The Black Book of Horror at ISFdb
Mortbury Press website
Appropriately dedicated to Herbert van Thal (1904-1983), the legendary British editor of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series as well as numerous other original and reprint anthologies of the 196os, 70s and early 80s, The Black Book of Horror features some great, inspired writing.
I had not heard of many of the authors collected here and was really excited to start this one. Some good reviews, a brilliant cover and a newly awoken desire to read horror fiction sent me to the Book Depository to order a copy. (Living in Canada many of these British publications are quite pricey when considering shipping and currency exchange. The Book Depository has allowed me to broaden my reading scope with their great selection of British fiction.) When the book arrived I nearly jumped for joy (one of the great joys in life is receiving books in the mail), though about a month passed before I could start reading.
The book itself is very handsome. The cover art by Paul Mudie is gorgeous (I encourage you to visit his website); the facial expression combined with the smooth backdrop and warm colours is enticing. The pages of the book he is holding are exquisitely and minutely detailed, and there is a glow on the figure and his chair as though he were facing a fireplace. He is looking directly at us, and I get the impression that I am facing this man, the fireplace between us, to my left, and I can feel the warm blaze as I look into the deathly gaze of this near skeletal host. I don't dare move, so remain tight in my own seat, somewhat on edge should I need suddenly to bolt, and listen to the tales he is about to share with me.
And for the most part these tales are very good; in fact, this is the strongest anthology I have read in any genre so far this year. There are no true duds in here though there are a couple of weaker stories, and only one that I did not like. There is a little inconsistency that I will put down to editing (though this is an assumption): while some of the stories are incredibly tight, a few others, including some good ones, feel unfinished, whether because it is filled with typos ("The Sound of Muzak") or reads well but could have been even better with some tighter sequences ("Subtle Invasion," "Lock-In"). This is a minor point, but I would be interested to know what caused this, and hopefully editor Charles Black will some day publish an overview of his experiences and the processes of putting this series together. Incidentally, there are no female authors in this volume, and the first volume that includes a woman in its contents is #3 (unless there are some in disguise). This is merely an observation.
Now for the stories. While I might be critical of specific elements in certain stories, it does not necessarily diminish the strength of those particular works, nor of the anthology as a whole.
"The Crows" by Frank Nicholas. Real estate professional Ronson returns to his Aunt Jess's house where he lived for a short time as a child; he has now returned to claim the property following his aunt's death. Though the story spans perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes in time, it is a patient process of rediscovery, with Ronson moving toward and through the old house while flashes of confused memory piece together a dark and terrifying history. The writing is well controlled, the bits of memory potently revealed and Nicholas manages to give us some great lines, including "These were memories that brushed his skin and pecked at his eyes until they smarted with tears," a line more revelatory than Ronson could imagine. "The Crows" is a difficult story to write and Nicholas has managed to keep it consistent and interesting throughout. It is a great lead-in story. 8/10
"Regina vs. Zoskia" by Mark Samuels. The story of a minor law firm employee who gets mixed up with the unusual, lucrative and seemingly endless case involving the inhabitants of a mental asylum who cling to an unusual idea as proof of their sanity. Well written, the characters are all well delineated and Dr. Zoskia in particular is described with great visual sense. I liked the surreal ending and how it questions the actuality of everything else that occurrs in the story. The final line, however, is needless and seems to have been added in order to explain the ending, or at least remove its ambiguity. Without that last line the story would have been a good deal more effective. One of three previously published stories in the collection, as "Regina vs. Sycorax" in the now defunct website The Art of Grimscribe, November 2004. I wonder how that version differed from the one printed here. 7/10
"The Older Man" by Gary Fry. While on a scaffold painting the outside of a newly purchased house, a thirty-nine year-old man experiencing a mid-life crisis witnesses an unusual sight through one of the upper windows. By day a general labourer and by night a rock and pop cover artist, Jack Preen is faced with his weakening body as he discusses basic sociology with a new, much younger co-worker. Another story with a strong character emphasis, the horror element is almost incidental and I found myself interested more in Preen's own reflective state than in whether or not he saw a ghost. The potential ghostly element is nicely linked to Jack's musings and the end is revelatory in both plot and theme. A very nice story. 7/10
