DF Lewis has always proved himself to be a thoughtful editor that ensures that his books become more than a sum of their parts, and this latest publication from his Megazanthus Press is no exception. It brings an intriguing concept to the table and I couldn’t wait to see how the authors had worked with it.
Horror Without Victims must’ve been difficult to write for as well as edit. It would be challenging to produce a book of any genre that did not contain a victim in some sense of the word, and while the definition can be debated, I didn’t detect any glib dismissal of the niche guidelines. It has clearly forced authors to think outside the box regarding their submission, and also – I imagine – pruned the editorial slush of trunk stories.
As expected, there’s an interesting mix of traditional and leftfield, elements of the sublime, and stories poignant and disturbing. I was pleased to discover that there wasn’t actually a piece I particularly disliked, but the following are those that stood out for me.
“Clouds” by Eric Ian Steele introduces Evan, a restless and dissatisfied man with a lifelong affection for the sky. He notices while cloud-staring that the buildings of a nearby street – and perhaps the people – seem to be disappearing. He naturally questions his own sanity, and becomes very trying with his concerned and loving partner Emma: a convincingly troubled relationship already. The author’s matter of fact style is peppered with lush but subtle metaphors, and cements an odd but absorbing tale of existentialism that builds to an appropriately inconclusive and ethereal finale.
We meet the gentlemanly Mr Devlin in “The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation” by Alistair Rennie, taking up his first overseas post with a large Istanbul carpet merchant. He takes a river trip along the Bosphorus that takes a terrifying turn, and this 1st person account says much about the protagonist and his attitudes through educated prose. It’s tense, has a grand aura of doom, and a slick pay-off that riffs nicely on the anthology concept. Upon finishing, I immediately read it again.
“For Ages and Ever” by Patricia Russo is an adult fairy tale that bravely succeeds with a 2nd person point of view. It’s set in a strange and strictly rule-based city where nobody is allowed to cry or even touch in public, and concerns a sinister red house that seems to change or even devour people. Asking questions of the reader as myths merge with themes of identity, death and perception, it provides a very colourful journey.
“The day we went down to the beach, Slater insisted that his interest in torture was of a scholarly nature.”
Thus begins “Night in the Pink House” by Charles Wilkinson in which a wheelchair bound blind man and his bidding carer, Topcliffe, are dissecting the anatomy of the scream. It provides a great clash of the erudite and nasty, sinking darker as it progresses and drawing the reader along to a solid and sour-tasting conclusion.
“Point and Stick” by Mark Patrick Lynch is an immediately engaging account of a cash-strapped man who rents a cheap room. Having seen an obese woman in the flat below through a hole in the broken floor, shuffling about and appearing never to leave, he begins to wonder is she’s a prisoner. Voyeuristic and ultimately less dark than I was expecting, this story adroitly puts the reader’s assumptions under the microscope.
Another favourite is the exquisitely evoked “The Cure” by John Travis. This tale follows Lionel, a terminally ill man with nothing to lose who pays a wad of cash to visit a mysterious island via a private plane with blacked-out windows for exclusive treatment. The course begins with new age reflections and hippy ramblings, and as Lionel’s hopes for direct interventions and medicine start to fade, the threat begins to grow. Sometimes the title of this anthology gives us clues as to how things might pan out, but John Travis dodges this pitfall with aplomb and presents a clever, compulsive piece that will please fans of the grisly as well as those of mood and menace.
Continuing the atmosphere of mystery and alien surroundings is “We Do Things Differently Here” by David Murphy. A “meet the parents” situation, it concerns Sally, a young woman visiting the potential in-laws in Efferentia: a picturesque but strange harbour town in which the locals seem to do things back to front. While she finds this quirky in some regards, such as their books being in reverse chronological order, attending a local funeral blows her mind. Despite being grounded in the fantastic, this story becomes quite intense through her increasing sense of being trapped, and tackles some interesting questions to attitudes about death.
