The first part of a feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-
Once upon a time it was possible to put together an anthology of horror stories by new and established writers, and publish it with some portentous title like Bloody Offerings or Grave Matters embossed in carmine dripping letters on the front cover and a lurid illustration as a backdrop, probably a skull crawling with maggots. Times however have moved on, and while some of these “open” anthologies still cling to the market with their skeletal fingers, the desiderata is the themed anthology, with stories linked by some specious commonality, thus denying canny readers and reviewers the bother of identifying such elements for themselves.
Here are five recent entries, fresh out of the gate.
Edited by Alex Davis, REALITY BITES (KnightWatch Press pb, 114pp, £5) is an idea that, in our media saturated landscape and world of selfies, where Warhol’s fifteen minutes has transmuted into something guaranteed by international law, seems horrendously obvious, a short anthology of horror stories that offer up macabre variations on the theme of reality television, as if that wasn’t horrifying enough in its own right.
First up we have ‘Tribe Test’ by Simon Clark, playing games with a concept previously used by Ballard in his story ‘The Greatest Television Show on Earth’ and by Gore Vidal in the novel Live from Golgotha, and probably by loads of other writers I haven’t heard of . With her career on hold, singer Cassandra is sent back in time to the Syria of four thousand years past where she becomes a goddess to a primitive tribe, but healing sick people and giving out tips on disease prevention doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to ratings, and so our heroine is prompted to instigate some drama/conflict, with dire consequences. It’s an engaging story, well written and developed, and with a neat codicil about the timelessness of love and true human emotions that are shared regardless of other differences, but at the same time doesn’t really have much to offer beyond the novelty of the idea, and once that’s out of the way, no matter how skilful, the rest is pretty much going through the motions.
‘Dead Right’ by Janet Edwards has a similar feel of familiarity about it, with the director of a Most Haunted style show looking to liven up his formula with the addition of an eccentric who claims to have invented a machine that will communicate with spirits (thus removing the need for Derek Acorah, my curmudgeonly nature opines). But then the device turns out to actually work, and with help from the other side the production team find themselves solving various murders, a development that makes for good TV but also has unlooked for complications. It’s done well, with tongue in cheek throughout and taking a sidelong glance at the type of programme being parodied, but ultimately the plot twist is the old one of the psychic who puts themselves in danger and won’t hold any real surprises for the reader. In the grim future world of Gav Thorpe’s ‘End Transmission’ nation states hire mercenaries to sort out their differences, and everything is televised with the soldiers’ pay dependent on ratings, and nobody really sure if human life is of a secondary concern to viewing figures. A bit muddled at first, with a sizable cast of characters, the story soon beds in and plays out along more or less predictable lines, for all of which it works very well as an indictment of our commercialisation of armed conflict, the ways in which watching television news reports can undermine the actual experience and deaden our senses, so that we need ever bigger shocks to the system before we feel anything at all. There was about the story an air of verisimilitude and a sense of just maybe, that this could really happen, with military conflict just another source of grist for the media mill in satisfying viewers’ lust for the sensational.
We’re back among the spirits for ‘Wormwood’ by Chris Amies, with a television show that feels like a cross between Most Haunted and Celebrity Come Dine With Me, as directed by Roger Corman during his Poe period. A troupe of z-listers sit down for a meal in the asylum of the title, but there’s a rather nasty twist as a person who was possibly modelled on Cyril Smith gets his deserved comeuppance. While perhaps less ambitious than the other stories, I found that I enjoyed this one the most, mainly owing to the lively characterisation and dialogue, but also because I like seeing a bad lot get what they so richly deserve. The words Big Brother are never mentioned, but it’s obviously where Simon Kurt Unsworth is coming from in ‘Day 34’. A few years back there was a TV drama in which the BB house was invaded by zombies; this time around the threat is somewhat more ambiguous, with Anders alone in the control room and spotting strange shadows on the cameras while the housemates remain largely oblivious. With descriptions of what’s appearing on each camera feed intercut with the rest of the narrative, it’s a symphony of slowly escalating menace and suggestion, understated effects that mount to a crescendo, the kind of thing that Unsworth does so well, with an ending that removes any and all ambiguity.
