This anthology of British supernatural horror novelettes from Pendragon Press proves there are some small press publications out there that can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of the genre. All 5 stories are beautifully written and slick as a fresh werewolf pelt, yet their shadows envelope you in different ways.
Paul Finch kicks off the grim proceedings with “The Pumping Station”. This features a trio of young quad-bikers who experience a countryside accident leaving them at the mercy of an unspeakable menace. This story is so vividly evoked that you will feel the rain on your face, the cold mud and hot blood against your skin. The arrival of the aforementioned menace actually sent a shiver down my spine, something that hasn’t happened for some time, and I salute this tale of creeping doom.
While the Pumping Station was an exercise in escalating terror, the strength of Stuart Young’s “Bliss” begins with humour and camaraderie amongst its characters in an uncomfortable atmosphere. We find a young Iraq war veteran, back home and attending his murdered father’s funeral. After the locals start turning nasty, he is drawn deeper into trouble with his brother until the whole situation resembles an ultra-violent, X-rated episode of Doctor Who. Although I detected a Lovecraftian vibe at the end, this is probably the least “horror” of the bunch. But it’s also the most fun.
“Heads”, written by the anthology’s editor, proves Gary McMahon is a writer to watch. It’s back to the full blown horror as we meet the narrator, one half of a middle-aged couple, devastated by several miscarriages in their attempt to start a family. After they discover some creepy folklore artefacts buried in the garden, an unexpected pregnancy arrives and the tale accelerates into nightmare. McMahon’s prose is a rare treat. His attention to detail in human interaction creates characters you can see and feel, and the couple’s grief and fear is quite palpable. This makes for a very intense descent.
“The Mill” by Mark West is next to rumble out of the darkness. A man who has lost his wife to cancer suffers strange dreams and discovers through a bereavement support group that he is being drawn towards something sinister. Something centred around an old abandoned mill. Dealing with grief, suicide and desperation, this one grabs your heart-strings and twists. Extra kudos to the author for being able to write dream sequences that aren’t dull.
The last tale by Simon Bestwick is a grim slab of post-apocalypse. “The Narrows” is told by a teacher attempting to save himself and a few surviving pupils and fellow staff from a nuclear fall-out. Their journey through a network of flooded subterranean tunnels is intolerably bleak and will remain in your head for good. Breath-squeezingly claustrophobic yet at the same time very poignant and moving, this isn’t one to read to your kids. Or to anyone afraid of the dark. Or scared of the supernatural. Or a nuclear holocaust. Well, anybody in fact. Other than the ne’er-do-wells who actually like this kind of thing. Like me.
So there it is. We Fade To Grey sets the bar high from the off and doesn’t pause for breath. I normally only like the supernatural in small doses, but this imaginative collection packs such a wallop – both emotional and visceral – that I didn’t care one bit. All five authors weave genuine human pathos with blood and don’t then go and spoil everything with a happy ending. Brilliant. Grab one while you can.