Whirlwind Romance, by Sam Thompson, Unsung Stories, 273 pp, £9.99, ISBN:978-1912658206
The titular story of Sam Thompson’s new collection of short stories delivers his artistic aesthetic in spades. “Whirlwind Romance” begins with Fern, a somewhat needy woman locked into a dissatisfying relationship with the feckless ne’er-do-well Jamie. Just when it feels familiar, the story suddenly shifts perspective to Jamie and how he is beset by demons with delightfully anachronistic names like Gadfly, Doghead and Sister Dust. In the space of one brief story, the narrative leaps from the quotidian into effulgent neo-gothic darkness. It’s discombobulating to enter into this new world with its “cobwebbed sky”, but exhilarating too.
On Jamie’s very first night with Fern, he feels “an involuntary happiness branching through his body to blossom from his head”. His euphoria, however, at this whirlwind romance ushers in “the badness”, prompting him to ask his necromancer friend to exorcise it. It’s impressive how Thompson goes for the ending full throttle ‑ in both senses of the words. Not that all stories explode in violence. Some draw to a gentler close with the protagonists fondly watching their sleeping family members.
Thompson has a singular talent for establishing parallel universes through fictional settings. “The Red Song” is located in Hesperus, where a recent war against a dictator invites contemporary comparisons with formerly Soviet Ukraine. The story unfolds via the entertaining voice of an academic obsessed by the mystical and recondite work of a Hesp writer named Fallon Herm. The academic accepts a lecturing post in Hesperus, only to find himself watched and monitored. More disturbing than this is his Hesp boyfriend’s “romantic view of sacrificial murder” and advocacy of its use in the rebirth of the nation. The matter-of-fact account of the ritual act bears echoes of Shirley Jackson’s famous horror story “The Lottery”. Afterwards, the academic returns to his home country and comically sweeps aside the monstrousness he’s witnessed with the mealy-mouthed “I felt it was incumbent on me not to judge.”
The existential desire for renewal is also the driving force behind “Pilgrim: Hinterlands”. Although the story is ostensibly about computer gaming, it’s clear that “dying over and over to be reborn” through various avatars takes on a deeper meaning. The trouble starts when the protagonist, Alex, becomes addicted to a game called Pilgrim while his partner, Peter, is in hospital tending to his ill father. The boundaries between game and reality blur, only for Alex to realise that the game is a paradoxical metaphor for life:
The further we travel, the longer our journey becomes. We live on the run from a curse but it is the curse that sets us free. We never run out of lives because the story has to continue. We do more than we know.
Philosophical conjecture is a feature of many stories. The futuristic “The Monstrosity in Love” slowly reveals its narrator to be a vampiric immortal. His lofty tone demeans the mortals he encounters as “reasonably detailed dolls, distinguished from one another by unimportant variations in appearance and in the problems of their brief lives”. There is amusing irony when the unwitting girl he is romancing tells him, “We can’t all be twenty-five forever”. In spite of his past moral lessons, he gets attached to the girl and, in neat contravention of the vampire tale, the hawthorn stake is not plunged into the heart but limply dropped to the floor.
Some of Thompson’s writing calls to mind the surreal short stories of Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s Sanitorium Under the Hourglass, which describes a mysteriously unstaffed sanitorium, seems like a precursor to “Seafront Gothic”, set in a hotel run single-handedly by Tobes’s brother Niall. Tobes’s concern about his sister’s disappearance and the culpability of her violent boyfriend is dismissed with scepticism by Niall. However, Tobes becomes so irrationally haunted by his missing sister he mistakes her for another woman. There are constant crossed wires between reality and delusion in this collection.
“The Other Side of The Shadows” is a highlight of comic transmogrification – here, genre-splicing turns into gene-splicing. This is Mary Shelley meets Gothic detective noir meets Edgar Allan Poe meets sci-fi, a testament to the tale’s evocativeness. It begins with a reprise of the missing sister theme, although on this occasion the girl in question is a twin being tracked by a private detective. A mystic gangland magus, Alan Raven, persuasively explains to the detective the reason for his crime of genetic manipulation: “Plato tells us that in the beginning, human beings were double.” Human sacrifice makes yet another appearance, albeit for a more practical connective reason.
The whole collection is a work of perspicacity; one of Thompson’s strengths is his acute understanding of human psychology. The narrator in the first story “Where You Are” perfectly pinpoints the manner in which he talks to his difficult child: “My tone is one of immense forbearance but the edge of each word is vicious. There are two people in the world I dare speak to like this: you and me.” Another narrator evades responsibility for hitting his sister as a child with the excuse that “that’s how childhood is. Your own actions are things that happen to you.”
