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!

‘Fiends in the Furrows’ anthology

I am a natural laggard and nowhere is this more apparent than in my amateur horror reviewing activities, which always tend to be a good year or two behind the times. So as a second The Fiends In The Furrows anthology hits the shelves, I decided it was the proper time for me to review the first lot of fiends from Nosetouch Press.

At the moment there is, of course, a wealth of folk horror collections and anthologies to choose from. I picked this one because it had a good name and striking cover artwork, both reminiscent of the Queen’s University Belfast A Fiend In The Furrows conference .

I assume the conference and the books are related in some way, though I haven’t bothered to find out exactly how, because no-one’s paying me to care. What I do care about, however, is the stories inside. These European and US-centric stories are pretty homogenous culturally speaking, but are certainly a mixed bag in terms of quality. It’s quite a slim volume and, as I hinted above, I’m a lazy sod, so I’m just going to review each one in order.

The decent opening story,‘Sire of the Hatchet’ by Coy Hall, goes a fair way back in time. I’m not very good at history but it’s post-Lutheran and there’s a lot of religious persecution going on, so I imagine it’s 16th or 17th century. It actually has a kind of sword-and-sorcery vibe to it, though that may be mainly because it features a travelling band of rough men, one of whom is called Wulfric. Anyway, they’re riding into town to take part in a crackdown on witchy behaviour of a sylvan strain, and the atmosphere of cultural and interspecies tension is reminiscent of Blood From Satan’s Claw, often cited as one of the big three folk horror films.

‘Back Along The Old Track’ by Sam Hicks offers a more modern (but still fairly timeless) close-up of an inbred family of English country folk with unusual grieving customs, and again is competently written without being world-altering.

 ‘The Fruit’ by Lindsay King Miller is where things really got started for me. It features a lesbian couple who, along with all their neighbours, are forced to take part in a back-breaking and dangerous annual harvest after the whole village has fallen prey to some kind of vicious supernatural whammy involving a power shift between humans and trees. The predicament is interesting enough in itself, but this story is also great at showing how recurring trauma can wear away at a relationship and cause it to mutate into something almost unrecognizable.

As soon as I clocked the contents page I suspected that the top story here was going to be ‘The Jaws of Ourobouros” by Steve Toase, having already enjoyed it in the latest Datlow Year’s Best Horror. In my review of the latter anthology I’ve already frothed about this gripping, innovative, multi-tiered long story at length, so I will just say that my suspicion was proven right and Toase’s offering is definitely the baddest fiend in these furrows.

‘The First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers’ by Eric J. Guignard is set in rural America among a village of redneck Christian snake handlers who have a bit of trouble with a neighbouring community whose members have a slightly more intimate relationship with the reptile kind. Bashing the small-town religious right has been a massively popular pastime in horror fiction ever since Stephen King made it his calling-card, but the main problem with this story is not lack of original content – Guignard is at least chucking in a few curious beasts to liven things up – but rather the downhome American rustic narrator voice, which is just too clichéd and twee for words by this point.

The amount of enjoyment you derive from ‘Pumpkin, Dear’ by Romey Petite is directly dependent on whether or not you’re familiar with the English nursery rhyme ‘Peter, Pumpkin Eater’. If you’re not, this story will have quite an endearing WTF factor, but otherwise there is very little to distinguish it from the many other run-of-the-mill feminist reworkings of old fairy stories and folk tales.  

No folk horror collection worthy of its name can miss out those ambivalent woodland forces personified in the Green Man, Herne, the woodwo and similar figures. ‘The Way of the Mother’ by Stephanie Ellis starts off well by introducing a much-feared village character called Johnny Hedgerow, but any hopes I may have had of some kind of Peaky Blinders/Green Man crossover were soon dashed. What we have instead is a thoughtful, compassionate tale about the impact of intergenerational change on agrarian communities (another major preoccupation of folk horror) and the way people deal with the burden of sacrifice (themes showcased in one of my favorite pieces of onscreen folk horror, the undeservedly obscure Robin Redbreast). So it’s not too bad a bait and switch.

