Review – “The Condemned” by Simon Bestwick

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It was about 5 years ago when I first read a story by Simon Bestwick, and at the time I had no idea what I was in for. That story was “The Narrows”, a truly immersive experience with genuine chills and aching pathos, so the bar was set absurdly high from day one. But over the last few years of reading his fiction, I’ve discovered that this wasn’t a chance one-off and this exceptional collection of six novellas from Gray Friar Press proves that he’s one of the strongest voices in contemporary British horror.

The CondemnedFirst up, “Dark Earth” tackles the brutality of the First World War, colloquially regaled by Private Bill Sadler who’s under court martial for desertion. This grim and bloody period of history is compounded by the infestation of no man’s land with mud-dwelling, toothy worm-like monsters that devour and possess the frontline soldiers, and possibly have influence even further up the ranks. I was completely absorbed into the death and desperation, and believable characters inject real humanity into the story. It’s also pleasing – and respectful – that the monstrous elements don’t detract from the real horror of trench warfare, instead combining the two to create a powerful and action-packed adventure that forms a sterling start to the book.

Next up is the aforementioned “The Narrows”. Gripping from the off, it’s the present tense account of Paul, a secondary school teacher during a nuclear holocaust. Having survived the initial blast, he somewhat unwillingly leads a small group of surviving children and fellow staff underground to avoid the radioactive fallout. They find refuge in a network of subterranean canals and caverns known as the Narrows, but something malevolent seems to be down there with them. Or is it the actual tunnels themselves? Or even a creeping madness from the radiation? A deeply moving piece, we feel our protagonist’s pain, knowing that his girlfriend has inevitably perished in the blast, as have the others’ families and loved ones, and that combines with the relentless claustrophobia to form a very memorable experience. It cranks up the hopelessness of their situation, turning down the lights until there’s nothing left and you have no choice but to join them in the descent. A superbly evocative piece and a deserved addition to one of Ellen Datlow’s best-of horror anthologies.

Following this classic is “A Kiss of Old Thorns” which introduces Andrew, a young man out of his depth and on the run with a tough bunch of bank robbers. After a car accident on an isolated road, they seek sanctuary in the beachside home of an old hermit who fashions wreaths from thorns in order to keep some kind of supernatural evil at bay. A tight story peopled by some believable and nasty characters, there’s plenty of menace from both the baleful presence and the thugs themselves, and I was very much along for the ride.

“The Model” sees Ella – a cash-strapped student in Salford – answering a call to be a life model. But rather than an art class, she’s unnerved to discover it’s one hulking, almost-unseen man in a quiet empty building that also seems haunted by strange wraith-like presences. After repeated visits, she becomes increasingly ill and afraid, but is drawn by the money and more importantly, some kind of sinister hold that the artist seems to possess over her. She is unable to resist his call, even after a suspicious death, which is made more chilling by her being quite a sensible girl. While the finale is appropriately bleak, it is somewhat less concrete than I would’ve liked, but there’s tremendous sense of place, as always, and the story oozes a grim inevitability.

Despite not thinking that “The Narrows” could be topped, I found “The School House” to be The Condemned‘s crowning glory, blindsiding me with incredible emotional and physical clout. We are introduced to Danny, a man who works at a psychiatric home and is plunged into the past after a childhood friend is committed for burning down their old school. Danny soon starts to have nightmares that resurrect suppressed memories of bullying and violence, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his sanity. I don’t want to give too much away, but with its themes of control, power and broken minds, this story blew me away. There are some real surprises and twists in store – both brutal and genuinely heartbreaking – proving that this author is an intelligent, reflective writer at the very top of his game. This is a horribly unputdownable piece of work, full of dextrous literary tricks and tragic, terrifying portrayals of both mental illness and our darkest natures. Brace yourself and be damned.

Finally, the scene is one of urban deprivation for “Sleep Now in the Fire”. Our unwitting hero is Sean, an ordinary man visiting a block of flats in a sinkhole estate to look for his missing brother. He bumps into a surprisingly pleasant young woman, but this reassurance is soon soured by the appearance of a local nasty piece of work who might be behind his brother’s disappearance. After his car is stolen, Sean finds himself trapped in the squalid streets and beset by some taloned vampiric creatures called the Blueboys. This piece begins brilliantly with a palpable sense of threat, plenty of twisting action, and the author builds you up and knocks you down emotionally in subtle ways. It’s not without flaws, however. I found the political metaphors a bit clunky and the potential romance angle didn’t quite work for me. The science of the Blueboys seemed a bit complicated and took some explaining, and occasional segments of dialogue are a bit cheesy, robbing the grittiness of the outset: is this meant to be social realism or just fun? But these gripes are not so important in such a rollercoaster of a tale, and the scene is set for a showdown of fireworks and blood. There’s a soul-restoring fightback of good versus evil, and an epilogue that concludes both the story and the collection itself on a refreshingly positive note.

