Monday, 25 February 2019

The 70s & 80s Horror Mixtape

This is the fifth in an occasional series of mixtape posts (the previous ones featured Brit HorrorAmerican HorrorWomen In Horror and Stephen King) that seemed to go down well and, judging by emails I received, resulted in readers discovering new writers and stories.

I have a lot of affection for the 70s and 80s, not least because that was when I truly discovered horror and with that in mind, we once again hark back to the glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage) for a compilation of short horror stories first published in those glorious decades.  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 collection is available as an ebook - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, by Clive Barker
"To you who dream of sweet, strong women, I leave this story. "
I read The Books of Blood about five years after publication and loved them, but it's this story that affected me the most.
   Jaqueline Ess, worn down by life and her manipulative, unfaithful husband, attempts suicide. Instead of death, she gains the ability to transform flesh at will. She discovers this when she turns her therapist, who is insistent that he understands what it's like to be female, into a woman. A process that proves fatal.
   Jaqueline uses her skill to deliver men the ultimate petit mort but this isn't a tired revenge tale. It's a complex story about the nature of power and transaction. Jacqueline meets several very different men and it's her that shapes them, literally and figurately, not the other way around.
chosen by Priya Sharma

Shatterday, by Harlan Ellison
I first heard of Harlan Ellison through Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and Shatterday was the first collection of his I managed to find (in a little - now long-gone - 2nd hand bookshop in Kettering, sometime in the mid-80s).  A terrific collection, it features, amongst others, Jeffty Is Five, Would You Do It For A Penny?, How’s The Night Life On Cissalda? and Flop Sweat, but my favourite is the title story.
   In this, an unpleasant PR man called Peter Novins inadvertently rings his own apartment and is startled when he answers.  After quickly realising the situation isn’t a joke, they decide to call the other Novins Jay, after his rarely used middle name, a neat trick by the writer.  Novins lived his life selfishly, unpleasant to his mother and friends but especially his girlfriends (and, one assumes, at least one daughter) and Jay decides to make reparations for this.  So far so hum-drum, I hear you cry and generally, you’d be right but Ellison suffuses his tale with a barely contained anger, about misogynists, hypocrites and horrible people (“living in cubicles, boxed and trapped and throttled, was it any surprise that people began to fall apart…”), the acid dripping between each and every line.  There is an attempt to explain the situation but it’s quickly brushed over and all the better for it.  This is Ellison, railing against the selfishness of modern life (and maybe, having read his interviews, about himself too), the story pulsing with aggression.  It might not be the best story he’s written, it might not even be the best story in the collection, but it carries a lot of power and I love it for that.

Soft, by F. Paul Wilson
As a teenager I was obsessed with my bones crumbling. At twelve or thirteen I’d been diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome, a disorder that affects your joints, and found out my right heel bone is just a mass of cracks. The latter freaked me out even more than the first. Convinced the heel was just the start, I’d stay awake at night listening out for my bones splintering. When I did sleep, I had nightmares about my body disintegrating into mush. Wilson’s Soft is about a virus that crunches your bones down to nothing, leaving you a boneless meat sack. Should have properly freaked me out, right? Wrong. Knowing someone else had already thought of the awful things going through my head, that I wasn’t alone in imagining the worst, was oddly comforting. The nightmares stopped not long after. This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone any of this. I owe F. Paul Wilson a big thank you.
chosen by Chloe Yates

In The Hills, The Cities, by Clive Barker
By the time I reached my early teens, I had a decent grounding in popular, contemporary horror fiction. I had discovered a copy of James Herbert’s The Fog on my father’s bookshelf at the tender age of ten or so, and had subsequently devoured much of his work, along with the obligatory Stephen King writings. But by the time I hit thirteen, I wanted something new. Browsing the shelves of my local independent bookshop, I was drawn to the first volume of Barker’s Books of Blood by the cover – there was something wrong with it, something that made me uneasy.
     As soon as I got home I jumped straight in, and loved what I found. From the silent menace of Mahogany, through the comedy of the Yattering and the bleak misery of Lacey and his pig, to the undead performance of Twelfth Night, every story was a joy. But then I got to the final story, and everything before it paled in comparison. As much as I had loved the rest of the book, the basic subjects – serial killers, demons, zombies – were ones I had encountered before. But here was something new; this tale of warring Popolac and Podujevo was unlike anything I’d ever read. Whole cities, their populations lashed together into giant warriors, beating each other to death in the hills of Eastern Europe. The subsummation of thousands of lives into one single creature – this is the stuff on which nightmares are built. And alongside, the more intimate tragedy of Mick and Judd’s desperate attempts to save their dying relationship; attempts which are ultimately futile, but at least they each end the story as part of something larger than themselves, one way or another...
chosen by Steve J. Shaw

