Monday 16 January 2012

Strange Stories #1: What Water Reveals by Adam Golaski

Strange Story #1: What Water Revels
Author: Adam Golaski
Collected In: Worse Than Myself
Anthologised In: Strange Tales II

Montana's funny. There's a lot of underground out here.

Last week I introduced the Strange Stories series on this blog; although my definition was rather loose the key to it was ambiguity. This first story is from a collection that has ambiguity in spades -  Worse Than Myself  by Adam Golaski. I've not been so impressed by a collection by an author new to me for a long time.  It's serendipity that I was reading this book when the idea for Strange Stories came to me - I'd first heard about it on the great Supernatural Tales site months ago, and I was given it as a recent birthday present. Golaski takes risks, and some of the stories in this volume teeter on the edge of being too ambiguous, of being too hard to make any sense of. But it contains a significant number of tales where he doesn't put a foot wrong - The Animator's House; A String Of Lights; They Look Like Little Girls; The Man From The Peak... and What Water Reveals.

This story is probably one of the more straight forward in the collection. There is a definite plot, which largely follows a typical horror story construction: person goes somewhere they shouldn't; person flees but finds real life has gone a bit weird; things fall apart; person returns to bad place and finds out.... something. But the execution is brilliant.

The bad place in question is an island in a fast flowing river in Montana; the person in question is Nicolas, a recovering alcoholic; the time in question is April, a cruel month, and one where ice water melts and reveals things that were hidden. Nicolas's recovery from alcoholism is borderline, and although there's no explicit suggestion that he is a classic unreliable narrator, a lot of what he sees and does is coloured by his illness. During his first possible encounter with the supernatural, Nicolas quotes mantras from his AA group to get through it; afterwards he still does:

"I admit I'm powerless over alcohol and that my life has become unmanageable." He stops by a bench and cries. His mouth tastes as if full of gin.

Golaski presents a realistic (and poignant) story of someone recovering from alcoholism here, and what makes the story work, I think, is the ambiguity of how that alcoholism relates to the supernatural element. The tale seems to be a metaphor for the lack of control in Nicolas's life, but there's an ambiguity to the symbolism throughout the story: surely water - clear pure river water at that - is the antithesis to alcohol? But it is quite literally water that undermines Nicolas's life after his encounter on the island - a hole opens up in his cement floor, behind the refrigerator, and gradually gets bigger. It's deep, and the landlord can hear things moving around. Nicolas speculates that there is a flooded sub-basement down there. He also believes that something - a man? - has come out of the hole and into his home. Golaski doesn't give us the easy option of believing that Nicolas is drunk when he thinks this - he hasn't started drinking again, although he desperately wants to. By this stage the reader is almost willing him to drink as well - giving up certainly doesn't seem to have stabilised his life. He flees his flat:

Nicolas thinks, "Where do I go?" and thinks "There are three unopened bottles of vodka in a dumpster behind this building [he dumped them there earlier]. He steps into the rain...

It keeps raining, and the river water rises. Nicolas starts to notices the strange holes in other places in his home town. Eventually he returns to the island where his life, nominally back in his control after quitting the booze, slipped out of his grasp again. He buys a bottle of gin before he does so, and clutches it like a safety blanket around the island. And then.... well, you'll have to read it to find out.

This is a classic weird tale, or strange story, or messed up horror story, or whatever you want to call it. Moving, scary, written in flawless prose and endlessly re-readable to try and understand it's depths.

Next Week: Strange Stories #2. House Taken Over by Julio Cortazar.


Anonymous said...

Do you ever wonder, James, if your interpretation of the story is right or completely off?

I also like your last paragraph..that's how I feel when I'm trying to write a review about one of your stories!
Strange Story? Weird Tale? Phenomenally screwed up but in a good way? LOL

Anonymous said...

Not read any of Adam's stuff to date, but you've convinced me that I need to put that right.

James Everington said...

Charlene - it's an interesting point; how much of a review is really about the reviewer rather than what is being reviewed? But I'm all for readers having their own take on things. I know you've read 'Falling Over' my story in PD2, and I can tell you now I certainly don't have all the answers to whatever that one's about! You tell me...

Iain - Golaski is really good, although oddly the very best takes in his book he seemed to save for the second half. I definitely want to feature some more obscure stories in this series, with the hope people read them.

Daniel Powell said...

Awesome look at the collection, James! I think I'll grab a copy for myself. Ever read any Anderson Prunty? Some good, strange stuff in a few of his collections...