Back From The Dead
I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time I shall be reviewing the fiction in the anthology entitled ‘Back From The Dead’ – The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories as selected by Johnny Mains (Noose & Gibbet Publishing 2010).
CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.
All my previous real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
There is no guarantee how quickly this review will be completed. Each story will be considered and reviewed on this page as and when I read it. There will be a date at the end of each set of comments that will crystallise each part of the review subject only to the later correction of previously unnoticed typos. I shall attempt to draw out all the stories’ leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt as I proceed through this review. That is how it always happens…
The authors of the stories: Christopher Fowler, Tony Richards, John Burke, Basil Copper, David A. Riley, Jack Wainer, Myc Harrison, Roger Clarke, John Ware, Jonathan Cruise, J.P. Dixon, Septimus Dale, Christina Kiplinger, Nicholas Royle, Ken Alden, Jane Louie, Craig Herbertson, Francis King, Harry E. Turner, Conrad Hill. (5 Apr 10)
Locked by Christopher Fowler
“Lewis played with the silver crucifix at his throat while he struggled with the concept of rejection.”
An intriguing haunted flat story told in an effective Dickensian-slipstream-of-events-and-characters and involving our modern interactions as real people together with communication systems like texts and blogs – all subsumed by a sense of insecurity that many of us today would recognise, both figuratively and literally. The paranoiac need for electronic firewalls on Facebook as well as fool-proof mortice locks in your door. The ending I did not predict at all and I loved it! Funny as well as creepy. No mean feat.
“He was pushing a battered chicken leg into his mouth and actually crunching the bones.” (5 Apr 10 – two hours later)
Mr Smyth by Tony Richards
“There was a plate with a bare fishbone on it sitting on the dining table.”
A clearly-described workmanlike story of the calling up of dark hidden forces to assist towards one’s own good, but a story with its own hidden powers, one of which powers is serendipitously drawn from contrasting with the previous story. Not firewalls or locks here but a similar seedy flat with only “grimy curtains“, indeed ones that are hardly ever pulled together (it seems!). And a (traditionally unPan-like, politically correct?) black police detective who suspects foul play when girls die (presumably of natural causes) soon after consorting with the flat’s equally seedy tenant. How could such attractive girls be thus attracted by such seediness in place and person? A tale of seeming Defiance. An ending with shuddery resonances to those like me who grow old. (6 Apr 10)
Acute Rehab by John Burke
“At first it was funny.”
A very brief piece, complete in itself. Incredibly, however, it does, to my mind, also act as a neat expository coda to the previous story, whereby the previous story’s shadow in the corner now asks a question, echoing those who, in hospitals, are always asking for your date of birth, even though those asking know it already! (6 Apr 10 – four hours later)
Camera Obscura by Basil Copper
“There was a sprawl of unfamilar alleys at the foot of the steep overhang of the building, as far as he could make out through the grimy panes.”
I first read this substantial classic horror story in the late 1960s and I don’t think anyone needs reminding of its plot … telling of the moneylender and his ‘client’ – and the latter’s two ‘camera obscuras’, the second of which is more visionary than May Sinclair or Dr Who. Suffice to say, further light is possibly shed on this story by its new context here, for example the modern-Dickensian quality of the first story adumbrating here even greater Dickensianisms and the so-called security of any house that has its firewalls breached (passively or actively) – be they thus compromised by the internet or by more ancient contrivances of perhaps even greater power via meticulously positioned ’grimy panes’…
A big shiver as that sinks in. (6 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
The True Spirit by David A. Riley
“It was on occasions like this that Alice wished their dividing walls were higher…”
A long workmanlike story that successfully developed beyond the expectations of its stock witchcrafty and catty beginning. I was drawn in. References to TV entertainments like ‘On The Buses’, ‘Bargain Hunt’ and (obliquely) ‘Randall & Hopkirk’ – plus a sense of growing menace and a bloodthirsty ending. Also an intriguing concept of ‘Pretend Vandalism’ and the wonderfully named place of Grudge End in a downtrodden English Satanic Mill township and allotments. Above all, it seemed to filter from and back into the book’s prior context very effectively, even though the author wouldn’t claim credit for that, I’m sure. Unless, of course, he, too, can tap into this book’s hidden tomely powers as well as into the dark urban myths of real life? A fine story, as it turns out, in aftertaste.
“There was the fact that Mr Gaskin’s back door was open – an unlikely thing in their experience of their neighbour who was a deadlock and bolts kind of man…” (6 Apr 10 – another 4 hours later) :-0
Angel by Jack Wainer
“She learned that he could caress as gently with his feet as with his hands.”
