There are common themes and references in all of the stories, above and beyond the obvious, giving rise to my conviction that all of the writers here are recording a common cultural phenomenon: a disintegration of meaning and a deep fear of what lies beyond. I was reminded, at some point, of the opening of Sartre's "Nausea" in which the narrator begins to experience a visceral horror of the concrete object. The characters in the stories often touch the real world and recoil - preferring the insubstantial world of ideas to the horror of the mundane.
In "It's Only Words", the fine first piece in the anthology, the protagonist uses fragments of texts to cocoon his victims, thereby relieving the thunderous discourse of the inner voices that poison his existence but, as people around him begin to lose their ability to communicate, he fears he has become the agent of this linguistic decay and the final impression is of a world spiralling into chaos. "You Walk the Pages" by Mark Valentine deals with a similarly autistic-seeming individual who uses horror stories as a way of getting back at people who offend him, like the lady in the chip shop, by substituting their names for the characters in the stories and making them suffer the same fate, or worse. It is the hilariously deadpan first person narrator that made the story work so well. "The Rediscovery of Death" by Mike O'Driscoll, features a struggling small press publisher in search of a winning title to keep the publishing wheels turning and a shadowy character offering some kind of Faustian bargain. A down-to-earth girlfriend provides the rational viewpoint. The horror anthology becomes, for the publisher, a horrific anthology. This is a story about literary obsession and also, crucially, about the disintegration of meaning.
Other stories are themselves fragmented like Chinese puzzles in which the reader has to piece together the meaning from sparse clues. S.D. Tullis's "Horror Planet" consists of a deconstructed narrative that flits between scraps of seemingly random thought, depicting, in a few short pages, a kind of planetary collapse. I loved the frantic pace of this story. "The Useless" is Dominy Clements' totally unconventional contribution to this anthology. It's brutally short and it succeeds, with charming simplicity, in confusing the hell out of you whilst leaving you on the lingering verge of understanding.
"Flowers of the Sea" by Reggie Oliver follows the physical and mental decay of an artist, as told by her husband, whose slowly dawning consciousness of the process of the disease has a haunting emotional depth. The narrator's realisation of his own mortality is rendered with great skill. The story seems to draw out the themes of the collection's other narratives, to focus their sometimes only half-expressed ideas, with a disturbing clarity.
In Joel Lane's "Midnight Flight" an elderly man, in the grip of dementia, seems only half aware that he is out of kilter with the modern world but forms a fierce determination to track down a half-remembered book of horror stories from his childhood. As he searches, his childhood memories surge up to obliterate the present. The quest for the book becomes a quest for the book's author and ultimately for the remaining shreds of his own identity. The story gives us an exquisitely detailed description of the process of amnesia and the stories, the memories of stories, that we cling to when we are out of touch with all else in this fast-disintegrating world.
In "Tears of the Mutant Jester", the books themselves become sick, vomiting indigestible words and having to be relieved of their unnecessary appendices. Rhys Hughes' brightly punning narrative transforms the darker subtext of horror like a breath of fresh air. Where other authors see an opportunity for expressing angst, Hughes seizes the chance to make us laugh at this literary conceit - books have feelings too!
Thornton Excelsior, Rhys Hughes', character understands the power of books and the words they contain as much as any of this collection's authors. We spend so much time in the company of printed words that we know their power: their ability to create or destroy, to provoke wars and reduce men to quivering wrecks, to inspire love and devotion and to raise our eyes to beauty. Books are the driving force of many of the characters' lives. In D.P. Watt's story, "All Your Worldly Goods", we are introduced to the deceptively cosy world of a charity shop volunteer. His carefully regulated life is gradually undermined when a mysterious man brings a fateful book into the shop. The very ordinariness of the man's life, its petty jealousies and creeping sense of worthlessness creates a profoundly moving setting.
In several of the stories, the process of writing itself is evoked in all its arduousness - the anxiety, the growing sense of purposelessness and the sheer bloody-minded determination to define the indefinable, half aware that, in the very act of creating, the author destroys the very thing he is trying to perfect, the beauty of the idea submitted to the harsh and sometimes ugly reality of ink and paper. Oh the horror! "The Writer" by Clayton Steelback draws on this creative struggle. The story gradually assumes an uncomfortable presence in the writer's life, becoming ever more concrete until an evil character breaks through into real life. The horror of nightmares becoming flesh crops up in several of the stories. As authors perhaps we are more than usually susceptible to this illusion or delusion, perhaps because we are always striving to model characters from real life. I'm surely not the only author to feel confused as to whether a memory of an incident is from real-life or one I imagined for some self-created literary world. Perhaps it's the first sign of madness. Rosanne Rabinowitz's finely detailed study of a woman's search for a book she once picked up in the school library acknowledges the power of books as totems, somehow focusing a person's entire worldview. The story within this story develops the idea of feelings or ideas transforming people's lives -either for the better - a pearl, or for the worse - a boil. The story's psychological depth allows the reader to appreciate the symbolic power of the book. A girl and boy encountered in a field of flowers, provides a sort of Arcadian vision for the story's protagonist, towards which she strives. Flowers and plants are symbols of love but, later, in a different story within the story, another plant engulfs and digests the girl who tends it.
In other stories plants poison or become symbols of annihilation as in "Flowers of the Sea". In "The Writer", a vase is transformed into a multi-stemmed plant that scatters its spores and invokes a state of madness. "Tree Ring Anthology" by Daniel Ausema subverts the tree's image as a thing of beauty, usefulness, permanence and shelter. The story cleverly uses the concentric pattern of the tree's rings to document the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe. Subverting symbols of innocence, transforming them into objects of corruption and decay is a common technique used by writers of horror, but Ausema's story is perfectly original in its execution.
Werner Herzog said that the thing to be avoided at all costs, in cinematic terms, is the clichéd image, as presented through the lens of any Hollywood movie. The stories in this anthology avoid the clichés of horror, either by creating fresh sources of disturbance or by getting inside the horror image to dissect its psychological power. In "Common Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Rita Kendall", A.J. Kirby exposes the world of an aging horror starlet whose famous scream is subjected to analysis by a bored magazine writer who thereby uncovers the star's secret source of guilt. As Rita Kendall's shadowy doppelganger is slowly and clumsily sleuthed out by the hack we slowly witness the pain behind the melodrama and the emptiness of the celebrity life that conceals it.
"The American Club" also features a doppelganger, of sorts. The narrator delves into the enigma of his dying father's writing but uncovers an unpalatable explanation for his father's refusal to publish his work. This is an intense study of the subconscious. A ruined building with its decaying staircases and abandoned cellars acts as a metaphor for the writer's twisted imagination and reflects an over-arching theme of this collection - the horror of the literary imagination. As writers in search of horror we become subjects of our own literary endeavours. What could be worse? The author, Christopher Morris, is astute enough to leave the ending insubstantial, to give the reader the merest hint of the dark truth.