Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #47:-
GRAY FRIAR PRESS
Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands is just hot off the Gray Friar presses, so in my usual timely manner here are reviews of the two previous volumes in this location driven series of horror anthologies edited by Paul Finch.
TERROR TALES OF WALES (Gray Friar Press pb, 250pp, £8.99) opens with ‘Under the Windings of the Sea’ by Ray Cluley, in which writer Eddie is trying to bond with estranged son Dylan by taking him back to the Welsh haunts of his childhood, but the trip stirs unpleasant memories of his own childhood, the journey culminating in tragedy. The atmosphere here is beautifully realised, with a solid sense of something awry happening in the background, that walls between worlds have been broken down, and this wrongness impacting on the relationship between father and son, exacerbating the tensions that have arisen between them, until the heartrending final act. Steve Duffy’s exuberant ‘Old as the Hills’ is the story of happy go lucky Rafi whose vigil with a dead body at an isolated church is disrupted by the arrival of outré beings intent on stealing the corpse. It is a rather slight concept and stretches credibility more than a bit, but Duffy’s spirited telling and his portrayal of the larger than life Rafi makes the reader forgive much, so that overall what we have here is a fun story, from first line to last.
There’s an Aickmanesque feel to Reggie Oliver’s tale of two women cyclists putting up at the unusual inn known as ‘The Druid’s Rest’. Our feelings of unease steadily mount in this wonderfully understated piece, as events escalate until it is impossible to deny that something very strange is going on, though we can’t exactly put a finger on what, with a chilling denouement. Two campers in peril throw themselves on the mercy of a man staying at an isolated cottage in ‘Swallowing a Dirty Seed’ by Simon Clark, but he is unable to help them, can only himself fall foul of the transformation that overcomes all who eat from the wrong apple tree, the story bittersweet and with a minatory mood that gathers force and conviction as the narrative unfolds. In Thana Niveau’s ‘The Face’ a rock formation on the wall of a waterfall gives the appearance of a face, though it is usually seen only in photographs, but when one man tries to climb the frozen waterfall things take a desperate turn. Niveau is excellent at portraying the camaraderie of her three main characters, their love of photography and the Welsh countryside, with the menace hidden behind the veil of the everyday eventually leaping out to snare them in its grip.
In a collection of Welsh horror tales it would be unusual if we didn’t have one focused on mining, and so there is ‘Don’t Leave Me Down Here’ by Steve Lockley in which the senior member of a group of trapped miners is reminded of a previous occasion when he was in such a situation and how one young man got left behind. The claustrophobic feel of being stuck far underground is well realised, but in the end it is feelings of guilt that come to the fore and are the undoing of our protagonist, though even these may simply be the outward manifestation of his internalisation of feelings of worthlessness, that he has nothing left to live for and so might as well die underground. The night hag who foretells death is the subject of Stephen Volk’s ‘Matilda of the Night’, the longest story in the book. Folklorist Rees is so intent on getting the story from the lips of an elderly woman dying in a care home that he allows his own life to unravel, only at the end learning the need to sacrifice something of himself for the good of another person. There’s a lot to like about this story, such as the excellent characterisation, with Rees’ relationships at the heart of the story, and the way in which it plays out at the end with the return of the son nobody told Rees the old woman had, but for all of that the situation that makes these things possible seemed highly contrived to me, and I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief enough to accept the idea of an academic who runs off in pursuit of a creature from folklore in such a manner.
One of the best stories in the collection, there’s a Lovecraftian feel to ‘The Sound of the Sea’, Paul Lewis’ tale of a man who finds acceptance and love in a village where the inhabitants have a terrible secret, the story sinister with its visions of desuetude and hints of something perverse going on in the background, but ultimately uplifting. ‘Dialedd’ by Bryn Fortey has Newport invaded by an invincible Zulu horde seeking revenge for the battle at Rourke’s Drift, but the author eases us into this situation with an account of a philanderer getting his comeuppance from the lady’s husband that would have made the Carry On team feel at home. There’s a gonzo quality to the work that didn’t quite come off for me, but the story fell between two stools, with the sections detracting and distracting from each other, so that I didn’t know if I was reading a comedy or something intended to be taken more seriously. Priya Sharma’s ‘The Rising Tide’ captures very well the pressures felt by a young doctor, telling how a mistake resulted in the drowning of a young girl and this in turn leads to her own supernaturally slanted demise. The complementary elements of depression and supernatural incursion play well off of each other, leaving the reader room to manoeuvre in between the margins of the conflicting narratives.
