Shadows On The Hillside: Weird Landscapes edited by Storm Constantine (book review).

Landscapes are capable of inspiring all kinds of emotions, from joy through awe to fear. It may depend on time of day, season or the evocation of memory. Generally, landscapes have a permanence the viewer doesn’t. They can overwhelm, leading to feelings of insecurity and the feeling that the viewer is small, inconsequential and a midget in the landscape. In this volume, ‘Shadows On The Hillside: Weird Landscapes’, the authors have explored a variety of landscapes, looking at the more unsettling aspects of them.

‘Skin And Sea’ by Cat Hellisen has a setting of coastal South Africa where the ocean and representations of the ocean are to the forefront of the story. This is a variation of the European selkie mythology but is also a tale of mother and daughter relationships.

The juncture of land and water features also in ‘Bog Goddess’ by Fiona McGavin. Set in Scotland, the water is contained in a loch. Two girls arriving at the lochside and camp out in an empty cottage at a place where a primitive carving of a goddess had been found. While one girl is captivated by the landscape and, although they intend to remain friends, they are growing apart.

Water in the landscape also plays an important part in ‘The Mydford Medusa’ by Freda Warrington. Here the landscape of river valley is threatened by developers, despite the protests of the local community. Joyce invokes Annie, a local legend of a girl drowned in a well in the hope of saving the valley. In each of these stories there is a fantasy link between the characters and the landscape. The water in ‘Lightening’ by Rose Biggin is a pool in a forest where a group of friends go swimming on a hot day.

Although a river features heavily in ‘The Winter Wife’ by Kari Sperring, the landscape is a mountain range. This is a fantasy fable in which the king’s third son follows the river to its source through changing scenery. It is the changes in the terrain that are important here rather than the youth making the journey. A mountain also features in ‘Work, Die, Heh Heh’ by Paul Houghton. In this case, a group of friends walk up a mountain on New Year’s day. On the way down, in the increasing mist, one of them sees the shape of a face in the rock on the opposite side of the valley.

A landscape does not have to be wide open spaces. In Andrew Hook’s ‘All That Dead Beauty’, Blake transforms his flat into a jungle, becoming obsessed with changing the nature of his minimalist surroundings. Childhood memories of the countryside contribute to this manifestation of a mind unravelling. A city is also the setting for ‘The Lighthouse’ by Emma Coleman. This time the narrator is on the streets in a place that is deserted except for the man he meets who claims everyone has gone to the lighthouse. This, too can be interpreted as the inner landscape of a disintegrating mind.

Landscapes can conceal. ‘The Road To Tempol’ by Wendy Darling features an underground space under a clearing in a wood. An archaeologist is sent to investigate the mystery as a Babylonian structure should not be hidden on the outskirts of a small American town. Also venturing underground is Gordon in ‘Borderline’ by J E. Bryant. The open spaces of Cambridgeshire is contrasted with that inside a disused underground station.

Trees can play an important part in the landscape whether it is a small wood or a vast forest. In ‘The White Wood’ by Sarah Singleton, it is the removal of an old tree that leads to the solving of an old mystery. While this is set in rural France, ‘The Green Calling’ by Storm Constantine takes place in the cloud forests of South America and there are distinct differences between the types of vegetation.

Some believe that the land is alive and is capable of independent action. This is the implication in ‘A Hard Country To Die’ by Paula Wakefield. The setting is reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales and the story relates the events that led up to the death of a cruel woman. There have been a number of stories in which taking something away has dire consequences until the item is returned. ‘Ochre And Faience’ by Nerine Dorman is another South African story. Here, the narrator finds some faience beads in the soil of a vineyard. When people around her start dying she draws a connection with the beads.

Landscapes can evoke memories and be a healing presence. In ‘Crabtree Field’ by Jessica Gillings, Nell has returned to the place of her childhood to make sense of her life. The field has changed, as she has but the visit is cathartic. Memories also play a part in ‘On Venus Street’ by Liz Williams. During the war, the narrator lived near a church which was bombed. In the devastated landscape, she finds a fragment of stained glass. Through it she occasionally glimpses another landscape in which she sees her sister who disappeared during another air-raid.

Landscapes do not necessarily have to be physical. ‘Icarus Fall’ by John Kaiine is a surreal evocation of an inner landscape.

Since poetry can create moods and emotions using only a few words it is good to see poems by Jordan Biddulph, ‘Parrot’s Drumble’, and Grace Alice Evans, ‘Sanatorium’, included here.

In each of the stories included in this volume have something strange happening, it is ultimately the landscape itself that is the focal point. The anthology is probably the last project that Storm Constantine completed before her death and as she was the editor, she walks through all of the landscapes.

Pauline Morgan

December 2021

(pub: Newcon Press, Alconbury Weston, UK, 2021. 235 page paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-912950-97-3)

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