This Dreaming Isle – ed. Dan Coxon – 7.5/10

There’s something about the British Isles that tends towards the eerie. The streams and rivers and forests and hills, lakes and valleys seem to crawl with stories of the odd and the uncanny – depending on who you listen to. “This Dreaming Isle”, edited by Dan Coxon, is a celebration of that uncanniness, an atmosphere and storytelling tradition that helped give rise to all manner of media that explore what lies in the murk – most especially, in this case, folk horror.

There’s a flavou51pxf5ypm8l._sy346_r of folklore from every corner of the British Isles in this collection, and the division of the stories by location (Country, City or Coast) means that those who like to dip in and out can find something to suit their mood, whether it’s the past haunting a man who cannot escape it in windswept Ramsgate (Gary Budden’s “Hovering”), the twitter-haunting of an alt-right troll visiting London for the first time (“Not All Right” by James Miller) or the Shuck-haunted hills of Pendle (as in “Old Trash” by Jenn Ashworth). There is also a wide range of styles on display, from the email-based, almost found-footage “We Regret To Inform You” by Jeannette Ng (whose alternate history with a necromatically-resurrected Thatcher sparking civil war I would love to see more of), to the neat ghost story “The Stone Dead” by Alison Moore to Robert Shearman’s surreal tale of urban decadence, “The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand”. This is an anthology I was looking forward to getting my hands on for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint. However, as ever, there are some truly stand-out stories among an excellent collection.

 

Dark Shells – Aliya Whitely

In “Dark Shells” Aliya Whitely tells an all too familiar story of a declining village through the eyes of one of its elderly residents. The sensitive portrayal of her dementia adds layers of pathos and meaning to the story that is truly heart-wrending at times. This story haunts you for a long time afterwards – exactly what I was hoping for from this anthology.

Cold Ashton – Stephen Volk

This treads old ground in many ways as a recounting of a legendary witch trial – the stuff of many popular folk horrors in the past. Volk’s treatment of the tropes and the characters, however, make this one of the best examples of the genre I’ve come across.

Domestic Magic – Kirsty Logan

The build-up to the climax of this series of vignettes about a couple being hounded by the consequences of a grandmother’s actions is excellent. Here Logan has a lot of fun with kelpie lore, while keeping the focus tight and tense.

The Knucker – Gareth E. Rees

An enjoyable take on timeslips which neatly stitches together uncanny incidents across history into a tapestry of folklore. The way that different peoples at different times observe phenomena is well observed and adds to the story’s texture.

The Headland of Black Rock – Alison Littlewood

Littlewood’s twist on mermaid lore is evocative and engaging, with a beauty that is belied by its cynical protagonist.

The Devil in the Details – Ramsey Campbell

This story of holidaymakers apparently haunted by a long-dead artist through his murals is suitably unsettling and engrossing. The aunt is well written, with a real sense both of her irritating aspects and the sadness that lies beneath, while the banality of a seaside town seen through the eyes of a modern twelve-year-old is delightfully evoked.

Swimming With Horses – Angela Readman

This sweet story of kelpies and polyamory is a fine coming-of-age tale and is well suited to rounding off a at-times grim and gritty series of stories. Angela Redman plays with ideas of being free, relating freedom both to those youths who “escape” their seaside existence by going to uni and those who stay and find their own paths.

 

“This Dreaming Isle” is a must for fans of folk-horror and folklore. It’s an eclectic mix, but this is its strength. There’s something to suit every taste, and every chance you’ll find an unexpected treasure. Well recommended.

 

Cry Your Way Home – Damien Angelica Walters – 8.5/10

Damien A. Waters’ “Cry Your Way Home” is a truly moving, gripping, unsettling collection of uncanny horror that is sure to hook fans of the eerie and the strange. She artfully blends dark fairy-tale, weird fiction and human dramas to produce a moving collection of stories, some of which are very hard-hitting indeed.

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The stories are consistently of a high standard. Waters is adept at keeping the creatures and entities that populate the shadows of her stories either entirely in the shadows, or in the peripheries of the vision, even when they stand in plain sight of the reader. The true power of the stories, however, doesn’t lie in the strength of the horror of the other, but in the skilfully-written human elements of the stories.

