Filler content with themed anthologies – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s blog entry, here are a further four reviews to complete the feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #40:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

Edited by Alex Davis, X7 (KnightWatch Press pb, 87pp, £6.99) comes with the subtitle “a seven deadly sins anthology”, with a different writer dealing with each transgression.

Nicholas Royle kicks off with lust and ‘Dead End’, a subtle and beautifully written story in which the immediacy of sex is used by the protagonist as distraction activity, a way to keep at bay the nightmares of his past. Royle lays nothing out clearly, but that in its way makes the denouement all the more satisfying as we discover the horror nibbling away at the edges of the idyllic present shown to us. In Amelia Mangan’s ‘If I Were You’ envy is explored through the medium of a man who voyeuristically watches his estranged sister, emulating details of her life, the life he might have had if their parents hadn’t abandoned him, the story unsettling and creepy in the way it shows this obsession developing, but underneath that essentially a sad piece, a study of somebody who has been left bereft and finds an unusual way to grieve.

Gluttony and black comedy go hand in hand for the outrageous ‘Gravy Soup’, with the members of an elite eating club discovering a new delicacy, one that leads them not only into temptation but to death and worse. It’s a familiar theme, but author Simon Clark manages to write new changes to his bill of fear and satisfy the most jaded of appetites. Wrath is slipped off its leash courtesy of Alex Bell with ‘The Devil in Red’, in which a hired gun lawyer learns rather more than he wishes about the circumstances that led his latest client into prison accused of murdering his wife, the story a fine example of madness under control and the subgenre in which one man knows a truth others remain oblivious to.

The greed of the multinationals brings about ecological disaster on an unprecedented scale in Simon Bestwick’s ‘Stormcats’, with a man who was a PR guru for an oil company bearing witness to the deaths of his wife and child as the waters rise and the things that lurk in the water come in search of flesh. It’s a decent enough story, albeit perhaps a little too preachy for my liking, with Aaron as the stereotypical corporate bad guy, though I did like the way in which the monsters manifest as cats in the wake of the death of the family’s pet. In Gaie Sebold’s ‘Walls’, the relationship between proud Darren and enchanted Chrys has an undercurrent of abuse, the story deftly blindsiding the reader and then rearing up in all its manifest glory as the prisoner shakes off her chains and visits a fitting vengeance on her captor, complete with feminist subtext. Last, and to my mind least, we have ‘Seagull Island’ by Tom Fletcher, sloth personified by a man who simply lays down on a rock to die, or may already be dead hence his inability to move, the story evocative but nothing more than that, no extra oomph factor to make it work that much more.

NEW GHOST STORIES (The Fiction Desk pb, 168pp, £9.99), edited by Rob Newman, consists of the two winners and the ten best runners up in a ghost story competition organised by The Fiction Desk, a publisher with a greater mainstream sensibility than most who venture into these waters, and given that I’d expected quite a few grandmothers to be taught the art of egg sucking, but I’m happy to say that fear was misplaced and, while there might be some familiar themes on offer here, mostly they’re handled with ingenuity and freshness of intent.

Case in point, ‘At Glenn Dale’ by Julia Patt, a story concerned with the eponymous sanatorium, a ruin populated by ghosts, and it tells of what happens when two teen rivals decide to spend a night there as some sort of macho ritual, but the story behind the story concerns homo-eroticism and possibly murder which the ghost stuff covers up. It’s a clever piece and very well written, Most Haunted meets Happy Days, with the setting and characters perfectly realised on the page.  Eloise Shepherd’s ‘Journeyman’ has a ghost come into the house of a fading boxer and his two sons, though there is the suggestion that something else may be going on as well, seen in the way the boys seem scared and the way in which the protagonist is locked out of the house at the end after a display of temper. A ghost of sorts watches over ‘Tom’ in Oli Hadfield’s story, acting as parent in absentia or whatever the term is, while the boy’s own parents are messing up their lives, the story a eulogy for lost love and wasted opportunities, a condemnation of bullying and paean to young love.

