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Thursday, January 21, 2016

13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough – a review


13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough – a review by Gary Fry

Call me na├»ve. I haven’t read much Young Adult fiction. I think I expected material a lot more sanitised than similar stuff for adults. You know what I mean: swearwords replaced by “damn” and “bloody”; violence supplanted by mere shoves and pushes; and as for “scenes of a sexual nature” – well, forget about that.

Then I read 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough.

By the end of only the first few chapters, I’d readjusted my expectations. Pinborough depicts modern school life, with teenage girls at its heart, with social realism-like accuracy. There are cattish calls in corridors, their unmasked subplots on social media, experimentation with drugs, high-tailed parties, and genuinely erotic encounters in the backseats of that nostalgia-baiting “first car”.

All this soap opera detail is a vital context for the story which rapidly emerges. A girl has died after falling in a river and was resuscitated after 13 minutes. What were the causes of her death? Who was involved? And how will it all end?

These are all intriguing questions and genuinely haul the reader by the collar right the way through the book. But I want to say that the novel is much more than a “good story, well told”, an unfailingly twisting plot with enough red herrings to fill the river in which the victim fell. It is all these things, but as I say, it’s a lot more, too.

Essentially, the psychological tone of the book feels real. The characters are early twenty-first century teens with all their premature cynicism, concerns about the “playground pecking order”, eagerness for highs (friendship, love, intoxication), and a genuine interest in things that matter (especially the drama woven intertextually through the novel, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible).

These convincing depictions of bright young things on the fringe of emergence into the world at large allows for some authentic observations about being that age and all the confusing emotions involved:

Adults being grateful to teenagers was weird. And a little bit scary. Like they were all becoming equals and there was no safety left in the world. Their childhoods were over. They were in a waiting room at the cusp of adulthood. No-man’s-land, neither one thing nor the other. Sometimes it was brilliant. Sometimes it totally sucked.

On other occasions, Pinborough, writing principally about girls here, reflects specifically about being female:

We’re all strangers. Circling each other. I see the same thing with my mum and her ‘ladies’ lunch’ group. They laugh and joke and say how much they love each other, but as true as that might be, they still watch each other for weakness. For chinks in the armour. I don’t think boys are the same. Boys are dogs. Women are like cats. Individuals by nature. We are not pack animals.  

It’s touches like these (and there are plenty) which elevate the narrative above mere soap opera. The voice feels grounded in its world and the insights are unstrained. They’re not merely the objective observations of an older, all-knowing novelist; they’re written by someone who knows how these characters think and feel. And I believe that this is fiction at its best.

Another major strength is the book’s structure. Pinborough employs a wide range of narrative strategies to convey her story with tricksy verisimilitude. Here we have straightforward third-person prose, diary entries, newspaper clippings, cell-phone text exchanges, and verbatim transcriptions of interviews with police and psychotherapists. Collectively these techniques not only enhance the realism of events depicted, but also allow the author to play with the reader’s understanding of developments. Which of these sources should we believe? Who’s telling us the truth here? It’s all cunningly and seamlessly done.

OK, so all praise so far. But did I have any issues with the novel? I think for me there is a very minor problem with the plot. It’s all very ingeniously mapped out and paced, with Pinborough keeping innumerable plates spinning for extensive periods. However, given the socially realistic nature of the whole work, there’s one scene (I’ll struggle to describe it without dropping in a spoiler) which felt a bit too “Agatha Christie”. Let’s just say it involves a stage device and how it was used in an unintended way.

But that is a relatively minor matter. What we have here is an absolutely gripping book with likeable/detestable characters (and sometimes the reader’s perceptions shift in this regard relating to the same person); an ingenious and hard-to-guess plot; a beguilingly clever structure (which actually contributes something to the story and isn’t just smart-arse for its own sake); some genuinely erotic scenes; a documentary-accurate depiction of latter-day yoof’s social and private lives; and a highly satisfying conclusion.

The book is being described as a YA novel for marketing purposes. But if you’re as old, jaded and out of touch as me, don’t let that put you off. I haven’t had this much fun back at school since I reread Stephen King’s Christine.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What I read in 2015

Here's are the books I read in 2015 and the rating out of 10 I assigned each (r stands for a reread).



