WHEN THINGS GET DARK edited by Ellen Datlow

A themed anthology can sometimes be a tricky thing, often the curate’s egg of the literary world. On one hand you might get stories that act almost as a pastiche of the source theme, either tonally or in prose style or even by utilising aspects of the work that first inspired it. On the other hand you may find instead that you get completely original tales that – on first appearance – seem almost unrelated to the theme, but which absolutely work as stand-alone tales, with subtle tonal cues which tie them to the inspirational source. I’m pleased to say that the contents of When Things Get Dark are wholly from the latter category.

Some horror themes seem rather more straightforward than others – HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe spring to mind, both genre giants whose work has inspired anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow – but the fiction of Shirley Jackson is a little more difficult to define, so editor extraordinaire Datlow has done a wonderful job of putting together eighteen new stories from some of the best writers working today.

Shirley Jackson, author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, and an array of celebrated short stories such as The Lottery, The Missing Girl, The Possibility of Evil and The Summer People, wrote quiet, subtle prose, sometimes insidiously unsettling, very often incredibly dark. As Datlow says in her very engaging introduction, “Her stories, mostly taking place in mid-twentieth-century America, are filled with hauntings, dysfunctional families and domestic pain; simmering rage, loneliness, suspicion of outsiders; sibling rivalry and women trapped psychologically and/or by the supernatural. They explore the dark undercurrent of suburban life during that time period.” Taking into account those points, the new stories in this anthology work beautifully in celebrating the enduring power of Shirley Jackson’s fiction.

When Things Get Dark is a wonderful anthology. As with any collection of short stories, personal choice means that readers will find something in the odd story that appeals more to them individually, but the quality across the board is incredibly high. My favourites happened to be the contributions from Kelly Link, Richard Kadrey, Paul Tremblay, M Rickert, Josh Malerman, Elizabeth Hand, and Laird Barron, but it feels churlish to single these out as there genuinely isn’t a poor story in the book. I fully expect to see many of these stories appearing in next year’s annual Best Ofs and making the shortlists of genre awards, such is the high quality of tales. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this anthology, and it’s one that has inspired me to embark on a reread of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, so I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

APRIL IN SPAIN by John Banville

John Banville is an award winning author of literary fiction, one with an impeccable writing career spanning more than half a century. Since 2006, under the pen-name Benjamin Black, he has published a series of crime novels featuring the forensic pathologist Quirke, set in 1950s Dublin. Quirke is a fascinatingly flawed character, with a weakness for the ladies and a fondness for the bottle. So far there have been seven titles in the series.

In 2020 John Banville published Snow, featuring Detective Inspector Strafford, also in the same time setting and location of the Quirke novels. I really enjoyed that novel, and April in Spain, the latest offering from Banville, has been advertised variously as both a Quirke novel and a Strafford one.

Quirke and Strafford couldn’t be more different. Where Quirke is flawed and self-destructive, Strafford is scholarly and determined. The first half of April in Spain details a holiday in San Sebastian in which Quirke and his wife, Evelyn, come across a young Irish woman who looks remarkably like a friend of his daughter’s who disappeared four years previously, presumed dead. This touches on a previous novel in the Quirke series called Elegy for April (which I hadn’t read) and this current book acts almost as a sequel. But be warned – there are many spoilers for that novel, so your enjoyment will be much stronger if you’re familiar with the events of Elegy for April.

April in Spain isn’t so much a whodunnit as a why-and-howdunnit. As ever with Banville/Black’s novels, the quality of writing is superb. It is extremely readable, and even if the plot risks disappointing readers seeking out a traditional murder mystery, for those wanting an intelligent literary crime novel it definitely delivers. Strafford makes an all-too brief appearance, but it’s a crucial and dramatic one. There’s a memorable psychopath called Terry whose presence calls to mind Pinkie from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but where the novel really excels is in its first half where we spend time with Quirke and Evelyn, and see at first hand their realistically complex marriage. The novel’s historical aspects feel authentic and there’s a nice contrast between sunny Spain and the events taking place in rainy, windswept Dublin.

