Monday, 20 March 2017

The Little Gift, by Stephen Volk (book review with Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

The Little Gift never does quite what you expect of it.  It opens with comfortable domestic life - a married couple hear the family cat bring a bird into the kitchen - that quietly sours, setting the scene for what comes later.  Superbly structured, it’s very difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away and this is far too clever (and powerful) a story to do that.

Reflecting on his past, the narrator recalls an event that had the potential to change a lot of lives and then explores the way his decision - and those made by other people - ripple through time and his family.  Volk pulls off a very clever trick, where one of the key plot points doesn’t even happen to the narrator - he’s not there, he has nothing to do with it - but the devastating effects, which he can’t discuss with his wife or anyone else, are beautifully reflected in his thinking.  Carefully paced, with some wonderfully understated dialogue, there’s a kind of stark beauty to the writing that makes certain lines and phrases sing off the page.  Of the narrators new friend, Ghislaine, she is described with “parallel lines corrugated her forehead, which I found inexplicably sexy.  In contrast to her dingy tan, her hair was grubby blonde, in big strands she’d tuck behind her ears every few seconds, a side effect of shyness I’d come to learn.”  On surveying the carnage in the kitchen, “dark commas are strewn over every inch of the room” while a furtive affair is seen “in the vast, featureless but immaculately landscaped car park”.  And the promise of a new romance, the excitement of lust to come which still remains just out of your grasp is perfectly captured - “She kissed me, this time on the lips.  I was thrown when it lasted long, sweet seconds before we separated.”

The Little Gift is a dark novella, both in the way it describes a shared life beginning to unravel as well as the incident that happens “off-stage”, that never reads as less than realistic, but which also pushes at the limits of what the reader might expect, introducing doubt and tension into apparently throwaway sentences.  Filled with tension, love for the family and the promise of what might have been, as well as the cold tug of grief and shock, this is an excellent novella that I highly recommend.

At World Fantasy Brighton, November 2013 
(from left) - Charles Prepolec, Stephen Volk and me
I've known Stephen Volk for a few years now and like him a great deal - a fan of the horror genre, he's smart and witty and good company.  He's also a terrific writer, very supportive of the small press, who not only agreed to appear in my own anthology Anatomy Of Death (with The Arse-Licker), but also beat me to the BFS Best Novella Award in 2015 with Newspaper Heart (and if you have to lose, you might as well do so to Stephen Volk).

I thought it'd be fun to ask him some questions about the novella and here's what he had to say.

MW:  Where did The Little Gift come from?
SV:  It came simply from the image of the dead bird. Our cat often brings in dead birds and mice. It has the pure animal instinct to kill, and I wanted to riff off that into the wider idea of predators and, down the grey scale, the so-called normal relationships between men and women.

MW:  The novella seems to be a preferred length of yours, what do you like so much about it?
SV:  It didn’t start out as a novella, it grew from a short story into a longer one (same with many of my novellas, in fact). Generally, I just see how the story evolves, length-wise. Nobody is asking me to write these and nobody is giving me a deadline or word count. Yes, I could have written this as a 80,000 word novel but I don’t think I would have gained anything. Pitching and structuring a novel is entirely different, bulkier, more substantial in terms of the market and visibility, but in creative terms I like to think a good novella has everything a good novel has. Like it’s a novel shrunk down, condensed, but the intensity remains and nothing is wasted.  

MW:  Do you partition your working day, to differentiate between screenwriting, novellas and short stories?
SV:  No. I have a “To Do” list in order of priorities which I revise every month. I get on with the thing that’s due (or overdue!) or, if nothing is urgent, the thing that most takes my fancy. I don’t work on two things in the same day. I’d rather do a week or couple of weeks on one thing, like a script, get to the end, then a few days on something else, like a short story, before getting back into my revisions, afresh. I try never to leave something when I’m stuck, though. Salman Rushdie advised to always finish the day with a sentence you want to come back to, because if you down tools on a problem it’s horrible, you don’t want to face it and the whole prospect becomes negative.

MW:  Any thoughts on the third in your “film” series, following on from the wonderful Whitstable and  Leystonstone ?
SV:  Yes. Thank you...

But no, I’m not going to tell you who the subject is!

I’ve been thinking about it and planning it ever since Leytonstone was published. The structure is worked out, I’ve done the research and I’m tremendously excited about it. I just have to write it - and put the dread feeling that it has to be “as good as” to one side. I feel the three novellas will definitely make a thematic whole, which I’m calling “The Dark Masters Trilogy”. I’ve talked to a publisher about bringing out all three together in one volume, which will be very exciting. Touch wood.

MW:  What’s next for Stephen Volk?
SV:  Well, film news always hovers, ungraspable as a phantom. I’m working on one with our mutual good friend Tim Lebbon. I’ve just finished a stage play, I’m writing a new screenplay, and I have several TV projects in various stages of development. But if nothing kick-starts in the near future I’ll be concentrating on that third novella. I definitely need to get it out of my system and it’s just coming to the boil, creatively. And you have to listen to your juices.

The Little Gift is available from PS Publishing for £12.00 (in hardback)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Trashy & Obscure: The Beach Girls (1982)

I discovered a channel called Talking Pictures (343 on Sky, 81 on FreeView) when I found they were showing Terminus (1961), the John Schlesinger documentary about Waterloo Station that I’ve wanted to see for ages but had never come across before (and it was as wonderful as I'd hoped).

Flicking through their listings, I found loads of great little shorts (public information films, documentary pieces and other oddments) as well as wide array of films, from the 30s up to the 80s - serious stuff, weird stuff, comedy, drama, horror and thrillers plus a good helping of sleaze.  I taped Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), The Beast Must Die! (1974), The Demon (1981), The Shillingbury Blowers (1980) as well as some other titles others that weren’t, how shall I put it, as good as I’d expected them to be (such as Can You Keep It Up For A Week? (1975), featuring a pre-Bond, pre-Boba Fett Jeremy Bulloch).

A couple of weeks back, they showed a film called The Beach Girls (1982), which the write-up called a ‘coming of age’ story.  As I love coming-of-age stories, I decided to give it a go and I’m glad I did.

Nick & me, 1980
I have known my best friend Nick (who I wrote about here) for forty years this year and it’s fair to say we’ve been through a lot together, weathering some storms and having a real laugh too.  We’re quite different people but sync together very well and although our sense of humour is often poles apart, we agree on enough to become annoying to those around us at times.  He lives in Bristol now and we don’t see anywhere near enough of each other but he was up staying at ours and we’d been chatting and neither of us wanted to end the evening, so I suggested we watch a film.  He asked what I had, I told him about The Beach Girls and we both agreed it might be fun (he & I came of age in the 80s, as video recorders made inroads into people’s homes and video shops sprang up all over the country, letting us see those films - Porky’s, Lemon Popsicle and the like - that we’d heard about but never had a chance to see).

So that’s how Nick & I, at close to midnight one evening, came to watch The Beach Girls.

