Great British Horror
Dan Carpenter takes a look back at volumes 1-4 of Black Shuck Books’ Great British Horror series, ‘a showcase for the best the genre has to offer’, and interviews the editor, Steve J Shaw...
It’s difficult to define something as vast as British horror. The country and genre have produced so many varied voices and stories: from MR James, Daphne Du Maurier, and Robert Aickman, to Ramsay Campbell, Clive Barker, and Laura Mauro. ‘So many stories, and for so long that it was hard to tell if what you were being told was new or old,’ Angela Slatter writes about the urban legends of the Wicker Bridge estate in ‘Our Lady of the Wicker Bridge’. ‘Something that smacked of urban legend might well have its roots in ancient tales of demons and spectres.’ Her story, which bridges that gap between old and new, ancient and modern, could well be a key story in the first four volumes of Black Shuck Books’ Great British Horror series.
For the vast majority of horror fans, a key text was the Pan Book of Horror. The series, which ran for 30 volumes, introduced young horror fans to a huge array of authors, and some truly iconic stories. There’s a generation out there heavily influenced by the books, and a big gap in the world of horror for a regular series to take its place. Magazines such as Black Static and Nightmare have their place in the genre world, but a proper – regular – anthology series has been difficult to sustain. One only has to look to sad loss of series such as The Shadow Booth, or Year’s Best Weird Fiction to find examples.
Black Shuck Books’ Great British Horror, though, could well be the series which takes the place of Pan. Now a six-volume run of titles, with the sixth (Ars Gratia Sanguis) recently released, it manages each time to bring together a diverse list of authors, all of whom contribute original stories. Not only that, but so far – and including the latest volume – no author has been featured twice. That’s sixty-six authors showcased across the series to date. Quite the feat.
Each book in the series, which has been themed each year (from volume three onwards), welcomes ten British authors plus one international contributor. That theme does help to give the latter volumes a sense of cohesion that volumes one and two (titled Green and Pleasant Land, and Dark Satanic Mills after William Blake’s Jerusalem) don’t have. Volume three, For Those in Peril, concerns the coastline and the sea, and volume four, Dark and Stormy Nights, asks each author to begin their stories with a variation on that most clichéd of opening sentences (often to very playful effect).
The best stories here are those that engage directly with the landscape of the United Kingdom. In VH Leslie’s ‘Hermanes’, which opens volume one (and therefore the whole series), Brian and Nell, a married couple, are climbing the titular sea cliffs. Their marriage is turbulent, and nearing its end. Brian is far more interested in an American woman also walking the same way. A disorienting, unsettling story, it sets the tone for many of the more folk-horror tinged entries in the series, such as Simon Avery’s excellent ‘All the Secret Colours of the World’ (volume four), or Damien Angelica Walters’ ‘It Never Feels Like Drowning’ (volume three).
You would be remiss, however, to think that the collections are solely populated with MR James-esque tales of landscape and the uncanny. In fact, within the pages you’ll likely find many sub-genres of horror represented, and represented well. Want stories about creepy demonic entities (‘The Lies We Tell’), Seven-esque dark crime stories (‘/’d3^st/’), monsters (‘Errol’), or even whatever the hell is going on in Barbie Wilde’s ‘Blue-Eyes’? It’s in there.
Ultimately that shifting tone makes the volumes occasionally feel unwieldy, and a lack of introduction in each means that the stories have to stand on their own terms. For the most part that’s fine, given the sheer level of quality on display, but it puts a weight on the opening stories of each volume to represent the books as a whole. This is especially true of the first two volumes, and the introduction of themed volumes from three onwards means that, overall, they feel stronger as anthologies than the initial two.
That’s not to say that the level of quality across all four volumes isn’t good. It’s tremendous. Where else are you going to find a series that has pieces from MR Carey, Priya Sharma, Guy N Smith, Alison Littlewood, GV Anderson, Laura Mauro, and Johnny Mains in it? It’s a well curated selection of authors, a mix of some of the most well regarded names in horror fiction, as well as names that may be more unfamiliar.
Ultimately, that’s why anthology series like these are so important to the genre. Here are stories that call to our past, draw from the deep well of British horror past, but also stories that look to the future, that find the new voices that will carry the torch. Mostly, though, what makes the Great British Horror series likely to have a long lasting legacy is the reliability of the stories. As a showcase for the best that the genre has to offer, they are perfect.
