BOOK REVIEW: Unthology 10 by Edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Published by Unthank, Unthology 10 is a revelation. In more ways than one. If you haven’t heard of Unthank Books or their aptly named Unthology then where have you been? This is the question I asked myself as I began reading. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only recently (in the last five months or so) sunk myself into the illustrious waters of short story collections (I’m unsure what I did with my life before) but Unthank were new to me. A gift to be unwrapped with eager and itching hands.

Endlessly beguiling and engrossing in varying levels, Unthology 10 a charming piece of quality – from its contents to its cover (designed by Robot Mascot).

Brimming with talent, both new and established, Unthology 10 is a collection of fourteen seemingly unattached stories – stories of any length and genre, subject and style. No set theme, nothing to say, ‘this is what our collection will be and here’s how you adhere to it’. And yet there is a coherence. Perhaps an accidental one, not that it truly matters, but there are threads that run through each piece which feel natural. Of course the story about an invasion of butterflies should be followed by a piece which delves into the world of Hindu and Buddhist mythology via a legendary bird-like creature. It makes perfect sense. Because short stories should transform and transport – maybe not always to another world, they can take us to Tesco and back in quite dazzling forms. That is the common link. Reading a piece so immersive that no matter where you are, it takes you along with it. There is more to be said here too. Because what ­Unthology 10 has in droves is a focus on character. On humans and all manners of ‘life’ that surround us. Prose that is driven by emotion, from jealousy to heartache, and all that’s in between. They tell us as much in the introduction. A focus on the self – ‘who do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? … Fight or flight?’. Cafeteria by Jay Merill is a prime example. An emotional piece that questions the actions we take and the decisions we as humans make, do we help the ‘other’ in need, despite everything they are? Simple prose that fits like a well-worn but always welcome glove.

There are no spoilers here and I won’t divulge endings (or I’ll try my best not to) for the sake of a review. But each piece has its merits and something to keep in memory.

When Nature Calls by Gareth E. Rees takes us to the South Coast of England and into an oncoming storm, one which pulls earth into the sea in quite spectacular fashion. An apocalyptic tale of nature and our lack of control over it – very apt for the times. K.M. Elkes takes us into the wilderness too via Ursa Minor. It’s bear country for Jack and Carrie, exploring how we run from the things that scare us, grizzly or not, and how to face them should we so wish. There’s a child involved, as there is in many of Unthology 10’s stories, each seeking answers or perhaps questions about what new life can mean, and what it could take away. Livestock by Valie O’Riodran unearths this deftly. Playing with inner monologue throughout, there is a quite poignant set up between a young girl who finds herself with child, and sees that life taken away against her true wishes, whilst a narrator who has her daughter Tilly and is in distress about what life, and what her child, has given her. O’Riodran also excels in supplying a female narrator that isn’t likable – there is power in creating characters who agitate rather than appease. Kathyrn Simmonds excels here too – the main protagonist Matthew in Rosa and Kelsey, a man who struggles to see the joy in his life and the life his daughter has taken from him – ‘the front door opening onto the beautiful, filthy city he has lost’.

And so it is. Heartache, and our ‘vices’ are melted into the pages of Unthology 10 and that is no more apparent than in both One for the Ditch by Brian Coughlan and Take Away the Sky by Mark Mayes. Each dive into the ever-murky waters of what it is to be addicted to a substance we all consume regularly, and whilst one takes the path to eventual recovery – the other I assume does not – there is delicate prose in each piece, and neither tackle the subject in a similar way, which would deter from the collection if they had. Variety, even on akin subjects, is always worthwhile.

Living up to its diverse nature, Unthology 10 is also home to the weird and mythical – the off kilter where nothing is really what it seems and the world the characters inhabit are slightly removed from our own. I mentioned them in passing at the start, but the butterfly invasion followed by the mythic bird come courtesy of The Best Way to Kill a Butterfly by Hannah Stevens, and Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer by Elaine Chiew – the latter by far my favourite title of the collection, for obvious reasons alone. Again, there is the loss of a child in Stevens piece, a theme that continues, as noted, in many of the stories, but there is more here to be said. In a fashion similar to Robert Aickman and even Daphne du Maurier, Stevens pulls us into our world, but with a few notes of the unfamiliar. A relationship between Tess and Michael that unfolds alongside the summer where butterflies invade – an invasion that, like most ‘weird’ writing, is never explained, and quite rightly too. There are some answers the reader should never find. The addition of a woman who ran away to be with a circus clown is just as deliciously odd.

