“An inconsistent start to the Best British Fantasy series which features some blistering dark highlights and mediocre filler.”
The Best British Fantasy 2013 is a collection edited by Steve Haynes and published by Salt. Yet despite the ‘fantasy’ title, both the content and editor’s introduction indicate a far broader stroke of stories. There are plans for Best British Horror 2014; perhaps a wise move as most of the better stories fall into this remit. A number of the stories seem to have been included simply to live up to the title rather than on the basis of their quality, which is a crying shame in an anthology which purports to represent the very best.
The book opens strongly with ‘Lips and Teeth’ by Jon Wallace; it feels instantly familiar due to the numerous North Korean references and Orwellian tone of the prose. The story focuses on a political prisoner forbidden from speaking whilst held captive by the government. There’s a futuristic feel throughout which is coupled with a first person narration that holds just enough back to keep the story and tension moving forward throughout.
‘The Last Osama’ by Lavie Tidhar is a disappointing story with no discernible point. It follows a bounty hunter tracking down the titular “Last Osama”. The story reads as if it is an extract from a longer piece of work and doesn’t engage the reader on any level. The story may leave the reader confused as the setting, characters and action are accompanied by no reasoning or explanation of any kind. [Disappointingly further research reveals that the story is written as a pastiche satirising Dan Brown-style authors from a unique narrator perspective yet none of this is explained to the reader by the editor in his introduction (or anywhere else) and therefore negates any benefit that a reader can take from this story.]
Thankfully the next story, Joseph D’Lacey’s ‘Armageddon Fish Pie’ is excellent. Taken from his short story collection Splinters (previously reviewed on the This Is Horror podcast) the story follows the protagonist as he prepares for the forthcoming apocalypse in an emotional and truly personal manner. Set away from the hysteria and action that normally accompanies apocalyptic fiction, D’Lacey weaves a wonderful, lyrical and touching story about one man’s final moments on earth. This is one of the standout stories in the collection.
E.J. Swift’s ‘The Complex’ is set in a prison camp on Mars and follows a convict who is ready for release and pensive about returning to Earth. Swift does a great job of making a serious offender understandable and almost empathetic. The writing is considered and calculated; the ending poignant and effective.
‘God of the Gaps’ by Carole Johnstone depicts a school trip gone wrong as a teacher and pupil are lured out of their comfort zone by a deceptive theme-park attendant. Whilst the main character Daisy is particularly well developed, the story itself is unoriginal and the ending predictable. There are some interesting moments and it is well written, but it simply wasn’t as engaging as the previous two entries.
The next two stories ‘Corset Wings’ by Cheryl Moore and ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ by Steph Swainston continue the disappointing lull in quality that dominates the middle section of The Best British Fantasy 2013, this is particularly perplexing given they are both much closer to ‘fantasy’ than the majority of the collection. ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ is a story written specifically for this collection which does raise questions about the validity of the title, as traditionally a ‘best of’ is collected from previously published works rather than commissioned by the editor.
Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘The Island of Peter Pandora’ is without a doubt the most interesting and engaging of the stories that could be labelled fantasy within this book. A dark, vivid, steampunk-style retelling of the original Peter Pan story, Lakin-Smith takes a twisted glance at the original material and reworks it into something grotesque and macabre yet completely imaginative.
Following-on from this, Cate Gardner’s ‘Too Delicate for Human Form’ is perhaps the most touching and sentimental story in the book. Whilst the plot is not especially dark, the themes of death and family are tenderly portrayed throughout. Whilst the story itself isn’t that gripping there are a few choice descriptions that allow Gardner’s skill to shine.
Sam Stone’s tale of incest and the undead, ‘Imogen’ is one of the more disappointing stories in the collection. Imogen attempts to seduce her ‘brother’ before a midpoint reveal that turns the story on its head. Whilst the subject matter has the potential to be controversial, the plot is clumsy, predictable and never really ignites on any level.
In contrast, Alison Littlewood again demonstrates the strength of her writing with ‘In the Quiet and the Dark’, a tale about a new girl in a new town looking to make friends. The triumph of this story is the way in which Littlewood captures the nuances of teenage friendship-politics and loneliness. Littlewood writes in deft strokes and this pays off with the dark, affecting climax.
With ‘The Scariest Place in the World’ Mark Morris delivers a classic ghost story in a very British setting. Holly is a busy woman working from home, resentful of the day-to-day interactions with her neighbours until she unwittingly invites the wrong kind of person into her home. Morris’ imagery and descriptions paint the haunting perfectly without ever overplaying what is happening. The final page delivers the promise that the rest of the story builds up. A rare feat.
‘Qiqirn’ by Simon Kurt Unsworth is a tale contained largely in the discussions between a patient and his therapist. The patient, Pollard, is haunted by more than the memories of his recently deceased wife and his discourse is truly moving. Typically for Unsworth’s work, the characterisation takes centre stage and the high points of this story come in the ongoing central relationship as well as the minute character details that crop up throughout the course of the protagonist’s therapy. The relationship between the protagonist and his recently deceased wife is written skilfully and provides some tender moments which serve as the highlights of this story.
After a run of three good stories, the collection takes a step backwards with Lisa Tuttle’s ‘The Third Person’, a tale of a woman lending her apartment to a friend who is having an affair with a mysterious stranger. The central characters are neither believable nor relatable which kills the central theme completely. The ending is limp and the theme of sex is overplayed throughout.
Fortunately the final three stories of the collection bring the book to a very strong finish. ‘Dermot’ by Simon Bestwick is the best story of the book, closely followed by Adam Nevill’s ‘Pig Thing’. ‘Dermot’ is a tale about the most unusual and grotesque police informant. Bestwick uses the opportunity to satirise the inner workings of a police department whilst delivering a chilling, original and unsettling tale into the bargain.
Tyler Keevil’s ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is about an animal expert who is sent to Russia in order to find and track a man-eating mutation through the snow. The characters here are very well drawn, in particular the surly Russian guide Vargas. The story is tense and intriguing throughout before delivering a finale fitting of the build-up.
Closing off the collection is the excellent ‘Pig Thing’ by Adam Nevill, a story that brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre referencing insularity and ignorance in rural New Zealand. As ever, Nevill paints a nightmarish picture when describing horrific incidents and characters. The eponymous Pig Thing is as grotesque and despicable as anything Nevill has written previously.
The Best British Fantasy is a mixed bag that borrows heavily from a limited number of sources. Whilst the differential in quality here between the better stories and poorer is high, there are a number that are truly deserving of the book’s title. It may be advisable for Salt to cast their net further for future volumes of the series if they are to create a series that consistently provides the ‘best of’.
Publisher: Salt Publishing
Release Date: 14 July 2013
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