Dark Satanic Mills is the subtitle given to the second volume of Great British Horror published by Black Shuck Books. I reviewed the first volume here with its stories set in rural environments, the location having changed for the second book with a move to the urban sprawl.
First up is Tools of the Trade by Paul Finch, a story which throws more light on the Jack the Ripper story, with a journalist offered the story of a lifetime revealing the true identity of the serial killer following the discovery of new evidence. A little surprisingly, the story isn’t set in London but Tunbridge – the location of Jack’s escape from the capital. It’s a strong start to the collection, thoroughly researched and provides a believable (albeit fictional) identity for Jack.
It’s also quite long. The ending, when it finally arrives, is very effective but it does take a long time to get there and, after all that’s gone before, feels a little rushed. I’d have really liked a little bit more time spent on the final scenes in an abandoned hotel – possibly the best location ever invented for a horror story.
Cate Gardner provides the second tale, Fragments of a Broken Doll, another trademark story in which the real darkness lies beneath the slightly surreal surface. The mysterious Trill lives with Harry in a house which backs onto a prison. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the house in which the true character of Trill is revealed. And it’s not pleasant. For anyone. It’s – as might be expected – an odd little tale that creates an almost palpable tension as the scene plays out. Strange and disturbing.
Andrew Freudenberg’s The Cardiac Ordeal is a high concept piece dealing with moral dilemmas. Shane and Linda’s daughter Emma goes missing – the victim, it turns out of a kidnapping. Things get darker when Shane is approached by the kidnapper and promised his daughter’s return if he agrees to carry out a series of tasks.
I guess the story is about how far a parent would go to protect their child – the tasks Shane must perform involve breaking the law – and escalate in seriousness as the story progresses. The final task, of course, is the most difficult to perform – the hardest test of his love for his daughter. There’s a twist thrown in for good measure but, much like the opening story, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed, that the decisions made were done so a little quickly. That said, it’s an effective ending to a tale very much in the Tales of the Unexpected/Twilight Zone school of storytelling.
The Lies We Tell are the basis for Charlotte Bond’s story. Its protagonist is Cathy, an estate agent with a well-developed selfish streak allied with a sense of self-importance second to none. Not a nice person then, and one who’s parenting skills could do with a little work.
When notes bearing handwritten numbers start getting posted through the letterbox and she starts hearing a strange clicking noise that no-one else can, things start to get a bit weird. To be fair, you’ll probably work out what the strange sounds and notes mean long before Cathy does – but that’s because she’s too self-absorbed to understand anything outside her sphere of existence. But that doesn’t matter, it merely makes the ride towards the story’s dark conclusion (with a hint of a very grim fairy tale about it) all the more enjoyable.
The guest international author for this volume is Angela Slatter who provides the book’s first urban myth story in Our Lady of Wicker Bridge. The myth tells of a pale woman who will approach those who were suffering and offer them a deal. The story is old in present tense, lending it an air of immediacy and revolves around social worker Tricia, taking over the “beat” of her mentor Hermione who has gone missing, leaving behind the burnt out remains of her car.
It’s a deeply atmospheric story that vividly creates the desolation of the housing estate in which most of the action takes place. Throw in a deeply scary little girl and the scene is set for a wonderful modern ghost story which is one of the highlights of the collection.
There’s much gory delight to be had in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Church With Bleeding Windows (the bleeding referring to the red stuff rather than being a mild profanity). It involves a demonic entity doing incredibly nasty things to people and is a rollicking good yarn for the whole of its relatively short running time. The reasons for the monsters actions are actually very clever and the story conjures up some startling images, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of body horror.
Marie O’Regan provides a fairly traditional haunted house story in Sleeping Black – in which Seth and Trudy inherit a house form his Grandmother, the family home of long-established chimney sweeping business. The appearance of small, black handprints herald a series of strange phenomena and ghostly encounters in a tale which provides little in the way of surprises and which treads a pretty well-worn path. It’s well written, and nicely paced but the use of so many familiar tropes render it a little predictable.
Gary Fry begins his contribution with the line: Every city, town or village has one: Station Road. It’s a statement I can verify, given that I live on one myself. The location provides the title for his story, albeit slightly tampered with to give us Satin Road. The removal of the letters features in the tale itself, a schoolboy prank against Dean, ostracised as a weirdo because of his penchant for horror and heavy metal (mind you…), who lives on the aforementioned road in a joke only those who lack the ability to spell could truly appreciate.
The dislike of Dean extends to his headmaster, Mr Rhodes, the only real friend he has being the narrator of the story who has a shared interest in horror. Sympathy for the devil can have its drawbacks though, as our narrator finds to his cost after Dean moves away from the area leaving a series of inexplicable events in his wake.
It’s another thought-provoking piece from Mr Fry, with a degree of ambiguity in the story’s conclusion regarding what has actually happened – and how, and why…
Non Standard Construction by Penny Jones provides the tale of a tenant James in the big city finding cheap accommodation to rent and then discovering the reasons why it was such a bargain. The reason in this case being the term which provides the story’s title, referring to the concrete – rather than brick – used to build them.
Except of course, in this story it means something else too. Building and tenant seem somehow connected in a story where the notion of taking possession is neatly flipped on its head.
Gary McMahon brings us The Night Moves, a story which channels his own experience in martial arts to tell of Miles, who sneaks into an abandoned warehouse to perform a kata – a sequence of martial arts moves designed to show skill and technique. Of course, Miles performs alone, there is no one there to judge him, the ritual is a solitary endeavour. And ritual’s the key word, as revealed in a back story, Miles has learned the kata from the mysterious Hoodoo, a homeless man with a mysterious past. The night moves he performs hold a dark secret – in essence it’s a black kata.
I really enjoyed this story and it’s probably my favourite of the book. There’s some nice references to The Concrete Grove books and in particular the mysterious Loculus with The Night Moves adding to that pre-existing mythology marvellously.
The final story in the collection is /’dƷɅst/ (my nearest approximation to it…) by Carole Johnstone. It’s the second story of Carole’s I’ve read featuring Glaswegian police – the first being Wet Work which appeared in Black Static. Like that story, this one features her trademark use of dialect in her characters’ dialogue. I have to confess, generally this is a pet hate of mine, whatever the dialogue is I’m always put in mind of Dick van Dyke’s uncanny portrayal of a cockney in Mary Poppins, and – as a northerner myself – I’m always frustrated by writers who think we pronounce “u” as “oo”. We don’t. Nobody does. Grumpiness and intolerance aside, I have to say that Carole always does a very good job of it although it does sometimes take you out of the story a little bit when you have to re-read a sentence to work out what’s being said.
Ironically, pronunciation lies at the heart of this story (and is reflected in the title) with a serial killer leaving notes at the scenes of their crimes written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system designed to elucidate the correct pronunciation of words but, tellingly, pretty much requiring a PhD to understand.
It’s a cracking story, and a thrilling end to the book but, if I can return to my aforementioned grumpiness, it’s more of a police procedural thriller than horror.
I enjoyed Dark Satanic Mills a lot, and it’s a strong follow up to Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a wonder as to which of the lyrics of Jerusalem will be chosen for Volume 3 – an anthology of chariot stories perhaps, or will mountains be the subject? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the urban theme was pretty much incidental to most of the stories in here with perhaps only the Johnstone and Slatter stories using the city as a character but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of them. Whatever the theme, I look forward to next year’s release, this really is shaping up to be a great British series of books.