The Ghost of the Past
It’s hard to give one specific reason I didn’t enjoy Cobwebs and Whispers by Scott Thomas. This 230-page short story collection contains some fine elements of writing. The stories are filled with crawling, squirming creatures; dark faeries come to life; vampires who curse time and long for love. All in all, it has the makings of a really good collection.
There are twenty-six stories here, plus a fine forward by Jeff Vandermeer and an introduction by Michael Pendragon. Thomas has created a niche for himself, setting his stories at the turn of the nineteenth century in small towns in New England (where Thomas was born) and England. I believe this is the root of at least some of my discontent—the dialogue and narrative attempts a feel that was genuine and authentic in writing of that time period, but here seems somewhat stilted and forced. Some of the language, in trying to attain that authenticity, seems wordy and hard to read. For example, “Idyllic as the sprawling farmland appeared, it was haunted by tiny monsters, such as that which had caused the blindness in the patient that the man was examining” and “Architecturally speaking, it was not unlike so many other oversized, angular structures of the time when mills lined up along the oily river which cut through the eastern quarter of the city.” At times the wording was awkward and distracted me from the story, which is never a good thing.
The stories also failed to grab me on a gut level. I found that I didn’t care about the characters, and many of the stories seemed to focus on a set-up that promised more than the ending delivered. In “Sleep of the Flower God,” six pages build the story of a man who falls in love with a woman who once killed a god who made flowers bloom. The final paragraph presents the climax of the story, when the new bride discovers her dead mother-in-law in the tub with her following a sort of pagan mating ritual involving mud and lust. The woman calmly summons the god of stones to bury her nemesis and the happy couple never are bothered again.
I should state for the record that I did find some of the stories intriguing. “Joseph Warren’s Invention” is the tale of a man driven crazy by his wife’s death and daughter’s untimely sickness. He builds a machine to trap his dying daughter’s soul. His son, feeling neglected and knowing that his father will never love him, commits suicide. The machine traps the son’s soul, resulting in a well-told climactic showdown. “Strange Thing About Birds,” about a crazy woman who attacked her mother, killed her father, and was abused by a priest (believing that birds were responsible for all these acts), also stood out. “Sharp Medicine” was a good “burial ground desecration revenge” story, and “Dream of Dead Eyes” was an excellent twist on the traditional vampire tale.
Having said all this, I would like to add that I am nothing more than a humble horror fiction fan. All that I have written is a reflection of my personal tastes, and others may not agree with me. In fact, both Vandermeer and Pendragon compare Thomas to M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft, two of the more esteemed occult horror writers. All of the works in Cobwebs and Whispers reflect a pagan sensibility, the forces of nature and darkness oftentimes at direct odds with Christianity, and always preceding and eventually overcoming it. Pendragon states that “Over the next few years, Scott Thomas’ writing should play a significant role in the literary world.”
Sometimes it is hard to capture the ghosts of the past, in this modern era. There is a delicate balance that must be achieved, a tightrope to walk between bringing the past to life and making a crude puppet of themes that were old even when the twentieth century rolled around. I respect Scott Thomas very much for trying. For me, it didn’t work. For others, it very well may.