I very much enjoyed The Condemned. With brief and revealing story notes, there’s not a bad tale to be found, and this deep but never turgid book is more than worth the cover price for “The Narrows” and “The School House” alone. Simon Bestwick’s prose is sharp and the investable protagonists bring life and humanity to every piece. He can turn his hand to all elements of modern horror fiction whether eerie or shocking, supernatural or earthly, and even when he just sets out to entertain, thoughts are always provoked.

If you’re familiar with this author, then you can look forward to enjoying some of his finest work. If not, then The Condemned is a grand place to start. Rarely is the macabre so satisfying.

Review – “Differently There” by John Llewellyn Probert

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An ordinary hospital side room is the entire stage for this splendid new novella from Gray Friar Press.

We meet Paul Webster, a 41 year old man about to undergo major surgery for a rare and aggressive type of cancer that he may not survive. As night falls upon the eve of his operation, he attempts sleep but it is disturbed by distorted memories from his past. As the night progresses, the dreams become infiltrated with scenes from his lifelong passion for horror and fantastic fiction, and he realises that something very dark is using these memories to pursue him.

DifferentlyThereI loved this novella. Told in the present tense to great effect, it begins with a thorough but delightful description of the unremarkable hospital room in which the story takes place. The author’s wit and natural storytelling lend this a slightly whimsical tone, but the humour is countered with blunt reminders of the terrible lows that such a room has witnessed as well as the highs.

A few pages in, Paul enters the room – overnight bag in hand – and the tone cools to a stoical, British melancholy. He proves to be a likeable, sensible fellow, so naturally we’re drawn into his world. The inevitable fears, fragilities and hopes of somebody about to undergo a life-threatening operation are perfectly rendered, drawn as they are from the author’s recent experience with major surgery, as explained in a heartfelt afterword.

In most fiction, I find dreams rather irritating, often as distractions from what’s really happening. But here, the altered recollections are both beautifully painted and satisfyingly tangible. This is aided by the intrusion of the supernatural menace and strengthened by our empathy.

I pondered a couple of potential twists half way through, as this author is no stranger to the wry finale, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I was pleased to discover on this occasion that “Differently There” isn’t that kind of tale. The finale is appropriate and powerful, and functions as a very pleasing bookend to the plot.

While it certainly has its sharp chills, there is not quite the gleeful ghastliness that fans of this author may expect. This is a much more reflective piece where memory and mortal fear collide, which isn’t surprising given the circumstances of its conception. There’s enormous heart and dignity to be found, and John Llewellyn Probert shows that he can take his craft in a slightly different direction and still very much deliver. As Ramsey Campbell said, horror is lucky to have him. “Differently There” shows exactly why.

Review: “Enemies at the Door” by Paul Finch

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I seem to be reading a lot of Gray Friar Press lately, and there’s a reason why I keep going back. Enemies at the Door is no exception to the quality; a collection of short stories and novellas by the equally reliable Paul Finch. I associate this author with a sharp understanding of the human condition and engaging prose, so having read promises of baleful presences and murderous brutes, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

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“So which is the bigger sin, father?” the boy asked. “The fact that I wank or that I wank over my victims.”

And so the fun begins with one of the best opening lines to a collection ever. “When” introduces a priest attempting to correct an errant boy at a traditional grammar school, and its brave opening gambit heralds a wry short in which the discussion between holy man and tearaway turns chilly very quickly. It’s a strong start to the book and the finale made me do a double-take. In a good way, of course.

Next up, “Slayground” presents something of a wall of text, ultra-light on dialogue as it is, which can be a wince-inducing sight. But within a page I was gripped. Our hero is a rookie armed response copper thrown in at the deep end with a scene of unfolding carnage in the centre of London. This author excels at violent action, which is what “Slayground” is all about. It may not be for all, but I loved the escalation of terror, making us realise how helpless we might be in the event of such an attack. The sense of unstoppable menace is superb, and many writers would struggle to maintain interest with such a one-track whirlwind, but I was swept along to a conclusion that makes me smile to think about it now.

“Those They Left Behind” begins with a lighter tone. We meet Elsie, an elderly widow missing her son, but the mood soon turn dark when she purchases a hangman’s dummy from an esoteric  market stall and we start to learn about her past. Reflecting gently upon themes such as care of the elderly and capital punishment, this is a solid piece.

A dose of the cold supernatural follows with “We Who Live in the Wood”. It introduces David, who ill-advisedly rents a remote cottage on Dartmoor for his wife Sonja’s convalescence, but she soon becomes obsessed with a local legend surrounding an adder-infested wood. Although many of this story’s elements seem familiar, it’s saved by strong characters and jack-knifes out of predictable territory for a bleak finale.

It’s almost Christmas in “The Faerie”, and we meet Arthur, a divorcee absconding with his daughter across the Peak District on a wintry night. Naturally, the weather and darkness conspire to render them lost, and they stumble across a very strange sanctuary. Although beautifully evoked, this story didn’t reward the intrigue for me, but it’s still a decent dark fairytale for the festive season.

