Book Review: I Would Haunt You If I Could by Sean Padraic Birnie

“Quietly emotional, offbeat, and subtly disturbing, I Would Haunt You If I Could should stand proud amongst the best of quiet, literary horror, while carving out its own, unique space.”

 

I Would Haunt You if I Could by Sean Padraic Birnie - cover It’s always a cause for celebration when premier Canadian independent press, Undertow Publications, releases a new book. Many times, This is Horror has praised both content and quality of the book’s production. And one of the most exciting aspects of this publisher is they often champion ‘newer’ writers. Laura Mauro, Georgina Bruce, Priya Sharma, V. H. Leslie, all had debut collections through the publisher. Steve Toase’s first collection, To Drown in Dark Water, has only recently been released. And the subject of this review, I Would Haunt You If I Could by Sean Padraic Birnie, is also a debut.

Kicking off with ‘New to it All’, Birnie sets out his stall immediately. A young man recalls an early relationship where his partner introduced him to a unique ability. As their experimentations grow, boundaries of consent are crossed. A great opener, the strangeness is delivered in such a straightforward way, it becomes utterly believable. A story of love, lust, obsession, and losing yourself in another. In ‘Out of the Blue’, the recently deceased father of another young man returns to life. Yet all this reanimated patriarch does is stand quietly in the house which used to be his, moving only when directed. Rather than panic or alert the authorities, the son confides only in his wife. From there, both inhabit the bequeathed home, making it their own, whilst metaphorically tiptoeing around this silent, closed-eyed remnant. It’s eerie, emotional, and told with a quiet voice which belies its uncanniness. Almost.

‘The Turn’ is a strange, eerie sort of/maybe ghost story unfolding like a dark dream. A woman running from an unspecified disagreement with a loved one. Lost, despondent, broken down on a dark road. The imagery in this is beautiful; again, nightmarish, but also with a touch of fragile hope, yet with no easy answers. This is followed by one of the shortest tales here, ‘Like a Zip’, which uses grotesque physical change to indicate another kind of transformation. The pain is almost palpable, but so too is the transcendence. Taking a possibly haunted object, a baby video monitor, ‘Hand-Me-Down’ twists what other writers might present as a straightforward chiller. Instead, Birnie melds mental health with dreamlike scenes, ramping up—but only subtly, in his own, quiet way—the dread in the closing paragraphs. Close to a traditional horror story, but told in an original, off-centre manner. Firmly back in the realms of the weird is ‘Holes’. A man’s skin breaks out in odd rashes, which slowly change in turn to obsidian vacuums or portals on his body. He reacts not with panic or terror but with an almost detached fatality, a passive acceptance his life experiences have engendered.

At this point, it’s clear Birnie’s focus isn’t necessarily the specifics of whatever strange events intrude on his characters’ worlds. Rather, he examines the internal landscapes of those experiencing the bizarre, the inexplicable. And not just their immediate, emotional responses; Birnie lays bare their psyches, their souls, their very existence. The title story is the longest one here, a full novella. ‘I Would Haunt You If I Could’ follows a young woman suffering following a break-up. She slips slowly into quiet paranoia, as her overbearing mother continually berates her. The past looms and she comes to think her flat might be haunted; indeed, cursed, due to two separate deaths. Yet, again, the focus is not on the possible supernatural but on the protagonist’s inner self. She tries to navigate uncertainty, guilt, loss, and her feelings of being unmoored, whilst coming to believe others are plotting—in the least dramatic fashion—against her.

An almost flash piece, ‘Company’ is another dreamlike story with lovely slipstream imagery to make the reader’s foundations tremble. And ‘I Told You Not to Go’ is a sardonic little ghost story which still manages a frisson of creepiness. ‘Lucida’, another short one, features an odd camera whose pictures only show its subjects with their eyes closed. Though the story simply details its players testing each other with exposure after exposure, the undercurrents of the uncanny are there beneath the still waters. ‘Sister’ takes the Golem of Jewish folklore and infuses it with a story of bereavement and disaffected family dynamics. In ‘You Know What to Do’, we are presented with a door and room existing in a home where none should be. Not something unheard of in horror, except here, it is threaded through a story of missing persons, secrets, and obsession. All told in a stylised, slipstream manner allowing for interpretation.

‘Dollface’ is another story which, on the surface, could be a typical horror tale. The narrator’s neighbour pressgangs him into helping dispose of a doll his child has. The man believes his sister-in-law presented it to drive a wedge between him and his daughter. Yet the doll returns, again and again. However, the story is less concerned with cheap frights. Instead, it is peppered with fractured relationships, with hints of jealousy, infidelity, betrayals, and spite. And the final tale, ‘Other Houses’, the second longest here, concerns liminal spaces and unreliable memory. The main character’s aging father is placed in a care home before passing away. As well as dealing with this, she also must navigate unreliable memories and her partly estranged sister. Add to this, inexplicable ‘artefacts’ such as photos showing situations and people that can’t possibly be. This story, more than any other, possibly embodies the offbeat, the slipstream, the most. There is also an element of near cosmic horror in some of the proceedings. But, in the closing moments, it takes a turn into abject terror, into nerve-shredding horror which is both unexpected and hugely affecting.

It is clear reading these stories that Birnie has a solid grasp of his craft. The control is evident in the repeating motifs, the perfectly tailored and beautiful prose, and the restraint. For whilst his work is clearly horror—in that idea of horror being inexplicable events which collide with our seemingly ordered and controlled lives—it is horror of an eminently subtle and measured kind. No hysteria here, no over-wrought reactions or hyperbolic melodrama. Instead, each character reacts with almost resigned equanimity as the horror, the weird, creeps in almost unnoticed, at least until it’s too late. It is as though they feel their situations were somehow inevitable, deserved. They are often powerless, consumed as they are with their own concerns, trapped in the fabric of their lives. And Birnie delivers it all with such measured writing, the words demanding to be accepted as real, as he spirals deeper into his mysteries, layering and reinforcing. It is the sign of an exceptional talent, one who knows exactly what he wants to achieve with each piece. Quietly emotional, offbeat, and subtly disturbing, I Would Haunt You If I Could should stand proud amongst the best of quiet, literary horror, while carving out its own, unique space. A must for readers of beautiful, fragile, and eerie works.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Paperback: 254 (ps)
Release Date: 23 March 2021

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