Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Tony Jones
“A supreme range of unsettling experiences are on offer
Horror anthologies are a dime-a-dozen these days, but don’t let that put you off experiencing “New Fears” edited by Mark Morris and published by Titan Books this September. This nineteen story collection oozes quality from an eclectic range of leading writers from the world or horror and dark fiction. The strength of this particular collection lies in the diversity and depth of its parts, ironically, it could easily have been called “Old Fears” as there is little to date many of the superb tales it features. In his enlightening introduction Morris nostalgically recalls the classic horror anthologies of his childhood and how he hoped to recreate a book with the same type of kick. “New Fears” succeeds on every level and no two tales have even the remotest similarities, use a lucky dip as a starting point, you’re not going to be disappointed in what you read.
The beauty of starting a short story from the point of view of a reader is that, unlike a novel, often we know nothing of where the next 20-30 pages is going to take us. That lack of knowing is a real thrill and “New Fears” is just great for the unexpected. Morris points out that unlike many recent anthologies there is no theme, however, I will enlighten you slightly… there are no vampires, werewolves, zombies, only one demon, a few ghosts and lots of other general unconnected strangeness. So open the book and expect the unexpected, which is what the best of these types of collections should do.
I don’t have time to mention all nineteen stories individually, so am going to cherry-pick around ten of them. My absolute favourite was Kathryn Ptacek’s “Dollies” which was a sixteen page knockout, which delivers its killer blow in the final two paragraphs. For budding writers curious on how to craft a truly masterful short story, look no further… A little girl believes her doll, called Elizabeth, catches smallpox and dies. Her parents buy her replacement dolls, which also catch smallpox, the girl names all the dolls ‘Elizabeth 2’, or ‘Elizabeth 3’ and so on, depending on how many have succumbed to this mystery illness. The girl is a very unreliable narrator, her parents have secrets, the plot jumps a few years forward and her dolls are still dying off as we head towards the shocking conclusion. This story was so good I gave it to give it to all the English teachers at work for possible use in class. Stunning.
Josh Malerman can do no wrong at the moment, and “The House of the Head” is another example of the scope of his unique and unhinged imagination. A little girl believes her doll house is haunted, as the little boy model in the house’s bedroom often looks terrified, hiding in his bed with the covers pulled up to his nose. Elvie is an intelligent little girl and wants to help her doll family, so she buys a policeman doll and inserts it into the house hoping the policeman will sort out the problem. It most certainly does not and this story shows further that Malerman is totally at ease writing fiction of any length, novel, novella and short stories. He hits the ball out of the park every time and I cannot wait to read his Halloween release “Goblin” when I get the chance.
Alison Littlewood “The Boggle Hole” and Christopher Golden’s “The Abduction Door” are two terrific stories also seen through the eyes of children. If you’ve ever read Robin Jarvis’s classic kid’s series “The Whitby Witches” you may well have come across Boggles before, small creatures who live in the sea caves in the north east of England where “The Boggle Hole” is set. It’s a deeply melancholic tale of a little boy holidaying with his lonely grandfather over the summer, when they visit the beach his grandfather reveals to him of the myths of Boggles and his imagination begins to run riot in this terrific study of loss. You’ll never use a lift again after reading the stunning “Abduction Door” a small boy asks a concierge why his lift has a little three foot door (do lifts really have these Christopher?) and the concierge scares the boy with a story of how there are creatures in the lift which steal children. This tale has such an impact on the little boy he has a phobia against lifts well into adulthood and has never forgotten this story which, of course, comes back to haunt him. Prepare yourself for a truly horrific ending, but what lengths would you go to save your child?
Mark Morris also notes in his introduction that the short story format allows writers to experiment with darker fiction, particularly the endings. This is very true of this collection, which includes very few cheery endings (any?) and several very ambiguous ones. Brady Goldon’s “The Family Car” reveals a lot in its final few pages, perhaps too much, up until then it was a deeply psychological tale that gripped the reader by the throat. Eight years earlier sixteen year old Lindsay had an argument with her parents, they grounded her, then drove a short distance to visit her grandmother. They never arrived and vanished without a trace. Eight years later we pick up the plot, with psychologically damaged Lindsay believing she is being stalked by her father’s old station-wagon, a car she would recognise anywhere. In eighteen brief pages Goldon really sucks the reader in balancing psychology with the supernatural with fine effect.
I loved Stephen Gallagher’s “Shepherds’ Business” as for much of the tale the darker element of the story was enticingly hidden beneath the drudgery of a locum doctor on a remote Scottish island. However, after a baby dies in childbirth there are horrific consequences. “Succulents” by Conrad Williams also expertly shrouds the horror right until the freaky ending, Graham is on a foreign holiday with his wife and son and is harangued into eating an unpleasant looking plant whilst on a cliff walk by a local guide. “The Swan Dive” by Stephen Laws is a dark meditation with a disturbed husband about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, however, before the moment of death something else, even worse, awaits…
Considering Ramsey Campbell is the elder statesman of the collection, he is the only author to use any form of modern technology and that’s only a humble mobile phone! In “Speaking Still” Daniel believes he is receiving messages from his dead wife on his phone and becomes more disturbed as the frequency increases. The story is seen from the point of view of his old friend Bill whom Daniel meets once a week for drinks and most of the action is revealed through these meetings as Bill becomes increasingly concerned for his friend’s mental wellbeing. I do love a Ramsey Campbell story, receiving messages from the dead is nothing new in horror fiction, but it’s the way you tell the story that counts.
From one giant of British horror to another… Join Adam Nevill on a trip to a long since abandoned Victorian zoo, which is not exactly first choice for Jason in his surprise first date with the gorgeous Electra. However, in “Eumenides [The Benevolent Ladies]” Nevill does what he does best and takes the reader on a dark and unsettling journey through the crumbling and deeply unpleasant zoo. Soaked with atmosphere, unpleasant imagery and gnashing of teeth, you just know things are going to end badly for poor Jason who never really had a chance of getting his leg over with saucy Electra.
There were some great turns in the other nine stories including: “Four Abstracts” by Nina Allan (sneaky story of a freaky artist), “Departures” by AK Benedict (life after death in an airport bar), “The Salter Collection” by Brian Lillie (no collection is complete without a story set in a library!) “Roundabout” by Muriel Gray (did you ever wonder what lives in the undergrowth of a traffic roundabout?) “Sheltered in Place” by Brian Keene (terrorism from the other side), “The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers” by Sarah Lotz (black comedy piece about dropping dead in the theatre) and three others by Carole Johnstone, Chaz Brenchley and Angela Slatter.
I enjoyed this collection tremendously, I had read many of the authors before exploring and discovering authors that were new to me was just extremely fulfilling. I’m not sure how the author went about deciding how to select the final nineteen stories, or whether others ended up on the cutting floor? New Fears strength lies in the variety of stylers present in the anthology. It is also worth pointing out there was very little blood, gore, violence, sex or sensationalism. when you have an anthology packed with such great writers as these, ands stories that match their reputation, you don't need to resort to basic tropes and cheap thrills.