Category: horror stories


My love of supernatural stories inevitably led to me discover the side-genre of what is now known as weird fiction. My very first encounter was with Robert Aickman’s ‘The Swords’, as in my teens I collected all the Pan Books of Horror Stories and the Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, and Aickman edited the first eight volumes of the latter. Each of the Fontana collections included a story by him – editor’s privilege!

Regarded as somewhat more respectable than simple horror, examples of weird fiction can be found in the work of Truman Capote (Miriam) and Flannery O’Connor (Good Country People), as well as many other ostensibly mainstream, literary writers. Shirley Jackson, Oliver Onions – and more recently Lisa Tuttle – have also written many superbly peculiar stories. But Aickman has come to be seen as the king of the genre – a well-deserved accolade. You can now find collections dedicated solely to weird fiction – not just the odd (usually very odd) story cropping up in horror anthologies.

Such an example is ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, edited by Simon Strantzas, a beautifully produced book from Undertow Publications. I was drawn to it because I’m such an Aickman fan, and am repelled by the majority of modern horror, which often relies too much on blood and guts and being as disgusting as possible. Weird fiction is quirky, thought-provoking, disorientating, but rarely visceral. Guts are too crude a prop for this genre.

Aickman’s Heirs is an excellent book – I enjoyed reading it immensely. I only have a couple of slight criticisms, which I’ll get out of the way first. One of the most unsettling aspects of Aickman’s fiction is that it – on the whole – features very ordinary people, in ordinary lives, who suddenly collide with the weird. Their familiar world is thrown off-kilter, reality skews like a tilted, broken mirror. In ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, a few of the story protagonists are detached from reality from the start – teetering on madness – so to my mind this isn’t exactly ‘weird’ as Aickman wrote it. Perhaps inspired by him – after all, the editor stresses in his introduction that Aickman is a one-off, never to be emulated – but borderline insane characters make it easier to write ‘weird’, and to me it’s a kind of cheating. Someone going out of their mind is not weird – simply mad. Their world might get very odd indeed, but it’s a world of their own making. In a truly weird story, the protagonists are hapless victims, who find themselves in a reality that’s fallen out of balance. The world looks the same, but it’s not. They are seeing beneath the skin of the world, or seeing through it. There might be hints that what they experience is entirely subjective, but is it? That’s the magic of the weird.

I also found some degree of self-consciousness in a couple of the tales, as if the writers were striving a tad too hard to be clever and impenetrable. Aickman’s stories always appeared effortless and the author was invisible within them. That said, all the tales here are well written, and there are some absolute gems among them. Which is far more than can be said for most horror collections that are published.

As with all the best of weird fiction, these stories reward you if you read them more than once. The first time through you might think ‘what??’, but the story has got under your skin. You want to understand it, so read it again, perhaps this time intuiting more of what might be going on.  The author doesn’t tell you. It’s almost as if they flirt with you, beguiling your senses, laughing off-stage as you attempt to penetrate the mystery. You think about the story afterwards. You discuss it with friends. ‘What do you think?’ you might ask. I love that aspect of the weird. After reading Capote’s ‘Miriam’, I was desperate to talk about it with others who’d read it. The tale was almost maddening, yet utterly bewitching. I had to talk about it. To pull this off, a writer has to know their craft intimately. They must be adept with language and nuance. It’s a difficult genre to master, because in clumsy hands, stories in this vein merely become irritating rather than remaining intriguing mysteries. One of the problems of weird fiction is that there are examples within it of writers trying to be literary and obscure, but coming off as simply pretentious. Aickman was always convincing, even at his most peculiar.

Now to what I liked in ‘Aickman’s Heirs’. I particularly enjoyed ‘Camp’, by David Nickle, a tale of a recently-married gay couple on their honeymoon. Meeting a friendly elderly couple, who invite the pair to stay at their camping site, they eventually end up canoeing off into the wilds to reach this destination. And this is where their extremely comfortable, ordinary lives crash into strangeness. Reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, the landscape here feels almost sentient and far from benevolent. Understated. Beautifully composed. The mundane is shattered irretrievably.

