Thursday, 17 September 2020

Terror Tales of the Home Counties is here

Okay, it’s here. After much trumpeting online this week, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is finally available for pre-order. In addition, I’m at last able to reveal its TABLE OF CONTENTS.

You’ve already seen the artwork. Now check out the list of authors who’ll be gracing our pages, along with a few juicy snippets and a bit of back-story to this publication and others like it.

On top of all that, in the same ‘Mysterious Britain’ vein, I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of another British folk-horror collection, THIS DREAMING ISLE, as edited by Dan Coxon, which again brings you a package of original fiction written by a host of horror stars.

If you’re only here because you’re interested in the Coxon antho, that’s fine (Grrr!). As usual, all you need to do is zoom on down to the final section of today’s blog, Thrillers, Chillers, where you can read it straight away. However, before then – just stay awhile – and let’s talk about the …

Home Counties

I like to think that my back-cover blurb to this new book (below) says it all. But just in case you’re still unsure, the Home Counties have to be one of the most bucolic regions of the UK. 

Suburban and semi-rural, they have long possessed the aura of agricultural heartland, and yet they are close enough to London to participate in its buoyant economic life. 

Oh yes, the Home Counties are a tale of prettiness and prosperity. It’s as tranquil as England gets, and as picturesque. Nothing ever goes wrong in this neck of the woods.

You reckon?

Think again.

There’s a dark side to everywhere, even here. And this little lot will leave you in no doubt of that:

CONTENTS

In the English Rain by Steve Duffy
Devils in the Countryside
Monkey’s by Reggie Oliver
The Ostrich Inn
The Old, Cold Clay by Gail-Nina Anderson
The Buckland Shag
Between by Sam Dawson
Three More for the Hangman
My Somnambulant Heart – Andrew Hook
The Horned Huntsman
The Gravedigger of Witchfield by Steven J Dines
The Naphill Death Omen
Where are they Now? by Tina Rath
Land of Dark Arts
The Doom by Paul Finch
Lord Stanhope’s Homonculi
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert                  
The Coldest Christmas of All
Chesham by Helen Grant
The Raven
Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims
The Thing by the Roadside
The Topsy Turvy Ones by Tom Johnstone
Knocking Knoll
Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley
The Drowned
Moses by David J Howe
Eerie in Oil
The Old Man in Apartment Ninety by Jason Gould

And for your further delectation, here are a few short clips, just to whet your appetites further:

A man lay on a king-sized bed with his hands behind his neck. He wore a full black-devil mask with gold paint around the eyes and running down either side of the face like tears. The horns and lips were painted red. Like everyone else at the party, he was naked except for the mask he wore. His body was muscular and hairy …
The Gravedigger of Witchfield by Steven J Dines

She would never have got into a car with a perfect stranger, on a sunny day, when she knew a bus would be along in a few minutes. It’s not as if it was pouring with rain … I mean, she wasn’t an idiot. Sharp as a tack … and they never found anything. Not a trace of her or her belongings. Her bank card’s never been used, her phone wasn’t recycled … Nothing.
Where Are They Now? by Tina Rath

The Spanish director José Larraz had filmed his extremely low budget ‘Vampyres’ at Oakley Court. While there was no specific death scene that one could identify with that film, Aunt Agatha certainly liked her wine (there is a prolonged segment featuring wine tasting in the movie) and she was thin enough that her veins would be easily accessible for a neat and hopefully fuss-free exsanguination …
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert

My mind is populated with scraps of memory intertwined with what can only be nightmares. From those taboo spaces, the abandoned mansion, the lonely copse, the mouldering shelters, things not distinctly seen come creeping. Something shifts stealthily within the empty house. A child wanders into the copse and does not come out again. A Silver Cross pram stands in the shade under a tree in the park – the mother returns with an ice cream, gazes inside, and screams and screams …
Chesham by Helen Grant

TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is the 12th in a series of horror anthologies I’ve been editing since 2011 (firstly through Gray Friar Press and now through TELOS PUBLISHING, my overarching aim to create a vivid picture of my homeland through the prism of its folklore and mystery, its diversity of landscape and legend. 

For this reason, in each volume I intersperse the fiction with snippets of true terror, i.e. non-fictional accounts of scary rumours and eerie fables connected to the districts in question. The actual fiction I elicit for these books MUST be localised. Whatever part of the country we are talking about, it’s not good enough just to have a story that happens to be set there. It must be relevant to that region, either through history, geography or lore.

To date, as you’re no doubt aware, we’ve covered about half of the UK. The full list of titles is as follows: TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES … THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDSNORTHWEST ENGLAND, CORNWALL, YORKSHIRE, WALES, LONDON, EAST ANGLIA, THE COTSWOLDS, THE LAKE DISTRICTTHE OCEANTHE SEASIDE.

