William Brown reviews Dan Howarth’s Dark Missives: ‘all killer, no filler’ from a true master of horror...
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been scared by a book. A short story by Malcolm Rose, ‘The Devil’s Footprints,’ had my thirteen-year-old self gasping for daylight and the sound of my mother’s voice. The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty, 1971) unsettled me much more than the film – I had to put it down a few times to relieve the sense of gathering evil. There’s a connection, of course. I must have inherited my father’s Catholic guilt, because it was always Satan I hurtled up and down the stairs to evade, and evocations of His Horniness are still apt to get my heart racing…
It may or may not be the devil that makes an appearance in ‘Hide. Go Seek,’ the third tale in Dan Howarth’s short story collection Dark Missives. The story lulls with a childish narration before delivering a scare that struck me cold (I had a nightmare that night, woke up in a cold sweat, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Dan Howarth sowed the seed!). There are multiple such moments of exquisitely executed horror in Dark Missives. Howarth has the gift of a true horror master, deftly putting together these tableaux of sublime terror but, crucially, allowing them to breathe for themselves — giving the stories freedom to inhabit the reader’s mind and tap into their latent fears.
There are eleven stories here, and it’s a rare case of ‘all killer, no filler’ as far as I’m concerned. Not all of the stories have a spine-chilling payload, but that’s not what makes a classic horror collection in my opinion. It’s variety that I’m looking for: variety of emotion, scope, and narrative style. Dark Missives scores highly on this count. It’s a fantastic showcase for Dan Howarth’s range as a writer, as the collection moves from claustrophobic, very British chillers such as ‘Nesting Instinct’ and ‘Anderson’ (both of which have the feel – in a good way! – of episodes from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (ATV, UK, 1976)), to horror thrillers on a more epic, cinematic scale, such as ‘This Is the Only Place I Have Ever Called Home’ and ‘The Pusher’.
Along with ‘Hide, Go Seek’ and ‘Nesting Instinct’, here are the rest of my picks:
In ‘The Silent Key’, an unhinged fan tracks down Stieg Carlsson, a former 90s rockstar who has since retreated into seclusion. ‘I want him to talk about the old days. Find out why he stopped writing songs. I need my fix,’ the narrator seethes. ‘I need new music from him. It’s not fair that he stopped making it. How dare he?’ Do artists owe us anything? Are the obligations we place upon our idols more diabolical and soul-destroying than any mythical ‘deal with the devil?’ The story is a devilish caution against audience entitlement.
‘From the Ground Up’ is like The Ruins (Scott Smith, 2006) in a more domestic setting, as a couple searching for their ‘forever home’ come up against a pernicious, unstoppable weed in the grounds of their latest property. The story’s creeping dread winds around you like a vine before closing like a Venus flytrap.
‘Mergers and Acquisitions’ is a curious American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis, 1991) pastiche, apparently based upon Howarth’s own experiences of office-work oblivion. It’s compellingly disjointed and restless; it doesn’t really go anywhere – but that’s the point! This is what I mean about the virtue of variety in an anthology: having one or two unconventionally structured stories scattered amongst the more traditional ‘three acters’ really helps to ameliorate the sense of repetitiveness that can sometimes creep in whilst reading. Plus, faux-Patrick Bateman is better than no Patrick Bateman at all. Fact.
‘Collaboration’ is a perversely satisfying conclusion to the anthology, culminating in an image of horror guaranteed to embed itself in your skull. Chiming strongly with Thomas De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827), the story probes the disturbing parallels between artistic and murderous immortality: ‘He has done some terrible things,’ the narrator says of the notorious artist Calvin Walsh. ‘People have died and have been mutilated beyond repair at his hand. His mark on the world is an ugly bruise. But although a bruise is a blemish on the fabric of society, don’t all bruises produce spots of colour? And colour is the basis of art.’ It’s a story worthy of Edgar Allan Poe in the way it entombs us with a deranged narrator and forces us to watch, repulsed and entranced, as his despicable plan comes to hellish fruition.
The tales here demonstrate a knack for both small-scale and epic horror – for terrors psychological as well as Cthulhic. According to the ‘Author’s Notes’ included at the back of the anthology – a great addendum, offering fascinating insights into the stories’ origins – Dan Howarth has a novel, Lionhearts, due out soon. On the basis of Dark Missives, I can’t wait to read it.
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