Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris

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I like novella-length horror, and this release from Spectral Press is a beautifully written tale. That sublime cover is the perfect reflection of what awaits, and as well as shivers, “Albion Fay” provides a very human descent of loss, guilt and desperation.

Albion FayOur narrator is Frank, a middle-aged, single man attending a family funeral. After drifting home in his grief, he peruses a faded photograph album and begins a journey into memories of the past he shared with his parents and twin sister, Angie. Many years ago, something bad happened to Angie on a childhood holiday at an isolated house named Albion Fay. Frank can pinpoint it to the moment she wandered into a network of deep caves behind the creaking building, and whatever happened left her damaged and lost in life.

“Albion Fay” begins with a great sense of intrigue. It snares us with Frank’s grief, and absolutely nails the crippling, spaced-out unreality of funerals before taking us back to his childhood. The non-linear storytelling works well as Frank pieces together how it all went wrong, and kudos to the author for the seamless seguing between past and present without a jot of confusion.

We learn that the caves are regarded with the same kind of nervous fear and reluctance that Dracula castle’s receives from pub locals in Hammer films. Legend has it they are home to the “Fay”: wicked fairies that bite and don’t like it when you look at them. The aura of malevolence emanating from the caves swells as the story progresses, none more so than when Angie is drawn inside, causing a great sense of helplessness on the part of the reader.

Frank is a solid narrator and investable, along with his sister. This makes Angie’s transformation – the breaking of a confident and vivacious child we’ve come to like – both convincing and tragic, especially as she harbours a sinister sense of knowing within her frightened soul. Frank’s parents also play strong roles, and while his mother provides warmth and stability, his father is a bitter and short-tempered bully. He becomes increasingly nasty the more we see, and the author does a sobering job of conveying the consequences of abuse within a family. This brings a palpable reality that bleeds through into the potentially supernatural elements of the book, making both equally intense.

I would actually have liked to learn more about the parents and their own formative journeys. They’re so well realised that their contrasts make me curious as to what drives them, but then I suppose this may have eroded the slick pace of the tale.

“Albion Fay” has a haunting sense of time and place, and although an old house and some caves inhabited by toothsome folklore may not sound desperately original, it just brings a pleasing familiarity. The story itself has plenty of muscle and the setting also provides a canvas for the pervading sense of Britishness. This is summed up in Adam Nevill’s excellent and thorough introduction, although I was glad that I saved reading this until the end.

And what an end that was, bringing a few sharp shocks before the curtain elegantly falls. We see humanity at both its most tender and acrid – but always utterly fragile – and as much heartbreak is born from the domestic exploits of Frank’s family as from the lurking Fay. The author deftly tackles loss in all its forms, combining the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood with chills and incredible style. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones

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I got the impression that this new horror novella from Dark Minds Press was a tribute to the shock cinema and pulp novels of the 1970s and 1980s. I wondered if it would be a re-tread of that era – warts and all – or a contemporary update, and it’s actually a bit of both. Lurking beneath that splendid cover is an exciting story that squeezes out the lesser elements of its source inspiration, and concentrates on the ride.

Slaughter BeachThe story is appropriately simple and familiar. It’s the late 1970s-ish in a non-specific tropical harbour town where we meet Don Curtis: a jaded Vietnam veteran who scrapes together a living with his boat. But Don’s humdrum life changes one day when his boat is chartered by a glamour photographer, Marshall, to take him and his entourage to a remote island for a photoshoot and an excuse for a party. But guess what? The island is already home to a blood-thirsty killer, so it’s not long before gouts of arterial spray and severed heads are ruining the postcard scenery.

While a pseudo-homage requires the cast to be of a certain expected stock, the characters here are 3-dimensional enough to avoid being dull. Don Curtis steps us as the tough, investable hero who can play the killer at his own game, and Marshall assumes the role of coke-snorting rich bellend. The assorted assistants, glamour models and local crew hired for the trip provide plenty of knife fodder for our murderer, but one cliché they don’t observe is the bad dialogue of the old-school shocker. The plentiful conversation is natural rather than absurd which keeps both the story and our interest alive.

This is what I like about “Slaughter Beach”. Given the very nature of its inspiration, there’s little originality, but the author has tweaked it for the contemporary reader. As well as the polished lines, he opts for intelligent and resourceful female characters instead of squealing damsels in distress. In fact, Tammy – the photographer’s personal assistant and potential love interest for Curtis – always looks like being one of the few characters who might make it through by her own steel. While the author sprinkles in pleasing grindhouse tropes, these cause a fond smile rather than a groan and I didn’t experience a single “Oh, please…” moment. It’s a fine line, but Benedict J Jones has gauged it well and also ensured his tweaks don’t kill the gorgeous retro vibe.

