Tuesday 5 November 2013
The Sea Change & Other Stories by Helen Grant: reviewed by Gillian Philip
Honestly, that Helen Grant looks such a sweet girl. I'd like to say that The Sea Change is a delight, but of course that wouldn't be the right word. Creepy, menacing and addictive: those would be more appropriate.
I was never a fan of ghost stories as a child, because I was too much of a coward for them. I'd read them with the lights on, at noon, but I'd always regret it when the sun went down and the house started to creak. Nowadays I like to think I'm way too big and tough and cynical to be frightened by stories, but there's a certain kind of tale that can slink under your skin in a very unnerving way, no matter how grown-up you think you are. Michelle Paver's Dark Matter is one of them, and this collection is another.
This effect starts right out of the gate with Grauer Hans, a story inspired by a German folk tale of Santa Claus's less benevolent sidekick. He, it seems, is the one who deals with the naughty children, and Helen Grant presents him as a sweet, apple-cheeked little man to whom any young child would be happy to open the window. And Grant's protagonist would love to invite him in, if only her mother did not lull her to sleep with an old song each night. His friendly scratching on the window is the aural equivalent of Michelle Paver's wooden post; parents, this is a reminder never to forget the songs your own mother taught you.
All the stories have this same slow-burn, understated menace that grows quietly at the back of your mind. A scuba diver becomes so obsessed with an old wreck, he begins to disregard that immutable rule of never diving without a buddy. A pair of climbers, too young and brash to heed local superstition, decide to tackle a local crag with a bad reputation. A man goes to Slovakia in search of his vanished brother, and finds a lonely abandoned calvary and a very eerie painting. In many of the stories, the landscape itself is a part of the threat, and since you can't fight or escape the Earth itself, the terror seems all the more inescapable. I turned the pages with a mounting sense of dread each time, and I was never disappointed (and never reassured, either).
Helen Grant even completes an unfinished MR James story, The Game of Bear – a work that won her a competition in the MR James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter and has the blessing of the James estate. In her notes to that story, she mentions the 'tinge of wrongness' that make MR James's inventions so frightening. That's a very good way of describing the horrors that haunt Grant's own creations here.
It's a truism that the most frightening stories never show you the horror, but let it fester in your imagination until it's worse than anything explicit. The Sea Change & Other Stories is so true to that, I started to worry about my creaking house all over again.
The stories in The Sea Change first appeared in various magazines and journals and have now been published in a limited edition by Swan River Press. It might be sadly difficult to get hold of a new copy – and the used ones on Amazon are pricey – but the collection is well worth tracking down if you can. It would also be well worth a second edition. Hint hint, Swan Press. And if you can't find The Sea Change, you can console yourself with Helen Grant's equally disturbing and frightening novels The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead.
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