about the protagonists before a lovely segue returns you to the here and now and the drama which is about to unfold. The skill of the writing which precedes it means that the final line is landed perfectly. And what a line it is, the horror of its implication hitting you not once, but twice. Masterful stuff.
First person narration #4 is brought to you by the next story, 31/10. In about as meta a way as you can get, the narrator turns out to be Stephen himself, here to tell all about the making of Ghostwatch 2, Return to Studio 1.
Which, of course, never happened.
Or did it?
No, it didn’t. But, given the whole controversy over the original Ghostwatch was due to people thinking it was real rather than scripted and acted, it seems only fitting that this story should play on that motif, presenting itself as reality rather than fiction.
Reality being a key word. It’s fair to say that this story is an attack on the vacuousness of modern TV programming, (the story was written in 2006 but things have not improved, have actually even gotten worse, since then), with its reliance on “Reality” shows rather than original drama. Indeed, Ghostwatch 2 is pitched as a reality show, with celebs (including the author himself) returning to the studio where it was filmed with cameras there to record what happens.
In much the same way that the upbeat The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite feels out of place amid the otherwise melancholy atmosphere of REM’s Automatic for the People album, so 31/10 feels a little out of step with the rest of the collection with its sardonic humour and, it has to be said, a fair bit of venting by the author. That said, it is hugely enjoyable and is, again, a very cleverly constructed story which mirrors the original Ghostwatch with its slowly accumulating horrors leading to a dramatic climax.
The Good Unknown, the story which gives the collection its title, breaks away from the first person narrative format into third person, allowing access to both of the tale’s protagonists; veteran actor Karen Berg and Davy Praed, making his film debut alongside her.
Plucked from obscurity, this (major) role makes him the “unknown” but, as with the opening story Unrecovered, there’s much more that can be read into the title. This story is very much a meditation on death – the last great unknown – a key scene in the film being Praed’s character’s suicide, the filming of which is preceded by a discussion on his motivation for carrying out the act.
In common with The Waiting Room, there are also insights into art and its creation. At one point Karen remembers being told “art has to have a pattern because life does not,” and during his audition, Davy is told to stop reading the book on which the film is based: “Read the script. The book won’t give you any answers. The book is just reality.”
That’s an important “just”. The previous story, 31/10, made no secret of its opinions on “reality” TV and the way in which it erodes the concept of creativity. Art is hugely important; it allows us to explore concepts and emotions which the strictures of real life prevent. The film being made is based on real events but it’s the creative flair of the writer, director and actors which will bring it to life.
And death, of course.
The Flickering Light introduces us to Piet and Bell, who are hosting a dinner party for their friends. Demis Roussos’ Forever and Ever might not be playing on the home stereo but there’s a definite Abigail’s Party vibe to this story, exposing as it does the shallowness of the middle class supping their prosecco and consuming artisan bread from the local bakery. In an extension of the art/reality theme which has run through the preceding stories, there’s a real sense that the characters here are playing parts. Lacking the skill or imagination to create their own versions of themselves, to be individuals, they have instead become stereotypes; the ageing hippy Hilton in his Hawaiian shirt, the “fashionably late” Jacquetta in her faux fur coat.
The superficiality and artificiality of their personas means that those characteristics apply to their relationships too, most significantly in the case of Piet and Bell. At one point “he demonstrated smiling”, a sentence which perfectly describes his character. Which is a controlling one. (Perhaps Piet is a reference to Piet Mondrian, best known for his geometrical designs in which everything is neat and tidy and in its place).
Of all of them, it’s Bell who is the most grounded and “real”, also the most romantic and imaginative, willing to accept the supernatural provenance of the flickering light inside the house (which Piet has designed), despite the cynicism of the others when she attempts to explain it.
The flickering light can be seen as a metaphor for her and Piet’s relationship of course, on the brink of extinguishing completely but there’s also the possibility that it’s one Bell is glimpsing at the end of a tunnel.
Hojo the Fearless is set in feudal Japan and is a related in the form of a fable. In it, the titular character, a samurai, is sent by the Emperor to the village of Orobi whose inhabitants are under siege by a plague of ghosts. (Hojo’s reputation is obviously such that the standard seven samurai are not required). Unfortunately, Hojo turns out to be arrogant and hubristic, qualities which only serve to make the situation worse both for the villagers and himself.
