Map of Blue Book Balloon

13 April 2020

Review - Where Shadows Gather by Michael Chislett

Cover art by Paul Lowe
Where Shadows Gather
Michael Chislett
Sarob Press (Robert Morgan), 2019
HB, 207pp

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher to review for Ghosts and Scholars magazine, where this review first appeared.

Where Shadows Gather, the new collection of uncanny stories by Michael Chislett, is a little different from other collections I have reviewed here.

To begin with, the stories are more of a unity than those other collections. Mostly set in and around London, in both real and fictions locations, they often explore the same themes - vanishing shadows, the immanence of both the past and present of London in the present day - and some feature some characters (such as the Faust-like Doctor Crescentius in Mara, Endor and The Coast Guard) or allow their protagonists to brush up against one another (Only the Dead Know Deptford/ The Extras). There are hints of connections to wider histories (as when, in Only the Dead..., we have detailed and repeated references to an earlier incident in Brighton).

These stories depart, somewhat, from the Jamesian 'several decades removed' trope, being mostly told in the present (even if set in the 19th century) and also often (though not always) featuring protagonists not ignorant of the occult (indeed who are sometimes practitioners of it) although there are also innocent victims who turn the wrong way on a foggy night or are beguiled by something seen across the water. Chislett has a formidable talent for making the ordinary sights, sounds and weather of London and especially its river seem extremely eerie, and I will be watching lout myself in future. Even the bright lights of Canary Wharf dim at time sin this volume.

Downriver is a perfectly sinister story in which a young couple, out for a walk downriver, encounter something that is is, on the surface, interesting and harmless. It's a lesson in how little hooks can be placed in the mind, calling the victim back later to a cruel fate.

In In the Garden we again, we see how even in the midst of safe, suburban London, one wrong step can take you somewhere unexpected, and far beyond help.

In Only the Dead Know Deptford, Thea, returning from work in the glitzy offices of Canary Wharf, goes wrong somewhere around St Nicholas's Church in Deptford (location for several of these stories) and is unable to find her way home. Or at least she can find the where of it but not the when. Pregnant with the past, the night seems alive and to have quite other intentions that she she does.

Mara introduces us to Doctor Crescentius (who Chislett informs us he has written about before), an exile in London from the 1848 "Year of Revolutions". Like Tim in In the Garden Crescentius finds an older, wilder side to London, but unlike him, he knows a little about such things and may be one step ahead of the forces he encounters.

The Extras is a more extended story, featuring two men, Fletcher and Matthews (they of the impliedly  debauched Brighton trip mentioned above). At one level, it's two men who spend a lot of time in pubs discussed a lot of metaphysical twaddle. At another level, they are documenting London, taking photographs, which seem to have a... mutability... of their own. All manner of wonders emerge. Again, the pair are knowing - they speak of various supernatural tidings from different parts of the city - but that may not save them from falling victim. (This story is also notable for establishing that, perhaps, this version of London is not quite ours - there are references to a character with Ostrogothic ancestry, some unfamiliar country names, and so forth as well as links in to a Central European mythology involving witches and demons.

In The Subliminals we're now into full-fledged tampering with That Which Ought Not to be Known. Lant is some form of occult master ("the sceptical occultist") who - carefully - stands back from himself doing what he encourages his pupils to do. Now, those pupils seem to be paying the price. There is a tensely drawn, very eerie standoff here, all the more creepy for the stakes being obscure.

Endor, a somewhat longer story than many of the others here, again follows Crescentius who is however now in early 30s Germany. (is he some kind of wandering, eternal scholar, deathless and cursed?) Among dark references to book burning and a previously liberal friend having joined the Brownshirts and become a power in the town, Crescentius pursues knowledge - ignoring going on all around him - as he latches onto a woman with the talent of a medium and who is, it seems, able to contact an imprisoned spirit that promises Crescentius much... this is a gripping and dark story, replete with abuse and manipulation (one scene in particular sees Crescentius take advantage of his victim is a very physical, not spiritual, way) and also with nods to other aspects of this book (the power to steal shadows, the Ostrogothic origins of the mysterious "witch".

The Whistle Thing opens with Carla and Jago, a couple very much in love, finding a strange whistle in a park,. It may already be known to you as it was published in G&S 33. It is a fine story, riffing, of course, off MR James's "O Whistle..." but modernising the setting to Chislett's London and providing the somewhat too daring male protagonist with a shrewd female companion (I wonder how many of MR James's scholarly heroes would have benefited from that?) It's very atmospheric and also hoks into Chislett's wider mythology.

Jago may actually be more... knowing... that he lets on, as he's mentioned as one of Lant's associates in The Subliminals, alongside Redriff, who gets his own story, indeed a story named after him, in which he begins to receive messages, scrawled in red on discarded free newspapers or on Tube station whiteboards (very London). In the story we lear more about Haggerston and Mardyke from The Subliminals, and also a certain Morden whom Redriff consults for help with the perplexing messages. We also encounter the enigmatic Ms Hand (mentioned in The Extras). There's a slippery, claustrophobic sense about the commerce done between these stories, a sense that all these characters may know things, may know each other, but they can't escape, can't get out of the sticky amber that's entombing them. And so with Redriff.

The Raggy Girl is an effective weird and chilling story wherein a slum tenement is being demolished over the head of its supernatural resident. The story is notable for the sense of alienation given off by the narrator, Terry. Despite Raglan Mansions being slap bang in the middle of Milford Hiugh Street, opposite the station, Terry and his friend Danny experience a haunting in full daylight as the Girl pursues them from her disintegrating lair. Like many of the other stories here this is less in the end about what happens to an individual as about how the mundane and supernatural communities coexist and how people find their place in one or the other.

The Coast Guard is one of only two stories here (I think) not set in London though it has London connections as Fraukie, a young girl spending some time with her grandfather on the Baltic Coast, is a Londoner through and through and has made allies there - who help her when she's menaced by a local spirit. I felt this to be one of the most Jamesian stories in the collection - well, with sand dunes, a vengeful sport and an ancient book of lore, how could it not be?

Those That Come from the Air has a uniquely nasty air, the agitated spirit being bound up with stirring whorls of rubbish, crackling black plastic and all the detritus of modern life. It also features a truly horrible version of a demon, one referred to elsewhere in this collection but studied in detail here. Again fairly uniquely here, it has an element of redemption, which I strongly welcomed.

Finally, The Snow Queen gives us Fletcher and Matthews again, explicitly after the events of that story (and so, perhaps, shedding some light on the ending of The Extras). It's more of an encounter, perhaps, than a complete narrative but serves to round off the collection nicely.

Taken together the stories give much more of a sense of being part of a thematic whole than most collections. They're explicitly set in the same world and we see many of the same characters come and go. Each is though its own, more or less self contained, mystery - the collection doesn't amount to a unified story and the overall effect is therefore more "Isn't there a lot of weird stuff going on in London?" than "Ah, so that's what was behind it all!"

And there's nothing wrong with that.

For more information about the book, see the Sarob Press website here.

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