An Arthur Machen epigram to this supremely confident debut collection of short stories tells of the unknown world which is “…in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it.” That easy, very Celtic slippage from this world to another is a delighting feature of many of the eighteen tales herein assembled, not least in the title tale, with its flights of iridescent language not to mention indoor kingfishers which carousel around the story’s heroine in “a sapphire-and-amber whirl, from one room to the next until she and they reached the conservatory of citrus trees that ran along the manor’s southerly side. There she would throw open its French windows enabling the birds to issue forth in a wondrous fusillade over the reeded moat.”
Throughout the collection, odd things and wondrous fusillades abound. A pub called The Griffin – with echoes of Cardiff’s much lamented and now dismantled Vulcan public house – flies much as does time, elsewhere a boy journeys on spectral pit ponies into the dark underworld while in ‘The Lock’ a canal barge seems to slip decades as well as its moorings.
Things viewed through The Keyhole are often out of kilter, a little skewed and can sometimes get genuinely scary. This is certainly the case in the deeply unsettling ‘I’ve Got You’ which features a man made of sea-shells who can fair match the Scissorman in Hoffman’s Struwwelpelter or Elm Street’s nightmarish Freddie Kruger. He has “Razor shell hands, which on the sand had shone like silver” but “now spun around so that it was their long, dark exteriors that reached from his cuffs,” and if he’s after you your heart better be strong.
Many of the stories are built around a single house and its history, from farms such as The Joy and Y Diwedd to odd hostelries such as Plas Trewe but each is a complete world and often bewitchingly so. As is the writing, such as the bravura opening of ‘The Press’ where ‘The sky is the steel blue of my fertiliser sacks and he is all birdcage ribs, shoulder blades sharp-cut, a wind chime of bones, brown as dried blood, bobbing on the piebald’s bare back.’ This story is out-and-out superb, combining delicate descriptions of flowers being pressed with a steamy sensuality and a genuinely suffocating ending which left this reader fair struggling for breath.
Throughout this collection, a superb sense of countryside life and seasonality is in play. We read how “The autumn was long and jealous. It held the valley in its skirts for weeks. Even by late November frost had barely blanched the land.” Another story tells snappily how “Winter came to the top of the valley with the bite of a mantrap.”
This is a writer with oodles of verve, vim and vigour, not to mention a ready gift for comedy. The dog races around an old people’s home, where residents are willing to bet their last or only set of dentures on the result or the acerbic commentary in ‘The Cheese’ on the world of writing itself, expressed in the delicious and purple-veined phraseology of a local paper’s cheese critic are laugh out loud funny. Such daft flight of fancy are counterpointed by the more serious, sepia and Gothic tones of ghost stories such as ‘Bluecoat’ in which a disfigured soldier dances out of the past only to be shot stone dead. There isn’t a dud on display and the very best of Rees’s stories, such as the tale of venal antique dealers in ‘The Word’ are simply world class.
With ‘Keyhole’ former journalist, taxi driver and sweet shop owner Matthew G. Rees joins a growing roster of fine Welsh or Wales-based writers such as Joao Morais, Jo Mazelis, Thomas Morris, Rebecca John, Tyler Keevil and Chris Meredith who can couple the compressed energies of the short story form with the power of the imagination to create complete and compelling worlds. Rees brings a strong, engaging and very individual voice to add to what is nowadays a brimmingly confident and colourful chorus. We should make him feel very welcome.
Keyhole by Matthew G. Rees is published by Three Impostors Press and costs £10.
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