I’ve had quite a few stories published this year, in publications you can see on the relevant page. Here I want to talk not about what I’ve written, but about exceptional stories I’ve read this year. To enable me to limit the numbers to those I can discuss in depth, I’m limiting them to those published this year. It includes some short stories published in anthologies that also published my work, by authors I might not otherwise have discovered had I not received contributor copies.
So let’s start with short stories, some of which fall into this category…
When reading my contributor copy of Horror Library vol. 6 (Cutting Block Press), I was particularly struck by Marc E. Fitch’s ‘The Starry Crown‘, an eerie exploration of a Deep American South still infested both with kudzu and the terrible legacy of slavery. The title comes from an old song that may be familiar to readers from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? It has similar preoccupations to that film, though its conclusions are somewhat more pessimistic. Definitely a horror story for our times…
The same anthology ended on a particularly high note with Carole Johnstone’s mountaineering epic ‘Better You Believe‘. To echo the climber’s joke it opens with, typical of the author’s dry sense of humour, things go downhill from the word go, but not in the quality of the fiction, which is as sharp and glacial as its subject matter.
Moving to Cold Iron (Iron Press), an anthology of twenty first century ghost stories to which I contributed a story, I’d first like to mention Tracy Fahey, a writer whose work I’ve had the pleasure of discovering this year. Her ‘Playing in Their Own Time‘ in this anthology is an excellent contribution to the ‘TV paranormal investigation’ trope. The lesson is, don’t take your daughter to the ‘most haunted’ Irish castle where you’re working. (While I’m on the subject of Fahey, I’d also like to mention ‘The Woman Next Door’, a fiendishly brilliant tale with a devastating ending, though strictly speaking it’s outside the remit of this review, as it comes from her BFA-nominated collection, which came out in 2016, but what the Hell!)
Cold Iron also boasts ‘The Lengthsman‘, a deliciously creepy contribution from Charles Wilkinson. Its power derives from evoking class tensions in a small Welsh village, echoing Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, but with a bleak denouement all its own, built on upper middle class parental heartlessness. Its post-war British feel is perhaps too old-school for an anthology so keen to boast its millennial credentials, but its themes are nonetheless contemporary in a country where inequality is rising scandalously, moving us back to the pinched, class-bound era this tale evokes.
The last of the contributor copies I received this year was also from Cutting Block Press: Single Slices — an anthology of longer short fiction, getting into the novelette range. From this I’d like to single out firstly Felice Picano’s ‘After Sunset, in the Second Drawing Room Garden‘. A high-flying TV script-writing power couple move into a Beverley Hills mansion. Pregnant Ashleigh is particularly attached to the room of the title, whose supernatural whispers from Hollywood’s bitchy Golden Age result in success for the couple in the short term, but tragedy in the long term. It’s a pitch-perfect traditional ghost story with a very modern feel for the era of HBO and Netflix. Another stand-out from Single Slices is Brian Lillie’s ‘The Shiro‘, which comes across like The Thing meets Heart of Darkness with shady mycologists and mercenaries in the South American jungle, and a hell of a lot of evisceration…
As in his ‘The Salter Collection’, from Mark Morris’s excellent anthology New Fears (Titan Books), Lillie confounds our expectations by locating the source of the horror in primal forces within the character you’d least anticipate. I thought I’d bring in this book to prove I haven’t just been reading my contributor copies! But from ‘The Morris Collection’, my favourites were Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Shepherds’ Business‘ and ‘Dollies‘ by Katherine Ptacek. Gallagher’s a veteran script-writer and author of such horror classics as Valley of Lights and ‘The Horn’, while Katherine Ptacek’s a writer new to me. Both achieve gut-punch twist endings with these tales, not cheap punchlines, yet grounded in grim, abusive human relationships.
Let me also mention two stories from single author collections published in 2017, something I’ve been remiss about reading. Firstly ‘The Early Signs of Blight‘ from Kristine Ong Muslim’s Eibonvale Press mini-collection The Drone Inside: this takes the trope of the child’s monster in the cupboard fears in a new and horrifying direction. Then there’s Mark West’s collection from Dark Minds Press, Things We Leave Behind, in which I particularly enjoyed ‘What Gets Left Behind‘. Strictly speaking it’s an oldie that came out as a chapbook some years ago, but it’s a goodie, and this is the first chance I and probably many others have had to read it. Its title is almost the same as the collection, and it seems like Mark’s signature story and theme: a middle-aged man looking back on a traumatic incident, in this case two boys playing somewhere they shouldn’t, discovering something that changes everything.
Moving onto another top-notch anthology, Great British Horror Two: Dark Satanic Mills (Black Shuck Books), the ones that really stood out for me were Gary Fry’s ‘Satin Road‘ and John Probert’s ‘The Church With the Bleeding Windows‘. (I almost missed out the ‘n’ there, which would have made an even weirder image than the mis-spelling that begins Fry’s story) With these stories, yes, the authors do make their stories black jokes ramping up to sick punchlines. But they carry them off with such wicked glee that they remind us that horror can be fun! Probert’s story opens with the bald statement: “There was blood everywhere”. It ends with an equally simple but cruelly effective last line: the kind Robert Bloch would have killed for. In Fry’s, the accent isn’t so much on humour, though it reminds me of Ramsey Campbell’s work and his interest in writing E.C. Comics-style short tales with all the graveyard humour that implies. At first I thought the opening musings on the road-sign defaced to mis-spell ‘Satan’ were a bit of a digression, but they link to the main story and the actually rather serious theme at the heart of this story and of its succession of surreal and grisly closing images: the twisting and misunderstanding of words, and the inability of closed minds to imagine things beyond their comprehension.
