The great unknown is a mind-bending collection of short stories which explores, as editor Angela Meyer says, “the unknown, the mysterious, or even just the slightly off.” I was, in fact, expecting more horror, thriller even, which are genres that don’t really interest me, but this collection is not that. There are some truly scary scenes – so if that’s your bag then you’ll appreciate this collection – but many are more subtly mysterious, giving the collection a broader appeal.
There are nineteen stories, most of which are the result of Meyer’s direct invitation to some favourite authors. Six, though, come from the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, 2013, of which Meyer was the judge. The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files where inexplicable things happen. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in setting, voice, subject matter – and even tone. Some are funny, some sad, most are disconcerting and some, of course, are scary.
The collection starts in a suitably creepy way with Krissy Kneen’s “Sleepwalk” in which the protagonist, Brendan, wakes up in the middle of the night to find his partner, Emily – the sleepwalker of the title – missing from their bed. This doesn’t sound particularly unusual, except that upon investigation Brendan discovers Emily intently taking photos – and not with a modern digital camera, but one requiring “real” film. When developing the photos, they see a blurry grey figure. Who is it? What does it mean? To find out you’ll have to read the story – but I can say that it provides a perfect opener to a collection of stories in which the relationship between a couple is a common springboard. After all, where better to explore the inexplicable but in that closest of human relationships, the one in which love and hate, trust and fear, so often collide.
Several of the stories confront contemporary dilemmas. One of my favourites, and winner of the Carmel Bird Award, is Alexander Cothren’s “A Cure”, a truly disturbing Twlight-Zone-like story about a treatment, the appropriately named MindFi, for compassion fatigue. Another TZ-like story I enjoyed is Guy Salvidge’s “A Void”, which is also futuristic and drops us into a world of “Seekers” and experimental drugs. I’m not sure why I enjoyed these TZ-like stories because it was a Twilight Zone episode that set off the most distressing period of my childhood. I’m sure it was that show that turned me off horror for life – quite the opposite reaction to Angela Meyer’s it seems!
Another clever story, and one with an unexpected narrative point of view, is Mark O’Flynn’s “Bluey and Myrtle” about a caged bird and his old mistress. Both have lost their loves and are lonely, but it’s the self-aware bird who takes things into his own hands. Growing older is also the theme of Susan Yardley’s “Significance” in which a woman’s sense of invisibility and irrelevance manifests itself physically. As a woman of a certain age, I can relate to that (though fortunately not within my own family). This story reminded me of Anne Tyler’s novel Ladder of years, except that Tyler explores her theme without resorting to the “fifth dimension”.
Before I stop picking out favourite stories, of which there are several more, I’ll just mention PM Newton’s “The Local” which perfectly captures life in a remote country town and the dangers that lie within. There are of course stories that I didn’t like as much. For me, the writing in Chris Flynn’s “Sealer’s Cove” was too self-conscious and the time-travel story didn’t grab. And Ali Alizadeh’s satire on the Oprah Winfrey-Lance Armstrong interview in “Truth and reconciliation” was a good idea and funny to a point but a little too heavy-handed for my tastes. Satire is like that, I suppose.
An important part of editing a collection is ordering the contents. Meyer has done a neat job of placing the stories in an order that seems natural and thereby enhances our reading. For example, two outback stories featuring missing people, PM Newton’s “The Local” and Rhys Tate’s “The Koala Motel”, one set in a pub and the other a motel, are placed together. And Paddy O’Reilly’s “Reality TV” is followed by the TV-set show, Alizadeh’s “Truth and reconciliation”. It, in turn, is followed by Guy Salvidge’s “A Void” in which drugs feature. Three stories in a row – by Marion Halligan, Susan Yardley and AS Patrìc – feature missing or disappearing women. Put this way, it sounds a little mechanistic but in fact it provides a subtle underlying coherence to what is a highly varied collection.
Meyer concludes the collection with Ryan O’Neill’s “Sticks and Stones” in which a reader, who smugly comments that “characters in ghost stories behaved as if they’d never read ghost stories”, becomes haunted, hounded even, by words. They move, follow and curse him … words, indeed, are dangerous. Be afraid, be very afraid – but don’t let that put you off reading this book! It’s well worth the odd heart palpitation.
(Review copy supplied by Spineless Wonders, via Angela Meyer)