I had thought, for a while, that Peter Hopkirk, in the previous story, was an Angel. Maybe this story throws light on that or maybe that story throws light on this one. But otherwise, ‘Angel’ sits with strange and perhaps menacing yet impermeable charm in this book subtitled ’The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories’!
No other context or subtext than itself. But extrapolating against that impression, I’d say it tells of a young girl in regular episodes of maturing Natal Epoch encountering a supposed Angel in strict ratios of time distortion – with an implied deadlock security system of remaining (even to the extent of lowering her guard for tactical reasons with mortal (non-Angelic) men) ‘virgo intacta’ against a hellish text-virus disguised as a heavenly one, i.e. against dire infiltration from the rest of this book….?
As a stand-alone story, it’s perfect. Written by Jack Wainer: the pseudonym, I believe, of the publisher of ‘Peeping Tom’, a long-running and influential Horror small press magazine of the 1990s, in which my own fiction appeared quite regularly. (7 Apr 10)
A Good Offence by Myc Harrison
“Whispering was a way of life when you lived in a small town…”
Boyhood sexuality is an open goal, perhaps, for some. Cruelly conceived, but arguably justified, this is Charles-Birkinite revenge horror. An ice for an ice.
Tightly written, succinct, to the point. Meanwhile, taking a punt, quite irrelevantly perhaps, I mention that Hockey-sticks do jolly well look like giant keys…. (7 Apr 10 – three hours later)
Gallybagger by Roger Clarke
“Only in the ground for a year and then treated like old bedsteads and baths.”
In some ways, I’m a literary snob. In other ways, I’m the complete opposite. Against all my initial expectations, this impressive anthology is continuing to satisfy both these aspects of my ‘reading’ character. And often satisfying both simultaneously! This story, following the complicatedly embedded thing in the previous story, tells of the prising out (unlocking) of another complicatedly embedded thing: a pipeline in the Isle of Wight and its literal entanglement with wartime remains in the ground and, more figuratively, with some Wightian mythos of the Gooseberry Wife and scarecrows… This is the stuff of dream, where, cleverly, any surrealism is made real by being tangibly embedded in tangible things with implicit ley-lines veining real honest-to-goodness earth under the feet of man (wight). And is it any coincidence that the protagonist is named Coates (the composer of ‘The Dambuster’s March’)? I think not. See what you think. (8 Apr 10)
Spinalonga by John Ware
“The graves were no longer than three feet, so that the joints of the corpses had to be broken and the skeletons bent double to get them in.”
Another island, more grounded embeddings, an ikon and other disinterred matter reminding me of the keepsake and ‘earthkill’ in the previous story…. This book’s stories (independently written and unnconnected other than by this book) continue to seem – whether by intention or accident – to flow in and out of each other like mutual filters.
Tourists on a Greek Leper Colony Island (the I-protagonist and his wife Angela) – and a ‘priest’ who reminded me of the Angel in ‘Angel’ or Peter Hopkirk in ‘The True Spirit’ …. while ‘Spinalonga’ itself is how I remember the Pan Book of Horror Stories, Britishly charming as well as insidious with an ending that we, in our early days, thought to be so refreshingly nasty. But, sadly, today, nothing’s nasty any more because all is nasty. (8 Apr 10 – two hours later)
The Forgotten Island by Jonathan Cruise
“I have levered from its bed of moss and peat, the great iron boiler used a century ago for the rendering of fat of elephant seal and king penguin.”
Another island – and a journal of ‘Swiss Family Robinson’-like narration mixed with Jules Verne and ‘The Lord of the Flies” … but not flies, as such. If you’re a cat-lover… No, if I say what I want to say, it will have the potential readership of this book halved! “Cats are ‘The True Spirit’”, I’d say instead!
A wonderful tale of a shipwrecked yachtsman on an Antarctic island called Solitude (not forgotten at all!), with his loved one Ailsa. And it is as if the pipe from ‘Gallybagger’ squeals inside with feline terror…
You’ll have to read it to find the tale’s moral. And which creatures finally win out, be they human or animal. (8 Apr 10 – another 4 hours later)
Dreaming the Dark by J P Dixon
“If you’re a shapeshifter why stop at forms that already exist. What you are is limited only by your own imagination.”
