Review – “Demons & Devilry” edited by Stuart Young

0

Everyone has things that stoke a warm familiarity, and the cover (and title) of this book from Hersham Horror made me nostalgic.

D&DNot only does a similar image adorn many a beloved metal album, but it also reminds me of big white smocks, suspicious chanting and Peter Cushing looking terribly serious.

This niche of horror isn’t as popular nowadays, as the focus has shifted and demonic chills are rarely sought from the likes of Dennis Wheatley. But quaint though it may seem, there’s nothing finer than a bit of gleeful devilry (I love that word) whether you have fond memories of it or not. I was pleased to discover that this solid line-up have done diabolism proud and brought plenty of new tricks to keep the concept fresh.

Kicking things off is “The Abhorrent Man” by Peter Mark May. This colourful tale takes us back to the sacking of Carthage in 146BC and a search of the “Eye of Hannibal”, a treasure said to contain a djinn. One that may well cause terrible trouble years later when the site is subject to an ill-advised excavation by Dr Marsden and his supernatural researchers. With exotic locales, powerful talismans and all kinds of hellfire, this is an appropriate opening to such a book, and the theatrical dialogue and knowing pay-off made me smile.

Next up, childhood chills abound in “Little Devils” by Thana Niveau. We meet Arabella and her younger sister Pippa exploring a building site with friends. It’s forbidden fun and scares at first, but things start to get out of hand when they find dead rats and a campfire strewn with bones. And even more so when one of them suddenly starts to speak Latin. The characterisation is crisp, the pecking order and peer politics of children are spot on, and I felt rather sorry for the tag-along Pippa. Very well written, this piece descends into a black magic spectacle, full of all the blood and goat-horns you could wish for.

The relentlessly superb John Llewellyn Probert is up next with the “The Devil in the Details”. This begins with a subtly humorous description of a Welsh coastal house – at midnight naturally – that’s been modified for satanic sacrifice. We then meet our heinous protagonist, Maxwell Chantry, who with the help of an equally nefarious surgeon and torturer, is repeatedly attempting to raise the devil and failing. Or has he failed? This splendid piece brims with ivory-handled sacrificial daggers, naked virgins, and amusing dialogue, but don’t be fooled into relaxing too much by the tone. There’s plenty of nastiness and a definite chill beneath the playful twist.

David Williamson’s “The Scryer” introduces Dan, who lives in a council flat with his low income family. After inheriting a manor house in the countryside from a distant relative, he finds an ornate mirror in the enormous cellar along with some black mass paraphernalia. I love an evil mirror story, and this one is pleasingly Pan-esque and features a great aura of malevolence and nails the corruption of the susceptible. Dan’s not the nicest of people anyway, and his descent into darkness– and the hesitant unease of his previously confrontational wife and daughter – is well presented. Although the tale has a fairly standard finale for this kind of thing, it’s a well crafted and enjoyable piece.

Last up before the black velvet curtain closes is Stuart Young’s “Guardian Angel”. This is the longest tale – a novella no less – involving Becky and Sajid, a shelter and youth worker. Having being led to believe they’re meeting clients to secure funding, they find themslves caught up in some horrific satanic shenanigans in a seedy S&M stripclub. This is a sexually charged piece that doesn’t hold back, featuring some wild and trippy scenes that involve raped angels, airbourne detached septums, and the most ghastly and original use of a scorpion I’ve ever encountered. The scenes of violence are striking and written with flair, and the tension is built through some deft scene-switching between earthly and hellish realities. The characters are tangible, particularly ex-pimp and converted Muslim Sajid, whose internal conflicts ring true. And I loved his prison/street demeanour, especially when confronted with a demon and deciding that the “fucker was all front”. The pace was occasionally dulled by some confusing religious lore, which seemed unnecessarily complex and included details not crucial to the plot. But the story is full of sharp phrases, vivid description and twists, and it concludes the anthology with a flourish.

If Demons and Devilry sounds like your particular chalice of virgin’s blood, then you’ll find plenty to satisfy here. Despite the old-school theme, these tales aren’t dated or stale, they’re contemporary homages to the cause of all things arcane and infernal. And with such a stark appearance and title, it’s also a fun book to brandish in public. Dig out the black candles and enjoy.

