Monday 25 August 2014

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories.

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories is a non-themed anthology from Spectral Press which contains nineteen stories selected – and edited – by mark Morris. It’s a stellar line-up of well established authors contributing to the book and this, along with the high standard established by Spectral with everything they’ve so far published meant my expectations were high for this new volume. Having now read an advance review copy of the book I can say that those expectations were more than fulfilled – this is an outstanding collection of stories and a brilliant advertisement for the short form of horror writing.
Leading the procession is On the Tour by Ramsey Campbell, a tale of narcissism and delusion centred around Stu, one-time drummer in Scotty and the Scousers who is convinced a Beatles tour in Liverpool is incorporating a visit to his own home. Stu’s character is skilfully drawn and Campbell succeeds in eliciting – if not empathy then certainly sympathy - from the reader. There’s a dark undercurrent (or should that be a backbeat?) to the tale however and as the story progresses this comes to the fore, leading to an ending whose inevitability in no way diminishes its tragedy.
On the Tour isn’t the only story to use music as a backdrop, it’s a theme that occurs in Reggie Oliver’s The Book and the Ring which reintroduces the character of Jeremiah Staveley from his earlier story Quieta Non Movere a sixteenth century composer of choral music. To be honest, there’s nothing too original in the story itself – a tale if witchcraft and deals with the devil – but the real joy of the piece is in the way it’s written with the author presenting it as a written testimony from Staveley himself, beautifully creating the Elizabethan language and style of writing.
Musicians feature in Brian Hodge’s Cures for a Sickened World – this time a black metal group – Balrog – whose latest album has been mauled by an egotistical critic, Mr Sunshine. Revenge ensues, with the critic’s words turned back on him – literally, as a form of torture. It’s a bleak story with a nihilistic feel to it which gradually descends deeper and deeper into the darkness.
The fourth music themed story is Conrad Williams’ The Devil’s Interval. The story immediately struck a chord with me (sorry – pun intended) as, like its protagonist, I’m a self-taught (i.e. hopeless) guitarist. Pretty much anything that involves going beyond the third fret instils a mild sense of panic in me and I truly believe barre chords are a thing of the devil. What actually is a thing of the devil is the guitar featured in the story, a Fender Strat which unleashes havoc in this witty, yet dark riff (yeah, I know…) on Faustian themes.
The devil – or at he very least the imagery associated with him – plays a part in Rio Youers’ Outside Heavenly – the title referring to a town with surely one of the most ironic names ever. The story starts with the discovery of a mutilated corpse in a burning house and then gets progressively darker as the testimony of the murdered man’s wife gradually uncovers a demonic story with its roots in a strange settlement just outside of town…
There’s fire aplenty in the Youers story and it’s another recurring theme in the book. It has a significant role to play in Angela Slatter’s The October Widow – a vital component in a yearly ritual of renewal, a ritual involving sacrifice and burnt offerings carried out by the enigmatic Mirabel so that the natural order of the world can be maintained. Mr Spock’s philosophy circa Wrath of Khan that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is the rationale behind this ceremony but unfortunately it’s a tenet not everyone agrees with – with disastrous results.
Finding oneself in a new environment can often be a strange experience, the feeling of being an outsider, not fitting in and it’s this scenario that’s exploited in Funeral Rites by Helen Marshall, Something Sinister in Sunlight by Lisa Tuttle and Eastmouth by Alison Moore. The former finds Canadian Nora taking lodgings with Mrs Moreland and becoming entangled in a family tragedy. The arrival of the coffin containing Moreland’s son Sean brings about a suitably creepy conclusion and casts new light – or possibly darkness – on the characterisation that has preceded it.
Something Sinister in Sunlight has British actor Anson living and working in Los Angeles but nearing the end of his tether, thoroughly disappointed at the way things have turned out, typecast as psychopathic killers. In essence a variation of Misery, an encounter with a fan leads to some blurring of the lines between what’s real and what isn’t.
Eastmouth has Peter taking girlfriend Sonia back to his home town, the Eastmouth of the title in what is a beautifully written short story. The prose is concise with not a word wasted and perfectly creates a growing sense of unease that all is not what it seems in the small coastal town. It isn’t and the perfect prose and pacing continues to culminate in one of the best last lines of a story I’ve seen in quite some time.
In his introduction, Mark Morris pays homage to the Pan and Fontana horror stories and two stories in this collection probably recapture the spirit of those stories the best. Stolen Kisses by Michael Marshall Smith is a short, first person account of how jealousy can lead to extreme measures – even if it means hurting your best friend – a slight tale that’s all about the last line.
The Dog’s Home is by Alison Littlewood (and yes, that apostrophe is exactly where it should be) and turns out to be a gloriously nasty tale with a suitably gruesome conclusion which pulls the dog blanket from under your feet. Marley and Me it ain’t. Thankfully.