For a novella-length thriller, “Slaughter Beach” pretty much ticks all the boxes. It’s well written and the atmosphere of isolation is bang on from the sticky heat of day to the unnerving shadows of night. Once it gathers momentum, the story is a blast as the rapidly-depleting group are hunted down and exterminated in graphic and grisly ways. The menacing aura of the hunt is relentless, death often catching you unaware, and although some of the characters are rather likeable, that doesn’t stop their brutal executions from being enormously macabre fun.

As the story peaks, there are a couple of surprises in wait and I really enjoyed the finale. It wasn’t expected, and rounds off the tale on a suitably gruesome and impending note.

“Slaughter Beach” is the first novella from Dark Minds Press and I hope there are plenty more to follow. This gripping but subtly modernised nod to the lurid, bloody fun of the 70s and 80s is a fine way to spend a couple of hours.

Review – “The Silence” by Tim Lebbon

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“In the darkness of a vast cave system, cut off from the world for millennia, blind creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, there are voices, and they feed… Swarming from their prison, they multiply and thrive. To scream, even to whisper, is to summon death.

Deaf for many years, Ally knows how to live in silence. Now, it is her family’s only chance of survival. To leave their home, to shun others, to find a remote haven where they can sit out the plague. But will it ever end? And what kind of world will be left?”

The Silence - Tim LebbonAs a general fan of the world ending in some spectacularly macabre fashion, this blurb really piqued my interest. Tim Lebbon is a proven scribe for horror thrillers, and I discovered that “The Silence” manages to avoid re-treading beaten apocalyptic paths to present a tight and exciting read.

Here, armageddon is born from a network of ancient Moldovan caves. An undiscovered species is accidentally unleashed – a carnivorous swarm of bat-like horrors named “vesps” – which multiply with insectile efficiency and spread through Eastern Europe, leaving carnage in their wake.

The main characters are Ally, a sensible 14-year-old deaf girl, and her father Huw. They live a normal existence in Monmouthshire, England, with the rest of their family and it’s through them that we follow the plague. Being interested in science, the initial televised event catches Ally’s eye, but the tone soon shifts from excited anticipation to terror.

I love the pre-apocalypse sections of novels such as this – the good old rollercoaster chain-lift – and Tim Lebbon has created a delightfully ominous climb. The atmosphere of impending doom is superb, beginning as minor news to the English media, far overseas and surely nothing to worry about. But Ally is perturbed right from the start and her father also displays an intuitive acknowledgement of the threat. As readers, we already know hell is en route. So when Huw, away on business, drops everything and heads back to his family, it puts him firmly in our camp.

There are some chilling moments just before chaos descends, such as one memorable scene in which Huw stops at a service station whilst travelling home. A stark contrast is drawn between the bustling commuters and bickering families going about their evening, and those who have realised just how serious this problem is. They stare at their smartphones, stricken in realisation that these faraway, unbelievable events are rapidly hitting closer to home. It’s beautifully written and cinematic, subtly perched right on that awful cusp of normality and catastrophe.

Even as the panic escalates, there are still those who don’t quite understand – or refuse to acknowledge – what’s coming, such as opportunistic shopkeepers who triple their prices as people stockpile. The story nods to our greed and instinct for selfish survival – both commercial and violent – but tinges this with sadness. I like it that the author neither excuses nor condemns the varying reactions born of fear.

People soon realise that because they evolved underground, vesps are blind, so they only way to survive is complete silence. With them coming inexorably closer, Ally and family abandon their heavily-populated town and embark towards an old holiday home in rural Scotland. This build-up comprises a healthy portion of the book, and while some might be impatient for the “kick-off”, I found the menace so expertly cranked that it didn’t outstay its welcome for a moment. When the vesps do finally arrive in a blaze of leathery wings and teeth, the novel also delivers on its promise of horror and exhilaration.

Ally’s brother, mum and gran provide solid supporting roles, as does her pet dog, but the focus is on father and daughter. Huw is a flawed and stubborn chap, but a good dad and a strong believer in the sanctity of life. Ally is a likeable kid: pragmatic and perceptive for her age. She’s an astute observer of human expressions and intent, partly due to her condition, and well equipped for a silent world.

The family have an advantage by being able to use sign language, but this is unfortunately something that makes Ally a valuable asset to certain people. Yes, it’s not just the vesps that we need to worry about and at times, they become secondary to the criminal and unhinged elements drifting through the apocalypse. I like the way the characters evolve, learning to live in the vesp-infested world so that it almost becomes normal, and then moving on to worrying about other things.

There are plenty of moving moments and horrific sacrifices to be made, but the gore is not excessive. It’s a strong emotional core that holds the book together and although a thriller to some degree, it’s not of the white-knuckle variety and focuses more on humanity.