Unsettled Dust – Robert Aickman 9 r

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman 9 r

Creatures of the Pool – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Joyland – Stephen King 8

Dr Sleep – Stephen King 7

Something Wicked this Way Comes – Ray Bradbury 7 r

Talking It Over – Julian Barnes 10 r

Love Etc – Julian Barnes 10 r

Money – Martin Amis 10 r

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy 8

Summer of Night – Dan Simmons 7 r

Slam – Nick Hornby 8

1984 – George Orwell 10

Nothing to be Afraid of – Julian Barnes 7

Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock 7

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson 9 r

Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury 7 r

The Unlimited Dream Company – J G Ballard 7

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway 8

The Minotaur – Barbara Vine 8

The Establishment – Owen Jones 9

A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks 10

American Pastoral – Philip Roth 10

Stoner – John Williams 8

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson 7 r

White Noise – Don DeLillo 8

Hawksmoor – Peter Ackroyd 6

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison 8

Incarnate – Ramsey Campbell 10 r

The Face That Must Die – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis 10 r

Midnight Sun – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Ghosts Know – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene 7

The Terror and other novellas – Arthur Machen 9 r

The Darkest Part of the Woods – Ramsey Campbell 9 r

Veronica Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho 7

The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson 9 r

My Work is Not Yet Done – Thomas Ligotti 9

Selected novellas – David Case 6

Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke 9

House of Small Shadows – Adam Nevill 9

Half a Life – V S Naipaul 7

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood 10

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami 8

The Secret History – Donna Tartt 7

Rabbit, Run – John Updike 8

High Rise – J G Ballard 7

The Accidental Tourist – Anne Tyler 7

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth 9

The Human Stain – Philip Roth 10

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth 8

An American Dream – Norman Mailer 6

The Ascent of Money – Niall Ferguson 6

Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe 8

Shrine – James Herbert 7

The Great Pursuit – Tom Sharpe 7

I Married a Communist – Philip Roth 10

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami 8

Engleby – Sebastian Faulks 9

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald 6

Boy Meets Girl – Ali Smith 8

Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson 7

Time and Time Again – Ben Elton 8

World Gone By – Dennis Lehane 7

Seize the Day – Saul Bellow 8 r

A Burnt Out Case – Graham Greene 9

Changing Places – David Lodge 7 r

The Counterlife – Philip Roth 10

Beloved – Toni Morrison 8

An Experiment in Love – Hilary Mantel 8

Nemesis – Philip Roth 8

The Plague – Albert Camus 10

Animal Farm – George Orwell 10 r

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov 8

The Humbling – Philip Roth 8

Exit Ghost – Philip Roth 9

Finders Keepers – Stephen King 7

Lost Girl – Adam Nevill 8

The Hungry Moon –Ramsey Campbell 8 r

Silent Children – Ramsey Campbell 8 r

The Wine-Dark Sea – Robert Aickman 8 r

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh 7

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth 9 r

The Tenants – Bernard Malamud 9

Everyman – Philip Roth 8

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck 7

13 Days by Sunset Beach—Ramsey Campbell 10

Spectral Book of Horror Stories 2 – ed. Mark Morris 8

Albion Fay – Mark Morris 9

Mammoth Book of Short Horror Novels – various 8

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay 9

Skein and Bone – V H Leslie 9

Aickman’s Heirs – ed. Simon Strantzas 8

The Nameless Dark – Ted Grau 7

The Moon Will Look Strange – Lynda Rucker 8

The Needing – Thana Niveau 10

The End – Gary McMahon 8

My Name is Mary Sutherland – Kate Farrell 9

Thursday, November 5, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD -- a review

JURASSIC WORLD – a review by Gary Fry
 
Looking for a real-life cartoon? One with absolutely implausible plotting all the way? Well, it’s all here and then some. There’s a cookie-cut gung-ho military bloke with a gut full of stewed Middle East insurgents. There’s an Oriental scientific genius whose skills come without morals. Then we have a vacillating Indian mediator representing all the emerging markets. And, just like the first JP film, there's another fat bloke more interested in coke and crisps than in ensuring the security of a compound housing the world's most lethal, steroid-chocked, flesh-enthused, merciless and cunning killing machine, like, ever. So it goes; despite this terrible recession, you just can't get the staff. But rest assured, the US everyman – a Mr. Pratt, no less! -- and his impromptu moll will save the day: in her case, all in high heels.
 