Alison is one of the Spectral alumni to appear in the book, another is John Llewellyn Probert whose contribution is The Life Inspector. A man with a clipboard comes knocking at the door of Franklin Chalmers armed with a series of questions designed to determine the value of his life. It’s a high concept piece with all the dark humour and flourishes you’d expect from the author but I feel there were a lot more opportunities to take some swipes at upper middle class twittery than were on display here.
Spectral’s first publication was Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark so it’s only right and proper that he should have a story in this first anthology. Dull Fire is much like the characters within it in that it doesn’t pull its punches. Those characters are McMahon archetypes, damaged and broken – haunted by, and scarred by their pasts, both literally and metaphorically. The plot may seem a little contrived, relying too much on coincidence but to some extent that’s not important – it’s the emotional impact that counts and this story has that in abundance. It’s a dark fable (interestingly, written partly as a way to escape a year’s creative block) and although I felt a few paragraphs at the end which diluted the story’s impact could have been trimmed this remains a disturbing, angry piece of writing.
Disturbing is the right word to describe the imagery in Steve Rasnic Tem’s The Night Doctor with its generation-spanning harbinger of death. A figure whose appearance put me in mind of a seventeenth century plague doctor, it’s a brilliant creation – scary enough as a childhood bogeyman but even scarier when it’s adults who see it…
Quite what Robert Shearman’s Carry Within Some Small Sliver of Me is actually about is, frankly, beyond me. To call it surreal would be accurate and yet somehow inadequate. It’s… well, Shearmanesque is probably the best way to describe it. There’s startling imagery aplenty in this very grim fairy tale about a Girl called Beverley who’s a bit of a monster.
The “weird tales with SL in their title” tradition continues with Tom Fletcher’s Slape – a strange word with all sorts of connotations, the meaning of which is explained by a character called (fittingly) Eels. It’s a tale of milkmen that’s far from everyday and embodies that strange other-worldly sense of dislocation felt during pre-dawn hours. It’s an odd little piece which drops in hints and clues about a particular customer on the round who may, or may not be slightly sinister… Odd and confusing yes – but therein lie its strengths.
Weird Tale with SL in its title number three is Stephen Laws’ The Slista – another strange title conjuring up pictures of some weird creature, slimy and evil. Which isn’t that far from the truth as you’ll discover reading this gem of a story. To say the narrator has a distinctive voice is to understate the case dramatically as the story is told in the pidgin English of one of a “family under the stairs” characters, relaying a significant event in which changes are afoot for the strange brood. It’s a Marmite story to be sure and I had to read it twice for the full effect to sink in. I loved it though, especially the way so much of the bigger story – of which this is a vignette – is portrayed through what’s being said.
The book ends with two stories of the highest quality. The penultimate tale is Nicholas Royle’s This Video Does Not Exist. The best horror fiction disturbs and unsettles the reader and that’s precisely what this story does. It begins almost comically with the first person narrator, an un-named university lecturer, discovering that he can’t see his head in his reflection in the mirror. The story has a touch of the surreal in these opening scenes as he desperately tries to determine whether what he is seeing (or not seeing, as the case may be) is real. Things take a turn however with the introduction of a news story about a gruesome murder in London and then become darker still when an internet search for videos takes the narrator – and reader – to some places they really don’t want to go. It’s (as expected, given the author) an enigmatic and beguiling tale but one whose imagery and overall feel will leave you shaken.
The collection is rounded off by Newspaper Heart from Stephen Volk, author of one of Spectral’s biggest successes, the critically acclaimed Whitstable. This is a novella too but it’s a tale so well told you’ll want to read it in one sitting. A plethora of cultural references place the story in the 1970’s – specifically the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night and revolves around a lonely boy’s construction of a guy. As time goes on, a relationship develops between the boy and his surrogate friend…
It’s a wonderful story which explores the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. The characters are perfectly drawn and the author cleverly introduces information and revelations that cast them in ever changing lights. It builds and builds towards the climax and when that climax arrives it’s utterly devastating and will leave you reeling. It’s an astounding piece of writing and a wonderful finale for what is an amazing collection of stories. In his introduction, Mark Morris states his ambition is for “The Spectral Book of Horror Stories to become a watchword for genre excellence”. On this evidence he’s already succeeded, and the release of subsequent volumes is much to be anticipated.

The book is being launched in September at FantasyCon and once it is you'll be able to buy it here.

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