The plot, such as it is, is very straightforward.  Shy and virginal Sarah (the exceptionally pretty Debra Blee) has been invited to stay at her Uncle Carl’s (Adam Roarke) beach house for the summer.  When she’s joined by her more worldly-wise friends Ginger (Val Kline) and Ducky (Jeana Tomasina), they convince her to throw a big party, ordering items (like beer and pizza) to get attractive delivery drivers to turn up.  Very soon, the neighbours are complaining, Uncle Carl turns up to see what's going on (and ends up getting seduced) and a smuggler, trying to bring in some marijuana, gets raided by the campest coast guard you've ever seen in your life.  The girls find the smugglers dumped cargo, invite everyone to another party and that's it, as Sarah comes out of her shell (“She’ll untie her hair and shake it out,” I said to Nick and he nodded in agreement, saying “And then she’ll get together with him”) and falls for hitchhiker Scott (James Daughton).
from left - Ginger (Val Kline), Sarah (Debra Blee) and Ducky (Jeana Tomasina)
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that The Beach Girls is a good film but it is good fun (and, in its own way, quite sweet).  The direction is perfunctory at best, though it looks beautiful with the hazy Californian sunshine, the music is cheesy and repetitive (“is that the same song as the opening credits?”) and I can only assume the boom operator was the directors son, since the microphone spends a lot of time dropping into the shot.  Maybe my perception was clouded watching it with Nick and we both experienced a nostalgic blast back to the 80s (I could almost hear that toploader VHS whirring away) but I enjoyed it - yes it was groan-worthy in places, yes we talked at the characters, yes we each correctly guessed what would happen next at certain times, but we did laugh.  A lot.

In a nice turn-up, this is a sex comedy told from the female point-of-view (even if it's clearly made by a bunch of blokes) and although there are quite a lot of bare boobs, there’s a parity with the bare bums on display.  Running along with the main plot, there are lots of weird little visual gags that shouldn't work but are often so stupid and out of place that they do - a dog steals girls bikini tops (which I’m sure I remember from another film), a man treasure-hunting with a metal detector injures passersby and a random bloke pops up and shouts “Food fight!” as the camera pans over to people fighting, whilst dressed as food.  Uncle Carl’s gardener (Bert Rosario), who never seems to leave the beach house, suffers various (almost silent-movie-esque) pitfalls that see him increasingly injured before he somehow gets caught up in a fight with a chauffeur (George Cheung).  One of my favourite jokes was right near the beginning - the first person called to the house is a pizza boy and Ducky hugs him, then says, “Is that a salami in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”  “Oh,” says the dopey delivery driver as he reaches between them, “it’s a salami” and he pulls it out to make his point.

The director, Bud Townsend (credited as Pat here) only made nine films in a fifteen-year career but the writer, Patrick Sheane Duncan, went on to better things including Courage Under Fire (1996), while Phil Grove, credited with additional material (probably all the jokes on the beach), only wrote one produced screenplay, for Cavegirl (1985).

Some of the cast were recognisable and, according to the imdb, most of them popped up in various TV shows during the 70s and 80s.  Adam Roarke was a counter-culture actor, perhaps best known for Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) Bert Rosario was a TV regular and George Cheung, who was Rambo’s nemesis in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), has worked consistently since (his imdb profile is a huge list).  James Daughton, who was Hitchhiker Scott, appeared in Animal House (1978), one of the neighbours was Mary Jo Catlett, who was Pearl on Diff’rent Strokes and Champagne Girl (it’ll make sense if you watch the trailer) was Corinne Bohrer who’s been in loads of stuff, though I recognised her from the Police Academy 4.
Ginger orders the pizza (James Daughton is on the far left)
Our three leads didn't fare so well.  Debra Blee only made five more films (all sounding like enjoyable trash) and hasn’t been seen on-screen since 1987, while Jeana Tomasina (or Jeane Keough), a Playboy Playmate from 1980, was in four ZZ-Top videos (Sharp Dressed Man, Legs, Gimme All Your Lovin and Sleeping Bag) and last seen in a reality TV show.  The Beach Girls is Val Kline’s only credit.

Like I said, I don’t want to give the impression that this is art because it isn’t - I might have spent longer researching and writing this blog-post than the writers did on the script - but that is almost part of its charm.  As Nick & I chuckled over it, I said to him on more than one occasion, "somebody got paid to write this" and he pointed out people got paid to work on it too.  A fun watch (helped, I'm convinced, by our shared memories of watching those VHS tapes back in the day), why not find a mate with a similar sense of humour, record this and enjoy 90 minutes of dopey, early-80s silliness.

Now I need to figure out what to record for when Nick comes up next time!

The definitiely-not-safe-for-work (you've been warned) trailer...

thanks to imdb

Monday, 6 March 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 3) - Stormtroopers!

There are a lot of things I love about Star Wars - as you might have already guessed - but one thing in particular is the iconic Stormtrooper.  It’s a love clearly shared - there’s a lot of Trooper merchandise available (and I own quite a lot of it, including an army of almost 90 vintage 3.75" Palitoy figures) - though I can't put my finger on exactly why, except I think they look very cool.

For this month's Star Wars At 40 entry, I thought I'd take a look at them...
Perhaps the most iconic shot of a Stormtrooper from Star Wars, this is actually Harrison Ford in the sequence where Han and Chewie storm the control room on the Death Star.  The ejected 'blank' cartridge can be seen below the muzzle flash.
Stormtroopers are elite shock troops fanatically loyal to the Empire and impossible to sway from the Imperial cause. They wear imposing white armor, which offers a wide range of survival equipment and temperature controls to allow the soldiers to survive in almost any environment. Stormtroopers wield blaster rifles and pistols with great skill, and attack in hordes to overwhelm their enemies.
Ralph McQuarrie's original concept drawing of a Stormtrooper (note his lightsaber) 
still from the film, the hero helmet is on the left , the other two are the stunt versions
The Stormtrooper design was based on an original concept painting by Ralph McQuarrie, with Liz Moore and Nick Pemberton sculpting designs for the helmet.  The body armour was sculpted by Brian Muir and initially cast in plaster, before being produced in vacuum formed ABS plastic by Andrew Ainsworth.  Fifty stunt helmets were produced for the film (in white-painted HDPE, a type of polyethylene plastic), along with six ‘hero’ helmets (in white ABS).  The designs are slightly different in the eye and mouth area and the 'hero' helmet has more of a frown.
Mark Hamill in the Death Star control room with his blaster
The Stormtroopers gun (known as an Imperial BlasTech E-11) was created by Bapty & Co, an armorer who created most of the weapons for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and was built around a standard Sterling sub-machine gun, along with some custom dressing.  Six grips were added to the barrel (the same material used as grips on Luke's lightsaber), a 1942 M38 Azimouth scope (from a tank), a Hengstler Corporation counter box on the side and two small cylinders on top of the magazine well (which had been cut down significantly).  Although most of the guns were props, firing versions were also used and are identifiable by the smoke they emit when shot.

“And these blast points, to accurate for Sandpeople.  Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise”
 - Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars
Sandtroopers at Docking Bay 94, doing their best to contradict Ben Kenobi
The Stormtroopers were played by stuntmen and extras, who all had difficulties with the costume - the helmets were difficult to see out of and the shoes (which, according to costume designer John Mollo, were Chelsea boots sprayed white) slipped on the shiny Death Star floors.  Mark Hamill confirmed on his Twitter feed in May 2016 that Luke’s line “I can’t see a thing in this helmet” wasn’t scripted, he thought the cameras had stopped rolling when he said it to Harrison Ford.  “My memory,” he wrote, “is it was an ad-lib I did that George liked and kept in. Those helmets were very restricting of one's vision.”

