Welcome to Spooktastic Reads! I’m kicking off 13 days of celebrating the darker side of fantasy with a return to Bite-size Reads, my 2022 challenge to read (some of) the amazing anthologies on my shelves. Having trotted the globe with Chinese SF and African horror, for Spooktastic Reads I’m staying on home shores with some uncanny British tales.
This Dreaming Isle is an anthology of British talent invited to contribute haunting or unnerving tales rooted in the island’s geography, history, and folklore. I backed the Kickstarter, so I’ve been sat on the very handsome hardback for some time; Spooktastic Reads seemed the perfect occasion to get stuck in at last. The anthology is grouped in geographic categories – country, city, coast – but the stories themselves vary in style, subject and location. The result is the sort of anthology where you think ‘just one more story before bed’ rather than ‘eh, getting a bit samey’.
That said, having had a similar reaction to some of the stories of African Monsters, I do question whether I’m the right reader for short-form horror as I much prefer scares with layers and arcs. The first few stories left me wishing they had more space to breathe – novellas, perhaps, rather than short stories. This is very subjective though – the stories remain excellent as they are. Let’s take a look at the first section: tales from the Country.
The Pier At Ardentinny – Catriona Ward
Beautiful, manipulative Irene is marrying an older Scot for his money and kindness. His mother’s remote house lies by a loch whose water is said to reveal people’s true nature, but Irene has too many secrets to hide to flirt with folklore. This opening story is painfully simple yet beautifully written, with an ending that turned my sympathies on their head. Satisfyingly dark, although I found the second half felt a wee bit rushed.
Old Trash – Jenn Ashworth
Rachael has taken her teenage daughter Mae camping on Pendle Hill in search of some quality time off-grid to relieve the strains of an increasingly fractious relationship. When the local’s barmaid regales them with tales of a demon dog that haunts the wood, Mae is determined to catch a glimpse. The set-up is classic and I loved the way Ashworth depicts the tangle of Rachael’s emotions – by turns protective, frustrated, angry at her wayward progeny – but the bleak ending left me gutted.
Content warning: mention of grooming, statutory rape
In My Father’s House – Andrew Michael Hurley
It’s father/son relationships under the spotlight this time, as a grown man is pushing to reconnect with his estranged father when his health fails. Like Old Trash, there’s a lot of dark, difficult emotions packed into this story as the son grapples with his lack of interest in building bridges and his lack of conviction that he’ll feel guilty about it later; contrasted with his desire to do right by his own young son. Brilliantly written, but a sudden left-turn into untelegraphed supernatural territory in the final paragraphs didn’t work for me at all. I like a bit more of an arc on my weird; and I hate crash stop endings.
Land Of Many Seasons – Tim Lebbon
One of my favourites of the week, Lebbon gives us a lonely painter who pours his soul into his disturbing landscapes. When he paints a figure he can’t see into his view, he doesn’t know what to make of it until a new acquaintance offers a haunting theory. I loved the way this story builds through the cycle of seasons and the development of its lore; I didn’t love the ambiguous ending although I appreciate that what happens next is everything or nothing, so best to leave it to the reader’s imagination.
Dark Shells – Aliya Whiteley
I tend to admire Whiteley’s work rather than enjoy it, but I loved this melancholy tale. An old woman meanders through moments in time, evading the villagers who would rather she stayed in the care home and spinning tales true and false for her only visitor. I wasn’t sure whether she had dementia or was simply disconnecting from a world that she’s preparing to leave, but I loved her connection to the river. The supernatural creeps in abruptly at the very end, but I didn’t mind here – it adds colour rather than being a key plot point.
Cold Ashton – Stephen Volk
A writer stumbles on an unpleasant account of witchcraft when they research the roots of a rural town’s name. This is all about the pay off, transforming a predictably awful history into a dark tale that has the ring of local folklore I grew up devouring. Possibly my favourite story of the week, in spite of the laboured faux-historical narration.
Domestic Magic – Kirsty Logan
Kirsty Logan gives us a glimpse of a lesbian couple discovering unnerving items hidden around the house they have just inherited. The rumours about Al’s gran take on new life as they begin to wonder exactly who the other woman she displaced was – and what happened to her. A haunting or a murder? It’s hard to say in this tale of love and hate and kelpies. Excellent in every way.
It’s been an outstanding first week; each story just the right length to tempt me to read another. If I haven’t always loved the endings, I’m delighting in the prose – I’d love to read more by any and all of these authors. I’m very excited to journey to the City and then around the Coast to complete the collection – look out for my thoughts on those stories next week.