Filler content with themes – Part 3

Following on from last Sunday’s post, the third and final part of a feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

Publisher Gary Fry recently announced the closure of Gray Friar Press, which has for nearly a decade been a fine exemplar of how to run a successful small press, along the way publishing many fine works, including first collections by Stephen Bacon and Thana Niveau, and winning the Horror Writers Association’s Specialty Press Award for 2013. Its presence on the UK horror scene will be sorely missed.

The penultimate volume in the series, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS (Gray Friar Press pb, 262pp, £8.99) is edited by Paul Finch and, like its predecessors, contains snippets of local legend and folklore slotted between the stories (e.g. brief articles on the Loch Ness monster, Glamis Castle, etc., and a host of lesser known subjects), bonus content that is every bit as fascinating as the fiction and, in several cases, might have provided inspiration for the contributing authors, with the weirdness of Scotland’s wild, open places captured unforgettably.

Ian Hunter serves up the first slice of Tartan garbed goodness with ‘Skye’s Skary Places’, the title referencing an unusual pamphlet that offers visitors to the area an entrée to places off the usual tourist routes, but in pursuing one such avenue a family group stumble well and truly into terra incognito. Atmosphere is central in most of these stories, and Hunter certainly brings the terrain alive, showing the perils that lurk aback of outwardly scenic panoramas, and in the fate of one of his protagonists revealing that the world is not as quietly ordered and rational as we would like it to be. In ‘The Dove’ by Helen Grant a female academic becomes fascinated with the legend of a clergyman hanged for witchcraft, but in prying too much Freya herself becomes part of the story. Her obsession felt a bit too much like a plot convenience for my liking, and the end twist was pretty much what I expected, but like Hunter before her Grant is excellent at describing the wild and desolate places to which Freya’s search takes her, especially the minatory aspect of them which is all too potent.

There’s a similar quality to ‘Strone House’ by Barbara Roden, a beautifully executed ghost story in which a visitor to the grounds of a stately home that has seen far better days finds something he didn’t at all expect lurking in the landscape. The desolate and overgrown grounds of the estate are vividly portrayed, and Roden constantly wracks up the tension with numerous little touches of detail that hint at something outré taking place but at the same time could be dismissed as the product of an overactive imagination in a setting that encourages suggestibility, only to then deliver the coup de grace with a reveal of what has happened in the past in this place. Tom Johnstone’s ‘Face Down in the Earth’ is somewhat simpler, as a modern day businessman gets to pay for the sins in his family’s past, an entertaining story with a few good shudders along the way to a suitably grotesque finale. A reporter investigates a haunted house in ‘The Dreaming God Is Singing Where She Lies’ by William Meikle only to find that the truth behind the story is far stranger and more deadly than he could have anticipated. In tone it’s a piece that’s very similar to the Johnstone, but more comprehensively executed with a deft build up and unsettling touches of detail, all leading into the final note of ambiguity, one that leaves us suspecting the worst but with wriggle room to delude ourselves that a more prosaic explanation is available.

At only three pages, Rosie Seymour’s ‘The Housekeeper’ is a word portrait of an idyllic marriage, the understated and matter of fact narration expertly luring the reader in before the expected, but no less satisfying, final twist is delivered, one that questions our concepts of what is normal and what is acceptable when love figures in the equation. It reminded me of Roald Dahl at his most blackly comedic. One of the longer pieces in the collection, ‘The Executioner’ by Peter Bell is the story of two climbers in the Hebrides who stray from the usual path, Bell weaving tales of ancient myths and monsters into his narrative by way of foreshadowing what is eventually to come. Superficially, it’s an entirely routine tale of stumbling across something that would better have been left undiscovered, with characters who border on caricature at times. However, what Bell does exceedingly well is bring the landscape to life on the page, with some marvellous descriptive touches that make you wonder if he would be better employed writing copy for the Scottish Tourist Board, but underlying the beauty there is always the sense that this land has unlimited potential for treachery, that conditions can change in mere moments, with a sun dappled day transformed into something deadly, and whatever monsters lurk in the landscape are simply the embodiment of that propensity to change.

