Category Archives: Emma Jane Unsworth

Poor Souls’ Light; Seven Curious Tales

Almost a year ago I told you about a collection of short stories entitled The Longest Night; Five Curious Tales. These were just the right sort of ghostly tales you need around Christmas and saw some authors I love such as Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth who collectively self published it and went on spooky nights here there and everywhere telling these tales and discussing ghost stories. Well guess what? It has only come back for a second year. Last year it was five tales in homage, of sorts, to M.R. James; this year it is seven tales in homage (again of sorts) to Robert Aickman. Now as you know I have some issue with Aickman’s tales, so when I realised that I did a small wince before getting going…

Curious Tales, 2014, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 140 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having read Aickman I can see how the stories by Jenn Ashworth, Alison Moore, Johnny Mains, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Emma Jane Unsworth and M. John Harrison are all inspired by his works as they all have elements of the supernatural and the ‘weird’ about them. If, like me (as you may have seen recently), you find Aickman and the ‘weird’ a little too, erm, weird then fret not.

Even when the element of the strange rather than supernatural or ghostly is there, even in the most Aickman like tale Blossom by Mains which really plays homage to The Hospice the story of Aickmans I most loved, it never goes to the point where the plot is spoiled by the weirdness or the reader feels somewhat played unfairly by the author. I admit there was a scene in Blossom which had me thinking ‘WTF?’ yet Mains handles it really well and the plot gets even darker after with a real sting in the tales tail.

The rest of the tales veer more to the traditional edges of the ghost story. For example with both Alison Moore’s The Spite House and M. John Harrison’s Animals deal with haunted houses though in very different ways. One is very much about a house haunted by its past and something it lived through, the other is very much about how a house feels about someone who returns to it and the imprints of how those who lived in it felt about the returned person. I enjoyed both of these especially the element of the house as a character within the narrative, or almost with its own narrative itself.

The cottage could be quiet, especially in the early evening, when the lane, with its fringe of trees against the setting sun, filled up with shadows. She heard what she thought were movements, half drowned by the sound of the radio she kept in the kitchen, even in the day. ‘It must be the central heating,’ she thought, but soon it became clear that these sounds were actually voices. Whatever room Susan was in, she heard them somewhere else.

Emma Jane Unsworth’s Smoke takes on the tale of someone becoming haunted by something, indeed something that follows them afterwards wherever they go. I am not being funny but the idea of seeing something ghostly and then it following you to the ends of the earth/your bed, or in this case around Europe, is something I find truly creepy and Unsworth nicely plays with that primal fear. Tom Fletcher also plays with the primal fear of being followed yet in The Exotic Dancer it is the case of a stranger following you with their eyes and their intent. Fletcher’s tale too is incredibly creepy and the setting of an old canal tow path and the industrial edge of a town/city is spot on. It has reminded me how much I want to read his novels.

In a collection where there isn’t a dud note you shouldn’t really have a favourite, yet I had two. As you might have guessed I really enjoyed them all, Richard Hirst’s and Jenn Ashworth’s tales just edged it; I think Ashworth’s in particular should be put forward for every short story award going. Now both of them have a couple of twists so I don’t want to spoil them so I will tread carefully. Hirst’s And The Children Followed is set around evacuees in one of the World Wars, it is vague about which not that it matters, as a recently bereaved (and going off the rails) young woman grieves for a sibling. I will say no more than that on the plot but as the tale goes on and the dread and horror mount I was instantly reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, you will gasp at the end. Ashworth’s story I actually want to say almost nothing about, other than it will turn a ghostly tale on its head for you and have you asking all sorts of questions. That is all, oh and it’s bloody marvellous with the games it plays and how she cleverly lets it unfold and toys with the reader in the best o f ways, marvellous.

I embrace her but she only shivers and pulls away to turn all the radiators on the house onto their highest setting. I wait for her in our bedroom, worrying about my cough and my breath, which is starting to smell like mushrooms, even to myself. She will not come up, but begins again to scrub the kitchen floor.

All in all a great collection again from the Curious Tales crew/collective, one that I would heartily recommend you get your mitts on and get reading over these dark winter nights. I have often said that I think modern ghost stories are very difficult to get right, this collection proves me completely wrong and I am thrilled.

