My earliest holiday memories are of Wales, of a caravan behind the dunes of Abersoch, of wind lifting the sand and throwing it, stingingly, against my goosebumped legs. During the night, the same wind would rock the caravan. I was four years old at the most. In a photograph I’m wearing what looks like a pair of knitted trunks, hoisted high above my little-boy belly, my arms and legs like winter asparagus. I’m smiling. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
So I’m particularly suited to reviewing Sing Sorrow Sorrow, a collection of creepy tales from Welsh publisher, Seren. Not all the stories are set in Wales, but they all, or nearly all, know that the fastest way to the universal – and what can be more universal than fright? – is through the local. Local in this collection ranges from typically concrete Welsh settings, mountains and mines, cottages and camper vans, to the more phantasmagorical: a vast, apparently unpeopled city, a mysterious entertainment venue called Neptune’s Palace, the ruins of Wadi-Washm. One of the shortest stories, Box by Deborah Kay Davies, on the other hand, plays fast and loose with place, period, language. It’s a tale of casual devil-may-care horror, set everywhere and nowhere, where large and small nightmares jostle for space, and hope is the ‘hefty, blessed dose of general anaesthetic you never wake from’. Some of the stories draw on other stories. One of my favourites, The House Demon by Maria Donovan, uses the demon of the title to talk in a powerfully touching way, about tradition and displacement, home and its irreparable loss. Another, Three Cuts by Roshi Fernando, de-disneyfies a popular fairy tale in a harrowing manner, while The Pit, by Jon Gower, casts economic change in the role of Frankenstein and allows its compromised victim/monster free play below ground.
Not all the stories make use of the supernatural to achieve their effects. Richard Gwyn’s The Handless Maiden rang a few bells with me with its tale of drug-befuddled doings in the Mediterranean. Zillah Bethell’s Herself, a dark and comic tale about the dangers of literary fanhood, thankfully, didn’t. And then there are those stories that, in Turn of the Screw fashion, don’t let on what’s real and what’s imagined, such as the chilling tale by Cynan Jones, The Epilept.
All in all, an impressive collection, varied, thought- and shiver-provoking and, unusually for an anthology of this length, without a dud. I recommend it. I’m not sure I’ll be going back to that camp site in Abersoch though. Not unless I can find my knitted trunks.