Human sacrifice and cider are at the heart of ‘Apple of their Eyes’ by Gary Fry, with a student led into temptation by a femme fatale, the story in some ways a variation on the Adam and Eve myth, but here crossed with a fair share of The Wicker Man. Finally we have John Llewellyn Probert with ‘Learning the Language’ in which Welsh dislike of the English gets a Lovecraftian makeover, the protagonist of the story learning to raise ancient deities by sacrificing those of English blood, his first person account of events all slightly manic and wonderfully over the top.
There are also stories by Tim Lebbon and Steve Jordan, and as with the other volumes in this series, between each story as a sort of palate cleanser, we have accounts of local legends and hauntings that have taken place in the area, all of them thoroughly entertaining, and proof if needed that fact can still be every bit as strange as fiction.
Which brings us to the penultimate volume in the series, TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE (Gray Friar Press pb, 264pp, £8.99). Opening this collection of stories located in God’s own county is Simon Avery with ‘In October We Buried the Monsters’, a tale of the Pale Folk and changelings. Musician Jez and pregnant wife Emily move back to the village of his childhood, but find themselves embroiled in local legends, while underlying it all is the essence of what a mother will do to protect her child, Avery bringing this conflation of Summer Isle and the monsters of folklore to vibrant life on the page.
A museum curator specialising in textiles is haunted by an Innocent Coat belonging to an occultist in ‘The Coat off his Back’. Author Keris McDonald builds her story with true authority, introducing details of textile preservation that add verisimilitude, interjecting an element of ambiguity by giving her protagonist psychological issues and guilt regarding past actions he has taken, creating a convincing history and backdrop for the McGuffin of the story, all these aspects melding to form an excellent and thoroughly entertaining supernatural tale. ‘They Walk as Men’ by Mark Morris is set against the background of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, told from the perspective of a young boy who wishes to protect a girl he fancies from the serial killer, but ultimately Ben and his friend Colin learn that there are far worse things out there. It’s an intriguing story, with lots of good background detail and a sense of what it is like to be young and unable to have all the things you want thanks to overbearing parents and your own essential shyness, but all the same it doesn’t have much real substance to it from a plot perspective, with a twist ending that seems obvious the payoff for staying with it so long.
The sins and omissions of the past come back to haunt a man stranded ‘On Ilkley Moor’ in Alison Littlewood’s story. Written with a strong sense of place, the bleakness of the setting brought to vivid life, the feeling of emptiness chiselled into the landscape, this is a story that asks us to consider things from a different point of view, to not always assume that our actions won’t have consequences, and does so enviably well. There’s a cinematic feel to ‘The Crawl’ by Stephen Laws, a tense story in which a man and woman in a car are pursued by a relentless entity intent on their destruction. Laws gives no reason or explanation for what is taking place, just lays it all out in front of us, and implicit in the tale are questions of what would we do to survive in such a situation, who would we throw under the wheels, and could we live with the consequences. It was my favourite story in the anthology, a simple concept that holds the attention all the way from first word to last.
A man trying to move on with his life after the death of his beloved has an encounter with the numinous in Gary McMahon’s ‘Ragged’. While ostensibly a common or garden cursed object story, McMahon elevates the material through the intriguing nature of the haunted object and the keen sense of the protagonist’s grief that permeates every word of the text. The old story of the troll lurking underneath a bridge and demanding a toll from all who wish to cross over is reinvented in ‘A True Yorkshireman’ by Christopher Harman, the story an absorbing meld of fact and fiction, personal drama and supernatural fare, with a traumatic incident from long ago at the heart of it all. Fifteen years after the event, a group of journalists who did something horrible in pursuit of a story return to the scene of the tragedy in Mark Chadbourn’s ‘All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be in Hell’. The general schemata of the piece is rather obvious, but the details of what happened, the keen psychological observations, and the subtext regarding media ethics, all combine to make a thoroughly engrossing story.