Silence is a great, simple hook for survival. The government announcement that “pets must be silenced” – a nice euphemism for killed – gave me a chill, and this also affects people’s willingness to help strangers. What if they don’t keep quiet, or can’t due to injury or distress? What would you do with a screaming baby as the vesps closed in?

Less usual for an apocalyptic tale, social media becomes the chief means of communication for much of the book. I liked this contemporary element, and the author doesn’t miss a trick. As Ally is very tech-savvy, she becomes the information gatherer for her family, and the internet is an essential but grim place. As well as advice and survival tips, it’s awash with cell-phone clips of burning cities, tweets by people trapped and slowly dying in vesp-smothered cars, youtube suicides…

As time progresses, the world starts falling to the Grey: the time when power and communications wink out. This compounds the isolation of survivors, and there’s a brutal sense of finality about the power going off. It’s never coming back on. The digital world that filled our lives is dead. Adapt or die.

Overall, I had a great time with “The Silence” and it’s one of those novels that doesn’t let go between reading sessions. I had to nip to the local shop in the dark, and was conscious of rustling shadows, not to mention the excessive noise of my own footsteps. I did manage not to shush anybody though.

The story never gets bleak – there’s always hope – and it maintains pace without falling back on easy clichés. Throw in a splendid accumulation of peril, monsters both bestial and human, and this is a must for any connoisseur of the apocalypse.

Recommended.

Review – “Darkest Minds” edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson

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The third in a solid anthology series from Dark Minds Press, this book presents a dozen horror tales, eleven of which have not been published before. This time the theme is crossing a border, either literal or figurative, and the authors have provided some great riffs on the concept. Our protagonists struggle with mental and physical transitions, find themselves uprooted regarding location or tackling paranormal experience, and even cross time itself. In addition to the theme, I found that all the stories are thick with an askew atmosphere of darkness waiting to pounce, and this provides an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

darkest mindsThe fun starts with “Vacation” by Glen Krisch, the only reprint of the anthology. It’s narrated by Mr Callahan, a financial big hitter out of sync with life, who hands over a fortune to a strange facility for some kind of vacation. This is built up in a shroud of mystery, beginning with his immersion in a warm, gelatinous pool sunk into a lightless chamber, and I loved Mr Callahan’s reflective train of thought as his “journey” commences. The wild concept perfectly suits the theme, at one point nimbly changing from past to present tense with great effect. The conclusion rounds it off nicely and it’s one of those tales with a pleasing penny-drop moment that puts a smile on your face.

Much more grounded in bleak reality is “Refugees” by Robert Mammone. We find Grace, a woman who works at a refugee detention centre in Australia, dealing with the application of a Pakistani woman and her grandfather. The impeccable social realism soon gives way to creeps as we realise that something’s askew and some kind of dark magic is at play. A couple of things left me slightly confused, but this is an evocative, human tale that keeps the reader guessing.

Beginning in a grey, rain-lashed flat, “The Great Divide” by Clayton Stealback is told by Edd, a lone man left adrift after his wife has left him. A short mood piece with a twist, it’s a tight and emotional ride with a chilling conclusion.

Next up is one of the finest short stories I’ve read this year. In “The 18” by Ralph Robert Moore we are introduced to Nate, a gentleman who loses his wife Holly of many years. Having lived and worked together for so long, he is crushed by grief and tempers this with alcohol and alienating himself from life. But then he starts to glimpse Holly in different places – on television, around the neighbourhood – and although his rationality tries to explain it away, he can’t shake the feeling that something deeper is going on.

Nate is completely investable in his grief and we’re treated to plenty of truly touching moments. Not a single word is wasted in this story and I was wrapped around the author’s finger by page two. The eventual explanation for Holly’s repeated sightings is both brilliant and brave, and the finale beautifully rounds off this triumph of concept and heart.

“Time Waits” by Mark West is a slick, Twilight Zone-esque short in which Martyn – an ordinary married man going about his day – realises that time always seems short, sparse, and increasingly so. On his way to work, his perception of time and space really starts misfiring and it’s to the author’s credit that I got an eerie Langoliers vibe from the rewritten time-rules and the atmosphere of unspoken but impending doom.

In “The Catalyst” by Gary Fry we meet Emma, an ageing lady who lives with her chain-smoking grump of a husband. One day while digging in the garden of their new home, she finds a buried tin that turns out to be the grave of a pet mouse and although she’s spooked, the discovery prompts a change in outlook. With strong characters and place, this sobering tale crosses the thematic border with a bang.

Particularly memorable for its voice and storytelling is “Under Occupation” by Tom Johnstone. It’s narrated by Kev: one of two council workers retrieving the corpse of a desperate widow who committed suicide. But the boundaries between the two men’s personal and professional lives soon blur, especially as Kev’s guilt-troubled colleague had once goaded the deceased when previously meeting her as a bailiff. One particular element of this story baffled me towards the end, but it has humanity, a thorough social conscience and a convincing slippery slope feel as the anxiety ferments.

