If you want the executive summary Six Stories is a cracking read, just go straight out and get your hands on a copy. It has energy and tension that keeps you racing through it, but its structure also gives natural space for pause. The premise is that the story is told over the course of six podcast episodes, each of which gives a different perspective on the same event – the disappearance of a 15 year old boy and the discovery of his body a year later. As a result the book breaks up nicely into six sections that can be read as instalments or taken as a box set binge together.
It’s a structure that fits nicely with my commute. One story per bus journey, leaving a sense of what will follow that helps to build the tension, although Matt Wesolowski’s writing does that itself in reality. The podcast has a homespun feel that is reminiscent of a Blair Witch camcorder style and there is an element of crossover between crime and Matt’s more traditional home ground of horror. Teenagers, all of them to some extent outsiders, taking trips into the country to a wild location filled with myths and legends of witchcraft and monsters – solid horror territory.
A group of parents looking for positive experiences for their children formed the Rangers as an activity group meeting regularly in a local hall and venturing into the countryside to experience the great outdoors. Scarclaw Fell adventure centre became the focus of their trips and over the years new members joined. By the late 1990s the older members had formed a tight group and would use the greater freedom of trips away to smoke, drink and explore the area, until tragedy tore the group apart.
Twenty years later Scott King’s popular podcast picks up the story and interviews with all of the key protagonists shed light onto events that have lain dormant and forgotten. The characters are well drawn with the changing perspective giving us fresh insight into each of them as they step forward to tell their part of the story, and around the edges of each of them is the shadow of a dark creature that looms over Scarclaw Fell. But was the monster conjured into life by their fears to stalk the fell or does it rather reside within them?
The writing feels fresh, the tension is palpable and I was hooked from the opening pages to the final revelation. Six Stories is quite simply a belting read that grabs you by your nerve endings and holds you tight in its pulsating grip. It is also now available as an audio book which isn’t normally my thing but on this occasion has genuine appeal with a full cast of 17 different voices. Keep an eye out for Matt Wesolwski, it feels like he’s another one to watch from the impressive Orenda stable.
In order to get the most from Seal Skin it probably helps to be comfortable with mystery. It draws strongly from legend and also from spiritual truth and as a result requires the reader to mine beneath the surface narrative to a deeper strata of meaning . Without that it is a novel that may prove a little strange, frustrating or mundane but once embraced there is a powerful and transformative message to be absorbed.
The story is based on the legend of the Selkie, mythical creatures who live as seals in the sea but can shed their skins and become humans on land. Seal Skin is a beautifully written retelling of the legend that carries ancient wisdom in an accessible read, but it is a story of tensions that is not easily understood by our modern rational minds which like the Selkie’s skin we must learn to set aside if we are to truly hear.
Donald is a loner in a tight and isolated fishing community, he has never really been comfortable either with himself or the people around him. One day he comes across the Selkie who have shed their seal skins and in human form dance among the rocks. He reacts instinctively hiding one of the skins and as the group return to the sea one is left behind unable to go home. Donald acts out of lust and frustration forcing himself upon the stricken Selkie then panics. Filled with fear and regret he takes her back to his home where a plan is hastily formed with his mother for a new human life.
It is a strange and violent start to a novel that immediately casts doubt in the mind of the reader, is there any way that this dreadful start can be resolved in a meaningful way? Rationally it can’t. There can be no way back for a man who has so appallingly assaulted an innocent and so what follows can only be understood from some other level, from a space in which grace can be both offered and accepted but not without cost to all concerned.
Mhairi, as the Selkie is later named, does what many spiritual traditions call all of us to do, she forgives and in doing so she transforms the people around her; but she does not forget. This is not a frivolous act, she truly lets go of her valid claim against Donald and the world that he has forced her into and though she has been wronged and she carries the enormous pain of mourning for the life she has lost, she serves her new community in a way that they cannot resist.
As the story unfolds no one can come into contact with such pure forgiveness and not themselves be changed by it. Donald becomes somebody that Mhairi can genuinely grow to love and in doing so he sets off ripples of his own as grace begins to flow. But do not expect a soppy ending, this is a story about love not romance and love costs. In the end there will be a reckoning, a price that has to be paid, and it is here that the true mystery of grace is revealed, if you can accept it.