"Power" by Steve Goodwin. This one needs a re-read simply because I'm fairly certain I missed many points. An Englishman is in Poland where he is drawn to an abandoned Jewish cemetery and soon reluctantly befriends a local skinhead by the name of Marek. The young skinhead has taken a liking to the narrator while aggressively pursuing the notion of living life fully while forgetting the dead and refusing to fear the inevitability of death. Very well written, I was drawn into the story and Marek's character but was left wondering about certain plot points that seem to drop out unexpectedly, like Magda, the woman who accompanies the narrator through the cemetery at the beginning of the story. I will re-visit this one soon, not just for clarity but to better understand what I like about this story--the kind of story I am normally not drawn into. 7/10
"Cords" by Roger B. Pile. The first weaker story of the group, "Cords" is interesting in concept and presented in a straightforward method. Unlike the first four stories, it is interested more in its integral idea than in the characters or the method of its telling. While the concept is original and quite neat, as a story it ends up a little weak and predictable. 6/10
"The Sound of Muzak" by Sean Parker. An alien creature searching for a host finds itself mixed into a muzak recording, and inadvertently reeks havoc on shoppers. This is the only story in the collection I consider forgettable. Though long, it reads like a summary of events. Characters are merely standbys and the events themselves are dull. Moreover, the tone is non-committal, bordering on comic but oddly restrained. The oddest thing is that among the selections in this cleanly-edited anthology, this one is filled with typos. I would be curious to know the back-story if there is one; was this piece a last minute inclusion rushed through the editing process? 4/10
"Shaped Like a Snake" by D. F. Lewis. First published in Ghosts and Scholars #17, "Shaped Like a Snake" is a somewhat amusing short piece about Oxford Historian Dr. Tom Magri at a vacation hotel near a golf course. Magri learns of an odd and convoluted local wives' tale from Myrtle, one of the hotel helpers. This story works well because it gives little away directly, using a combination of details about Magri and Myrtle's comical monologue to tell its tale. 7/10
"Only in Your Dreams" by David A. Sutton. Late at night a little girl is awake, insisting that the jelly man is coming. Her overworked father has no patience for the interruption but her mom tries to reassure her that the jelly man exists only in dreams. This short piece was truly tense and the nature of the jelly man, though clearly linked with daddy's work, is never directly revealed, nor are the events leading to the finale. The writing is controlled and the concrete reality of a house at night and two sleeping children functions well amid the more abstract moments. Excellent build-up and a great finish, this was one of the better stories in the collection. 8/10
"The Wolf at Jessie's Door" by Paul Finch. I've been wanting to read something by Finch since I came across The Extremist and Other Tales of Conflict; a great cover and a strong review made me curious about the book and about Finch. This introduction to his work was not disappointing, and in fact, "The Wolf at Jessie's Door" is an example of great horror writing. A novelette, the story tells of an ex-cop/current failed writer Adam Verricker who awakens from a drunken stupor in the middle of the night and sees an immense sheep dog staring at him from outside his window. As luck would have it, his old flame from his police academy days has been relocated to his general area, including Adam's low rent and crime infested sub-area of Trapp Hill. Though slightly curious about the dog, Adam is more interested in rekindling his relationship with Jessie and pursues her a little maddeningly on the pretense that it is her duty to investigate. The story is well written, the characters very real, with a strong and unrelenting Jessie fighting off a somewhat lovable though very pathetic Adam. The mystery/horror element takes a back seat to Adam's obsession and desire, but as with every powerful story of its genre it all culminates well at the end. Nothing predictable here, the end has a slight element of ambiguity that works very well. My overall favourite from the anthology. 9/10
"Size Matters" by John Llewellyn Probert. This is an amusing story of a troubled man who uses the inheritance from his mother to buy the one thing he believes will help lead to a better life: a seven-and-a-half inch penis. Amusing with a neat little punchline. 5/10
"Spare Rib: A Romance" by John Kenneth Dunham. I quite liked this one. It begins as a light anecdote-like tale of a loser waking in his own vomit, only to reveal itself in the course of the short narrative as something a little more serious with some interesting thematic overtones. Somewhat (though loosely) reminiscent of the W.W. Jacobs classic "The Monkey's Paw." 7/10
