TagA Book of Horrors

Richard Christian Matheson, ‘Last Words’ (2011)

The anthology closes with this short (four-page) piece whose narrator reflects on the value of preparing some god last words for oneself (‘All books have an important final line. All movies have one. So should a life,’ p. 425) – but, though the sentiment may be reasonable, the nature of and reasons for the narrator’s interest in the matter are more disturbing. As a piece of fiction, I’m not sure that ‘Last Words’ achieves a great-enough density of language to balance poetry and gruesomeness.

Rating: ***

Link
Richard Christian Matheson’s website

Elizabeth Hand, ‘Near Zennor’ (2011)

After the sudden death of Anthea, his British-born wife, American Jeffrey Kearin discovers a cache of letters from her childhood which reveal  that the thirteen-year-old Anthea and a couple of friends visited Robert Bennington, a children’s writer who was later charged with molesting.  Jeffrey travels to England to investigate, and finds that one of the girls, Moira, ran away later in the year and was never seen again; he makes his way to Bennington’s old home-county of Cornwall in search of answers, but things only get more mysterious.

Hand’s story has a nice atmosphere of strangeness, and its fantastic elements are among the most interesting and distinctive in the anthology. Overall, though, I don’t think ‘Near Zennor’ reaches the same level of intensity as some of the other stories.

Rating: ***

Link
Elizabeth Hand’s website

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ (2011)

High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains lives Miller, who barely knows what to do with himself since his wife and child left; he spends his Saturday afternoons driving around, exploring the local side roads. What he finds on this particular exploration may be just what Miller needs to snap him out of his inertia.

Smith’s story has some of the best writing I’ve yet come across in this anthology: a dry, sparse prose style that perfectly complements both the setting and Miller’s state of mind. And some great turns of phrase, such as this wonderfully creepy image of Miller with too much time on his hands:

Time crawled in an endless parade of minutes from between those cracks, arriving like an army of little black ants, crawling up over his skin, up his face, and into his mouth, ears and eyes. (pp. 340-1)

The true horror of this tale is the horror of emptiness, of an empty existence above all. Smith conveys that horror very well indeed.

Rating: ****

Link
Michael Marshall Smith’s website

Reggie Oliver, ‘A Child’s Problem’ (2011)

Oliver takes as his inspiration for this story Richard Dadd’s painting, The Child’s Problem; he imagines a possible origin for that artwork in the childhood of Sir George St Maur, a social reformer who (says the tale’s preface) visited Dadd in Broadmoor throughout the 1850s (I’ve been unable to find any reference to St Maur online, so am unsure whether he’s a genuine historical figure, or Oliver’s creation).

Nine-year-old George goes to live in his uncle Augustus’s country house, to be tutored until he is ready for Eton. Augustus is a strange figure, forever with a problem set up on his chessboard, but unwilling to actually have a game; he sets challenges for George, but gets angry when the boy completes them – and strange figures can be glimpsed through the windows of the house.

Stylistically, Oliver’s story is closer to the classic supernatural tale than is generally my taste, but the logic underlying what happens is handed very effectively: revealed enough to allow one to formulate an understanding, but also hidden enough that it remains mysterious and creepy.

Rating: ***½

Lisa Tuttle, ‘The Man in the Ditch’ (2011)

Linzi and J.D. are driving to their new house in the Norfolk countryside when Linzi thinks she sees a dead body in a ditch at the side of the road. As the couple renovate the property, thoughts of the dead man continue to play on LInzi’s mind, though J.D. is convinced that she’s mistaken. The initial shock seeing the corpse is very well-handled, as Tuttle lulls the reader into a false sense of security with the neutral tone of her description; and she brings the tale around to a satisfying, grimly circular ending.

Rating: ***½

Robert Shearman, ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ (2011)

Alan and Alice thought they knew their neighbours well enough, but discovered embarrassingly otherwise when they learned that Eric had been dead for months, and Barbara was moving out because she couldn’t cope with her feelings of loneliness. New neighbours duly moved in and, though the couple never saw them, they did hear the loud music coming from next door – and that was just the beginning. This unsettling piece features the matter-of-fact treatment of strangeness that Shearman does so well; Alan’s work life and relationship with Alice fray around the edges as the bizarre events proceed. The result is a story that really get’s under one’s skin.

Rating: ****

Link
Robert Shearman’s website

Ramsey Campbell, ‘Getting it Wrong’ (2011)

Misanthropic film buff Eric Edgeworth is interrupted one evening by a phone call purporting to be from a radio gameshow; would he be the ‘expert friend’ of the current contestant, Mary Barton, a work colleague he barely knows. Edgeworth is convinced this a hoax being staged by some of his fellow-staff at the Frugoplex cinema; but, as the calls continue and Mary is absent from work, it becomes apparent that something more sinister is happening. This is a typically well-constructed story from Campbell, with a satisfying pay-off and a portrait of the crabby Edgeworth that’s grimly amusing. But there’s a sense of artificiality about the piece – perhaps from the fake brand names used, perhaps from those moments when the characterisation becomes a little too broad-brush – which stops it from being truly creepy.

Rating: ***

Link
Ramsey Campbell’s website

John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

Link
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Brian Hodge, ‘Roots and All’ (2011)

Cousins Dylan and Gina travel to the remote farmhouse of their recently-deceased Grandma Evvie, to sort through her effects; a long-term drug problem has caused the area to go to seed. Never far from Dylan’s mind are Evvie’s old tales of what she called the Woodwalker, and the mystery of his sister Shae’s disappearance eight years previously – a mystery which will be solved by tale’s end. Hodge brings the disparate elements of his story together in unexpected ways, and thre’s a grimly satisfying inevitability about the ending.

Rating: ***

Link
Brian Hodge’s website

Angela Slatter, ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ (2011)

Quieter in tone than the previous three, Angela Slatter‘s story concerns Hepsibah Ballantyne, a coffin-maker who arrives at the D’Aguillar household to deal with the recently-deceased father, and takes rather a shine to young Lucette D’Aguillar while she’s there. The coffin-maker’s trade is particularly important in this fictional world: get the rituals wrong, and the spirits of the dead will remain behind — as Hepsibah herself knows, because her own dead father, Hector, never leaves her side. The atmosphere of this story builds up quite nicely — Slatter evokes Hepsibah’s burgeoning attraction towards Lucette particularly well — and the  complexities of Heispibah’s character are revealed gradually and effectively.

Rating: ***½

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