Horla Autumn Reading 2020

 

MATTHEW G. REES ON RECENT SHORT STORIES, NOVELS & POETRY FROM THE SMALLER PRESSES

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

Continuing with mysteries, Alan Bilton – who I came to know in his capacity as a university lecturer after a period on my part in Moscow – has chosen revolutionary-era Russia for his latest novel The End of the Yellow House.

The book’s back cover tells us we’re in Central Russia, the black earth forest, near Voronezh, 1919.

The superintendent of a remote sanatorium is found bizarrely murdered. The questions are: who by, and why?

This book – a very attractive paperback – is the debut publication from new UK press Watermark.

And it seems to promise much in the way of strangeness and riddles… as readers of Bilton’s story collection Anywhere Out of This World might expect (and be glad to hear). David Towsey (The Walkin’ trilogy) and Mark Blayney (a winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize) are two who’ve provided enthusiastic endorsements.

The book is another ongoing read for me. I’ve found the set-up brisk, vivid and brilliantly evocative of the Russian cold I once knew. I’m also enjoying how Bilton hints at things going on in the minds of his characters: plotting and counter-plotting, their calculations and their need – so it seems – to be one step ahead of each other. From early on, there’s a sense of a struggle for survival that’s perhaps a miniature version of what’s happening on the greater Russian stage (from which they’re cut off). A whodunnit – it seems – with a difference. I certainly want to read on.

Advent, forthcoming from Jane Fraser, is also a period-set story – this time early 20th century Wales and, in particular, the Gower peninsula. A young woman who left Wales for America and a life of independence is summoned home to her family’s failing farm. The layered narrative references aspects of Welsh folklore and tradition, including the Mari Lwyd, a performance that entails use of a horse’s skull borne on a pole by a hidden figure (typically under sackcloth).

Dipping inside, I found myself reading a finely-drawn and atmospheric account of the Loughor Estuary and a carriage drive (deep knowledge of the water, the land and its people doubtless coming from the twin facts that this is Jane Fraser’s home ground, with the novel drawing in part on the life of her great aunt).

Having read many of Jane Fraser’s short stories, I’m expecting this – her debut novel – to be a delight. (Honno Press)

And, finally for now (and unusually for Horla), a book of poetry. Sally Spedding, mystery and horror writer and Horla contributor, has produced Sacrifice, a collection of twenty-one poems (published by Hedgehog Poetry Press) whose striking cover art – by Spedding – features victims-to-be of the Holocaust.

Her poems include ‘Theft’ – in memory of Ernst Seeligsberger, transported to Auschwitz in 1942: ‘Toned muscle, tendons taut as a Stradivarius’ strings primed for the pop of the starting gun…’ Meanwhile, ‘Despatches’ recalls Roger Bushell, mastermind of ‘The Great Escape’, so savagely shot dead – with 49 comrades – by the Nazis after the famous mass break-out from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1944.

The short titular poem ‘Sacrifice’ – which ends the collection – is a stark lament for the ortolan – rare birds – consumed in the notorious ‘Last Supper’ of French president Francois Mitterard: ‘Their last trip south became instead a slow colonic shift of brittle bones and blackened feathers to the shallow silver chalice lurking in his bed.’ Given the artwork to the cover, as well as poems such as ‘Theft’ and the allusions that seem to lie elsewhere in her often spellbinding lines, one can’t but also help bring to mind Mitterand’s much-debated position as a functionary in the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War.

Many of the poems though involve memories of a more personal kind. ‘Neighbour From Hell’ is a short – and unsettling – account  of an offer made to push someone – Spedding perhaps? – from the top of a Welsh cliff: ‘I’m your man if you want to go quick…’

Reflecting her interest in animal welfare, ‘Soft Shoe Shuffle’, is an interesting – and unusual take on Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile – with a switch to hunted wildlife in the Australian Outback.

The images and allusions in these pages have me wondering and wanting to know more. Like this from the opening poem ‘Tournesols near Bram’ (in France): ‘… just like those men of Bram who time’s forgot / save for the black-clad priest who haunts the fields / his eager knife ripe red with human blood…’

This is powerful, compelling poetry from Spedding. It puzzles me that – as a poet (and an award-winning one, at that) – she isn’t much better known. Recommended read.

Matthew G. Rees explored the influence of mentally-held imagery in the writing of short fiction as part of a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales. His latest collection of short stories Smoke House & Other Stories – fourteen tales with photographs taken on his travels – is now available via Amazon. More information at www.matthewgrees.com