This Is Horror

Book Review: Keep It Inside and Other Weird Tales by Mark Anthony Smith

“Smith achieves a fine balance of literary flourishes, married with horrific hammer blows, all wrapped up in the kind of tale one might expect to hear from the storyteller uncle or grandmother in the family”


Mark Anthony Smith is a relative newcomer to the horror genre, with his first two releases, Hearts of the Matter, a poetry collection, and Some Thing Said, another collection of short prose and poetry, not really even grazing the horror genre. Over the last year, though, his name has cropped up in an increasing number of horror anthologies, all of which have led up to this first collection of horror stories, Keep It Inside and Other Weird Tales.

A combination of flash fiction and longer shorts, Smith achieves a fine balance of literary flourishes, married with horrific hammer blows, all wrapped up in the kind of tale one might expect to hear from the storyteller uncle or grandmother in the family. The ordering of the stories is smart, as motifs appear, recur and fade as the book continues, joining the dots between tales which at first glance seem totally unconnected in subject matter. A certain dread persists, too, as successive ‘harmless’ narratives bare their teeth at the most unexpected moments.

 

‘The Prairie Lures’ is an apt beginning and could well act as an advertisement for the entire collection. Beginning with an everyman, new to the armed forces, relieved to be sent to the friendly territory of Canada, escaping a station in an active war zone. It soon becomes apparent that the territory may not be as friendly as it first seems.

‘Wood Fooks’ retains the rural landscape of the previous tale, though this time transfers it to north-eastern England. Something from local folklore rears its head, ensuring the main character’s country retreat is one he won’t soon forget.

Another holiday gone badly wrong features in ‘The Clifftop Terrors,’ as a family arrives at a seaside caravan park where nothing seems to be well. A taboo discovery and a depressingly gaudy family entertainment schedule only begin to scratch the surface of what is really amiss.

“Mother locks me in the spare room,” reads the first sentence of ‘What the Trees Recall.’ The unsettling wrongness of this story continues apace until we discover who or what the protagonist might be.

‘Keep It Inside’ is the titular story of this collection and it is one which combines visceral horror with an emotional gut punch. Kim’s little brother is dead after a horrific accident and the reader is left powerless, watching as her life falls apart in violence, sorrow and grief.

Another fraternal relationship occurs in ‘Crown of Slugs,’ which opens with: “My brother often took things too far,” a phrase which in no way prepares the reader for the body horror which is to follow. Body horror which extends into the following piece, ‘The Call To Dust.’ A young man, left to deal with his eccentric, late grandfather’s possessions, happens upon a relic with a hint of Lovecraftian darkness which will haunt his dreams.

‘A Face At The Window’ uses sleight of hand, hoodwinking the reader with a burglary, all the while something other, steeped in exotic folklore is the real heart of the story.

‘We Are Beneath’ is the longest story in the collection and finds its protagonist in a dystopian world where the majority of people have abandoned their homes, under pain of intrusive government surveillance, to live below ground. Urgency is provided by a woman in labour, and four stretcher bearers, strangers thrown together to get her the help she needs.

‘The Interwoven’ sets up as a revenge tale, the protagonist targeting his fireman brother, who has been sleeping with his wife. As he catches up with him at the scene of a doused forest fire, we learn there is more to this scenario than meets the eye.

‘Scare The Crows’ finds Fish and Tom, two friends in another post-apocalyptic wasteland, this one a rural ruin. They find themselves on a dilapidated farm, where they receive permission to spend the night. But things are not quite as they seem.

‘Charity Bins’ and ‘The Darker Side’ both deal with viruses. The former imagines a virus that transforms people into rat like creatures, while the latter sees the protagonist on release from hospital after a bout of viral meningitis. Each story builds as the main character heads home and each ends in ways the reader cannot expect.

Following on from here are five drabbles, ‘The Miskatonic Madness,’ ‘Burnt Offerings,’ Gravestone Anguish,’ ‘Hackles,’ and ‘Sons of Bark.’ Each displays Smith’s talent for plays on words and crafting his turns of phrase with multiple meanings.

‘Surrogate Corpse’ is a grim affair, beginning with a strained relationship between the protagonist and his partner. Returning home from a long shift at work, things become grimmer still.

The final story in the collection, ‘Deep End’ finds two friends diving together, off the coast of Mexico. The water is unexpectedly dark and something is definitely not right.

Keep It Inside and Other Weird Tales is a fine introduction to Smith’s work. It is short enough to read in a single sitting, yet varied enough, with its blend of gritty realism and dark fantastic sceneries, to appreciate the full span of his talents.

KEV HARRISON

Publisher: Red Cape Publishing
Paperback: 63 (pp)
Release Date: 14 October 2020

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