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Book Review: Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land, edited by Steve Shaw

 

“Great British Horror will, no doubt, be the standard for which all other annual anthologies will be measured against.”

Horror seems to be in something of a small ascendancy at the moment, with writers all over the world gaining measures of recognition, readers, and accolades. Whilst much of this is occurring in the US, there is also a groundswell of UK talent making names for themselves. Many of these are featured in Great British Horror 1: Green and Pleasant Land, the first in a proposed annual themed anthology showcasing UK writers (and, arbitrarily, one non-UK author) from small publisher Black Shuck Books. The proprietor of Black Shuck Books (itself a division of Great British Horror) and editor of this volume, Steve Shaw, has gathered a diverse and wide-ranging spectrum of talent for this initial release and asked them to contribute tales of folk horror; but just who are these writers? Read on …

Opening the collection is V. H. Leslie with ‘Hermaness’, a suitably melancholy story which follows a young couple experiencing relationship problems whilst hiking on remote Shetland. This well written piece immerses the reader in both the locale, and the fractured and strained emotions, and though perhaps a little predictable, it nevertheless showcases the confidence of a writer who has already received praise for her first collection, Skein and Bone, and her first novel, Bodies of Water. The only criticism is a minor but obvious need for one final editing pass.

Continuing and developing the sense of bleakness is ‘Meat for the Field’, by Rich Hawkins, an author who is fast becoming known for his grim, take-no-prisoners cosmic and folk horror. Here we have a literary, stark tale of blood sacrifice which manages to outdo even that classic of folk horror, The Wicker Man. This is horror writing at its most lean, intense, and desolate, and with its strong voice and brooding intent, is easily one of the best tales in the book.

Following this early high point is a tale from Laura Mauro, another rising star of the UK horror scene. ‘Strange as Angels’ is, perhaps, not as ‘folksy’ as the theme might demand, but is nonetheless an assured discourse in obsession, in broken, uneven relationships, in the beauty that often exists in horror. Assuredly written, it’s a typically ambiguous and deeply weird tale that convinces absolutely, from a writer whose light is, if there is any justice, just about to become incandescent.

Next up is ‘The Castellmarch Man’ by Ray Cluley, and this may well be the best story in the anthology. Showcasing a writer at the top of his game, we are presented with a subtly emotional and melancholic story of a man reminiscing about the geo-cache rambles he used to take with his wife. Retracing the steps of their last trip, the fuller picture is revealed in piecemeal flashbacks, while we are drawn towards an inevitable finale. In the hands of a lesser writer, the end might have been a ludicrous, laughable mess; but Cluley knows exactly how to present his bizarre vision as absolutely, convincingly horrific, and still leaves room for interpretation and ambiguity. Masterful stuff.

Horror legend David Moody gives us ‘Ostrich’, a short, sharp story which references and emulates those classic Tales of the Unexpected episodes. While the voice is excellent, and the writing authentic to the character, it does suffer very slightly in following four definitively literary works. On its own, though, its accomplished, pacy, though perhaps promises more for its ending than it delivers, and again doesn’t really feel like a folk horror story. It does show Moody as more than ‘just’ a zombie writer, though.

Shortest story in the book is ‘Blue-Eyes’ by Barbie Wilde, which despite its meagre length seems to simply ramble along without any real purpose or intent. Though well written with some snappy passages, it all feels a little random and odd. And beyond this, it’s another story that needs a final editing brush.

Back in literary territory (though not really folk) with James Everington and ‘A Glimpse of Red’, in which a mother searches for her missing child in a country foreign to her; the twist being that she is in the UK under an assumed name. It’s a very ambitious piece about alienation, unreliable memory, and paranoia which just about manages to pull off its twists and revelations, though some of these come without surprise. However, it’s more about atmosphere, imagery, and mood, rather than ‘plot’, and in this it succeeds greatly. Another excellent story from a writer who, though he has been working steadily in dark fiction for a number of years, seems set to gain even greater recognition.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘Mr Denning Sings’ is a competently written short piece which comes perilously close to wearing out its welcome with a partially dragged out main section, before hitting the reader at the end with perhaps the most genuinely terrifying scene in the whole book. Perhaps this is the intention; perhaps it is the skill of the writer in conveying the protagonist’s irritation—projecting that irritation—with an unseen cougher, who comes closer to Mr Denning with each sung hymn. Nicely done, sir.

Adam Millard delivers an untypical, subtle rumination on rural farming, dementia, and neighbourly disputes in ‘He Waits on the Upland’. It marks Millard out as a writer able to diversify from his established bizarro and gory slapstick works, and shows he is capable of writing atmospheric, moody works. The dialogue, the character interactions, all feel authentic and genuine, and it’s a credit to him that even though the ending is somewhat obvious, he still manages to make it impactful.

‘Misericord’ by A. K. Benedict is another subtle story delving into forgotten religious practices subsumed by the advance of Christianity; however, as in all the best horror stories, these practices aren’t quite as dormant as one would wish. Combining the currents of a less than perfect relationship with fascinating nuggets of historical interest, and lacing both with an undertone of pagan worship, it’s a rather beautiful piece which sits amongst the best of the offerings, here.

Jasper Bark’s ‘Quiet Places’ is, by far, the longest story in the book, coming in at novella length. It is also, unfortunately, the least engaging for a number of reasons. First of these is the rather staccato nature of the writing; consisting of short sentences comprised of ‘she was’, ‘he was’, ‘there was’, and so on, making it difficult to get into the story. Add to that an overuse of the passive voice, a very fractured narrative with numerous flashbacks within flashbacks, and a smattering of typos, and it all becomes difficult to captivate. It only begins to pick up when it takes a turn from the pagan/folk into the cosmic/weird, with the introduction of old journals making up a decent portion of the story. By far, these were the more lively parts of the narrative, and just about manage to salvage the story. Perhaps a robust edit might have been able to address these issues, and it’s a shame because there is a decent tale lurking under what is presented here, with some interesting concepts.

So, all in all, a mostly successful first volume, and a good smattering of names which may be new to many horror readers. Part of the point of the anthology is to showcase writers which may not be as widely known as their more established colleague and, in this, the collection fares very well. Perhaps just a final editing pass, and more attention paid to the layout of stories (as well as closer adherence to the theme), and Great British Horror will, no doubt, be the standard for which all other annual anthologies will be measured against.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books.
Paperback: (294pp)
Release Date: 30 January 2017

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