A brace of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #2:-
ANTHOLOGIES: ANCIENT & MODERN
Anthologies don’t sell according to people in the know, but still there are those who fly in the face of received wisdom and defy the odds by publishing the pesky things. Two recent entries in this rarefied arena are The Black Book of Horrors (Mortbury Press paperback, 298pp, £10) and Read by Dawn Volume 2 (Bloody Books paperback, 240pp, £9.99).
In his introduction editor Charles Black reminisces about the heyday of the horror anthology, recalling the macabre delights of the various bestselling Pan and Fontana series, and tagging The Black Book of Horrors as a tribute to those volumes, ‘right down to the blood soaked quotations on the back cover’. It’s true you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can tell something about how it wants to be perceived by the world at large. On that score The Black Book seems to stand four square in the great literary tradition of supernatural and horror fiction, with red on black text and the cover image of a sartorially elegant gentleman seated in a leather backed chair and staring intently at the large volume in his hands, against a backdrop of shelves lined with similar tomes.
Edited by Adele Hartley, Read by Dawn Volume 2 has a more modern provenance, having first sprung to life as an offshoot of Dead by Dawn, Scotland’s International Horror Film Festival, of which Hartley is the director. This too is conveyed by the packaging, with a clean white cover on which there are some fracture lines, the suggestion of a knife and a few splashes of red, making the reader think of a porcelain sink in which blood has been spilt or a Mondrian abstract left out in the rain until the colours run.
And so, to the nitty gritty. The meat of the matter.
The Black Book gives us eighteen stories, most of them by writers whose names will be known to anyone familiar with the independent press, though the jury is still out on whether any of them will go on to bigger and better things. These are guys who have paid their dues (and yes, I do find the complete absence of female contributors a curious omission), who’ve honed their craft and know how to tell a story, who are aware of the history and traditions of the field in which they are working. The characters may be a bit more forthright and psychologically aware in certain areas, such as sexuality, and the gore may be laid on a bit thicker than in the past, but all the same what we get are stories the likes of Lovecraft and Poe, James and Benson would not have turned their noses up at and, even if new ground is seldom broken, in terms of entertainment most of these tales more than reward the effort required to read them.
‘Regina vs. Zoskia’ is a typical Mark Samuels story, the account of a protracted court case, one which is never intended to be resolved, only to drain the vital energies of the lawyer involved, a subtle and Kafkaesque tale with sinister undertones, made all the more so by Samuels’ calm, restrained prose style in which words often seem to be used as a straitjacket to keep in check the madness that is always bubbling away just beneath the surface of the text. David Sutton’s ‘Only In Your Dreams’ hedges its bets, allowing the reader to decide if the jelly man is simply the daughter’s nightmare given a name and flesh or perhaps the outward manifestation of the tensions that are simmering in the family unit, Sutton excellent in suggesting the dichotomy of the passive wife/mother and the bullying husband/father, and how these roles impinge on a child’s awareness. ‘Size Matters’ by John Llewellyn Probert is a nasty little schlocker about a man hell bent on penis enlargement through plastic surgery with a vicious sting in the tale and some descriptive passages guaranteed to make the strongest wince. ‘Family Fishing’ by Gary McMahon is a clever extrapolation from a well known story (and to say which, would be to give away the ending), with the youngest of the family rejecting the past and the role that is expected of him, the author holding his cards close to his chest until the very end.
Not everything works, with some stories nothing more than retreads of stuff we’ve all seen before. ‘Spare Rib: A Romance’ by John Kenneth Dunham is the most obvious offender, a riff on The Monkey’s Paw which offers irony in lieu of originality. ‘Cords’ by Roger B. Pile is another familiar tale, that of a young couple who fall through the cracks into another reality where they learn something of life’s harshness, well written and holding the interest but with nothing to really challenge the reader’s expectations, while an alien invader spreads mayhem in Sean Parker’s uneven ‘The Sound of Muzak’, a story that has some interesting ideas and credible scenes of social collapse, but with the pacing off slightly and patches of lacklustre prose. The usually reliable Paul Finch tells us about ‘The Wolf at Jessie’s Door’, in which an ex-cop tries to rekindle an old romance by reporting the activities of a monster dog on the slum estate where he now lives, only this is much more than a mere dog, the story building beautifully, with some excellent characterisation and awareness of police esprit de corps, a sure sense of mounting menace and effective ambiguity as to the nature of the beast, only to then falter with an abrupt and left field ending. ‘Shalt Thou Know My Name?’ by Daniel McGachey is that old chestnut of the scholar who unleashes an ancient curse and finds himself the victim, but entertaining all the same with some nice touches of macabre detail. There’s a similar whiff of something nasty in academia in ‘To Summon a Flesh Eating Demon’ by Black himself, though the plot doesn’t quite ring true (I had a hard time believing that the villain of the piece would be quite so blasé about sacrificing a female student) and overall it’s a little bit too straight faced at times for its own good, might have worked better as out and out comedy.