This isn’t to do down some of the more straight-faced offerings within these Dark Satanic pages, which have many highlights, such as Cate Gardner’s surreal, dystopian and lyrical ‘Fragments of a Broken Doll’, Gary McMahon’s fusion of martial arts and cosmic terror in an urban wasteland ‘The Night Moves’ and Marie O’ Regan’s revelation of the horrifying meaning of ‘Sleeping Black’. Not to mention a cracking Glasgow police procedural horror novella by Carole Johnstone…
That name again! We really aren’t related, in case anyone’s wondering…
Which brings me to:
Before I mention Carole Johnstone again (this is getting embarrassing!), let me turn first to Laura Mauro’s debut novella Naming the Bones (Dark Minds Press). On the face of it, an old-fashioned tale of monsters in the Underground that will have fans of Quatermass and the Pit and Deathline salivating with anticipation, it’s actually more of a character piece, focusing on the traumatised reaction of Alessa Spiteri, a survivor of a terrorist attack. She thinks the monsters she saw down there are imaginary, but others have seen them too. What makes this book so compelling is the interplay between the three main female characters, the tough but vulnerable Alessa, her supportive, grounded sister Shannon and the disturbed, manipulative Casey, with wry, funny dialogue, sharper than the claws of one of its subterranean monsters, the Shades. It’s also a novella with a lot of heart, and I don’t just mean one that’s splattered all over a tube station platform.
Carole Johnstone’s Skyshine (or Death by Scotland), which appeared in Black Static #50 (TTA Press), shares many of these qualities too, but with different subject matter and a rather more free-wheeling range of UK settings and narrative styles, as fractured as its central character’s mind. Starting with the fragment of a retrospective non-fiction book about some kind of apocalyptic event referring to an unnamed ‘patient zero’, moving onto an apparently unrelated catastrophe in a news cutting, there then follows a scene of Whitehall farce worthy of The Thick of It, before we meet the mental patient whose progress we follow southwards, a young woman armed only with some patois words of wisdom from a West Indian who works on her ward and some dodgy wonder drug the government wants to test on her, as she’s sent out into a hostile, indifferent world. I hope this gives you some idea of the fierce, angry, mind-bending imagination and invention of this story.
Finally, another novella that blew me away, also from TTA Press, was Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method, whose funereal premise has singer songwriter Krisztina Ligetti overcoming her writer’s block only when she begins to ‘hear’ the ‘songs’ of the dying. To add to her troubles she’d pursued by a mysterious stranger wearing a macabre porcelain mask. Those who enjoyed Avery’s music-based stories in Black Static, ‘Sunflower Junction’ and ‘Going Back to the World’, will find this melancholy tale music to their ears — particularly as the latter story features as an extra in the novella edition.
Well, actually novel, because I’ve only read two from this year, so I thought I’d better pick one out of the two, and it’s got to be The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books), who for me has really taken a quantum leap fiction-wise since she’s taken up the mantle of Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and other purveyors of neo-Victorian Gothic, and made it her own. I loved The Hidden People and this is even better, introducing us to a similarly prim, obsessive, unreliable male narrator with a penchant for micro-managing his significant other’s reading habits. If the prose can read somewhat stilted at times, that’s a reflection of the mind of its repressed and tormented narrator. It’s apt that the name for psychiatrists at the time was ‘mad-doctors’, because it’s a toss-up whether the most unhinged physician is the hapless Nathaniel himself, his employer Dr Shettle with his unhealthy interest in phrenology or the slimy mesmerist Dr Lumner our hero calls in to save his lady love Victoria from ECT. But the thing about the narrator is his contradictions. He’s appalled when Shettle gives her the water treatment, rightly seeing it as a form of torture to force her into submission to her husband, and yet he too can’t quite see past this goal himself or acknowledge his feelings for her. Victoria herself is no shrinking violet, full of dark complexity, possibly even echoing the same terrible myth as Richard Adams’s Girl in a Swing. Whether she’s villain or victim, femme fatale or proto-feminist, perhaps a bit of both, is for the reader to decide. But anyone who thinks they can see the twist coming is in for a shock.
So that’s my pick of the year’s reads, bearing in mind I haven’t read much of what’s come out this year, such as Priya Sharma’s collection from Undertow, which I’m sure must be excellent, and I’ve read some great stuff published in previous years., e.g. James Everington’s marvellously inventive blend of meta-fiction and retro-dystopia The Quarantined City, but I’m not going to mention anyone else because I want to watch The Detectorists marathon on BBC4, because that’s how I roll on New Year’s Eve…