The Abyss Within
William J Brown reviews The Abyss Within, a collection of short macabre delights from SmashBear Publishing with all proceeds going towards Women’s Aid...
The Abyss Within is only SmashBear’s second publication, and it firmly establishes the press as a label to look out for. All the stories here are quick, enjoyable reads, with a dazzling diversity of subject matter and writing styles. All proceeds from the anthology also go to Women’s Aid, a domestic abuse charity, making this a guilt-free – but by no means scare-free – box of macabre delights.
‘Vermin’, by Kerri Spellar, is a great piece of folk horror. Karen works in a pub somewhere in the Kent countryside, an area filled with ‘whispers of satanic cults deep in the woods or apparitions of the family trapped in a barn fire, clothes smouldering, fingers blistering, stretching towards her…’ The ominousness of the landscape is chillingly evoked during Karen’s lonely journeys home each night, as she imagines all kinds of terrors lurking in the dark woods and fields. One night she does see something – a man standing in a field wearing a grotesque mask – beginning a nightmare that coils around both Karen and the reader, with a creepy-crawly dread that stuck with me long after finishing it.
‘Baba Nooa’ (Jeni Lawes) is more folk horror. This one deals with the fearsome legend of Baba Nooa, a demon who, according to Millie’s grandma, ‘drinks the blood of children who wander off’ in the surrounding forest. Testifying to the truth behind the myth, grandma shows Millie a scar from a first-hand encounter with the creature… The story’s short, spare paragraphs are very effective in conveying Millie’s youth and wiliness, whilst also giving it the quality of a folk tale – a dark and bloodthirsty one, at that!
Chris Tattersall’s ‘Dark Times’ and Jacek Wilkos’s ‘The Door Viewer’ feel strangely akin, and not just because they’re both extremely short reads. Both possess a vortical quality, a kind of Lynchian surrealism, hinting at realities and consciousnesses existing contiguous to (but just beyond) our comprehension. Both demand to be read and read again. I can testify that doing so produces an uncanny effect, drawing you into each character’s existential nightmare…
In ‘Come Play With Me’ (J. T. Lozano), Danny has a disturbing dream about encountering a little girl standing on the ocean floor whilst he’s scuba diving. ‘Come play with me,’ she begs him – just like all creepy children in these sorts of stories, I suppose. It’s a neat little chiller that employs the ‘Or Was it a Dream?’ trope to great effect. It has also put me off scuba diving, but that wasn’t particularly high on my bucket list anyway.
Tabitha Potts’s ‘Crow Girl’ is wonderfully eldritch and twisted. The eponymous narrator lives in the woods outside a village and is regarded as feral by many of the locals – which doesn’t stop them taking advantage of her in various ways. Potts’s character building is quite spellbinding. Rather than making Crow Girl monstrous, the bird imagery draws the reader into closer sympathy with her. The result is an inversion of the usual folk horror narrative, whereby the creature in the woods is more human than the townsfolk.
I loved ‘Voodoo Doll’ by Lisa Shea. It’s a blackly comic yarn in the vein of ‘80s horrors like The Pit (Canada, Lew Lehman, 1981) and The Bad Seed (US, Paul Wendkos, 1985). Bethany, a dastardly adolescent, uses voodoo dolls bought from a thrift store to torment people she perceives as having wronged her. What makes this story really compelling is the increasing desire to see the wicked Bethany get some kind of blowback for her connivances!
Rebecca Rowland’s ‘The Munchies’ begins with the warning, ‘Don’t ever have children’, and by its end you’ll certainly know why. Michael’s wife, Lila, doesn’t share his longing to have children, but he soon talks her into it anyway. With a couple of sly Rosemary’s Baby references thrown in, the story serves as a fiendishly gruesome caution against making someone go against their nature in order to fulfill our own desires. There’s some shocking body horror in this one – the explanation for Lila’s ‘weird aversion to feet’ will certainly linger in your mind.
The last of my personal picks is Cassandra Jones’s ‘When the Dead Walk’, a nifty zombie thriller told from a child’s perspective. It closes the collection on a high (if bleak) note. There are no duds here; in fact, I wish that there was more to the collection. Author biographies and a longer foreword would really bring it to life. Still, the quality of the stories – and the support for Women’s Aid – speak for themselves.