At the core of many of the stories in “Cry Your Way Home” are relationships, whether fraught or broken or unhealthy or lost. A lost loved one, for example, can provide just as much horror as the eldritch forces behind events. The bond between parents and children is explored in several, whether because of misunderstandings that lead to tragedy or the terrible loss that comes with losing a child, and the yearning to regain what has been torn away. Bullying is another common theme, one that often begs the question of, in a world populated by weird creatures lurking in the peripheries, just who the real monsters are. This is where Waters’ strength really lies, in blending the boundaries between the real and unreal, the human and the inhuman, the supernatural and the mundane, and it is this that makes “Cry Your Way Home” a must-read for fans of weird fiction and horror.

While the entire collection is unsettlingly enjoyable, there are a number of stories that deserve special mentions:

Deep Within the Marrow, Hidden in My Smile – a chilling modern-day dark fairytale about step-sisters clashing as they adjust to their new family, with a sense of mounting dread and mystery that is excellently handled.

On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes – one of the least weird and most moving stories. Here Waters weaves a tale of cyber-bullying and fraught family relationships colliding tragically.

S is for Soliloquy – a fun take on the tropes of superheroes balancing their alter-egos, their professional lives, and the twists and turns of dating.

Take a Walk in the Night, My Love – an unsettling story about a woman’s uncanny tendency to wander in the night, and her husband’s reaction to this.

The Serial Killer’s Astronaut Daughter – one of the most memorable stories of the set. A gripping psychological drama about being controlled by and judged against a past you have no power over, and how to regain agency in your life through your own will.

A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take – one of the cleverest stories I’ve read in a long time. Here Waters frames an abusive relationship from the perspective of the victim through a bewildering mish-mash of fairy-tales. Hansel and Gretel, Bluebeard, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood blur together as two minds wrestle over who gets to tell the story, and who gets to decide how it is told.

In the Spaces Where You Once Lived –  a truly moving tale about losing a beloved spouse to Alzheimer’s which provides a poignant note to end the collection on.

In conclusion, “Cry Your Way Home” is highly recommended to lovers of the weird, poignant and unsettling. Waters’ work is engaging and incisive, and makes a fine addition to any bookshelf.

Seasons of Insanity – G. Ainsworth and F. W. Haubold – 7.5/10

In “Seasons of Insanity” Gill Ainsworth and Frank Haubold collaborate to give the reader an enjoyable – and unsettling – tour of the darkest depths of the human psyche across a year, with each story being assigned to a different month. The two authors work well together, with Haubold providing unsettling ambiguity and Ainsworth showing her ability to viscerally get under the skin – this means that there’s something here to appeal to fans of all kinds of horror. Accordingly, the tone of the stories moves between the unsettling and the downright disturbing in a way that ensures that the reader is kept on edge.

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A real strength of the collection is the humanity of the characters. Nothing is driven by something that is truly alien and monstrous – any dark motives have understandable drives. The reader becomes aware that under different circumstances – in grief, sickness, when trapped in dark memories –  they could so easily become them.

The collection as a whole is solid to say the least, but as with any anthology, there are particular stories that stand out from an impressive crowd. In “Fighting the Flab” and “Cuddly Toys”, Gill Ainsworth best shows her ability to make a reader squirm (in my case, physically). “Fighting the Flab” is a harrowing account of obsession with weight loss, and is one of the most affecting horror pieces I’ve read in a long time. Likewise, “Cuddly Toys” is deeply unsettling, as a child’s search for the source of the love in their toys leads to a tragically logical conclusion – tragic in its outcome and in its motivations. Ultimately, both are stories about love – the desire to love the self, and the desire to be loved by others.

Other standouts from Ainsworth’s stories are “Bugs”, an engaging take on conspiracy theories with a clever and unexpected twist ending, and “End of the Line”, in which she demonstrates great skill with emotion, carefully balancing grief, regret and hope as she tells the tale of a chance encounter between a woman and her son who could have been.

Haubold also adeptly utilises grief as a source of horror in “The Miracle Tree” and “Seven”; this latter tale is a great twist on Halloween-themed serial killers that treads familiar territory in a fresh and invigorating way.  Another standout among his works is the Lovecraftian serial-killer story of “He Who Picks the Bones.” However, his finest work in the anthology, for me, is “Welcome to the Machine”, a story which takes place almost entirely within a medical scanner. It’s a neat take on the tropes of epidemics and the zombie apocalypse, and is a perfect choice to round off the anthology.

