The Condemned is a collection of six novellas by Simon Bestwick and is published by Gray Friar Press. These aren't new stories - the oldest dates back to 2001 and the most recent is from 2010 - but they were all new to me and, given my admiration of Simon's other work, it was a collection I was very much looking forward to reading.
World War One is a bit of a fixation for me so you can imagine my delight at discovering the first of the stories, Dark Earth, used those events as its backdrop, a first person narration by Private Bill Sadler, giving testimony at his court martial for murder, mutiny and desertion (thereby the most literal of the "condemned" in this collection). The story doesn't hold back on its descriptions of the horrors of war (the concept of battlefields being made up mainly of human remains a particularly chilling one) and benefits from the use of first person - and the unreliability frequently associated with it - to present an alternative explanation as to why the madness was perpetuated. It's a barn-storming start to the collection with strongly drawn characters which manages to be thought-provoking amidst the blood and guts.
There's a change of tone in the second story The Narrows which tells of a small group of survivors escaping a nuclear blast by entering an underground canal system. Unlike the visceral horrors of the first story, this is more a psychological horror, expertly creating a palpable sense of claustrophobia as the group travel deeper and deeper into the underground darkness. It's unremittingly bleak and utterly encapsulates the feeling of despair felt by its protagonists, a story that slowly chips away at the reader, drawing them into the nightmare unfolding before them.
A Kiss of Old Thorns comes as some (relatively) light relief after the intensity of the first two stories, employing the trope of Arcane Ritual To Defend Against Ancient Evil to good effect, the arrival of an escaping gang of bank robbers disrupting the world of this story's guardian - to devastating effect. It's probably the most conventional horror story of the collection.
The Model returns to more psychological themes but has a wonderful creation in Ken, a shadowy figure who employs life models but who takes much more than just sketches from them. It's an atmospheric tale, hinting at its horrors rather than explicitly showing them.
And then there's The School House, the highlight of the collection for me and up there amongst the best stories I've ever read. Reading this story is like having a waking nightmare; it's full of disturbing images - and acts - and moves seamlessly between past and present, dreams and reality in a confusing, overwhelming and utterly terrifying way. In his story notes, Simon explains his attempts to "evoke the feel of someone going out of his mind as intensely as possible". He has succeeded admirably in this - The School House is one of the most powerful stories I've read and is a wonderful piece of writing.
The Condemned is - given the author - fairly free from political statement. There's comment on the futility of war in Dark Earth of course, and it's no coincidence I'm sure that the protagonists in many of the stories are homosexual, "condemned" not in their own eyes but by the attitudes of others. The last story in the collection however, Sleep Now in the Fire, grabs hold of political metaphor and symbology and has a whale of a time with them. The demonisation of the inhabitants of sink estates takes on a more literal meaning within this tale and I smiled when I saw that the "monsters" here were called BLUEboys and that the weapon used to combat them them were red stars (along with a socialist concept of co-operation and revolution). Not as much as I laughed when the location of the source of the evil was discovered mind you... There's even a nice little dig at religion. It's a rollercoaster ride of a story with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and makes an entertaining conclusion to an excellent collection of stories.
I heartily recommend The Condemned, horror writing at its best.