I have to say that the kids dealt rather well with the super-dinosaur attack -- not a hint of poo or wee in their sealed viewing unit. I additionally admired the way the male lead raced his motorcycle across several miles of perfectly flat woodland, while the beasts he followed leapt and ducked amid fallen tree trunks and viciously entangling vegetation. Dextrous fellow. And tell me, American folk, do aunts in the States have more familial obligations than they do in the UK? The poor lass here was given a very hard time about having a career and various commitments (yeah, we get it: she quantifies rather than empathises, but her transformation is represented by her hair getting curlier as the film progresses), whereas my aunt, unemployed and with all the time in the world, doesn't give a shit about me. I suddenly feel all neglected; I think mine at least owes me a little pocket money in arrears.
 
Anyway, the grand finale is fun, where a – [SPOILER] -- T-Rex inadvertently (and yet with remarkable timeliness, given its non-appearance in any other part of the film) saves the day, before running off into the sunset to have a little triumphant, the-natural-order-of-this-modified-world-is-restored roar about it. And let's not forget the help and support of the last-surviving trained -- yes, trained -- velociraptor, which also does its essential pro-human business and then skitters away into woodland, presumably hoping that it's done enough to secure some kind of spin-off show on US TV. Or perhaps the general public will question its loyalty, since -- as my partner observed -- one minute it was in complicit cahoots with the super-raptor, and the next biting the shit out of it. Still, near the end, in a scene which clearly escaped the producer, it exchanged a collegial nod with Mr. Pratt, so maybe he'll put in a good word for it.
 
Anyway, if, on the basis of the above, you think I disliked this film, you're wrong. I thought it was jolly good noisy fun. Just don't do anything ridiculously ambitious like...well, “thinking” while you're watching it.
 

Monday, October 26, 2015

MY NAME IS MARY SUTHERLAND by Kate Farrell - a review


My Name is Mary Sutherland by Kate Farrell – a review by Gary Fry

This lengthy novella (54,000 words) takes the form of a confessional monologue delivered by a late-teenager restricted to a support facility for disturbed children. Mary Sutherland narrates her recent history, from age 12 onwards, documenting a rich passage of time during which her mother dies and her father remarries, to that wicked stepmother of much dark fiction. And that’s essentially the plot. But it’s what Farrell does with this familiar material that sets it well apart from others.

The first thing to admire is the voice: convincingly innocent, slightly bewildered, and decidedly offbeat, Mary’s tale-telling is both starkly honest and patently unreliable. Her habit of having us feel sorry for her plight – and yes, quite enough pitiable episodes occur for us to realise how dire her daily life has become – is frequently undermined by later admissions of some unspeakable act, usually involving animals. Indeed, it’s this simultaneous assault on readers’ impressions – engaging both our sympathy and revulsion – that offers the whole book such a compelling grip.

I’m not about to describe the chilling finale to this novella, but I will say that its causal facts – the stuff that “made” Mary – are explored in a suitably sporadic manner, with a negligent father, absent mother, furtive uncle, cruel friends, superior relatives, and wicked stepmother all among the suspects. The truth is something more than all these things, of course – each one in combination and then some, perhaps – and Farrell does her novelist’s work well, by elucidating the lot without making authoritative judgement. It’s up to us, the readers, to decide on why Mary does what she does.

There is much more I admired here. There’s clever wordplay throughout, with Mary often trying to get to grip with her immediate world through the phrasemaking tendencies of her adult companions. I thought some of the more troubling scenes were well done, too, with Farrell drawing on casual disclosures from Mary to reveal the full horror of her existence. It’s a very M R Jamesian technique and one which works extremely well in this less chaste environment. I won’t give away any of these savage moments, but if I say that one involves a cat, you might realise what you’re in for here.

The characterisation was rich throughout, the father and stepmother suitably negligent without becoming comic-book caricatures. Nevertheless, if I had any issue with the book it was the way the stepmother seemed to agree to Mary becoming a babysitter without at least a little protest. Given the context of her other behaviours – hugely protective of the child whenever Mary is around – I would have preferred a few more scenes of fractious debate here, before the father maybe persuaded his new wife to use Mary as a cost-free resource in this way. This is a relatively minor matter, however, and simply shows how difficult it was to find anything critical to say about this fine, chilling book.