Overall, “Seasons of Insanity” has something for every horror fan, and is a highly recommended read.

This review was written in exchange for a free copy of the ebook.

Everything That’s Underneath – Kristi DeMeester – 8.5/10

Kristi DeMeester’s first collection of short fiction is aptly named, as if there is one thing “Everything That’s Underneath” does well, it’s get under your skin. This is a deeply unsettling collection, executed with skill – it concerns, disgusts, repels and fascinates the reader across a range of eighteen tales which maintain a solid standard throughout.

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Much of the horror is drawn from relationships that are damaged, sometimes broken beyond repair, sometimes fragile and liable to fracture at any moment (as in the tragic ending of December Skin, which is built on strong familial love and, ultimately, bestial betrayal). Monstrosities can often be read as evocative metaphors for abusive relationships, lost love, and grief – yet these metaphors themselves take on a life of their own and often take an autonomous, sentient role in the storytelling. And these unsettling beings often demand a price to be paid of the characters. Often this heightens the pathos that comes with often-inescapable fates, but sometimes one gets the feeling that the prices are deserved (a good example of this is “Fleshtival”, in which a drug-dealer follows up rumours of an orgy that sounds too good to be true. His fate is expected, but not as expected, and knowing that the temptations he chases are too good to be true only intensifies the tension as the end approaches).

DeMeester is also a master of ambiguity. She is able to walk the tightrope of showing just enough to arrest the reader, but not so much that we can necessarily identify the source of our fear, but not so little that it results in frustration and a vague sense of “weirdness”. Her entities and fears become more real in their intangibility. There is beauty evoked in darkness, and darkness evoked in beauty, and her control of pace and style are truly excellent.

The whole collection is well worth reading, but a few highlights are:

All That Is Refracted, Broken

A touching, if unsettling, tale of child brought back from the brink of death who refuses to look at sister without a mirror. The folklore of mirrors, and what lurks in their images, is given fresh vitality in a story of love, fear, and sacrifice.

 

To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth

A haunting metaphor for the ceaseless searching that can be born of grief. Two girls befriend a mysterious child who can find anything that is lost, whether it should be found or not. The ultimate question asked by this story is – are the dead truly lost? And would we want to find them?

 

Birthright

Here siblings fight over the right to visions of their dead mother in a story of possessive and destructive grief deadening two girls to life at a time when they should be coming of age. The tale is made all the stronger by the apparently ambivalent intentions of the entity visiting them.

 

To Sleep Long, To Sleep Deep

In one of the tales that gets most under the skin, a woman’s abusive, violence-porn-obsessed partner is found dead. Her continuing obsession with a Necronomical book that kept her in the relationship in the first place is disturbing and explores the notion of dehumanisation within abusive relationships.

 

The Long Road

A moving Lovecraftian love-story, in which love battles against unstoppable, inevitable decay pursuing the protagonist from his past.

 

Split Tongues

Americal Evangelism takes a dark turn in an arresting and disturbing story of teenage lust and coming of age. The strength of the tale for me was its foundation of irony – a man whose adultery tears his family apart turns to God (or what he thinks is God) and in so doing leaves his daughter under threat from succubic entities.

 

If you like your horror eerie, Lovecraftian, Kafkaesque and disturbing, then this collection is a must.

Shine Your Light On Me – Lee Thompson – 5.5/10

Lee Thompson’s horror-noir Shine Your Light On Me certainly shines light into the dark places of the human spirit. Set in small-town America, amidst a seething mass of family feud, infidelity, domestic abuse and resentment, it tells the story of a single night in which the miraculous happens and changes the town for ever.

One would have thought that a bar full of people being miraculously healed of all their ills would lead to joy and jubilation, and for some it does. But the joy soon turns sour as those who were not present become bitter that they were not there, and demands for the young protagonist, Aiden, to repeat a feat he wasn’t even aware of performing turn predictably nasty.

