Simon Kurt Unsworth’s new portmanteau piece Quiet Houses is many things, all of them good. It is rare to read a collection of ghost stories where each one can make the reader feel a different emotion, rather than simply inducing fear.
Each of the stories have their own unique qualities and stand alone as excellent pieces of work, but they also build a larger picture that is even better than the sum of those collectively brilliant parts.
The opening story, The Elms, Morecambe is essentially one long conversation that revolves around one person telling another a ghost story. What makes this opening piece such a success is the attention to detail that Unsworth gives the café where the two characters are sat and the sheer pity evoked at the plight of all characters involved. The story is weighted with heavy sentimentality that hits all the right notes and ensures that it lingers in the memory throughout the rest of the book.
The next story The Merry House, Scale Hall is without doubt the most chilling of the stories in the collection. Told through the letters of a dead man, it recounts the story of a man that gave up everything to protect his family from a truly vile evil. Some of the imagery used in this particular story is incredibly visceral and at times disgusting without ever stepping past what is necessary to give the reader the appropriate tingle down the spine.
Where Quiet Houses really succeeds is in Unsworth’s ability to take the reader from the verge of tears in one moment to the end of their seat in the next. Any good ghost story must have a range of emotion behind it and throughout Quiet Houses, Unsworth leaves no emotional stone unturned.
What Unsworth does exceptionally well is to render a location in such detail that the reader can almost smell it. His grasp of description is impressive throughout and always strikes the right chord without ever holding back the story. By building such vibrant and realistic settings Unsworth is able to build authentic and at times alarming scares into each one.
One of the other, excellent aspects of Quiet Houses is the variety of different perspectives and set ups that Unsworth uses to make sure that each story is different and riveting in its own way. There are so many carefully thought out ideas here that touch on a wide range of storytelling ability. Be it the tense chase in Beyond St Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham Head or the revelation about Nakata’s tragic past in 24 Glasshouse, Glasshouse Estate, each story has a small piece of a larger narrative buried in its own that keeps the overall atmosphere and pace of the book ticking along.
At the centre of this portmanteau piece is Richard Nakata, a ghost hunter who is investigating all of the separate cases throughout the book, yet his agenda remains hidden until the very last story. Nakata represents everything that Unsworth does well in Quiet Houses, the character is intriguing and sympathetic yet there is enough mystery surrounding him to make the reader question whether or not it is right to be on his side.
By creating such a charismatic lynchpin, at the centre of all the stories, Unsworth ensures that whilst each piece is impressive as an individual, they all build to a genuinely exciting and ultimately chilling crescendo in Stack’s Farm, Trough of Bowland.
As a collection of short stories Quiet Houses is an engaging read, as a complete story the book is fantastic. Every possible emotion is touched upon and each part of the tale is carefully and beautifully crafted. Quiet Houses is a book that will linger in the memory of the reader for many varied and ghastly reasons.