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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.


 

 

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