And it’s my absolute intention to continue, and when the tapestry is complete, perhaps to venture beyond our shores. You may have already noticed that in 2015 we published TERROR TALES OFTHE OCEAN

Don’t ask me why I took a break from our round-Britain trip to produce that particular book. I simply can’t remember. But it contains stories set on and beneath oceans as far afield as the Pacific, the Indian and the Antarctic. And yes, there’ll be more of that in due course. There are many locations around the world, both land and sea, whose terrifying traditions I am eager to investigate.

You see, the one thing I’ve learned on this journey is that no corner of any place, no matter how placid on the outside, if you look hard enough, is free from uncanny folklore and gruesome history. But nothing, in my view, illustrates this better than TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES.

So many folk see the Home Counties and think of a place where the GDP per capita is almost indecently high. They see a region of chocolate box villages, cosy dormer towns and blue chip company HQs set in acres of manicured parkland, every part of it offering fast, direct links to the throbbing heart of London commerce.

However, affluence is not the whole story. Pockets of deprivation exist in the HCs, while the presence of so much often-isolated wealth has regularly attracted the interest of ‘higher end’ criminals. Yep, blood has been shed in the Home Counties, and not just recently. Southeast England was always the first part of the country to be invaded. At the same time, social unrest was never far away, local folk turning violent in their resistance to tax or mechanisation. Zealous residents like John Milton and John Bunyan indicate that this was once a land of religious fervour. Heretics were pilloried, martyrs publically burned; there were witch trials and hang-fairs, while highwaymen and footpads plagued the district’s leafy lanes, at many points of which they would later be gibbeted. And then there are those even darker tales. The Home Counties boast a plethora of devilish legends: satanic cults and covens fill its mythology, while malevolent woodland beings – goblins and sprites – haunt its pools and coppices, a host of royal ghosts roams the halls of its rambling country houses, and big cats lurk in every roadside hedgerow.

Fancy hearing more? Something specific perhaps? Something that will really ice your blood?

Well, there’s only one way that’s going to happen.

TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is available to pre-order right now. Just follow the link.

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

ed by Dan Coxon (2018)

One of several recent anthologies of short stories brought out to celebrate the current and expanding interest in British folk-horror and the British folk-weird, though I think in this case the emphasis is more on the latter than the former despite editor Dan Coxon’s selection of stories by some very familiar and much-lauded horror writers. This Dreaming Isle comes to us from Unsung Stories, an independent, London-based imprint already responsible for a range of intriguing titles from a host of up-and-coming authors.

Before we get into the meat of the anthology, here’s what the publishers themselves have to say about it in their back-cover blurb:

Britain’s long history of folk tales, ghost stories and other uncanny fictions shimmers beneath the surface of this green and pleasant land. Every few generations the strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the British imagination, along literary ley lines, seeping into our art and culture. We are living through such a time.

This collection of seventeen new horror stories and weird fictions draws upon the landscape and history of the British Isles. They walk the realms of folklore and legend but are firmly rooted in the present, calling to the country’s forgotten spaces. The ghostly figures half-hidden by mist, the shadows in city corners, and the violence of the sea, battering the coastline relentlessly. The land dreams them all.

Featuring exclusive stories from Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon, Jenn Ashworth and Andrew Michael Hurley, join us as we reclaim the dark heart of Britain’s literary legacy.

Unsung Stories have a self-stated aim to focus on literary fiction, and there’s no doubt with The Dreaming Isle that they’ve hit that target from the start. There is some immensely high quality writing on show here along with some very subtle story-telling. Whether the tales themselves will all be to everyone’s taste is another matter, but the technical skills of the authors Dan Coxon has brought together are beyond doubt. There isn’t a clunker in the book, every contribution a smooth and well-crafted piece of speculative fiction and a pleasure to read.

The folk aspect is also heavily to the fore, the book set now, in contemporary Britain, with all the bleak ugliness that sometimes entails, and yet is richly atmospheric of an ancient land steeped in mystery and tradition, so much of it drawn from the landscape itself and the seasons and customs that continuously transform it.

Whether it’s classifiable as ‘horror’ is, as I say, up for debate. But we are firmly in the realm of the weird, and there is much here that will disturb and unnerve the average reader even if it doesn’t necessarily terrify them.