The story builds to a wonderfully macabre conclusion, something which Mary’s possibly delusional visions right the way through (and all are done most effectively) have been preparing us for. In some ways, the book reminded me of a wonderful Ruth Rendell novella called Heartstones in which an elder sister documents the activities of her almost certainly psychotic younger sister. Farrell’s tale had the same sinister, furtive drive, the same convincing delineation of a young girl’s inner and outer worlds. But here the voice is far less plummy, the characters more everyday than Rendell’s solidly middle-class youths, and the events more embedded in the commonplace world of schools, homes and family.

In short, My Name is Mary Sutherland  is a marvellously compelling read – I consumed it in just a day, during two lengthy sittings – and Farrell should be congratulated for her attention to detail, her masterful modulation of voice, and convincing development of mounting psychopathy. This is a truly excellent book.
 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

THE END by Gary McMahon -- a review


The End by Gary McMahon – a review by Gary Fry

I’ve read an awful lot of Gary McMahon’s work, either in manuscript form when we were both starting out together as regular writers or, more recently, in its published form. Having reviewed him previously, I’ve described his work as unflinching, inventive and powerful. I think my favourite book of his was the first of the Concrete Grove novels, which contained a sustained passage of horror across multiple scenes that truly got under my skin. And that’s why we read this kind of stuff, isn’t it – to be rattled a little?

So I came to this relatively short novel in the hope of a similar experience. The title boded well – what could be more threatening, more viciously terminal, than the end? And then, suitably apprehensive, I started reading the book.

In many ways, as McMahon states in his afterword, the novel is his homage to those short, sharp shockers from horror’s tawdry boom in the 70s and 80s, whether dog-eared paperbacks or fingerprint-grubby VHS cassettes. It has a similarly furtive feel about it, the opening sequence in London presenting lots of pungent omens as an ostensible suicide cult begins to blight the city while the novel’s central character and colleagues try to continue with their recession-affected lives. These suicidal episodes escalate, spread across the country, and McMahon’s characters end up going on the run – or rather, retreating to where their hearts are: up north to their homes and to those they love.  

What surprised me most was a piece of fiction not mentioned in McMahon’s afterword, though it’s a more recent one than those he does. It seems to me that, as the characters reach a property in which a paramilitary group is being established, the book’s principal influence might be Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later. We have the London opening, a group on the run, the alt-military group occupying the place to which they flee, the focus on breeding, etc.

This is certainly not a negative thing, as McMahon’s source of national menace – suicidees rather than zombies (and these scenes are done extremely well) – is very different, but I did feel as if I was in very familiar territory here, as if the narrative was merely documenting an expected sequence of events.

Nevertheless, the multiple set-pieces which constitute the group’s stay at the refuge is extremely well done (including a particularly effective sex scene, which truly captures the feelings involved in such an act during a period of societal fragmentation), and Thwaite, the cult’s leader, is an intriguing character, with his bizarre dress sense and ridiculous aspirations. I could have done with a lot more of him.

So far, so enjoyable: well-written, tautly structured, conventionally and professionally developed. But all the while I could sense something else going on, a suggestive undercurrent of unease arising from a series of telephone calls the lead character makes during his and his companions’ road trip. Something is not right here; the way these conversational chapters are structured, like a stage-play script, is kind of off-kilter.

This certainly maintains the narrative’s momentum. As I consumed all the expected descriptions of escape, I simultaneously wanted to know what all those calls amounted to, what the guy would find when he got home. And this is where the book comes into its own, where it transcends its many influences and becomes something a bit special. You see, up until this moment, I’d felt as if the book was merely a well-judged piece of homage; but all the while, McMahon had been doing a lot of quietly accumulative work, building up to this gut-punch at the end. Which is not to say the finale is wholly unexpected; I’d kind of anticipated it. It’s just the way it’s done, the prose McMahon summons, which sends a chill deep down.

