Map of Blue Book Balloon

25 October 2020

#Blogtour #Review - After Sundown edited by Mark Morris

After Sundown
ed by Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, October 2020
Available as: HB, 256pp, PB, audio, e
Source: advance review copy
ISBN: 9781787584570

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of After Sundown to consider for review and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

I love a good collection of horror stories. There's something about the short form that, to me, makes it the ideal vehicle for horror: while there are many excellent full length horror novels, there are also many that - due to their length - can't sustain the necessary tension, or are vulnerable to the irritated reader's call for the characters to do the sensible thing, whatever that is. In shorter stories, we can be carried away, lost to the dreadful thing, whatever it is, before there's time for such alarms and second thoughts.

This is a good collection of horror stories. It has some authors I recognised and know to be renowned writers of such fiction, others I was less familiar with. There is a broad range of themes: creepy children, environmental horror, human irrationality or evil, folk horror, the classic Jamesian trope of a man of letters who is haunted by an object, stories of revenge from beyond the grave, strange abandoned (and spooky) settings, the plan weird - and more. Together the stories chill, and if there are authors here you haven't read before (it would be hard to have read them all) it's an excellent jumping off point to their various bodies of work.

Inevitably, I enjoyed some stories more than others: my favourite was perhaps Same Time Next Year by Angela Slatter which opens with Cindy sitting on a tomb in a country cemetery just after sunset. She can't remember quite how she got there, or where she belongs, but there is a suggestion of violence, of trauma, in what she does recall. Even that name isn't hers - it was given to her by a boy who treated her badly. If she stays where she is, something bad is going to happen, for sure. We hope she'll be alright. I found this a perfect gem of a story, comprising equally a mystery, rising tension about what was going to happen next, and empathy for the sad central character.

I also really enjoyed Swanskin by Alison Littlewood, a chilling take set in a remote coastal town, where the boozy, rollicking behaviour of the town's men turns out to have a direct link to their abuse of nature and of their womenfolk. But nature can have a way of redressing the balance. Set at some indeterminate time which could be anywhere in the past two hundred years, this one has the feeling of a classic.

Bokeh by Thana Niveau also really impressed. "Bokeh" is a Jananese word, used to describe the out of focus parts of an image - the smeared background, or dancing globes of light. In this story, Vera begins to experience it in real life. Perhaps she needs glasses? But what does that have to do with daughter Keeley's bloodthirsty fantasies about her toys? 

The remaining stories are, though, all very strong and variety means that everyone will find something to appreciate (unless you don't like horror in which case, well no, this might not be for you). 

Horror is, perhaps, though, relative. In Butterfly Island by CJ Tudor, we meet a group of protagonists who have already experienced a collapsing world due to disease, natural disaster and war. Still, the modern world provides them with enough support to live a debauched existence in and around a beach bar. You have thought they would hang on to what they had rather than run the risk of a boat trip to a deserted island... a good story to open the collection with, Butterfly Island shows that things can always, improbably, get worse.

What's the worst thing you can do to an author? In Research, Tim Lebbon seems to be saying it's to interrupt them when about to finish a novel. In fact his neighbours Sue and Alan have darker plans. This one is classic horror, showing the darkness that can lie behind suburban windows.

In contrast, That's the Spirit by Sarah Lotz is an almost comic tale of fraudulent psychics scratching a living from the gullible bereaved, Underneath the humour there's a grim theme - how far to go, what lines to cross, who to dupe? What does that do to you and what might the consequences be? Deceptively charming, this one has a real chill in its tail.

Horror can take many forms, from supernatural to natural disaster to smaller, more intimate tales of destruction and terror. Gave by Michael Bailey blends the latter two, being set in a future world where the population is, inexplicably, falling (having peaked at 17 billion or so). The impact of the deaths is counterpointed with one elderly man's desperation to donate blood, almost as though he's trying to push back the time of dying even as he like everyone watches the falling population numbers in real time. There's something weird about the focus on blood, blood groups, on lost kids and lost lives. Like the best horror this doesn't try to explain what is going on and leaves one to speculate.

Ramsey Campbell is of course one of the masters of the genre. In his Wherever You Look, we see another author suffer a dreadful fate. If, as in Research, interrupting the writing process must be one nightmare for an author, here is another - finding something in your stories that you don't remember putting there. Is Maurice Lavater being accused of plagiarism at the start of this tale? Or... something worse? I found the passage where he hunted through his writings, finding things he never recalled but which grew to make a ghastly kind of meta logic, truly chilling.

