Keyhole: Matthew Rees
Reviewed by RJ Remoraman
Short story collections are precarious things. In every collection, there is a gradient of quality that is inescapable. Some stories work better than others, and that’s assuming they all hit. Even Poe, Lovecraft, King, and Ligotti have stories that just don’t “hit”: they always put up a good college try, as is the office of all good writers, but even the best occasionally gets a swing and a miss.
As such, I am very pleased indeed to say that the collection Keyhole by Welsh writer Matthew Rees is full of hits. They’re not all home runs (as I’ll discuss in a moment), but he manages to crack the ball a good one twelve times in a row. And folks, as someone with a pile of rejection slips held to the wall by a rail spike, cracking the ball can be very hard indeed. So it is with a great deal of respect that I address this series of stories by an author that has very quickly earned my respect.
Matt Rees grew up in Marches, on the border between England and Wales. Most of these stories clearly draw from his experiences in Wales, taking place in either the Welsh countryside or on the Welsh coast. Both places are filled with magic and possibility thanks to Mr Rees’s incredible mastery of prose and well-utilized knowledge of the natural world (particularly, I’ve noticed, flowers). I will confess that I have not read his follow-up collection, Smoke House, but Keyhole has already inspired me to explore his other work. As for this collection, it’s a wonderful introduction to Welsh culture for an ignorant American like me, with plenty of references to Welsh history, language, and the axioms of the Welsh people.
And yet, for all their beauty, these stories are all to some degree eerie. There are no knife-wielding psychopaths, bloodlettings, or gory goodness: if that’s your forte, look elsewhere horror hound. These stories are all much more subtle, building on awkward situations and bizarre premises that build to some horrifying crescendo. Many of them ended in ways that left me stunned, grasping for answers. A few had to be read two or three times before I fully understood what was happening, and some of them I am still pondering. These are head-scratchers, folks, full of strange scenes, odd conversations, and some maddingly unsettling scenarios. Think Franz Kafka-meets- Ramsey Campbell, and you’ll have the idea.
So, as a review by story:
Keyhole (9/10) We start strong. This story is a real puzzler, starting off with a girl who cannot leave her family’s gothic mansion and ending with a man who is haunted by his past in the same house. I’m not sure I fully understand it, but the prose makes this a very moving piece. Great stuff, and I really enjoyed it.
The Service at Plas Trew (8/10) A sociopathic hotel manager recounts his career. This one is a wonderful read, but a bit unfocused. I was particularly thrilled by a story where the narrator takes over a hotel from an old woman who has a stroke. Vicious, but only appetizers when it comes to our narrator’s amoral thoughts. A great character study, and with a fun local legend for dessert!
Rain (9/10) A story about a farm riddled by a mysterious drought, and what two feral children must do to survive. Absolutely beautiful! I recommend the reader listen to Mussorgsky while they read it for the fullest effect.
Dragon Hounds (8/10) A fun story about a bunch of oldsters incarcerated at a rest home who pass the time placing bets on engineered dog races. Not much to say, only that it’s very light-hearted compared to the last two entries, and I enjoyed it.
I’ve Got You (10/10) One of my favorite entries! The widow of a man killed by a terrorist bombing flees to the coast with her son, only to be attacked by monsters made from shells. The prose is pitch-perfect, and the interaction between mother and son brought me to tears in places. A very beautiful piece!
Horsemen (7/10) A very surreal, dream-like story about a boy coping with the death of his father in the coal mines. It’s not one of the better stories, but it still serves as a great showcase for Mr Rees’s gorgeous use of the Welsh countryside for his surreal stories.
Bluecoat (9/10) An incredible story where time becomes ambiguous, and the past meets the present. A couple moves into a sheep farm next to a manor house that once served as a war hospital. The wife becomes fascinated by the manor house and finds herself traveling back in time to dance with a disfigured soldier. To say more would be to give away too much.