Despite the jolly title, “Daddy was a Space Alien” brings a grim change of tone, narrated by a gutter press journalist who arranges a photo shoot of disfigured people for a lurid article. It’s a reflective piece with seamless voice, but don’t read it if your mood is low; it harbours a quietly depressing vibe.

“The Doom” is the only tale in this collection that I’d read before, and also my favourite. Here we meet Reverend Bilks, a young priest with a pretty wife and a rural church that boasts a tourist attraction: an ancient piece of hellish art depicting the 7 deadly sins. But when a sinister stranger arrives to discuss moral and criminal responsibility, he realises he’s out of his depth. “The Doom” brings a contemporary voice to a traditional Wheatley-esque setting, and presents intelligent themes of sin, moral choice and consequence. But it’s the helpless, shattering payoff that makes it so memorable. Even though I knew what was coming this time, it still disturbed me. Perhaps deep down I was hoping that the author might have since revised it into something less devastating. Fortunately, he hadn’t. Brilliant, horrible stuff.

One of the longer tales, “Blessed Katie” introduces Madeleine, a woman moving into her old childhood home with her husband and baby. But soon it seems as though she’s being beset by a ghost from her past: a crazy Victorian apparition whom she thought was a creation of her imaginative brother. Using his talent for swift character investment, the author cracks on with the plot, and we’re treated to some beautifully nightmarish set pieces and a faultless Rosemary’s Baby feeling of helplessness despite the crowds. I was expecting the conclusion to be more gleefully dark than it was, perhaps in the vein of “Slayground” or “The Doom”, but what initially presents as a standard ghost story still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

“It was to Chockton’s advantage that he looked so innocent.”

Thus opens “Elderly Lady, Lives Alone”, which gives a grim clue as to what’s coming. A sour-tasting short about a granny-bashing thief who scours the deprived areas of town for the vulnerable, this story has its roots firmly in the old school. With the unusual angle of a protagonist who’s a bastard, it still manages to be nasty fun.

More urban squalor follows in “The Ditch”. It begins with Nicolette, an unfortunate sex worker and ex-addict, being picked up by a couple of local hardcases. In pleasing Finch style, she’s soon in a subterranean chase to avoid a ghastly execution, one with extraordinary historical overtones. This tale just keeps piling on the darkness and adrenaline, and also contains a moment so expertly crafted that it made me physically jump and my stomach lift with the sensation of falling. Only once before have I ever had such a reaction to the written word, and that was while reading Stephen King.

“The Poppet” tells of a couple of old student friends meeting in a quaint village in the Lake District. The story concerns a jealous love triangle and a shop that sells poppets: strange wooden dolls attached to a lesser-known myth of local witches. The author begins with spooky menace then slowly cranks it up into breathless pursuit – two areas of style in which he succeeds mightily – and rounds it off with another wicked and pleasingly neat conclusion.

Finally, “Enemies at the Door” features a retired soldier, shrapnel-damaged and paranoid in imaginative ways that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. The tale delivers a convincing relationship with his partner, despite them commanding very little page time, and I liked the seamless tense shifts for passages of recollection. An intriguing climax, it leaves things appropriately open.

Enemies at the Door is a quality collection. A modern horror tour of this green and pleasant land, it effortlessly transports us to scenes of urban deprivation, the beautiful but unforgiving countryside, and every nook in between.

Paul Finch is a master of the male and female voice, and the dialogue is real, delivered by characters we feel. They’re generally struggling, whether against their own fears, moral issues or an internal crisis of some kind, which ensures plenty of heart and substance.

The author also has the knack for a magnetic opening line. The prose is crisp and addictive whether presenting atmosphere, the mundane, or explosive action, and the details paint detailed vistas to which the succinct wordage has no right. The only fault that springs to mind is the genre tropes and moments of familiarity to be found, but even then, the storytelling is never less than muscular. And if you love a good finale, there’s several award-winners in this book.

I used to believe in ghosts. I don’t anymore, and part of me misses what it was like: that chill of unknown malevolence that sharpens the senses. Well, Paul Finch’s supernatural stories take me right back to that place. And as for his human monsters, there’s no hiding from them on any level.

Review: “Peel Back The Sky” by Stephen Bacon

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It was about six years ago when I first encountered Stephen Bacon’s fiction. That story was “The Trauma Statement” in the Horror Library II anthology, and I remember that it stood out with crisp writing, a thought-provoking concept and devilish pay off. Since then, his name has been one that always raises a smile when scanning a table of contents and I was delighted when Gray Friar Press announced his debut.

Peel Back the Sky spoils us with 21 short stories (6 of which are previously unpublished) and there’s a rich variety of fictional landscapes for a genre collection. From spooky period atmosphere and bittersweet nostalgia to sf-tinged horror and contemporary tales of child abuse, they’re drawn together by investable characters and heart along with the chills. But don’t let your guard down. Stephen’s insightful and deceptively gentle voice disguises razor-edges, making him the perfect guide for an exploration into what makes the dark or dangerous mind tick.

