Filler content with spooky anthos

This trio of reviews appeared in Black Static #35:-

GHOSTS: THE ANTHOLOGIES

With an introduction discussing the history and popularity of ghost stories at Christmas by Johnny Mains, THE 13 GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS (Spectral Press hb/pb, 201pp, £27/£12.50) is editor Simon Marshall-Jones’ tip of the hat to the tradition of the festive ghost story annual, and it’s hoped this will be a regular event in the Spectral Press calendar. Fortunately for dilatory reviewers ghost stories are not just for Christmas, and so I can discuss this anthology safe in the knowledge that copies are still available for those who like yuletide chills whatever the time of year.

John Costello opens proceedings with ‘An Odd Number at Table’, a convincingly paced and sexually charged account of a young man involved with the daughter of a wealthy family, and finding that they have more than a skeleton in their closet, the story initially intriguing and then detouring through tragedy on the way to an ending that is both chilling and sadly uplifting. In ‘Concerning Events at Leinster Gardens’ by Jan Edwards an aristo fallen on hard times and trying to find a wealthy woman to finance his plans ends up at a masked ball which brings back bad memories of his time in WWI, the story shifting and showing that both narrator and reality itself are unreliable, with a convincing backdrop of effete upper classes and more than a hint of karmic justice in the mix.

The ever reliable William Meikle returns to one of his favourite characters for ‘Carnacki: A Cold Christmas in Chelsea’, the story formulaic but told with a delicacy of touch and enough moments of dread to delight the reader, as a cursed ring is laid to rest. A husband tries to solve his marital unhappiness with poisoned absinthe in ‘A Taste of Almonds’ by Raven Dane, but there’s a gratifying twist in a story that, if it seems a bit of a stretch on plausibility at moments in the narrative, is evocatively written and entertaining. Richard Farren Barber’s ‘Where the Stones Lie’ was one of the highlights, with an atmosphere of menace undercutting a gripping story of young children threatened by an ancient evil. The characters are beautifully drawn and the pull of the sinister is powerfully portrayed. ‘All that is Living’ by Nicholas Martin features another cursed ring, bought by a young man who has inherited an isolated cottage, and summoning up an effectively spectral snowman in a story that seems all rather by the numbers and won’t deliver any surprises for those familiar with this kind of fiction.

The next high point is reached with Thana Niveau’s ironically titled ‘And May All your Christmases…’, with a family finding that the world has been covered in snow and the sense of  a creeping evil intruding, as scenes of happiness and beauty give way to an all eradicating whiteness, the narrative couched in terms of hopelessness and loss. The shortest piece in the book, ‘Now and Then’ by Martin Roberts is an obliquely told account of loss and guilt, turning the happiest time of the year into an occasion when all the birds come home to roost. Paul Finch’s ‘December’ is a solid if unremarkable outing, with a woman undone by the yuletide return of the bullying brother she regards as a changeling, though Finch does enough work to introduce an element of ambiguity, so that we wonder if in fact Brenda, who sees her dead husband, is unbalanced.

Gary McMahon claims ‘Ritualism’ was inspired by Machen, but there is also I think a strong echo of Ellison’s ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’ and Suzuki’s Ring about it, the story’s protagonist witnessing an urban legend in the flesh, as youths beat a homeless man and broadcast the ceremony to the web with their mobile phones. Defeated in love and feeling lost in so many other aspects of his life, the protagonist is led to accept the ritual and hope that it will connect him to something else, something bigger than himself, in a story that is saturated with sadness, regret and fatalism, and also easily the best in this anthology. Contrarily, Wicker Man variation ‘We Are a Shadow’ by Neil Williams was the weakest, an overlong account of how the fortunes of a small community are revived with a seasonal sacrifice that could have benefited from a tighter edit. It was okay in a pass the time sort of way, but a story where you pretty much know where it’s going from the off, and the author has nothing else up his sleeve.

