Category Archives: short

Best British Horror 2015 edited by Johnny Mains

Best British Horror 2015Best British Horror 2015

Series editor Johnny Mains

Published by Salt, 2015

The modern horror anthology has seen a bit of a revival in recent years. The likes of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, Best Horror of the Year, Best New Horror etc, etc have all vied for our attention but anything with Johnny Mains in the editors chair is a guarantee of quality. The first volume of Best British Horror was published in 2014 and it instantly became a favourite. Now it’s time to dig into this years collection and see whats on offer.

This years anthology consists of twenty-two short stories covering, just about, every spectrum of the genre, from subtle ghosts to less than subtle dog murderers. Stylistically it’s a perfect example of how the horror genre can deal with the mundane, the exciting, the politically relevant and the totally bizarre and turn them all into entertaining reads.

With 22 stories on offer I’m not going to summarise them all but rest assured there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Of course, like any anthology, your preferences will vary dependant on author and style, your top choices may differ from mine but I defy anyone to read this collection and not come away with a list of winners.

For me the outstanding tales, as opposed to the mere great tales, included Learning The Language by John Llewellyn Probert with its references to Welsh paganism. The Third Time by Helen Grant which is a clear descendant of M.R. James’s subtle horror style. Alsitair by Mark Samuels manages to expand the qualities of the simple ghost story by inferring a much darker evil. On Ilkley Moor by Alison Littlewood brings to life the ancient Yorkshire landscape while Gary McMahon’s Only Bleeding is firmly rooted in the all too real tragedies of modern austerity.

For me though, The Rising Tide by Priya Sharma, was the outstanding story in this collection. It had everything, tragedy, suspense, intrigue and shocks. I should also point out the editors excellent tribute to Graham Joyce who sadly passed away in 2014. The inclusion of one of Joyce’s excellent short stories, Under The Pylon is a fitting tribute.

It’s the job of an anthology like this to showcase the value of the modern horror short story. The importance of the short as a format is as relevant today as ever. It’s often the perfect format for getting a message across but it requires a skillful author to create a plot and characters that can hold the reader’s attention in such a short piece of writing, luckily this collection showcases those talents to the maximum. It’s always a delight to find new authors among the more established ones and again this collection fulfills that requirement and even manages to squeeze in a couple of comedians to the mix (Sara Pascoe and Reece Shearsmith), both of whom produce excellent work.

With the name of Johnny Mains on the cover being a guarantee of quality, I didn’t expect to be disappointed but once again he has managed to produce an anthology which surprises, satisfies and scares, what more do you want.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Glory and Splendour by Alex Miles

Glory and Splendour

by Alex Miles

Published by Karoshi Books, 2012.

The story of how Robert Johnson, one night, took himself down to the crossroads at midnight and promptly sold his soul to the devil in return for a remarkable talent might seem like a fairly obscure start to a book review. All I would say is go and buy a copy of this collection and then consider how an author is able to arrive on the scene as fully formed, as dazzlingly talented as Alex Miles then tell me he hasn’t had been out for a walk one evening.

Simply reading the eponymous first story will give you some idea of the remarkable talent of this writer. It’s a mind-blowing tale of a biblical scale plague (boils anyone?) which reduces the land to a wasteland worthy of Hieronymus Bosch but the inhabitants of a stately home are protected from the viciousness outside by a special paint which makes everything appear beautiful (rose-tinted spectacles anyone?). A couple of lines can’t really tell you nearly enough about the quality of this story. Layer after layer of fantastic imagery is drawn over a plot which, whilst apparently simple, reeks of metaphorical intrigue. In short it’s fantastic.

Follow that with a dystopian/steampunk/cyberpunk riff on the value of machinery over human judgement  in The Judge or the morally probing Deep Stitches with its imaginative look at the possible future of cosmetic surgery and you have three stories of real quality but Alex Miles doesn’t stop there, just when you are getting used to his blend of dystopian SF/horror we get a comedy story. Hitting Targets is a highly humorous tale involving estate agents and MMORPG gamers which is rich in satire but most of all sheer good fun.

The Life Beggar is perhaps the most complex of the stories on display here but it remains accessible and readable even if it might leave the reader scratching their head. Finally The Lotus Device is pure Twilight Zone material. Richly inventive, simple, yet complex at the same time it’s a mind-blowing story of a man who receives a device which allows him to selectively erase his memories, beautifully constructed and the end does not let you down.

