Crooked Houses



My previous reviews of this publisher:

Stories by Rebecca Kuder, Richard Gavin, Colin Insole, Helen Grant, Steve Duffy, Reggie Oliver, David Surface, John Gale, Albert Power, Lynda E. Rucker, Mark Valentine, Carly Holmes, James Doig, Rebecca Lloyd, Katherine Haynes, Jane Jakeman, Timothy Granville
Edited by Mark Beech

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

23 thoughts on “Crooked Houses

  1. DD61D2A4-B49B-4400-95E1-9FA4D58A881E

    by Rebecca Kuder

    “‘Hell, we all harvest from the salvage yard. You’ve been there. Pieces of that house are probably all over this town.’ Haunting, whispering fragments…”

    A single father telling his ‘feral’ son, about when HE was 8, and the burning of a house, and seeing a girl at the window. It is very effective to harvest it gradually through its short sections of told history, dialogue, kindling and affective reactions to such telling. “Fat cigar, tobacco sheathed in leaf’, in that telling, sniff of Shakespeare. The grand piano ripped out like entrails, or was it also in bits?

    My previous reviews of this author:

  2. C6EE72A7-AD56-42C2-8DA4-CF012C6BAED2

    THE SULLIED PANE by Richard Gavin

    “, and its lone uncovered window was so clouded with accumulated grime it was as if pollen had been baked into the pane.”

    A sense of archaic configuration of style, interestingly contrasting with Maxine’s “job in human resources”, she with the “prefect mouth”, visiting her new in-laws along with her husband, their son Xavier. In a stylish house with a strange outhouse and the said pane. Orchids versus stench. Where the mother (jealous of her three sons growing up beyond her) resorted at night. Maxine’s normal newly married sex life is duly darkened with more intensity — with “Id-soaked images”, not ‘shooed’ off but ‘shoehorned’ in. And an urn’s prefectural of death.

    My previous reviews of this author:

    Omens by Richard Gavin

    Primeval Wood – by Richard Gavin

    Sylvan Dread – Richard Gavin

    Plus a number of stories in anthologies linked from

  3. “He is the one who claims that one day he is going to judge the world, and he is going to separate all mankind as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats”
    Sheep from goats, or imagined shapes from real ghosts?

    THE SHEPHERD’S HOUSE by Colin Insole

    “, with gabled timbers and mullioned bay windows, on two storeys, with the small attic, nicknamed the ‘crow’s nest’,…”

    …the latter being the pervasive equivalent to the earlier house’s outhouse with ‘sullied pane’? As if self is the same non-self one seeks from the outset of consciousness? It seems so. And this work as a whole, meanwhile, is another Colin Insole classic among many. With accretive historical fragments about ‘seeing the shepherd’s house’ and being visited or touched by the shepherd as a prophecy, perhaps, of all our co-vivid dreams (“conscious that he was asleep but in control”) or the reality of his touch as contagion, too, as connected here with ‘quarantined inhabitants’, memory sticks and walking sticks, black rats instead of blackbirds in the tree, “ghostly stigmata”, “electric guitars and violin”, rhythms from the bones of the land, innuendo and incest, some cursed with these words while others are inexplicably healed, blotting paper doodles, a floor’s knots and stains as inherent memory, modern paraphernalia on ancient roofs, doctors colluding to avoid overall scrutiny, the network of connections in nature and a genius loci within it, the story of research and eventual denouement. Pussywhipped or not.

    My many previous reviews of Colin Insole:

  4. 41E17663-3302-482E-8A1C-E799F8AA3C20 THE WEST WINDOW by Helen Grant

    “Everybody visited the Folly, but nobody ever visited the House.”

    …which reflects ironically, even insidiously, the outhouse and the ‘crow’s nest’ appendices of previous stories above. Yet, here we have a modern youth in white T shirt, earbuds and of the selfie culture visiting the house, a house here depicted that is simply the ideal ready-made for this book’s acknowledged illustrator to reflect perfectly in his own enscriptive, yet reflective, arts of yore. This youth or man seems to be visiting his ancestral home in preparation for spreading his wings and forgetting where he came from. Go west, young man. And he stays overnight as a sort of masochistic rite of passage, beneath the defenestrated window, yet seems hardly worth the window tax for just this now blind window to be thus treated. His benighted visions somehow prove darker or ironically brighter forces, with flights like those birds or rats in trees erstwhile, above. And central night’s beaconing through the soon-to-be-closed apertures of the past. And we follow thereafter his fleeing obsessively as far westward as he can go, as if insistently chased by contagion towards a destiny’s “last lungful”…

    My previous reviews of this author: and

  5. THE PSYCHOMANTEUM by Steve Duffy

    “Strangeness makes an observer of you, but fear turns you into a participant.”

