REVIEW: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Review of Kelly Robson, “A Human Stain”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 129—154. Purchase Here. Originally published at Tor.com on January 4th 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A ‘family with a secret’ story that is well executed and unlike any I’ve come across before.

Helen is a penniless bohemian, brought to the Lambrecht family house at Meresee Lake in the Bavarian Alps by her friend Bärchen, with the intention that she can tutor Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter for the summer. Straight away it’s clear that things are amiss, with the servants uncommunicative and unhelpful, Peter vanishing every five minutes and the nursemaid Mimi, whom Helen immediately resolves to seduce, silent and frightened (and what the hell’s happened to her teeth?). The mystery builds to a chilling end through some very disturbing moments and lovely signposting.

Helen is an interesting, tough and level-headed protagonist so we’re rooting for her from the start. I also found it refreshing that Helen and Bärchen are both gay, so there’s no romantic element to their relationship, a simplicity that stands at odds with the mystery of the situation Helen finds herself in. All the half-truths and misdirection in the story work really well (especially on a re-read) and the ominous atmosphere created is excellent. I had quite a few questions at the end that I couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, and I really wanted to know more about the — without giving too much away — natural history of the family Helen has found herself among. Some readers will love the unknown and unknowable elements of the story but I found I wanted more, because there was such potential for mining the idea further. It’s a gripping read.

REVIEW: “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” by David Erik Nelson

Review of David Erik Nelson, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 107—127. Purchase Here. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2017. Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

You know when you come home from work early and your wife’s in bed with a cop, and then said wife shoots you in the face with your own gun? Yeah, this is one of those stories. And it’s great. The three short opening paragraphs alone are a textbook example of how to start a short story to get maximum impact – we have action (sighting of a hanged woman, narrow escape from a car accident), location (somewhere in the sticks near Calcutta, Ohio), context (the protagonist — Lyle —isn’t thinking straight) and mystery (he doesn’t want to think about his ear, his wife, the detective or the gun he’s carrying, though we don’t yet know why). What I at first thought was going to be a simple revenge story (once we find out what happened with the detective and Lyle’s wife) then takes a sharp left into something else when he sees the ‘hanged’ woman, and all the parts roll together into a pleasingly twisted ending.

Nelson also plays with our expectations and perceptions. For example, the section with the hanging seems believable because of the community involved and the way they are characterised, yet they are validated in the end — making the story more horrific. I enjoyed the way the tale played with the idea of being hagridden, and who is doing the riding and why. My only slight disappointment was that I was rather hoping that the lack of emotion on Lyle’s part, whether through shock or a more profound mental imbalance, would allow him to change the ending, which felt a bit inevitable. But then, this is a horror story. And a thoroughly enjoyable one.

REVIEW: “Where’s the Harm?” by Rebecca Lloyd

Review of Rebecca Lloyd, “Where’s the Harm?”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 77—105. Purchase Here. Originally published in Seven Strange Stories (Tartarus Press, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I’ve been a fan of Rebecca Lloyd since reading her story ‘Ragman’ in last year’s Best Horror of the Year (Volume Nine), so was pleased to see a repeat appearance this year. ‘Where’s the Harm?’ is a particularly fine contribution to the anthology. Two brothers are redecorating the parental home they have inherited, an effort that sparks some long-standing sibling rivalry. When the brothers decide to explore the nearby woods and come across a house that shouldn’t be there, yet which is home to an odd family of long-haired sisters, the gap that has always existed between them prevents the aversion of a tragedy that is slow and horrific in the making.

I loved this story, with its elements of siren mythology (particularly given the etymology of the term ‘siren’ being linked to rope and entanglement, the women’s preternaturally long hair, and the act of ‘winding’ that appears in the story), the air of mystery around the women, the frustration of a relationship broken since childhood, and the building of tension as the inevitable approaches – though one is never sure quite how it is going to end. Wonderful stuff.

REVIEW: “Furtherest” by Kaaron Warren

Review of Kaaron Warren, “Furtherest”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 55—76. Purchase Here. Originally published in Dark Screams Volume Seven, edited by Brian James Freeman (Cemetery Dance/Hydra, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

Another engaging story in the anthology, and a rewarding read. The story revolves around four boat houses on an Australian beach, with the (unnamed female) protagonist’s family occupying one house during their summer beach holidays, and the others acting as home to the indolent ‘Jason’s dad’ and the rather disturbing ‘Mr White/Grandpa Sheet/Grandad Sheet’ as he’s variously called. There is something sinister about the dunes at the back of the house and there are rumours of a spate of suicides over the years, so no-one wants to venture inside, despite Grandpa Sheet’s exhortations to see who can go ‘furtherest’. The story starts when the protagonist is a young girl, and then resumes when she is older and the family, experiencing its own problems, visits the beach once again. It’s a mysterious and unnerving story that kept me gripped to the end.

