Ghosts, monsters and trials at sea complicate romances in these energetic, atmospheric stories.
British Fantasy Society August Derleth Award–winner Brenchley provides deft sketches in a range of styles and settings—from age-of-sail adventure to modern urban realism, always with splashes of the supernatural and the macabre. Certain characters, themes and plot devices resonate throughout the collection. Several stories, for example, concern psychologically fraught vigils for dying men, held by friends and lovers, who experience spectral presences as subtle emanations of regret and spent passions. More rambunctious are a series of maritime yarns about a transhistorical figure named Sailor Martin, who plies the oceans from the 18th century, when he braves pirates, serial killers and sea creatures—including a bracing whale hunt worthy of Moby-Dick—to the present, when he copes with the inexplicable fritzing-out of radios and global positioning systems. In most of the stories, there’s also an amorous relationship involving an older, experienced, authoritative man who shepherds a slender, coltish youth—or, in one case, an entire floating brothel of such—through manly undertakings in and out of the sack. The erotic elements are sometimes hackneyed, as in a take on Dracula, in which the goth cheesiness culminates in pale boys sucking away at a man who seems less than horrified at their attentions. More convincing are quieter evocations of mature love, as when a man tends to his dying lover while fending off the mopey ghost of his uncle. Brenchley’s horror is most effective when it’s understated, a matter of half-seen apparitions and anxious disorientation; these build spookily to a shocking climax in a bravura tale of a man haunted by the ghost of a missing girl. Not every story is a masterpiece, but the author’s vigorous prose and well-paced storytelling will keep readers turning pages as his twisty characters get inside their heads.
A fine collection that imbues fantasy, action and horror with real literary depth.