‘Leave The Night’ by Zachary Von Houser also plays out in The Woods. I believe these ones are in upstate Philadelphia, but the pocket of civilization our alcoholic divorcee hero discovers lurking among the trees seems to owe more to medieval France. And with fantastic good luck he has turned up just in time for a weird local falcon festival! This story is a game of two halves: it starts off very well, with a sharp but oblique style that really puts the reader into the booze-washed, despair-scummed mind of the hero, his consciousness a suffocating mixture of swimming vagueness and unbearably sharp stabs of recollection. When we first meet the villagers there is also the promise of a good Eye of the Devil-style French rural witchcraft vibe. However, as the story goes on the writing becomes more pedestrian and the plot is too predictable. It’s not total rubbish by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Von Houser is capable of better.

Finally, ‘Revival’ by S.T. Gibson is a second story about snake handlers. You might think that’s one too many in an anthology of this size, and you’d probably be right, but it is heartwarming and the heroine and her dad are both likeable, as are the snakes. Sometimes it’s good to finish off a compendium of horror with a bright note.

Will I be buying the follow-up to this anthology? I’m not sure, because although it’s very affordable I’m also quite tight-fisted. However, I think I probably will.

‘The Reddening’ by Adam LG Nevill

Despite being a county rich in sinister supernatural folklore, Devon is often overlooked by horror writers in favour of its next-door neighbour Cornwall. However, Adam Nevill is here to change all that with his latest novel, The Reddening. Nevill’s renown as a novelist is such that Goodreads and other sites are already groaning with reviews of the book – his first self-published novel – but when has lack of necessity or demand stopped me from putting my oar in?

The subject matter of The Reddening couldn’t be hipper right now. Journalist Kat has crawled away from the wreckage of her career as a big city journalist to the south coast of Devon, where she has taken a less stressful job writing for a posh lifestyle magazine and consoled herself by taking up with a (slightly) Younger Man, the ambitious photographer Steve. But when a deserted stretch of local coastline is revealed as the site of a pre-historic cannibal cult of vast extent and savagery, it falls to a disturbed Kat to report on the archaeological feeding frenzy the discovery inspires. Fast forward several years later, and one of Kat’s old interviewees, a hang-gliding enthusiast who was the first to spot the now world-famous site from the air, is muttering darkly about harassment, murder and drug dealing on that same stretch of coast. He claims that he is being stalked by sinister “red folk” who want him dead, a claim that Kat fails to take seriously until he duly vanishes. When single mother Helen bowls up in the area searching for traces of her younger brother Lionel, who committed suicide not long after holidaying nearby and making some very odd sound recordings around the “Cannibal Coast”, a chance meeting between the two women and Steve sparks off a series of horrifying events as they attempt to get to the bottom of it all.

One of the most immediately noticeable things about this novel is the change in style from Nevill’s other works. Although previous books like The Ritual and Last Days have the strengths of a fast-paced modern action novel and can be cosmic in scope, the methods he uses to evoke horror have often struck me as predominantly Jamesian (that’s M.R., not Henry, thank God), demonstrating a gift for brevity, understatement and wry humour. The Reddening is different. Although there are definitely some scenes where use is made of hints and oblique angles to slowly conjure a brooding sense of horror (Kat’s interview with the hang-glider is particularly effective in this respect), elsewhere Nevill lets rip with some very highly-coloured, sturm-und-drang language. This kind of thing isn’t my bag, and I occasionally found my attention drifting as a result, though arguably the style is a good fit for the subject matter (there are several scenes of the red folk’s rituals which, if made into a film, would owe a lot more to Ruggero Deodato than Lawrence Gordon Clarke!)

  Having said that, this is still an unusually readable book that belts along well, with good pacing throughout and a long stretch in the middle that is properly nail-biting, as Kat and Helen both have to grapple with two different sets of enemies – one lot at sea, the other on land – and here the economy of style is faultless. Characterization is also good, particularly Kat and her relationship with her past life, her present assailants and the kind-of-awful but not completely terrible Steve. I enjoyed her character development a lot, with its oddly redemptive and feminist outcome (the way women deal with the anger that they’re never supposed to feel or display is another preoccupation of the novel.) Nevill is also good at bullies, something that was spectacularly showcased in No-One Gets Out Alive but also comes in handy here. Some of his minor characters really give Phil Rickman a run for his money in the detestability stakes.

