By now the three of you know that if I am anywhere near a secondhand bookshop or bookstall of any description I can’t resist a rummage. This has been the case all my life. When I was a callow fifteen-year-old, for example, I picked up, from some school fête or another, a paperback of William Hope Hodgson’s mossy tale The House On The Borderland. I never got round to reading it and in due course gave it away.
Five years later I was at university and was, as so often in those carefree days, keeping the company of one or other of the rather fearsome-looking leather-clad bikers who then formed the bulk of my social circle (I was on the committee of the Heavy Metal society – get over it.) Perusing my friend’s shelves, stacked as they were with pulpy grimoires, I came across Hodgson’s over-wrought exegesis about what happens to an elderly couple that lives in a castle in a remote part of Ireland that just happens to have been built over a fissure into Tartarus. I explained to my friend that I’d had a copy when I was fifteen but hadn’t read it.
“Just as well,” my friend explained. “Had you done so it’d've scared you shitless.” I asked whether I might borrow his copy. He consented. So I read it. And it scared me shitless.
I think I can safely say the same of some of the stories in The Best British Fantasy 2013, edited by Steve Haynes, and published by Salt Publishing, which company gets a star for being impudent enough to exist outside London, and several more by proudly advertising that it is based in Cromer, yea, just a few doors down from me, the same locale wherein is set, by complete coincidence, my own
shameless plug novel of horrific bizarrerie.
Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, The Best British etc. contains seventeen tales of the fantastic from authors, some of which might be vaguely familiar to cognoscenti, but most probably won’t. For example, I know of Lavie Tidhar‘s tales from reading Interzone, and I met Steph Swainston at a conference and have a copy of her book The Year Of Our War. The existence of all the other fifteen authors I had hitherto been completely unaware, as I am now, mostly, of that strange black shape in the corner of my study that disappears as soon as I turn to look at it directly.
Fantasy is a very broad
crypt church. In his introduction, however, Haynes says that were one to scour the pages of The Beast Best British etc. for stories of chaste vampires, shirtless teenage werewolves, boy wizards, or elves engaged on millennial quests, one should seek in vain. Neither, as I found, would one find any examples of that subgenre, made modish by Neil Gaiman or China Miéville, known as Urban Fantasy. This doesn’t mean that the content of The Best Brutish British etc. isn’t varied, or even piebald, because it is. There is straight fantasy. There is even what one would ordinarily class as SF. But perhaps the best stories are those that slide helplessly down the ravening maw of ghost stories and horror.
What unites them all, however, is atmosphere. As the great master of schlock himself, H. P. Lovecraft, wrote (during a lucid interval) in his luminous essay on the supernatural in fiction, the conjuration of atmosphere is the most important task of any author intent on the composition of this sort of work. One can be balls-out monstrous and expose every shuddersome tentacle, as Lovecraft did himself; or one can sketch in the scary details in half-glimpsed cracks in ordinary life, as did authors such as that retiring antiquarian M. R. James. Either way, there must be atmosphere to give shape to the illimitable darkness of the cyclopean voids without.
The most traditional way of creating atmosphere is to start a story in a setting that is conventional, even banal, and drop tiny hints, as breadcrumbs leading into a darkened wood, that all is far from well in the world. The stories that are the very best of The Best etc. work in this timeworn way. My favourites were Qiqirn by Simon Kurt Unsworth – a straight tale of a haunting – and Dermot by Simon Bestwick, about the creepiest of police informants. I read the first on a train rattling through the lonely wastes of East Anglia at evening – funny how one can always remember where one was at moments such as this. The second I read in bed, late at night, and was tempted to leave the lights on slightly longer than usual.
But that’s not to devalue any of the others, from Kim Lakin-Smith’s The Island of Peter Pandora – an unholy miscegenation of Peter Pan and Frankenstein – to Lavie Tidhar’s The Last Osama – a political satire that’s a send-up of the Old West.
But my favourite is the rueful, the elegiac, the laugh-out-loud funny of Joseph D’Lacey‘s Armageddon Fish Pie, which does exactly what it says on the tin.