Johnny Mains anthology

After Johnny Mains’ Best British Horror 2014 and 2015 both floated my boat, I was confused and disappointed to discover that the series had been cancelled by its old publisher, Salt. However, I recently found out that Mains has found a new home for the young but estimable series at Newcon Press, and with the lightning reaction speed that characterizes all my ventures I have just got round to reading the latest one, Best British Horror 2018.

This series has always focussed on modern fiction in the past, but one of Mains’ sidelines is as an anthologist of obscure ghost stories by women from the Victorian and Edwardian eras (I’m currently annoyed at my continuing failure to get hold of either of his recent outings, A Suggestion of Ghosts and An Obscurity of Ghosts). So I was not entirely surprised that the collection includes ‘Paymon’s Trio’, a recently excavated rarity from a pre-war author, Colette de Curzon, who does not appear to have produced anything else. It’s certainly an interesting inclusion and the style is textbook Golden Age of the Ghost Story, but the plot (about a trio of musicians who insist on playing through a haunted piece of sheet music) won’t hold any surprises for modern readers. If haunted music or instruments is your bag, I recommend you head straight for ‘Ghost Music’, the amazing Peter Warlock-centric long story by Thomas Tessier, or John Meade Faulkner’s novel The Lost Stradivarius (which predates Curzon).

But let’s move on to the 21st century! This collection offers much to tempt the reader of supernatural fiction, and the biggest draw for me was the Reggie Oliver double-bill. ‘Love and Death’ is a tragic and cutting examination of the sort of damage the idea of the ‘artist’s muse’ can wreak on human models, though for me it was spoilt by the appearance of a key character from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. But then I’m one of those people who view Wilde as a necessary evil that we all had to sit through to eventually get Saki. ‘A Day With The Delusionists’ was also subpar; it’s more of a mystery story than anything, though there is a certain amount of quiet horror in the appalling behaviour and attitudes of the smug academics that forms the plot, and of course the writing remains elegant and historically convincing in a way that only very few of Oliver’s rivals can approach.

Having said that, another story in this anthology, ‘Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling’ by Daniel McGachey, is a very worthy contribution to the old-school antiquarian ghost story. The author has contributed regular reviews to the brilliant Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter (a paradise for M R James fans) and his expertise is on display in this tale of a sinister clock and its maker. The period dialogue and details are persuasive and there’s a visceral enough horror element to prevent it seeming like a dusty museum piece.

There’s more arts-and-crafts from Ray Cluley, whose story ‘In The Light of St. Ives’ was a highlight of the recent Paul Finch anthology Terror Tales of Cornwall. The fine style on display in this story of a fraught relationship between a woman and her flighty artistic sister becomes even more obvious on the second read, and I’ll definitely be looking out for Cluley’s name in anthologies in future. The same applies for Laura Mauro’s ‘Sun Dogs’, which features a solitary woman whose life in the US desert is changed when she gives a lift to a young runaway amid rumours of wild animal attacks in the neighbourhood. This story is of a kind often seen in Ellen Datlow anthologies: long, atmospheric and engaging with themes of alternative sexuality, patriarchy and the environment. But what really makes it special is the style, which has great clarity but is too flexible and dynamic to be called “lapidary”, and has an inner-ear musicality that is all too rare. I also enjoyed the Near Dark-adjacent aesthetic vibe, although ‘Sun Dogs’ isn’t about vampires.

Family and the lures and pitfalls of the domestic environment feature heavily in many of the stories this year. By and large these are not the best material in the collection, but ‘Fragments of a Broken Doll’ by Cat Gardener is an effective depiction of a very dysfunctional family that works partly by cultivating a good deal of mystery surrounding its protagonist, in a way that is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates at her most sideways. ‘The Unwish’ by Claire Dean is a quiet piece of family horror that repays careful reading, Dean’s stripped-down prose filled to bursting with several different types of pain and fear.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the absence of folk horror, which is only showcased by one story here, the pretty decent ‘We Who Sing Beneath The Ground’ by Mark Morris. Although I personally love folk horror I do think anthologists have a duty to prevent readers’ palates from getting too saturated by the latest trends, and Mains has done his job very well. The result is an anthology of a high standard – the worst thing you can say about any of the stories is that a couple of them are a bit thin and pedestrian in style – and I am glad to hear that a 2019 edition is in the pipeline as we speak!

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