Stephen Volk The Good Unknown and other ghost stories – A Review
Stephen Volk’s latest, a limited edition release from Tartarus Press, brings together ten ghost stories, running from short story to novella length. The collection takes in a range of voices and settings, from Dickensian England to the present day, and features sequels to two of Volks most (in)famous and celebrated screenplays, Ghostwatch and Afterlife.
The collection opens with Unrecovered, a first-person narrative about an archaeologist running a lottery-funded project, aimed at helping British war veterans rehabilitate by providing at-work experience of new vocations. She’s a vivid narrator; clear-eyed and just the right side of cynical (admitting upfront that her prime motivation for taking the project on was the extra funding and manpower it would provide, for example) which makes her slow bonding with, and appreciation for, the men working for her all the more poignant and moving. For me, this was very much a meditation on war, and the scars it leaves on the survivors; the way the soldiers feel connected to the bodies of the anglo saxon warriors they are working to unearth manages to feel emotionally and psychologically real without ever spilling into mawkishness (again, the voice of the narrator is a significant asset in helping the story to walk this line). To describe the supernatural element as incidental would be very unfair; rather, for me, it was that the ghost story elements were woven so seamlessly into the narrative that they didn’t feel in any way out of place or unnatural. A beautiful narrative, and a stunning character study.
Next, The Waiting Room brings us to an encounter with Dickens and an unexplainable coincidence relating to two short stories, published very close to each other, with startling similarities. It’s a wonderful conceit, allowing an exploration of Dickens as a working writer apparently facing that gravest of insinuations; that of plagiarism. Volk’s masterful ability to bring figures of the past to life in vivid detail is once more deployed to brilliant effect, and we’re delivered a haunting that, at its core, is all about loss, and the disproportionately high costs of perceived moral failings that Victorian England could inflict – a moral observation which, you can’t help but feel, Dickens himself would have agreed with wholeheartedly. And the Author’s Note at the end delivers a final, real-life twist that’s as extraordinary as the narrative that proceeds it.
Three Fingers, One Thumb is a short, brutal tale, taking in the setting of Disneyland and the incomprehensible, desolate sense of loss of grieving parents. Genuinely chilling, with a final blow every bit the equal of Hitchcock at his most unforgiving. I loved it.
31/10 sees Volk revisiting Ghostwatch – literally, in the sense that the short story is set in a universe where the events of Ghostwatch were real rather than staged, and where, in 2002, Volk (our narrator) is invited to take place in an anniversary show, where some of the survivors of the initial broadcast are reunited and sent back into the now-abandoned Studio One, for a live broadcast on the anniversary of the original broadcast.
Shameful confession (1 of 2) – I’ve yet to see Ghostwatch. For that reason, I can’t speak to the no doubt numerous easter eggs the story contains. What I can tell you is, taken entirely as a standalone story, it manages that incredibly tough to pull off trick of being self-aware, even, at first self-mocking…. And then slowly but surely turning the creeping dread all the way up. For that alone, for me, a bit of a masterclass. I can only imagine how much fun it’ll be for knowledgeable fans of the original broadcast.
Ttitular tale The Good Unknown takes in the world of Hollywood, and in particular the acting profession. In a beautifully crafted story, Volk treats us to what feels like a privileged, inside track on both the business and art of acting, primarily from the perspective of a woman in her 40s, running the depressingly familiar Hollywood gauntlet of being boxed in in terms of roles, and a project – and a young, unknown co-star – that she hopes will turn things around. It’s a familiar enough premise, but Volk imbues it with such humanity – as with Unrecovered, there’s a realistic frankness to our lead that allows the wider contours of the situation to speak for itself – that I found myself transfixed by the tale from first to last, and I find my mind returning to it often.
The Flickering Light I’d encountered in a prior collection, and I enjoyed revisiting it here. It’s the kind of story I usually struggle with, with a central ambiguity that is explored by the characters within the conversation that is the spine of the narrative. Volk’s quite extraordinary character work, however, propelled me past my personal prejudices with ease, and I was left with a sense of profound melancholy, and questions intended to be unanswerable.
Hojo The Fearless is told in the form of a Japanese folk tale, and marks a very different kind of ghost story. I really enjoyed the elegance of this one, both in terms of the prose and the shape of the story, and especially an ending that was, for me, both surprising and inevitable.