Fans of field recording and found-sound in music should also enjoy the details of Lionel’s ventures into the caves around Divilmouth, and there’s also the character of Tony Willows to cater to lovers of the darker end of folk music and proto-metal. As a Hawkwind fan I initially hoped that Willows might turn out to be the fascinating Robert Calvert in thin disguise (he was at large in the wilds of Mid/North Devon for a while in the 80s), but when this turned out not to be the case I dried my tears and soldiered on bravely like a good reviewer should. In any case I hope the author will be including more musical themes in his books in future.  

 However, what really makes The Reddening memorable is its politics and social themes. I’m from Devon – I was born and spent the first ten years of my life in a tiny hamlet near Sidmouth, which gets a little mention in the book, and I also spent some years as a teenager in the less touristic back country of “Mid-Devon” and finally the city of Exeter. My mother still lives there so I’ve retained ties with the place, and as a result I was delighted to hear that Nevill was going to be “doing” South Devon. I commend the accuracy of his description of the local coast, which has something of a multiple personality, by turns genteel Regency seaside resort, quaint fishing village and blasted heath dotted with psychotic guard dogs and tumbledown farms. But what impressed me more was his willingness to engage with the social problems of Devonian life, which are actually quite considerable when you look beneath the charming façade. It’s one of those counties where swingeing rural poverty and outrageous amounts of wealth rub shoulders, with the vast majority of people unable to buy their own homes, and often compelled to take low-paying, back-breaking jobs cleaning, fruit-picking and tending to the needs of the hordes of rich pensioners who have chosen Devon as the place to live out their roses-round-the-cottage door retirement fantasies. This rank inequality sweats out of the novel’s pores (especially with characters like Kat’s boss Sheila and her husband), though another social blight is addressed even more directly: Brexit and the ties between far-right ideology and the European folklore revival.

 These are central themes of the novel. Nevill’s fictional town of Divilmouth is home to an annual fete at which a close relation of the Padstow ’Obby ’Oss, a creepy hyaena-like thing known as Creel, cavorts in the streets to much public glee, exuding not a little sexual threat in the process, as a bewildered Helene finds when she has to pick her way through the revelry. But it gets worse: ever since Brexit, Creel has been adopted by the locals as an icon of Europhobia. Whatever it might have been like in the past, the fete now offers a truly emetic combination of cutesy old village traditions and overt bigotry, with hate-mongering MCs and anti-EU gifts on sale among the homemade cake and jam stands. This is barely an exaggeration of what some British village fetes are like now – I still remember the time I saw my first ever UKIP bus at a fete in High Wycombe in 2013, and the feelings of impending doom it inspired. And, of course, Devon is all about Brexit, even those landowners who benefit massively from cheap immigrant labour when they need their raspberries picked. This isn’t entirely new – anyone reading the area’s local newspapers in the 90s was familiar with the adverts placed there by the owners of a shopping complex called Trago Mills. These “adverts” were in fact ludicrous extended rants about European interference and much more besides, and a lot of people (the reasonably open-minded, friendly, decent people who definitely do exist in Devon, as Nevill himself takes care to point out) used to just laugh at these screeds, back in the day. Well, no-one’s laughing now, and I was very glad to see Nevill spearing this kind of thing in print, in a way that is by turns darkly comic and all-out horrifying.

 And, of course, this resurgence in far-right ideology extends far beyond the South-West. Anyone who spends any time at all on the part of Twitter devoted to European folklore will be aware of the constant, often successful attempts of fascists to infiltrate the field, and it is quite common to see the most hideous kind of jus sanguinis xenophobia masquerading as its polar opposite, a love of cultural diversity. The action in The Reddening is underpinned by a warning against the rise of fascism in Europe and the West. When the gloating bad guys boast of “the Red” rising again to regain its former glories, they’re certainly not talking about the Labour Party, and the whole novel serves as a very timely reminder of the sheer volume of blood continually involved in blood-and-soil nationalism.