It’s almost as if, in writing Snow, John Banville was wanting to cast off his pseudonym Benjamin Black and write a literary crime novel under his own name. And he managed that with a great deal of success. I loved Snow, and felt the pacing was perfect, masterfully balancing the mystery aspects of the traditional detective story with that of a literary novel. April in Spain seems less finely blended, with the first half appearing more literary and the second half more fast-paced and plot-driven. And yet it still works. I had a great time reading it, even if it doesn’t quite come across as accomplished as the first Strafford novel. However I still have no problem recommending it, and I look forward greatly to reading more books in the series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

BEST NEW HORROR edited by Stephen Jones

For as long as I can remember, at any given time in my life, I’ve been reading a book. I first discovered a love of reading when I was around ten years old, with the Three Investigators book series from my local library. I grew up in a working-class home in a mining village in South Yorkshire, and books were simply a luxury we could not afford. Plus, my parents weren’t book readers. So our local library was a haven of exploration to me. The kids’ section was well-stocked and I spent hours in there as a child, browsing the shelves, marvelling at the titles, all of which offered exciting escapes and promised adventure and thrills. The library was my home from home. I can still remember the smell of ink from the librarian’s date stamp and the odour of rubber linoleum where the sun poured through the expansive glass sunlight and warmed the floor.

From The Three Investigators I gravitated – through association to the character of Alfred Hitchcock, who featured in the series – to the Hitchcock anthologies that were pitched as kids’ books, but contained an array of talent from the golden age of crime, dark fantasy and horror. Featured in these pages were authors like Ray Bradbury, Joan Aiken, Robert Bloch, F Marion Crawford, Ambrose Bierce, August Derleth, Algernon Blackwood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Arthur, Richard Matheson, Basil Copper, Fritz Leiber, John Wyndham, Roald Dahl, Patricia Highsmith, MR James, Shirley Jackson and Avram Davidson, so from an early age I was being exposed to some of the masters of the genre (although at the time I was unaware of quite how big a deal they were). Together with the Sherlock Holmes stories, they formed the cornerstone of my love for the short form.

So I had a book with me constantly. Around that time, my grandmother took me to a jumble sale and, having noticed my interest in the books on the table, purchased some cheap titles for me to begin my own collection. I remember there was an Agatha Christie Miss Marple short story collection (and a couple of her murder mystery novels), a handful of the Pan Book of Horror Stories with their lurid covers, and a couple of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories edited by Robert Aickman. This was exactly what I craved.

I have never looked back.

I read for pleasure in my spare time. I kept a current book next to my bed and would dip into each night before sleep. As I got older I began to experiment with reading two books at the same time – admittedly I’d chose two very different themes or genres – so I could read in bed and also enjoy a different title downstairs during the day.

However I still found it difficult to seek out the range of books I wanted to read. As I grew older I was allowed to borrow titles from the adult section of the library, but, frustratingly, my first love – the short story – wasn’t quite as abundant as the novel. When I started work in Sheffield I was delighted to find a WHSmith, which did stock a decent array of horror titles, and it was there one day that I came across a book called Best New Horror edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell.

I’d heard of Ramsey Campbell (having owned a couple of his novels) and recognised a few of the authors whose work was contained within its pages – as well as Ramsey Campbell there was Nicholas Royle whose name I recognised from Fear magazine, and Robert Westall who had written The Machine Gunners and a couple of other books I’d borrowed from the library) so I handed over my money and took it home.

At that time I was unaware of the actual format of the book – that the short stories had been selected by the editors from their original publication sources the previous year – but I hadn’t come across any of the tales already so it was no big deal. I devoured the introduction, where there was a comprehensive summary of 1989 in genre terms, and then moved on to the stories.

I won’t go into the individuals of each story but suffice to say I absolutely loved the book. Not just the 20 stories, but also the fascinating introduction and the sobering necrology at the back. This was information that was difficult to come across in the dark days pre-internet. Needless to say I have purchased each annual edition since then and read it religiously. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the stories reprinted in Best New Horror have influenced my own writing and have given me a benchmark against which to aim. There are 30 years’ worth of stories, so it’s a good selection of dark fiction to get through.

