Friday, 25 February 2011

The Power of Three - 15th Installment

It’s that time of the week again. Entertain yourself over your first coffee break of the morning by recollecting this trio of dark chillers, or, if you haven’t read them yet, by wondering how on Earth you missed out on such tainted treats.

Again, these selections were made purely at random, but by complete chance we have three tales this week from the grimmer end of the horror spectrum. They may have been published 60 years apart, but there were no punches pulled in any of these studies in dread. This is definitely the stuff that nightmares are made of.

The Last Night by Charles Birkin

Young Nora will soon be leaving the mental hospital where she’s been sectioned for several years. But first she has to get through another night during which that awful psychotherapist will visit her – a man obsessed with proving his theory that hypnotism can defeat even extreme pain.

It still amazes me that stories like this were ever published back in the morally upright 1930s, but Charles Birkin – who originally penned this one under the pseudonym ‘Charles Lloyd’ – was a one-man industry when it came to truly unpleasant horror fiction. This is certainly a good example, and though not quite as gratuitous as its titillating premise may make it sound, it affects a powerful atmosphere of intellectual depravity, and in addition delivers one terrific kick right at the end. A classic example of what I suppose you’d call ‘Great British horror’ from an era when the more odious the concept, the more the genteel readership of those days seemed to like it.

First published in CREEPS (pictured), 1932.

Welcome To Mengele’s by Simon Bestwick

A jaded suburbanite attends a brothel where surgically altered sex-workers can be anyone, or anything, you want them to be. Getting into this place is all about who you know. But that’s even more important when it comes to getting out again.

There are certain horror stories that stop you dead. I’m talking about those dissertations of delirium that scare you out of your wits with their mere concept. This tale is one such, though the fun doesn’t end with the concept. If anything this concept is relatively simple – though only in a “why on Earth didn’t I think of that?” kind of way – but it’s written with such skill and intensity, and it takes us so quickly into such realms of unimaginable abomination that you can’t quite believe what you’re reading. This tale is exactly what they mean when they say “extreme” or “hardcore”, and yet the literary skills on display here are admirable. This is a complete short story, not just some superficial shocker. The incisive subtext raises it to a whole new level.

First published in NASTY PIECE OF WORK 11, 1999.

The Inn by Guy Preston

A travelling man lost on the moors of northern England finds shelter in the form of a decrepit inn. The blind, slug-like landlord isn’t a welcoming sight, though he does have a rather dishy daughter, which convinces our maybe not-so-tired hero to stay after all.

Most readers will be familiar with this tale from the Pan Books of Horror Stories, but in fact it dates from a much earlier period, when – rather like The Last Night – you might have thought this sort of thing wouldn’t quite be permissible. And yet The Inn is just about the most full-on scare-a-thon I’ve ever read. Okay, there’s nothing hugely original about it, but every type of creepiness is employed in its early stages – from the mist-shrouded moorland to the bizarre and menacing inn-sign, while the finale, which isn’t over with anything like merciful speed, is an explosion of truly astonishing terror, not to mention full-gloss gore. In addition, it’s gorgeously written; totally atmospheric of a genre which back in its heyday was almost boyishly proud of its ability to hurt and deprave.

First published in GRIM DEATH, 1932.


  1. Simon Bestwick's tale is one of the best (or the worst, depending upon the perspective at the time of reading) horror (not supernatural) stories that I have read. I have tried in vain to find Guy Preston's story, and it is really frustrating to remain unable to read a story which seems to be praiseworthy according to everybody. Birkin's stories are (as usual, as far as stories mentioned in your blog are concerned) out-of-print. So,....

  2. Hi Riju ... don't know if this helps, but both the Birkin and the Preston stories were reprinted at later dates in the Pan Horror series, volumes 3 and 2 respectively. There should be some of those knocking around on ebay, Amazon shops and so forth. Remember that Birkin's tale was originally published under the name Charles Lloyd. There have also been collections of Charles Birkin's material published by inde publishing houses, but I think you'd need to Google for those. Guy Preston, alas, remains a mystery even to those very dedicated anthologists who've been searching for him for many years.

  3. Riju have you ever investigated the Vault of Evil message board? If not, follow the link on the right.

    VOE provides all kinds of insights into anthologies and collections of horror stories, both modern and ancient, and offers plenty of contacts with people like yourself who are interested in reclaiming this material.

    The folk who run it are very helpful, and mines of useful information. I'd been searching for a particular anthology for years, and one chap I spoke to on there was happy to send me one of his copies completely free of charge!