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Fiction Review Gothic greatness in Sean O'Brien's page-turners

Quartier Perdu
by Sean O’Brien 
(Comma Press, £9.99)

THE GOTHIC tale is to literature what the tardigrade is to animal biology — an astonishingly adaptable and resilient form. It was established by William Thomas Beckford and Horace Walpole, popularised by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens and rejuvenated by modern practitioners such as Angela Carter, Sarah Waters and Stephen King.

It ought to be running out of steam by now, stuck in a rut of familiar images and over-rehearsed language. Not as far as Sean O’Brien is concerned. His second story collection Quartier Perdu includes old fashioned spine-chillers, intensely lyrical tales of ambiguous perception and in-your-face stories of supernatural threat.

Tones and backdrops vary tremendously across the 18 stories. There’s horror, humour, duplicity and bereavement, with some are set in the first half of the 20th century and others contemporary. There are supernatural elements and realistic narratives of psychological suspense, and while some are located in beautiful but ominous natural landscapes, others are set in disregarded urban and suburban crannies.

There are provocative metafictions — not my favourite form of short story but, in this case, they are accessible because they are grounded in the clarity, detail and wit of O’Brien’s writing. Recurring themes — scores to settle, dangerous obsessions, treacherous places, loss and transgression — predominate.

O’Brien never preaches but several of the stories hint at a highly developed sense of morality and justice. Sometimes the agency is supernatural, as in During an Air Raid, a dark and disturbing story in which figures and features from Greek mythology are manifested in London during the Blitz.

Elsewhere, retribution is meted out by flawed human beings, as in the humorous but chilling A Green Shade. In it, a bitter but erudite emeritus professor produces a bizarre masque targeted at an audience of one — the money-obsessed philistine appointed as his head of department — in a story that will elicit cheers and shudders from those mired in the jargon and financial shenanigans of contemporary higher education.

This is an impressively strong collection, in which there isn’t a single forgettable story. There are two separate sequence of seven that are breath-taking in terms of their variety, subtlety, emotional impact and deftness of expression.

And there’s a cumulative effect across the collection. Verney’s Pit is a dreamlike story with a supernatural edge that conveys a powerful sense of self-inflicted disappointment, while What She Wanted, a tale of loss, self-deception and betrayal, employs gritty realism to plough a similar furrow. Symbols such as archways recur throughout, threads linking O’Brien’s use of myth, dream imagery and realistic detail.

On one level, Quartier Perdu is the literary equivalent of From Beyond the Grave, a highly entertaining horror-film anthology of the early 1970s. But in addition to providing a rich blend of psychological menace, supernatural horror and smart comedy, it uses the gothic form to explore a wide range of human emotions and experiences such as art, imagination, grief, identity, morality, attachment and ethics.

And with The Sea God, O’Brien has written one of the most ambiguously resonant and disturbing stories I have ever read.

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