"Subtle Invasion" by David Conyers. A man searches his vast property in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, for a wasp's nest after his daughter is stung. He finds the nest, and along with it something rather... unusual. And quite disturbing. This was a good story that could have been great. There are bits of weak writing scattered about, such as the unintentionally comic moment when the narrator's wife says "No one knows," and the narrator responds internally, "No one on television knew either." These awkward bits tripped me up and broke the story's momentum. Also, the scenario with the bikers is a scenario in which we always meet bikers (I'm being vague in order not to reveal anything integral), and finally the last line really dragged it down for me; an over-used idea and a sentence that could have been more effectively constructed. 6/10
"A Pie with Thick Gravy" by D.F. Lewis. A slice of flash fiction about a malevolent meat pie (yes, my "slice" was intentional). Short, quick, amusing, nothing more. 5/10
"Lock-in" by David A. Riley. Originally published in Hallows Eve, 2006. A group of older men are at the local pub in Edgebottom one night when the darkness outside begins to consume anyone who attempts to enter it. This story had the potential to be truly exquisite, but some problems with writing and/or editing mar it a little. The main problem is that the characters are often indistinguishable from one another; they are like a pack rather than individuals, with the exception of the first two victims who are nicely singled out. The foursome of elderly drinkers would have been each a little more unique had they not been members of such a single group, and had the narrator not dwelt on them so early as a group. Moreover, the dialogue is at times weak, and the author has the unfortunate habit of explaining the motives behind his characters' motions or words. For instance, someone makes a joke, obviously to make light of a tense situation, so obviously, in fact, that the author does not need to state, "...he said, trying to make light of a difficult situation." Nor does he need to explain that the characters are opening the door carefully "as no one wanted to risk suffering any of the mutilations that struck those who had already tried to get out that way." (p. 128) (I've discussed this odd technique when reviewing Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box). Finally, the explanation of the darkness is a bit of a cop-out; I don't even need an explanation since I was so caught up in the situation. It is possible, however, that the explanation was an attempt to tie the story in with those classic demonic British stories of the Van Thal era. A lack of explanation can make such a situation even more sinister; we awaken and the world is suddenly a different place. Aside from these criticisms I enjoyed the story very much: the suspense was strong and consistent, my interest never waned, and the ending was something truly unprecedented. 7/10 (easily could have been an 8)
"Last Christmas (I Gave You My Life)" by Franklin Marsh. On the verge of starting a new life, a woman on the road stops at the quaint Bide-A-Wee Guest House where the odd owners insist she join them for their little Christmas party. Marsh's story is part of a tradition of stories dealing with unusual road-side inns and their owners, often ghosts and often harbouring strange secrets, or secret knowledge of their unsuspecting guests. I quite enjoyed this one. Understated and adequately under-written, it is short and makes its point well. The eccentric owners are a pleasure to read. The ending is predictable; I saw it coming as soon as... but that would be spoiling it. Also, I would not have finished it the way Marsh did. I don't mean the resolution but the final image and that uninteresting final line. 7/10
"'Shalt Though Know My Name?'" by Daniel McGachey. McGachey's story employs the trope popular in the early modern short story: it is told by a narrator who tells of a friend who hears it first hand from an acquaintance it happened to. This technique was used in the late nineteenth century to create the illusion of authenticity without having to bring the author to bear, as he was never actually part of the events himself, and even his good friend only heard tell of it. The fantastical tale we are told is of an all-too serious scholar who was researching some old papers in a small isolated town museum, when a past competitor and possible plagiarizer suddenly appears. The serious scholar then proceeds to uncharacteristically play a practical joke on his competitor, and as to be expected the joke turns into a horrible tragedy. The technique is well handled and the prose is strong, the characters interesting and the overall effect is solidly creepy. Nothing surprising plot-wise, but a nice little ending and some great description to cap off a good, solid story. 8/10
"To Summon a Flesh Eating Demon" by Charles Black. Professor Greydin insists that The Book of Setopholes does indeed exist, despite his colleague's open ridicule and his pupil's non-committal interest. There is some good humour and I liked the interaction between the three different men, though admittedly the point of view shifts could have been smoother. Very closely related to the stories collected by Van Thal, it is a pleasure when the editor of an anthology includes a story of his own and it turns out to be one of its most enjoyable entries. And a great decision to end it here, with a story that is at times classic, at times comic but consistently suspenseful. 8/10