Ill At Ease is an e-chapbbok containing three stories from Stephen Bacon, Mark West and Neil Williams. Neil is new to me but I've read stories from Stephen and Mark before and been mightily impressed so I was very much looking forward to this mini anthology.
I'm glad to say that I wasn't disappointed at all by this collection and here are my thoughts on the stories:
(May contain spoilers).
Waiting For Josh by Stephen Bacon opens the collection and is a story about coming to terms with the past and how guilty secrets can - over the course of time - slowly destroy people. Stephen states in his notes that he wanted the story to be one of psychological suspense rather than out and out horror and he's succeeded admirably in this. Although the story concerns a London based journalist returning to Scarborough to visit his seriously ill friend Dale, it is two characters who appear only briefly in the story that carry the emotional punch - Dale's mother, an indirect victim of the events that led to her son's physical deterioration and Mr Landsmoor, a lonely grief-stricken man and another victim of the tragedy that is the core of the story.
It's a beautifully written story - the description of a bedroom in the Landsmoor house is spot on and it's nice to see Northern England portrayed in glowing terms rather than a cliched "it's grim up North" kind of way. The story is sad and moving and the atmosphere it achieves is one of melancholy. It's a story of guilt and remorse for sure. Redemption? Maybe. There is atonement for past sins here but (in a similar way to Ian McEwan's book) it's in reality too little, too late. The damage has already been done.
This is a strong start to the collection (and is in my opinion the best of the three stories). My only reservation was that it was similar in tone to the story Stephen had published in "Where The Heart Is" - which I'd read quite recently. A minor criticism though as this story (and the other one) are in no way diminished by those similarities.
Come See My House In The Pretty Town by Mark West is another story in which the sins of the past have profound consequences on the present. David is invited by his old friend Simon to spend a weekend in the village of Hoelzli where he's recently moved to escape the rat race. With its duckpond, red phone boxes and thatched cottages, it's the embodiment of "ye quaint olde English village" and as such will immediately set the alarm bells ringing in the head of all dedicated readers of horror.
This is a nicely paced story which drip feeds information to the reader and culminates in a final reveal which serves to enhance the events taking place.
Funfairs and carnivals are fertile ground for horror writers and the Hoelzli Fair is used to good effect here. I share a coulrophobia with Mark so anything involving clowns works for me. (They truly are evil, how anyone could think they're suitable entertainment for children is quite beyond me...) The passage describing their first appearance is beautifully written - deeply sinister with an undercurrent of threat.
I had an idea where the story was heading as I was reading it which turned out to be correct, although the specifics of it I got wrong. Agian, this is in no way a criticism as the story is a cracking read, fast paced with twists and turns while at the same time allowing really good characters to be drawn. As Simon says at the beginning of the story, "... this is some adventure".
Closer Than You Think by Neil Williams is the only story of the three to use a supernatural theme. Horror is most effective when grounded in reality, set against the mundane and so it is here - it's a story of a haunting, although it's not a place that's haunted, rather a child's car seat.
There are some effective chills in the story and a nice, almost in-joke about Korean ghosts (which got me bang to rights as the picture I was forming in my head was definitely Grudge/Ringu inspired!) My only real criticism is that I would have preferred a little more build up to the creepiness. Obviously this isn't always easy in the short story format but it's apparent from the scene right at the beginning where Dave retrieves the seat from a skip that there's something wrong with it. (And raises an internal logic question - which I generally hate doing, preferring to go with the story and suspending disbelief - as to why the previous owner didn't just set light to the bloody thing instead of chucking it in a skip).
It's a good end to a great collection. The first two stories are perhaps more thematically linked but all three work well together, highlighting the horror (supernatural or not) to be found in the mundane and it proves an excellent showcase for the talent to be found in the current British horror writing scene. Highly recommended.