Unthology 10, Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones.
And the question is, always, what to do now? How to act now that the catastrophe is here? Who do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? A shadow of yourself or the self of your shadow?
Fight or Flight?
And so readers are invited into the eclectic mix that is Unthology 10. The introduction to the series promises darkness, paranoia, and a touch of the macabre. It’s an intriguing if unsettling premise for the fourteen short stories that follow. The stories range from tales of suburban dreams, fugitives on the run, winged demigods taking flight across the skies, to stories of addiction, loss, grief, and a desire to be haunted. Ultimately, the stories come down to choices. When faced with the unexpected in life, how much agency do we really have to our lives? What do we choose, and how much of ‘choice’ is an illusion?
In Rosa and Kelsey, by Kathryn Simmonds, Londoner Matthew has bought into the ‘idyll’ of country life. Except, pretty Cornwall cannot, he discovers, compete with the ‘galley kitchen and box room, the front door opening onto the beautiful, filthy city he has lost.’ His homesickness permeates the narrative and we’re left with an overriding sense of sadness and futility. There’s ‘only so much pleasure he can take from awaiting the appearance of a radish’. His toddler, Rosa, ‘socially confident’, has no trouble settling in. Wife, Megan, with her ‘pop-choir’ and ‘Pilates’ on a Wednesday, is thriving. An encounter with a local, beer swigging father simply heightens Matthew’s inadequate presence in the country and, in an attempt to prove himself, leaves him teetering, literally, on the edge of a cliff.
Whilst it’s difficult to root for the man who seriously wonders ‘how long can a grown man sustain interest in the whims and wants and observations of a toddler?’ He’s ‘reasonably’ agreed to share childcare duties with his wife, and who passes instant, negative judgements on his new neighbours, driving Megan to roll her eyes, ‘God, Matthew. Just because someone doesn’t read The Guardian or follow all your cultural references, it doesn’t mean you can’t be friends,’ you can’t help but feel a touch of sympathy at his final cry ‘I’m in pain here, don’t you understand? I’m in pain’.
K.M Elkes’s stand-out Ursa Minor brightly builds up excitement, and is swept up in the hot euphoria of love, which then follows the grey fadeout to despair, what’s left is the unhappy taste of anger. Carrie and Jack are ‘soulmates’, knowing in the instant they meet that they belong together, swapping childhood stories about ‘the strange joy-fear of being alone in the woods, the perils of witchobble’ and listening to ‘the tremolo call of owls’. It’s a whirlwind romance of six months, followed by marriage. But when the hoped for pregnancy does not happen, Carrie embarks on the IVF route. Their relationship moves from ‘easy together… sat thigh-to-thigh on the deck…listening to the call of loon birds above the river’ to Carrie’s calender marked with ‘good days for sex’ and a ‘silent, clinical rhythm’. Jack finds himself reduced to a ‘DH’ for ‘dear husband’ on the IVF forums Carrie obsesses over: his role is functional. Cycle after cycle fails and Jack’s helpless anger at Carrie’s blind hope , her refusal to accept their situation, begins to eat away at the marriage. ‘I’m sorry. It’s different now,’ is all Carrie can say. She borrows money from her parents to continue. ‘This isn’t your gig’ friend Dale informs him prosaically, when Jack describes the hospital visits. So he lies awake beside Carrie, longing to simply get up, to leave for the woods like he Carrie used to, before. He imagines, ‘listening to the night under a spilt litter of stars’.
Elkes marries beautifully poetic observations and evocative imagery to the cold, hard language of science and facts – hospitals, sterile waiting rooms, the human futility, the lack of control over ‘nature’.
The narrative of Tom Vowler’s Blowhole takes readers unawares. In the form of a letter, it begins, ‘Dear Mrs Stanley, Forgive me for writing,’ shortly concluded, ‘From Susie’. The relationship between the two women, for they’ve never met, is gleaned from what Susie leaves unsaid, from the silences between the sentences. The unease builds up delicately. There’s just something about the gentle, conversational tone of Susie’s words. You can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s a slow burn, this story. Little moments drawn by Susie’s confessions about her life with her husband, Preston, till you reach the elegantly understated, and therefore all the more powerful for it, reveal at the end. It would be unfair to give it away here. The noncommittal blurb of ‘Receive a letter from a Stranger’ is, I believe, suitably justified.
