Dan Carpenter reviews Midsummer Eve (ed. Steve J Shaw), the sixth volume in Black Shuck Books’ terrific Great British Horror anthology series...
‘Midsummer’s eve’s not about Christianity at all, I think. It’s a time when two worlds come together for a little while. When things become… I can’t think of a word.’ This line, from a character in Stephen Laws’s tremendous opening story, defines the idea of Midsummer Eve about as simply as it can. A seasonal marker, the celebration of Midsummer Eve goes back centuries. It has roots in ancient religions and ceremonies, from bonfire lighting to maypole dancing. In short, it is rich territory for folk horror. Ari Aster’s second movie, Midsommar (US/Sweden, 2019) keyed into this to great effect, taking folk horror tropes and reworking them into a story about a woman fighting a cycle of destructive relationships.
The latest instalment of Black Shuck Books’ terrific Great British Horror anthology series, Midsummer Eve contains eleven stories, all with the titular Midsummer Eve as their title; that repetition draws out the anthology as the nights grow longer. It’s no bad thing. In fact, each of the stories here is fantastic, with a wide range of authors including Jenn Ashworth, Lisa Morton, Robert Shearman, Aliya Whiteley, and CC Adams. Even though the title remains the same, the stories themselves are hugely varied. Stephen Laws’s opener is delivered entirely as a duologue (two voices): Freya, one of those voices, has a lot to reveal about herself. It begins almost as a discussion between two lovers, and the truth behind what’s really going on is revealed slowly. In keeping to dialogue, Laws smartly keeps the reader guessing until the final pages.
CC Adams’s story is a much more traditional ghost story, told through the prism of grief. Leonard has lost his wife of twenty-seven years, and in the lonely grief that consumes him creeps something a lot more uncanny and ghostly. He sees figures in his house, windows crack, and things go bump in the night, although the story is nicely ambiguous with a very unsettling ending.
Elsewhere, Stewart Horton provides a wonderful story rooted very much in the folk horror tradition, in which Feum – a man afflicted by an allergy to sunlight – manages to upset a group of local youths. ‘You have all this beauty around you, a place unspoiled by your kind in which to be,’ they tell him. Its ending draws straight from The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973), Midsommar, and Don’t Look Now (UK/Italy, Nicholas Roeg, 1973), not least in the punishment of its main character for his supposed transgressions of tradition.
If anyone is to be punished, it’s Terry, the lead character in Jenn Ashworth’s marvellous addition to the anthology. He and his wife are on their honeymoon, surrounded by hotel workers he refers to as Johns. ‘Not in a racist way,’ he claims early on, though his prejudice creeps in throughout. Something has happened to England: an unknown, unnamed disaster. ‘They’re digging mass graves. Outside Luton,’ his wife tells him, but all he wants is to enjoy his holiday. It’s a strange, sad story, filled with loneliness, and one of the real gems in the book.
But it’s Robert Shearman’s story that’s the real highlight of Midsummer Eve. After a brief fling with his co-worker Eve, our main character finds himself, night after night, in her bedroom, draped in a ghostly sheet and watching over her with a group of other similarly dressed men. They are all former lovers, drawn to her whilst she sleeps, ‘watching over Eve, and protecting her from harm’. Only it becomes clear fairly quickly that they’re not just watching: some of the men touch her, and our main character finds himself fascinated with poking her forehead. Whilst at first he is annoyed to be suddenly transported to her bedroom, he soon starts waking in the night and heading there himself. Shearman’s ‘Midsummer Eve’ is about those men who say – and perhaps even believe – that they are protecting the women they love, but whose idea of ‘protection’ is an excuse to get closer, to harass, and to assault. It’s a horrible, often disturbing story, but as with all of Shearman’s work, there are moments of black comedy – not least the pun in the title.
These, then, are stories about lonely people on long nights, desperate to move on and make it through to the next day. In Aliya Whiteley’s brilliant story, which closes the anthology, a woman explores her house. She has ‘so many tasks to get done,’ including propositioning a lover, and torturing her twin in the basement. ‘Still,’ she says at the end, in a line which feels like a fitting conclusion to the book itself, ‘I must believe that there will, eventually, be a darkness.’
You can purchase a copy of Midsummer Eve by clicking the image below…