 There’s a lot to like about this book, and its presentation also deserves a mention as it is by far the best-looking novel that Nevill has ever had published, with great artwork, nice paper etc. (see here for art credits). This is the first time the outside of one of his novels has been worthy of the inside. If you want to do anything properly you’ve sometimes got to do it yourself!

‘Mythical Journeys…’ ed.Paula Guran

I’m a regular purchaser of Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror series: though they lack the uniformity of quality you’d get from a really top-drawer anthology, they always have enough good stories in them to reward the investment. I also have exceedingly good memories of those old Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies helmed by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, so I was quite excited when I found out that Guran was putting out her own Great Big Book of short fantasy fiction with the theme of myths and legends from around the world: “Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends”.

The first thing that struck me when it arrived was how beautiful the book is on the physical level: the cover illustration and design (by BreeAnn Veenstra and Claudia Noble respectively) are visually stunning and the slightly rough paperback cover feels wonderful to the touch, adding to the delight of the attractive typography etc. on the inside. This is definitely a book you will want to store face forward on your bookshelf to show it off! But are its innards as desirable as its, er, outards?

Fortunately, yes. The Contents list reads like an attendance sheet of fantasy and horror award winners from the past ten years, and there are also a fine few older contributions from long-running stars of the genre. My favourite stories from the former category are Catherynne M. Valente’s “White Lines on a Green Field” (I thought I was fed up of Coyote re-treads but the multi-sensory hedonism, effortless flow and general charm makes this one a joy to read) and “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” by Maria Dhavana Headley, a tale of adultery among magicians loosely based on the Minotaur, which feels colourful and novel but most impresses by its sheer stylistic prowess. But there are also some fine stories from less prolific and well-established writers: Anya Johanna de Niro’s “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate” based on Norse gods, is an imaginative, romantic and dynamic depiction of a wintry city encounter between a human and a deity. It’s also entirely free of the wearisome Loki fixation that has gripped the world in the past decade, not to mention the machismo that often besets this sort of thing. Not a breastplate in sight!

Not all the stories are great, however. “Zhuyin” by John Shirley features a serpentine monster from Chinese mythology but fails to really ignite due to its pedestrian style and unoriginal Stranger Things-style military paranoia.  The Neil Gaiman story “Chivalry” is definitely not here on merit, and I was disappointed by “Trickster” (by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due), a piece of Afrofuturism set in a Tanzanian village that plays host to an American in search of an alien machine that has landed locally. This promising premise is let down by the voice of the narrator, who comes across as a Venerable Tribal Elder right out of central casting, full of quaint folk wisdom doled out in studiously simple cod-poetic speech. I know nothing at all about Tanzanian culture and for all I know its villagers might really talk like that all the livelong day, but it still rang phony and stale to me. With the recent interest in Afrofuturism I am surprised Guran couldn’t get hold of a better story than this.

Having said that, the Introduction makes it clear that the editor is aware of the book’s main shortcoming, namely, the excessive focus on Western mythology. Nearly all of the older stories are Greek or Latin-based, and the anthology is heavy with the usual parade of Persephones, Jasons, muses etc.. Though I certainly can’t begrudge Guran the inclusion of Elizabeth Hand’s impressive ‘Calypso in Berlin’, a stylistically exquisite, melancholy feminist take-down of the whole muse concept. And Tanith Lee’s ‘The Gorgon’ is characteristically gorgeous and unmissable if you enjoyed the John Fowles novel The Magus.

By and large, American and European strains of legend definitely dominate the proceedings, and when other continents are allowed a look-in the quality tends to dip. Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire, Foxfire” is a piece of Asian sci-fi that wears its progressive gender politics on its sleeve but nonetheless feels worn-out and in fact positively 90s in its plodding preoccupation with mechas and the kind of wry, slightly snarky narrator voice that will be dreadfully familiar to anyone who’s even dipped a toe in the waters of fanfiction. Ken Liu’s “The Ten Suns” is an amiable but equally predictable chunk of ecological science-fiction that might have broken new ground in the 70s but doesn’t do a lot for the modern reader. Nisi Shawl’s “Wonder-Worker-of-the-World” is apparently intended to channel West African folklore, but it had too many similarities with the overdone Persephone myth to really appeal to me (though obviously it’s not Shawl’s fault that myth is overdone!)

