Green and Pleasant Land is the subtitle for the first in a planned series of yearly anthologies of Great British Horror which will be published by Black Shuck Books.
Each book in the series will be themed and act as a showcase for ten British authors and, a little confusingly, one international contributor. I guess Great Mainly British Horror is a bit clunky for a title. Anyway, such inconsequential ramblings aside, and stifling my natural urge to recoil from anything displaying even the slightest hint of nationalism, it was with some degree of anticipation that I delved into the book – the names on the minimalist (and thus very effective) cover (each story does have its own illustration though, which is a nice touch) were all well known to me and I was keen to see what the theme for Volume 1 – small town, rural and folk horror - would bring out of them.
The opening story is VH Leslie’s Hermaness, sharing its name with the most northerly point in Britain. Many of the author’s previous stories have included clever wordplay, using dual meanings and interpretations of words to cunning effect, mixing the literal and metaphorical and this tale of a couple on the edge of a breakdown in their relationship is no exception. There have been times in the past when I thought the cleverness of the writing overwhelmed the stories themselves but that isn’t the case here, the balance is perfect and results in a deeply atmospheric tale with brilliantly drawn characters. It’s a strong – if enigmatic – opening to the book.
Folk horror is absolutely to the fore with the next story, Rich Hawkins’ Meat for the Field. I’ve always thought Harvest Festivals have always had a slightly unsettling aspect to them, hiding behind a front of respectable religion whilst in fact being pagan rituals worshipping ancient, evil deities. Just an opinion obviously. Those slightly deranged views – or at least the spirit of them – are channelled in this story which uses its remote setting to full effect, describing a very different type of festival more akin to the Wicker Man than evensong on a Sunday evening. Rich cleverly tells the story through the eyes of an archetypal broken protagonist, finding himself unable to perpetuate the horrors that have been such a part of his life thus far. It’s a subtle, affecting piece that couches its horror in a deeply personal story.
Strange as Angels by Laura Mauro is next, telling of Frankie’s “adoption” of a strange winged creature who she, and friend Jimmy accidentally crash into. Frankie has issues, not least with Jimmy and the creature somehow becomes a talisman, carrying with it hopes for an escape from an existence which is stifling her. A bond forms even as the true nature of the “angel” manifests and its strange appetites become apparent. Written in present tense, I loved the strangeness – and ambiguity - of this story all the way through to its devastating conclusion.
Ray Cluley provides The Castellmarch Man, which brings a couple of geo-cachers into the world of the eponymous myth. There’s a scene involving a disturbed romantic encounter in a barn which put me in mind of a similar one in King’s Gerald’s Game – and which I found equally as disturbing. The sense of unease engendered in that scene continues all the way through the rest of the story to a properly creepy conclusion in the tunnels beneath a Welsh castle.
Ostrich by David Moody is a first person narrative from the wife of a controlling husband. His obsession with his lawn is simply one facet of a personality so self-obsessed and patronising that the relationship he has with his wife is tantamount to abuse. Given the author’s pedigree, this is a surprisingly gentle tale with a not entirely unexpected ending that provides a little context to the narrator’s apparent naivete.
The international contributor for Volume 1 is Barbie Wilde who provides Blue-Eyes. I found this to be the weakest story in the book, its bizzaro, explicit horrors a far cry from what might be expected of rural of folk horror. On completion of the book, I still found that it jarred with the overall tone of the volume and am surprised it was included. Still, if tales of necrophilia are your thing then you’ll probably enjoy it.
James Everington cleverly describes Britain as a foreign country in his story A Glimpse of Red. As Beyza waits for son Altan to disembark from the school bus, dark secrets from the past emerge, shedding light on her current predicament. It’s a story that uses its ambiguity to devastating effect, blurring the lines between reality and imagination, a haunting story in which the ghosts of the past and present conspire to misdirect the reader, raising questions as to what exactly has happened.
Mr Denning Sings in Simon Kurt Unsworth’s story, as part of the highlight of his week – Sunday service at church. Coughing from another member of the congregation disturbs his enjoyment however, the fact that he is unable to locate the source of the noise only adding to his irritation in this cleverly constructed character piece which slowly reveals the prejudices of – and the darkness within - the titular protagonist. Great last line by the way.
Adam Millard’s He Waits on the Upland is a shaggy dog story which has a great time misdirecting the reader. Farmer Graham has two concerns in his life, a neighbour’s dogs attacking his sheep and the dementia which is slowly claiming his wife Jenny. Unable to do anything about the latter, he decides to address the former by staking out his flock, gun at hand ready to sort out the problem with the dogs once and for all. The conclusion to the story is jaw-dropping in its audacity, creating an image which will linger long in the memory, managing to be outrageous and yet somehow touching at the same time.
Misericord by AK Benedict returns to more subtle horror, an atmospheric piece involving researchers, an ancient church and - flying ants. It’s a slow burner of a story with an underlying sense of menace, tapping onto the spiritual nature of the landscape and the ancient buildings scattered across it, hinting at a subtle kind of possession.
The last story in the book is also the longest, Quiet Places by Jasper Bark. Not usually one for holding back on the excesses of horror, this is a restrained tale of life in a remote Scottish village in the Highlands. Cue much channelling of small town mistrust of outsiders, throw in a heady mix of folklore and familial pacts and what you end up with is a nicely supernatural – if somewhat traditional – tale, perhaps the closest the book has to offer in terms of folk horror.
Green and Pleasant Land is a book I enjoyed a lot. The emphasis is on subtle, supernatural horror and the traditions and superstitions of the British Isles are all well represented here. The next volume will be dedicated to urban horror and I look forward to seeing which authors are chosen and what they come up with.