The Junk Room, by Terry Tapp
I was still at primary school when I read The Junk Room. The book fair came to our school and I had a whole ten pounds to spend on books. It was like Christmas. We were edged towards the set of shelves that corresponded to our age and my face fell as I was greeted by books about fairies and ponies; at home I was currently reading Poe (and when my parents weren’t looking, their copies of the Pan books of Horror). I wandered off to look at the older kid’s shelves hoping I’d find something better, and that’s when I saw The Green Ghost and other stories: Ed. by Mary Danby. I picked up the book and reverently carried it over to the cashier. The cashier picked it up, but instead of placing it in a bag, she told me I couldn’t have it, I was too young. Luckily my parents never went in for age restrictions, and the next day my mum marched into school and bought the book for me. That night I settled down in bed to read, and Terry Tapp’s story definitely haunted my dreams.
   The story starts with a family renovating their new home. Whilst removing the paper in the junk room they find a wooden box screwed across what seems to be a set of freshly painted eyes. These freak the children out and they beg their father to remove them, but the blowtorch blocks and he decides to wait until the morning. That night the family are woken to screams, doors that lock themselves and lightcords which turn into snakes. The family fight their way through to the junk room to destroy the eyes, while the father remains adamant that none of it is real, that they’re just hallucinating.
   Reading this story again as an adult, Terry Tapp’s writing holds up and the story is still a wonderfully creepy tale, however just imagine reading it as a child. As an adult if you ever found yourself in this situation you could leave, but as a child you are subject to the whims and decisions of your parents, of your father adamantly telling you that what you are seeing isn’t real, that you are hallucinating. That feeling of being trapped in a situation you don’t control is heightened, because for pretty much all of your childhood, you are in a situation you don’t control.
chosen by Penny Jones

Author's Notes, by Edward Bryant
Night Visions 4 collected together original stories by Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon and Edward Bryant. I bought the book because of the McCammon stories; I’d never even heard of Bryant.  The Koontz tales were forgettable. McCammon’s contributions were very good. But the Bryant stories blew me away. They were terrifying. Each one was imbued with the specific note of grimness I look for in horror fiction, and extremely well written – verging on what one might call literary.
   What struck me (and scared me) most were the “Author’s Notes” he’d included between each story. These were not notes on the actual stories; they were vignettes that added up to create a story of their own. It was a brilliant conceit: the fictional author revealing a little too much about his troubled mind in his seemingly throwaway story notes, getting side-tracked by his own obsessions and, through the cumulative effect of the pieces, showing us his own darkness. It was meta before I even knew what that meant.
   It was an idea I shamelessly stole for my first short story collection, Dirty Prayers, when I wrote my “Psalms” – short linking pieces designed to have the same effect as the Bryant bits.
   I’ll never forget Edward Bryant’s “Author’s Notes”. This was a defining piece of writing in my personal education as a writer, something that showed me the genre had no limits other than those we stupidly try to impose upon it.
chosen by Gary McMahon

The Power and the Passion, by Pat Cadigan
The final story in the short collection Patterns, it comes complete with a warning from the author. Cadigan says she got the idea while watching The Lost Boys, struck by the cavalier attitude people have towards killing vampires, and she imagined the kind of person you’d really need to do such dirty work. Enter Mr Soames, as repellent a person as you could possibly imagine. He gets his kicks killing vampires, for which he is paid well and kept out of jail for his previous crimes. But he still indulges “flash-movies” in his mind of all the fun he could have with his fellow humans. What makes the story so intense is the forced perspective: you see it all through Soames’ eyes, every monstrous thought, every sick notion. His narrative voice is horribly convincing and insidious.

“That’s why they send me, because I don’t see no undead and I don’t see no human being. I just see something to play with.”

And just what would keep a monster like that from willingly joining the dark side, becoming a vampire himself? Well, that’s the real cleverness of this story and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it.
chosen by Thana Niveau

Call First, by Ramsey Campbell
Settling on one story that fitted the brief proved rather easier than I’d anticipated. The fact that I’d brought this very story up in conversation on the same day I was asked to contribute this piece made the choice all the more serendipitous.
   I’d received the Ramsey Campbell collection, Dark Companions, as a Christmas present from my parents in 1982. I was already familiar with some of Ramsey’s writing from other anthologies and I seem to remember him contributing a column to later issues of The House of Hammer (or whatever it was calling itself at that time) magazine from the late seventies.
   In this collection of stand out tales, Call First is the one that had the most impact on me. Indeed, an early draft of my first published story was clearly influenced by it.  The story centres on Ned who works at a library, where a senior colleague permits an elderly member of the public to use the phone on Ned’s desk. All the man says is “I’m coming home now” in a monotone voice then hangs up. Ned is, at first annoyed by this, but as subsequent visits also end with him making the same phone call, this annoyance gives way to inquisitiveness. So during one lunch hour, with the old man still in the library, Ned pays a visit to his home to find out just who is on the other end of that line.
   It’s a master class in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling with the prose pared down to what is absolutely necessary. In a genre that has some writers reaching for the thesaurus for new ways to describe that something is actually rather scary, Ramsey achieves it here in just one brilliant sentence (actually in half a sentence):
“His mind was backing away faster than he was…”
He makes it look so easy, but it isn’t.
chosen by Neil Williams

The Yattering And Jack, by Clive Barker
So, pretty much anyone who knows me in the writing community, knows I love Clive Barker.  I count him as one of my early inspirations and this was the story that really hooked me in, way back in Books Of Blood volume 1.
   Jack Polo is a gherkin importer who is haunted, on the instructions of no less an entity than Beelzebub himself, by a minor demon called the Yattering. The poor old demon, however, is fighting a losing battle with Jack deliberately thwarting the Yattering's efforts to turn him insane, even ignoring the death of his cats.  It’s clever, funny, and ironic. Comedy and horror are common bedfellows.
chosen by Theresa Derwin