It’s a marvellous end to a book which is very definitely more than the sum of its parts, an appropriately short novel which starts with a modest grim factor and just elevates that by gradual degrees until the final bleak horror. Like a lot of the best stuff in our field, its impact is artfully choreographed and I think that’s the finest thing to admire here: its Gestalt vision, its unrelenting tone.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

LOST GIRL by Adam Nevill -- a review

Lost Girl by Adam Nevill – a review by Gary Fry
 
Everything’s girl at the moment, isn’t it? Check out the bookstores and the cinema, and there you’ll meet a girl on a train, one who’s simply gone, and another in a spider’s web. Man, has that girl been busy lately. But now, in Adam Nevill’s latest novel, she’s got herself lost…and it’s up to the father to find her.
None of this implies that Nevill has simply hitched his wagon to some kitschy thoroughbred. Sure, the title of his book – Lost Girl – won’t harm sales, but I think that’s testament to the author’s canniness and commercial acumen, especially when working in a genre – the darker side of speculative-future crime (here), if not (as in previous works) full-blown horror – which needs all the promotional impetus it can muster.
And Nevill’s careful market placement doesn’t end there. Lost Girl’s plot resembles quite a few recently successful tomes, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which has a father and child navigating the dystopian horror-show which is a possible-world-to-come; Stephen King’s Cell (soon to be a film starring that man John Cusack), in which a guy travels across a country, amid a zombie outbreak, seeking his errant son; or perhaps even more closely (and going back a little in time) Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless, where a daughter similarly goes missing and is sought after by a desperate parent. Oh, and let’s not forget our brogueish friend Liam Neeson and his series of Taken movies: the repeatedly snatched daughter and his special-skill solutions to achieve her (inevitable) retrieval.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Nevill is being derivative or even cynically locating his fiction amid flash-in-the-pan trends; rather, that he’s canny in his understanding of cultural pressure-points, the acupuncture of market calibration. I sincerely hope it all works out for him, because Lost Girl is one savagely gripping read, from its bitter start to its grievous end.
The plot is reasonably simple, and I won’t give anything away by saying that the central character, a guy referred to only as “the father” throughout the book, was once married and had a young daughter, and that the daughter was snatched from the family garden during a future period (the 2050s) of global unrest involving climate change, migration snarl-ups, faltering economies and even nuclear frictions.
Indeed, it’s this tension between the private and the intercontinental which dramatizes the book’s opening sequence, a punchy account of that Bad Day, which put me in mind of a similar sequence at the start of Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time: the father’s horror at having taken his “eye off the ball”, the terrible realisation that his child is gone, and all the guilty recriminations that follow.
Then: cut to the near-future, a few years down the line. The father, devastated by this event (which has also done its worst to his marriage), has become a kind of vigilante, investigating the girl’s disappearance in a much more brutal and less techo-savvy way than that Irish charmer Neeson could ever manage. In fact, if this book was a new entry in the Taken series, it would be directed by Shane Meadows. There is no comic-book violence or improbable insights here, just the spicy brutality of torture and confession, the messy business of information-acquisition, all staged in an authentically depicted “street” setting.
These set-pieces take place against a background of fragmenting social order, a skeletally functioning British society in which resources are stretched to breaking point and police enquiry is restricted to limited periods, before cases have to be let go. This necessary vacuum in the legal / justice system creates an appropriately permissive climate in which the protagonist – the father – can operate. A man self-styled in combat and fired by bitter-minded rage (he’s described as “grief incarnate, vengeance and desolation made flesh”; he’s the kind of guy who wonders why people “were so poorly built to withstand suffering when its possibility had always been so assured”), his gaudy enquiries take him from unwitting informant to informant, a veritable roll-call of vile paedos and brainless muscle from the underworld.
It’s an arresting series of encounters, with Nevill craftily varying the book’s structure and narrative content to avoid repetition. In one scene, the father might be discussing (with his mysterious assistants, who communicate by phone or turn up during chases) an approach to some new contact, and in the next he’s up close to his target with guns and sprays, cord and knives. These rapid transitions reminded me of a similarly effective trick pulled by Stephen King in Rose Madder, where Norman Daniels experiences mind-skips and moves from innocuous activities to murderous rage in the space of several paragraphs. It’s a neatly dramatic effect which eliminates the tedium of too much linear description, and Nevill performs the job with knowing aplomb.
Deepening the force of these events is a feeling expressed by the father that he isn’t sure who he’s working for or who his regular contacts are. During his restless witch hunt for perverts and public menaces, might he be serving the aspirations of a hard right seeking to wrestle control of the country in forthcoming elections? This, along with the repeated descriptions of global decline and escalating panic, add a dimension to the narrative which many similar vigilante-type fictions lack. Indeed, this is not just a private affair, but a very public one, and Nevill’s tugging together of both personal and social strands is impressively detailed and thoroughly convincing.
The world-building is similarly striking, with Torquay (around which much of the novel’s action takes place) particularly well evoked, its newly transformed locale packed with tawdry activities, with hookers and crims (there’s some great dialogue from undereducated streetwise fraternities), litter and graffiti. One passage, detailing the drawing of a creature which will play a powerfully oblique role in the book, is pure Nevill, a brilliantly dirty pen-sketch of a figure all bone and claw, hood and rags. Nevill’s world and its off-camera denizens are often as idiosyncratically delineated as Ramsey Campbell’s. 
And the whole of this – the father’s investigation, so many scenes of brutality, secretive informants, accumulating hints of some dark force at work behind world events – hurtles towards a breathless conclusion involving the person responsible for the child-snatching. Now, I did feel as if this part of the story came a little from leftfield; other than a few tangential hints early in the book, we hadn’t previously been introduced to this individual. Is that a fault? Perhaps not; perhaps it’s not that kind of book. But in any case, I think this section did involve a minor shortcoming. In describing the father’s connection to the villain, Nevill’s prose feels a tad laboured, as if the publisher had suggested that he bulk up the book (or Nevill had anticipated this advice), adding to the page count. It’s only a minor issue, but I did feel as if this part of the novel felt like an extensive info-dump, the reader pulled aside to the wings, updated on backstage events, and then thrust back into the play.
But soon things get underway again, and the final sequences are satisfyingly downbeat and include a convincingly low key supernatural scene (which harken back to earlier Nevill fictions, the grubby fingerprints of those Last Days cults staining the page). I can’t say much more without giving the plot away, but the ending could be read in two ways, as either mission accomplished or mission failed.
It’s a suitably ambiguous conclusion to a novel which recognises the complex lives we all lead, that of private intimates (family, lovers, friends) as well as global citizens. It’s how these two intermesh that determine the way things go for us, and by exploring these double realms of experience with such conviction, Nevill’s narrative tears us apart at the end of the book. It’s all too true in our troubled times, and I fear the novel will grow increasingly topical as the years unfold.
All in all, this is a taut, strikingly written, and provocative book which won’t let you leave it alone until it’s inked your mind with its bleakness. In short, more sterling work from one of our best dark scribes.
 
