The Campaign for Real Fear was an initiative launched by Christopher Fowler and Maura McHugh to promote diversity within the genre and emphasise ‘the need for horror fiction to reflect twenty-first century life’.
Writers were challenged to produce stories of 500 words or less along these lines, with the twenty best submissions appearing in Black Static.
These four are from #17, the first two plot driven and the second two not so:-
Copy Degradation by Gemma Files
Lars is an artist. He uses a public domain image of a tattoo in his work, but the resultant art disturbs him more than anticipated. He tracks down the provenance of the original tattoo and finds that it was hand made by a young woman who ‘Said life was jail, so she was gonna mark herself, death row style.’ Lars’ life is infected by the image – he can think of nothing else except ‘The image, embossed on air, his own eyes. Overlaying everything.’ A story of obsession, but with a supernatural twist. The suggestion that the girl’s spirit is in her work and haunting Lars for attempting to capitalise out of it,with a side order of guilt on his part intruding an element of ambiguity. The story addresses themes Files previously touched on in ‘each thing i show you is a piece of my death’, written with Stephen J. Barringer. Art as fascination and destruction. An image so insidious to the human psyche that it overwhelms everything else to become be all and end all.
The Rude Little Girl by Kaaron Warren
A vampire story, but one that doesn’t use the ‘v’ word, and taking as its start point the idea of the imaginary friend, but here seen as through a glass darkly. As a child the protagonist sees the girl drop down from an underpass onto Greg’s shoulders, an image that brings to mind a scene from Let the Right One In. Greg is weakened, even though he is aware of nothing, the girl growing fatter. And the same thing happens with other friends of the narrator – only he can see the girl and is helpless against her. The victims are left ‘with the minds of children’, even though they age physically, opening up the possibility that the girl is the outward manifestation of some form of mental illness. Years pass, the narrator moves away, then returns with a wife and child, and the rude little girl is back too, possibly with designs on his son. The narrator declares his willingness to do anything to protect his son, even sacrifice other children, to never let his son go. But there is a chilling inference in the last line – ‘Not even when he cries’. There’s the hint of some awful truth in that use of ‘even’, reminding us that the narrator often fought with Greg, and we don’t know the nature of his relationship with other victims.
Nice One, Truly by Alan Morgan
Tone is everything with this piece, the story an almost stream of consciousness ode to the dubious joys of a life online delivered from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The various uses of the internet are satirised and categorised – ‘You have farms to improve and Mafia dons to defeat. You need to know what other people had for dinner.’ – a litany that superficially sounds very bitter, only with an underlying sadness at the vacuity of it all. But then the ground seems to shift, with the narrator plugging into the subject’s paranoia in a feedback loop that grows and grows – ‘We’ll get you on the toilet. We’ll get you when old and leave you for the cats.’ and ‘You know we’re there. You know.’ It becomes dark and minatory. At the end we’re left with the impression of somebody whose whole life has become divorced from reality, siphoned off into some solipsist nightmare where inimical forces plot against them, an existence centred round superficiality and the suggestion that this, and this only, keeps them ‘safe’.
On the Beaten Path by Janos Honkonen
My favourite so far. On the one hand it addresses the standardisation of our everyday lives, the way in which every high street has the same shops and banks and building societies, so that we can get off a bus anywhere and still feel on familiar ground. On the other it tackles the old adage about staying on the beaten path, suggesting that by doing so we initiate a cycle whereby our world is constantly shrinking, a process hastened by economic downturns. The perimeters of our existence close in, and every day new possibilities, other options, are denied to us. Eventually it gets to the point where we can’t even imagine anything other than our own little corner of reality. This story takes the idea of the shrinking world and turns it on its head.