Wednesday 28 September 2011
Shape Without Form, Shade Without Colour opens the collection and is by Stephen Bacon. It's great to see one of Stephen's stories opening an anthology because - as I've mentioned in an earlier post - he's rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors and this story reinforces that opinion. Stephen writes in an understated style, there are no frills, bells or whistles (which is in no way a criticism!) and that style ably serves this tale of loss and grief. It's a slow burner which gradually introduces its supernatural elements, done in such a way as to complememt the air of melancholy the subject matter, and the skillful writing creates.
Till Death Us Do Part by Stuart Young carries through the themes of guilt and loss in a story about Janet who is suffering from Cotard's Syndrome, believing she is dead. It's an excellent piece of writing that brilliantly captures the frustrations of those having to deal with mental illness. It's a story about loss and grief for sure, but it's also about guilt. The ending is horrifying and heart-breaking.
Everybody Floats is by Gary McMahon and explores that same theme of guilt from another perspective. The imagery in this story is superb - and genuinely unsettling. It's another great story from a brilliant writer (and one I particularly enjoyed as I read it on holiday, on the Northumberland coast, by the sea...)
Last Supper is by Dave Jeffrey and marks the arrival in the anthology of the dreaded Z's. Anyone who's read any of my earlier posts will know zombies aren't my particular cup if tea but I have to say I liked this story a lot - told from the perspective of a helpless victim, the attack of the creatures is genuinely terrifying.
Mr Huxton Goes Camping is by Mark West and tells the story of workaholic Phil Huxton whose life is deteriorating around him because of his dedication to his job. It's a cleverly written story - and one that I immediately re-read on completion just to confirm what I thought had happened. It's sad and poignant and I loved it. Mark's another writer I've "discovered" fairly recently and everything I've read of his has been of a consistently high standard. His story in the Where The Heart Is anthology was probably my favourite of that collection.
Running With The Dead is by Zach Black and continues the impressive start to this anthology. Like Mark's story that precedes it, it's a moving piece which examines the transition between life and death. The ending is touching and uplifting.
In Bits by R.J. Gaulding changes the tone set by the last two stories in the most extreme way. A private eye story, subtle it ain't. It probably tries too hard to conform to noir conventions in the way it's written and ends up being a wee bit over-written. Probably tries too hard to shock too. There's a twist which works okay but which doesn't significantly improve the story and it ends on a massive clunker of a cliche.
The Clinic by Jan Edwards is a game of two halves. It starts off really well with an interesting, sinister premise. All goes well till the end where it's revealed that... I won't spoil it for you but my reaction on reading it was nononononono!!!
The Shufflers is a collaboration between Steven Savile and Steve Lockley. Another story with strong, unsettling imagery with the eponymous creatures making their relentless way across snow-covered fields to a remote farm. Creepy stuff and a nice variation on the zombie trope.
The Z Cruise by Katherine Tomlinson is a black-comedic tale of a "Disaster Cruise" which goes horribly wrong when the passengers go ashore to an island inhabited by - well, the Z in the title probably gives that one away and probably explains why I wasn't too impressed by the story either.
Fisher Of Men by Adrian Chamberlin is another story heavy with imagery - this one's literally dripping in it. A carnival float turns out to be a vessel of revenge from beyond the watery grave in a tale that was just too much for my own fairly tolerant suspension of disbelief.
The Men In High Castles by Ian Woodhead has the feel of being an extract from a much longer piece, seemingly set in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world where society is divided between the haves and have-nots. It's an entertaining enough break-in caper but has possibly the most abrupt ending of any story I've ever read.
Unfinished Business by Stuart Hughes is an interesting mix of dreams and reality and tells of ghostly revenge and retribution. It's a nicely constructed story but the last few lines of the story seemed a little rushed - I think they could have been expanded into a longer scene to increase the impact of the final revelation.
A Real Buried Treasure is by Stuart Neild and represented - for me - the low point in the collection. Stuart's bio tells us his previous work includes Giant Killer Eels, a Killer Granny series and a novel about violent, swearing killer gnomes. Which gives a pretty fair indication of where he's coming from with regards to writing serious horror. I finished A Real Buried Treasure and my immediate reaction was WTF! The premise of the story is flimsy at best then becomes more ludicrous, leading to a denoument that's just ridiculous. There's a massive info-dump at one point that sits there like a brick in custard. Not my favourite then, and I'm still not sure how it fits into the theme of the anthology.
Talk Show is by Richard Farren Barber and is a return to form for the anthology. It tells of a late-night talk show DJ, about to broadcast what will be his last show. The reasons why it's his last show become clear as the story progresses - the themes involved are common to a couple of the stories earlier in the collection but this is the best of them, written with a nice sense of irony and creating a believable atmosphere of isolation.
The Jacket by Johnny Mains is the last story in the collection and had me in two minds. The first of those minds really liked the beginning of the story, a period piece that seemed to be developing into an MR James-ish ghost story. The second mind was ultimately disappointed by the conclusion, the story having taken a very different direction indeed, with events becoming just a wee bit too outlandish for my tastes.
On the whole, Alt Dead is a strong collection and one that I'd recommend. Peter Mark May, the editor, dedicates the book to independent authors and I'd heartily agree with that choice. It's great to see yet another small press coming into existence, providing another outlet for horror writing and I wish him every success with future publications.
The next book is already planned - Alt Zombie.