This fearsome foursome appeared in Black Static #32:-
GRAY FRIAR PRESS
Gray Friar Press tags itself as “the true home of British horror” and there’s plenty of justification for that claim. While most other UK small presses have diversified, Gray Friar head honcho Gary Fry has remained faithful to his horror roots. And, though they’ve published several novellas and even the one novel, Lisa Morton’s Stoker Award winning The Castle of Los Angeles, short fiction seems to be where Gray Friar’s heart lies, with four new volumes appearing in the latter half of 2012.
Paul Finch is Gray Friar’s most regular contributor, editing three anthologies for them, while ENEMIES AT THE DOOR (GFP pb, 211pp, £8.99) is the fourth collection of his work to appear from the press.
This collection of twelve short stories and novellas by one of the stalwarts of the UK small press opens with short, sharp shocker ‘When…’ in which a boy called to confess to a priest commits a horrific act of violence, with an end twist in which his true identity is hinted at and a subtext about the nature of sin and what is allowed by way of power, the story subtle and skilfully blindsiding the reader. ‘Slayground’ is longer but more simplistic, an action packed and rather breathless piece in which a SWAT team find themselves up against the literary world’s equivalent of Terminator in a crowded city centre, the story hugely enjoyable, with Finch ably counterpointing violent fire fights with the cheery camaraderie of men in arms and a final note that pulls the carpet out from under the characters’ feet. ‘Those They Left Behind’ is more standard fare: an elderly woman whose son was hanged for murder acquires a prison death row dummy and imbues it with a personality, events spiralling out of control but along lines that are predictable for this type of thing, with everything turning out pretty much as expected down to the plot standard note of ambiguity added. It’s well done and I’m churlish to complain, but all the same there’s a “been there, done that, rinsed the blood out of the t-shirt” feel to the enterprise.
The most substantial story in the collection, ‘We, Who Live in the Wood’ merges psychological horror with a suggestion of the numinous, as a couple try to recover from the loss of a baby with a holiday in an isolated cottage, the wife falling prey to local legends of “lost children”. The story wonderfully builds its atmosphere of menace, escalating effects and mounting the tension, with the conflict between the two leads captured in compelling terms, and then the reveal of what is really going on and who the victim actually is in this scenario. I loved it. There’s a similar feel of the otherworldly to ‘The Faerie’, with a man and his child seeking refuge from the snow in an isolated mansion, and the man falling prey to the house’s beguiling occupant, the true nature of things revealed at the end, with Finch’s deft characterisation of this worm that turned a particular delight.
‘Daddy Was a Space Alien’ is a barbed satire of sensationalist tabloid reportage, made all the more apposite in the wake of Levenson, with women who are so ugly their photos are to be published by an unscrupulous scandal rag as proof that they are alien offspring. There’s an ambiguity of feeling about the story’s end, with the victims finding a modicum of dignity that the press lack, but also the suggestion that walking away is a pointless action, the press will still do as they wish. Underlying this harsh and bitter story is a strong sense of moral indignation at such outrages. Madeleine returns to her childhood home in ‘Blessed Katie’ only to find that the monster she and her brother frightened themselves with as children actually exists and is intent on hurting her. This is entertaining enough, but a twist story that slightly outstays its welcome, Finch’s long slow build up not justified by the metafictional sleight of hand at the story’s end. He gets it right though in the much shorter ‘Elderly Lady, Lives Alone’, with a petty thief falling into a trap and the story culminating in a wonderful final line.
In ‘The Ditch’ a prostitute who has been informing on gangsters to the police is tortured and then dumped in sewage tunnels where she is pursued by savage dogs, and we get the suggestion of spectral intervention at the end. It’s a gripping piece, and you want to cheer the heroine on as she overcomes each obstacle that is placed in her path, but definitely not a story for the squeamish and there’s a misogynistic slant to the male characters that will make some readers feel very uncomfortable, as indeed it should. ‘The Poppet’ is a lively outing, though again with very little that is original on offer, as a man who believes he has been unfairly bested in love uses ancient magic to wreak revenge, a monstrous golem like creature pursuing the offender, the story not really going anywhere, and the protagonist was so obnoxious that I couldn’t really feel any sympathy for him, even though his nemesis was the one in the wrong. Lastly we have title story ‘Enemies at the Door’, in which Finch tackles themes made popular by Philip K. Dick, his protagonist learning that his whole life is an elaborate charade, the discovery leading to violence, but intercut with this are scenes of his former life as a soldier, with hints of either some form of mental breakdown or a virtual reality scenario, the story cannily hedging its bets.
