Edited as always by Charles Black, Volume Six is the latest in this series from Mortbury Press. As a new reader, I was led to believe that these anthologies were old-school in the tradition of the wonderful Pan Books of Horror. That is certainly true. There are twists and knowing winks. There are ancient churches, derelict houses, creepy old shops, sprawling countrysides, and several of these tales feature a funeral. But the tropes are just the garnish, and the stories themselves pack a real contemporary punch.
There are 15 tales hustling for your attention beneath the frosty cleavage on the cover, and I’ll briefly mention a handful that through their brilliance, refuse to get out of my head.
The opener – “Six of the Best” by John Llewellyn Probert – is a grisly treat. It centres around a bunch of sly characters filming a Most Haunted style television documentary about ghosts that were murdered in especially horrific ways. The writing is bacon-slicer sharp, there’s satire and black humour by the truckload, and a devilish twist that made me grin – but thankfully not groan.
“Traffic Stream” by Simon Kurt Unsworth concerns the plight of a driver who gets lost on his way to a meeting, and begins to encounter sinister and progressively dangerous traffic. It’s a gripping tale, the ordeal expertly conveyed through a series of increasingly manic phonecalls received by the person who awaits him.
I particularly enjoyed “The Doom” by Paul Finch. This features a young priest whose rustic church reveals a secret: behind a crumbling wall lies an ancient piece of hellish, ecclesiastical art depicting the 7 deadly sins. The priest meets a curious visitor who seems fascinated with the work, before confessing the terrible reasons for his interest. Despite the classic horror setting, this is a contemporary story – delivering the best of both worlds – and offers thought-provoking themes regarding sin, moral choice and consequence. And it certainly has the most powerful and desperately helpless conclusion of all the stories in this book.
“Gnomes” by Mick Lewis is a blast. We follow a couple who take some magic mushrooms and decide on a trip to the cinema, an adventure soured by an escalating paranoia towards garden gnomes. A hallucinogenic experience is difficult to write without sounding fake, or simply boring the reader to tears, but the author dodges this pitfall, and “Gnomes” grabs the interest and doesn’t let go. It offers welcome moments of humour, but like a genuine bad trip, the advancing darkness will not be stopped. Eventually, like the protagonists, you will be questioning what’s real in this engaging mix of uneasy chuckles and malevolence.
For me, another peak is “Bagpuss” by Anna Taborska. Definitely the most sobering story on offer, we find Emily, a lonely, anxious girl who moves to the countryside with her single mom and beloved cat. The POVs of the protective girl and little Bagpuss himself are beautifully rendered, as is the weary heart of her neurotic mother. This is a distressing tale, with some incredibly poignant and fragile scenes. There is no humour to temper the tone, so I suppose it depends on the reader’s tolerance of mood as to whether they will derive enjoyment from it.
I’ll also offer a quick thumbs-up to Craig Herbertson for his “Spanish Suite.” Involving a confectionary salesman, a Spanish village funeral and a corpse, the sick finale made me guffaw on public transport and startle the lady in the next seat.
There are certainly no undeserving stories – all are written to a professional standard – but there are times when the quality dips slightly. Although well told and ultimately harmless enough, Alex Langley’s “The Red Stone” – regarding a rural slab of rock that has been the scene of many an atrocity – seemed almost too old-school with its textbook twist. There’s a similar problem with “The Switch” by David Williamson, a thrilling tale of a prison escapee whose luck takes a turn for the worse. It’s enjoyable, but the mechanism is rather worn. This anthology also doesn’t quite end on the high that it deserved. The final story, “Keeping Your Mouth Shut” by Mark Samuels, featuring a stuggling writer turned scream-queen stalker, seemed to lack a coherent focus. While entertained, I was gently confused.
But these complaints are minor. This is an unapologetic tome of horror – both spooky and lurid – with an unusually high level of writing. And while there is much to fondly compare with the Pan books of the 60s, 70s and 80s, that isn’t to cheapen what else has been achieved here. The 6th Black Book of Horror isn’t merely a derivative homage, it’s a fresh, colourful anthology for the cliche-wary audience of now.