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:


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.


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.


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 …


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.

Sunday 13 September 2020

When Britain turns dark, drear and spooky

Well, no one expected the COVID crisis to last as long as it has, certainly not into the autumn, which is where we are now. But life must go on as much as it can, and one of the best ways I find not to ponder the depressing and seemingly intangible issue of Coronavirus is to treat each new week as a separate entity and enjoy it for itself, and now, because we’re finally into the waning of the year, there are suddenly lots of new ways to do this.

Invariably, on this blog at least, that means appreciation of the dark side.

Yes. It’s cooler and duller now, and the nights are growing longer, the chill of winter looming. It’s the time for bonfires, conkers and, most important of all, ghost stories. For this reason, I’m going to be talking a bit today about SEASON OF MIST, the autumnal ghost/horror/serial killer novella of mine, which was published this time last year, and in that same vein – the flipside of Merrie England – we’ll be reviewing and discussing BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018, as edited by Johnny Mains.

If you’re only here to read today’s book review, that’s fine. Feel free to zoom on down to the lower end of the blog. As usual, you’ll find it in the THRILLERS, CHILLERS section. But if you’ve got a bit more time first, there are a couple of other minor things.

Riding high

First of all, ONE EYE OPEN has been my main novel release this year. Regular readers will probably know that it was published in August.

Well … the good news is that, despite a very crammed September, which saw such mega-tomes as Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Robert Harris’s V2, all published, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, ONE EYE OPEN is still riding high in the charts. It reached something of a watermark last week when it arrived at #66 in the Kindle Top 100. (Okay, that’s not #1, but when you consider all the millions and millions of other e-titles out there, I can hardly complain). So, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s so far bought a copy along with those who are planning to but haven’t done it quite yet (don’t worry, there’s still time).

While we authors tend not to be affected by reviews, either good or bad (we can’t afford to be – it’s only ever one person’s opinion), we cannot fail to be hugely gratified when we see our books rocket up the charts. If nothing else, that means word of mouth is spreading that lots of people like what we’ve written. It’s never less than lovely to know that your work is hitting the spot widely.

So, thanks again to everyone who has purchased ONE EYE OPEN. I hope you are finding it a rewarding experience. And now, the not insignificant matter of …

The mist

My novella, SEASON OF MIST, was published this time last year in paperback, on Kindle and on Audible, where it was narrated by the actor Greg Patmore, who put a voice to it that I could not have hoped for in my wildest dreams.

It first appeared as part of the collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK, which was published in 2010 and launched in Brighton at the World Horror Convention. That original piece of work, like so many other publications from one-time supernatural powerhouse, Ash-Tree Press, had been long, long out of print by 2019. And of course, it predated the new audience I’ve managed to gain for myself through my crime and thriller writing.

Thus, last year, it suddenly seemed very sensible to dig SEASON OF MIST up and bring it out again as a stand-alone item. Which is exactly what I did.

This particular novella had always been intended as a celebration of the autumn, particularly the British autumn, which can easily adopt a Sleepy Hollow-esque appearance - flame-red leaves on the trees, low-lying mist, and fiery jack-o-lanterns watching malevolently from doorsteps – but which has some unique attributes of its own: a deep, dank chill in the fungus-riddled depths of the woods, early winter fog and frost, fireworks exploding overhead, treacle, toffee apples.

The actual story is set during the autumn of 1974, and follows a bunch of 12 and 13-year-olds, whose happy preparations for Halloween and Bonfire Night, and then afterwards, Christmas, are massively disrupted when a series of child-murders occurs in their Lancashire town, the victims all beaten savagely to death.

While parents make frantic efforts to keep everyone indoors, the youngsters won’t be harnessed. This is their favourite time of year, after all, and they are eager to get out at every opportunity to find the killer themselves. The only difference is that, while the police are searching for a maniac, the youngsters know better, and they blame the felonies on Red Clogs, an infamous child-murdering demon supposedly escaped from one of the derelict collieries in the town.

By the way, despite the ages of the main protagonists, SEASON OF MIST is NOT a children’s or YA book, so please be warned about that.

From the outset, it was always intended to be a combination of crime-thriller and horror story, the pre-DNA era hunt for a serial killer continually overlapping with the folklore and mysticism of Northwest England during its heyday of soot and grime. 

From reviews like these …

… took me back to my childhood in Lancashire …

… a wonderfully creepy coming-of-age story …

… really enjoyed the urban legend that ran through it  …

… I like to think I succeeded, but as I mentioned before, these are no more than individual opinions. I wonder what yours might be?


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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.