The Late Shift, by Dennis Etchison
Originally published in 1980, in some ways this hasn't aged that well, in that it can feel a little heavy-handed at times and it suffers where a couple of points in the narrative are glossed over too quickly.  However, despite these issues, The Late Shift is probably more relevant today than it has ever been.
   If you aren't familiar with the story, it starts in a classic 1980s drive-in horror way, with two friends returning from a showing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Stopping at that classic of American culture, the 24 hour convenience/gas station, they encounter an old friend who they haven't seen in ages acting a little strange.  Acting almost as though they are about to enter full-on zombie mode.
  They can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, and one thing leads to another and MASSIVE SPOILER AHEAD, it turns out that a company is reanimating corpses of the recently deceased and putting them to work as cheap mindless manual labour as well as stunt men for dangerous, life-threatening stunts in movies.
   It seems that even after death you are not allowed to find some rest.  It's this aspect that I find the most interesting and while Etchison glosses over this part of the story, there is still enough meat on the bones for him to make a poignant metaphor for life in the UK today (a country where most of us have found the dream of retiring a decent age is now a thing of fantasy, and we are not that far away from probably having to find gainful employment in the afterlife).
   While the story, on the whole, may seem light, there is a hidden depth and deep-rooted vein of poignancy and melancholy that lifts it from the limitations of its content.  I used to wish to be a slave to the rhythm, but like the characters in this book I fear I will be wage slave well past the time of my death.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

Where the Stones Grow, by Lisa Tuttle   
I’ve got a longstanding fascination with standing stones and ancient ruins, especially the folklore and mysteries that attach to them, so Where the Stones Grow got my immediate attention when I found it in Lisa Tuttle’s Ghosts and Other Lovers collection.
   The stones in this story are a trio of standing stones on the Devon coast known as the Sisters – local legend differs on how the original human sisters became stone but all are agreed that at certain times of the year they walk down the cliff path to bathe in the sea and will kill any who see them move; which is where the story’s protagonist Paul comes in.
 Paul’s dad was found dead by the Sisters while on a family holiday and since then Paul has been haunted by his memories of the stones.  No matter how far he runs, and how much he tries to convince himself of a world where stones are harmless things, the Sisters have not forgotten that on the morning he discovered his father’s body, he saw them move, and stones are nothing if not patient…
   From the first random pebbles to appear in his life 19 years later, there’s a delicious sense of expectation and doomed inevitability that permeates a wonderful tale filled with slow creeping terror.
chosen by Jenny Barber

Dread, by Clive Barker
Like many teenagers discovering horror in the early 90s, I was drawn to Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, first published in the mid-80s and then reprinted several times by the time I was reading it. I could readily have picked any number of the tales of brilliance which lie within enticing you with their sheer imagination, imagery and originality. I chose Dread.
   Opening Volume 2, it's set in Liverpool and focuses on psychology students Steve, Quaid and Cheryl. Quaid wants to understand the essence of our fears, of dread, and is willing to go well beyond any ethical boundaries.
   I had forgotten how brutal and layered and masterful Dread is. There are stories within stories if you choose to scratch beneath the surface. Fractured pasts influencing future terrors. The use of photographs in sequence used to show atrocities, like a flicker book slowly revealing mental atrocities made me far more uncomfortable than more graphic depictions from other writers. And when the end unfolds you realise it was inevitable even as it sneaks up on you like a killer in the dark. Truly a masterclass in building a short story and a tale I would encourage you to read again and again and again.
chosen by Phil Sloman

Dark Angel, by Edward Bryant
Although published in 1980 (as part of Kirby McAuley's Dark Forces anthology), I recently read Dark Angel for the first time. It’s a deliciously satisfying tale where the protagonist gets revenge in the most poetic way possible.  The story is ritualistic in how the revenge is carried out—which makes sense, since the protagonist is a career witch.
   When Angie Black sees her old boyfriend, who abandoned her as a pregnant teen, she balances the scales.  The stillborn baby causes to much damage for her to deliver another child.   One voodoo doll later and her plan is in motion.
   The author doesn’t shy away from the revenge that’s been a long time. Each step of Angie’s plan drew me a little further into her web and had me cheering for her to succeed. If you’ve ever wanted revenge for something (and be honest, it’s crossed everyone’s mind), this is the story for you.
chosen by Kim Hoelzli

Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell, by Dan Simmons 
I bought Night Visions 5 (ed. Douglas E. Winter) when I spotted the words ‘Stephen King’ in large, gold embossed text on the front cover while browsing in my local WH Smiths—but upon reading it a story by a writer new to me, Dan Simmons, made the biggest impact. Even before I read the story, I loved the title, and after I read it…—well, I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t really, but keep reading while I try to explain.
   The narrative setup is quite simple. A TV evangelist is mid-broadcast when someone strolls on set and announces they’ve come from Hell. Dante’s Hell, to be precise. Vanni Fucci is pretty angry, being allowed only one day out of all eternity free from the torments of Hell. The story tells us just why he decided to spend that single day visiting the set of Brother Freddy's Hallelujah Breakfast Club… Spoiler: it’s not because he’s a fan.
   VFIAAWALIH is only a few thousand words long, but in its short length gives us a near perfect horror-comedy, a satire about tele-evangelism and broader American society. It’s not just loosely using a few ideas from Dante’s Divine Comedy as cheap reference points, but incorporating Dante’s entire fictional world and metaphysic into its own narrative. I didn’t know the word ‘Borgesian’ back then; and let’s be honest, Borges never wrote anything that made my teenage self laugh with such utter delight at its bravura craziness as this. My forty-something self, too. It’s completely original, has a huge number of layers to it, and is laugh-aloud funny into the bargain. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Hetty's Rat, by Alison Prince
Alison Prince’s 1980s collection, Haunted Children, is an excellent example of how fiction for young readers doesn’t need to be dumbed down, that children are intelligent readers, willing to accept all flights of imagination, and more importantly, they love a good scare. Well I did anyway.
   My favourite story from the collection, the final and nastiest, is Hetty’s Rat. Hetty’s teacher, Miss Bronson, is teaching the class about germs and disease; a topic that is preying on the mind of the timid Hetty. Then the class start to learn about the Black Death, of how the epidemic was spread by rats. To allay her nightmares Hetty draws a detailed picture of a monstrous rat, which Miss Bronson hangs on the classroom wall. Hetty begins to believe that the rat is alive but Prince doesn’t spell out for the reader whether the rat is real or a product of Hetty’s escalating paranoia. A gem for adults and children alike.
chosen by Cate Gardner

Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly, by Dennis Etchison
I first read this story in the mass-market edition of Etchison's collection The Dark Country, issued in the mid-80s. The story was originally published in 1976 in a small-press magazine. To me, at the
time, mid-80s, Dennis Etchison was an antidote to the burgeoning splatterpunk scene, which didn't interest me at all. Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly, is a very short piece of flash fiction. You
could call it quiet horror, or psychological horror, though the horrors are far from truly quiet, they are just off-screen. It resonated with me because of its sparse writing, and the fact that its first-person
narrative gave the mostly mundane and prosaic events an immediacy and intimacy. It was like Raymond Carver decided to write horror. Every day the commonplace world is full of quiet, subdued horrors. Etchison shows us that, and just a little bit more.
chosen by Michael Kelly

The Utterly Perfect Murder, by Ray Bradbury
This story, which appeared in Long After Midnight (1976) is not Ray Bradbury's trademark sci-fi, nor is it even horror—unless you consider injustice, loneliness, and the inexorable march of time towards death horror. Which I do. Quiet, real, horror—in particular, the terrible things we are capable of doing to one another—is far more interesting to me than any other kinds of monster.
   The story is ostensibly about Doug, a middle-aged man who wakes up one morning and, apropos of nothing but that inexorable march of time towards death, suddenly decides that he must kill his old friend/nemesis, Ralph, as revenge for his bullying and cruel disregard in childhood. He travels to his home town, full of righteous fury and revenge, listing all the ways in which Ralph did him wrong. But the Ralph that he finds is dying: old and wretched. And what he kills is not Ralph, but the demons that drove himself to his doorstep. Restlessness, dissatisfaction, mortality. Time. And above all, loneliness—the fear of being seen as nothing, of being forgotten.
   Instead of the violent end that you spend most of the story expecting, we see Doug making peace with himself instead. The last five lines are just sublime: an utterly perfect end to an utterly perfect story.
chosen by Carole Johnstone

The Surgeon’s Tale, by J P Dixon
By 1988 the Pan Book of Horror Stories was on its last legs (and had been for several volumes) but JP Dixon’s The Surgeon’s Tale from Pan 29, however, is something special. The series could always be relied upon to include a nasty surgery story fairly regularly, all the way from the failed amateur leg transplant antics of Flavia Richardson’s Behind the Yellow Door in Pan 1 and T H McCormick’s vengeful Man with a Knife in Pan 12 through to this. The Surgeon's Tale is an endearing and unexpectedly sympathetic Victorian-set tale of a beautiful woman’s horrific obsession with wanting to know how much of her own body can be surgically removed and she still survive, and the man swept up by both the idea and her. Far more complex than the series’ usual fare the story is by turns a well-written period piece, a love story, and a tale of obsession, with an ending that is sad rather than shocking. Indeed there is very little of the gleeful dwelling on cruelty and misery prevalent in so many Pan stories.
   Operating theatres were originally so named because they were designed such that students and other interested parties could observe and learn from the procedure being demonstrated. Here Dixon takes the concept to its extreme, giving us a true theatre in which operations take place, the true horror not being so much what is happening onstage but that its purpose is for entertainment (at which it succeeds all too well) rather than education.
   The fact that Paulette, the central character, can feel no pain is important and is one of the reasons the story is a standout. Throughout the relating of the tale we know that things can only end in tragedy. Fortunately Dixon resists the temptation to end things in a blaze of gory histrionics with a final major procedure that goes horribly wrong, and instead allows her the dignity of a quiet ending. It's a fantastic story, and one which has criminally not been reprinted as far as I can tell since its original appearance. But if you can manage to find one of the increasingly rare copies of the 29th Pan Book of Horror Stories this, the opening tale, is well worth your while.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
‘Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious.’ So Angela Carter described stories she was drawn to; but her words could serve as introduction to her second collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979). The titular story is a dark and sumptuous reimagining of the tale of Bluebeard with echoes of the Marquis the Sade and whispered tales of Gilles de Rais. In this tale, the fairytale dissipates to reveal the older, darker roots of folk narratives that underpin them. The language used is almost unbearably sensuous. Carter’s phrases sit on the page like jewels against fur. The story emerges in a flood of Gothic imagery; studded with the sinister, red-hued paintings of French symbolists, references to forbidden texts, and spot-lit with the cruel, lascivious practices of the bored voluptuary. Themes of concealment, fear and desire intermingle with guilt in a violent tangle of words. The principal setting of the castle is sublimely Gothic, with its associations of imprisonment, torture and predation. Its architectural forms blur into nature, creating a melting, phantasmagorical landscape; an in-between space where improbable things can happen- ‘At home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious amphibious place.’ The Marquis’ true nature is echoed in the very shape of the phallic tower and in the sexual symbolism of the secret room filled with the tortured bodies of his dead brides.  The titular ‘bloody chamber,’ according to Bettelheim, is also a womb, one which makes flesh the Marquis’ murderous desires.
But the story is essentially a sublime example of female Gothic; of the imprisoned woman who fights to subvert her own fate. The hero of the piece is the protagonist’s mother – no white knight here for Carter – who frees her daughter with her courage and resolute actions. The Bloody Chamber remains a tangled, fascinating tapestry of folktale, fairytale, cautionary story, and Gothic melodrama which holds at its heart a story of female love, ferocity and strength.

