'The bigger the book,' write the editors in the introduction to the latest volume of Dark Terrors, 'the wider the spectrum of fears which can be explored.'
While I wouldn't necessarily agree with that sentence - if thoughtfully and eclectically selected a comparatively shorter project could be equally broad - it's certainly true here. Though technically unthemed, the soul of the anthology is felt throughout. Hearts are beating that little bit faster, and it's not so easy to sleep at night. Fear has found each of these stories.
Take, for example, the narrator in Christopher Fowler's "At Home in the Pubs of Old London". A troubled individual, he travels from pub to pub on a series of dates, silently murdering each new beau in some concealed corner or darkened snug. He longs to return to a more brotherly past, and is compelled to do what he does by fear of the distance and remoteness increasingly common in everyday life. This fear, essentially of the space between people, is explored further in the objective, deliberately aloof voice in which the story is told. It could be narrated in no other way. And, during the present orgy of email, text messaging, internet chatrooms and other forms of lipless communication - combined with lost leisure-time, an absence of real relationships, and the frequency and speed with which people shift from place to place - the 'terrible sense of unbelonging' experienced by Fowler's character seems so woefully apt.
A similar fear of reality drives the character of "Beauregard" in Eric Brown's eponymously titled tale of occult knowledge and borderline madness. The essential idea of someone finding or attempting to find hidden knowledge, to their own or someone else's peril, is not new - "Solid Geometry" by Ian McEwan; "Egnaro" by M John Harrison; The Great and Secret Show (or The Hellbound Heart) by Clive Barker - yet Eric brings to the formula a fresh angle: that of authenticity, truth, and worth. "Beauregard", he who has travelled, he who has discovered secrets, compels the narrator, he who is safe, he who is almost cloistered, to question the value of his existence. Is he doing all he could? Is he wasting his days? Should he have a better regard for his life? All questions which the narrator asks himself once Beauregard turns up at his door. This is a nicely layered story. Eric also writes some truly inventive and appealing prose and I for one wish he would work more in the genre of horror.
Fear of the future and of the doubt inherent even in the most concrete relationship arises in James Van Pelt's melancholic and bitter-sweet tale of impending divorce, "Savannah is Six", and in Nicholas Royle's deceptively simple yet intelligently structured, "The Proposal". In both stories the past arrives in the present to alter the future, wearing either the face of a dead boy or the shawl of an old woman. "The Proposal" generates an honestly spooky atmosphere, and is a rare piece of storytelling. Particularly impressive is how each appearance of the old woman - old women are by far the scariest of all ghosts, with the possible exception of the nun - is preceded by thoughts of the past. No sooner has the central character handled "a nail buffer in a horn case, something he hadn't seen since his Grandmother had been alive" than he's glimpsing the reflection of "an old woman in a grey dress and a shawl sitting in the chair next to the dressing table". A stunning, quiet device.
The fear Joel Lane writes of in "The Bootleg Heart" is fear of ostracism, except apparently not. Really it's more a fear of unoriginality, hence the title. Much of the narrator's life - from the sex he's not having to the comments he writes in his university assignments - is copied, either intentionally or by accident, from the lives of others. Set upon an urban, menacing stage, as are many of Joel's stories, "The Bootleg Heart" seems to be picking up on how emotion - be it lust, loneliness, fear or sarcasm - might sometimes pass from person to person, replicate from person to person, like recordings on a tape.
So, in just five stories the soul of this anthology is bared. It is, however, a soul divided by quality. The finest work is already mentioned (plus Lisa Tuttle's "Haunts" and Melanie Tem's "Alicia"), the remainder adequate, readable and entertaining, though less good.
For example William R Trotter's novella Honeysuckle is smoothly written and bizarrely original - a sort of cross between Apocalyse Now and Swamp Thing - and yet it meanders awfully from the halfway point, attempting a kind of Forrest Gump perspective on the sixties and seventies and succeeding only in frustrating the reader by not ending when it should. Hackneyed, yet unusually and inventively written, is "Starfucker" by Mick Garris, in which the main character is able, through weirdness and the use of generally unspecified technology, to sleep with deceased film actress Jean Harlow. Oh, please...
Other writers who turn in disappointing stories include Michael Marshall Smith, who clearly wrote his contribution after a weekend reading Ray Bradbury, Brian Stableford's nauseatingly cliquey "The Haunted Bookshop", and Ramsey Campbell's flat and uninspiring "No Story in It", which is really a comment on contemporary publishing and, while valid, of limited interest to the average reader.
In all a good collection which would be excellent if half the stories were put out of their misery. As it is it will appeal to fans of the series and to the casual shopper lured to the horror shelves by the recent resurgence in contemporary cinema of the macabre and the supernatural. But a book this size and a book which is portrayed as the créme of the genre should, I have to say, be worthy of praise through and through. And sadly, it isn't.
Recommended (in part).
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© Jason Gould 24 March 2001