First up is “Last Summer”. This is one of my previous favourites and still strong in the memory from when I first read it a year or so ago. Set in an old colliery village of Yorkshire, this spellbinding story transports us back to 1984 where we meet the folks whose lives are blighted by the miners’ strike and political troubles of the time, compounded by the abduction of local children. The evocation is sublime as it forces investment through nostalgia and characterisation, switching between childhood past and present without the slightest judder. Perfect in construction, this emotional story doesn’t try to make you jump, it lets you peer under the stones yourself. Superb.

Another winner is “The Trauma Statement”. Narrated by an increasingly isolated woman forced into a hideous game of deciding the fate of others, this is one of those stories that makes the reader question what they would do in such a situation. We share the protagonist’s desperation regarding how far she will go to protect her family, and although things aren’t quite explained, it’s a great idea and compelling to the sharp conclusion.

Next it’s time for some classic shivers with “The Strangled Garden”. The first of two Victorian gentleman’s club tales, it concerns a walled-off, overgrown garden where a child once disappeared. I was particularly impressed by the seamless period language, and the adventure into the twisted vines and foliage provides plenty of theatrical peril, rounded off with a flourish that put me in mind of Poe.

After that creepy but fun fireside yarn, “Catch Me If I Fall” caught me out. Introducing an old couple who discover they’ve hit their lottery numbers, it seems relatively benign in content, but bites with its pointless cruelty and leaves a sour taste. It proves that the author doesn’t need ghosts or murderers to get under the skin.

“Persistence of Vision” is the first of a couple of pieces dealing directly with child abuse. Told by a man remembering his childhood, it paints an instantly heart-breaking picture of the death of his mother, but the descent really starts when he and his father have to move in with Uncle Keith. The subject matter is exceptionally well handled, never inappropriately lurid, and our sympathies ensure that the clever finale is nothing short of pitch black.

“Girl Afraid” is presented as the diary entries of Laqueesha, a likeable and intelligent 9 year old girl who lives with her troubled mother in a rough block of flats. Perspective is used to grand effect as she reports her life with youthful innocence, notching up the discomfort as we learn the depth of her dysfunctional circumstances. This paves the way for a moment of ice-cold horror as we witness something terrible that has completely sailed above our narrator’s head. A brave story in both content and style, I think it succeeds.

“The Other Side of Silence” moves us from the urban present and into apocalyptic science fiction. A virus that erodes the senses has brought the world to its knees, but Vernon seems to be in remission, regaining his vision under the care of the enigmatic Eleanor. But all isn’t quite what it seems, and the author brings humanity – both tender and cold – to a haunting vision of the future.

It’s back to the smoky ambience of the gentleman’s club for “A Solace of Winter Rain” to regale us with phantasms of murder in an old Cornish cottage. I found this somewhat in the shadow of “The Strangled Garden”, but it’s still a solid ghost story with a twist that seems obvious at first, then inspires a double take and pause for thought.

“The House of Constant Shadow” is a triumphant study of human resentment and cruelty. Ernest is a bitter man stuck with the job of caring for his obese and blind wife, and I was completely drawn into his shadowed world of entitlement, opportunities lost and guilt. Trapped by duty, Ernest aroused my sympathies then snatched them back numerous times, and the sense of redemption slipping inexorably away is fantastic. Plenty of darkly humorous touches never spoil the intensity of this story in which the mundane is perfectly balanced with the vile.

Shifting the tone, “With Black Foreboding Eyed” is a pure old-school terror tale. Set in 1900, we meet two men trapped on a Scottish lighthouse in a blizzard whose colleague seems to have been slaughtered by something monstrous. Beautifully evocative and dramatic, the text envelopes us in cold fog, swaying lanterns and dread. I found the closing scene just a bit too easy, and it feels somewhat lightweight regarding its peers in this collection, but this short tale serves as a breather and is fun to read.

But such fun was never going to last and “Daddy Giggles” certainly sobers the mood. In this present-tense piece we meet Duffy, a man visiting his dying mother. He’s ready to confront her and clutching Daddy Giggles as evidence; a child’s toy that holds memories of abuse. A powerful journey, it weaves tainted nostalgia into our damaged protagonist’s anger, and reflects on the frailty of human life, both physical and psychological.

We travel back to a taut pre-war Europe for “The Toymaker of Bremen” in which Scott, a young English boy, loses his parents on holiday. He is adopted in bizarre circumstances by a rural story-book toymaker, soon settling into home life with the white-haired man, his children, and the family cottage filled with creepy dolls and toys. There’s a great atmosphere of wrongness, and as with “Girl Afraid”, the child’s innocent point of view provides plenty of discomfort. I was with young Scott all the way and didn’t want it to finish.

