Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Brit Horror Mixtape

Last year I curated the King For A Year Project (which was great fun to do) and a lovely side-note to it is the occasional email from people saying they'd read a review that had prompted them to pick up a book they wouldn't have tried otherwise.

With that in mind here's a similar project that might be smaller in scale but definitely isn't in scope.  Harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage), this is a compilation of short horror stories by British writers - some you might have heard of, some might be new to you - that are all well worth a read.  Who knows, you might discover a new favourite on the list!
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the story is available as an ebook (usually as part of a collection) - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

The Tiger's Bride, by Angela Carter 
Aged 17 I was riveted by the Neil Jordan film, The Company of Wolves, so I went back to the source- Angela Carter’s collection of fairy tale subversions, The Bloody Chamber. My favourite is The Tiger’s Bride, her take on Beauty & the Beast. It speaks of objectification, desire and our true natures. It seemed disingenuous to me, even as a child, that Beauty loved the Beast for who he is inside and, loving the Beast also, I was disappointed when he was transformed into a handsome prince. I felt it suggested there was something wrong in him being different that could be “fixed” by love. Carter’s inversion of this ideal seemed very powerful to me. It thrilled me as a reader and it made me want to write.
chosen by Priya Sharma

Later, by Michael Marshall Smith 
I first read Later in a Stephen Jones anthology (the name of which kind of gives the game away) in 1995 (having never read MMS before) and instantly fell in love with the story and the tender romance  it describes between the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Rachel.  Beautifully written, with a wonderfully melancholic tone, this perfectly captures in telling little details the truth of love, friendship and grief and remains my favourite short story.  Simon Duric’s film adaption is also very good.
chosen by Mark West

August Heat, by William Fryer Harvey 
At 11 years old I found my Dad’s box of Continuing Education-issued books for his pursuit of a high school diploma.  Limited as I was to tidy childhood stories, August Heat - ending one hour before the action finished - was a revelation, driving me to invent endings for days.  I had never engaged with a story like this and the idea that I might be able to share this feeling gave me the idea that I too should start writing.  My Dad eventually received his high school diploma, although he never returned the boxes of books and I'm working on sharing that feeling while writing a novel about an LSD based nature commune set in the depths of the Northern Ontario.
chosen by Kim Talbot Hoelzli

Mackintosh Willy, by Ramsey Campbell 
My first reading of Mackintosh Willy was in the Dark Companions collection, sometime in the late '80s. I wasn't a writer then - I was newly divorced, living in London and mostly drunk. But there was something that crept in that story, something about the urban decay, hopelessness and the way we treat the other that rang a bell with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more over the next few years.  My personal circumstances improved, I got remarried, escaped London...but Ramsey's story stuck with me, and when I started writing for myself in the early '90s, some of Ramsey came along with me, for which I'll always be grateful.
chosen by Willie Meikle (no relation)

The Lady Of The House Of Love, by Angela Carter 
From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Penguin, 1979), which is full of jewels, including The Company of Wolves from which the weird and lovely film was made (I was mad about Lydia Lunch turning into a wild wolf girl and the cursed wedding party with wolves in gowns and powdered wigs!). I must have bought this slim collection while I was in the 6th form as it has a bookmark made from an NME cutting. This particular tale is of a lonely “somnambulist” Countess who sits in a chateau above a deserted village, surrounded by faded decadence as she draws the Tarot, always producing the same three cards: La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie - until one day she draws Les Amoreux. A handsome soldier on leave cycles into town, and they become each other’s tragic fate. She’s doll-like, with teeth like “spikes of spun sugar”, prettily conjured, so she’s not the cause of fear in this story with her harmless munching of rabbits. That would be the “revenants”, her old victims. The soldier isn’t one of those, for all the good that will do him. Strangely, when the rock group Daisy Chainsaw based their video for Hope All Your Dreams Come True on this story, they didn’t much seem to like the idea of the soldier curing her vampirism and escaping, so they changed the ending. Still pretty cool, though.
chosen by Donna Scott