Benedict J. Jones presents one of his trademark dark Westerns in “Going South to Meet the Devil”. A modern day tale, we meet Whitey and Ignacio, two cowboys who venture out to hunt down a pack of wild dogs that have slaughtered some steers. They trail the pack into a canyon with grisly results, and plenty of great dialogue cements a tense read.

“When I wake I remember that I used to be. Someone.”

Thus begins “Bothersome” by Andrew Hook, a very immersive experience that initially seems rather surreal as we try to work out the whos, whys and wherefores. But the dreamlike confusion is actually a very concrete perspective and things fall cleverly into place as old memories jostle and collide. I know this is somewhat vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything and you should read it blind as I did. This is multi-layered writing that requires concentration and perhaps patience, but savour the reading and your time will be rewarded.

Another visit to Twilight Zone territory occurs in “The Sea in Darkness Calls” by David Surface. Here we find divorcee Jack, spending time at his brother’s seaside home and remembering the happier times he had there with his kids. Things quickly get strange when he notices a window across the road through which he can somehow see the ocean, even at night. An emotional tale, I like the way it fills in back story whilst simultaneously adding more mystery. There’s a great tone of displacement and the slow burning unease doesn’t relent until the powerful finale.

“Walking the Borderlines” by Tracy Fahey begins with a woman recalling a trip to Paris as a youth. Here she met a fellow “borderliner” –  those who can see and hear the paranormal – with whom she also shares a general interest in the darker, spiritual side of life. They end up in a haunted flat together, and the result is a spooky but modern piece, well placed between the more intense stories either side.

The final story – another of my favourites – is the longest in the anthology so stick the kettle on and settle in because you’re in for a treat. Stephen Bacon never fails to impress me and with “It Came from the Ground” he manages it with the opening line.

“We’d been in Rwanda for only a few days when we saw the child with the machete.”

This is a splendid teaser, and what follows doesn’t let it down. The story is narrated by a Pulitzer-dreaming photographer named Jason, recalling the story of his travels to militia-torn Rwanda. Accompanied by his partner, another colleague and a local guide, he was looking to snatch some shots of the aforementioned child, said to be a terrible warlord despite only being 12 years old. But while staying overnight at a convent before trekking to the warlord’s rural compound, talk of devilry, jinns, and superstition abounds.

The author keeps you wondering as to where the menace is going to manifest. There are many possibilities – his own group with its relationship troubles, the warlord child, or perhaps it is something else malevolent out there in the unfamiliar and dangerous African countryside. The account is perfectly paced – definitely the “page-turner” of the anthology – and boasts an immense sense of place and an appropriate sense of grim reality.

Although there are stark moments of fear and ghastly action, it’s the subtle touches that really notched it up for me. Sometimes a simple and deftly timed paragraph delivers an ominous chill, catching the reader with their guard down. One example is this line, which suddenly cranks the threat after Jason has posed for a casual group photograph at the convent:

“Just last week I was looking at the photo in my apartment, realising that it captured the final time we were all together before death swept in.”

We know it’s coming, and soon, but what is it? The author whisked me through Jason’s grim, exciting journey with some superb turns of phrase towards a monstrous showdown that I never saw coming, and it concludes the anthology on a very satisfying note.

I enjoyed Darker Minds. Ross Warren and Anthony Watson have created a colourful anthology, rich with imagination, and all the stories presented are well written. The numerous 1st person tales work well, testimony to the editors’ ability to spot an accomplished voice, and there’s plenty of social commentary and conscience to bring depth to the thrills and chills.

If you’re familiar with the contributors – a fine array of indie horror writers – then you’ll know what to expect. If not, this is a sound opportunity to add some new genre talents to your list.

Review – Black Static #47

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I rarely review magazines/journals at the Hellforge but this fine UK publication from TTA Press is so consistently solid that it deserves a trumpet. If you’re not familiar, the digest-sized mixture of articles, interviews, art, new short fiction and genre reviews will please the horror fan who likes things fresh and off the beaten path. Rather than formulaic creeps, Black Static favours scares of the shadowy and intangible, boasting a level of writing that is always superb throughout.

Black StaticIssue 47 kicks off with two thoughtful and eloquent commentaries. “Coffinmaker’s Blues” by Stephen Volk discusses Hitchcock’s Frenzy and its cultural and historical context with regard to London serial killers. “Notes from the Borderland” by Lynda E. Rucker ponders fear in horror entertainment. She discusses that fear-fans often fall into two camps: those who demand to be jolted out of their seats, and those who regard this as less important to a destabilising, unsettling chill. While immediately less shocking, the latter lasts much longer, and is the essence of what Black Static is all about.

