When Kate Jonez at Omnium Gatherum Media invited me to co-edit an anthology, we discussed a few possibilities for our theme. Our hope was to create a cohesive set of stories and at the same time allow each writer to convey his or her own voice and style, as well as a personal connection to the material.
Obsession implies disturbance and mental imbalance. Yet preoccupations and compulsions fuel our imagination. The tension in that contradiction is what we were after. We decided to let the writers decide on their particular interpretation. The obsession could be personal or literary, or both.
Lynda E. Rucker is a writer I've long admired for her ability to marry setting and psyche. Her stories often evoke a sense of the past and present collapsed into one point of view. "The Receiver of Tales" is an excellent example. The central character exists emotionally in past, present, and future simultaneously as a compulsive storyteller.
In "Needs Must When the Devil Drives," Cory J. Herndon explores temporal obsession overtly. This is a deft and surprising portrait of a man who knows he's addicted to gaining knowledge and control over his life through his technological discoveries. He ought to stop, but he never will.
"A Thousand Stitches" is a Kate Jonez tale about a seamstress with ambitions that exceed her potential. She's biding her time at a dead-end job. Her belief is so at odds with her situation that the reader can't help noticing the contrast. We wonder how she will achieve her dream. But sometimes delusions carry people to places where common sense fails.
"The Point" is Johnny Worthen's contribution. The story demonstrates the cost of devoting one's full attention to one fact or one fear. A man has been thinking far too much for too long about his inevitable fate. Everything else has become an illusion to him.
James Everington's "Calligraphy" pulls the reader into a dreamlike atmosphere. It's a strange, poetic encounter between a young man who finds he's physically marked with language for an unknown purpose, and the mysterious congregation at a church he's never attended before. Here the compulsion is layered in, with various characters taking the meaning they want from the words the young man bears.
"This Many" is a story I wrote last year and then set aside because I wasn't sure what lay at its core. My contribution is about a woman who wants her little girl's birthday (and life) to be perfect. The anthology made me realize I was trying to tease out of it a parent's natural desire to shape her child's world, and the potential folly of that enterprise.
Brent Michael Kelley surprised the hell out of me with "JP." I thought I over-identified with my cats until I read Kelley's ode to a beloved canine. It's gruesome, sad, and horribly funny at the same time. Also recognizable and not as absurdly far-fetched as it seems at first, given our modern attachment to domesticated animals.
"Kestrel" by Mary Borsellino takes us to a somewhat quieter life, the internal struggles of a girl who lacks physical sensitivity. This story and "The Receiver of Tales" offer a shard of hope, a possibility that a deep-rooted talent, once expressed and encouraged, can provide what we need for a fulfilling, creative life.
The next story, "An Unattributed Lyric, In Blood, On a Bathroom Wall" by Ennis Drake, takes us to a darker place, a haunted backroom of the soul. We've all been there. Drake has nailed the self-destructive part of the artistic temperament. If "Kestrel" shows how a young artist can strike out and claim identity thanks to obsession, "An Unattributed Lyric" reveals the way in which the necessary darkness can occlude our ability to use obsession for a creative purpose.
Like so many of her stories, "Black Eyes Broken" by Mercedes M. Yardley struck a perfect note, portraying a young woman whose love kills its object. Yardley's work is startling, a high-wire act employing charged, poetic language and shocking twists of fate. I'm swept away by her juxtaposition of innocence and violence in stories such as this one and "A Pretty for Polly" in the Ross Lockhart anthology Tales of Jack the Ripper.
And finally, Steve Duffy is one of my favorite writers. Has been ever since I read his extraordinary story, "The Lion's Den" in the Ellen Datlow annual, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Two. With "Bears: a fairy tale of 1958" he revisits our bizarre connection to the animal kingdom. "Bears" stunned me with its flipside exploration of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Now that I've read it, I'll never side with Goldilocks again. Duffy has slapped that quaint story in the face and put the focus where it belongs, on our obsessive need to anthropomorphize our world, the better to control and subjugate it.
Eleven stories. Eleven obsessions. Each one is followed by an author's note describing its context in the writer's life. Together they offer a glimpse into the mind of an individual grappling with reality in order to create fiction.