‘Washout’ by Matthew Licht has two deadbeats inspired to turn their lives round when they encounter a corpse, the story written with a strong ear for dialogue, but not really going anywhere, so that the joy is in the journey rather than any destination. The problem of how to dispose of a dead parent’s ashes is treated with some humour in the droll ‘Half Mom’ by Jason Atkinson, but the story ends on a note that is one part despair, one part desperation and two parts hope as the ashes are dealt with and an unshakeable bond set in place. The protagonist of Amanda Mason’s ‘No Good Deed’ helps an old shopping trolley lady only to find that this act of kindness has invited a ghost into her life, one that simply won’t go away, the narrative entertainingly escalating through the danger levels until the woman is desperate enough to do practically anything to get free of her spectral burden.

A bird symbolises the ghost of a young boy’s mother who died in a fire in ‘Chalklands’ by Richard Smyth, and further tragedy ensues, the story not really going anywhere or giving a convincing explanation for what takes place. A woman is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband in the gentle ‘Old Ghosts’ by Ann Wahlman, his spirit lingering until she feels ready to move on with her life, the ghost perhaps a metaphor for the sense of loss, the way in which we aren’t quite ready to abandon past loves or have them abandon us. Linda Brucesmith presents an account of how Paganini rises from the grave to force a violinist to play his masterpiece, ‘The 25th Caprice’, the story written with a lush feel and a great final twist, the author having a lot of fun with her presentation of the idea, though to my mind slightly pushing the envelope as regards credibility.

‘A Whole Bloody Century’ by Jonathan Pinnock is an extended joke of sorts, a wry, humorous story that presents an entertaining diversion into the sort of territory Wilde or Benson might have explored, with tongue firmly in cheek. Miha Mazzini’s ‘In the Walls’ has a young woman connecting with an older man who enables her to hear the coughing of her dead child, the story eloquent and sad, the chill arising from the woman’s desperate need to connect with the son she has so tragically lost and with a novel twist in the idea of a haunting by proxy. Last of all is the prize winning ‘Guests’ by Joanne Rush, in which a woman whose husband is away doing surveillance work in Serbia is herself haunted by all the ghosts of the dead from that conflict, overrunning her house and making demands that eventually lead to disaster. It’s a bittersweet tale that blurs the line between the supernatural and obsession bordering on madness, a story infused with a sense of history and a yearning for justice, but with an underlying realisation that the latter is unlikely.

The latest anthology from editor D. F. Lewis aims to give us HORROR WITHOUT VICTIMS (Megazanthus Press pb, 269pp, £9.50), but I’d argue that some of the stories involve characters who don’t consider themselves to be victims, which isn’t quite the same thing. There are twenty five stories in total, more than the contents of any two other anthologies here combined, and they appear to be organised along the lines of a tenuous linking system that makes for an interesting reading experience, but on the downside has some of the weaker stories pushed to the end as a result so that the anthology winds down rather than explodes.

John Howard gets things off to a fine start with the elegiac ‘Embrace the Fall of Night’, a meditation of sorts on some ecological end of days and how mankind could or should respond, if at all, the theme of not being victims woven into the text. ‘The Horror’ by Gary McMahon is more conventional stuff, with Hilary drawn to an isolated cabin where the horror of the title is waiting for her. It’s a strange, atmospheric piece, with an almost Barkeresque feel to what happens, Hilary’s calmness and acceptance in counterpoint to the reader’s gathering sense of unease. In ‘Clouds’ by Eric Ian Steele a man’s reality is deconstructed, with the eponymous clouds swallowing the landmarks of his world, the story moving from an existential malaise bordering on madness to the final realisation that he himself is the destroyer and that this is a necessary step to the creation of a world more to his liking, solipsism as metaphor.

