Haunted Manors and Empty Beaches.

Stories by Matthew G. Rees.

While reading the stories in this book, I was reminded of Patrick McGrath’s first story collection Blood and Water and Other Tales (1989), with its strange and mythical tales of Southern Gothic. So while reading the fictions of Rees, I wondered if he’s a fan of McGrath too. One could easily describe the stories in Keyhole as Welsh Gothic, and although their characters move through familiar territory (as readers and fans of the genre are concerned), there’s a particular feel about them, and a stylistic commitment, that sets Rees apart from other writers of the fantastic and the grotesque. One does not however, as a reader, find oneself in a landscape that is completely strange. There are ancient hills and dark horizons and decrepit farms and dead things and things that one assumes are still alive — but there is an atmosphere of loneliness, of obliviousness (if that is a word at all), with characters that seem totally, but inexplicably, left to themselves.

Rees carefully uses the tropes of the fantastic and the weird to their full extent. An old, decrepit house, overseeing the salt marshes, the empty dunes, the sea. A man willing to give you his set of false teeth while this is the only thing left to him of value. A young girl in a manor who needs to keep the light out. Rees is fully in control of that particular gift of authors of fantastic stories, which consists of placing banal objects, or characters, in situations where they are at the same time innocent and threatening. They threaten the order within which the storyteller assumes they live. In that respect, fantastic stories have always been subversive: they depict a reality of superficial order, but underneath they swarm with that what we fear most.

On other occasions his stories are wonderfully weird and funny at the same time, as farces that pry apart the conventions of the fantastic genre. But mostly Rees is an heir to Thomas Ligotti, the dark master of the cruel tale. Usually it seems that the fantastic is merely a step away from a certain uncommon reality, inherent to the Welsh rural landscape which somehow reminded me (wrongly perhaps) of Southern Louisiana (without the subtropical atmosphere). Rees has understood very well that the weird story needs not only a specific atmosphere (in another meaning of the word) but also a specific decor: raw and inhuman, ancient and mostly empty. Primordial, at times. Our fears are precisely that primordial: they are about death and dead things, and things that should be dead but aren’t. They are about things unseen but felt, just beyond our field of vision. Here he is, on page 72, describing a sort of figure made by a kid from things found on the beach: “The figure had cockle shell eyes and a curved slipper shell nose. A beard of grey limpets bristled at his mouth of twirled turret shell teeth. White razor shell fingers poked from otter shell cuffs. A dandy’s dream coat — fit for the pickiest Cockney Pearly King — cloaked him with exquisite swirls of Faroes, peppery furrows, striped Whelks and Banded wedges.”

There is a strong feeling I have about these stories, which is that there’s a conspiracy going on somewhere in the background, somewhere hidden deep in these Welsh landscapes and manors. But I can’t point at it exactly — and perhaps this is just my way of reading these stories (and having watched several seasons of that slow but wonderful TV-series Y Gwill), as if these tales need some inexplicable evil background plot, never unveiled, never exposed, about which not even the characters have an inkling.

Matthew G. Rees — Keyhole.

Three Impostors, Newport, 2019. ISBN 978–1–78461–704–2, paperback, 270 pp. https://www.threeimpostors.co.uk

Writer of crime fiction, speculative fiction, literary fantasy and the weird, and Young Adult books.

Writer of crime fiction, speculative fiction, literary fantasy and the weird, and Young Adult books.