Review – “Psycho-Mania!” edited by Stephen Jones

This highly anticipated tome arrived on my doormat with a thud that made the cat jump. An appropriate entrance for a book of over 500 pages that promised “twisted tales of psychos, schizoids and serial-killers, many with a supernatural twist.” And that it is. Psycho-Mania! is a splendid mix of old and new stories, and if my finger-counting is correct, contains 34 altogether (not including the framework pieces), more than half of which are brand new to this collection.

psycho-maniaIt begins with a pleasant previously-unpublished introduction from Robert Bloch, before John Llewellyn Probert kicks off with a fun and creepy scene. I love a good framework story, and if you need one to transform your anthology, he’s your proven man. With much experience of portmanteau fiction, asylums and all things ghastly, he’s the perfect choice with his lauded talent for merging classical and contemporary styles and themes. It concerns Dr Stanhope, a medical journalist, visiting a Victorian asylum to collect information for an article. But he finds that the mischievously sinister Dr Parrish has other ideas, and wishes to play a game involving the cases of his patients, these being the individual stories of the anthology. Full of masterful dialogue and attention to detail, these framework segments are scattered throughout and tie it all together nicely.

On to the tales themselves, I found no passengers in this anthology – all deserved their place – but the following are those that particularly stood out for me and still linger after the book was closed.

Reggie Oliver’s “The Green Hour” is a sumptuous period piece that resurrects Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin (of Murders in the Rue Morgue fame). We are treated to an absinthe-themed murder mystery with shivers, a tight plot and a twist. The author has done a splendid job of capturing the detective’s manner – in fact the introduction in which he puts an enquiring police commissioner in his place made me laugh out loud – and Poe would’ve approved of his sense of place.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s “The Secret Laws Of  The Universe” begins with a man having a conversation with a toaster. Yes, you read that right. What follows is the superb descent of a precise and polite man planning to kill his wife for strangely benevolent reasons, who engages in dialogue with inanimate objects in his home. The black humour lends whimsy to what is actually quite a dark and sad tale.

I had read Basil Copper’s “The Recompensing Of Albano Pizar” many years ago, and it took me right back to my childhood. A stylish 70s classic, it concerns the wealthy widow of a writer who plans spectacular revenge upon the agent that duped her. I enjoyed the educated prose even more this time around, and while the plot seems somewhat familiar now – as is the case with several of the older stories gathered here – it’s important to remember that they did it first, and it’s rewarding to see how genre tropes started out.

I loved “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge. This piece is the gripping dialogue of somebody deeply upset with the narcissistic doom and gloom generation. He seeks out a particular blogger for her refusal to embrace life and its generosity, and plans murder. Somehow depressing yet uplifting, this story has powerful voice, a blinding conclusion and plenty of layers regarding opportunity, entitlement and disillusion for readers to get their teeth into.

Scott Edelman’s “The Trembling Living Wire” introduces a meticulous choirmaster who believes that his talented pupils really shine when suffering deep personal tragedy. He takes it upon himself to provide that for them, and the results are an elegant and chilling piece with plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

I imagine Robert Silverberg had quite a glint in his eye when he penned “The Undertaker’s Sideline”. It’s exactly that, featuring a town mortician with an additional and highly nefarious use for corpses. Naturally, things get way out of hand, and I loved the traditional prose and the gloriously cold villainy of our protagonist.

Another favourite was read with sadness, for it’s the work of Joel Lane who passed away earlier this year. “The Long Shift” presents a disgruntled employee seeking late night revenge on an old boss in the Welsh countryside. I love this author’s prose – “gulls scream like fading pornstars” and “local beers called to him in melodic accented tones, the optics added their higher voices to the choir”. There’s amazing evocation of the surroundings, and also of human ugliness – terror, rage, bitterness – which makes for a slick read cemented with a strong pay-off. RIP, sir.

Lisa Morton’s “Hollywood Hannah” is the 1st person account of a film school graduate who lands the job of assistant to a notoriously tough female producer. With tangible characters and an inventive surprise at the end, this tale is a reflection on how Hollywood and backstabbing businesses in general can sap the souls of anybody. Lured by its disarming voice and sense of humour, I enjoyed how this tale ultimately became much darker than the sum of its contents.

Even darker is Paul McAuley’s “I Spy”. It’s the engrossing account of an intense and voyeuristic man who had an abusive upbringing and now has a defining passion for spying on other people’s lives. This is vivid and muscular storytelling, delivered via matter-of-fact prose that suits our storyteller’s mindset, and I loved the suckerpunch halfway through when we realise what we’re actually dealing with here.

