Review – “The Eleventh Black Book of Horror” selected by Charles Black

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The latest volume from Mortbury Press shows exactly why this series is still going strong, full of polished tales that rejuvenate the kind of classic and lurid horror we love. I only need to glimpse that familiar red font on some new Paul Mudie artwork before starting to resemble the harpies preparing for dinner on the cover, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Selected as ever by Charles Black, the eleventh book maintains the standard we’ve come to expect and brings sharp imagination to the tropes without losing any of the nasty fun.

BB11The curtain rises with “Two Five Seven” by Thana Niveau. A short piece that serves well as a taster, it’s narrated by a young girl visiting her grandfather’s rural cottage. She starts to hear the voice of another girl coming from inside his enormous old radio, and the menace swiftly mounts as her grandfather’s behaviour also takes a turn for the strange. Intriguing and effortless to read, it establishes the dark, dry tone that the series demands and treats us to an appropriately ghastly pay-off.

Next up, Edward Pearce takes us on a sinister visit to “East Wickenden”: a small, rural village with a secret history. We meet Paul, staying at the local pub and hoping to find out about heathen practices with the ultimate goal of getting his covetous hands on some ancient treasure. Although it doesn’t pack any huge surprises, it’s written with great style and brimming with unease.

One of the most raw experiences in this volume, and certainly the most memorable, is “Slaughtered Lamb” by Tom Johnstone. It’s related by a man named Robert in the form of an anecdote in a smoky gentleman’s club – a wraparound which is just as well painted as the main story itself – and concerns a travelling theatre company. Robert was a member as a teenager, and he tells of how they used to spice up a controversial political play about the Northern Irish bombings by using a real lamb carcass on stage. But things take a chilling turn when they arrive to perform in Belfast and Robert goes into a loyalist pub to try and source a carcass for the show. The tale is pitch perfect, and the grim political realism of that time makes it an unforgettably macabre – and ultimately terrifying – experience.

John Llewellyn Probert introduces us to Laura in “Forgive Us Not Our Trespasses”. A young woman discontented with life, she and her husband Alex embark on a retreat to the Somerset countryside. He desperately wants to conceive, but Laura doesn’t share his desire to start a family, and the supposedly romantic setting of the huge, isolated hotel doesn’t help. Her misery is soon compounded by the rain, an argument, and before long, nocturnal figures in the corridors and the discovery of a derelict church that bears the misquoted and baleful title of the piece. This is a well-crafted story, and very much driven by our protagonist. I particularly like how the palpable domestic situation grounds it so firmly in reality that when things get peculiar, we’re already strapped in for the ride and can’t escape before the bone-curdling showdown. One of John Llewellyn Probert’s less humorous and more viscerally disturbing works overall, it still has his trademark atmosphere, splendid prose and exuberance for all things gruesome.

“Without Facebook, it never would’ve happened.”

Thus begins the convincing and impeccably researched “Lord of the Sand” by Stephen Bacon: an immediately engaging account of an Iraq war veteran. He attends a Desert Storm reunion arranged through social media, and the intrigue thickens when we realise that the organiser – a nervous, restless chap nicknamed Beaky – has also invited Sergeant Hoggard. An alpha male who used to bully Beaky without mercy back in the day, we share our narrator’s unease when he turns up at the party, and also his suspicions. This author’s finest achievements are often of the quiet and haunting variety, but don’t let your guard down here. While it still has the Bacon mood and foreboding, this muscular piece of fiction wants to bite you in the face.

Kate Farrell takes us back in time for “Alma Mater”. We meet a group of four 12 year old girls: pupils at a strict boarding school run by nuns and full of the forbidden glee that comes so naturally to the young. They sneak off during breaks to regale each other with scary stories in the shadows of the pipe-threaded “Drying Room”, but it’s only a matter of time before malevolent forces come into play. I enjoyed the matter of fact style and realistic characters, and although the conclusion was a little straight forward, it succeeds as the old school chiller it set out to be and captures the delight of simple storytelling.

“Keeping The Romance Alive” by Stuart Young introduces us to Malcolm and Wendy. Having read 50 Shades of Grey, Wendy decides they need to spice up their sex lives, and Malcolm eventually confesses that his erotic fantasy would resemble a Hammer film including vampire costumes, sacrifice and special effects. Of course things don’t go as planned, but like a Final Destination film, it keeps us guessing about where death is lurking and what form it will take. Malcolm’s awkwardness and irritation at Wendy’s casual approach to his fantasy provides realism and humour, and it finishes with a punchline and a grisly picture for you to savour.

