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Black Static


The Late Review: The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors 3

21st Dec, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards, the first volume in The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors (Alchemy Press tpb) series debuted in 2018, just after I quit writing the Case Notes column for Black Static. This latest volume from October 2021 contains sixteen stories and comes with the title tag 'A Miscellany of Monsters'.

Opening proceedings is the double act of Bryn Fortey (to whom the anthology is dedicated) and Johnny Mains with "Build Your Own Monster!!! Guaranteed to Scare the Whole Family!!!" which has a lot of fun with those adverts you used to see in certain magazines back in the day, and in passing I suspect Bradbury's "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!" might have been an influence. Emily answers one such advert and gets sent a load of surplus stock, assembling her own monsters with somewhat gratifying results. It's a hoot and a half, one that will both ring nostalgia bells and at the same time delight with its portrayal of certain parties getting what they deserve. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all have our personal cadre of monsters? In "The Head" by Garry Kilworth a lone yachtsman runs aground on a desert island and falls foul of a creature out of mythology. It's a concept which should be slightly absurd, but Kilworth approaches it with admirable conviction and makes us believe in what is happening, resulting in an agreeably strange story.

The elderly protagonist of Steve Rasnic Tem's story falls victim to "Inappetence", an inability to eat, only for a far worse fate to befall him, albeit one that he welcomes. There's a strong subtext here about having outlived your time, wanting to be done with things, even while still wrapped in the warmth of loved ones, with the contrast between Guy's outward circumstances and his inner life providing the tension in the tale. "Songs in the Dark" by Jenny Barber tells of a woman who is newly wed only to discover her husband has a mistress, one who is not quite human. Written with the assured touch of a natural fabulist, it's a story that could have come from the oeuvre of Angela Slatter, with hints of wonder and a gleeful end twist, one that the hapless husband does not anticipate any more than the reader does.

In Sarah Ash's "The Beast of Bathwick" reported sightings of a large cat and a singer's career in amateur dramatics interweave to form a pleasant story in which the bad people get their just desserts and kindness to animals is rewarded, though perhaps something else is in play, Ash keeping her cards close to her chest. "Cuckoo Flower" by Tom Johnstone has a rogue botanist losing the plot when her contraband plants turn out to be rather different than advertised. It's another gleeful story, with Johnstone capturing perfectly the obsessive tone of the protagonist and her disbelief about what is taking place. In "A Song for Christmas" Ashe Woodward gives us a sinister seasonal turn, with carol singers who are discordant in more ways than one and an unnatural infestation, the whole combining to form a disturbing picture of marital unrest.

Adrian Cole's "Dream a Little Dream of Me and My Shadow" has paranormal investigator Nick venturing into another dimension with the Mire-Beast and sword swinging Ariadne to save the city from Dream Seeders. It's a romp of a story with solid characterisation, both human and not so, a panoply of fearsome monsters and a wealth of incidental invention. The action doesn't let up for a second and the reader is in for a treat. The second of five daughters, Melisande returns to the family home at the behest of her beekeeper father in "Memories of Clover" by KT Wagner, but Beckett has plans he is not telling his daughter about. Superficially this is a story of transformation, but underlying are themes of misogyny, of accepting abuse and giving up on one's own dreams for the sake of another, with an aside on the plight of bees in our modern world.

Marion Pitman's "Sun, Sand, Stone" has a female sculptor on holiday after the accidental death of her husband and haunted by visions of Medusa. Pitman cleverly muddies the waters in various ways, so that we can be sure of no-one's motives and, after a mounting atmosphere of dread anticipation, surprises with an end twist that disturbs. "Redwater" by Simon Bestwick is an action packed piece in which men take on monsters in the Floodlands for the most suspect of reasons. Bestwick gives us memorable characters and an intriguing backdrop, one that hints at much more than is actually revealed, and wraps it all up in a story where pragmatism is paramount. In Pauline E. Dungate's story Ashley learns to control her nightmares with the use of a "Dreamcatcher", unleashing them on those who offend her. At the heart of the story is its depiction of an enclosed community of women and how they are trying to just get by, while Ashley goes from being a victim of her fears to using them to her advantage.

Kiara must rescue husband Elliott from "The Daughters" in Tim Jeffreys' story of monsters from folklore and ritual sacrifice set in a seaside town. It's an intriguing piece, one that doesn't initially convince but gradually grows on the reader as the setting comes to life on the page, with strange actions explained and making sense in context. I'll admit though that, much as I eventually came to like it, I feel that it's a story where greater suspension of disbelief is called for than in many of the others in this anthology. A year after his girlfriend's death in an RTA grieving Michael visits the scene of the tragedy in his attempts to rationally explain what happened, learning the secrets of "Black Spots" to his cost. John Llewellyn Probert's story builds well, with an original play on the idea of the titular black spots and a convincing depiction of a man beset by guilt at his own part in what happened to his loved one.

Set in 1936, "Echoes of Days Passed" by Mike Chinn has the navy's latest sub encounter an unlikely sea monster. Like the Cole and Bestwick, this is another action packed story, with believable characters and credibly paced action as man and monster go head to head, with Chinn reinventing one of the sea's most alluring monster archetypes. Finally we have "What the Snow Brings" by Ralph Robert Moore with a couple and their guide trapped in a snowbound ruin and encountering the menacing staring bugs. The chilly setting is brilliantly realised, while the characters are engagingly skewed, as you'd expect from Moore, and the end twist is disturbing, with no good deed going unpunished.

It's a fine end to a varied and engaging selection of stories, with cover art by Daniele Serra, a drawing of Brown Jenkin by Randy Broecker for the frontispiece, and other artwork by editor Coleborn.





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