Ellen Datlow’s annual round-up of the year’s finest horror fiction, gleaned from sifting through countless anthologies, collections, magazines and other publications, both printed and online, is out tomorrow. My story from last year’s Nightscript 6 anthology, ‘Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking’, is in it. The number of the volume won’t be lost on the superstitious, but never mind that — get it while it’s hot!
Here’s the table of contents, with some fine contributors. I’m greatly looking forward to reading it!
Summation 2020—Ellen Datlow
Exhalation #10 — A. C. Wise
A Hotel in Germany — Catriona Ward
A Deed Without a Name — Jack Lothian
Lords of the Matinee — Stephen Graham Jones
Cleaver, Meat, and Block — Maria Haskins
The Eight-Thousanders — Jason Sanford
Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty–Richard Gavin
Come Closer — Gemma Files
It Doesn’t Feel Right — Michael Marshall Smith
Mine Seven — Elana Gomel
Sicko — Stephen Volk
Mouselode Maze — Christopher Harman
Heath Crawler — Sam Hicks
The Devil Will Be at the Door — David Surface
Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking — Tom Johnstone
Exactly two years after I launched Last Stop Wellsbourne, the opening story in this collection, ‘The Wakeman Recreation Ground’, has received recognition from Ellen Datlow by its inclusion in her shortlist of Honourable Mentions, at least the one made public. The list already appeared in last year’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12. Since then of course, another story, ‘Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking’, originally in Nightscript 6, will soon be appearing in Volume 13 of the series, so will be available to read there, but if you want to read ‘The Wakeman Recreation Ground’, you’ll have to buy a copy of Last Stop Wellsbournehere.
Here’s a lovely promotional image made by Jenny Barber, showing the Alchemy Horrors 3 cover alongside those of the first two books in the series!
The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 3: A Miscellany of Monsters edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards
Monsters are many things. They come in all forms, shapes and sizes: from to the tiny to the titanic; from amorphous blobs to many limbed (or tentacled) monstrosities; from supernatural demons to man-made terrors. They come from any place and time: from under the bed to the woodshed; from the icy wastes to the darkest jungles; from the depths of the ocean to outer space; from the past, the future, the now! Many things. Any things. In this anthology we present a range of creatures, from the oceans, from the ground, from the air. Contributors include Garry Kilworth, Steve Rasnic Tem, Sarah Ash, Adrian Cole, Marion Pitman, Ralph Robert Moore and others.
Birth is a subject ripe for body horror. Take The Brood or Demon Seed or Rosemary’s Baby. It has become customary in these times to refer to the publication date of one’s book as ‘book birthday’, and today is the publication day, or book birthday if you prefer, of Ellen Datlow’s anthology Body Shocks, just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, should you desire some suitable reading matter to mark this festival. Hopefully, despite its theme, it’s birth will not be as stickily unpleasant one as the ones in those various movies / stories, not least because one of my stories features in its pages, along with others by such acclaimed authors as Nathan Ballingrud, Cassandra Khaw, Priya Sharma, Simon Bestwick, Pat Cadigan, Carmen Maria Machado and Gemma Files.
For more information about this excellent volume, see my previous blog post and why not check out this feature in Ginger Nuts of Horror, asking various authors about their personal body horrors! There’s also a review up on GNOH, written by Ben Walker, who warns the reader to have dry toast and water in hand when reading the book. Definitely not for the faint of heart then…
Here’s another review by Adrienne Clarke in phantastiqa. I can’t wait to read the book in its entirety!
Edited by the award-winning Ellen Datlow, with a cover to die for by John Coulthard and a list of authors on the TOC that reads like a Who’s Who of horror, Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror, looks set to be top of everyone’s Hallowe’en shopping list when it comes out in October this year.
