– Reviewed by Terry Melia –
Back in the 1970s, low income limited my book purchasing to second hand novels in charity shops. Skimming through the shelves of paperback best sellers – Sven Hassel, Alistair Maclean, Dick Francis etc – I’d hit gold pay-dirt with a copy of The Pan Book of Horror Stories – introducing me to some of the best short story writing by established and new writers. Stories of the uncanny jostled with tales of the macabre and quite a few of them gave me nightmares.
Fast forward to the present day when I was offered a chance to review This Dreaming Isle – a collection of seventeen new horror and weird short stories, published by Unsung Stories, edited by Dan Coxon.
As it says on the tin –
‘…Something strange is happening on British shores…’
Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, these stories deal with with folklore, myths, the strange and peculiar, all sharing a distinctive British flavour. For brevity, I’ll focus on the stories which I found the most compelling from each of the three sections; Country, City, and Coast.
‘The Pier at Ardentinny’ by Catriona Ward
Irene is visiting her elder fiancé’s family in Scotland for the first time. The ominous tone of the opening lines sets the mood of growing horror –
‘… It may send me mad. The lights in the cupboard will not turn off. Light bleeds through the cracks, creating a glowing doorway in the dark.’
The climax to this creepy, mythical tale tightens like a noose and is breathtakingly satisfying.
‘Old Trash’ by Jenn Ashworth
My favourite, as I can relate to the parent/troubled teenager attempt at bonding. Rachael takes her reluctant daughter Mae on a camping trip to a secluded, unofficial site near Pendle. The journey includes a bus ride on the ‘Witch-Hopper’ service which drops them a mile from an old reservoir where they’d planned to camp.
Mum has good intentions in that the seclusion will prevent her daughter using her mobile phone to contact an unsuitable boyfriend. During an awkward meal at a village pub, a local warns them to beware of ‘Old Trash’;
‘…You’ll want to be careful going back… No street lamps on the lane. You’ve not seen proper dark till you’ve been out here at night…’
Back at the campsite, a growing sense of seclusion and isolation from the outside world builds to a shocking climax. As a film-noir narrator might say, Not only the night was dark…
‘Not All Right’ by James Miller
The narrator is almost cartoon-like in his unsociable thoughts and behaviours. Lazy, ignorant, racist, sexist and an Internet Troll to boot. Staying in his rich uncle’s London flat, he’s meant to be job hunting. Instead, he spends his time baiting Twitter uses that he has never met. We know where his values lie.
‘…My account, @IncarceratedEarth has a verified blue tick and 57,000 followers. And my mum thinks I’m doing nothing with my life.’
On receiving an anonymous tweet, this life soon flips to a satisfying climax of paranoiac horror.
Despite a lack of empathy with the narrator I shared this sense of dread – skilfully drawn in to the paranoia;
‘…I ride the lift up. Feeling weak, dizzy. The noise is back again, more than ever, like a steady sort of drumming. It’s in the walls, it’s in the floors, it’s in the lift itself…’
‘The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand’ by Robert Shearman
This surreal, Kafkaesque tale made me laugh as much as it unnerved me. A cocky male escort arrives for a new assignment in opulent Kensington. Instead of the usual, he’s instructed by an old woman to lie naked – wearing only alcohol rub on his bare arse – al-rug on the floor in between a live bear on one side and a tiger on the other, whilst a long series of cocktail parties occur;
‘…I’m not going to pretend there won’t be a little pain…but accidents will happen…people get clumsy when they are drunk. It is imperative when they step on you that you do not cry out. It would destroy the illusion…’
This is a tale taller than an old fashioned policeman. With his hat on. Sitting on a horse.
‘Lodestones’ by Richard V. Hirst
An office worker – running late – gets a lift from a colleague into their Manchester office. En-route, the driver says he knows a shortcut. Instead of getting to work, the City is transformed and the landscape becomes an omen-laden wasteland. This prompted me to think of the fine introduction to the anthology by Dan Coxon where he mentions a Brexit Britain on the brink of change –
‘… I’m reminded of a ride at Alton Towers called the Black Hole… plummeting down into the darkness at such speeds that my stomach felt as if it was rising in my throat. That sensation of blind, rudderless freefall scared the shit out of me then – much as it does now.’
‘The Knucker’ by Gareth E. Rees
This tale reads like a Lateral Thinking quiz with three intertwining points of view, each concerning a police investigation into the death of a cyclist and a car theft. The plotlines are linked via parallel universes. The switching viewpoints between realism and myth are as deftly handled as a master magician performing a card trick and I could easily have carried on reading this tale in one sitting had it been 800 rather than 8 pages long.
My only criticism for each of the tales is that they were too short. They were that good that I wanted more…
Whether you read these tales in the city, countryside, or by the coast, you will be left a little less comfortable than you were before. Like the Pan Book of Horror Stories, I’m certain this finely edited paperback will become a cult classic.
This Dreaming Isle – solid gold pay-dirt.
This Dreaming Isle has been shortlisted for best anthology in the Shirley Jackson Award 2019.