Turning the lights right down is “Teatime” by Anna Taborska, which bravely presents a negative protagonist in the form of Victor. He’s an intelligent, misogynistic, tea-drinking psychopath who soon progresses from tormenting rats in his university laboratory to killing women he meets in public. Razor keen and always one step ahead, the plot drags us helplessly along as Victor deftly stalks through life, charming his way into his future victim’s attentions. It nails the social niceties and manners we observe with strangers, even when they start being weird, and the tale is very well structured as a whole, especially regarding the use of perspective. Although it seemed to end a little quickly, the finale packs a wallop and left a sour taste in the mouth. As is the case with some of Anna Taborska’s past characters, Victor has decided to stay in my head, indifferent to whether I want him there or not.

“Lem” by David A. Riley is a deft, short piece about a couple of desperate ne’er-do-wells attempting an armed robbery on an elderly Jewish man. Although a fairly stock pay-off, it’s subtly monstrous in tone, and merges the unsavoury and satisfying elements of genre fiction to good effect.

Another shorter contribution, the excellent “Flies” by Tony Earnshaw could almost be the prologue of something much bigger. We meet Jim, a retired gentleman, walking his trusty dog Rufus down by a quiet cemetery and railway embankment. But he soon makes a grim discovery in the foliage, and the whole thing blossoms into a frenzied horror vignette as the title comes in to play. This is another that stayed with me, superb in evocation, and I loved the quiet, ominous teaser at the end.

Next up, David Williamson takes us to a good old-fashioned séance with “And The Dead Shall Speak”. Open-minded Tina is giving it a chance, unlike her sceptical boyfriend Craig, but the session ends when the medium – the pleasingly named Madam Orloff – scribbles something odd. It appears to be a furious message from a murder victim, and also seems genuine, so the scene is set for some detective work and naturally, another séance. This story only stalled for me when the angry spook apparently gave Tina an address and it took her forever to finally Google it, despite that being an immediately obvious thing to do. But apart from this, Tina is investable as an amateur paranormal sleuth and you’ll still get drawn in even if – like Craig – your opinion of psychic phenomenon is generally one of scorn. It concludes neatly with a riff in the vein of the Pan Books of Horror, and that couldn’t be more appropriate given the subject matter.

In “Every Picture Tells A Story” Marion Pitman tells the succinct tale of Wetherby: a professional artist who produces a cover for a zombie novel. To relieve his frustrations, he includes likenesses of people who’ve upset him as mutilated victims in the picture – his landlord, a council employee, his ex-wife – but then they start to die in similar ways to how his artwork depicted. Although a very familiar concept, it’s nicely set up, and this short piece leaves us guessing if the culprit is a crazed fan, some supernatural force or curse, or even Wetherby himself. Told in great voice, there’s some barbed lines to counter the gore, and at one point it made me laugh out loud.

I particularly savoured “The Weathervane” by Sam Dawson. We learn the plight of Thomas, a 15 year old staying at the ultra-traditional school of St. Abchurch, but only as a charity case rather than one of the gentry. Anxious to endear himself to his noble-blooded peers, he agrees to attempt a dangerous local dare that involves ascending the school’s chapel tower to spin the creepy, black weathervane at the peak. But it’s an escapade tainted with tragic history, and there’s also something the school’s headmaster knows. Not to mention the disabled gardener. This is a gripping journey of escalating doom, there are surprises that catch the reader as well as poor young Thomas, and the finale satisfies whilst leaving some mystery. This story also triumphs in both style and substance. It tackles the miserable cruelty of bullying and its consequences with powerful characterisation, but also injects plenty of exquisite spookiness that wouldn’t be out of place in an M.R. James book. I actually shivered in my chair during one climactic scene. Outstanding.

After that wander through the ivied quadrangles of the country’s elite, “Molli & Julli” by John Forth presents a very different journey, but one no less suffused with threat. In the swansong of the anthology, we meet Tom – a physically attractive but entitled and vain young man – setting off on a Friday night to drink heavily with his friends and meet girls. He meets two deeply unsettling women on the train into the city, and despite finding them ugly, he becomes strangely obsessed – and aroused – until their attentions twist the tone to manic horror. Although the ending wasn’t quite to my taste, I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I applaud the lingering attention to detail. The dizzying evocation of the heaving bars and noisy nightclubs as Tom’s world descends into helpless nightmare is immaculate, and I like it that it rounds off the book on a contemporary note.

The Eleventh Black Book of Horror is another colourful entry in an unflinching series that has carved its niche and knows exactly what we want. All the stories are thoughtfully written, character-driven, and whether they’re ice-cold, droll or have that traditional sting in the tail, they combine to form a distinct flavour of retro elegance and modern shocks. Sprinkle the whole thing with the darkest of humour and drape it in a stark cover by Paul Mudie, and you have the perfect tome for those who like to read with a wicked glint in their eye.