If you are looking to get a copy you best hurry as there is a limited run of just 500 of them in print. I am not sure what the plan is on eBooks. For more info and to buy it head to the website here where you can also find out about some live events ahead this month and next – erm, massive hint guys bring it to Liverpool at some point or else, I know just the place! Now I am in the mood for more ghostly tales, so which ghost stories and collections would you recommend I go and hunt down?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Ghost Stories, Johnny Mains, M. John Harrison, Review, Richard Hirst, Short Stories, Tom Fletcher

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

What do we want to do when we grow up? When should we really grow up and become, erm, grown-ups and settle down? Who makes us choose either way and should we conform to any of this? Do our friends change as we do, can the best and truest of friendships last the test of time and these changes? Do we ever really know who we want? Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel, Animals, looks at all these questions and gives a current, eye opening, honest and often very funny insight into women in their late twenties and early thirties.

Canongate Books, trade paperback, 2014, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together and spend most of that time living together, apart from when they have to go to that pesky place called work (though Tyler doesn’t really need to unlike Laura who is while she writes her debut novelBacon), getting off their faces together – be it drink, drugs or preferably a bit of both – and having a rather wild time. However change is in the air. No, not since Tyler went and got a cat called Zuzu who hates Laura, since Laura got engaged and then worse still her fiancé, Jim, went and performed the cardinal sin of becoming a teetotaller. Now to add to the many hangovers, after the many crazy nights out, Laura has a headache hanging over her life as she must decide whether she really still wants to be an ‘any time and all night party girl’, or head for domesticity and listen to that ticking biological clock. Before any of you go making the mistake of thinking this sounds like a noughties Bridget Jones or chick-lit it is far from either, in fact Caitlin Moran has described it as ‘Withnail with girls’ as we are given a frank and no holds barred insight into what single, and engaged, ladies like to get up to before someone puts a ring on it.

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move. I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which one was it with you?’

If we happen to be in, or over, our thirties then we all go through this stage at some point in our lives whatever gender or sexuality we are. It’s that eternal question we seem to be asked from a young age that we rebel against, the ‘what do you want to be when you’re a grown up?’ question that may possibly make us wince, which fortunately gets mistaken for a tight smile, or want to kill the person asking, covering those thoughts up with a false smile. Yet it is the question we are asked most as youths and then find ourselves annoyingly asking when we get older. Unsworth gives us three (Laura, Jim and Tyler) people’s reactions to that process with much insight and from all angles. Marvellous.

One of the other things that is marvellous is Unsworth’s writing. In Animals she manages to tread the thin lines of laugh out loud funny and incredibly dark. She also manages to do something quite a lot of writers fail at which is to make a book very funny without ever falling into the territory of a farce. These girls are having fun, even if they regret it the next morning sometimes, and that comes through in the writing. They are also firmly centred in reality, you have seen these girls on the streets of an evening, heard them laughing, seen them swaying drunkenly and sometimes making a tit, possibly literally, out of themselves.

She also, most importantly, writes some truly brilliant sentences such as… Oh. Give me a glance between two lovers on any day and I will show you a hundred heartbreaks and reconciliations, a thousand tallies and trump cards. Or… I felt it, then: a tremor down my spine; a cold spot at the back of the courtyard. A cat lying in the shade, flicking a caught bird with its claw over and over and over.

Unsworth also uses the darkly humorous to highlight some themes which also make the book all the more realistic and layered. I have mentioned the theme of friendship and the sense of needing to decide when to be a grown-up which we all face. With Laura and Tyler though she is also looking at how the modern world is for women and what the deal with feminism is right now. Is it to not have children and do what you like regardless of the labels of ‘crazy cat lady’ or ‘spinster’? Is it to be a wife and mother? Do you have to choose? Can you have it all? Does it matter either way? All big questions, all looked out without any feeling that Unsworth wanting to impart which is right or which is wrong, exploring all angles with two strong female leads, who may happen to be a tiny bit messed up, but aren’t we all?

Jeannie Johnson. Who’d once accidentally set her own pubes ablaze standing naked on a candlelit dinner table. She’d out spectacled us all. Now where is she? Spouting clichés, in stirrups.