As well as reading the books, Dan took the opportunity to catch up with the series editor, Steve J Shaw…
Dan: How did the Great British Horror series come about?
Steve: When I started Black Shuck Books in 2015, one of the things I knew I wanted to do was edit one anthology myself each year. As anyone who has seen my Black Shuck Shadows series of micro-collections will know, I’m very fond of a numbered series, so it seemed to make sense to put the two things together. One of my other plans was to edit an anthology of folk horror, to be entitled Green and Pleasant Land, which became the first in the series.
The name Great British Horror, incidentally, was the name I chose for my previous business (printing horror t-shirts), and I decided it was too good a name to waste…
D: How do you define British horror? What is it that makes British horror different from other countries?
S: When people think of British horror, I imagine they come up with one of two things: either the folk horror of Arthur Machen and The Wicker Man, or the more sedate (at least to modern eyes) ghosts and Gothic of M R James and Hammer. But Britain is, and always has been, a country of diversity, and this is reflected in the stories it produces. Folk horror and Gothic are still going strong, but the variety of voices who have contributed – and are still contributing – to British horror run the gamut from body horror to fairy tales, urban dystopias to weird fantasy.
That being said, I think there is still a peculiar type of ‘Britishness’ to much of our fiction, and it’s nice to have an outsider’s perspective on that now and then (even if it’s unintentional… see below).
D: You have managed to commission pieces from some really exciting authors, some of whom are horror legends, and some who are up and coming – how do you select the authors for each volume?
S: My goal for each book has always been to have as wide a mix of writers as possible – different styles, different levels of experience, etc. Each year I like to have a blend of established names (Stephen Laws, Tim Lebbon, Alison Littlewood) and newer voices (Kelly White, Penny Jones, Sean Hogan), plus at least one person that’s a bit more unexpected (Barbie Wilde, M R Carey). I’m hopeful that the variety means that readers will buy the book for the authors they know and end up discovering new favourites.
D: What inspired the decision to include one international author in each volume? And what do you think they bring to a collection of British horror stories?
S: This came about completely by accident – my original plan was to have ten stories in each volume. One of the writers I approached for Green and Pleasant Land was John Connolly, who agreed in principle (but unfortunately was ultimately unable to contribute), but then pointed out, quite correctly, that he isn’t British, he’s Irish. Thinking on my feet, I said ‘That’s fine, I’ll have one international author in each volume, the same way a county cricket team is allowed one international player in their side’.
D: The series has been less loosely themed since volume three – what was the decision behind theming each volume?
S: Actually, the series has been themed since the beginning: Green and Pleasant Land is rural and folk horror, Dark Satanic Mills is urban/suburban, For Those in Peril is marine/coastal. From volume 4 I changed it up a bit, so for Dark and Stormy Nights I asked each contributor to start their story with some variation on the phrase ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, and for Midsummer Eve I told them they could write about whatever they wanted, as long as they entitled their story ‘Midsummer Eve’. This year’s edition, Ars Gratia Sanguis, is back to a themed subject, with each story featuring or being inspired by a work of art.
As for where the themes come from, that’s a bit more difficult to quantify. As I said before, it all stemmed from the folk horror volume, one of the key tenets of which is the idea of being stranded or isolated in a strange place, often alone; after that, it made sense to go in the opposite direction and look at urban paranoia, the idea that being in a crowd or amongst people in a familiar setting doesn’t make you safe. Sea-based horror has always been a favourite of mine (I still think I might edit an anthology of sea monster stories one day), so again that just fell into place. After that, I was struggling a bit; I wanted to move away from locality-themed books, an area which is already well covered in Paul Finch’s excellent Terror Tales series, so I came up with the idea of subverting the most clichéd phrase in horror fiction. I don’t honestly recall why I went with Midsummer Eve for the fifth book – it was probably something folk horror-related again. This year’s title came from the tagline used by MGM – Ars Gratia Artis (Art for Art’s Sake) – which I changed to a (completely inaccurate) Latin translation of Blood for Art’s Sake.
As to where next year’s volume is going, that’s still a secret… even to me. I do have a few ideas though…
Many thanks to Steve for taking the time to answer our questions!