Unthology - Witty and Unsettling - is A Collection For Those Who Look Beyond the Everyday

According to the recently departed Philip Roth, “Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.”

This is certainly true when reading the latest Unthology collection from Unthank Books in which the classic, realist slice-of-life encounters the shocking, the strange and the experimental on common ground. Within this edition of Unthology tales from fourteen new and established writers weave together, with expert editing by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones, to form an engaging and mysterious collection filled with humour, malice and intrigue.

Unthank Books is an independent publisher which was founded in 2010. Taking their name from a historic term for the unclaimed land which lays at the edge of a town, Unthank seeks to reside in this wild space nurturing distinct and vibrant literature, both in the novel and short form. Unthology is an annual short fiction series, first published in 2010, which showcases extraordinary stories of any length, from flash fiction to novelettes, and allows different styles and subjects to rub up against each other to achieve an accumulative effect.

“So maybe she was not a wolf.  Wolves would tear the flesh off you strip by bloody strip. Wolves do not need to ask for money”

The characters in many of these stories are flawed; selfish, judgemental and often unlikeable. In The Best Way to Kill a Butterfly by Hannah Stevens, a ghoulish trend for gathering and displaying butterflies serves as a backdrop for a relationship in crisis, and an exploration of the ways in which we hurt ourselves and those who love us in the face of loss. In Livestock by Valerie O’Riordan, a frustrated, bored and resentful mother faces her opposite and confronts her own life and choices in the wake of a bloody, mysterious gathering. Think the Wicca Man with heifers.

There is also a thread of sadness running through these stories, from the man desperately praying to all the gods he can to save the life of another man’s child in Household Gods by Tracey Fells to the man wrangling a familiar drunk in One for the Ditch by Brian Coughlan. In Take Away the Sky by Mark Mayes we see the muted awfulness of a life ruined and the crumbling attempts to rebuild from the ashes. This is a thoughtful look at addiction and redemption, a mirror held up to the cult of self-help and a mediation on what remains when we remove the worst of ourselves. In A Moment Could Last Them Forever by Dan Carpenter we are encouraged to confront bereavement and the lengths people will stretch to avoid feeling alone. The protagonist is a conduit for grief and is roughly pummelled by the living and the dead. This tale has a hint of magic and a frisson of the bizarre and leaves a lingering air of melancholy.

Alongside the ordinary horrors of daily life, there are spikes of grim terror in this collection, including Blowhole by Tom Vowler, which details, in a letter from one tormented wife to another, the reality of a woman in the grip of a man who may be capable of anything. Told in a vague, inconsistent voice, the reader is left to wonder what acts of violence may have been metered out by the elusive Preston and what secrets the unpredictable view of the narrator may be hiding.

“It’s a kind of sigil, think of it like static…it builds up and builds up until you release the energy”

This collection demonstrates the commonality across experiences, the themes of love, loss, addiction and betrayal that haunt us as we go about our everyday lives. Hearts are broke, signals are crossed and old and new hurt mingle together to form a microcosm of the human condition.

All the stories in Unthology 10 are well-written, absorbing and complex enough to keep the reader engaged but there are some standout tales which are worthy of distinction. End Times by Maxim Loskutoff is a gritty slice of Americana, following the journey of a fractured couple trying to save the life of an injured wild thing. It is a fever dream of a story, so vivid that the reader can feel the dry heat of the desert, the uncomfortable stares of strangers and the almost viscous animosity between the main characters. Tenth Circle by Liam Hogan is a wry, droll reimagining of the struggles of Dante to publish his oeuvre, hampered by the short-sighted view of a publisher and is an arch nod to the power of publishers to stifle a writer’s expression.

Unthology appeals to those who seek to look beyond the everyday, who see the music in the daily rhythms and routines of life and have the curiosity needed to lift the veil and peek beneath into the sickly human psyche.

The stories contained in this collection are witty, macabre and unsettling. The diversity of voices, breadth of genres and scope of the ambition of the individual authors never strays into confusion and the result is a tight, thrilling collection.

  • Unthology, edited by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones, published by Unthank Books is available now.

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