There is one really good African-based story: Sofia Samatar’s ‘Ogres of East Africa’. It’s very sombre, but also funny and packed with interesting facts about an area of mythology most Westerners (including myself) know little about. Overall, though, if we’re talking diversity, this anthology succeeds far better at gender parity than any other type of inclusivity. And in that respect it’s admirable: not only are there huge amount of stories by women, but many of them are very good; there is also the usual post-Angela Carter commitment to subverting some of the more phallocentric passages in ancient folklore. And the variety of style, setting and tone prevents the anthology from being a monotonous reading experience. So overall it’s a thumbs-up from me.

‘Meet Me In The Middle of the Air’ by Eric Schaller

I’m quite a fan of Undertow Publications – their roster is home to some good anthology safe-bets like Simon Strantzas and D.P. Watt, and I never miss their Year’s Best Weird Fiction round-ups. So I thought I’d take a gamble on a single-author collection by an Undertow writer I had no previous experience of: Meet Me In The Middle of The Air by Eric Schaller. But was I rewarded for my magnificent open-mindedness and generosity of spirit?

As it happens, I was, pretty much immediately. I was slightly disconcerted by the zombie/Jesus humour in the Author’s Note (I don’t have a good history with zombie fiction), but the opening story ‘The Assistant to Dr. Jacob’ is great. It takes an old theme – the deranged gardener and his weird plants – and takes it somewhere horrific and unexpected, via a sharp, brightly-hued prose style that is more than equal to describing a greenhouse of strange blooms. It also pulls off the trick of spreading a bit of gore around AND being unsettling at a deeper, metaphysical level.

It soon becomes obvious that economy of style and a readiness to experiment are a recurring feature of Schaller’s work. ‘Turing Test’ is a witty but heartbreaking piece of LGBT-themed dark science fiction drawing on the legacies of Turing and Oscar Wilde. I normally hate it when real people from the past are repurposed and put to work in fantastical fiction, but this is a rare example of that process actually working, and it’s got sinister automata in it too. ‘To Assume The Writer’s Crown: Notes on the Craft’ is a horror story masquerading as an essay on how to write, which could be epically pretentious, but in fact the gamble pays off and it’s amusing and dark. The sardonic tale of fairground witchery ‘The Sparrow Mumbler’ initially threw me due to the author’s insistence on having what I think are Victorian English characters speaking and thinking like modern Americans (and it is a deliberate decision here, not just bad writing) but eventually won me over. Schaller is also good at the very short story based on a single impactful concept, such as in ‘Voices Carry’, which also gives a likeable final nod to Aimee Mann’s 80s pop classic of the same name.

My favourite story in the collection, however, was ‘The Bright Air That Breathes No Pain’. This isn’t one of Schaller’s more experimental efforts, and in fact features a very ordinary setting, as we watch an adult man become gradually consumed by memories of a childhood encounter with weird forces, at considerable cost to his love life. The sylvan schoolgirl magic theme gives this encounter a pleasing echo of the Arthur Machen story ‘The White People’, though the style is very different. Schaller excels at depicting the psychology of mundane despair, and although you might think that his crystal-clear, trenchant prose style might harm a story featuring such nebulous forces as those reaching out for the hero, that’s absolutely not the case.

Of course, not all the material is this good. Schaller is sold partly as a writer of humour, and an enormous amount of horror writers seem to find humour very hard. Schaller doesn’t always hit the jackpot, and there are a few tales that fail to hold water. ‘The Parasite’ felt stale to me, like one of those domestic macabre stories that littered horror anthologies in the 1970s, and ‘8) – 5.8’, a near-future sci-fi number which features Edgar Allan Poe and Marilyn Monroe resurrected as miniature pets, struck me as oddly mean-spirited in its treatment of the protagonist. I had high hopes for ‘Number One Fan’ since it features a horror convention setting and I was recently impressed by Nick Mamatas’ con-set novel I Am Providence, but it failed to really deliver. And when you don’t get humour exactly right, every miss feels like a mile.

