Filler Content in five shades of grey

Okay, I’m running out of people who’ve commented on this blog and also been reviewed by me (and yes, I am excluding the guy who showed up here to complain about what a crap reviewer I am, even though I could have posted an earlier and more positive review that might possibly have made him feel ashamed of his behaviour).

Mark West commented on last year’s 4th of July post, so by way of ‘reward’ I’m posting a review from Black Static #8 of an anthology he contributed to.

The book appears to still be available from publisher Pendragon.

And, as a side issue, I do hope that subject line doesn’t drive the wrong sort of traffic here.

The review:-

            Edited by Gary McMahon and with an introduction by Mark Morris, We Fade to Grey (Pendragon Press paperback, 220pp, £7.99) collects together work falling in the novelette/novella range by five up and coming British horror writers. Each story comes with an afterword by the author explaining its genesis, while McMahon tells us a little something about how the book came into being. I’m one of the people he lists in the Acknowledgements, so if an interest needs to be declared then consider it done.

            Paul Finch is the most experienced of the contributors, and his prose the most polished, but there’s a sense about ‘The Pumping Station’ that he isn’t really trying, that it all comes a little too easy. Three kids from away pop into a rural pub and are warned by the locals to stay away from the pumping station of the title, and from that point on the story follows a well worn track, details of which you can probably guess for yourself. There are some half decent twists, such as the oblique description of the monster and one of the ‘yokels’ showing mercy to a victim, but by and large it’s pretty much by the numbers, with no real surprises and nothing to get excited about, or complain about really unless you’re a crotchety old seen it all before so-and-so like me.

            ‘Bliss’ is another kettle of fish altogether. Perhaps a little raw, a little rough round the edges, but an ambitious piece and the best thing I’ve seen from Stuart Young in quite some time. Soldier Lee returns home from Iraq for the funeral of his father, only to find his town beset by aggressive idiots and vapidly smiling pod people, the latter under the control of a local politician. At first he suspects either drugs or a cult, but as Lee looks into matters something more disturbing is presented. Young tells it like a retread of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Steven Seagal in the lead role. The result is something eminently readable and engaging, a plot driven narrative with dollops of sex and violence, but dig beneath the surface and you discover that he is addressing some serious and genuine concerns about the nature of human existence and the values that we cherish.

            With editor McMahon’s ‘Heads’ we are back on more traditional ground. Morris and Helen are settling into their new home, a break from the past, but tension is thick in the air and brooding over everything else is the memory of a double miscarriage. The discovery of mysterious stone heads in the garden is the first hint of a curse that reaches out across the ages and to which the couple’s troubles leave them vulnerable. The story is well planned and executed, with each clue carefully laid out, and suggestions that eventually build into an inescapable conclusion for the protagonist, though the reader may find slightly more ambiguity in the text, while the pain in the family unit, the fraught nature of those who love but cannot adequately convey that emotion, is put over with conviction.

            Similar themes inform ‘The Mill’ by Mark West, a tale of grief so overwhelming that it can consume the sufferer and leave them open to other influences. Michael still mourns his dead wife, finding no solace in the support group he attends, but in his dreams he is summoned by Nicola’s voice to the Mill, a place he used to play as a child, only now it is a terrible trap for him, a suicide black spot. There is a supernatural element to the plot, a thread that the reader can follow into the labyrinth, though it seems almost like something tacked on, an attempt to ground and make sense of the grief that holds Michael in its grip, but there is no sense to be made, just a chilling nullity that we can accept or reject. West’s keenly felt prose brings the sorrow of the main character to compelling life and forces the reader to share in his desperation and recognise that our conditions for a happy ending may be different to his.

            Last up is ‘The Narrows by Simon Bestwick, which reads like The Descent given a nuclear holocaust for curtain raiser. After the missiles fly some teachers lead a group of children down into the tunnels beneath their town, but as they wander hopelessly lost in the darkness they realise that they are not alone and the others are hostile. Bestwick plays it close to his chest, with the suggestion that really this is madness for much of the story, but the claustrophobia is strongly realised and the mood of bleakness that permeates the story grows and grows until it is as pitch black as the setting, with no glimmer of hope at all. It’s a powerful piece with which to end a fine collection, and should give more ammunition to those who consider the British mindset to be a dystopian one.

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