The Press (8/10) A man inherits a failing farm but gets a blessing from some Travelers when he allows them to park their caravan camp on his property…a blessing that quickly turns into a curse. This one is a head-scratcher but had a wonderful contrast between violence and the beauty of the narrator’s flower collection.
Driftwood (8/10) This was a truly surreal story about a man trying to escape the responsibilities of middle-age through his own imagination and irrational behavior. Sometimes, it’s better to be swept away than have to deal with the disappointments of the real world.
The Lock (7/10) A land developer takes a barge downriver to the farm where he grew up. Another story of time blurring that was fairly well done. The imagery is, as always, particularly piquant.
Queen Bee (8/10) A successful apiarist tries to sabotage a newcomer to the business with a diseased queen bee. This was a more light-hearted story, featuring a beautifully grotesque fate for the evil beekeeper.
The Griffin (9/10) A naïve college student finds himself enamored with the busty, middle-aged barmaid of a bar where time stands still that appears mysteriously out of nowhere. A lovely coming-of-age story about nostalgia and obsession.
The Comfort (8/10) An old man recaptures his vitality by fixing up an abandoned house in the countryside. Another showcase of Mr Rees’s masterful use of surreal imagery and dream logic.
Bait Pump (10/10) Another one of my favorites! Our narrator contemplates his childhood on the coast when his best friend was found dead in the sea. It is full of horrifying implications, with a gray seaside town that comes to life through some very gloomy and expertly rendered prose.
The Dive (7/10) A story of hubris where an old man goes swimming at the baths with some unfortunate results. A fun little bit of grim humor here.
Sand Dancer (8/10) A man hits the beach with a metal detector and finds a German U-boat….with the Nazis still inside. Need I say more?
The Word (8/10) An unscrupulous antique dealer collects incuncabilia from an old couple on an isolated farmhouse. The results are nightmarish, as predicted. Really enjoyed this one, and once again, an amazingly gruesome fate for our narrator.
The Cheese (10/10) This was something right out of Poe! A failed writer encounters a strange man in a pub where a bizarre conversation about a legendary cheese leads gradually to something so horrible, it sent a shiver up my spine.
Overall, I would give this collection an 8/10. It’s definitely worth a read, especially if you enjoy surrealism or a more subtle flavor of horror.
Several writers, Arthur Machen among them, have spoken of their certainty of our co-existence with another world – one that we are close to in our daily lives and from which we are separated by the finest partition; a place of ancient forces and wisdom, and darker, more peculiar things.
In his collection of short stories, Keyhole, Matthew G. Rees takes us through that divide and acquaints us with the places and inhabitants of this other world. Yet his stories aren’t mere escapism for their roots remain in our own recognisable universe. And it is here that we keep a foothold, sometimes only a fingerhold, as we reach into and explore the other. So it is that Rees’s eighteen extraordinary stories take us from strange seashores, across ragged farms, along eerie waterways and over mist-shrouded mountains, to altered small towns and one-time heartlands of industry where the mining has stopped and the quarries stand still.
While Keyhole represents his first collection, Matthew G. Rees has been described as an unusually talented and inventive writer. The word ‘masterpiece’ has been applied to one of his previous tales. As well as writing short stories, he is a scholar of the form and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea. Although having his own ‘voice’ and employing modern settings, readers might detect a lineage with such writers as Arthur Machen, Glyn Jones and Roald Dahl. The British literary and cinematic tradition of ‘folk horror’ can also be seen in his work.
Matthew G. Rees grew up in a Welsh family in the border country between England and Wales known as the Marches. His early career was in journalism. Later he entered teaching, working for a while in Moscow. Diverse other employment has included time as a taxi driver where he found that the shift that he preferred was at night.
RJ Remoraman is a biology teacher from Virginia who enjoys reading and writing horror. He currently lives with his wife in Kentucky with a rabbit and a Boston terrier she made him buy.
You can follow MR. Remoraman on Twitter @mrremoraman