by Simon Kurt Unsworth
200 pages, Dark Continents
Review by S.P. Miskowski
"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."
In Quiet Houses Simon Kurt Unsworth has penned several hair-raising tales that could easily stand alone in a collection. He has knitted these stories of paranormal experience into a larger narrative using the researcher mentioned in the ad above as a through-line and a guide.
The researcher, Nakata, has motives that are hinted at while he goes about his business, and more fully explored in the next to last section of the book. Nakata is indeed serious about his work, but his professional commitment is matched by a personal desire for proof. In other words, he is harboring a secret from the past.
He begins by weeding out the prank callers and loonies who respond to his ad, and ends up with a handful of possibly verifiable cases. He then follows up on these reports of something unusual in "quiet houses," places where silence and inactivity have allowed an unexplained imprint to emerge.
The first case has a strain of melancholy that's hard to shake off. During his daughter's wedding weekend a widower stays at a hotel scheduled to close soon. There he encounters a ghost that responds to his grief like a magnet. The beauty of this tale is the way in which the ghost affects people nearby. The embodiment of mourning, this sad spirit repels joy and disrupts affection wherever it goes.
An elderly man provides Nakata with a letter from his adult son, who disappeared months ago. The son's letter describes a local house where he suspects an evil entity has attracted some of the children in the neighborhood, for nefarious reasons.
Later at a grassy amphitheater near an old church Nakata is first excited and then frightened by the presence of something unseen. This story, gracefully simple in its nature and exquisitely executed, will make your scalp tingle. We've all had peculiar experiences in unfamiliar outdoor settings. We've all done that double take, when we notice a shift in the landscape or a detail that wasn't there before.
Next Nakata visits a man in an institution. The man recounts how his crew of renovation experts suffered disorientation and worse during their review of a crumbling resort. Constructed by two famous designers who were lovers with strange ideas about the connection between nature and humanity, the resort has a will of its own. I especially like the physical details in this story. There are many chilling moments, somewhat reminiscent of the topiary scenes in The Shining.
Nakata sets up recording devices and light meters to investigate a former public bathroom said to be haunted. Alone in this cold underground bunker, he has an empathetic experience that almost overwhelms his objectivity.
In a flashback sequence we finally learn Nakata's troubling secret. He once enlisted two friends, the love of his life and a fellow researcher, in a dangerous experiment. What he discovered about the interplay between life and death has remained at the core of his work ever since.
While this section of Quiet Houses serves as a plausible back-story for Nakata, it is for me a less effective portion of the book than the individual case studies. We don't get to know Nakata's love, Amy, as a unique individual. In all of the other stories the characters spring vividly to life. They act on their own agenda, while Amy exists as a projection of Nakata's wish for happiness. This is an interesting idea, however, and more could be made of it in a future volume, if the central characters reappear.
Returning to Nakata's current project we find the researcher has been gathering these stories and scant physical evidence on assignment as a forensic expert. An attorney named Tidyman, who has been mentioned throughout the book, has enlisted Nakata to testify in a murder trial. As part of the defense Tidyman also persuades the judge to let jurors visit a former dairy farm where the murder took place. This fact-finding exercise quickly develops into a harrowing experience for everyone involved, and further informs Nakata's theories.
With or without Nakata's background story, the character displays enough fear and faith to make him compelling. He is conflicted, dogged by grief and guilt. He is hoping for confirmation of something more than mere existence "on the other side." He is the kind of character who could lead us to more places, in more collections, without losing his appeal.
Simon Kurt Unsworth's vital strength as a storyteller is his ability to build a concrete, specific, gorgeously detailed world in which things are perfectly recognizable, then just a bit off, then downright weird, and finally disturbing enough to make a reasonable person run for cover. In Unsworth's universe it's hard to discern the actual moment when things begin to slide toward the crazy and the terrifying. His monsters don't swoop in on bat wings and break the window. They glide smoothly on the surface of a shadow across the floor, and then stand upright.