Looking at my cluttered shelf of recent genre collections and anthologies, I realised that sometimes without even peeking at a book’s contents, a single story leaps instantly to mind. For various reasons, some tales make a nest in our brains and refuse to be evicted whether their presence is welcome or not. So I thought I’d share thirteen stories of the last few years that for me, are real “stayers”. In no particular order…
I only read this collection a few months ago, but I’m pretty sure The Ditching won’t be forgotten in a hurry. We find a passenger airline surely doomed to crashing in a fatal fireball. But not before the pilot has an outrageous, selfish but utterly brilliant idea of how to make the best of the grim situation. Full of the author’s wry humour, it’s a perfectly executed tale and I’m smiling now just thinking about it.
This anthology has plenty of highlights, but Siding 13 by James Lovegrove slapped my face the hardest. Set on the London Underground, it concerns a man (an artist I think, on route to an important interview) on an increasingly busy train. A masterpiece of claustrophobic descent, the last few sentences are scorched into the back of my skull. They form one of the most gleefully ghastly uppercuts of a conclusion I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a few.
“Push of the Sky” by Camille Alexa. Hadley Rille Books.
Ah, who could forget Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths? While that last tale was cold as ice, this one has warmth with its punch. A colourful fantasy, it presents a world in which everybody learns how they’ll die on their 16th birthday. Our teenage heroine is about to find out whether she’s just going to get old and ill, or become one of the in-crowd and die in a cool way like the “crashers”, “burners” and “fallers”. This is sharp stuff, and delivers poignancy with the dark humour.
No contest. For me, The Bungalow People is the dark lord of Gary McMahon’s first collection. I’ll never forget the frail and elderly couple trapped in their bungalow, praying it’s just paranoia as they wait for the sinister figures glimpsed in the street to come and get them. Gary absolutely nails their truly helpless scenario, and the unsubtle metaphor about the vulnerable and disposable members of society is delivered with a bite.
JLP’s stories are always a blast, and Overtime is a delicious example of his inimitable style of old school horror with a contemporary setting. It’s about a young woman working late in an office block when things start to get nasty. 8mm meets Tales from the Crypt, I loved every second.
I bought Johnny Mains’ collection on the strength of With Deepest Sympathy. A Pan-esque story, it introduces an interfering old busybody in a quaint rural village who amuses herself by tormenting bereaved villagers with poisonous letters about their secrets. Suffice to say, the tables soon become turned, and it’s a grisly ride with a perfectly appropriate pay off.
Several tales jostle for attention here, but The Tatterfoal barges to the front. It’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and evocation in which widow of an 80s pop star holds a party in her mansion out in the sticks where a legendary man-horse is said to roam. Although I recall finding it slightly overlong, there’s no denying that this fog-shrouded creepfest still lurks in my subconscious like the memory of a nightmare.
Lots of bleak in this book, but none more than in The No! Place by LL Soares. The title refers to a place in a woman’s head, a sanctuary into which she can retreat when being abused by her husband/boyfriend. I love a tale with a dark twist (as you might have guessed) and this one is seriously pitch-black. Horrible. But good too, you ask? Oh yes. Very good.
A hellish collection overall, The Myth of Sisyphus actually made me short of breath. A man is trapped in some kind of huge storm drain on a building site, constantly fighting a battle against drowning that just seemed to go on and on. A relentless and literally breathtaking experience that nobody does better than Mr White.
Another gem from the mighty Paul Finch, The Doom tells of a young parish priest and his pretty wife. He finds his idyllic country world darkened by the appearance of a clever but sinister stranger wanting to discuss moral and criminal responsibility. As with many of my favourites, not only is this an elegant and perfectly written journey, the conclusion is shattering. Have you ever breathed “No….” at the end of a story, and tried to somehow will it into ending differently? If not, try The Doom.
Rising to the fore of this great anthology is Lucien’s Menagerie by David M. Fitzpatrick. A woman has to spend the night in her utter bastard of an ex-husband’s house in order to claim her inheritance. But the house is full of creepy stuffed animals, and her experience obviously isn’t without incident. I enjoyed how it really kept me guessing as to whether it was supernatural or just a big prank. A wonderfully tense and cinematic piece of work.
This is very rich and atmospheric book, and Mellie’s Zoo by A.C. Wise nails the mood. A young girl wanders through a decrepit, abandoned zoo, and the cages seem to be full of dark childhood/metaphorical monsters. I can still taste the dust, the eerie stillness and the rusted bars of the cages. Masterful.
There’s quite a range of fiction on offer here, but The Slashed Menagerie is one that leaves nothing but a horrible taste. If ever you despaired at the depths human beings will plumb regarding cruelty and the abuse of power, then this tale will only lower your estimations another notch. Save yourself, and read one of Simon’s more poignant or fun stories instead. No, actually, read The Slashed Menagerie and join me down here. It’s very cold. And so dark.
And there it is. Apologies if my recollections of any of the stories are incorrect in any way: it’s been several years since I read some of them.
And I’d like to stress that this isn’t necessarily a list of my favourite stories of late (although they’re all exceptional, obviously). This is a few of those individual tales that manage to whisper louder over time than their immediate peers. Whether through humour or shocks, mood or a blinding pay-off, these all have hooks inside them that snagged and won’t be shaken free.
Thanks to all the authors mentioned above. Your stories were only ever briefly invited into my head for tea. They weren’t supposed to move in.