If The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 1,_ the inaugural publication from fledgling indie publisher The Sinister Horror Company is an indicator of anything it is that there is a shockingly good array of writing talent currently out there. This, as explained in the eloquent and thoughtful introduction by G.N.O.H. head honcho Jim McLeod hasn’t always been the case. In fact you could argue that for a good decade or more horror has, for want of better words, been a bit shite.
The introduction is something I can readily identify with. I have to confess that for a significant portion of my adult life it just felt like horror fiction’s zest and vitality had evaporated. I just didn’t get that thrill of discovery anymore. I think you’ve all had that moment when you read a writer and you just find their style and story telling so intoxicating that you have just got to read some more of their work. Well, that feeling for me disappeared around the mid 90s and pretty much continued well into the late noughties. The initial heady rush of reading new and exciting work was soon superseded by feelings of boredom and déjà vu as large mainstream publishers saturated the market with big name releases, so so books and themed anthologies of increasingly diminishing returns.
It felt like horror had become a bit homogenized with very little diversity, creativity or sparkle peaking its’ head above the parapet. In the race to the bottom line, quality had been thrown out in favour of quantity and there appeared to be a frightening lack of up and coming horror writers being published due to the stranglehold that mainstream publishing had over the market. As certain themes started to proliferate and then repeat, the market reached a saturation point and then broke. The thing that I discovered through this period is as much as I like horror, I like quality. And, I suspect so did a whole heap of other people who just got fed up at the lack of choice beyond guaranteed sellers from King, Herbert et al. At least that’s what it felt like to me. I badly wanted to read stuff that had real verve, wit and most important of all, passion. Long story short, horror was losing its’ teeth and was in danger of losing its’ bite altogether.
However, in the mid to late noughties a quiet revolution was gathering pace. As the mainstream publishers started reducing their horror fiction output so into the gaps left stepped people who had a genuine interest and passion in seeing horror in all of its infinite and beautiful variety. Small press publishers and periodicals began to appear that gave a forum for new and developing voices. Alongside this was the rise of social media and growth of eBooks that allowed independent writers, small publishers and fans the means to interact and share their love of all things Horror. The slow decay was halted and horror began to regain its’ life which, if we use “The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 1” as a benchmark, is in a shockingly rude state of health.
So, what of the stories then? Well, overall the quality in here ranges from good to really good to outstanding with a wide variety of different styles, settings and stories. The book is a mix of writers that I have previously read (Duncan Ralston, Adam Millard), one that I had heard whispered about on the social media scuttle bucket (Kit Power) but the vast majority are wholly new to me. You remember how I was talking about that joy of discovery? “The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 1” is a prime example of that and gives credence to how far horror has come in the last couple of years.
The stories in here are bookended by tales from the one of the founders of the press, Daniel Marc Chant, which hints of horrors unseen and unheard and then it is straight into the first of the tales, “The Stranger” by Danny King. This is a very short story that answers one of those age old questions about the random person who usually sits in a pub muttering to their self and looking crazy. That point when you think “how did they get like that?” The answer is of course that you don’t really want to know but I really liked the way that King conveyed the bewildering and disorientating nature of meeting and talking to such an individual. It is just a great little introduction to what lies in wait for you, which is damn fine storytelling to be honest.
The next story in the anthology is the gleefully anarchic “Time for Tea” by Duncan Bradshaw. This can best be described as Battle Royale over a brew. Sharp and brutal but leavened by large dollops of jet black humor this had me grinning like loon after the first few pages. I had much the same reaction with Vincent Hunt’s excellent “Hide and Shriek”. Apparently this is his first published story but you’d be hard pressed to guess that is the case. This is a really damn creepy story about one of those places spurned by polite society. You know the ones that are whispered about by kids and shunned by adults for some unspecified reason. I don’t want to spoil this story as it is a real peach with quite possibly one of the best end sentences I’ve read in quite a while.
Adam Millard is a writer whose work I have only recently become acquainted with but judging by his atmospheric and poignant ghost story “The Room at the Inn”, this is not destined to be a casual reading affair. Sometimes it is best to ignore your curiosity about things you don’t quite understand and leave well enough alone. This is pretty much what the protagonist discovers in J.R. Park’s “Clandestine Delights” at the mysterious Maid of the Wave hotel. That old adage about what you want not being necessarily what you need comes to vivid realization. It is another solid piece of fiction in a book that hasn’t yet disappointed. Madeleine Swann is not a writer whom I am familiar with but after reading “Waiting for the Right Stop” I’ll probably be changing that. This starts out innocently enough as a story about taking an unfamiliar bus ride but rapidly descends into something much more chilling and downbeat. I really liked the way that Swann teased out the story through random encounters and dialogue with the bus passengers and also that notion of how your perception can change with time. She is definitely another writer to look out for!
