Thursday 31 October 2019

Galleries of Darkness - for October, Week 5

Halloween is finally here, so today I’m pleased to present my fifth and last GALLERY OF OCTOBER DARKNESS. You’ll find it further down the blog. In addition, I’ll be talking some more about SEASON OF MIST, which was my main autumn publication. Again, you’ll find that further down too. 

I’ll also be reviewing and discussing in my usual forensic detail - and this is a very timely one, I think you’ll agree - THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF HALLOWEEN STORIES, as edited by the indefatigable Stephen Jones.

If you’re only here for Mr Jones’ latest epic anthology, shoot straight down to the lower end of this column. As always, you’ll find it in the THRILLERS, CHILLERS section.

However, if you’ve got a bit more time, just hang around here a little longer, and we’ll talk a bit about SEASON OF MIST.

Starry nights, 
misty woods

I relaunched this novella last September specifically so that it would coincide with the autumn. And now I need to elaborate on that a little, because you could be forgiven for thinking that this book is all about Halloween, and that as we’ve now reached October 31, there isn’t much point reading it (assuming you haven’t done so already).

I must refute that. While Neil Williams’ wonderful cover-art is entirely appropriate for SEASON OF MIST because there is a dramatic high-point in it that occurs on Halloween Night, there are similar dramatic events on Bonfire Night and later on, in December, when an autumn of red leaves and mist (just think Sleepy Hollow and you won’t be far wrong) gives way to a winter of snow, ice and hard, glinting frost. 

So, please don’t make the mistake of assuming that, now Halloween is over, that’s it, SEASON OF MIST is done. Trust me, it really isn’t. And if you haven’t already taken a chance on it, now is as good a time as any. 

Next meanwhile, something that actually is ending ...

The final gallery

All through this last month, you’ll hopefully have noticed that I’ve been posting what I refer to as GALLERIES OF DARKNESS, each week focussing on 20 different artists - painters, concept guys, book illustrators, game designers and the like - who have occasionally dipped their brushes, nibs, whatever into the darkest inks. We’ve seen some wonderfully scary stuff drawn from some truly fiendish imaginations and realised on canvas, paper, screen etc in the most handsome and evocative ways. 

Here, now that October is over, are my final 20.

You can see from the painting at the top of this column - Death as General Rides a Horse, by Edgar Bundy (1911) - that classical artworks, and even modern art done in the classical style, has often dealt with ghoulish subject matter. So, it’s not something new. That notwithstanding, I’ve mostly tried to select only contemporary artists for this series simply because it might help introduce you chaps to a few wonderful talents whom you might not yet have encountered.

Again, I give my customary warning that, though I have never selected anything for these galleries that is simply revolting or obscene, always opting instead for the terrifying and macabre, none of these artists hold back. There is some pretty eerie and twisted stuff on here. So, you have been warned.

Enjoy ...










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.

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF HALLOWEEN STORIES edited by Stephen Jones (2018)

As the title makes clear, a themed Halloween horror anthology, originally published in time for October 31 last year, though in truth it contains enough spooky tales and timeless treats to be readable at the misty, murky tail-end of any year.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll first let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which neatly lays out the autumnal chills lying ahead:

Treat yourself to some very tricky stories! Halloween … All Hallows’ Eve … Samhain … Día de los Muertos … the Day the Dead Come Back … When the barriers between the worlds are at their weakest – when ghosts, goblins, and grisly things can cross over into our dimension – then for a single night each year the natural becomes the supernatural, the normal becomes the paranormal, and nobody is safe from their most intimate and terrifying fears.

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories brings you a dark feast of frightening fiction by some of the most successful and respected horror writers working today, including Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, Helen Marshall, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert Shearman, Robert Silverberg, Angela Slatter, Steve Rasnic Tem, and many more, along with a very special contribution by award-winning poet Jane Yolen.

