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.

 

Days of Godzilla past

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Lately, I found myself on a Qatar Airlines flight – tired, practically brain-dead, but with a neat little inflight entertainment audio / video system installed in the seat-back in front of me.  It seemed a good time to search the system’s cache of recent movie releases and select a couple of big dumb blockbusters that’d pass the time and not tax my weary mind unduly.  I ended up watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, the second prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men movies that appeared between 2000 and 2006 and were based on the Marvel comics; and this year’s remake of Godzilla.  Here’s what I thought of them.

 

When I heard in 2011 that they were filming a first prequel to the X-Men trilogy, entitled X-Men: First Class, set in the 1960s and featuring Scotsman James McAvoy and Irishman Michael Fassbender in the roles of the saintly Professor Xavier and the villainous Magneto (who’d been played in the original series by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen), I was apprehensive.  I had bad memories of the last time there’d been a prequel to a successful science-fiction movie trilogy starring a Scotsman and an Irishman.  Yes, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m looking at you.

 

In fact, I didn’t think X-Men: First Class was bad – it was just slightly disappointing that its story was told in such broad brushstrokes.  Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a cast that includes McAvoy and Fassbender and Stewart and McKellen.  You see, while most of it is set in 1973, part of it is set in a grim war-torn future, which means we get to see the young non-wrinkly Xavier and Magneto in the 1973 bits and their old wrinkly versions in the future bits.

 

Actually, watching this movie was weird for me because it was around 1973 that I started reading Marvel’s X-Men comic.  In the 1970s comic I remember Professor Xavier already being old, bald and confined to a wheelchair – i.e. he already looked like Patrick Stewart.  He certainly didn’t look young and funky like James MacAvoy in Future Past.  Meanwhile, the comic’s themes of ostracism, exclusion and racism, in a world where humanity co-exists uneasily with mutants who’ve developed superhuman powers, went completely over my juvenile head.

 

The movie starts in the future, with a surviving band of mutant superheroes, including Xavier and Magneto in their Stewart and McKellen incarnations (obliged yet again to join forces), making a final stand against an onslaught of destructive super-robots called Sentinels that’ve been programmed to wipe out mutant life-forms.  Indeed, in this apocalyptic future-world, the robots seemed to have done a good job of wiping out ordinary human beings too.  Desperately, Xavier and Magneto send the soul of the spike-fisted and eternally-youthful Wolverine, played as usual by Hugh Jackman, back in time to 1973.  There, in the body of his earlier self, he’ll try to prevent the incident that causes the creation of the Sentinels and begins the chain of events leading to the future war.

 

Yes, James Cameron ought to have sued the filmmakers for nicking his future-war / time-travel ideas from The Terminator movies.  Then again, Cameron himself was sued by the writer Harlan Ellison, who accused him of nicking his ideas from episodes he’d written for the old Outer Limits TV series.  So who knows where this scenario originally comes from?

 

Once Wolverine is back in 1973 (or in an exaggerated movie version of it, rife with wide lapels, shoulder-length hair, discotheques, mirror-balls, Vietnam Wars and crooked-looking US presidents), he goes off to enlist the help of the James-MacAvoy-version Xavier and Michael-Fassbender-version Magneto.  This isn’t easy, since (1) Xavier / MacAvoy has become a disillusioned junkie and (2) Magneto / Fassbender has been captured and imprisoned in a concrete cell many floors below the Pentagon.  To spring Magneto from his Pentagon cell, Wolverine assembles a mutant team consisting of the reluctant Xavier, the hairy but brainy Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a nonchalant teenager in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the power to move faster than lightning.  And it’s here that the movie enjoys its best stretch.

 

The scenes where the superfast Quicksilver sprints through the Pentagon while bodies, bullets, flying knives and tumbling furniture drift through the air around him in eerie slow-motion are stunning.  Though if everything else is moving so slowly, I can’t figure out why his personal stereo (surely an anachronism in 1973 anyway) continues to play Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle at normal speed.

 

With Magneto free, Quicksilver disappears from the movie (alas) and the other characters jet off to Paris, where a Vietnam peace summit is about to begin and where the crucial event that’ll lead to the future war is about to happen.  Mystique, the saucy blue-skinned shape-shifting mutant played by Rebecca Romijin in the original trilogy and by Jennifer Lawrence in the prequels, is due to gun down a scientist / business mogul called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who’s designed the blueprints for the Sentinels.  Horrified by Trask’s murder, which it interprets as an act of mutant terrorism, the US government will go ahead with Trask’s plans and start manufacturing the Sentinels.

 

Well, Wolverine and co. manage to stop Mystique from doing the deed but – surprise! – back in the future, nothing changes.  Those pesky Sentinels are still there, besieging the fortress where the pension-age Xavier and Magneto are holed up.  The Beast helpfully explains that although you can go back in time and change one event, the overall flow of time may continue in the same direction.  To emphasise the Beast’s theory, the filmmakers show a famous episode of Star Trek based on the same idea, The City on the Edge of Forever, playing on a TV in the background while he’s speaking.  (Curiously, that episode was written by Harlan Ellison too.)

