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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: New Ghost Stories II

28th Dec, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Well, this is Christmas week and as every right thinking person knows Christmas is a time for ghost stories, which brings us to New Ghost Stories II (The Fiction Desk tpb) edited by Rob Redman, an anthology of stories entered in a contest run by The Fiction Desk and published in 2014 (I reviewed their first volume of ghost stories in Black Static #40).

After an introduction by the editor lauding the quality of stories they received, obviously, we get into things proper with "Incomers" by Amanda Mason. Jamie takes Emma for a cottage holiday in a seaside village to mark the New Year, but she is still dwelling on his previous partner and his current behaviour, wanting to do things with newfound holiday friends instead of her, exacerbates the situation. The cottage they are staying in was once owned by a witch who cursed her faithless lover, and it seems that Emma is channelling the lady. It's an intriguing story, one that builds well, with both setting and atmosphere delivered with aplomb, and deft characterisation, but all the same there were no real surprises and it all seemed a bit routine, albeit undeniably well executed. The protagonist of "The Bear Got Me" by Matthew Licht is driving through the wilds of Alaska to an isolated military base when he is pursued by a bear that seems to run at an unnatural speed. This is the type of story where a situation that at first seems ordinary gradually gives way to an air of menace. Though I enjoyed being in the guy's head, you have the feeling that, with his ideas on pushing the envelope, the protagonist is contributing to his own undoing, while the references to inexplicable events at the airbase add to the sense of something outré taking place. A good story, albeit a rather basic one as regards what actually happens.

The couple in "Next to Godliness" by Matt Plass suspect that their house is being haunted by their dead child, who insists on thoroughly cleaning everything, or at least the woman interprets events in this way. Something else entirely is going on, and this gentle story's kick in the tale is heartbreaking with dreams of an afterlife shattered. I enjoyed the story, especially the relationship between the two leads, and the end twist was done well, even if one element felt a bit overdone. Tamsin Hopkins' characters must deal with "The Table" and the ghosts that come with it. Again this is a gentle story, one where everything hinges on the identity of 'the twins' who are to inherit the table. I liked it, with the banter between family members a particular delight. In the story by Slovakian author Miha Mazzini, a young boy distracts himself from the arguments between his mother and grandmother by inventing psycho-dramas in which he repels "The Armies", the narrative apparently culminating in an act of slaughter. It is an engrossing story, but at the same time the varying nature of the armies didn't evince any feeling of credibility in what was taking place, seemed more like a plot convenience than something that would arise naturally from this intolerable situation.

In "The Time of Your Life" by Lucinda Bromfield the scion of a family realises that the clock he was gifted as a family heirloom is in fact draining his vitality and transferring it to the clockmaker, Lucas of the Grasshopper Escapement. This is more in the nature of a vampire story than ghost, and I couldn't help thinking of del Toro's Chronos. The best way to describe it is as an amiable piece, one that holds the interest to the end and which I enjoyed, but all the same a story that doesn't really enthral the reader. Schoolgirl Brigit is asked to befriend new girl Ruby, who turns out to be a bit like Wednesday Addams, in "End of the Rope" by Melanie Whipman. Ruby dreams of escaping her life by ascending a rope ladder up to a city in the clouds. We realise what's going on with Ruby, even if Brigit does not. It is one of the best stories in the anthology, sensitively written and leaving the reader to fill in the gaps instead of rubbing our noses in the reality of the situation. Ruby's dream of escape could easily stand as a metaphor for the value of fiction in our lives, though here it is given more concrete form. A moving story, with an ambiguous ending that works like a charm.

"Hell for Leather" by Bernie Deehan is pretty much standard ghost story fare, with an old biker returning to a bar where forty years previous his best friend died in a race. The story is well written and the character elicits sympathy for the follies of his youth, but all the same it feels like something we've seen done many times before in one guise or another. Die Booth's "Twice a Day with Water" offers an unusual haunting, a spirit who can enter somebody's body courtesy of whatever food or drink they ingest and talk with them until expelled. The fact that the protagonist is a drug addict adds a welcome element of uncertainty to the mix, with the idea well developed, some nice touches of humour along the way, and a surprise twist in the final revelation (which makes sense of the title). There's a friendly ghost in "Watching Kate & Gustav" by Alice Adams, the spirit of a murdered woman who wants to live vicariously through the exploits of those who have moved into her home, but her attempts to influence events bring unlooked for consequences. This is another gentle story, one infused with a certain sadness and an element of mystery as to how/why the woman died, while the attempt to see things from the ghost's perspective for a change was very welcome. I enjoyed it.

Last story in the book and Winner of the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition, Jane Alexander's "In Yon Green Hill To Dwell" is a modern retelling of the traditional Scottish poem "Tam Lin" (which is reprinted afterwards). Janet saves the poet Tam Lin from a fairy queen and has a child with him, but finds that she hasn't got what she bargained for. I liked the device of having the couple in therapy, and the contrast between Tam's wish for an ordinary life and Jane's dissatisfaction with the humdrum, such that she throws herself on the mercy of the fairy queen, is well done. There could perhaps have been a bit more to flesh things out, but it worked okay in the current format giving us a strong end to an overall excellent selection of stories, tales that don't really break any moulds in the ghost story genre, but most of which come with slightly different slants and reward the time taken to read them, while the writers who appear make a change from the 'usual suspects'.





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