(Thud) Ouch!
One of the most famous troopers is the one who bumps his head on the Death Star doorway.  Played by Laurie Goode (who also portrayed an X-Wing pilot in the briefing sequence as well as a cantina patron), he apparently wasn’t feeling too well on the day and since no-one called “cut” he assumed he was out of shot.  Rather than correct the mistake, George Lucas drew attention to it in later re-releases, adding a sound effect and line of dialogue (“see to him”).  In the prequel Attack Of The Clones (2002), Jango Fett - from whom the original troopers were cloned - bashes his head on Slave-One.  On the DVD commentary, Lucas says, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that’s a trait that Jango has?’ When he puts his helmet on he can’t really see that well, so he’s constantly bumping his head – and that trait gets cloned into all the Stormtroopers.”
One of my favourite of the original Topps UK run from 1977- scan of my card
Elizabeth “Liz” Moore  was born in 1944 and began studying at Kingston Art School in London in 1961.  Moving on to a 3 years National Diploma of Design course, she chose Fine Art as her specialist subject and her work was chosen for the National Diploma Show at the Royal Academy of Art in 1965.

Aside from some of her painting featuring as props in The World Of Suzie Wong (1960), her first film work was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for which she created the Star Child model and also assisted Stuart Freeborn in the creation of the ape-men masks.  She was never officially credited for the film but Kubrick requested she work on building props for his next film, A Clockwork Orange (1971), for which she sculpted the nude female milk dispensers and tables at the Korova Milk Bar.  She and Kubrick also worked together on his next film Barry Lyndon (1975).

John Barry, who had been Production Designer for A Clockwork Orange, drafted Liz in to work on his next project, "a space opera to be called Star Wars".  She only worked on the film for a few months, but sculpted several concepts as well as the final approved suit for C3PO.  She left the production in late January 1976 to join her boyfriend in Holland but Barry contacted her again, as the schedule called for Stormtroopers to be on location in Tunisia in March 1976 and the design wasn’t finalised.  Working from a temporary workshop her boyfriend set up, she sculpted the helmet and returned to Elstree Studios where, after a few minor changes, George Lucas okayed the final design.

Liz Moore was tragically killed in a car accident on 13th August 1976 while working on Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977).  She was only 32 and never got to see her iconic Star Wars designs on screen.

Brian Muir  was born on 15th April 1952 and began a four-year apprenticeship in woodwork and sculpture design at the Associated British Production Corporation at Elstree Studios in 1968.  After completing his apprenticeship, he went to work for Bradfords of London where he designed a Coat of Arms for the Crown Court and a Plaque for the New London Stock Exchange, which was unveiled by the Queen of England.

In 1976 he was asked to go back to Elstree Studios and said, in interview, “Although I had a secure job and was told that it may only be six weeks work on Star Wars, I felt it was worth the risk as I would be back doing the work I loved. As it turned out I was on the production for five months and the gamble certainly paid off!”  He sculpted the original Darth Vader mask, working from designs by Ralph McQuarrie, Norman Reynolds and John Mollo, as well as the Stormtrooper armour, the droid CZ3 and helped on the C3PO costume.

He has been much-in-demand in the film industry since, working with Lucasfilm again on Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) (co-creating The Ark Of The Covenant) and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984),  he co-created the Space Jockey in Alien (1979) and worked on the Bond series from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) up to Skyfall (2012).  He also worked on the latest Star Wars film Rogue One (2016).
Another of my favourite images, this Sandtrooper on a Dewback features in the photo-section of Alan Dean Fosters novelisation - I waited for it to appear in the film but it's only seen very briefly from a distance.
"These aren't the droids you're looking for..."
"Dammit, I bet those were the bloody droids we were looking for..."
On the Death Star

Propmasters - Liz Moore Sculptor
2001Italia - Tribute to Liz Moore
Brian Muir
Laurie Goode (

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 27 February 2017

Yet More Movie Miniatures...

Regular readers of the blog will know I'm endlessly fascinated by the behind-the-scenes process on films, especially special effects work with miniatures and/or matte paintings.  Back in October 2014 I posted my first miniatures blog (which you can read here) and have subsequently written ones about the James Bond series, Derek Meddings and ILM (which can all be found on this link).

Miniatures are scale models used to represent things that aren't there, are too expensive or difficult to film in reality, or which can't be damaged (by fire, flood or explosion) in real life.  They've now largely been replaced by (often terrible) CGI but the old ways, the practical art, does seem to be making something of a comeback.

I thought it was time to post some more so here's another selection, hopefully highlighting films where it's not immediately obvious that you're looking at a miniature.

Warlords Of Atlantis (1978, directed by Kevin Connor)
visual effects supervised by John Richardson, monsters by Roger Dicken
John Brown (left) and John Richardson prep Roger Dicken's octopus (built both in full-size and miniature versions) with the miniature Texas Rose
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984, directed by Steven Spielberg)
visual effects supervised by Dennis Muren (see more Indy-related miniatures here)
Paul Huston works on the miniature mine set at ILM
Die Hard (1988, directed by John McTiernan)
visual effects supervised by Richard Edlund
The newly built Fox Plaza (the company headquarters of 20th Century Fox) in Century City stood in for the Nakatomi Plaza in real life.  Obviously keen not to have it destroyed, Boss Films created this large-scale miniature. 
Back To The Future II (1989, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
visual effects supervised by Ken Ralston
Steve Gawley works on the down-view of the Biff Tannen skyscraper car-park.  In order to get the height without being restricted by the roof of the studio, the miniature was built on its side.
Batman (1989, directed by Tim Burton)
visual effects supervised by Derek Meddings
Working on the miniature of Gotham city
Back To The Future III (1990, directed by Robert Zemeckis)
visual effects supervised by Ken Ralston
Two angles of the climactic train crash sequence, which was shot using a quarter-scale miniature 
Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990, directed by Renny Harlin)
visual effects supervised by Michael J. McAlister
Working on the airport exterior
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, directed by James Cameron
visual effects supervised by Dennis Muren (ILM), Robert Skotak (4-Ward Productions), Gene Warren, Jr (Fantasy II Film Effects), Craig Barron (Matte World Digital)
Robert & Dennis Skotak of 4-Ward Productions work on an LA overpass miniature for the nuclear destruction sequence
True Lies (1994, directed by James Cameron)
miniatures supervised by Pat McClung (Digital Domain) and Mark Stetson (Stetson Visual Services, Inc.)
From the Harrier sequence, note the plywood skyline reflecting in the glass of the "office block" windows
Mission: Impossible (1996, directed by Brian DePalma)
visual effects supervised by John Knoll (ILM) and Richard Yurichich
The miniature Channel Tunnel set, with helicopter and Tom Cruise puppet
Men In Black (1997, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld)
visual effects supervised by Eric Brevig
ILM miniature effects Director Of Photography Pat Sweeney works on the Hudson River tunnel sequence.  His assistant is lifting roof panels to allow the motion-control camera access
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, directed by Roger Spottiswoode)
visual effects supervised by John Richardson
Filming the HMS Devonshire miniature at Baja Studios, Mexico
Dog Soldiers (2002, directed by Neil Marshall)
miniature supervisor: Simon Bowles
About to explode the farmhouse
Skyfall (2012, directed by Sam Mendes)
visual effects supervised by Steve Begg
The miniature Silva chopper positioned to crash into the miniature Skyfall House.  Note the bullet-riddled Aston Martin

There will be more miniatures posts...

Monday, 20 February 2017

Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (thriller, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
I'm read a lot more psychological  thrillers over the past couple of years (helped, no doubt, by my decision to write a thriller next) but I find them much harder to review properly because it would be all too easy to give the game away.  This novel is no exception (hence the shorter review) but it's by a writer I like a great deal (you can read my reviews of her novels The Death House and The Language Of Dying on these links) and her novel from last year, 13 Minutes, was my second favourite read of 2016.