Finch dons his editor hat for TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA (GFP pb, 227pp, £8.99), the third volume in a series of region based horror, new(ish) stories sitting alongside snippets of local history and folklore with a macabre bent, such as (in this case) the tale of Borley Rectory and the infamous Murder in the Red Barn. Given that East Anglia is my own stamping ground, I’m disappointed at not seeing local authors such as Andrew Hook and Terry Grimwood in the roster: many of these writers seem to be day trippers bussed in from Yorkshire. And another demerit for not including author bios.
My main problem is that too many of the stories could be situated in any part of the country with little or no loss of atmosphere. Case in point ‘Loose’ by Paul Meloy and Gary Greenwood, which is well written, as you’d expect of these writers, but at the same time is just a central European werewolf story transplanted to East Anglia, and which would have worked every bit as well in any other region. Similarly with Gary Fry’s ‘Double Space’, a ‘Casting of the Runes’ variant that’s jolly enough while it lasts, but if you did a search and replace on terms like “Norwich” and “Suffolk” it could just as easily have been slotted into either of the preceding volumes. And, cutting to the quick, too many of the stories simply reprise old, familiar plot scenarios. Roger Johnson, James Doig and Edward Pearson all offer variations on the curse/guardian template, while Steve Duffy’s ‘The Marsh Warden’ is just another visit to unhallowed ground. I don’t mean to suggest that these are bad stories; Finch is too experienced for that. But they don’t offer anything much that seasoned readers of this sort of story won’t have seen done often before.
Fortunately some of the writers bring more to the table. ‘Deep Water’ by Christopher Harman, in which a wife’s disappearance appears to be bound up with her fascination for the sea and the local landscape, is a story that builds deftly, always holding back that little bit more until the end and wrong footing the reader as to what is actually taking place, with a strong sense of atmosphere. ‘Shuck’ by Simon Bestwick opens with a home invasion, a woman becoming the prisoner of a wannabe black magician set on raising the devil dog to be his familiar, the story eminently readable and steadily raising the stakes, with a rewarding, if not entirely unexpected, end twist in which the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Editor Finch contributes one of the very best stories, with two men falling prey to the spirits that inhabit ‘Wicken Fen’, the story moving assuredly from light hearted look at the antics of sad middle-aged men masquerading as lads on the prowl through to something far more sinister, the minatory atmosphere of the Fens credibly realised on the page.
Johnny Mains invokes the spirit of M. R. James for ‘Aldeburgh’, with a man seeking the truth behind one of the master’s stories and biting off rather more than he can chew, the story excellent at capturing the isolation of the setting and with a unnerving sense of impending danger underlying the events, deftly interweaving fact and fiction to the betterment of both. Alison Littlewood’s ‘Like Suffolk, Like Holidays’ is another highlight, as a couple trying to repair their damaged relationship with a holiday in which everything is supposed to be perfect, only the male partner begins to suspect that he and perfection have very little to do with each other, the story subtle in the way it externalises the psychological drama being played out here, the sense of unworthiness that undermines the protagonist and so distorts his reality. Reggie Oliver provides the final and probably the best story, the title of ‘The Spooks of Shellborough’ being a play on words, the tale set in a Suffolk retirement community that has rather more former spies for residents than is strictly necessary, and with the ghosts of the past coming home to roost. Oliver’s urbane, cultivated voice carries the story along, effortlessly creating his not so idyllic setting and a background in the civil service, all of it credible and seamlessly woven together, the resolution of the story anticipated but no less pleasurable for that. It’s a high note on which to end.
