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Black Static


The British Fantasy Society Yearbook - Part the First

18th Mar, 2010

Author: Peter Tennant

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I don't mean to be, but on occasion I am a bad person. I fully intended to read The British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 and review it in Black Static given the high number of writers involved who have also contributed to our magazine, but there are so many books to be read and reviewed and time slips away from me, and so it missed the cut for #15. Normally I'd just reschedule for the next issue, or even the one after that, but that won't work in this case. The book is available only to members of the British Fantasy Society and only until the World Horror Convention, which is at the end of March, and our next issue won't be until April, when a review will be too late to prompt anyone to join the BFS should acquisition of this fine volume be an incentive to do so.

The solution to my dilemma is to review the book here on this blog (I had nothing interesting to write about anyway), though as I'm only a third of the way through and have other priorities, the review will of necessity be piecemeal and with no guarantee I'll get to the end before WHC, though I'll link to another review so at least you have someone's opinion of the book as a whole.


The British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009 is a hardback of 295 pages, with an attractively understated front cover, though I wasn't so keen on the 'wall of names' back cover, which reminded me of nothing so much as the word searches you find in most puzzle magazines, and with my 'puzzler head on' I note that a couple of the writers named (Peter Crowther and Graham Joyce) don't appear in the book itself. Conversely, two of the writers who do (James Barclay and Suzi Feay) are not on the back cover, unless they're listed diagonally and I haven't found them as yet, suggesting there were some last minute team changes. Alternatively, it really was a puzzle and I want my prize.

Gail Z. Martin contributes an introduction on 'The Lure of Fantasy', and is almost certainly preaching to the converted, but she does so with eloquence and conviction, providing us with solid reasons to feel good about enjoying this stuff of dreams and nightmares.

And so, to the stories themselves, or at least the first seven of them.

The Name Game

Mark Morris opens the proceedings with a story that has a touch of Monty Python about it, the same sense of something that is patently absurd being presented as wholly reasonable and unexceptional, with the new residents on an estate meeting their neighbours and finding out exactly what is required of them to fit in. Morris treads a fine line between absurdity and the undercurrent of menace, so that the reader doesn't quite know if this is going to turn out comedy or horror (actually it's a combination of both). Along the way he deftly satirises the need for social one-upmanship and the absurdities of our celebrity obsessed culture with a rigour that will almost certainly get him sent a stiff note by the editors of Heat magazine if they ever find out.

After the Ape

This is one of the best stories I've seen from the pen of writer Stephen Volk, and the best story that I've read so far this year, bar none. A story that records the aftermath of King Kong's death in New York, there are echoes here both of 9/11, another time when the Big Apple found itself under the cosh, and a foreshadowing of the horrors of fascism that lay in wait for the world of 1933, seen most obviously in the character of a lowly hotel employee of Germanic background who deplores the decadence and weakness of America even as he fucks Ann Darrow and indulges in romantic and self-deluding fantasies of taking her away from it all. The story belongs to Darrow though, the woman who loved the great ape, but it neatly sidesteps the schmaltz and sentimentality of the Jackson reinvention, giving us the back story of a woman who has suffered at the hands of men, used and abused in her personal and professional life. The miracle is not that Darrow could love Kong, but that with her history she could still feel at all, and in the aftermath of Kong's death she is almost an automaton, emotionally numb and simply going through the motions, no longer caring what happens to her, a detachment captured perfectly by Volk's prose and the actions it portrays. This is a tragedy, and it can end in only one way, and Volk doesn't flinch. Beauty killed the beast, but beauty too must die.

The Stretch

Christopher Fowler's story of a night that goes horribly awry is an exercise in style and voice. A Goth(ish) girl is forced to spend a night out on the town with two perfect little madams, the father of one having hired a stretch limo and driver as a birthday treat for his princess. It's as comedic and cringe inducing for the reader as it is for the narrator, as we get force fed mean girl attitude cranked up to ten, and it would be easy to just sit back and revel in the prospect of these ugly brats getting their just desserts, but Fowler isn't that sort of a writer. Instead he manages to suggest something softer, a sense of vulnerability, to hint that beneath the surface brashness, the obsession with superficiality and fitting in, there are real people, young girls who've had their childhood and innocence traded in for a mess of designer label potash, and so when it does all come unravelled we are surprised and delighted to find that we actually care.