But, it’s not all darkness and despair. Liam Hogan’s humorous Tenth Circle, for example, offers readers a welcome respite. A tongue in cheek comment on the publishing industry, the story follows an ambitious Italian writer, Dante, is looking to sell his latest masterpiece, ‘a Comedia’, it’s the first part of trilogy, the enthusiastic writer explains to his unimpressed publisher. ‘Peg it back a step, Dante my son,’ is the advice he gets, followed by, ‘Why don’t you try something lighter, in prose form maybe? And write about what you know, yes?’ When that solid advice falls on deaf ears, ‘Make it real, and true, and funny, and, if you can, sexy’. Needless to say, we know how this one ends.
Household Gods, by Tracy Fells is an uplifting, redemptive story about love, forgiveness, bereavement, and hope. A beautiful, miniature portrait, each word is a brushstroke adding depth and colour to the story’s singular characters, each one locked away in their isolated unhappiness, until the mythical narrative weaves them together into a whole at the end.
In A Moment That Could Last Them Forever, by Dan Carpenter, the narrator is a medium who doesn’t ‘do Ouija boards, séances or anything’. She’s different. Instead, her customers, mostly the ‘older crowd’ mark their daily journeys on a map with a line, from and to home, every time they make it. It’s a sad exercise for Edna, exposing the smallness of her world. But, desperate to speak to her husband, Eddie, one more time, she marks it diligently, ‘her lines scribbled on several times with a black pen, scratching a deep groove into the page…house…high street, the supermarket, and the church.’ ‘I don’t get out much,’ she explains. No matter, she’s assured. The marked lines are sigils, set afire they call for the dead, drawing them home again – as if the spirits are lost and need the guidance. They function like ley lines, in a way, showing loved ones the path back towards old haunts. Results aren’t guaranteed, but, as our narrator’s father says, ‘to know that they’re not alone for a moment, that could last them forever’, is enough to keep trying, until a voice answers.
In Livestock, Valerie O’ Riordan skilfully interweaves separate narrative lines that not so much come together in harmonious understanding, but crash into each other. The reverberations continue past the final fullstop. ‘It was a gale of a Halloween, the day I met Lou-Lou Foley, wind creaming scum off Fernilee Reservoir and spitting it all over the Goyt Valley, skitterings of bonfire smoke whipping from the Buxton hilltops,’ reads the striking opening sentence. In typical Unthology fashion, readers can expect to be startled, to be made just that little bit uneasy in their skins as the narrative plays out. Riordan is a no holds barred writer: warning, the squeamish should prepare themselves to meet foul mouthed, tough talking Sal. Employed by Bernie Foley to artificially inseminate his herd with ‘the North’s Finest Bovine Semen! ’Sal spares us no details. When her attempt to do her job goes spectacularly wrong, Bernie’s ‘fourteen-ish’ daughter Lou-Lou is the only witness. They strike a deal, in exchange for a lift into Stockport for ‘this – thing I have to do,’ Lou-Lou will keep quiet: ‘tit for tat, love ‘, Sal agrees, ‘If she wanted to steal out …to get drunk or go giggling or hook up…’, it’s her business. By the time Sal understands where they’re heading, it’s too late to turn back – for both of them.
Relayed in controlled bursts of ferocity, this is a story is about motherhood and abortion – and agency. There is no romance here, no filters – and certainly no softness. It’s a cold and uncompromising exploration of the choices, or the lack of choices these characters have in their lives. The older Sal, knows a thing about unexpected pregnancies. Abandoned by her boyfriend, Charlie, who pushes for a termination, and then ‘demands a christening service,’ before telling her he’d ‘met somebody else, all right, so could [she] just ever back the hell off?’ She’s struggled alone, her father’s no better support. Watching Lou-Lou poised on the brink of the same choice, Sal veers between jealousy and anger at the options this young girl still has in this moment – reliving her own choices, wondering how it could have turned out different, had she made the other choice.
Riordan’s skilful handling of the narrative keeps readers engaged. From the moment Sal agrees to give Lou-Lou a lift we are as invested as she is in following through with Lou-Lou’s journey. And for all that the story deals with tough questions, there are flashes of comedy, albeit dark, in Sal’s characterisation, the opening scene between Sal and Hettie the heifer , the phone call that interrupts at the crucial moment, Hettie’s victorious bellow at outsmarting the human, think Monty Python with a dash of Black Mirror. You’re laughing, but the reality of it cuts close to the bone.
In turns bizarre, startling, and oddly off the cuff, Unthology’s fourteen short stories leave readers thinking long after the pages close.