Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Power of Three - 19th Installment

Okay, it’s Friday morning, it’s coffee-break time again, and here are three more classic chillers of a standard to make the readers among us yell with delight, and the writers among us weep.

As always, this trio was chosen entirely at random, though in one of those odd occurrences of fate, all three this time come to us from the 1980s. But don’t worry, there’s nothing here in the way of bouffant hair, bad beads, or streaky make-up. It seems the horror stories of the whackiest decade in the 20th century were as unrelentingly grim and doom-laden as the horror stories of all previous decades.

So … check ’em out. Hopefully they’ll stir some unpleasant memories for those who’ve read them before, and for those who haven’t, then I’m doing you a service drawing your attention to them, aren't I?

The Catacomb by Peter Shilston

A mild-mannered academic gets locked in a musty old Sicilian church. He is entranced by the vivid frescoes and mosaics, but discomforted when he realises they all portray scenes of Biblical evil. When he attempts to escape via the cellar, he finishes up in an underground passage filled with silent, mummified forms.

A perfectly paced study in rising dread as the scholarly Mr. Pearsnall gradually progresses from one emotion to the next: first disquiet, then unease, then fear, then outright terror. And it’s all very understandable, because we readers make the journey with him. Perhaps we should have realised from the start that there was something seriously wrong with abhorrent little church in the deserted Sicilian village. Maybe we should have picked up the clues: the solid, sealed aspect of the church’s exterior, the decay of disuse that shrouds its interior, the grinning faces on its many statues. By the time Pearsnall reaches the catacomb below, it’s too late; we know we’ve reached a point from which there is no turning back. The story’s climax is a crescendo of horror, featuring a nightmarish antagonist in a setting that literally reeks of malevolence. This one will definitely keep you awake at night.

First published in MORE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS, 1980.

Robbie by Mary Danby

Robbie is a retarded child, who lives on a ramshackle farm where his overworked mother and father are employed as semi-skilled labour. Robbie dreams of having a little brother, but when his parents says ‘no’, the resourceful youngster sets about trying to construct one of his own.

Famed anthologist and author Mary Danby delves into ‘Pan Horror’ territory here, with a grisly little vignette, in which many of society’s real-life ills – mental illness, parental neglect, ‘minimum wage’ labour – combine to create an abomination. We’re not in supernatural territory – this terrible event could actually happen, and that makes it even more of a shocker. Yet the haunting reality of the dysfunctional Britain that Mary Danby presents us with here should not detract from a fine and very subtle piece of writing, which, as well as scaring us, is also heartbreakingly sad. You certainly wonder if this sort of thing should ever be offered as entertainment, but this was a line which many excellent stories original to the Fontana and Pan series skated along, and that was their strength. No-one said this one was going to be a fun ride, but it’s one you need to take anyway.

First published in 15th FONTANA BOOK OF GREAT HORROR STORIES (pictured), 1982.

Graveyard Highway by Dean R. Koontz

A well-heeled activist is tormented by daily visions of death and slaughter on an apocalyptic scale. Almost driven mad, he finally seeks answers in a vast, deserted cemetery where a dark, spectral figure is awaiting him.

For many, Dean Koontz is the ‘Mr. Middle America’ of horror fiction, and this exquisitely written dissertation on the perils of extreme politics will not change that opinion. The central message is very establishment-friendly, despite its everyman hero getting dragged through a procession of historical atrocities, perpetrated alternately by both right wing fanatics and left wing fanatics. Few of us based in the comfortable West would take issue with this, but this is a personal epiphany as much as a political text; a naïve young guy finally gets the message, but it has to be hammered home with awful force first. Unusually for Koontz, the horror is full-on. Massacres, executions and scenes of graphic torture hit us in the face one after another. There is nowhere to hide, particularly as this is such a powerfully and – I must say this – beautifully descriptive piece. Ultra grim for sure, but with an unexpectedly upbeat and heartening finale.

First published in TROPICAL CHILLS, 1988.

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