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In Association with Amazon.com
The Eighth Black Book Of Horror
editor: Charles Black
Mortbury paperback 5.50

review by Tom Johnstone

Today's horror publishing market seems to be dominated by teen vampire romance and endless variations on the zombie apocalypse. I should know - I contributed to a zombie anthology, for my sins, though I've never written teen vampire romance. I do know someone who writes werewolf porn, but I don't think that counts. To be honest, I'm sick to the back teeth of Jane Austen parodies with added flesh-eating.

So I was delighted to read the latest in the acclaimed Black Book Of Horror series, which is chock-full of fresh, contemporary chills from entirely home-grown talent. So unlike your average Mammoth Book Of Best New Horror, which often tends to reflect the US dominance of the market, the Black Books Of Horror contain no references to station-wagons or other Americana. Almost all the stories in this book take place in recognisable, everyday British settings: a suburban housing estate, a northern working men's club, bed-sit land, a coal cellar...

The most notable exception to this rule is the harrowing scene in Anna Taborska's Little Pig, where a peasant family is pursued by a pack of wolves through a snowy Polish forest. This story is one of the highlights of the collection for me, and also the shortest piece: the reasons why an old woman mutters the phrase in the title after breaking her glasses are revealed to be nothing short of chilling. Ellen Datlow has selected this story for inclusion in 2012's Best Horror Of The Year anthology - and not without reason.

Although the Black Books Of Horror pay conscious homage to the 1960s and 1970s heyday of horror anthologies, above all the legendary Pan series with its peculiar blend of gentility and often extreme sadism, Charles Black's eighth offering is like many of the previous volumes brimming with topical themes and 21st century sources of terror. It's a world away from the ivy-clad country houses of the Pan books, where a smoking-jacketed raconteur might hold forth from the comfort of a leather wing-backed armchair.

Things have moved on since then of course: if this were really a Pan horror collection, the heroine of Marion Pitman's Music In The Bone would never have survived her encounter with the mysterious musician she picked up at her local folk club. In the Pan horror world, such behaviour was as risky as taking a job as a live-in secretary to a retired surgeon in a remote country house, and likely to lead to dismemberment by a hacksaw-wielding mummy's boy with baby-blue eyes. After having read a few such tales, the relatively upbeat ending to Music In The Bone makes a refreshing change.

John Llewellyn Probert's How The Other Half Dies takes place in one of those ivy-clad mansions complete with a leather wing-backed chair - 'oxblood' no less! But it's anything but traditional or predictable. Although Probert's tale is about storytelling and its dark side, there is no question of any of his characters settling down in such a chair for an evening of cosy, fireside ghost stories. From the first page you can see where the story is heading: down into the depths of human depravity and degradation. It's a gratifyingly sick and twisted joke, whose punch-line made me laugh out loud, but the twist doesn't come out of nowhere. Probert peels away the layers of the story like an onion, or perhaps it might be more apt to compare it to the way his unpleasant central characters peel away... On second thoughts, let's stick with the onion simile, because this story certainly made my eyes water. And not just with laughter.

Together with Probert's Six Of The Best (in the Sixth Black Book Of Horror), about a corrupt TV executive on a paranormal channel, and his It Begins At Home in the series seventh anthology, with its brutally cynical take on charitable advertising campaigns, How The Other Half Dies reads as the third part of a trilogy satirising the mass media in the nastiest way possible. Or I could just be making all that up.

How The Other Half Dies is angry, grisly and horribly funny: it should be given away free with the Daily Mail, as compulsory reading for those who propose the legalisation of vigilantism. Only they'd probably get off on it, if the odious couple in the story is anything to go by. It also works in its favour that it follows hot on the heels of Tina and Tony Rath's Casualties Of The System, which seems to share many of the middle England prejudices that Probert punctures, although I couldn't help but admire the inventive notion of a rogue arm of the probation service with a time-travel capability. This somewhat daft central concept is in keeping with the story's relatively light-hearted tone but, for me, Probert's tale is an example of how humour can be used to help intensify the horror, twisting the flaying knife as it were. In the light of the Levenson enquiry and the events leading up to it, it's also remarkably prescient.

Humour and horror also make excellent bedfellows in Kate Farrell's Mea Culpa, which opens with a witty description of an apparently perfect couple ("Our work was tolerable, our mortgage bearable, our friends genial, our families scattered."), before showing us its descent into escalating domestic violence. Both the humour and the horror come from the narrator-victim's attempts to accommodate and rationalise increasingly lethal attacks.

