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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Best British Horror 2014 edited by Johnny Mains -- a review

Best British Horror 2014 edited by Johnny Mains

Review by Gary Fry

I have a story in this book, but I’m going to review it anyway. I was intrigued by what new kid on the block Johnny Mains would do with the Best-Of format, and am delighted to report that I was impressed. Knowing what I know about the guy, I expected stories from the harder hitting side of the genre – the gory, the brutal, the monstrous. But no, here we have a very varied collection of fiction from a wide range of publications, as many that are subtle and suggestive as the alternative. Let me take each tale one at a time.

Opener “When Charlie Sleeps” by Laura Munro is rich in allegorical possibilities, with the suggestively named Charlie a small creature existing in the bathtub of a rundown haven for women on the run. Its tawdry London setting forms a suitable background for this pungent tale, whose private events penetrate the macro situation, with hints about the personal having wider implications.

In “Exploding Raphaelesque Heads” by Ian Hunter we have a body-horror story of the first order, with one of the most stomach-clenching sequence of brutal images I’ve read in some time. Punchy, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and finishes on a suitably sour note.

Anna Taborska’s gaudy “The Bloody Tower” is fun to read, with some twisty-turny plotting and riotous events. So many things happen that it feels like a novella and that’s a good thing.

Ramsey Campbell again demonstrates his remarkable range of invention and literary methods in “Behind the Doors”, another of his ruthless depictions of a man’s mind coming to pieces over some ostensibly harmless event or object – in this case, an Advent Calendar. I particularly loved the digital figures on the alarm clock, just another example of how the author brings to sinister life to stuff we all see on a daily (well, nightly) basis. The story ends on a note of deep pathos.

“The Secondary Host” by very typical of John L Probert, with B-movie imagery and educated protagonists inhabiting some distant place and turning it all inside out. Its brutal finale is memorable in that broad-brush, gruesome way I’ve come to inspect from the author, and the prose, as ever, purrs.

Muriel Gray’s “The Garscube Creative Writing Cube” is a flippant piece of fiction with an unlikeable character doing what those kind of guys do. The final scenes are predictable, but no less impactful for that.

Then there’s my story, about which I’ll say nowt.

“The Doll’s Hands” is another of Adam Nevill’s weird urban landscapes, with the reader put inside the head of some deranged, malformed entity. Very weird, but never less than powerful, and the accumulative effect of having the “people” here described in piecemeal fashion gets stronger by the page.

Thana Niveau’s “The Guinea Pig Girl” is a brilliant attempt to transfer unpleasant cinematic imagery into prose. The author achieves this by clever choice of detail (for example, the thing at the end responding to a tapping on the floor) and a cool style of writing which remains clean while the events get redder and redder. A highlight.

The title of Elizabeth Stott’s “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” is evocative enough, but married to such a chilly tale, rich in metaphor, we get the whole package. I found this relationship story powerful and complex – another highlight of the book.

Kate Farrell’s “Dad Dancing” is enjoyable enough, with some nicely judged humour and Amisian dialogue. But I’m not sure it did enough that was new to make it a favourite of mine.

Similarly perhaps, Stephen Volk’s decidedly unpalatable “The Arse-Licker” is, ahem, an acquired taste. Not my kind of thing, but some of the prose was great. Its ending seems to transcend the unpleasant events earlier, becoming some kind of metaphor for modern business mentality.

Talking of prose, Tanith Lee offers the most exotic writing in the book. “Doll Ra Me” is an enjoyable read, whose inclusion here is understood, even though the plot did little for me. A prose-poem, perhaps.

D. P. Watt’s “Laudate Dominum” impressed me with its casually artful prose and antiquarian adventure. It had an air of Dahl’s “The Landlady” about it, with some suitably grotesque organic imagery. Good tale.

In Marie O’Regan’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” we get the traditional ghost story, which of course every representative collection of horror must have. And this was a thoroughly respectable entry, nicely done and heartfelt.

“Namesake” by V. H. Leslie was another surreal relationship story, a spiritual companion to the Stott and no less enjoyable. Its imagery was pungent and evocative.

Another highlight of the book for me was Reggie Oliver’s superbly delicate “Come into my Parlour”, a story with all the suggestive power of an M. R. James story. Those last lines are brilliant and transform a carefully orchestrated sequence of events into something special. Quite wonderful.

Mark Morris’s “The Red Door” does what I’ve seen this author do many times before, finding an image so weird and ostensibly nonsensical that it seems to make absolute psychological sense in context. Its overall effect is reminiscent of some of the stuff in the author’s hard-to-acquire first collection CLOSE TO THE BONE.

“The Author of the Death” by Michael Marshall Smith is the anthology’s meta-narrative, with suitable allusions to Derrida et al, and a characteristically casual yet unsettingly offbeat depiction of characters who are exactly that. It has Amisian fun with the literary process. Made me smile – several times.

Now then, here for me is the book’s finest tale: “The Magician Kelso Dennett”. A truly brilliant piece of stagecraftery and power, with a final segment which drives the whole story deep down. I was hypnotised. Volk is a great writer of prose and not just dialogue (which we’d expect, natch).

Robert Shearman’s “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” is the compelling story of two siblings and their decidedly perverted childhood ritual shifted into adulthood. The author’s chatty, omniscient narrative is perfectly suited to this material, with a chilling last few lines. Fine piece.

The book ends with a heartfelt tribute to Joel Lane from Simon Bestwick and then a story by the great, much-missed author. A nice touch from Mains.

So how did the new kid do? Very well, I’d say. I was most impressed by the very representative range of horror on display here. I defy other readers to identify a single subgenre missing. That’s not easy to achieve and must have taken a lot of reading. But the efforts have borne baaad fruit, and what we have here is a nicely rounded chronicle of horror this year, with a number of genuinely classic tales. Not much more for the fans to ask for, is there?

UK? Buy here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Best-British-Horror-Johnny-Mains/dp/1907773649/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403118234&sr=8-1&keywords=best+british+horror

US? Buy here: http://www.amazon.com/Best-British-Horror-Johnny-Mains/dp/1907773649/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1403118275&sr=1-1-spell

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