Ars Gratia Sanguis
Great British Horror Volume 6
Dan Carpenter enjoys Great British Horror volume 6, Ars Gratia Sanguis, ‘a fascinating exploration of the links between horror and visual art.’
What is our relationship with art? How do each of us perceive and understand a painting or a sculpture, and how does it affect us? For the authors contributing to this latest – and best – edition of Great British Horror, art affects them and their characters in a number of different ways. For some, it inspires awful acts; some are hypnotised and ruined by them; some trapped. Others find a kind of salvation or an answer within a particular piece. With each story taking inspiration from a work of art, sometimes explicitly including them in the piece, and sometimes using them as a jumping off point, Ars Gratia Sanguis makes for a fascinating exploration of the links between horror and visual art.
‘It had been as if the structure of the world had suddenly inverted itself,’ says a character in Steve Duffy’s ‘The Acolyte’s Triptych’. He’s referring to the titular series of paintings, which supposedly depict the devil, the antichrist, and the false prophet; when brought together in a bunker in WW2 as Britain scrambles to keep its art safe during the Blitz, they may in fact begin a terrible ritual. It’s a brilliant concept, and Duffy makes the most of it. Here, though the paintings are fictional, the story is rooted in history, and its setting is brilliantly realised.
Fictional paintings are at the core of several other stories in the anthology. In Muriel Gray’s excellent ‘From Life’, a mother’s autistic son, who has an uncanny knack for reproducing images perfectly in paintings, is hired at no small fee to paint something indescribable. Gray’s story touches on the lengths people would go to for a better life, and has one of the best endings in the collection.
In Brian Evenson’s ‘Untitled (Cloud of Blood)’, which opens the anthology, the titular painting resembles ‘nothing so much as a great cloud of blood’. Our main character decides to sell it after his father’s suicide, discovering strange tally marks on its reverse. But each seller winds up dying, and the tally marks increase one by one as the deaths pile up. It’s a neat, unnerving story, and though the painting again is fictional, it lives on the page as a fully realised piece.
A painting can be found haunting the pages of Lucie McKnight Hardy’s unsettling ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, and elsewhere, a real life painting sits at the heart of Sarah Lotz’s frankly bonkers ‘Having a Benny’. Robbie has ‘imaginings’ that mean people ‘give him a wide berth’: on an outing to a Birmingham art gallery he comes across a piece by Cold War Steve, the satirical collage artist. At the centre of the piece is a picture of the Crossroads character Benny Hawkins, and he overhears a relative talk about how important to Birmingham Hawkins was. Times are tough, politics is messy, and Robbie decides to use his ‘imaginings’ to bring Benny Hawkins back to Birmingham, with strange and often hilarious consequences. It’s one of the highlights of the anthology, a complex and witty story about someone trying to do the right thing, but never being able to please everyone, about the power and interpretation of art. Safe to say I have definitely never read anything quite like it.
Modern life is ever-present, too, in Lisa Tuttle’s ‘Sibyl’. Escaping lockdown to go on holiday, Sibyl is trying to find something out about an artist with whom she shares a name. The artist is responsible for a painting of a stone circle which fascinated her as a child. It’s a great folk horror story filled with pagan stone circles, misty islands, and superstition. Elsewhere, Helen Grant’s ‘The Field has Eyes, the Wood has Ears’ finds a character on a flight in which the passengers are wearing masks and gloves, real life bleeding into the horror of the piece in the same way that the main character loses himself inside a painting.
Real life, of a different sort, can be found in Stephen Volk’s fascinating ‘The Waiting Room’. Here, a man confronts Charles Dickens after a reading of ‘The Portrait Painter’s Story’. Somehow Dickens has plagiarised the man’s real-life experience – or has he? The man’s story matches Dickens’ tale exactly. He is travelling by train for a commission when he meets a woman who asks him, ‘do you think you could [paint] me from recollection?’
When he reaches his commission, he finds that the subject is a dead woman of whom no portraits exist. He has to produce a painting from his imagination. Volk’s story is, as you would expect, an excellent and poignant piece. ‘We tread on memories every day,’ someone says towards the end of the story: an apt feeling to leave the anthology on.
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