    Honestly, and almost disarmingly, this is possibly one of the most powerful horror stories I have ever read. Shocking, too, with racial and incestuous implications of transgression, a story in 1944 of a returning soldier from the Japanese war, a story also imbued with the American Civil War heritage of slavish implications, including blackness as skin colour as well as carbonisation – or both. All I know is, if you read this, it is as if you have been in the story’s inner psychomanteum yourself, and you won’t come out as the same person that you went in when picking this book up to read the Duffy story. I felt that strongly, after putting the book down, following the experience of this incredibly well-written and believably characterised story. A family’s journey across America in 1944 on Christmas Eve, and the immanentised aftermath of this familial mansion of a house in Alabama: all literally stunning stuff. Gone not with the wind, but with the soul. A house that has this book’s earlier house appendices such as the outhouse, the folly and the ‘crow’s nest’ being INSIDE the house as intrinsic to the house as it is to the book, or the book as the house, not outside each other. The folding of mirror within a mirror of Colin Insole’s shepherd’s house syndrome as being the same shepherd’s house you as protagonist or reader have just visited within. The ultimate involuted psychomanteum. A story that surely needs special evaluation by other readers, beyond the passion of my reading moments just expired.

  6. THE CRUMBLIES by Reggie Oliver

    “It was a coincidence, of course, pure coincidence.”

    I keep my powder dry, but this engaging story, as a needful relief from the previous intense Duffy, is potentially a new Reggie Oliver classic, with sufficient characteristic Oliver puckishness to make a dry biscuit more appetising, more moreish, as it were. It is a typical setting for his work, with an extensive architecturally ‘ghost story’-prone house, including a locked attic, and large grounds, with a locked walled garden. A married couple, Alan and Stephanie, purchase it from the septuagenarian sisters who named the house after their famous children stories about the Crumblies, a half-baked version of the Borrowers? Alan is satirically a bit of a chauvinist, as is their son Sebastian who thinks his sister Emma is a tad over-imaginative when she imagines someone trying to push her down the stairs. These characters are built up gradually, including Stephanie’s visiting half-brother Eric, “the poofy vicar”, Alan suggests. One of the elderly sisters still lives nearby in a madhouse, oops, sorry, in an expensive care home. The culmination of all these plot ingredients serves to come together into a genuinely disturbing find in the attic as to what mutations of the Crumblies lurked in at least one of the elderly sisters’ minds. But there is far more to this story than I have let on. For example, why does there seem to be two versions of Stephanie about a third of the way down page 116? To become even more moreish?

    My previous reviews of Reggie Oliver:

  7. THE DEVIL WILL BE AT THE DOOR by David Surface

    “It’s just… I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man sound… so afraid before.”

    An increasingly frightening story (the longer you allow for its words to sink in, that is), a story about two other stories, one told live and the other recorded, and about those listening to them, as told to me by one of those very listeners. A religious story about faith in what exists out there beyond the self, a psychological student’s story, a haunted house story, a mad story by a childless madman about his children, and the narrator who is led by the other characters, including a fellow girl student when he grows older but still shy, and he has let the older of the two stories grow even longer ago. The gory one his religious dad told on a coach trip with other kids. And today he tells me of this book’s involuted house I mentioned above somewhere, but goodness knows where, just as I don’t really know, as derived from what the narrator actually says or writes, whether this house — that only exists FOR this story rather than IN this story — has an open door but well-shuttered windows or vice versa, but once inside, whether it has a mixture of both open and shut, one of which might allow me to escape. But I ended up thinking, as with the Duffy, I should not have gone into this house just as much as this narrator should not have gone into this story. Or was that, is that vice versa? Or which of us will now last longer to understand its implications more fully. Or vanish without trace, without trace of any past self-knowledge. Another tantalising Surface gem still potentially evolving here, even as I speak about it. And you listen. Or read what is written. Deeper and deeper, the longer it takes. It takes two of us, till it becomes too late.

