Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/8/2019 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Watermark is a short-story collection from widely acclaimed Nova Scotia writer Christy Ann Conlin. Nominated for many fiction awards, Conlin is known for writing what has been dubbed North Atlantic Gothic.

Several of the stories in this challenging collection fit that amorphous category, but perhaps with one exception, they are the weaker ones — especially the last one, The Flying Squirrel Sermon, a version of the Undine myth as told by a mysterious old woman to a young impressionable journalist. The myth tells of a sea nymph who becomes human and marries. She eventually must leave for the sea, but if the man at any time becomes unfaithful, unbeknownst to him, he will die.

The old woman gives a strong hint, after an endless relating of her family story, that the young visitor may be an Undine. It’s a good ghost yarn, but the tension is not maintained, and Conlin goes on for too long. That said, the paradox in her writing is one admires the skill even while wanting less — shorter is almost always better.

The two strongest stories in the collection — one a psychological horror story, Dead Time, and the other a family remembrance with a beautiful, resolute if sad ending, Desire Lines — are riveting, disturbing tales.

In Dead Time, a teenager tells of the murder, with her boyfriend, of the boy’s recently discarded girlfriend. The first-person account is coldly laid out bit by bit in as frightening detail as anyone can imagine — and hope to avoid. You can’t. At the very least, this story pierces your mind. How to deal with the girl? Perhaps the world can’t, which is scary in itself.

Equally strong is Desire Lines. While it’s one of Conlin’s longer stories, it has a cogency that makes its focus — loss and an aching sense that the past can’t be overcome — powerful throughout.

A girl, Eve, grows up in a loose hippie-ish cult in Nova Scotia dominated by her father. Calling himself Ocean, he is almost a parody of the anti-vaccine, pseudo-mystical nature freak — the sort who calls Christmas "Yule."

Almost, but not quite. Conlin rightly doesn’t judge characters as she lets the story unfold. Eve’s mother leaves for the modern connected world; her sister falls off a cliff, perhaps due to Ocean’s careless "be free" parenting. Ocean’s world cracks.

Years later, Eve meets her father again. Although broken by Eve’s sister’s death, he still tries to give it a comforting edge — as if Nature called the girl to her bosom rather than admit that in the real world, terrible accidents happen.

Other stories grapple with the failure of overcoming the past. The most successful gothic story, Full Bleed, with its echoes of Flannery O’Connor, presents this strongly. Often a theme is reflected in the symbolism of the title character; in Diplomat, the best of this lot, Viola finds her restlessness unresolved despite her constant moves around the world with her past ever present.

The ambitious Late and Soon are fraternal twins cutely named by their father; here Conlin misses the mark, as their friend Edmund turns out to be the more interesting character. The entrancing, dark but sentimental Occlusion, meanwhile, uses a person’s troubled eyesight, and photographic documentation by a hospital, as well as a father’s dementia, to show how we see the present as it becomes memory.

Watermark has enough to fascinate and scare throughout, and its best two stories will truly haunt the reader.

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.