That feeling of being lost, unsure of your surroundings and how you perceive the world is heightened in Craig Anderson Jones’ “Equinox” as a team of interstellar explorers encounter something nasty on a new Earth. Science fiction and horror can be comfortable bed fellows if done right and “Equinox” is a solid example of how effective they can when combined right. Leo Stableford is yet another writer whose work I am not familiar with but on the basis of his contribution, “He Said, It Said” that will change. This is about the follies and foibles of summoning a demon and bartering your soul in exchange for riches. I really enjoyed Stableford’s sardonic take on the drudgery of working for a literally soulless corporate hell and of selling your soul to a demon that’s a bit past its’ prime and flexible in its negotiations. It is just a great story well told which is pretty much how I felt after reading “Plagiarism” by Martin Jones. This is a story about where lying can take you, which turn out to be some very, very dark paths indeed.
The way in which the story is narrated has this detached and matter of fact type of manner to it that made me feel distinctly uneasy about what was going to happen next
And you pretty much know what is going to happen next within the first few pages of reading Thomas S. Flowers raw and visceral “Lanmo”. This is an almost novella length story of voodoo and vengeance in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era of the 60s. Set in the simmering summer heat of Louisiana this is a brutal and unswerving look at racial hatred and its consequences. Flowers’ creates this menacing and brooding atmosphere of barely suppressed violence from the word go as a young civil rights activist encounters the real face of law and order in that part of the world. If any story typifies what horror can and should be, it is a story like this. This was a feeling echoed when I read Kit Powers excellent “When the Pin Hits the Shell.” This is an unflinching look at existence on the frontiers of the Old West and a brooding meditation on the nature of life and death in that period. Told via a fragmented and mixed up chronology I just really liked the way this story examined how people are shaped by their own experiences and how harsh and unforgiving life can be. It really is quite a startling piece of fiction writing
D.K. Ryan’s “Hand Job Italiano” is a fairly warped Giallo type story of hands, fame, modelling and torture. It is a good story but after the preceding tale it kind of suffers by comparison. The isolation and monotony of deep space is really brought to the fore in “Long Haul” by David James. This is a tense and claustrophobic horror story as a deep space transport’s reawakened pilot discovers all is not well with their cargo of “cattle”. The story just has this grimy and worn down feel to it that got under my skin.
Vying for best tale alongside “Lanmo” and “When the Pin Hits the Shell” is Duncan Ralston’s revolting “Cuttings”. The last book that I reviewed for The Ginger Nuts of Horror made me feel slightly nauseous. This story creates a whole new echelon of “ick” and “eurghhhh!” but is tempered by a solid sense of characterization and plotting. Ralston’s stylings in this story remind me somewhat of certain aspects of Stephen King’s Christine and how it dealt with obsession and possession. Much like King, he has this great ability to create believable characters thrust into extraordinary circumstances. There the similarity ends however as Ralston propels his protagonists into realms of pain and suffering that will have you retching and dry heaving. “Cuttings” is an exceptionally grim and brutal story with an ending that had me going “yeah George just drop the book and step away.” If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Duncan Ralston then I would strongly recommend you correct that tout suite. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The twin themes of obsession and possession are reflected in the Daniel Marc Chant’s Lovecraftian-ish “Conductive Salts” as a couple discover something rather strange whilst metal detecting which puts their unsteady relationship on a whole new footing. Again, I can’t fault the writing here and have yet another author for my ever expanding list of “what else have they done?
Relationships, both in how you perceive your self and in relation to others are placed under the microscope in Kayleigh Marie Edwards’ excellent “Skin.” This is a sharply observed story about teenage isolation, feeling ostracized and different from those around you which can be exacerbated when you encounter something with a very peculiar bite. “Skin” feels very raw and cuts really close to the bone. The next story in the anthology, “Needs Must” by A.S. Chambers is a fun Brothers Grimm type tale about a thing called Odd Bod who decides one day to take a trip out his well to look for food and gets a lot more than he bargained for. This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists in Ian Caldwell’s “The Octagonal Cabinet” when they encounter a curious cabinet with unique spatial properties dependant upon the time of day. There is an old saying involving curiosity but to say more would be to spoil it. Diners with a discerning palette will find much to grimace at in “Happy Anniversary” by Paul Townsend whether it be swallowing your pride over a heated argument or stomaching the finer arts of nouveau cuisine. This is a great little story that will probably put you off the zesty tang of citrus fruits for awhile. The final story offered up for your reading pleasure is “And in the Endless Pause, There Came The Sound of Bees” By Jeffrey X Martin. This is a skewed view at a human trailer park in the wilderness that has a unique power structure and means of ensuring its’ survival and longevity. It is as good a distillation of the spirit of the Black Room Manuscripts as any of the other contributions: storytelling, characters and images vividly burned into my mind’s eye. Following on from this is the epilogue from Daniel Marc Chant and another eloquent and impassioned contribution from Jennifer Handorf about the joy of horror and sharing that passion in “Horror as a Uniting Front.”
So does this do the job? Yes it bloody well does. The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 1 is a rather tasty introduction to the current state of horror writing and also a book with a plan. All proceeds from this go to Blue Cross UK who supports animal welfare the length and breadth of the country. I would put good money on you liking some, if not all of the writers in here and I’m pretty sure that you’ll be making a beeline to find out what else they have written. Here’s hoping there is a Volume 2 soon enough!