Joy Silence (joysilence) wrote in darkling_tales,
Joy Silence

Strange Stories

I am always on the hunt for affordable supernatural fiction, and in my quest for cheap books I have had many reasons to thank Gray Friar Press. Now here they are again, with an anthology that seems tailor-made to suit any fan of the "strange story" : Shadows Edge, edited by Simon Strantzas. This is a collection explicitly devoted to the numinous, and to the borderland between the real and the imaginary, to places where the veil separating the two has worn thin.

The editor commences the proceedings in an unusual manner, by including a "Prologue: The Nineteenth Step", which is effectively a short story in its own right. Well, it's a bit meagre for a short story, and definitely not as good as Strantzas "proper" stories, but it serves the purpose of setting out the themes of the collection, with a young couple who gain the first rung of the "housing ladder" only to find that it actually leads straight to the Abyss.

The collection proper opens with 'Echoland', by Joel Lane. Lane died recently, well before his time (he was 50), and his death is a serious loss for literature. Back in the late 80s he was one of the first British horror writers to tackle profoundly unfashionable topics such as homelessness, street children, political corruption and the poverty and despair experienced by "ordinary" people in post-Thatcherite Britain. He also managed to do this without descending into political axe-grinding and the horror element always came first. Since then, he's been copied quite a lot but no practitioner of urban horror has bettered his combination of concise, spare style and haunting imagery.

Consequently, it's rather poignant to see one of his last stories here! "Echoland" tells of a bunch of somewhat lost young people who make a concerted effort to reach the Other Side, jettisoning their futures on the way, in the usual Lane setting of chilly urban sprawl. Not his best ever story, but a good solid one showcasing all the stuff that made him famous.

The first really impressive story here is 'Tinder Row' by Richard Gavin. Gavin is a Canadian writer who has had five story collections published but continues to languish in unfair obscurity here in the UK, despite his work having a very British feel to it (I actually assumed he was English at first.) Readers may recall that I was impressed with "The Word Made Flesh" from Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year Volume 5, and 'Tinder Row' cements Gavins status as a deft technician who is also able to imbue his weird, often oneiric stories of terrifying transformations and otherworldly self-improvement with a full-on sense of the numinous. Like the Lane story, Gavin uses the decaying post-industrial urban environment, and specifically a patch of field called Tinder Row, as a portal to the beyond. The blend of pastoral, natural and urban imagery is one of the things that makes this tale so good - real borderland stuff.

I am always pleased to see a Gary McMahon story, and 'The Old Church' is effective enough though it shamelessly rips off 'The Cicerones' by Robert Aickman with its plot. It is also the only story here to be set in a formal religious environment - which is strange, since churches are highly atmospheric, numinous places built partly to honour ineffable mysteries. McMahon ably demonstrates the dangers of an atheist getting too involved in that old-time religion! Faith of a more unconventional kind appears in "...he was water before he was fire..." by D.P. Watt, another writer I hadn't heard of before, but who held my attention with his account of strange worship on the shores of a sylvan lake full of swans. I appreciated the faint Robert Holdstock vibe too.

In fact, if you like rural settings, you will be uncommonly well served by Shadow's Edge. This is as it should be - in the minds of many, the natural environment is the rightful home of visions and mystical happenings of all kinds. I love stories of this kind and that's one reason Peter Bell's "The True Edge of the World" is my favourite story in the collection. It's set on the Hebrides, a cluster of windswept, rain-lashed islands to the north of Scotland, and perfectly captures the numinous qualities of Scottish moorland and coast without falling into tartan-and-shortbread tweeness. I think that when Lisa Tuttle wrote The Silver Bough she was probably trying for something like this. After reading this I started kicking myself even harder for not snapping up a copy of Bell's collection Strange Epiphanies last year. I am in fact an epic fanny for not doing so.

R. B Russell's story "At The End of the World" has a similar setting - a man awaits an elemental vengeance in his rickety habitation by the sea - but a very different vibe. In the sheer impersonality and inscrutability of the forces involved, this story is reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood's fiction, but the touch is much lighter and the more tone more conversational. Another success! Several other stories are also imbued with a hefty dose of pagan dread. Some of these are a bit bland - it might be lazy to dismiss Ian Roger's stab at sylvan horror "False North" as a recycling of the Blair Witch Project, but that is kind of how it comes across. There are far better examples of this kind of writing around, too. Why hasn't Laird Barron joined the party, for a start? He should be in here. John Langan's "Bor Urus" deals with a man who becomes an extreme weather chaser in order to commune with mystical forces hidden in thunderstorms, and it's good but it was not up to his usual high standard. It's in the first person and there was just a bit too much of the angsty white hipster dad voice for my taste.

Of course, Strantzas hasn't left out the urban environment - I wouldn't expect him to, given his own writing in that subgenre. Theoretically, I have no problem at all with the idea of the civilized environment offering gateways and "thin places" - indeed I welcome it as a possible source of hope! But nonetheless I mainly found these town-based stories disappointing. And I am as puzzled as usual by the appearance of old Lovecraft mythos lag W. H. Pugmire. But let's focus on the exceptions for once!. Daniel Mill's story "The Falling Dark" is a beautifully written, darkly romantic nocturne involving a young recluse's passion for his female neighbour, unashamedly Decadent and European with notes of Ewer and Jean Ray. It could easily have seemed contrived, but I ended up buying it. Livia Llwellwyn's "Stabilimentum" is also a neat exploration of modern city life, where wondrous and terrifying revelations may be vouchsafed to the inhabitants of a high-rise apartment block. The feminist in me is jolly glad this story is good, as the line-up of female writers in this collection is laughably small - a grand total of two out of fifteen! Just like the good old days eh? - and the other female-penned story isn't brilliant.

These misgivings aside, I would still heartily recommend Shadow's Edge to anyone in search of non-stupid horror or mystical fiction. There is easily enough quality writing to justify the modest price, although the typos are shocking! (In R.B. Russell's story, the FIRST WORD is missing, a mistake I've never seen before in my whole life.) Still I'd rather have a cheap book with dodgy spelling than no book at all, so hats off to Gray Friar Press for delivering another must-have anthology.

By the way you can read fellow ace author Simon Bestwick's thoughts on Joel Lane's death (and life!) here.
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