Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-
I suspect as a young man Mortbury Press head honcho Charles Black wanted to edit the Pan Books of Horror when he grew up, and though that particular honour passed him by, Black has certainly made up for it with a long running anthology series of his own that takes Pan as an inspiration.
The latest entry in this series, THE TENTH BLACK BOOK OF HORROR (Mortbury Press paperback, 217pp, £6) opens with ‘Stiff’ by Angela Blake, the story of an incorrigible nymphomaniac, who after horrifying the nuns at the convent where she is raised finally finds a man well-endowed enough to satisfy her only for things to go badly awry, resulting in a need for necromancy. It’s hard to know what to make of this. The plot is absurd and goes so far over the top that a moon landing isn’t out of the question, but at the same time it’s written with an undeniable gusto, the author appearing to have so much fun that you can’t really help but share her enthusiasm, even while feeling that a shrug and accompanying whatever are the only appropriate responses to this barmy variation on the theme of undying love.
Religious fanatics lure a man to his doom with ‘The Easter Bunny’ in Tom Johnstone’s story, which again is a little too OTT for my liking, with the suspicion that the author’s attempts to give his bad guys credible motivation is only an excuse for the resulting wet work, the story itself nothing more than the mechanism for arriving at a nasty denouement. David Surface’s ‘The Last Testament of Jacob Tyler’ is a revenge piece set in the old West, with the eponymous protagonist poisoning his wife and then running afoul of some very nasty spirit entities when he gets involved in a range war. It’s well written, with an excellent sense of place and time, and the despondent tone of voice is maintained throughout, with some gleefully gory set pieces and a note of ambiguity at the end, all of which raises the story above its common or garden events. There’s a touch of Roald Dahl about the phlegmatic ‘The War Effort’ by Carl P. Thompson, as a self-righteous busy body collecting in support of the troops discovers that things have got pretty desperate on the home front as well, the story one in which the narrative runs into increasingly strange territory and with a sense of just desserts underlying it all.
‘The Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ by David A. Sutton is a competently written piece about a cursed painting, told from the viewpoint of the friend of a man who develops an obsession with the model in the portrait, the story running along familiar lines, with some nice touches of detail and an engaging protagonist, but having little new to offer. Chris Lawton’s ‘Christmas in the Rain’ lays things on a bit too thick with its picture of an abused teenager and her life on the streets, but then compensates with a truly unsettling final twist, one that leaves everything up in the air. Gary Power takes us to a mental hospital for ‘Deeper Than Dark Water’, which is the kind of story that gives mad scientists a bad name. Told from the viewpoint of a young intern who discovers to his cost that patients are being used as guinea pigs in the kind of surgery that would have made Mengele proud, the story is an atrocity show and tell, a narrative that seems to exist simply as an excuse for some grotesque descriptions of the patients and what has been done to them.
The longest story in the book and one of the highlights, ‘Marshwall’ by Paul Finch tells of a haunted rocking horse and a family tragedy, the author cranking up the tension with chilling details and giving us characters we can care for (or not, as the case may be), resulting in an excellent example of the kind of thing Finch does so well. Ian Hunter’s ‘Exploding Raphaelesque Heads’ takes us inside the mind of an artist intent on recreating his favourite Dali painting with real people, a short, sharp shocker that doesn’t outstay its welcome to the point that you realise how ludicrous it all is. ‘The Best Christmas Ever’ by John Llewellyn Probert pulls some interesting characters out of the woodwork but wastes them in a pointless piece in which a child turns into a monster when he is given tools for a Christmas present. Like the Johnstone and the Power, I felt it suffered from putting the atrocity show first and then using the plot to reach that point, instead of having the horror arise naturally out of the story. There’s a fine line between shock and schlock, and it’s one that Probert usually negotiates with ease, but here he comes down on the wrong side of that divide.
A socially inept young man’s desire to get laid leads him to attempt ‘The Pygmalion Conjuration’ in Mike Chinn’s story, details of which are meticulously worked out and with the inclusion of Aleister Crowley in the dramatis personae adding a note of verisimilitude. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing our protagonist get what is coming to him, with Chinn throwing in yet another twist to bring home the bacon. David Williamson’s ‘The Boy’ is a gritty tale of sibling rivalry and parental preferential treatment, but it’s let down by a narrative that takes the present as its starting point, with the boy remembering what went wrong in the past, and then flips timeline to move forward into the future with nothing to smooth over the wrinkle in the fabric of the story’s reality. There’s an almost surreal feel to ‘The Last Wagon in the Train’ by Andrea Janes, as a gunman’s plans to double cross somebody who has helped him go seriously wrong, with the appeal of the story residing in the mysterious and unsettling nature of the wagon train itself.
Kate Farrell’s ‘Dad Dancing’ put me in mind of Saki’s Clovis tales, with spoilt brat twins taking revenge on their father when he denies them something, the whole story little more than an extended joke, but a very amusing one if you take your humour black and with no mercy. Last and probably the best story in the collection, ‘Guinea Pig Girl’ by Thana Niveau has a man obsessed with a Japanese porn actress who stars in movies where she is violently killed, the story cleverly blurring the lines between reality and fiction, placing the libido of the protagonist under the microscope, while on another level it works as a ghost story with echoes of Ringu, albeit a very gritty example of the type and definitely not for the squeamish. It’s a great note on which to close this somewhat hit and miss anthology, in the main because here the violence isn’t gratuitous but is central to the plot and drives it forward, whereas with some of the other pieces it felt simply exploitative.
