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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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Ill At Ease by Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams

Ill At Ease

by Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams

Published by Penman Press, 2011.

The ease of publishing in electronic format is both a curse and a joy. While it allows every cellar dwelling hack to realise their dreams and have a published “book” in the marketplace, at the same time it also allows hard working and talented authors to find a market for material that might not have existed in the old tree based publishing world. That presents us (the readers) with a problem, how to sort the wheat from the chaff, and believe me there is a lot of chaff. Well, not to worry dear reader, for I have come to the rescue wielding my trusty kindle and will be highlighting some of the better ebooks out there of which, Ill at Ease is a perfect example.

Waiting For Josh by Stephen Bacon is an emotionally charged story where the dreams and hopes of youth are spoiled by this “tragic tale of lost lives”.  Reflecting back on childhood while attending a friends funeral brings back lots of memories, not all of them good. Its a deeply melancholic tale which examines how different paths in childhood can lead to completely different outcomes in later life. I enjoyed the simplicity of this tale and its focus on the characters, that simplicity adds to rather than detracts from the sense of  empathy the reader has for the two childhood friends.

Come See My House In the Pretty Town by Mark West again looks at divergent relationships this time from the perspective of college friends. A facebook message reunites Simon and David in the rural idyll of Hoelzli but again it’s a reunion haunted by ghosts of the past. Here the insular rural village becomes a major part of the story complementing the claustrophobic atmosphere and the feeling of impending doom that pervades the tale. Throw in a few nasty clowns (well to be fair all clowns are nasty) and you have a very enjoyable revenge story.

Closer Than You Think is by Neil Williams, a writer I haven’t encountered before, and is a ghostly tale of a haunted child’s car seat. It’s a well written tale with a gradually increasing pace and tension as it builds to a grisly and terrible climax. It manages to grip the reader to the final page and although probably the weaker of the three stories here it showcases a writer with great potential.

All three stories in this collaboration focus on the psychological horror of relationships and the mundane realities of modern life, consequently they work well as a collection. This probably demonstrates the huge advantage of e-publishing. Here we have three authors combining to produce a piece of work greater than the sum of it’s parts, a thematically cohesive collection, something that would have been much more difficult in the traditional publishing world. The other huge advantage is you can pick up the Kindle edition of this for £1.42, so now readers should play their part and reward this venture by buying it. By doing so you will be supporting some real talent in the horror genre and nabbing yourself an excellent anthology of solid horror writing at the same time.

Rating 4 out of 5

You can buy this books from the Kindle Store here :-

ill at ease

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Bite Sized Horror edited by Johnny Mains

Bite Sized Horror

edited by Johnny Mains

Published by Obverse Books, 2011.

Emblazoned with the Johnny Mains seal of quality on the cover this is the latest anthology from Obverse Books, a small publishing house that continues to impress with its increasingly diverse range of authors and subject matter.  This is the first in a proposed series of Obverse Quarterlies which will include a range of authors and genre’s in the tradition of the New English Library paperbacks of the 70’s.

This collection contains six horror stories starting with Brighton Redemption by Reggie Oliver, a story of child murder and ghosts. Jamesian in tone, it’s a wonderful ghost story and gets the collection off to a fantastic start. Paul Kane’s The Between takes us right up to date when a father’s desperation at a custody meeting turns into a horrific nightmare in the lift journey from (or should that be to) hell. With Lovecraftian creatures set against the personal torments of the occupants this is an excellent dark tale, one to avoid if you suffer from claustrophobia.

His Pale Blue Eyes by David A. Riley is a zombie tale but one which focuses on selfishness in society. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of gore, it does, but still manages to retain a degree of originality and intelligence which elevates above much of the standard zombie fare we are fed these days. Talking of cliches brings us nicely to The Unquiet Bones by Marie O’Regan which begins with that most overused chestnut of a broken down car with only a creepy building nearbye for shelter, oh and it’s raining. Again, though, the writer takes that well used story and develops it into a much richer tale of ancient witchcraft with a few cunning twists for good measure.

Johnny Mains returns us to the emotion of marital breakdown in The Rookery as a father struggles with limited access to his son, a struggle with tragic consequences. The rural setting adds much to this tale and the ending is very powerful and very well written. That could also be said of Conrad William’s The Carbon Heart which, after a slow start, escalated into his usual deep and intelligent writing. It’s an unusual mystery set in a city coated in volcanic ash, and has a definite noir feel but it’s not long before the story descends into much more horrific and much more typical Williams territory.

This is a short anthology but one full of highlights, the standout for me being Paul Kane’s The Between, but all the stories here deliver quality horror for you to chew on. Bite sized it may be but it’s still able to provide a feast for the more discerning palate.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Dark Minds edited by Ross Warren

Dark Minds

Edited by Ross Warren

Published by Dark Minds Press, 2011

 

It’s always heartening to see a new publisher enter the horror arena. Dark Minds is the first publication from Dark Minds Press and if this is a sign of future quality then we should expect great things from this publisher in the future.

This anthology features 12 stories from a variety of dark fiction authors some well known, some not. We start off in impressive style with Gary McMahon’s The Ghost Of Rain, a poignant and bleak tale which, as with much of McMahon’s work, focuses very much on emotion and character. It’s a strong start but perhaps not quite as powerful as some of Gary McMahon’s recent masterpieces.

Other highlights for me include editor Ross Warren’s own tale, The Rat Catchers Apprentice. This trip into Victorian London is brimming with nasty historical detail and thoroughly enjoyable. The Anchorite’s Daughter by Shaun Hammel defies classification but if you wish, file it under very good, it’s a fine, dark trip into the occult. There’s deep emotion in stories by Stephen Bacon, The House Of Constant Shadow and Last Laugh by Colin Hersh.