After The Ape, by Stephen Volk 
One of my favourite short stories is ‘After the Ape’, by Stephen Volk. I first came across it in Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror 21, so around 2009ish, but I’ve read it a few times more since.  It addresses one of my favourite films, King Kong, but does more than simply retell the familiar. It’s a story about celebrity (and post-celebrity) status. It’s about the exploitative nature of stories but also the personal nature of them. Horror holds hands with sorrow as Ann Darrow laments the fate of her great ape, while further layers of complexity exist in the parallel between her father and the beast she grieves. The story functions as a powerful post-9/11 text as well. To ape is to mimic, and ‘After the Ape’ shows us the animals we can become in the wake of so much horror.
chosen by Ray Cluley

Lost And Found, by Richard Farren Barber 
Back in 2013, I received an ARC of Richard Farren Barber’s novella, The Power of Nothing and I’ve been a fan ever since! I find his writing style has a bit of a 'Twilight Zone' quality to it.  The recently released What Haunts the Heart includes one of my favorites titled, Lost and Found. After decades of marriage Michael and Bess still find ways to keep their love alive. But, memories can be a tricky thing. What sometimes feels so true is nothing but strands of what was. This is a bittersweet story, that will surely tug at the heartstrings.
chosen by Paula Limbaugh

The White People, by Arthur Machen 
I read it first when I was twelve and found it insidiously haunting. Every time I've reread the tale it has grown more powerful. It's the greatest use of the naive voice I've read, and I find its sense of the uncanny profoundly disturbing, not least because it's beyond analysis, at least by me. It's only a fragment of a novel Machen abandoned - what might that have been like? The only other works that convey undefinable terror to me so viscerally are some of the films of David Lynch.
chosen by Ramsey Campbell

The Great God Pan, by M. John Harrison 
First encountered in Douglas Winter's anthology Prime Evil, every reread makes me feel the same way the first read did more than twenty years ago, like the world around me is altered, as askew as it was for those the characters in the story the morning after, walking back through the fields. For more than two decades I've been wondering what happened on that fateful night—and one of the things I love best about the story (which became one of my favorite novels, The Course of the Heart), is that Harrison doesn't tell us; only about the aftermath. A masterful story that meditates on one of my own obsessions: what becomes of a person who touches the ineffable?
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker

Again, by Ramsey Campbell 
I'd read Campbell's work before but this was the one that really made a mark. There's a nervy, queasy tone to the tale that you just can't wash off.  A young hiker spends a day on the Wirral Way and finds a house where an old woman seems to be trapped. He tries to get inside to help her...and that's when the really weird stuff starts.  This is Campbell stripped back, laid bare. There are few of his usual stylistic flourishes. What we get instead is the most hideous, greasy, horrific atmosphere imaginable. The ending haunts me still.
chosen by Gary McMahon

Sredni Vashtar, by Saki  
I first encountered Sredni Vashtar when I heard Tom Baker reading the story (alas not in real life but on YouTube). On the surface, it seems a very ordinary story of a ten-year-old boy living with an overbearing elder cousin, who to escape the mundane of his life imagines a ferret, which he keeps in the garden shed, to be the vengeful god, Sredni Vashtar. It is in fact, a very dark, delightful tale of revenge. The end is a corker.
chosen by Cate Gardner

