Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.

 

Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.

 

And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.

 

Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorably are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.

 

Norwich becomes an international City of Literature… Back of the net!

 

A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature.  This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.

 

I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels.  Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge.  Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.

 

I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09.  (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.)  Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in.  I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004.  Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future?  Tunis?  Sapporo?  Newcastle?  Pyongyang?  Peebles?

 

Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA.  McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’.  Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective.  While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.

 

But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there.  The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.

 

 

 

And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally.  While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre.  The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.

 

Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square.  And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.

 

I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars.  The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.

 

 

Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA.  Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray.  And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter.  How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”

 

Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now.  His department was next door to the one I studied in.  In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself.  But alas, she didn’t.

 

Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers…  Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham.  Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham.  And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.

 

Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich.  Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005.  Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.

 

So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision.  And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.

 

Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube.  Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbB5YVpHUnw