Only six stories but six stories brimming with excellent writing, but it’s the maturity of the writing which impresses here. Sure some of the stories could be slightly shorter, sure some of the metaphors might be a tad clunky but this is a first collection and yet reads like something from an established author. Weird fiction has been dominated recently by the likes of Thomas Ligotti, Mark Samuels and Simon Strantzas but this collection contains stories worthy of all three and with the opener, Glory and Splendour automatically gives Alex Miles a place alongside them. So buy this book and watch out for Alex Miles in the future, I predict big things from both him and Karoshi Books. Now I’m off out for a walk…to the crossroads.

Rating 5 out of 5 *

* So how can I give 5/5 and yet raise criticisms, surely that should lead to losing a point? Well possibly, but the quality of both Glory and Splendour and The Lotus Device redeem any possible failings. Those stories alone earn the book a 5.

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The Satyr’s Head by David A. Sutton

The Satyr’s Head : Tales Of Terror

Selected by David A. Sutton

Published by Shadow Publishing, 2012.

There’s a bit of a 70’s revival going on at that moment so look out your glam gear, platform shoes and Abba LP’s and let’s head back to the early 1970’s when David A. Sutton was busy putting together the Third volume of New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural, unfortunately the original publishers dropped the series but it was eventually published in 1975 by Corgi books and then promptly went out of print. This will be the first chance many of us have had to read some of these stories and indeed some of these authors so let’s dive in.

James Wade is one of the more interesting authors on display here, settling in Korea after the war his writing ranged from articles on music and war stories to Cthulhu Mythos tales. The Nightingale Floors is a strong start to the collection exploring the “delusions of sound and sight” on a museum night-watchman. It’s a quiet, ambiguous and very enjoyable read.

Ramsey Campbell has gone on to be revered for his atmospheric horror tales and while some of that talent is on display in The Previous Tenant, there are also signs of an author learning his craft. The dense, at times almost poetic prose, often feels overwritten, with maybe one too many metaphors thrown into the mix, but it’s still a memorable tale of obsession.

Martin I. Ricketts gives us The Night Fisherman. I’ve not come across this author before but this is an enjoyable, short and pointed story. Sugar And Spice And All Things Nice by David A. Sutton is an excellent and moving tale of a man who, faced with a monotonous job, enjoys watching the world go by his window right up until a mysterious girl shows up.

Provisioning by David Campton is a tongue in cheek tale about two god fearing hillbilly brothers, Keziah and Adam and their quest for food, its all gory good fun. Another gory tale is Perfect Lady by Robin Smyth which although interesting was one of the books weaker stories.

The Business About Fred by Joseph Payne Brennan, in contrast to the previous two stories, was rich and moving, full of pathos and sadness, as a lonely figure in a bar considers his effect on the world. Brian Lumley’s Aunt Hester takes a long time to reach its conclusion but the ending redeems any faults in the earlier pacing.

Finally we have two occult horrors starting with A Pentagram For Cenaide by Eddy C. Bertin. A prolific SF, horror and children’s author Bertin’s tale is one of the best in this collection. Another slow starter but one which certainly repays the readers persistence with a rich and involved tale of a painters obsession with the wife of a friend. Finally we have The Satyr’s Head by David A. Riley which reads like a lovechild of M. R. James and Dennis Wheatly as the occult powers of an ancient artifact are unwittingly found by Henry Lamson.  It’s an enjoyable tale but as, perhaps, the most “seventies” tale here it hasn’t dated as well as some of the others.

So turns out that as well as being great for spacehoppers and polyester the 1970’s was also producing some excellent horror fiction and this anthology give you the opportunity to revisit some of it.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Rough Music by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Rough Music

by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Published by Spectral Press, 2012.

The short format is often the most appropriate length for horror stories, it allows the author to condense our fears into nightmarish snapshots of text without over staying their welcome. The Spectral Press chapbook range continues to publish some of the best short horror fiction around, all in nicely produced, signed, limited editions.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Rough Music is a near perfect example of how it should be done. Take a not very likeable main character (Cornish), throw in some self-inflicted personal issues and then add some weird happenings to spice the whole thing up and sit back and watch as the character endures the consequences.

In only a few pages we get depth of character, intrigue and pathos and its all beautifully written to keep the pages turning. Bridging the gap between short stories and novellas these chapbooks continue to demonstrate that in horror fiction the short, sharp, shocks are often the most memorable ones.

Rating  4 out of 5

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A Book Of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones

A Book Of Horrors

Edited by Stephen Jones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books, 2011.

In the introduction to this collection Stephen Jones makes an impassioned plea to reclaim the horror genre from the gathering hordes of vapid vampires and cliched zombies “for those who understand and appreciate the worth and impact of a scary story”, well dear reader, that sounds like me and you, lets explore further.