‘The Summer of Bradbury’ by Stephen Bacon tries to capture something of that writer’s work, the sense of dark currents moving beneath the surface of an idyllic small town existence, as a young boy has an encounter with the haunted world. Beautifully written, it assays perfectly the feel of innocence tainted with awareness that was Bradbury’s forte, a dirge for the childhood that is slipping away and the onset of puberty, with the subtext that only those who die or are lost can make the summer last forever. One of the highlights of the book, ‘The Rhubarb Festival’ by Simon Clark tells of a man stalked by the ghost of a friend who went missing when they were children, disappearing inside a shed used for maturing rhubarb. The conceit sounds slightly naff (I mean, rhubarb!), but Clark makes it work splendidly well, with elements of survivor guilt and mystery coalescing in a tale that is as unsettling as it is gripping, the rhubarb shed portrayed as a dark place in which monsters can be found.
A couple go on a camping trip in ‘The Crack’ by Gary Fry, the holiday a last ditch attempt to save their marriage after the wife has had an affair. As you would expect from Fry the psychology of their damaged relationship is rendered in compelling and believable terms, but wafting through the text is something more ethereal, a hint of what might have happened to ex-lover Tony, so that the reader must decide if this is a ghost story or simply one in which two and two have made the unlikely sum of five. A conflation of stories, with fiction used as a self-referential medium to get at the truth, the anthology ends with Jason Gould’s superb ‘A Story From When We Had Nothing’. A career criminal is thwarted in his ambitions by his little girl, while the villagers descend on Black Top Farm to kill the monsters that have come from the city. It’s a beautifully constructed piece, one in which the reader can never feel certain as to what is going on and how it will all pan out, Gould keeping us on our toes, but with a subtext touching on the stories we tell ourselves and each other to make life tolerable. I loved it.
There are also tales by Chico Kidd and Rosalie Parker, and again the stories are punctuated by various snippets of local legend, which serve to make the book even more compelling and excellent value for money.
Edited by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone, HORROR UNCUT (Gray Friar Press pb, 248pp, £8.99) offers us “macabre tales from the frontline of aus-terror-ty”. Subtitled ‘Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease’, the anthology’s brief is to use horror fiction as a tool to address the plight of ordinary, decent (so tempting to say hardworking) people in the age of austerity and misrule. After a brief Foreword by Johnstone, the anthology proper begins with ‘A Cry for Help’ by co-editor Lane, the story of Carl a hustler for the private healthcare model, but also a man haunted by the suicide of his estranged girlfriend, and visions of other suicidal people who ask for his help. It’s a story that makes the reader expect a moment of epiphany from Carl, but instead delivers a bitter, caustic end twist, with even death given an asking price.
The protagonist of Simon Bestwick’s story investigates a series of inexplicable deaths and finds evidence of ‘The Battering Stone’, a local legend that preys on depressed people. The central conceit is perhaps a bit fanciful when taken at face value, but the real thrust of the story lies in the underlying portrait of a society in collapse and the broken lives that are thrown up by that, with the stone both a vampiric predator that feeds on despair and also the outward manifestation of that despair. Set in Ireland, ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ by Priya Sharma also uses a local legend to telling effect. Conflating an affair gone wrong, the death of children, an abandoned housing project, and a woman who may be going insane, it is the most accomplished story in the book, one that melds beautifully all its disparate elements to produce something much greater than the sum of its parts in a narrative that speaks to both the heart and the mind.
