|Cover by Neil Williams|
139 Whitstable Road, Canterbury CT2 8EQ
This review first appeared in issue 41 of Ghosts and Scholars, a newsletter about the ghost stories of MR James (and ghost stories more widely).
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of Terror Tales of the Home Counties to consider for review.
I was pleased to see this volume in the expanding Terror Tales series, focussing as it does on a part of England often neglected, seen simply in relation to London, the Home Counties being regarded as London's dormitories filled with safe, chocolate-box villages populated by vicars on bicycles and stockbrokers polishing their cars on a Sunday morning. Given this reputation, horror authors may perhaps feel prefer to set stories in sinister London itself, or in more outlying, less cosy regions. It may be true that a bit more work is needed to establish a credible sense of horror in the Home Counties, but this volume shows that it can be done, and done with aplomb, even in the space of a short story. (We should perhaps recall Sherlock Holmes's view: 'It is my belief, Watson... that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside' (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches).
So we find here a varied lineup of authors generating some really pleasing terrors in those leafy villages; as with the rest of the Terror Tales series this book features stories by both established and newer authors, and the tales themselves alternate with more factual pieces giving legends or nuggets of history that sometimes relate directly to the stories, sometimes less so, but which all add to the atmosphere. Again like the others in this series, Terror Tales of the Home Counties mixes stories that logically belong here because they reflect some aspect of the chosen region and those which could equally have been set elsewhere. There are, I think, rather more of the former than usual - even more than in previous anthologies, a story that doesn't overtly draw on a location in the Home Counties may, I think, still be inspired by a place or its atmosphere or reflect an author's formation or experience.
That's true of all the anotholgies in this series but I found myself considering that for this volume there is another factor. The Home Counties as a region has an association with wealth and power and entitlement, characteristics that often set up protagonists for a fall (or give them the power to inflict horror on others) and so for example in Monkey's by Reggie Oliver, we see how a group of Etonian schoolboys, having a nice time on the river, encounter something dark. A ghost story located in Eton might be seen as parking tanks on MR James's own lawns and indeed there is a rather Jamesian feeling here - to stretch the metaphor a bit, I'd say Oliver parks his tank very neatly. There is a perfect balance between the everyday and the incursion of the strange.
There's a Twitter account I follow which tweets images from pulp literature and occasionally shares book covers featuring "Women with great hair fleeing gothic houses" and the opening of Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims really put me in mind of those images as May just does that, fleeing in terror that someone - or something - will follow. As soon becomes clear though this isn't a straightforwardly gothic mystery, though it is a story of family secrets, a curse, and - something I always love - a warning foolishly ignored. Slightly comic, very scary and refreshing different. Again, though, we may wonder about the wealth and power of titled families and what lurks in their histories. Another story exploring this theme is The Topsy-Turvey Ones by Tom Johnstone, which manages to weave together a modern film-maker, a family curse, the Commonwealth radicals of the English Civil War and even the detention in 1999 of Genral Pinochet in Surrey.
The Old, Cold Clay by Gail-Nina Anderson could perhaps be set in any one of a swathe of country towns or villages popular with tourists. It opens as Viv attempts to occupy a coach party, negotiating the delicate line between sometimes blunt historical truth and the kind of picturesque story that goes down better with visitors. But reality is about to take a hand. The darkness in this one was well counterpointed by the closeness, even cosiness of the community depicted.
Between by Sam Dawson successfully exploits the contrast between a modern, semi-urbanised region and traces of older and darker things, implicitly judging a pair of modern trendies taking on a rural cottage against the steadfast character of their grandparents' generation. It's a genuinely thoughtful story, posing questions about how one deals with the strange and hinting that even in our modern century the much-abused landscape and natural world may take a hand in human affairs. I'd perhaps describe is as Lovecraftian rather than Jamesian.
My Somnabulist Heart by Andrew Hook is a lovely study in ambiguity and tells a lot of story in a short space. We don't, for example, ever learn exactly how Ian, relocating to the country from London, earned his money, but we soon gather from what we piece together of his character that it probably wasn't done very ethically - but also that he's, perhaps fatally, disengaged from life and consequences, comparing reality - which he feels has no overall arc or direction - with fiction. Perhaps it's this that lays him open to something that is either form his imagination, or its very opposite - reality getting even? Either way, a deliciously thought-provoking and ambiguous ending.
Where are they Now? by Tina Roth teeters on the brink of the Home Counties, exploiting the fact that the margins of London often blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Drawing on the dark past of Mortlake and rumours of Dr John Dee, this story - told in the rambling, often distracted narration of an elderly actor - weaves together past and present, the mundane and the strange, to give a real sense of gathering trouble.
As the husband of a vicar, I was slightly disappointed that there are few stories in this book featuring clergy as protagonists. Surely they should be a staple of this sort of horror? However The Doom by Paul Finch himself bucks that trend with a lucid, sting-in-the-tail horror that hangs on the discovery in a remote church of a medieval Doom - a wall painting showing lost souls being tormented in Hell. Drawn into a theological debate with a nosy visitor, he's clearly out of his depth and we sense trouble but when it comes it is from an unexpected direction.
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert is not a supernatural story, indeed more of a comic, albeit darkly comic, caper and more amusing than scary. It put me in mind of Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I guess there is another sort of Home Counties link there (albeit Ealing is more London) and elsewhere in the collection Bray Studios (where the Hammer films were made) get a mention too.
Chesham by Helen Grant was, for me, the outstanding story in this volume. Kay, returning to the family home to clear things out after the death of her parents, is one of three children. She's drawn the short straw because she hasn't been able to visit much of late, but in going through old photos and clearing cupboards and drawers she discovers a rather sinister vein of family history. Written with a growing sense of menace - the young woman alone in the silent family home - this one will, I promise, stay with you long after you've finished it.
The book ends with three stories that remind us that "Home Counties" is not always the same as "wealthy and privileged". The protagonist of Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley lives in Luton, and has been through some bad stuff in his life, but is now getting straight. There's a tension between keeping out of his dodgy mate Brandon's schemes, and getting enough money to move his girlfriend Mel and her son Leo out of the scuzzy area where they live. What follows is something of a supernatural tug of war, a very different story from the others in this collection as a half-baked caper goes completely wrong. A fun and enjoyable story.
Moses by David J Howe similarly stays in the edgelands, this time on the fringes of London, where a grisly monstes stalks two young boys planning a night camping. This one really did build tension.
Finally, The Old Man in Apartment Ninety by Jason Gould mixes horror with post-apocalyptic. It is set in Stevenage, rather movingly seen, after a catastrophe that seems to have destroyed civilisation, as having been something of a Utopia. Where is the horror in that, you might think? Well, it is there, I promise this one will also stay with you.
An enjoyable collection, with many stories that chill and a balance that, overall, does the Home Counties justice, I think, displacing that stuffy image and giving a glimpse of the darkness underneath.
For more information about the book, see the publisher's website.