Which leads me to Behind Her Eyes, the Sunday Times number one bestseller (how about that), marketed with the hashtag campaign #wtfthatending.  Being that upfront was, I convinced myself, a sure fire way of having the reader twig before the end but that honestly doesn't happen.  The ending is astonishing, it really is.

Don’t Trust This Book

Don’t Trust These People

Don’t Trust Yourself

And whatever you do, DON’T give away that ending…

Since her husband walked out, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job. But all that changes when she meets…

Young, successful and charming – Louise cannot believe a man like him would look at her twice let alone be attracted to her. But that all comes to a grinding halt when she meets his wife…

Beautiful, elegant and sweet – Louise's new friend seems perfect in every way. As she becomes obsessed by this flawless couple, entangled in the intricate web of their marriage, they each, in turn, reach out to her.

But only when she gets to know them both does she begin to see the cracks… Is David really is the man she thought she knew and is Adele as vulnerable as she appears?
Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding and how far will they go to keep them?

Since her husband Ian walked out to start a new life with his girlfriend, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job.  One night, she meets a man in a bar and, attracted to one another, they kiss.  She later discovers he’s her new boss, David but they manage to put things aside enough to keep things professional and then Louise meets his wife, Adele.  The two women quickly become fast-friends and as Louise gets to know them both, she begins to see the cracks.  Is David really is the man she thought she knew and is Adele as vulnerable as she appears?  Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding and how far will they go to keep them?

I find it difficult to write reviews for thrillers where there's a key twist and this is no different though it's much more than that, much cleverer than that and there’s so much to enjoy beyond the thriller trappings.  The three main characters (there are others, but this small principal cast dominate the book) are superbly drawn and the book is told from three viewpoints - Louise and Adele in the present and Adele in the past - that build nicely and show off two sides to most of the situations.  Except, as time goes on, we’re not entirely sure which, if either of them, is telling us the whole story.  David, who doesn’t get his own viewpoint, went from being a villain to a goodie and back again several times in my head and that’s one of the ways this book works so well - everything makes sense, everything stacks up perfectly as it goes on and the whole thing hums with the precise movement of a quartz clock.  The story is built on detail and some of them are beautifully observed - especially those between Louise and her son Adam - but none of this slows the plot, which races along.  

With solid characters, a good sense of location and a central mystery that unpeels slowly but surely, this is a terrific novel (and I didn’t get the final twist at all) that I would thoroughly recommend.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Women In Horror Mixtape

Last year, I published two blog posts - The Brit Horror Mixtape and The American Horror Mixtape - which went down very well indeed and, judging by some of the emails I received, led readers to discovering new writers and stories.

With that in mind, to coincide with the 8th annual Women In Horror month we're once again harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage) for a compilation of short horror stories by women.  Some of them you might have heard of, some might be new to you, but they're all well worth a read.  I hope you find a new favourite - story or writer - on the list.
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the story is available as an ebook (usually as part of a collection) - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

The Blue Lenses, by Daphne du Maurier
My mum introduced me to Daphne du Maurier.  Her novel Rebecca has never lost its appeal for me - I think it’s a great story of a power struggle between two women, one of them dead, not just for Maxim or Mandalay but also for our nameless protagonist’s very self.
   After I read Rebecca I discovered du Maurier’s wonderful short stories and could have picked any one of them for this mixtape. They’re darker and dirtier than her novels. She peels back the surface of the world to reveal the ugliness and desolation beneath. There are no happy endings. As a teenager I was particularly struck by The Blue Lenses, in which a woman wakes up from an eye operation with a very different view of the world; she can see the true nature of a person as they all have animal heads that reflect their real selves.  It’s both fantastic in the literary sense and utterly despairing of human beings.
chosen by Priya Sharma

The Quiet Coach, by Alison Littlewood
This was my first introduction to the work of Alison Littlewood, a reading relationship (and friendship) that I’m pleased to say is ongoing, though she’s better known for her novels these days.
   The Quiet Coach begins with Kev, a maladjusted young man who just wants to cause trouble to provoke a reaction, almost as if he needs to wind people up in order for them to acknowledge his existence.  Boarding a train, he finds there’s only one other passenger in the carriage, a pale and drawn woman who is never named.  His attempts to annoy her fall flat and then she starts to talk, telling him the tragic tale of her young daughter who succumbed to cancer, drawing out of him memories and thoughts he doesn’t want to deal with.
   With some beautiful writing - the woman rides the trains to try and escape her past, though the fog (to which she ascribes unusual properties) always seems to follow her - and a real sense of rawness, this ambiguous tale lingers with the reader for a long time, becoming ever bleaker as it does so.  Smartly written, well characterised and with pain-filled dialogue, this is an excellent exercise in dread that I’d urge you to seek out.

Cabin 33, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
It started with a vampire. As a pre-Twilight impressionable teenage girl, who just happened to like blood and gore, I was a big fan of The Lost Boys, which first got me into vampire books. If you are a long term book fiend, particularly based in the UK, you may remember going to Andromeda Book Shop just to browse, buy, or attend a signing with Terry Pratchett or Clive Barker.
   Imagine, if you will, a rebellious, short-haired teen, on the cusp of womanhood, wandering into this Aladdin's cave of books and going up to the rather grouchy, but lovable Rog Peyton (yeah, he's still grouchy) and mumbling "Martin told me I could get books here."
   And Rog replying, "What do you like?" whilst deep inside thinking 'Oh dear, a teenager, Christ, that'll be Christopher Pike or romance then.'
   So the conversation continued in that vein, pun intended, and Rog introduced me to my first anthology reading experience; The Penguin Book of Vampires (1989) which had just come out.  I read them all, devoured them really, but one story stood out above the rest.
   Cabin 33 by Chelsea Quin Yarbro. Her voice spoke to me.
   Weaving between historical periods, the enigmatic vampire Comte de Saint Germain, is intelligent, heroic, honourable and well, kind of sexy. I absolutely loved what Yarbro did with the vampire and then sought out Hotel Transylvania, the first novel in the series. And I've collected the work of Yarbro ever since.
  So, as I left that bookshop, to return every Saturday and weeknight too, with my part time earnings clasped in scrawny fingers (I was skinny then kids) I discovered a whole new world.
chosen by Theresa Derwin

Don't Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
I first read Don't Look Now some time around 1970. I remember enjoying it, then forgetting it, mostly, until five years later I saw the movie, reread the story, and discovered the depths in it as a seventeen year old I hadn't spotted in it five years earlier.
It's a masterful feat of storytelling, building from an almost comical, married Brits abroad start to quickly pile on subtle, then not so subtle hints that things are not all that they seem. Our protagonist's journey from concerned husband and his pent up grief at the loss of a child builds into something dark and strange, as if the foreign city itself is conspiring against him.
The final scene, where he faces his grief, and finds the truth, is as shocking in print as it is in film, and that's a testament to the descriptive and narrative powers of De Maurier. It's one of my favorite things, both in print and in film, and I wish I could see, and read, both for the first time all over again.
chosen by William Meikle

Mr Wrong, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Many years ago as a kid of fifteen, I read a story called Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I had heard of the author, my mum had a row of books by her on the shelf, therefore I decided she had to be boring. But I was wrong. As we sat in class on that warm summer's afternoon I was transported into the life of a lonely young woman trying to find her independence, and sense of self, instead finding fear, torment, death...and worse.
   In the very many intervening years since I read it, only once, Mr Wrong stayed with me, coming back every few years to remind me of the intense sense of discomfort and yes, horror I felt when it was finished. Decades passed, I forgot what it was called and who it was by, but I never forgot the story. And then when I was asked to contribute to this collection, that story came back to me at once, and out of the blue the title and author. I settled down to reread as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy. I was nervous, because too often things I've remembered from my past as things of wonder, turned out to be disappointing. Not in the case of Mr Wrong, it's a perfectly executed precision example of building a sense of foreboding and terror in amongst the most ordinary of worlds and words. Every choice our heroine makes stretches the reader's nerves one more excruciating millimetre, on a perfectly paced rack until right at very last they are shredded and severed.
Both supernatural and brutally real, Mr Wrong is more than just a scary story, it's an enduring one.
chosen by Rowan Coleman

