Unthology 4 is – as the title suggests – the fourth anthology of short fiction to be published by Unthank Books. It showcases new and established writers, “drawing its energy from the wanderlust and shape-shifting tendencies of the contemporary short story.” I am ashamed to admit that this is the first Unthology collection that I’ve read but I hope to redeem my failings in a swift ordering of the previous three.
The anthology itself is carefully constructed and offers a sense of thematic cyclicality: the opening and closing stories explore the intricacies of perspective and perception in fracturing relationships. The stories seem to lead you on from each other, however different the subject matter, however unique the narrative voice, each tale is unified in its concern with the plasticity of human experience. Each character we encounter figures reality in their own terms and we watch them grappling with their version of the world in their own various ways. In Marc Owen Jones’ haunting piece, ‘The Murder of the Crows’, we meet a blind girl who wakes one morning to discover that the birdsong has ended and the birds have disappeared; Joshua Allen offers a surreal and bizarre response to the world of work in his exciting experimental contribution, ‘Administration: An Intern’s Guide’ (WARNING: if you don’t like ants or swarms – avoid!). Sarah Evans’ ‘The Angel’ charts the psychological impact of paranoia on memory as remembered events begin to shift and warp under the pressure of repeated questioning and implied guilt.
Unthology 4 deals in the darkness and strangeness of life with subtlety and precision. The writing is varied but it tends to play with conventions of narrative and form to destabilize the reader’s own experience and expectations, drawing them into the sense of dread that underpins the collection. On more than one occasion, I found myself reading with gritted teeth, tensed against what may come next. There are moments that are extremely powerful; to add to those stories I’ve already mentioned, the end of Melanie Whipman’s ‘Suicide Bomber’ had me entirely in thrall as did the painfully raw ‘Treasures of Heaven’ from Carys Bray. This collection feels incredibly relevant to the contemporary: our experience of the world, emotional and physical, is being fractured, remoulded, restructured through almost every medium and as such our understanding of ourselves and how we connect to the world is becoming increasing unstable. The stories in this collection lay these changes bare for examination and what’s more, they project the questions and ideas they raise onto the experience of reading itself.