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 ed by Johnny Mains (2018)

Contrary to popular opinion, short horror fiction is in a healthy state these days. Okay, it may not appear very regularly from mass-market publishers, and in fact is scattered widely across the independent presses both here in the UK and the US and now even further afield. There is literally a vast number of practitioners. Of varying skill, admittedly, though a lot of them are very good indeed, and their work would sit comfortably back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Pan and Fontana horror series ruled the supermarkets and railway forecourts (in fact, some of them are superior to many of that era’s routinely gruesome offerings, written with much greater care and imagination).

Of course, the quickest way to find these new stars of short-form scarefare is through the plethora of now annual Year’s Best anthologies. Unfortunately, by the nature of the beast, these books can only ever scratch the surface of what’s out there more widely. But whenever you get hold of them, they are still worth studying in detail because invariably their editors have done an awful lot of wide-ranging research before compiling their final tables of contents.

On which subject, step forward editor, Johnny Mains, a man whose knowledge of short horror fiction is surpassed only by his love for that genre and his tireless efforts to bring the very best authors, both old and new, to the attention of the broader public. One of Mains’s most heartfelt quests has been to establish a regular Best British Horror series. Through no fault of his own, and despite valiant efforts, this hasn’t yet become a reality, though he hasn’t given up so far and has brought several such titles out already.

This latest one, Best British Horror 2018, from NewCon Press, clearly shows what the world is currently missing.

Mains certainly has an eclectic taste in horror, which is a good thing, I suppose, when you’re working on a Year’s Best volume, and it’s amply illustrated in this one, the stories ranging far across the chiller spectrum in terms of their subject-matter.

To start with, fans of traditional Gothic horror will be more than satisfied.

Mains’s choices hit this note repeatedly (though not solely). Reggie Oliver, a big favourite in the genre for his ability to elicit genuine terror with the most gentlemanly prose, hits us twice in this anthology, but most impressively with the unnerving Love and Death, which concerns a mysteriously captivating and highly dangerous work of art, while Daniel McGachey, whose reputation in the world of ‘Jamesian’ horror is growing fast, contributes Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling, the story of a magnificent but malevolent old clock, which, whenever it chimes, bodes well for no one (much more about this one and Love and Death later). Then there is Mark Morris’s flat-out horrifying We Who Sing Beneath the Ground, in which Stacy, a young teacher, relocates to Cornwall, but becomes so concerned when one of her pupils at the village school is strangely absent that she makes an ill-advised trip to the remote and dilapidated farm where he lives …

Morris’s soon-to-be-classic Cornish chiller links us nicely into the next subgenre touched on by Mains, which is surely ‘Monsters’. Not everyone goes for this kind of in-yer-face horror. Some readers consider themselves too grown-up or are convinced there should be no place for physical aberrations in modern age scare fiction, when warped psychology is known to be the root of so much fear and despair and Man himself has been exposed as the worst offender in terms of basic cruelty. But as Best British Horror 2018 shows, when done properly, and dare I say it – subtly – there can always be room for tales of nature gone mad.

For example, check out VH Leslie’s Shell Baby, in which something truly awful comes out of the Hebridean Sea (more about this one later), or Laura Mauro’s Sun Dogs, in which young Sadie, the child of misguided survivalists, now lives alone on the edge of the Nevada desert, but then takes in a ragged stranger, June, to whom she is immediately attracted even though June’s arrival seems to coincide with a recent spate of fatal animal attacks.

A different corner of creepy fiction fast-growing in terms of popularity, in fact blooming exponentially at present, is folk-horror. If you discount the Mark Morris story (which sort of fits that bill), Johnny Mains only selects one very folky story on this occasion, but it is more than satisfying, one of the best in the book in my view (not to mention most disturbing), and is probably the first story of this bunch that you may want to read twice just to make sure you haven’t missed any of its nuances. In a nutshell, in Claire Dean’s very clever The Unwish, a dysfunctional family return to their favourite holiday cottage out in the countryside, but sibling rivals, Amy and Sara, don’t get on, Amy’s new boyfriend is late arriving, while Amy herself is increasingly convinced that one time when they were here, even though no one else seems to remember it, she had a little sister …

Of course, no collection of horror stories can possibly exist in modern times without taking a couple of trips at least into the darker recesses of the human mind. Psychological horror is always a challenge to write effectively, authors who prefer it often seeking to unsettle their readers rather than petrify them, though when it’s done successfully, be prepared to be blown out of your comfort zone in a big way.

Three coldly effective examples from Best British Horror 2018 do exactly this.

Ray Cluley gives us In the Light of St Ives, in which eccentric artist, Claire, sets fire to her house in Cornwall, and is badly burned in the process, her older sister, Emily, investigating but unsure whether Claire’s incredible revelations about the light and colour in the house betray an unhinged mind or something much more sinister. Cate Gardner, meanwhile, who can always be relied on to pick at the rawest of nerves, adds Fragments of a Broken Doll, in which we meet demented OAP, Trill, who lives in a slum tenement close to a prison. When a convicted murderer escapes, he hides in her house, constantly protesting his innocence. But the real question is how innocent is Trill?