It's not all black comedy though. Charles Black promises "pure, unadulterated horror," and is true to his word. There are very few laughs in Thana Niveau's The Coal Man, about a childhood demon that leaves coal in your pillow, or scatters lumps "like a rank of chess pieces." Niveau keeps us guessing until the last page, whether the monster is real or a manifestation of her protagonist's disturbed imagination, but though the final truth doesn't come as a complete surprise, it hardly detracts from the power invested in the terrifying Coal Man, one of a host of memorable, original supernatural monsters in this volume that make a refreshing change from the endless rehashes of the vampire and zombie myths cluttering the nation's bookshelves.

Another is Paul Finch's Tok, a hideous simian homunculus with a necklace of human teeth, brought back from Kenya after the Mau Mau uprising by the female protagonist Berni's demented mother-in-law. Berni might have thought that marrying an ex-cop turned security guard would make her safer. Tok suggests the reverse, and the last paragraph is a killer.

Perhaps even more chilling is the grey man with 'insectile eyes' in Gary Fry's Behind The Screen. The screen of the story's title is a laptop computer on which Jake, a jaded researcher working away from home, seeks sexual solace from his wife, masturbating as she poses topless on the screen from their home. Needless to say, this screen plays an important role in the story's creepy conclusion, linking it to the preceding story, David Williamson's Boys Will Be Boys, in which a precocious child gains a premature sexual education via the Internet. Full of gynaecological horrors that would make David Cronenberg wince, this is one of the best and nastiest stories in the book.

Comparatively speaking, the three openers break the reader in gently, while reminding horror aficionados of the Black books' roots in the Pan horror series. The first, Reggie Oliver's Quieta Non Movere, shares a title with a story from The 15th Pan Book Of Horror Stories. But it's a straight pastiche of M.R. James, complete with a repressed cleric, an ominous inscription, a scholar of ecclesiastical history and, of course, a ghost - a malevolent and 'unnaturally' stick-thin ghost. For the diehard Montague Rhodes fans, Oliver even addresses the reader in a Jamesian manner, and has a semi-comical, superstitious lower-class character for the misguidedly enlightened cleric to patronise and scoff at! But he avoids James' main pitfall, that his characters' are often stuffy, prissy bachelors, like Mr Wraxall in Count Magnus, "alone in the world." Canon Staveley, on the other hand, is married, and though Oliver depicts his marriage as a drab, arid affair, his fate does have a horrifying and tragic impact on his family, which is where the creepy "final words of the 137th psalm" come in.

Despite Oliver assuming the M.R. James mantle of sedate understatement, the ending is fairly grand guignol, but following story from David A. Riley seems to be heading in an even quieter direction, more Last Of The Summer Wine than I Know What You Did Last Summer. His brilliantly titled Their Cramped Dark World, a disturbing tale of a dare gone horribly wrong, in The Sixth Black Book Of Horror, might be more the kind of thing fans of his classic urban horror story Lurkers In The Abyss might expect from this veteran of Pan horror.

The Last Coach Trip by contrast is a tragicomic elegy to traditional northern working class culture, rather like a Twilight Zone episode, but with dry humour undercutting any tendency to sentimentality that might imply. It's also a touching portrait of a friendship. Harold is worried when his friend Eddie turns up late and the worse for wear to the last of their working men's club's annual outings and piss-ups, where they visit country pubs and bookies and bemusedly watch an X Factor runner-up. Maybe Eddie's got Alzheimer's, but the change in Eddie is more profound, and the Last Coach Trip of the title has a more macabre meaning. "Some days should never end," says Eddie, and their eerie fate is a warning about being unable to cope with change.

The only tale that struck a false note was Mark Samuels' The Other Tenant. While the story provided a memorably scary variation on the doppelganger theme, he made his protagonist too unsympathetic and 'alone in the world' for the reader to care about his fate. Rather like in his Sixth Black Book Of Horror offering, Keeping Your Mouth Shut, he presents us with a solitary nerdy character (in the Sixth, it was an obsessive horror fan and wannabe writer, in this one an obsessive leftwing atheist), and info dumps about how he came to be such a billy-no-mates. Having indulged in literary character assassination, he then assassinates the character literally in a way that's supposed to provide grim, poetic justice, but just seems heavy-handed. And all the red-baiting's so last century! As he reminds us in his story, the Berlin Wall fell over 20 years ago.

Those who like literary experimentation may be disappointed by The Eighth Black Book Of Horror, in which all the stories are written in the past tense (apart from some sections of Quieta Non Movere), with only third- or first-person narratives. No stories narrated by a spoon here, I'm afraid, and with only two exceptions (one particularly striking), every author shares the same gender as his or her main protagonist/ narrator. However, this no-nonsense approach has given us a really strong set of stories that can only consolidate the series' growing reputation.

In the course of this and the previous seven volumes, Charles Black has cultivated a talented bunch of writers. The cover features a rogues' gallery of what appears to be their piled-up, severed heads, painted in typically grisly fashion by Paul Mudie.

The 8th Black Book of Horror



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