Some of the authors featured in this series have since become friends of mine. This would not have happened without Best New Horror. As well as shaping my writing and my reading, these books have also influenced my social life. I think of the writers whose stories graced the pages of just the first five editions – Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, Peter Straub, Karl Edward Wagner, Conrad Williams, Joel Lane, Kim Newman, Michael Marshall Smith, Lisa Tuttle, Graham Joyce, DF Lewis, Steve Rasnic Tem, Thomas Ligotti, M John Harrison, Charles L Grant, Christopher Fowler, Peter Atkins, Melanie Tem, William F Nolan, Elizabeth Hand, Dennis Etchison, Thomas Tessier, Poppy Z Brite, Harlan Ellison and many other brilliant authors – and it’s difficult to comprehend how buoyant the genre must have been at that time in the first half of the 90s.

Towards the end of the century, as the world seemed to become smaller because of technological advancements such as the internet, I began collecting books by my favourite authors (the catalogue of which was rapidly expending), as well as discovering similar annual best-ofs that were being published on the other side of the Atlantic – namely the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, but also the earlier Year’s Best Horror Stories edited by Karl Edward Wagner, the Whispers anthologies from Stuart David Schiff, Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces, Prime Evil from Douglas E Winter, Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge, Foundations of Fear by David G Hartwell, Shadows from Charles L Grant, and the various anthologies from Marvin Kaye, John Skipp, Harlan Ellison, Al Sarrantonio, Michelle Slung, Martin H Greenberg, Alan Ryan, Poppy Z Brite, Stefan R Dziemianowicz, Ramsey Campbell, Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, etc. But it was the Best New Horror series that began this obsession with short horror fiction.

There was also the anthologies of original stories edited by Stephen Jones – Dark Terrors – which featured similar kind of fiction, and many of the Mammoth Books of …. that were also published by Constable & Robinson before the series ended. All of these have been a rich tapestry to me over the years.

All of this seems a very long-winded way of saying that I was delighted recently to find out that one of my own stories – The Children of Medea, which appeared in my second collection Murmured in Dreams, published by Luna Press – has been selected by Stephen Jones to be included in Best New Horror 31. It is due to be published by PS Publishing later in the year. I had finished just the first draft of this tribute to Best New Horror when serendipity struck and I received an email from Stephen Jones advising me that he was interested in reprinting my story. It was a surreal experience.

It will come as no surprise to hear that this marks a milestone that I honestly never thought possible when I set out submitting fiction back in 2006 – that stories of mine could appear in both Best New Horror and Best Horror of the Year. Just looking at the names of those writers who have appeared in the series, and thinking of mine as part of that honourable list, is humbling and, frankly, unbelievable. These past few years have been difficult ones for my writing, as real life has absorbed much of my free time, but appearing again in Black Static in March and then making the cut for Best New Horror 31 means that 2021 is turning out to be a very good year, even if it’s proving to be a very dark time for me in my personal life.

Posted in Blog, My Writing | 1 Comment

Murmured in Dreams reviewed by the BFS

The British Fantasy Society has posted a review by Pauline Morgan of my short story collection, Murmured in Dreams.

You can read the review at https://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews/murmured-in-dreams-by-stephen-bacon-review/?s=09

As ever, I’m always very grateful to readers and reviewers who take their time to spread news and reviews, so many thanks to Pauline for such an in-depth analysis.

Posted in My Writing | Leave a comment

MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

Mirrorland is Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, which seems remarkable given how accomplished the writing is. The prose is beautiful and engaging, at times heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally complex novel. The relationship between the two sisters is nuanced and believable. The story cleverly blurs genres so that it’s not quite as straightforward as a domestic noir novel, and yet not quite as oblique as dark fantasy. To its credit it completely manages to work as both, and yet by so deftly blending them, it elevates it beyond either category. The writing style is confident and authoritative, the plot development well paced, weaving seemingly unimportant details into the story one bit at a time until the reader slowly begins to see the full picture. The characters felt rounded and their back story tragic. There are some nice twists and turns and the narrative is captivating and imaginative. Mirrorland, as a concept, is so vividly recreated it makes me wonder whether there was some element of autobiography at work here. Perhaps I’m not giving full credit to Johnstone’s imaginative power. It’s a rich location, offering plenty of nods to other aspects of fiction, especially the work of Stephen King. I particularly enjoyed the parallels to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and Mirrorland makes fine use of them as both an anchor to the story and as analogies to the girls’ lives. I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Carole Johnstone has written an assured debut novel, one that heralds in an exciting new voice to the genre of dark fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