John Forth’s ‘The Green Clearing’ is another offering that stands out, with two families returning to the idyllic rural retreat of their past, but one member is seeking to meet again the woodland spirit he dallied with before, the story told from the perspective of a child who is always at the edge of the action, and all the more effective for that, with the final image striking a chilling end note. Last but not least we have ‘Lost Soldiers’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky, an amiable and enjoyable account of a ghost hunter and his helpmate who find that they have bitten off more than they can chew when investigating a spectral warrior, a delicate humour adding to the story rather than distracting from the horror of this Fog variant.

Let’s hope this festive fiction bonanza becomes a regular seasonal stocking filler, as I’m getting really tired of those navy blue socks sent to me every year by friends with good intentions but lousy taste.

Edited by Timothy Parker Russell, DARK WORLD: GHOST STORIES (Tartarus Press pb, 188pp, £14.95) comes with the traditional thirteen stories plus one for luck. All profits from the sale of the book go to Amala Children’s Home in India.

Things get off to a flying start with the evocatively named ‘Come Into My Parlour’ by Reggie Oliver, told from the viewpoint of a child coerced by the sinister Aunt Harriet into acting against his parents. With touches of Saki and, especially, Roald Dahl in the telling, this is an unsettling piece that hints at more than is revealed and in the figure of Aunt Harriet, whose brooding presence dominates the drama even when she is off stage, it has a memorably monstrous protagonist. Christopher Fowler’s ‘Mistake at the Monsoon Palace’ I have reviewed elsewhere, but briefly it is a wonderfully atmospheric account of a western tourist who is beguiled by the spirit of a place, becoming its defender, though with a subtext that suggests this may all be delusional. ‘The Swinger’ is typical of the work of Rhys Hughes, the author taking an idea that sounds superficial and then seeing how far he can go with it and not fall flat on his face, in a plot that involves a haunted hotel, a writer and a novel concept of time travel, the story delighting with its profusion of ideas and the audacity of execution.

Anna Taborska’s ‘First Night’ sees an ancient curse worked out in the present day when a young man and his friend seek out the ancestral home with dire consequences, the story made more memorable than its formulaic source material should allow thanks to the way in which the author’s evocative prose firmly plants the setting inside the reader’s head and the clever manner in which she overlaps past and present events to telling effect. There’s a similar overlapping in the eerie ‘Wolvershiel’ by John Gaskin, a story whose mood and setting put me very much in mind of Aickman’s classic ‘The Hospice’, with a wanderer in the great outdoors stumbling across a foster home where terrible things took place, this discovery acting as a catalyst that compels him to examine his own memories, with attendant doubts raised as to his true identity.

Keenly felt emotions drive the narrative of Rosalie Parker’s ‘Oracle’, the tale of Martin, a boy who is resentful of his separated parents, this feeling made even more intense when he is sent to the countryside during the Battle of Britain, and then encounters a young, blind woman who tells him of his own character. On the surface this is a delicately painted picture of the psyche of a bitter child contrasted with the wartime mood of the nation, but the hint of the supernatural introduces a uniquely unsettling element, so that we feel threatened even though there is nothing to prompt that sensation. Possibly my favourite story in the anthology, ‘The House on North Congress Street’ by Jason A. Wyckoff is an absorbing and realistically pitched account of what may or may not have been a spectral encounter, made all the more effective by the matter of fact style and the ambiguity, detail piling on detail, with several touches of black humour to enrich the mix.

There’s a similar true story/urban legend feel to Mark J. Saxton’s ‘Nothing but the Waves’, in which we learn the mysterious fate of a pilot thought lost at sea, the story little more than a variation on a familiar template, but told with enough incidental detail and faith in the material to intrigue all but the most jaded of readers. ‘The Old Brick House’ by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a complex story of tales within tales that doesn’t quite pull off what it attempts but triumphs all the same through the mood of fatalism that permeates the narrative, as a young man has a premonition while staying at a house in Bangalore that once used to be the site of a temple. An artist in residence is dogged by a strange student who insists on drawing pictures and soliciting his opinion in ‘Ninth Rotation’ by Stephen Holman, the story setting up the end twist with genuine panache and intrigue, but the final revelation does rather come from out of left field, in that it is knowledge the protagonist seems to be keeping from himself.