Here you will encounter witches, ghosts, monsters, psychos, demonic nuns, and even Death himself in this spooky selection of stories set on the night when evil walks the Earth …

Come the waning of the year, Halloween horror anthologies, much like Halloween horror movies, become a fixture on our ‘want lists’. Given that October 31, with its ghost stories and ghoulish pageantry, is easily the scariest night of the year in the western tradition, but also, for many, and for exactly the same reason, the most fun night too, it’s surely no surprise that writers and editors have visited it time and time again. Almost inevitably of course, those working at the darker end of the literary spectrum have colonised it most. But as a Brit, I’ve long had a beef with Halloween fiction, and this centres around the fact that it’s almost invariably hogged by Americans.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the US has produced some of the world’s greatest horror writers, not to mention novels, stories and film scripts, and I have absolutely no complaints about that. But it’s peeved me many times in the past to pick up a collection of new Halloween fiction and find that, almost without exception, every story relates to the American experience. And whenever I’ve expressed these sentiments to fellow Brits, I’ve been told: “Well, that’s because in the US it’s an old festival, while in the UK it’s fairly new.”

Come on, guys!

In the UK Halloween is NOT new. It’s one of our most ancient celebrations; it’s just that it hasn’t been quite as big a party in recent times because the highlight of our autumn, as imposed upon us by royal decree, Bonfire Night, occurs only five days later.

But now, thankfully, we have an anthology that puts all this right … perhaps understandably so, given that Stephen Jones, one of the world’s most respected and hardest working anthologists, is British. Not that he focusses purely on the UK in The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories; far from it. He certainly includes a number of front-running British horror authors – Neil Gaiman, Storm Constantine, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith et al – but there are plenty of Americans in here as well – Richard Christian Matheson, Lisa Morton, Joe R Lansdale and Thana Niveau, among others, not to mention a couple of Aussies in Robert Hood and Angela Slatter, and a Canadian in Nancy Kilpatrick, while at least two of the stories, Memories of Día de los Muertos by the aforementioned Kilpatrick, and the spine-chilling Not Our Brother by the legendary Robert Silverberg, take us to Mexico, where Día de Muertos is not just a holiday but a revered religious fête.

So, rest assured, a wide range of voices and perspectives are on offer in this one, which, as I say, makes a refreshing change, and enables Steve Jones to tackle the many different aspects of this complex, multi-layered festival, and the varied customs wrapped up in it (not all of which, I have to say, are purposely terrifying – the editor himself prewarns us about this in his intro).

But ultimately, of course, for all these different takes, there is a common thread. Halloween is the night on which the realms of the living and the dead are closest to each other, when spirits and other entities, both benign and malignant, can cross over into our world and commune with us. And the late autumn atmosphere of darkness, mist and swirling leaves only adds to this eeriness, and thus provides a backdrop that runs throughout.

It’s all become rather ‘on the nose’ in real life, of course. An interesting essay at the beginning of the book, When Graveyards Yawn, penned by Jones himself, explains how the iconic imagery of Halloween – witches on broomsticks, black cats, jack-o-lanterns – was first popularised in the late Victorian era via the publication in America of spooky postcards. There is little of that to be found in the actual fiction here. Jones is far too astute and eclectic an editor to select anything so obvious (and where it does appear, it is often turned on its head: Lantern Jack by Christopher Fowler, for example, or The Halloween Monster by Alison Littlewood). But the essence of the traditional Halloween remains. In Neil Gaiman’s October in the Chair, for example, a tale redolent of cold, dark autumn nights, the personifications of the months gather at a woodland bonfire to hear October tell the sad story of a lonely boy who runs away from home, befriends a ghost and decides that he never wants to leave its side … ever. While Adrian Cole’s Queen of the Hunt sees a rural cop investigating what looks like an animal-attack fatality but worried by the rapid approach of Halloween, because he knows the weird rituals with which it is celebrated in these parts and fears that the two may be connected. Equally traditional is Marie O’Regan’s Before the Parade Passes By, wherein a recently-made widow and her young daughter move to a new town, the community of which appears to embrace them … except that Halloween is almost upon them, and the child is increasingly scared by the prospect of the mysterious ‘parade’. Perhaps most atmospheric of all, though, is Storm Constantine’s Bone Fire, which takes us into a pre-industrial age British village, where Halloween is lavishly celebrated, and all kinds of strange and interesting guests are anticipated (more about this story later).

