Book Review: No Monsters Allowed (Edited by Alex Davis)

“A worthy addition to the themed anthology lexicon.”

18632817No Monsters Allowed editor Alex Davis has taken exception to the proliferation of zombies and vampires in genre and declared there will be no room for such well-worn tropes within his anthology. The title, as well as being a mission statement of sorts, is ironic; the stories present still contain a whole host of monsters. Albeit ones of a more human variety.

The anthology opens strong with genre stalwart Gary McMahon’s ‘The Small Ones Hurt the Most’. A crushing tale of loss, regret and survival. The unnamed narrator has escaped a childhood of mental and physical abuse at the hands of his mother to forge a strong relationship with his childhood sweetheart Lucy. The subsequent death of his mother and the cleaning out of the old family home bring back unwanted feelings and memories and lead to a devastating finale that packs a heart-wrenching punch.

‘The Silence After Winter’ by Adam Craig is an accomplished story about the lengths it’s necessary to go for survivors in the blighted landscape of post-apocalyptic world. Three unnamed characters, a woman and young girl travelling together and the man they meet along the way, take refuge in an abandoned warehouse. Strong characterisation elevates this author’s debut publication and marks his as a name to look out for in future.

Stuart Hughes’ ‘Canvassing Opinion’ offers a change of style after the downbeat openers; a blackly comic tale of a pushy political campaigner which maintains the anthology’s strong start and showcases a satirically skewed world view.

The high quality continues in ‘Some Girls Wander by Mistake’ by Amelia Mangan. The story deftly subverting the reader’s expectations whilst depicting a fully-fleshed out seedy underworld and engaging characters. The revelations are well-handled and genuinely surprising.

John Greenwood’s ‘Puppyberries’ is a nostalgia-tinged story of small-town politics and striving to get ahead. The puppyberries of the title being a mysterious foodstuff sold out of the back of ice cream vans which have some strange effects on the narrator’s family. A weird story that grasps the reader’s attention and creates the suspension of disbelief required for the story to succeed.

‘Like Clockwork’ by Benedict J. Jones maintains the author’s current strong run of horror-tinged crime stories with a compelling story of obsession. The narrator’s fascination with clockwork devices and lack of moral compass begins to impact upon his personal relationships and compels him in his search for the perfect woman. A writer to watch.

E. M. Salter’s ‘Special Girl’ is the first story to disappoint in the anthology. A too-short vignette of an abusive relationship, with a fairly obvious twist, is robbed of its emotional impact by a lack of word count devoted to the exploration and development of the characters.

The anthology regains its momentum with Devan Goldstein’s quirky ‘Five an Hour’ where a worker on a sweet factory production line develops a rather murderous addiction to the products he’s allowed to sample. The story works because the balance between the believability of the opening exchanges and the surreal action at the climax is finely pitched.

The grim family from hell in ‘Bred to the Bone’ by Jeff Gardiner raise a fairly average story to a more accomplished level. The depiction of their vile, run-down house genuinely making the skin crawl as the hellish details of the environment are slowly revealed.

‘The Algorithm’ by Cameron Suey is another quirky but rather unremarkable tale. An unreliable narrator helps to create an interesting voice to this short piece which again may have benefitted from an increased word count as it all feels a little underdeveloped.

Dan Howarth’s ‘Against the Back Wall’ is another strong horror-tinged crime story where the cuckolded protagonist’s plans for revenge take a turn for the worse when he gets a little too cocky for his own good. The setting is nicely realised and the inclusion of an ever more competitive game of squash helps to build the tension. The characterisation is also a strength with Howarth fleshing out the supporting cast and keeping the main character just the right side of likeable so that you feel a little for him as things spiral out of his control.

The anthology dips to its lowest point with ‘Killer Con’ by A.D.Barker, a gimmicky story with little to engage the reader emotionally and a final line ‘reveal’ that is painfully obvious. It is a little surprising that this hackneyed premise was able to pass an editor who otherwise has shown a strong eye for a story.

The reader is next treated to a complete change of tone and setting with ‘Piranha’ by Steve Byrne, the strongest story of the anthology. Deep in the heart of Viet Cong territory in 1967 Vietnam a disparate bunch of seasoned soldiers and raw recruits overstep the bounds of human decency in a story that whilst not the most original war story is told with mesmerising skill and a level of detail that immerses the reader into the setting and heightens the emotional impact.

Following the intensity of the previous story is a tough ask but ‘The Ballad of Bailey Blonde’ by Marc Sorondo is able to hold its own. The tale of a free roaming roadhouse musician with a unique method for song writing succeeds by capturing the sad inevitability of the character’s lives and a shock ending.

‘Old Bones’ by Shannon Quinn is a solidly told tale from the viewpoint of an old cat called Roger. Animal narrated stories can come across as unintentionally funny if handled poorly but Quinn skilfully maintains the tone whilst imbuing Roger with a believable and consistent personality.

Jo Thomas’ historical story ‘An Honest Woman’s Child’ is light on plot but weaved majestically, with the writer teasing out details of the child’s physical and familial woes for the reader that heighten both the story’s revelations and its emotional impact.

An anthology of Human monsters would inevitably contain a story featuring Nazis and although ‘Arthur’s Cellar’ by Anna Taborska is well told, it isn’t terribly interesting or compelling and falls short of the best stories the writer has produced previously.

‘Precious Damaged Cargo’ by Kerry G. S. Lipp is a grim tale that just doesn’t accomplish its goals. Failing to really engage the reader and create a believable situation in which the events might occur. Credit can be given for trying to do something a little different.

There’s a deep mythology hinted at in ‘Mother’ by Keith Brooke that makes this unsettling, accomplished story feel like part of a bigger narrative. However the story captivates through to its surprising conclusion.

‘Downsize’ by Allen Ashly concludes the anthology in a wonderfully bizarre manner as the economic reality of big business is taken to its extreme conclusion. A little comic relief to ease the reader out of the intense mind-set engendered by the previous stories.

Alex Davis has produced a worthy addition to the themed anthology lexicon with No Monsters Allowed. There are several stand-out stories and the variety of themes and narrative styles showcased means that even the most discerning reader will find something to enjoy within its pages.

ROSS WARREN

Publisher: Dog Horn Publishing
Paperback (180pp)
Release Date:  28 November 2013

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2 comments

  1. I could find this to be very liking on a cold winter’s morning or evening as I am sitting in a warm room and cuddled up on the couch or sitting snugged around a fireplace.

  2. Yes a really good anthology; I enjoyed nearly all the stories here, with the John Greenwood and Amelia Mangan ones especially standing out.

    And if you like Steve Byrne’s story, do check out his novel ‘Phoenix’ – it’s also set in Vietnam and is flippin’ great.

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