Whitstable and also the masterclass in gross-out, the outrageous Arse Licker. Both were - for very different reasons - brilliant pieces of writing so it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to the release of his latest collection of stories, Monsters in the Heart from Gray Friar Press. There are fifteen stories in the collection, two of which are brand new and not previously published.
The first story is After the Ape which I'd already encountered in the Never Again anthology. I was blown away by it then, by its originality and imagination and was similarly affected on this second reading. Centering around events after the fall of King Kong from the Empire State Building it merges real life horror (and political comment) with iconic fictional characters to produce a - frankly - stunning piece of writing.
The death of another fictional icon is the starting point for Hounded another highly imaginative piece using the character of Dr Watson, here attending a seance after the death of Holmes and inadvertently releasing something terrible in the process (the title of the story providing a clue as to what that might be...)
There is much variety within the fifteen stories, in style and content. Some read like fables (Swell Head, Fear) whilst others touch on the surreal (Easter, Air Baby). There are "real" monsters, Monster Boy is an affectionate tribute to those created by the movies whilst Appeal For Witnesses updates an ancient mythology into a police procedural that put me in mind of some of Joel Lane's stories. In White Butterflies and Notre Dame the monsters are all too human, whether through violence and aggression or religious intolerance.
Who Dies Best provides a satirical look at the movie making business with a novel approach to filming death scenes whilst the immensely disturbing In The Colosseum uses inner city violence and voyeurism to deliver a blistering attack on the current state of TV broadcasting.
Pied a Terre is a ghost story but ironically is the one I enjoyed the least. In his notes, Stephen acknowledges the risks he took in writing the story, that offence could be taken. I wasn't offended but did feel slightly uncomfortable reading it. Good horror should make the reader uneasy, just not like this...
The Hair is a good old fashioned horror yarn, a tale of voodoo rituals leading to a conclusion that's truly horrible. And which, when you think about it a wee bit more, becomes even more horrible.
A Paper Tissue is possibly the least overtly horrific story in the book but which for me was the highlight of the collection. There's nothing supernatural in this tale of a couple holidaying in Italy but the writing is superb, a perfect description of a relationship that's failing until a chance encounter changes everything. The conclusion of the story is truly unsettling - subtle but deeply disturbing.
Monsters in the Heart is a marvellous collection. Imaginative, intelligent writing from a master craftsman. Highly recommended.