Book Review: Pareidolia, edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth

“Quiet, literary, and emotional throughout, these stories are varied and creative. Each contributor has taken the theme and ran with it, and in doing so, they show us horror can be found in just about any place and situation.”

 

Towards the end of 2017, Imposter Syndrome, one of the more impressive horror anthologies, was published. The second book edited by Dan Howarth and James Everington (the first being The Hyde Hotel), it was a uniformly excellent collection of diverse stories. Released through small press, Dark Minds, it set a very high standard. Such was the calibre of writers and stories they had assembled, any follow-up was always going to be highly anticipated. Would it match its predecessor? Would the contributors be as renowned and inventive as those in Imposter Syndrome? Well, that follow-up is finally here, and the short answer is a resounding yes on all counts.

The anthology is entitled Pareidolia, and can be seen, in many ways, as a companion piece to the other. Pareidolia is defined as “…the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern…” (from Merriam-Webster online). Similar to the phenomenon of impostor syndrome, it’s something that is largely illusory, though can still have a profound effect on those suffering from it. And in the hands of horror and speculative writers, those effects can be devastating.

The book opens with Sarah Read’s ‘Into the Woods’. A short piece, but quite affecting, dropping us straight into the mind of someone who seems unable to discern people’s faces. Instead, she perceives their likenesses in the woodgrain of furnishings, in the bark of trees. Subtly teasing out its imagery—whilst still retaining a measure of opacity—it’s a haunting tale that builds with quiet, mounting dread. Next up is ‘Joss Papers for Porcelain Ghosts’ by Eliza Chan. This time, the themes are displacement, family obligations, cultural differences, and, of course, the paranormal. A young woman of mixed heritage—British and Chinese—travels with her mother to the funeral of her grandmother, her por-por. Whilst there, she is subject to simmering disapproval from her aunts and uncles, not least of which a seeming inability to see her late grandmothers’ spirit (an event everyone else has a casual, superior anecdote about). With consummate skill, Chan taps into that sense of isolation, disappointment (by others), and quiet apprehension many of us have felt on unfamiliar, unsure ground. Beautifully written, as if from a seasoned veteran. Tim Major follows this with ‘What Can You Do About A Man Like That?’, one of two longer pieces here. A sound editor working on a low-budget film struggles to relate to those around her. She is far more comfortable in the world of the audible, making sense of reality through sound. When the star of the film unexpectedly dies, circumstances lead her to think she might be hearing his ghost over her equipment. Major’s tale takes in the narcissism—and attraction—of celebrity, the often insidiousness nature of sexual assault/harassment by those in positions of privilege, and the cut-throat world of moviemaking. It’s understated, compelling, and digs into its subject matter in an authentic and immersive way.

Renowned writer of the bleak, Rich Hawkins, gives us ‘The Lonely’. An isolated woman begins hearing sinister voices in and around her flat. Mounting in number and volume, they eventually cause her to flee to the streets. The prose is crisp and inventive, the imagery typically grim and oppressive. Yet it’s maybe just a little too slight to really gain much of a foothold, over before it’s begun. Still, it remains a typically atmospheric read. ‘A Shadow Flits’ by Carly Holmes follows two parents as their toddler son falls ill, becomes catatonic. The panicked race to the hospital, the anxious wait for a diagnosis, the strain of uncertainty. All bad enough without the father seeing a dark rash spread across the boy; a rash no-one else sees. Holmes details the tightening emotions, the mounting horror with great skill. It also taps into a nice line in paranoia, with some necessary ambiguity. A change-up in genre comes with ‘The Butchery Tree’ by G. V. Anderson. The setting could be the primal past or far-future apocalyptic fantasy. Either way, the world-building and mythology is established with stunning expertise in such a small amount of time. A common, wild-woman married into the ruling tribe, a dark, bloody past that’s left scars, and a possibly haunted table made from a murderer’s sacrificial tree soaked in innocent blood. Absolutely grim, devastating, and brilliant.

Charlotte Bond’s ‘The Lens of Dying’ gives us a story of grim retribution. It’s one that too much cannot be said about for fear of spoiling, but rest assured, it is a well-written exploration of an uncomfortable subject. Bond manages to drop us into the mind of an utterly vile individual, yet also suggests how easy these kinds of people can live unseen amongst us. There’s a level of creeping insidiousness that goes beyond the meat of the story. Arguably the top jewel in a crown studded with them is Daniel Braum’s ‘How to Stay Afloat When Drowning’. The second long story in the anthology, it’s an absolutely beautiful, heart-breaking tale of loss, grief, and a man’s uncertainty of his place in the world. It’s a pitch-perfect mix of the literary and unique mythological horror, introspective when it needs to be, visceral and grim at other times. Deeply moving and the mark of a huge talent. Roseanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Geode’ concerns a woman revisiting places and memories from when she was a teenager. It all turns on central moment when she disappeared at 16. It’s also about loneliness, uncertainty, and anxiety. As fractured memories begin to return, the story builds to a climax, yet still holds onto the ambiguity that permeates much of this anthology. Finally, there is ‘House of Faces’ by Andrew David Barker. Essentially a post-apocalyptic tale, it follows a man—who believes he is the last man alive—as he returns to his family home. Sorting through the detritus of his former life, we gain insight into what might have happened, though the actual mechanism remains a mystery. Patterns on walls, windows, and the environment, furnishings rearranged into shapes become stand-in companions the man talks to. It’s a downbeat, melancholy story that taps into some real bittersweet emotion. Yet it also flips assumption as it ends. Without spoiling, Barker suggests or hints that the empty world the man finds himself in might not be exactly as he perceives it.

So, there we have it. Another fine anthology by Howarth and Everington that more than matches the quality of its predecessor. Quiet, literary, and emotional throughout, these stories are varied and creative. Each contributor has taken the theme and ran with it, and in doing so, they show us horror can be found in just about any place and situation. It shows once again that independent presses are more than capable of competing with the big, established publishers. This is a book that deserves a wide readership that should be on every horror fan’s shelf, and one can only wonder at what the editing team will produce next. We await with great anticipation.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Paperback: 223 (pps)
Release Date: 26 July 2019

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