By Alex Khlopenko
This Dreaming Isle opens with “Something strange is happening on British shores” but what it washes up is the horrors of the Brexit Britain.
It is a collection for the age when Boris Johnson can be a PM and the world sees the UK divided into two distinct parts – one living in delusions of a great Empire that was never really anything that great, to begin with, and the suicidal attempt to restore it, and the other part – hostages to the other part’s insanity.
This Dreaming isle presents itself as a thematical anthology to celebrate the richness of the British folk horror, and thus an exhibition of what people there are afraid of. To show their true nature, to accept their weaknesses, inability to come to terms with the past and the uncertainty of the future. While universal, the Britishness significantly multiplies each issue while trying not to make too much out of it.
Dan Coxon took some of the best horror writers out there and made them discuss those topics at length and in great detail to collectively dissect how the UK got where it is and what the fuck is happening there right now. Folk horror is probably the best genre to address it.
Divided into three location-based parts – “Country”, “City”, and “Coast”, seventeen short stories dive deep into the weirdness and superstition that is rural Britain, the self-isolationism of its cities, and the raw coldness of the coastal regions. Though bearing great promise in each part, some stories fall flat.
In “The Pier at Ardentinny” Catriona Ward brilliantly executes on the premise of being afraid of who we are. Through her characters – the young engaged couple, she concludes that we are even more afraid of the fact that other people are not who we think they are. That’s probably how people felt on the morning after the referendum.
On the other hand, “Old Trash”, “Land of Many Seasons”, and most of the “Coast” part either play with exhausted concepts or don’t deliver on the promise they make at the beginning. It’s good that it’s a collection and you can miss out on parts without losing much.
May be due to specifics of my upbringing and early career, but the “City” part worked for me the best. The precision with which James Miller crafted his “Not All Right” with the racist, bigoted, twitter uber-troll protagonist is comparable with how much love GRRM put into crafting Joffrey. Though some critics argued that it has been cartoonish and exaggerated, I would parry the criticism with “Have you been to twitter dot com lately?” It’s been some time since I finished the story and I still expect an “Are you scared yet?” tweet in my replies after any hot take I post.
I loved the “The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand” because I’ve been to cocktail parties like that. Didn’t notice any escorts turn into living carpets, though, but I could fully suspect that the kind of people that organize such outings would really be into stuff like that.
Jeannette Ng’s “We Regret to Inform You” is worthy of its time if not for the content, but for the form and the epistolary style that she used to explore the behind-the-scenes of the academia and what drives our belief in experts, professionalism, and solidarity in the face of inexplicable (or at least what we don’t want to explain).
Even though there are no connected stories or a single narrative, the thematic and atmospheric unity and integrity of the collection is praise-worthy and Dan Coxon’s sophisticated taste and talents shine brightly in it.
The moments where the collection falls flat can be attributed either to my ignorance of the subject matter that they are speaking of or to the disappointing nature of the subject matter. What is one man’s misunderstanding and confusion is another’s Shirley Jackson Award nomination.
It would be a mistake to expect a collection of short stories to have any definite answers to the mysterious times that the UK is going through right now, but like Bergman’s Persona was a guide for Altman’s 3 Women, “This Dreaming Isle” could help us point the right way.
This Dreaming Isle is available at Unsung Stories now.