The Martledge Variations is a micro-collection of stories written by Simon Kurt Unsworth which is published by Black Shuck Books. In it, we are returned to the world of Unsworth’s paranormal investigor Richard Nakata. I’m a fan of Simon’s horror tales and have featured a couple of his collections here before in Lost Places: https://horrordelve.com/2013/12/14/lost-places-by-simon-kurt-unsworth/ and Quiet Houses (which also features Nakata): https://horrordelve.com/2014/07/24/quiet-houses-by-simon-kurt-unsworth/ . These are all good stories, but I think “The Dancers” would be my favorite of them.
The Prologue – The prolude brings us up to date with Nakata’s present as he focuses in on trying to find an explanation for, and obtain proof of, the existence of ghosts. We also get some backstory on the history of the town of Martledge from its earliest recorded documentations as it grew over time to eventually encompass smaller surrounding villages into itself. It’s this area where Nakata chooses to conduct an experiment in the hopes of proving his theories about ghosts. He sets up a website which can’t be traced back to him where he relates a series of stories set in that town, then opens it to comments from the public.
“The Dancers” – A man named Minahane purchases a piano which survived a fire that destroyed most of Lowther House and burned its elderly owner Ellie Winfell to death. Ellie was a wealthy but not well-liked resident of Martledge. Despite being in her late 90’s, people would hear her loudly playing her piano into the wee hours of the night before her death. When Minahane brings the piano into his house, he begins to hear it playing on its own, accompanied by the footfalls of disembodied people dancing to its rhythm. Things become even more disturbing when he begins to see these spectral dancers for himself. This is an excellent, creepy ghost story.
“The Smiling Man” – A church accidentally awakens the vengeful specter of a man named Dent. In life, Dent was always disliked due to the lecherous stares and smiles he gave the young girls and women he encountered. His dark spirit arises to terrorize the town after the church where he was buried moves his bones out from under his massive tombstone to a mass grave where they’ve been storing numerous other transferred corpses in an effort to create more gravesites so as to continue performing burials in their woefully overcrowded graveyard.
“The Meadows” – A young couple follow a trail in a park between a tarn and a river during a moonlit night for a romantic picnic by the water. While there, they hear the sounds of a wooden boat passing by which isn’t actually there. Disembodied voices cry out in a panic as the sounds of an invisible shipwreck splits the night air. The couple then witness the twisted specters of horribly mangled crewmen pulling themselves ashore.
The Epilogue – Nakata walks through Martledge past the locations in the stories and reflects as he reflects upon them.
Story Notes – At the very end of the book, Simon Kurt Unsworth provides some insight as to what inspired each of the stories contained within. I always love it whenever these are included in any collection or anthology.
Article by Matt Cowan