The Raft, by Stephen King
At an early age I had a harder time with Stephen King’s short stories, I think because of the focused potency of the plots from story to story. I owned a copy of Skeleton Crew, but read little of it.
   However, one story I was immediately drawn to was The Raft. Original and frightening, this benign situation quickly descends into a mini-crucible of a sociological study of people under the worst kinds of stress. It’s a look at how quickly we can turn on each other, allow each other back in and turn away once more.
   As plots go, it’s near-perfection.
chosen by Chad Clark

Memories of the Body, by Lisa Tuttle
The story begins with a faux murder as Cerise kills a Fax(imile) of her ex husband, Patrick, on the insistence of her lover, Hewitt.  Hewitt insists that this is a therapy designed to rid her of the hold Patrick retains on her affections. To Cerise, however, the murder seems very real despite Hewitt’s assurances that Patrick is still alive. Cerise then sees a recording of Hewitt killing his first wife Penny at the same clinic, which also seems chillingly real. Cerise visits Penny, who says she cannot be truly dead as her live brain has been inserted into a Fax shell; that she lives still, but only at Hewitt’s whim. Cerise questions who is truly dead and more importantly, how did she herself allow Hewitt to persuade her into such acts.
   Hewitt has asserted control over minds and thus the bodies of both women; trapping them in situations from which they cannot escape, even in death. Or to paraphrase Henley, Frey and Felder, ‘They can check out, but they can never leave.’ A story of obsession and control in the extreme.
   I read this story whilst in the final throes of a toxic relationship. Reading into those themes and identifying with them was really not much of stretch.  For me the power of the very best horror has always come through those which chill at a very personal level. It lies not within a fear of mere blood and viscera but in the ability of the writer to touch upon one’s most deeply rooted fears.  Tuttle does this in spades with Memories of the Body which will resonate for anyone who has ever been subject to the will of others for whatever reason.
chosen by Jan Edwards

Sandkings, by George R.R. Martin
Before George Martin became darling of the fantasy genre, he was writing some of my favourite horror novels and, before that, my favourite SF. All his work contains a rich vein of darkness - he mines the ore of twisted psychology that runs through us all.  Sandkings was written in the transition period between his SF and horror work and published in Omni magazine in 1979 - in 1980 it won a Hugo Award, a Nebula and a Locus for best novelette..
   It’s a treatise on compassion and empathy (or the lack of them), an exploration of politics and religion, a story of just deserts (filmed as an Outer Limits episode), it’s a tale of pet ownership, but most of all, it’s a damn good read.
chosen by Steve Harris

Guilty Party, by Stephen Laws
I was a late-comer to the horror scene. Growing up, my parents let me read and watch horror, but only that which was deemed suitable for kids. The amazing Robin Jarvis books. The fabulous TV show Who’s Afraid of the Dark. And all the Point Horror books I could get my hands on.  But as I got older, I started to delve into darker fiction. The first stories which drew me were the ones that scared me the most: those about wolves and werewolves. Some stories can surprise you with how scary they are, but anything with lupine creatures is a dead cert for me. This interest inevitably led me to The Mammoth Book of Wolfmen (2009).
   As well as loving werewolves, I love reading about horror that is geographically close to home, and Guilty Party has both these features. Set in the north, the protagonist (Stuart) finds himself accidentally dumped off the bus in the middle of a country lane.  Seeing no other way to resolve his situation, Stuart starts to walk the lonely country lane towards Newcastle -- only his route is not as deserted as he thought. Something is keeping pace with him on the other side of the hedge.
   What really lodged this story in my mind, so I recalled it long after I put the book down, was the way Laws described walking down that lane. Stuart rationalises everything he sees in just the same way I did when I used to walk along empty country lanes on the way back from my job. It’s just a cow on the other side. It’s just my shadow. It’s my imagination.
   I’m also quite a softy, and while I don’t shy away from deaths in the fiction I read, I infinitely prefer the deaths to have meaning or to be justified. And while the hapless Stuart does manage to last the night, those he encounters are not so lucky. But Laws does a great job of making you feel that somehow, they probably deserved it.
   This short story is definitely one of my favourites, and it often comes back to my mind when I’m walking home alone and I hear something rustling just out of sight.
chosen by Charlotte Bond

Survivor Type, by Stephen King
King once said in an interview that “If I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” This story of a drug-trafficking, disgraced former surgeon Richard Pine, who survives a shipwreck only to wash up on a desolate, deserted island, this is very much King in the latter mode.
   The reader’s enjoyment of this macabre tale, told in a series of diary entries, is helped immensely by the sheer unlikeability of the protagonist. He’s a vain, self-centred and arrogant man and it’s hard not to feel he gets his just deserts.
   This is King cutting loose and the fun he’s having comes across as the entries get ever more crazy as events take their inevitable toll on Richard
   I’ve no idea how plausible the lengths he goes to to keep living are but it makes for a wonderful bit of gross-out horror. And don’t worry, he washed it thoroughly before he ate it.