Of course, the real test of any horror anthology is whether it’s frightening or not. The stories it contains can be superbly written and clever as Hell – and all these things are to be found in this tome – but if it doesn’t put a few chills up the reader’s spine, then it hasn’t done its job.

Well, I’m glad to say that The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ticked this box too. Particularly memorable in this regard is Her Face by Ramsey Campbell, in which a young boy regularly buys cigarettes for his single mum in the corner shop across the road, but as Halloween approaches, becomes increasingly afraid of the horror masks it is stocking. We also have Robert Silverberg’s previously mentioned Not Our Brother, an intensely frightening Samhain epic, which sees an American collector of Mexican memorabilia head south of the border to spend the Day of the Dead in a remote village, where he aims to persuade the locals to sell him some valuable tribal masks, unaware of the level of resistance he’ll encounter. And The Folding Man by Joe R Lansdale, a classic pursuit horror in which a unstoppable monster is unleashed on a bunch of irreverent teens (again, more about this story later).

These are chilling tales all, showing scare-meister authors at the top of their game, and they’re not the only ones. Angela Slatter’s The October Widow will also creep you out, as will Cate Gardner’s Dust Upon a Paper Eye and Lisa Morton’s The Ultimate Halloween Party App, to name but a few (yet again, more about the first two of that trio later).

All this said, it isn’t just about being frightened. The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories also contains some serious and thought-provoking fiction. Michael Marshall Smith’ s The Scariest Thing in the World and Alison Littlewood’s The Halloween Monster are both excellent and beautifully written tales, which remind us that man’s deadliest foe, whatever night of the year it is, is man himself. While other contributions, if not exactly head-trips, go way beyond the others in terms of dark, surreal fantasy. A good example is the ever-reliable Steve Rasnic Tem’s strangely affecting Reflections in Black, in which an embittered man travels across the States, looking to hook up with an old girlfriend, and encountering all kinds of Halloween weirdness en route, while Robert Shearman’s Pumpkin Kids is so strange and disturbing that it defies a thumbnail outline – you’ve just got to read it.

And that’s the message for the whole of this book, really. Buy it and read it. It’s not the first Halloween anthology, and it certainly won’t be the last, but I suspect it’ll never have many rivals that can boast such a broad range of story types and Halloween subject-matter.

It was published for Halloween last year, but it’ll work just as well for Halloween this year. So, waste no further time …

And now …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

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 horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. 

It could be that we opt for Neil Gaiman’s concept of October occupying a woodland chair while a bonfire blazes nearby, regaling us with chilling stories of the season; or maybe we just fall back on that old chestnut (see what I did there?), with four strangers thrown together in unusual Halloween circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories … perhaps a late-October party at The Monster Club, hosted by Erasmus the vampire. But basically, it’s up to you.

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

The October Widow (by Angela Slatter): Hedgewitch Mirabel travels from one town to the next each Halloween, seducing and sacrificing handsome young men, both to replenish the land and her own youth – as she has been doing for decades. She thinks she is doing good, but ageing Cecil, who can’t forget the loss of his son, has other ideas …

Mirabel – Miranda Richardson
Henry – Asa Butterfield
Cecil – Nick Brimble

Dust Upon a Paper Eye (by Cate Gardner): A semi-derelict inner-city theatre is the venue for a strange Halloween Night show, the eccentric oddball, Herr Smithson, having promised to entertain a private audience with lifesize, dancing dolls. But when former homeless girl, Henrietta, is brought in to prepare the dolls’ makeup, she notices something rather peculiar about them …

Henrietta – Florence Pugh
Herr Smithson – Phil Davies

Bone Fire (by Storm Constantine): In a pre-industrial age English village, two lasses seek excitement and love as the annual All Hallows celebration approaches. But neither of them are really ready for the mysterious lads they will meet in the Bone Fire smoke …

Emilie – Anya Taylor-Joy
Jenna – Mia Goth

The Folding Man (by Joe R Lansdale): It’s Halloween Night, and Jim and his friends, out for a party, make the mistake of mooning a car full of nuns. But this is no ordinary party night, and these are no ordinary nuns, and when they chase the boys and unleash the terrifying ‘folding man’ on them, Jim realises that this will be a Halloween like no other …

Jim – Freddie Highmore