Next up is the fiction, commencing with a spooky road trip in “On the Road with the American Dead” by James Van Pelt. We meet Jeremy – a travelling photocopier salesman – who spends a lot of time alone on the dusty Kansas highway. But just as he is relaxing into this particular journey, he’s blindsided by the sudden appearance of a girl beside him in his car. After the shock, he converses with her and realises she appears to be a ghost from the past, and certainly isn’t his last encounter of the journey. This reflective opener is extremely evocative – I was right there in the car with Jeremy from the first paragraph – and combines moments of dry humour along with the melancholy vibe to great effect.

“All The Day You’ll Have Good Luck” by Kate Jonez takes us to Oklahoma to meet a schoolgirl who – along with her mother and sisters – work together as thieves. But during a tried and tested pick-pocketing at a local carnival, a familiar face from a previous scam causes things to unravel. Told in the 1st person, our young narrator talks of family life, boys and normal worries, which seats us in her corner despite her unusual and unsavoury designation in life. Presenting a muscular voice, this tale is rich in place and full of dark surprises.

I loved the wonderfully titled “Razorshins” by John Connolly. The narrator tells the story of his grandfather, Tendell, a hard man who worked the illegal liquor trade in Prohibition-era Maine. After he is under suspicion of theft from his boss, an ice cold assassin is sent along on a snowy cross-country delivery to keep a sinister eye on the proceedings. They end up being forced to take refuge in a rural farmhouse to escape the freezing weather, and here begins talk of Razorshins: a bootlegger’s myth involving a terrible creature that lurks in the woods and has to be appeased with offerings of booze. The story initially keeps us guessing as to whether it is merely folklore or an actual supernatural threat, and the narrator’s voice rolls off the page. The characters are frighteningly realistic and as the story progresses, there’s a shift from crime thriller to horror. A riveting tale, it genuinely made me shiver at one point with an exquisite paragraph that could have been straight out of M.R. James: a rare occurrence for which I have to pay special respect to the author.

“A monster lived in Cocoa’s bathroom.”

Thus begins “The Devil’s Hands” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Cocoa lives a Bohemian existence with a flatmate she dislikes, and this story finds her on her 24th birthday, going about her day and visiting her hippyish parents. She has unresolved relationship and life issues, and of course the possibility of a monster in her flat. Beautifully off-kilter, this gently-paced piece wanders effortlessly from warmth to chills and proves to be as engaging on a human level as the previous stories.

Things take a darker turn for “When the Devil’s Driving” by the excellent Ray Cluley. Lucy, a misanthropic teen, likes to spend time alone at a stagnant pond named the Devil’s Basin and is more than a little disgruntled when a younger girl turns up and starts trying to hang out with her. Although starting out harmlessly with the vibe of a disaffected kid, coming-of-age type story, it suddenly brings a brutal clout of pure darkness. It’s a mysterious and strangely malevolent piece with a powerful emotional resonance and another that bothers your conscience long after the event. This is exactly the kind of slow-burning unease that Lynda E. Rucker spoke of in her comment and the kind that Black Static‘s editor Andy Cox is so good at finding.

“Yesterday, I saw Jamie Goodwin burst into flame.”

Best opening line of the issue goes to “A Case Study in Natural Selection” by Eric J Guignard. I love a good speculative, semi-apocalyptic story and this is a fine example. Here, runaway global warming has escalated to the point where not only is water difficult to find but people are “fireballing”: a spectacular form of spontaneous human combustion. We follow a small and generally pleasant community in California through the eyes of Kenny, a regular lad with girls, friendships and the future on his mind. But as most people have migrated north looking for cooler, damper climates, his thoughts turn to survival. A haunting take on a collapsing world, it still manages to be a refreshing and somehow uplifting tale despite the inevitable violence. I loved the ending, which brings the curtain down on the fiction section of this issue with an appropriate flourish.

The “Case Notes” review section by Peter Tennant rounds up the fiction of contributor Ray Cluley, and follows this with a revealing author interview regarding his craft. There’s also thoughtful reviews of the Terror Tales series by Gray Friar Press and a stack of other interesting horror releases. Finally, “Blood Spectrum” by Tony Lee tackles a raft of DVD/Blu Ray releases with his crisp and honest style.

Overall, Black Static has the confident air of a publication that’s found its niche just outside the box, and I love it for that. I read this issue a few weeks ago and the abrasions the stories caused in my head have yet to heal. The sumptuous artwork and slick layout mean it’s always a treat: a magazine for which to put aside a couple of hours, run a bath, have a drink, or whatever’s your down-time garnish. So if you wish to trouble yourself with askew horrors and flawed humanity of all kinds, visit the website here.

