My first introduction to the work of The Sinister Horror Company came through reading the eclectic and electric Black Room Manuscripts Volume 1. Edited by Daniel Marc Chant, this was a fantastic anthology showcasing the diversity of voices writing in horror fiction today. So when it was announced that a second volume was forthcoming under the editorial steer of another of the Company’s triumvirate, Justin Park, I was all ears. Would it be a case of lightening striking twice? Well, the answer would be an emphatic “yes.”
The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 2 is a blistering anthology chock full of nuggets of writing gold just waiting to be unearthed for your reading pleasure. Kudos must go to Justin Park for assembling another great line up of authors, some were known to me but there are many writers here whose work I hadn’t encountered before and, after reading their contributions, will be on the look out for more. I think that’s one of the things that I really like about this anthology, the fact that it isn’t all name authors. Another thing that I really enjoyed about this particular volume is the fact that it elicited a lot of strong memories and reminiscing about various aspects of horror and dark fiction. At points I felt like was back in my teenage bedroom furtively reading lurid horror novels late at night. At others it reminded me of that quote from either Bloch or King, “I have the heart of a little boy, I keep it in a jar on my desk” whilst simultaneously thinking of Roald Dahl and those wonderfully black humoured EC comics of the 1950s, all unexpected twists and gruesome fates. There’s been a lot of that type of thinking whilst reading this book and the fact that it evokes such powerful thoughts from me must indicate that we are onto a winner.
So, let’s see what Volume 2 has to offer up to you. First out of the gate is the eloquent and passionate introduction from Chris Hall at DLS reviews about horror in its infinite variety. To lump all of the different styles of horror together under one banner would be much the same as saying all whiskies are the same. So, apart from receiving a swift rebuke, I’d say that whiskies, much like horror writing, have their own distinctive and subtle flavourings that set each blend apart from the other. In the case of the Black Room Manuscripts Volume 2, you have twenty three such flavours to tantalise and tease your taste buds.
The initial sample to this tasting extravaganza is the moody and atmospheric prologue by Justin Park where a crime scene at Horsfield Manor holds horrific secrets for an unwary policewoman. I was sitting here reading it and couldn’t but help but think of Barker’s The Books of Blood prologue. That may sound like I am being somewhat dismissive of this but I am not. It has this feeling of come step inside and have a listen to the tales of darkness, dread and despair that the walls want to whisper to you. In my case, I am all ears!
The introductory story, “The Drawers” by Tim Clayton is a disturbing trip into the mind of a serial killer and his prized collection of trophies. Clayton teases out how the killer acquired his trophies with a step into the obsessive compulsive mindset and routine of the antagonist. A misstep in the daily routine leads to an increasingly erratic and disjointed perspective where he starts to hear scratching and things start to slide. There are moments here where I was thinking is it his guilt or conscience that is playing tricks on him or is it something altogether more sinister that haunts his waking hours. Suffice to say that you’ll read this and feel distinctly off kilter and ill at ease. I reckon that’s my way of saying job done.
Much like the unnamed antagonist in Clayton’s story, the protagonists in Jack Rollins delightfully grotesque body horror “Spores” find their daily routine irrevocably transformed by a single misstep. I really enjoyed this tale of an invasive fungus that thrives on certain nutrients. It reminded me of this fantastic 80s pulp horror novel called “The Fungus” as well as the Brian Lumley classic, “Fruiting Bodies.” That’s not to denigrate the quality of Rollins’ writing as this is a deliciously nasty delve into green fingers gone very, very wrong.
This is probably something you will all be thinking about when I confess that I’ve never actually read any of Graham Masterton’s writing. I have this distinctive image of you all standing like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers pointing at me and screaming these words, “Burn the heretic! Burn him! He’s not one of us! He doesn’t belong!” and yeah, I must raise my hand and admit my guilt. So, you’ll be pleased to hear that on the basis of “What the Dark Does” I’ll make some space in my TBR pile and read. Again, I can’t help but sit here and think about moments from the past. In this here creepy and spooky tale, I’m reminded of clenching at the sheets and cowering in the darkness as familiar shapes began to coalesce into more sinister forms. This story evokes that childhood sense of terror of what may be hiding in plain sight with pin point accuracy. As I sit here and write I can see that scene out of Poltergeist with that clown doll playing across the mind’s eye and I shudder. This is an excellent tale and I can see why my peers wax lyrical about his writing. Time to investigate!
