Review by Joe X Young
The task of a reviewer is straight-forward, to appraise the material and give an honest opinion. With a novel, short story or movie there’s more of a singular focal point of whether or not the entirety of the story is any good. With anthologies and collections things are not so simple, as there are far more individual stories to assess, and I think it would be fair to believe that there’s no anthology or collection in print anywhere where every story is as good as the others. Terror Tales of Cornwall, for me at least, has three levels as there are good stories, very good stories, and excellent ones. That’s good news right? I think so. Though it’s going to be a very personal opinion as to which stories did it for me and which didn’t, this being based on my experience of Cornwall as I lived there for a dozen years or so.
I’m going to briefly cover a couple of little issues before discussing the stories. First of all is the matter of the individual story editing. I found it a little hit-and-miss, with some of the stories having a few typos/mis-spellings while other stories were flawless. It looked to me as if each writer took care of their own editing. That doesn’t detract from the book overall though, it’s just a little something I noticed.
Second issue is the abundance of ‘link pieces’, short articles interspersed between the main stories highlighting different Cornish legends. Jumping from fiction to legend and back again was something I found not only extremely interesting, but for me it strengthened the tones of the fiction, giving them a credence they may not have had were it a straight anthology of pure fiction. The articles were often fascinating, all informative, and gave the overall appearance of being extremely well researched and very well presented. It isn’t made clear who wrote those links, but it’s a damned fine job no matter who did it.
Now for the stories proper in order of appearance. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.
We Who Sing Beneath The Ground: Mark Morris.
This is a great start, a story of a teacher, a little boy and a rather unusual ‘Show and Tell’ item he brings to school one day. The boy is a bit of a cliché, but in this case he somewhat has to be in order to make sense of the general events. When he doesn’t show for class the teacher goes to his home to find him, and finds significantly more than she had bargained for. I liked the simplicity of the story and wasn’t expecting the unusual item to be what it actually was and that’s a very pleasant surprise.
In The Light of St Ives: Ray Cluley.
For those unfamiliar with St Ives, or indeed Cornwall as a whole, it’s a bright and sunny place in general, but it goes deeper than that as there’s something about the quality of light which appears unlike any other place I’ve been in Britain, or indeed out of it. It’s a clarity which appeals to artists, and St Ives is one of many places in Cornwall where painters accumulate to make the most of the natural beauty and the exceptional light. The artist in this story, Clare, moves to a studio/cottage in St Ives as a painting retreat to perfect her craft, but things take a turn for the bizarre, culminating in a fire and her subsequent hospitalisation. Her sister Emily visits from up country and tries to make sense of what has happened as it appeared that her sister went crazy and started the fire. All is not as it seems, and as the reality of the situation unfolds the story actually gets surreal. It’s a good story, well told, but I think it was taking me to very unfamiliar places.
Trouble at Botathan: Reggie Oliver.
For me the trouble isn’t merely at Botathan, it’s with making sense of this story. Perhaps I am missing something as I couldn’t really make out much of what it was about in amongst the interminable references to notable works of others and allusions to cultural superiority. Maybe it’s excellent and I’m just not smart enough to figure it all out, but it also appears that this story, unlike the previous ones, has nothing particularly Cornish about it. Sorry Mr Oliver but this one just didn’t do it for me.
Mebyon Versus Suna: John Whitbourn.
There’s a very harsh sound, that of a nail being hit squarely on the head, and this tale resonates the same way. I’ve known Cornish people of the dyed-in-the-wool breed, those who have never set foot from their native soil and have nothing good to say about anyone or anything from outside of the county (or indeed Country to their way of thinking). This is the tale of one such man, who has to move to the other side of his world, in this instance Devon, and of the consequences of taking his Cornish sensibilities with him. The idea is fun, superbly handled and smart, with extreme and extremely funny moments throughout. One of the gems in this anthology.
The Unseen: Paul Edwards.
“The Black Remote” is a horror film which appears to be a snuff movie, or is it? Lee is determined to find out no matter the cost by seeing the uncensored version. It’s a good story even though it reminded me of the Nicolas Cage film 8mm in places and had an ending which was somewhat obvious from early on. The Cornish connection is tenuous; I was thinking that the anthology would be based upon particularly Cornish themes, yet this story could have been set anywhere in the British Isles or indeed much of the Western world, as there’s nothing other than a few Cornish locations to fit the remit. Still, an enjoyable story.
