Review: “Anatomy of Death” edited by Mark West

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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.

Review: “Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares: A Biography Of Herbert Van Thal” by Johnny Mains

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An unusual non-fiction review for the Hellforge, this book from Screaming Dreams gave me a shiver of nostalgic anticipation. A matte hardback with a terrific portrait by Les Edwards, it took myself – and I’m sure many others – right back to the playground.

For me, it was the late 80s, and we were lucky enough to attend a school that had several of the Pan Book of Horror anthologies on the shelves in the English room. It was always long-serving editor Herbert Van Thal’s name on the cover, and they were devoured with glee, even proving to be the humiliation of an indignantly self-righteous teacher who confiscated them as lurid contraband before discovering they were actually school property.

“Bertie” was a lifelong lover of books, and did much other work in the field as well as the Pan anthologies. Here, Johnny Mains has put together a succinct and highly readable biography, and is the only one to tell the story of this publishing niche legend. This book has fostered me with a great mental image of Bertie’s office, him perched over a tome at his desk like a vulture, flanked by creaking overflowing shelves. We are given a pacy summary of his life and publishing career, from his nights as an AR warden during the war, being on the jury for the infamous John Christie serial murderer case, and facing a legal wrangle of his own when his then employer was accused of publishing obscene material.

Johnny Mains has done some thorough research, contacting the subject’s family and old colleagues, and his reporting feels satisfyingly factual. There is the occasional supposition if the truth isn’t known, but this is always clearly explained as such, along with the reasoning. It’s nice to read something unsensational, and the author also offers some detective work regarding prose styles, attempting to deduce the identity of a mysterious pseudonym.

Certainly an odd-looking man, Bertie emerges as passionate and friendly to work with, although certainly no angel. Perhaps his contributors could’ve seen more reward, especially with repeated print runs, and there was also the shady business of reselling their work. There’s a selection of contributor  interviews that provide some pleasing anecdotes, and also a great section of photocopied correspondence in which Bertie compliments, cajoles and gently scolds the authors. His personality and humour really come across in these short but wry letters.

There is the odd typo, and I had to reread a sentence occasionally due to a lack of punctuation. But overall, the simple informative style works well and lets the subject matter speak for itself.  With the Pan books the star of the show, it was fun to revisit these tales, a couple of my favourites from years ago being George Fielding Eliot’s dark milestone “The Copper Bowl” and Myc Harrison’s ghastly “The Spider and the Fly”. The book also discusses the possible reasons for the series’ decline, including Bertie’s ailing health and issues with colleagues.

Johnny Mains is certainly the right guide. His knowledge and passion is clear, and his debut fiction collection “In Deepest Sympathy” also has a delicious Pan-esque flavour to the proceedings. He’s been instrumental in resurrecting much genre interest in these books, being the project editor for the re-release of the 1st edition last year, and also publishing “Back from the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories” which included a shorter version of this biography.

“Lest You Suffer Nightmares” is a slim volume, but therefore uncluttered, the author admirably restricting discussion to the notable highs and lows. Too much detail would’ve become turgid, and I avoid doorstop biographies like the plague. Bertie wasn’t some revolutionary or rock star, he was an interesting but normal man who led an interesting but normal life, and this book is gauged appropriately. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and while the appeal of course lies mainly with those who have a fond history, this is an attractive addition to any bookshelf.

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