Jasmine and Garlic, by Monica O'Rourke
When Mark invited me to submit a review for this mixtape, I jumped at the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Jasmine & Garlic.  As a man, I cannot fully appreciate the horror of this obstetric nightmare, but if my points of reference are somewhat removed, O’Rourke does her damnedest to bridge that gap. The mother-to-be invokes abject pity, the psychotic doctor demands utter loathing, and tight, suffocating prose creates a palpable atmosphere of dread.  It is a visceral tale, in the literal sense of the word, one that made me cringe, even on repeated readings.
   A Hell of an achievement.
chosen by Kevin Bufton

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman
This is one of my all-time favourite stories and I first read it in high school, where it made a lasting impression. Written in 19th century America as a protest against the treatment of women by the medical community, Gilman was inspired by a doctor who had nearly driven her insane with his “rest cure”, which forbade her from writing and only allowed her very limited mental stimulation. She chose to fictionalise her experience and The Yellow Wallpaper is a kind of worst case version of what she endured. The heroine of the story isn’t as fortunate as Gilman, however, and her descent into madness is utterly chilling. The awful situation has been inflicted on her by her well-meaning but ultimately ignorant “betters” and we imagine that they will never realise or acknowledge their responsibility for her fate. The final line haunts me to this day.
chosen by Thana Niveau

Behind the Yellow Door, by Flavia Richardson
Christine Campbell-Thomson was (along with Charles Birkin) one of the two most important horror anthologists of her age, editing the famous Not at Night series during the 1920s and 1930s. Under her pseudonym of Flavia Richardson she also wrote a number of stories in the Birkin / Maurice Level tradition and Behind the Yellow Door is one of the best. Pretty young Marcia Miles is employed by the Pete Walker-like Mrs Merrill as a secretary. The older woman has a daughter, Olivette, who is beautiful ‘from the waist up’ but has ‘no semblance of beauty below’. In one of those curious malformations beloved of the pulps, Olivette’s legs are pretty much nothing to speak of (literally). Mrs Merrill has been practicing amateur surgery, and the dialogue to go with it. “Think what a fortunate woman you are to be part of such an amazing experiment!” With only Dorcas the maid to hold Marcia down, it can only get even more horrible, but Thomson / Richardson proves herself to be a true Mistress of the conte cruele by giving the reader a damned good kick when they’re already down with the final couple of lines. With no male characters at all this is a true ‘Women In Horror’ story in all respects. You can find it in the First Pan Book of Horror Stories and I advise you to seek out that ending for yourself.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

Rusties, by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu
That's two female writers for the price of one. Eight-foot tall robots guide the traffic in Africa and have done so for about thirty years. Now rusted and sometimes distrusted, pirates dismantle them for parts. This is a story (published in Clarkesworld's October 2016 issue) of how humans come to distrust technology, how we disappoint said technology, and of how a girl turns on a friend because he is different. Despite a dark and heart-breaking ending, there is humour here, and what I took to be a dark science-fiction tale may not be science fiction at all. Apparently, Nigeria does have traffic robots almost like those in the story. I discovered this story at a low and lonely point over the New Year and it drew me out of my darkness while its characters fell into theirs. I highly recommend it.
chosen by Cate Gardner

The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
There is a quiet brutality to this short story that resonates far beyond its seemingly contemporary setting. It is perhaps for this reason that I find it so terrifying. The pace, like the setting, is sedate - almost pedestrian - and Jackson uses this seemingly innocuous, innocent refrain to lull the reader until she gradually ramps up the sense of foreboding that culminates in an act of shocking barbarity.
The tale is deftly told, by someone who is a master of the craft; evidenced by the quiet questioning of blind tradition and the dangers of mob mentality.
   Those who have enjoyed stories such as Children of the Corn and The Purge will certainly see the influences.  Written in 1948, The Lottery is easily superior to its modern contemporaries.
chosen by Dave Jeffery

The Apple Tree, by Daphne Du Maurier
I first read The Apple Tree, circa 1967 on a wet dinner hour in the school library. I had picked up the ‘The Birds and Other Stories’ (1952) collection, purely because I had seen Hitchcock’s The Birds (illegally – originally X-rated) but it was The Apple Tree that stayed with me. At face value it is a ghost tale, similar to M R James’s Ash Tree, but the horror of The Apple Tree comes not from a violent end but the far more insidious murder of a woman’s spirit. A widower believes that the spirit of his dismal wife, Midge, resides in an apple tree. He had loved his wife, or so he claims, but my empathy quickly shifted from this man reveling in the freedom his widower-hood brings him to the poor departed Midge.  As his guilt grows he attempts to remove the tree one cold, snowy, night and in one final act of defiance Midge serves her ultimate revenge.
chosen by Jan Edwards

The Grey Men, by Laura Mauro
I spent a lot of time mulling over who I should choose for this, should I go a distinguished author from my youth or even an author that might not necessarily be classed as horror?  In the end, I decided the only course of action is to talk about an author whose story I still think about on a regular basis two years after it was published and a story that will probably always be stuck in my head. First published in 2015 in Black Static Magazine this is the story that will go down in history as ground zero for when this author's career gets the well-deserved explosion
   The Grey Men by Laura Mauro is one of those quiet horror stories, where nothing overtly terrifying happens, yet still has the power to genuinely upset a reader.  A wonderfully multilayered story, filled with a deep-rooted sense of melancholic metaphor about the disenfranchisement of the human condition from the modern world and poetic imagery, The Grey Men is a compelling story that has the ability to move even the most cold-hearted of readers.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

Stone Animals, by Kelly Link
About ten years ago, I decided to write a story called Magic for Beginners. I didn't know what kind of a story it would be, or how I'd write it, but I had that great title. When I found out that Kelly Link had already written a whole collection with that great title, I thought it was a weird enough coincidence that I needed to buy the book right away. And in that book I found Stone Animals. It's the story of a family who move upstate into a haunted house. So far, so much suburban psychological realism, but Link's evocation of character is so masterful, her eye for detail so eccentric, she transforms and transcends every trope of the genre. The family seem to be fairly functional, but both husband and wife are fundamentally dishonest and afraid, and as the haunting progresses, it begins to expose the psychological distance between them. Meanwhile, the children are drawn into the haunting in their own childlike ways. Gradually, the reality is leached out of everything, leaving the characters dislocated, dissociated, and dreaming. This story taught me to discard what I had thought of as 'the rules' of writing, especially the conventions of genre. Kelly Link is an extraordinary writer and Stone Animals proves she can do absolutely anything.
chosen by Georgina Bruce

The Scent of Elder Flowers, by Pauline E. Dungate 
Picking a favourite short story is hard work for my swiss cheese memory - this was published in Narrow Houses paperback edition in 1993 and is a stand out one for many reasons. The premise of it centres on the old wives’ country tales of not bringing hawthorns and elder flowers inside the house, because you let in evil with you. This simple idea, mixed with a young girl whose mother remarries and has another child - and the jealousy and deaths that follow - brings about the slow destruction of the new family.
chosen by Peter Mark May

