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Book Review: The Spectral Book of Horror Stories (Edited by Mark Morris)

“Near exemplary selection of stories.”

sh-editor-topOpening story ‘On the Tour’, by Godfather of the UK horror scene Ramsey Campbell, is the perfect way to start the collection and lays down a significant marker in terms of quality. A down on his luck man, who had been a Beatles-era musician, becomes obsessed with the hope that he may be part of a Beatles tour, whose bus passes his house, due to a fleeting association with John Lennon in the sixties. The author does a masterful job of depicting the protagonist’s mental decline as his obsession grows and builds a strong sense of empathy in the reader.

In Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Dog’s Home’ Andrew agrees to look after his reclusive Aunt’s house and dog whilst she is in hospital living out her final days. Following his cynical mother’s advice that the way into his Aunt’s good graces is through a friendship with her dog Sandy he does everything he can to fulfil his Aunt’s dying wish to see the pet one last time. He just doesn’t go about it in a very conventional manner. The great strength of this story is the characterisation; inside a couple of pages the reader has a strong sense of the family dynamic at play in the relationship between Andrew and his Aunt. Once this is established it creates an expectation within the reader of what is to occur which the author can then subvert with glorious panache.

A visiting Canadian academic takes up lodgings in the Oxford home of the recently bereaved Mrs Moreland in ‘Funeral Rites’ by Helen Marshall. Another captivating story in which the author utilises the narrative tradition of the outsider entering an unfamiliar environment in order to spin an unsettling tale populated by strange folk and stranger customs. The slightly expected climax is more than compensated for by the expertise displayed in the evoking an unsettling and disturbing atmosphere.

‘Slape’ by Tom Fletcher is a short, rather extreme story, about a perilous milk round, that doesn’t out-stay its welcome. It works well as a short shocker but probably won’t remain long in the memory and lacks the accomplished slow-build of the author’s better work in novel length.

Steve Rasnic Tem rarely disappoints with his short fiction and ‘The Night Doctor’ is no exception. A sinister story in which a retired couple are visited by the titular character; events are carefully detailed through an elastic narrative that builds a sense of tension and foreboding whilst not scrimping in its description of the creepy spectre that is infiltrating their lives. Masterful.

Like Tem, Gary McMahon is also a consistently good proponent of the short form, a fact borne out by his regular appearance on the contents lists of genre anthologies and Year’s Best collections. ‘Dull Fire’ finds him on solid form yet again with a story of two damaged individuals coming together and finding the strength to face their pasts as one. The unsettling nature of the manifestation of these issues is superbly detailed and, importantly, feels grounded in reality. The closing paragraph even adds a tone of encouragement that there may be a pleasant future for the couple. A rare thing indeed in a McMahon story.

‘The Book and the Ring’ by Reggie Oliver is the toughest read of all the stories included, demanding the fullest attention of the reader, but rewarding that dedication with an evocative story that few writers can accomplish as successfully as Oliver. A recounted tale of a mysterious discovery, written largely in a style of Old English that takes a while to pick up the rhythm of, it evokes a strong sense of the time and place and brings to mind the stories of Lovecraft and James particularly in respect of the outcome of the tale, which leaves the impression that although the story is over for the reader, it is far from so for the protagonist.

A tale of crushed dreams and the pressure of other people’s expectations, ‘Eastmouth’ by Alison Moore is yet another strong story in this accomplished anthology. The story of Sonia who goes along with her unambitious boyfriend Peter to visit his parents in the seaside town of the title and finds it hard to leave is a brilliant example of a writer confident enough to allow the story to unfold at its own pace, weaving subtle hints into the narrative rather than giving in to the temptation to over-explain in case the reader should fail to grasp what is taking place. The pervasive nature of Peter’s mother and the town itself is subtly revealed through small details, such as an over-heard phone conversation or an uncomfortable meal, and leads to an unsettling finale which is the culmination of a supreme accumulation of tension.

Nobody quite writes short stories like Robert Shearman and the quirky, slightly off-kilter worldview of his fiction is once more in evidence in ‘Carry Within Some Small Sliver of Me’. Beverley McRoberts discovers one day, by a rather abrupt and callous letter, that she is adopted and her biological father has recently died. Setting off to meet her birth mother things get strange, as they are wont to do in a Shearman story, when her mother refuses to meet with her, sending a friend instead. Beverley follows the woman, and then things get really weird. It’s a solid, intriguing story but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the author’s best work.

In Conrad Williams’ ‘The Devil’s Interval’ frustrated guitarist Fleckney, no stranger to bullying himself in his work environment, sees a young boy called Eddie being picked on. The two strike up a tentative friendship and make progress towards solving their bullying issues. A well-constructed story that blurs the lines sufficiently so that the reader is unsure just how much is real and how much is the creation of Flackney’s damaged psyche.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with ‘Stolen Kisses’ by Michael Marshall Smith; it’s well-written with a strong voice. It’s just that in comparison to the preceding stories it all feels rather slight and unfulfilling with a twist-ending that is all too obvious.

The anthology’s momentum is re-established with Brian Hodge’s engrossing story ‘Cures for a Sickened World’ in which a band take revenge on a critic who slated their latest album. Told from the viewpoint of their road manager, the two main characters, band leader Tomas and critic Derrick Yardley, are richly painted characters shown warts-and-all. The narrator being slightly removed from events – he doesn’t know what Tomas has planned – works well to build the tension as the reader is shown events at the same pace the narrator experiences them. As Tomas forces his captive to act out ever more gruesome tasks, based on comments made in his damning review, the narrator starts to question his own reaction and whether being an observer is tantamount to being an accomplice. He is relieved when Tomas appears to have a change of heart, but it may be too late as something else has decided to show an interest in events. There is obviously a sense of wish-fulfilment to the story. Who hasn’t wanted to confront the writer of a bad review? But it is also a cautionary tale which highlights that going in that direction might not be entirely good for the soul.

