Tales from the Shadow Booth Vol.4 edited by Dan Coxon

–Reviewed by Terry Melia–

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed previous volumes of Tales from the Shadow Booth, all edited by Dan Coxon, and was delighted to receive a copy of Vol. 4. Looking forward for the feast to begin, my appetite was immense.

Coxon opens the tales with his usual teaser that draws you into the eerie and spooky other world of his Shadow Booth. The appetiser was as tasteful as previous volumes, with a young boy – Peter – drawn to what looks like a Punch and Judy stand:

“…Ignoring the water licking cold about his ankles, he squints to read the crimson scrawl on the plank propped against it. Enter the Shadow Booth, it says, and you will never be the same again.”

I began my first read of the main course prior to the UK isolation lockdown to mitigate the spread of Covid 19 virus.

During the reading, unprecedented closures of schools, pubs, clubs and public gathering places made it feel, for me, that the real world had flipped into a fictitious scenario…

Back to the review. Would the five-star quality of previous editions be maintained?

A single theme emerges from all 14 stories in this collection; DANGER LURKS NEARBY. No-one is safe from a larger evil that is coming to get you. As might be expected, some of the stories stood out stronger than others. For brevity, I’ll focus on those I felt most compelling and in the order that I read them.

The Devil of Timanfaya’ by Lucie McKnight Hardy is a strong opener and gave me a real spine tingle as the tension mounted. (Clue – there’s a spoiler in the title of this tale). Tessa, husband Alistair – who looks like David Cameron – and their children, Harry and Amelia begin a holiday break in Lanzarote that starts off poorly and descends into a dark, demonic nightmare as Tessa’s mental health problems intensify. The first few paragraphs set the ominous tone:

“… she had seen the island from above: the inhospitable terrain, barren, and clinging to the coast the relentless black sand…”

The Tribute’ by James Machin is another tale set during a holiday. A man recalls a hazy series of events during a family holiday in France when he was seven or eight years old. Amongst the family members is an imaginary someone:

“…It was incredibly hot, high summer in the south of France, and we – that is: me, my elder sister, my parents and her…”

This brief tale reveals itself in a sudden weird and nasty climax that made me check all windows and doors were locked tight.

The Salt Marsh Lambs’ by Jane Roberts is a familiar tale based around the premise of DO NOT ignore advice from the locals. A middle-class couple “from one of the Cities” buy an expansive area of marshland:

“…With dreams of supplying restaurant chains with salt marsh lamb meat at a pretty price…”

Of course, the couple ignore an elderly shepherd’s advice:

“…It’s a stagnant place. You wunna be wanting to go down there…”

Despite their obvious failings, I felt a real empathy for the couple as their fate is revealed. Jane writes with a tremendous visual style with evocative imagery in the smallest details.

As the couple meander into the stagnant place:

“…The shepherd looks on from the top of the quarry. Static, apart from the occasional movement of his arm to his face. Another drag on a filthy roll-up…”

Beware the moors.

You Are Not In Kettering Now’ by Andrew McDonnell is another stab at middle-class foolishness. A head teacher thinks she can move on from a mysterious burden from her past by buying a fisherman’s cottage in France, but finds that the past is always with you.

Andrew’s eloquence with minor details is outstanding:

“…You wonder how it is, holed up here on this little island, that your memories can come so vividly, play out like film… Faceless shop staff, hints of features, hints of hair colour, hints of the aural, self-checkouts asking how many bags you have; bass hums of air-conditioning units in civic buildings; the clunk of a gear change in a Citroen Picasso…”

The Larpins’ by Charles Wilkinson. Pierre is a lapsed Buddhist monk who is staying in his sister’s countryside home whilst she is on holiday. The Larpins are local youths whose behaviour worsens as the summer weeks roll by. This is another fish out of water tale where Pierre ignores the evidence of the real danger that he is in. I felt a ping of guilt as I anticipated how and when the inevitable fate would catch up with him. Pausing the read, I googled Buddhism and ticked off the five moral precepts rules that frame the religion, which are broken one by one by these Larpins – rotters that make the Bash St kids look like angels.

Finally, ‘Defensive Wounds’ by James Everington was my pick of the tales. Six teenage girls are in a remote Peak District cottage ostensibly to support a friend recovering from cancer. The tale rapidly turns into a slasher movie when, you’ve guessed it, a random axe wielding maniac raids the cottage. This is a truly weird and nasty tale that has a brilliant twist that I never saw coming. The descent into madness is masterful. On the cancer sufferer Gracie:

“…When she’d been diagnosed I remember people had said Gracie is a fighter and all I could think watching her then was, fucking hell, she is. Her body was skinny and stretched over her bones from the treatments but she was like a fucking cornered rat in her determination to hurt him before he could do so to us…”

And so to the verdict… Does vol 4 match up to previous versions? A resounding yes from me. 5 well deserved stars from this satisfied customer albeit with the following well-intentioned caveat; during these horrible times with a global pandemic sweeping the world like a prelude to Stephen King’s The Stand, I found reading a collection of fictional horror stories somewhat light relief from real-life daily news.

Find out more about Tales from the Shadow Booth Vol.4 on the Shadow Booth website.

Reviewed by Terry Melia — Terry is the author of Tales from the Greenhills which has recently been produced as an audio-book. His day job is in IT. A voracious reader and frequent gamer, Terry is currently working on Greenhills part 2 and 3. Come and say hello on Twitter: @FromGreenhills