[A rather belated literary review of the year that was supposed to come out in December 2018…]
2018 was the year in which horror was officially back. In previous years, there have been gloomy predictions of its demise, even premature obituaries, tedious talk of ‘post-horror’ and so on. But last year proved these rumours to be exaggerated, with genre films getting Oscar recognition (Shape of Water winning the award for best film, while the far-superior-in-my-view Get Out won best screenplay), and ambitious, polarising and much-trumpeted horror releases Hereditary and the revamp of Suspiria. If horror was dead, it was only so in the same way that Dracula was at the end of each Hammer picture, only to be brought back to life in the next one by a spatter of crimson Kensington Gore all over his ashen remains.
This horror revival is also taking place in the world of fiction, artistically at least, even if we’re not seeing a repeat of the ‘horror boom’ in the commercial sense. Here’s Nina Allan’s excellent analysis of this resurgence.
I certainly agree with Nina about Catriona Ward, whose Little Eve was for me the novel of 2018. Building on the neo-gothic mode popularised by Sarah Waters and continued in Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People and The Crow Garden, Ward’s work in this book, like her debut Rawblood, takes it to a whole new level. Little Eve has also been likened to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but I feel Ward’s novel surpasses Hurley’s with its own harsh, brutal intensity. It may not have her 2015 work’s dizzying display of multiple narrative forms and voices, yet this relative formal simplicity seems only to add to its concentrated power. Its tale of a reclusive religious community holed up in a castle on Altnaharra seems aimed at anyone who’s ever watched The Wicker Man and thought ‘Hmm, joining a pagan death cult on a remote Scottish island looks like it might be kind of fun’. Reading about Wane, the Trying, the Duty and the other practices under the rule of the strangely distant and quietly despotic ‘Uncle’ would soon cure them of such notions…
With its epistolary plot twist, as intricately crafted as the work of a Swiss watchmaker, it puts the power of story-telling at the heart of its mystery, with a detective who’s more Inspector Goole than Sergeant Howie, pursuing its unforgettable eponymous anti-heroine, one of a predominantly female cast of vividly painted characters. She tells the story through language of stunning hallucinatory beauty, which may seem at odds with the raw grimness of the events on Altnaharra, except that it conveys the distorted viewpoint of someone who’s off their head on semi-starvation and other privations. The inhabitants of the island may be cut off from the mainland in more than the purely geographical sense, as outcasts from mainstream society, there are certain similarities between the situations of the women on both sides of the tidal causeway that links them. Evelyn and Sarah in particular are mirror images of each other, pariahs and tough survivors, similarly punished and shunned for their transgressions against stifling, unforgiving and arbitrary rules. One scene that sticks in my mind as an example of how humanity and kindness can endure in the harshest surroundings is the scene where Jamie MacRaith visits Sarah Buchanan with gifts to help her get by.
Another instance of the human spirit surviving in perhaps even more impossible circumstances is Simon Bestwick’s tale of armed resistance to fascist repression in a Britain devastated by a nuclear attack the Black Road quadrilogy, the penultimate instalment of which, Wolf’s Hill, Snow Books published in 2018, another novel worthy of an honourable mention as one of last year’s finest. After a recap allowing those who haven’t read them to pick up where they left off, reintroduces the wonderfully-named rebel leader Helen Damnation, something of a female version of Blake in Blake’s Seven, and there’s more than a hint of Terry Nation’s dystopian epic in the story, with the tyrannical Reapers putting a price on her head as the lightning rod and figurehead for insurrection, though the story’s earthbound rather than space operatic. Yet while the tone is bleak and gritty, there’s earthy humour here, and elements of wild dark fantasy and weird fiction, with characters like Tereus Winterborn, and bio-engineered monsters like the Grendelwolves and the Catchman developed under the auspices of the mysterious Project Tindalos.
The short scenes, with sub-chapter headings indicating the locations and times ‘attack plus twenty one years’, the nuclear hit having wiped out previous time measurement and creating a Year Zero, add to the brisk tense pace. These scenes intercut between rebel-held makeshift headquarters and those of the Reapers in the ruins of what was once Manchester, swiftly introducing a rich variety of characters and showing how they respond to the grim realities of life in this state of post-nuclear civil war, some having reverted to tribalism, others wanting to impose brutal order on the dazed population. The second novel, Devil’s Highway, showed Helen’s early life, neighbours trying to rebuild society co-operatively in the days following the blast, an attempt crushed as the first Reaper patrols descended on them and subdued them with acts of terror. In the opening pages of Wolf’s Hill, we meet a Reaper who’s gone over to the rebels’ cause and seems to want to redeem herself. We see her through the eyes of a burnt out medic treating everything from fallout-induced cancer to battle wounds in a succession of patients, then Helen and Alannah exchanging suspicious looks about the newcomer, and wonder if she’s genuinely reformed or will prove a traitor in the end. A line about how her parents handed her to the Reapers when she was a child reminds us of the lost generation of which she’s part, denied a childhood, something also explored through the character of Tereus Winterborn in Devil’s Highway.
