Monday, 25 August 2014

The Spectral Book of Horror

The Spectral Book of Horror is an instantly attractive volume. The cover is graced by a gorgeous painting by Vincent Chong showing two boys and a girl standing against a cracked and peeling wall, illuminated by a sickly yellow light. The girl clutches a standard issue creepy, porcelain-faced doll to her chest, whilst a large, bloodied knife hangs loosely from the hand of one of the boys. They wear animal, skull and Cthulhoid masks, and cast monstrous and devilish shadows, projections of their dark animas. It looks as if they are preparing to enact some ritual invocation, or are taking a break from one which is in progress. An invocation designed to raise those shadowy outlines in bodily form. Can we judge the book by this cover? To a certain extent, yes. It suggests that the terrors within will be of a largely domestic variety, and that whatever supernatural elements are present won’t be made overtly manifest. Rather they will be half-glimpsed, distorted shapes momentarily caught in the periphery of vision, or wraiths suggestively coalescing from the darkness in the farthest corner of the room. There may also be hauntings from the spectres of the intense childhood imagination which are never wholly exorcised, even if they are eclipsed by adult preoccupations. Both of these presumptions prove to be accurate.

The introduction by the collection’s editor, Mark Morris, recalls the days of the Pan, Fontana and Armada paperbacks of the 70s; a halcyon period of plenty for the short story in all the genres of the fantastic. These collections, the Pan Books of Horror Stories in particular, mixed old classics of terror and the supernatural with modern nasties, contes crueles which were sometimes little more than set-ups for gruesome fates, described with lingering relish. The Pan series was edited by Herbert van Thal, a man with a name eminently suited for the task. It looked great on the covers, and conjured an image of a Peter Cushing Van Helsing type, a smoking-jacketed connoisseur of the grim and ghoulish commenting urbanely from his walnut-panelled, book-lined study whilst drawing on an ornately curving pipe. Morris fondly summons up a childhood picture of reading torchlight under the covers on stormy winter nights, a memory which invites smiling nods of collective recognition. It envelops these anthologies in a warm, blurry haze of period nostalgia, and posits them as a strange form of comfort literature. My experience was rather different. The bleached photographic covers disturbed me, particularly the one with the half-buried head the colour of a swede, half-human, half-root vegetable. There were a couple of nasty stories which gave me bad dreams for a good many nights, and which I tried vainly to cleanse from my mind.

Morris seems to have the long-running Pan Books of Horror in mind when voices the hope that the Spectral Book of Horror may be the first in a regular series. Times have changed since van Thal churned out his increasingly tawdry selections, however. Newsagents no longer have revolving wire racks of mass-market paperbacks for people to pick up as casually as the daily paper. The market for short stories has shrunk drastically, spurious notions of value for money leading to ever-more bloated mega-novels, the increased wordage designed chiefly to expand the breadth of the spine and occupy a more prominent proportion of the display shelf. Concision is a largely lost novelistic art, and the short story is an increasingly rarefied and endangered species, protected by a few dedicated conservationists. Gene Wolfe wryly commented on the situation back in 1989 when he actually entitled his latest short story collection Endangered Species. A regular anthology from Spectral Press would by hugely welcome, then.

I think the first Spectral Book of Horror is a bit classier than the Pan books, however. Firstly, there’s that nightmarishly beautiful cover of everyday Lovecraftian terror. True, there are a few stories within which might have taken their festering place within the musty Pan covers. Anecdotal squibs like Tom Fletcher’s Slape, Michael Marshall Smith’s Stolen Kisses and the initial stages of Brian Hodge’s Cures for a Sickened World, which are essentially set-ups for gross pay-offs. All they need is an afterword from a cackling, corpse-faced crypt keeper cracking off-colour quips to complete the feel of an EC comics vignette. The other stories are far more substantial, however, with a refreshing lack of hastily scrawled tableaux of intricately agonising death (or worse). These stories are, dare I say it, more literary. They veer towards what was once defined as dark fantasy in an attempt to distinguish it from the splatter of the more visceral body horror emerging in the 1980s.

The majority of the writers are British, and the settings of their stories largely portray a determinedly de-romanticised view of the country. The stories of M.John Harrison and Robert Aickman, set in the dank, dilapidated no-spaces of unglamorous provincial towns and cities, are a touchpoint here; Harrison’s Egnaro, A Young Man’s Guide to Viriconium, The Incalling and his novel The Course of the Heart in particular. So too is the clammily creepy episode from the Amicus portmanteau film From Beyond the Grave in which Ian Bannern’s frustrated city commuter visits the drab home of ex-serviceman Donald Pleasance, from whom he has been buying matches, and meets his eerie, ghostly daughter (played by Pleasance’s actual daughter, Angela). This certainly came to my mind when reading Helen Marshall’s Funeral Rites, in which a Canadian post-grad student comes to lodge at the dingy Oxford house of the morose Mrs Moreland and her two palled, hostile nieces.

