THE SPECTRAL BOOK OF HORROR STORIES
Edited by Mark Morris
Review by Gary Fry
We all love a good horror anthology, don’t we? Yeah, sure we do. Those of us old enough to recall the great days of horror – 70s and 80s – will fondly recall thumbing through gaudy paperbacks, seeking tales of decapitation and swimming pools full of acid. Such tales “got there first”, imprinting the genre on our juvenile minds the way goslings follow mother-goose. Flashbulb memories, right? That is, shattering flashbulbs, whose fragments violated our eyes, rendering the world henceforward splintered and edgy.
So much for waxing lyrical. All of this is a preamble to a review of an anthology that seeks to reinvest the field with some of this gaudy darkness, those stomach-pit frissons. And who better, I ask you, than Mark Morris to bring it together? More than anyone I know, Morris celebrates the joy of youthful encounters with speculative fiction. He’ll basically kill you if you say a word out of place about Dr Who. And why the hell not? We all have our passions, and what’s a passion if not for singing (screaming?) loudly about?
Anyway, this is where this book is coming from, a collection of the great and the good, the new and more senior scribes currently at work in the genre. So let’s see how the editor and his able accomplices did, shall we? Can they give me that peerless rush I experienced while reading so many gruesome tales as a lad? Here goes, one tale at a time…
ON THE TOUR - RAMSEY CAMPBELL
It’s no secret that I’m one of Campbell’s biggest fans, but I’m no apologist. I never find his work less than interesting, but have reviewed anthos in the past in which I’ve found stories by other authors as effective. So it goes. But on this form, there’s nobody like him. Another of his tales of “the comedy of paranoia”, this one elucidates the experience of mental disintegration in all its common absurdity. Like the work of R D Laing, it shows how easy it is to lapse into egocentric thinking. There’s a bit of the central character in all of us, I’d wager, and that’s what literature is about: identifying such behaviour, making sense of it. Hilarious and painful, and more importantly, a brilliant start to the book.
THE DOG’S HOME - ALISON LITTLEWOOD
A canine tale of terror and a cuttingly cruel one. Littlewood taps into the dynamics of familial tensions, involving miserable maiden aunts and their common misanthropic love of dogs. You’ll start out think it’s one character who’s the villain but you’ll be wrong. Quite a nasty ending, but it rings right.
FUNERAL RITES - HELEN MARSHALL
A wonderfully aloof tale, with a spinsterish prude taking lodgings in the home of a vulnerable landlady. Again, there is sleight of hand here, with those characters you initially consider harmless taking on sinister undercurrents as things develop. The prose is Rendellian, with many a deft insight into human relations (for instance, being simultaneously drawn to and repulsed from others), and the ending is a Sartrian nightmare. Powerful story.
SLAPE - TOM FLETCHER
Sorry, guys, didn’t quite get this one. It’s short and punchy, but I fear its point was lost on me. If I’m missing something, forgive me.
THE NIGHT DOCTOR - STEVE RASNIC TEM
A fine depiction of incipient old age. Tem’s slippery prose slips back and forth, from past to present, inside and outside, elucidating a chilling portrait of a “creature” that will surely one day haunt us all. I enjoyed this one a lot.
DULL FIRE - GARY McMAHON
One of McMahon’s recurring motifs: punitive parents haunting their offspring way beyond the sell-by-date of childhood. There’s a scene involving two backseat passengers that chills deep down, and I did wonder whether the author might have ended the tale there. There are more passages at the end, which, for me, might have been cut, but that doesn’t mean they should be for you. We’re all different. Overall, though, a pungent piece.
THE BOOK AND THE RING - REGGIE OLIVER
A great traditional tale in the Oliver mode, drawing on either actual or convincingly invented history to spin a sinuous yarn. This one involves witches and magic, with the events effectively depicted by the distancing narrative of ye olde English. Maybe the introducer could have returned at the end, to round things up, but a minor matter. Oliver is as witty and arch as ever.
EASTMOUTH - ALISON MOORE
Really loved this literary, delicate and insidious story. I can imagine a lot of trad horrorheads asking what it’s doing in a Pan-style book, but they’d be wrong. It has all the tropes of a classic tale of terror and its quietness is a just a scream that never reached the mouth. Chilling last line.
CARRY WITHIN SOME SMALL SLIVER OF ME - ROBERT SHEARMAN
Shearman writes so slickly that the reader is carried effortlessly along, whatever the subject matter. In some writers, that can conceal an absence of substance or a deficiency in plot, but I’ve yet to come across a Shearman tale which didn’t interest me or stir me or even shock me. There are some images in this story that get right to the gut, and that’s just the job in such a collection. Good stuff.
