I never had an opportunity to read Ian Colford’s previous book, Perfect World (2016, Freehand Books), but I had read many positive thoughts about it on social media and elsewhere. For example, Naomi MacKinnon (of Consumed by Ink) said of it in a guest review here: “By writing this book, Ian Colford has given us a chance to vicariously experience a life that is hard for many of us to imagine.” Anne Logan (of I’ve Read This) said of Perfect World in her review: “Colford doesn’t feel the need to show empathy for his protagonist, but his respect for the reader is evident in his succinct and unsentimental sentences.”
A Dark House and Other Stories* is a collection of eight stories covering about 180 pages, so the stories here are not too short, but are long enough for character development, particularly of each protagonist’s thoughts which is a standout characteristic of Mr. Colford’s writing. This is best demonstrated in “The Comfort of Knowing” about an older man (Warren) who sees his younger sister Valerie holding hands with a man who is not her husband. This bother’s Warren’s Christian sensibilities and raises old memories of Valerie’s rebelliousness as a youth. Warren struggles with how (or if ) to confront her.
Valerie, though… From time to time, Valerie has presented a special challenge. Believe me, I’ve never enjoyed tromping the high moral ground, especially where she’s concerned, but who else is going to do it? I’m not the holier-than-thou type, but my siblings have lives of and my parents are old and oblivious and, anyway, Valerie is their darling and can do no wrong in their eyes. It’s not that I despise her, or even dislike her. She’s my sister and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wish I could understand why she does these things.
At times of crisis one naturally turns to one’s spouse, but Gloria was in a forgiving mood and didn’t seem inclined to support my view,
“It’s probably nothing,” she advised placidly, “but If it upsets you try not to think about it.”
But Warren cannot let it go and even hires a private investigator to get more proof so he can confront her with evidence of what he knows. Then once he has the evidence he’s not sure what to do with it. All this time, Warren is slipping into an alcoholic state that is obvious to everyone but him. “The Comfort of Knowing” was my favourite in this collection, for Mr. Colford really gets into the head of Warren, delivering a type of stream-of-consciousness moral wrestling dialogue in Warren’s mind as he descends into his own personal hell.
The other thing I noticed about Mr. Colford’s writing is its word density. Open the book at random and you’ll find pages of text with few paragraph breaks. Now, this is not as off-putting as it sounds, for the writing flows naturally and any break would detract from the thoughts being expressed. As an example, I’ll return to Warren and his thoughts on autumn:
Autumn is my favourite time of year. When I can smell the crisp pungency of backyard bonfires, hear dogs barking at twilight, and listen to the distant thunder of a hundred lawnmowers as if it were music, I am happy to be alive. Late In the day the fading light takes on a bittersweet quality and there’s something in the air other than the change of season. An autumn night is the perfect time for taking risks, for driving too fast, for falling in love. There seems to be an increase in social activity too, as neighbours return from cottages and emerge from their summer lethargy as If awakening after a period of hibernation. I was still wondering what to do about the photographs, but each day brought with it the distraction of teaching while trying to learn the names of a new crop of students and, after I got home, of meeting people I hadn’t seen for months who came to visit or were out walking along the street. I had no leisure to think, and one evening I took the car and set out for nowhere in particular. I drove over the bridge and got on the highway for the airport. But I passed the airport and kept going. The sky was clear. As I passed the Elmsdale exit the glowing sapphire blue began deepening toward dusk. A short while later, stars appeared. Sometimes I look at the night sky and all I can see is the presence of the heavenly host, but other times it presents a disturbing enigma with nothing behind it but the random and haphazard forces of nature. I’m seized by doubt and begin to wonder if the path I’ve followed is an illusion and if one day I’ll find myself at the edge of the abyss with no option but to step into a vast and terrible unknown. It’s appalling to have your faith shaken by something as ordinary as the stars in the sky, and though it doesn’t happen often when it does the ordeal leaves me jittery and depressed.
That is all one paragraph, and it serves to peer into the mind of Warren as devils and angels battle it out in his cranium.
Another standout story is “McGowan on the Mount” a story about a lifelong storekeeper that sells his store (it is now a café) and retires, only then realizing how much it got him out of the house, interacting with people. His wife died of an illness years ago, leaving him to raise his son and daughter alone. Later on, his son would die a violent death, likely due to a homophobic attack. Now alone with not much to do, and enough money saved away to do pretty much what he wants, he entertains the thought of visiting Rhonda, an old lady friend who, dying of cancer and is told she has a year to live, has moved lock, stock, and barrel to a Greek Isle. McGowan decides to act impulsively (which is not his custom) and travels to Greece to surprise her, not even knowing if she is alive. Landed in Greece, he ponders his reasons for being there:
He ran his finger along the island’s concave eastern coast, established his current location, and then ascertained where he wanted to go, making a crude estimation of the overland distances with his eyes. Having arrived unprepared and uncertain of his motives, he now recognized his ambivalence for what it was. In his own mind his excuse for being here had lost a good deal of its plausibility. What could he possibly hold out to her that would be of any value? If his purpose was one of courtship, how could his clumsy embraces make the least difference, faced as she was with her own impending mortality? And if he thought he could offer a distraction from the miserable finale awaiting her, then he was surely granting his crusty personality too much credit as a source of amusement.
As he does in “The Comfort of Knowing” Mr. Colford packs a lifetime of experiences into a few dozen densely paragraphed pages and one feels like they have read a small book by the time the final full stop appears.
Other stories include “The Stone Temple” in which a destitute man kidnaps his young son, but hasn’t planned ahead at all, “The Ugly Girl” wherein a professor has an unusual attraction to a student who is: “ugly in a sense that speaks of the brutality of nature yet is in some strange way beguiling and even heartening.” This story also contains one of my favourite lines: “A cold drizzly shadow cast itself over the city and lingered there, spreading the sort of gloom that causes damage and ruins lives.”
There are several other stories I haven’t touched on, but they are all worthy of being included in this collection which I can highly recommend to lovers of the short story genre. As quoted earlier, Mr. Colford shows “respect for the reader” in his writing, and I would go so far as to think of him as a “reader’s writer” in that through these various stories, he is able to remind those of us who love to read why we do so. There is an interesting thought from Mr. Colford’s website that I would like to add here:
“Finding new ways to tell familiar stories—finding new stories to tell: that’s where the challenge and the danger lies. It’s okay to test the reader, but ultimately the writer must engage the reader’s head and heart. Fail at one or the other and you’ve violated the time-honoured contract that fiction writers agree to when they put pen to paper: to awaken the reader’s mind to new ways of seeing and to do so in an entertaining manner.”
I certainly look forward to reading more of Mr. Colford’s stories in the future. I am adding A Dark House and other Stories to my 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Best Short Fiction category.
A Dark House and Other Stories has been shortlisted for the 2020 Atlantic Book Awards. (Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction)
*Note: this review was based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by Nimbus.
- Publisher : Nimbus Publishing Limited (Oct. 16 2019)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 192 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771087641
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771087643
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