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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Quiet Places

4th Feb, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published in 2017, Jasper Bark's Quiet Places (Crystal Lake Publishing) is tagged as 'A novella of cosmic folk horror' and that's a pretty fair description, though at a push I think you could also add zombies to the mix.

We open with Sally trying to save the residents of isolated town Dunballan from exposure to the elements. They have lost their souls, leaving just bodies that can be moved here and there (this is where the zombie bit comes in). And Sally feels responsible for their fate.

Then we get the back story - her relationship with David, a descendant of local nobility, and how he asked her to move back to Dunballan with him when he inherited a cottage outside of the town. But at periodic intervals David's spirit is stolen away by a monstrous black beast, leaving him just an empty husk that Sally must tend to, something he refuses to talk about or explain. From the journals of his ancestor Matthew McCavendish, a member of various occult groups in the eighteenth century, Sally learns that the nearby woods are a 'quiet place', a region where the walls between dimensions are thin. Matthew's occult experiments went hellishly wrong, but undeterred and influenced by a nature spirit called Hettie of the Hedgerow, Sally is determined to free David from the Beast. You can guess how that turns out.

Jasper Bark has produced a compelling novella, one that blurs the boundaries between folk and cosmic horror to the betterment of both. Initially, with the Beast and Hettie of the Hedgerows, you think that it's a work of folk horror, but the revelations of what happened in the past to Matthew send the narrative spinning off in another direction entirely. Bark gives us magic rituals and a trip to other realms that seems entirely convincing, with echoes of Lovecraft's oeuvre and the enterprise as a whole shot through with an ersatz mysticism that confers credibility, plus a gallery of intriguing otherworldly entities - The Gate, the Archons and Bréostwylmas. This is the solid, beating heart of the book, the foundation on which all the rest stands, and Bark is brilliant at pulling it off, capturing the visionary quality of what takes place.

Elsewhere I felt the book stood on less solid ground. Sally is an engaging protagonist, but I thought that some of her choices, such as picking the emotionally aloof David as a partner and her failure to reach out to others when things start to go wrong, were a hard sell, though Bark does his best to make it all sound credible. Similarly there's an element of artificiality to the whole Dunballan thing - for the story to work it has to be an isolated spot with virtually no contact with the outside world, but is that practical in our modern interconnected world? Where do the residents get their utilities from? How do they earn a living? In the abstract it all sounds a bit iffy, and I didn't feel Bark did enough to make me believe in Dunballan as presented.

The end of the book though is stunning, as events spiral out of control and good intentions come to nought, with Sally well and truly hoist by her own petard and taking on that unbearable burden of guilt, trapped in a personal hell and devoting her life to making amends, regardless of how hopeless it seems. It was bleak, pitch black horror and, all reservations aside, the story and ideas behind the book will stay with me for a long time to come. I loved it.




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