I also enjoyed ‘Seaside Town’ by Brian Evenson, the story of a rather anti-social man who is left stranded in a foreign holiday village by his more gregarious girlfriend. His discomfort in a strange land is compounded by the fact that the reality around him is far from certain. His inability to speak the local language only worsens his situation. In a Hitchcockian manner, he observes from his window rather than participates in events, but when he is drawn outside… The writer deftly creates a mystery that is far from solved, but I didn’t come away from it feeling short-changed or the victim of deliberate literary obtuseness – which undeniably can be a failing of the genre.

Reading ‘The Dying Season’ by Lynda E Rucker, I felt the author must have visited a holiday village as described in the story. There’s an authenticity to the detail. I could imagine the writer, perhaps as a child, finding in this very mundane setting of identical cabins a kind of terror – the uniformity becomes sinister, disorientating. The uniform shacks are like traps to snare the unwary. And what exactly did happen in the cabin next door? It’s apparently abandoned, hasn’t been lived in for years, yet the protagonist, on her arrival at the place, hears the voice of child within. We also find some ‘living odd’ in a couple of the characters – something Aickman often included in his tales. The protagonist might be Mr or Ms Ordinary, but then they meet someone who is patently ‘other’, and cannot walk away from this meeting unchanged. In ‘The Dying Season’, we’re not sure whether the only other apparent inhabitants of the holiday village are just mannered Goth types, striving to be wacky and unconventional, or something distinctly more unsettling – creatures with masks. They are liars with ulterior motives, certainly, but… This story has no end. It stops, but is far from finished. And the fact you don’t discover what happens next is more terrifying than actually being shown. Deft, assured.  A fine example of the genre.

It’s interesting that the three examples above all involve protagonists being on holiday, drawn away from their day to day lives. Holidays are supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, yet in all these cases the opposite proves true. Holidays, you might end up thinking, are treacherous. Anything can happen when you step outside your ordinary existence of job, home and familiar territory. You liberate yourself in a way that perhaps also makes you vulnerable. You are unhitched from the mundane, floating free. But into what?

As for my favourites, there are three. I’ll mention first ‘Two Brothers’ by Malcolm Devlin (but I like all three stories equally). On the one hand it concerns a boy whose (slightly) older brother has been sent away to school. The brother who returns for the holidays seems strangely and unsettlingly different. And what the protagonist William stumbles across in the woods during his brother’s visit implies the change is sinister, perhaps unspeakable. On the other hand, the story spoke to me of a child losing a friend, or in this case a brother, to looming adulthood. (I wrote of this myself recently in a story called ‘The Violet House or Songs the Martyrs Sang’, which is to be published in a collection called ‘Splinters of Truth’ by Newcon Press next year). While reading ‘Two Brothers’, you feel that sense of loss and bewilderment. Is it simply that or…? That is the playful nature of a story of the weird.

My next favourite is ‘A Change of Scene’ by Nina Allen. Again, featuring two women on holiday from their normal lives, but in this case following bereavements. Both are widows, and the meeker and more malleable Iris is taken by the still glamorous and vibrant Phrynne to a Norfolk town where Phrynne spent her honeymoon. Iris soon notices inconsistencies with Phrynne’s recollections of the past – deliberate lies or simply because of a faulty memory? These women have a history, and Phrynne holds a hurtful secret, which when it comes out and despite Iris’ best efforts to be ‘nice’ can’t help but anger her. The atmosphere is both dreamy and fizzing – if such traits can exist alongside each other. The weird creeps in with beautiful subtlety, like mist off the sea.  Something once happened in this place.

I’ve always loved Lisa Tuttle’s work, and her story here ‘The Book That Finds You’ is another fine example of her deft hand. It concerns a young writer and enthusiast of weird stories, who comes across an author no one appears to have heard of – J W Archibald. She finds a battered old paperback in a second hand store and is entranced by the contents. Archibald’s work is described as being much like Aickman’s. Eventually, the protagonist finds what she believes to be a soulmate, a fellow enthusiast, who not only knows of the collection she found but owns more work by Archibald. It’s difficult to say more of this story in a review because the weirdness doesn’t really start to creep in until after certain things happen that would certainly be plot spoilers. Suffice to say our heroine collides with the strange on a visit to Archibald’s home country. Fiction bleeds into reality, but not in a way you’d expect.