We start with a certain Mr Stephen King and a brand new story The Little Green God Of Agony which proves that he can still thrill the reader in less than thirty pages. It’s an excellent story about a rich businessman seeking release from pain and is a powerful start. Charcoal, Firesteel and Flint is the next story and Caitlin R. Kiernan is given the difficult task of following in the King’s rather large footsteps. Luckily she meets the task head on with another wonderful tale which in vivid prose explores the fascination and fear of fire. Imbued with history and mythology this is a powerful story.

Ghosts With Teeth almost manages to out King, King with it’s small town American setting and wonderful gory Halloween story. The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter is a timeless story as a daughter continues the family business with a little help from a ghostly presence. It’s emotional without being twee and the unanswered questions add to the richness.

Roots and All by Brian Hodge is a melancholic tale of a grandmother’s death and the revelations she was hiding. Emotional and engaging and rooted (ahem) in old folk tales this is a really engaging tale. Tell Me I’ll See You Again by Dennis Etchison has a similarly melancholic feel with more than a passing resemblance to a Ray Bradbury Green Town tale with it’s shimmering summer sunshine and pathos.

Getting It All Wrong taps into Ramsey Campbell’s love of movies in this tale of outsiders and film fanatics. It has Campbell’s usual commendable quality of unsettling reality as a misanthropic worker is asked to help a colleague. Alice Through The Plastic Sheet by Rob Shearman is in direct contrast to Campbell’s unsettling reality, this time the setting is a mixture of the mundane and the surreal. It’s equally effective though and injects a welcome dose of black humour to proceedings.

The Man In The Ditch by Lisa Tuttle has a  rich darkness throughout as it examines a couples strained relationship as they move into a remote cottage and strange visions begin to haunt them. Reggie Oliver’s A Child’s Problem is one of the longer story in here but doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. In typically classic style we are transported to a world of public schools, stately homes and dodgy relatives. Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith is an extremely dark and unsettling tale as a lonely man’s driving expeditions lead him to a terrible discovery.

Near Zennor by Elizabeth Hand is the longest story here. It’s another excellent tale of ancient history and folk myths set amid the ancient stones and gnarled oaks of Cornwall where old mysteries are hidden round every corner. Last Words by Richard Christian Matheson finishes off the collection with a strange little monologue.

Eagle eyed readers will have noticed I missed a story but I did it deliberately. For me The Music Of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist is the standout tale of this collection and among the many strong tales and writers on display that is no mean feat. This story is special though, it has everything, supernatural threat, gory murder, pathos, emotion and above all Lindqvist’s fantastic sense of “otherness”. The plot seems simple enough as a widower tries to connect with his teenage son through music only to find a darker force intervening. I must admit, with this and the recent review of Little Star I seem to be becoming an embarrassing fanboy but what the hell, with writing this good Lindqvist deserves all the praise he gets and it’s particularly gratifying to note that this is the author’s first story written with an English speaking market in mind. That doesn’t mean it loses any of the author’s telltale Scandinavian wildness though.

An outstanding tale from an outstanding collection. I said a while back when reviewing The Eighth Black Book Of Horror that if you only buy one horror collection this year buy that, well I was wrong. Yes you should still buy that but you should also raid the children’s piggy bank and buy this. Stephen Jones has put horror back on the bookshelves in fine style, buy this book and make sure it stays there.

[Rating:5]

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The Horror Anthology Of Horror Anthologies edited by D.F. Lewis

 

The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies

Edited by D. F. Lewis

Published by Megazanthus Press, 2011.

D.F. Lewis knows a thing or two about horror anthologies. From 2001 to 2010 he created the Nemonymous series of anthologies, a series which published the stories anonymously to remove any reader preconceptions of prejudices. This background and love of the short story collection has led to this new venture, a collection of twenty stories all with one recurring theme, the horror anthology. In the hands of a diverse and talented group of writers this has produced a collection that, while unified in theme, covers a huge range of styles which keeps the anthology fresh and entertaining.

Given the love most horror fans have for the anthologies they read as youngsters it’s perhaps not surprising than many of the stories focus on that nostalgic yearning for the books of our youth. Horror Stories For Boys by Rachel Kendall revisits an abusive childhood and the escape offered by a much loved book, it’s a rich and emotionally powerful story. Midnight Flight by Joel Lane also focuses on the moving quest for lost youth as an old man tries to track down a long lost anthology.

