Sunday, February 24, 2013
Review: Quiet Houses by Simon Kurt Unsworth
In the afterword to Quiet Houses, author Simon Kurt Unsworth refers to the book as a two-fold experiment; an attempt to write intertwined stories in order to create a written portmanteau, as well as an attempt to utilize personal and familiar real-life locations as the settings for all the stories. Although some of the places in the stories are fictional, they are heavily based on real places, and the afterword does a great job of breaking down each location, going into their importance to Unsworth and the reasons he chose them. The final product of this experiment, although not perfect, could only be called a success.
Quiet Houses opens with an advertisement: "Do you live in a haunted house? Have you ever been to a place and had an experience that you cannot explain? Do you have a story to tell? Serious researcher wants to hear from you. Must be prepared to go on record. No timewasters. Tel: 01524 500501 ext 23 and leave a message." The book follows paranormal researcher Richard Nakata's investigations into alleged hauntings and is broken up into two different types of chapters: short "in-between" chapters which set the stage for Nakata's imminent investigation, and the larger chapters which detail the incidents themselves. Structurally, this works rather smoothly. The interlude chapters are short enough to set the stage without lingering too long, and work nicely as the cement that holds all the individual stories together.
Which brings us to the stories themselves. Each of these chapters is titled after a place, and although the earlier parts of the book continue with the premise of Nakata gathering stories from others, it isn't long before the chapters are of Nakata himself having experiences instead. Nakata's chapters are, unfortunately, the mixed lot of the bunch. I found that the four larger chapters featuring him were split; the first two (Beyond St. Patrick's Chapel, Heysham Head and The Temple of Relief and Ease) failed to resonate within me like the others in the book, while I found the final two (24 Glasshouse, Glasshouse Estate and Stack's Farm, Trough of Bowland) to be essential and very climactic. The first two chapters follow Nakata as he explores two areas that came to his attention. Although they have their moments, and I would still consider them to be good examples of storytelling, I felt that they were the weaker chapters of the book. The final chapters are the ones that truly tell Nakata's story. 24 Glasshouse explores Nakata's past, detailing a very important part of his life that will shape the Nakata of the present, while Stack's Farm is where all threads of the story culminate in a truly frightening and enlightening manner.
The three other chapters, which are the experiences related to Nakata by others, absolutely shine from a horror perspective, although their delivery varies in style. In the first of these larger chapters, a sad, older man tells Nakata his tale about The Elms Hotel in a cafe. The Elms takes place in the present, as a conversation in the cafe. The reader is able to follow Nakata's growing discomfort as the man's ghost story is told. The chapter is quite chilling, and makes for an excellent opener. The second of these chapters, The Merry House, is presented as a letter, and reads in the first person. This narrative shift, cutting out Nakata completely, makes for a more immersive reading experience. Instead of seeing Nakata's reactions, readers are now reading the letter for themselves, allowed to come to their own conclusions. This is also, without a doubt, the most terrifying story in the book, and goes way beyond being a ghost story. The third of these chapters, The Ocean Grand, is another story about a hotel, although this eschews despair for blood and action. Three men (self-dubbed the "Save Our Shit Crew") spend a few days camped within the long-closed, Art Deco style Ocean Grand Hotel, where they will appraise what art can be saved and restored. The narrative style of this story takes another turn by switching back to third person, however unlike the first chapter Nakata is not present in the telling and the story only focuses on the three men involved. The story itself is great, but this narrative choice is a bit jarring, as it's not clear until the end which character is the narrator introduced in the preceding interlude chapter, where he is not named. I believe this was intentional on Unsworth's part, as readers know going into the story that two of the men don't make it, and by withholding the name of the narrator Unsworth makes sure that the uncertainty and tension continue until the end.
Overall, Unsworth has succeeded in his quest to make a horror portmanteau. The majority of the stories in Quiet Houses stand strong, and the interludes threading them together work exceptionally well. I think I would have liked to see more stories related to Nakata by others, as I thought those were the best. As a whole though, I can't really complain because it came together so beautifully in the end. In the afterword Mr. Unsworth states, "I like Nakata; he'll be back." I can only look towards that day with eager anticipation.