As well as the favourite stories I’ve mentioned above, all the pieces are good reads, even what I considered to be the weakest of them – and after all, that is down to taste and preference. Other readers might prefer the more hallucinatory stories.

I’m at present compiling an anthology of weird fiction with Paul Houghton, who’s a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffs University. We’re both huge fans of the genre. But the majority of submissions we’ve had in are simply horror stories. Despite our – we thought – carefully worded brief for contributions, some authors don’t quite seem to ‘get’ what weird fiction is. A vampire is not weird. A serial killer is not weird. Supernatural, yes, horrible, yes, but not weird. These tropes are simply too familiar. A writer of the weird looks for the unfamiliar in everyday situations and people.

Any writer who wishes to dip their toes into weird fiction should read ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ to see how it’s done well. I’m delighted that discovering this volume has led me to writers I’ve not read before, which means there will be more books for me to discover and devour. To assist in this aim, Undertow Publications have other fascinating titles I’m keen to read, among them ‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ (one volume 2014 available, with 2015 to come), and also ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ which was and is an annual anthology. Sadly, not many of them remain in print. I noticed from the Undertow web site that a few of their list are available as eBooks. I really hope the earlier volumes of ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ are eventually released in this format too. As a publisher myself, I hate to see books go out of print completely, especially when I have a hankering to read them!

Here’s a link to the site: http://www.undertowbooks.com/

Book News

Immanion Press’s first blog hop is now over, bar selecting a winner of the competition. It was interesting to try this way to promote Para Kindred, and I’ll certainly do similar promotions for future Wraeththu anthologies. Thanks to Nerine Dorman and Shauna Knight for their help and advice on this procedure!

As far as the Wraeththu Mythos is concerned, my own current novel, ‘The Moonshawl’, is edging towards its climax. I’ve got to a part now where I really have to put myself inside Ysobi’s head and think, ‘ok, what would this character do next, credibly?’ He’s acquired a lot of needed information about the mystery he’s investigating; now he needs to take action. But as to which other characters are with him on this final stage I’ve yet to decide – or maybe I should let the character decide simply through the writing.

I’m happy to report that we have Wraeththu Mythos novels by other writers on the horizon, from Wendy Darling and anthology contributor E S Wynn. Wendy, of course, has been involved in the Mythos for many years, and was the co-author of ‘Breeding Discontent’ as well as co-editor on all the Mythos anthologies. Her novel ‘Angry City’ explores the early days of Wraeththu, as does Earl’s ‘Hollow Hills’. Both of these books will present gritty visions of the mythos, and I’m really looking forward to reading the completed manuscripts.

Para Kindred contributor Nerine Dorman is also working on ideas for a mythos novel set in South Africa. I loved the story she gave us for PK so again I’m really looking forward to what she’ll come up with for a novel. I’ll post news about that once she’s worked out a plot line for it.

Wendy and I are currently swapping ideas for the theme of the next Wraeththu Mythos anthology. So all in all, things are looking interesting for the future of Wraeththu.

Short Stories

Happy to say that my story ‘The Saint’s Well’ was accepted by editor David Barrett for his ‘Mammoth Book of Tales from the Vatican Vaults’. I believe this will be out next year, but will give more details when I know for sure. I really enjoyed writing this story and am glad to appear in the excellent line up David has secured for this satisfyingly fat collection!

A Storm Constantine ‘Imaginings’ short story collection is in the pipeline with Ian Whates’ Newcon Press. This is scheduled for mid 2015. The collection will include a few previously published but uncollected stories (none that have appeared in Newcon Press anthologies), and also a selection of new pieces.

Currently Reading…

I’m a fan of ghost stories and have been reading some of the Dark Terrors collections. I’m not a fan of gore, however, and am somewhat disappointed sometimes that well set-up stories then conclude with the cop-out, typical horror ending: ‘the protagonist is murdered in horrible detail by whatever supernatural thing is in the story’. Some of the best stories are brave enough to do something different. After reading Liz Hand’s ‘Near Zennor’, I had to order her own collection ‘Errantry’ that includes it. What I loved about Liz’s story is that it’s supernatural, eerie, but also credible. The supernatural part is just ‘off centre reality’ enough to be believable. Also beautifully written. I’ve just started reading ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn, but Liz’s book is next on my reading list.