Oh, and one of my stories is in it: ‘What I Found in the Shed’, which originally appeared in Supernatural Tales #31, then reappeared with some body-modification of its own in my Omnium Gatherum collection, Last Stop Wellsbourne. Here’s me reading the original version for those who can’t wait until October:
Table of Contents
The Travellers Stay by Ray Cluley
Toother by Terry Dowling
Painlessness by Kirstyn McDermott
You Go Where It Takes You by Nathan Ballingrud
A Positive by Kaaron Warren
La Beauté sans verte by Genevieve Valentine
Subsumption by Lucy Taylor
Spar by Kij Johnson
It Was the Heat by Pat Cadigan
Atwater by Cody Goodfellow
The Transfer by Edward Bryant
Welcome to Mengele’s by Simon Bestwick
Black Neurology: A Love Story by Richard Kadrey
Cuckoo by Angela Slatter
Cinereous by Livia Llewellyn
The Truth That Lies Under Skin and Meat by Cassandra Khaw
Natural Skin by Alyssa Wong
The Lake by Tananarive Due
I’m Always Here by Richard Christian Matheson
The Look by Christopher Fowler
The Old Women Who Were Skinned by Carmen Maria Machado
Spores by Seanan McGuire
Sweet Subtleties by Lisa L. Hannett
Elegy For a Suicide by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Skin City by Gemma Files
A True Friend by Brian Evenson
What I Found in the Shed by Tom Johnstone
Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma
Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report by Michael Blumlein
I’m not in the habit of reviewing anthologies that feature my own fiction. It can be somewhat embarrassing to compare the quality of one’s own contribution to that of the others in a multi-author volume, but I couldn’t help noticing certain similarities between the themes and preoccupations of certain stories in Terror Tales of the Home Counties and my own tale, ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’.
With its popular image as the stock-broker belt, many of the stories use this apparently placid and leafy setting to tackle head-on the spectre of sharpening class inequalities that haunts this Covid-ridden land. Speaking of which, the only one written and set recently enough to mention the C-word is Stephen J. Dines’s ‘The Gravedigger of Witchfield’. Don’t be deceived by the traditional-sounding title: This is a highly contemporary, provocative and shocking riposte to those who think they are above the public health restrictions they expect the common herd to observe (I’m thinking of a certain now-former special advisor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dines has him in his sights too…)
But Dines’s critique of society and its injustices goes deeper than that, and echoes two of the other stories, ‘Monkeys’ by Reggie Oliver and Steve Duffy’s ‘In the English Rain’, in skillfully using the device of the bildungsroman to show a very English youthful rite of passage: the revelation of the dirty, brutal little secrets at the heart of a ruthlessly misogynistic and class-divided society.
To misquote L.P. Hartley, ‘The ruling class is a different country, they do things differently.’ There is a certain kind of horror story that depicts the rich as profoundly different from most of us in its outlook and pastimes, or even literally a race apart. The Brian Yuzna film Society is an obvious example of the latter. Richard Connell’s story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is a classic expression of the former. As well as the 1932 adaptation, a recent cinematic variant of this particular trope is Ready or Not.
My own story also plays on this idea too, but also suggests that when it comes to seeing our betters as alien, other, the feeling is mutual. Other stories in the book, such as ‘Monkeys’ and Sam Dawson’s ‘Between’, comment in different ways on how the upper and middle classes define the lower orders as a kind of bestial sub-species. In Dawson’s story, David and Shelley Smith, a middle class couple in the Nineteen Sixties find an almost derelict fixer-upper cottage in a secluded part of Surrey, but the local pub sign disturbs Shelley:
” ‘All those awful dark painted little faces covered in hair and hiding among branches. But I can just about bear that. What I can’t bear is going inside and finding their real-life cousins muttering and playing shove ha’penny and skittles.’ “
This isn’t to suggest that the author shares Mrs Smith’s snobbery. Mr Smith’s attitude to what he discovers when he uses his army training to track the subterranean creatures sharing the woodland around the place is in marked contrast with that of the later inhabitants who breeze into the cottage with twenty first century yuppy arrogance. It could almost serve as a metaphor for the transition from the social democracy of the post-war settlement to the more brutal, confrontational (and the story suggests ultimately self-destructive) class politics of Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. This reading isn’t too much of a stretch, as Dawson’s horror fiction has previously examined class conflict. A good example is ‘Life Expectancy’, which appeared in The Ninth Black Book of Horror.
