This anthology from Hand of Danjou press is exactly what the title suggests: a collection of macabre and startling stories from the brandy and cigar-smoke ambience of a Victorian-era gentlemen’s club.
It contains 7 tales, most of which are 1st person and favour an appropriately traditional style of storytelling, often finding the narrator lounging in a leather armchair of the smoking room, the witching hour upon him…
The opening tale is Stephen Bacon’s “The Strangled Garden”. This features a country garden walled-off after the unexplained disappearance of a child, grown into an impenetrable tangle of vines and lurking darkness. The baleful atmosphere and period language are faultless – the work of a very meticulous writer – and the inevitable adventure into the garden builds to a classic finale.
“Room Three” by Matthew Crossman is a very dark, downbeat story of madness and a family curse, and also contains the single most creepy and disturbing line of dialogue in this anthology. I may have actually shuddered.
Matthew Harding uses a tried and tested trope with “Iron Ape”: the discovery of a scientific artefact that goes hideously awry. But it’s an intelligent story, evocatively told, and the mechanical monstrosity of the title has a palpable presence of violent power even before the threat is actually unleashed.
“The Decent Thing” by V.C. Jones is a single-page flash piece that leads nicely into “Parlour Games” by Mike Chinn. Here, a sinister Russian brings the after-dinner entertainment to a smoking room familiar with illusion and grand-guignol, but not quite expecting the terrors that will arrive when the clock chimes midnight.
The second flash piece is “Serendipity” by Trudi Topham, a gruesome but light-hearted Vault of Horror style story of graverobbery and reanimation. Finally, the proceedings are closed with”A Game of Billiards” by Craig Herbertson. This is an engaging and neat finale regarding a colonial-era love-squabble that concludes with brutal retribution.
While the quality of the stories is good, “Tales from the Smoking Room” is clearly published from a home printer and would’ve been improved by keener editing. There are several errors and the font is strangely peppered with gaps and too small for A4, but for £2 (Yes, that’s £2) it’s tremendous value for money. Light your cigar, have the butler pour you a large glass of port, and enjoy.