A recent initiative from Gray Friar is their New Blood line, dedicated to showcasing the work of relatively new writers, and that launched back in the summer with PEEL BACK THE SKY (GFP pb, 197pp, £8.99), featuring twenty one stories by Stephen Bacon, with an introduction by Nicholas Royle. I’ve already reviewed several stories in this collection when they first appeared in anthologies, and with space at a premium I won’t cover old ground here. Instead, as with the short story extravaganza a couple of issues back, I’ll post the original reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com (also comments on one Finch story and two by Thana Niveau). There’ll be further Gray Friar supplementary material, including an interview with publisher Gary Fry, so watch that website.
Among the very best of what is on offer, ‘The Trauma Statement’ is a short, pithy piece on the theme of moral choices, with a woman asked to decide if something bad happens to one of her loved ones or a larger hurt to others, the level of violence escalating as the story progresses and with implications for the reader, as we ponder how we would react in a similar situation. Stretching credibility slightly, the story could be seen as a metaphor for the sort of choices we have to make in a democracy: a new hospital or a new aircraft carrier?
‘The Strangled Garden’ is the first of several stories I’d classify as old school horror, with a terrible fate awaiting those who stray into a walled off area of an estate, the tale deftly playing on ambiguity as to what actually took place. Among others in this vein I’d categorise ‘A Solace of Winter Rain’, a sting in the tail piece in which premonitions prove particularly apposite, pitched as a clubroom story, and ‘With Black Foreboding Eyed’, a cheery little ditty on lighthouse keepers menaced by a zombie like threat that offers little in the way of plot complexity or psychological insight but is entertaining enough in its way.
There are strong echoes of Matheson classic ‘The Distributor’ in ‘Catch Me If I Fall’, as a man claiming to be from Camelot tells people they have won the National Lottery, only he appears to be sharing the same news with others on the street, the story playing with our need to believe that something good will happen, to the point that we ignore evidence to the contrary, and with a point to be made that petty cruelty and false hope are among the worst of torments.
‘Persistence of Vision’ takes on the subject of child abuse, one of several to deal with this theme, as a young man tries to remember what happened to him all those years ago, the tale sensitively written and with a real feeling for the plight of the victim. Bacon is excellent at capturing the perspective of children, in both the previous story and ‘Girl Afraid’, a series of diary entries detailing a young girl’s account of her mother’s disposal of the baby in her care, the matter of fact writing playing counterpoint to the horrific events taking place, with the reader’s imagination left to fill in the gaps, those things that are probably too terrible for words. ‘Daddy Giggles’ is another tale of a man returning to the haunts of his past and a confrontation with what took place there, child abuse implicit in the text though dealt with through metaphor and with enough ambiguity to make the reader wonder what actually occurred, if anything.
‘The Other Side of Silence’ is set in a world that has been ravaged by a virus that causes blindness, with the majority of the population wiped out and the protagonist of the story both recovering his sight after fifteen years and then having to deal with the terrible truth of what has happened to both him and the world, Bacon capturing the aching sense of loss and grief on the page in terms that compel us to identify with this broken man. We get another end of the world scenario with ‘Concentric’, in which the investigation of a deep sea phenomenon leads to a revelation of the end of days, the story written with a wisp of the Cthulhuesque about it, the borderline pedantic nature of the text reinforcing the ultimate chills that it delivers. Written in diary form, ‘Forever Autumn’ is a gritty account of the zombie apocalypse, detailing one man’s attempt to save his disabled wife, eventually leading to his own conversion and an inversion of the situation.
At only four pages, ‘Inertia’ is a powerful exercise in not standing in another’s shoes, with its subtle and ironic comment on our response to violence, as the woman who is horrified at being ignored by others who could help when she was raped acts with exactly the same indifference when it comes to saving a trapped bird. ‘Hour of Departure’ concerns a mother dealing with the aftermath of a car crash in which her husband died and her young son was traumatised, only there is the suspicion in the text that he has been possessed by the spirit of the other man killed in the crash, the story deftly laying down its effects and a sense of the numinous growing as it progresses, at its heart the very real fear of alienation from our young, that those we love are becoming strangers to us. In ‘I Am a Creation of Now’ a man begins to realise that his girlfriend is not the person he believes her to be, this suspicion eventually leading to a complete shift of reality, the story cleverly juxtaposing personal and societal concerns, developing into a subtle ghost tale, one in which reality itself becomes the spectre.
