Ah, classical music and horror. It’s not a new partnership, but having more than a passing interest in both, the theme of this anthology snagged my attention. I hoped that it wouldn’t just be full of superficial references, but of course with DF Lewis at the helm I needn’t have worried. The music is very much the heart and soul of the book, in concept, style and atmosphere. His previous anthologies have a thoughtful, literary edge and I was happy to discover that “The First Book of Classical Horror Stories” is up there with the best of them.
As always, beneath the perfect cover is a superbly edited selection of stories, including several familiar “nemonymous” names, and all the contributors have done the theme justice. Music becomes the soundtrack to creation and love, to brutal murder and vengeful hauntings, and what soon becomes apparent is that every tale is well written, some of them exceptionally so. There’s a variety of horror – quiet, visceral, supernatural and wry – and although we have no weak links, there are several that particularly stand out for me.
Rachmaninoff scores the curtain raiser. “Chamber Music” by Rachel Kendall is a strangely claustrophobic fantasy involving a giant, the nuances of which I won’t spoil. A luscious and textured work, it’s one of the book’s more surreal adventures, but a welcome opener.
“Vertep” by DP Watt is narrated by a man whose passion is collecting Jack-in-the-Box toys. He discovers a damaged specimen that plays Stravinsky, and his life soon descends into visions and obsession. This author has a very listenable voice and we are transported by the magic to a shocking, sharp conclusion.
I enjoyed the visual vibe of “Rêverie” by Lawrence Conquest which stars Alex, a film score composer. He dreams the death of his family in a car crash to the tune of Debussy during an “intricate ballet of metal and flesh” and this music returns to haunt and usurp him. There’s plenty going on for a short piece – feeling, character and a deeply entrenched musical flavour – and it completes a pleasing circle of life and death.
“The Fourteenth” by Nicole Cushing refers to Shostakovich’s 14th symphony, and is bravely told in the second person past tense, almost as though revisiting a nightmare. This technique shines as we follow a widow into a vision of carnivals on a desert of human ash, and the author uses pain, nostalgia and tone to great effect.
Following this is Stephen Bacon’s “The Ivory Teat”. Metzler is a man who rents a grubby apartment and hears piano music – Chopin’s Nocturnes – coming from a reclusive tenant who then brutally takes his own life. I won’t reveal what ensues, but this cold, intriguing spiral floats between the sublime and deeply unsettling. The author paints such rich tapestries with so few, subtle words, and his work is always a pleasure to read. Brilliant.
Another definite favourite is “Excerpted” by Holly Day. A man finds a crumbling sheaf of tablature that was scribed by nuns, but the compositions have chaotic extra bars added “like terrible holes of sharpened pikes hidden in the middle of a peaceful forest”. And when played, these fragments seem to conjure hell itself. Gripping and handsomely written, this story keeps one foot firmly in the real and mundane which succeeds in hugely enhancing the horror. It gave me a chill, and deftly utilises point of view for a dark but knowing pay off.
“That section, like so many others in the sonatas, holds the mirror up to the blackness and emptiness within them. You play these pieces at your peril.” So says the piano tutor in Colin Insole’s “The Appassionata Variations”: a rich, moody reminiscence about music lessons during the war. This is evocative storytelling that reads like a classic and has plenty of gothic shivers in store.
Tony Lovell’s “The Holes” is a more contemporary chiller that concerns a family’s trip to a caravan. But the bland expectation of the holiday is upset by hundreds of mysterious holes that have opened up across Lancashire, all emitting an apocalyptic, orchestral sound. The author daubs a succinct, stylish tale with incredible unease.
I particularly savoured “De Profundis” by Daniel Mills. Damien is a student, loner and a dedicated musician, and is writing a new piece in the snow-dappled aftermath of his father’s funeral. But his composition seems to change and write itself, always returning to the same atonal and frighteningly soulless chords. Told in the present tense with a terse, informative style, we get a genuine feeling of otherness from our protagonist and become utterly absorbed into his intense microcosm. With everything coated in frost, isolation and catholic fear, this is a gem of quiet, descending horror.
Equally memorable is “Songs for Dead Children” by Aliya Whitely which introduces a dejected singer. After a disastrous attempt to perform the darkness of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder in Vienna, she befriends a charismatic and understanding oncologist at the aftershow party. Spanning several years, this emotive journey concludes with a moment of realisation that is so horrifically ice cold it’s almost beautiful. Excellent, shudder-inducing stuff.
After this blow to the solar plexus, the mood of the anthology takes a more gentle tone for the final two tales. First, “He Had Lived for Music” by Sarah O’Scalaidhe tells of a ghost violinist who becomes more music than human, having wild consequences for a live performance. This segues nicely into “The Trilling Season” by Rhys Hughes: a single page flash twist on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that rounds it all off with a sardonic smile.
I very much enjoyed this book. Many of the 21 pieces, including those I haven’t specifically mentioned, have such haunting quality that they hang in the mind just like the exquisite music that inspired them. And while some of them require concentration – this editor always encourages depth and refuses to patronise readers – it’s an investment that is rewarded.
Trying to find fault, I would say that it’s probably slightly piano heavy, but such is the nature of open submissions, and better that than a dilutation of quality. I also wish that there was author information accompanying the stories. I know that DF Lewis prefers to present the fiction sans distraction, but I do like to read a brief bio, especially when it’s an author with whom I’m unfamiliar.
But I don’t have any genuine grumbles and “The First Book of Classical Horror Stories” is a very sound purchase. Don’t shy if you’re not familiar with this particular genre of music. While there’s plenty to delight the musos and classical aficionados, it’s not essential. Anybody with a love of quality macabre fiction can lose themselves in these perfectly formed pages.
And if the teaser in the title is to be taken literally, then a second volume is planned. It’s certainly got its work cut out.