“Lord of Pigs” by DeAnna Knippling is a beautifully written yet ghastly and surreal tale involving a child’s uncle – Uncle Chuck – who gets eaten by pigs. There’s an unsettling innocence at play due to the youthfully recalled point of view, and plenty going on beneath the layers of visceral horror for the reader to get their teeth into.
Another strong contribution is “Like Nothing Else” by Chris Morris. This introduces James, a man remembering his first sexual experience in the barn of a dilapidated farmhouse with a reptilian creature, overseen by a scraggy local squatter. There’s some genuinely unpleasant moments, and it questions the essence of humanity and desire, maintaining a psychological and nightmarish tone through to its ugly conclusion.
I loved “Scree” by Caleb Wilson. An excellent concept, it features a man stuck on an ever-sliding diagonal scree of boulders and rocks due to some catastrophic shifting of tectonic plates. We find him and the rest of the crumbling world sliding towards the “maw” as he refers to it: the vast darkness of the earth into which all shall tumble. He passes his weeks scavenging the detritus of civilisation drifting down along with him – half collapsed buildings, flat pack furniture, musical instruments – while being careful not to fall into the vicious current of scree and be ground to pieces. Well told, I didn’t want it to finish, and it very much nails the loneliness and strange serenity of any quality apocalyptic story.
Possibly my single favourite of the anthology is “Vent” by L.R. Bonehill. It is the poignant and elegant tale of Imogen, the daughter of a ventriloquist who suffers a personal tragedy. The author doesn’t miss the opportunity to utilise the natural creepiness of ventriloquist’s dummies, and peopled by very solid characters, the narrative deftly weaves a picture both through reminiscence and Imogen’s current situation, where we find her alone with a knife. There’s nostalgia and grief, tremendous humanity and pain, shocks both physical and psychological, and a breath-taking conclusion that I didn’t see coming. Immaculately told, “Vent” ticks all the boxes. Superb.
Following this is “The Yellow See-Through Baby” by Michael Sidman, a quirky ghost story and a veritable triumph of voice, told as it is in the present tense from the point of view of a young toddler. Through the author’s skill, we find ourselves engaging with the child as he sees the titular figure in his room, and it’s through this filter of innocence – the child’s hopes and fears – that this story very much succeeds where it could so easily have failed.
The anthology concludes with a sequence of very short pieces, and of these, I was particularly impressed by Tony Lovell’s “The Callers”: a sad episode of encroaching dementia and its effect on a family. Gentle but quietly powerful, the dignified but downbeat conclusion sums up the nature of such illness. Similarly tackling the ephemeral and fragile nature of our existence is “Still Life” by Nick Jackson. More a flash vignette than a story, it describes a room succumbing to time, detailing the mould and decay. Reminding us that all shall fall, it encompasses the concept of the book nicely.
Overall, I very much enjoyed Horror Without Victims. Although I was occasionally left slightly wanting, there are no bad tales, and several of them are truly exceptional. While it may be cliché to say there’s something for everyone, in this case it’s true. The bleak and grim elements contrast the lighter and more hopeful, and there are mood pieces and snippets of life as well as more traditionally structured stories. And with DF Lewis at the helm, there is always going to be plenty to think about as each story glides seamlessly into the next.
Although most contributors have done a sound job of avoiding predictability, a small problem arises from the theme. It can be quite restrictive and sometimes dilutes the shock of a twist ending as we start to second guess what might prevail, given that there won’t be any victims. Which of course brings us to the question… is this even possible? Horror Without Victims is a quite a concrete statement, so much is down to personal interpretation of what constitutes a victim, both generally and in the context of the fiction. But I think to get too bogged down in this discussion, fun though that can be, is counterproductive. If we simply accept it to mean victim in the brutal genre sense – in that people tend not to end up getting killed, tortured or savaged by something monstrous – then we can kick back and enjoy the eclectic and unusual ideas that these authors have presented.
And I suppose that’s the essence of Horror Without Victims. A selection of talented writers throwing themselves into a provocatively tricky concept, the resultant gestalt of which is a very respectable addition to the editor’s canon.