I’ve also got into Simon Kurt Unsworth’s work, firstly through his book ‘Quiet Houses’, which I got for my Kindle and then through other pieces of his in anthologies I’ve read. I loved ‘Quiet Houses’, not least because one of my greatest loves in supernatural fiction is haunted houses. The protagonist (a paranormal investigator) at one point investigates a haunted Victorian public toilet! I believe Simon has a new collection in store, which I’ll also be quick to order. Evocative writing, interesting new slants on the haunted house. I posted a link today on my FB page concerning creepy photos of abandoned buildings, such as hotels, amusements parks and asylums. They could well illustrate Simon’s ‘Quiet Houses’.

Cats… Well, There Has to be Cats

New girl Pashti has discovered a new pastime – net curtain climbing. To Pashti, I imagine the navigation of our half window net curtains in the living-room is the equivalent of some perilous jungle vine network. She swings herself around, generally in pursuit of moths, throwing herself onto the tiny ledge of the sash window’s ledge, wobbling precariously, sometimes falling, only to rescue herself with a timely grab of the nets, then to swing wildly as she scrambles to safety on the thin ledge again. From outside, our nets now appear full of rents and tears, lending the house a rather Steptoe ambience! I learned today from friend and neighbour Danielle Lainton, who lives opposite me, that several neighbours on the opposite side of the road have been observing Pashti’s antics with amusement. She provides street entertainment, it seems. Someone said to Danni: ‘Has your friend Storm got a new cat? A sort of mottled, weird looking animal?’ Yes, that must be Pashti, lol. People who aren’t familiar with orientals don’t quite understand her exquisite beauty. Our friend Bob Forse called round yesterday. Pashti’s greeting to him was to launch herself from the ground right onto his chest, all claws out, and cling there. He said, ‘you’ve been feeding her after midnight and got water on her, haven’t you?’ She is rather a little gremlin, bless her, but despite the injuries she inflicts on guests, everyone loves her. She’s clearly worked out that climbing people, or destroying parts of the home, if accompanied by ecstatic purring, means she doesn’t get chastised.

I’ve been super busy since I wrote my last blog post and – am happy to report – very productive. I finished ‘Painted Skin’, one of the stories for the forthcoming Wraeththu anthology ‘Para Kindred’, and am about halfway through a second. The second story, as yet un-named, is a return to canon characters in that it features Ashmael Aldebaran from the Wraeththu trilogies as well as the Kamagrian, Kate. I began the story quite a few years ago, concerning a human community that has survived against all odds in the midst of a wilderness, where the threat of the remaining unevolved Wraeththu tribes is still immense. The Gelaming have their own reasons for wishing to contact these survivors, and the har sent to do the job is Ashmael, with Kate along as negotiator, since they assume a more ‘female’ looking person will be more acceptable to the humans. They discover that a son of the human family has outstanding abilities beyond what’s normally found in the old race. The Gelaming want him incepted, the family and the boy himself don’t, and the drama unfolds from there. This story has enabled me to vent my gripes about interfering, busy-body ‘health’ officials, who think they know what’s best for us, when sometimes they really don’t. They just tick boxes and stand by the current ‘fashions’, whatever the consequences for the individual. I’ve got plenty more horrors to relate before the end of it.

The novel, The Moonshawl, is still going well, although at the moment I’m finding it difficult to devote more than two days a week to it, and of course those end up being less than full working days because of little tasks I continually have to attend to. But I’m happy with the progress, even if it’s not as fast as I’d like. A host of new ideas came to me, which have to be incorporated. I sat down to write a few notes on ‘the dark history of the Wyvern family’, only to end up with 10 pages of what could be a separate short story. Not all of this might make it into the novel, but as least *I* know what happened in the past.

