Following on from yesterday’s blog entry, here are a further three reviews from the feature on anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #19:-
AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? (continued)
THE SIXTH BLACK BOOK OF HORROR (Mortbury Press paperback, 198pp, £7) edited by Charles Black is unashamedly retro, the latest in an anthology series that aims to recapture the feel of the old horror tomes of yesteryear. It comes with fifteen stories from a selection of familiar (and not so) denizens of the UK small press scene.
Opening the score is the ever reliable John Llewellyn Probert with ‘Six of the Best’, in which the producer of a Most Haunted type TV show with a gory twist takes extraordinary steps to ensure the audience get what they want. It’s a clever piece, well written and with Probert resisting the impulse to deliver a revenge from beyond the grave style ending. The longest story in the book and one of my favourites, R. B. Russell’s ‘An Unconventional Exorcism’ is a delightful black comedy in which Aunt Imelda is nursed by a niece who claims to be in contact with the dead, only after her death she comes back to haunt the young woman. There are some great characters here, a witty writing style and a great twist at the end in the way in which the old lady is exorcised. ‘The Doom’ by Paul Finch sees a new age vicar inadvertently convincing a frustrated rapist that it is okay to be himself, with dire consequences. There are echoes of Dahl at his most vicious in this cleverly constructed story, with a nasty sting in the tail and a subtext about the advantages of old style fire and brimstone preaching over the more touchy feely approach.
Gary Fry’s ‘Keeping It in the Family’ is an obliquely slanted tale of a writer who is taken by a monster while staying with his family at Whitby, but then returns. The story has an assured build-up and a genuinely unsettling atmosphere, reinforced by subtle suggestions of some terrible transformation that may be taking place. In ‘Spanish Suite’ by Craig Herbertson a trainee confectionary salesman on a European tour falls foul of a revenant. With a strong sense of place and an amiable writing style this was a thoroughly engaging piece, and my only reservation is that the nasty ending felt more like an afterthought than the destination to which the plot was driving. Reggie Oliver’s ‘Mr Pigsny’ is one of the highlights of the collection, as an academic with gangsters as in-laws finds out that there is something decidedly off about the man who was the deceased gang lord’s ‘spiritual’ adviser. The story is beautifully executed, with a real feel for the scenario and the characters, and a chain of wholly inexplicable events that accrete to provide a genuinely unsettling frisson or two for the reader. Set in 1950s Derbyshire, Stephen Bacon’s ‘Room Above the Shop’ is another winner, a disturbing tale of mannequins and guilt coming home to roost. The atmosphere is built with assurance and the characters live and breathe, while both period and setting have the ring of authenticity about them.
Several of the stories are weak, marred by predictable elements or a lack of anywhere interesting to go, while a couple leave a sour taste in the mouth. Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘Traffic Stream’ is pretty much Pacman played for real, with ravenous lorries chasing cars along an endless road. It’s decently written and an idea with some slight potential, but the author’s decision to use the names of other writers for his characters is a distraction that prompts misgivings about Unsworth’s motives and judgement. ‘Keeping Your Mouth Shut’ by Mark Samuels is a story of two halves, neither of which has much relation to the other. In the first protagonist William Powell decides that he wants to be a writer, though it’s only a pretext for a rant about the shoddy practises of self-publicists that appears to have more to do with off page events than the narrative in which it appears. With that out of the way Powell goes off in search of the film starlet who shaped his sexuality, only to find that she is dead, setting us up for a snippet of revenge from beyond the grave, though exactly what is being avenged is unclear. The story has little to commend it, is just a series of incidents strung together willy nilly, though it does provide a laugh for the anatomically challenged with the closing image of ‘a shrivelled member confirmed to be that of the severed penis’.
WHERE THE HEART IS (Gray Friar Press paperback, 221pp, £8.99) edited by Gary Fry contains nineteen stories, each set in the place where the author lives, and each accompanied by an afterword in which he or she explains the connection. It’s an intriguing idea, but I didn’t feel that it really worked: for most of the stories it seemed to me that the location could easily have been changed with nothing lost. There was seldom any sense that the setting was intrinsic to the narrative, which is not to say that these are bad stories or this is a poor collection. It’s just not quite what it says on the tin.
The best story comes early on in the book, Stephen Volk’s Bristol based (but could be anywhere really) ‘Easter’, which is a quintessentially British tale, as council workmen turn up to re-enact the crucifixion in front of a suburban dwelling, and the man of the house takes the ‘victim’ cups of tea and chats with him about this and that. The whole thing seems wonderfully surreal, Pythonesque even, with some delightful dialogue and a deadpan delivery, while the problems of the protagonist’s marriage offer an emotive counterpoint to what is going on outside.