These stories and the seven I haven’t discussed here, together comprise a very impressive first collection, one in which there are no duds at all, and confirm the arrival of a talented newcomer in horror circles.
FROM HELL TO ETERNITY (GFP pb, 227pp, £8.99) is Gray Friar’s second New Blood offering, and contains sixteen stories by Thana Niveau.
First up, after an introduction by Ramsey Campbell, is ‘The Curtain’ in which a diver investigates a wreck only to find that a gate has opened in reality and something terrible has crossed through, the horror of the situation vividly rendered and made all the more convincing by the authentic feel of the diving scenes. ‘The Coal-Man’ is a childhood bogey man, now revisiting the story’s protagonist in a manner that reminds her of the terrible thing she did as a young girl, the feelings of guilt externalised as this gripping monster stalks its creator. Sometimes simple works best, and that’s the case with the grim and disturbing ‘Antlers’ in which a young woman looking for accommodation takes a detour right off the map and into a situation that is as shocking as it is grotesque, the story shot through with all the unease of a waking nightmare, like a surreal and British minimalist reinvention of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In ‘The Cutting Room Floor’ an alternative model with a penchant for cutting is drawn into the schemes of a pretend photographer staging a sacrifice to some elder deity, but she turns the tables at the end, the story infused with a quiet eroticism that is entirely at odds with conventional tastes and using that to drive it to a powerful conclusion. ‘Ultrasound Shadow’ gives us the story of a strange pregnancy, using the tropes of horror fiction and exaggeration for dramatic effect to offer a disturbing perspective on the changes in the female body and psychology at such a time. The mother is dominated by the spirit of her unborn child so that she refuses an abortion in spite of the pain caused and her feeling that the thing inside her isn’t quite human, a gradual and compelling build-up leading to a shocking final revelation, with Niveau then adding another tiny twist at the end. An unhappily married couple discover ‘The Pier’, where the name plaques hint at a terrible fate, something with which the husband is soon to become intimate in this quiet, understated chiller where the real driving force is the antipathy between the two lead characters.
‘Under the Skin’ conflates an incident from childhood with events many years later, the protagonist understanding what was really asked of her in the past and making a terrible decision, the story subtle and beautifully written, with sinister undertones and a subtext about how people’s best intentions sometimes leave them open to being used and how good ends sometimes require terrible means. ‘Pigs’ has about it a similar feel to the earlier ‘Antlers’. It’s the story of a couple who are cheating on their partners and stray off the beaten path, stumbling across a grotesque secret. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no neat explanations for what happens or twist ending, just mindless savagery and shit happening to people who don’t really deserve their fate, and in a way that is the real horror of the piece, the lack of a rationale. Two lesbian lovers are drawn into a man’s ‘Strange Games’, only things are not quite as the protagonist believes, the story snaking back on itself to reveal something entirely different and more perverse than the S&M eroticism that ostensibly fuels the narrative.
In ‘Bruised Fruit’ a woman thinks she has been possessed by parasitic worms, inflicted on her by her brother’s girlfriend, and unfortunately she appears to be correct in this rather gross but thoroughly enjoyable body horror piece. ‘Stolen to Time’ is the story of a model who starts to lose her memories, growing more oblivious as she poses for one photographer after another, the story assuredly building to its harrowing conclusion as a man who befriends her realises what has happened but is unable to help, with a subtext that suggests she has in some way contributed to her own undoing. Finally we have title story ‘From Hell to Eternity’, with a serial killer recreating Jack the Ripper scenarios, the story eventually evolving into a Sea of Love variant, with a gleefully bloody and vengeful resolution.
As with the Bacon, there are no weak stories or duds in this collection. If Gray Friar is “the true home of British horror”, then by publishing work of this quality they have shown that the genre’s future is in safe hands.