Filler content with anthologies in contention

Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #30:-

THE CONTENDERS

Nominated for both the World and British Fantasy Awards in the anthology category, GUTSHOT (PS Publishing hb, 32599, £19.99) is writer Conrad Williams’ first time in the editor’s chair, though if memory serves he did a stint as assistant editor for Peeping Tom magazine back in the heyday of the UK small press. It has the subtitle ‘Weird West Stories’ (though some contributors play very fast and loose with that criteria), and an eye catching Caniglia cover, but it’s let down by poor proofreading, with character name changes a particular annoyance – ‘Bob Bopp’ on p96 becomes ‘George’ by p104, ‘Captain Mallory’ on p171 is ‘Marshall’ only two pages later and in the afterword to his story Simon Bestwick refers to the character ‘Luisa Bardillo’, but in the narrative she is ‘Louisa’ – though the worst offence in the proofreading mistakes is ‘an island, floating father and father away’ on p273.

The book is dedicated to ‘the memory of Alan Peter Ryan (1943 – 2011), and appropriately his story ‘Passage’ opens the proceedings. Two cowboys in search of a missing ranch hand stumble onto a scene of savagery and set about doling out their own brand of justice. The story is rich in detail and brings to the page a vivid sense of the isolation and wildness of both the territory and the men who live there, with a subtext as to how civilisation and its values become negotiable, so that only primitive rituals stand against the darkness. ‘The Black Rider’ by James Lovegrove has a modern setting, two boys acting out the adventures of their favourite western hero from the TV, and with a tragic accident at its core, the story capturing both the excitement of those TV shows of yesteryear and a sense of betrayal, the death of the dreams of cowboy camaraderie and riding the wide open spaces that they inspired.

‘Blue Norther’ is Zander Shaw’s first published story and it’s an impressive debut, beautifully written, with a lyrical feel to the prose and a sure grasp of the characters, a delirious tale of murder and revenge, somewhat akin to a Shakespearian tragedy in its inner workings. There’s a bittersweet feel to ‘White Butterflies’ by Stephen Volk, with the lawlessness of the old west transplanted to the wastes of Eastern Europe, where dirt farmers scrabble for a living by harvesting salvage from downed space rockets, Volk showing the hopelessness of these people’s lives, the despair they grapple with on a daily basis and how futile it is for them to seek anything better, and yet they are still driven to do so. Gary McMahon’s ‘El Camino De Rojo’ has Badge riding through a nightmarish landscape in pursuit of a legendary Mexican bandit, but slowly coming to the realisation that hell is something he carries with him and which can never be beaten, the story liberally spraying the page with carmine splatter and throwing up imagery of tormented flesh, as its driven protagonist carves his way through everything that stands in his way, in the process becoming every bit as monstrous as his nemesis.

‘Kiss the Wolf’ by Simon Bestwick is one of the weaker entries, showing a world in which civilisation has collapsed under the assault of the Riders (two parts Nazgul to one part Martian war machine) and our protagonist seeks the help of a witch. It’s eminently readable, exciting on its own terms, but once the momentum has bled away, all the sturm und drang, it feels a little bit empty and I couldn’t find much by way of rhyme or reason, point or purpose. It seemed like an episode in or curtain raiser to some bigger drama. ‘Waiting for the Bullet’ by Mark Morris has one of the most original ideas in the book, historical sites where bullets from past shootouts materialise in the present day and extreme tourists visit for the thrill of the kill, but after developing this concept and showing how it might work over nearly twenty pages and finely drawing his characters, Morris has the audacity to pull the rug out from under our feet with an ending that is a kick in the teeth, the brutality of the everyday trumping the outré. I loved it.

More flash fiction than not, zombie hunger is explained in terms of Indian trickster mythology for Paul Meloy’s clever but slight ‘Carrion Cowboy’. Gemma Files transplants the myth of the gorgon Medusa and her sisters to a travelling show in the years of the Great Depression for ‘Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face’, the story delighting with its invention and oblique take on gender. Set against the backdrop of the rise of Mormonism, Adam Nevill’s ‘What God Hath Wrought?’ has an avenging soldier hunt down and kill the members of a sub-sect who appear to have abandoned their humanity, the story engaging and action packed, with strong hints at the end of something truly alien underlying it all. Last but not least, we have ‘Those Who Remember’ by Joel Lane, a ghost story of sorts, very effective and cleverly pitched, but its inclusion striking a note of arbitrariness, despite the author’s claim that it ‘attempts to set a Western in the West Midlands’.