Rather oddly, I thought, the book is divided up along geographic lines. We have a rural section, an urban section and then a coastal section. To me, though I wouldn’t be so bold as to try to establish the criteria for what folk-horror is or must be, I’ve always thought that one aspect of it at least is a concern about what lies just below the surface of modern society. Therefore, cities and towns are not special cases. Just because all the henges, holy wells and green ways that once occupied their sites have now been swept away by conurbation, that doesn’t mean the latent powers aren’t still there. But this is really a minor quibble. It’s the editor’s choice and it doesn’t really spoil anything, so I’m probably being pedantic just mentioning it.

Of the stories themselves, several from all these sections I can comfortably categorise as traditional spook stories, albeit spook stories written with panache … and though the horrors aren’t always subtle, they don’t bludgeon the reader either.

Possibly the best example of this is the first story in the book, The Pier at Ardentinny by Catriona Ward. This is an excellent piece all-round and ticks every box for me personally. It’s also the most typically horrorish in the book (for want of a better term) in that it features a disturbed central character being taken away from a terrible past to an apparent place of safety, only to be confronted by something even worse. (More about this one later).

Even more traditional than this in that it’s immersed in a more familiar legend, Alison Littlewood hits us with The Headland of Black Rock, in which a past-it actor who has used and abused women all his life takes a solo holiday on the Cornish coast and is immediately bewitched by a beautiful girl he sees strolling in the surf. It’s a well-trodden horror path, but as always with Littlewood, the quality of the prose carries you through at speed.

A similar theme of deserved comeuppance lurks in James Miller’s Not All Right, the first story in the book to take us into the city. In this one, a right-wing agitator and general layabout comes to London to look for a top job and while he does, stays in his powerbroker uncle’s posh flat. But the building is eerie as well as swish, and he never feels quite alone while he’s there. A slick, exquisite tale of creeping paranoia.

Back to the countryside again, and two more tales displaying classic supernatural tropes.

The ever-reliable Stephen Volk’s Cold Ashton is laced with righteous fury about bigotry and ignorance, but it doesn’t forget that it’s a horror story either, so it doesn’t completely dismiss the worries and concerns of the uneducated past, and ends on an intensely televisual (and rather spine-chilling) note. (More about this one later too). Then we have Kirsty Logan’s Domestic Magic, which gives us our second Scottish Highlands setting of the anthology, and evokes another ancient and unnerving piece of local mythology, the gradual emergence of which becomes progressively scarier. (More about this one later as well).

Over to the coast now, where one of the true masters of modern horror, Ramsey Campbell spins another of his unapologetically terrifying psychological yarns, The Devil in the Details. As always with Campbell, though there are snippets of local folklore embedded in this tale, the nightmarish qualities owe more to the inner demons of its disturbed and isolated characters, but the quality of the work, as ever, is supreme. (Yes … more about this one later too).

On the subject of damaged psychology, speculative fiction, by its very nature, is an art form made-to-measure for addressing the human condition, and This Dreaming Isle doesn’t let us down on that score.

Jenn Ashworth’s Old Trash maintains a semblance of the classic mythological horror story, but is ultimately more interested in the interplay of its juxtaposed characters as a tired but concerned mother struggles to get her wayward daughter out of an inappropriate relationship by treating her to a camping trip in the wilds around Pendle Hill, at the same time trying to ignore the local myths about roaming devil dog, Old Trash. You’ll never look at a tent the same way again.

Another dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship is on show in Alison Moore’s The Stone Dead, which sees recently separated mum, Lesley, living in an isolated coastal house where she is regularly visited and tormented by her own disapproving mother. It’s a truly agonising scenario, and something, you feel certain, is eventually going to give. 

Perhaps the subtlest tale in the book, though, comes from Aliya Whiteley. In Dark Shells, she takes the guise of an OAP whose mind is now drifting, and yet who is able to relate disjointed stories from her past to an interested researcher. There are eerie secrets buried in these tales of course, but the story’s greatest strength, for me at least, stems from its completely authentic portrayal of an aged person struggling to recollect, link and articulate the key events in her life.

Now, from the personal canvas of the inner self to the much broader canvas of the land.

It’s surprised me in recent years how much the folk-horror subgenre has become fixated on ‘the land’. But that is just me being unimaginative. The notion that everything about us is written there, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, is increasingly a subject of analysis in this field. And let’s be honest, the idea that the land itself – the rock forms, the forest, the marsh, the windswept coastline – is the key to our existence is hardly new. Throughout all of human history, we’ve worshipped it, we’ve fought over it, we’ve ruined it, we’ve regenerated it, we’ve played out every drama in our lives across every part of it. No wonder it’s fuelled so many of our fantasies and dreams. While we’ve changed as the millennia have rolled by, the land itself hasn’t, apart from superficially. We shouldn’t be surprised if everything about us, including everything we’ve ever believed, is somehow recorded there, layer upon layer. Not all of it, of course, good.

