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.