‘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!

“Ally Ally Aster” by Ann Halam

The sci-fi and fantasy writer Gwyneth Jones needs no introduction, but is perhaps less well-known for her YA supernatural novels, written under the Ann Halam pseudonym. Several of these (such as King Death’s Garden and The Fear Man) are very good for readers of all ages, but I’ve only just got round to reading Ally Ally Aster, her supernatural thriller based on Scandinavian mythology.

This slim book feels very different from her other Halam jobs, which tend to benefit from a kind of updated MR James-for-kids style. This isn’t really like that, and I found its style hard to describe in terms of other authors. Although it’s set in a textbook Gothic location – the young hero, his sister and their parents all move into one half of an old farmhouse on a moor in the North of England – this is not a straightforward ghostly tale, even allowing for its slightly Jamesian stash of cursed Norse treasure.

It’s written in an oblique and slippery way; a lot of events, many of them psychic and metaphysical, are packed into a very short book, and often described in an understated way that makes significant plot twists very easy to miss, even for an adult. By the end, I was totally unable to decide how much of this was deliberate and how much the result of authorial shortcomings or possibly even some kind of mangling during the editing process. In one online interview with Jones she oddly mentions this book as having been a “comedy thriller”, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort, so God knows what happened between her first pitching it to her usual publishers and the thing finally coming out with a different publisher.

The character development is very peculiar, too. In a novel of this length, and written for kids, you don’t always get deep depictions of the adult characters, but the parents of thirteen-year-old Richard and his slightly younger sister Laura seem like ghosts, and the other secondary characters are very inaccessible too. Even before the two kids become beset by supernatural forces they seem completely cut off from society, and usually from each other too. But the strangest thing is the way Halam handles Richard, the character through whom the events are experienced.

The plot of this book revolves around the supposed daughter of the couple living in the other half of the farmhouse, in fact a pair of bent antique dealers with occult tendencies who have summoned a kind of Nordic elemental ice being, causing her to take the form of a teenage girl, Ally. Now, I understand that times have changed (this book was first published in 1981), but to a modern reader the complete absence of any kind of details about Richard’s emergent sexual persona is very startling, and gets weirder as the novel wears on.

Obviously, in a book for kids you wouldn’t expect or want graphic treatment of adolescent sexuality. But considering that Richard – an otherwise intelligent and unusually grown-up boy – spends most of the novel following Ally around, and that Ally is a pretty fascinating girl (with her long white hair and tendency to change apparent age and perform sacrifices), it is jarring that there isn’t even the slightest mention of him having any kind of romantic or sexual thoughts about her, either positive or negative.

This in itself could be explained away by an excess of prudery on the part of the author – except that Jones is anything but prudish in her writing normally. Also, as I entered more deeply into the novel, it began to feel like it actually is about Richard’s sexuality, but in a kind of latent way. The sudden and chaotic events that follow virtually all of his covert sightings of Ally, though in no way sex-related, still have a kind of sideways erotic charge to them which I found myself totally at a loss to account for or relate to the actual writing. It’s like this side of his character is somehow hiding in the writing, as if it were encrypted. I’m not talking about mere subtext here. I can’t stress enough how odd this effect is – I’ve never responded to any other book in this way, that I can remember. I suspect Richard’s unusually grown-up way of expressing himself has a bit to do with it, but ultimately I think I’d need to have a degree in English Literature to really get to grips with what is happening here.

The big question is how much of this effect is intended. I think Jones might be doing it on purpose, if only because she uses this book to revisit one of her favourite themes, the uneasy relationship between the world above ground and that under the earth. The subterranean geological world is a very dynamic, threatening but also fascinating place in Jones’ books, operating in stealth to undermine and confound human endeavour all the time. And that could practically be a description of adolescent desire.

One thing’s for sure though – this is not a suitable book for children or even young people. Not because it contains any “inappropriate” material or language, but simply because so much of it is likely to go over their heads. It’s even worse than The Owl Service for that. I wouldn’t even recommend it to adults, unless you want to spend a lot of time scratching your head. That said, there are some lovely flashes of moorland scenery and a convincing sense of cosmic hugeness, of geological, mythical time. If anything this aspect is almost too successful – the lens that is meant to focus these colossal forces seems rather too feeble for the job, and I think a more solid grounding of the action in the modern world would’ve helped with that. I’ll certainly not forget this book in a hurry though!