“The Shadow Puppets” is a flash piece narrated by a possibly disturbed man who discovers a cathartic talent for shadow puppetry, but soon realises that his creations seem to know more than him. I found it only mildly interesting at first, but was grinning by the time I reached the gleefully ghastly parting shot.

It’s back to 1953 for “Room Above The Shop”. We meet Jenny, a girl visiting her grandmother’s gloomy dress shop in a quaint Derbyshire village, spooked by creepy mannequins in the store upstairs. Although a polished story, it left me slightly wanting. Perhaps I’d hoped for more explanation regarding the supernatural shenanigans, but the tale is carried by strong characterisation and the malevolent presence of the mannequins.

“Inertia” tells of a woman who lives in self-imposed isolation and discovers a terrified bird trapped in her chimney. An elegiac and brittle mood piece, this is impressively unsettling for its short length.

More wounded souls follow in “Hour of Departure”. This introduces Ellie, struggling with the aftermath of an accident that killed her husband and injured her young son. She has to juggle the guilty complications of an affair with the damaged behaviour of her boy, making for a claustrophobic tale of relationships with an understated, chilling finale.

“I Am A Creation of Now” is a quirky if slightly uneven presentation of floundering romance and altered time. Named after an REM lyric, it hooks immediately with the story of a man’s budding relationship with his intelligent but troubled girlfriend. I expected the ending to be a light-hearted twist, but it surprised me with its poignant depth.

An old Nemonymous favourite, “The Devourer of Dreams” is the nightmarish story of a writer. He tells of his upbringing as a coastal innkeeper’s boy where his father kept a beetle-like monstrosity in a box: a hungry creature that drains victims of something far more terrible than blood. A story strong on themes – guilt, reward, success, inevitability – it still manages to be a fun and physically icky horror tale and much more than a sum of its parts.

“Concentric” is an intriguing story in which a vast sinkhole appears in the middle of the ocean, baffling and terrifying the world’s experts. It has an apocalyptic, blockbuster feel that bursts from the page but although I was along for the ride, the finale didn’t pack any surprises.

The end times continue in a slightly different vein for “Forever Autumn”: the diary of an isolated man trying to care for his sick and wheelchair-bound wife after a zombie-style outbreak. Suitably grim, with a focus on fear and reflection rather than gore, it oozes suspicion and threat. And there’s a few tricks up its sleeve.

Taking the final spot and more than rising to the responsibility is “Cone Zero”. It begins with a dreamlike fall of blood-red snow as we meet a lonely student who sees an advertisement for an art exhibition that links to his past. Curious, he tries to fill in the pieces in a tautly plotted adventure that delivers atmosphere in abundance. The ensuing collision of death and art forms a good climax to the story, and also the collection itself, drawing together several of the themes that have traced throughout the book.

I was sad when Peel Back the Sky was finished, but pleased that my hopes had been realised. These believable snapshots of lonely and angry lives are engaging from the first paragraph, and I was surprised to discover that revisiting the familiar was just as enjoyable as discovering new pieces. Reassuringly honed, these stories are often melancholy, but the book never becomes hopelessly bleak. There’s humour and warmth too, and Stephen populates it with tangible characters who are worth our time, particularly shining at 1st person, be that urban pre-teen or Victorian gentleman. This leaves us no choice but to descend into the shadows beside them.

From Lovecraftian terrors to the silent damage of abuse, the author succinctly conjures landscapes of both place and mind, then casts ripples of slow-burning unease through the text. This is mature, thoughtful storytelling where compassion jostles with the venom and provides some very astute – and indeed sobering – insight into the human psyche.

Brave and beautifully painted, Peel Back the Sky is a debut collection masquerading as that of a veteran.

Review – “Where The Heart Is” edited by Gary Fry

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I’m a bit late with this Gray Friar Press book review, but I enjoyed it too much to merely slot it back onto the shelf without fanfare.

Where The Heart Is promises an alternative tour of Great Britain, in which the 19 British contributors wrote about what they know best… home. From faded northern industrial towns, violent urban sprawls of the south, and the bleak and sublime countryside in between, this promising TOC delivers a convincing journey through the sinister side of this sceptred isle.

Where else to start but the capital? The opener is “Ticker” by Allen Ashley, which transports us through the tube lines, streets and pubs of London from the perspective of a man who’s recently lost his father. He’s drawn into an urban “clothes war” in this clever presentation of modern urban behaviour, both tribal and cynical. This is a well written, multi-layered tale with pathos and menace in equal measures.

Next, “A Killing in the Market” by Stuart Young takes us to Romford and introduces Dave, an ill man deeply suspicious of the medical community. And for good reason. Another expert pen delivers plenty of seamlessly real dialogue, but don’t be lured by the reassuring humour and warmth, because you’re in for a real horror finale.

If you haven’t read any of the inimitable DF Lewis, then this is a good place to start. “So” (referring to the local pronunciation of “sea”) is a mood piece set in the traditional resort of Clacton-on-Sea. As everything closes down at the end of the holiday season, there’s an overwhelming atmosphere of ebbing time, transience and final journeys. It gives such a flavour of the place that it feels like I’ve been, even though I haven’t.

