Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer. I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.
Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’ He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’
Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held… Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’ Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction. The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.
The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner. The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.
Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong. In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’ The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.
Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced. Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling. Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone. Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic. The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling. Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.