This week I’ve written an introduction for a new edition of Algernon Blackwood’s first two short story collections, which will be combined into one volume by Greg Shepard – who some of you might remember published American editions of several of my novels, plus ‘The Oracle Lips’ story collection, through his Stark House Press. I’m not sure if that’s still the name of his publishing house, but will post further news when I have more details about the book. Blackwood is one of the most influential supernatural writers of the earliest twentieth century and inspired many other authors, even to the present day. I hesitate to use the term ‘horror writer’ for authors of his time, since to me the word horror nowadays often just entails blood, guts, dismemberment, torture, etc etc and I’ve never liked that kind of fiction. To me, the best horror is that which implies more than it shows; feelings of unease, the inexplicable, the subtly chilling. Anyway, I recommend Greg’s book, which includes ‘The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories’ and ‘The Listener and Other Stories’.

One thing I think is really important is that works like Blackwood’s are still available for everyone. So many of the ebook editions you see of these ‘historical’ writers are really badly produced, full of errors, and in one case recently – utterly empty of everything except the first page. I’ve read quite a few of these ebooks, since I’ve been devouring stories of this kind recently, and have been astonished at the sloppy production, as if the text wasn’t even read through once before it was slapped on the Kindle store. I know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to produce an absolutely pristine manuscript – mistakes will not be spotted because of human error – but really some ebooks have appalling amounts of them. Several stories have been virtually unreadable, owing to strange fonts and symbols littered all the way through. Hopefully, more publishers like Greg will restore these works with a bit of actual care.

Another thing I’ve noticed as I’ve been reading all these short story collections is how superior the older writing often is. It’s noticeable particularly when an editor has collected the new with the old. So many of the new ones are weak, uninteresting, or just gore fests. Dull, in other words. Whereas there are some real gems to be found in the older writing, often by authors completely unknown, who perhaps just produced a few stories to be published in magazines of the time. There were a fair amount of women writers involved in the genre too, and I read one ebook ‘The Lady Chillers: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Women Writers’, which was excellent. All of the collections have a few duds in them – inevitably – but this one was superior to most. Sadly, you won’t find collections by the majority of these writers, although there is a printed version of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories available. The ebook of Edith Nesbit’s ghost stories – forget it. This was the one I bought that was an empty file. (Actually it looks as if since I complained to Amazon it’s been removed from the Kindle store.) The Mary E Wilkins Freeman Megapack ebook is worth getting, despite the second half of the book comprising rather twee children’s stories. The first half, the supernatural tales, is great.

As for my plans for 2014, first of course I want to finish The Moonshawl, but I will be working on short stories alongside it. I’m in talks with another independent press about producing a book of my uncollected stories plus some new ones, and will again give more news about that when I have it. Once The Moonshawl is complete, it’ll be time to start on a new novel – I already have a few options. But as can often happen, a different idea might come to me before then.

One of the main problems with social media has always been – for me – the time commitment for keeping up with all of them. I also found a lot of it trivial – such as making small posts about what I was having for lunch or something. What was the point and who would want to read that anyway? Snowed under with work, I couldn’t see the benefit of joining the chattering, tweeting masses. I did and do use Facebook, but only sporadically. However, one thing has become clear to me and that is that social media are now essential for any author wishing to remain noticed (or to get noticed) – unless they are one of the privileged 5% who are the best-sellers of this world. Also, it’s good to talk to about books.

So I decided it’s time to interact with the world a bit more. I’ve become something of a recluse over the years – far different to the party animal I used to be – and I want to get out of this habit, at least on the internet. (No, I don’t want any real life party invitations, thank you!) I’m grateful to Sharon Sant and Louise Coquio who’ve been helping me in this regard, not least in how to use the different media properly. Half the time I was put off because it seemed like too much effort to learn how things worked and I have to confess I’m not the most patient of people in that respect. Still, we had an evening ‘Educating Storm’ so now I’m better equipped to chat, tweet, squawk or whatever.

Anyway, to news. I’m still hoping wistfully that I get time soon to do more work on my Wraeththu ghost story novel – the progress has been slow, because as usual Immanion Press, its accounts, and all the admin tasks just devour my time. However, I have found time to complete some short stories, which will be appearing in print soon. One which I’ve mentioned before is for Allen Ashley’s ‘Astrologica’ collection, coming out through Alchemy Press this autumn, and another is for Ian Whates’ ‘Looking Landwards’, again appearing this autumn through Ian’s Newcon Press. I’ve done another for Ian, for a collection due out next year and hope to find time to write a story for his Femme Fatale anthology, again for next year. Shorts are far easier to fit in between other work. I also want to write two for the ‘Para Kindred’ Wraeththu anthology, which will be published by Immanion Press. I’ve started work on the stories – one of which will be a completion of a piece I’ve had lying around for years, the other will be completely new. I’ve pushed deadlines and publication for this collection forward to next year, as some of the contributors are – like me – extremely pushed for time. We’ve had some great stories in already, so it’s looking good – it just needs an extension on deadlines. So it’s the end of February now for story submissions, with the idea of getting the book out before the summer.