Though she doesn’t have a story in #10, Anna Taborska has been a regular contributor to the Black Books, so it’s fitting that Mortbury Press should publish her first collection of stories (and, I believe, their first single author collection apart from Black’s own A Taste for the Macabre). FOR THOSE WHO DREAM MONSTERS (Mortbury Press paperback, 210pp, £9) contains eighteen tales from the dark side, and comes with an introduction by Reggie Oliver, who also provides an exquisite black and white drawing as the frontispiece for each story.
We kick off with ‘Schrödinger’s Human’, a chillingly matter of fact account of a boy whose predilection for torturing animals carries over into his life as an adult, until a particularly evasive cat opens him up to the joys of experimenting on human beings, the tale reminiscent somewhat of Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’, as seen in a mirror darkly, and with a gratifying final twist to top some of the scenes of violence that precede it. ‘Little Pig’ is perhaps Taborska’s most unsettling story, one which takes twin themes of pragmatism and survival, then casts both in the most harrowing terms, posing the question of what we are prepared to do to protect our loved ones and how we live with the decision afterwards, again with a matter of fact narration that subtly underplays the true horror of the situation. ‘Fish’ is somewhat more straightforward and less satisfying, with a man bitten by a scorpion fish inexplicably turning into some kind of aquatic monster and wreaking havoc on his tormentors, the story redeemed by some splendid descriptive passages but at heart nothing more than a simple revenge piece.
Set in Africa, ‘Buy a Goat for Christmas’ is a bizarre conflation of various elements, with a werewolf in a head on collision with a Centurion tank given to the village blacksmith to convert into farm implements. It all seems rather unlikely and credibility stretching, but Taborska ploughs through the plot with a steely determination that makes it all work in an entertaining way. ‘Cut!’ is the story of a maverick film director determined to use an actress who is totally unsuitable, with it coming round to bite him in the arse in the most unlikely way. I suspect this was intended as comedy, and there are a few laughs, but really not enough, while credibility is stretched past breaking point and the exercise as a whole seems aimed at delivering a lame punch line playing on the title. ‘Arthur’s Cellar’ contains a monster, and this brief story tells what happens when it escapes, the gist of the piece being the identity of the aforesaid monster. It’s played for the twist and the question of morality implicit in what takes place, but I felt that the author could have done a bit more, posing that dilemma more appositely instead of just using it for shock value.
An abusive baker goes too far with the young boy who comes to learn his trade as ‘The Apprentice’, the story one of violence and with an end twist that turns matters on their head, but with little by way of reader engagement and justification beyond that end reveal. Arguably the best story in the collection, ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’ is a set of tales within tales, its departure point a reporter writing an article on Nazi atrocities in Poland and getting sucked into an eerie ghost story, one that haunts him and those who come after. There’s a wealth of detail here, a harrowing account of man’s inhumanity to man and what we will do to survive, with the subtext that the horrors continue only while we remain silent about them, and a strong end note with a “ghost-writer” realising his own fallibility.
Both set in Poland, the two part ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ is traditionally slanted supernatural fare. In ‘Rusalka’ a young man’s obsession with a woman he sees by the river leads to his doom, while ‘First Night’ has a man visiting the ancestral home of his family fall victim to a vengeful ghost. Both stories are well executed and entertaining, with a good back drop to them, but beyond the Polish setting neither has much to offer that readers of this type of thing won’t have encountered many times before. In the brief ‘Halloween Lights’ a man is mistaken for a trick or treater, but his confused memories hint at a far more horrific explanation for his appearance in a story where everything is ambiguous, suggestion. A man is followed by ‘The Coffin’ in another grim little shocker that doesn’t set a foot wrong in the telling but has little to offer beyond its predictable denouement.
‘The Creaking’ is a sound that unnerves a rustic healer as she walks through her beloved forest, the story touching on themes of mob rule and the need for a scapegoat, finding a victim for life’s ills, the hypocrisy implicit in much of that. I’m really not sure about ‘Dirty Dybbuk’ in which a virginal young woman is possessed by the spirit of her nymphomaniac aunt and goes on an erotic odyssey of sorts. It might have turned into a powerful tale of sexual repression and/or abuse, only Taborska gives us the Carry On version, which could easily have gone horribly wrong in less skilled hands, but mostly it works well, with the scenes so far over the top as to not be offensive, as when our heroine flashes the neighbourhood kids and later engages in recreational S&M. All the same, the subtext doesn’t sit too well with me and I’m not convinced the comedic approach with its ‘and they all fucked happily ever after’ ending was the right one for this material. ‘Underbelly’ gives us more old style horror, the kind of thing M. R. James might have produced, with a woman spared the pain of her cancer as long as she provides men for the thing in the basement to consume, the story engaging but also seeming a little too detached, with what to me feels like it should be central to the narrative, the question of who the monster really is in this scenario, largely sidestepped.
‘Tea with the Devil’ offers a delightful change of pace, with the devil in question an urbane and cultured soul who falls foul of human evil, the subtext playing with the idea that we have become too callous, so that even the devils abhor human beings, and an intriguing tale within the tale to add extra value. I liked it very much. ‘Elegy’ addresses similar themes, the cycle of persecution and inhumanity portrayed through the figure of a writer waiting for the Germans to storm the ghetto in which he lives, the story informed by a strong sense of the universality of suffering and the fact that it is all so unnecessary.
And, in a nice act of book ending, we close as we began with a shaggy cat story, ‘Bagpuss’. The eponymous feline lures its owner, a young girl, to her end, though to me it seemed rather contrived, albeit Emily’s annoyance at being relocated to the country came over strongly and the way in which the action is told through her youthful perspective worked rather well. It was an uneven end to an uneven collection. There’s nothing bad here, but several of the stories appeared to be simply going through the motions, rehearsing familiar lines. And some of the others are among the finest I’ve read recently and show what Taborska is capable of when she stretches herself.