BLACK STATIC issue 78/79

Just a quick update to let you know that the details of the next issue of BLACK STATIC have been posted by the editor, Andy Cox. You can see the contents here, including information on how to order the magazine (which is technically closer to an anthology now, as it is only fiction and there are around double the amount of stories – 10 in this one).

Here are the stories that will appear –

Upland Wildlife by Rhonda Pressley Veit
Delivery by Tyler Keevil
Subtemple by Ashley Stokes
Of Wrath by Zandra Renwick
These Birdhouses are Empty Now by Jo Kaplan
Thirty-Two Tumbling Teeth by Neil Williamson
Moon-Boy by Jess Hyslop
The Undulating by Stephen Bacon
The Great West Gate by Alexander Glass
A Phantasmagorical Bestiary of the La Brea Tar Pits by Mike Buckley

Posted in My Writing | Leave a comment

BLACK WATER – THE BOOK OF FANTASTIC LITERATURE edited by Alberto Manguel

Published in 1983, Black Water, edited by Argentine-born Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, is a mammoth short-story anthology, collecting together 72 fantastic tales from around the world (many of them translated from their original language). Contained within are disquieting stories, fragments of novels, tales of physical transformation, even traditional ghost stories (if such a thing exists as a ‘traditional ghost story), all of them possessing an element of the fantastic.

I have owned this book for many years and it has had numerous recommendations from people I know and respect, so I’m amazed it took me this long to pick it up. Perhaps the size had previously deterred me – it does come in at 955 pages in the version I have – or perhaps I knew of its diversity and wasn’t confident in my reading tastes matching that of the editor. Nevertheless I’m glad I eventually got round to it, because Black Water is a superb anthology, probably one of the best in the genre of weird fiction.

The stories span a range of centuries and are sourced from such literary luminaries as Franz Kafka, Tennessee Williams, Rudyard Kipling, Ray Bradbury, Graham Greene, MR James, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Alexander Pushkin, Robert Louis Stevenson, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Silvina Ocampo, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, Ursula K LeGuin, Henry James, O Henry, EM Forster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many many others. As with any publication containing such an array of stories, not every tale will work in the same way. However, overall there’s a wealth of goodness here, something that will connect with most readers. Whilst the stories aren’t overtly . It certainly impressed upon this reader a renewed appreciation for writers from the South American continent. There’s a story by Horacio Quiroga which is actually nightmare inducing.

The rather highbrow nature of the fiction, and the age in which some of these stories were written, means that possibly not all modern readers will appreciate every entry – there were some that felt a bit too dry for my tastes or perhaps too subtle for my understanding – but nevertheless there is much to enjoy here and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

THE FOURTH PROTOCOL by Frederick Forsyth

First published in 1984, and set several years in the future, Frederick Forsyth’s ninth novel, The Fourth Protocol, is a complex but superbly written espionage story, set during the Cold War, involving Russia’s interference in the UK’s 1987 general election. With Labour growing in popularity, and a hard-left faction set to take control of the party once they achieve the expected win, Russia’s interest in the election takes on new levels of intensity. Kim Philby, disgraced Russian spy, meets with senior members of the Soviet political system, setting in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the smuggling into Britain, and assembly, of the individual components required to build a small nuclear bomb…

Whilst I can’t agree with his personal politics, there’s no denying that Frederick Forsyth is an extremely readable author. His experience in the intelligence service always comes across as bona fide, lending the novels a level of authenticity that is difficult to replicate with research alone. You genuinely feel you are privy to how things like this go on, even if that isn’t actually the case. There’s an assured tone in all of his fiction. The first novel of his I read was 1971’s The Day of the Jackal, a masterpiece of intrigue and political insight, and I have yet to come across any of his work that I haven’t loved. The Fourth Protocol is no exception.

