Visited by Dreamscape
Worthington is a writer new to me, although she has published six novels and at least two previous collections of stories. One would, therefore, expect a certain level of accomplishment in her writing skills, at the very least, an ability to create engaging characters and to weave interesting, well-paced narratives. While it’s clear from the very first story in this collection of seven gothic tales, that Worthington’s writing is atmospheric and sometimes suffused with dread, the subtlety of her prose is frequently undermined by a sense of narrative stasis, of sentences burdened by a striving for the poetic,. Again and again, characters take too long to make decisions, to react, to sense dangers the narrative has clearly signalled in advance. Jessica, the protagonist of the last tale, ‘The Haunted Farm,’ for instance, fails to warn her brother of the presence of their father’s ghost in the house he has bequeathed them and where, as per the terms of his will, they must spend the night after his funeral. During the night, she hears peculiar sounds and banging noises from his room but rather than investigate, she speculates that he may be experiencing a wet dream. Really? Later, she hears what she assumes to be the sound of him shaving, and though she notes that it’s an odd time for him to shave, again, she does nothing. There’s no awareness that he may be in danger - odd, given her witnessing the ghost early on, and her sense of the threat it poses. Such dulled reactions mutes any sympathy the reader may have for Jessica and takes the sting out of what should have been a more powerful ending.
The first story, ‘The Haunted Night,’ is, along with ‘The Doll’s House’, the strongest in the collection. It reads as if it is situated in the dreamscape of the book’s title—a world into which grieving mother Isabella—one of the few convincingly portrayed character in the collection—strays in search of her lost (presumed dead) child, Lavinia. Worthington seeds the tale with hints of the truth of Lavinia’s fate, but even so, when we finally learn what happened to her, it comes as a shock, one which prompts Isabella to wake from the dream that has prevented her from seeing husband Manfred for what he is.
In the similarly atmospheric ‘The Doll’s House,’ a birthday gift is a source of tension in the already strained relationship between two young sisters, Tilly, coming up five, and her older, pre-teen sister, Clarissa. They live with their grandmother, who struggles to put food on the table. Hence her gift of a second-hand doll’s house to Tilly, for her fifth birthday. The odd disappearance of two of the three dolls that came with the house signals events to come in the wider household. The story is marred somewhat by the author attributing language to Tilly that seems beyond the range of your average 4-5 year old, as when she relates to her nan a conversation with a friend: ‘I told Zak I was a beyond the egg stage, unlike him, and I was beyond the caterpillar stage, too; I was at the pupal. Then he said I was ugly and weird.’
Grief, and the struggle to come to terms with loss, lies at the heart of ‘The Haunted Fairground’, wherein, Sally, the narrator, tells us from the outset, that “Grief is a strict diet I can’t quit.” Her husband has died two years previously, leaving her with two children from whom she has become increasingly detached. Her days are focused entirely on the absent husband and she is resentful of any attempt (especially by her mother-in-law), to persuade her to ‘move on’. A visit to a strange fairground is the catalyst not only for further loss, but for a fateful decision on Sally’s part, one that the story has clearly foregrounded. It suffers from an excess of description that robs the narrative of momentum, as when Sally remembers her husband’s features:
I thought how the white pillow was a perfect canvas for an expression set in mortar: the generous mouth, a royal
purple vein to the side of his head, a sweeping cupid’s arrow and the lintel of his brow. The sturdy bridge of
his nose, and the curve of butter eyebrows, bleached from the weekend sun.
She seems so disinterested in the lives of her children that it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her, particularly when her self-absorption leads her to deny the terror she sees in her son’s face when they meet up after their visit to the fairground. It makes for a curiously lifeless and uninvolving story.
Striking an entirely different note is the blackly comic and macabre ‘The Ailment’, in which boastful chauvinist and would be player Greasy Pete, gets his comeuppance in the shape of a tsunami of STDs which break over him all at once. The story is slight and disgusting—intentionally so—and it’s to Worthington’s credit that she attempts something so different. But, like other stories in Visited by Dreamscape, it suffers from poor characterisation and a dissatisfying conclusion.
The grotesque ‘The Fashion Show’ is marked by a similar heavy-handed treatment, almost as if Worthington was unconvinced by the strength of her story and opted instead to gross out the reader in an effort to cloak the narrative flaws. The story focuses on a clothes designer who stages his final show—The Cut Walk—in a graveyard, using the event as a means to lure the object of his hate/lust to a grisly end. The protagonist, who caters to the bizarre tastes of a clientele with a penchant for haute couture fashioned out of human skin and tissue, for cosmetics derived from blood and other bodily fluids, is little more than a caricature, with a sketchy back-story involving gambling debts that adds little to his motivation for killing Jessica.
In ‘The Haunted Nightclub,’ a young woman meets a guy in a nightclub called ‘Haunted’; she has visions of past lovers, men who have cheated on others to be with her, and whom she has subsequently killed. The story leads us to believe that for some reason she has spared Paul, but, unable, I guess, to quell her inner succubus, when she wakes the next day, there he is, dead in the bed beside her. Certain sentences jarred, as when Esme watches a a group of people in the nightclub “in the middle of the dancefloor, like a crowd gathered at a suicide.” Did Worthington mean ‘accident, rather than suicide, because surely suicide is mostly a solitary, private act, highly unlikely to attract a crowd?
Most of the stories, excepting ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘The Haunted Night’, feel like sketches for unrealised projects. Perhaps at novel length, Worthington is capable of developing more rounded and credible characters, of creating and sustaining tension and pace, but here, whether because she was not entirely committed to the material or maybe because she was trying something new, the cumulative effect of these stories was somewhat underwhelming.
Visited by Dreamscape, 138pp, is independently published, July 2021