Norfolk is the stage for “The Onion Code” by Andrew Hook: a remarkably original tale of a woman who can read onions, and manages to predict an earthquake. Told in a distinctive style, it has a wry sense of humour, and a less concrete finale than expected, the satisfaction of which will depend upon your taste. It has memorable moments, including an entertaining good cop/bad cop duo, and scores extra for a deeply chilling moment in a fashion shop changing room.

Following is “Easter” by Stephen Volk. Here we visit a quiet Bristol suburb and meet Martin – a middle-aged unconfrontational man – and his frustrated wife, Cheryl. The council arrive to conduct some work, and soon they have a crucified man in their front garden. “Easter” has a very English flavour, and despite the strange and slightly nightmarish content, it’s rendered normal by the couple’s believable relationship and their extraordinary diffidence: the essence of the tale. Very pleasingly tied up, this is one of my favourites.

Next we cross the border into South Wales. In “The Cuckoos of Bliss” by Rhys Hughes, Swansea is the canvas for this wild tale in which a jobless man is selected to be safety officer in heaven. Full of stunning turns of phrase, this extraordinary fantasy bursts with colour. Managing to be fun, then suddenly deeply disturbing in turns, this is a razor sharp piece of fiction, if perhaps slightly overlong.

From Swansea, our tour heads west into the mist-shrouded marshes of the Welsh Gower Peninsula. “Summerhouse” by Mike O’Driscoll begins with a wall of descriptive text, which initially put me off, but I was soon drawn into the mood. A married man revisits the location of childhood love, and the result is a triumph: nostalgia, ritual and loss collide to deliver a powerful conclusion.

After this sobering piece, we head back into England for “The Last Witness” by Joel Lane. Set in the hulking city of Birmingham, it features a nefarious property developer who’s no stranger to violence and murder, and a derelict house with dark forces at work. The tale made me feel for even the minor characters – the author has a talent for conjuring real people from a sentence or two – and it’s a solid meld of crime, noir and horror that keeps us guessing.

More urban clautrophobia follows in the excellent “The City in the Rain” by Mark West in which he paints a sagging, rain-lashed Leicester. A master of empathy, the author introduces Andrew, a man who recently lost his wife and is lured into an alleyway after hearing cries for help. Despite being ever-so slightly marred for me by that old trope of a glimpsed figure from the past that then slips away and invites pursuit (just a personal irritation), at least here it was an important part of the plot. Andrew’s grief is palpable, and forms the spine of a good old-fashioned horror story and another of my favourites in this anthology. And the final sentence made me grin.

Another treat is “Last Summer” by Stephen Bacon. Set in an old colliery village near Sheffield, this is a moving piece that harks back to the miner’s strike of 1984, the Margaret Thatcher years and the distinct troubles of the time. The plot concerns missing children, possibly by the hand of a serial killer, and there are moments of horrible realisation but no punchlines: this is understated storytelling with no exclamation marks, but it packs more punch than the loudest scream of a tale. The narrator is reflective and gentle, seamlessly switching between childhood past and present, and this perfectly constructed descent into darkness brims with nostalgia. Bittersweet and memorable, “Last Summer” is the book’s crowning glory for me, and I would recommend it to anybody whether they like horror/dark fiction or not.

“Winter’s End” by Simon Bestwick presents both the urban and rural landscapes of Greater Manchester. A man begins a relationship with a girl in a band, falls in love, but then to his frustrated dismay, she starts to drift away from him. The story really captures that heartbreaking feeling of clutching at smoke, and is full of characterisation and style. But although I enjoyed the grisly showdown, I had the feeling that I’d missed something.

A stretch of ex-colliery wasteland in Wigan is the scene for “The Daftie” by the ever-reliable Paul Finch. Here, a young lad on a school cross country run is exhausted and left behind. He decides to take a short cut, despite the risk of bumping into the Daftie: a mentally disturbed man said to haunt that bleak and lesser-travelled route. His ill-advised decision soon descends into terror, and becomes a real adrenaline kick of a story. It has a sharp pay off, and is certainly the most tense page-turner of the anthology.

Then we head east to Wakefield for “A Victim of Natural Selection” by John Travis. This sums up the author’s askew take of the world, concerning a man named Crocus who lives in abandoned urban desolation. To reveal any more would either spoil it, or not give sufficient credit to the weird and wonderfulness of it all. So I won’t. Just read, and enjoy this extraordinary vision.

We travel just a few miles to Dewsbury for “Ways Out” by Mark Patrick Lynch. This is a solid tale that presents colour and individuality amid an ambitionless, deprived populace. Brought to life by sharp dialogue and a pleasant yet strong ethnic narrator, it’s less depressing than it initially seems, and has the air of a modern fairy tale and much to digest for a story so short.