 

What follows, with the government and the still-alive Trask going ahead with the Sentinels’ production, Xavier and Wolverine trying to stop them and the Fassbender-version Magneto deciding, as usual, to jump ship and do his own nefarious thing, is a tad mechanical.  However, the likeability of both the characters and the actors manage to hold one’s interest.  There’s even a moment where, thanks to some mind-transfer jiggery-pokery, the young and old Xaviers are able to communicate across time.  Actually, it’s the young and old Magnetos who really need to hold a conference – so that McKellen can tell Fassbender to stop being a dick, get mucked in and help the others.

 

There’s fun in seeing the retro-looking but unfeasible Sentinels – far beyond the capability of 2014’s technology, let alone 1973’s – being unveiled on the lawn of Richard Nixon’s White House.  If you’ve seen the other X-Men movies, though, it’s best not to think about them too much because there’s a morass of continuity problems.  For instance, I can’t figure out how Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is still alive during the future war, since we saw him vaporised in the third movie, X-Men: Last Stand.  (It was suggested at that movie’s end that he’d transferred his soul into another man’s body, but surely his new body wouldn’t look like Patrick Stewart.)

 

Future Past also has a moment where an X-shaped beam of white light, with blue edges, is projected onto James McAvoy’s face.  The light resembles a Scottish Saltire and the actor had expressed concern about how stills of this might be used before the Scottish independence referendum.  “There’s an image of me…” he groused, “with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like, ‘Oh please, don’t use that for the f**king Yes campaign.”  Well, just for you, James, here’s that image with the Saltire on your fizzog.  Vote yes!  (Next time.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

In 2010, Gareth Edwards directed the low-budget British science-fiction movie Monsters, which was one of the most unexpected cinematic pleasures of recent years.  It’s a ruminative piece wherein two people are forced to traverse an abandoned central-American wilderness that a returning space-probe has inadvertently contaminated with alien life-forms.  In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about the weird creatures shimmering through the jungles around them.

 

I had mixed feelings when I heard that Edwards had departed for Hollywood to helm a big-budget remake of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese movie that made its titular character, a giant, scaly city-demolishing monster, an icon of popular culture.  I thought it a shame that Edwards couldn’t continue to work in the UK, making small, personal and no doubt interesting movies.  On the other hand, if someone had to make a new version of Godzilla, it might as well be him.

 

The 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a gloomy parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb – nine years before Godzilla flattened Tokyo, the Japanese had seen that bomb flatten two more of their cities.  But subsequent Godzilla movies lightened up.  Godzilla became Japan’s unofficial champion, battling against other, nastier monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah whilst wrecking more Japanese cities in the process.  Edwards’ remake tries to have it both ways.  It wants to replicate the sombre tone of the original, but also to have some monstrous adversaries for Godzilla to fight against and more cities – Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco – to level.

 

The film starts with two giant parasitic creatures called MUTOs being found, in larval form, in the fossilised remains of a vast creature that clearly belongs to the same species as Godzilla.  Years later, the MUTOs emerge from their chrysalises, one of which has ended up in Japan and the other has been transported to the USA, and start destroying everything in their paths.  They aim to meet up, breed and unleash hordes of new MUTOs on humanity.  Then, however, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific.  He’s a last survivor of an age when such gargantuan creatures overran the earth and, occupying the top of the food-chain, he’s programmed to hunt down, fight and destroy those MUTOs.

 

The movie’s best scenes are those where Edwards’ talents are most on display.  An early sequence set in a Japanese city that’s been long abandoned, Chernobyl-like, due to a supposed accident at a nearby nuclear power station – the disaster was actually caused by the arrival of one of the MUTOs, which feed on nuclear energy – evokes the strange, crumbling wilderness of Monsters.  There are memorable images later too, such as one involving a burning train and one where a group of marines jump out of a plane and skydive, trailing coloured streams of smoke, into a giant grey cloud of ash and dust below – the cloud marks the spot where Godzilla is slugging it out with the two MUTOs in the middle of San Francisco.

 

Unfortunately, the film is undone by its disjointed plot.  We have to rely on David Strathairn’s American admiral, whose warships are monitoring the Pacific, to find out what’s going on.  He shouts stuff like, “A MUTO has been spotted here!” and “Godzilla has been sighted heading there!”  And it doesn’t help that the film’s most interesting characters, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, disappear early on, leaving the less engaging Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the main focus.  Taylor-Johnson’s character displays an unlikely knack for surviving deadly situations.  I counted four seriously life-threatening predicaments that he manages to escape from during the film.  In two of them, he’s the only survivor while everyone else dies.

 

Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s supporting characters, a scientist (who again exists mainly to shout bits of plot exposition), is played by the English actress Sally Hawkins.  She’s best-known for playing the lead character in Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy-drama movie Happy-Go-Lucky.  Maybe she could persuade Mike Leigh to direct the sequel to Godzilla.  I’d like to see how Leigh’s celebrated improvisational techniques would work with performers like Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G. himself.

 

Anyway, to sum up.  X-Men: Days of Future Past — 7.5 out of 10.  Godzilla — 6 out of 10.

 

(c) Warner Brothers / Toho