The opening third of the novel takes its time in arranging the characters and revealing the various characters involved in the story. Like much of Forsyth’s work, fiction and fact are blended in a compelling way, adding veracity to the events. There’s a nice middle section where the man tasked with uncovering the murky plot, John Preston, visits South Africa to investigate someone suspected on being a foreign agent, reminding us that spy fiction is really just a branch of the crime genre. Preston is a likeable character, not flashy like James Bond, but a little bit more action-based than a character in a John le Carre novel. The final third of the novel is absolutely brilliant, detailing the assembly of the nuclear bomb by a Russian agent based in Suffolk, as John Preston and his British secret service colleagues race against the clock to thwart his plans.

If you enjoy espionage or crime fiction you may well have read this already, as it’s a classic of the genre. And rightly so. It’s an exciting, brilliantly executed novel, full of twists and turns, with a sympathetic central character and a plausible plot. This is highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment

THE TRUANTS by Kate Weinberg

Jess Walker is in her first year at a university in East Anglia, studying an aspect of the works of Agatha Christie. There she falls under the spell of her tutor, Lorna Clay, who happens to be a successful novelist and a Christie expert. Slowly she becomes drawn into a tangled web of secrets and lies with her friends, one that ends in tragedy.

The Truants is the debut novel by Kate Weinberg. It’s an accomplished psychological crime story, with compelling characters and an interesting premise. The love-triangles are carefully constructed and Jess is a flawed but amiable narrator. I did feel a rather unrealistic sense of middle-class angst, one that reminded me of the masterful Donna Tartt novel The Secret History, but without – understandably so – the same quality of writing. The references to Agatha Christie are minimal, and yet this is a nice way of drawing the reader into the story. I suspect it will also have appeal outside of the UK.

There are a couple of nice twists and, although the plot development wasn’t entirely unexpected and unforeseen, the ending was satisfactory enough to tie up the loose ends and offer a fresh insight to what had gone before. Nothing too ground-breaking here, but an entertaining crime novel with a fresh angle on the genre. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | 1 Comment

THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN by M John Harrison

I first came across the fiction of M John Harrison in the late 80s and early 90s, in the anthologies edited by Stephen Jones – the annual Best New Horror and his original Dark Terrors series. His writing, on the surface so straightforward and conventional, merely hints at things just out of sight, the weirdness is not in any way overt. And yet his skill is such that, as a reader, you can’t fail to pick up on the disturbing element of the narrative. He manages to conjure a dreamlike quality to his stories. You almost feel like you’re not fully aware of all the facts, like you’ve missed some part of the narrative. Although the sense of paranoia this evokes is not at all accidental…

Shaw lives in south west London. He’s recovering after suffering some kind of breakdown. He’s clearly distanced from everything, and has little contact with his surroundings other than his occasional visits to his aging mum, who has dementia and is being looked after in a care-home. One day he meets Victoria, the daughter of a doctor, who claims she saw her first corpse at the age of 13. He is offered a job by one of his neighbours, and spends his days on a barge doing menial jobs. Meanwhile Victoria journeys up to Shropshire to restore the property that her late mother left. There she encounters a strange set of characters and events, most of which cross over with Shaw’s experiences. It feels like there is a conspiracy taking place, one to which Shaw and Victoria (and us, as the reader) are on the outside.

The book is littered with references to water and fish, and is underscored with a hint of the numinous, although there is a strong suggestion that the events are rather outside the realms of human understanding. There are a couple of scenes that left me feeling unsettled and disturbed, and yet I couldn’t quite explain why. This is largely to do with Harrison’s skill as a writer, and it’s no surprise to see that The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the Goldsmiths Prize 2020. Each of his sentences offer something startling, or beautiful, or unsettling, sometimes at the same time.

I loved this book, but its unconventional narrative and lack of explanatory hand-holding, might not be for everyone. I couldn’t pretend to understand all of the motifs and metaphors, and there are no doubt some dots I probably failed to connect, but nevertheless this is an assured novel, brilliantly realised, and a major entry into the catalogue of the very best of weird fiction. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Reviews, REVIEWS | Leave a comment