This one came to me as a review copy through LibraryThing. I asked for it solely because it had stories from Reggie Oliver and Paul Finch.
Review: Best British Horror 2018, ed. Johnny Mains, 2018.
This could have been titled Best British Weird Stories 2018 because the anthology has some of the flavor of those Year’s Best Weird Fiction put out by Undertow Publications. Most of the stories are not horror of the visceral, gruesome, and frightening sort. They range from surrealism – mostly pointless – to well-done variations of old horror situations.
The Reggie Oliver stories did not disappoint even if one, “A Day with the Delusionists” is a satire on poets and Oxford University, wit and no horror though there is a murder. The Delusionists is an Oxford club of students, and, at one of their costume parties in 1973, an aging poet ends up dead.
The other Oliver story is decidedly something else. First appearing in a theme anthology built around Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Love and Death” reverses Wilde’s premise of a portrait that absorbs the moral and physical failings of its subject. Here the circus strongman, who stands as the model for Love in the titular painting, begins to weaken. Too late, the painter realizes that, John Keats to the contrary, beauty and truth are not the same as the figure of Death changes in the painting.
Death and art beautiful and dangerous also show up in David McGachey’s “TING-A-LING-A-LING”. Here, in the middle of World War One, folklorist Dr. Lawrence is told about the Awakening Clock, an elaborate mechanism that is not only a clock – which strikes an added hour – but a clockwork animation of a village. It’s an effective tale that manages to pleasingly weld several horror motifs together. Dr. Lawrence is, evidently, a series character from McGachey, and, even before I read the author’s bio notes, the influence of M. R. James was noticeable.
While McGachey’s tale seems fresh even if it looks back to James’ work, there is a decided antique air about Colette De Curzon’s “Paynom’s Trio”. That’s not surprising. It was first written in 1949 and not published until 2018. It’s a pleasant enough story that goes through its paces to a rather slight ending. It’s yet another tale of a beautiful but dangerous work of art, here a score for piano, cello, and violin that falls out of a book the narrator impulsively buys. Naturally, being a music buff, he gets together with his friends to play it.
Besides menacing art, there’s another theme running through this anthology: alienation and social atomization whether it’s the weakening of family ties, isolation, or perversion and abandonment of the basic human impulse to reproduce. Unfortunately, that theme is not that well developed in most of the stories.
An exception is “The Affair” from James Everington, a fresh tale with unexpected turns, and one of the anthology’s highlights. A study of how our better selves, the ones others love, can erode away with time, it’s the story of Peter and Lynda, a married couple with child. One night, after being stood up by his best friend, Peter finds himself alone in a pub when a woman who looks an awful lot like Lynda, a younger Lynda, propositions him. He accepts. After all, it seems to be Lynda albeit the Lynda he once knew. It’s not really cheating. Perhaps it’s some trick of Lynda’s to rekindle their marriage. But what if it’s not his wife and what if Lynda has her own version of Peter?
There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of love or friendship in the life of Sian, the protagonist in A. K. Benedict’s post-mortem fantasy “Departures”. And now she’s dead and haunting the departures lounge in the Dublin Airport. The story is inventive in its depiction of the living and the dead, ghosts to each other, and what needs to be done to leave the airport purgatory, but the ending is muddled and muted.
The alienation is even stronger with the loner protagonist of Laura Mauro’s “Sun Dogs”. The child of Christian survivalists, Sadie has led a childhood filled with talk of the Rapture and preparing for the End Times. The parents are dead now, but she still lives in the desert and, one night, after almost hitting a man prowling around the highway with a rifle, she picks up June, a woman who might have a connection with some recent killings in the area. I found the ending morally appalling, but I suspect Mauro intended something else.
If “Sun Dogs” represents the dangers of feminine compassion and empathy, two other stories have the maternal instinct suborned or perverted.
“Shell Baby” from V. H. Leslie is another highlight of the book, and I’m not just saying that because it’s set in the Orkneys where I was a few weeks ago. Elspeth, a self-employed florist, feels life and business wearing her down so she gets a house on an isolated island. But one night, under the green glow of the Northern Lights, she impulsively bathes in the sea. The next morning she finds a strange creature on the beach. Leslie consciously reworks the Frankenstein story – after all, Frankenstein built his second monster in the Orkneys – to a horrific end. This is one of the few stories in the book which is genuinely horrifying.
Like Elspeth, the heroine of Mark Morris’ “We Who Sing Beneath the Ground” is also single and childless. This is a well-done story of the old school as teacher Stacy goes out to a Cornwall farm to see why one of her pupils hasn’t shown up for class lately. I don’t know if the bit of Cornish folklore cited is real or not.
Claire Dean’s “The Unwish” is another take on social separation and a subtle one at that. Amy, along with her domineering older sister Sara and her parents, are returning to the old family vacation cabin after 20 years. Amy is eagerly awaiting her new boyfriend showing up. But things take a peculiar turn when Amy begins to think she used to have sisters and not just a sister. And what if Aidan, the new boyfriend, really doesn’t love her. This story rewards a re-reading. Dean may not tie everything up neatly, but the loose strings of the story do not spoil it. It’s a weird story that uses ambiguity well.