    My previous Surface reviews:

  8. C427E36D-4BC7-4208-992A-A6F9289D65CD

    THE HOUSE OF THE MERE by John Gale

    “Fringed round with thyme and fragrant gale”

    … a line from this story’s quote of a poem by William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod) whose books I once collected. And this richly word-furnished story about Philip Peregrine is couched in the lucent but time-seasoned style of John Gale. If you have not encountered Gale’s priceless contaglios in wafts of words, you are in for a rarified treat with this work, where Philip is now living in some watery-obsessed house and environs, a type of house optimal for encounter by a story in such a book as this one. It is as if he has exiled himself from where he once lived, namely his previous place near a fen’s mere, but he is now living in more of a classical naiad nest elsewhere, writing his diary and letters of which we are allowed to read excerpts, letters, that is, to his friend Robert who once rescued him from the caged tessellations of sexual female attention in the erstwhile mere — and Robert is now summoned by Philip to this new naiad place, before his supposed similar drowning happens again in this house’s nearby tarn! An arguably exquisite drowning in prospect, subsumption by a dewy mist-caressing blur of alternations between desire and resistance to such desire, amidst ambivalent Sharp/ MacLeod orientations, I infer. Also a tale of epistolary reminiscences and courteous literary enquiry about, for example, recent works by Howard Johns and Valentin Marque. But I am dithering with this review while Philip has fallen into dire straits by dint of again fishing into tessellated skeletal structures of perhaps someone else’s co-vivid libido dream. I won’t divulge whether Robert rescues Philip in time from whatever he needs rescuing. But, whatever the case, I merely adored this work, and I also found it appropriate that I happen already to be concurrently real-time reviewing “The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again” (HERE) where direr things are perhaps eventually fished into (or fished from) even direr pervasions of wateriness.

    “I have no faith in coincidences. I believe that there is a conscious design behind the mask of everything.”

    My previous reviews of John Gale; and

  9. …and the next work seems even more powerful by following on from the previous review entry above…

    FAIREST OF THEM ALL by Albert Power

    “How to ply bavardage with a nymphet still teen?”

    An anthology that seems to be an embarrassment of riches, and this novelette deploys its own plot’s passion of the moment after adeptly developing at length certain stunning stylistic and shocking events, in addition to what I described above as a passion of the reading moment.
    A transcendence-by-fiction and its remarkably challenging prose style and plot…
    It is an honestly stand-out work that will definitely not leave you untouched. A uniquely and intensely florid style that somehow flows fluently and accessibly without diminishing its textured bite or its antiquated soul – a stylistic effect that is a genuine miracle of achievement, and I don’t think I am exaggerating about that. The initial plot of a man visiting his friend after 30 years, only to find him three years dead. The architectural nature of the urban pub in which this man stays, where the descriptive powers of Power — in conveying the street upon which this establishment is situated as this story’s example of a crooked house — are meticulously and sensitively layered with atmosphere and dread and structure and a haunted painting. The man’s reprehensible desires when sitting in the dining room and sleeping in a room in the haunted precinct of the structure, the concocted and real poetry of the protagonist and of Blake, the underage girl and her mother, the salacious tempting, but a tempting by whom? And the vision of a horror (as an embodiment of his desire?) is so nightmarish, I defy any reader to brush it off as a mere frisson of ghost-story techniques but something intrinsically and soulfully nasty. It is a lesson in revelation — renewing at last certain tired aspects of our favoured genre of literature. As I implied in a previous review entry above, there are some fiction works that need their coordinates triangulated by several readers before a full evaluation and interpretation can be achieved. This novelette is now the leader of that pack, at the head of the queue for mass gestalt real-time reviewing. We all need to share — along with the author — the burden of responsibility for it.
    And to extrapolate upon its means of catharsis.