Lingering in Yorkshire, we visit Leeds for “Quarry Hill” by Michelle James. This is a modern ghost story featuring a couple of theatrical friends, and some modern buildings constructed on a site that once held flats in which people lived in terrible squalor. More light-hearted than many of the stories here, it begins well with a bit of mystery and gentle deliberate confusion. But it really starts to impress when you twig what’s happening through the clever structure of tense-switching, and it all falls nicely into place at the end.

Set near Morecambe Bay, “Scale Hall” by Simon Kurt Unsworth brings child abduction and hellfire to a gentle Lancashire conurbation. Although perhaps a little too wordy for my taste, the tale is bookended perfectly by the narrator’s troubled reflection. There’s a tremendous sense of location, and the aura of the evil supernatural is just as ice-cold and malevolent as it should be, which is no mean feat.

It’s back out into the sticks for “The Welcoming” by Gary Fry, specifically the wind-swept North Yorkshire Moors. Here we find that old cliche of a man breaking down in the middle of nowhere, which might have been a problem in the hands of a lesser writer, but not here. Parker, our unfit protagonist, trudges through the night to discover an isolated house of warm, welcoming folk, but is suspicious of their open arms. The author delivers educated prose, injected with humour and feeling, and plenty of metaphor that manages to not be invasive in the slightest. Also remarkable is the escalating threat, achieved in subtle ways that one can’t quite pin down, before a delightfully pan-esque finale. Some people scoff when anthology editors include a piece of their own, but when they’re more than good enough to rub shoulders, I’m not seeing a problem.

Continuing north, we find ourselves in a snow-flurried Sunderland for “We Are The Doorway” by Gary McMahon. This has the author’s stamp of a bleak urban stage and exquisite attention to detail, as we follow Sangster: a drunk miserable man who carries a literal door to something inside him. It’s an odd but beautifully told tale, and thoughtfully explores the true concept of home.

Last of all, we head into the heart of Scotland for “Stamping Ground” by Carole Johnstone. Set in the bustling centre of Glasgow, it tells the increasingly desperate plight of a man stalked by homeless people. As the weeks go by, it masterfully evokes that grim feeling of being alone in a crowd, and also helpless despite the presence of those who might assist, including the police. The tale kept me guessing throughout before delivering a climax that I though I’d predicted, but it managed to wriggle free at the last moment. A quality finale to the book.

The tour concluded, I was happy to discover that there isn’t a poor contribution. The locales all have a firm grounding and flavour, presented as they are by natives. Some also explore the very nature of home, yet even when the physical stage is arbitrary, it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. En masse, the geographical description can intrude slightly, but that’s the nature of the theme and a location-based anthology inevitably has scenes to set.

The editor Gary Fry has selected a great bunch of strong voices here. Despite the odd spelling mistake, the stories are well written, staffed by believable characters and true motives, and even the supernatural elements seem tangible. Several are 1st person tales, which all work well, lending them a traditional storytelling vibe.

If you’re British, then you’ll no doubt recognise much in location, character and tone. If you’re not, then this is a fascinating journey through the darkness of the country’s heart via the prose of some of its finest dark fiction authors. Highly recommended.

Where The Heart Is is available from Amazon and the like, as well as direct from Gray Friar Press here.

“One Monster Is Not Enough” by Paul Finch

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I became familiar with Paul Finch through his anthologised short fiction, and he always ticks all the boxes. One Monster Is Not Enough, a themed collection of 8 novellas and novelettes courtesy of Gray Friar Press, continues that tradition of quality. With the freedom to expand his tales, this book is a treat.

One MonsterIt kicks off with one of the shorter stories: “The Old North Road”. Here we find a down-on-his-luck historian travelling to a ruined abbey for a project on the legendary Green Man. He meets a suspicious couple out in the quiet countryside, and the unease notches up slowly towards a terrifying climax in which the supernatural almost takes a back seat to the three human characters. But only almost.

“The Tatterfoal” concerns the widowed wife of an 80s pop star. She arranges for his former band-mates and family to attend a party in her isolated mansion: a place rife with tales about the legendary man-horse of the title. This story keeps us guessing throughout, and ladles on the atmosphere including the best use of fog since… well, The Fog. My only complaint is that it felt slightly too long, and shorn of a few pages, it would’ve been truly unputdownable.

“Calibos” is an immediately gripping SF story in which a titanic mechanical crab – designed to harvest seabed specimens – clambers onto dry land and wreaks a trail of carnage across the country. We follow a crack squad of soldiers into the crab’s guts as they try to bring it down, fighting off the brilliantly anatomical internal defences. Although this is a lighter tale, it’s not without horror, especially when we encounter the human “specimens” the Calibos has collected and processed. The angle of innocent technology gone awry is handled with aplomb, and it also reflects on the value of human life within the world of politics.

Next up is a story with a strong urban flavour. Set in Manchester, “Hag Fold” is a serial killer tale told by an ex-cop. The childhood reflections are superb, and reading it is like watching a grim jigsaw being assembled.