It’s as though Bestwick has swallowed post-war British TV science fiction wholesale, especially Nigel Kneale and Terry Nation (Blake’s Seven, Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks, Survivors) and of course Threads and The War Game, with more than a touch of folk horror thrown into the melting pot, also the British post-apocalyptic and dystopian literary tradition from George Orwell to James Herbert by way of V for Vendetta, to end up with a fantastically entertaining brew that also evokes something of grimdark fantasy, but in a real-world setting that’s very, uncomfortably now. I also wonder, based on this and his earlier book The Feast of All Souls (Solaris, 2016), if somebody called Kellett must have seriously pissed Bestwick off at some point in his life, but I don’t want to get into the biological fallacy here. Maybe it’s just a good name for a thoroughly despicable character, so good he used it twice!
Two novels from last year, which also deserve honourable mentions are The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Titan Books) and The House of Frozen Screams by Thana Niveau (Horrific Tales Publishing, not to be confused with Sere Prince Halverston’s 2015 novel The House of Frozen Dreams, though its title may well be a mischievous parody of that romance…) Both take well-worn tropes (holiday home under siege for Tremblay and couple buy cursed and haunted house in the Niveau book) and take them in new and startling, even shocking directions. Their protagonists are unusual too. None of your traditional nuclear families here: the first about a gay male couple who have adopted a little girl from China, and the second a portrayal of a woman who definitely doesn’t want to have babies at all. These atypical protagonists aren’t there just to prove the writers’ right-on credentials with their ability to create non-stereotypical characters, though there’s plenty of commentary of commentary on homophobia in the Tremblay and on the judgemental attitudes towards childless women in the Niveau, but these issues aren’t just window dressing: they’re central to the tragedies that afflict the central characters, but not in ways that suggest the characters’ homosexuality or non-maternal womanhood is to blame for their horrific misfortunes.
The House of Frozen Screams is Niveau’s first novel, and to start with I was worried it might lack the brooding intensity that marks her short fiction, seeming oddly disjointed and unfocused. As I read on, it grew on me as I realised this worked really well with the disintegration of the central character. I also like the way, rather like the Bestwick novel I mentioned The Feast of All Souls, it starts as an apparently cosy haunted house story about a troubled person or persons buying a fixer-upper with a tragic past, but takes it a much more bizarre and extreme direction, involving in both cases a particularly nasty supernatural manifestation of the Victorian patriarchy. And if I had any doubts about the brooding intensity coming in, it’s back with a vengeance before the end, believe me.
Single Author Collections
Now to some short story collections, and there were some good ones last year. Collections are a good way to revisit work you’ve already read in a magazine or anthology, and also discover gems by the same author you’ve missed in publications you haven’t managed to access or their previously unpublished stories.
One that’s destined to be a classic and for my money the collection of the year is Priya Sharma’s All the Fabulous Beasts (Undertow Press). It contains stories with which I’m already quite familiar, such as the British Fantasy Award-winning ‘Fabulous Beasts’, which effortlessly combines almost soap operatic gangland drama with magical transformation fantasy, ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’, an unforgettably disturbing horror story about psychosexual dysfunction and obsession, a theme echoed in ‘The Absent Shade’. Then there’s ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, a traumatic slice of folk horror alternating between two time periods: the rise of Ireland’s housing bubble and after it burst in the wake of the global financial crisis. Its central character and narrator, an author who’s acquired a cruel nickname, ‘The Boomtown Bitch’, after a traumatic event that prefigures the collapse of her life, which mirrors that of the Irish economy, is one that’s hard to like, but by the end we’re rooting for her, despite the tragic mistakes she’s made.