That said, another reason comic writing is difficult is possibly the fact that everyone has a different sense of humour, and defining what is “funny” can be hard, so other readers may well enjoy these stories too. And even if they don’t, the relatively short length of most of the tales here means that there’s always something better coming along very soon. I would definitely recommend Meet Me In The Middle of the Air to any reader looking for a very promising new voice in weird fiction.

‘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.

Terror Tales of Cornwall (ed. Paul Finch)

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.

Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 11

How on Earth did 10 years of Ellen Datlow’s “Best Horror of the Year” series go by? To be honest, a couple of those years probably passed while I was waiting for this WordPress page to load just now, but even so. Anyway, it’s been a few years since I got round to posting a review of one of these, and I’ve not got the time to catch up on that, so I will just say that the quality of this series has not declined over time and volumes 1 to 10 are all worth reading. But what of this eleventh anthology?

Things kick off with a name I hadn’t seen around for a while: Anne Billson, whose 1993 corporate vampire novel Suckers I enjoyed as a kid. ‘I Remember Nothing’ begins in classic “torture-porn” territory but Billson is somehow able to write about a very worn-out horror environment (the heroine wakes trapped in a shabby, unidentified room with no memory of how she got there) in a way that avoids cliche, and the story stays readable and tense despite its length. This is soon followed by a fine contribution from Ray Cluley, ‘Painted Wolves’, about an ill-assorted little team of wildlife documentary makers on the job in a South African national park. This is more than just another bit of “we’re as bad as them really” nature horror, and also explores the pernicious effects of the media. The unflinching depiction of what used to be called the ‘sex war’ (until people realized that made it sound exciting, as opposed to grindingly depressing and endless) also helps this story fit right into a Datlow anthology.

After all that some comic relief from Michael Marshall Smith’s “Shit Happens” is very well-timed, and he’s on his usual form, just with the acerbic humour a bit more to the front than usual. John Langan, another writer who is always a safe bet, is also on hand with one of his trademark long, academia-inflected stories, “Haak”. Although the framing device (an odd lecturer dispensing a class to some university students) is very reminiscent of his earlier story ‘Technicolor” the meat of the story is very different, with the inspiration coming from Joseph Conrad instead of Poe this time. Also central to the plot is another super-famous literary childrens’ character, and that’s where things went wrong for me. This is very much a matter of personal taste: although Langan is writing as well as usual, I have since childhood nursed such a violent loathing for said character that I don’t even enjoy reading attempts to subvert or develop it. I find both character and book simply irredeemable, even in a story as full of adventure, mystery and colour as this!

Although this series virtually always offers a commendable amount of variety, some of the years tend to have one flavour of horror that seems more predominant. This year, I felt like this was apocalyptic horror, which is bad luck for me because it’s pretty much my least favourite type. A good handful of the stories are about how people operate (or fail to operate) after society falls apart, or are actual depictions of apocalypse, and while one of these is very well-written (Joe Hill’s ‘You Are Released’, a kind of tragic literary Airplane) I found it too upsetting to really enjoy, while some of the others seem hackneyed.

Fortunately, Steve Toase is on hand to remind us that not every future-facing story has got to be miserable. His ‘The Jaws of Ourobouros” is the best story in the book, a tight fusion of standing-stone mythology, national disaster and the criminal gangs who profit from it. It too is based on something going very wrong in our future, but it’s action-filled and exciting and features some terrific original ideas. Toase has obviously impressed the editor, as another of his stories, “Split Chain Stitch”, also appears in the book, and that too is better than average. We could definitely do with more authors willing to explore new ground like this.