The Spectral Book of Horror is bookended by two well-known and highly respected genre writers, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Volk. Volk’s novelette Whitstable, an affecting tribute to Peter Cushing in the form of a fictional portrait of the actor in his later years, some time after the death of his beloved wife Helen, was published by Spectral Press to great acclaim last year. There is a judicious mix of well-established writers and new voices (new to me, at least) throughout. I was particularly pleased to read something new by Lisa Tuttle, a writer familiar to me from her superb 1986 collection A Nest of Nightmares, along with subsequent novels and stories. Other familiar names include Robert Shearman (who re-introduced the Daleks to the revamped Doctor Who, and is a particularly fine exponent of the short story), Steve Rasnic Tem, Nicholas Royle (forming a connection with the early days of Interzone, and thereby indirectly with New Worlds, whose experimentalism it initially carried on), Conrad Williams, Michael Marshall Smith and Stephen Laws. But newer or less established writers provide material of equal power and accomplishment here. The Spectral Book of Horror serves a vital (and increasingly rare) function in this respect, providing new stories from familiar names, which will attract the attention of the discerning genre reader, whilst also building a nurturing environment in which a fresh generation of talent can be fostered.

Ramsey Campbell’s story On The Tour opens the collection and to a great extent sets the tone. Its portrait of Stu Stewart, former drummer of Merseybeat also-rans The Scousers, finds Campbell back on home, Liverpudlian territory. Stewart’s is a life eked out on the thin, dusty sustenance of worn and threadbare dreams, confined within the grooves of the record stacked amongst the seldom-browsed LPs of Vin’s Vintage Vinyl, the shop where he works. The mirthless humour of the exchanges he has with his boss Vin, dialogue underscored by indirect power play, together with the sense of a life staged as an increasingly desperate performance for an imaginary audience (the rock nostalgia tour bus which purportedly includes his house on its programmed route) puts this in the absurdist territory of Pinter and Beckett. The horror here is of mental breakdown, of sustaining illusions being dispelled. We are caught unsparingly within the subjective viewpoint of a life and a mind unravelling, following Stu’s steadily accelerating descent. The ironic juxtaposition of this narrative perspective with our comprehension of its increasing illogic and delusory disconnection from the real is reminiscent of the psychological sketches of the inner life Katherine Mansfield drew in her short stories. Campbell’s subtle direction of events towards a point where they go very badly out of control is what pushes this in the realm of horror, although the terrain is not established with any obvious generic markers. The suggestive final paragraph is a classic case of allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in detail, creating manifold horrors from the shadowy substance of their own fears.

Further excursions into the absurd can be found in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Life Inspector, in which the right to continued existence is weighed up according to the hermetic illogic of a relentless and briskly efficient bureaucrat. Nicholas Royle’s This Video Does Not Exist is a self-interrogating story, pitching a surrealist piece of absurdism involving a man who wakes up to find his head is no longer visible in any reflections against real world horrors read about in the papers and seen online and in the news in which people genuinely lose their heads. National and international events mirror each other, and the whole world seems to have descended into absurd drama, staged for a ready audience plugged into diverse media. In the face of this new, terrifying reality in which globalised, digital technology goes hand in hand with barbarous savagery, the main character’s personal crisis of identity comes to seem like an indulgence, and the story ends abruptly with his inner narrative being abandoned. The existential headless man scenario might be seen as typical of Royle’s thematic and stylistic territory, and as such there’s an element of auto-criticism here. I can imagine the story’s initial conceit being inspired by a Magritte painting, just as his novel Saxophone Dreams was inspired by the surrealist paintings of Paul Delvaux. Indeed, Magritte’s painting La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced), depicting a man looking in a mirror which reflects the perspective we see of the back of his head, is described in the story, suggesting a probable point of inspiration. It was also used in the 1974 film Un Homme Que Dort (A Man Asleep), based on a short novel by absurdist writer Georges Perec, who also worked on the adaptation. This tale of existential drift and disappearance in Paris has definite affinities with Royle’s work (as well as dovetailing with his cinephile side), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was familiar with it.