Of course it’s not all golden nostalgia there are plenty of darker tales here. The opener, It’s Only Words by Colleen Anderson is a “chronicle of pain and lonliness” where a library of horror anthologies is used to teach others life lessons in a variety of splendidly gruesome ways. The Useless by Dominy Clements starts out as a cliche, a breakdown in the dusty west, but soon moves beyond that into a nightmarish exploration of the power of words. The Fifth Corner by E. Michael Lewis is another dark tale which has some powerfully scary scenes as an old vehicle refuses to give up it’s secrets.

It’s not all darkness, there is humour, of a sort, in Rhys Hughes’ Tears Of The Mutant Jesters a typically Hughesean bizarre tale which bends, warps and twists the English language into a remarkable story about sick books. There’s environmental awareness in Tree Ring Anthology by Daniel Ausema a powerful, at times poetic, piece which uses the rings of a tree as an anthology of the impact of man on the environment.

Other favourites include The Follower by Tony Lovell a moving tale focusing on one woman’s life and the emotional power of books. Flowers Of The Sea by Reggie Oliver is a typically, beautifully written and moving tale where a woman sinks into the wilderness of dementia. The Rediscovery Of Death by Mike O’Driscoll finds a small press publisher given the opportunity of a lifetime, the use of real people and facts help give this story weight. The American Club by Christopher Morris is a griping dark story which sees a son dicover his father’s hidden talent for writing and the dark secret behind that talent.

Those are just some of the highlights from what was an excellent anthology with enough variety to please most readers. A couple of the stories didn’t really connect with me but again with the variety of styles on offer that’s probably to be expected. D.F. Lewis is to be congratulated for continually pushing the genre in new directions and in seeking out material from some lesser known but very talented writers. The Horror Anthology Of Horror Anthologies is an excellent collection and highly recommended.

[rating:4]

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The Mask and Other Stories by Herbert Van Thal

The Mask and Other Stories

By Herbert Van Thal

Published by Noose and Gibbet, 2011

 

Johnny Mains is well known for his work in unearthing the history of the horror genre and in particular the Pan Book of Horror Stories and it’s long standing editor, Herbert Van Thal. It was during some research for Back From The Dead that Mains uncovered a little known collection of stories authored by Van Thal himself, Child Performer. This collection restores those treasures to there rightful place in the bookshelf but was Van Thal’s writing as good as his editing…?

First story, The Mask tells of a young girl who cares for an old woman in a grand old house. The old woman, a former star, is now sustained by a mask but the girl feels trapped in the decaying house. It’s a beautifully written tale full of somber poetic writing and emotional impact as the girl seeks freedom from her burdens.

The next two stories are Variations on a Theme and feature the character of Hugh Brandon-Weber a man emotionally traumatised by his wife leaving him, having first accused him of being boring. It’s clear that he still loves her and is very much the victim in both these stories but they both expose weaknesses of character which soon cause the reader to lose sympathy.

In Child Performer he seeks solace in the theatre where he can escape his troubles. It’s at one of these shows that he first sees Baby Helen and this is where things get complicated and decidedly odd. He becomes infatuated with the child, imagining her as a substitute for the child he and his wife never had, but there is no getting away from the fact that his infatuation threatens to cross a very dangerous line.

Another line is firmly crossed in Summer Idyll where the same character meets a beautiful young country girl who, again, he sees as a substitute for his wife. What starts as an innocent bit of fun soon turns nasty and the phrases “he regretted he had spoiled her” and ” the girl was left crumpled and disordered and gently crying” leave the reader in little doubt about what happens. Of course, Van Thal punishes his character for both indiscretions but they still make for uncomfortable reading as the beautiful descriptive writing contrasts with the dark underbelly of the main character.

Relief is at hand in the form of The Old Lady Makes A Cup of Tea a farcical comedy which sees Captain Reginald Parker trying to escape the city and his so called “friends” by buying a country house and not telling anyone. His friends turn the table though, in what is an unexpectedly funny story.

Finally the essay Recipe For Reading was written by Van Thal to his godsons as an intended reading list. It’s interesting and illuminating to read Van Thal’s views on literature and helps lovers of his editorial work understand his own tastes. What is perhaps most surprising is his avoidance of most horror. Only Sheridan Le Fanu gets a mention but whether this is more to do with the intended audience or a genuine reflection of Van Thals’s tastes is not clear.

This is a collection which has worth as an historical document but that’s not to dismiss the quality of the writing. Certainly The Mask is an excellent story, touching, sentimental with rich textured prose. That same quality of prose does come through in the other stories but is offset, as I said, by the unsettling subject matter. The horror equivalent of finding a lost Beatle album, this is an important and interesting collection and once more the horror community owes a debt of gratitude to Johnny Mains for bringing it to our attention.

[rating:4]

 

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