That’s actually one reason I also liked ‘Golden Sun’, a sort of expanded cadavre exquis where four authors – Kristi de Meester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters and Michael Wehunt – each write a separate chunk of a narrative about a little girl who goes missing after an uneasy beachside holiday. Each chunk is told from the perspective of a different character, and the diversity of voice obviously came in very handy for that. It’s a subtly strange story and everyone involved holds their own without any one voice dominating. Meanwhile, ‘I Love You Mary-Grace’ by Amelia Mangan proves that no type of horror plot is ever really ‘over’ – you might think that paranormal romance would have been comprehensively drained of all interest by now, but writers like Mangan show that real talent can still pull something fun out of the bag.

So yes, it’s a predictable thumbs-up for this anthology. Datlow is to my mind the reigning queen of horror anthologists, and to be honest probably the reigning king too now that Richard Dalby has gone beyond the veil!

‘Bitter Waters’ by Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley is one of those authors crying out for a good solid collection. As a massive fan of his stylish, original and often emotionally devastating stories like ‘Hortus Conclusus’ and ‘Going The Jerusalem Mile’, I find it almost impossible to believe that Bitter Waters is his only book of full-on supernatural fiction, or that it has taken me six years to find out it exists at all. But better late than never!

Bitter Waters is in fact a themed collection about gay male sex, love and relationship politics. However, not all the stories are erotica, and many also have a second theme: water and those who sail on it. My favourite story here, ‘Another Chart of the Silences’, deals with a fascinating maritime topic, the mysterious cartographic history of the British Isles. Although it also deals sensitively with a relationship between an adult man and the teenage boy he befriends and teaches to sail, the thing I liked best was the confounding sense of weirdness. By the end of the story one almost feels as if one has fallen off the map of terra cognita oneself, and the style is beautiful. The writing in most of these stories is economical and dynamic but adorned by the author’s characteristic flourishes of language, winning use of metaphor and clever deployment of seafaring terminology to create layers of meaning.

The recent ‘Tis Pity He’s Ashore’ also involves navigation in the form of a magic compass and a very unusual map. The atmosphere here is more tempestuous, with a very vividly-evoked storm, and is also quite unusual for mainstream weird fiction in its matter-of-fact handling of male prostitution. The same is true of the equally pun-tastically titled ‘Junk Male’, which features a rather tamer body of water, being set on and around a British canal barge. The plot and tone, however, is anything but jokey or tame, and in fact it’s one of the blackest offerings in the collection, with a very cynical waterbound pimp as the main character.

And Brenchley can certainly do darkness. A number of the tales concern men who are in the process of losing, or have lost, loved ones to AIDS. ‘The Insolence of Candles Against the Night’s Dying’ is a very affecting piece in this respect, which also touches on memory, ageing and regret. The diabolically powerful undertow of the past and the corrosive nature of secrets between friends also helps to form a compelling thematic backbone for ‘Up The Airy Mountain’, although several of these grief-related stories also have upbeat notes to them, and the aesthetic quality of Brenchley’s writing prevents the reader from getting too bogged down in despair. His writing on this grimmest of topics easily holds its own among other short fiction about AIDS by the likes of Brian Hodge and Steve Duffy.

All the tales I’ve mentioned so far have a contemporary feel, but the collection also showcases the author’s ability to extend into various types of more immersive fantasy. ‘In The Night Street Baths’ is a sombre but heady Thousand-and-one-nights reverie, ‘Keep The Aspidochelone Floating’ is a classic pirate caper with a gay twist, ‘Vilanelle’ has something of a timeless sword-and-sorcery flavour and ‘Hothouse Flowers: or The Discreet Boys of Dr Barnabus’ is a strange but memorable hybrid of late 19th-century adventure yarn and erotic horror. Though I personally tend to prefer the more modern, real-world material I was impressed by the way Brenchley can adapt to such a wide range of styles without putting a foot wrong, and he certainly does a good late Victorian/Edwardian posh guy narrator.

The jacket blurb states that Bitter Waters is “devoted to gay readers”, but I hope to have made it clear that it has a lot to offer the general reader too. The Lethe Press have also gone the extra mile on the jacket art, which in addition to having a Proper Drawing on it also features a startling optical illusion that makes it look like the bottom of the book is actually submerged in moving water. More bizarrely still, this part of my book became unaccountably wet even though I’m jolly careful about keeping my books dry! I am led to suspect that this eruption of fluid is ghostly in origin.