I can’t say the same for Nicholas Royle’s “Dispossession” though it’s about the social isolation of a man. Our recently divorced protagonist doesn’t talk to many people apart from estate agents as a he hunts for a new apartment. We hear about his kids and washing their clothes. We never see or hear the kids. The man also spends some time voyeuristically watching the neighboring houses and apartments through binoculars. The abrupt ending is something of a letdown for a story that had promise. I think I know what Royle intended. I just don’t think he explained the why of it well.
Frittering away promise and reading like an unresolved piece of flash fiction that was way too long, Ray Cluley’s “In the Light of St. Ives” starts out well. Emily needs to go to the Welsh seaside resort to find out why her younger sister, Claire, an impulsive and artistic sort, set her rented house on fire. From her bed and under psychiatric observation, Claire tells her sister there’s some problem with the colors in the place. Cluley’s three sentence climax welshes on the promise of revealing not only cause but effect.
Two stories annoyed me with their surrealism and obscurity: Georgina Bruce’s “The Book of Dreems” and Cate Gardner’s “Fragments of a Broken Doll”. I could not be bothered to decipher what they were about assuming there was a coherent intent.
Bruce’s tale centers around a creature who may be a woman locked up in a house or she may be a robot locked up in a house. Her boyfriend appears to be some combination of inventor or service technician/stalker and maybe a would-be killer.
Gardner’s tale is about Trill, who seems to live in a house by a prison with Harry who may be a prison guard or policeman and probably isn’t related to her. An escaped convict shows up.
There’s no problem with ambiguity in two stories that, if not walking new ground, at least deport themselves respectively down old paths.
Charlotte Bond’s “The Lies We Tell” is an old style morality tale. Its thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, Cathy, is a real-estate agent, disloyal to her husband, and a selfish wife and mother. But, above all, she is an habitual liar, so you know, when she starts hearing noises whenever she utters a falsehood, a reckoning is coming.
You could, I suppose, call Mark West’s non-supernatural “The Taste of Her” a biter-bitten story. But its punishment seems way out of proportion to the crime. That crime would be adultery. Ian goes on a flight with his old friend Keith in Keith’s Cessna. And what a ride it is as Keith threatens to crash the plane into the ground if Ian doesn’t confess to sleeping with the former’s wife. And that’s just the beginning of Ian’s problems. This one also justifies inclusion in a horror anthology.
And an old stand-by of British horror shows up, Jack the Ripper, in Paul Finch’s “Tools of the Trade”. A local councilman and amateur ghosthunter approaches a local reporter with a profitable proposition: help him recover Jack the Ripper’s knives from a shut up Great Northern Hotel in a Lancashire town. The night excursion into the hotel features the literary equivalents of jump scares, and Finch drags out some common horror images. But the ending is subtle, a nice rejection of expected plot “surprises”. It was another highlight of the book.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
In its themes of isolation and women finding love (there are, as a song says, “a lot different things called love”), it’s interesting that two of the stories feature lesbian romances, “Departures” and “Sun Dogs”. It appears that neither protagonist has any previous lesbian experiences.
As I said, “Departures” mostly ends in a muddle with its two lovers, Sian and Marta facing a reversal of the notion of undying love. That’s not only because Sian returns to the land of the living and is separated from Marta, still dead. It’s also because neither is sure Sian dying again would reunite them. And, of course, the dead life does not seem to have the same carnal pleasures.
“Sun Dogs” is a clearer story and may or may not be ironical in its sympathies. June, the woman Sadie picks up, is sister to what seem to be a group of were-coyotes. And these coyotes have killed children. The gun-toting man she first encounters the night she meets June is looking for them. He warns her to arm herself. Nor is it the last encounter Sadie will have with locals hunting the killers. Sadie is wary of them as possible rapists. However, they give no indication of that. In fact, they give no real indication of threatening Sadie until story’s end when they suspect her of harboring a killer. In that encounter, June does kill a man. We can see this as indicating Sadie is a damaged woman though her wariness is sensible on the first encounter. Yet, she ultimately decides to join her lover and a pack of beasts that kill children. Is this just a straightforward depiction of a lonely woman whose compassion is hijacked by June and then misdirected to killers of children? Or does Mauro want us to think of this as an understandable and justified expression of love for the morally, and possibly physically, inhuman June?
It’s compassion of the maternal sort hijacked in “Shell Baby”. Yet, as the monster she has protected, the creature she has nurtured, the thing that has killed a man, grows larger and faster, Elspeth is terrified of what she has helped bring into the world. She imagines an island inhabited by such creatures when her “daughter” Aprhodite reproduces. She wishes she had the will of Frankenstein to the creature he assembled in the Orkneys.
Yet is this a moral defect, a misapplication of a usual good, maternal love? There is some indication that cosmic forces have preyed upon the lonely and childless Elspeth, a woman who wishes she had a daughter. In a symbolic sense, it is hinted that her naked descent into the sea was sort of a sexual ecstasy with resulting progeny, Aphrodite, who is on the beach the next day.
In the end, though, whether from misplaced love or under the influence of outside forces, Elspeth sees offering Aphrodite her breast and blood as a way not just of nurturing it but a way of having the sort of “immortality” of living on through a “child”.
Stacy of “We Who Sing Beneath the Ground” may also start the story out as childless and single and end it as a mother to a monster, here a buried giant from Cornish folklore. But it is clear in this story that, if she offers to care for this monster, it is under the malign influence of inhuman forces much like the boy Adam sacrificed his parents to feed the monster