Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts

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.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Call for Submissions: Hauntings: An Anthology

Short Story Submissions Wanted

A memory, a spectre, a feeling of regret, a sense of déjà vu, ghosts, machines, something you can’t quite put your finger on, a dark double, the long shadow of illness, your past, a nation’s past, your doppelgänger, a place, a song, a half-remembered rhyme, guilt, trauma, doubt, a shape at the corner of your eye, the future, the dead, the undead, the living, a grey cat, a black dog, a ticking clock, someone you used to know, someone you used to be.

We are all haunted.

Submissions wanted for a new anthology of short stories based around the theme of haunting.

What we want: Edgy, dark and weird fiction. Any interpretation of the theme is welcome – and we have no preconceptions about what ‘haunting’ might mean. Any genre considered: dark fantasy, urban fantasy, Gothic, horror, sci fi, steampunk, cyberpunk, biopunk, dystopian, slipstream. We’re looking for original and fresh voices that challenge and unsettle. (And, please remember, we do not publish misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia or racism.)

Editor: Hannah Kate
Publisher: Hic Dragones

Word Count: 3000-7000
Submission Guidelines: Electronic submissions as .doc, .docx or .rtf attachments only. 12pt font, 1.5 or double spaced. Please ensure name, story title and email address are included on the attachment. Email submissions to Hic Dragones. Submissions are welcome from anywhere, but must be in English.

Submission Deadline: Thursday 31st October 2013

Payment: Contributor copy: 1 copy of paperback, eBook in ePub and/or mobi format; permanent 25% discount on paperback (resale permitted); 1 free eBook from our catalogue

For more information, see the publishers' website or email Hic Dragones

Important Information:
This is a non-paying market. Hic Dragones is currently a micro-press with plans to become a small press, and we acknowledge that this is not the market for everyone. We feel that what we offer – professional and thorough developmental editing and copy-editing, support and exposure (from IRL and virtual platforms) – will benefit emerging writers; however, we welcome submissions from more established writers (see previous anthologies). We value transparency and communication, so if you would like to know more about our business model, our background or our plans for the future, please email Hic Dragones or chat to us on Twitter or Facebook.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review: Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path (Doubleday, 2009)


Published in 2010 by Doubleday, The Dead Path is Stephen M. Irwin's first novel. It tells the story of Nicholas Close, a man troubled by visions of ghosts, who returns to his Australian home following the death of his wife. His return sparks a resurgence of childhood memories and coincidences with the murder of a child. Nicholas finds himself re-evaluating his formative years in Tallong, putting together pieces of a chilling secret, and being drawn further and further into the woods near Carmichael Road.

I was first introduced to The Dead Path as a 'horror' novel. Indeed, the backcover of the US hardback edition makes much of this generic classification, including a quote from The Guardian likening Irwin to Stephen King. I'm not completely convinced that this is the most apt categorization of The Dead Path; instead, I'm inclined to agree with Jeff Lindsay's description: "a truly creepy thrill-ride". This is a novel of suspense and creeps, rather than out-and-out horror - more shivers down your spine than lurches in your stomach.

That is not to say that the novel does not contain some pretty horrible set pieces (particularly if you have any aversion to arachnids), but Irwin's writing tends more towards the 'haunting' than the 'horrific'. For me, this was a real strong point. Gore and shocks do little for me, unless they are truly integral to plot. On the other hand, Irwin's style of low-key creepiness, which escalates into terror and fear, has more of a cumulative effect.

I refer to 'set pieces' and 'episodes' deliberately, as The Dead Path contains several of these. The pacing is careful, and the plotting considered. The story is told through a series of crescendos, before reaching its final climax. Each time, the reader feels they have learned more about what is happening in Tallong - but the last few pieces of the jigsaw are held back until the gripping conclusion. While other critics have praised Irwin's "electric use of language", I feel that the real strength lies in Irwin's intelligent and skillful storytelling. Clues, hints, implications are fed to the reader slowly, and the author demonstrates a real ability to control suspense. The ending is satisfying - and does justice to Irwin's overall technique.

Another aspect of The Dead Path that I found particularly strong was Irwin's construction of character. Nicholas Close is a believable and, on the whole, sympathetic character. His ability to see ghosts is utterly plausible within the consistently created world of the novel. Nicholas is a Samhain child - the implications of which he (and we) do not truly understand until later in the novel. Moreover, Irwin's ghosts, while not unique per se, are certainly well-drawn examples of their type.

However, it is Irwin's cast of supporting characters that really makes this novel for me. Unusually, these supporting roles are almost exclusively female. Nicholas's sister Suzette and mother Katharine, his late wife Cate and new-found acquaintance Laine Boye are fully-rounded and explored. Each of these women, and their relationship to Nicholas, is nuanced and different. Irwin does not rely on the hackneyed good girl/bad girl divide so favoured by some horror writers. I will say very little about my favourite character, as to do so would be to give away far too much of the plot. Suffice to say, Irwin's third-act heroine is a delightful creation (and I'm not just saying that because she shares my name!).

As the references here to ghosts, woodlands and Samhain may have suggested, the plotline of the novel is steeped in Celtic paganism. This surprised me a little, as it was not what I was expecting from an Australian novel. There are also elements of the plot that can be divined by a reader well-versed in this mythology. Nevertheless, Irwin adds enough of his own take on these legends to keep the suspense going. Certain revelations ground the novel very firmly in Australian history, and the suburbs of Tallong is convincing. Irwin's weaving together of Celtic myth and Australian 'reality' gives the story a fresh and vibrant feel, despite the fact that many other stories have trodden similar ground.

The Dead Path is a compelling read. Though it is not the most shocking or horrific 'horror' novel around, it has enough tension and creepiness to give you a shiver on a dark night. Well-plotted, and with well-drawn characters: I definitely recommend this book.