A recurrent trope is the child with arrested development. In “Where You Are”, the narrator touchingly explores the moment “when I held you and felt how your flesh was fitted so neat and close on your soul”. The line-by-line writing is pleasurably detailed even when the action is propulsive. In “Seafront Gothic”, Tobes observes “the unstudied pendulum swing that made the simple action of her walking not just fascinating, but nourishing to watch”.
Where Thompson particularly excels is in his depiction of contemporary malaise. A narrator laments:
I am humourless but I fail to take life seriously. I can’t seem to give people what they expect … I have no ambition. I do not know what ambition would mean. I seem to be waiting for something.
Thompson delineates the longing for “not knowing’ what will happen in life, for a frisson of a danger, for liminal emotions poised between fear and comfort. The very first paragraph of the collection refers to “that gap of moments where this will no doubt turn out fine”.
The figures of the underclass have a habit of interrupting serene middle class lives, as in “The Walker” and “Bloodybones Jones”. In the latter, the narrator’s free-spirited shambling brother Rufus returns from abroad. Rufus “had spent his childhood beset by fears he could not explain, and hemmed in by all the places he would not go because of the menace that lived there”, which accounts for his current roving lifestyle. With consummate skill, the story peels back to reveal its true core ‑ the narrator’s paranoia that Rufus is becoming too close to his wife.
The collection is in many ways reminiscent of Paul Auster’s postmodern detective tales in The New York Trilogy. Similarly, the characters traverse a cityscape full of familiar trails and omniscient eyes. “One night I dreamt that cities were built not from iron and brick but from memories,” says one wanderer.
The funniest story is “The Heights of Sleep”, which skewers another English academic in adoring thrall to a writer, this time to the apocryphal Lovecraftian novelist, J. S. Gaunt. The academic pays tribute to Gaunt’s “daredevil adverbs and ruthless commas”, but the main appeal of Gaunt’s writing is the intuition “that it contained a hidden pattern”. The extremes of such literary fanboydom are lampooned both by Gaunt’s nondescript features and the opinion of the academic’s future wife who “had tried one of his books and had found its attitude so singularly male that she lost interest. I fumed for the whole coach journey and decided she and I had no future.”
If anyone is perfectly placed to satirise it’s Sam Thompson, who teaches creative writing at Queen’s in Belfast and it’s no coincidence that the two strongest stories are about the power of literature. Gaunt’s obliviousness to the hidden depths attributed to his work exemplifies Susan Sontag’s aphorism that “writers are often very disappointing; they put the best of themselves in their books”. As an aside, I especially relished the academic’s description of “the painful process” of writing a review for the LRB (in my case, interpose Dublin for London!).
If there is a message to “The Heights of Sleep” it is that meaning in life is not accessible through literature but through one’s family. This conclusion is reinforced by the following story, “Isaac”, where the studious Becca is told by her cousin Isaac of the books she reads, “You won’t find your answers there.” She later spots Isaac hunched foetus-like over a pond searching for his own answers.
The most unfettered story of all has to be “One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide Queen”, set in the invented location of Stub, halfway between a cyperpunk town and the American wild west. It’s full of arcane Thompson motifs: strange festivals, rituals, fortune-tellers and tarot cards. One of the longest stories, it is a rollickingly dark tale of eye-gouging, enforced marriage and female revenge.
In 2016, Thompson moved from his native England to Belfast with his playwright wife Caoileann and their three children. It’s only natural, therefore, that the final story in the collection, “Silent Valley”, begins in Belfast where bonfires are smouldering on the Ormeau Embankment, not from the usual tribal Orangefest but from the witch-burning punishment of those “found guilty of trafficking with forbidden powers”. “A plantation zone” conjures up visions of the Protestant plantation but instead refers to a nebulous precinct of government memory erasure. Where local culture is concerned, we’re in similar territory to the magic realism of Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters. While this world is dystopian, it’s still recognisably peppered with interfaces and paramilitary gangs. The narrator is concerned by English politicians spouting about Brexit and “national sovereignty”, meaning that “my son is now significantly more likely to get blown to bits by dissident paramilitaries”.
One of the most honest lines in the whole collection is this warning about the Northern Irish from the narrator’s English friend:
They’re friendly on the surface, he said, but underneath there’s something nasty. You’ll see.
Fittingly, “Silent Valley” returns full circle to the theme of the very first story: the child with “some line of development pushed off course”. After the kidnapping of his wife, the narrator travels with his son to the Mournes in hot pursuit. On their reunion, the family falls asleep together in perfect unity on the hearth, although, true to the ever-shifting imperatives of unreality, the image dissolves into a dream. Sam Thompson’s world is at times disconcerting but, blazingly unique and shot through with illuminating shards of insight, it is never less than beguiling.
Rosemary Jenkinson is a short story writer and playwright from Belfast. Her current collection is Marching Season, published by Arlen House