There's More To Life Than Death In M.G. Mason's Short Fiction Collection 'Spooky Salmonweird'

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The British medievalist scholar and author Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) is best remembered for his volumes redefining supernatural fiction. First published at the dawn of the twentieth century, his perfected narrative devices set a gold standard, pulling ghost stories from the cliché of formal Gothic backdrops in favor of realistic contemporary settings and everyday protagonists. Highly regarded even today, the classic Jamesian tale (as his technique was dubbed) often featured quiet, quaint English villages, seaside towns or country estates imperiled by vengeful wraths intruding upon our world from beyond the grave, and echoes of James' craft linger in the works of such subsequent literary icons as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, T.E.D. Klein, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King.

Another touched by James' haunting presence is his fellow countryman M.G. Mason, the Swindon-born author whose latest compilation of unearthly yarns, Spooky Salmonweird, is not only dedicated to James, but pays loving homage to his still-thriving legacy. Subtitled as Tales From the Village, it's a companion tome to Mason's continuing series (along with Salmonweird: A Cornish Crime Comedy Caper and A Salmonweird Sleighing) about Salmonweir, a coastal hamlet whose primary residents are of the incorporeal kind, and each of the thirteen stories delves into the past of a different ghost, revealing there's much more to their lives than death.

Beginning in Iron Age Cornwall, moving forward chronologically through the Second World War and roaming from England to Italy to the high seas, the battlefields of the Confederate States and back again, the volume's opener, 'The Bucca of Old Rock', shows how the site of the future Salmonweir came to be and focuses on Kensa, chosen by her ancient druid tribe to be the forbearer of their people who must endure a series of mysterious trials. The next story comes in Roman times, where newly appointed Centurion Cato falls prey to 'The Nightmare Cult', worshippers of a bizarre beast that feeds on people's fears and which ties directly into Mason's 2020 sci-fi/horror novel, Phobetor's Children. Replete with crawling chills and a claustrophobic location, 'The Crypt' features a Black Death-era priest encountering a sinister vampiric entity after he unwittingly disturbs her earthen-filled crates.

The stones of a monolith and a feisty female sprite inadvertently lure the son of a lord during Henry VIII's reign into a confrontation with a chthonic creature seeking 'The 20th Maiden'. With its cloistered atmosphere and hideously human twist, 'The Haunting of Withecombe Abbey' follows demon hunter Eli as he attempts to purge the titular building from an infernal being. 'Old Sam' changes continents and ratchets up the intensity with a unique take on the American Civil War, as a wounded Union soldier must outpace a ravenous wendigo following a woodland skirmish. And a weary wife on the way to rendezvous with her sailor husband accidentally boards a phantom train carrying the tortured souls of World War I soldiers as well as the malevolent monstrosity who feasts upon them in 'Never Again'.

No doubt due to Mason's training as an archeologist, Spooky Salmonweird is steeped in history and does a wonderful job of awakening each epoch in the reader's mind. Period details and dialogue, anecdotes and famous events serve to buttress the narratives, but are careful never overwhelm the characters' individual plights. There's a pure love of language, wordplay, and a certain easy manner in Mason's prose, in the seductive, sly way he ingratiates protagonists to the audience--in only a few pages one feels comfortable with every lead and their situation. And while wry humor arises at times, the focus here is repeatedly and successfully on fostering irrevocable dread. Hardcore horror hounds take heart, however: these are no stodgy sprites, and true to the Jamesian tradition a reverence of the grotesque unapologetically exists.

With most single author collections it's commonplace for readers to have clear-cut favorites among the proffered titles, yet Mason's skillfulness makes any such preferential treatment difficult. Each entry is just as satisfying as the preceding one, though six still manage to muscle their way to the forefront.

A woman's thespian ambition in Elizabethan days leads her to a dilapidated theater and a foreboding confrontation with 'The Man in Row 8', while a bevy of buccaneers captained by a disguised heroine plunder a cursed sword that arouses ghastly ghouls in 'Dead Sails'. Similarly possessed objects also inhabit two other tales: a spectral traveler toting a malicious doll beguile a tavern owner and her family in 'Late Arrival', just as the coin found at the seashore plays a pivotal part in a young woman's journey through the hall of mirrors on 'Carnival Night'. Echoes of Dickens' classic 'A Christmas Carol' abound when a wealthy abolitionist must leave an annual yuletide offering for 'The Girl in the Orangery'. Yet for sheer palpitating terror, it's impossible to surpass 'The Curse of the Storm Harpy', which recounts the fate of a pirate crew once they board a deserted (and possibly living) vessel. Replete with harrowing, hideous imagery and spine-snapping flair, it will leave even the most jaded horror stalwart shuddering.

If there's any weakness to this book, it's that someone fresh to the Salmonweird universe may finish with the sensation they're missing pieces from a bigger picture by not visiting the previous volumes first. But newcomers fear not: Mason cleverly dodges that otherwise fatal bullet by letting each tale exist independently instead of requiring extensive exposition. In doing so, the audience is allowed leisurely breathing room; a longtime reader will no doubt cull a deeper understanding of the figures they've come to esteem, but anyone with a hankering for supremely composed frights could do far worse than snare Spooky Salmonweird, and for that reason I bestow upon it a well-deserved 4.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. M.R. James would be proud of you, Mr. Mason. Bravo.

4.5 / 5.0