Filler content with not so small beginnings

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #47 and which I reproduce here with mixed feelings given what subsequently occurred with Spectral Press:-

NOT SO SMALL BEGINNINGS

Mark Morris parks himself in an editor’s chair for the first time with THE SPECTRAL BOOK OF HORROR STORIES (Spectral Press pb, 313pp, £12.50), and it’s an assured debut. This premiere volume in what is hoped to be an annual series in the tradition of the anthology volumes of yesteryear (think Pan, think Fontana) opens with ‘On the Tour’ by Ramsey Campbell, the story of Stu, a musician who was once a might have been in a band that shared billing with The Beatles. Nowadays he clings on to his job in a record store and finds validation of sorts in the tour bus that drives past his house every day, but a rude awakening is in store for our hero, in a story that is a typical Campbell portrayal of a fractured personality, someone whose understanding is out of sorts with reality itself.

Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Dog’s Home’ is one of the highlights of the book, starting as the story of a young man attempting to ingratiate himself with dying Aunt Rose and get in the will by looking after her beloved dog, but slowly gathering momentum to end with a horrific final twist. It’s a story that shocks, with the reader unable to say precisely when the narrator’s voice passes from reasonable but resentful to outright insanity, the end result a powerful exercise in tone of voice. ‘Funeral Rites’ by Helen Marshall has a Canadian academic in rundown lodgings where the landlady’s son has just died, determined to stay on due to her resentment of Mrs. Moreland’s young relative who tries to get her to leave. Nora’s loneliness makes her prey to a mother’s desire to find her son a companion, in a bleak and dark tale whose minatory atmosphere builds throughout, finally delivering a payoff that put me very much in mind of Roald Dahl.

Tom Fletcher’s ‘Slape’ is a brief but entertainingly off kilter story in which a milkman seems to fall foul of a reject from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre family, the threat implicit in the situation materialising in the final reel. Mental illness and the frailty of old age are at the heart of ‘The Night Doctor’ by Steve Rasnic Tem, as a couple in a new home find themselves cursed by illness, the man externalising his fears in the eponymous figure of a bogeyman from his childhood. It’s a fascinating account of reality refracted through the eyes of somebody whose sanity is out of alignment with true, and running under the narrative is a warm current of emotion that mitigates both the menace and the sadness of the situation. Gary McMahon’s ‘Dull Fire’ features the relationship between two damaged people, each a victim of parental abuse, and a surprise plot development involving the ghosts of their abusers. There’s a feel of sadness mixed with outrage running through the story, and underlying it all an adherence to the lies that enable us to cope with tragedy, both the things done to us and the things we do in search of justice, revenge, closure of any kind.

‘The Book and The Ring’ by Reggie Oliver contains the confession of a composer who double-crossed a witch and used her magic book for his own advancement. It is splendidly readable, as with nearly all of Oliver’s work, but has nothing much to offer beyond the plot outline, no real insight into human nature or satisfying twist, seeming mostly like a by the numbers supernatural piece. Sonia finds her ambitions stifled when she goes home to ‘Eastmouth’ with fellow student Peter in Alison Moore’s claustrophobic story of a failed attempt to break free from family expectations, even though the family isn’t your own. Slowly and chillingly Sonia’s life is rearranged to supply the needs of others, her own wishes subjugated to some communal will, the story with a feminist subtext glaring out from between the lines of the narrative.

From Robert Shearman we have ‘Carry Within Some Small Sliver of Me’, a chillingly oblique piece in which Beverly goes off to discover her true parents with unsettling results. The underlying message here seems to be that in following clues left by a monster, Beverly herself becomes a monster, her final actions a mirror image of those she sees in the house to which the trail led her. I’m not quite sure I have a handle on this piece, but it was very disturbing, not least for the matter of fact nature of the narrative as told from Beverly’s perspective. ‘The Devil’s Interval’ by Conrad Williams is the tale of Fleckney, a hopeless guitar player who somehow finds inspiration from an outside source, with the strong suggestion that this is tipping over violently into other areas of his life. It is a compelling study of obsession and the cruelty of an uncaring world that doesn’t understand how you feel, wishes only to mock and torment.

Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Stolen Kisses’ is the brief story of a woman who left it too long to strike in the love stakes, the man she had her eye on marrying another, this matter of fact first person narration leading into a shocking last paragraph, one that will take most readers completely by surprise. One of the best stories in the book, ‘Cures for a Sickened World’ by Brian Hodge has a heavy metal musician abducting a music critic and torturing him on his isolated farm, but waiting in the wings is an even greater evil, one that won’t be satisfied by just physical pain. It’s a powerful piece, repellent in what is described, and of course especially so for somebody who writes reviews. There’s a subtext regarding the whole idea of sarcasm as a professional ploy, playing to the crowd by demeaning others, but past that we get a picture of true evil, of the moral choices that have to be made and the consequences of not going far enough.

Angela Slatter’s ‘The October Widow’ also deals with the concept of sacrifice, with a nature spirit in human form preserving her life and also the health of the land itself by killing young men. It’s a clever piece, with an appealing evocation of the eponymous protagonist, but along the way it asks questions regarding culpability and how much we are willing to allow to be lost for the sake of some greater good. How much blood needs to be spilled for the land to renew itself? ‘The Slista’ by Stephen Laws is written in a sort of pigeon English, the short account of a family of feral children who take to cannibalism, the story clever and all the more effective for the way in which we have to figure out for ourselves exactly what is going on, and how things like the solicitor can come to be seen as a threat to the integrity of the family unit, authorising the use of extreme force.

‘Outside Heavenly’ by Rio Youers is the sort of small town horror Stephen King does so well. It opens with a family home burning down and the terrible death of the abusive head of the house. When they investigate the case the police find themselves led to a place where the supernatural has free play, and end up wishing they had just let matters be. There’s a lovely, homely style here to the prose and you can appreciate the justice of what takes place even while recoiling in horror from the actuality. At the same time, engaging and enjoyable as it all was, this didn’t feel like something complete in itself, but rather like the first part of some greater story about those who live off the radar, who exist in the cracks that mankind ignores. There’s a Kafkaesque feel to ‘The Life Inspector’ by John Llewellyn Probert, as a man answers questions from a mysterious functionary by way of justifying his own existence, the protagonist’s humour at the situation slowly giving way to terror, and underlying it all a warning to not waste time because time is all we have.

Lisa Tuttle’s ‘Something Sinister in Sunlight’ has an English actor typecast as a serial killer and finding that sometimes art does mirror life when a fan tries to convert him from his homosexual lifestyle, the story written with a punchy, feisty narrative voice and offering up a study of how we can all become confused with the roles we and others play. In ‘This Video Does Not Exist’ by Nicholas Royle an academic’s dissatisfaction with his life takes the form of him believing that his head has gone missing (he can’t see it in the mirror, though nobody else remarks on the absence), until he finds closure with a video of public decapitation on YouTube. It’s a curious piece, beautifully written and engrossing, but at the same time slightly oblique, at times seeming to offer strangeness simply for its own sake rather than to some greater end, unless we’re meant to interpret the story as a comment on the pervasive quality of real world events when filtered through technological media, things that in the past would have passed us by or at least not been seen so clearly, with the imagery of atrocity penetrating everyday life.

Last and longest we have ‘Newspaper Heart’ by Stephen Volk, the story of a young boy whose obsession with a guy made with his mother’s help crashes headlong into conflict with his domineering father. The guy takes on an identity of its own, and the family find they cannot get rid of it, no matter what they try. Kelvin’s obsession is perfectly rendered, a madness that tears the family apart, and the guy, which is simply a doll by any other name, becomes a character in the story, a minatory familiar. Contrarily the father, while a disciplinarian and, at least at first, the cause of discord in the family unit, is revealed as a more complex and rounded figure as events progress. All of which sets us up for the horrific transformation at the end of the story. It was an excellent end to one of the most compelling anthologies of last year, one in which quality is key note, and I hope this marks the start of an anthology series that will live long and prosper.

 

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