If you’ve read any of Helen Grant’s books, then you know she is a woman who loves all things spooky, supernatural, otherworldly, creepy, and mysterious. The Sea Change & Other Stories is a collection of Helen’s spooky tales put together by Swan River Press in Ireland. I was delighted when author and publisher Brian J. Showers offered me an advanced copy of Helen’s book to review!
Don’t bother looking for gore and guts. Any violence tends to happen off the page, bar a few brief scenes. This isn’t “Friday the Thirteenth” on paper. The scariness of these stories lies in your own imagination. I am reminded of Shirley Jackson’s horrors, or one of my all-time favourites, “The Monkey’s Paw”, by William Wymark Jacobs. What’s behind that door is never described, but you know it’s horrific, and you are fervently praying for the father to find that paw and make the final wish before the grief-crazed mother opens the door.
In Helen’s collection, the story that creeped me out the most was “Grauer Hans”. It is a universal tale of a scary goblin-like creature who tries to lure a child out of the safety of her room. Who hasn’t been afraid of things under the bed or in the closest in the dark of the night? What if you think it’s just a childhood fable? What if you know it’s not?
“The Sea Change” was really interesting, partly because I used to scuba dive when I was younger, and partly because of the transformation of the narrator’s friend, local “salt of the sea” Daffy, once he becomes obsessed with a particular wreck.
The only story I didn’t care for was “The Game of Bear”. This was an unfinished tale by author M.R. James, someone unfamiliar to me. Helen won a competition to complete the story. I found it hard to get into the story told through two old Victorian duffers, known only as Mr. A and Mr. B, about some unlikeable acquaintance of theirs named Purdue. On re-reading it, however, I like it better the second time around. The means of Purdue’s comeuppance is rather intriguing. But I think with such an unsympathetic victim, I was rather more pleased at his demise than disturbed. What does that say about me?
“Self Catering” was quite enjoyable. It has a thread of humor in it that none of the other stories have, which gave it a lighter tone. Edward Larkin needed a holiday, but he didn’t want the usual stuff. So, he found a rather oddball travel agent and, in the end, got a very unique holiday, but it’s certainly not what he, or I as the reader, expected.
The next tale, “Nathair Dhubh” is set in Wales and is a climbing adventure. I don’t climb, but one of my friends does, so I read it with interest. I like the narrator Jim, especially as he reflects back on his younger self and his boyhood friendship with Tom. This story has that emotional connection that was lacking for me in “The Game of Bear”. We immediately care about Jim and Tom and what happens to them. Tom wants to climb Nathair Dhubh, which is shunned by locals as being cursed. What happens is not fully revealed, but Helen has captured the tension and psychological terror of being trapped alone during a climb in sinister weather.
“Alberic de Mauléon” was also written for a competition. It is a prequel to another story by M.R. James, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”. While most of her stories have a contemporary setting, this one takes place in the 17th century and pits two brothers against each other. It’s got a high creep factor and has a horrific outcome for one brother. Very satisfying.
The final story, “The Calvary at Bankská Bystrica”, is a modern tale, again about two brothers who are not particularly fond of each other, but when Robert vanishes, his brother travels to Slovakia to try to find some trace of him. I won’t give away the story, but suffice to say something very spooky and weird takes place on the Calvary hill. Helen was inspired by the real location when she visited Tajov.
Helen Grant has published three deliciously mysterious and creepy novels all set in Germany in and around the town where she used to live (“The Vanishing of Katharina Linden”, “The Glass Demon”, and “Wish Me Dead”). Helen puts a lot of research into the locations for her books, which is a great excuse for travelling, though I'm sure she doesn't get to do that as much as she'd like. She is currently working on a new trilogy set in The Netherlands. The first book, “Silent Saturday”, is due to be published in April 2013.
Swan River Press
Named for the now subterranean river that flows through Rathmines, the Swan River Press, founded in Dublin in 2003, specializes in Gothic, strange, and supernatural literature.