Filler content with lights out

This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-


PS Publishing hb, 281pp, £25                        

This is the third in a series of anthologies, combining both new and reprint material, intended to capture the flavour of Christine Campbell Thomson’s Not at Night volumes from the 1920/30s.

It contains seventeen stories in total, book ended by two modern classics of the genre, Bradbury’s ‘Fever Dream’ and ‘Dance of the Dead’ by Richard Matheson. Other reprises include ‘Flies by Night’ by Lisa Tuttle and Steven Utley, which cleverly puts a feminist twist on transformation, the narrative rich in ambiguity and its plot firmly rooted in the character’s psychology. Charles L. Grant’s ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ from 1984 is one of the most effective stories in the collection, with an other worldly baby sitter brought in to teach three recalcitrant children the error of their ways, the tale demonstrating a sure grasp of the world as seen through a child’s eyes, rich in menace and with numerous sinister touches of invention that enhance the general sense of something genuinely macabre taking place. A more recent reprint, ‘King of Outer Space’ by Peter Atkins from 2001, harks back to the pulp horrors of yore with its tale of a woman seeking the truth about her supposedly dead fiancé, a story where the gonzo prose style and fast paced invention enable it to rise above some slightly cheesy plotting. Richard Christian Matheson’s ‘City of Dreams’ explores the obsession with celebrity when a famous person moves in next door to a scriptwriter with an eye out for the possibilities of networking, a spectral strand developing and transforming the story into a beautifully written variation on a familiar theme. Paul McAuley’s ‘Inheritance’, originally published in 1988 and extensively revised for this collection, is a Jamesian ghost story, with a man returning from the colonies in search of his family history and stirring up something more deadly than mere memories, a competently written and entertaining piece, albeit nothing out of the ordinary for this type of thing. Also seeing the light of the day for, at least, the second time is a story from the original Campbell Thomson series, Hugh B. Cave’s lively and entertaining tale of witch doctors and bizarre goings on in Darkest Africa, ‘The Cult of the White Ape’.

Leading off the material that’s original to this collection is ‘Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift TM Mode’ in which author David J. Schow uses technology to realise the wet dream of every sad case who’s ever used the VCR’s freeze frame button for purposes other than the purely educational, an engaging piece of fiction which walks the walk and talks the talk as its techno-dweeb protagonist collects his just desserts. Nowhere near as engaging is the slightly dreary ‘Shirley’s Ghost’, John Glasby’s join the dots tale of a nautical haunting, which neither surprises nor convinces. ‘Phoenix Man’ by Gary Kilworth presents the case of one Dan Strickman, who finds that burning himself is not a fatal activity but instead leaves him feeling cleansed of all sin and therefore free to go and sin again. As Strickman’s addiction runs its course emotions rise to boiling point with his wife and the man who loves her, so that tragedy is inevitable in a compelling story whose over the top premise is never less than credible. ‘Shallaballah’ by Mark Samuels is one of the weaker stories, an attempt at putting a modern spin on the myth of Mr Punch, grittily written and filled with unsettling imagery of social and moral decay, but a tale that doesn’t quite come off, is perhaps ultimately a bit too diffuse and unfocused for its own good.

‘The Other Family’ by Roberta Lannes is a moody and effective ghost story with a novel twist, hinging as it does on a family’s sense of group identity and showing what may happen when this is undermined. John Burke’s ‘The Bite of the Tawse’ is another highlight, a tale celebrating corporal punishment in Scotland and its legacy, with the matter of fact way in which the protagonist is drawn into the web of bizarreness especially chilling and the sinister undertones, with their hint of vampirism, adding to the overall impression of something very bad being accepted as the norm. Basil Copper’s ‘Queen Bee’ a tale of nature red in tooth and claw, with something outré poured into the mix, offers nothing new, but is well written and has the sense not to outstay its welcome. ‘Ding-Dong-Bell’ by Jay Russell is a singularly quirky piece and the most overtly horrific story in the collection, serial killer shtick cut with  pitch black comedy and commemorating early events in the life of J. Edgar Hoover, showing how childhood happenings can shape the man. The longest story here and one of the subtlest, Terry Lamsley’s ‘Sickhouse Hospitality’ presents the reader with a very unusual hospital and a chain of events made all the more sinister by their ambiguity, dozens of little touches of detail adding up to present a chilling tour de force, a shifting inner city landscape abandoned by certainty and where safety is just another pipedream.

The book comes with an Introduction by editor Jones, a striking full colour cover by Les Edwards and interior artwork by Randy Broecker, making for a very attractive package.

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