Review: “Hollow Shores” by Gary Budden (2017)

Some books just don’t do it for you first time.

Some never will, and you have to acknowledge that. Others leave spore-like traces that may not germinate for months or even years, but will eventually bring you back to them. Hollow Shores is one such for me.

Published in 2017 by indie press Dead Ink, I bought it at the time. The blurb sounded right up my street:

“Budden’s debut collection blends the traditions of weird fiction and landscape writing in an interlinked set of stories…

The Hollow Shore is both fictional and real. It is a place where flowers undermine railway tracks, relationships decay and monsters lurk. It is the shoreline of a receeding, retreating England. This is where things fall apart, waste away and fade from memory.

Finding horror and ecstasy in the mundane, Hollow Shores follows characters on the cusp of change in broken-down environments and the landscapes of the mind.”

Perfect, I thought.

I also loved Budden’s take on nature writing. He calls it “landscape punk“; an attitude towards writing about nature that reclaims the spaces of England from bourgeois codification.

But something about Hollow Shores just left me a bit flat. I so wanted to enjoy it more than I had. There are 21 short fictions contained within, interlinked so that the same people are viewed from different angles and by the other characters, across a shifting, never-specified (but plainly contemporary) timeframe. I liked the attitude; the cultural references; a few of the fictions even on first reading I thought were superb. But overall the plethora of voices seemed too samey: there was too little to distinguish between characters; the elegiac mood – wistfulness for the time before rebellion became another lifestyle choice – was too rarely leavened. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood: sometimes you read a book and its atmosphere casts a pall over what you read next.

I came back to it last week. The difference between the first read and the second was the difference between listening to an album you’ve known for years, and then hearing a remaster of it: louder, sharper, clearer.

My initial reservations still stand: I do think some of the voices are not as distinctive as they need to be; some of the characters’ headspaces are so similar they become a blur. But Budden is adept at capturing those fleeting feelings of strangeness and not-quite-alienation that we all feel at certain conjunctions of place and mood:

“On foot, the world becomes a bigger place. To be in the places you only normally stare at through the train window feels revelatory. Like stepping into the background somehow, text tumbling over the margin and off the page, wading into the painting, whatever; it’s that feeling of being elsewhere that is so compelling. And finding elsewhere at home? He never thought it possible.”

His characters pine for the days before cultural relativism, when tribal allegiances meant something and defined you: what you hated made you who you were as much as what you loved. Susan Sontag wrote in Notes on Camp that “time liberates the work of art from moral relevance” and Budden’s characters lament this:

“there’s hundreds of them out and about, kids and even proper grownups [my italics] with their knocked-together looks, hotch-potch aesthetics grave-robbed from subcultures that once meant something. Including my culture. If I see one more Black Flag T-shirt I think my head’s going to explode.”

There’s a desire in these stories for immediacy of experience: a longing to recapture the sharpness of youth once the accruals of age veil you from the living moment. These are characters who have fought: tiny acts against the system in order that they may stay sane. Some kept their sanity and some didn’t, and in the end ‘the system’ has only become so much worse. Kicking against the pricks is a good and necessary attitude, but it doesn’t hurt the pricks.

One of the fictions is a short imagining of the inner life of one of the Kent Hollow Shore’s more illustrious denizens, actor Peter Cushing (referred to as “the vampire hunter”). Here, he meets with his good friend “the vampire” (no prizes for guessing). One of the standout pieces, this is a gentle work that, like many of them, shimmers at the edges with weirdness1.

Budden had a story in the recent This Dreaming Isle anthology, and is a writer – and blogger – to keep an eye on.

 

 

1 It reminded me of this episode of Jim’ll Fix It. Cushing wrote to the show asking to have a rose named in honour of his late wife, whose death had left him utterly bereft. I remember the mix of emotions I felt when watching the show: initial discomfort that Governor Tarkin was muscling in on what was a programme for kids, then affection towards a man delighted to have something to remember his beloved wife by. Today, the revulsion I feel towards Jimmy Savile is heightened when I think of the faith placed in him by Cushing, and am only glad that Cushing died before the truth about Savile came out.

 

photo: Jamie Gorman

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