And following on from Monday’s blog post, the second and final part of a feature that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
Stephen King knows a thing or two about ghost stories and related fictional matters. To celebrate the release of short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams King’s publishers Hodder decided to hold a short story contest, with the great man himself deciding the winner after other hands and eyes had whittled down the slush pile. SIX SCARY STORIES (Cemetery Dance Publications hc/pb, 128pp, $24.95/$14.95) is the end result of that exercise, containing the winning story and five worthy runners up, and complete with an introduction by King in which he sets out the circumstances of the competition and how the quality of the entries exceeded his expectations.
And the winner is… ‘Wild Swimming’ by Elodie Harper. Told in the form of emails to a friend back in London, it relates the story of wild swimming enthusiast Christine Miller, whose attempt to swim in an isolated lake somewhere in East Europe, despite the warnings of her landlady that this is not a good idea, goes horribly wrong. The setting, with our heroine a stranger in a strange land, is suitably atmospheric, Christine’s dismissive mockery of local legends slowly turning into a fearful belief, as she realises that the drowned village in the lake is the centre of an eerie and haunting entity, one that is determined to be avenged on the unwelcome trespasser in the water. It’s an entertaining piece, with an original idea used effectively, and a slow burn to the inevitable and horrific bad end for our protagonist. And yet, at the risk of being not only contrary but also sounding slightly churlish, of the six stories on offer I felt it was the least worthy.
Manuela Saragosa’s ‘Eau-de-Eric’ is centred on the relationship between a mother and her young daughter in the aftermath of the death of the husband/father. Ellie knows that Eric was a monster, an abuser, but to Kathy her father meant the world, and so when she acquires a new bear she names it after him and claims that it smells like him. This drives Ellie mad and her attempts to wash out the smell hammer a wedge between mother and daughter, also putting off the new man in her life. Eventually the obsession has near fatal consequences and the ghost of the absent Eric returns to claim what he regards as rightfully his. The characters are totally convincing, and as a study of loss, ways to grieve, and obsession bordering on madness it can’t be faulted, with the ambiguity of the ending adding yet another small frisson of fear. ‘The Spots’ by Paul Bassett Davies appears to be satirising the leadership of North Korea, with a functionary given the impossible task of counting a leopard’s spots by his beloved Leader. The matter of fact tone and the way in which the narrator continually praises the Leader, despite his obvious insanity, is totally beguiling and offers an examination of how the people of a totalitarian state are made to collaborate in forging their chains. The end twist, with the man’s problem solved in an unexpected manner, is the perfect antidote to the black humour that has gone before, but at the same time in the protagonist’s acceptance of what happens it underlines how thorough and effective the brainwashing has been.
Michael Button’s ‘The Unpicking’ is Toy Story given a macabre slant. The toys come to life and play games when their human owners are asleep, but one night they realise that they don’t have to go on living as daytime insentients, suffering every indignity the children wish to inflict. There’s a sinister side to this story, with the way in which the toys come to their road to Damascus moment, hanging on that idea of “unpicking”, both powerful and understated. It was a simple and effective story, for all that the end was entirely predictable. ‘La Mort De L’Amant’ by Stuart Johnstone is the most subtle story here. A young police officer stops to enquire about the intentions of a man parked at a famous suicide spot, one where many bodies have been recovered from the water. It is a delightful exchange, with nothing explicitly stated, but reading between the lines the reader is left concerned about what might actually be going on here. We wonder what the man’s intentions are, and if that’s really a dead deer wrapped in a tarpaulin in the back of his vehicle. Contrarily, Johnstone uses just about every cliché in the book to write his story, and makes them all work marvellously well.
Finally we have ‘The Bear Trap’ by Neil Hudson, which appears to be set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with black ash falling from the sky for six weeks. Left alone on the farm, Calvin talks to his stuffed bears, a trait that makes a raider think that he is simple and will be easy pickings, and that’s a mistake that costs him dearly. Again, it’s a predictable story, but executed with such joie de vivre that it doesn’t matter a jot. Hudson is excellent at creating the isolated setting and using suggestion to convey that something has gone seriously awry with the world, and his depiction of slightly simple Calvin is never less than convincing. The ending was a more than satisfactory case of just desserts.
Each of the stories is accompanied by an author bio and a note on their favourite King work. As a guide to future talent it’s a very worthwhile book, and I expect to see more of these writers in the days and years to come.