NR: Nine Ghosts

Over the past month or so I’ve been reading quite a few titles from Black Shuck Books (‘Publishing the Peculiar since 2015’) and through into January 2022, time allowing, I’ll be reviewing some of them on here, possibly by way of penance for sins of omission committed back when book reviewing was in my job description and I missed commenting on any of the titles publisher Steve J. Shaw sent to Black Static for consideration (wasn’t planned – it seldom is – just turned out that way). As well as all the obvious formats – collections, novellas, anthologies – there’s a range of Black Shuck Shadows, mini collections from well and not so well known writers in the horror field, designed to introduce new readers to their work at affordable prices (£4.99 for a pb, £0.99 for an ebook).

Nine Ghosts is the 25th book in the series and contains the work of Simon Bestwick, a writer who should need no introduction to those familiar with the UK horror scene. He’s been widely published and reviewed (check out this site’s Book Review Index), anthologised by Ellen Datlow among others, and has even been interviewed by me in the pages of Black Static.

Opening story “As White As Bone” has the marriage of Max and Anne under strain after the death by drowning of their mentally handicapped son Peter. Max is concerned by Anne’s behaviour – at night she visits the site of Peter’s drowning. But of course something else is going on and there is more to this drowning than meets the eye. Beautifully paced, this story is one in which there are unsettling emotions at play and hard choices have to be made, with the reader left to decide whether a misplaced mercy or simple selfishness was at play in dictating how a character acted. The idyllic setting, tainted with the sense of tragedy, is brought to vivid life on the page, while the conflicting feelings of those who have lost a loved one are keenly evoked.

“The Wedding Hand” is a story in which toxic masculinity gets its comeuppance with Rod, who treats women badly and always has some shabby justification for doing so, finding that there is a natural justice to the universe, even if it doesn’t work in the way he might wish. It’s an entertaining and gratifyingly macabre example of the just desserts school of horror fiction and will be applauded by those with a sense of fair play.

In “Truth and Consequences” we get the confrontation between a journalist and the medium she is trying to out as a fraud, but when an attempt is made to contact spirits and prove things one way or the other it doesn’t pan out how either participant expected. Bestwick gives us an intriguing set up, one where you wonder what the author will pull out of his hat to surprise us, and the end twist does not disappoint, with the black humour implicit in the situation a delight.

“The Suicide Chairs” is the most complex of these stories. The protagonist is in a relationship with the psychologically damaged Elaine when a visit home to her dysfunctional family leads him into the woods and to the ruins of a house where he has a vision of an elderly couple. There’s a thoroughly unsettling atmosphere to this story, with the supernatural side of things complementing the human dimension, while the back stories of oppression are heart-rending. It’s a story about the ways in which we hurt ourselves and each other, the conflicts of the past which we can so seldom rise above or get past, and intensely moving, the two strands working perfectly together.

Next up is a cheery example of the campfire story, with a man regaling a group of campers with the story of “Dab and Sole”, wartime fighter pilots with an uncanny knack for surviving enemy attempts to shoot them down, but the horror of the story comes when they finally do collide with the one that has their names on it. It’s old school horror, a gleeful piece where you can almost hear the author cackle as he inflicts some new gory delight on his audience, beautifully executed and immense fun, if not entirely to be taken seriously.

I suspect the next story is meant to be taken very seriously indeed, verging on polemic. A young man has a spectral encounter that ends badly for his health, but maybe not in the long run. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is a rather obvious piece, a message story, but a message I’m fully on board with, and so gets a free pass from the critical voice in my head. It’s simple, effective, poignant even, and more than justifies its inclusion in this collection. Another short piece, “A Constant Sound of Thunder” has a man at loggerheads with his wife, and either one or both of them may be ghosts, but the real horror of the story lies in the economic conditions that drive people to desperate measures, where love turns to hate and hope perishes in the flames of yesterday’s burning.

In “Tonight the War is Over” prostitute Michelle has an encounter with a shy young man who seems very different from her usual johns. The story is well told, and doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of what Michelle’s work involves, but even more than this it shows the fear of young men placed in a terrible situation. Bestwick avoids the temptation to hand out happy endings all round, with young Tom failing to cheat fate and Michelle, presumably, forced to continue with her shitty lifestyle (and along the way Bestwick gives us hints as to how she ended up in this mess). I have one reservation – how does Tom pay Michelle for her services? – but it’s a minor point and doesn’t detract from the appeal of this excellent story.

Finally we have “The Cage”, a prose poem dedicated to Joolz Denby, who provided its inspiration. It’s rather like something Ted Hughes might have produced if Amicus pictures had played a bigger role in his life, a completely bonkers excursion into the realm of just desserts, and considered in the abstract should be dismissed as an absurdity, but Bestwick makes it effectively unsettling while all the time winking at the reader and asking us to lay aside scepticism.

Closing out the book are “Story Notes: The Ninth Ghost”, with accounts of the origins and thinking behind these stories, as well as a tally of how many ghosts there are in the collection, with a clever solution for those who feel the author has left them one shroud short of a haunting. Great stuff.

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