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There are many horror tropes at play here. We have a hostage situation, when Aiden and his crippled father are taken hostage by Mitch, his father’s greatest enemy, to force him to cure his daughter; a zombie-esque siege as the locals become desperate enough for salvation that they will kill anyone in their path; the unhinged psychopath, Pine, used as an enforcer by his brother but who ultimately ends up out of control. All of this is highlighted with a multitude of Biblical references that ultimately pitches the tone of the tale into one of Messiah against Anti-Christ, but with little redemption for the bystanders. Likewise, the darkness of the material runs deep. Pine molests the child whom Aiden is forced to cure, another youth, driven by an abusive father and the apathy of his peers, plots to blow up his school as a final suicidal act, Aiden’s father is crippled after being crucified by Pine and Mitch to punish him for his affair with their step-mother, locals become mindless as mass hysteria grips them, whipped up by an almost-literally born-again pastor… the list goes on (although one wonders, given the events leading up to the story, why police aren’t crawling all over the town; Mitch and Pine’s mock-crucifixion seems to have had precious few consequences).

And this, perhaps, is where Shine Your Light On Me falls down. There is an awful lot happening in a relatively short book, and while the gore and the horror are impactful and the depths of depravity in the small town are hard-hitting, perhaps a little more time to develop characters before they are dispatched would increase the power of this book. The themes of redemption, and missed opportunities for it, and the light and dark shades of life and the meaning of it, are bubbling away beneath the surface, but the novel comes to the boil too soon, and while the closing scenes are certainly impressive, the reader’s lack of engagement with the characters themselves leads to the events feeling somewhat hollow, but nonetheless sensational.

Overall, a quick and fun read for fans of horror and gore.

Greener Pastures – M. Wehunt – 7.5/10

Wehunt’s Greener Pastures, gathers together a number of his stories that draw heavily from the American south and urban legend and blend it with the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and the unsettling world of M. R. James in a striking and unusual collection.

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“Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness” is an excellent example of Wehunt’s ability to bend tropes into something new and fresh. His riff on the vampire mythos – a bleeding mountain that infects two young girls and leaves them craving blood – is given extra poignancy in its perspective of the only surviving sister making a pilgrimage to the place of her rebirth, looking back on her life. The strength of this story is Wehunt’s exploration of what it is to be a monster, and to know one is a monster through no fault of your own.

“Onanon” is a disturbing tale of a writer and his relationship with his mother, who is not all that she seems, and his writing, with a piece of gibberish texts haunting his works. His conscious blending of the Cthulu-mythos with the hive-structure of bees makes for an interesting source of cosmic dread.

From existential cosmic dread, Wehunt moves on to “Greener Pastures”, an unsettling urban-legend story of truckers discussing hauntings on the interstate. The real horror is drawn from that of loneliness, with the protagonist desperate to make it home for his young daughter’s birthday. Wehunt cleverly inverts the usual haunting tropes of the often malevolent dead, and instead has the truckers being haunted more by the living. The story has no real conclusion, heightening the dread, but in a way that some readers may find unsatisfying – but such is the way of weird fiction.

The themes of loneliness are further explored in “A Discreet Music”. The loss of the elderly Hiram’s wife leads him to recall and attempt to rekindle a lost love of his past. This is a deeply moving story of love, loss, and the importance and difficulty of moving on and accepting that some choices are irrevocable. The slow transformation of Hiram into a black swan illustrates his grief and his slow acceptance that he, like a swan, has mated for life; but there is a hint at the hope of a future life for him.

The next two stories follow a completely different tack. “The Devil Under Maison Blue” is in essence story of the spirit of an old jazz player recollecting his Faustian bargain that gave him his skills and freed him from his father. His relation of it to a young neighbour undergoing abuse at the hands of her father leads to the means of her own release. On the other hand, “October Film Haunt: Under the House” is a valiant attempt at the found-footage genre in written form. While the Lovecraft-tinged story begins in an entertaining way, the genre is one that I feel works better on film; on the page the randomness and confusion are considerably harder to follow. The creatures involved in the haunting, however, are truly chilling.

Religion forms the crux of the following two pieces. “Deducted From Your Share in Paradise” is an excellent take on the image of the fallen angel. As mute women fall from the sky onto a southern trailer-park, the locals take advantage of their new-found ‘spouses from heaven’, with the exception of the protagonist, whose innocence is what saves him when the apparent angels re-earn their wings to the detriment of their captors. “The Inconsolable” is more explicitly religious: a grieving widower turns to American Evangelicalism to ease his pain, but his obsession with the “Footsteps in the Sand” poem and an inability to cease despairing leads to an altogether different fate.

