‘Terror Tales of Northwest England’

I reviewed Paul Finch’s themed anthology Terror Tales of Cornwall not long ago, and now here are my thoughts on the latest instalment of the series: Terror Tales of Northwest England. Having lived in – and utterly loathed – Preston and Lytham St-Annes in my twenties, I had some qualms about reading a whole book of stories set in that part of the world, but the proportion of quality writers in the contents page was too good to pass by!

Despite the north-west boasting some pretty remote country – including Cheshire and the Pennines, made famous by Alan Garner in his novels ‘Red Shift’ and ‘Thursbitch’ respectively –  virtually all the decent stories are urban. For some reason subterranean terror is a recurring theme. “Factory Rook” by Simon Kurt Unsworth is a suffocatingly sad trudge through one of the more depressing corners of Manchester’s history, as renovations on the site of a former “Ragged School” (basically a cheerless orphanage and school) reveal appalling secrets in the building’s foundations. Simon Bestwick’s ”Below” continues the social justice theme of his novel The Feast of All Souls in shedding light on the awful conditions of workers all through the industrial era, and Stephen Gallagher’s ‘The Drain’ sees three working-class boys in search of excitement and wealth fall foul of a network of underground tunnels.

There are a couple of stories set on the coast, but don’t expect anything too picturesque! ‘Formby Point’ in Anna Taborska’s story of the same name could be considered scenic, but then you’ve got to face Blackpool. With its miasma of moth-eaten forced fun, the place is a natural setting for any number of horrors, and in fact ‘Normal Bones’ by Jason Gould surprised me by being the only story set there. It does, however, do a very decent job of depicting the desperation of those trying to eke out a living in the cruel world of comedy, and though I genuinely believe the dread and despair of Blackpool is beyond proper description Gould does have a fair enough stab at some Ramsey Campbell-style down-at-heel doom. And speaking of the Devil, Campbell himself also appears with ‘Root Cause’, an unflinching look at urban blight in (I assume) Liverpool. This isn’t new ground for Campbell, who has excelled in the past with era-defining stories like ‘Mackintosh Willy’ and ‘The Man in the Underpass’, but he’s on form here and avoids demonizing any of the characters.

These stories are all competently written and do what they set out to do, which is mostly straight-up horror rather than “strange” fiction. For me the only story in the anthology that had that addictive aura of weirdness came from Christopher Harman with ‘Wet Jenny’. Harman, I believe, was a librarian at Preston library for a while, which may explain why its ghost story section was so good when I lived there! More importantly, he is one of those writers like Terry Lamsley who never short-changes you when it comes to a feeling of confounding, unsettling bizarrerie, and he’s also chosen to write about one of the nastiest folklore entities of the nort-west, so it’s no wonder this tale is the best in the book.

Paul Finch has also contributed a long story of his own, and just as well, since a number of the stories here fall short on that vibe of “localness” that is arguably the raison d’etre of these anthologies. That’s never been a problem for Finch as a writer, who has mined the rich heritage of British haunted sites very successfully in the past, and his story ‘The Upper Tier’ was actually read as a sort of play in the stately home where it is set. Finch delivers his usual winning combination of supernatural action and intriguing echoes from history – a double dose of UK history, as a trio of 1950s ghost hunters delve into the sectarian nightmares of the post-Reformation era, along with some more unusual colonial material. Add some guilty romantic fireworks and you’ve got a story that easily justifies its thirty-odd page length.  With its uncharacteristic lack of memorable nature writing and prevailing tone of grime and despair, Terror Tales of Northwest England was never going to be my favourite number in the series, but thanks to Finch it does finish off with a bang.

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