It took me a little while to get into the narrator’s voice and to work out the different characters in the houses and so on, but the gradual reveal of the various layered elements of the story was admirable, as was the portrayal of family dynamics. I also learnt a lot from the story. With the early reference to the Vietnam conflict I originally assumed that the story was set in the USA and was a little confused by some of the more British phrasing, only to realise the that story takes place in Australia – and not only that I’m a bit ignorant of some aspects Australian history and culture, but also that I don’t seem to have read much horror fiction set in Australia, which is something that I’ll have to rectify. I intend to check out Warren’s other stories in the near future.

REVIEW: “Holiday Romance” by Mark Morris

Review of Mark Morris, “Holiday Romance”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 31—54. Purchase Here. Originally published in Black Static #58 (2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I loved this story. From the opening paragraph I knew that the author’s writing style was going to chime with me, and as soon as it became apparent that the story was set in an English seaside town (smell the nostalgia!) I was on board and fully paid up.

Our protagonist, Skelton (great name), is escaping his failing marriage with a trip to the coastal holiday town he visited as a teenager, and where he had an unrequited infatuation with a girl he’s never forgotten. It isn’t long before he meets an intriguing woman holidaying with her infirm husband, and the police are asking him questions about body parts found on the beach that, impossibly, seem to match his DNA.

I guessed where the story was going quite early on but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it; instead reading it felt more like visiting with an old friend. I was a bit sceptical about the rapidity with which DNA test results became available (pretty swish forensic service in that part of England) but perhaps that’s misplaced.

Overall, this is a lovely story about the decisions we make (or don’t) and their repercussions, and a reminder that all relationships eventually decline, though not all to the same severity or extent. The ending, though disturbing, offers some hope. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Liquid Air” by Inna Effress

Review of Inna Effress, “Liquid Air”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 21—30. Purchase Here. Originally published in Nightscript III, edited by C.M. Muller (Nightscript, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

One of the shorter stories in the anthology, this is an interesting piece that follows Kris as she goes to collect some neon signage from an unusual sign technician, and is told to return on the morrow as it is not yet finished. We then get an insight into Kris’s home life and the growing insanity of her doll-obsessed husband and failing marriage. When she returns to collect the signage the next day she makes a decision that brings about something of a cataclysm for her and others.

The story is a bit disjointed and I’m not sure that the various parts hang together as well as they could, though it may be that some of the meaning has passed me by; I was certainly left with a few questions at the end. I wasn’t sufficiently convinced of Kate’s relatively sudden (and prolonged) acquiescence to physical intimacy with the technician, even if they had met once before, and it felt like the husband’s obsession could have been dealt with more satisfactorily. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining read and the real strength of the story is in the descriptions, with the final section, detailing the aftermath of a flood that has unearthed the contents of a cemetery (and a few other things), really standing out. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “Better You Believe” by Carole Johnstone

Review of Carole Johnstone, “Better You Believe”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 1—19. Purchase Here. Originally published in Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric G. Guignard (Cutting Block Books, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

Expectations are always high from the opening story of a horror anthology, especially one of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year anthologies. This year opens with Carole Johnstone’s “Better You Believe”, originally published in Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric G. Guignard. It’s a ‘wilderness’ horror, charting the literal, physical and mental descent of the protagonist (Sarah) as she makes her way down a mountain in the Annapurna Massif after bad weather has come in, separated (at least initially) from the rest of her group. A series of Bad Things occur, but her love for her boyfriend Nick keeps her going while the body count mounts.

It’s a great story, ramping up the dread and emphasising the terrible indifference of nature and the violence it inflicts, as we begin to suspect that Nick may not quite be the stand-up guy Sarah thinks he is (or is he?), and some interesting group dynamics are revealed. The author makes it easy for the reader to care for Sarah and really want her to come through. While reading the story I was a little niggled by the relative ease with which Sarah manages to extricate herself from some of the Bad Things that happen, and the tendency for her to be seemingly on the verge of physical/mental/emotional collapse one moment, and then able to hang on for several hours before coming to the verge of collapse again, in what seems an endless struggle. But the twist at the end resolved that for me and although it’s not hugely original, I’m happy to say that I didn’t see it coming and so had to re-read the story to admire all the misdirection.

Overall this was a really strong start to the anthology and an evocatively written, refreshing and truly disturbing story that has reinforced my desire never to climb anything larger than a small knoll. Real wilderness – of which surely mountains are one of the few remaining examples – can be terrifying for a reason.