Nine more stories, including contributions from Christopher Fowler, Michael Moorcock (a tale of the Eternal Champion, and the only reprint), Sarah Langan and Joe R. Lansdale fill out an impressive anthology.

HOUSE OF FEAR (Solaris pb, 409pp, £7.99) is one of the anthologies Gutshot will need to beat if it’s to win the British Fantasy Award. Edited by Jonathan Oliver and his follow up to the critically acclaimed The End of the Line, House takes as its theme ‘haunted houses and spectral encounters’.

Lisa Tuttle gets things off to a cracking start with the superb ‘Objects in Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear’, in which the search for an elusive cottage in the country leads a divorced couple to a terrible end. Building its effects with considerable aplomb and ending with a truly unsettling final touch, the story can be read in two ways: on the one hand it’s a relatively straightforward ‘ghost’ story, but on the other we have an elegy on the theme of how clinging onto our dreams past their sell by date can lead to having our own lives frozen in a moment. For much of its length Stephen Volk’s ‘Pied-à-terre’ appears to be about a woman stumbling into a house with an atmosphere, but then it gleefully pulls a rabbit out of the hat in revealing the identity of the ghost and offering the story’s protagonist a way out of her own problems. I won’t reveal who the ghost is, but huge kudos to Volk for taking the risk of using a real person and producing a story that initially disturbs and then uplifts with an ending that made me want to punch the air in triumph.

There’s a J-Horror vibe going on with ‘Florrie’ by Adam L. G. Nevill, in which a young man moves into a new house and finds himself possessed by the spirit of the old woman who lived there before him, so that aspects of her life infiltrate and eclipse his own existence, the appeal of the story down to the subtle and matter of fact way in which this is shown to happen, all feeding in to a chilling final image. Garry Kilworth’s ‘Moretta’ is pure, unadulterated fun, as a retired army officer investigates the case of a house where occupants of a certain bedroom expire in mysterious circumstances, the story conflating the spectral with a locked room mystery, then pouring Gothic chic over the whole edifice, with a lovely brooding atmosphere and delightful payoff.

God is the ghost in Robert Shearman’s delicious black comedy ‘The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World’, telling his creations to refrain from disobedience, and of course each time they are told not to do something they do exactly the opposite in this wonderful fable, which is delightfully witty, but also offers a sad commentary on human nature and the friability of belief. Nina Allan’s ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’ is a succubus like spirit that preys on a man and then seeks to resurrect itself through attacking his heir, the story surprisingly traditional in form and telling for this writer, but deeply satisfying and demonstrating Allan’s versatility and ability to use familiar tropes on her own terms. Set just after World War II, ‘The Room Upstairs’ by Sarah Pinborough finds a conman staying in haunted lodgings, and uncovering the truth leads to the formation of a bond with his widowed landlady. It’s a tale of denial, one with dark undercurrents of grief and showing the possibility of redemption, for both mundane and more esoteric ailments.

Paul Meloy’s ‘Villanova’ sells the reader a dummy, convincing us that we are witnessing one kind of haunting before showing the true situation, the story permeated with a sense of hopelessness and grounded in feelings of sadness and loss. In ‘Widow’s Weeds’ by Christopher Priest a stage magician falls foul of a woman who collects various ‘atchievements’ and wishes to add his to her repertoire, the story elegantly written, with subtle undercurrents of menace and dark eroticism, the whole made all the more unsettling by the fact that we never quite feel we have a handle on what is taking place. Nicholas Royle’s ‘Inside/Out’ cleverly blurs the lines between fact and fiction, so that we don’t really know if the protagonist, who is obsessed with a woman he saw once many years ago, is a ghost or the story simply reprising the events that led up to his possible suicide.

It’s left to Joe R. Lansdale to bring the curtain down, which he does with his usual panache. In ‘What Happened To Me’ a man tells of his stay in a haunted house during student days, the story a beautifully plotted piece, the tale of an elemental trying to survive as an imaginary friend to a young girl and driven mad by the child’s departure, written in Lansdale’s eminently agreeable prose style and with plenty of effects along the way to its poignant ending.

House of Fear contains eight stories beside those I’ve discussed, and the other contributors include Christopher Fowler, Chaz Brenchley and Tim Lebbon. It was a substantial anthology, one in which every story entertained and most did far more than that.