Bringing down the curtain is ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Steve Rasnic Tem in which a mother and son visit the place where their daughter/sister disappeared many years ago, past events and present reality crashing into each other, the story unsettling with its prevailing mood of despair and the strong sense of unfinished business, that some problems will never be satisfactorily resolved, closure is not possible.

Stories by Mark Valentine, Corinna Underwood and R. B. Russell round out a generally excellent anthology that will not only reward the reader but help a worthwhile cause as well.

Editor Ellen Datlow’s 2003 anthology The Dark is a landmark in the ghost story field, and she returns to the spectral theme with reprint anthology HAUNTINGS (Tachyon Publications pb, 422pp, $16.95), spanning thirty years and containing twenty four stories, each of them as fresh and innovative as any of the stories you will find on the pages of this very magazine. Not content with accepted wisdom as to the nature of hauntings, Datlow boldly declares in her introduction that she’s ‘chosen stories that will broaden our understanding of what a haunting can be’, and she delivers spectacularly on that promise with the strongest anthology that I’ve yet read this year.

Appropriately enough, the first story is also the earliest, Pat Cadigan’s ‘Eenie, Meenie, Ipsateenie’ from 1983, in which outsider child Milo is constantly bullied, the one who always gets singled out to be caught when the gang play hide and seek, but things go tragically wrong when he hides in a supposedly haunted house, and the memory of what happened stays with Milo into adulthood. This is a story that illustrates perfectly the old adage of the man as nothing more than the child writ large, the narrative shot through with compassion for the underdog even as it condemns what he has become, and an overarching awareness that if somebody is treated like a monster then a monster is what they will become.

‘Hunger: A Confession’ by Dale Bailey is a more routine story, but beautifully written and characterised, with two brothers discovering something terrible in the new family home, the younger believing that the older is simply playing a trick on him, but also introducing a note of ambiguity with the suggestion that the boy has been possessed and is himself the monster, or is simply using this as pretext for some payback of his own. ‘Cargo’ by E. Michael Lewis is the keenly felt story of the military personnel who returned the bodies of the Jonestown Massacre victims to the US, with an unsettling incident on a plane packed with corpses in body bags, the tale disturbing not just for the understated supernatural elements but also because of what it reveals of human evil, and further enriched by its understanding of how ordinary people can rise to the occasion and do what they thought impossible for them when circumstances demand.

Lucius Shepard’s classic ‘Delta Sly Honey’ is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, a phantom patrol of grunts doling out their own special brand of justice, the slow build up and claustrophobic atmosphere combining to create a genuine sense of unease, with the paranoia, madness and desperation of men at war given an outré manifestation. A man’s life spirals out of control in David Morrell’s artfully told ‘Nothing Will Hurt You’, as he is unable to let go of the feelings of guilt and failure attendant on the murder of his daughter by a serial killer, but by clinging onto the past the protagonist appears to not only blight his own life but also the afterlife of his loved one, though at the end Morrell holds out the chance of redemption through sacrifice, the story’s subtext showing what happens when grief becomes an albatross.

For my money the best story in the anthology, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ‘The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4)’ combines sumptuous prose with an obliquely decadent feel, the kind of thing that Brendan Connell does so well when at his best. A serial killer and collector lures a violinist to his remote house to hear her play the violin of the title, the story luminous with vivid imagery and using language to capture the beauty in even the worst of things, while at the same time conveying an evil beyond our understanding. Initially I had trouble getting used to the voice of the first person narrator of Elizabeth Hand’s story ‘The Have-Nots’, but perseverance paid off in the form of a gleefully comedic twist as the ghost of a legendary singer helps reunite a mother with her lost daughter, and underlying the surface frivolity is a fierce anger at social injustice that blazes off the page.