I recently acquired a Kindle Fire and am loving it. I was a bit Luddite before, thinking nothing should replace the feel and smell of a real book, but I’ve absolutely run out of space for storing more books. Now it’s great being able to download whatever I want to read. I’ve found the device easy on the eye and – best of all – perfect for when I snuggle down on my sofa in the workroom for a sneaky half hour’s reading. (Who am I kidding? Erm… slightly more than half an hour.) The lack of light in that corner of the room makes it difficult to read with my cranky eyes (with my lenses in, I’m not short-sighted but long-sighted, yay), but of course a Kindle lights itself. Marvellous! I started downloading the works of old horror writers like Oliver Onions, E. F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu and so on, having found masses of cheap collections. I have to share one priceless little snippet – unfortunately not exactly word for word as I can’t remember which story it was in, but it made me laugh so much it stuck in my mind, so here’s the gist of it.
‘James, did you ride over on Grey Boy today?’
‘I did indeed, Anne.’
‘Splendid. I have some sugar for him in my muff.’

How times and the use of language have changed! I adore coming across these little gems that during their travel down the years have somewhat changed in meaning. Reading the ghost stories has been great for inspiration for my novel. One thing I love about the Victorian and Edwardian horror writers is that they didn’t rely on the shock value of gore and violence. The stories are genuinely creepy without a spilled gut in sight. Yes, nearly every one of them involves people living in vast, spooky mansions that hide terrible secrets, so generally the characters are affluent and privileged, but to me nothing can beat a massive haunted house with endless corridors and hidden locked rooms, and all those gruesome secrets from the past.

These are the collections I’ve read so far, which I can recommend:

Hauntings and Horrors, E. F. Benson
The Dead of Night, Oliver Onions
The Lady Chillers: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Women Writers

I share quite a lot of books with my mother-in-law, Dot Hibbert, and it was she who introduced me to P G Wodehouse, an odd choice for me perhaps. But I am now reading the Blandings omnibus and really appreciate the deftness of Wodehouse’s prose. Also, although a snapshot into a bygone English age, now it reads almost like fantasy, times have changed so much. Dot and I also really like Kate Atkinson’s novels. I started reading them years ago, and especially adored the bizzare ‘Human Croquet’, but was not so much grabbed by the ‘idea’ of the detective novels Ms Atkinson did later. Now, I’ve started reading them, and find her quite the subversive! On the surface, stories like ‘Case Histories’ and ‘Started Early, Took my Dog’ are mystery/detective novels, but also full of sublime insights about life, and also ageing, which to many is a sore nerve to be licked very carefully.

I’ve recently reread all of M R James’s ghost stories, since I received the box DVD collection of the Ghost Stories for Christmas, (at Christmas), which were televised dramas of his stories. He had so many great ideas, and although I think the writing somehow muddies the awesome gruesomeness of some of the ideas, many are still chilling. The (first) TV adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You is great, and the story itself even weirder. I also particularly liked the story about the hair, strange curtains with a hair pattern on them… sorry can’t remember the name, get an omnibus of his stories… that was truly frightening and had me creeped out on nights when I slept alone while Jim was at work. One effective motif James uses regularly is ‘things’ creeping on all fours rather than walking. Shudder. Especially when they are creeping in the dark towards your window.

I also recently read a John Saul oldie, called ‘Second Child’, which I picked up at the charity book stand of the fab pub we go to with the in-laws for lunch once a month. I’d read Saul before, when I worked for Staffs library, and always found him a bit meh in comparison to other horror writers, but really enjoyed this one. It’s not great literary shakes, but was just a nice page turner for the time I read in bed before sleep.