Having previously read and thoroughly enjoyed James Everington’s work, including short story collection Falling Over - so much, in fact, that I ended upinterviewing himabout the writing of that book - I jumped at the chance to review a longer piece. I was curious as to how his writing would sustain on a wider canvas, and what kind of themes and characters he’d want to explore.
Pauper’s Graves is set in Nottingham, and concerns a council project to memorialise the occupants of the titular resting place, by means of a display that will tell the stories of some of the people buried there. As is typical in such initiatives, the project is underfunded, with under-pressure Katherine drafting unpaid interns Kat and Alex to work on the project, with a possibility of a paid position for one of them at the end of it.
The book contains many elements I’ve come to love about Everington’s work - economically drawn characters that contain an impressive interiority, good old English quiet desperation bubbling under the surface (not to mention our continued obsession with class), and, most impressively, a solid sense of place, through which the supernatural gradually permeates, like a fine mist becoming a fog, rendering the familiar strange. It’s a technique he employed frequently in Falling Over, and it’s as deftly achieved and chillingly effective here as it was there.
What is new, or at least more foregrounded here than in previous works, is the anger. Everington is clearly passionate about his subject matter here; clearly has thoughts, and perhaps more importantly, feelings, about it. Every ghost story (and this is most assuredly a ghost story) is, in part, about the notion of the past bleeding into the present, threatening it. What Paupers’ Graves does, with astonishing skill, is complicate that relationship, even invert it - it becomes, at least in part, about the notion of the present doing violence to the past, by distortion, or romanticization, or prurience. The two become entangled, ensnared, building steadily throughout the book to a terrifying climax.
It’s an astonishingly mature and exciting concept, and the execution is just sublime. I can think of few authors as skillful in weaving the supernatural into the mundane as Everington, and that skill, coupled to this powerhouse of an idea, leads to a story that I found to be utterly compelling and mesmerizing. Everything that’s made his work brilliant in the past is present and correct - that quiet voice, effortless ability to place you inside a character's mind, exquisite descriptions of blurred perspectives - but what’s new, or at least stronger, is this palpable sense of anger that drives the narrative forward, creating by the end a nightmarish kaleidoscope of an experience, without ever once losing coherence or solid narrative structure.
I’m going to need to re-read this one - an experience I’m already looking forward to - to be sure, but right now, I think this is the best thing that Everington has written to date - and considering how impressed I’ve been so far, that’s really saying something. I actually think if you’re any kind of a fan of British horror, full stop, this is approaching a must-read. Without ever falling into the trap of being preachy or, worse, any kind of message fiction, Everington has turned in an incredibly powerful and scary story that actually has something to say - and something genuinely nuanced and uncomfortable, at that. Very highly recommended.