I became familiar with Paul Finch through his anthologised short fiction, and he always ticks all the boxes. One Monster Is Not Enough, a themed collection of 8 novellas and novelettes courtesy of Gray Friar Press, continues that tradition of quality. With the freedom to expand his tales, this book is a treat.
It kicks off with one of the shorter stories: “The Old North Road”. Here we find a down-on-his-luck historian travelling to a ruined abbey for a project on the legendary Green Man. He meets a suspicious couple out in the quiet countryside, and the unease notches up slowly towards a terrifying climax in which the supernatural almost takes a back seat to the three human characters. But only almost.
“The Tatterfoal” concerns the widowed wife of an 80s pop star. She arranges for his former band-mates and family to attend a party in her isolated mansion: a place rife with tales about the legendary man-horse of the title. This story keeps us guessing throughout, and ladles on the atmosphere including the best use of fog since… well, The Fog. My only complaint is that it felt slightly too long, and shorn of a few pages, it would’ve been truly unputdownable.
“Calibos” is an immediately gripping SF story in which a titanic mechanical crab – designed to harvest seabed specimens – clambers onto dry land and wreaks a trail of carnage across the country. We follow a crack squad of soldiers into the crab’s guts as they try to bring it down, fighting off the brilliantly anatomical internal defences. Although this is a lighter tale, it’s not without horror, especially when we encounter the human “specimens” the Calibos has collected and processed. The angle of innocent technology gone awry is handled with aplomb, and it also reflects on the value of human life within the world of politics.
Next up is a story with a strong urban flavour. Set in Manchester, “Hag Fold” is a serial killer tale told by an ex-cop. The childhood reflections are superb, and reading it is like watching a grim jigsaw being assembled.
“The Retreat” is a definite favourite. Set during World War II, a group of German soldiers trek across the frozen Russian Steppes and discover a forest shack that seems strangely welcoming. Utterly intriguing from the off, this story has a nightmarish quality to which the hardened soldiers respond perfectly. It’s also notable for its battle scenes, which are nothing short of breathtaking. To read brutal, realistic, wince-inducing bloodshed in such elegant prose is an unforgettable experience, and you would think the author was actually there.
“Kid” is narrated by a tough, bitter ex-boxer. He plans to tell his ex-wife what he thinks of her – and knock her new fella’s teeth out – but instead gets lost in a threadbare and indifferent part of London called Baker’s Wood. He’s an eloquent narrator, despite his primal nature and other shortcomings. I won’t ruin the surprises, but the whole package is a triumph of both concept and voice.
In “Red in Beak and Claw” we meet Ben: gangster muscle in the witness protection programme. When he’s relocated to a country cottage with his wife, he learns of a local robber’s hoard said to be protected by a gigantic, man-slaying cockerel. This tale shows the author’s talent for keeping those pages turning fast, and like the previous story, you engage even though the protagonist is somebody you might avoid in the street. This investment is helped by plenty of character back-story, but as always, not a whiff of infodumping. The conclusion doesn’t quite have the clout as some of the others, but it certainly isn’t disappointing, and it’s a brilliant story to re-read once you know what’s going on.
“Crow-Raven” brings the entertainment to a close. The first couple of paragraphs give a rather bland tour of a medieval manor called Buckton Hall. Okay. Then the narrative begins to describe a couple of murdered corpses in that same polite, slightly jocular and informative tone of a tour-guide, and suddenly I was beaming. This is writing. It transpires that Buckton Hall used to be owned by a family of vicious hunchbacks, and we follow the efforts of a specialist police unit for investigating strange and paranormal crimes. The whole thing pans out like the pilot for an English adult version of the X-Files with plenty of humour, gore, scares, and a dollop of sexual tension.
I suggest getting hold of One Monster Is Not Enough immediately. All the stories are strong. They conclude with a satisfying flourish, with not a hackneyed twist in sight, and the supernatural tales are just as real and chilling as those with concrete foundations. Paul Finch also has an extraordinary ear for dialogue: there are big-budget scriptwriters who can’t pen scenes as natural as those in this book. Regardless of genre, it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the short fiction form in the hands of somebody so bloody good at it.