I used the word ‘effortlessly’, possibly inaccurately. I mean Sharma’s work seems effortless, because she exercises such control over it. And I sense that this isn’t easy. Rather it takes a lot of hard work and hard choices. This is not to say she doesn’t take risks, for her subject matter and her treatment of it is always bold, startling and original. So her collection was a great opportunity to experience to me previously unread tales, such as her breathtaking alternative historical Merseyside Dystopia ‘Rag and Bone’, a vision of a society where bodies are commodities and the NHS never happened. That one passed me by when it first appeared on Tor.com five years ago so it’s a pleasure to come across it now. Another wonderful new discovery is ‘The Show’, a consummate tale of Most Haunted-style paranormal broadcasting, with a great line in grisly graveyard humour, evinced in this TV producer’s response to the show’s resident psychic going into too much detail about her vision of a pregnant woman’s evisceration:
“Greg frowned at her nasty embellishments. After all, it was a family show.”‘The Show’
All this from a writer who once said she can’t do funny. On the contrary, its that very quality in her writing, as well as her musical prose and fascination with myth and folklore, that reminds me of Angela Carter’s grim fairy tales. But the world Sharma’s characters move in is more contemporary and easier to relate to than Carter’s. Finally, as it’s from Undertow, the book itself is naturally a thing of great beauty, whether you pay full wack for the hardback with its striking serpentine design, or the paperback with Vince Haig’s more florid evocation of art nouveau sensuality.
Honourable mentions from last year’s crop of collections include Rosanne Rabinowitz’s Resonance and Revolt (Eibonvale Press), with its visionary connections between radical politics and quantum physics. Interesting to compare her story ‘Pieces of Ourselves’, which first appeared in the anti-austerity anthology I co-edited with the late Joel Lane, Horror Uncut (Gray Friar Press, 2013), with Sharma’s ‘Fabulous Beasts’, as both use the image of shedding skin to great and, yes, resonant effect. The cover’s another design classic, thanks to the one-man cottage-industry David Rix of Eibonvale Press.
Another collection from 2018 to look out for is Colleen Anderson’s eclectic and daring A Body of Work from Black Shuck Books. As her biog tells us, she is something of a Renaissance woman, and in keeping with this, her range of subject matter is so varied, the collection reads like The Twilight Zone with more sex and violence. All the stories are reprints, but the only one I’d encountered before was ‘Sins of the Father’, a dark slice of urban fantasy that opens with a novel approach to the serial killer sub-genre. Most stories in this vein are either obsessed with the murderer’s psyche or empathise more with the victims, quite rightly as a counterweight to the morbid tendency of popular culture to glamorise psychopaths. Anderson takes a totally different tack: what if the killer is a family man? What are the consequences for his nearest and dearest? That, along with Vancouver’s damp problem, is the focus of this memorable story.
However, the highlight of the book is undoubtedly ‘Exegesis of the Insecta Apocrypha’, which pulls off the tricky conceit of fiction pretending to be non-fiction, complete with footnotes referencing other fictional sources. But the story isn’t just a technical achievement. It’s a disquieting psychological study of a very disturbed individual named Libby and of the cult-like global phenomenon inspired by her chilling behaviour. Going on to call the very basis of Libby’s worldwide following into question, this eerie and complex piece of fiction manages to comment on the nature of reality in the internet age, part of a whole sequence of stories in the collection around the life cycle, and most particularly the horrible yet fascinating role of decomposition therein. This is a theme she handles with a wonderful sense of the tactile, almost sensual aspects of decay. Here’s an example from ‘Exegesis’, describing how Libby’s obsession takes root after she sees fly larvae breeding in the corpse of a mouse at the age of four, drawing comparisons between these remorseless processes of nature and those at work in her young mind:
“There was something about the mindless infestation of life feeding voraciously on the dead. A need was deposited in her, a small egg incubating, maturing the more attention she gave it until it could eat its way out of her.”‘Exegesis of the Insecta Apocrypha’
Another fine story, this time with a central character as compassionate and humane as Libby isn’t, is ‘The Healer’s Touch’, about Dr Petrovna who can literally lay healing hands on patients with nanobots in her fingertips, proving that Anderson is equally at home with science fiction as horror, though this tale’s subject matter, involving the good doctor treating refugee survivors and experiencing the traumas they’ve survived via the empathic aspects of her abilities, has some very harrowing moments.
In short, this is a spiky, scary, sexy body of work that left me startled, unsettled, amused and even somewhat aroused. Because there are a lot of ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, as they put it on Sky, in Anderson’s work. Not all of them are what you’d call ‘erotic’. as she’s not shy of confronting the darker, more oppressive side of sexuality. Almost every range of human sexual experience is here vividly depicted, from the joyously bawdy, through the fucked up, to the plain wrong and downright abusive. And you don’t get much more fucked up than Libby in ‘Exegesis’ donning a strappy red dress and hitting the nightclubs so she can seduce multiple men and harvest their sperm to fertilise the insect eggs she’s inserted under her skin, or much more abusive than the relationship between the modern-day Hansel and Gretel in ‘Gingerbread People’.