 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

THE SPECTRAL BOOK OF HORROR STORIES VOL. 2 -- edited by Mark Morris


The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Volume 2, edited by Mark Morris – a review by Gary Fry

A disclosure: I enjoyed the first volume of this series so much that I made it my mission to get a story in the second volume. Luckily I achieved that, but it only makes reviewing this book tricky. Folk are gonna think I’m biased. But I’ve done my best to think objectively about the anthology, and so here goes. I’ll take each tale at a time and then sum up my impression of the whole thing.

 

HOUSE OF THE HAG - Paul Finch
The volume gets off to a cracking start with that man Finchy’s trademark regional horror tale, which builds across some startlingly good landscape writing to a truly menacing last few lines. Seriously, I had less than a page left and wondered how it could hit the mark, and then it certainly did. An inspired – and scary! – piece.

 

FLOTSAM - Tim Lebbon

This tender-minded story rests upon a story conceit, what might even be termed a gimmick, but Lebbon does good work with the characters and elevates it all to a moving depiction of grief with some memorable final imagery.


TOYS FROM THE GINGERBREAD COUNTRY - Richard Jay Goldstein

I really loved this insidious tale, told mainly from a child’s point of view. It put me in mind of classic 50s / 60s US sci-fi horror tales, with all their political undercurrents and grimly wry developments.  


SUGARED HEAT - Lisa L Hannett

I had to admit that I struggled a bit with this story, and I fear it’s my fault. The prose was as strikingly muddy as its setting, which was certainly evocative, but I didn’t quite get along with the narrative, which flipped around quite a lot for a relatively short piece. I suspect others (as Morris did) will get more from it.

 

A GIRL AND HER DOLLS - Adrian Cole

In many ways a conventional narrative, topped off with some truly nasty imagery. It’s again located in quite familiar genre territory, with a child possessing psychic powers moving from place to place. But the naivety of the telling only offers the finale more power, which is as unpleasant as that of any tale I’ve read in quite some time.


THE LARDER - Nicholas Royle

Another of Royle’s delicately suggestive pieces, told in a minimalist prose style with a disarmingly simple vocabulary throughout. I thought perhaps Royle overplayed one story element – a creaking floorboard – but the ending is suitably restrained and the whole piece, like much of Royle’s work, remains troublingly lodged in memory.