Snow, by Kathy Ptacek
Since February is Women in Horror Month, I’ve chosen an author who has contributed a lot to the genre, not only as an author, but as an anthology editor (Women of Darkness and Women of Darkness 2), and she used to publisher the market newsletter, The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets.
   I chose Kathy Ptacek.
   And while researching short stories from the 80s, I found an absolute treasure in the Spring 1989 issue of The Horror Show magazine, edited by David B. Silva (it’s one of the oldest horror magazines I own, beside issues of Cemetery Dance).  Anyway, this is a very cool issue because Kathy is featured quite a bit – a story (Snow), an interview by Lionel Fenn, a look at Kathy’s fiction by author Nancy Holder, and an essay/article by Kathy herself ((A) Musing), talking about various topics in the horror genre, including Women in Horror.
   Snow is a poignant but dark tale of Jean, a woman who must leave her elderly mother in a nursing home, unable to care for her any longer. Such a task is never easy, but the mother makes it harder by guilt tripping and harping on her harried daughter. It’s obvious the mother has emotionally abused Jean most of her life.
   As Jean drives home, it begins to snow. As she travels home through the storm, white-knuckling it, she looks back on her embattled relationship with her mother and the opportunities and love lost due to caring for her without any kind of gratitude in return. She tries to convince herself the nursing home was the right idea for both of them, doing her best to tune out her mother’s accusing voice in her head. Don’t leave me…
   I loved this story – I could relate to the strained relationship between mother and daughter. Kathy’s writing is beautiful, drawing you into the story and experiencing the women’s emotions, the dangerous drive through blinding snow, and the despair of a life not lived fully.
   Unfortunately, The Horror Show went out of print a long time ago. However, Kathy does have a collection available at Amazon called Looking Backward in Darkness: Tales of Fantasy and Horror, which includes and “Snow” and other wonderful stories from her career.
   If you haven’t read Kathy Ptacek yet, grab this book!
chosen by Sheri White

Wolf-Alice, by Angela Carter
“Could this ragged girl with brindled lungs have spoken like we do she would have called herself a wolf, but she cannot speak, although she howls because she is lonely”
   I could reasonably pick any of the stories from The Bloody Chamber to feature here – it’s a masterpiece of short fiction, a series of clever and subversive treatises on the fairytale and all its attendant conventions. No writer has influenced me quite as much as Angela Carter, particularly her short fiction.
   Wolf-Alice is one of a trilogy of Red Riding Hood analogues, and this one is distinctly gothic in flavour. A feral wolf-child who cannot adjust to the social norms required of her as a ‘human girl’ is sent to live with the Duke, a half-wolf himself who lives in solitude. The wolf-girl’s perspective is cleverly written, blending naivety with sharp instinct, her slow self-realised humanisation which nonetheless does not erase her animal heart. Her compassion for the ostracised Duke is realised in a manner both recognisably human and wonderfully strange. This is a beautiful exploration of alienation and self-actualisation, told in Carter’s flowing, musical prose: “She goes out at night more often now; the landscape assembles itself about her, she informs it with her presence. She is its significance.”

Stages, by Ramsey Campbell
This short story involves arguably the most horrifying thing I can imagine, and I can even back up that claim theoretically. Most people, when quoting Jean-Paul Sartre’s (in)famous line from NO EXIT - “L-infer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”) - have no idea what it means in its original conception. It isn’t just that our peers are commonly a pain in the derriere (however true that is); it’s rather that in order to confer upon ourselves a concrete identity – a fixed sense of self – we rely on other people to recognise us (just as they rely on us). So social life is a constant battle to persuade others that we are what we wish to be and for them to accept us as such. In short, we need others in order to see ourselves in their eyes. Read “Stages”. It’s the most disturbing distillation of Sartre’s nightmare I’ve read.
chosen by Gary Fry

In The Squalus, by Kit Reed
Kit Reed (1932-2017) was writing fiction by the age of twelve and her first short story, The Wait (1958), was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She wrote across a plethora of genres and media throughout her long and disguised career. She was a Guggenheim Fellow, earned a five-year grant from the Abraham Woursell Foundation, her work was nominated for the James Tiptree Jr. Award three times, and in 2005 her novel, Thinner Than Thou, was given the Alex Award by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).
   Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Kit's work regularly appeared in literary venues as well as speculative fiction magazines and anthologies. She referred to herself as trans-genred, because she put no boundaries on her imagination. Her prose is easy-going and often infused with an underlying humour, which can disguise her clever observations on the foibles of human endeavours.
   In The Squalus was originally published in 1972 in The Transatlantic Review and opens with a terrible scenario: the protagonist, Alvah Larkin, a Naval Submarine officer, is in the Squalus, a vessel that's sinking due an unspecified incident. The opening paragraph is a gripping entry to the story and the awful dilemma that often faces people in military service:

'He was under water for too long; lying in the shell of the submarine for more than thirty hours, he left his body and his living mates and became at one with the dead floating on the other side of the bulkhead. In the last seconds before the lights failed a few men had scrambled into the control room to join the living; Larkin and the others in the bow let them through and then, facing the rushing ocean, they were forced to close the door against the rest, so that there were twenty-six dead sealed in the flooded engine room. The survivors lay together under the great weight of the ocean, Larkin alive with the rest but already cut adrift from them.'

   Reed was from a military background: her father John R. Craig commanded a submarine, the USS Grampus, during World War II and died with all his fellow men when it was sunk in 22 March 1943. This kind of horror is visceral: a contained, isolated space, with the dead all about, and the chance of living quite slight.
   Larkin is rescued, and survives, but his dead crewmates haunt him throughout the rest of the story. Reed shows the entire span of his life, his relationship with his wife Marylee and his children, which is also affected by another tragedy: the accidental drowning of his first child Janny.
  He goes through the motions of life, but he feels more affinity and connection to the dead.

