Unthology 11 – Edited by Ashley Stokes & Tom Vowler

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We are delighted to bring you the latest instalment from Unthank BooksUnthology 11. It is a sublime treat for all short story lovers, a collection which hits above its weight in every possible way.

The Unthology idea is a fabulous one – with many new voices coming from within their pages, showcasing the extraordinary short fiction from both established and new writers in a heady cocktail of delight. This is something that STORGY Books also strives to achieve and champion with our anthologies – giving new voices in literature the chance to grace the pages with established writers and reach a wider audience for their words!

Unthology 11 is dangerous and genuinely refreshing – so many unique voices gathered and mixed together in a maiming collection, which most  importantly highlights the power of the short story (bravo editors).

Unthology (11) breaks the bounds of the short story…intoxicating and enthralling in equal measure.

So lets crack on with the review!

HalfNick Holdstock – a tale of unfrequented love, addiction, obsession and heroin – this tale is perfectly balanced by Holdstock. Having read a lot of stories about heroin and addiction (something I love to read about, the self destructive nature of the human condition) – it could have been easy for Holdstock to get drawn into the usual tropes one associates with such writing, but, he was able to delicately and subtlety weave this element into his rich and intricately paced story without it descending into chaos and this element taking over the rich storytelling on offer in Half. In his discretion in cherry picking from this thematic element, I felt that Holdstock was able to transcend the usual themes of this topic, and has created something quite unique, touching and somber in tone. The story follows a sister struggling with adoration, or could it be love, for her half brother. A talk one afternoon leads to a discussion and admission of his recreational heroin use (which in turn breaks his half sisters heart). His initial dabbling turning into addiction which is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable – and written to perfection. This addiction and inner turmoil is caveated superbly with Zoe (our protagonists) disappointing, mundane and rather bland relationship/s – which is discussed and digested by sister and half brother. The story builds to a fabulous crescendo of unspeakable acts which leaves the reader on tenterhooks.

TouchSarah Dobbs – Dobbs produces a delicate and short tale about online attraction and obsession as our main protagonist finds himself enraptured by an online presence (some form of dating site) and he decides one day to confront his infatuation head on, and sets out to meet her at her place of work…

In real life there’s not the confidence he’s seen. Those bold poses. Nipples silken in shadow, the pubic hair a mossy secret between her legs.

…he’s not thought it through though, his infatuation has skewed his normally rational mind. He’s a loose cannon and so, he turns up at her place of work. A school. And is abruptly scalded by the woman, the woman that he desires more than anything. Dobbs laces this confrontation with hidden images that hit like bullets, a wedding ring he never new existed, a hatred towards him, that things that are sometimes better behind closed doors, without the world looking on. It is a great showcase of the lives people portray online, hiding who they really are behind avatars and online personas. It’s a short piece but a fierce story nonetheless, the structure works well and is darkly humorous in places.

BloodstockPaul Davenport Randell – Randell excels here in giving the reader just enough, treating us to a world of despair and no hope. A seedy underworld where our main protagonist is a slave to his captives, who picked him up from the street (a few unforeseen events lead to our protagonist being homeless) and have turned him into their slave. There is no chance of escape, and even if our protagonist wanted to flee, there is nothing to escape too, or for – he’s at a dead end. He’s at the mercy of his captives and even being held here, in this desolation, is better than the prison and punishment that lurks in his previous life? Randell has poured what seems like lighter fluid on this story, the pages are damp and heavy for it. It sits there brooding, waiting for one spark from Randell’s pen to ignite a blaze. Luckily for us he strikes his match just towards the end, leaving the reader in an inferno that there is no escaping from.

Occasionally, they throw you meat. More often the offal. You devour these insipid, elasticated ribbons of flesh. Gobble down gritty gizzards. In hunger, your body has developed a taste for anything. It craves what it lacks, what it needs. Swallows and keeps down such offerings that once turned your stomach.