Magritte - La Reproduction Interdite
One of the pleasures of an anthology which has no explicit linking theme or subject lies in creating your own connections. Certain similarities or correspondences reveal themselves, and conspicuous differences in style and approach also become apparent. The subjective realism which Campbell establishes is further explored by a number of writers here. The fear of aging, and the attendant sense of life’s possibilities diminishing - of watching your life slide out of view, as Jarvis Cocker put it – is present in Michael Marshall Smith’s Stolen Kisses, Angela Slatter’s The October Widow, Conrad Williams’ The Devil’s Interval, Nicholas Royle’s This Video Does Not Exist and Steve Rasnic Tem’s The Night Doctor. A number of stories also feature lonely characters who are disconnected from society, for whom the prospect of mental disintegration is an everpresent and very real terror. Nora Higgins, the socially withdrawn protagonist of Helen Marshall’s Funeral Rites, conspires in her own fate, almost welcoming the oblivion of its cold embrace. Cecil Davis, in Angela Slatter’s The October Widow, is an aging, isolated character leading an enervated, bare bones life dedicated with van Helsing purity of purpose to the pursuit of a Pagan seasonal spirit, one of whose sacrificial victims was his son. The central relationship of the protagonist of Conrad Williams’ The Devil’s Interval, an aimless office drifter, is with his guitar, which becomes a dangerously uncontrolled channel for his suppressed emotions and banked up anger. And Ramsey Campbell’s Stu Stewart, trapped in a moment of eternally recycled nostalgia, is another aging loner cut adrift from the here and now.

Family life is another common thread, but few comforts are offered to counterbalance the hollow loneliness and mentally fraying isolation found elsewhere. Instead, it is shown at its most claustrophobic and controlling, swallowing up and absorbing individual identity and endeavour. This is the family of knotty Freudian entanglements, the unspoken subterranean roots dug up and exposed to the withering light. In Gary McMahon’s Dull Fire, the couple tentatively beginning a relationship carry the ghosts of their abusive mother and father with them on their rootless travels. The story contains a sentence which encompasses the generally downbeat tone of the collection, a Philip Marlowe-esque observation that a rundown hotel room is ‘the kind of place lonely suicides might come to end their miserable days’. It is, instead, the place where the protagonists try to start something which will ease their loneliness and misery. Robert Shearman’s Carry Within Some Sliver of Me (a poetic title with echoes of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison) is full-on Freudian horror, describing a monstrous, devouring mother with repulsive literalness. As with McMahon’s story (with its equally monstrous father), the fear (or dull acceptance) of inheritance, of growing into the monstrous parent, is foremost. Monstrous fathers also turn up in Rio Youers’ Outside Heavenly and (to a lesser extent) Stephen Volks’ Newspaper Heart, while Helen Marshall’s Funeral Rites has a monstrous mother-in-law by proxy.

South coast modernism - the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
Alison Moore’s Eastmouth is about being absorbed into someone else’s close-knit family, and the anxiety of the isolated individual over loss of self-identity. The protagonist, Sonia, sees her dreams of a showbiz life wither and fade, reduced to the antediluvian end of the pier attractions of a southern seaside town caught forever in a mid-century stasis. The description of a ‘modernist pre-war building’ suggests that Moore may have had Bexhill in mind. The amazing De la Warr Pavillion, built on the seafront in 1935, is one of England’s finest buildings in the modernist International Style. It’s actually been recently restored to its former glory in a 2005 refurbishment and hosts a fine programme of art exhibitions and concerts. But I know what Moore has in mind – the tattered, dilapidated remains of pre-war utopian dreams. The story contains a sentence which perhaps contains the purest distillation of horror in the whole collection, when the man whom Sonia seems fated to marry boldly declares that Cannon and Ball, who are appearing at the theatre, are his favourite act of all time. She should have run screaming at that point. Moore’s evocation of out of season melancholy and grubby memories of childhood excursions to the seaside exemplify the seedy scenarios of a good many of the stories in the collection. It’s a place where ‘nothing changes’, where you are stared at by ‘dead-eyed gulls’ and the front is weakly illuminated by ‘sunlight the colour of weak urine’. An entropic environment redolent of personal and national inertia and decay. The view of the family as an oppressive, constraining force is here extended to the whole town; a closed community monomind, just a few shambling steps away from agglomerating to become a gesticulating zombie horde. There’s something a little reminiscent of an English variant on Shirley Jackson’s classic short story The Lottery here.

