There’s something about the British Isles that tends towards the eerie. The streams and rivers and forests and hills, lakes and valleys seem to crawl with stories of the odd and the uncanny – depending on who you listen to. “This Dreaming Isle”, edited by Dan Coxon, is a celebration of that uncanniness, an atmosphere and storytelling tradition that helped give rise to all manner of media that explore what lies in the murk – most especially, in this case, folk horror.
There’s a flavour of folklore from every corner of the British Isles in this collection, and the division of the stories by location (Country, City or Coast) means that those who like to dip in and out can find something to suit their mood, whether it’s the past haunting a man who cannot escape it in windswept Ramsgate (Gary Budden’s “Hovering”), the twitter-haunting of an alt-right troll visiting London for the first time (“Not All Right” by James Miller) or the Shuck-haunted hills of Pendle (as in “Old Trash” by Jenn Ashworth). There is also a wide range of styles on display, from the email-based, almost found-footage “We Regret To Inform You” by Jeannette Ng (whose alternate history with a necromatically-resurrected Thatcher sparking civil war I would love to see more of), to the neat ghost story “The Stone Dead” by Alison Moore to Robert Shearman’s surreal tale of urban decadence, “The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand”. This is an anthology I was looking forward to getting my hands on for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint. However, as ever, there are some truly stand-out stories among an excellent collection.
Dark Shells – Aliya Whitely
In “Dark Shells” Aliya Whitely tells an all too familiar story of a declining village through the eyes of one of its elderly residents. The sensitive portrayal of her dementia adds layers of pathos and meaning to the story that is truly heart-wrending at times. This story haunts you for a long time afterwards – exactly what I was hoping for from this anthology.
Cold Ashton – Stephen Volk
This treads old ground in many ways as a recounting of a legendary witch trial – the stuff of many popular folk horrors in the past. Volk’s treatment of the tropes and the characters, however, make this one of the best examples of the genre I’ve come across.
Domestic Magic – Kirsty Logan
The build-up to the climax of this series of vignettes about a couple being hounded by the consequences of a grandmother’s actions is excellent. Here Logan has a lot of fun with kelpie lore, while keeping the focus tight and tense.
The Knucker – Gareth E. Rees
An enjoyable take on timeslips which neatly stitches together uncanny incidents across history into a tapestry of folklore. The way that different peoples at different times observe phenomena is well observed and adds to the story’s texture.
The Headland of Black Rock – Alison Littlewood
Littlewood’s twist on mermaid lore is evocative and engaging, with a beauty that is belied by its cynical protagonist.
The Devil in the Details – Ramsey Campbell
This story of holidaymakers apparently haunted by a long-dead artist through his murals is suitably unsettling and engrossing. The aunt is well written, with a real sense both of her irritating aspects and the sadness that lies beneath, while the banality of a seaside town seen through the eyes of a modern twelve-year-old is delightfully evoked.
Swimming With Horses – Angela Readman
This sweet story of kelpies and polyamory is a fine coming-of-age tale and is well suited to rounding off a at-times grim and gritty series of stories. Angela Redman plays with ideas of being free, relating freedom both to those youths who “escape” their seaside existence by going to uni and those who stay and find their own paths.
“This Dreaming Isle” is a must for fans of folk-horror and folklore. It’s an eclectic mix, but this is its strength. There’s something to suit every taste, and every chance you’ll find an unexpected treasure. Well recommended.