‘I know what the duck is laughing at,’ said Mike into my ear, suddenly. ‘The duck is laughing at you, Rees, standing there in your middle-aged pyjamas with your gorgeous wife you’re not spooning. It’s laughing at you worrying about ducks at night. Look at yourself!’
‘It’s not the duck. Truth be told, I’m scared, Mike. Scared that this pain in my balls is going to kill me. And equally scared that it won’t. That I’m going to be around long enough to witness the end of the world.’
‘Only the good die young,’ or so goes a pithy adage. Which, if you spare a thought, is not too kind about those who make it to middle-age… In times past, war, pestilence and famine would have spared us the indignity of that slow drift out to sea. But thanks to the flushing toilet, antibiotics and the theatre of war being mostly elsewhere, well…lucky us.
A central thread in The Stone Tide, the second book by Gareth E. Rees, concerns the sudden death of his dearest friend, Mike (to whom the book is dedicated). A natural-born risk-taker, he dies through misadventure, when the author and he were both twenty-one. Post the inevitable period of devastation, Rees moves on with his life – he graduates, enjoys success in artistic endeavour, finds a partner, gets married and becomes a father. But it’s not until much later, when he runs into financial difficulties and moves out of London, relocating his family to Hastings, that his long-deceased friend re-surfaces in his imagination. For Rees, the move kicks-off a period of great flux – beyond financial stresses and those that come with renovating a dilapidated house, the solidity of his marriage crumbles and he develops chronic health issues. And having recently turned forty, memories of when he and Mike stood tall on the cusp of the adult world, start to haunt him. Mike, for Rees, remains evergreen – someone for whom dawn’s fresh promise never got a chance to be broken. And this, contrasted with the tangible rot setting into the author’s life: as a provider, father, partner and lover, in terms of his writing ambitions and his own physical decline.. it all begins to rack him. And almost without knowing it, he starts divining for answers within Hastings’ occult past.
From a certain perspective, belief and non-belief are both orthodoxy; unsatisfactory. And there is a history of Hastings – micro-level, bottom-up – that tells an unofficial tale of this coastal town: of mavericks, psychics, spiritualists, black magicians, geniuses, inventors, opium visionaries and the clinically insane. It seems that if your firm faith lay in humankind’s innate power to transform themselves into gods, or in sex magik, you went to Hastings. And for Rees – already into landscape, history, ‘New Weird’ and psychogeography (see Marshland) – and now desperate to escape a multitude of real-world nightmares plus uncover material for a new book, that history soon becomes an obsession.
So… whilst The Stone Tide is not alone in spinning multiple threads, it’s the composite of a dead best friend, a crumbling house and crumbling marriage, severe pain in one’s balls and anus, all mixed in with ghosts from Hastings’ past. It could have failed – and very fucking badly – but the whole makes sense; perfect sense. Rees has written a work of the rarest vision and ambition – it’s introspective, brutally honest, other-worldly and yet grounded. And once it germinates within the reader, it’s breath-taking – literally. There were moments when we had to stop reading, to let the dust settle on what had just passed. It was that affecting. And this is achieved by Rees tying disparate threads together – through interrogating Hastings’ hidden history and projecting its ideas of the unseen, of renewal and rebirth onto his dead friend, as well as his own present, something unique takes shape. And thereafter, Rees spins his themes faster and faster, blurring fact and fiction, thrashing around in ever-decreasing circles, until the point of implosion.
The back cover categorises The Stone Tide as ‘fiction’, however it’s not clear what in the book is made up. Whether Rees is unearthing buried truths, or his thoughts betray the misfiring synapses of the slightly mad, is ambiguous. Beyond that, the account reads as factual. Well, either way – you’ll read nothing like it this year.
Any Cop?: It might have cost Rees his health, wealth, sanity and relationship, but he can take pride in the result.