And odd – or maybe more spiritual, is where we find Chiew’s short story. Gifting a starring role to Garuda, a bird-like creature of Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer takes us on a journey of discovery (of sorts), with the eponymous ‘Ethnic Writer’ along for the ride. Full of mythological and religious iconography, Chiew delivers it all in beautifully descriptive prose. A Moment That Could Last Them Forever by Daniel Carpenter also plays with the ‘otherworldly’ – the supernatural at least. Inheriting the gift from her father we come across a woman who can converse with the dead, but not through ‘Ouija boards, or séances, or anything’ like that. Maps are the vessel and Edna the older woman who wishes to reach the deceased. There’s a fox in the back garden too, its appearance unlikely to be inconsequential. It’s a tale that never turns dark, or Gothic, despite the contents – and works all the better for it.

Yet for all the quality already discussed, there are four stories which (in my own opinion we must remember) stand out from the rest. Affected me a little more and gave me something so clearly different from the rest that I had no choice but to remember them. First is Blowhole by Tom Vowler. I recently read Vowler’s own short story collection and Blowhole was included, but it still packs a punch the second-time round. A confessional letter that never wavers in its intrigue or its continual curiosity, you’re left guessing who the narrator is writing to and why until the very end. The use of a strong colloquial voice adding to the authenticity.

Tenth Circle by Liam Hogan is perhaps the only story in the collection which is so clearly unlike the rest. Comedic and endlessly amusing in the same breath, Tenth Circle delivers us to the 1300s via Dante and his Divine Comedy, and a publisher who can’t quite see the point of it all. As Dante brings up the idea of a trilogy (of course being Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) the publisher tells him it won’t sell. Hogan works in the first-person narrative with ease and it never feels forced nor ridiculous that he’s created a vision of the past where an uppity publisher won’t take a chance on Dante. The ending (for all us writers out there) is deliciously sweet – the Tenth Circle revealed through a ‘lost canto’ of Dante’s left in haste on the publisher’s floor.

And to the end. The final two of the collection that I’ve yet to give airtime to are both, for different reasons, emotionally arresting. I read each and had to take a moment afterwards to digest the prose, the characters and indeed the plot, as they were more than just affecting. As the last piece in Unthology 10, End Times by Maxim Loskutoff is a work that embodies place and the personal with apt ability. Set in the American mid-west – Utah, Montana, Idaho, End Times is rife with detailed and definite imagery. There is much to be said for imbuing a short story with description of place – sometimes it is worthwhile, other times maybe not. Here it works in abundance and elevates the piece to another level. Again, there is loss, not of a child but pretty close, a pet, just as loved and just as cherished. How Loskutoff weaves the nature of both characters together, their relationship, what they give up for each other and the roads they take, is wonderfully written. The same can also be said of Household Gods by Tracy Fells. Once more we find ourselves in a piece that takes inspiration from religion and the potential loss of a child, but Fells executes more than just that alone. Mo is looking after his sick mother and tending to his ‘household gods’ – lighting Vesta’s flame, a Roman goddess, the shrine kept in his room – a candle he blows out each time he leaves. But Mo is also dealing with a child that isn’t his and a wife, Aisha, who he marries after she arrives into Heathrow, pregnant already. The child is premature, and we watch on as he visits the hospital reluctantly – his Roman gods watching too. I won’t give away much else, but the ending is poignant without falling into cliché. Fell’s style of prose makes sure of it. An emotionally driven story that does, in my (humble) opinion, what great short stories do best – focus on character. Language plays a huge part too, of course.

And that is main stay of Unthology 10. True literary quality from a group of equally excellent writers. A worthy addition to any short story collection and one I am glad I had the chance to read.

Unthology 10 is published by Unthank Books and is available here.

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The Writers

Daniel Carpenter, Elaine Chiew, Brian Coughlan, KM Elkes, Tracy Fells, Liam Hogan, Maxim Loskutoff, Mark Mayes, Jay Merill, Valerie O’Riordan, Gareth E Rees, Kathryn Simmonds, Hannah Stevens, Tom Vowler

Edited by
Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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