Sunday, 1 September 2013

Review: House of Fear, ed. by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris, 2011)

Published in 2011, House of Fear is an anthology of haunted house short stories, edited by Jonathan Oliver and featuring stories by writers such as Adam Nevill, Sarah Pinborough and Christopher Priest. I picked those three names at random, as the collection’s contents page is an impressive list of well-established UK horror writers (and a couple of American cousins), with a small number of new voices being introduced alongside.

I was asked to review this book for another site I write for, but as that review will be somewhat brief, I thought I’d write a longer post here so I can talk in a bit more detail about the collection. This book definitely deserves the additional space.

The theme (or setting or motif – depending on the way it has been interpreted) that organizes House of Fear is the haunted house. Each of the nineteen stories features a ‘house’ of some description (though ‘home’ is probably a more accurate term), and each one presents a ‘haunting’ of sorts. It wouldn’t be fair to describe House of Fear as a book of ghost stories, however, as ‘haunting’ is to be understood in its widest sense. That said, there are a fair few ghosts within the pages.

The book as a whole is excellent. The editor has done a fantastic job in putting the collection together – in terms of both selection and organization – and Oliver’s introductions to each story are complimentary without being cloying. It’s also nice to read a short story collection with a consistently high standard of writing. There are no weak links in House of Fear, no stories being held up by their more secure and accomplished neighbours. So, when I talk about the high points in the rest of the review, I’m referring to my own personal taste as a reader.

The collection opens with Lisa Tuttle’s excellent ‘Objects in Dreams may be Closer than they Appear’, which sets up expectations for the rest of the collection. Tuttle’s bittersweet tale of a divorced couple’s return to a house they almost bought at the beginning of their marriage begins with a semi-nostalgia laced with rational reflection, before drawing the reader (as the narrator herself is drawn) into an unsettling, obsessive hunt for something just out of reach. The chilling ending packs a real punch. Tuttle’s story is followed by Steven Volk’s ‘Pied-à-terre’ which is a quite different sort of story with a quite different sort of punch – I’ll admit I welled up a bit when I realized what was happening in Volk’s very moving tale. It is a mark of Volk’s talent as a writer that he was able to handle (avoiding spoilers) such emotional material without sentimentalizing or becoming mawkish.

Of the other stories in the collection, Adam Nevill’s ‘Florrie’ and Jonathan Green’s ‘The Doll’s House’ were particularly favourites, though Rebecca Levene’s ‘The Windmill’ was also fantastic. Nevill’s tale of a young man moving into a house made vacant by the death of its elderly owner was perfectly paced and a deft study in tension-building. This story resonated with me, as, like Nevill’s protagonist, my house previously belonged to an old lady who had lived in it her entire adult life. And, like Nevill’s protagonist, I found that the previous owner’s family had simply abandoned her furniture (and some personal belongings) after the house was sold. I am happy to be able to say that’s where the similarities end, as Nevill’s tale is an off-beat horror which (as good horror should) makes you smile just before it terrifies you.

Green’s story should be given to all aspiring writers trying desperately to come up with the perfect ‘idea’, the plot that is so original it will blow their readers’ minds, because ‘The Doll’s House’ is a beautiful example of why that doesn’t matter. A story of the return of a creepy doll’s house is hardly a mind-blowingly original idea, but Green brings his characters (and the house itself) to life with skill and a light touch. In Green’s hands, the familiarity of the story’s basic premise is transformed into a fresh and compelling piece of writing. And the ending is exquisite (at least, it is for those of us who like our horror shocking).

‘The Windmill’ is one of several stories in the collection that reinterpret the haunted house by widening an understanding of ‘home’, and the places in which we might temporarily reside. Levene’s protagonist is a drug dealer serving a prison sentence. With a limited view from his cell, Lee is able to watch a windmill that he knows from his time outside. Unrepentant, Lee is determined to continue dealing from within the prison, but things don’t work out quite the way he planned. Levene mixes down-to-earth realism with a growing sense of the supernatural to produce a story filled with creeping dread.

One final mention (as I don’t have the space here to go through each story in detail) is Christopher Fowler’s ‘An Injustice’. Fowler’s tale begins with a group of student ghost-hunters – as misguided, opinionated and naïve as that sounds – but evolves into something quite different, and really unexpected. Of all the stories in the book, this is the one that genuinely ‘haunted’ me. I was reading the book one story at a time in between shifts and bands at a music festival, which gave me a great opportunity to compare how long each one lingered in my imagination after I’d finished it. Fowler’s easily won – the final ‘reveal’ just doesn’t go away.

As I said, these stories were particular favourites, but the others stories in the collection are all strong. If I had to make criticisms, I found Christopher Priest’s ‘Widow’s Weeds’ a little disappointing. Priest returns to the figure of the professional magician, so a comparison with The Prestige is inevitable. I didn’t feel ‘Widow’s Weeds’ had the intrigue or narrative power of the earlier novel, and the characterization (even allowing for the restrictions of form) was underdeveloped.

Robert Shearman’s ‘The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World’ also left me a little underwhelmed. A clever premise – which is almost impossible to sum up without ruining the story – promised to be ‘an unusual story of a house in a garden and how people within that house find out what it is to be human’ (in Oliver’s words). The problem for me was that there was little outside of the premise, and while this was indeed unusual and clever, it wasn’t quite enough to sustain my interest.

Nevertheless, as I said, this is a matter of personal taste. I admit I can be quite traditional in my reading tastes, and usually gravitate towards strong plots and well-developed characterization. On the whole, House of Fear delivered this, as well as a few good doses of horror (of differing types).

So, overall, a resounding recommendation. This is a must-read for horror fans. I would go as far as to say – aside from the collections I have edited, of course – this is my favourite short story anthology of recent years.

For more information about House of Fear, please check out the publishers’ website.

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