Alistair Rennie riffs on Michael Douglas film The Game in ‘The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation’, with a man in Turkey gifted an adventure of sorts, one in which his appreciation of life is enhanced, the story compelling with its beautifully realised sense of place and the mysterious chain of events, albeit I’m in two minds as to whether the ending is something of a damp squib or entirely appropriate. It may be both. The ‘Waiting Room’ is a sort of half-way house between this reality and something else in Aliya Whiteley’s story, a place people go to pass through the Red Door when they are ready, the idea of transformation at the heart of the narrative, and the need to be reconciled with our current existence before we can pass on, perfectly ordinary and everyday events playing off against the attraction of the unknown. Patricia Russo’s ‘For Ages and Ever’ presents us with a reality that is carefully regulated, society reinvented along the lines of some Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and a young girl determines to rescue people from the Red House at the centre of her community. What she discovers when she passes through its door is both terrifying and redemptive, raising questions as to the true nature of evil in this world, Russo finishing off her tale of hints and omens with just the right note of ambiguity.

One of my absolute favourites and among the best stories I’ve read so far this year, ‘Night in the Pink House’ by Charles Wilkinson is told from the perspective of a man employed as an interrogator by Mr Slater, owner of the eponymous desres. There’s the suggestion that the house itself is somehow sentient and possibly malign, while its owner delights in “musical” arrangements formulated out of screams. The amorality of the narrator and the restrained tone of voice in which he regales us with an account of off kilter events, combined with the collision of stiff upper lip value systems and something far more perverse make this into a superb story, and by way of a bonus it is set in my native Norfolk. A weird, almost Aickmanesque incident is described in ‘Point and Stick’ by Mark Patrick Lynch, as a man witnesses an act of transformation and ponders its backdrop, the story made all the more effective for the way in which nothing is explained.

The walls between the worlds wear thin in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Lambeth North’, as three friends look back on the changing face of the city in which they live and one of them is gifted a vision of the past. The story is rich in nostalgia and captures perfectly the easy camaraderie of old friends with their shared cache of common experiences, a quality that makes the outré element feel ultra-realistic, a strange incident that is incorporated seamlessly into the everyday lives of these women. John Travis presents the attempts of a wealthy man suffering from illness to find ‘The Cure’ offered by a guru with an island retreat, the whole story hinging on a delightful play on words, nothing more than an extended and elaborate, but highly enjoyable joke, poking gentle fun at certain modes of spirituality along the way.

A woman travels to the country of her boyfriend in ‘We Do Things Differently Here’ by David Murphy, only to discover that in Efferentia certain things run backwards, including some biological functions, the story conceptually daring, with Murphy carefully working out the implications of this scenario, then bringing it all crashing down on the reader’s head in a moment of unbridled horror as the protagonist realises what is to happen to her. In DeAnna Knippling’s story ‘Lord of Pigs’ a young girl discovers the body of her uncle in among the pigs and has to release them so that the other members of her family won’t shoot the animals, the story strange and oblique in its implications, hinting at something ineffable lurking behind the façade of the events described, an aspect of the sacramental in the act of flesh consumption that takes place.

In his teen years James is offered a sexual experience ‘Like Nothing Else’, but it only spoils him for anything else in Christopher Morris’ strange story of abuse and rape, a piece that is as disturbing as it is surreal. Rog Pile’s ‘In the Earth’ has a couple who live near to a giant dump learn about the genius loci of the place and discover their role in caring for it, the setting and characters vividly realised, and with an environmental subtext woven into the narrative, one that finds the most miraculous of things in the least likely places. The protagonist of ‘Scree’ by Caleb Wilson seeks a place of safety and security in a constantly shifting landscape, a reality where everything is being sucked down into some gaping maw and all our hero can do is ride the tide. It is perhaps the most original and conceptually unique story in an anthology where such qualities are par for the course, but doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with that originality.