Ironically, the only positive take on the family as a supportive, encouraging unit is offered in Stephen Laws’ Slista; and the family here is monstrous, murderous and possibly not even human. Alison Littlewood’s story The Dog’s Home plays on the reluctant obligations and financial wheedling attendant upon relations with more indirect, spiky branches of the family tree. It’s also one of a number of stories whose first person narrative voice gives a misleading initial impression of balance and reason. Scary Aunt Rose is the dragon of the family, whose thorny harshness is tolerated and indulged in the hope of charming or inheriting a share of her hoarded wealth from her. Her hardness in the face of the family’s penury is contrasted with the unconditional love and loyalty of her dog. This dog becomes the emotional focus in a tale of betrayal and cruelty. Again, it is madness, the loss of rational control, which is seen as the ultimate horror here.

The family stories culminate in Stephen Volk’s Newspaper Heart, the Spectral Book of Horror’s final tale, a powerful piece firmly rooted in a specific time and place (October 1970 in the Welsh Valleys). As he did in his intense scripts for the Afterlife series, Volk unearths the fears inherent in family life, bringing them to life and examining them unflinchingly but with great compassion and empathy. The story is partly a variant on the creepy ventriloquist’s dummy tale, the dummy in this case being a baby-faced bonfire night guy rather than a tux-clad wooden-head with fixed grin and ruddy cheeks. It’s also a descendant of the old changeling folk tales, an acknowledgement of the ancient roots of late October and early November fire festivals. The horror elements here are a way of exploring any number of emotional and psychological subcurrents within the family. Parental anxiety over the child’s safety; the effect of economic depression on a marriage, and of marital drift on a child’s mental stability; the slowly corrosive effects of class-selfconsciousness and division; the thin boundaries between childhood and adulthood, with the marital home compared with the school playground; and a mother’s guilt at the unutterable suspicion that they might not love their child as much as they’re supposed to – or even that they might wish that they’d never had them. The familiar litany of period TV favourites are intoned (Blue Peter with Val, John and Peter, the Vision On gallery music), along with the more conservative end of the pop spectrum (Elvis, Mary Hopkins and Smokey Robinson). But rather than a prompt for nostalgia, these are used more to suggest stultifying routine and narrow limitations. This counter-nostalgia is re-enforced by the simultaneous citation of news stories about Vietnam, Biafra and Northern Ireland. The mention of the Mexico 70 World Cup also summons up retrospective feelings of disappointment, an ‘end of the 60s’ come down. Newspaper Heart demonstrates just how multi-layered and complex the short story form can be, with a dense pattern of allusion, metaphor and symbolism combining to crate potently suggestive and multivalent meanings. Importantly for a horror story, it’s also very scary, with a few of those moments of chill frisson which masters of the supernatural expertly engender. This is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the collection, and I can see why it was chosen as the closing story.

Two authors provide variations on the theme of the performer becoming confused with their signature stage or screen role, either in their own minds or that of their fans. Brian Hodge’s Cures for a Sickened World is a third story of warped and delusory rock dreaming, of the spurious power which its self-mythologisation confers, to add to Ramsey Campbell’s On the Tour and Conrad Williams’ The Devil’s Interval. It begins as a sick revenge on the critic tale, with a snide, destructively negative online reviewer’s hyperbolic figures of speech, used comparatively to delineate what he’d prefer to do rather than listen to the music of a costumed shock metal band called Balrog, taken at face value by its lead singer, Ghast (aka Tomas Lundvall). Cue Saw-like punishments designed s morally corrective lessons. The story develops beyond such limited, mechanical parameters, however, going on to explore notions of moral culpability, the relative nature of evil, the delicate balance between a performer’s stage persona and his or her real self, and the corrupting effect of the urge to use shock-tactics to gain attention in a media-saturated world.

The disjuncture between real and media selves is also the subject of Lisa Tuttle’s alliteratively titled Something Sinister in Sunlight. It features an English actor, Anson, who has become shackled to the role of a serial killer called Cassius Crittender, a character who has become increasingly charismatic as his popularity flourishes, gradually completing the transformation from cold-blooded psychopath to agonised romantic. It’s a moral metamorphosis which many fictional monsters undergo as they become familiar to the point of becoming de-fanged and -clawed. Now it’s the turn of the mythologised serial killer, that very modern monster, to be romanticised, as we have seen in the later Hannibal films and the TV series Dexter; the good serial killer thwarting the bad. Tuttle’s story plays upon this romanticisation and all that it implies – the old connection between sex and death familiar from Freud and French decadent writers and poets. The fact that Cassius’ attraction is mainly felt by women whereas Anson is gay adds another level of play-acting complication between performer, role and obsessive viewer. When Anson accepts an invitation to dinner at a female fan’s house, the tensions which these layers of illusion create come to the surface, with alarming results. Tuttle’s stranding of an English actor in LA in this role is a wry comment on the way that British stage gravitas translates into villainy in Hollywood. There’s another allusion to the weakness of the English sun. But whilst it was a symbol of provincial dullness in Alison Moore’s story Eastmouth, a dim spot from which the main character dreamed of escaping, heading for the bright lights of America, for Anson the opposite is the case. He yearns to return home to his partner, to fly away from limiting fame and from the bleached out light of California to get back to the grey, rain-heavy skies of Blighty. It’s a neat reversal of the more common location of Hollywood as the locus of dreams of escape.

