Murmured in Dreams by Stephen Bacon

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Stephen Bacon is a writer of mostly horror short stories. He has one previous anthology, Peel Back the Sky, published by Grey Friar Press in 2011. In this collection, published by Luna Press, most of the stories have previously been published in magazines and anthologies including Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Crime Wave, and several Best Horror of the Year anthologies. The collection includes author notes and a playlist at the end.

In his notes Bacon says he often finds inspiration in true crime stories, whether in the news or told to him by acquaintances. For example the opening story, ‘Cuckoo Spit,’ was inspired by a friend who had her face scarred by the family dog. This focus on crime gives a particular quality of edgy, gritty realism to Bacon’s tales. He deals with the marginalised, the dispossessed and the struggling. His tales feature dark family secrets, random acts of cruelty and violence, lives blighted by bad decisions and haunted by trauma and regret. A world in which husbands order acid attacks on their wives or murder their own children for revenge is already so shocking and weird it doesn’t really need a layer of supernatural horror added to it. And many of Bacon’s stories, such as ‘None so Blind,’ ‘What Grief Can Do,’ and ‘Bandersnatch,’ don’t actually feature any supernatural horror elements at all. They simply provide an unflinching, psychologically insightful look at the real world, which is terrifying enough.

Bacon has lived most of his life in Yorkshire, which provides the backdrop for many of his stories. The sense of place is so important to building an unsettling atmosphere, and Bacon is superb at capturing eerie locations in vivid detail. There are isolated country houses, abandoned industrial sites and decaying housing estates waiting to be demolished. In a long-forgotten holiday park ‘gulls soar in a sky the colour of a fresh bruise,’ the smashed windows of a row dilapidated chalets gape ‘like a row of hungry mouths,’ and detritus spills from cracked guttering ‘like a bloodstain.’

Some of Bacon’s stories show how neglect and decay can be the result of political policy, deliberately eating away at the foundations of society. An arsonist is returns to his home town after a stint in prison to find that a decade of austerity has reduced it to a barely-recognisable wasteland of boarded-up shops, closed libraries and food banks. He discovers ‘the six years separating the old him and the here and now felt like a chasm too wide to span […] Family-friendly-faces from his past seemed to be arrested on an almost daily basis; further evidence that the foundations of his childhood were collapsing.’ There is gentrification in these stories too, but Bacon suggests that it’s only skin-deep. ‘It felt almost like the dark underbelly of the city he’d abandoned had been varnished smooth, the cracks papered over. Yet peel back the veneer of respectability and the festering decay would be revealed.’

Bacon’s themes are dark. There is paedophilia, incest, revenge, bullying, blackmail, murder, terminal illness, drug addiction, suicide pacts and illegal abortions. But the stories are varied in tone and style.  There are robots, monsters, portals to other worlds, ghosts, and a mysterious double. ‘Rapid Eye-Movement’ is a kind of inverted, fast-forwarded version of Neville Shute’s On the Beach. Instead of Australians waiting patiently for an apocalypse that has already happened everywhere else, they go first and the rest of the world follows rapidly and indecorously. ‘The Summer of Bradbury,’ brings a touch of spooky American adolescence to Yorkshire, and in ‘Happy Sands’ we get a sci-fi noir. Amongst the generally dark subject matter there are glimmers of light: friendship, love, kindness, and ordinary people doing their best to help others, despite difficult circumstances. In ‘Double Helix’ a man saves his ex-lover’s life. In ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ a couple watch a DVD and cuddle tenderly while waiting for the end of the world. Sometimes there is even forgiveness: a woman whose face was burned with acid hopes her attackers find peace.

I particularly liked Bacon’s ‘fish out of water stories’: ‘Children of Medea,’ ‘The Cambion’ and ‘It Came from the Ground.’ These take British people –a teacher, an aid worker, a journalist – and place them in the Greek Islands, war-torn Chad and the middle of the Rwandan Genocide, then bring strange and horrifying elements of local folklore to life. In his notes, Bacon says he’s never visited Chad or Rwanda, which is amazing, because his descriptions are so immersive and multi-sensory. In the wrong hands ‘It Came From the Ground,’ which uses the Rwandan Genocide as the backdrop for a ‘creature feature’ could feel insensitive or exploitative, but it never does; it feels feel like much more than the sum of its parts. The protagonist is a photojournalist obsessing over the Pulitzer Prize and whether his girlfriend is having an affair. He knows his Rwandan hosts see him as a foolish, shallow interloper and feels a certain shame, but not enough to actually stop his mission to photograph a one-armed twelve-year-old warlord. The clever plot goes through a series of surprising reveals and reversals, which Bacon describes as ‘pulpy.’ But I found it both soberingly thought-provoking and delightfully wacky. You wouldn’t think that was possible, but it turns out that it is, and it’s my favourite story in this collection.

The only thing I don’t actually like about this collection is the title. Murmured in Dreams in no way does justice to the nastiness, warped realism, and sheer power of the stories.

Murmured in Dreams is published by Luna Press publishing and is available here.

Reviewed by Kate Tyte

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