Mammoth Book of Nightmare Stories

Back in their heyday the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror, edited by Stephen Jones, were a big favourite of mine and introduced me to a lot of great authors of modern horror (for my money the best one’s the 4th.) If horror has been in a slump since the 80s, it’s certainly not Jones’ fault: during the series’ peak any of these books were good enough to immediately silence any claims that horror isn’t “proper writing”. Jones took his Best New Horror series to Drugstore Indian Press a few years ago, but still does one-off collections for Mammoth sometimes.

At first glance the Mammoth Book Of Nightmare Stories is one of these, so I quickly bought it, but beware! This Book is actually not a proper new collection at all, but in fact a cut-and-shunt of two older collections from PS Publishing, Keep Out The Night and By Moonlight Only – both of which I’d already read! I felt ripped off when I discovered this, as this fact isn’t mentioned at all in the Introduction, although for all I know it may have been stated during the book’s promotion by somebody and I just wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, since I’d spent the money I couldn’t afford to buy another new collection this month so I thought I might as well read the stories again, since I didn’t actually review the earlier books for Darkling Tales.

This collection is conceived as a homage to a horror editor called Christine Thompson. I remember once reading some old quote from her – she was bitching about what she considered to be a market glut of excessively classy horror (those were the days eh?), but apart from that she means about as much to me as Elvis does to Chuck D. I don’t think that really matters to one’s appreciation of the stories though.

It feels like Jones has deliberately sought to contrast older, more traditional material by established writers with authors who were hip young gunslingers when these books first came out. This is laudable in theory, though I have to say the old guard kind of get their arses handed to them by the new boys and girls. Pulp purveyors like Hugh B. Cave and Sydney J. Bounds just can’t compete with the new lot, although old-timer Brian Lumley comes out of it well with ‘The Viaduct’, a blatant and probably very successful attempt to equip every reader with a fear of heights for life. The same is true of Basil Copper – his stories often seem a bit dated now, but his contribution here, ‘The Gossips’, is one of his best and his sinister statue extravaganza drowning in creepy Mediterranean atmosphere very much deserves to be remembered by horror history.

And what of the more modern writers? I’m pleased to say some of the very best horror authors from the late 80s and 90s are present here. Caitlin R. Kiernan impresses with ‘Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956)’, a haunted house story dripping with New Orleans gothic menace and style in a way that hadn’t yet become hackneyed and still feels fresh and sharp-edged now. Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘Nothing of Him That Doth Fade’ is a sombre romance set at sea; it’s outstanding, like much of her work at the time, and its exploration of gay relationships was certainly ahead of the curve.

There’s also a good story from Tanith Lee, ‘These Beasts’, a kind of Arabic fantasy of the kind Christopher Fowler used to do well, a very long Tim Lebbon story, ‘The Unfortunate’, a piece of metaphysical horror about luck and the afterlife which was just as good as ever in its filtering of epic themes through the lens of one increasingly confused and disturbed air crash survivor. And then there’s Michael Marshall Smith, one of the most consistently good horror writers I can think of, winning again with ‘Dear Alison’, a painfully sad but compulsively readable examination of infidelity with a satisfying twist.

Also recommended is ‘Is There Anybody There’, a tale of psychic attack and seances by Kim Newman. He’s a Jones favourite who I don’t normally go a bundle on, but in this case he really delivers, with an original plot, great characters (a reminder that Newman can do very good female characters when he wants to) and a snappy, fun style of the kind that sometimes seems a bit rare in today’s horror scene.

Another strength of this collection is Jones’ willingness to feature really long stories of the kind that probably wouldn’t be allowed to appear in magazines. Apart from the Lebbon and Copper ones, there’s a 79-page epic from Ramsey Campbell, ‘Needing Ghosts’, which should keep the reader stocked with alienation, urban anxiety, and paranoia for months to come. Altogether I have to say I wish more modern anthologies were this good!