‘The Cuckoos of Bliss’ is typical Rhys Hughes, with an unemployed man taking on the job of safety officer in Heaven and rubber stamping the invasion of Swansea by a host of giant babies. It’s a story that brings to mind the work of Lem, the plot completely ludicrous, with Hughes testing to destruction the laws of physics and logic, injecting shots of whimsy neat and an anything goes sense of invention. In ‘Summerhouse’ by Mike O’Driscoll a man returns to the Gower Peninsula of his youth and has a vision of the woman that he dated back then, confronting things about himself that until now he has been able to ignore. It’s a subtle ghost tale, rich in atmosphere and with a subtext about the things we hide from and how they will always come back to haunt us. A Birmingham crime baron looks set to get away with murder when witnesses start to die in Joel Lane’s ‘The Last Witness’, but the man himself is also a witness. This was a strange story, gripping and filled with compelling imagery, and yet at the end I came away from it with the suspicion that things had all been a bit random.
Mark West’s ‘The City in the Rain’ is a new rendition of an earlier story and has a cancerous Leicester absorbing people into the brickwork of buildings to restore their health. The idea is an excellent one and West captures well both the emotions of his character, in mourning for his dead wife, and the horror of what is happening to the victims of the city, with some garish imagery. Stephen Bacon’s emotive ‘Last Summer’ has a man remembering the days of the miners’ strike, when he was a child and his father stood on the picket line, while a serial killer preyed on innocent children. He goes to check on what he has suspected all along, that one of the victims was actually killed by his best friend. There’s a terrible sense of poignancy and lost innocence, with Bacon managing the two strands perfectly, and bringing alive the tensions and high feelings of that lost time. ‘Winter’s End’ by Simon Bestwick is another highlight, with a young man’s relationship with the ideal girlfriend interrupted by the demons from her past. My only quibble with the story is that the protagonist’s police man buddy seems a bit of a plot convenience, but other than that Bestwick sucks the reader in with skill, his characters never less than believable and the emotions between them entirely credible.
Paul Finch’s ‘The Daftie’ is set in Wigan and has a young boy on a cross country run getting off the beaten track and falling foul of a mental home escapee. Initially the story struck me as rather drab and clichéd, albeit competently written, but then Finch served up a final twist which reinvented all that had gone before, showing things in a different light entirely. ‘Scale Hall’ by Simon Kurt Unsworth is set in Lancashire and another highlight, as the search for a missing child leads a man to the discovery of a gap between dimensions. It bears a passing resemblance to the Lane story on one point, but Unsworth has more of a plot and a sure grasp of his strong, central character. The imagery is unsettling, while the plight of a whole community as seen through the eyes of one man is well done, and the twist at the story’s end is pulled off with aplomb. A salesman breaks down on the North York Moors in Gary Fry’s ‘The Welcoming’ only to be taken in by a family who appear to have their own agenda. It’s a jolly outing, with some nice turns of phrase, but nothing that won’t be familiar to horror fans from countless similar outings.
‘We Are the Doorway’ by Gary McMahon features a Sunderland man for whom guilt over past failure has taken the form of a door on his chest, and he finds absolution by joining up with a group of people similarly inflicted to form a ‘house’ gestalt. I liked the feel of arch weirdness that hung over the story, even though I had a good idea where it was going to, but wish that McMahon had given us a bit more about the back story to his protagonist’s condition. Finally ‘Stamping Ground’ by Carole Johnstone has a man followed by Glaswegian tramps, their presence infecting his whole life, causing him to lose his job and social standing, then at the end becoming one of their number and inflicting the same fate on another. Johnstone writes well, winning our interest and holding it all the way as she puts her characters through the paces demanded by the plot, the idea at the heart of the story having novelty and the way in which it is played out never less than convincing, with the story’s understated denouement a particular pleasure. It was good note on which to end a solid anthology, one with more hits than misses.
From the same publisher we get NEVER AGAIN (Gray Friar Press paperback, 292pp, £10) edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane, a book described as ‘an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance’, with contributors donating their work and all profits going to anti-fascist and racist organisations, such as the Sophie Lancaster Foundation (google Sophie Lancaster if you want an example of real life horror and heroism).
Reviewing charity anthologies is an endeavour fraught with peril for the reviewer as nobody wants to be the bad guy who rains on everyone’s parade, but fortunately the twenty three stories in this volume – eleven of them reprints – are of a generally high standard, exceptional in one or two cases, so that particular poison chalice gets taken from me.
First up is ‘Feet of Clay’ by Nina Allan, in which a Jewish family relive nightmares of the past against a modern background of growing racial tension, and with the possibility of a golem in the mix. As ever, Allan writes with a keen pen, showing insight into the lives of her characters and the plight in which they find themselves, overlapping past and present to the strengthening of both, with only the ending striking a weak note, one in which the author doesn’t quite seem to know how to finish. ‘Volk’ by R. J. Krijnen-Kemp has a surreal, Kafkaesque feel to it, with a couple given outsider status and feeling strangely menaced by the shadowy official who lives upstairs, the constant threat of having life and liberty snatched away, intercut with the shocking demise of their cats. The story is rich with imagery and echoes of Lynch’s Eraserhead, the whole shot through with an unsettling quality that seems omnipresent and yet gains power to unsettle from its very vagueness. Lisa Tuttle’s ‘In the Arcade’ depicts a future in which coloured people survive only in exhibitions for the edification and entertainment of the white masters, the story told through the eyes of mystified Eula Mae, who doesn’t understand what has happened to her or why, with an undercurrent of savagery to the tale, seen in the offensive language and the sheer mindlessness and brutality of what appears to have befallen a significant proportion of the human race.
