WHAT is horror? The earliest references speak of physical feelings of disgust and dread. Central to these, I suggest, is mystery: the astonishment of the horrified party: an inability to comprehend (at least not immediately) a particular turn of events.
As a reader, I enjoy a degree of mystery. I tend not to want everything explained, particularly not in dialogue between characters of the ‘So that’s why X did Y…’ kind.
True, the rounded tale – in which all doubts are ultimately put to bed – can be highly satisfying. A succession of stories with inconclusive endings must at some point pall.
And yet the hallmark of a really effective short story – the literary form historically so very closely associated with the supernatural – is its ability to haunt: a power that is lost if too much of the mystery is tucked-up and tidied away.
I’m happy to say that there seems to be more than a dash of the enigmatic in the stories, novels and poems that have recently come my way.
In After Sundown (Flame Tree Press), editor Mark Morris has assembled an anthology of twenty original short stories by contemporary writers (most with notable credentials in the field of horror writing, along with some relative newcomers).
As Morris himself comments, the horror genre has a wide spectrum. And the range of stories here is indeed broad. The explosive opener, ‘Butterfly Island’ by C.J. Tudor, author of the Sunday Times bestsellers The Chalk Man and The Taking of Annie Thorne, sees – spoiler alert – an early coming together of a boat-load of trippers and a mine (of the sea kind). Meanwhile, at perhaps the polar end of the spectrum, Ramsey Campbell, in ‘Wherever You Look’, takes the reader on a darkly playful tour of bookshops and texts, in a tale of exhumations, churchyards and sextons.
This is a book that I’m still reading. Stories in a collection that have a single author, I quite often read through one after the other. Anthologies – by which I mean a volume of stories by multiple writers – are books I generally work my way through in a less uniform way. This may make me untypical. But I find it works as a way of considering a writer and a tale, and, if I like it, savouring what the story has left with me.
Standout stories so far have been Alison Littlewod’s ‘Swanskin’ and Stephen Volk’s ‘The Naughty Step’. Littlewood’s story is a reminder – if there were any who needed it – that horror has, at times, every right to sit at the top table of ‘literary fiction’. It’s an often beautiful and compelling piece that had me thinking of Daphne du Maurier.
Volk’s ‘The Naughty Step’ is a tense, terse story that had me wondering just which way it would turn (that sense of ‘mystery’ that I alluded to in my opening). And – I have to say – I didn’t guess right. Crucially, in the story’s compactness – location, characters – Volk demonstrates his understanding of the short story as a literary form – what it can and cannot deliver. As a form, the short story simply isn’t meant for large casts. It should, above all, in some way be intimate (as ‘The Naughty Step’ is).
Reading in an entirely random way, I’ve just finished another from this volume: ‘That’s The Spirit’ by Sarah Lotz. While a story about a psychic might seem familiar territory, Lotz has put her own spin on things, by way of an unlikely double-act who, with the aid of a hidden ear-piece, specialise in the after-lives of dead pets. Simple – till the day a grieving mother seeks their services.
With stories from Grady Hendrix, Robert Shearman, Angela Slatter, Simon Bestwick and others for me still to reach, this paperback of just shy of 300 pages appears to promise much for my autumn nights.
Another book I’ve been dipping in and out of (and would but for time have mentioned before now) is The New Inn Hall Deception Tales of Mystery and Fear by John Gaskin (Tatarus Press).
Gaskin’s is fiction of perhaps a more traditional kind than that found in After Sundown. Epigraphs from the likes of Ovid and Cicero head the chapters of the titular work here. Gaskin is a well-established if perhaps not hugely known writer. His writing here has a quietly stated nature that I’ve found pleasing and atmospheric at times. The book – a limited edition hardback, 233 pages – is put together in Tartarus’ usual high-quality way.
(Continued next column)
Title photo credit: Marko Blažević on Unsplash