Some magazines are polished. Black Static is brushed with steel.

Review – “Probably Monsters” by Ray Cluley

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This new collection from ChiZine Publications promises monsters of all kinds, and certainly delivers. There’s the taloned and grotesque, malevolent ghosts, myths, and of course plenty of the human variety tormented by personal demons. But this imaginative book is not just about the scares. Ray Cluley infuses his writing with a raw humanity that provides melancholy and deeply touching moments, not only balancing out the horror, but enhancing it enormously.

First off, “All Change” introduces Robert, an ageing monster hunter. We find him covertly patrolling a railway station to protect us from the horrors that travel the country disguised as human passengers, but maybe the reality is not quite as simple as that. A slick tale that embraces the genre we love, it gives us a smile before one of the more sobering pieces of the collection.

Probably Monsters Ray CluleyOne of my favourites, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” is the account of a journalist at a poor fishing community in Nicaragua. He hopes to write an article highlighting the dangers of decompression sickness – the bends – faced by hardworking locals who dive for lobsters to earn a crust. Locals who also believe that water demons are to blame. Told in the first person and present tense to great effect, Cluley really showcases his talent for evocation of place, and the characters become people we feel we’ve met. Combining folklore, grief and a powerful narrative voice, this is a frightening but strangely tender story and presents a social conscience that erodes none of its power to enthral.

Snaring us in a very different way, “The Festering” has a fitting title given the way it leaves a dirty taste after reading. We meet Ruby, a schoolgirl who lives with her hard-drinking mother. She has a secret drawer that’s home to a repugnant, shapeless creature to which she confides all her secrets, but the truly ugly element comes from Mr Browning. He’s a predatory teacher who babysits for Ruby when her mother goes to the bingo, and this thread really gets under the skin. Ruby’s point of view is flawless, and the plot combines icky fun with depressing reflections on humanity to keep us guessing until the end.

More bleakness follows in “At Night, When the Demons Come” and as a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction, this quickly became another favourite. Superbly narrated by Charlie, we visit a crumbling world of decay and paranoia where the scavenging survivors live in terror of shark-toothed, winged demons. As these creatures are female, women become the enemy of religious crackpots and misogynists everywhere, and the whole thing presents a fresh angle on the usual gender politics of post-apocalypse fiction. Exciting, thought-provoking and horrible, this is a faultless short horror story.

“Night Fishing” finds Terrence – a San Francisco fisherman – struggling with the loss of his love, Bobby, to suicide. An elegiac and tragic piece in which sexuality plays a strong role, we follow Terrence as he experiences visions and the ghosts of other lost souls beneath the suicide hotspot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The emotion bites deep and this story works in its simplicity.

“Knock-Knock” follows J-J, a young boy who lives with his mother. They’ve recently escaped an abusive relationship, but J-J’s nights are disturbed by an ominous knocking at his bedroom door that suggests the past is on its way back to torment him. Considered and tense, it teases us with the possible presence of the supernatural, and the author creates a convincing point of view for the young lad.

I certainly won’t forget “The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina” in a hurry. A woman who lost her family – and most of her face – in a car crash is reborn through a warped crusade to please the gods of the road by deliberately causing accidents. It has the graphic and visceral impact of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” – the sexual fervour exchanged for a religious kind – and plays deftly with common fears. Ghoulish curiosity drew me right into Rita’s descent and the ensuing voyeuristic guilt makes for an edgy, uncomfortable experience. A polished piece of macabre storytelling.

In “The Man Who Was”, our narrator – an eloquent gentleman who works as an event planner – meets a veteran Gulf War hero and the two embark on a secretive and complicated relationship. Tackling the consequences of war and masculinity, this is another emotive journey with a powerfully distressing reveal.

“Shark! Shark!” brings a complete shift of tone with a humorous whodunit that concerns the filming of a B-movie. It nails all the clichés, delivers plenty of droll dialogue and sports a pleasingly gruesome conclusion, but it’s the narrator’s wry comic voice that really carries it. A refreshing interlude between the heavier tales either side.

A strikingly dark and original story, “Bloodcloth” introduces Tanya, an adolescent who lives with her parents in a poor industrial village of no specific time or place. Their sparse existence also requires that blood sacrifices be made, and the author weaves lore and vampire overtones together with a feminine emphasis. Although I confess to getting a bit lost towards the end, there’s a great sense of otherworldliness and Tanya is a solid lead.

In “The Tilt”, two gay friends – Luke and Nicky – visit the picturesque French town of Carcassonne. It’s rather pleasant at first with a beautifully scribed locale and lots of natural banter between the two characters, but of course ghostly dreams and shenanigans involving the fortified town’s castle aren’t far away. I found this to be as much about history, friendship and sexual identity as anything else and it all falls neatly into place as one.