This is something that the protagonist in J.R. Park’s deliciously gruesome “Screams in the Night” probably wishes he had done. I previously talked about Roald Dahl as being one of the cultural references with his twist in the tale stories and this is a great example of that. Much like the previous tale this is a case of Park playing around with your expectations that the story is going in a certain direction and then abruptly pulling the rug out from under you. It’s a taut and grim tale of how not to follow your gut instincts. A similar feeling pervades Paul M. Feeney’s story of two coppers who get lost in a fog and have to respond to progressively more and more disturbing incident reports over the radio. Think John Carpenter directing an episode of The Bill in the Twilight Zone. It has this moody and tense atmosphere from the word go as the exterior environment starts to increasingly mirror the tense and charged conversations within the car that set your teeth on edge reading it. You know that something bad is going on but Feeney doesn’t explicitly state what that could be. It might be zombies, it might be the apocalypse. You just know that whatever it actually is, it isn’t going to end well.
This is pretty much the feeling that started to creep up on me whilst reading Rebecca S Lazaro’s excellent “Cut to the Core.” Initially I thought that it was about schizophrenia and mental health but then suddenly it slips sideways into a tale of possession and extreme horror. Or at least that could be one interpretation of it. This, like a fair few stories in here, has a certain level of ambiguity in its narrative approach. Is what happens to Ellie real or imagined? I can’t quite make my mind up due to the quality of Lazaro’s writing that twisted my expectations right up until the deeply traumatising end that had me putting down the Kindle and finding my safe space in a foetal position. Let’s just say that it is a bit of a corker!
The intimacy of knowing yourself and how you would respond in the face of your own personal apocalypse is explored further in Nathan Robinson’s “The Glen.” Robinson is another writer whom I have never encountered before and, on the basis of this, will be keeping my peepers open for in the future. Set in a world decimated by a contagion, it follows a father and the lengths he will go to in order to protect his young daughter from the harsh realities of the world that now exists. Like, the previous two entries in this anthology, Lily Childs’ writing is a revelation. Her story, “The Vile Glib of Gideon Wicke” is a haunting and poignant journey through limbo for a lost soul. Beautifully written with very vivid imagery about loss, redemption and finding oneself, this is an excellent story.
The past and its impact on the present is examined in Lindsey Goddard’s enjoyable psycho killer tale “Red Mask” as a brain damaged victim finds that history and mistakes have a habit of repeating themselves. Again, I can’t fault the writing on display here. How reality can mask the horror that lies bubbling just beneath the surface runs throughout Daniel Marc Chant’s “The Ring of Karnak.” A great little ripping yarn that weaves in elements of history, folklore and Lovecraftian horror, it follows a reclusive scholar as he investigates the lineage of the titular ring and finds that the bucolic ideal of an English village is not what it seems.
This is followed up by Shaun Hutson’s fantastically dark humoured tale of brotherly love in “The Gift”. I have to admit that when I first saw his name in the Table of Contents, I did one a double take. Alongside the aforementioned Mr. Barker, Shaun Hutson was my entry point into genre. I can vividly remember passing around his novelization of The Terminator in some of the more boring classes at school and reading the juicy splatter goodness of novels like Relics and Erebus at home. This story really reminds of that quote I was talking about earlier, there is a wicked sense of humour playing throughout its dark veins. What it does more than anything is remind me how much I should reacquaint myself with his writing.
Family and the ties that bind us together is a theme that lingers on the mind after reading “The Father” by Rich Hawkins. This story follows the titular character as he returns to a seaside town to contemplate suicide following the disintegration of his family. A story about depression, loss and belonging, this is a hard pill to swallow. I reread that line and think that perhaps that may be construed as a criticism but it isn’t. This, for me, was a difficult story to read as it deals with issues that are kind of close to my heart but, as a writer, Hawkins’ has this ability to hook into the darkness of reality and create something almost beautiful out of despair. This story, about the ghosts of the past, oozes a palpable atmosphere of dread in its stark portrayal of the dismalness of a seaside town on the cusp of an apocalypse. If you haven’t read Rich Hawkins then, to be frank, you should.