‘Sense’ by Tony Richards shows a society in which people who feel disenfranchised turn to fascist politics, only to realise that everyone who does not conform is in danger and the solutions offered are false. In embryo it’s an illustration of Martin Niemoller’s famous observation that culminates with ‘and then they came for me’, with Richards exploring the theme with a deft touch, showing at first the appeal of fascism and then the slow shift until its ugly side is revealed. ‘In On the Tide’ looks at racism through the eyes of a young man, forced to ignore a boy of different colour to appease the prejudices of his mates, slotting into the tale an incident of wartime segregation and death that echoes down into the present day. Author Alison J. Littlewood tackles her themes with conviction, the characters never less than real, especially the protagonist with his hatred of the prevailing mindset but inability to go against the crowd. The bullying is as shocking as it is senseless, soliciting our sympathy for the victim while at the same time suggesting how his tormentors came to such a pass, the banality and hopelessness of lives that can only be validated through the infliction of pain on a weaker party.
‘Survivor’s Guilt’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz, which originally appeared in Black Static, provides a potted history of fascism in the early days of the twentieth century through the eyes of a female immortal (the vampire word is never used, but there’s a strong suggestion). Beautifully written, it draws the reader in, juxtaposing the personal situation and concerns of the narrator with those of society at large, celebrating the link between love and liberty, how the two reinforce each other. Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘A Place for Feeding’ takes a very ordinary situation, that of a woman wanting to breast feed her baby in a café, and then distorts it terribly, with the café’s clientele turning against the young mother. The story captures perfectly the social intolerance and insistence on conformity that seems typical of fascism, with a backlash and anger out of all proportion to the supposed offence given and the victim humiliated and abused while all the time being told how it’s for her own good, and that she is being unreasonable in seeking to exercise the simple right to feed her own child.
Towering over everything else in the book is ‘Night They Missed the Horror Show’ by Joe R. Lansdale, one of the classics of the genre, a savage and brutal case study of racism, as two rednecks fall foul of people even worse than they are. The whiff of the KKK runs through this story, and even though thirty years old it retains the power to shock, so that the reader almost wishes to look away as a terrible situation steadily gets worse, and we are deprived of any sense of closure, just the nullity of senseless death.
Steve Duffy’s story details the home life of ‘The Torturer’, the routines and small exercises of power that sustain him, the dreams that torment, all just an appendix to the job he performs with such apparent zeal, the story chilling in its implications and matter of fact depiction of inhumanity. Gary McMahon’s ‘Methods of Confinement’ gives us the situation of a woman visiting her brother in prison, and showing how she also can become a prisoner of the situation. While engaging, this story was a little too oblique for my liking, the horror for once too understated. In a lighter vein, Robert Shearman’s ‘Damned If You Don’t’ is the story of Martin, who ends up in Hell sharing a cell with Hitler’s dog, and then when the dead are returned to Earth learns exactly how Adolf got the way he was. It’s a delightful tale, full of touches of sly invention and a wry humour, all of which underline the serious points the story has to make.
‘Machine’ by Carole Johnstone has a theme park in which scenes from the Second World War are recreated by actors, only one night everything comes horribly real for the owner. So far, so weird, but the subtext here seems to be that fascism is latent in all of us, a machine that is driven by our hurt and fear, needing only the right stimulus to surface once more. Stephen Volk’s ‘After the Ape’ is simply brilliant, but I already said that in my review of Stephen Jones’ Mammoth. Along with the Lansdale, it’s the highlight of this anthology. ‘The Death of Dreams’ by Thana Niveau takes on the tabloid press, with a future in which dreams can be captured and the details made public. A celebrity’s life is torn apart by tabloid revelations about what is going on in her subconscious, but the implications go much further, with society itself endangered. The story spotlights the tabloid sensibility, the need for sensationalism that puts headlines above everything else, with privacy thrown out of the window, and all done in the public interest, with our consent and connivance.
‘The Depths’ by Ramsey Campbell has a writer finding that he must get horrid fantasies out of his mind and down onto paper, else they will find an expression in the real world. As ever with Campbell, the hints of something awry come thick and fast, consensus reality slowly upset by intrusions of the outré, and the possible subtext that perhaps we have a personal responsibility for the things we create. Last story in the book, Simon Bestwick’s ‘Malachi’ is set in a totalitarian future Britain, with a mixed race family wishing to escape to another country, but only able to do so through the intervention of a Holocaust survivor. It’s an engaging story, but all the same runs along on familiar and expected tracks, with the plight of the characters touching the reader, but no real surprises or anything insightful to offer.
(TO BE CONTINUED)