An important novelette, I suggest, in the history of Horror Literature. No connections with the rest of this book for me to adumbrate this time, because this work is the island, the hub or heart, from which all “chameleons” and “baroque monstrosities” of “language-from-imagination-into-truth” do spread. Serendipitously, throughout the whole of this reading experience that was ‘Dreaming the Dark’, I was listening to Bach Cello Suites – serendipitous because the language, too, was as easy, free-flowing, going down like the darkest, smoothest syrup – while, in contrast, its consonants and edges ripped reading-muscles with their high graphic descriptions. This is Horror. No pretension to anything else. It just is. And it was almost as if I, the erstwhile horror writer, glimpsed something I’ve never glimpsed before – I have my own drawer in my brain I dare not pull out and look in, for fear of becoming what the words actually say (phonetically, graphologically, semantically and syntactically). (8 Apr 10 -another 3 hours later)
The Little Girl Eater by Septimus Dale
“It was dark and silent beneath the pier. Thin banks of concrete criss-crossed the sand, the upright girders were built solidly into these banks.”
More embeddings – and a man trapped (or literally locked) by the rising tide under the pier and afraid of drowning to the extent of considering cutting his throat with a rusty tin lid nearby. Apt for me, because I obtained this very book I’m reading in sight of a seaside pier. I now live too by a different seaside pier. I was born near yet another seaside pier. This is archetypal Pan Horror from my own memory of it in the early Sixties. It now reminds me of British black and white films from that era, like “The Taste of Honey”, or perhaps more aptly again, “Whistle Down The Wind” – where a more (to use that word again) archetypal Angel meets its own imagined version of Peter Hopkirk (extrapolating from earlier stories in this book)? And, incredibly, they sing together! (9 Apr 10)
Mr. Golden’s Haunt by Christina Kiplinger
“Mr. Golden swerved his car to miss hitting a tan and white cat that ran out into the street. Hearing a loud ‘meow’, the driver put his foot farther down on the gas.”
A poignant tale of a man growing old, put out to grass by his life-career of an employer, now to spend all his time with his wife… A couple similar to that ‘in “The True Spirit”. Mr. Golden has a mortality-malaise even to the extent of seeking out Death itself so as to get to know it better ahead of its due time of arrival. Mr. Golden’s own Angel? Or his Null Immortalis? I should know. (9 Apr 10 – four hours later)
The Stare by John Burke
“…absurdly afraid of that head moving at last, turning to stare at him…”
Another brief piece by this author, one that pushes all my fear buttons at once: staying in hospital overnight with goodness knows who else in the same ward. Done it, been there, got the T shirt. Yet here the fear is possibly even greater by dint of the implicitly or explicitly pervasive onlookers in such stories as ‘Mr Smyth’, ‘Acute Rehab’, ‘The True Spirit’, ‘Mr Golden’s Haunt’ … as if they are all now, forever, in dark synergy within the camera obscura of a single stare… (9 Apr 10 – another hour later)
The Children by Nicholas Royle
“There was no thunder or lightning, but the fat summer rain fell like a torrent of ball bearings.”
Having just empathised – from my own experience – with a stay in hospital, I now empathise – through literary osmosis – with a holiday abroad: sun-loungers, cocktail bars, kids’ rooms, swimming pools, hearty men high-fiving after a game of volleyball, rules and regulations packaged for increased ‘enjoyment’ and so on. It is even more frightful than the hospital stay! A Horror story simply from describing something people do for pleasure.
There is an element of Robert Aickman fiction here, too, and there can be no greater compliment if I say it matches up with some of his best stories. And I do. But it is also original with lumpiness set in contrast with sharp ambient electricity. Things about crows and parents with surrogate adoptees. An inscrutable ending that makes you believe you know exactly what has happened that only nightmares usually make you believe till you wake up. If you wake up.
There’s a ‘Spinalonga’ about this story, too. And a swordfish that is perhaps the key to pick the lock of inscrutability? Beautifully written, including one remarkable long sentence about sparrows whose acrobatic display is like the language used to describe it. (9 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)
The Moment of Death by Ken Alden
“Fegree took an envelope out of his case. ‘I know a couple who want children and they are prepared to adopt yours,’ he said as he held the envelope in front of Lanover.”
In dialogue and dialogue’s reported dialogue, this story seems to be something I didn’t think I had missed so far in my reading life until I knew I had missed it by dint of this striking treatment upon the trigger of death (its interconnecting tumblers falling one by one by one by one at a precise immeasurable moment) and upon the threat of premature burial, geared to the guillotine of testamentary evidence. Not ‘back from the dead’ so much as still alive…possibly like Mr. Golden greeting Death a split second before saying goodbye to it. (9 Apr 10 – another 3 hours later)
Perhaps, on reflection, what Null Immortalis has always been about before knowing its potentiality to be about anything at all! (9 Apr 10 – another 30 minutes later)
Caribbean Incident by Jane Louie
“From this, he determined the island was a shape of a bowl with the valley in the centre surrounded on all sides by high, pointed rocks.”
