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.