Two stories make play with language to create narrative perspectives removed from the norm. The first person narrative of The Slista by Stephen Laws is written in a phonetic language whose stunted words suggest a devolved version of our world. The basement dwelling family hints at first at a post-apocalyptic scenario, with the simplified spelling similar to that in Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker. But is soon becomes apparent that whoever is speaking in this strange, slurred tongue is part of a group of shadowy wainscot dwellers looking out on the contemporary world from the spaces in between. The Book and the Ring by Reggie Oliver is written in formal Elizabethan English, the language conveying historical antiquity with first person immediacy. It reminded me of the 16th century narrative of David I Masson’s 1965 tale A Two Timer, first published in New Worlds. The Book and the Ring is an M.R.Jamesian tale of ancient books uncovered during scholastic researches in ecclesiastical surrounds which bring to light strange and troubling stories of long-buried occult encounters. The devil which is summoned by the Elizabethan composer Jeremiah Starcky from the usual tome of dangerous lore acquired from a local witch takes the standard passive aggressive Satanic approach of giving human greed, lust and attendant paranoia space to fashion their own irrevocable damnation. It’s a tale told with great gusto, taking particular delight in period cursing and swearing. With its full panoply of witches, devils, books of the damned and souls in mortal supernatural peril, this is one of the most purely pleasurable stories in the collection.

Oliver’s story is atypical in its traditionalism. The Spectral Book of Horror withholds many of the traditional pleasures of the genre. The classic gothic bestiary is extinct here, perhaps because it currently thrives in terrain purists disdain. There are few manifestations of the supernatural or intrusions of the exobiological (ghosts and monsters). And what devils do appear are at least partly demons of the mind. The writers mine the dark caverns of the human spirit for their fears and terrors. Newborn monsters are present at the edges of some tales, however. The torturous, vampiric relationship between rock star and journalistic parasite in Cures for a Sickened World gives birth to a new breed of demon, waiting in the shadows to be fully defined by human appetites. And the title creature of Steve Rasnic Tem’s The Night Doctor is a spectral figure with an inhuman, faceless head and a dark, leathery bag who appears when you are sleeping to offer dubious cures which may ultimately be worse than the illness itself. It’s an embodiment of fears of aging, physical decline and death, either of oneself or of those one loves.

Older forces are summoned up in Angela Slatter’s The October Widow and Rio Youers’ Outside Heavenly. Slatter’s tale is a piece of modern Pagan horror, bringing sesasonal sacrifices into the contemporary world. Inevitably, there are some echoes of The Wicker Man here. Very faint ones, though, perhaps more from its endless citation as a point of comparison. Outside Heavenly is a piece of Midwestern gothic which also incorporates elements of the police procedural. Police Chief John Peck is an inadvertent occult cop, as opposed to the more traditional occult detectives such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki. Demonic energies have destroyed a monstrous father with grim thoroughness. The devil here is a wish fulfilling avenger, but one which also represents the psychological (or even spiritual) damage the abused offspring inherits from the abuser, even (or especially) after they are caught and punished. It’s to Youers’ credit that he doesn’t pander to the easy release of the revenge fantasy here. The evidence which the Police Chief eventually uncovers is akin to the folktales of Lucifer over Lancashire – burning hoofprints left in a huge striding trail across the landscape.

This is a fine start for the Spectral Book of Horror. The stories tend towards the darker end of the spectrum, and the moral certainties of older gothic horror forms have totally disappeared. It makes for an uneasy read at times, perhaps even connecting with personal anxieties to disconcerting effect. This is not horror as escapist fantasy, but horror facing the fears and uncertainties of the modern age, and of the modern, embattled psyche. By thus confronting them, we can go some way towards dispelling, or at least controlling them. Let us hope that Mark Morris’ and Spectral’s plans for further volumes come to fruition, and that we are offered further caustic, homeopathic balms for our unconscious terrors.

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