“Bones of Crow” takes us to a more gritty urban setting. Maggie, a lonely woman with health problems of her own, lives with her disabled father in a city block of flats. One day, she discovers some huge eggs on the roof and spies an enormous, winged creature lurking in the park nearby. Lush with metaphor, this is a fragile and moving piece with an appropriately opaque pay-off.

I particularly enjoyed the unsavoury “Pins and Needles”. James has an anti-social needle fetish, and having anonymously wounded a woman on the bus with a needle planted in the seat, he strikes up conversation and they begin a relationship. Creepy and compelling, this story has a great sense of inevitable doom. It also rocks a lurid punchline that I initially thought lessened the overall aura of darkness, but thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it just deepens it.

“Gator Moon” begins with two rednecks burying a body in a Louisiana cane field. Broaching racism without fear, this short drama is handsomely evoked, and I saw a supernatural element but – as explained in the afterword – it can be taken either way.

“Where the Salmon Run” is another moody location piece. We meet Ana, possibly pregnant and returning home to Kamchatka: a hardy Russian fishing territory where poaching is rife and salmon have worked their way into local religion and myth. This is an achingly human story that lets you decide what’s real or otherwise, and consumes you with the biting cold and rugged environment while you try to make up your mind.

It’s to the Wild West for “Indian Giver”, introducing Grady and Tom drinking liquor on a porch at dusk. Tom tells of his experience helping with the forced relocation of some “injuns” that goes awry and results in murder, and the telling is just as important as the tale itself. Grady’s jaded wisdom, as he listens to Tom’s account, adds a neat frame to the plot as it builds to a spooky finale.

“A Mother’s Blood” is a sharp short about an exhausted mother cracking beneath the trials of parenthood. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be grim or amusing, or perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it works.

This sour vignette segues neatly into the next as we meet Matt – also fed up with the drudgery of life – in “The Travellers Stay”. On the road with his wife and her teenage son, with tempers suitably fraying, they stay at a faded boondock motel that’s infested with roaches. A familiar scenario initially, the domestic unbliss soon becomes an insectoid nightmare in this apparently Kafka inspired and surreal creature-feature.

“No More West” is a weird flash piece concerning a weary cowboy’s encounter on the barren plains. It baffled me completely on first reading, but ladles on the atmosphere and sets us up ready for the finale piece.

Collections tend to save a belter until last, and I think “Beachcombing” qualifies as the crowning glory of this book. It’s a grey, damp morning as we find Tommy, a young boy collecting discarded items on the beach. He has an empathic gift that allows him to feel the past of an object by touch, to see snippets of the lives of the people who last owned or handled it. Tommy’s point of view is perfectly realised, especially his confusion at the adult feelings he encounters such as the nervous excitement emanating from a condom wrapper. But he also feels the sadness and negativity of the items he finds, and becomes curious about a man he keeps seeing staring out to sea. This story is completely enthralling from the off, and we soon realise that although Tommy’s gift tells him much, he’s limited by a lack of life experience. As readers, we are not so encumbered, and Tommy’s innocent perspective on darker events is used to heart-breaking effect.

A poignant and sublime piece, “Beachcombing” is not the finale I would perhaps have expected from this book, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Superb.

I had a splendid time reading “Probably Monsters”. Ray Cluley has a refined and seamless storytelling style, and his evocation of place is immaculate. He knows whether to finish on a concrete or inconclusive note, when to deliver a twist, and can turn his hand to sinister suggestion, wrenching sadness or grisly fun with equal finesse. But it’s the characters that really drive these imaginative stories, brought to life by nuances of human behaviour and interaction as well as their tangible hopes, fears and demons.

Thoughtful themes trickle through the pages, and it also seemed to me that the stories are carefully ordered with this in mind. Rounded off with some interesting story notes at the end – I always enjoy these – this is culturally rich horror that takes us to some fascinating nooks of the world and a fine book in which to lose yourself. Whether you enjoy the kind of fiends that lurk under the bed or those that grow in your heart, “Probably Monsters” is waiting for you.

Highly recommended.

Kitler & Monsters

Favourite 20 Horror Books

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Thanks to David Wilbanks for publishing my Top 20 Horror list on his blog a couple of months ago. They aren’t what I necessarily consider the best of the genre, just my personal favourites, so I thought I’d briefly explain why each book made the list.

The MonkMatthew Lewis – The Monk (1796)

This powerful gothic took me by surprise. It has all the brooding struggle and mood I’d expect from an 18th century piece, but also shoehorns in as much devilry, depravity, treachery and torture as I could possibly have hoped for. Hooray!