Now if only someone would organize a collection of Brenchley’s other supernatural short fiction! I know that the short story format is meant to be on the ropes at the moment, commercially speaking, but maybe one day some enterprising press will rise to the occasion...[EDITED TO ADD: Glad tidings! There will be a proper ‘Best Of’ of his fiction coming out from Subterranean Press in 2021!]

‘Killing Violets: Gods’ Dogs’ by Tanith Lee

When it comes to short stories, Tanith Lee is easily one of my top ten weird fiction writers, a versatile, stylish author who never bores and often combines the seductive with the terrifying in a way achieved by few others. But after an unfortunate encounter with one of her early epic fantasy novels (which was interesting but seemed much too long) I’ve not read much of her longer fiction. I’ve decided to address this recently by investigating her ‘Colouring Book’ series (Immanion Press), a relatively recent sequence of stand-alone modern Gothic novels which all have titles referring to colours. The first two I read, Greyglass and To Indigo, are both good concise, sharply-drawn fantasies anchored in the modern world of urban England and combining a feeling of magic with acerbic social comment. I particularly enjoyed To Indigo, which was very funny at times and reminded me of Ruth Rendell at her 80s peak despite not really being a crime novel.

I’ve now just finished Killing Violets: God’s Dogs, in fact the second of these seven books. This is very different from the other two I mentioned; it’s set in 1934, across several European locations both real and imaginary. The waifish heroine, the unsubtly-named Anna Moll, is rescued from starvation on the streets of a grey European city by a mysterious wealthy john called Raoul, who falls in love with her and brings her to live with his family in their mansion in the English countryside. But this isn’t the stroke of luck it appears to be – the Basultes are a very funny lot and treat their servants execrably, while the servants themselves are intensely malicious, feral and peculiar in other ways. Raoul begins to neglect Anna and she is forced to participate in a variety of degrading psychosexual games. It all seems a far cry from her past in the warmer European city of Preguna, where she fell in love with a young accountant after an early life of rootless roaming. But these memories, too, have a dark side which the reader discovers in a series of flashbacks.

The basic plot is realistic, but this is a novel with an extremely fantastical feel to it. Virtually all the events – from a simple conversation to a frenzied orgy – are surreal and the whole thing is cloaked in a highly-coloured, dreamlike atmosphere that is much more like a fairy tale than anything else. This is enhanced by the confusion surrounding location – Preguna doesn’t exist, and we never learn exactly where in England Anna has been brought, although it sounds like the West Country. It does, however, come with a good deal of pointed social commentary (with themes such as the identity-altering nature of domestic violence, physical beauty and ugliness, and the class system.)

Ever since Angela Carter the updated or subverted feminist fairy tale drenched in sex and violence has been a staple of fantasy literature, but I’m not a great fan of this type of writing myself. Lee is definitely one of the better practitioners of this kind of thing (and as I’ve said, her talents also range far beyond this register) but ultimately Killing Violets felt a bit predictable in its imagery and plot, especially as regards the pervy bits at the Basulte’s grotesque home. The flashbacks to Preguna felt fresher, though, and in the last two decades of her career Lee seems to have become a much more economical author who doesn’t outstay her welcome. She is able to paint vivid scenes with apparent ease and can sling around hosts of original metaphors without breaking a sweat.

Largely on account of this, the satisfying depth of her heroine, and her often lovely turn of phrase, I did enjoy the book. It’s not at all a happy novel though, and is quite a suffocating experience. I’ve heard it said that Lee’s early novels tended to have a very bleak view of gender relations and romance, and if that’s the case then she’s definitely getting back to her roots here. I actually really enjoy the sunnier side of her writing that is on display in many of the stories written in the last decade of her life (such as the charming ‘Thuvia, Made of Mars (Spilt Milk)’ and ‘Why Light?’), but you can’t expect the sun to shine all the time, especially not in Gothic literature!