The Tooth Collector, by Lindsey Goddard
I was first introduced to Lindsey Beth Goddard’s work through a novel I was given to review for Horror Novel Reviews. I was quite taken by her voice, decided to seek out more of her work and found some really good ones included in several anthologies. My favorite, though is The Tooth Collector which is also the title of her own collection of short stories.
   I like her ability to take something as simple as a childhood fantasy figure and come up with a macabre little tale that puts a new twist on the tooth fairy. What starts off with a little girl losing a tooth turns nightmarish rather quickly. Oh, what a mother wouldn’t do to have her child back!
chosen by Paula Limbaugh

Objects In Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear, by Lisa Tuttle
The most dull, obvious way to define a haunted house would be to say it’s one that contains a ghost. But that’s boringly literal; haunted house stories are scary because they show us that our homes, the place where we should feel at our safest, might turn out to be some kind of trap.
   Lisa Tuttle’s brilliant, chilling story Objects in Dreams May be Closer Than They Appear takes this idea one step further: maybe even our desire for a home is dangerous. People talk about finding their ‘dream house’, and the one in Tuttle’s story might be just that. At the start of the story the house is barely seen - a young couple house-hunting glimpse it like a mirage on the horizon. But they can’t find the road that leads to it.
   They don't find a route to that house - to their dream, if you like. The bulk of the story is set years later, after the breakup of their relationship in the thoroughly normal, non-dreamlike house that they did end up living in. But one day the couple reunite and finally find a way to the house that they saw. And of course, they go inside…
   The trap springs shut, and it’s an utterly compelling and unnerving one which I won't spoil here. But it is note-perfect, Tuttle managing to make it both incredibly disturbing and a perfect demonstration of how old dreams can curdle and warp.
chosen by James Everington

Angels’ Moon, by Kathe Koja
Hunting for a read, I snatched The Ultimate Werewolf off a bargain shelf and read Angels’ Moon, where Kathe Koja tells the story of Ethan, a poet/homeless guy/sometimes psych patient who might be a werewolf.  Or an angel.  He’s still working it out.
   Ethan hunts for words he once had when he was a poet.  He reduces a therapist who hunts him to layers of images and associations because of the loss of words and as Ethan loses himself in confusion, the language of the story unravels, leaving the reader caught in the spaces between.
chosen by Kim Talbot Hoelzli 

Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma
Priya Sharma is a writer everyone should be reading having appeared in a number of ‘Best of’ anthologies. I was fortunate to be one of the judges for the BFS short story category in 2016 where Fabulous Beasts was a very worthy winner of the award against some stiff competition. The story is a horror novelette about a strange woman living in luxury with her lover, but irrevocably tied to her childhood of deprivation and dark secrets in northwest England. The woman recalls the unravelling of the family upon her uncle’s release from prison. This story really drew me in from the start and unfolds into a dark, disturbed tale which makes the extraordinary seem natural. Be warned it does deal with some difficult topics.
chosen by Phil Sloman

The Clinic, by Alex White
I was eight years old when I first read this story, it was 2am and I was huddled on the cold landing floor reading it by the bathroom light, because it was the only place that my parents couldn’t see me. As a child I was allowed to read anything I wanted (except for my parent’s Pan Books of Horror), and when my aunty found out I was reading them anyway, she passed on these words of wisdom, “At least don’t read those horrible stories by Alex White. They give me nightmares”.
   The story in itself is quite simply a rewriting of the Cinderella story, but is far darker and gory than either the Perrault or Grimm tales (and they are scary enough). It also has the most disturbing and distressing last lines of any horror story I have ever read, and yes the story did give me nightmares.
chosen by Penny Jones

Near Zennor, by Elizabeth Hand
At one point in Elizabeth Hand’s Near Zennor, Jeffrey, a man mourning his wife of almost thirty years, who he’s recently lost to a brain aneurysm, pores over an Ordnance Survey map of an isolated stretch of the Cornish coastline, seeking a fogou. To Jeffrey the map appears to be covered with a ‘seemingly random network of lines,’ ‘like crazing on a piece of old pottery.’ The host of the bed and breakfast Jeffrey is staying at explains that the tracings are field systems, stone walls, and helps Jeffrey pinpoint the ancient structure. But later, out in the terrain, amid bogs and bramble, trying to keep the map from being torn from his hands by gusts of wind, he struggles to find any ‘affinity between the fields around him and the crazed pattern on the page.’ So he gives up, puts the map back into his pocket, and trudges on, trusting to instinct.
  Jeffrey does in the end stumble upon the fogou and finds the things that await him within, but his difficulties reading the ordnance survey encapsulate in miniature how this intricately constructed, powerfully eerie tale works: the events of its plot seem from time to time to coalesce into something that has shape, that makes sense, but when you scrutinise that shape, the plot reverts to mere crazed patterns on the page. It’s an incredible feat that Elizabeth Hand pulls off, and Near Zennor is a potent story; it evokes disorientation and dread, and is an affecting and harrowing meditation on grief, loss, and the inexplicable. It lodges itself in the brain and is impossible to dig out.
chosen by Timothy Jarvis

The Cat Jumps, by Elizabeth Bowen
Harold and Jocelyn Wright are a perfectly modern couple. Their minds are bright and well-lit places, devoid of shadows or any vestiges of the supernatural. But when they move into Rose Hill, site of the infamous Bentley murder, their ordered existence begins to dissipate. Their houseguest Muriel tells an unwilling Jocelyn the terrible narrative of the protracted murder and dismemberment of her predecessor by her husband’s namesake, Harold Bentley. The story is all the more effective for the way that Muriel tells it; a simple description tempered with significant, horrid pauses:
   ‘Then she saw the…the state of the hall. He went upstairs after Mrs. Bentley saying “Lucinda!” He looked in room after room, whistling; then he said “Here we are”, and shut a door after him.
The maid fainted. When she came to it was still going on upstairs…Harold Bentley had locked all the garden doors; there were locks even on the French windows. The maid couldn’t get out. Everything she touched was…sticky.’
   But just as Jocelyn experiences true fear triggered by the awful history of the house, Harold feels the boundaries of self dissolve; his very identity falters and becomes uncertain…
   I won’t spoil the story by dissecting it completely. Let’s just say that by the end of the story the Wrights have experienced true terror in its primal state. And their antiseptic, rational world may never (one suspects) be the same.
   The Cat Jumps accomplishes the strange feat of mixing social satire with genuine terror.  It has the caustic quality of Saki, but the vertiginous, nightmarish feel of Shirley Jackson.  I read it first in the otherwise sober The Penguin Book of Irish Short Stories aged twelve or so, and it disturbed my sleep. Year later, it’s still queerly effective. Try it.
chosen by Tracy Fahey

Senbazuru, by V H Leslie
Senbazuru, a relatively short piece about the wife of a British diplomat in the pre-bomb city of Nagasaki, is the perfect introduction to the work of V H Leslie. Showcasing her strong research, which never feels over-indulgent whilst at the same time appearing comprehensive, there is just enough to place the story within its historical setting. The story also displays Leslie’s ability to balance the weird with the everyday so that the reader’s ability to engage with the story is never compromised. The ambiguity of the protagonist’s situation further unsettles the reader, ultimately providing a story you will want to re-read to fully appreciate the writer’s skill.  More of her engrossing short fiction can be found in the collection Skein and Bone from Undertow Publications and for fans of longer fiction the short novel Bodies of Water is available from Salt Publishing.
chosen by Ross Warren

The Company Of Wolves, by Angela Carter
'...but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat.'
In my last year of secondary school, my English teacher - noting my love for Stephen King and other macabre works of literature - recommended I read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. At that time I fancied myself as something of a rebel and completely disregarded her advice, which meant that I discovered Angela Carter for the first time at university. As soon as I put down The Bloody Chamber I realised just how badly I'd missed out in not having read her work earlier.
   The Company of Wolves - a riff on the Little Red Riding Hood story - is one of my favourite stories in the collection. Like my other favourite, The Tiger's Bride, it involves the subversion of a particularly insidious fairytale trope: the chaste, virginal girl who falls victim to a beast. It's a powerful message to encounter as a teenage girl; the protagonist's total control over her own sexuality is what saves her from the wolf. Fairytales condition us to fear the beast, the forceful dominance of his masculine sexuality; they teach us that to remain pure and chaste is the ideal, but in her protagonist's shameless assertion of her own desire Carter turns this completely on its head. Despite the inherited 'wisdom' of the townsfolk she decides instead to trust the wolf, to indulge her own desire, and it is this which not only saves her life, but humbles the beast.

