As a huge fan of M R James I am always attracted to any writer who is described as 'Jamesian', and in this Mr Gaskin does not disappoint; in fact, in some of these tales he is more 'Jamesian' than MRJ himself! However, his tales are strongest and most satisfying when he finds his own voice. The stand out story for me was the title story, which actually is the least 'supernatural' of the tales but which resonates long after the reader has finished it. Other tales are a little too bogged down with the author's erudition, which slows down the story. But all in all, if you like intelligently written supernatural tales in the classic mould, then this collection is for you.
Wonderfully understated collection of stories that tap into the universal sense of unease and dread that certain confluences of time, place and people can generate. Of special interest to me was the story " The Conceit Of The Dancing Man". I am sure that the setting for this story is based on Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland. In fact in the early/mid 90'sI lived in one of the "hideously stuccoed cottages" mentioned in the story. This brought back a lot of memories of my time there, including late night walks to the priory.
John Gaskin's latest collection of stories follows on from the critically acclaimed collection, The Dark Companion published in 2001. Subtitled, Tales of Twilight and Borderlands it is a rich and diverse collection of weird tales.
Every mention of John Gaskin's work seems to also reference M.R. James and it's easy to see why. These are stories which are timeless, they evoke feelings of 19th or early 20th century fiction. This is a world of shooting estates, railways and academics placing bets over the existence of spirits in a church. Yet they also contain mobile phones, the trains are electric or diesel and even the internet is invoked, but it is the subject matter which remains in some temporal stasis. The Twilight and Borderlands of the subtitle are the twilights between life and death, old ways and new ways, the borderlands are those places which are strongly imbued with emotions to the extent that supernatural encounters or events occur, places at the edge.
So it's clear that Gaskin is writing within the classic ghost story tradition but these are not pastiches or an attempt by an author to try to impersonate a style, John Gaskin is the living breathing successor to the likes of M.R. James. In some distant future the compression of time will see him described as one of the great Ghost story writers, James, Blackwood and Gaskin will be discussed as a collective.
Topped and tailed by emotionally charged selections of poetry the stories are universally excellent. The Conceit Of The Dancing Man is perhaps the strongest nod to M.R James but this is followed by Tapiola, for me a direct successor to Blackwood's The Willows with its richly drawn landscapes and strange ethereal feel.
St Johns Wood is all tweeds and shotguns but also manages to be exciting and otherwordly at the same time. The High Stepping Man takes us back to the public schools and a master with some hidden secrets.
The Long Retreating Day sees a world on the brink of war and From Lydia With Love And Laughter manages to juxtapose classical Turkey with modern celebrity. The Bay Platform sees a mysterious figure who inhabits a world of railways and fog and Omega examines the boundaries between love, life and death.
Between those last two tales are for me the strongest stories in the book. Rigor Mortis tells of an antique chair and manages to invoke pathos and humour with a wry smile as the chairs powers are discovered. Finally Road Closed is without doubt a genre classic, it has everything from wild landscapes, impending doom and a modern relationship tale all brilliantly evocative and wonderfully readable.
I can imagine John Gaskin in a suit and tie, gold watch chain hanging from his waistcoat pocket, working by gaslight, he has a glass of whiskey and probably a pipe, the crackles from logs on an open fire are the only things which break the silence. He is composing a tale in a leather bound Journal using a fountain pen and piece of yellow blotting paper, only occasionally stopping to adjust his round wire framed glasses. Surrounding him are the works of the greats M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood etc, vast piles of dusty old tomes and shelves full of classics. His work has the ability to distort time and we should all be thankful that we are around to see the creation of these new classics.
Why a writer as talented at creating atmosphere as Gaskin is so little known remains a mystery. His lack of a mainstream publisher must be at least partly to blame. I see he has a novel due out shortly - a little over 200 pages at the hideous price of £30. But for writing of this quality, I think I'll just have to grit my teeth and pay...