Peasant Woman Number FourAngela Readman – I am a huge fan of Readman’s work and again she delivers in spades in this meandering tale of a woman, who fleeing an old life, and a life changing incident, finds herself in a somewhat older life altogether. Meredith Walsh (our main protagonist) finds herself working in a type of Folk Museum – the story reminded me of the Ulster Folk Museum in Northern Ireland (a place we have frequented a few times now, where actors are dressed in the clothes of the time and you literally work your way through time periods, go in real houses, see how life was way back when – and interact with these actors who help dispense history lessons to younger and older folk in an engaging and thrilling setting – check it out). This is a deep and rich story about Meredith Walsh, a woman trying to find herself again after a traumatic incident, trying to spice up her now monotonous life, trying desperately to keep the past from creeping back in. And what better way to escape your past, than to delve back in time before those traumatic events have ever happened – how does 1895 sound? Her actual husband (not the actors in the museum) wants to move on too, wanting to do things that they should be doing as a couple – but Meredith is moving on, changing and devolving, regressing to a simpler time. In 1895 she has no name, just a character to play and that’s how she likes it. Readman’s stories are a joy to behold, she has the knack of making the reader disappear into worlds that seem effortlessly created and lives which cry out to be observed – another stunning turn from Readman.

The Provenance of ObjectsGeorge Sandison – this was a real change from the pace and the overall feel of the Unthology, and I believe it is better for it. This story is delivered brilliantly by George Sandison and had an almost science fiction vibe to it (think Philip K Dick and H G Wells short story works) and I found it a little unsettling at points, I can’t quite place the eeriness of the piece, it just made me feel a little uncomfortable, and what better place to be, to feel moved in such a way that truly makes you feel unnerved. We get a glimpse into the workings of an odd organisation and those that are contracted in to undertake things that need not be said. So, what is really going on and what’s the hold up, and why is everything being dealt with so secretly? You’ll need to delve in to find out…

Target PracticeRegi Claire – Claire treats us to an intriguing little story of a woman reflecting on her childhood and a life changing event which she can’t quite shift. The way Claire constructs the early part of the story reminds me of a young Stephen King in its storytelling style scope and tone (and let’s face it, early King is the best!) – we witness our protagonist Kricket (Diana) planning her revenge on her now adult target, and the person responsible for her childhood trauma. Claire builds this story with subtle layers to a wonderfully creepy conclusion which is handled expertly well, with Claire just giving us enough, without overstating the events and the minute details of the revenge. Claire’s writing is based wonderfully in the details, her observations are astute and it is these details that make the piece a slow brooding revenge tale that needs to be read to fully enjoy.

The BergRichard Smyth – This story was a real treat, but at first I found it quite confusing as our protagonist talks in a phonetically strange way. Which if I’m honest was a big jump in the collection, which took me a while to get into my head – but after a page or two I was in the zone…so I started it again, and wow! What a story! Smyth’s tool of using this language and structure is a real gift to the anthology and also makes this story really stick in the memory. The events of The Berg are fierce and the environment that Smyth creates you can almost feel. The characters are the key to this stories power and our main protagonist is someone you can champion throughout. Smyth splices elements of this characters backstory into the tale, which help us to learn as we go, an ingenious piece of storytelling craft on show (check it out all would be writers) and this tool also gives the reader a real sense of the time, location and the life of our protagonist and his companions. We soon learn that they are all convicts, sailing off to bring back icebergs back to cool tropical waters. It’s amazingly depicted by Smyth and feels very grandiose – it also reminds me of some articles I read in 2017 about scientists giving credence to the possible idea of dragging icebergs on the back of huge boats, to cool the rising temperatures of the oceans (Global Warming or some shizzle) – also I remember reading something about Darwin and Icebergs but I can’t recall it – but he gets a mention in the story, so maybe this is where Smyth pulled some of his inspiration. Smyth’s story has no real specific historical setting (I’m no historian so do forgive me if I’ve missed something) but with the woven conversations, the broken and somewhat uneducated English and other subtle notes woven throughout, it is as if you are privy to some charting of an actual historical event. Masterful as it is historical!

Wise ManGeorgina Parfitt – Parfitt tells a story of four friends, who are busy entertaining themselves on one cold Christmas Eve – hanging around an old caravan in the darkened fields. Lucy one of our merry gang decides that they should do something. Tally suggests that they start collecting gifts for the townsfolk, that they should become a messed up Father Christmas. So, they begin searching for gifts in the litter and field, finding a torn up mouse, a thermos flask of piss and a dead wheat ear. But things go awry when they are shown kindness, in the face of their treacherous acts. It’s a story about youthfulness, coming of age and a window into what young people get up to (some young people). Parfitt has been able to get into the mindset of adolescence and the story is exquisitely told, with a witt and attention to detail that ensures you stand up and take notice as we journey the night with this band of misfits.

Later, Tom told them what it was like. How huge Lucy’s boobs were without a bra on, and how he’d shone the caravan torch at her vagina just before he went into her and it was wet, shining like jelly. And Lucy’s face was more desperate than he’d ever seen anything.