ADAM NEVILL SHORT STORIES

I’ve finally got round to reading the first two collections of short stories by leading UK horror author Adam LG Nevill: Some Will Not Sleep and the more recent Hasty For The Dark. The collections seem to be in chronological order, allowing the reader to chart the rise of Nevill’s star as a writer, from his first collected story ‘Where Angels Come In’ to his later, well-anthologized tales.

I remember first reading ‘Where Angels Come In’ in one of the Mammoth Books of Horror that are so sadly missed nowadays. Standards in those Jones anthologies were high back then, but Nevill’s work still stood out. Despite its dusting of M R James references the story is the opposite of dull pastiche, and is actually quite action-packed. It’s held up well over the years.

Nevill’s output in the rest of the book is admirably diverse; the deservedly popular ‘Pig Thing’ is straight-up woodland creature horror, though with an unusual setting that saw it included in an Exotic Gothic anthology. The gripping ‘Yellow Teeth’ is part psychological torment and part exploration of the divine. ‘Doll Horror’ is a savage piece of couldn’t-be-more-dystopian future horror, and ‘What God Hath Wrought’ is a champion bit of weird west terror.

The thing linking all these stories is quality, scares that are actually scary, and also a preoccupation with fairness, whether between individuals, sections of society or humans and the environment. In fact, politics and the growing divide (well, yawning chasm) between the rich and the poor in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) seems to preoccupy Nevill more and more, and he’s not averse to handing out lashings to those figures in society who deserve it. My favourite of the stories I hadn’t read, ‘The Age of Entitlement’, is a story of this kind although it also works as an examination of a parasitic personal relationship between friends. That it’s not a colossal downer is a testament to the writer’s sense of humour.

Social justice is an even more obvious theme in Hasty For The Dark. Here the horrors tend to be more embedded in everyday life, instead of being full-on fantastical. While I am generally a supporter of what Christopher Fowler called the “Campaign For Real Fear”, the unremitting vibe of worn-and-dirty urban grimness of the first few stories depressed the hell out of me, although (or perhaps because!) the writing is as good as ever and very believable. ‘The Angels of London’ is especially effective, with its already-unbearable abusive landlord/tenant dynamics buoyed up by threats of a more supernatural nature.

The relative homogeneity of tone in the first third of the book does also serve to make what comes after, ‘The Days of Our Lives’, even more enjoyable. One thing Nevill does possibly better than anyone working in the genre today is barking religious cults, and this story is pitch-black but also absolutely hilarious. Not since the heady days of I’m Alan Partridge has the potential of the humble Travelodge for comedy and horror been so successfully mined. This oddly romantic piece – in which a hapless man is seduced by the acolyte of an occult movement that is at once bizarrely sadistic and breathtakingly banal – is like a cross between Nighty-Night and The Night Porter, and you need it in your life right now.

None of the subsequent stories can top this almost-untoppable pinnacle of achievement, though as a Devonian I commend the surreal vistas of marine horror on show in ‘Call The Name’, in which global warming has called up something nasty in the Torbay area – an entity which also has its share of weird cultists! (As HG Wells’ ‘The Sea Raiders’ was also set in the region I vote the whole of Devon’s south coast be rebranded “Dagon Country”.) This story actually seems to be a continuation of the shorter ‘Hippocampus’, which I have seen anthologized on its own, but which definitely benefits from appearing alongside the second story. You certainly don’t need to be from the West Country to enjoy these.

Things are rounded up with another bracing Mark Samuels-adjacent assault on capitalism, ‘White Light, White Heat’, and the intriguing ‘Little Black Lamb’, which offers more occult rituals, possession and BDSM, though not necessarily in the way you’d expect. One thing is certain, however: older women characters have a lot more fun in Nevill’s books than they do in most horror fiction! I can barely wait for the menopause now.

Nevill has also done a third book which is a mixed bag of writings, though I haven’t got round to that yet, as I am currently saving up to buy his new novel The Reddening, also set in Devon.

