The first story in Quartier Perdu, Sean O’Brien’s new short story collection, is well-chosen: a young woman, sheltering from an air-raid in an unfamiliar underground station, encounters a strange cloaked figure riding through the darkness on an ancient boat. It’s wholly unexpected and unsettling, and sets the tone beautifully for the rest of this collection – eighteen stories that lead you into the dark to see the horrors lurking there.
These stories are haunted by familiar influences, although more in affectionate homage than pastiche: it’s hard to ignore the influence of Du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” on the canal-based horror of “Keeping Count”, and both “The Sea God” and “The Good Stuff” would have made Robert Aickman proud in their shrewd mixing of academia, sexuality and terror. “The Sea God”, one of the collection’s best, focuses on Acheson, an academic holidaying somewhere warm, and his discovery of a journal belonging to Konrad Wolf, a tortured, pretentious former visitor. The setting is masterfully sketched out, capturing the intense strangeness of finding an artefact like Wolf’s journal, and the ending is the stuff of nightmares. “The Good Stuff”, if anything, is ever better: James Fisher is called in to catalogue the book collection of Edward Yorke, a prolific author, only to discover there’s something amiss in the collection. Fisher’s voice, that of someone stuck doing a dull job, is engrossing enough that you almost don’t notice that something wrong until it’s too late. It feels like being led down a well-lit garden path only realise you’re cut off, enclosed by thorns, forced to go on into the dark.
There are some tremendous evocations of place in this collection, too. O’Brien lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and manages to draw wonderfully upon local landmarks to inform his writing. Local residents will appreciate “Lovely”, which sketches out Tynemouth Metro station in meticulous detail, ending with arguably the collection’s most haunting, wonderful image. “A Green Shade” transfigures the leafy shade of Jesmond Dene into the scene of a Renaissance nightmare, as an academic’s play in an abandoned garden becomes something altogether more sinister. This, again, was a story that wrong-footed me entirely, as it carefully misdirects the reader with a witty take on college politics to slip in a subtle horror. It’s a skilful piece of work, and marks O’Brien as an expert genre stylist.
The story from which the collection takes its name, “Quartier Perdu”, is one of the strongest of the lot, written in letters from a young woman staying in Denmark to her companion back home. It’s magnificently disquieting, as the letters go constantly unanswered (if sent at all), the woman’s hosts – the Ickx’s – keep feeding her watery green soup that weakens her, and there’s continual references to “the Markgraf,” the head of the household. It’s stuck with me long after reading. Likewise “A Cold Spot”, whose take on the disturbing places that old houses have – landings or windows where one feels intense discomfort – is twisted to create maximum terror, although it does suffer from a rather lengthy section of exposition towards its conclusion.
The most divisive sections of this collection will be where O’Brien lapses into more overt surrealism. “Ex Libris”, which starts with Guzman descending a ladder into a darkened tunnel and walking along a floor made of books before encountering the form of Dr Johnson and Boswell, his biographer, might be a step too far for some people. And whilst “Story Time” (which seems to be written from the perspective of an academic’s creative temperament) is an excellent evocation of how horrifying it can be to lack inspiration, it’s more philosophical than it is narrative. There’s a cleverness to O’Brien’s fiction that I can imagine some people finding off-putting – it wears its erudition proudly, with many stories directly referencing writers like Tennyson or Milton or John Henry Newman – but I found it rather charming, and certainly what smaller presses exist for.
Britain has a long ghost story tradition – although arguably it’s too reductive to lump all such stories together under such a banner – and any author writing such stories today will always be measured against names like E.F. Benson, M.R. James or Robert Aickman. Does this writer say anything new, people will ask, or does he just dredge up the same old tropes? Does he have the same control as these giants of the form? And, crucially, will he keep me up at night? After reading Quartier Perdu, I’m happy to say that Sean O’Brien deserves to be counted among such illustrious company – and at his best, he is as chilling and compelling as any of them.
Quartier Perdu is published by Comma Press. You can find it online at Amazon here, or better yet, buy it directly from Comma Press here.
Thanks to Comma Press for providing a free review copy of this book.