Jacobyte Books (2001)
Reviewed by Marty Young (this review was first published in May 2006)
13 – A Collection of Ghost Stories by Rick Kennett, was published in 2001 by the POD (Print On Demand) publisher Jacobyte Books, an Australia-based independent publishing house that unfortunately is no longer in business. The collection came about after Bryce Stevens, author of The Fear Codex (Jacobyte Books, 2000), gave Kennett a flyer that said the POD publishers were looking for novels and collections. Kennett selected thirteen previously published stories, sent them off, and about two months later, their acceptance come in. And after reading the thirteen tales, it is no surprise Jacobyte acted so quickly.
This is a collection of smooth, easy-to-read stories told in a simple yet elegant voice rich with imagery, and it is those simply drawn visions that cause such shivers:
The wind keening through the empty window frames sounded sometimes like lost voices and sometimes like a woman’s crying, but hardly ever like the wind. [From “Out of the Storm”]
The problem with reviewing such a collection is finding a method that works; it is not practical to review the stories on an individual basis with the justice they each deserve, nor will it do to simply say, a bloody good read, buy it now! In all honesty, 13: A Collection of Ghost Stories is a bloody good read, and I would seriously recommend people finding a copy. There are definite frights to be had here, chills that will linger well after the last story has been finished. And isn’t that what you want in a collection of horror stories?
Kennett’s view of a ghost story is an all-encompassing one; from the more traditional, through to space-age, time travel and even black magic. Regardless of the subject matter, all thirteen tales act subtly, creeping up on you as you read, drawing you in from the opening line and holding you enthralled until there are no more words. Kennett creates a slowly building sense of disquiet almost with ease, without going for the cheap shock value of explicitness.
“Due West” begins our adventure, and it is one of the more traditional ghost stories in the collection. Set in 1935, it tells the tale of Arthur Lewisham, a retired history teacher, who takes up residence in a small outback Queensland town to write a book on the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War – but there is something else lurking within the house. The tension builds as the mystery surrounding the house unfolds, and the odd visions he sees through the keyholes, empty vistas to begin with, become far more intimidating. The true magic in “Due West” comes from showing how easily day-to-day life can be disrupted by something altogether frightening; it reveals just how close the otherworldly can be. The only flaw is that the ending weakens the story, and does not raise it to the standout it might have been; however, little is lost in the overall effect, and “Due West” remains an enticing tale, and one that bodes well for the rest of the collection. This story was first published inEidolon #25/26 in 1997, before being selected for the Year’s Best Australian SF & Fantasy #2 (Harper/Collins, 1998), and the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror #12 (St Martin’s, 1999).
Of the thirteen stories presented here, the standout for this reviewer was “Out of the Storm”. Set during the Second World War, it tells the story of Lieutenant Dixson and his crew as they sail the abandoned minesweeper HMAS Barrinji back to port. The Barrinji had been missing for nearly a week before it was found desolate in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As the salvage operation begins, a darker presence starts to manifest aboard the ship. This story works so well because while there are a number of minor characters constantly going about their jobs around the Lieutenant, none of them get in the way of the storyline or break the tension. They are almost like ghosts themselves, coming to play their part before fading into the background. And there they remain, their presence felt but their involvement peripheral. The technical language also acts in a similar manner, adding credibility to the story without getting in the way. There is a distinct unease in “Out of the Storm”; something isn’t right with the ship, Lt. Dixson and his crew suspect it, and so does the reader. And as the experience lingers in the memory of Lt. Dixson after he has retired, so too does it linger in the mind of the reader after they have finished the story.
“Out of the Storm” was first published in Chills #6 (1992), and in Terror Australis: The Best of Australian Horror (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).
Beyond the near-classical ghost tales are, as previously mentioned, ones that take the reader into the past, out into space and/or into alternative dimensions. “Bottle Green Dreams” is one such story, where the owners of a junk shop discover an old bottle that brings to life a long forgotten memory in the shop’s history. The story is cleverly told from the perspective of both husband and wife, who each experience the episode differently. In “Bottle Green Dreams”, it is the husband who goes back to witness the past, rather than the past coming to haunt him.
Three of Kennett’s Cy De Gerch series of space operas are also included: “The Battle of Leila the Dog”; “The Road to Utopia Plain”, and “The View from Stickney Crater”. Seventeen year old executive officer of the Martian frigate Utopia Plain and a first generation product of the Gartino Experiment, Lieutenant De Gerch is the hero in each adventure. While “The Battle…” and “The View…” are rather pedestrian, the best of the three is undoubtedly “The Road to Utopia Plain”. From the brilliant opening section when the Utopia Plain ricocheted off Mars’ atmosphere and shot back into space, “The Road…” carries the reader into an easily visualised world full of emotion. Although not a typical ghost story, or indeed even a horror story, it is a poignant tale centered on temporarily overlapping realities; people are alive in one reality, but dead in another. The main characters understand what is happening, but continue to live out the episode while they can, and it is impossible not to feel for them. Evoking such strong emotions only makes the reader support these characters even more in the next story they appear in, “The View from Stickney Crater”, even if the story itself doesn’t quite have the same magic.
Surprisingly, very few of the tales found within 13: A Collection of Ghost Stories, failed to hold my attention. “Kindred Spirits”, “The Battle of Leila the Dog” and “The View from Stickney Crater” are a little too mundane or formulaic in their telling to pull off what the others in this collection manage, but even those three are worth reading. What saves them is Kennett’s fluent, visual writing style. If you are buying an album that has two or three hit singles on it, you can be pretty confident that the album will be worth the money. With Kennett’s collection, there were ten stories that I thoroughly enjoyed. By any calculation, that makes 13 a highly recommended collection. Most of the stories will take the reader on an adventure where the only thing known for sure is that the tales will stir up emotions, and that is as good as it gets.
As I said near the start of this review, it isn’t possible to cover each story individually, so I will instead conclude by saying you should find this collection now, then curl up in bed with a warm cuppa one night and start reading. The tea might help keep away the chills Kennett’s stories will cause, but I doubt it…