Animals is a very clever book. It is an entertaining, occasionally frankly filthy, giggle and smirk inducing romp which also raises an eye to what life is like for women (though actually for all of us) as we grow up, try to become grown-ups (or try not to) and the choices and decisions we have to make as we evolve. It is a book which never takes itself too seriously, whilst being written brilliantly, yet by its very nature highlights some serious modern conundrums we all go through. As I said, clever, deftly done, wonderfully written and immensely readable.

If you want to know more about Animals you can hear Emma and I having a chat about the book (Emma even telling me off a bit) over a pint on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read Animals and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Emma Jane Unsworth, Review

The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales

I have often said that to write a really good ghost story in a modern setting is almost impossible. However a recent collection of five wintery ghostly tales The Longest Night by a collective compiled of authors Jenn Ashworth, Tom Fletcher, Richard Hirst, Alison Moore and Emma Jane Unsworth seems to have proven me wrong. Whilst I read each of these tales, which are designed to emulate M.R James’ tradition on Christmas Eve (so very apt today) of meeting with friends to exchange tales of the supernatural, I found that I often was either chilled, shocked or felt the hairs on my neck slowly begin to rise as I read on.

Curious Tales, 2013, paperback, fiction, ghost stories, 88 pages, kindly sent by Emma Jane Unsworth

The Longest Night isn’t a collection of stories designed to revolutionise or modernise the ghostly tale, as what each author does rather marvellously is give the tale a truly Victorian feeling yet very much in a modern setting. If you are wondering what on earth I mean by that, I mean that the stories feel very traditional with modern twist. We have old haunted houses, slightly scary children who might be possessed or at least can speak to the dead, ghostly ladies returning from the grave and of course the wonderful scares a telephone can provide. Why is it that the simple telephone can be so bloody unnerving? All these tales also have the feeling of you being told the tale firsthand, as Stephen Volk (who created the cult show Ghostwatch) says in the introduction of ‘No listen. This happened to me…’, a celebration of the oral tradition of the ghostly tale. In fact, frankly, I wanted to be sat by a roaring fire with a mulled wine being told these tales by the authors themselves – which if you pop to the site you will see they are doing, well in bookshops anyway. I feel slightly cheated I have missed out.

Now you may have noticed that I am being rather vague, or actually haven’t really mentioned, about what lies in wait within each of the tales. This is because as they are all rather short, again the traditional and best ghostly tales are short sharp shocks, and so I wouldn’t want to spoil them. I think I can get away with saying that Alison Moore (who wrote the brilliant The Lighthouse) and Tom Fletcher’s stories are probably the most traditional in terms of setting and sensibility, both set within empty houses; one the former estate of a famous author, the other a new house in the middle of nowhere where a house husband starts to feel something not quite right is going on and seems to be linking itself to his young daughter. I loved these as they felt like the sorts of tales that Arthur Conan Doyle and M.R. James would indeed write now.

I also greatly admired the three tales by Ashworth, Hirst and Unsworth as whilst each one of them had the traditional feel, they also had something of the urban legend about them mixed in and probably most importantly they had the evocation of modern human base fears mixed in with the supernatural. In each tale there is an underlying completely natural fear be it grief, loneliness or madness. With those feelings we all know so well plus the sense of unease and fearful trepidation they all had a horribly, yet brilliantly, heady mix of the fearful running right into every part of their structure and it was really deftly done.

All in all a marvellous, very well written and indeed incredibly unsettling collection of modern winter ghostly tales which I think would have gladly given the contemporary ghost writers of the past a real case of the shivers. I am hoping this becomes a yearly fixture as I could do with a decidedly chilling evening in the pre-Christmas madness once a year, or more often frankly.

For more information about the last few available copies and indeed where the authors will be reading in the New Year head to the Curious Tales website here.

Which are your favourite ghostly tales for the perfect darkened evening with the roaring fire (I don’t have a roaring fire here, which along with the lack of a bath has confirmed in my mind I need to have moved by next winter just for reading purposes alone) be they new or old? Do you think the Victorians did it best? Have you any other modern ghostly tales that will continue to prove my thoughts on the modern ghost story wrong?

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Filed under Alison Moore, Curious Tales, Emma Jane Unsworth, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Richard Hirst, Tom Fletcher