Book Review: Imposter Syndrome, edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth

Imposter Syndrome is a book which deserves to sit on every horror aficionado’s shelf. Its stories are to be savoured and marvelled at, each author meeting and exceeding expectations.”

Though there are some who would assert the short story is dead (though it’s arguable whether any art form can truly ever ‘die’), the sheer number of anthologies and collections being released would seem to dispute this. So much so, that it takes something special to really stand out from the crowd. Often, that can be the concept itself, the theme if there is one. Or it can be the draw some contributor’s names provide, assurances of high quality. Or it might even be the cover, striking and original. In Imposter Syndrome, the publishers and editors have managed to pull off all three, producing a book containing all manner of doppelgängers, evil twins, clones, and other assorted look-alikes under the banner of the eponymous writer’s (and creative) malady. It’s a sterling example of what can be accomplished by a small outfit when all involved have a palpable love and care deeply for what they’re doing. Edited by Guardian reviewer James Everington (a fine writer in his own right) and This is Horror’s own Dan Howarth, the book is published through Dark Minds Press, and contains a mix of relative newcomers and seasoned veterans.

Kicking off proceedings is Gary McMahon, a renowned name in the horror field. His story, ‘I Know What They Look Like’, mixes shades of Taxi Driver with a distinctly British grimy urban setting, in a nightmarish escalation of violence. Its protagonist takes on the burden of someone else’s vengeance—someone who looks uncannily like him—and uses it to fuel his own harsh judgments on a world he feels is populated by “society’s malcontents”. It’s a fantastic opener, filled with darkness and dread, and even manages to surprise with its ambiguous ending just as the reader feels they have an inkling where the story might be going (a skill which McMahon has almost trademarked in much of his shorter work).

Next up is Laura Mauro, a writer who is garnering accolades and appearances in all the right places. And judging by her entry here, it is all more than justified. ‘In the Marrow’ is the story of two pre-teen twin sisters—on the cusp of puberty—who are beginning to drift apart in looks and interests. And then one of them is diagnosed with leukaemia. As her sickness worsens—taking its toll on the whole family, despite their attempts at bravery—her sister comes to believe her unwell twin a changeling. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, perhaps it’s real; or maybe it’s simply the shallow nastiness of a nearly-teenage girl. Regardless, this story is heartbreaking and heartfelt, with one of the most devastating endings—yet with a touch of almost hope—this reviewer has encountered in a while. Absolutely stunning, and a true highlight amongst many.

Following on is Timothy J. Jarvis’ ‘Who is That on the Other Side of You?’. A mix of the epistolary and standard third person, it is set in the very early 1900s as two men—who bear an uncanny resemblance to each other though aren’t related—set out to find a fabled entrance to the “hollow earth” in Antarctica. It is a story of the occult, of magic, of strange visions and madness, and twists and turns with ever-mounting excitement and terror as it progresses. Evoking its cold, snowy landscape, it’s an assuredly solid piece of weirdness.

‘What’s yours is Mine’, by Holly Ice, concerns a young woman who discovers she has a younger sister she does not remember, but who apparently is her spitting image. Sequestered early on from the family with an aunt due to her increasingly violent behaviour, this secret “twin” is eventually secured in a mental health facility. When the older sister visits, it sets off a frightening chain of events. A beautifully written take on the “evil twin”, Ice continually avoids letting the story follow a predictable route, wrong-footing the reader again and again. Though the end could perhaps be a little more involved—it seems to end a shade abruptly—this is, nevertheless, another excellent contribution.

Neil Williamson’s ‘The Insider’ takes things into altogether more surreal territory—which is some feat, as the overall tone of the anthology is one of the offbeat—as his Scottish protagonist Raymond finds himself being impersonated on social media whilst away with his boss in Italy on business. Sexual tensions, accusations of unprofessional behaviour, online abuse, and regrets all mix with a strange apparition who may or may not be Raymond’s inner-self, a dark “conscience”. Strange and darkly humorous, and nicely twisted.