  10. B5BDE994-97E6-4888-8F13-50164EE0AA3A
    MIASMATA by Lynda E. Rucker

    “a sad sack of all of a sudden”

    …as if time has released us abruptly into nothing, and looking in there to find ouselves even beyond the smell of death, or something worse than death, because we can no longer even smell our own stenches today? A sort of parable for our times taking place in a rented house as groups of Americans and others in Dublin celebrate Thanksgiving Day. A rented house with a stuck doorway, but to where or what?… unsticking it (after how many years?) is like otherwise locking down all the other doors in the place. Including a couple of American “blow-ins”, tired travelling from Berlin, Carrie and Wendy, and as with many stalwart couples having unexpected expectations of each other. A telling Psychomiasmata to match Duffy’s Psychomanteum. It was however more as if opening Surface’s earlier house and finding yourself gone! A staggeringly well-matched pair — each a story that resonates even stronger the longer you leave to linger their expectations of each other. In an imagined longer language, too.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  11. THE READERS OF THE SANDS by Mark Valentine

    “And what there had been of him was no longer there, only a shade that seemed to twist in and out of existence.”

    That Surface-Rucker syndrome of retrocausal synergy of nothingness and nobody here now made part of the shifting consciousness of sands in a deceptive bay (reminding me of the bay in Morecambe, but not Morecambe at all as Morecambe never had for me such numinous power as a Valentine story frequently seems to harbour, and this Valentine story seems to exceed even itself in my expectations of it) – and the House, to which three guests make their trepidacious paths, with hour glass or special sea/land navigation skills, seems to be this book’s appendices of a House made into the gestalt House itself. Read it and see what I took from Valentine’s descriptions of it. The owner of it seems to want to tap their skills of Psammomancy (see Valentine’s previous work: — and even the watermark on the title page of this book seems to be part of its gestalt now bearing in mind what is said at the very foot of page 243. And the shapes I see in this house as part of this group’s sand scrying séance, and if you see them, too, they will haunt you till you reach your own synergy of nothingness and nobody. Watching the silence.

    My previous reviews of this author:

  12. DOLL’S HOUSE by Carly Holmes

    “Any hope of life, frogs or newts, even the lilies, had long since disappeared into their bellies…”

    Bellies and lilies, but whose bellies? I was not wrong earlier above to call this book an embarrassment of riches (the second book in recent weeks, where I have had cause to use that expression, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before in my reviews) — and this story is another example of those riches. It may even possibly be the most disturbing one yet, and that is saying a lot! In its own way, it is devastating. 04384CEC-5DA7-4BCA-9C2A-70556D5FABAB About family life, with parents, Mandy and Owen and their small son, Adam, a backstory of their daughter’s death in the past before they moved to this near ruin of a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere to escape from the pressure of urban life, a house that feels like all the architectural appendices in this book so far here cohered into an unhealing and unhealable abode. As they attempt to renovate it, their own entropy seems to worsen in parallel, although I always had trust in the parents to come good in the end, only wishing what was for the best, especially for Adam. If I itemise the whole plot, I would spoil it for you, but the story’s title becomes a folding in of the house itself, and vice versa, their limbs, too, not to speak of the ducks in the pond. Attempts to love with those limbs, attempts that belie the construction of undercurrents of being locked down within what is already locked down. Down there. Towards the “scarlet screech” within the visions and implications of the end scenes, visions that you do not deserve reading about, or do you?

    My previous reviews of this author:


    by James Doig

    “A once great house, it is now little more than a shell, the ceiling and upper storeys long collapsed,…”

    This well-fashioned terrification, at one point, delves into the derivation of “Lothesley” as a name, Biblical Lot and ‘ley’, and that I can go with, but the word ‘loathe’ keeps coming into my head as does the image of a thin child and three wise men praying with their backs to it. Gives birth to apocrypha in my mind… yes, this work is well- as well as old-fashioned, with interwoven narrative and some older italicised texts telling of the appointment of this man Hartwell as the maker of an inventory of the ruined buildings of Wales. And more older still, with the word ‘alter’ in both plain narrative and italics (as well as “aulter” in latter) for ‘altar’. A reference in 1908 italics to those who appointed Hartwell: Sir John Rhys, and, inter alios, Robert Hughes and Evan Nutt. A genuinely disturbing and disorienting gestalt here, with legends of nightshade, an infant’s bones rescued from Lothesley, a bricked up window with some bricks inside left over, a faint hissing, a mewing of a hungry cat, and this work’s antiquarian soul embraces a worthy shiversome read, often with a satisfyingly pungent wording, and, at the end of the day, only a paltry “guard against madness.” Many infant bones or their thin legs brushing past you in the night. Yet, nothing to infer regarding this book’s earlier unwelcome desires.

    “…family stock should, like the Nightshade, be of long endurance, but that its individual descendants, like the fruit, should be subject to speedy death and decay.”