The Mezzotint, by M. R. James 
Though it possesses no actual feeling of jeopardy where the central characters are concerned, I’ve always considered this one of the creepiest ghost stories ever written.  I think the reasons for this are twofold.
   To begin with, it was the first of his tales I ever encountered. It was back in the early 1970s, when I wasn’t quite a teenager. In those days, we would commence our Halloween celebrations, usually in my friend’s sister’s mouldy old Wendy House at the far end of their autumnal garden, by sitting around a jack o’lantern in our costumes and telling one scary story each.  My dad often kick-started proceedings by reading some classic horror story onto tape, and then we could play it back later (adults not being allowed in the actual party). This one year he taped The Mezzotint, and it had an enormous impact on us, in my case long-term.  The unadulterated evil of its supernatural villain – I mean this damn thing abducted and murdered a child, for God’s sake! – sent shivers through us all as we sat in the chill and the damp and the mildew-scented darkness, an entire night of spooky festivities stretching out ahead of us. It’s the main tale I remember from that time, and it galvanised me into seeking out all the other M.R. James stories, which I duly did over the following years.
   The second reason it had such effect is because it’s so damn frightening. Again, even though the main good guys are in no danger themselves, which some reviewers have deemed to be a weakness in the tale, the growing sense of horror as they continue to check on this engraved image and watch the shocking crime of a century earlier unfold again, with nothing any of them can do to prevent it, is bone-chilling.  And of course, the ghoulish nature of the main antagonist is full-on.  I mean, a skeleton wrapped in malodorous rags is pretty standard, but it’s handled with such skill by the author – we only see it in fleeting glimpses – that our imagination does so much of the work. But look at some of the other neat touches: the fact that it crawls on all fours like an animal as it encroaches on its prey; the fact that it has a cross painted on its back, indicating that in life it suffered a terrible fate of its own – slow strangulation on a crossroads gibbet.
   On top of all that, it’s concise and impeccably written. The pitch, the tone, everything in the story is bang-on, without a word wasted. James’s usual characterisation is all there, even though it’s not a long yarn. We’re told very little about Williams and his academic colleagues, yet we can hear them, see them, we can feel the scholarly world they inhabit.
   Great high concept horror from a master at the top of his craft.
chosen by Paul Finch

The Tower, by Marghanita Laski
I first read this in high school (when dinosaurs roamed the earth). It was in the English Reader we had and I can’t remember what else was in there, but The Tower has stayed with me. It’s quite brief and I recall admiring how Laski had done so much with so little: setting, build-up, tension, dread, and a starkly terrifying climax all in a few pages. It’s the tale of a lonely young wife touring Italy while her husband works: one day she visits the Tower of Sacrifice where a long-dead mage Niccolo di Ferramano dabbled in the dark arts.
chosen by Angela Slatter

Eric The Pie, by Graham Masterton
There are 100’s of short stories that I could probably have picked for the Mix Tape, but this was the one that immediately sprung to mind. Graham Masterton’s masterpiece of grossness will always stick with me - a story so extreme it was credited with being the cause for Frighteners Magazine getting shut down. I never saw it in Frighteners - in a pre-Internet day I had to wait until a friend of mine photocopied the story, something he got into a bit of bother about ("never use a facility photocopier for copying nasty stuff like this!"). The tag line of the story was 'you are what you eat' and that may well explain why I am 100% prime horrific ginger.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs
I can’t remember when I first read this famous story, but it made a deep impression on me with its feel of a wonderfully English Victorian fireside tale (though it was actually published a year after Queen Victoria’s death). And it’s essentially about magic, though it’s a dark, twisted kind of magic, designed to show that ‘to interfere with fate only caused deep sadness.’ And it is that sadness, I think, that gives it enduring appeal. It uses the neat fairy tale format of three wishes to turn the natural longing of the parents against them – it robs them of their son and gives them the hope of having him back again, only to raise a terrifying spectre. All their love has turned to horror – what could be more effective than that?
chosen by Alison Littlewood

The Wailing Well, by M. R. James 
The BBC and Robert Powell got me into the eerie tales of M. R. James back in Christmas 1986. On seeing this and other stories told on the television, I bought his collected ghost stories the very next week. This story really caught my attention - with its main character, plain old Stanley Judkins, a well in a clump of trees and hedges in the middle of a field - suddenly going from mundane to terrifying in a few short pages. Creeping figures, and a terrible finale let it live long in my mind years after it was read.
chosen by Peter Mark May