Another Home Counties terror tale, ‘Love Leaves Last’ by Mick Sims, asks what terrible sacrifices must the rich make to preserve inherited wealth, a question also touched upon in my own contribution to this anthology. In Sims’ case the answer is to be found in the title of a certain bedroom farce. To say which one might be a spoiler, so I’ll let you guess, but it’s an apt metaphor for the demands made upon the owners of a large stately home. On the other hand, the anti-hero of John Llewellyn Probert’s ‘Summer Holiday’ is mainly interested in sacrificing his relatives to get the prize of an inherited fortune. The story uses one of Probert’s favourite devices: elaborate murders recreating grisly deaths from old horror movies, in this case ones filmed in Oakley Court, Berkshire. The result is an entertaining blend of his own Dr Valentine books with Kind Hearts and Coronets.
For Paul Finch’s own story, he has raided his back catalogue for a reprint from The Sixth Black Book of Horror, ‘The Doom’ a memorably nasty morality tale about the vision of Hell depicted on the wall of a church in a sleepy Surrey village. The terrifying punishments displayed in it is at odds with the vicar’s easy-going morality, but so is the sinister stranger who pulls up in his expensive car one day. Gail-Nina Anderson’s ‘In the Cold, Cold Clay’ is another notably horrid tale suggesting a gruesome side to the cosy world of Home Counties churches, this one in Buckinghamshire. After meditating upon the ‘liminal’ nature of a lych-gate, it goes on to describe a child’s horrifying death in a literal such space, falling into and becoming trapped in the narrow gap between a tree and an old wall, before the narrative uncovers an even more terrible secret concealed in the parish.
But the Home Counties isn’t all country houses and leafy villages built around Norman churches. Other stories have more urban settings. Helen Grant takes us to ‘Chesham’ for her skilful and devastating story, using the device of a rediscovered photograph that turns the finder’s world upside down. (another theme of ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’ of course — the world not the photo!) There is also terror in tower blocks in Kingston (‘Moses’ by David J. Howe) and Stevenage (Jason Gould’s ‘The Old Man in Apartment Ninety’), while Allen Ashley’s ‘Taking Tusk Mountain’ uses Luton as the setting for its comic-fantasy of a heist gone wrong, part mummy’s curse tale, part caper movie, part The Lion King!
So as you can see, there is something for everyone in this anthology — that’s without even mentioning Paul Finch’s grisly and meticulously-researched snippets of local folklore, history and legend between the literary ones — and I’m proud to have played a part in it.
Supernatural horror is a speculative genre that tends to side-step the need for extensive world-building by situating its other-worldly elements in the real one. There is however a strong tradition in weird fiction of fictional towns and regions with murky reputations, from Lovecraft’s Miskatonic Valley and Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station in the USA, to Ramsey Campbell’s Brichester and Joel Lane’s Clayheath in the UK. Stephen King invented the fictional Maine towns of Derry and Castle Rock, which Garry P Flanagan references in this Amazon review of my collection Last Stop Wellsbourne, my own attempt to invoke this tradition and create my own town of terror, linking it to the lore around Brighton’s lost river of the same name. I even included a fictionalised ‘introduction’ by local history expert and Wellsbourne Society founder Dr David Bramwell in which I featured as an apparently doomed figure in my own fiction!
Below is a video of me reading of one of the stories from the collection (though to be fair I believe it’s the version from Supernatural Tales issue 31, before I edited it to shoehorn it into the Wellsbourne ‘concept’, but this version was long-listed for Best Horror of the Year!). If you like it enough to want to buy it, why not buy a copy — preferably direct from the publisher rather than supporting Amazon’s questionable business model!
The final blood-chilling episode of my folk horror tale ‘The Cutty Wren’, about a peculiar ritual of Saint Stephen’s Day. Just to recap, in Part One, Professor Jenny Underwood had a weird post-ceilidh experience that put her on the trail of the eponymous bird. In Part Two, she and her associate, the narrator Ian, decipher the clues in a series of riddles, leading them to the place where the ceremony takes place in Part Three. Follow the links on the numbers if you haven’t already seen these episodes. If you have, go straight to the video below!
That’s the last of my Blogvent Calendar posts. Now I’m going to rest and eat too much. Have a lovely Christmas and enjoy the Feast of Stephen tomorrow. Speaking of which…