The Terrapin, by Patricia Highsmith
Graham Greene described Patricia Highsmith as “the poet of apprehension” and The Terrapin (originally published in 1963 and included in her debut collection Eleven) is an absolute masterpiece of apprehension.
   Victor, a 10 year old boy, lives with his divorced mother in a New York apartment. When she brings home a live turtle he is delighted because he believes she has brought him a pet; however his mother has ideas of a more culinary nature. Once he realises what her intentions are, Victor exacts an extreme form of revenge.
   Highsmith had a particularly difficult relationship with her own mother, which lends The Terrapin even more emotional weight than the prose suggests. Whilst the ending is shocking, it’s the build-up that carries an almost overwhelming sense of foreboding and suspense. Highsmith was brilliant at creating realistically cruel characters, and here we get an example of her short story craft at its finest.
chosen by Stephen Bacon

Patient Zero, by Tananarive Due
I’ve always been a big fan of apocalypse stories – and while the disasters themselves can be interesting, it’s how people survive and where they go in the aftermath that I’ve always found most fascinating.
   Patient Zero, which I first encountered in Lightspeed magazine way back in 2010 and recently rediscovered in Due’s (highly recommended) collection Ghost Summer: Stories, is a heartbreaking tale of the young survivor of a mysterious new virus.  There is a growing sense of quiet dread that permeates the story as, one by one, the adults disappear from the boy’s world, and he doesn’t fully understand the possible ramifications of the failing facility he is trapped in.  The reader, however, can imagine a great many threats beyond the initial virus, but even so, there remains a bittersweet hope at the end that keeps you considering what might happen next.
chosen by Jenny Barber

Guinea Pig Girl, by Thana Niveau
I discovered this in what is probably the best way to discover a story – word of mouth. I was already familiar with Niveau’s work, had the wonderful From Hell to Eternity (short-listed for a British Fantasy Award), but here was a story I hadn’t read. By all accounts, that needed to be fixed. Originally published in The Tenth Black Book of Horror, it also appeared in Best British Horror 2014.
   Alex is obsessed with Yuki, a J-Horror actress, and comes to find himself ‘haunted’ by her. The story offers comment on the genre and the roles played by gender, but it’s by no means a polemic. Yuki’s role is to suffer, and to entertain in her suffering, even arouse. Alex is certainly aroused but claims to feel ashamed. Claims, in fact, that it is Yuki’s fault for making him feel this way. He watches (and so do we) as she is repeatedly tortured, only for her to torture him in return….
   To say more is to spoil the story.
   Guinea Pig Girl is about exploitation, but isn’t exploitative. It’s about the pleasures of horror and all the complexity involved in its enjoyment. It’s about desire, and obsession, and possession (both in the supernatural sense and as object). And it’s a damned good story.
chosen by Ray Cluley

Wolf Alice, by Angela Carter
I think I must choose this, from her The Bloody Chamber collection, which I discovered when researching for my MA. I love it not because it’s the heart-warming story of a young woman helping a gruesome old man come back to life − that’s a fairy tale, you know that - but because it’s a story of self-discovery. Alice never returns to being “human” − she’s a lost child brought up by wolves and found “in the wolf’s den beside the bullet-riddled corpse of her foster mother, she was no more than a little brown scrap so snarled in her own brown hair they did not, at first, think she was a child but a cub” − but because she muddles her way through things that are foreign to her, finds her own path and obeys her instincts. There are all of Carter’s trademark bold and baroque descriptions, unapologetic and very female, but I think I love most the final paragraph for its sheer magic: “As she continued her ministrations, this glass, with infinite slowness, yielded to the reflexive strength of its own material construction. Little by little, there appeared within it, like the image on photographic paper that emerges, first, a formless web of tracery, the prey caught in its own fishing net, then in firmer yet still shadowed outline until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gentle tongue, finally, the face of the Duke.
chosen by Angela Slatter

Skein And Bone, by V. H. Leslie
The title story of V.H. Leslie's collection Skein and Bone is a perfectly realized ghost story, the tale of two sisters travelling together in France with unspoken tensions bubbling beneath the surface of their already-cool relationship. They decide to get off the train to explore a small village and a chateau that they've read about in their guidebook, yet on arrival, both the chateau and the town itself appear to be deserted - at first. I love the setup and the slow, unsettling buildup of the story that makes its grisly payoff all the more shocking. It's work like this that has me convinced Leslie has the potential to be a major writer both in and out of the genre.
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker

When Charlie Sleeps, by Laura Mauro
The first time I read When Charlie Sleeps by Laura Mauro was akin to being struck by lightning. The story gripped me right from the get-go and its premise - a creature in a bath tub whose umbilical cord is at one with the plughole and it happens to control the City of London with its moods - is wholly original and left me shaking with excitement when I had finished it.
   This was the first time I had read anything by Laura, and I was more than happy when she accepted my offer of reprinting the tale in Best British Horror 2014. Laura has a brilliant voice, is a very powerful storyteller and I really hope one day that she can somehow evolve Charlie’s story into a novella or even novel – it could be one of the most unsettling novels you would ever read.
chosen by Johnny Mains

Tarot, by Nick Browne
This is about a tarot card reader who has an unusual encounter with a customer one hot, summer’s afternoon, which I stumbled across in an anthology called Ghosts Electric.  Although the story is only eight pages long, I felt like I was in the booth with them, listening in, an unseen bystander, as the story within the story unfolded. Outside was hot and I felt the temperature rising as I sat there coming to the same conclusions as the psychic but then, on the very last page, everything shifts and nothing was as it seemed. I love it when an author has the ability to lead you into a particular way of thinking without making it obvious, just so that they can blindside you with something you weren’t expecting. That “How didn’t I see that before?” moment is one I really enjoy if it’s done well. Although this isn’t a horror story in the usual sense of the genre, it still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and certainly creeped me out as I put the book down, switched off my light and snuggled down under my duvet hoping for sweet dreams!
chosen by Neats Wilson

