Book Review: Great British Horror 2, edited by Steve J. Shaw

“No doubt, in years to come, Great British Horror will become the publication serious and aspiring horror writers beg to be seen in.”

 

Last year saw the first in a new proposed yearly anthology series, Great British Horror, subtitled 1: Green and Pleasant Land. In it was an impressive array of writers—both relatively new and established—from the UK (and one international guest) showcasing what the horror landscape looks like today, with a specific remit of writing folk horror. This year, the second volume continues the intent of the first, this time focussing on urban landscapes. The question is, can Great British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills match—or surpass—the achievements of its predecessor? Read on …

Opening up with bestselling author Paul Finch’s ‘Tools of the Trade’, we are treated to a dark little tale which conjures up the spectre of that most famous of British killers, jack the Ripper. Utilising—very effectively, it must be said—some well-worn horror tropes, it takes us on a journey into possible haunted house territory. There is a sense that the writer had a lot of fun with this, an almost tangible sense of glee in some scenes; and then Finch surprises with an unexpected yet fully satisfying ending. A great start. Following this novelette is Cate Gardner’s rather short, rather surreal, yet wonderfully atmospheric, ‘Fragments of a Broken Doll’. In this strange, off-beat story, we are never entirely sure what is real and what is imagined, yet the dream-like (nightmarish?) atmosphere is rich in imagery and dread.

Andrew Freudenberg’s ‘The Cardiac Ordeal’ is a nasty but effective treatise on how far a parent will go to save their child, even at the expense of their own humanity. It moves with its own internal logic, showcasing a fine talent on the author’s part for scenes of affecting violence. Perhaps the only mild criticism is that the end, when it comes, feels a shade rushed; a clutch more pages to draw out the suspense, might have been welcomed. Moving on to Charlotte Bond’s ‘The Lies We Tell’, and here we have a strained domestic situation (something many of these tales share) which is further tested with a series of unsettling letters. Masterfully detailing the tensions and mistrusts which exist between many partners, Bond leads us further and further into the realms of the unsettled; right up until we are shown just what it is that stalks this family. A very small criticism is that the uncanny could have done with a shade more foreshadowing, but that is a minor quibble for what is a hugely enjoyable tale.

Angela Slatter’s ‘Our Lady of Wicker Bridge’ is a wonderfully dark urban fairy tale, in which a haunted person encounters what might be real ghosts. It is a quintessential unreliable narrator story, more impressive in that it is delivered in third person. Right up until the end we are kept guessing, though in our darkest hearts, we already know—and fear—the truth. Changing up the tone significantly, is John Llewellyn Probert’s ‘The Church With Bleeding Windows’. It is a delightfully macabre offering from this prolific and inventive writer, and it’s clear the author has taken gleeful delight in penning this blackly humorous tale of an addiction group’s encounter with an ancient demonic force.

Marie O’Regan gives us another domestic setting, this time a couple who are renovating an old, inherited house. But in ‘Sleeping Black’, there is more than just dust and vermin being disturbed by the couple’s activities. It’s arguable which story in this collection is the best, but what is certain is that ‘Sleeping Black’ has the most disturbing and frightening scenes; especially those towards the end. Terrifying; don’t read at night, alone. Or do, for the optimum experience. Next we have the first of two Gary’s, that being Gary Fry, who gives us ‘Satin Road’ a story of friendship, horror movies, and occult practices. However, though the trappings of the story might seem familiar—the outcast child, a touch of mild bullying, a disturbing interest in black magic—the narrative refuses to follow the well-worn paths and clichés, and instead forges its own trail. There is a quiet sense of tragedy here, and a subtle tone of dread, all culminating in a nicely observed finale which owes as much to the dawning horror of its protagonist as it does the actual events.

In ‘Non-Standard Construction’, Penny Jones has her main character move into a new flat with a suspiciously low rental price attached. The only reason given for this—vague and dismissive—is the ‘non-standard construction’ of the title. Soon, it seems to indicate shoddy workmanship as the protagonist is quickly overwhelmed with a white dust he feels is beginning to affect his health. Or is it really a sign of his disintegrating mind? It is nicely conceived with some well-drawn set-pieces, only slightly marred by the sense that it would benefit from a bit of a tighter edit (there are a number of run-on sentences and a slight tendency towards the overwritten). However, the central concept manages to shine through, and the end passage is suitably chilling and strange. In the next story, Gary McMahon returns, albeit obliquely, to his excellent Concrete Grove trilogy with a tale of rituals, promises, and portals to another dimension. ‘The Night Moves’ has its homeless protagonist spending his nights in the service of obsession, performing exhausting martial arts movements in the desperate hopes of opening a portal to … somewhere. Somewhere better, perhaps? Yet, he senses he will only achieve this in a Zen-like state of transcendence. It is a lovely meditation on desperate hope, on the pursuit of perfection. Of course, it wouldn’t a horror story—or, dare we say it, a Gary McMahon story—without a less than happy ending, and this short piece does not disappoint.

Finally, we have ‘/’dƷɅst/’ by Carole Johnstone. It is debatable as to whether this is a ‘proper’ horror story, being that it reads more like a crime tale; yet there is no denying it is horrific, grim, and affecting. It is also, by a fair way—no mean feat considering the quality on offer here—the best story within these pages. Close to novella size, its narrative takes in a rainy Glasgow, a driven yet troubled Detective Chief Inspector, and a series of gruesome body parts found around the city with strange notes attached. Utilising phonetic Scots for the dialogue—something Johnstone is fast becoming a natural expert at—it’s suitably grim and authentic. Mixing the investigation and a more personal thread, the tension mounts with expertise until the inevitable confrontation. And even if the ending can be seen just before it arrives (with these kinds of tales, it’s difficult to hide a villain with a small roster of characters) it still manages to engage, to captivate. One would hope that Johnstone is embarking on larger works of this nature. She clearly has an aptitude for it, and this particular story expanded and explored in depth could easily sit beside the likes of Tana French, Peter May, or Val McDermid. Astonishingly good.

So it’s clear, not only has Dark Satanic Mills managed to match the standard set by its predecessor, it has surpassed it. Hardly a blip in this collection, with each writer producing sterling work which encapsulates the theme of the anthology. If editor Steve J. Shaw can maintain this level in coming volumes, he is sure to have an impressive legacy for his press. No doubt, in years to come, Great British Horror will become the publication serious and aspiring horror writers beg to be seen in. With only two volumes so far, it has already impressed with its adherence to quality, content, and variety.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Paperback: (240 pp)
Release Date: 8 December 2017

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