John Llewellyn Probert steps into the world of television with ‘The Lucky Ones’ in which a producer rises to the challenge of creating a new game show by tapping into his S&M side. It’s a simple piece, but one that deftly plugs into our worst fears as regards the power of the media and its desensitising aspect, with a neat final twist. In ‘The Sun Trap’ by Stephen Hampton a man’s dreams of a comfortable retirement and trips to Spain are capsized by the need to help his yuppie son out financially, the state of the world’s economy reflected in the grasping nature of the family who destroy the man’s hopes and plans for the future. A despondent man finds relief in consuming the blood offered by a young boy in ‘Only Bleeding’ by Gary McMahon, but things go too far when he takes the boy home to feed his dying girlfriend. Bitter black and undercut with the character’s self-loathing, there is a genuine feel of end times to this powerful story, one in which the personal and societal inform each other, the plight of the man and his partner simply a symptom of changing times, a world in which we survive by preying on the young and helpless, and must always take more than is freely given.
The dehumanisation of the poor is brought to savage life in Anna Taborska’s grim tale ‘The Lemmy / Trump Test’, a short piece that hits like a punch to the gut. The resentment of somebody who was promised everything and then had it all taken away is at the root of ‘Falling into Stone’ by John Howard. Two friends become the Austerity Outlaws, breaking into the abandoned houses of the wealthy to see how the other half lives. Slowly, assuredly, the story moves along to the point where, for one of the protagonists at least, throwing out the baby with the bathwater seems not only desirable but inevitable, the narrative demonstrating a variation on despair and what it can do to people that is all too often ignored, becoming the monster you are portrayed as. ‘Ptichka’ by Laura Mauro examines the plight of a pregnant migrant worker who doesn’t have enough money for healthcare, the story slowly moving from a very human problem into something that is reinvented in surreal and Lynchian terms, the true horror of Marta’s situation made all the more heartrending.
In ‘The Devil’s Only Friend’ by Stephen Bacon, Nolan is an arsonist just released from prison who has to come to terms with both his past crime, which resulted in the death of somebody he loved, and the ways in which society has changed while he has been banged up. Through the medium of a firebug’s tormented psyche Bacon demonstrates how society itself has burned down, but those to blame only stand back and gaze on their handiwork with pleasure, while underlying this is a vision of a necessary, cleansing fire that is to come. The longest story in the book, ‘Pieces of Ourselves’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz is the tale of Richard, a library worker who is fighting against cuts to the service and taking part in protest marches, but intercut with this is a vision of another life, the one he could have had if he had stayed with an artist girlfriend. Rabinowitz’s work is one of the more upbeat here, showing that the austerity paradigm can be resisted at a grass roots level and that there is more to life than political activity, that we need a better reason to resist, something that is grounded in the purely personal.
‘The Privilege Card’ is given to loyal citizens in David Turnbull’s story, but while pitched in terms of a supermarket rewards card the reality is somewhat more sinister, rewarding people for informing on friends and neighbours. Good citizen Tom has qualms, but is unable to resist the lure of a better lifestyle for himself, the story seguing into a compelling account of personal corruption disguised as taking the moral high ground. In ‘The Ghost at the Feast’ by Alison Littlewood spectral victims of the Square Footage Tax seek to wreak a terrible vengeance on the politician they hold responsible, but things don’t go quite as they wish. Lurking behind the walls of the narrative is a terrible indictment of the ruling classes, that not only do they know what they are doing through their policies but that they revel in the suffering caused as a result.
Personal madness and the possibly vain hope for a better world collide in ‘The Opaque District’ by Andrew Hook, with endless queues used as a powerful metaphor for the post-austerity condition of the vulnerable members of society, the story surreal and chillingly effective. Finally we have ‘No History of Violence’ by Thana Niveau in which the partner of a mentally ill man who has been abandoned by the system decides that it’s payback time for the movers and shakers. It wins our sympathy first with a depiction of Robin’s plight, and then when we’re on side reveals how Sara intends to make things better, and though we know her proposed action is wrong we can’t help but wish her well in what she means to do.
The book also contains stories by David Williamson and John Forth.
After the fiction we have a rather lengthy ‘Afterword’ by Tom Johnstone, which is a kind of potted history of socialism, austerity and the whole shooting match, with additional comments on how horror fiction can contribute to the ongoing debate, followed by a list of contact numbers, addresses etc., of organisations that can assist victims of austerity. I expected it to be rather preachy, but in the event this section was enlightening and informative, though I can’t help feeling it is largely a case of preaching to the converted.
So, buy the book before they ban it.