The original Ill At Ease was released a couple of years ago: a small anthology featuring Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams. It presented three strong tales in which peril lurks behind the ordinary, so I was pleased to hear news of a sequel from Penman Press. Another four authors have been added to the original line-up and although the vibe is similar, this time you get a bit more variation and a few horrible surprises.
Stephen Bacon is a fine purveyor of quiet horror and “Double Helix” kicks things off with a tale that showcases his trademark mood, character and prose. We meet Claire, a terminally ill woman on a trip to rural Scotland with an old ex who believes he can help her find treatment. This story engages at once through our protagonist’s fears and frustrations, and there are strong themes of guilt and regret. It’s ultimately less dark than I expected, actually quite sweet at times, but we’re never far from that heart-breaking human reluctance to let hope blossom as youth and health slip away. It still finds room for some seriously creepy atmosphere and the finale took me by surprise. It was something that both story tone and author familiarity hadn’t led me to expect, but it cements a beautifully-written piece with a memorable otherworldliness.
This assured start is followed by something of a very different flavour. “The Shuttle” by Shaun Hamilton involves Sally and Paul, a pleasant couple who move to rural Wales to start a family. Unfortunately, their parental plans are soon to be affected by the eponymous shuttle: a concrete tower that overlooks from a nearby quarry. I was deceived by the gentle start and the normal lives of these folk, but soon enveloped by the aura of unease. It made me guess as to if the supernatural was playing a part, and both visceral and emotional shocks combine as everything falls into place. I found it occasionally over-descriptive, especially during dialogue, but this is countered by some superb turns of phrase. Perhaps rather unsubtle for some, I loved the jugular-pouncing horror – in concept and delivery – and it’s a great contrast to Stephen Bacon’s opener.
Somewhere betwixt the two is “Masks” by Robert Mammone. We are introduced to Harry, the fiancé of a presumed dead girl, who discovers that she might have been spotted in the train station where she disappeared. We’re treated to a literal and metaphorical descent into the station’s lower levels of grime, dripping walls and threat, every detail of which is exquisitely painted. During the opening scene in a funeral parlour, I was briefly confused with character identities, but after this small false start I was gripped. This piece toys with our suspicions, layering on the chills as we’re dragged deeper towards a tense and unpleasant finale. Ill at ease, indeed.
“One Bad Turn” by Val Walmsley plunges us straight into the plight of Tim, a boy on the run from bullies. He finds refuge beneath an old yew tree – a place of local folklore with a grisly past – where he dreams of murder and everything spirals from there. Young Tim’s hurt and rage is very well conveyed, and understandable, providing the pathos that this kind of tale requires. Although I found the descriptive showdown slightly overlong, it’s far from predictable and I was swept along by this ghastly bag of horror tricks.
A familiar parental terror rises in “The Bureau of Lost Children” by Mark West. We meet Scott, who loses his seven year old son in a shopping mall, and his search soon takes a terrifying turn. The initial panic is perfectly captured (gleaned from experience, the afterword explains) and this tale teases with moments of hope amid the escalating strangeness. It makes you wonder what goes on behind closed doors, and I loved the superficially banal but chilling menace. Perhaps I’d have liked a little explanation for its nefarious intentions, but then maybe it works better with the mystery intact: the whole thing becomes reminiscent of 70s and 80s science fiction. Very cleanly written, I didn’t see any part of this story coming, which makes for a great horror thriller.
A gruesome short, “Paradise Lost” by Sheri White is the account of a man on a paradise beach holiday that suddenly becomes a snapshot from hell. It doesn’t hang about before family normality gives way to gore, and cranks up the claustrophobia of impending doom towards a horrific pay-off. With no background to the events, this is a glorious horror snippet that had me turning pages like some ghoulish voyeur and it lingers like the memory of a nightmare.
Finishing things off in thoughtful style is “There Shall We Ever Be” by Neil Williams. In this haunting piece, we find Mark – a discontented man – returning home to Warrington for a family funeral. He meets a familiar old man en route who tells him of a boarded up tunnel that’s a strange link to the past. The scene is set for a spooky build-up that provides incredible place, taking us right there into Mark’s ill-advised adventure into the darkness. I quite liked our downbeat protagonist, and the layers of the tale – urban evolution, childhood memory and fear – add plenty of depth. It takes its time, rightly so, towards an appropriately gauged finale that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling with any clues.
Given the obvious time and effort that went into the first volume, I was pleased to find that Ill At Ease 2 has the same stamp of quality. With an interesting authorial afterword for each, all seven stories are slick, emotionally investable, and deliver a range of genre textures. Whether you like slow-burning unease or a nasty kick in the pants, there’ll be something to satisfy your dark passenger.
Go on, let’s have a third.