The Convent at Bazzano

Allyson Bird's understated ghost story is perhaps the most conventional tale so far, bringing to mind The Devil's Backbone with its foreign setting and the building of the title that was previously used as a hospital and holds memories within its walls. The story seemed a little rushed to me, with transitions of time, place and POV that are not signalled by text breaks, and curious descriptive choices - while simply stating that Helen had brought some books on holiday with her would have sufficed, Bird lists each volume, and in describing a Madonna and child fresco we are told 'never before had she seen that look on the face of the mother of Christ', but not what the look was. Regardless, there's enough substance to the story to compensate for any lack of polish or smoothness in the writing, with a strong atmosphere, and a subtle introduction of the outré elements that leaves room for ambiguity. The sense of place is evocatively realised, with the idea of Brits abroad, strangers in a strange land, neatly segueing into the realisation that the characters have become dislocated in some greater, more ontological sense also and a subtle ending that is the perfect coda to this unsettling tale.

Deadhouse Steps

This is a welcome return to horror for Mark Chadbourn, now known mostly for his fantasy novels. The story's protagonist is Christopher Warren, a police officer who believes that all the lucky breaks have passed him by, and so visits the Welsh coast in search of a case to make his career, lured by rumours of a strange ship and a smuggling ring. Unfortunately the situation he has stumbled upon is far worse than any drug cartel or human trafficking operation. Chadbourn doesn't miss a trick with his characterisation of Warren, a man driven by feelings of bitterness over missed opportunities and rogue ambition, or in the carefully calculated chain of circumstances that lead to his undoing, each step along the way slotting into the bigger picture. The payoff when it comes is an audacious melange of The Wicker Man, Machen's little people and conspiracy theory, with the idea of sacrifice at its centre, so that the reader will be left as adrift morally as he or she will be horrified by what happens to Warren.

Patience, a Womanly Virtue

I've never read anything by Juliet E. McKenna before, and on this evidence that is my loss. 'Patience' is the shortest story so far, but packs a lot of content into its nine pages. It's a twisty Machiavellian tale of revenge, with court politics at its heart, as the central character manipulates people and events to her own ends. The reader is sucked in, fed the details piecemeal, so that the pattern changes constantly as ever more is revealed, and at the end there is only admiration for the scheming Mother Valdese, whose hand rocks the cradle and would rule the world. Despite the brevity and contained setting, McKenna cleverly manages to convey the impression of a whole wide world beyond the story, a reality with its own customs and ways of doing things, that reinforces the central conceit.

The Language of the Land

Last entry for this blog post is a skilfully executed foray into rustic 'horror' by Tim Lebbon. Bare bones of the plot, when a young boy goes missing in the local forest his father and friends focus on the 'tramp' who lives in the woods and take it upon themselves to 'question' him, question being a euphemism for torture. And on the surface it's about mob mentality, being quick to judge, vigilantism, fear of those who are different and the brutalities it leads us to commit, plus a wide selection of similarly unworthy sentiments. Below that though there is a sense of wider and more perennial concerns, of man living in harmony with nature, an almost mystic quality to the text, something ageless, with the woods and the characters all beautifully realised, Lebbon bringing the story to life with compelling snapshots of the natural world, a setting into which man will blend just as soon as he realises the folly of his ways and stops trying to be something apart.

Right that's my lot for now, and I've no idea when I'll be returning to the remainder of the book, though I most definitely will on the assumption that what follows will match the quality of what's gone before.

Meanwhile click on the link below to visit Tales of the Black Abyss for a review of the volume in its entirety by someone with either more time or a better work ethic than me.

Should you want an actual copy of the book, you can either wait until I put mine up on eBay for some ridiculous sum or join the British Fantasy Society, but don't dally about this as it's a one time only offer and that time will soon be past.



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