‘Tis the season for gifts and stocking fillers and short story collections, and you could do a lot worse than wrap up a copy of The Great Unknown, edited by Melbourne writer and blogger Angela Meyer. As many of you would know, Angela has blogged for Crikey and now calls Literary Minded home. She has hosted several sessions at major literary festivals, too, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve read nearly all the stories in the collection, and thought I’d get something up on the blog for those of you looking for last-minute gift ideas for the readers in your life (and that includes you!)
Inspired by strange events, the macabre, bizarre, fantastical and chilling, there are many disturbing ‘delights’. Some should come with a warning not to read before bedtime. I made that mistake with Krissy Kneen’s haunting ‘Sleepwalk’, which sets the tone for the collection. In it, Brendan is concerned over his partner Emily’s nascent sleepwalking. A photographer by trade, Emily has dug out her old film camera and is stealthily pacing through their rooms in the wee small hours, taking photos of their creaking house aimlessly. Or is she? When they develop the photos there seems to be something in them:
He saw their life, or pieces of it in each of the prints, the lamp, the edge of their couch and here, a blur of grey behind it. The same blur, movement? Something too fast for the speed of the shutter? This same pale smear repeated in each of the hanging squares. And then the final image. He peered into it through her magnifying glass … The dining room near the portrait of Emily as a child. The figure was a blur, but clearer here, shoulders, arms, the crouch of legs.
Cue another night of sleepwalking and a stomach clenching climax!
Another disturbing story is ‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate, a completely spooky tale about a missing boy and abandoned motel on a remote country road. Ron had pulled up at it because he hears a noise underneath his car:
That’s when I heard the crying. It was soft at first, but over the course of about two minutes, it grew louder, like it was moving towards me. This thin, high-pitched sobbing from someone upset. Many some sort of animal? I stood there for a while, trying to work out the source, because the crying was bouncing off the motel’s walls and coming in from every bloody angle.
The resolution is chilling, to say the least. The next time I hear a noise under my car, I’ll have goose bumps for sure!
There are several stories that deal with missing people, and strange disappearances, including ‘Her Dress was a Pale Shimmer’ by Marion Halligan. It sees Annabel, a young woman, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her mother a year ago. Strange things happen when she goes to an impromptu dinner at a local restaurant with her Goth sister and her distant philosopher father. This is one of those stories that illumines the human condition (even if it is by the fluttering tea lights that sit on the restaurant’s table), what it means to yearn for an explanation to a deep and anguished mystery and find the answer to be every bit as mysterious. Lovely.
Speaking of philosophers, Melbourne philosopher Damon Young’s ‘Árt’ is a perfectly dark tale of erotic obsession. It sees an ex-artist, now art lecturer, grapple with a mysterious girl he calls ‘K’, who he meets at a Kubin exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. There he sees a work in ink that is not listed in the catalogue, an erotic picture in which his face appears painted into a rock. How it got onto the wall and why he is in it are questions I’ll leave for you to discover the answer to, but suffice to say this one packs a punch!
One of the highlights of the collection is undoubtedly ‘A Cure’ by Alexander Cothren. Set in a futuristic Manhattan, in the offices of Empathy International, whose slick advertisements ask consumers ‘Have you been feeling less?’ and come with the enticing by-line ‘Feel again’. Alice has come hoping for a cure for her ‘compassion fatigue’. Empathy is trialling an update to the ‘MindFi’ system, and Alice is desperate to try it. Exploring the issue of misery as entertainment, it is such a clever and taut story, brimming with poignancy, and leaves you with a searing question, one that lingers.
Beyond that, there are wonderful stories by Carmel Bird, Susan Yardley, Paddy O’Reilly, Ryan O’Neil, and… I could go on, but I’ll leave it there… except to say, as a fan of great book design, I dip my lid to Michael Vale for his thoughtful cover design, which features the head of a black swan; a ‘black swan event’ is something outside of our existing comprehension, or beyond the realm of expectations, and is thus surprising or shocking; and is thus a perfect image for such a collection.
It’s a perfect accompaniment to languid days by the pool or on the beach, or a spooky after dinner read. I’m off to finish it now, this time with the light on!
To all my readers, a very joyous Christmas and many blessings to you and yours in 2014.
Lisa over at ANZ Litlovers took a peek at and enjoyed a couple of the collection’s other stories too. Click here for her thoughts.
The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer
Source: review copy provided by Spineless Wonders