Thursday, 12 July 2012

Short Story Corner | To Be Read Upon Your Waking by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Summer 2012 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine (hallowed be its name) has a new novella by that rising star of speculative fiction Robert Jackson Bennett, author of The Troupe, The Company Man and firm TSS favourite Mr. Shivers. I devoured it in a single sitting the other day, and the story, though faintly familiar - very much the way with modern fairy tales, I'm finding - the story has had me thinking ever since.

"To Be Read Upon Your Waking" is an epistolary affair centered around the correspondence between one lover to another in the late 1940s — which is to say after the fact of World War II, but still very much in the shadow of that terrible time. James, our narrator, has abandoned his ailing life partner Laurence in London, the better to invest what remains of his savings in "a tangible, genuine part of God's green earth. [...] A piece of countryside, of wilderness, a secluded cabin to call our own," namely Anperde Abbey, in France.

Or else what's left of it, because as beautiful as perhaps it once was, the abbey has fallen to rot and ruin. James, then, has his work cut out for him restoring the property, thus his letters to his sickly lover are part apology, and part account of this torturous process. Evidently Laurence does write the occasional reply, but we never see these in "To Be Read Upon Your Waking." Initially, this seems an odd decision - giving us only one half of a continuing conversation to go on - but come the conclusion it's long since a solid call, because as the narrative progresses, and Bennett reveals exactly what otherworldly wonders he has up his sleeve, his rationale becomes abundantly apparent.

As to the plot's particulars, well... I wouldn't want to give the game away, especially when it's so much fun to figure out. Instead, read into this quote what you will:
"The tradespeople I bought my equipment from did seem quite interested to hear where I lived. When I told them I'd bought the old marquis's house, they asked very keenly if I'd had any callers. I wasn't sure what they meant — sales people, I asked, or visitors from the town? We bumbled over it a bit (wish my French was better) but I believe they said there were children whose families live in the forest (like gypsies or travelers, I suppose) who play tricks on nearby residents. Except no one really lives nearby anymore, so that would just leave me. I told them I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them, and asked 'em why the police didn’t just go in and send all the bastards packing. That just confused them.
"I think they said children. Either way, I have seen no one in the forest.
"That's not the most interesting thing, though, darling — I was examining what I think might have been the inset for the dais when I found a hollow or gap in the floor behind it. It is not an unintentional hole, I am sure of it. It is a door. It goes somewhere. Perhaps a crypt? Not sure. It is filled up with hard, frozen mud, and I have a bad time of it, but sometimes I put my ear to the stone floors, tap on them, and hear something hollow. Maybe I am imagining things."
By which point, I was too!

At 20,000 words, there's room for Bennett to let his narrative and characters breathe — amongst them the marquis, a particularly memorable madman who may be able to answer some of the strange questions James raises. The setting, too, is terrific: in rural France, as magical as it is mysterious, one senses anything can happen, and at Anperde Abbey - beautiful, foreboding and all but lost to the forest - it does.

"To Be Read Upon Your Waking" is a sublime slow-burn of a story, about impossible shadows cast in the darkest part of the woods, as well as more standard suspects such as love, loss and life after death. Bennett only rarely writes short fiction - and at just shy of 20,000 words, this novella hardly fits the description - but I dearly wish he would take the time more often. Mileage may vary, but truth be told, I enjoyed "To Be Read Upon Your Waking" more than I did The Troupe, and you might, too.

Remember: you can, and you assuredly should, read it here for free.

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