Soul Screams is a new collection from Stumar Press: thirteen tales from horror and crime novelist Sara Jayne Townsend. The book description claims, amongst other things, that these stories are about “that inner scream that no one can hear but you”. Which sounded like routine blurb-speak to me, but actually turned out to be a pretty accurate description.
With that stark cover setting the tone, first up is the grisly “Thirteenth Floor”. Our narrator is Paul, a man visiting his friend’s new flat in a grim, McMahonian tower block. He gets distracted by a pretty girl who entices him up to the 13th floor and things soon start to spiral out of control. The growing sense of unease is tremendous, doubled by both character investment and ghoulish curiosity, but the ending did seem abrupt and left me wanting.
“Jimi Hendrix’s Eyes” is next, a strong account in which a man sleeps with his friend’s wife: a classic double betrayal. The musical trappings (including the Hendrix poster of the title) add a humanity to the characters, cementing a poignant story of terrible consequence.
“Trio” is a perfect, elegiac mood-piece. The title refers to a trio of once-inseparable friends, one of whom has died, and the tale finds the survivors mourning at her graveside. This is a snapshot of life that creates huge feeling in few words, and the raw, poetic conclusion surprised me with its power.
“To Dream of a Angel” introduces a member of a writing critique group who has visions of demons and knives that she can’t possibly dismiss. I usually sink when stories report fictional characters’ dreams, but they’re reasonably well woven here, and I liked the desperation of the final few paragraphs.
“Kay’s Blues” changes to third person for the frst time in this collection, which works just as well. We meet the eponymous heroine irritated with her current boyfriend, hormones and life. Her frustration is perfectly evoked, and this intriguing horror story taunts our expectations with a wicked sense of humour.
“The Wedding Hat” begins with a playful trope. It introduces Alex, a jaded twenty-something, who purchases a hat from a dusty, anachronistic shop staffed by a spooky old lady. She soon discovers that through the hat, she can hear thoughts and see unhappy futures and deaths. The concept was overexplained several times, which felt rather patronising, and the themes surrounding inevitability weren’t subtle. But it’s an enjoyable, contemporary dark fairytale with some rewarding scenes.
“Morgan’s Father” is the only present tense tale, which works alongside a basic prose style to create a cold and lucid atmosphere. After a woman gets mugged, her father swears to protect her, and what follows is practiced if somewhat predictable. I was also less keen on how “The Train to Maladomini” panned out. Here a man wakes up after a heavy night’s partying, expecting to be in bed with a girl, and finds himself on a grimy train with an old man named Baal. Although well written, it all just seemed a bit obvious.
But after a bit of a lag, Soul Screams hooked me right back in. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is narrated by a woman who falls for an achingly attractive young stranger, and soon develops an obsession. A believable voice pulls out all the stops in this heady descent of desire.
In pleasing contrast to that is “Just Don’t Scream”, a short and lurid tale about a magician and his guillotine. I found it slightly overlong – it would’ve worked as a pure flash piece – but it’s nasty fun and certainly made me smile.
“Cigarette Burns” maintains the grisly bar. Kelly is a woman abused by her rancid old drunk of a father, and when her boyfriend promises to do something about it, things don’t quite go plan. Another evocative slice of horror, this delivers a suckerpunch to remember.
I loved the multi-layered menace of “The Guitar”. Certainly one of my favourites, this story concerns a woman named Jocelyn who after being stood up in a bar, turns her attentions to a young musician. But when he brings his guitar back to her bedsit, the usual routines of seduction take a sinister turn. This one is a real guesser with an underlying aura of sour malevolence and the events all fall neatly into place.
Finally, “Someone to Watch Over You” is a reflection from the afterlife: the elegant story of a dead woman protecting her sister from harm. It’s very satisfying, but the emotive conclusion loses some of its edge by being slightly too drawn out. Nevertheless, it rounds off the collection on an appropriate note.
I enjoyed Soul Screams. Sara Jayne Townsend creates real characters, both male and female, and the promised angst is convincing and delivered in droves. There’s madness in the form of desire, betrayal, obsession and loss, but also elements of warmth and a sharp sense of humour that prevent everything from becoming depressing.
Some of these tales have vicious twists, others conclude with cold realisation, some just fade on a haunting scene. This holds the interest throughout, buoyed by the author’s unintrusive style (and a particularly strong 1st person voice) that allows the dark motivation and passion of its protagonists tell the stories.
That inner scream that no one can hear but you? Yes, I’ll take thirteen of those, please.
Packaged with a couple of succinct introductions and pleasant author story notes, Soul Screams is available in print from Stumar Press, and in the usual e-formats from Smashwords, Amazon and the like.