He belonged with Janny and the others; he belonged with all his classmates who had died at Pearl or in the Coral Sea and he imagined that eventually he would join the child and all the others who surround them: tableau. He could not think beyond that moment, but imagined peace. All this seemed more real to him than his wife or his living children, whom he would kiss abstractedly, so that he remained a solitary in the busy house Marylee kept in an attempt to lure him back to life.

   Larkin's life deteriorates as he attempts to blur his survivor's guilt and his disconnection from the living through alcohol. As the decades of his life continue he finds it harder to grapple with the slow decline towards an inevitable demise; he escaped death before, but it will catch up with him again.
   In the space of a short story Reed grapples with the kind of existential dread that seizes every human, especially in the dark hours. Why do some people die and others survive? And what is the point when we will all die eventually?
   At the end of the story Larkin lies dying, his lungs suffocating in fluid, and realises too late that it is 'the function of all the living to redeem the dead.' He could have reached out to his wife, had a more fulfilling relationship with his living children, but he walled himself off. He is forever submerged, and now cannot return to the surface.
   This a devasting, poignant short story that lingers in the mind and provokes one to consider some of the most fundamental questions we have as human beings.
chosen by Maura McHugh


My thanks to all the contributors!

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Mystery Of The Stuttering Parrot, by Robert Arthur

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1967 and 1971), cover art by Ed Vebell
When eccentric Mr. Silver dies he leaves an extraordinary mystery for The Three Investigators to puzzle out.  A priceless masterpiece has disappeared, and the only clues to its hiding-place lie with seven parrots - who refuse to talk!  

Worse still, Huganay, the international art thief, is hot on the same trail...

illustration from the
Collins/Armada editions, by Roger Hall
At the behest of Alfred Hitchcock (as described at the end of The Secret Of Terror Castle), The Three Investigators are engaged to find the missing parrot of Malcolm Fentriss, an old actor friend of the directors.  Very quickly, they discover that trying to locate Billy Shakespeare - the missing parrot - is going to be a lot more difficult than they originally thought, since it seems to be part of a riddle to find a lost treasure.  Hindered along the way by sinister fat man art dealer Claude Claudius and the international art thief (and gentleman criminal) Huganay, the boys must use all their ingenuity to keep one step ahead, find the lost parrot and uncover the clues to “a piece off the end of the rainbow, with a pot of gold underneath it.”

The second book in the series by Robert Arthur, this was published simultaneously with Terror Castle and, quite literally, follows on directly from it.  With a good, solid opening (as Jupe and Pete make their way through the overgrown garden of Mr Fentriss’ old house) and a decent central mystery, this works well as the plot twists and turns on itself.  The clues and parrots are, essentially, the macguffin (tying in nicely with Hitchcock and Arthur, who edited his anthologies) but the boys’ detective skills are well observed and nicely believable.  Jupiter is a bit more sociable than he was in the first book and, once again, Bob gets waylaid with his job at the library but there’s a nice early appearance by his Dad who, as usual, helps out with one of the clues.

Most of the action takes place in Hollywood, rather than Rocky Beach (though Headquarters features strongly) and the various houses and streets are well used and described.  The climax takes place in an abandoned graveyard in Merita Valley which, coated in coastal fog, makes a terrific location for a great set piece.  The book also features the first use of the Ghost-to-Ghost Hook-up and the term “ramble and scramble”, though I think the latter is used for a slightly different purpose in future stories.

The characterisation is as strong as you would expect from Arthur, both Mr Claudius and Huganay in particular (the latter’s parting comments to Jupiter hint at a mutual respect that would re-surface in The Mystery Of The Screaming Clock and it’s a shame the character wasn’t used by any of the other series writers).  Skinny Norris makes another appearance and Carlos, the little Mexican boy who helps the trio is a sparky, feisty highlight (while it’s mentioned that he later lives with the Joneses he doesn’t appear in any of the other books).  Also typical of Arthur, there’s some great descriptive writing (on approaching the old house: “That isn’t a house I want to approach,” Pete told him.  “It looks like a house full of locked rooms that shouldn’t be opened”) and, combined with the excellent set pieces and nice touches of humour, this is a great  read that I’d very much recommend.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1971 and 1979), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1980 and 1984), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Monday, 11 February 2019

I Thought He Was Older...

This past weekend, I celebrated a milestone birthday and hit my half-century.  I wasn't particularly worried about it (except I now fall into that age-bracket where the adverts assume I'm falling apart and will need sheltered accommodation and funeral plans) - I was more concerned with turning 30, to be honest - and I'll carry on as normal (since I'm still somewhere in my late twenties in my head anyway).
Out for a family meal on Saturday, with Mum & Dad and my sister Sarah and her family
The celebrations kicked off a few weeks ago with my oldest friend Nick sending me a book, charting our shared friendship together (we've known one another for 43 years now).  I love photographs, I love Nick, I loved the gift.
The weekend before last, I organised a Crusty Exterior pre-birthday gathering in Leicester and it was great fun.  We chatted, laughed (a lot), scoured second hand book shops, walked and ate.  And Linda Nagle made a wonderful Star Wars themed cake she presented me with in Carluccio's (our waiter led the sing-a-long).
outside Leicester Museum - from left: John Travis, Sue Moorcroft, me, Steve Harris, Linda Nagle, David Roberts, James Everington & Steve Bacon


Last week, the Golden Wonder Oldies held one of our semi-regular dinners at the Sondes Arms in Corby to help me celebrate.  Having known most of them since the 80s, it was a lovely evening in the company of old friends, filled with a lot of laughing and some good food.
The Golden Wonder Oldies between courses
There's a lot to be thankful for and I really am - I have a wonderful family (I've known Alison for more than half my life, which is a startling thought) and terrific friends, two of the key components to a happy life, I feel.  I'm fit, I'm active, there's a ton of books I need to read, I have stories to write, films to see, adventures to have with Dude.
As my friend Cindy wrote in her card, the "half century club isn't as exciting as the Mile High Club but it's just as awesome!"
me in May 1969 (pic by Dad) and me in February 2019 (pic by Sue) - only the hairline remains the same...

