The Black Room Manuscripts, Volume Two

This one I picked up solely because it had a William Meikle Sigils and Totems story in it.

I can’t claim I’ve never reviewed any horror anthologies here before, but I don’t review a lot of them.

I was originally going to impatiently pound out a quick review and call this a low res scan. But, since it ended up at about 1,600 words, I’m going to call it a review.

Review: The Black Room Manuscripts, Volume Two, ed. JR Park, 2016.

Cover by Vincent Hunt

This is a charity anthology with writers donating stories and the book’s proceeds going to Alzheimer’s research. It seems to be exclusively UK or formerly UK writers. The only names I recognized in the table of contents besides William Meikle were Sam Stone and Graham Masterton.

The reaction to reading a lot of these stories was just a shrug or muttering “And . . . ?”.

They are about what I expect from short horror fiction.

There is the serial killer story. I’m not fond of serial killer stories. The only significant variations seemingly worked on them is method of killing, motive for killing, and type of victim.

At least the killer in Tim Clayton’s “The Drawers” has to wonder if all those dead kids he has in freezers are somehow getting loose. The fate of a brain damaged young man, shot by the eponymous “Red Mask”, is at stake in Lindsey Goddard’s story. He works at a funeral home where his hugging of young children’s corpses seems way too inappropriate to one of the brother owners. However, the other sees it as the trauma of not the man not saving a niece and nephew from the killer. Then, of course, the killer returns. The narrator of Stuart Park’s “Oranges Are Orange” isn’t the usual serial killer, but we still get a look into the disturbed head of a troubled youth between the world wars, troubled enough that his dead gives him a home lobotomy to stop him talking about all his imaginary friends. Well-done voice, but, again, familiar territory, just serial killer plot crossed with monstrous child narrator.

And, of course, there are the inhuman predators.

Replacement body parts, sentient snakes, and devolution are the elements of “Backbone Isn’t Always Enough” from Dr. Lynne Campbell, but the interesting concept is undeveloped in a plot that could have used a some more bones of its own. “Terry in the Bed By the Window” from Laura Mauro is effective because it’s set in a place most of us already know for its qualities of boredom, desperation, and despair: the modern hospital critical care unit. A Filipino nurse in London begins to wonder if Terry, a vegetative patient in her ward, might have something to do with the deaths of fellow patients, patients way healthier than him.

The victims come to their killer in Daniel Marc Chant’s humorous riff on the cursed object and sinister village motifs, “The Ring of Karnak”. A punctilious and anti-social historian inherits a strange ring – with instructions to destroy it. Researching it leads him to the idyllic village of Fennelcliff. One of my two favorite stories in the anthology.

At an angle to these sentient stalkers are some other stories.

Drip” is a lengthy, minutely described, second-person narrative from Dani Brown which opens with its protagonist buried alive in a box. But, at the end of this well-done claustrophobic horror, is just a revelation that makes it seem just a chrysalis story, a tale of transformation into something else. It’s one of the more extreme examples of stories in the anthology that substitute ellipses endings for longer stories potentially more interesting. I’m always up for a good tale of fungoid horror. Jack Rollins’ “Spores” certainly gives us lots of details about rotting from the inside. A retired couple one is infected afternoon after the husband finds some mushrooms in the garden. However, apart from the visceral horror, the story has little else and ends with a bit of a jokey ending. “Eleven” from Matt Shaw will make hard reading for some. Though it has little violence, it is an extended seduction of an eleven-year old girl by a pedophile. One begins to guess this is not going to end as he plans. That’s true but the ending still surprised me.

On the savage end, with lots of explicit violence and sexual mutilation is “Cut to the Core” by Rebecca S. Lazaro. It’s morbidly amusing and ghastly. Perhaps a tale of demonic possession, perhaps a poltergeist story, and a perhaps a ghost story. We’re not really sure if its teenage goth girl heroine is guilty of some cruelty of her own, but she gets a huge amount of horror.

There are bizarre eruptions of the horrible and deadly and irrational into our world. Dark is more than the absence of light, it’s a force, an evil force in Graham Masterton’s “What the Dark Does”. It starts with our hero’s animate bathrobe murdering his parents when he was a boy and goes from there. Are the screams from next door at all hours of the day really that attractive Hungarian woman’s baby? Of course not, says JR Park’s “Screams in the Night”.

The one story of this variety that worked for me was “Night Patrol” by Paul M. Feeney, my favorite in the book. I like stories of hinted or imminent violence where the hero or heroine knows and fears what’s coming. I also like subtle violations of everyday logic and reality. This story has both. Two female cops, one only on the job a couple of years and the other an experienced sergeant, ruminate on violence. The younger cop is ashamed of her life with an abusive boyfriend she just got rid of. The sergeant tells a frightening tale she heard about a mob killing policemen in Northern Ireland. It’s a foggy night and the two keep getting calls about a mysterious mob causing trouble. Yes, that mob shows up. But familiar streets don’t. I thought the story could have resolved itself a bitter neater, but Feeney providing no rationale for events worked just fine.

Nathan Robinson’s “The Glen” started out ok, some nice moments of a man with his daughter in some vaguely described post-apocalypse setting. Then I got annoyed when I found out we were dealing with the terror tedious of a zombie/rage plague.

The Vile Glib of Gideon Wicke” by Lily Childs also started out well with a poor old man having to put his dog down and going off to kill himself. Then it became (I think – because I didn’t care enough to re-read the story) a post-mortem fantasy with the man physically remaking parts of his life and coming to terms with his existence.

I liked “The Father” from Rich Hawkins for most of the story. It tells of a despondent man, his wife having left him, their son dead, going to an English seaside town to kill himself. But he runs into children wandering the beach alone. He also has a nasty encounter with local thugs who think he’s a pedophile. But, at the end of the story, all sorts of apocalyptic imagery show up. It may be the end of the world – which doesn’t clearly fit with the story of the hero and all those children he sees. More work was needed on this one.

The whole reason for picking up the anthology was William Meikle’s “Renewal” which is an early example of his Sigils and Totems concepts of houses where some can reconnect with dead loved ones. In this case, it’s an Iraqi war veteran attending the funeral of one of his comrades who finds such a house in London. Those who follow the Sigils and Totems series will note that the soldier connects to the house in a way similar to what the hero does in Meikle’s Songs of Dreaming Gods.

Another example of these stories often letting me down in the end was Jasper Bark’s “And the Light Is His Garment”. It’s the further adventures – imprisonment and the gallows – of the boy from the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. But I felt the ending was muddled, and the concluding William Blake quote could have been axed with no harm.

Sam Stone’s “Three Sisters” may be a takeoff on Macbeth, but it doesn’t slavishly follow the plot and is rather jocular.  A police inspector meets up with three women, maternal triplets who are neighbors of a murder victim. They tell him his wishes will soon come true.

There are a couple of outright humorous tales. We figure out pretty early on what “The Gift” of Shaun Hutson’s story is. Longer and less predictable – though most of the jokes didn’t work for me – was Duncan P. Bradshaw’s “Mutant Building 101”. Take insouciant atomic scientist, trigger happy U.S. soldiers, the scientist’s mischievous son and combine with radiation and insects and household pets to get a 1950s-style monster movie.

There is a rather pointless and uncredited story broken up into the “Prologue” and “Epilogue” sections of the anthology. I could not be bothered to learn why the cop in it stabbed herself. There is a too long opening intro on the types of horror and the horror community (well, too long for me who is not a member of said community) and an article on the state of independent horror films circa 2016.

Largely a collection of stories I felt no love or hate for. Still, despite my less than patient attitude toward a lot of horror, I suspect horror fans will like it.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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