As a long-term fan of Paul Finch’s Terror Tales of… regional horror anthologies I was sad to see the series disappear for a while. However, I’m pleased to report that it has recently found a new home at Telos Publishing. The wait came to an end when Terror Tales of Cornwall arrived in 2017, and with another number, Terror Tales of North West England, just out this year, I thought it was time for me to catch up!
Terror Tales of Cornwall begins with an ill-advised excavation of the Blood on Satan’s Claw variety. Mark Morris’ ‘We Who Sing Beneath The Ground’ is a competent look at a local legend, but he’s not at his imaginative best and the sinister tumbledown farm location is a bit lacking in novelty. Ray Cluley – increasingly a writer to watch – hands in a characteristically original piece about painting and insanity, ‘In the Light of Saint Ives’, though I felt the story could’ve been set anywhere with good painting light, and the location didn’t really come to life for me (the story’s interest lies more in its psychological study of a fraught sibling relationship and the darker side of the artistic impulse.)
The third time’s the charm, however, because next Finch brings out the big guns. Reggie Oliver, now pretty much my favourite short story writer in the world, impresses yet again with ‘Trouble At Botathan’ (presumably not to be confused with R.S. Hawker’s ‘The Botathen Ghost’, unless the allusion is deliberate!) Like many of Oliver’s stories, this one is set in a nest of privilege, as we join a bunch of Oxbridge types on a summer retreat to a big house in the “strange, wild, choppy countryside” near Bodmin Moor. There’s a haunted wood, and some very nasty secrets coming to light when the narrator finds a young woman’s diary in the house, but a mere description of the plot can’t prepare you for the experience of reading this. The theme is mental disintegration and the loss or corruption of the self, and even those familiar with Oliver’s unparalleled mastery of style should be wowed by the way he actually manages to make the reader feel as if they themselves are falling apart. The initial vibe of sultry Westcountry backwoods menace gives way to something much more unusual, quite unique in fact.
And there’s more good news for fans of Oliver: another story in the anthology, Mark Samuels’ ‘Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning’ is a deliberate tribute to Oliver, and in particular his stories set in and around the world of the theatre, which tend to be even more perverse and disorienting than his other stuff. As Samuels’ style is usually quite different, I was pleasantly surprised by what a good job he does of channelling all the things that make Oliver’s stories so enjoyable. This tale is well worth reading even if you’ve never heard of Oliver.
John Whitbourn is another writer whose Binscombe Tales have established him as a heavyweight in the world of short fiction. ‘Mebyon versus Suna’ features a heftier dose of comedy than usual, which felt like a bit of a shame considering how very good Whitbourn can be at delivering scares. However, I commend his willingness to grapple with some proper Cornish material. The story is a scathing satire on the blood-and-soil Cornish nationalism that has become popular in recent years, and the matrix of pseudo-Celtic sentiment that incubated it. Though the humour is not particularly subtle, there is some incisive commentary on the way the well-meaning celebration of regional diversity has been increasingly hijacked by peddlers of a grim kind of cultural exceptionalism that looks suspiciously like xenophobia and, dare we say it, fascism. At the time of going to press, Cornwall is pretty much the epicentre of this trend, and it was high time someone took a swipe at its proponents. Though you could argue that this anthology is itself part of the problem, since it follows the age-old pattern of overlooking the weird heritage of other Westcountry counties in favour of Cornwall! Unless, of course, a Terror Tales of the South West is in the works…
Considering the state of horror fiction nowadays, I expected this anthology to be more or less wall-to-wall folk horror, but it’s actually quite surprising how few stories of this kind appear. In fact the only really convincing one is a reprint, Paul Finch’s own ‘The Old Traditions Are The Best’, starring one of Cornwall’s best instances of weirdness, the ‘Obby ‘Oss procession at Padstow. There are, however, a number of tales that justify the decision to veer away from the obvious. Mark Valentine’s ‘The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things’ could at a pinch be described as folk horror, as it deals with mystical entities latent in the landscape around Carn Euny, but it also owes a lot to the antiquarian ghostly tale, with its church and museum setting. It’s an ambiguous, charming tale reminiscent of Valentine’s earlier Ralph Tyler stories, and if you like it then I strongly recommend you check out his collection Herald of the Hidden. And there is more ecclesiastical unease from Kate Farrell, whose ‘His Anger Was Kindled’ is an imaginative treatment of the topical problem of declining church attendance in rural parishes.
Altogether there are definitely enough quality stories here to justify the purchase price of this affordable paperback, and of course Finch has interspersed the fiction with his usual accounts of the region’s supernatural history, including my personal favourite cryptid, the Owlman of Mawnan. This creature made a memorable appearance in Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale, the autobiography of Westcountry-based wizard, cryptozoologist and sometime hoax-puller Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels, and I’d like to take this opportunity to recommend his book. It fascinated me as a child and when I re-read it a few years ago it was still engrossing. No belief in the paranormal is necessary to enjoy it, either: an interest in the weird history of Britain is more than enough.