In Vermis Veritas, by Poppy Z. Brite
Poppy Z. Brite writes visceral and sensual prose like no one else I've ever read, but always in search of beauty and pleasure. Her work transcends genre, as it transcends bodily putrefaction/disgust. It finds beauty even in the darkest places, and is so sensually alive, it can be overwhelming... and overwhelmingly disturbing. Her novel, Exquisite Corpse, about the love story between two gay, cannibalistic serial killers, lost her a contract with Penguin UK.
   In Vermis Veritas (from the collection Self-Made Man), opens with a quote from the painter Francis Bacon. It is narrated by a maggot in a slaughter house, written in eloquent prose that paints as vividly as Bacon ever did, and it blew my mind when I first read it.  It is an exquisite short story about the beauty of physical decay, narrated by a 'connoisseur of mortality', and is required reading for any 'connoisseur' of genre writing.
   Poppy would later undergo gender reassignment, to become Billy Martin. I don't know the borders or strictures of Women In Horror Month, so it's possible (given the reactionary elements of life online) that some might think my choice here somehow doesn't fit...
   Fuck 'em.
   Trangression was Poppy's stock in trade. ‎
chosen by Neil Snowdon

Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved going to the bookstore, looking for a scary cover, and finding story after story inside. One book that has been on my shelf for years is The Monster Book of Monsters: 50 Terrifying Tales. There are a lot of gems in this one, but Disturb Not My Slumbering Fair stole my heart with that lovely first line: “It was already Thursday when Diedre left her grave.” The smell of the grave clung to every page.  It may have been the only story in that book that was written by a woman, but Diedre’s hunger was unrelenting, and her story endures.
chosen by Marianne Halbert

Paskutinis Illuzia (The Last Illusion), by Damien Angelica Walters
I read this as part of the excellent 2014 collection Sing Me Your Scars on a recommendation from the GingeFather himself, Jim Mcleod. The whole collection is fantastic and highly recommended, but The Last Illusion stands out for it’s extraordinary blend of pathos and terror. It’s the nightmare of every parent made flesh, and the horrors, of oppression and arbitrary state violence and control, are all the more visceral for their real world grounding. There’s just enough love and brightness in the mix to totally break your heart. Spectacular. I wish I’d written it.
chosen by Kit Power

The Lost Ghost, by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman
I can’t remember the first time I read this story, but over the years I’ve come across it here and there, and I included it in the TOC for Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women.  It’s quite a gentle story, two women chatting over their embroidery and crochet while one relates the time she purports to have met a ghost – and yet it’s also quite chilling. The tale within the tale is one of abandonment and loss, a little phantom girl who likes to help around the house, but is always looking for her mother. The truth of what happened to her, and what she finds at the end of the story, is tragic – and definitely tugs at the heart strings.
chosen by Marie O’Regan 

Reasons I Hate My Big Sister, by Gwendolyn Kiste
Reasons I love Reasons I hate my big sister
#17 Stories have layers.
#29 Great stories don’t reveal everything to the reader in a single serving. There is a sense of another tale, another meaning. A reason to go back and read the story again. To understand everything. And then to go back again. And again.
#48 Great stories go beyond the words into the ideas that underpin the story. I have three big sisters; lines such as I have no name, no identity of my own. I’m just “Elise’s little sister.” Without her, I don’t exist. resonate with someone who went through his school years in the footsteps of his elder sisters. It’s an observation. A truth. Great writing is about highlighting those truths.
#86 Reasons I hate my big sister lives in the mind long after reading. There is a stoicism to the narrator’s words which is beautiful and terrifying. It draws you in and holds you. Holds you tight. Holds you forever.
chosen by Richard Farren Barber

Open Your Window, Golden Hair, by Tanith Lee
Ever since I was introduced to Angela Carter as a teenager, retellings of fairy tales have captured my imagination, so the anthology Fearie Tales was just like all my dreams come true and while there are plenty of good stories to engage a reader, this one stayed with me in particular.  Little touches like only referring to the protagonist by his surname of “Brown” and the rather old-fashioned prose really help give it an immediate sense of time and place and while it's based on Rapunzel’s tale, Lee manages to take every aspect and twist it into something far more sinister. We learn that the occupant of the tower was not a beautiful girl, but a creature “bred... by force on a human woman”. In the original tale, the mother’s undoing is her craving for the herb called Rapunzel, but here “special liquids and herbs of power” are force-fed to the pregnant woman. There is no golden hair for a prince to climb, but instead a yellow creeper covers the tower walls; up close it has a radiant golden hue and a sweet smell. But touching it is fatal...
   In ten short pages, we follow Brown’s journey from curiosity to unconscious obsession and finally realisation. And Lee’s mastery of the short story ensures that his struggles will stay with you long after you’ve moved onto another tale.
chosen by Charlotte Bond

The Strawberry Tree, by Ruth Rendell
Mark asked me to write about a favourite horror story by a woman. Some might say that my choice meets only 50% of the guidelines, asking whether this even is a horror story. After all, nothing particularly gruesome occurs. In fact, the tale could even pass for mainstream fiction, with its wistful exploration of an ageing woman’s troubled past and the strange characters who invade her present. The story (a novella) relates how, many years earlier, Petra’s brother fell in love with the beautiful Rosaria during a family holiday in Majorca. Then they both disappear, and Petra’s parents seek desperately to find them – but to no avail. Much later, after the deaths of her parents, Petra inherits a fortune and returns to the Mediterranean island where this disappearance occurred when she was a child. Here she chances upon two people claiming to be her brother and his wife, but is it really them? Rendell explores Petra’s emotional involvement with this couple in an increasingly sinister way, using the story’s titular strawberry tree and its bogus fruit as a telling metaphor. In a lesser writer’s hands, the tale would be just about whether the newcomers are genuine, but in Rendell’s it becomes so much more that: a truly unsettling investigation into interpersonal relationships and questions of authenticity and whether that even matters to those who, despite material comforts, are most vulnerable in the world. The horror exists in the implications of Petra’s decision at the end of this truly unsettling work. It’s haunted me for over 20 years, ever since I first read it. There’s a TV version, but avoid that; the real dark stuff occurs inside Petra’s head, in the nebulous flux where inadequate memory blends with irrepressible desire.
chosen by Gary Fry

Red As Blood, by Tanith Lee
Fairy tales have always been steeped in horror, so I think it's right to recognise those who first lifted the shears to prune that gnarled old tree into new shapes. Angela Carter's seminal collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979), often comes to mind when we think about chilling re-tellings, but that same year Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, her version of Snow White, was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
   It quickly earned attention (and a nomination for a Nebula Award), and became part of the title of Lee's 1983 collection of fairy tales channelled through her dark, poetic sensibility: Red As Blood, Or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.
   Red As Blood still stands out as a gorgeous, deadly recasting of the story, in which it is the young, vampiric Bianca who is the treacherous foe from the outset.
'There stood a little girl child, nearly seven years of age. Her black hair hung to her ankles, her skin was white as snow. Her mouth was red as blood, and she smiled with it.'
   But what's interesting is that Lee does not cast the stepmother - referred to as the Witch Queen - as automatically 'good' in opposition. Knowledgeable women are powerful and complex in Lee's stories. Both girl and woman employ occult powers, and both are willing to manipulate and sacrifice to carry out their will.  For instance Bianca's summoned 'dwarves' are startling:
'Through the forest, into the clearing, pushed seven warped, misshapen, hunched-over, stunted things. Woody-black mossy fur, woody-black bald masks. Eyes like glittering cracks, mouths like moist caverns. Lichen beards. Fingers of twiggy gristle. Grinning. Kneeling. Faces pressed to the earth.'
   This is a fine example of Lee's lush, evocative prose which was always utilised at its best for twisted dark fantasy stories.
   This Snow White pivots differently at the end than most variations of the story, with the saviour Prince being part of a glorious redemptive spell which cancels evil - its conjuror is canny and maternal.  This final trick is aided by Lee's sublime, artful writing which elevates this fairy tale into a story of dreadful wonder.
chosen by Maura McHugh

My thanks to all the contributors!