A few months back I read Simon Kurt Unsworth’s collection Lost Places from Ash-Tree Press and found several highlights contained within, but also a couple…less-exceptional pieces. Unsworth’s new mini-collection from Dark Continents Press, Quiet Houses displays no such problems with inconsistency, instead presenting a uniformly excellent line-up. As the title implies, the horror found within these pages is of the “quiet” variety, as perhaps best exemplified by the work of the late Charles L. Grant — no gore or in-your-face creatures, but nonetheless very, very chilling.
Quiet Houses is a portmanteau collection of seven linked stories, five original to this volume, all revolving around paranormal researcher Richard Nakata, who — we eventually discover — has been hired by the attorney Tidyman to locate people who’ve had genuine experiences with the supernatural and document their encounters, so they can be used as reference material in a trial. In some of the stories, Nakata winds up being the protagonist, while others relate the experiences of his interview subjects. Throughout the first few entries, there are numerous allusions to an incident at the Glasshouse Estates involving Nakata’s former girlfriend Amy, although much is left unexplained.
The stories are simply named, reflecting their locales (which, by the way, are extremely well-rendered), as with “The Merry House, Scale Hall,” which is related via a letter sent from the adult son (since disappeared) of one of Nakata’s subjects. While helping to search for a missing little girl, the son discovers the eponymous house, and the ultimate darkness within. “There is another world below this one,” the son says in his letter, “a world inhabited by ghost and demons and all the things that we have lost that we should not find again.”
The chilling “Beyond St. Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head” is a pitch-perfect tale in which Nakata visits a cemetery and finds several invisible beings, their presence betrayed only by the trail they leave across the grass, following him and then “herding” him into a cul-de-sac before he manages a narrow escape.
“The Temple of Relief and Ease” concerns the haunting of a most unlikely locale — a public men’s room — by the ghost of a wounded WWI veteran, whose injuries relegated him to the role of washroom attendant for more than four decades, a sentence that imprinted his frustration as a palpable presence in the now-abandoned room. Encountering that presence, Nakata wonders: “Forty three years, he thought. Forty three years here… How had the war affected Tulketh, he wondered? Was he missing an arm… Or was it something less obvious, damage written on the inside of his skin rather than the outside.”
When Tidyman finally forces Nakata to face his own memories, we find out why Nakata refers to Amy in the past tense, and why he has avoided thinking about the incident. As he muses: “Since Amy…he sometimes felt like the things he investigated: only half there, less than real.” The collection closes with the story of the trial for which Nakata has been gathering data, and a nighttime field trip by the jury to the scene of the crime, complete with a barn full of homicidal ghost-cows (it’s much more frightening than it sounds!).
Quiet Houses is a darkly brilliant collection, a dusky jewel that deserves your attention as well as consideration from award judges.