The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1827- 1849)

I was fascinated by the macabre as a young child, and understandably not allowed the extreme stuff. But Poe was apparently okay, it being with the literary classics and not in the forbidden horror section, so I devoured it. The likes of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew me away, and have never lost that intensity.

Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)

Ill-advisedly picturing Christopher Lee in a spooky Carpathian castle when I first picked it up, I was unsettled by the atmosphere of grim pestilence, and just how tragic it is. A quintessential vampire novel, and pleasingly, it couldn’t be less sparkly.

I Am LegendRichard Matheson – I Am Legend (1954)

Vampires again, but I enjoy it more as a survivalist apocalypse tale. The infected next-door neighbour trying to cajole the protagonist into leaving his barricaded house gives me a chill just thinking about it.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

A faultless haunted house story that absolutely nails the difference between horror and terror. Pure dread and anticipation all the way.

Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle (1970)

It’s not a genre book, but this novel about childhood bullying disturbed me as much as the finest horror can, slowly wringing all hope from my soul. This is razor-sharp writing and the first of only two books on this list that I have never read twice. And never will. Once was more than enough.

Stephen King – The Shining (1977)

There are plenty of reasons to adore this King classic, but it also stands out for me in that it’s the only story I’ve ever read that made me physically jump in my seat. A reaction normally reserved for films, I still don’t know how the hell he managed it. Extremely well played, sir.

Different SeasonsStephen King – Different Seasons (1982)

This is more drama than horror – unusual for early King – and it’s a gorgeous collection. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” are superb, and “Apt Pupil” is my single favourite story of all time. It’s the ultimate account of a deteriorating mental state and the Nazi butcher element gives it a palpable, historical reality that frosts the bones. I only have to pick it up and start the first paragraph to end up reading the whole thing again.

James Herbert – Domain (1983)

I was delighted when Jim concluded his giant rats trilogy by throwing in a nuclear holocaust. As well as some gripping and grim adventures in the main story thread, I’ll never forget the claustrophobic vignettes of subterranean survivors about to die. A very formative novel for me.

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984)

Another that isn’t necessarily a genre book, but has all the right elements. And it also parades my favourite opening line of all time, a beautifully wry and ominous teaser that sums up the creepy, dysfunctional ride we’re about to take:

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

Books bloodClive Barker – Books of Blood (1984/1985)

“The Yattering and Jack”, “In the Hills, In the Cities”, “Son of Celluloid”… there are far too many favourites in this six volume masterpiece to individually name. I’d just end up listing the entire contents. Artful storytelling that’s always head-shakingly imaginative, Barker gets right under the skin where so many others try but fail. He’s never topped them for me. And come to think of it, has anyone else?

Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985)

I love McCarthy, and this brutal western suits his unconventional style perfectly. An onslaught of desert dust, sweat, horrific violence and amorality with one of the finest villains ever created. Nobody forgets the Judge.

Clive Barker – Weaveworld (1987)

Another imaginative tour-de-force from Barker, he really lets the fantasy shine here. Nowhere near as disturbing as his Books of Blood, it still pulls out the trademark darkness when required and deftly avoids whimsy. Certainly his most colourful and fun work.

The Girl Next DoorJack Ketchum – The Girl Next Door (1989)

Abuse at its most harrowing. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever put a book down and took a deep breath, wanting it to stop, wishing I could somehow intervene. Then braced myself, picked it up and immediately had to stop again. As with “I’m the King of the Castle”, once was enough.

The Starry Wisdom – A Tribute to HP Lovecraft (1995)

An indie press publication from the early 90s, it’s one of those eclectic adults-only anthologies that leaves splinters in the brain. Full of original, twisted ideas, it captures that Lovecraftian otherworld atmosphere to a tee. I’ve re-read it several times.

Stephen Laws – Daemonic (1996)

A monster-thriller set in an insane film director’s urban fortress? Sorted. The concept is right up my street, and it’s delivered to the absolute max. A blast.

Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse (1996)

This hellish serial-killer romance is beautifully told, and as emotional as it is shocking. It made me feel sad and strangely violated for days.

Ramsey Campbell – House on Nazareth Hill (1997)

A superb contemporary haunted house novel, my mouth fell open at the unforgettable finale. Whenever I hear the word Hepzibah, a song starts to jangle in my head and causes a shiver. Even on sunny days. And just now.

Dangerous RedMehitobel Wilson – Dangerous Red (2003)

I never get bored of picking up this slick, punky collection and randomly reading a story or two. I love the dystopian feel, and there’s a texture to the writing that has almost become a comfort blanket. Quite an abrasive one, obviously.

Stephen Volk – Whitstable (2013)

An ominous challenge for an author, this fictional tribute to the wonderful Peter Cushing in his darkest hour couldn’t have been better. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, and I hung off every word.

And that’s your lot. As with all lists, this is subject to change on a whim. Thanks for reading, folks.