Age is just a number, it's true - and I'm perfectly happy with mine.

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Goblin Glass

I'm pleased to announce that The Goblin Glass, my new e-chapbook from Chad Clark's Darker Worlds Publishing, is now available.
After years of trying to keep his life on the straight and narrow, impossible circumstances have led Warren back to a life of crime. The job he is given is a simple breaking and entering, with instructions to steal a mirror, once belonging to a renowned Spanish magician.

The Goblin Glass. 

And what should have been simple quickly proves to be anything but. And as Warren is drawn into a nightmarish house with his simple goal in sight, he begins to realize just how much he has put on the line.

This started life in 2015 when Alex Davis approached me to ask if I’d like to be involved in an anthology he was editing, centred around the Ten Commandments.  Giving me a pick of ‘sins’, I chose ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ and an idea quickly formed, which I’d beaten into shape by the end of my commute that day.  I pieced the rest together over the next few evening walks, the concept of the mirror (oddly enough) coming to me just before I found the ending and it was a perfect writing experience.  In fact, this was one of those rare occasions where I experienced the process as Stephen King wrote about it in On Writing - "Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

Taking place in pretty much one location, an old house on Duncan Street (named from an unpublished novella of mine), it seemed logical to set it in my fictional town of Gaffney (don’t ever visit, it’ll be the death of you).  I mapped out the house, based on some Dude & I saw on a walk, fairly thoroughly in my head because I’m one of those writers who needs to know where the characters are at any one time.  Once I have that locked down, I find it fairly easy to create the environment which, in this case, I needed to be claustrophobic - the protagonist is doing something he doesn’t want to, wrestling his moral compass while becoming ever more frayed by the house itself.

The mirror, that late addition which fuels the story, is homaged from the Three Investigator mystery The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror by M. V. Carey though my nasty tale bears no resemblance - mirror frame aside - to hers).  I love the book and the spookiness of the mirror so I lifted her description of the Chiavo glass (using his name but creating the backstory) intact and it’d be great if a Three Investigator fan read this and decided to seek out her book again.

Alex’s anthology (as sometimes happens) hit some small press turbulence, ended up changing publishers and finally appeared in a handsome hardcover edition with little fanfare (I think five people, other than the contributors, have read the book).  When Chad asked me for a story for his line of Kindle singles, I thought about this dark little tale and decided I’d like to give it another chance.


Then he was introduced to Mr Skinner, another blast from the past.  Back in the day, when Mr Norris ran Gaffney from the back room of the Chequered Heart pub, Skinner was his enforcer, as happy to chat with friends as break their arms if they defaulted on payments.  With Norris long dead, Skinner was now top of the pile and Warren arranged a meeting with him at his pub.  A thug, almost as wide as he was tall, his hair shaved to suede and a livid scar down the left side of his face, showed Warren into a back room.  Mr Skinner sat alone at a table reading a Kindle, his grey hair as well cut as his powder blue suit.  He looked up as Warren approached and smiled.  His teeth were very white.
     “Sit,” Skinner said and Warren did.  He couldn’t get comfortable in the well padded chair.  Skinner put down his Kindle, tapped his fingertips together.  “I hear you might be looking for a little job.”
     “If you have anything, Mr Skinner.”
     “What can you do?”
     Warren licked his bottom lip and tried not to look shifty or untrustworthy.  “Anything you want.  Back in the day I did some nicking and hot-wired a few cars.”
     Skinner nodded, as if hearing confirmation of what he already knew.  “I understand you ran a decent little workshop for a while, all above board.”
     “I did.”
     “So why aren’t you there now?”
     “The economy,” Warren said after a moment.
     Skinner nodded again.  “Uh huh, credit crunch fucked a lot of people over.”  He smiled tightly.  “I might have something for you.”
     “Whatever it is, Mr Skinner, I’ll do my best.”
     Skinner waved a finger at Warren.  “I remember you now.  Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, when Mr Norris ran the place?  You were in a gang, got out of it just after the bookies raid.”
     Warren looked down at his lap.  His fingers were fighting with one another.  “Yes.”
     Skinner waved his hand in the direction of the thug and Warren heard him pad away.  He returned a few moments later with a shot glass he put carefully in front of his boss.  Skinner took a sip then wiped his lip with his index fingertip.
     “I think we’ll start you with a little breaking and entering, before we perhaps use your mechanics skills.”
     “Thank you, Mr Skinner, that’s great.”
     Skinner took another sip and wiped his lip again.  He cleared his throat and leaned forward, his elbows on the table.  “Have you ever heard of The Goblin Glass?”


Edited to add:
Interesting end to the day, with a flurry of interest pushing The Goblin Glass up the UK charts for Top 100 Horror Paid Short Stories, reaching the giddy heights of number 2 and stomping past some upstart called Stephen King.  To say I'm chuffed with this would be a huge understatement!