Monday, July 3, 2023

The Sea Change & Other Stories, by Helen Grant

Swan River Press, 2013
144 pp


We've just returned from a three-day early start to the  4th of July weekend,  staying in a place with neither internet nor television, which equates to many happy long and guilt-free reading hours.  I really haven't felt like reading much this year because it seems like in my house, when it rains it pours, and it's been doing so since the end of January with the latest event  the loss of my sweet little dog of thirteen years.  With The Sea Change & Other Stories, I couldn't have chosen a better book to get myself back into my reading groove.  I picked it up and did not put it down until the very last page.  

Out of the seven phenomenal stories in this collection, there are two that I found to be absolutely striking:  "Alberic de Mauléon" and my bottom-line favorite,  "The Calvary at Banská Bystrica."    The first, as the author says in the "Story Notes" section of the book, was her entry for a story competition in M.R. James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter.  The challenge was to "write a prequel or sequel to an MRJ story." I unfortunately don't have a copy of the first volume of The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows (Sarob, 2012) where this story was published along with those of the eleven other contest winners, but you can find a list of them here.  By the way, and I mean this quite seriously, if anyone has a copy of that volume to sell, please let me know. I've been looking for a while.  "Alberic de Mauléon" is on the prequel side of the fence, in this case, to James'  "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book."  Highly original and very nicely done,  I won't say more about it, except to say that the creep factor from the original is definitely here as well.    Two friends talking together begins "The Calvary at Banská Bystrica," as the narrator details his search for his missing brother last seen in Slovakia.   The brother, Robert Montague , had been "travelling around the Continent" until any word from him just stopped.   The last time the narrator had heard from him was in the spring via "some letters and a card" from Banská Bystrica.  Although they were not very close, the narrator reveals that his brother had written to tell him he was going to be married to a girl who had "some sort of job relating to tourism in the town."   That was pretty much it for communications between the two, but when no one else had heard from him by that summer,  the narrator decides that he needs to go look for him at the last place he'd mentioned.  I will keep mum on the action here, but the rest of the story is a stunning and absolutely chilling account of what happens as he begins his search. 

the Calvary at Banska Bystrica from The Slovak Spectator

As for the five remaining stories in The Sea Change, there is another tale based on a story by M.R. James, one that he had left unfinished -- "The Game of Bear."  Without moving into the pastiche arena, the author does a great job with her completed version of that story, which starts out over the Christmas holidays with the elderly narrator explaining why the game of Bear the children in the house are playing at the time sets his nerves on edge.   I won't go into details here, but "The Game of Bear"  has all of the elements one expects to find in an M.R. James story, most especially a foray into the dark arts and something unseen that has entered into a house.    Moving on,  it came as no surprise to me that Lovecraft popped right into my head while reading the title story, "The Sea Change."  Two divers' discovery of a previously-unknown shipwreck turns to a consuming obsession for one of them and outright horror for the other.   They both go down to explore, and while one of the two men immediately senses something not right about it, the other is fascinated. Somehow he manages to stretch out his dive times to clearly-impossible intervals, and there will be a cost.   While there are no clear answers to the "why" and the "how" of it all, there is certainly plenty of horror in terms of what is left unseen and unknown.    "Grauer Hans" opens this collection, reminding readers that old folk beliefs exist for good reason, here serving as a sort of shield against something that lures young children to be let into the house at night.  God forbid the old wisdom is forgotten ...  "Self Catering" adds a needed touch of comic relief to this book.   A man by the name of Larkin whose colleague Watson has a personality that rubs him completely the wrong way finds himself backed "into a corner" about booking a weekend holiday.  He searches for something different, and after some unsatisfying offers, happens upon a travel agency run by a certain Cornelius von Teufel, who offers him an incredible experience.  With that name, Larkin should have been clued in a bit more.  Finally, in "Nathair Dhubh, "on a bright, clear day two young men decide to tackle the difficult and challenging peak of Nathair Dhubh (which translates to black snake)  in Scotland.  While roped together, a mist arises that separates the two, "a real pea-souper" that causes one of them to lose sight of the other.  Now in his eighties and looking back on the incident, one of the pair reveals why that was his last attempt. 

from Sea Museum

  Without the story notes (which you should definitely save until the end) and the acknowledgments, the reader is left with 136 pages in which the author delivers these seven brilliant and uncanny stories, no small feat in such a short amount of space.  It is a gifted writer who can pull this off, but there's more.  As the author writes at the Scottish Book Trust website, she often includes "elements of folklore, snippets of real history and atmospheric real life locations" in her work. She's done this in The Sea Change & Other Stories to great effect, imbuing her tales with a sense of place that amplifies the eerie  atmosphere and growing sense of dread she builds slowly in each story.  

I've never been disappointed with an offering from Swan River Press, and this book is no exception.  I definitely and very highly recommend it to readers of the strange and the weird.  

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