It’s the title which starts the goosebumps in K. A . Laity’s short story collection. Unquiet – sounds like the sort of word an old Victorian lady might say from the shadows, with a shake of her bony fingers and a stare through her veil. Murmuration – maybe her crusty, even more ancient butler would utter such a word if you dared to finger the dusty bone china. The collection makes you nervous, like entering a forest at dusk.
It kicks off with Buffalo Bayou, all Biblical noir, with an old homeless man and the boy he beats. They find an object and stare at it until they project their mystical desires on the material. They imagine it has magical properties until it becomes a source of power for them and attracts other believers to come and stare. All the while, the boy sees a sign to get out of there before something ungodly, or even Godly, smites them all.
It’s a great start and unexpected in its location, if not its tone. From the book’s cover I expected surreal medieval mysteries and horror. What it serves is a mix of eras and locations that are far more satisfying than one setting might provide – though the collection does cast a cracking dragon story at the reader: Lachrymae Draconis, about Colburga and her fiery pal. This story’s theme runs through most of the tales – people looking for something beyond the mundane, searching for magic, or faith, whether it is good or evil. In Mandrake and Magpies, Riley is seeking that magic. The Irishman delves into the underworld for a drug he’s heard in whispers, willing to endanger himself to reach some transcendence above Galway’s “horizontal rain.”
Laity always has you on the edge. You can allow yourself a smile at A Case of Dead Faces and the protagonist’s continuous quest for Buddha’s message, a lay, and the nurturing of his new ambitions. Then you tremble at Emma’s madness in Double Jeopardy – worried if the voices in her head are real, or her way of convincing herself to off her mother. Either way, the voices are leading her from misery. In between, you have the hero Margaret in Fluoresecence, who fights and conquers a sinister shadow at her high-rise workplace. Wahey, you might think, if only the knot didn’t gnaw at her stomach for the guilt she feels in not noticing how many previous victims it had claimed.
The latter story highlights invisible lives lost, wrapped up in a creepy story which lingers. Margaret never noticed the missing workers, and wonders whether she would have caught their disappearances if they had union membership. She seems lost herself.
As tragic as she seems, she pales next to the poor girl buried in the woods in A Secret Place. This is the collection’s heartbreaker. The girl escaped her mum and her boyfriend, as well as bullying at school, by hiding in the attic to lose herself in books, only for a bunch of boys to lure her into the woods and murder her. Now her ghost haunts the place and she takes solace in her chats with one of the boys who visits to atone for his part in her death. It’s a beautiful story about identity and looking for a past to hold onto as her memory fades into the sand.
I couldn’t read another story for a day or two after, almost like I needed to remember the girl for her sake. Great writing.
Everything here is entertaining, even when it plucks your heartstrings, but the two standouts for pure, crackpot pleasure are Touched by an Angel and Another Metamorphosis: A Moral Tale about Obsession. The latter is about a boy so obsessed with dinosaurs he turns into one. He triggers the cops and National Guard into action with some heavy weaponry, all to no great effect – a sly commentary on commercialism and how money can assuage outrage. It had me laughing across its pages. Touched by an Angel will have you listening to your kids just a little more closely. It’s ending will make you laugh and barf at the same time.
Unquiet Dreams is a fantastic collection, full of surprises, and always with a feeling that something is entwining itself slowly up your back and around your neck, all subtle until you realise it’s squeezed the air from you.
Enter its pages with a stiff drink.