Black Shuck Books have also produced other collections of note this year, including Terry Grimwood’s Is There a Way to Live Forever, which boasts a very grim tale of the sex industry that will leave you feeling very unnerved indeed, particularly if you have a horror of suffocatingly confined spaces, and with a feeling of grime in your very pores. Also highly recommended is Simon Bestwick’s musically-themed mini-collection, Singing Back the Dark, which includes two Manly Wade Wellmanesque tales of an itinerant African American bluesman who encounters outre phenomena on his travels, and a story featuring his recurring amateur occult detective Paul Hearn, who discovers the sinister truth behind why his dad’s rock’n’roll career never went anywhere. That one’s called ‘Effigies of Glass’, and if the title sounds like something Joel Lane might have written, that’s intentional, as
Hearn’s in the tradition of Lane’s ‘weird crime’ cycle of stories and the story’s a fitting tribute to the late author.
Finally a word or two about individual stories in magazines and anthologies that have captivated me during last year’s voracious reading: almost everything I’ve read by Ralph Robert Moore, whether it’s ‘Peelers’ in The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors or ‘China’ and ‘Do Not Pet’ in recent Black Statics, shows him to be a unique voice who always knocks the ball out of the park both in stylistic terms and with his ability to generate shock and awe with his narrative devices and his grasp of characters whose quirks and traits and hang-ups are sometimes as bizarre as the weird events they encounter.
Another writer with a voice so distinctive you could probably identify him if you were blind-reading one of his stories is Robert Shearman, whose ‘Thumbsucker’ was one of the many highlights of the second (and unfortunately probably final) New Fears anthology edited by Mark Morris for Titan Books. But where Moore’s world is often one of American blue-collar masculinity, frequently the toxic sort, making the reader on edge from the first line, then taking you gently by the hand into a world of heartache, terror and pain, Shearman tends to lull you into a false sense of security with an apparent air of chatty, middle class English whimsy, before dropping you into a world of utter insanity. ‘Thumbsucker’ is no exception, introducing the reader to a subculture like no other. It’s one of the highlights of an anthology that has many. When the first New Fears came out in 2017, I found it easy to pick out my favourites. This time, there are too many to choose from: ‘Letters from Elodie’, Laura Mauro’s tale of obsession and class resentment, ‘The Airport Gorilla’, Stephen Volk’s startling riff on ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, and Kit Power’s terrifying and visceral Bram Stoker long-listed revelation of the ‘Fish Hooks’ manipulating the world, are just three outstanding examples of the varied high quality horrors on display here, while I’ve mentioned the lingering delights of V.H. Leslie’s sun-soaked vision of evil ‘Almost Aureate’ elsewhere, a masterpiece of oblique, insidious, low-key horror and a beautiful example of short fiction regardless of genre. It’s a perfect story, my favourite of the anthology and of last year.
Unfortunately, despite the awards and plaudits for the first two volumes and a forthcoming TV anthology adaptation of one of the stories published in the first one, Titan Books hasn’t seen fit to take the series further, a rather perverse decision I think. What will it take to convince a major publishing house to back a continuing horror anthology series? A Disney blockbuster movie maybe? To help persuade Titan to think again, buy a copy of the second volume from here.
I mentioned The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors, in which ‘Peelers’ appeared. Like New Fears 2, this is a very strong example of that rare thing these days: a non-themed horror anthology, though the accent is very much on the weird and the strange rather than pure horror, but that’s no bad thing. There are some gems here too, one quite literally being Suzanne Barbieri’s ‘In the Rough’, about a woman who weeps diamonds. Another one’s Phil Sloman’s tale of a disturbed youth obsessed with ‘The Girl with Three Eyes’. It starts at a cracking pace with a fantastic opening paragraph, full of manic energy, commenting on contemporary mores at the same time as it sucks you into its unreliable narrator’s world. Another very sharply insightful horror story is ‘The Garbage Men’ by Tony Richards, about creatures who prey on the poor, both the monsters of the title and the writer-protagonist. Madhvi Ramani’s ‘Teufelsberg’ is a lovely slice of Euro-folk horror, while Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon never disappoint, the former showing how being mistaken for a light entertainer is anything but ‘Some Kind of a Laugh’, the latter poignantly examining bereavement in ‘Guising’ and introducing an apparition that turns bubble-wrap into a source of terror. The book also features an eerie, psychedelic cover by Peter Coleborn and each tale is headed by an individual illustration by Jim Pitts.