The final three stories are the best in the anthology. “Dancers” is a moving tale of a couple’s inability to conceive, a husband’s years-long topiary project to make it up to his wife, coupled with another Lovecraftian tale of demonic possession. The deep despairing love between the couple, and the wife’s desperation to conceive, hits at the roots of a deep human fear, with the Cthuloid creature that appears among them being more a representation of this than a malevolent being in its own right. Another base human fear that Wehunt expertly plays on is the loss of a child in “A Thousand Hundred Years”. This follows an illegal immigrant in America desperately seeking his lost daughter, while being blamed for her disappearance and threatened with deportation. The feelings of loss, guilt, fear and grief are palpable, though the fey-tinted ending is not entirely without hope.

The anthology concludes, appropriately, with “Bookends”. This is the story with the least – if any – traditional horror material, but it is perhaps the most moving. Once again, the protagonist is a grieving widower, dealing with the loss of his wife and unable to bring himself to look after the baby that he blames for her death. The story takes us through his relationship, which began and ended with the life-cycle of a specific species of cicada, which swarms ever 13–17 years. The structure is clever and intricate, the themes are sensitive but raw, and once again Wehunt strikes at the true core of human fear – loneliness and the loss of a loved one.

This is overall a fine collection of unsettling weird fiction. Wehunt is adept at tugging at the heartstrings and drawing out the fear at the heart of many human relationships, and his work is at its best when it revolves around this. This is not just horror – it is truly moving fiction.

HebrewPunk -Lavie Tidhar – 7/10

Lavie Tidhar’s 2007 publication “HebrewPunk” is an interesting collection of 4 short stories, each with a brief introduction by Tidhar; a nice touch, providing context and a deeper sense of the authorial intent. These four tales weave together dark fantasy, horror, alternative history and Jewish mythology seamlessly; each tale, however, riffs on a different genre.

The Heist, as the title suggests, is a heist caper (in this case, a superteam of a Jewish vampire, a Wandering Jew and an immortal rabbi and his trusty golem raiding a futuristic bloodbank). The conceit is somewhat amusing, riffing on horror cliches and playing with the idea of religion among the undead – can crucifixes, for example, harm a Jewish vampire? Could they care less about holy water? This appeals greatly to my love of cheesiness in my fiction, but it is handled with a seriousness which means that it does not become cloying or overstated. The plot is well-paced and heavily action-driven, but I found that the conclusion came abruptly, and was not entirely satisfactory. Then again, stories of this kind can be difficult to end, and it was an enjoyable, and unconventional, romp. 6/10

The subsequent tales explore the histories of the three protagonists of The Heist. Transylvania Mission tells of the vampire’s time fighting the Nazis as a partisan in Romania, a tale of war with a twist of Stoker. Here, as SS Wolfenkommando clash with insurgents around the ancestral home of Vlad the Impaler, we enjoy a dark and suitably violent story which explores the nature of evil, as the Old Evil of strigoi clashes with the New Evil of man, embodied in the obsessive Josef Mengele, the Butcher of Auschwitz. While once again the ending runs away with Tidhar somewhat, this is a thoroughly enjoyable tale. 8/10

The Dope Fiend is a smoky, bluesy, drug-fuelled 1920s sleuth story of the Wandering Jew and tzaddik (a form of spiritual leader). Our hero is put on the trail of a dame who’s been teasing one of his love-sick friends. The kicker is that she’s dead. Weaving together the contemporary history of tongs, opium dens and the jazz age with the supernatural realms of Jewish myth and voudou, this is another story that has a strong and compelling story which sadly falls short somewhat at the climax. 6/10

The final story in this collection is Uganda. This is a fascinating piece, in many ways. It is a construction from journal entries and interviews surrounding the historical yet little known “Uganda Plan”, in which the British Empire considered providing the Jews with a homeland in East Africa. In this an immortal rabbi is tasked with scouting out the spirituality of the land, making sure that it is suitable for settlement. The result is a Lost-World-style journey, blended with time-slip visions of a future in which President Einstein rules over a Hebrew African state. The tone is one of discovery and is firmly anti-colonial. Though the inspiration is very much The Lost World, there are two lost worlds here – the world that may be lost to the colony, and the world of the could-have-been. While the narrative dips in parts, the overall story is thought-provoking and entertaining, with a satisfactory ending. 8/10

HebrewPunk has its flaws, but nothing that stops it being an excellent collection of short-stories and novellas. Tidhar demonstrates flair with several genres, and brings a fresh and unusual twist to all of them. Definitely a recommended read.