The Stone Tide, Gareth E. Rees’s extraordinary new memoir-slash-biography, is about many things – grief, mortality, prostate exams, the dark underbelly of a particular British seaside town – but more than anything, it’s about the peculiar madness that overtakes you when you decide to write a book, when everything in your life becomes absorbed in a strange swirl of information. Suddenly you start to see connections everywhere, and the world seems full of messages: everything seems to be pointing towards some great purpose that’s just beyond reach.
Much like Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox, which described its author’s exhausting attempts to rewrite Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Rees shows what the madness of writing can feel like from the inside, how vibrant and thrilling, how dizzying and disorientating – all the while bringing to life the fascinating occult history of Hastings about which I previously knew nothing. His book is a rush of overwhelming sensation, alternately hilarious and horrifying, and I enjoyed it more than almost anything I’ve read all year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The book opens with Rees and his partner Emily moving to Hastings, to a crumbling old house that they’ve planned to renovate. From the very start, the whole thing feels like a horror movie – the first line describes how Emily’s grandfather suffered a stroke, and “his head hit the floor and cracked like an eggshell”, an ominous opening if there was ever one, and when they arrive the previous tenant is overwhelmed, seeming like she won’t leave. Eventually she does, leaving a house in a state of advanced decay: “Light strobed through moth-eaten holes in the curtains,” writes Rees. “Cobwebs darkened the corners of walls blistered and pimpled with damp. It was like nobody had lived here for decades.” It’s fitting that a story addressing the everyday ghosts of grief and memory should make use of such genre conventions, and Rees captures them brilliantly.
Rees is planning to write another book after the success of his first, Marshland – faint echoes of The Shining, perhaps – while his wife, who’s more competent at DIY, fixes the house. His second book soon ends up being a sprawling mass of Hastings history, a walking history of the area that catalogues the work of Aleister Crowley (aka. ‘The Great Beast’), fraudster Charles Dawson (of ‘Piltdown man’ fame), and John Logie Baird, who helped invent television – and all of whom believed that Hastings was a place of unusual psychic significance. That makes it sound relatively straightforward, but in practice it’s more complex, as on his quest Rees quickly finds his narrative disintegrating along with the world around him. Before long, the whole thing starts evoking W.G. Sebald’s genre-bending work, not least in the growing decay that increasingly infects all of Rees’s observations (and his life).
There are further complications created by an unexpected groin pain, which stops Rees walking comfortably and sends him to some excruciatingly awkward prostate examinations, all of which he captures in frank, unflinching and hilarious detail – the funniest sections of the narrative by some way, although probably not for Rees himself – and by the ghost of his friend Mike, who haunts the book both metaphorically and literally. That’s where the real strength of Rees’s genre-bending comes through, too, as his structure allows him to both reflect on the impact of his old friend and dramatize the way in which one deals with grief. It’s dazzlingly confident, and somehow never becomes confusing: the emotional force of Rees’s journey anchoring the flights of fancy really effectively.
One of Rees’s other great strengths is his use of motifs. The recurring image of a giant eel with a head the shape of an armchair is threaded throughout the narrative, something that’s simultaneously childish and rather haunting, and the messages that are scrawled beneath the wallpaper in Rees’s house are nicely paralleled by those he finds written in town or in the caves frequented by Cowley. One chapter has a dead seagull falling unexpectedly down the chimney; another opens with a different kind of sinister bird:
In the early hours of the morning, at 1:38am precisely, a duck in Alexandra Park broke into a guttural, mocking laugh. Mwa ha ha ha ha – wack wack wack – wah ha ha ha. I sat bolt up in bed and checked my clock… There was something deeply sinister about a duck quacking at night.
It gives the whole story a slightly poetic air, and keeps you looking for connections to things that have been previously mentioned – much like Rees himself does. It’s subtle and unobtrusive, but it certainly adds to the layers in Rees’s writing, and suggests the care with which he’s pieced The Stone Tide together.
More than anything, though, it is just a brilliantly written book. I’ve alluded to the atmosphere elsewhere, but the great success of all this is Rees’s way with words – I’ve underlined terrific sentences or paragraphs on practically every page, and you could probably jab a finger into the book at random and come up with something great (by way of illustration, I did just this and came up with “my testes felt like those knobbly rubber chew toys we bought for the dog”, make of that what you will). It is massively enjoyable and engrossing, and it is certainly an education – I will never think of either Aleister Crowley nor Hastings in the same way again – although it is also an exceptionally difficult to describe to people, as I’ve lately discovered.
Still, in case it’s unclear, I loved The Stone Tide. Don’t let its esoteric-sounding content put you off – if you do then you’ll be missing out on one of this year’s most innovative, exhilarating and brilliant pieces of writing. Read it, and then shout about it to the four winds, much like Crowley himself might have done.
The Stone Tide is published by Influx Press and was released in June 2018. You can find it online at Amazon here, or better yet, buy it directly from Influx Press here – because although it looks like it’s only 80p more expensive on their site, their takings will much bigger with a direct sale.
Thanks to Influx Press for providing a free review copy of this book.
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