THE DEVIL’S INTERVAL - CONRAD WILLIAMS
Williams documents the trials of learning a craft with almost obsessive attention to detail. As a musician myself, I understand the complexities of all those fucking chords and how, even though Clapton just stands there smiling, your fingers can end up in spaghetti plaits while fingering only a C. The story itself? Well, it relies on a clever allusiveness that may be lost on some, but I rather enjoyed it. It has the usual busyness of Williams’s prose, the masterful craftsmanship in literary mode he wittily bemoans about music in the tale.
STOLEN KISSES - MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH
I felt this was quite a slight offering from Smith, certainly by his usual high standards. There’s nothing here to dislike, but it just didn’t feel weighty to me.
CURES FOR A SICKENED WORLD - BRIAN HODGE
Had a lot of fun with this one. Hodge’s depiction of an artist taking a review literally is quite merciless, but then becomes something rather more sinister, as some dark force is unleashed and lingers beyond the final page. The distancing effect achieved by using an on-looking narrator adds impact, a vision of insanity or something worse than that through a lens of logical reason. Solid piece.
THE OCTOBER WIDOW - ANGELA SLATTER
This is the kind of story E F Benson might have written for the anthology. The tale of an ambiguously benevolent femme fatale, it raises questions about the personal and the collective, about whether what’s good for the person is good for the world, and vice versa. Compelling.
THE SLISTA - STEPHEN LAWS
Another tale I simply “didn’t get”. Its strange language and brief events were kind of lost on me. If I’m missing something, please let me know.
OUTSIDE HEAVENLY - RIO YOUERS
A superb story of dark American shenanigans, with witchy, satanic episodes and a descent into uncivilised territory. Of particular note for me was the tale’s clever structure, the way Youers knew exactly how to pace the piece and reveal key confessional material with a variety of narrative techniques. I enjoyed the hell out of this one.
THE LIFE INSPECTOR - JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Another of Probert’s fun tales of officialdom in the form of some door-knocking rep bearing a clipboard and a bunch of unusual requests. I guess this is the book’s token comic tale (you know, like the golfing episode in Dead of Night), but I think Probert has done better elsewhere. I’d have encouraged him to submit one of his usual nasty body-horror delights.
SOMETHING SINISTER IN SUNLIGHT - LISA TUTTLE
Tuttle rarely disappoints and this compelling story of truth and reality – a tad Lynchian – certainly entertained me. Its LA setting and wry Britisher bewilderment only added to the appeal. Great last few lines.
THIS VIDEO DOES NOT EXIST - NICHOLAS ROYLE
And how about a touch of the enigmatic? Better ask Royle to contribute then. And contribute he has! This is a wonderful story, weirdly comic and then viciously serious. Its domestic scenes, daily events and rooting among a home’s common detritus, are set aside images of…oh God, just read it. It goes bone-deep.
NEWSPAPER HEART - STEPHEN VOLK
OK, other than the Marshall, the Moore, the Youers and the Royle, Campbell’s tale reigns supreme here…but what’s this? A novella by Volk, you say? Right let’s give it a go, then... And hell, if the author doesn’t turn in a tale to equal any of those just mentioned. It starts out a tad tame, just a soap opera depiction of domestic life in the 70s, with a nuclear family engaged in all their usual quirks and tensions. But then, with the introduction of the outré element, it deepens into something quite compelling, a story positively thrumming with interpretative possibilities. Volk’s prose here is disarmingly giddy and homely, loaded with common working class phrasing and many a casual cliché. But that’s all deliberate, you see. He’s trying to make this seem like your life, dear reader – the one you enjoyed (if “enjoyed” is the right word) when you were a kid, when daily anxieties induced you to turn to the dark… In short, this is a fitting ending to a book that seeks to recapture the pleasures of that period of life, eight years old (or thereabouts), with all the evils of the world awaiting you…and nothing to save you from the explosive night.
And so there we have – the whole book. How did Morris do, in this, his first editorial outing as custodian of dark nostalgia? I’d say it was as good as any antho I’ve read in a while. Of course every book like this has its strong and weaker parts, and hell, some of these can be ascribed to personal taste (some folk might love the Fletcher and Laws, for instance). For me, the collection has six world class stories (Campbell, Marshall, Moore, Youers, Royle and Volk), a bunch of great ones, and the rest are rarely without interest. That makes it a really worthy book, in my view, and no fan of our beloved genre should hesitate to grab a copy.