Review: “Anatomy of Death” edited by Mark West

1

Bacon, Mains, Probert, Volk and West. Now there’s five names I’m always happy to see and here they are, lured together to form this ghastly anthology of short stories from Hersham Horror. The binding theme is sleaze, which sounded splendid to me, and is born of editor Mark West’s fondness for the lurid films and gruesome paperbacks that exploded onto the scene during the early 70s.

AODWriting for such a theme unshackles an author from any pesky constraints of morality and reality, so prudes and gentle souls bolt for the exits now. The gents don’t hold back and the pages bleed with sex, violence and all manner of unnatural monstrosities. And hurrah for that! But Anatomy of Death (In Five Sleazy Pieces) has much more to offer, and provides plenty of humour and substance along with the base thrills.

First up is “Pseudonym” by Stephen Bacon. One of the quieter tales, as expected, this concerns a childhood fan of a horror novelist, now grown up, who finally gets the chance to interview his old hero. The visit to the writer’s gothic mansion is a joy – straight out of Hammer – and there’s plenty of mood and a sobering shock. This tale reflects on how the past infiltrates the present, and also the evolution of horror; old school versus the new. Effortless to read, the author’s genre passion shines through, and perhaps we were all terribly wrong in thinking that those books we used to love were just intended to be a bit of fun…

A complete contrast follows, and Johnny Mains – editor, writer and general sage of this niche of horror – delivers with the gloriously titled “The Cannibal Whores of Effingham”. This about sums it up, concerning a brothel where men disappear, staffed as it is by beautiful carnivores. But they might’ve bitten off more than they can chew when somebody visits who’s even better at the art of murder. Shamelessly rude and gory but tongue-in-cheek with it, this tale has little characterisation, but that’s not the point and it’s carried instead by the possibilities of the premise. And although the shock value dwindles as the story progresses, the curiosity of how it will pan out just keeps growing. A cartoon nasty with a twist, the author also has a treat in store for readers familiar with his previous works.

“Out of Fashion” by the inimitable John Llewellyn Probert presents yet another change in tone. A shorter piece, it concerns a Victorian doctor who invents medical devices and is worried about current trends towards aesthetic plastic surgery. One night, he is called upon to perform a terrible operation, and the repercussions of the menace he discovers daren’t even be breathed. I had high hopes for this story and John ticks all the boxes with elegant surroundings, intrigue and monstrous horrors from the depths. His warm, educated style is perfectly suited to the content, and as Mark said in his introduction, it’s impossible not to imagine Peter Cushing as the lead.

Next up is my favourite. I can’t even write this without grinning and shaking my head at the gleefully offensive wedge of unpleasantness that is “The Arse-Licker” by Stephen Volk. It’s narrated by an underwhelming businessman who relies on shallow ingratiation rather than effort to succeed, but one day finds that a new staff member is threatening his carefully crafted web of bullshit. Immediately engaging and cleverly told, the author manipulates our sympathies back and forth to a drawn-out climax of cringe-inducing black comedy. This story is far better than it has any right to be. The ingredients are wrong – a protagonist lacking in investable traits, a plot that relies on its outrageously vulgar showdown – but the author refines it into a very impressive piece of fiction. And I still can’t get the taste out of my mouth. Cracking stuff.

Finally, Mark West neatly rounds of the book with a trip back to the long hot summer of 1976. In “The Glamour Girl Murders”, a London photographer is hunting the right model for a shoot with Penthouse magazine, but accidentally stumbles across a kidnapping that involves some kind of beast. The story opens bravely with a girl being chased, and manages to snare the reader despite not having yet had the opportunity for characterisation. The cast is strong, the dialogue and storytelling tight, and I loved the aura of sleaze that clings to the pages like the sweltering temperature; heat waves can be used to great effect to induce sticky claustrophobia in the reader, and Mark succeeds admirably. To me, it resembles a British version of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam”: the sweat, the paranoia, the cultural attention to detail. To quote the beast: “Lovely…”

I really enjoyed Anatomy of Death; in fact I demolished it in one sitting. “Just one more, then I’ll get up and do stuff…” was the repeated cry, but this slim, well-ordered volume had other plans. It’s deftly edited, the genre tropes are handled with affection, and there’s plenty of variation despite the specific theme. The stories shine with the quirks and particular strengths of each author, and if you’re not familiar, you could do worse than getting acquainted here.

This is a professional anthology for readers who like their horror sleaze delivered with a wry, self-aware wink.

Recommended.