Urn and Willow by Scott Thomas (Dark Regions Press) is a collection of short supernatural tales. The quiet, reserved style stands in dramatic contrast to the high intensity characteristic of much recent horror fiction. Urn and Willow has the feel and the scent of the worn and tattered volumes the reader discovers on a grandparent’s dusty bookshelf in childhood, strongly historical in orientation, and old-fashioned in both tone and setting. Pick up this book and read a few stories without first checking the publication date, and you might reasonably guess it had been published 75 years ago. The nostalgic quality of this collection arises not only from the date settings, but from the style of language and the very sensibility of the depicted worlds. By the end, there’s no doubt: Scott Thomas is obsessed with a given era and locale.
These simple little stories are almost delicate in their restraint and subtlety. This antique or old-fashioned quality is not mere backdrop. Supernatural things happen — ghosts appear, the dead walk, unexplained events manifest — yet much of the book’s purpose seems to be the careful rendering of rural New England, mostly in the early 19th century. Much as the stories focus on hauntings and supernatural mysteries, they’re equally about the loving depiction of an earlier place and time. Close attention is given to details of nature, home and land. We observe interactions and customs in tiny villages and get a sense of a simple, almost puritan approach to daily living.
A few of the longer stories stood out as more modern in approach, despite settings similar to the rest. In “The Bronze-Colored Horse,” one neighbor after another is victimized overnight by a terrible affliction. Investigation leads to the discovery of creatures from a surreal and terrifying dream. “The Seed of Increase Severance” likewise utilizes disturbing nightmarish imagery to tell a story that crosses multiple generations. “Miss Smallwood’s Student” tells of a tutor’s attempt to teach a very unusual young girl. In “The Company of Others,” an occultist hires an artist to paint a landscape mural in his home, and by occult ritual summons odd creatures who then share his home. These more ambitious stories, modern in approach if not setting, hint at Thomas’s ability to satisfy in a more adventurous, less conservative mode when so inclined.
The rest of the stories are unified by simplicity, brevity (most only 4-8 pages) and a throwback approach to depicting the supernatural. In these cases, the mere revelation of a disturbing event is enough. There is no twist, no gut-punch. To some readers, this is comfort food, difficult to come by these days. Scott Thomas is one of the few present-day writers serving up this sort of fare, and he does it with a deft, assured touch. This is a supernatural horror of chill and disquiet, not violence or extremity. Readers seeking the cutting-edge may find Thomas’s work too subdued, but those who enjoy the restrained approach of yesteryear will find much to appreciate. The book is redolent of a slower, simpler world. With Thomas’s polished and confident style, Urn and Willow vividly evokes another time and place.