Finally we have the monologue that is ‘I, Ross, Take Thee, Rachel’ by Philip Palmer, the sad story of teenager Billy Wilson who is contemplating suicide in a bid to boost his ratings. Obliquely the story offers a commentary on the Facebook generation, a world in which we all want to be liked and followed, where the gadgetry that should bring us closer instead serves to isolate and deny us the validation of peer approval. It’s taken to an extreme in the Palmer story, but is an apt demonstration of how we can feel more involved with the fictional characters who appear on our TV screens every night than those we actually know, a world in which some attempt to reconnect by reinventing themselves along fictional lines, projecting a more interesting persona, one worthy of attention on social media. For those who suffer from loneliness, it appears that social media and telecommunications technology has simply exacerbated the problem, made us ever more desperate for solutions to our isolation. Along with the Thorpe it feels like the most prescient of these stories, and a strong note on which to end an engaging anthology, one that entertains but also has interesting things to tell us about where we’re at and the places we might be going.
I searched the end pages of Reality Bites for a premium number to phone and vote out the author whose work I least want to see appear in Volume 2, but apparently they aren’t pushing the concept that far.
The team of Len Maynard and Mick Sims are a safe pair of hands, even if they did publish stories by yours truly back in the day, and it’s good to see them getting their editorial mojo back in gear with an anthology of tales on the theme of DEAD WATER (Hersham Horror Books pb, 122pp, £6.55).
Simon Bestwick is first off the high board with a Dunwich variation in which a boat gets lost in the fog and stumbles across ‘The Lowland Hundred’, to the detriment of the gang of four on board the Saucy Jane. Bestwick is excellent at setting the scene, introducing us to his cast of characters and the tensions between them, which contribute to the eventual outcome of the tale, and his recreation of a maritime atmosphere is totally convincing, with the mist creeping in and best laid plans going astray. By way of white horses riding the waves of the narrative, we have the revelation of a truly nasty creature ready to gulp down its prey, one that it seems can’t be stopped. Yes, at heart this is no more than a creature feature with frills, but executed without a single false note and most effective in delivering its maritime chills.
We move inland for ‘A Night at the Lake’ by Alan Spencer, the story of Preston’s proposal to Carol and what came of it, a story in which a family has a link to an ancient lake, one that enables them to determine where the truth lies. It is a slighter story than the Bestwick, and in its take on the central theme of love betrayed seems almost mundane, but with the concept of the lake acting like the Mouth of Truth and its chequered family history the story does have something different to offer, a touch of originality that repays the time invested in reading it. Next up we have a rare short story from David Moody, ‘The Lucky Ones’, a piece in which the water element seems almost incidental to the main thrust of the narrative. It’s a dystopian scenario, with William working in the island factory to produce material for the war effort, but then becoming curious about what is really going on in the outside world and stowing away in a transport ship to learn more. Quiet and confident in its understatement, there’s a dark underbelly to this story, in both the dreary, repetitive nature of William’s existence and the revelation that awaits him at the end of his sea trip, but at the same time there is a component of hope, a realisation that if the future is entirely bleak then a comforting lie might be the only thing that will enable you to carry on. For William that appears to be enough, but for each reader the story may afford a different and individual solution.
Another end of the world scenario raises its head in ‘The Day of Black Rain’ by Daniel S. Boucher, which if you substitute a college library for the supermarket, black rain for mist, and giant slugs for tentacled thingamabobs, could easily pass muster as a variation on King’s The Mist. It’s convincingly written, with some unpleasant details and credible characterisation, plus an open ending, all of which combine to make a thoroughly entertaining fictional package. It was, with the possible exception of the Bestwick, my favourite of these five stories. Riding in on the last wave we have ‘Silver’ by Maynard Sims themselves, the tale of a man whose daughter, while a guest at a drying out clinic, becomes fascinated by the silver creatures that she claims rise from the waters of a lake in the grounds. As with all these fictions, it’s a competently told story, beautifully paced and with some engaging characters, while the writers fill in a complementary backdrop of both personal drama and urban legend, leaving enough room for ambiguity. It’s an accomplished performance from these two old hands, writers who may never set the horror world alight but know how to tell a story and tell it well.
(TO BE CONTINUED)