In contention for both the World and British Fantasy Award, A BOOK OF HORRORS (Jo Fletcher Books hb, 431pp, £18.99) edited by Stephen Jones has to be the bookies’ favourite, if you ignore the anthologies that I’m not reviewing here. Though it contains only fourteen stories, a bias towards novellas make it the weightiest of the three titles under consideration, and several of the stories are in contention for awards in their own right. There is no set theme as such, beyond editor Jones’ tub thumping introduction arguing the case for scary monsters. And A Book of Horror has plenty of those.

It opens with big hitter Stephen King and ‘The Little Green God of Agony’, in which a pain nurse for a wealthy man is taught a lesson in humility by a faith healer who claims that pain is a demon he can exorcise, the story told as effortlessly as ever where King is concerned, with excellent characterisation and a clever plot twist, even if at the end you feel it hasn’t quite got the heart of his best work, that the glory days are gone. Peter Crowther gives us a different concept of poltergeists in his novella contribution, ‘Ghosts with Teeth’, as the inhabitants of a small town are brutally slain, while the story’s protagonist is tortured by the illusion of guilt, the narrative unfolding at an almost leisurely pace, grabbing the reader’s interest in a grip of steel and delivering its shocks to maximum effect as mystery turns to horror.

‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ is typical of Angela Slatter’s work, straddling the borderline between horror and fantasy. It’s set in a society where coffins are fashioned not only to hold the corpse but must also restrain vengeful spirits, and the eponymous heroine finds herself used by a wealthy murderess, the story quirky and baroque in its plotting, with lovely touches of invention that reinforce the sense of something special taking place on the page, and desperation playing counterpoint to whimsy. For my money, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ by John Ajvide Lindqvist is the best story in the book, but it’s also beset by the name change malady, with Karlsson referred to as Benke for much of the story and then as Bengt: possibly this is not a mistake, but a quirk of Swedish nomenclature, their equivalent of James/Jimmy, though if so it strikes an unnecessary note of confusion for UK readers. That aside, this is a near perfect tale of a spectral manifestation, with a bereaved father and son going to stay in an isolated cabin and falling prey to the spirit of the man who killed himself there, a musician, but the nature of his compositions and their purpose add a chilling twist. Touching on themes of loss and redemption, with the father’s relationship with his son strongly realised and yet eclipsed by his nagging grief, the story is wonderfully paced, beautifully characterised and with heart stopping moments of terror, as the effects slowly and surely build into a brutal revelation of horror.

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Getting It Wrong’ is a tongue in cheek black comedy on the theme of ‘phone a friend’, with a film buff refusing to believe that his work colleague is asking for his help, the story turning everything around in the end stretch and no less enjoyable for its very obviousness. In Robert Shearman’s ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ a couple find their idyllic lifestyle shattered by the arrival of neighbours from hell, but as the ever more surreal narrative unfolds we begin to realise that nothing is quite as it seems and their happiness is grounded in self-deceit and settling for second best. ‘The Man in the Ditch’ by Lisa Tuttle involves spectral goings on and a self-fulfilling prophecy, the narrative cleverly turning back on itself.

Reggie Oliver provides the next highlight with ‘A Child’s Problem’, a wonderful and thoroughly absorbing read, set in the grounds of a Victorian country house where a precocious boy uncovers long buried secrets and helps revenants finds peace. More mystery than chiller, and yet not without its cold spots, in both atmosphere and setting it brought to mind the work of Wilkie Collins, and I loved every single page of it. Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ is my favourite after the Lindqvist, the tale of an aimless man, who discovers rather more than he bargained for on an isolated stretch of road. Curiosity piece at first and initially more style than substance, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security, and then Smith springs his trap, delivering a powerhouse ending, one in which the feeling of despair is eloquently rendered on the page.

The newly widowed protagonist of ‘Near Zennor’ by Elizabeth Hand tries to unravel a mystery from the childhood of his dead wife and has his own encounter with the numinous as a result. The story is beautifully written and with a real sense of place, bringing the starkness and untamed quality of Cornwall to vivid life, deftly mixing children’s tales with ancient ritual magic, and bringing catharsis of a kind to its bereaved narrator, at times feeling as if Jonathan Carroll had decided to tackle Narnia with an ancient burial site in lieu of any wardrobe.

Finally Richard Christian Matheson recounts the case of an abused child who grows up to be a serial killer in a story appropriately titled ‘Last Words’, giving us an almost poignant ending to this outstanding anthology despite the savagery of its subject matter.

Also included in A Book of Horrors are stories by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Brian Hodge and Dennis Etchison. And there’ll be a paperback edition along next month, just in time for Halloween.

 

 

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