“This land is laden with phantoms.” This line from “The Dunes”, one of the haunting and elusive stories from this intriguing collection, is the theme that underpins Tim Cooke’s fiction.
These interconnected stories – about an unnamed narrator and his mates as they grow through childhood, adolescence and to young manhood – are set in a haunted corner of South Wales. That’s Machen country and Cooke, like his fellow countryman, doesn’t explain away the mysteries, preferring hints and insinuations to create an unsettling atmosphere.
I enjoyed this collection, though to be completely honest, I enjoyed the stories more after reading them, than during. Why? The book’s blurb, somewhat defensively, describes Cooke’s work as “at times purposefully ambiguous”. I’d say that’s an accurate description. Within these stories it can be difficult to grasp particulars. They feel slippery and elusive (which is apt because “slime” is a recurring motif throughout the collection, suggestive of rot and transformation and the alien/Other – in other words, of dissolution, and (un)becoming).
Few of the pieces follow conventional formulae, so the atmosphere has to do a lot of heavy lifting, which this writer knows from experience can be a tricky thing to achieve. Satisfying resolutions are often deliberately withheld, which means the reader must either re-read the story, or accept that what they’re left with (unsettled atmospheres, haunting images) is all they’re being given.
The reader is often held at a distance, and the supporting cast of characters are at times little more than a name and a personality trait. That’s not to say that these are unfinished stories, only that they reject the (dare I say) bourgeois conventions. They’re a form of avant-garde horror in a way, and as a result are easier to admire than love; but admire them I did.
The title “Where We Live” tells us immediately that the stories are concerned with place and home. The “we” implies both a sense of universality (everyone’s home might be weird), but also possession (it’s our corner of South Wales that’s special).
Collection opener “Kestrels and Crows” is a single-page intro. “I was born to this town and raised on its edge” it says, immediately establishing our narrator – the spine from whom the stories hang – as a figure on the margins. He also hints at a ‘before’ and ‘after’ – “there was tranquility to this place then” – though not necessarily before and after what. There are images of journeys becoming increasingly erratic and solitary, and words like ‘veer’ and ‘plough’ hint at the trajectories of people’s lives becoming lost or changed.
In “The Drive Home” the unnamed narrator “now, aged thirty and a father of two” looks back across a distance that memory has made wider and weirder. The family drive westwards for home takes place in the “warmth, [and] comfort” of the “familial space” of the car. But outside, something “feared” (and therefore whose actual existence is uncertain) keeps pace with them all the way home. “It was at this moment, I think, that I first appreciated the volitility and indifference, the agression, of the natural world” but the very next sentence is “I longed to touch it” – which suggests kinship with the marginalised Other. The car passes a “strange intersection” in this weird landscape, like something out of a Carol Rhodes painting.
“The Box of Knowledge” I mentioned briefly in my review of the Shadow Booth vol 4. Although my least favourite of the tales, it does contain my favourite image: “white windfarms spun and shone on the surrounding hilltops, swaying amid broken beams of light as if to the rhythm of an old folk ritual. As we skated past the medieval church overlooking the dual carriageway, a murder of crows erupted from the roof of a derelict bingo hall in the distance.” I love the juxtaposition of different time periods kaleidoscoping together and the way it highlights the heterogeniety of landscape. We’re in one of the Celtic ‘Thin Places’: “a sequence of boulders marked the threshold separating the industrial tract…from civilisation”.
“An Orkney Saga” is a brief tale of the narrator, his father and brother on a Scottish holiday. The collection’s other motif – that of subterranean or subaquatic lifeforms – gets its full expression here, with a sighting at (where else?) Loch Ness. The story has humour but ends at a (literal and metaphorical) cliff edge and we are denied the answers that would give us closure.
“Nights at the Factory” is the most conventionally satisfying story. The boys (the narrator, Geraint, Dan and Az) are loitering around an industrial estate, the true scale of which seems hard to grasp, and they spend their evenings winding up the caretaker. One night, things go wrong. The caretaker catches Geraint and the poor boy is taught a lesson…
The landscape / environment here is in constant change (“the ground was littered with industrial debris…a monument to these times of change”) and the atmosphere is reminiscent of The Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Plant life (and also, later, in “Asylum”, a ruined building) “breathes”. There’s a creature in the warehouse “made of material collected from a rubbish dump”, as if the Dianoga from Star Wars had assimilated its environment.
“The Dunes” is a fractured ghost story, told as the gang wander the estuarine beaches after a night of drink, drugs and casual violence. The ghost is a bereft mother, transmuted in popular mythology into a witch (of course) who haunts the dunes. Interestingly, Sam mentions his grandparents, calling them “Nain and Grancha”, and is mocked by Geraint (“call them Gran and Granddad, you freak”), showing how the marginalised themselves can still be capable of acts of marginalisation: in this case, the Welsh language.
In the final tale, the eponymous “Asylum” (as I noted above) “lives and breathes”. Built in the shape of a cross, “around which a medley of buildings revolved (loops and cycles are very much the way here in South Wales)” we see how Celtic shapes of sacred power persist in unconscious memory. The narrator and Sam “haunt” this particular landscape: they “become spectres”: that is, they become the Other as they urbex the ruined building which the narrator dimly recalls from childhood visits to his grandfather. A haunting story in every sense, this is the one with the greatest emotional heft, and (for me) is the most successful in the collection.
I’m intrigued as to where Cooke goes next. If you liked Hollow Shores by Gary Budden, you’ll like this fellow piece of ‘landscape punk’.
My copy was supplied for review.