Thursday, 31 October 2013

Out of the Deep by Dennis Hamley reviewed by Julia Jones & Valerie Laws

With the dark nights closing in and Halloween rattling its bones (or its Trick or Treat collecting tins!) devotees of ghostly and supernatural stories are spoiled for choice. The stories included in Dennis Hamley's Out of the Deep, however, demonstrate that the supernatural is always just a frisson away --  whatever the location or time of year. They are set on a summer holiday, at the opening of a railway line, at a football match as well as the more obviously eerie settings such as a lonely crossroads or a medieval mound. If I had to select just one of all these stories to ponder on a desert island I think it would have to be The Shirt off a Hangedman's Back for its sombre reflections on the injustice life and the cruelty of crowds. 
Dennis Hamley understands the supernatural as a means of imaging "some of the deepest and most enigmatic processes of the human heart and will". After each of the dozen stories in this collection he adds a commentary explaining how the story came to be written and what particular aspect interested him as he wrote. The explanations are clear and unpretentious and have Hamley's professionalism and wealth of writing experience behind them. If one is trying to understand (or teach) the genre they are invaluable -- similarly if one if trying to improve one's own writing. 
I was left with a question, however. 
The first time I read this book I followed the suggested pattern: story + explanation, story + explanation and it was ideal for what I needed at that moment. I'm not a writer who finds the supernatural easy and I wanted a greater understanding of the process so I could discuss it with students. Dennis Hamley as a lifetime of teaching experience and Out of the Deep delivered exactly what I needed. 
Such is the perverseness of folk, nevertheless, that I began to bite the hand that fed me. A discussion in quite a different arena (the Arthur Ransome page) had made me ask myself the question, can there be too much explanation? Does it help or hinder involvement if readers are able to identify every location of a story, every detail that could have contributed to the writing process? This is a troubling question for a literary biographer ... 
When I read the stories in Out of the Deep for the second time I read without the explanations --and found them noticeably more powerful and evocative. I wondered, then, whether Dennis Hamley might consider tweaking the layout and adding more links to the ebook format so that electronic readers could choose their preferred mode? (He could even knock out those few wicked little typos that have crept into his text like imps of Satan!) 

JJ - A few days after I'd posted my Amazon review I discovered that Valerie Laws (aka Lydia Bennett or 'superswimmer') shared my high opinion of them. Here's what she had to say - and a little more.

Out of the Deep presents ghost stories with a very wide variety of settings, each with some fascinating lore about the story's own little world, football, bare knuckle boxing, family life at different times... these spooky tales introduce us to a range of revenants, ghosts with unfinished business, seeking justice, seeking to warn the living, and in this ebook edition, each one is followed by a short piece from the author telling how it came to be written, the inspiration and evolution of the tale.  

   In 'The Overbalancing Man' Hamley manages a delicate balancing act, to keep us teetering on the edge, as the disaster, whatever it is, comes hurtling towards us. In a story about railways and trainspotting geeks and the engines of the past, he has a ghost story unfolding before the eyes of a young girl. The re-enactment of tragedy she keeps seeing haunts her life - but is it really a ghost from the past, or a ghost from the future? As events unfold, the complications of past/future dimensions, and the question of whether something destined can be changed, the nature of the tragedy becomes clear. Hamley doesn't always end with a resolution, sometimes it's the discovery of the mystery or ghost which is the end, and sometimes it ends badly, for someone, as happens in life.

   Though the stories are short, the characters in them, living and otherwise, are beautifully drawn, and they are much more than just spooky, they are also moving, sad, and disturbing. Dennis Hamley is an author with many many books behind him and his craft has been honed to sleek perfection. Read them, and leave the light on!