Where We Live
If you’ve read many of my reviews before, you’ll know that I have a particular love of the titles released by Demain Publishing, as they’re one of the best Horror publishers that I’ve come across in all my years reviewing titles in the genre. They’ve achieved that distinction through a deeply impressive process of combining high-quality writing, distinct and artfully-composed covers by Adrian Baldwin and carefully-curated content that has started to expand beyond the boundaries of Horror into Crime, Science-Fiction and even works of poetry. Whatever the publisher releases is always an absolute joy to read and review, and one of the few pieces of good news I’ve had in the past few months was the announcement that another tranche of titles were due to be released by Demain in early September. They kindly sent me a host of review copies for me to read – and the one that immediately caught my eye was Tim Cooke’s collection of short stories, Where We Live. There was the usual iconic cover art from Adrian Baldwin, monochrome eagle’s head lurking in the foreground, bracketed by the usual black background and red border used so effectively by many of the publisher’s titles; but it was the back-cover blurb that really got my attention. Not only did the overarching theme seem fascinating – a character’s reactions to the landscapes around his family home – but the associated concepts had me extremely interested – terms like ‘ecogothic’ and ‘landscape-punk’ that I’d never heard of before, but immediately appealed to me on some base level. Deeply intrigued and curious to see what Cooke had written, I immediately dived into the collection.
Clocking it at eight stories set across a mere 118 pages this is a lean and concise collection, with Cooke very clearly having a theme to put across and therefore ensuring the stories it contains aren’t padded with extraneous material. Kestrel & Crows sets the scene, this single-page tale deftly developing the focus to be found in the stories – the landscape above all; Kestrels flying above motorways, and hedges and farmers fields setting the layout of the land, the sunlight revealing ‘dead ends and fresh starts’. It’s a startlingly brief and even ominous introduction to the collection, with its mention of dead ends, the awkward blending of industrial landscapes into the rural, and towns being ground out of shape. The Drive Home then focuses on the interplay between nightfall and landscapes seen when driving for lengthy periods, and the clash between human-made roads and the dispassionate rural landscape awkwardly colliding with it. That clash is then blended with childhood nightmares and sleep paralysis, and the limits of parental understanding, to create something that is both strangely familiar and yet quietly unsettling. The Box of Knowledge dwells on the capacity for cruelty and its foundations in childhood experiences, as well as the fragile comradeship to be found within a community of alcoholism and drug-taking, at once liberating yet restraining and overlaid with surprising antipathy . It’s accompanied by some surreal and highly vivid imagery as the nameless protagonist and his friends stumble through decaying rural landscapes, as well as claiming a mysterious, mold-ridden bolthole they accidentally discover.
An Orkey Saga pivots to a childhood trip to the titular islands with his brother and father, and his experiences – from a burgeoning belief in cryptozoology to a visit to a Neolithic Cairn, and the way these are interposed with the fragile relationships with both brother and father. Nights at the Factory returns us to the circle of druggie friends and their dubious camaraderie, and a shared ritual of trespassing into the grim industrial heartland of a nearby factory. Moving between the detritus and rust-spattered buildings of the factory, they try and avoid the hostile caretaker in order to conduct petty vandalism, only for the consequences of their mindless actions to catch up with the group, sudden violence set against the rusting, uncaring and often incomprehensible industrial landscape. It also contains a startling sequence that caught me entirely by surprise and which changes the entire tone of the collection; one that is best discovered by the reader and not spoilt in a review.
It’s followed by The Bench Beneath The Trees, another amalgamation of industrial remnants and surrounding rural elements, all blended together with increasingly surreal discourses and remembrances by the protagonist and the slums he inhabits with his circle of friends and acquaintances. The imagery and descriptive language is near-flawless, developing an unsettling and often nightmarish world that borders the landscapes of reality, memory and – something else that may or may not be real. One begins to question the entire nature of reality, alongside the protagonist and his friend. The penultimate story is The Dunes, transporting us to the familiar sights and sounds of the seaside and sandy dunes, and a bizarre collage of memories rotating between teenage drunkenness and clashing with police, and a child with his father hunting in the sand. It’s a particularly disquieting section in the collection, and meshes well thematically with the last story, Asylum, in which the titular building is found lurking on the banks of a valley, humanity and countryside once again at odds. Our protagonist visits the abandoned facility to take pictures, only to find it haunting his memories as well as real life. As with the rest of the collection, memory, reality and imagination blend with disturbing and unsettling effects to create a potent and unnerving finale.
Where We Live is an unusual piece of horror fiction, perhaps the most unusual and – in its own way – unsettling that I have ever read. Within these stories we do not find jump scares, zombies, occultism or anything else so overt; instead, Cooke brings us into an intensely personal and vivid mental landscape that is deeply contemplative, and often harrowing and unsettling in a manner I cannot quite put my finger on. This is the domain of the quiet horrors of the mind and the soul, and the often unwilling introspection found within oneself in the middle of the night or in unguarded moments. It has a surreal undercurrent, an almost voyeuristic element of looking inside someone’s most intimate and personal thoughts and experiences, and is all the better for it. There are entire sections where you’re desperately unclear whether Cooke is suddenly introducing more overt horror elements, or whether they are merely the result of the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol imbibed by the protagonist and his friends; and that uncertainty, and the snatched glimpses of wrong things in the background and at the fraying edges of reality makes the collection all the more effective.
While I’m uncertain about the concept of Ecogothic, I can certainly agree that Landscape-punk is an effective descriptor for the collection, focusing as it does not only on clashes between physical rural and urban landscapes, but also the uneasy blending that comes from existing at the uncaring edges of society, and of the uncertain nature of reality when viewed through the landscapes of distant memories and half-remembered trips in a distant childhood. It all makes for a deeply fascinating and highly affecting collection, one masterfully assembled by Cooke and his editor, and the result in one of the most rewarding horror titles I’ve read in a very long time. Where We Live is not only a incredibly impressive achievement by Cooke, but also a clear sign of how Demain Publishing is progressing and maturing; I cannot think of many other publishers in the genre that would take a chance on such an unusual yet remarkable collection, one that burrows into your mind and refuses to let go regardless of the time spent away from the book. It is a superb collection, and should be required reading for any reader who desires to know how the horror genre can evolve out of the tired and stale tropes and scenarios that threaten to dominate it.