After that, we have Dispossession, which comes to us from a true master and long-term exponent of the understated psychological chiller, Nicholas Royle. In this one, a disturbed man seeks sanctuary in a new flat, but can’t escape the influence of his old one or the endless memories of his own haunted past. This is another that you might want to read twice just in case you miss something, but even if you don’t, it will still affect you in that intangibly macabre way that Nick Royle stories seem to specialise in.

Psychological horror is often twinned closely with the sort of surreal, fantastical horror that at one time used to be called ‘slipstream’ (especially when it busted the boundaries between genres). I was never the biggest fan, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognise the talent so regularly on show, and that is certainly the case with Georgina Bruce’s The Book of Dreems, which introduces us to Kate, who might be a real person, but might also be an android, a doll, a so-called ‘dreemy peep’. Kate herself isn’t sure. But she knows one thing: Fraser, the man who controls her, bosses her, fixes her glitches and then purposely breaks her again, is a tyrant who needs to be stopped. It’s a strange one for sure, an ugly nightmare of a story, but so engrossing that you’ll read it right to the end.

Of course, whereas horror was once seen as second rate pulp, as the naughty child of adult fiction, the bad boy who lots of people liked but wouldn’t admit to it, the reality has always been that dark tales can inform as well as entertain. Sometimes these are difficult roads to take because we don’t always like facing the sad realities of our lives, or the messed-up world we have contributed to creating. Yes, stories like these can be gloomy avenues, but they can be instructive too, even if garish and gory.

The two most serious stories in Best British Horror 2018, aren’t especially gory (or garish, for that matter), but they are grim explorations of human frailty and are thus of high value.

In James Everington’s twisty The Affair, retired middle-aged couple, Neil and Lynda, are haunted by two dopplegangers: younger, more energised versions of themselves, whose youth and virility are a torturous reminder of all they have lost. Then we have The Lies We Tell by Charlotte Bond, in which self-centred realtor, Cathy, lies constantly to her children, who she doesn’t care for anymore, and to her husband, Vikram, who doesn’t yet know about the affair she is having. Someone knows, however. Someone who has been keeping a careful tally of every untruth that Cathy has ever uttered …

So, there we have it. That is Best British Horror 2018. I haven’t mentioned all the stories in this book; I don’t want to spoil everything for you. Suffice to say that this is an ambitious collection of very varied tales, put together with care and loving attention. No doubt there were many other stories published in 2018 that could have been included, but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and editor, Johnny Mains, has done us all a great service here in trying to cast as wide a scope as possible on the work being done by Brit horror authors in contemporary times. This is an outstanding collection, which all true fans will delight in.

And now, after all that, we have …

BEST BRITISH HORROR 2018 – the movie

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware). However, this part of the review is always the fun part, so I’m going to crack on with it anyway. As such, here are my thoughts in anticipation of someone loaded with cash deciding that this lovely little book should immediately be on the 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 horror film 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 that require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are nervous offerings made by prospective new members to the merciless Club of the Damned (a la Supernatural, right) or maybe are related to us in the form of atmospheric fireside readings (a la Spine Chillers) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose (though, timewise, a couple may need updating if they are to work in this context):

Love and Death (by Reggie Oliver): In Victorian London, Martin Isaacs, an unsuccessful artist, is commissioned to recover a missing work of genius, Love and Death, as painted by Basil Hallward, his former mentor, who has now disappeared. But the painting, a classical image in the Renaissance style, is deceptively beautiful. In reality, it destroys all that it touches 

Isaacs – Jordan Patrick Smith
Hallward – Michael Sheen

Shell Baby (by VH Leslie): Tired of life, lonely Elspeth rents an isolated cottage in the Orkneys. She seeks complete isolation, but still yearns for the daughter she never had. On the first night, a weird experience while swimming sees her befriend an unusual baby sea creature. Delighted, Elspeth nurtures it, mothers it even, but it grows at an alarming rate, along with its voracious appetite …

Elspeth – Naomie Harris

Tools of the Trade (by Paul Finch – sorry, guys, but I’m never going to miss a chance to put my own stuff on film): A journalist and amateur medium search a derelict Lancashire hotel, which they believe houses the original knives used in the Jack the Ripper murders. They envisage wealth, but in the process awaken an ancient evil …

Adam Croaker – Robert James Collier
Dick Wetherby – Richard E Grant

Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling (by Daniel McGachey): Just after WWI, an antiques expert is consulted by the agent of a deceased millionaire and hears the chilling tale of a malevolent timepiece, the Awakening Clock, which, whenever it chimes the mysterious 13th hour, brings all manner of darkness upon its owner …

Lawrence – Martin Freeman
Fosdyke – Martin Jarvis
Hinchcliffe – Will Poulter
Shorehouse – Burn Gorman