But this is a collection in which even the less satisfying stories have something to recommend them, while the best are very fine indeed. ‘Power’ by Steve Goodwin is one of the undoubted highlights, the tale of a Brit in Poland who falls in with a gang of Satanic skinheads. The story is beautifully written, with the evil Marek and his philosophy of power and nullity a compelling creation, a Nietzsche wannabe with a streak of Crowley thrown in to flavour, while a strong sense of place grounds the story in reality even as the supernatural elements coalesce, their precise nature left chillingly unsaid. ‘Subtle Invasion’ by David Conyers starts with a wasp sting and develops into a bleak, end of the world scenario, one that offers a re-evaluation of man’s place in the great scheme of things every bit as disquieting as anything found in the annals of the Cthulhu mythos. The feeling of hopelessness that pervades the story is almost palpable as its hero loses everything that he has, all whom he holds dear. David A. Riley’s ‘Lock-In’ has echoes of King’s The Mist but offers enough in the way of original touches to more than pass muster, with several pensioners getting stuck in a pub when a Satanist opens a rift between realities. The characters are engaging and the plot holds the attention, as they test the barriers that hem them in and fight to find a way back to whatever passes for normality. ‘Last Christmas (I Gave You My Life)’ by Franklin Marsh is a seasonal ghost story, as a woman books into a boarding house where the other guests behave strangely, and only a police officer has any real idea of the truth behind what is going on, the story well told and turning the tables on the reader with subtlety and skill.
Read by Dawn Volume 2 contains twenty six stories, and given the lower page count the average story is much shorter than in The Black Book, with the longest a mere eighteen pages compared to thirty nine in the latter, and the shortest weighing in at just one line, which would put most flash fiction to shame (in fairness, it is a very good line). Only two of the contributing authors are familiar to me, though this time around some women did make the cut, and while every story in The Black Book had a supernatural or alien element, with Read by Dawn the balance seems to have swung in favour of purely human evil.
If I had to find a common denominator here, and I’ll admit that my perspective could be skewed thanks to the prominence of the Madeleine McCann case in the media landscape, it would be that something like just under half of these stories involve children, though whether we should be afraid for the little ones or afraid of them is open to debate.
Henry, the seventeen year old protagonist of ‘Baby Steps’ by Scott Stainton Miller, is obsessed with sex like any healthy teenager, but there’s a sinister backdrop to his preoccupation. A girl has gone missing in the town where he lives, and his family are keeping something hidden in the basement, in this tale of youth seduced and embracing corruption, where everything is suggestion and nothing can be pinned down until the final revelation. Ken Goldman’s ‘Rite of Passage’, a savage indictment of urban squalor and lifestyles, details a long chain of cause and effect that sees a teen gang causing a motorway pile up and, although the final twist becomes evident long before the end, the sense of inevitability about what is happening actually enhances the effect for the reader, like being a witness to an RTA and wanting to scream out a warning but finding your tongue paralysed, having to watch in helpless horror as events unfold. In ‘Childhood’ by Morag Edward, young Ben believes in fairies, and when he finds crucifixes in the lodger’s room thinks that the old man has been killing them, a revelation that tips the boy over the edge into insanity, the story cleverly delineating the delusions of childhood and, in the idea of the crucified Jesus as a fairy pinned to a dissecting board, offering an unforgettable central conceit, one that challenges our ideas on the nature of faith. Brian Richmond’s ‘Like Snow’ has ghosts appearing all over town, but harmless, this scenario simply there to play counterpoint to a marital break-up, the story told from the viewpoint of the young boy who misses his father, the narrative movingly written and shot through with poignancy, all the pain of loss. More standard fare comes in the form of ‘Gristle’ by Stephen Roy, which has a paedophile procurer fall victim to a shape shifting monster that takes the form of a little boy, a sting in the tale piece where all the pleasure for the reader comes from seeing a nasty character get his comeuppance at the hands of something even more monstrous. One of the best stories in the book and with a last line that chills to the bone, ‘A Candle for the Birthday Boy’ by Christopher Hawkins sells the reader a dummy before dropping its final bombshell, as a man whose violence has driven his ruthless mistress away finds that she has seeded a terrible revenge. It’s a story in which the moral high ground shifts, as we first sympathise with the absent mistress, but then come to realise that, in the modern parlance, this woman really did have issues and the ones who are going to get hurt are the innocent.