‘Other People’s Dreams’ by Stephen Bacon is a beautifully written piece which deals with a man who cannot recall his past following a terrorist attack. Suffering from increasingly violent dreams which he feels are not his, he begins to head down a path of obsession with identity; his, and someone who looks just like him. With slight references to the story of Kaspar Hauser (itself a fascinating tale of supposed lost identity, and worth looking up), and a deeply emotional hook as it progresses, Bacon’s tale is another highlight in an exemplary collection. Heartbreaking, and filled with a palpable yearning.

The longest story in the book, ‘Hold my Hand and I’ll Take You there’, by Ralph Robert Moore, is also possibly the best story, though there are others contending for this title. Its slightly fractured narrative follows—initially—a young boy, Noah, who is diagnosed with cancer. Another anguished tale of childhood illness, this one follows the hardships faced by Noah and his family, before jumping forward to introduce us to another tragic figure, Audrey. She suffers from extreme depression and possible schizophrenia. Meeting Noah when both are adults, they begin a loving, but often fractious, relationship. The narrative then shows us snapshots of their life, whilst also jumping back to Noah and his sick-bed. However, not all is as it seems, here. It is a beautifully structured tale, full of emotion and heartache, and only the coldest of hearts could fail to be moved by it. A stunning, affecting piece of literary fiction.

The shortest story, ‘The Wrong House’ by Tracey Fahey, is no less affecting for its brevity. A man who is convinced his family and the house they live in are somehow “wrong”, not the real things, struggles to understand why. Buffeted by his confusion and weak attempts to reach out to a friend, he is eventually led to a doctor who seems to know more about his situation than should be reasonable. Following on from her impressive debut, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, Fahey proves she is a talent to watch. Her story is tight, perfectly formed, and never puts a foot wrong as it unfolds its mysteries and surprises. It also subtly, beautifully emotional.

Ramping up the surrealism with what can only be described as a work of almost pure art (in a way, it’s like the prose equivalent of an art-house film), Georgina Bruce gives us ‘Little Heart’. A story filled with stunning imagery, nuanced and cryptic themes and allegory, it deals with memory (real or invented), and the legacy our parents leave with us, for good or ill. A difficult story to decipher, and possibly one which will challenge some readers to make an effort, it is also one of the most striking pieces here, and one of the most uncompromisingly darkest. Pain and neglect and parental failings collide in blood and a beating of black wings. One to reread and savour.

Finally, we have ‘Virtually Famous’ by Phil Sloman, sending the anthology out on a high. Chet Tyler, washed up actor of numerous last chances, has become the face—and body—of a bestselling virtual reality game which allows anyone to live moments of his life. Over time, some players latch onto the idea of killing their idol, and this takes off. Chet himself begins to partake, and soon reality becomes indistinguishable from The Game (as it’s simply called). It’s a fantastic story, hovering somewhere between Videodrome and eXistenZ, if both were remade as one film by Christopher Nolan from a script by David Lynch. An absolute powerhouse of a story, expertly delivered, twisting in on itself over and over like a demented Matryoshka doll. Masterful.

There we have it; an anthology which delivers—as far as this reviewer is concerned—a hit with every story. Naturally, some are better than others, but when the baseline is one of excellence, this is a rare thing indeed. Mixing classic horror with heartfelt emotion and a literary ambition, Imposter Syndrome is a book which deserves to sit on every horror aficionado’s shelf. Its stories are to be savoured and marvelled at, each author meeting and exceeding expectations. Though the theme is a strong one, each piece stands tall and distinct, the content varied and inventive. If every anthology were only half as good as this one, we would be spoiled with endless quality. Here’s hoping Everington and Howarth deliver again with their next offering, but until then, no-one who calls themselves a horror fan should be without a copy.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Dark Minds Press.
Paperback: (226 pp)
Release Date: 20 October 2017

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