MEG BUXTON COLLECTIONS

I enjoy picking up an old William Kimber book now and again – some of the books from this 70s/80 publisher have striking illustrations (often by Ionicus) and the largely rustic supernatural fiction they offer tends to be of a reliably high level of quality as long as you don’t expect the ghosts etc. to be too terrifying. A small percentage of Kimber authors are total clangers (I may address this in another post lol) and the endless obsession with The Real Cornwall gets a bit wearing (I’m looking at you Denys Val Baker), but there are a number of good writers like James Turner (whose Where Shadows Fall I reviewed a while back) and the subject of this post, Meg Buxton.

I’ve got two Buxton collections – Footprints In The Sand and No Earthly Reason – which I was moved to purchase after enjoying her contributions to several of the Kimber mixed-bag anthologies. Like Turner, she is almost completely unknown today, and seems mainly remembered for writing a book called ‘The Story of Daisy, The Fat Lazy Mouse’, though a list of her endeavours can be found here.

This is a great pity as I feel her better stories have aged exceedingly well and would please a lot of readers today. Footprints in the Sand is definitely the better of the two collections. There are eighteen stories, most of them eerie rather than outright horrific, and many of them memorably beautiful with commendable sharpness of imagery and economy of style. They are filled with a fascination with nature, which is often described in a totally charming way that is more than just pretty. Buxton’s fauna, gardens, flowers and woods go far beyond simple window-dressing, and her obvious love of the West Country, where most of these stories are set, makes this collection quite euphoric to read, even though death and darkness are never far away.

One thing I particularly enjoyed is her way with animal characters, who are treated with great respect but without too much sentiment. My favourite story in the collection, ‘Cat Among The Bidding’, is actually a darkly comic number starring a large fluffy black cat with criminal tendencies who is compelled to Take Care of Business after his aristocratic mistress passes away and her belongings are auctioned. It’s hilarious and very life-affirming, without being twee.

‘The Horse’ is a must for anyone who loved Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk, and deals with an age-old equine ceremony that filters down to a present-day Cornish village festival. This has a more cyclic, experimental structure than much of Buxton’s work, but she’s fully in control and it’s a very evocative work with that most crucial of qualities for what is now called “folk horror”, a proper sense of the past as something that is still alive and kicking hard.

Another good one is ‘The Herb Garden’, a slipstream piece which features a rather lost fellow falling prey to a garden still haunted by the monks who once tended it. Some of Buxton’s very best nature writing, and positively dripping with loveliness and mystery.

Not all the stories have quaint rural settings and wealthy characters, mind you – Buxton wasn’t scared of industrial themes, and tales like “Disaster At Wheal Gratitude” (about tin mining families with very long memories), and ‘The Flora Stone’ and ‘Sixpence’ (involving different types of domestic violence) are very clear-eyed about what life was like in the past for the less fortunate. It’s impossible to finish this collection without actively wanting to meet Buxton, who seems like a really compassionate, fun and shrewd person. Sadly she died decades ago so that’s not going to happen!

The second collection I read, ‘No Earthly Reason’, was a disappointment after this cracking first experience. Many of the stories here are in the comic vein, but are more waspish and judgmental than in ‘Footprints…’ This may explain why they feel more dated, in a kind of Tales of the Unexpected way. There are also some dalliances with sci-fi, which aren’t that great.

However, there are still some fine stories. “One Man and his Dog” is a comic number that does manage to come off, and showcases Buxton’s knack for the final twist. ‘January 18th’ is also strong though it is much more serious, dealing with a grieving sexton who encounters echoes from his married past in the church he tended for so long. ‘The Children and the Apple Tree’ is a very uncharacteristic work, hazy in message, pessimistic and possibly affected by environmental anxiety, but no less worth reading because of it. And though the repeated deployment of evil plants feels a bit old sometimes, I did enjoy ‘The Passion Flower Within’, about a nymphomaniac passiflora.

In short, you can probably overlook No Earthly Reason, but don’t miss Footprints In The Sand if you see it second-hand! Most of the copies online aren’t dear, though I had to get mine without its jacket to get under that magical 10 quid barrier…