If you’ve read Iain Rowan’s previous book, Nowhere To Go, you’ll already be aware what a talented writer he is. If not, you’re in for a treat.
Ice Age is a slim but potent collection of eight short stories, superficially horrors but actually far more disturbing. Rowan doesn’t deal in schlock and gore, he’s a much more considered writer than that. These stories are set in a painfully ordinary world, bleached out and suburban and perfectly safe, until Rowan twists them slightly, introducing a half-perceived something or an exquisite moment of impossibility.
Through The Window opens on a quiet residential road, outside a house with a broken window. Would you take a peek? And what would you do if the woman inside asked you to get her out? Rowan knows what you should do and he shows you the cost of it. It is an unsettling story, largely because of how skilfully Rowan builds the character of his protagonist, but also because it plays on deep, campfire fears. I won’t give away the ending but you’ll see, it does.
Similarly Driving In Circles gives us a recognisable situation to bring our own old anxieties to – we’ve all been there, an unfamiliar country road late at night, no lights, no other cars, just thousands of acres of crushing darkness and distant stars. In Rowan’s world something stirs in the black fields, one of those ambiguous impossibilities he’s so good at, and it is genuinely disturbing to read. It will be even more disturbing tomorrow night, driving home through the unlit Essex countryside, I’m sure.
The title story Ice Age, by contrast, is about the shifting darkness inside. Coppard develops the flu the day his wife leaves him but when it breaks a chill settles in which won’t be warmed. He’s convinced a new ice age is stealing up on the world, because it can’t just be him, emotional pain can’t be so completely physical can it? As an exploration of abandonment this story is very powerful, building to a terrible but inevitable ending.
Every story here is superb but special mention to Lilies, which opens the collection. Set in a nameless European city during wartime it follows Alex, a young man sent back from the front to work as a courier, but with the threat of returning hanging over him. The city is beautifully rendered, Georgian facades, rattling trams and bodies unclaimed in the streets, single white lilies left on them. Alex meditates on the suffering of the families who may never find them, but there is a war so it seems natural to us. Until Alex recounts the resurrection of his dead grandfather. If that sounds like a cheap trope I can assure you it doesn’t read like one. With this story Rowan transcends the horror genre. Lilies is a piece of literary fiction and an excellent piece at that.
Ice Age is a deliciously unnerving collection, incredibly well written – Rowan is a writer in full and firm control of his voice – and one which you will definitely go back to time and again. I had high expectations after reading Nowhere To Go but Ice Age has actually surpassed it for me. It is a real gem.