This is a statement that can also be applied to another writer whose work is new to me, Stuart Park’s smart and sharp story of growing up damaged, “Oranges are Orange.” Recounted from the perspective of a socially isolated child, the narrative style starts off simplistic and discordant but, as the tale progresses, that style of writing pays dividends as you slowly start to realise that his upbringing has had a very deep impact on his psyche and how he relates to and interacts with others. The discomfort gradually accrues and leads to a finale that had me on edge and grinding my teeth. One to look out for in the future, which is also how I would describe Dani Brown’s writing as well. The effects that isolation and claustrophobia can have are exemplified in Dani Brown’s tense and unnerving “Drip.” A slow and creeping dread builds up over the course of this story which reads like an amplified climax of that classic Dutch film “The Vanishing” only with a sense that the protagonist might not be quite as in the land of the living as originally thought. It is an idea explored further in William Meikle’s “Renewal” where a soldier encounters a place where the pathways of life and death intersect and one must face the Dreaming God and the consequences of your actions. As ever, Meikle writes an engaging and entertaining story with striking imagery.
To describe the next story as striking would be an understatement. I think probably a better term would be sucker punched. Matt Shaw is a writer whose work I have only recently become acquainted with his writing and his contribution here, “Eleven” pulls absolutely no punches. Ostensibly a tale of love and revenge, the way in which Shaw writes adds a grimy and voyeuristic leer to proceedings that had me recoiling from the page but it is a style that serves the story exceptionally well. This is one of those stories that had my skin crawling and mouthing various glottal noises along the lines of “eurghhhh”, which can either be construed as disgust or horror fiction doing its job exceptionally well.
The next story from Duncan Bradshaw is extreme but for altogether more bizarre reasons. His contribution “Mutant Building 101”, reminds me of the opening credits of the TV series Robot Chicken where a mad scientist cobbles together cybernetic poultry from discarded scraps in his laboratory. This is an utterly bonkers tale of mutant Kaiju that ably demonstrates why you shouldn’t take your kid to work, especially if you are a scientist working on a top secret base. Channelling Bizarro and B-movie influences, prepare yourselves for a seriously deranged face off between Snakider and Mongarrot that would give the SyFy channel a run for its’ money!
Nature and its ability to adapt to the world around it is the basis of Dr. Lynne Campbell’s “Backbone Isn’t Always Enough.” A cautionary tale about how appearances can be somewhat deceptive and giving new credence to the idea of shedding you skin, this is a delightful tour through devolutionary biology. Following on from this is Jasper Bark’s curious “And the Light is his garment” which reads more like a dark fantasy than strictly horror. However, I can’t criticise the quality of the writing with its’ playing around with the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, religious imagery and the perception of self in the presence of old, cosmic powers. It’s what I’d call a bit of a Bobby Dazzler.
Which is also how I would describe Laura Muro’s excellent story of life and death, “Terry in the Window”. Like many of the contributor’s in here, I haven’t read any of Muro’s previously published work but, on the basis of this story, I’ve been missing out. Set in an elderly ward it is about a curious old age patient who doesn’t speak or interact with staff and patients. During his tenure on the ward patients suffer a high mortality rate in his presence. I really liked the ambiguity of whom or what Terry is. I can’t decide whether this is about the personification of death, angels or vampirism but to be honest I don’t think it really matters all that much as what I do think is that this is an acutely observed and nuanced piece of writing. What I can say with more authority is that I will be making a beeline to read more of her work. The final tale in the book is Sam Stone’s “Three Sisters” which is a modern day tale of beguilement and yet again demonstrates that you should be very careful of what you wish for. Seeing as I have peppered this review with cultural references, the one that immediately springs to mind on reading this is a certain play that people don’t mention by name. Rounding off proceedings is the Epilogue written by the curator of the Black Room Manuscripts, J.R. Park which answers the prologue’s question about what you actually listen to in dark and desecrated rooms. As to be expected, it isn’t something that you want to hear.
Following on from this is an editorial dedication to work of those who work in caring for and supporting those with Alzheimer’s. Like its predecessor, The Black Room Manuscripts Volume 2 is an anthology that has a lot of passion and heart involved not only in the content but also in its aim, namely to raise funds for a nominated charity, in this case Alzheimer’s Research UK. Things are rounded off with an insightful Afterword by Howard Gorman of Scream magazine on the growth and influence of independent horror film in rejuvenating the horror genre.
And just like that I am at the end of another great book from The Sinister Horror Company that showcases a fine selection of diverse and talented voices operating in horror today. I can’t wait to see what they offer up for your reading pleasure in Volume 3!