If you will pardon the film reference, Mike Carey presents what felt like a cross between the Saw franchise and Theatre of Blood in “Reflections On The Critical Process”. Here, a deranged critic seeks homicidal and ostentatious revenge on our eloquent and unruffled narrator. I tore through this story without pause.

Introduced by one of John Llewellyn Probert’s links regarding ripper syndrome is “The Gatecrasher” by R. Chetwynd-Hayes in which a séance leads to blood. A spooky and visceral piece, it shows the old school can still rock it with the kids – even with something that seems hokey and quaint at face value – and the conclusion is a pleasing bookend.

In Robert Shearman’s “That Tiny Flutter of The Heart I Used To Call Love”, two odd souls come together: a quiet downtrodden man and a young woman who has an unhealthy relationship with dolls and sacrifice. Fully fleshed characters make this study of damaged psyches shine, and with themes of belonging and love, it’s also quite poignant beneath the creeps.

“Essence” by Mark Morris is one of my favourites. A horribly engrossing piece, we find a murderous middle-aged couple patiently hunting a young girl in a nondescript British pub. The attention to detail in their manipulative technique is genuinely disturbing, and just when you think it might have unfortunately all got a bit familiar, it jacknifes from your grip with a cackle. World class horror.

Ramsey Campbell maintains his standard with “See How They Run”. This is an exceptionally written account of a multiple murder trial – and its aftermath – from the point of view of a juror. With plenty of mood and palpable emotion, it soon becomes a claustrophobic descent of obsession and misery.

Conrad Williams is on fine form with “Manners”: a short about a strange loner who lives in an abandoned farm hut and scavenges for food. It’s deceptively gentle and rustic at first, but the finale is anything but that. I had to reread the last few paragraphs again, just in case I was mistaken as to what had happened. I wasn’t. Brilliant stuff.

Christopher Fowler brings back a couple of his old characters from the peculiar crimes unit in “Bryant & May And The Seven Points”: a humorous yet nasty tale of shady Russian politics and a sideshow carival dwarf. Although I guessed the gist of the finale before it came, I think I was supposed to, and certainly didn’t want it to end. It’s got fine narrative voice, entertaining dialogue and all the twists, malevolent criminals and jeopardy you want from a murder mystery.

I don’t think I’ve read any Rio Youers before, but certainly will again after the grim and gripping experience that is “Wide Shining Light”. A man on the brink of divorce meets old school friend at a reunion, reignites their friendship, but it turns out he’s not all that he seems. A nimble and layered piece, it riffs on opportunity, life, trust and betrayal, and paces towards a tense finale.

Neil Gaiman provides a quirky change of tone with “Feminine Endings” – a stalky loveletter with a beautifully chilling finale – before Peter Crowther puts us back on the edge of our seats with “Eater”. Here, we meet a jaded New York City cop one late night with the unenviable job of babysitting a captured cannibal in a quiet precinct. He becomes paranoid, and the skilful prose ensure we share his well-founded unease in this genuinely unnerving thriller.

Michael Marshall dabbles with his old straw men conspiracy in “Failure”, which concerns a parent worried about the behaviour of his son towards women. Don’t be the least bit put off by what seems like much infodumping at the outset, as I initially was. This is an engaging and troubling tale that plays with perceptions and loyalties towards a sour reward.

Kim Newman presents a wonderfully irrevent piece starring Alfred Hitchcock in “The Only Ending We Have”. We meet the fed-up shower scene body double from Psycho, who makes off with a film negative and ends up staying in a motel run by a dysfunctional mother and son. With plenty of resourceful parallels and film references, this is a very nicely tied-up package.

There’s also flair aplenty in Richard Christian Matheson’s “Kriss Kross Applesauce” which takes the form of a family’s annual Christmas letter. A fun and original little piece, it keeps us guessing, and doesn’t pan out the way we might think.

Finally, special credit also goes to John Llewellyn Probert for his epilogue. It’s back to Dr Parrish’s asylum for “A Little Piece Of  Sanity” which concludes both the anthology and the framework story of Dr Stanhope in gleefully ghoulish style. Despite us knowing full well it isn’t going to end well for our ill-advised medical journalist, it still manages a few surprises, and never has extreme villainy been so delightful.

Its no exaggeration to say that this is my favourite anthology of 2013. Also including reprints by Joe Lansdale, Harlan Ellison, Brian Lumley, Dennis Etchison, Lawrence Block, Robert Bloch and Poe, and solid new pieces from David A. Sutton, David J. Schow, Jay Russell and Michael Kelly, Psycho-Mania! is a winner. There’s haunting mood, lurid nastiness, and everything in between. Regardless of the genre, Stephen Jones has gathered some very talented writers – each at the top of their game – which makes for extraordinary value and an essential buy for any fan of the macabre.

Highly recommended.

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