The protagonist of ‘You Must Be Cold’ is a dour and surly Scot, who has lost out in love and for whom his socialist past is just a fading pipedream, an alcoholic who earns his crust as a professional digger at archaeological sites, none of which sounds especially promising, but author John Whitbourn brings him to vivid life on the page, informing his story with a sardonic wit and barbed dialogue. Driving the plot is an encounter with a ghostly figure, one who offers our hero all the things that he has longed for, but at a price, and regarding that I have a slight quibble in that it introduces an element of polemic that seemed slightly at odds with the main narrative conceit. I’d guess that if you wanted to encapsulate both the story and its central concept in one phrase, then it would be that old sore about it being better to travel than arrive. M. R. James appears to feature in ‘The Fellow Travellers’ by Sheila Hodgson, haring off to Scotland with a colleague in search of a rare book and possibly stumbling across the secret of immortality. It’s the only previously published story in the anthology, and to my mind one of the weakest, with characters stumbling across each other in unexpected places with a frequency that would put a Brian Rix farce to shame and a health spa that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Carry On movie, plus touches of The Woman in Black stuffed into the background. There’s a good idea or two hidden in the narrative, but overall I thought it a terrible mish mash and not something I was at all inclined to take seriously.

Graeme Hurry’s ‘Shelleycoat’ was another slight offering, with a man told of a local beastie and then stumbling out of the pub and straight into the creature’s arms, with only the unique nature of the monster to redeem an otherwise disappointingly humdrum and predictable story. An order of occultists delve into the past of Aleister Crowley in ‘The Other House, the Other Voice’ by Craig Herbertson, a story that put me in mind of Wheatley’s oeuvre, with some larger than life characterisation and lovely touches of humour that perhaps owed more to the influence of P. G. Wodehouse. It was a nicely wrought romp of a story, with a finely tuned sense of the ineffable hiding behind the curtain of the everyday, and there’s a strong suggestion that the author has used these characters before, and if so then I hope he will feel tempted to do so again. One of the most subtle pieces in the book, D. P. Watt’s ‘Myself / Thyself’ presents us with the picture of a lonely, disconnected boy, who believes that he can see ghosts, or rather has visions of people from other times and places. It’s not a particularly novel concept, but in focusing on the displacement of his protagonist Watt takes the story off in another direction, one where horror rubs shoulders with potential for endless wonder in a power house of a finale.

Phantoms and personal rivalries become entwined in ‘Broken Spectres’ by Carl Barker, with two mountaineers coming unstuck in time on the slopes of Ben Nevis. I’m not quite sure why protagonist Martin would wish to tell his aggressively alpha male friend Steve that he’s in love with his wife while they’re alone together on a mountainside, unless he has a death wish, but that quibble aside this is an absorbing story, rich in incidental and historical detail, and presenting a convincing picture of the camaraderie of climbers. However it runs out of steam a little towards the end, with apparently no idea where to take the plot, and so introducing the monster in the machine by way of providing an unexpected resolution. With strong echoes of Jeepers Creepers, Gary Fry’s ‘Jack Knife’ brings another local legend to life, with some unsettling details and nasty wet work, and something of Rain Man in the characters of Barry and brother Sam, who has severe learning disability, Fry excelling in his depiction of the loving relationship between the two, with its undercurrent of resentment on the part of Barry. It’s a brief story, one that presents a unique menace and doesn’t outstay its welcome in doing so.

We get more of the Wheatleyesque in ‘The Foul Mass at Tongue House’ by Johnny Mains, in which an occult ritual goes wrong, with dire consequences for both the housekeeper who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the magician himself who finds that he can’t control everything. It’s a slight piece, perhaps intended as humour to judge from the over the top title, but if so then it didn’t raise even the ghost of a smile on the face of this curmudgeonly old reader, though there were one or two nice touches of the grotesque along the way to a resolution that seemed more like a running out of steam, or possibly ectoplasm in the circumstances. Finally we have ‘There You’ll Be’ by Carole Johnstone, the tale of two lovers ensconced in an island retreat and trying to recapture the bright past of their relationship. Told in the first person by the female protagonist, it’s a beautifully written and keenly felt story that puts human emotions in the foreground, but with ghosts of the past threaded through the narrative. It’s pastoral and outwardly idyllic, but with disaster always a step away, just as the tragedies of the past are only hidden behind a curtain we have drawn over such events. The subtext seems to be that we are responsible for our own happiness and unhappiness, that we can so easily become ghosts in our own lives or be haunted by the shades of what might have been. It was a wonderful end to a strong collection, one that perhaps more effectively than in most of the previous volumes in this series celebrates the setting, making it an essential part of these stories, a character in its own right, so that you feel these tales could not have been told if they’d taken place elsewhere.

The latest volume in the series, Terror Tales of the Ocean, I reviewed in #51 because it went well in partnership with another seagoing anthology (reviewers get to do themes too), and to cut a long review short, my conclusion was that you should most definitely get a copy.

Goodbye Gray Friar. We’ll miss you.

NB: This review is slightly edited from how it appeared in #53 as at that time I was under the impression the Terror Tales anthology series would cease with Gray Friar, but subsequently learned it is to continue with Telos Publishing, who have Terror Tales of Cornwall slated for a January 2017 release.

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