The End Of A Summer’s Day, by Ramsey Campbell 
"Don’t sit there, missus,” the guide shouted, “you’ll get your knickers wet!”
This first line sums up the story: there already we have the theme of sexual repression, the story’s uneasy (and very British) humour, and the character of the guide who is not be as reliable as one might like.  The story is from Campbell’s second collection, Demons By Daylight, but despite the book’s title there’s very little daylight in this.  The main character, Maria, is part of a group of tourists being led into a complex of caves, along with her new husband, Tony. There is sexual tension between them, but not in the way normally meant: Maria is nervous, old-fashioned in her attitudes to sex even by the standards of the 70s when the story was published. And Tony is - well, what is Tony?
   At the climax of the tour, the guide switches off his torch to show the group what total darkness is like, Maria lets go of Tony’s hand, and then… well, that would be telling. Suffice to say when the light returns Campbell gives us one of the most stunning, disquieting scenes in horror fiction: ambiguous, blackly comic, terrifying in its implications.  It’s a story I’ve always found utterly astounding and compulsively re-readable: a masterpiece in a few thousand words.
chosen by James Everington

Dread, by Clive Barker
I discovered Clive Barker later than most, but I think Dread had been coming for me all my life. At a childhood sleepover, we were sharing our worst fears and one girl said she would never speak hers aloud, because something might be listening to make it come true. I never forgot that. So when I finally caught up with the Books of Blood, Dread utterly terrified me, both the predicament of the girl forced into being an experimental subject and that of the the protagonist. And that ending! I had never read anything like it before. Barker is a singular writer and his horror is truly unique. I enjoyed some of the other stories, but nothing ever wormed inside my mind quite like Dread.
chosen by Thana Niveau

A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, by Sir Charles Birkin
While I can appreciate what is commonly called ‘quiet horror’ I’m afraid it will never work as well for me as the in-your-face nastiness of the wives of prisoners of war being forced to lob cannon balls at the heads of trussed-up ‘dummies’ to see which one will (possibly) be freed by their Nazi captors. And that’s what we get in this, possibly the great Sir Charles Birkin’s greatest-ever horror story. I discovered Birkin at the age of nine with his story Special Diet, and his work has been on my shelves ever since.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

Do You See? by Sarah Pinborough 
I first encountered this award winning story in the NewCon Press anthology Myth-Understandings (ed. Ian Whates) way back in 2008ish, and more recently rediscovered it in NewCon’s anniversary reprint volume Obsidian: A Decade of Horror Stories by Women.  Rooted in everyday London life, the story has lost none of its impact with age and it's the quiet horror found in the mundane that makes it appealing.  Pinborough weaves a simple yet deliciously creepy tale that slowly peels back its layers to reveal the monster in the shadows, and the subtle handling of the denouement makes the story all the more scary.
chosen by Jenny Barber

The Incalling, by M John Harrison
This is one of those beautiful horror stories that gnaws at you and discomfits long after you’ve finished it. It’s about Austin, an editor who at the behest of one of his authors, Clerk, goes to witness a ritual taking place at a secondhand clothes shop owned by the Sprake family ‘somewhere in the warren of defeated streets which lies between Camden Road and St Pancras’. A pentagram of some sorts is involved, along with an inverted Gethsemane on the wall and a curious boy talented in the ancient arts of invocation. And there is his sister Alice, a child on the cusp of adolescence who dances within this pentagram, thereby performing this ‘incalling’, an event that has not been done for ‘fifteen hundreds of years’.
   The descriptions of the house in which this ceremony takes place are rich and claustrophobic. You breathe a sigh of relief when you escape outside with Austin as the ritual becomes more and more unseemly. He’s not there at the crucial moment, you suspect. But Austin has been tainted somewhat by events and, when he catches sight of Clerk by chance on the Victoria Embankment some weeks later, having lost contact with his author, he follows him and discovers that he has diminished physically and mentally from his pursuit of and obsession with Alice.
   The story captures the rushed arbitrariness of London life, and of things going on in its lesser known back streets that you don’t really want to know about. This is a city gripped by foul weather and a creeping tide of litter and areas described as being little better than ’brick wastes’. An oppressive zone of ’railway sidings, dull canal water and decaying squares’. It’s about people who are there but not there. At one point Austin registers Clerk’s face as ‘a white smear’; Alice Sprake, wearing a vintage outfit from her mother’s shop, looks like ‘the ghost of a Victorian afternoon’. Colours are at a premium in this story; everything is dimly shaded: dove grey or vinegar or pewter.
   You are left feeling dismayed at the lack of a clear resolution. There is no explanation as to what was achieved, if anything, by the Incalling. But Harrison’s cloying descriptions and ambiguities are imbued with possibility and suggestion. Reality does not neatly tie off all the strands and close a lid on proceedings. According to Clerk, the Sprakes were his last hope, and on the face of it you feel his hope was misplaced, but then you realise that was only in terms of Clerk’s physical condition.
  Harrison does much of the work in this brilliant story, but the answers you take away are all your own.

