You always get a lot of bang for your buck with anthologies. If you don’t like the story you’re reading it's not long ‘til the next one comes along. While they're seldom excellent from start to finish, they're equally seldom rubbish from start to finish either.
A mixed bag usually and if you’re lucky you'll find a gem or two in there. The short story format means that the stories are to the point, shorn of excess flab, with only have a short time to tell the story. The best of them use this frugality with style and panache. Clive Barker's Books of Blood for example, tell some great short stories and use the medium to full effect. Just because it's short in length doesn't mean that it has to be short on thrills.
On to The End of the Line, then, a new horror anthology from Solaris Books that promises ‘a terrifying journey deep into the heart of terror’ with a collection of stories themed around travel on Underground Trains.
Memories of Quatermass and the Pit and the day that I spent two and a half hours stuck on a train in a tunnel deep in the bowels of Glasgow filled my head. If any of the writers could come up with something as scary to the 11 year old me as Quatermass, or as deeply unpleasant as that warm day in a smelly tunnel, then I was in for a treat.
Paul Meloy’s Bullroarer kicks of proceedings. It cheats more than a little, while the story is partly set on the Underground, it’s incidental and could easily be set anywhere. It’s an enjoyable enough tale of a cuckold desperate for revenge and a chance to reclaim his masculinity with a suitably gory pay off. A solid, well written, if unspectacular start.
Arriving at the platform just a few moments later is one of the highlights of the collection, John L Probert’s excellent The Girl In The Glass. This tale of a girl who hovers between life and death after an accident in the underground is old school horror, both spooky and disquieting. It’s followed by another highlight, The Lure by Nicholas Royle. Set in the Paris Metro, this disconcerting tale built a gradually increasing sense of unease and delivered an unsettling pay off. Good stuff so far.
The standard stays high with Rebecca Levene’s 23:45 Morden (via Bank) a twisted little tale of a life swap, before we stray off the horror theme with Jasper Bark’s almost sci-fi tale, End Of The Line. It’s a good enough read, but lacks any tension or, well, horror.
Sons of the City by Simon Bestwick, too lacks any real tension or horror. It’s premise though, of why Manchester has no Underground system, is an original and interesting idea. It’s strong enough to carry the story and while not very scary, is agreeable enough. The tale may have given us an insight into Manchester’s Gallagher brothers family tree into the bargain.
Pat Cadigan’s Funny Things follows, another story that is more sci-fi than horror, with multiple narrative strands coming together. Interesting, and enjoyable none the less, for the lack of scares.
The stories that follow, explore the underground theme with varying degrees of success. At one end of the scale we have Gary McMahon’s Diving Deep, another standout, with possibly the most original take on the Underground theme in the book - a dark visit to underneath the Antarctic.
Exit Sounds by Conrad Williams however, like Bullroarer, features the Underground almost incidentally, being set in an old cinema that has a tunnel that links it to the Underground.
Fallen Boys by Mark Morris is set in a Cornish tin mine and Stephen Volk’s voyeuristic In The Coliseum are other highlights.
The collection ends on a particular high with Down by Christopher Fowler. This poignant and moving old style ghost story gives us a suitably haunting and memorable finale.
There are eighteen stories in the collection and inevitably there are some similarities and ideas that crop up more than once. Some of the tales don’t quite pull it off, either as horror stories or as tales of the Underground. That said, there are no out and out failures and the good stuff way outnumbers the not-quite-as-good. A book well worth seeking out if you enjoy a good, short thrill now and then...and who doesn’t?
I've always had a thing for horror anthologies. As a kid I devoured the Pan Books of Horror that populated my local library shelves. I think I got up to volume 24 before they realised that a kid under 12 probably shouldn’t have been borrowing them.
So, Solaris' new anthology ends and it lived up, for the most part, to the high standards set in the days of my youth. In fact if it had a skull, or some suitably macabre cover, it could well have been a Pan Book of Horror.
High praise indeed.
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