Ill at Ease is a chapbook anthology of three horror stories, and the first title from Penman Press. The volume opens with ‘Waiting for Josh’ by Stephen Bacon, whose journalist narrator travels from London back to his home town of Scarborough when he hears that his childhood friend Dale is dying – and he wonders how the bright boy he knew became the burnt-out alcoholic that Dale is now. Though he’s increasingly frail, Dale has enough energy to point his friend in the direction of the old Landsmoor house; there, the protagonist finds that, though the building has gone to ruin, the father of the house still waits for his missing son Josh, and has done for 33 years – and so secrets start to be uncovered, and questions answered.
This is a very quiet piece, as befits a story about lives in stasis (not just those of Dale and Mr Landsmoor – seeing what has happened to them makes the narrator question whether he’s done the best for himself in life); perhaps it’s a little too quiet at times, as the atmosphere doesn’t always come through from Bacon’s prose as strongly as it might. But, the more I think about ‘Waiting for Josh’, the more I find to appreciate in it – such as the neat inversion of the haunted house motif, which sees Mr Landsmoor as the living ‘ghost’ haunting his own home (and, of course, haunted himself by the missing Josh).
Mark West’s ‘Come See My House in the Pretty Town’ also begins with its protagonist travelling from London to visit an old friend, but there the similarities end. The setting is not the rugged Yorkshire coast, but a picturesque hamlet in the south-west of England; David Willis has travelled there at the invitation of Simon Roberts, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. Along with Simon’s wife and son, Kim and Billy, they visit a fair in the village; it gradually becomes clear, though, that not all is rosy, and that David and Kim may have had more of a past than Simon realises.
There’s a nicely unsettling feeling about this story, which comes from the contrast between the beauty of the village and the sinister aspects of the fair (such as its threatening clowns made up to look as though they have Chelsea smiles). Much of the weight of the story seems placed on the twist-in-the-tale ending, but West handles it well, and it’s amusing in a drily macabre way.
All three stories in Ill at Ease weave horror into the fabric of contemporary British life, but it’s perhaps the third – ‘Closer Than You Think’ by Neil Williams – which deals with the most everyday of circumstances. It starts at a rubbish tip, where Dave takes the opportunity to bring home the bright pink child’s car seat which the woman in the next vehicle was about to throw away – but Dave’s partner Debs is not impressed, and their daughter Katie is none too keen on the seat, either. It’s Dave, though, who starts to feel that there’s something menacing about the object.
Where Mark West’s story drew on the contrast between village and fair, Williams’ piece uses the ordinariness of its details – visiting the supermarket; rummaging around in the loft – as a counterpoint to its horror. Dave’s experiences start off as unsettling but small, easily explicable as tricks of the light or whatever; but become less easy to explain away as they escalate. That progression of the story is effectively built, and leads to an ending that has the cold sting of inevitability.