Tuesday 25 October 2011

Terror Tales of the Lake District.

I love The Lake District, it's like a second home to me and I've holidayed there since I was very young. It's where I go to recharge my batteries and is a constant source of inspiration to me. I also love horror stories so the new anthology from Gray Friar Press Terror Tales of the Lake District was one book I was very much looking forward to reading. It's edited by Paul Finch and contains thirteen (naturally) stories set in that beautiful part of North-West England.
Even before you open the book you're going to be freaked out by the cover art by Steve Upham - a well creepy image of Tom Fool, the Mad Clown of Muncaster, whose story is recounted in one of the factual inserts between the stories which tell some of the myths and legends associated with The Lake District.
Little Mag's Barrow by Adam L.G. Nevill opens the collection in fine style. It's an extremely atmospheric tale and genuinely scary. In it, the thoroughly unlikeable Kitty takes possession of the isolated cottage that gives the story its name for a weekend break. It turns out Kitty isn't entirely on her own after all and the scene in which the cottage's other occupant reveals themselves is brilliantly written.
The Coniston Star Mystery is by Simon Clark and tells of a diving expedition to locate the wreck of a steamer which sank in the lake in 1910, taking with it the body of escapologist Iskander Carvesh. One of the diving team has motivations other than financial gain for making the dive and these provide a twist of sorts at the end of the story. (As an aside, the epilogue is dated "one year later" - I think it could have worked as well had it been "one month earlier".)
Devils of Lakeland is by Paul Finch and is an atmospheric ghost story of a childhood haunting that has terrible repercussions in adult life. The pedant in me got riled at Catbells being called The Catbells and the reference to (the non-existent) Borrowdale Village but these are minor quibbles about what is a very enjoyable story which retains an air of mystery throughout.
The Moraine by Simon Bestwick brilliantly captures the whole feeling of getting lost in the mist when out walking, something I've done many times, once on top of Scafell Pike where I managed to do a complete 180 degree turn and ended up heading in completely the opposite direction. Fortunately, my predicament wasn't made worse by having some deadly creature pursuing me as does befall the protagonists in Simon's story. It's tense, scary and exciting, another excellent story from one of my current favourite authors.
The Claife Crier by Carole Johnstone is similar thematically to the previous story in that a couple out walking are terrorised by a monster. I think this is an even scarier story than Simon's and manages, in its short length, to create well drawn characters and a completely believable father/daughter conflicted relationship which adds depth to the story. Oh, and there's the added bonus of Carole's trademark writing speech in dialect - a rare skill that's tricky to pull off but which she accomplishes with consumate ease.
Jewels In The Dust is by Peter Crowther. It begins with a quotation from the 17th Century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. That's always a bit intimidating, here's an author flexing their intellectual muscles, foreshadowing a weighty piece of writing, one that's going to require some concentration and deep thinking to appreciate. He then spoils the illusion somehwhat by mis-spelling Jackson Pollock's name but hey, it took some of the pressure off! I'm waffling on here to avoid having to talk about the story itself which I really didn't like. It's a tale about as far removed from terror as you can possibly get (though it is set in the Lake District), all about death - and a love which transcends death. I'm cringing as I write that last line, aware of how corny it sounds but then that's how this whole story felt to me. A family who I instantly disliked for being just too nice (including little Tommy who is so cute it's nauseating), go for a picnic at the behest of the grandmother who belives she's finally going to die. It's all meant to be uplifting stuff - there's even a visit from dearly-departed grand-dad - but for me it tipped over the edge of sentimentality to tumble down the slippery slope of mawkishness and I personally found the final line of the story to be jaw-droppingly patronising.
Above The World is by Ramsey Campbell and restores the balance admirably. This was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me as I'd read this story many years ago in an earlier anthology. It's a classy piece of writing - as one would expect - and is beautifully atmospheric, recreating the atmosphere of the Lakes wonderfully. It's a ghost story where the surroundings really do add to the fear and confusion that beset the protagonist. Lovely stuff.
The Jilted Bride Of Windermere is by Gary Fry and, like The Claife Crier, is an updating of a pre-existing legend. The title pretty much gives away what's going to happen so there are few surprises here but the strength of the story is in Gary's skills at creating believable - albeit thoroughly unlikeable - characters, including the first person narrator.
Walk The Last Mile is by Steven Savile and is by far the darkest piece in the book. (No mean feat considering there are stories here by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick). It's another first-person narration that extremely effectively changes tone as the story progresses. From what appear at first to be romantic recollections it changes into... well, something else entirely. Nothing nice though. It's cleverly written and constructed and of all the stories has lingered most in my memory after completing the book.
Framed is by Peter Bell and unfortunately opens up the big box of Horror Cliches and digs deeply into it. Here's the set-up: A couple of petty thieves drive out to a graveyard reputedly haunted by a malevolent spirit in order to stash their booty. Can you guess what happens next? Yup, you're right.
Night Of The Crone is by Anna Taborska and fails to close the lid of the box opened in the previous story. I smiled a bit at the thought of a farmer writing a sign in dialect like it was an actual language but the smiles soon faded. It's a bit of a stretch to think that a bunch of modern day yobbos would a). believe and b). act on a legend about buried treasure. They do though, desecrating a stone circle in the process. Can you guess what happens next (the clue's in the title)? Yup. You're right.
Along Life's Trail is by Gary McMahon. It's not the typical dark, gritty fare that usually characterises Gary's work (there's a hint of marital discord but little more) but it's an entertaining - and scary - story in which the act of stumbling across an old deserted building results in a supernatural connection being made that has disastrous, (and gory) repercussions.
Striding Edge is by Reggie Oliver and uses the eponymous ridge walk on Helvellyn as the setting for some bizarre encounters between a man and some of his old school friends. It's another classy piece of writing from Mr Oliver (and reinforces my own prejudices aginst organisations like the Boy Scouts) which makes an already scary place even scarier. A traditional spooky story from the current master of that particular sub-genre.
Terror Tales... is a really strong collection (despite my reservations about some of the stories). Of them all, I think the Bestwick, Johnstone and Campbell stories capture the unique atmosphere of the district the best. Highly recommended.

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