Elana Gomel's Mine Seven is another story with an environmental focus, taking us to the icy (if melting) wastes of Svalbard. Lena has, in a sense, come home to the land of her ancestors - although she's less enthusiastic than her partner Bill and would really prefer to sit in the library of the winter lodge and read than hare about the countryside dodging Polar bears and viewing the Northern Lights. Pity Bill didn't take her advice...

It Doesn't Feel Right by Michael Marshall Smith is a fraught story about a young couple having behavioural problems with their sometimes truculent, sometimes loving, five year-old son. Having been there myself (and yes, they grew up reasonably well adjusted) my stress levels rose quickly through this story, anticipating all the things that might go wrong - but I didn't guess the truly horrific twist that was coming.

Laura Purcell's Creeping Ivy is a very traditional form of ghost (or monster?) story, with the variation that we are I think cheering on the ghost/ monster. The end is not really a surprise but rather something to anticipate with relish. Purcell's writing is, as ever, spot on, creating a whole world in a few pages.

Last Rites For The Fourth World by Rick Cross returns to the environmental theme in what is a strange story, ranging across a number of locations where we see... well, strange things. Strange dead things. The horror is less a personal trial, a spooky location or ancient evil but a situational nightmare, a crisis we are all embroiled in but can't alter. A thing you can't run from or keep at bay with wards or garlic.  

In We All Come Home by Simon Bestwick, Robert Lennox returns to Wardley New Hall - the site of a mysterious trauma in his childhood whose memory her has suppressed - in an attempt to find healing and to move on. But is it ever wise to go bavck?

The Importance of Oral Hygiene by Robert Shearman will really hit a nerve if you're a fear of dentists... a creepy Victorian-set story with themes of abuse - don't read just before your next appointment!

I've enjoyed Grady Hendrix's horror novels but hadn't read any of his short stories. Murder Board is a chilling piece about Caroline and her ageing rockstar husband David's dabbling with a Ouija board is simply perfect, tapping into the idea of a Faustian bargain: we know things will go wrong - this is a horror story - but Hendrix manages to keep the reader guessing almost till the end as to just what.

I'm glad it's not just me who thinks the whimsicality of Lewis Carroll's Alice only a hair's breadth away from truly unsettling horror. I'vc seen whole anthologies dedicated to that idea, but it remains something I'm deeply fascinated by and Alice's Rebellion by John Langana scratched that itch. Langana's story recognises that a ruler who calls for their opponent's head to be offed is really not a Nice Person and imagines a familiar figure in that role... who are the monstrous Tweedledum and Tweedledee of today?

The Mirror House by Jonathan Robbins Leon sees English literature professor Stephanie give up her independence and her career for her husband Edgar - but she's about to be disillusioned by him - and by the fancy house he bought, which seems to have its own secrets.

The Naughty Step by Stephen Volk is another story focussed on a child. It's also an insight into the stressful life of social worker Linda, called out when a young boy, Jared, is found in the house where his mother was murdered. He won't move from the "naughty step" on the stairs where his mum told him to go b efeore her death. So Linda prepares to spend the night...

A Hotel In Germany by Catriona Ward is a very different sort of story from most of the others here. Cara, whose brother and daughter are dead, seems to be a dogsbody for a woman described only as 'the movie star' who is on location in Germany. Selfish, demanding and petulant, the 'star' summons Cara at all hours of the night and we wonder why she doesn't just quit. The revelation of just how far Cara is required to go comes alongside an understanding of why, giving. real sense of horror (if if we never quite understand the connection between the two women). 

Finally, I enjoy Paul Finch's gritty ghost stories set around abandoned mills, derelict yards and canals. Branch Line, the last story in this book, didn't disappoint, setting us up for a story which seeming to feature two innocent young boys getting into trouble (for a certain value of "innocent": much of the motivation at the start is a cache of prime dirty mags, this is set in the 70s) but which manages to pivot to something much darker and to a rather nasty twist...

Overall, this is a strong collection which will have you looking uneasily at midnight shadows, bolting your doors and avoiding lonely, derelict places after dark. Unless, of course, you're actually a monster already...

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.  You can buy After Sundown from all the usual places: your local bookshop (they need your business, now more than ever!) or online from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon

And don't forget - my fellow blog tourers (see poster below) are, like me, all connoisseurs of the twisted, the uncanny - do join them to share their perverse pleasure in the chills and terror to be found After Sundown!


  1. Horror is not my thing, but thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. Thanks. I always think that there's a bit more to an anthology - or horror or anything else - than the genre, the editor's selection and arrangement (and the degree to which commissioned authors follow the brief) creates a whole dynamic of its own?