Dragon Path: Jacqueline Simpson.
Mick Trelawney tells tales of Celtic legends; of Ley-Lines, Druids and of great ancient magic, but his friends don’t really care, until one fateful day on Bodmin Moor when they discover the cost of taunting him. A story as Cornish as pasties and every bit as delicious.
The Old Traditions are Best: Paul Finch.
A totally Cornish tale of the ‘Obby Oss’, it’s an ancient tradition and a weird one at that, and Paul Finch succeeds in bringing it to a modern audience in a practical and atmospheric way with a smattering of dark humour.
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things: Mark Valentine.
Sancreed and what lies in wait in the dimensions beyond there is the cornerstone of this fine tale of Tarot cards and Triple Headed Kings. I found this to be a beautifully simple and relaxing story which really feels like the more mystical Cornwall I know.
His Anger was Kindled: Kate Farrell.
David Densham has a job to do; he has to inform Reverend Luke Prideaux that his under-performing Church is no longer valid and that the Parish Council has plans to redevelop the site. What follows is a bizarre fight for life in one of the stranger stories in this anthology. It begins in a staid even mundane fashion before hitting us with rage and inventiveness in a truly original story.
Four Windows and a Door: D P Watt.
This is a beauty. I’ve been on the same boat trip in this story and saw similar things as described. It’s the story of a little girl, a derelict house and a tragic mystery, more than that I can’t say without giving stuff away. It’s a creepy gem of a story and one of the highlights of the anthology.
Claws: Steve Jordan.
When I reached this story title I was expecting some kind of Cornish sea-monster, but oh boy was I wrong. For me this is the stand-out story of the bunch because it pushed every one of my buttons. It’s setting is an amusement arcade in Newquay. I’ve spent way too much time (and money) in Newquay’s arcades and Steve Jordan captured the essence of them as if he was a local. The characters, location and details are trapped in amber from my time there and the horror is interwoven with such humour that I laughed out loud in places whilst being suitably horrified in others. It’s not trying to be big and clever but achieves both. Loved it.
A Beast by Any Other Name: Adrian Cole.
The Beast of Bodmin is on the prowl, but not everything is as it seems as murder, greed and Cornish tin mines get an outing in this strong tale from Adrian Cole. When I started reading this one I had a fair idea of the direction it was going in, but once again in this anthology I was wrong. I like that.
Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning: Mark Samuels.
The Minack Theatre is partly the backdrop for this strange tale of an aspiring actress and a rather unusual performance. By this point in the anthology I had been thoroughly entertained with a variety of vastly different stories, the majority of which have a distinct Cornish-ness about them, but this one was another of those in which the location wasn’t important. I was ultimately left thinking that there was an opportunity to tell a bigger story here which was overlooked during descriptions of largely irrelevant things.
The Memory of Stone: Sarah Singleton.
This is a gorgeous study of obsession, destruction and madness, with a touch of the supernatural. Nothing more to say.
Shelter From The Storm: Ian Hunter.
Billy, Murray and Juggs are three Explorer Scouts who have got lost whilst trying to get to Port Isaac. The weather and failing light are against them, but they have tents, supplies and extra beer so they just need to find somewhere to pitch the tents where the wind won’t slam them around. The ruins of an old church provide a better prospect for shelter, until they find out what’s under it in this enjoyable yarn from Mr Hunter.
Losing Its Identity: Thana Niveau.
Miranda is in her seventies, she lives in Porthkellis and loves going to the cove known as ‘Lost Moon’, much to the annoyance of her daughter who is worried about her mother’s failing health and mental capacity and the ever more treacherous route to the cove. Their relationship is as rocky as the Cornish coastline, which is in every bit as much danger from constant erosion. Out beyond Lost Moon is a pathway, one which takes Miranda to a very different Porthkellis to the one she grew up in. A multi-layered story of love and loss brings this fine anthology to a fitting end.
Although there are a couple of stories in this anthology which didn’t quite do it for me I have to admit that even their overall quality is good, I just preferred the others. I have no problem recommending this to anyone whether they are interested in Cornish legends or otherwise. A cracking anthology.