Inevitably, this key note is hit several times in This Dreaming Isle, though always in different, imaginative ways. The most startling example for me is surely Gareth E Rees’s very clever The Knucker, which sees different strands of history entwine to create the legend of the Knucker, a terrifying sea-dragon said to have terrorised England’s South Coast during the Dark Ages, and at the same time provide a ‘locked room’ mystery for 21st century cops when two travellers are found drowned miles from the nearest water-source. Meanwhile, another master of the lyrical horror story, Tim Lebbon, brings us his own unique take in Land of Many Seasons. Here, a lonely artist paints various aspects of a rugged Welsh mountainside at different times of year. Increasingly though, a strange figure keeps appearing on the canvas, which he has no memory of painting. The only explanation may lie in the eerie local legend of ‘the walker’.

Less spooky but no less disturbing, top-stylist Andrew Michael Hurley chips in with In My Father’s House, which also presents us with some very neat character work. In this one, Lancashire lad, Mike, isn’t keen to build bridges with his grumpy old dad, but after the aged parent gets a beating from someone, they reluctantly try to reconnect. Dad is a strange one, these days, though, as Mike discovers one night just before Christmas, on the wide, snowy moors.

Perhaps the most land-oriented of them all, however, comes in the shape of Gary Budden’s melancholy Hovering, in which the central character, Iain, while struggling to recover after the end of a long-term relationship, moves to Pegwell Bay in Kent, a deceptively dreary place, where the ghosts of many different pasts are soon congregating around him.

Of course, none of these affecting stories would pack an nth of the power they do if it wasn’t also for that inner landscape of the human mind, which they each evoke and examine in just as much detail as they do the wild spaces of forgotten Britain.

I haven’t talked about every story in This Dreaming Isle. That’s not because they didn’t all work for me, though inevitably one or two didn’t, but simply because I have to leave some of it to the imagination. But it would remiss of me not to at least mention in passing Robert Shearman’s astonishing contribution, The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand.

Shearman is nothing if not an expert surrealist, and in this tale takes it to new extremes, the central plank of it seeing a male escort hired to lie naked on the floor as a human rug during a decadent Kensington cocktail party, though at no stage is he given a firm answer as to when the ordeal will end. My initial thought after this was that it wasn’t folk-horror, and yet, in truth, I’d never be so bold as to proclaim that. There are multiple meanings to Shearman’s crisply-written and never-less-than-disturbing urban fiction – it’s down to all of us to get what we can out of it. Be warned, though: this tale is more distressing than most.  

And now …

THIS DREAMING ISLE – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). But you never know. Until that happy time comes, here – purely in the spirit of having a bit of fun – are my thoughts on how it should look and feel were it ever to finish up on the big screen.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such movie can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate strange and eerie tales (with more of an emphasis on strangeness and dreaminess than usual, in this one, I think). 

It could be that each segment is an unsolved paranormal case, as handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories, right), or maybe their stories are all connected to various items available in a backstreet trinket shop (such as in From Beyond the Grave).

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Pier at Ardentinny (by Catriona Ward): Irene’s beauty protected her during her abusive childhood, but she still did bad things. Later, as a repressed adult, she potentially finds love with elderly and respectable Anthony, who takes her home to Scotland. But she’s worried, because rumour holds that if you look into the loch at Ardentinny, the reflection in the waters will reveal your true self …

Irene – Anya Taylor Joy
Anthony – Dougray Scott

Cold Ashton (by Stephen Volk): A Cotswolds scholar investigates a bunch of village documents detailing a 16th century witch trial. He is appalled by the injustice and cruelty meted out to the suspect, Joan Goodchyld, but chilled by the suggestion that whatever dark magic was woven all those centuries ago, the terrible results might still be in the village…

The Investigator– Jason Watkins
Joan Goodchyld – Katheryn Winnick

Domestic Magic (by Kirsty Logan): Same sex couple, Rain and Alison, inherit a tumbledown cottage in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a mess and needs much work, but more worrying than this are the many clues they find seemingly proving the family fable that Alison’s ambitious and ruthless grandma once trapped a kelpie here, and killed it …

Alison – Rose Leslie
Rain – Betty Gabriel

The Devil in the Details (by Ramsey Campbell): Young Brian and his family take newly divorced Aunt Leonie to a drab seaside town on the Northwest coast. But after witnessing a fatal accident, Brian becomes terrified of the mysteriously angelic murals, painted by a renownedly evil man, that seem to cover the interiors of the local stately buildings ...

Aunt Leonie – Annabel Scholey
Brian – All suggestions welcome. I don’t know too many child actors.

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