Echoes of Darkness
by LH Maynard and MPN Sims
(Sarob Press, £21 + £2 P&P, 179 pages, hardback; published June 2000; ISBN: 1 902309 09 X.)
As horror writing goes, Maynard and Sims attack from a traditional angle, employing a thoroughly traditional style. I know, having read their column on Mark Chadbourn's website, At the World's End, that this is the type of storytelling they favour. When you read M and S you can be sure each story will have a beginning, a middle and an end; that the prose in which the tale is couched will be smooth, but will never occlude the unfolding of that tale; and that the action will often centre around ghosts, monsters, demons etc. That's not to belittle their work by whittling it down to the formulaic, simply to say that their output is recognisably their own.
The idea of the perfect society unravelling is reminiscent of David Cronenberg's early film Shivers, in which Starline Towers, a tower block built as the perfect place to live, fails in its utopian mission when its inhabitants revert to their more primal instincts. In Ashushma, the self-titled opening story in Echoes of Darkness, the undoing is supernatural, not human, though it still put me mind of the 1970's Cronenberg classic.
Ashushma, an island owned by the Stronghold Corporation, lies adrift in the Indian Ocean, a kind of time-share settlement to which a number of couples are invited prior to purchasing. Gradually, over the course of 40 or so pages, the island reveals its true nature, much at the expense of those who have travelled there.
Themed around man's spoiling footprint falling cataclysmically through paradise, Ashushma is very well narrated, edgy, and scenically cinematic. The tension in the first half piles up by the gutful, with sections ending on notes such as:
"As Grace stood from the bed and theatrically removed her robe, she was unaware of the three pairs of yellow eyes that reflected from the window before merging back into the shadows of the trees."
"Jack waited until the three men had caught up with them before he brushed a piece of broken fern aside with his sandal. On the grass, amidst a smear of glistening wet blood, was part of a human foot, clearly torn raggedly from the rest of the body."
I did, however, feel a little let down by a couple of points. Firstly, I would have liked the tale to have had a slightly grittier edge; to have witnessed an ounce more rawness in each character, rather than the polite Englishness with which they behaved, even at times of extreme stress. Secondly, the story would have benefited from closer editing. It's tightly written, but flawed by the odd grammatical or stylistic inconsistency, which if weeded out would have elevated the tale that little bit higher. A typical example is the opening paragraph halfway down page 16, which contains the words light and lighting four times inside three sentences, and is consequently clumsy to read.
Those reservations aside, though, Ashushma is a tense and scary novella.
The other stories, like the wonderfully titled "An Office in the Gray's Inn Road", and "Mallory's Farm", are from a similar stable, and equally entertaining. Moths, the novella with which the book concludes, and for which the authors received an Honourable Mention from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in 1998, rounds the proceedings off nicely.
This collection - and Maynard and Sim's work holistically - owes a lot to that flavour of horror writing which grew out of the Pan Books of Horror (though a lot less vicious), mingled with elements of M R James, Henry James, and perhaps even that British 1970's scary-as-hell TV programme, Armchair Thriller.
Buy it. Read it.
Review by Jason Gould.
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© Jason Gould 23 September 2000