Three Impostors Press, 2019
I came across this publisher, this book and this author completely out of the blue, appropriately on Halloween when I opened an email from someone in one of my goodreads groups. The thread title was "Recommendations," and the poster was talking about this book, saying, in part, that in writing these stories, the author combined "the mundane, the unexpected and the surreal." Buy button pushed, book in mailbox, book read, and that description that so piqued my interest turned out to be spot on.
The first clue as to what lies in wait for the reader comes before a single page is turned an epigraph from Arthur Machen's The London Adventure:
"...the unspoken world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it."
In Keyhole it's not London, but rather Wales where the unsuspecting may just happen to slip through that same "thinnest veil" between this world and the other.
Rees' choice of opening story is perfect, and clearly sets the tone for the rest of these tales; it is through the eyes of his characters that we get a view of their respective worlds within the borders of Wales. In "Keyhole," the mother of a young girl named Bronte with a "condition that meant she had to be kept from the light" finds a way to brighten her daughter's life by introducing kingfishers into the confined environment of the family home The Fosse, complete with "reeded moat." They are released "to the light" every other day, young Bronte following their flight out of the conservatory's French windows via an arrangement of doors and keyholes. Years later, returning home, Clive Theaxton makes straight away for Bronte's home but finds everything strangely different. Let's just say we're only one story done at this point, but dark, disturbing and thoroughly discombobulating, I knew I had a winner of a book here. I wasn't wrong.
Given that there are eighteen stories in this book, describing even briefly the remaining seventeen would take a while, so I'll hit my personal favorites. The setting for "Rain" is a farm named "The Joy" where two children live with their parents, who have decided that they want "nothing to do with the world." They live off the grid, with no modcons; looking back on it all, the son notes that his upbringing and that of his sister had been a bit on the "feral" side. All is well in this place, their own "small piece of Wales," until the rain stops; when their "problems began." And indeed, what problems they are. Yikes! Moving on, I'll never hear the tongue-twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" in the same way again after reading "I've Got You," which follows a young widow living with her little son along the coast, her husband having recently died in a most horrific way. At first she's charmed when her little boy creates an entire man from seashells (one she names Percy Shelley) followed by a wife, but things start to take a strange turn one day... and that's all I'll say about that one. One of the great things about this and most of the other stories in this book is that sometimes there seems to be more than just a brief peek into the characters' psyches that adds another entire layer of depth and meaning to the reading, in this case also adding a measure of poignancy that almost made me cry. I was so disturbed by this story that it was at this point that Keyhole became a daytime rather than nighttime read. "Bluecoat" is another favorite, in which a young couple leaves their city life for a sheep farm that sits next to an older manor home once requisitioned as a wartime hospital. Everything seems to be on the idyllic side until winter sets in, but I won't say much about this one (to do so would just be criminal) except that the boundaries between past and present seem to mean nothing here. Very nicely done, this one, which also left me feeling like I wanted to cry. "The Press" is another excellent story, again set on a farm, involving a farmer, a flower press and a strange group of people led by a boy on a piebald horse. Absolutely gorgeous in the writing, it's the incredibly visual, horrific ending that got to me this time ... oh my god.
|from Nation Cymru|
The remainder of these stories are also quite good, quite unlike anything I've read, and are set in what seem to be normal locales to the outsider. The closer you get, however, the stranger things become -- for example, a pub that appears and disappears, a mine complete with its own set of ghostly horses, an old wartime submarine discovered under the sands, crew and all, ready for their mission... on and on goes the weirdness.
As the back-cover blurb notes, "Keyhole is a dark world where extraordinary stories gleam." In an interview with the author , he notes that in this book,
"Wales is not seen in a literal way, as if captured by a camera. Instead, it is quite often viewed at a slant ... presented askew."
True as that statement might be, the visions offered of Wales here capture the seasons, the weather, the people and the landscape; it is a place where time gone by bleeds into the present and quite often magic presents itself in many different forms. In that same interview, the author says that his intention is that the reader "always keep one foot in our own recognisable world," while "tentatively stepping into another, adjoining world." No disappointments here at all. As with any other collection of stories, there are some that range from the great zone and move on down, but there is not one in the bunch that I didn't like; among the darkest of these you will also find some that will bring on a bit of a chuckle. An absolutely wonderful collection of stories that I enjoyed so much that I bought another book by the same author just a few stories into this one.
With only a few minor exceptions, I've had a fantastic weird reading year, and Keyhole just made it better. Considering I'd never heard of this author before Halloween, well, that tells you what you need to know.