Filler content with catacombs

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

John Llewellyn Probert: The Catacombs of Fear

(Gray Friar Press paperback, 179pp, £8)

A sequel of sorts to The Faculty of Terror, Probert’s third collection shares the ingenious structure of that work. As the author explains in the Introduction, his inspiration for these books comes from the old style portmanteau horror film anthologies, as for example Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and so what we get are five stories within a framework narrative.

That framework focuses on the Reverend Patrick Clements, who arrives at Chilminster Cathedral to take up a new post, but as part of his introduction to this new job he must listen to the strange stories of various people he bumps into while walking round the Cathedral and through its catacombs. We get a prologue and various interludes between stories in which the Reverend’s wanderings are chronicled, all laden with clues for the big reveal that crowns the book.

As to the stories themselves, in ‘The Neighbourhood Watch’ a couple new to the area attend a dinner party at which they are solicited to join the eponymous watch, who seem slightly more intolerant than they are comfortable with, and as the night draws in they see damning evidence of exactly how proactive these people can be. On one level this is standard revenge from beyond the grave fare, but Probert uses it to touch lightly on themes of social injustice, while his execution is flawless, using dialogue and gestures to convey how truly odious and deserving of a nasty comeuppance these people are.

‘At First Sight’ is more original, though just as well written and gratifying to read, with the exception of a few annoying typos (not a problem in the other stories). A picture of an unknown woman is delivered into Mark Stone’s hands by a faulty photo-booth, and he finds himself attracted to her, but all attempts to bring her into his life lead Mark into acts of violence and mutilation. I liked the story here very much, which starts as a clever variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray before veering off into more macabre areas, with echoes of things like Japanese* film Shutter and the playing out of a terrible curse, Mark’s descent into madness portrayed powerfully and convincingly.

In ‘The Markovski Quartet’ a young woman with yearnings to be a ballerina attends an audition, but her father is suspicious of the circumstances, and he has every reason to be. The brilliant surgeon and his disabled wife have an agenda of their own. I had some doubts here about the back story and whether what was proposed was actually practical, but the way in which the characters play each other and off of each other more than compensates. ‘Mors Gratia Artis’ has an ambitious television producer with artistic leanings falling under the spell of a mysterious painting, but as its secrets are revealed to him the man begins to realise that nothing is what it seems and he is the pawn in another’s grand design. This story was possibly my favourite in the collection, with the art world and that of popular television, the antipathy between the two, convincingly drawn, while the nature of the painting when eventually revealed added a morbid and sinister touch to proceedings, the whole topped off with a neat twist at the end.

Last story ‘A Dance to the Music of Insanity’ is almost as good, and on some days I might actually prefer it. The title references Anthony Powell, but with the family gathered at a stately country manse for a funeral and a series of brutal killings, a more likely source of inspiration is Coppola’s Dementia 13. It’s the liveliest of these stories, with an ever growing body count, madness and music abounding, a well drawn dramatis personae and a delicious ending, all combining to make for a romp of a story.

The book captures perfectly the feel of the portmanteau films that inspired it. The structure has novelty value, but overall The Catacombs of Fear has nothing new or mould breaking to offer, and I don’t think it intends such. What we get is old style horror, stories with the proverbial beginning, middle and end, well told by a writer who comes across as a natural raconteur, with an ear for a telling phrase and the ability to occasionally shock, both with the audacity of his inventions and the graphic way in which they are played out. Bottom line, it’s a fun read, and if you’re not one of those who turn their noses up at the idea of entertainment for its own sake, then chances are you will have a good time if you let this book into your life.

*Yeah, I know, it was a Thai film, not Japanese.

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