“The Retreat” is a definite favourite. Set during World War II, a group of German soldiers trek across the frozen Russian Steppes and discover a forest shack that seems strangely welcoming. Utterly intriguing from the off, this story has a nightmarish quality to which the hardened soldiers respond perfectly. It’s also notable for its battle scenes, which are nothing short of breathtaking. To read brutal, realistic, wince-inducing bloodshed in such elegant prose is an unforgettable experience, and you would think the author was actually there.

“Kid” is narrated by a tough, bitter ex-boxer. He plans to tell his ex-wife what he thinks of her – and knock her new fella’s teeth out – but instead gets lost in a threadbare and indifferent part of London called Baker’s Wood. He’s an eloquent narrator, despite his primal nature and other shortcomings. I won’t ruin the surprises, but the whole package is a triumph of both concept and voice.

In “Red in Beak and Claw” we meet Ben: gangster muscle in the witness protection programme. When he’s relocated to a country cottage with his wife, he learns of a local robber’s hoard said to be protected by a gigantic, man-slaying cockerel. This tale shows the author’s talent for keeping those pages turning fast, and like the previous story, you engage even though the protagonist is somebody you might avoid in the street. This investment is helped by plenty of character back-story, but as always, not a whiff of infodumping. The conclusion doesn’t quite have the clout as some of the others, but it certainly isn’t disappointing, and it’s a brilliant story to re-read once you know what’s going on.

“Crow-Raven” brings the entertainment to a close. The first couple of paragraphs give a rather bland tour of a medieval manor called Buckton Hall. Okay. Then the narrative begins to describe a couple of murdered corpses in that same polite, slightly jocular and informative tone of a tour-guide, and suddenly I was beaming. This is writing. It transpires that Buckton Hall used to be owned by a family of vicious hunchbacks, and we follow the efforts of a specialist police unit for investigating strange and paranormal crimes. The whole thing pans out like the pilot for an English adult version of the X-Files with plenty of humour, gore, scares, and a dollop of sexual tension.

I suggest getting hold of One Monster Is Not Enough immediately. All the stories are strong. They conclude with a satisfying flourish, with not a hackneyed twist in sight, and the supernatural tales are just as real and chilling as those with concrete foundations. Paul Finch also has an extraordinary ear for dialogue: there are big-budget scriptwriters who can’t pen scenes as natural as those in this book. Regardless of genre, it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the short fiction form in the hands of somebody so bloody good at it.

Gray Friar Press

Paul Finch

Review – The Amicus Tributes of John Llewellyn Probert

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Fans of old-school British horror will fondly remember Amicus studios. Popular in the 60s and 70s, Amicus favoured modern portmanteau anthologies such as Asylum, From Beyond the Grave and Tales from the Crypt, providing an alternative to the saucy period gothic of Hammer. If you’re a fan of these movies, or just enjoy intelligent, wry and entertaining horror fiction, then these two books from Gray Friar Press are certainly for you.

Faculty“The Faculty of Terror” and “The Catacombs of Fear” are standalone collections, each bound by a sumptuous framework story. In the former, a young man is invited to dinner at a creepy university building one damp night where storytelling is to be the order of the evening. In the latter, a nervous priest arrives at his new post in a sinister black cathedral, and must learn the shocking experiences of his parishioners.

The tales transport us to a wide array of locales, such as a rain-lashed urban office block, an isolated cottage in the Welsh valleys, and an illegal surgeon’s lair in the back streets of Calcutta. We meet all manner of characters, including a beautiful wheelchair-bound ballerina, a group of murdered asylum seekers, and a ghost in a photo booth. I tried, but couldn’t for the life of me pick a favourite story. Every single one is an expertly-crafted slice of macabre.

The author writes with a crisp, educated prose that moves the tales along at a confident pace towards their final twists. Some of them conclude with dark humour, others with moments of true horror, both poignant and shocking. The twists themselves are in the spirit of the Amicus films, but wonderfully inventive and easily avoid well-trodden horror punchlines.

CatacombsI particularly enjoyed it that music features prominently in several of these stories, be it in the form of composers, musicians or instruments (including the most grisly church organ ever created). As the old Amicus films were beautifully scored, this adds an appropriate element of theatre and also a layer of authenticity to the text.

I can only hope the author pens another installment. John Llewellyn Probert’s imagination is a national treasure, and perfectly suited to this brand of horror. He gets away with lurid and cruel material with his eloquent, delightful tongue – he isn’t afraid to tell a tale right down to the bone – but there are no cheap shots. It’s unusual for such traditional technique and atmosphere to be merged with modern content. It’s even more unusual that it succeeds so mightily.

Complete with genuinely interesting introductions, interviews and story notes, these books are available from the publisher below. Be brave and give your spine a well-deserved tingle. You won’t be disappointed. Just amused, disturbed and very glad that you discovered them.

Gray Friar Press

John Llewellyn Probert