Various Cuts of a HolsteinRachael Smart – Please excuse me whilst I wax lyrical about this short story, when it happens, you need to celebrate it – and what that thing is people, is the birth of an undeniable talent. Smart uses a fabulous technique in this story which ensures that the structure and composition of this quite exceptional and experimental story, has a grounding tool, something that tethers itself to the reader and won’t let go. The tool that Smart implements is that she uses various cuts of meat as her headers, which split the story up into easily digestible chunks, as we delve into our protagonists life. Getting glimpses of love, sex, lovers, loss, family life, farming and most interestingly a glimpse into the date she is currently on. The story is full of beautiful and poetic prose, just reading it made my heart glad and my mind explode with its beauty and intelligent structure – all of this adding to the storytelling prowess and guile of Smart, who you would be remiss in thinking was a long standing novelist, due to the work on show here. Her prose is intellectual, stunningly crisp (Walkers could bag it up and sell it), beautifully whimsical and breathtakingly constructed, with each word fighting for its place on the page and its inclusion in this quite remarkable story. This story, and I do not say this lightly, has become one of my favourite short stories, not only in this collection, but ever! And, given time, and some more readings it may even work its way up to the top of that list. Smart is a new raconteur that you need to stand up and take note of. One I am sure will have many agents or publishers scampering after her signature when she decides to release a collection (and when Unthology 11 breaks out). I’ve most recently been reading The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story and Smart’s story would not seem out of place if it were included within this tome of great writers including such remarkable talent as Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith and Irvine Welsh etc. such is its accomplishment in the short story form and the mastery on show by Smart as a writer. There was part of the story that maimed me, it was written with such honesty, such beautiful prose and delectable imagery for something that could have been so darkly brooding and emotionally charged. But I couldn’t help but marvel at Smart’s brilliance in capturing this moment within her unflinchingly and unabashed style…

The loss of a calf is always a toughie, even when it slips early, but the first is the worst. Her mother was only bothered about someone in the shambles getting wind of it whilst her father said if he found out which one of the boys it was he’d chop him up. She didn’t say he’d already gone.
Muscles in the belly hold on to the shape of it long after the blood dries up as though the body is in reminiscence. She realized separation was a more appropriate word than loss when she’d stood over the yawn of the toilet bowl with her palm cupping the minute perfection of it. The flagrancy of someone coming away from her, someone she hadn’t known she wanted so much.
She still isn’t certain but she’s always wanted to say him.
Eyes had already formed and the prominent pink swell of them reminded her of amaranth buds before the petals split.
Waxy lids protecting irises she wouldn’t ever see the colour of. That they wouldn’t open. It made her lean on the cistern to catch her breath. Milk came in the weeks after even though he hadn’t fed. The unacknowledged sting of it: stuck wasps.

…this story in my opinion is the best in the collection and quite possibly the best short story I’ve read this year (and here at STORGY we read a bucket load) and maybe even in the last few years. Spellbindingly assured storytelling from a writer who you’d do well to follow – big things are ahead for Rachael Smart…we may be witnessing the birth of a true star.

The Night NurseJude Cook – Jude Cook is a writer we know well here at STORGY as having previously published ‘Marianne, You’re Falling‘ in STORGY Magazine which you can read here – and he doesn’t disappoint with The Night Nurse. This story follows the life of a healthcare assistant called Chico, who works in a special care baby unit. It’s a brilliant little story to end such a special collection. Chico is floundering in life, at his seventh ward since starting his career and being 45, it’s almost a tale of a lost life, drowning in the here and now. We see Chico battling daily the prejudices of his patients parents – we discover through Cook’s prose that Chico is a homosexual and a foreigner, so he’s pretty much a leper to the staff and those that frequent the hospital. The narration in this story is fabulously detailed and we glean a lot about out character through these moments of reflection. The introduction of a new baby Tiny Tim and his bastard of a father and weak mother crank the story up a notch in the final acts. We observe Chico’s rising God complex burning within him, it forces the story into a frenetic conclusion, making the tension palpable and balanced perfectly.

As a whole Unthology 11 is a sparkling little gem of a book – there is a freshness and truthfulness in the authors combined works, which shows the overwhelming forces of beauty, mortality and violence working within its pages – it’s literally gold dust, fiercely inventive and unforgettably challenging.

Find out more about Unthank Books here

Writers

Regi Claire, Jude Cook, Paul Davenport Randell, Sarah Dobbs, Nick Holdstock, Georgina Parfitt, Angela Readman, George Sandison, Rachael Smart and Richard Smyth.

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