Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales was published a few years ago, by Ash-Tree Press, and came from an author not previously known for fiction. I was tempted to try this collection after hearing the short story Rope Trick itself being described as 'Aickmanesque'; and, having included this tale in my top ten stories I have read so far this year, I decided to re-read the whole book.
These are elegantly written, genuinely creepy stories in modern settings. As the author himself says in his introduction, there is '... no hint of sinister history, not a creaking door or tomb or mysterious figure in sight, no threat of mortal extinction, and unbroken holiday weather throughout'.
An Incident in Drereton kicks everything off, and sets the tone. In a mundane English market town, retiree Tom experiences what seems like a strange vision from the past, which, despite its brevity, affects him deeply. He unearths an incident from the past, and, rather than clearing things up, it poses a more significant question. Crooker is a fascinating blend of folk tales, pieced together to create a compelling story with an authentic sense of impending doom. It is written in a different style to the other tales in this collection, and mixes things up straight away. By way of contrast, East Norham is more of a ghost story in the usual sense. Tony Lomax is some kind of psychic investigator, and is called upon to investigate the strange happenings in a house rented by some friends. It would seem to be a case of poltergeists; and, as the story twists and turns, the past collides with the present in a most unpleasant way, and winds up to a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.
The breadth of this collection, and the author's skill, is highlighted by the next tale, De Profundis. It is quite unlike its predecessors. Set in some arid outback desert, a mute, pregnant woman appears from the heat haze, and farmer MacGregor takes it upon himself to look after her. However, things do not go to plan; in fact, things go in entirely the opposite direction. I won't spoil the shocking end of this story, but suffice to say it is not ambiguous at all!
Next up is Rope Trip itself. A group of friends suffer a
breakdown of the mechanical kind while on a driving holiday, and are
forced to find solace in a large, solitary house. Were they somehow
expected? Their travails when attempting to leave, and subsequent
strange disappearances, add up to a supremely atmospheric tale which
wrong-foots the reader at every turn. The title of The Well Dresser is a play on words that does not perhaps do the story justice. This is another tale which seems to draw from local legend or folk tale, and draws the reader into the village politics and prejudices of a previous age. Do you believe in the old wives' tales?
Period Instruments is a perfectly-formed tale of poignant memories, and a highlight of this collection. The protagonist is recalling a visit to The William Marshall Collection of Antique Musical Instruments, in the backstreets of an idyllic seaside town, when he was 'approaching his fourteenth birthday'. His magical encounters with the various instruments, especially the clavichord, is both elegantly written and thought-provoking; and William Marshall himself is touchingly portrayed. Following this, the tone is lightened somewhat by Disappearing Act, which is a brief reminiscence with a very apt title; but I won't spoil the story for you.
Return Ticket is an intriguing tale of a journey David takes on public transport. He finds an old copy of a novel on the seat beside him on a train, which he subsequently finds has rather more significance than he imagines. Handicapped by only having the haziest recollection of his past, he discovers more than he is comfortable with; and the reader is taken along for the rollercoaster ride. I must admit, I'd very much like to see what else the Cobham Circulating Library has for loan!
Writing with a regional accent is always hard to pull off, and can make or break a story; in Ticking, the author has portrayed Scottish well, adding to the atmosphere. Peter and Jock are looking to make a delivery from their articulated lorry on a foggy November night, but get lost and are thwarted by a narrow lane. They seek shelter in what seems to be some kind of monastery, with the sound of ticking reverberating throughout, despite there being no clocks. Their subsequent discovery about the area, and Jock's ultimate fate, make them question their recollection of the mysterious events.
I'm not usually one for werewolf tales, but Rome Will Rise Again is the best I've read for some time, combining jealousy and doomed relationships with a sense of foreboding and, ultimately, horror. The clashes between Ilia and Lucrezia add a convincing psychological interest. Genius Loci is the touching tale of a young boy who grows up to learn of the protective spirit resident within Nathan's Wood. 'Everything around him, the blade of grass and the beetle crawling along it, the rowan and birch, with their perfect branches and perfect leaves, the far hills and the creamy white cumulus, glowed with their own inner light.' Unwisely, in later life, he takes this wife to visit the wood, and her cynical view of the place brings about a terrible retribution. This is an evocative tale of the power existing in the depths of the English countryside; and perhaps the English psyche.
Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales concludes with What Became of April, which is novella length. It deals with the disappearance, lasting three weeks, of a girl on her 19th birthday. Her changed demeanor upon return, being terrified of any modern aspect of life, suggests a kind of transfer has taken place between two time frames. It's an ambitious end to the book, and gives food for thought. My only reservation is that it could have been more concise; some of the focus present in the other stories was not present, and I found myself feeling it lost direction a bit. For me this was the difference between four and five stars for this excellent collection.
Overall, this is a beautifully written set of strange stories that deserves to be better known. I have no idea if Mark P. Henderson will write more in this vein; but I very much hope so.