There are some weak stories here, but they are the exception rather than the rule. ‘Sharp Things’ by Joshua Reynolds details an encounter in an underground train between an assassin and a mutant of some sort, a man whose body is filled with metal which he can use as a weapon, the story a bloody and violent curtain raiser for the collection, but too insubstantial to satisfy, seeming simply an episode in some bigger story. Similarly ‘The Skin and Bone Music Box’ by Andy P Jones is little more than a vignette, a bittersweet recognition of poverty and what it can do to people. Susan Elvidge’s ‘The Door’ has a man lost in a strange city and pursued by something from his past, the story offering little more than its sense of dislocation. Promiscuity is punished in ‘Urbane’ by Frazer Lee, as nymphomaniac Jennifer falls foul of flesh eating monsters in an orgy of death that brings to mind the film Society, though if you’re not into conservative values there is little to recommend it beyond the vivid descriptions of mutilation and death. A man is infested by a wormlike parasite in ‘Guts’ by Gavin Inglis and cuts himself open to get rid of it, the story effectively horrific in its description of the infestation and self-surgery but also somewhat pointless, the title inviting unflattering comparisons with Palahniuk’s story of the same name.
Back to the good stuff. The protagonist of Joe L Murr’s ‘Hostage Situation’ is a psychotic killer who finds himself stuck in the queue when robbers raid his bank, and you know how hard it is to keep control in those sort of situations, the story a grim little tale of human nature held in check and then not, with plenty of bloodshed along the way and a bitter coda in which it’s suggested the difference between a hero and a monster is only one of degree. ‘Fat Hansel’ by David Turnbull gives us the real story behind what happened in that witch’s cottage, with Hansel grown to adulthood and the possessor of strange appetites, which he wants his sister to share, the story a sinister outing that harks back to the true nature of fairy tales. Family values are affirmed in F R Jameson’s ‘Adultery’, with a couple who meet in a motel for a little extra-curricular sex terrorised by the sounds of torture from the next room, and agonising over whether they dare call the police as it would result in their infidelity becoming public knowledge, the story using a stock horror scenario to ask some awkward questions of the characters and reader both. The protagonist of Patricia Russo’s ‘Sally’ latches on to a somebody in a coffee shop and forces them to listen to a strange story, the mood growing weirder with every paragraph as the tone of voice changes and her obsession emerges, making this one of the most effective and unsettling stories in the collection.
Keith’s “Fingers” are taken over by an alien intelligence in Jamie Killen’s story, and he has to fight to save himself from becoming inhuman, but this is only the start of the problem. The story is told with a lightness of touch that undercuts the sinister nature of what is taking place, but the mood grows ever bleaker as it progresses, with Keith realising that his body is turning against him. In ‘The Proposal’ by Charles Colyott a man with the power to resurrect the dead does so for the woman he loves over and over again, even though he knows she will never return his feelings, the story one in which the protagonist is at first manipulative but ultimately pitiable, with his unique ability become the rack on which his emotions are tortured. ‘The Night Animals’ by Scott Stainton Miller, to me reads like a sequel of sorts to Morag Edward’s ‘Childhood’, but that could be nothing more than the character having the same name and a roughly similar family background. Problems in Ben’s marriage are given a keener edge by his mother’s illness, but there are suggestions her condition is not due to a stroke at all, and Ben learns the terrible truth about his family’s heritage as all the chickens come home to roost and ghosts of the past emerge in a subtle, disturbing tale of evil that feeds on our fears of mental illness and old age, promising that there are far worse things.
The Black Book of Horror or Read by Dawn, ancient or modern, neither or both. Ladies and gentlemen, pick your poison, make up your minds and let the scaremongers do their worst, confident that you are in good hands whichever option you choose.