The Rising Tide, by Priya Sharma
A short story doesn’t have to be ambiguous or opaque just because it’s short. It can have a beginning, middle, and end just as complex and satisfying as a novel - as long as it’s done well. I have hundreds of favourite short stories, but last year I was on the BFS jury for best anthology, and I read a huge number of them in a very short time. One of those that lingered in my mind a long time afterwards, partly because it was that beginning, middle, and end done brilliantly well, was this, which originally appeared in Terror Tales of Wales, edited by Paul Finch. It’s an intriguing mystery, its characters are whole and engaging, and it’s an incredibly moving story about the weight of love and responsibility and guilt. It’s also beautifully written, but that’s just a bonus.
chosen by Carole Johnstone

Just Behind You, by Ramsey Campbell 
It’s not possible for me to be objective about this story. I commissioned it for an anthology I edited called POE’S PROGENY. The idea was for modern writers to draw upon the techniques of past masters as a way of illustrating their influence. I chose not to ask Ramsey to do the same, realising that his work was sufficiently influential on the current generation. This darkly comic tale takes it time to yield its delights. With its gathering of obsequious social climbers, it contrasts the playground behaviour of children with the bullying games of adults attending a youth’s birthday party. There’s an unforgettable passage of prose as the protagonist enters a school building, searching for a boy playing Hide and Seek. Some of the imagery here has lived with me for over a decade. There’s even a car chase towards the end – a brilliant passage of suspense – and then the whole ends with wry irony. I love this tale and was delighted that Ramsey named a whole collection after it and even referred to me in his afterword. I guess that makes me a footnote in literary history. Unlike the ghostly menace in ‘Just Behind You’, I can live with that.
chosen by Gary Fry

The Birds, by Daphne Du Maurier 
First published in 1952 in her collection of short stories, The Apple Tree, this remains a powerful example of ecological horror. Made famous by the loose film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, du Maurier's story is a tour-de-force of effective suspense and rising dread. The story is centred around Nat Hocken, a war veteran with a small family, who works part-time doing farm work. His home, positioned close to the Cornish seacoast, is one of the first to suffer a bird attack, which adds to his preparedness when the birds launch their merciless country-wide assault.  Written in the post-World War II period, the story exemplifies the English mindset of the time: making do and keeping up spirits despite aerial bombardment against which there is little defence other than to hunker down.
   I first encountered the story as a teenager in an anthology (probably Alfred Hitchcock: My Favourites in Suspense). At that point I'd already seen the film, which is now almost imprinted as a cultural memory. The story impressed me - despite being markedly different from the film - because of how du Maurier establishes the birds as a potential doomsday weapon. The story doesn't offer any explanation or solutions. Nature - the birds - has suddenly, inexplicably, turned against us and there is little we can do in the face of its indifferent massacre. The violent attacks, and their terrible aftermath, are superbly positioned in the story to provoke maximum fear.
   When re-reading the story recently I was struck by du Maurier's accomplished prose and how she begins with a typical English bucolic scene but quickly introduces the ominous presence of the birds. Later, they are downright frightening:

     'He looked out to sea and watched the crested breakers, combing green. They rose stiffly, curled, and broke again, and because it was ebb tide the roar was distant, more remote, lacking the sound and thunder of the flood.
     Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas.
    What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands... They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line.'

   There is a timeless quality to the story, despite the elements that date it, because this is one of the collective nightmares of human experience. And for those among us who live in war zones, or face the rising tides of ecological change, it intrinsically preys upon our knowledge that as a species we remain remarkably vulnerable to extinction.
chosen by Maura McHugh

My thanks to all the contributors!

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