A quiet, almost nondescript story, but, subtly, with many busy implications of historic slavery caught in the fly-trap of the present, the act of God-making, a skeleton as icon of eternal renewal and faith: with another ‘moment of death’ crystallised as both promise of continued existence and threat of Man’s subjection to his own Null Immortalis. Man not locked by those beach-girders under the pier, but by his own bones.
On the surface, another island, another shipwreck story like ‘The Forgotten Island’, flocks of birds as in ‘The Children’…
“It was a natural cleft no wider than a cupboard and all three of them had to move crablike sideways to pass along it.” (9 Apr 10 – another hour later)
Man not ‘back from the dead’ so much as still alive … not locked by those beach-girders under the pier, but by his own bones.
Today (10 Apr 10), I have been out of sight of a computer but with some time to read and also to scribble things on paper. So, I have now read the last four stories of this anthology during the day and have written my reviews by hand in real-time after each one. I simply now need to type them out below…
The Waiting Game by Craig Herbertson
“Lots of skeletons in our cupboards and room for another few.”
I sense this is archetypal Pan Horror – in a vengeful Birkinite vein? Deadly Sins in varying measures, in varying people, leading to two of those people (a man and woman) being cruelly ‘locked’ together … waiting motionlessly in great suspense … with potentially excruciating results. I, too, dare not move for fear of again ripping the reading-muscles …. while there emerges a theme that has been personally dogging me in the last few days, where someone makes a show of writing a substantive work partly in self-delusion and partly in deluding others. I hasten to add this story itself was written, in part, about such a theme and is not an example of implementing that theme in real life! Enjoyed this story for what it was.
“He saw Catherine’s face again, dangling the key, spitting at him as she laughed.”
School Crossing by Francis King
“He had dropped the car keys and he had felt uncomfortably top-heavy as he had searched over the asphalt of the yard for them, the tips of his fingers grazing themselves…”
This is a very powerful story to drive. As a relatively aging man myself, I’ve got into it, turned (unlocked) its ignition (foreshadowing enormous thrust) and have been beset with visions of Nicholas Royle’s “children”, in an earlier story, now, here, as I drive towards a school crossing…
This is a truly memorable story of a mental breakdown within a family man via the vicissitudes of trying to be a good father, husband and (as his job) schoolmaster.
The story’s ending is even more powerful than the engine I drove towards it!
[Synchronously, another running theme in this story concerning the vicissitudes of cleaning one’s glasses seems to carry some of my memories of ‘Camera Obscura’.]
Sounds Familiar by Harry E. Turner
“…handed him a bunch of keys. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘take the car and drive like the wind…’ “
This is a darkly absurd gem that combines a brilliantly worded cornucopia of rare and off-the-wall foodstuffs … plus a dice with Death – implicitly, perhaps, conveying all Death’s earlier foreshadowings in this book.
The ending clicks into place with the same degree of neat surprise that archetypal Pan Horrors often provide – a surprise that you hadn’t predicted although, afterwards, you think you should have done. Not a dénouement so much as a dénastiment..
An Outing With H by Conrad Hill
” ‘The usual shit, old Alex,’ I reply as he low fives me.”
In interesting contrast, this is a blow-hard extravaganza where the powerful vehicle of this story becomes a wheelchair and its driver H. It is another insulated ‘island’ in itself (like ‘Dreaming the Dark’) but, positioned here at the end, it has more of a coda than a costa.
It drips with relentless narrative techniques like: “To my right, a horn sounds, deep and bloated like a rich man’s fart.” It again flows like one of those Bach Cello Suites – with cutting blades instead of feathers or flags on its crotchets or quavers.
It disables any political correctness with each swipe – and it pockets all modern-day keyholes that are left to pick.
This is credit crunch prose supreme.
Sends me away with a smirk and a cruel snicker. H is another Miltonic Lucifer figure. Meanwhile, “I often suspect that I’m the only normal person left in this warped town.”
This book is evenly spread with oddities.
Every equation ends incorrect. No theorem can unlock them.
The stories blend and unblend even as you strain your muscles to keep watch on their even lines of eye-print. At one moment Pan-traditional with dénastiments, the next avant-garde with bad manners. This book reminds me of human existence facing out its own cruelties just as existentialists once faced out their sense of absurdity. I hope I have conveyed my enjoyment of this anthology with some degree of correctness within the marginal tolerances of an ever constricting societal intolerance for what us rogue medians can actually write about…or read.
I shall now read for the first time the non-fiction in this book:
Foreword – Shaun Hutson
‘The Influence of Pan’ by David A. Sutton
All the notes at the head of each story.
Johnny Mains’ ‘Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares’ (a biography of Herbert Van Thal).
The Author Biographies at the end of the book.
I will not be back here to tell you what I thought about them.