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The Glasshouse cover

The Glasshouse by Emma Coleman

(Newcon Press, 2024)

Reviewed by Steven French

This is a collection of creepy stories spanning a range of time periods but with a strong sense of place, namely rural Northamptonshire. Some, it has to be said, are more effective than others. One of the most disturbing is ‘Unearthed’, in which a pair of detectorists start digging into an old barrow (never a good move) and awaken the undead of a long since vanished local village. The narrative then shifts abruptly into the past and the immediate cause of the burial is revealed but frustratingly it ends there, so we don’t learn what happens to our amateur archaeologists as the villagers claw their way out of the mud. Nevertheless, the elements of body horror combined with a dispassionate delivery generates some disquieting images.

‘The Babies of Springtime’, on the other hand, is more florid in its descriptiveness and opens with an old graverobber, pushed through desperation to desecrate the tombs of four young babies. What he uncovers is both appalling and mystifying, until Jack-in-the-Hedge leaps onto the page and a timely warning is given about what could happen if a beloved old tree is felled unnecessarily. Stepping back even further in time, to the thirteenth century, ‘Opus Anglicanum’ takes us into the troubled mind of Matilda, who is carefully stitching an embroidered orphrey to be worn around the shoulders of the hated Bishop of St. Augustine. As she works away, oblivious to her surroundings, bizarre and obsessive thoughts intrude and the episode culminates in a nightmarish scene that raises questions of demonic power and, ultimately, of personal identity. Similar themes of possession and the corrupting power of religion are presented in ‘Lamassu’. Here an Abbess, called by God to spread the Word in a hot, foreign land, pilfers a small stone sculpture, intended as a protective ward for a local palace and, of course, is cursed as a result. How that curse is manifested stands as another timely warning: don’t steal antiquities, especially weird looking ones!

‘He Who Saw the Abyss’ also reaches a dreadful conclusion but is more straightforward in the telling and less powerful as a result: a young woman falls in love with a pretty little village, buys a cottage there and then discovers that the unfriendly attitudes of her new neighbours mask an unsettling local secret. ‘The Upright Man’ is also set in a village but this time the new arrival is a less sympathetic character who finds himself tangled up within the local ghost story. Although the tale is well-told, the ‘twist’ at the end is one that can be seen from a country mile away.

‘Five Small Boys’ likewise begins with a bucolic set-up: the boys of the title are cycling down a lane and stop to explore a ruined farm but only four emerge to continue their journey. What happens to the fifth small boy is weird and ghastly but again somehow doesn’t pack the punch the reader might have braced for. The same might be said about the titular tale, ‘The Glasshouse’ which adopts a first-person perspective as the narrator stalks an old man who is occupied catching assorted birds in the woods. Her triumph in freeing the creatures turns to horror and despair, however, as the reason for both the title and the old man’s actions become apparent. Less creepy and more just plain sad is ‘A Daughter’, a cosy bookshop-based narrative that nicely expresses a sense of nostalgia laced with a certain poignancy but is otherwise unremarkable. ‘The Magic Trick by Boz Boole’ also conveys the feel of a time now past but is not cosy at all. If Ray Bradbury had been born in Kettering, he might have come up with something like this: when Major William Whelan’s Circus of Song and Magic rolls into town, everyone wants to see The Great Barbozza, Prince of Mystery, defy logic and reason and bring the dead back to life. However, the great magician needs a certain prop for the trick to work and you’d better steer clear of any dark alleyways while he’s about his business!

Similarly noteworthy is the final piece, ‘Untitled’ which begins with the narrator walking along a towpath, having evaded, we are told, a witchfinder. But then dead bodies begin to clog the canal and as a figure emerges from underneath a pile of smouldering junk, the piece takes on a nightmare-like quality which is heightened by the ambiguous ending. A first-person point of view is also adopted in ‘Home’, which again opens with a rustic scene, into which a man intrudes, offering a bag of sweets that put the ‘bug’ into ‘mint humbugs’ and insisting that the narrator come home with him. Breaking free, she then meets a strange but lovely girl, follows a fox, is pursued by a scarecrow, and, with a sense of inevitability, finds herself back where she started.

Perhaps the most striking piece in the collection, however, is ‘The Lighthouse’, which transports us away from any middle-English locale. This is a hallucinatory tale in which a man finds himself walking along an empty avenue of white-walled buildings in the glare of the mid-day sun. As he tries to escape, he is accosted by a taxi-driver who offers to take him to the titular lighthouse, where apparently everyone has gone. Despite some manic driving, however, punctuated by feverish imprecations, they never manage to break free of the confines of the boulevard, and the overall impression is of a bad trip, in more ways than one.

A mixed collection, then, but one in which the best of the bunch leave the reader wondering what just happened.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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