“There are dark places everywhere…” begins the back cover and if you want some inside your head, then this collection is a good place to start.
I had read Mr Bestwick’s acclaimed apocalypse novella “The Narrows” last year, so my hopes were high, and I was more than happy. This a real mixed bag of atmospheric scenarios – historical, apocalyptic, urban, remote, supernatural – and something for everyone. Well, okay, not everyone.
The excellent opener “Love Amongst the Bones” is a tale about awakening sexuality and necrophilia, but the writing is so masterful and elegant that the subject matter, bizarrely, doesn’t seem offensive at all. The characters are strong, giving the impression that these are people we’ve actually met.
This is one of the most notable things about the author’s writing. He infuses his characters with such tremendous humanity that when coupled with a strong social awareness, the intrusion of nightmare becomes a personal experience to the reader. For example, “Going Under, Flying High” begins with a couple’s pleasantly bland domestic routine before the man receives a telephone call that seems to be from his long-dead wife. As the tale descends quickly into horror, we share his confusion, understand his torn loyalties. These are ordinary folks, living ordinary lives and it could almost be happening to us.
Some of the tales are very bleak, “Touch the Dark” being an exercise in social and personal misery. It features a troubled man who moves to a threadbare apartment block that is plagued by suicides and slowly starts to realise that there might be more to the deaths than simple deprivation. The depressing “Close my Eyes” is about dementia and the tragic decline of old-age and draws us into the heartbreaking plight of a man watching his father’s mind deteriorate before his eyes. It concludes with a genuine shock that sinks the mood yet another notch.
There are stories with an immense sense of place such as the haunting “From Those Dark Waters, Where the Lost Bones Lie”. Here, a divorced loner sunbathing beside a reservoir witnesses a troubling chain of events involving a stranger and his children. There’s a nightmarish quality to the experience, where the innocent seems sinister and wrong, even if we can’t quite pin down exactly what the problem might be.
Other stories worthy of particular mention include “Starky’s Town”, a cracking urban jaunt that actually breathes fresh life into the zombie genre – not an easy task – and can be read purely for the ride or analysed for social metaphor. These stories often have deeper layers, but they’re never rammed down your throat nor dampen the entertainment value, and I was grinning by the end. Another that made me smile is “Drop Dead Gorgeous”: an instantly engaging tale told from the point of view of a jaded barman in a singles club and the sad and predatory people he meets. There’s real substance shrouded in this short fix of supernatural entertainment.
The perfect antidote to such fun is “The Slashed Menagerie”, a definite favourite, although it seems wrong to use such a positive word. It’s a horrible story in which privelege breeds the abuse of power, and we encounter such vulgar, sociopathic cruelty that it leaves a lingering bitter taste. I won’t even tell you what it’s actually about because I wouldn’t want to spoil the horrific realisation. This exposes another of the author’s talents. You often don’t have any idea what lurks around the corner (you may believe you do, but you don’t) and it’s best kept that way. A scene is introduced – sometimes a genre staple that fosters a deceptively reassuring familiarity – then bang. There’s even a couple of vampire tales, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you which ones lest I ruin the surprise.
Despite the dark flavour of much of this book, the author also has a sense of humour. “Welcome to Mengele’s”, a story about lust, greed and celebrity, opens with a blunt scenario of bestiality, necro-porn and surgically-enhanced corpses that was impossible to turn away from. At least I hope it was supposed to be funny, because if not, then it would appear that I need more help than the author. But when you can write like this man, you can get away with anything.
Another strong favourite is “To Walk in Midnight’s Realm”. Containing subtle shades of “The Narrows”, the mountainous Welsh countryside is the setting for a solidly plotted horror adventure that features love, loss, the walking dead and an intriguing take on the afterlife. A tale to savour for both its pathos and its gruesome action, and one that I will read again.
The last story “When the West Wind Blows” brings the proceedings to a close with aplomb. I love apocalypse fiction and enjoyed the downward spiral of civilsation into chaos as a man attempts to protect his wife’s grave from unnamed, hellish scavengers.
I highly recommend “Pictures of the Dark”. The prose is sharp and the author certainly isn’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects head on. This is a very adult book, but the horrors are intelligent, sewn into the fabric of the tales and drawing you deeper into the plight of the oft-unfortunate protagonists. There are tropes, but no cliché. There are startling twists, but none contrived. Simon Bestwick really knows how to finish a short story, and I never once felt cheated. Sometimes shocked or sad, sometimes amused, other times profoundly disturbed, but always satisfied.