Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Power of Three - 6th Installment

A little earlier than planned, with tomorrow being Christmas Eve and all and likely to cause you one or two distractions, I’ve opted to post the 6th installment of my trawl through the world of short horror fiction today.

As with last week, we’re still sticking with the seasonal theme, though if I’m honest, you won’t find much Christmas cheer among this little lot.

The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen

A prim spinster heads off across the marshes to a remote house, the eccentric owner of which is holding a valuable piece of China for her. It’s Christmas, and there’s a thick frost and a dense mist. What’s more, the lonely dwelling has a reputation for being haunted.

In truth this famous old tale doesn’t have to be set at Christmas, but it just so happens that it is, and so it has been anthologised many times since in Christmas-themed collections. It’s also an archetypical Christmas ghost story, in that it’s very English, very rural, and very, very spooky. And that’s the trick with this one – at no stage is it terrifying, but all the traditional Gothic eeriness is there – the mist, the overgrown gardens, the ruined old house in which someone is still supposedly living, and so on. The final denouement, though you kind of expect it, is still highly satisfying. Well worth digging up again.


Christmas Dinner by Steve Harris

A stressed writer struggles to recover after killing a child during a road accident. As the festive season approaches, he suffers from appalling visual and auditory hallucinations. He isn’t at all sure how he’s going to get through his Christmas dinner.

Another of those amazing horror tales that were turned out by various skilled wordsmiths during the 1990s, in which helpless protagonists struggle with their sanity in world made unreal by trauma or depression. This one is almost a vignette in that it’s actually quite a short tale, but Steve’s masterly command of economic prose completely installs us in the time and place, and in the tortured mind of his unfortunate hero. You’re not going to lose sleep over this one – it won’t frighten you, but it will certainly disturb you. You’ll never look at turkey and stuffing the same way again.

First published in PEEPING TOM 21, 1996.

The Night Before Christmas by Robert Bloch

An artist makes the mistake of having an affair with a shipping magnate’s trophy wife. Thinking the cuckolded husband away on business, the artist pays her a visit on Christmas Eve – very ill-advisedly.

A non-supernatural outing this time, as Bloch, one of the ultimate horror craftsmen, perfectly weaves the feel of the Yuletide season into a study of elaborate and homicidal vengeance. As usual, it’s crisply and tightly written, and yet the characters spring to life with ease and the setting is as vivid and colourful as ever. From an early stage, you’ve got a good idea that this tale is going to end nastily, but trust me, there’s nothing hackneyed about the astonishing last sentence, which is one of horror literature greatest shock moments.

First published in MIDNIGHT PLEASURES (pictured), 1987.

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