In Jeff Holland’s brief ‘In Dreams, You’re Mine’ a man confronts the thing that he fears most, a scarecrow in a field, only to find that the menace is impossible to pin down, that the thing that makes the figure so alarming is in fact a quality that he more or less discounts. There’s a novel ghost in Michael Sidman’s ‘The Yellow See-Through Baby’, the story told from the perspective of a young boy who is having incontinence issues, and externalises this fear in the form of the baby of the title, the story grounded in the reality of a very recognisable situation even as it injects outré elements into the plot. ‘The Boarding House’ by Kenneth C. Wickson features another ghost, one that is only hinted at and never actually seen by the story’s protagonist, though somebody who does see it gives evidence of something terrible, the story all the more disturbing for this lack of anything tangible, so that our minds conjure up something far worse from the information we are given. ‘The Callers’ by Tony Lovell marks a family reunion of sorts, with the daughter seeing the senility of her father foreshadowed in her own aural hallucinations and misunderstandings. It made me think of an Alan Bennett version of Saki’s story ‘The Open Window’.

Bob Lock brings down the curtain with ‘You In Your Small Corner, And I In Mine’, an engaging but rather slight piece in which a young girl vanquishes the creature that troubles her at night and reminds us that only two letters separate victim and victor. With stories by Mark Valentine, David V. Griffin, Katie Jones, L. R. Bonehill and Nick Jackson also between its covers, this is among the strongest anthologies published in 2013 and confirms Lewis’ standing as one of the most innovative editors currently working in the field of fantastic literature.

Lastly we have DARKFUSE #1 (DarkFuse eBook, 74pp, $3.49) edited by Shane Staley, the first issue in a regular anthology series from the American publisher, and the only book here without a theme. It opens with ‘She Sleeps in the Depths’ by William Meikle, the story of Fallon and Val, who both suffer from the same malady, hearing an ancient Scottish folk tune that leads them endlessly north to The Old Man of Hoy and whatever awaits beneath the waves. It’s a fascinating piece, with a deft build up and engaging characters, Meikle bringing alive the wild places in which his story is set, and if I have any reservation at all it’s that the ending seemed a tad anti-climactic, of the “and then they all lived happily ever after” variety with the problem vanquished far too easily after the build up.

From Michael Penkas we have ‘Better Heard and Not Seen’ in which Kevin is terrified by the monster in the closet, something so fearsome that even the ghost of a previous occupant of the house is scared by it, the story moving smoothly to a neat final twist in which Kevin’s abusive and disbelieving mother is gratifyingly hoist by her own petard, or something like that. William R. Eakin contributes ‘Carrion Fowl’, the tale of a new life form that preys on mankind, turning people into creatures like itself, and the protagonist of the story tries to reconnect with his transformed wife, the idea intriguing but with a narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere, only offers us a little savagery for its own sake.

Chandler crashes his car on an isolated patch of woodland and is trapped in the wreckage in ‘Jaws of Life’ by E. G. Smith, but the children who find him don’t seem in the least bit interested in bringing help and slowly, long after it’s occurred to the reader, it becomes obvious to Chandler that he has fallen into the clutches of a cannibal family, the story well executed but with nothing that genre fans won’t have seen at least a half dozen times before. In Gary McMahon’s story ‘Netherview’ is the name of a new housing estate that a couple visit on a day out, but when they get locked in after dark they discover that they are not the only occupants. This is typical McMahon, with Roy realising how much he loves Ria in his moment of testing and the threat of Netherview quietly and confidently laid out, the author relying on our imagination to fill in the gaps, while the open ending hits the spot just right.

Finally we have ‘Children of the Horned God’ by Christopher Fulbright, which begins with a car crash and the body of a woman taken by a horned being. Clay determines to either rescue or avenge his missing wife, but in his quest to find the truth he learns rather more than he might wish in a bleak story that hints at ancient rites of sacrifice, with a downbeat ending that seems slightly against the run of play but nonetheless eminently suitable.

That’s all folks!

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