F. Paul Wilson’s story is a more routine tale of spectral revenge, as a man sees the name ‘Anna’ appearing in a piece of maple furniture, the quality of the prose somewhat compensating for the banality of the concept and the ‘gone Hollywood’ feel of the effects heavy finale. Jonathan Carroll’s ‘Mr. Fiddlehead’ presents us with an imaginary friend given tangible form, and trouble arises when a woman falls in love with the imaginary friend, who only appears when her ‘creator’ is unhappy, the last line of the story a chilling but obvious denouement, one that perfectly caps what has gone before, preposterous as it all might seem if you suspend belief long enough to consider the implications of what is supposed to be happening. There’s a tall tale feel to ‘The Fooly’ by Terry Dowling, one that is told with tongue set firmly in cheek as a man meets a ghost on a lonely country road and amiably discusses how he is to be frightened to death.

Images of the sinking of the Titanic overlap with present day death threats in the subtle ‘Distress Call’ by Connie Willis, the story well written and fraught with the sense of foreboding, but perhaps a little too oblique for its own good at times; possibly I’m missing the point, but the Titanic elements seem like an unnecessary addition to a story that would have worked perfectly well without them. From Stephen Gallagher we have ‘The Horn’, with three men stranded in a workmen’s hut during a blizzard and summoned to their doom by the mournful wail of a horn, the story creating atmosphere and character with vivid, deft touches, the cold seeping off of the page, and with a denouement that chills to the bone. Michael Marshall Smith’s short ‘Everybody Goes’ is a perfectly pitched lament for childhood lost and how things change, with a final revelation that forces us to revise our understanding of the story while at the same time reinforcing its truth.

In many ways the grimmest story in the anthology, ‘Transfigured Night’ by Richard Bowes keeps the reader off balance, for most of its length indulging in a jaded nostalgia for the promiscuous days of yesteryear before climaxing with bloody murder and child sacrifice in an attempt to recapture those glory days and continue with life eternal, the story just as much a vampire variation as it is a ghost story, if not more so, and perhaps even more shattering for its setting between two sombre mood pieces. The second of these is James P. Blaylock elegiac ‘Hula Ville’, in which a man’s childhood vision leads him to spend his life searching for evidence of angels, the story culminating in a twist that hints at the presence of the ineffable in the mundane and ordinary, while at the same time marking that such things are transitory.

The most recent of these stories, Kelly Link’s ‘Two Houses’ from 2012 was written for a Ray Bradbury tribute volume, and for the reader part of the pleasure to be found from this tale will be picking up on the grace notes of the master that are planted in the text. With stories set within stories and a hint that those telling the tales may be ghosts themselves, as fiction mirrors reality, ‘Two Houses’ is a perfect gem of a tale, one that delights and surprises. Adam L. G. Nevill’s ‘Where Angels Come In’ is an account of a visit to a truly remarkable abandoned building, one where young boys are stalked by revenants intent on feasting on their flesh, the story brilliantly written and informed with a wonderful sense of invention. It made me think of Silent Hill, as filmed by Cocteau, and that’s a good thing.

Lastly we have ‘Hunger: An Introduction’ by Peter Straub, the first person account of a man who has a rather inflated opinion of himself, telling how he became a killer and then a ghost, with the suggestion that ghosts are nothing more than appetites that simply can’t ever be satisfied, the story gripping from first word to last, exposing the flaws in the central character through suggestion and showing that he is an unreliable narrator, finally offering a horrendous vision of ghostly life through the medium of a young, innocent child, other strands of murder and tragedy wrapping into the main narrative to dazzling effect. Straub is a master of the short form and this wonderful example of his craft is the perfect end to this superb assemblage of ghostly fiction.

Hauntings also contains stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Paul Walther, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Jeffrey Ford and Gemma Files. And the fact that writers of that calibre get an ‘also included’ mention speaks volumes about the quality of a book that must surely be an early contender for any and every Best Anthology award going this year.

 

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