THE VEILS - Ian Rogers

This was a great example of J-horror style storytelling, with imagery captured on camera and wielding sinister implications to unfortunate viewers. I felt the conclusion was perhaps a little truncated, but (for me) that only slightly marred a compelling sequence of creepy events. Nicely done.


JOE IS A BARBER - Paul Meloy

If Royle’s tale was minimalist, how to refer to this? Told in the leanest prose imaginable, it somehow manages to convey menacing characterisation and a joltingly unpleasant episode. Clever trick.


LITTLE TRAVELLER - Simon Kurt Unsworth

Here was another tale I had a few issues with plot-wise – to be honest, I wasn’t always sure what was happening – but the prose was certainly striking. I suspect a reread might be in order. The narrative voice was certainly gripping and enjoyable.


BEHIND THE WALL - Thana Niveau

One of the best tales in the book, this relentlessly headlong story, with its (perhaps) inevitable twist and evocation of horror, builds upon a local myth in Niveau’s typically elegant, well-characterised way. The prose is clipped and clean, the impact undeniably haunting.


MARY, MARY - Ray Cluley

There’s a lot going on under the surface of this story, in every sense you might imagine. Cluley’s geologically focused passages add a weird and beguiling undercurrent to commonplace proceedings, which lend the denouement all the more strength when it comes. Surreal and mysterious.


THE MEANTIME - Alison Moore

This felt like something Ruth Rendell might have written in her most impish frame of mind. A punchy, intimate story of complex domestic arrangements and commonplace acts of evil, its impact outweighs its brevity and lingers long after those killer last lines.


MARROWVALE - Kurt Fawver

I really liked this unusually creepy horror story. With something of the cosmic about it, Kawver’s tale evokes remote residential locations and the trouble one often finds there (well, certainly in our kind of tale). Some of the conclusion’s imagery is weird, potent and unsettling. Strong work.


SCRAPING BY - Gary Fry

Utter nonsense. Does this guy owe Morris money?


WHERE THE FOREST ENDS - Sean Logan 

There’s some real, pungent emotion on display in this borderline surreal tale of “moving on” in life. The forest flanking the central character’s new home plays host to something both old and alien, and yet in sympatico with his mental condition. A heartfelt tale which works really well.


WRONG - Stephen Volk

Another highlight, this sad story of marital devotion involves a form of horror unlike any other in this book. Its narrative documents a richly detailed period in recent English history, and such attention to these issues – what we had for our tea; what we watched on telly – lend the whole proceedings appropriate gravitas. Excellent as usual from Volk.


LUMP IN YOUR THROAT - Robert Shearman

More stark Shearman weirdness, and frankly, there are few better at it. This story, which has a solid psychological experience underlying its cruel events, is genuinely nasty for most of its short length, and simply becomes more so during the barbed final lines. A really bruising yuk of a tale. 


HORN OF THE HUNTER - Simon Bestwick

Bestwick’s tale is certainly relevant to our current political era and has some nasty fun at the expense of the monstrous DWP. I felt it was perhaps a little longwinded in the telling and guessed how it would end quite early. But if gruesome chase fiction is your thing, you’ll certainly get a kick out of this one.


WHO WILL STOP ME NOW? - Cliff McNish

And now perhaps we have the anthology’s crowning glory. Placed suitably at the end of the book, McNish’s truly monstrous tale outdoes early Clive Barker, with stylish reference to Greek myth and unmistakeably hideous body-horror. A brilliantly sustained story (well, more of a novelette, really), which remains relentless right the way through. Proper horror.

 

So there we have it: the whole anthology. Has Morris hit the heights he achieved in volume 1? Well, I greatly admired about six tales in that book, considering them world class, and looking back at this one, I see a similar number here (the Finch, the Cole, the Niveau, the Volk, the McNish, especially). I also enjoyed most of the rest, and that’s true of the second volume, too. Of the stories I didn’t get along with here, I similarly found myself wondering whether it was me who’d missed some crucial point. There were certainly no obvious duds in either book.

On that basis, I guess it’s another triumph. Varied and entertaining, the second Spectral Book of Horror Stories feels like another winner to me. I just hope that when other people come to read it, my own tale – like an iceberg ragging out a chunk of a boat’s hull – doesn’t drag down the whole.