Baby On Board brings us back to the modern day, and a long-serving police officer encountering a grieving father. Character is the star of the show again, here, for me; the officer is just brilliantly drawn; Vo;k sidesteps every single cliche, giving us a man tired but not world-weary, seasoned but deeply empathetic, and above all, with a sincere desire to help, in a desperately sad, difficult situation. This is, above all, a tale of bleeding humanity and the sometimes bottomless pain of loss, and both the power and limits of empathy and compassion.
Cold Ashton brings us back to the world of the folk tale, and a very British tale of witchcraft and community suspicion. The story features a wonderful narrator; an elderly widow, increasingly alienated from her remaining family, finding solace investigating historical obscurities;’ in this case, the origin of the titular town’s moniker. Through her eyes and keen mind, we’re drawn into a bleak narrative that gives a pitiless examination of historical injustices, whilst also providing enough intrigue that I was kept guessing until the last page. Deeply satisfying.
Shameful confession, part the second – I’ve yet to see Afterlife (as with Ghostwatch, it is on The List, I promise). I know the show stars Lesley Sharp, who I’m familiar with from some of her TV and movie work (I especially enjoyed her Jude in RTDs The Second Coming miniseries). Lost Loved Ones is affectionately dedicated to her, and certainly, I could immediately picture her as the Alison of this story, a for-real clairvoyant who, as the tale opens, is dealing with the recent passing of her father, alongside a ghostly visitation in the hospital. I found this novella-length tale deeply compelling; a brilliant fusion of character study and narrative, with Alison trying to make sense of an increasingly threatening situation, and help a troubled woman who has recently lost her fiance. I really enjoyed how the story unfolded, and whilst the narrative concluded brilliantly, I found myself sad to be leaving Alison and her world behind at the end.
The collection concludes with The Crossing, a spikey second-person narrative that uses an angry teenager’s perspective to interrogate a still-raw world event, and more widely the indigestibility of aspects of our current moment. The brilliance of the piece, for me, was to hang the angst around a central image that I suspect most of us who encountered it still feel haunted by; by inviting us to place ourselves in the narrative via the use of second person, I felt both represented and challenged by the despair of the main character. Appropriately enough, perhaps, a genuinely haunting tale to end the collection, and one that I suspect will linger with me for some time.
In conclusion, The Good Unknown and other ghost stories is another triumph from Volk, digging deep into the human condition via an extraordinary range of voices, perspectives, and periods. Often melancholic, frequently eerie or chilling, and above all, very, very human. Highly recommended.
The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories by Stephen Volk
In this new collection of eleven stories, Stephen Volk explores the wide span of possibilities of the ghost story in its various manifestations—from hauntings set in the quotidian modern world, to ones that hark back to traditional, but no less chilling, tales of the past.
When battle-scarred army veterans are recruited for an archaeological dig in Wiltshire, more than bones are unearthed, in ‘Unrecovered’. A pleasure park becomes anything but pleasurable in ‘Three Fingers, One Thumb’. In ‘31/10’ a notorious, fateful BBC TV studio is revisited, while in ‘The Waiting Room’ a supernatural encounter makes Charles Dickens himself come to question both his creative inspiration and his fundamental beliefs.
Three brand new stories are included here: ‘The Crossing’, ‘Baby on Board’, and ‘Lost Loved Ones’—the latter novella being a sequel to Volk’s television series Afterlife and a welcome return for him to the much-loved character of Alison Mundy, the troubled psychic medium, in a world post-Covid.
As with the rest of the book, these have the author’s trademark mixture of ‘horror and heartbreak’ (Nathan Ballingrud); qualities that have earned him praise as ‘one of our genre’s foremost practitioners in the short form’ (Peter Tennant, Black Static) and ‘one of the most provocative and unsettling of contemporary writers’ (Andy Hedgecock, Interzone).
About the author
Stephen Volk’s ghost stories for the screen include BBCTV’s legendary faux documentary Ghostwatch (1992), which gave the nation nightmares and caused questions to be raised in Parliament; the award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. He is the author of four collections of short stories (Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart, The Parts We Play, and Lies of Tenderness) as well as The Dark Masters Trilogy. He won a British Fantasy Award for Monsters in the Heart and a BAFTA for the acclaimed ghost-adjacent short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans, set in his Welsh home town.