‘The October Widow’ by Angela Slatter maintains the high standard with a richly detailed tale in which the mysterious Mirabel Morgan, the October Widow of the title, moves in to town and begins to assert quite a pull on certain young men of the area. On her trail is a grieving father left with questions to be answered by the woman he holds responsible but also desires. A story all the better for not providing any conclusive answers.

The award for strangest story of the book goes to ‘The Slista’ by Stephen Laws. A bizarre tale of a group confined to the basement of an old house that is written in a Pigeon-English style syntax that only serves to enhance the weirdness. It is far too short to properly satisfy and will likely leave the reader simply bemused as to what the story is about. Demanding of a more substantial word count.

Rio Youers is a writer with a whole host of weapons in his arsenal, equally proficient at emotionally nuanced stories or the more visceral elements of the genre. Often, as in the case of his wonderful story ‘The Widow’ from the End of the Road anthology, within the same story. ‘Outside Heavenly’ is another triumphant story that marks the author out as one to look out for. Focussing on the aftermath of a fatal fire and told largely in flashback through the means of a police interview, the author builds a strong sense of the community in which the story takes place and once more shows his strong characterisation. The atmosphere and tension are built superbly to a climax that will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention. Reminiscent of an episode of True Detective in written form.

There is a wonderful sense of fun and mischief to much of John Llewellyn Probert’s fiction output and ‘The Life Inspector’ is very much in this vein. Coming across like a Monty Python sketch, stock trader Franklin opens his door to the titular bureaucrat who proceeds to undertake a Life Assessment test that will determine how well Franklin is justifying his existence. Needless to say things do not go well. The author makes some nice points about the nature of government departments and the seemingly endless proliferation of unnecessary bureaucracy and comment on the lack of impact an individual actually has on the world could be read into the story but there isn’t really any profound message being put across here, just a whole lot of fun as we watch Franklin get ever more exasperated at his seeming inability to answer the man’s questions correctly.

‘Something Sinister in Sunlight’ by Lisa Tuttle is an effective piece of psychological horror that brings to mind Books of Blood-era Clive Barker and Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. British actor Anton is in L.A. for a series of auditions in the hope that he can recapture the glory days when he portrayed a serial killer in a successful television show, but is becoming increasingly frustrated, and homesick for a return to the UK and his partner Harry. Whilst awaiting the last of his auditions he meets the seemingly nice Elissa Conde and agrees to accompany her and a friend to dinner. It quickly becomes apparent that Elissa is having serious issues with distinguishing Anton from Cassius Crittenden, his character on the show. Tuttle depicts the unravelling mind of Elissa superbly, building in the reader a sense of tension for what is about to befall Anton before taking the story in an even more unsettling direction, which culminates in a genuinely surprising climax.

Nicholas Royle’s ‘This Video Does Not Exist’ is another fine addition to the lost film/snuff movie sub-genre of horror seen in stories such as All the Witnesses are Gone by Joel Lane, Rough Cut by Gary McMahon and ‘Guinea Pig Girl’ by Thana Niveau. Here there is also a fantastical element to the story, as the narrator awakes one morning to discover his head has disappeared leaving only a stump of neck. He is still able to talk and eat and no-one else seems to see anything wrong. It’s testament to Royle’s skill as a writer that the reader is able to suspend their disbelief at this reveal and therefore be able to follow the protagonist as he develops an obsession with beheading videos and the possibility that a severed head discovered in a carrier bag in London may be his own. It makes points on both the banality of modern life and the desensitisation that results from exposure to ever more graphic news reports and internet posts available at the touch of a button. It is a complex story that will warrant and reward repeated readings.

With nineteen stories it is near impossible to pick one as the best and, given the range of styles and themes on display, it is likely different stories will stand out for different readers. Having said that, it would not be a surprise if ‘Newspaper Heart’ by Stephen Volk were to feature in a great many readers’ shortlists of their favourite stories from the anthology. Continuing the rich vein of form shown in his recent British Fantasy Award winning collection Monsters in the Heart and the sublime novella Whitstable, this is a story with a strong emotional core and a perceptive eye for setting that further strengthens the writer’s place as one of the strongest proponents of short fiction horror over the past few years. The story of Kelvin Gadney, and his parents’ reaction to his unhealthy attachment to a bonfire night Guy, is layered in such a plethora of period detail and product references that it not only paints a compelling snapshot of the time in which the story is set but also lulls the reader into believing that all is rather ordinary and will probably turn out okay for the Gadney family, despite the slightly insidious way the Guy is worming into the life of Kelvin. In actual fact this is a masterful execution of technique that draws favourable comparison to some of the best work of Stephen King in stories such as Pet Semetary and ‘Salem’s Lot, where the author uses common everyday elements to ground the story in a recognisable, mundane, social situation, which in turn allows the more fantastical elements of the story to feel as real as anything else shown within the narrative and therefore makes the climax all the more devastating.

Spectral Press are hopeful of making The Spectral book of Horror Stories into the first of a regular series of un-themed anthologies with stories by the pick of the genre’s writers. On the strength of this first offering, with its near exemplary selection of stories that show Editor Mark Morris to have a great eye for a good story no matter what style of horror it utilises, it seems safe to say that there will be many more volumes to come.

ROSS WARREN

Publisher: Spectral Press
Paperback (312pp)
Release date: 9 June 2014

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