  14. IN CROMER ROAD by Rebecca Lloyd

    “The gravity’s changed, that’s all, so the gate swings.”

    This story strikes me as oddly clipped, or, even more oddly, leapfrogging time, while resisting malice and intent. Three siblings, Megan (the reliable (?) narrator), Rob and Max, whom we meet first when children, moved, together with their parents, into the house on Cromer Road, the old rectory, “haughty” and otherwise off-putting with its single turret. The parents somehow unhappy there. The children wary. But suddenly we leap from one paragraph to another, to find that (oddly, for thee siblings perhaps) that they spend their life together travelling to isolated communities around the globe with photographic equipment, until they return to the house, and their parents have since died. And their sometimes feisty relationship is beset as by things that they may have brought back from abroad, whether legends, folk tales, articles of witchcraft, whatever. A house now beset, for example, by differently named winds and red stuff like sand. I somehow feel that THIS house has unnoticeably and quickly absorbed unknown and unseen qualities of all the other houses in this book so far, the houses that I have explored like a daring traveller, yes, unknown and unseen qualities, but now resident here, in this Cromer Road house, nevertheless; resident here in an uncomfily deadpan and obliquely disarming way, albeit throwaway, clipped and measured, too. So, in many ways, I am relieved that I am reading this devious story in my own unpretentious house with its ordinary distasteful artex ceiling. Or its artex ceiling until recently. And a house where the wardrobe is always measured at the same precautionary distance from the wall.

    “We used to call it huge and grimly.”

    My previous reviews of this author:

  15. HOUSE OF SAND by Katherine Haynes

    Just before actually reading this disarmingly creepy story, I posted this photograph on FB as a memory from 3 years ago today (my FB friends will be able to verify this), so when I reached the end of the story, I had an added ghostly frisson. I cannot now divorce myself from that fact, but this story — where, inter alia, one wonders between the difference of dress colours ‘flame’ and ‘scarlet’ and a character called Lucy being someone’s “plus one” — certainly contains a house with, as well as its sandcastle-impermanence, an increasingly clipped disorientation to match the previous story’s morphing of this whole book’s context. It is the story of a boss’s business dinner party where an “ambitious” couple has been invited for the first time, the husband being one of the boss’s employees and this employee’s wife meets not only aspects of her own marriage’s potential impermanence at the party but also the once predatory ominousness of her hindsight schoolday memories….
    A house of cards we all watch the building of…during our ever-crumbling lives? But not so much the coincidence of cards, though, as an inevitable planchette’s pointers?

    My previous review of this author:

  16. MYTHOLOGY by Jane Jakeman

    A short well-written tale of two Welsh women looking over an old terraced house, one of whom is inheriting it along some obscure line of inheritance. I was brought up in a such a house, if not in Wales, one also with a tin bath and toilet in the backyard, and I have used it in my CV ever since! This one is redolent with Mabinogion legends and concomitant thoughts about the senile lady who had just died there – and I can imagine what she must have dreamt had transported her. One latent mystery – who is Rhiannon whose name is haunting crookedly one of this story’s few pages?

    My previous review of this author:

  17. THE PINER HOUSE by Timothy Granville

    “And is out there really worth it?”

    A fine provocative finale of eschewing cabin fever, a case for staying put where one is coddled by hauntings, for having one’s skin “taught” across bellies, as well as jaws and cheekbones, I wondered? You see, I did wonder whether that pale squashed shape upon the lane outside Piner House was an ominous echo of a hint earlier that Clemmie’s sister Flick was pregnant — Piner House, an acquired taste, more a glass flying saucer than something in keeping with the other tottering houses that it has now kicked into touch, and now becoming in keeping with what or who of you is locked down outside, like livestock, in cities beyond these New Forest environs. In these heatwave days, too, and here a maddening drone, as there is an explicit heatwave in this story. I felt this modernist architectural folly clinging round me, the glass walls taught to be swollen, too — “retreating from her […] like atrocious metallic spiders”, the unfelt morphing of body into body and our need for final swaddlement. The Hunter and his Bait. But which sister is real?

    An unswervable embarrassment of riches, this book, and powerful and shocking enough in places to have spurred no doubt your own abode’s ghost to finally come out and literally kick your literary butt, if not your real one.

  18. Pingback: Thomas Hood | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

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