Fables are, of course, wide open for interpretation. The story was originally written – or at the least published – in 2009 but it’s proved to be an eerily prescient commentary on the state of British politics in recent years; an arena in which individuals are given responsibilities merely as a result of their privileged backgrounds, individuals who are completely unsuited for those responsibilities and whose arrogance, laziness and complete lack of dedication to the job result in catastrophe for those whose safety and wellbeing they are in charge of.
Baby on Board is told from the point of view of a police officer who discovers a car parked dangerously by the side of the road. On further inspection he discovers the driver, a young man, still inside and, seeing how tired and drawn he is, gets him to agree to having a coffee at the nearby service station. The story then unfolds via the conversation between the two men, a technique Stephen also used (brilliantly I have to say) in his story The Peter Lorre Fanclub.
It's a hugely effective way of doing things, especially when executed as skilfully as this is, making readers feel as if they’re sitting at the next table, eavesdropping. In a book full of ghosts, this is perhaps the most haunting of them all.
The spirit of M R James is well and truly evoked in the next story, Cold Ashton. Set in the 1940s, it features an academic finding themselves in the remote, rural location which provides the story’s title who, in the course of researching the village’s peculiar name, uncovers dark secrets from the past. It’s by far the most traditional story in the collection with its taciturn locals, tales of dark deeds unearthed in the parish records and a hugely authentic voice employed to pay homage to the authors of horror’s golden age.
There’s an authenticity too to the research presented within the story, the instances of witchcraft, shapeshifting and deviltry which took place in and around the village presented, in typical sixteenth century style, as simply a matter of record and when the explanation for its name is finally revealed it creates a genuine shudder.
In the same way that 31/10 provided a sequel of sorts to the TV show Ghostwatch, so the next story, Lost Loved Ones does the same for Afterlife, also created by Stephen, which ran for two series in 2005 and 2006.
It’s by far the longest story in the collection – novella length in fact – which I imagine would be the equivalent of a single episode of the TV series were it to be filmed. It begins with the death of Alison Mundy’s father, she being the main character of Afterlife, a psychic with the gift (or curse) of being able to see the spirits of the departed. Her trip to the hospital brings her into contact with one such spirit, a man dressed in motorbike leathers and it’s her investigation into him that provides the narrative of the story.
Reconciliation with death was a major theme of the Afterlife series, something which pertained to the main characters as well as those whose stories made up the fourteen episodes and that’s also the case here. Whilst the death of her own father was expected, that of the young motorcyclist was not but will the reasons for his “haunting” prove to be a simple unwillingness to move on or are there other forces at play?
There’s a foray into second person narrative (a favourite of mine) for the final story The Crossing. The “you” to whom the story is addressed is Dylan, a troubled teenager reluctantly participating in a family holiday to Dungeness.
It’s a coming of age story with the title possibly referencing the transition from childhood to adulthood but there’s another, more literal, interpretation given that the location of the story, on the south-east coast of England, lends it proximity to the ongoing tragedy of the small boat crossings of the Channel. Political rhetoric has reframed it as a threat, a ploy willingly accepted by the feeble of brain, a distraction, completely ignoring the real horror of the situation for those involved.
The now famous image of a young child washed up dead on a beach features heavily in the story, an image which comes almost to obsess Dylan, haunting his thoughts and actions, his own personal journey becoming inextricably linked to the final one taken by the boy.
To one extent or another, the stories in The Good Unknown are all ghost stories. Actual apparitions appear in six of them but even in the remaining five the characters are in some way haunted by past encounters or experiences. In Lost Loved Ones, Alison opines that “ghosts were the natural consequence of the brain trying to make sense of what it saw,” – not real entities but images created by the mind as a coping mechanism. It’s an interesting perspective and this collection as a whole would seems to suggest that the emotion that is most likely to create this mechanism is grief – “...the perpetual human condition. It’s a given. A constant,” as Alison also believes.
Grief and loss infiltrate almost all of the stories here, along with the need for closure for those who are haunted by it. Lost Loved Ones may be the title of only one of the stories but as a theme it prevails in many of them, most strikingly when those lost are children – a feature of The Waiting Room, 3 Fingers, 1 Thumb, indirectly in The Crossing and perhaps most movingly in Baby On Board. That desire for closure provides the narrative thrust of these stories; sometimes it’s obtained, sometimes not although both outcomes provide their own horrors along the way.
This is another outstanding collection from Stephen Volk. In a review of his work many years ago I called him a master craftsman and it’s an assessment I stand by, and one which is reinforced by the stories in The Good Unknown. It’s a book I heartily recommend.