(2022) Mark Morris (editor), Flame Tree Press, hrdbk, £20, 311 pp, ISBN: 978-1-78758-463-1
This anthology is the follow-up to After Sundown and like the latter, aims to celebrate the ‘very best of horror writing’, with 16 stories especially commissioned for the anthology plus 4 others selected through an open submissions process. All the authors have published before and some are well-known, including Jeremy Dyson, of The League of Gentlemen Fame, Christopher Golden, one of my favourite comic book writers and Lisa Tuttle, a past winner of the British Science Fiction Award and what used to be known as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (recently renamed the Astounding Award). Only seven of the writers are women or non-binary, however, and the settings are almost all in North America or the UK, so I can’t help but feel that a more diverse selection might give us even more reason to celebrate!
Having said that, there are some absolutely cracking stories here, a number of which I won’t forget in a hurry. As the editor, Mark Morris, states in his (short) introduction, horror stories should be about things that truly disturb us and almost all of these do just that and for the most part in a way that doesn’t involve blood and gore and ‘giblets’. Only one made me feel physically queasy and that was the last one in the anthology, Gemma Files’ wonderfully Lovecraftian ‘Yellowback’, a love story set in a future Toronto during an even more horrendous pandemic than the one we’re currently experiencing. At the other end of the spectrum is Tuttle’s ‘Away Day’ which takes the old saying of being “away with the faeries” and nicely plays with it in the context of that bane of modern life, the away day, spinning things around in quite a sweet way by the end. Somewhere in between lies Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten’s memorable ‘For All the Dead’. Set in a pre-twentieth century Dutch fishing village it poignantly captures the relationship between a mother and daughter on a dark and stormy night – to use that old cliché – as their hopes and fears for the men out at sea bubble to the surface. The ending is perhaps a little predictable but no less creepy and effective for all that.
Fast forwarding to the near future, ‘The Beechfield Miracles’, by Priya Sharma, is set in a post-Brexit UK, grittily and effectively described, where austerity has bitten down hard and ‘soap-box messiahs’ proliferate. When, a jaundiced and guilt-ridden journalist is sent to cover one such modern-age prophet, he too becomes a convert after witnessing a version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes at a food bank, only to realise that the Chosen One is not what she seems, in more ways than one. Religion also features in Christopher Golden’s ‘The God Bag’, in which the narrator discovers an old fake-velvet bag belonging to his dying mother which is stuffed full of written prayers and … something else. ‘Get your own God!’ she screams at him as he realises what that something else amounts to and what kind of God is listening to her supplications, to his own personal horror. Gods aplenty also feature in Frank J. Oreto’s ‘The Care and Feeding of Household Gods’ which, like a number of the stories, begins with the everyday and then sends the various elements of that set-up spiralling out of control as a frazzled ‘house-husband’ does what it takes to keep all the plates spinning. But just when you think the ending is going to replicate Golden’s, Oreto throws a switch and the sting in the tale hits elsewhere.
An inanimate object that is a conduit to Something Other is also the central device in ‘A Mystery for Julie Chu’ by Stephen Gallagher. Here the element of horror is perhaps more predictable but the description of the eponymous Julie, a history postgrad who makes money on the side trawling car-boot sales, is spot on and the whole idea of ‘Midnight Auctions’ featuring anguish-drenched items for ‘select private clients’ is creepily tantalising. A different sort of object features in Peter Harness’s ‘Polaroid and Seaweed’, in which a sad little boy clings to the image of his mother captured in a Polaroid photograph. Here the horror rebounds from scene to scene as the boy recalls yelling for his mum as she tries to drown herself in the sea and then it mounts up further as he too feels the ocean’s pull. Water plays a central role in a number of the stories, such as ‘The Girl in the Pool’ by Bracken Macleod, in which a pair of thieves working their way through an empty house, spot what appears to be a young girl floating on her front in the pool out back. One dives in to save her, the other doesn’t, and pays the price for his lack of conscience. In Josh Malerman’s ‘Provenance Pond’ its what comes out of the water that is scary and the writing nicely conveys the frustration of parents who are trying to pull a child away from their imaginary friends. Similarly, a creature from the deep is the plot driver in Karter Mycroft’s ‘Aquarium Ward’ but instead of wreaking havoc, Godzilla style, it has a more insidious impact. Told from the perspective of a doctor trying to save lives, this nicely skirts the borderland between horror and science fiction. ‘If, Then’, by Lisa L. Hannett, does something similar, only with fantasy. This asks the question of why someone would enchant a castle, surrounding it with near-impenetrable forest and brambles. The answer, involving as it does a Frankensteinian experiment, provides the element of horror, and the image of an encroaching party of rescuers, hacking through the undergrowth, pushes the tale along to an unexpected ending.
Body horror is also the centrepiece of Toby Litt’s ‘The Dark Bit’ and anyone who has worked with fibreglass, say, will empathise with the protagonists. Not one for the squeamish! The same might be said of John Everson’s ‘Arnie’s Ashes’, in which the attempt by Arnie’s friends to commemorate him by burying his ashes in his favourite porn shop has disgusting and disastrous consequences. The dead also appear to the protagonist in ‘A Tour of the Night’ by Nathan Ballingrud and as the story unfolds to the sad and poignant end of the spectrum, you understand why they do. ‘Clockwork’ by Dan Coxon likewise sits in that general area as it tackles parental loss and abuse in a chilling story about trying to replicate a father’s love that was so rarely there in life. Jeremy Dyson’s ‘Nurse Varden’, with its detailed Leeds setting, also deals with male experience and pointedly skewers the stereotypical reluctance to face up to illness and injury. Similar themes of being caught in reflections on the past are tackled in ‘Soapstone’ by Aliya Whiteley, although the horrific undertones are even more attenuated here. The same might be said of Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘Der Geisterbahnhof’ but this story, about losing oneself in one of Berlin’s underground ‘ghost stations’ is, for me, more atmospheric and disturbing.
I’ve kept ‘til last the second story in the anthology: ‘Caker’s Man’ by Matthew Holness, which left me feeling uncomfortable, for different reasons. Told from a child’s perspective it explores how a small act of charity, such as visiting a recently bereaved neighbour, can have bizarre and disturbing consequences. The neighbour, an old man, is weird and creepy and is depicted as having ‘two strange corkscrew ringlets dangling down, past the ears’ – an unnecessary description which could well be construed as an anti-semitic dog-whistle. The story itself has a hallucinatory quality and is not one I’ll easily forget, as much as I might want to.
To use a couple of well-worn clichés, this anthology both is a mixed-bag and has something for everyone. It should perhaps be dipped into rather than read in one go, with time taken to savour the more reflective pieces. If it were a little more diverse, culturally and geographically, I’d be more willing to accept that it represents the ‘very best’ of such writing but even so, it does contain some outstanding examples of the genre.
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