The two standouts for me were The World Shall Know by Jason Whittle which combines fantasy and dark horror in a thought provoking piece which examines religion and its power and Bury The Truth by Carole Johnstone which is a very dark, deeply emotional piece looking at death, suicide and what lies beyond.

An excellent first collection, there are a few typos and minor layout issues but all of these are irrelevant when placed against the powerful collection of stories. Gary McMahon’s name appears on the front, back and spine and this could possibly give the impression that the other stories are only making up the numbers but this is not the case. McMahon’s story is good but several others match and a couple also surpass it in my mind and that only demonstrates the quality of the writing on offer.

I look forward to seeing more from Dark Minds Press in the future and hope they can maintain the quality of this excellent collection.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Wine and Rank Poison by Allyson Bird

Wine and Rank Poison

by Allyson Bird

Published by Dark Regions Press, 2010.

 

Allyson Bird’s previous collection, Bull Running For Girls won the British Fantasy Society Award for best collection in 2009. Wine And Rank Poison is a collection of ten weird tales focussing on revenge. It is also a curious mix of modern society, ancient myth and folk tales from across the world. As Joe R. Lansdale says in his glowing introduction Allyson Bird has been able to take “simple ideas and turn them into unique stories that defied classification”.

The Black Swan and The Twelfth Chair are linked stories from Odessa in the Ukraine which really failed to engage me. They both seem more concerned with the Eastern European setting than the plot itself which runs like a very thin thread through the tales. Vulkodlak manages to mix the genocide in Srebrenica with werwolves. A more succefull story given the weight of horror emanating from Serbia and the ongoing cultural divisions in the region, but the real horror and darkness here lies in the actual atrocities rather than the authors inventions.

Atalanta and Beauty And The Beast are both heavily infused with ancient mythology. Of the two, the first is the more succesfull tale, a rich and inventive story of an oppressed wife’s quest for escape. The Convent at Bazzano is one of the few stories in the book to allow the supernatural in. Unfortunately, I felt the threat was diluted by the authors need to recount a travelogue of holiday locations and the supernatural threat was never fully explored or explained.

The Legacy was one of the better stories here with some great imagery and a thrilling plot, but unfortunately, I found the last paragraph which attempts to link the previous action with some kind of religious apocalypse somewhat contrived and unnecessary. The Last Supper works well as it explores relationships in a dysfunctional family unit. Finally, Coney Island Green and For You Faustine, are another pair of linked tales where modern society meet ancient folk tale. They are both good stories but marred by rather stilted dialogue and fairly insubstantial plots.

I found Wine and Rank Poison a strange experience. The book never really drew me in, and that may be as much about my preference for a more supernatural threat as it is about the writing. I did feel that many of these tales missed the mark though. Full of rich, inventive and intelligent ideas but often not executed in a way which engages the reader. Stylistically Allyson Bird is working in the same territory here as Reggie Oliver but he seems to be able to connect the ancient past with modern myth in a much more realistic and hence more engaging fashion. The connections here seemed too forced to be real and consequently the stories did not have the depth of emotion I felt they needed or that they were aiming for.

Rating 3 out of 5

 

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The Ritual by Adam Nevill

 

The Ritual

by Adam Neville

Published by Pan Books, 2011

Adam Nevill’s previous two books Banquet For The Damned and Apartment 16 have been excellent ghost stories, mixing the best traditional elements with modern settings to revamp the genre for the modern age. Now, with The Ritual, he takes us deep into nature and pagan rituals in a Scandinavian forest with another powerful supernatural tale.

We follow the misadventures of former university colleagues, Luke, Phil, Dom and Hutch as they make the biggest mistake of their lives. What is planned as a reunion trip to a “completely untampered with virgin forest”, soon turns into chaos as a short cut takes them into an increasingly dangerous part of the woods. The group find evidence of strange rituals and pagan practices, but are completely lost and it’s not long before they realise there are even greater threats in this wild forest.

This is a book of two halves, the first very much connected with the unseen threat of the supernatural and it’s strong connections to the nature of the landscape. In the second half, the threat becomes visible bringing a different pace and very different feel to the story. At the heart of the book are the main characters who have drifted apart following university, the different cultures and lifestyles they have adopted are contentious issues within the group. Couple this with the supernatural threat and we watch as a group of ‘normal’ individuals are driven to the brink of madness and beyond.

Nevill evokes the atmosphere of the ancient forest wilderness brilliantly and the gradual revelation of the threat is nicely handled as the reader only knows as much as the main characters. The forest is adorned with pagan symbols and signs, “dark and sunken” buildings and increasing doom as the men find themselves unable to escape. Owing much to Blackwood’s The Wendigo and The Willows but with modern nods to the likes of the Blair Witch Project this was the more succesfull half of the book for me.

The second section is much more about revelation on a rather limited stage as opposed to the vast wilderness of the first section. Here the story moves in a much more direct fashion introducing several new themes while expanding on the previous pagan threat. It’s well written but for me lacks the atmosphere of the first section, it’s much more modern in tone. It also feels slightly drawn out after the tight pacing of the first half.

It might not have been the intention to create a novel with such distinctive atmosphere in it’s two parts, indeed it almost feels as if the two parts could have been written at different times, but overall this does not detract from what is an excellent horror novel. Once again, Adam Nevill has reached into the past for inspiration but has successfully created a thoroughly modern supernatural horror story. He respects the traditions of the genre without being constrained by them. His best book so far it combines the atmospheric qualities of Banquet For The Damned with the character driven drama of Apartment 16 to create a thoroughly enjoyable and delightfully creepy horror story.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

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