S.P. Miskowski's stories have appeared in Supernatural Tales, Horror Bound Magazine, Fine Madness, Other Voices, Identity Theory, and in the anthology Detritus. Her non-fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel, Knock Knock, and her first novella, Delphine Dodd, were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. Both are part of the Skillute Cycle, a four-book series published by Omnium Gatherum Media.
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A journalist recently asked me why it’s taken so many years and a dozen or more novels to get round to writing horror. The answer is that I never really needed to do it till now. I had a subject – the strangeness of small towns – and I needed a way of writing about it. I could have done a literary novel with a broad canvas and lots of subtle twists and turns (or at least I could have tried) – but that wouldn’t have captured the sense of threat and alienation that I feel in those places. So I tried a horror story – and that did the job. Of course people in quaint English coastal towns don’t do the disgusting, deadly and illegal things that are depicted in Grim, but I always feel as if they could.
I’ve turned my hand to a few different genres in my time – erotica, chicklit/blockbuster, literary fiction – and one thing I’ve learned is that each genre does a fundamentally different job. Erotica has one obvious purpose: to turn the reader on. Literary fiction engages the mind and the feelings through the exploration of character. Horror should scare – and, most importantly, should make the reader see the potential for strangeness and fear in apparently mundane things. That’s what I needed to do in Grim. I wanted to make people walk down the streets of small towns and think ‘Hmmm, that fat, depressed-looking goth could be a cannibal’ or ‘that sweet little gran in the teashop could be a plaything of Satan’. After spending a lot of time on the north Norfolk coast, where Grim is set, that’s how I started to feel. It’s about being a fish out of water, about feeling like a misfit in an essentially hostile environment.
The horror novels and films that I like are the ones that use fantasy and gore as a way of exploring everyday life and communities. I don’t like horror that is just violent and disgusting for its own sake, and I don’t like total fantasy. It has to be rooted in reality, and it has to acknowledge the essential ridiculousness of the paranormal stuff. That’s why I revere Stephen King, because his subject matter is always communities, not evil clowns/special powers/aliens etc. King no more believes in this stuff than I do, but he uses the genre conventions like a surgeon uses a scalpel.
Grim is about two outsiders – a widowed American archaeologist and his strange, withdrawn teenage son – who come to the fictional English seaside town of Besselham to uncover the truth about their wife/mother’s death. Along the way they get involved in a teen suicide cult, witness the emergence of a prehistoric temple from the sea bed, and do battle with a bunch of very sinister locals. By the end of the story we’ve strayed a long way from its realistic beginnings, but I hope every step down the path of madness has a gruesome logic. And I hope, if you brave the terrible train service or wiggly A-roads that are the only way of getting to north Norfolk, that you will understand the weirdness under the surface that inspired me to turn to horror in the first place.
Rupert Smith is the author of several novels and non-fiction titles.
He was born in 1960 in Washington DC, grew up in Surrey and moved to London in 1978. Where he has lived ever since. After a few years pursuing an academic career, which really wasn’t his cup of tea, he got into journalism where he stayed for over 20 years, writing for a wide variety of dailies, weeklies and monthlies in the UK and elsewhere. It was fun, he met pretty much everyone, and he learned to drink like a man.
He currently writes under three names: Rupert Smith for your literary fiction, James Lear for ‘adult entertainment’ and Rupert James, who has done some sizzling blockbusters in the manner of Sidney Sheldon.
Behind the net curtains of a neat seaside house, behind the chintz-covered sofa, there lies a headless body. Blood covers the ceramic figurines and framed photos, soaks into the doilies and cushion covers. The good people of Besselham, the holidaymakers, shopkeepers and schoolchildren, have no idea that this is the beginning of a wave of unexplained deaths that will strike terror into the heart of a prim, conservative community.
As bodies pile up in the panic-stricken town, visiting archaeologist John Russell makes a strange and sinister discovery on the beach at low tide. An ancient monument, perhaps – or evidence of a hideous blood cult rising from the distant past to engulf Besselham? John must risk everything to save his disturbed, lonely son Isaac before insatiable powers of evil claim and consume him.
GRIM is Rupert Smith’s first venture into horror, a thundering tale of supernatural terror set amidst the caravan parks and amusement arcades of an English coastal resort.
“A damned good read it is . . .”
—New York Journal of Books