H is for Hell
Robert Welbourn reviews H is for Hell, the latest in a series of short story anthologies from Red Cape Publishing...
His for Hell, the title of this collection declares; and hell is indeed what we are dealing with. Each of these 13 stories takes us to hell, or brings hell to us, in one way or another. As with all short story collections the quality varies, but the imagination and thought process of each and every story in this collection is both clear and powerful. I didn’t enjoy all the stories: I hated some, and absolutely loved others. If nothing else, this collection entirely lives up to its name.
I’m always wary when reading collections, because I know that I’m not going to like each piece in the book. My main experience of short stories comes from the master of horror himself, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson, one of his inspirations: I think we can all agree that her ‘The Lottery’ is the greatest short story ever written, and it would take something incredible to eclipse it. As you can imagine, my standards are high, and I have yet to find a collection in which every story meets them. Even in collections from King and Jackson themselves, I find myself reading some pages for the sake of it, taking in the words but not really caring for them.
The length of a short story can sometimes be an issue. There are no set rules: I’ve read short stories which are longer than my published novel; I’ve read short stories which are shorter than my weekly shopping list. This allows the writer more freedom to express themselves, and from a gifted author, you can assume that what’s been removed is of no less quality than what has been left in: I always want more King or more Jackson, and the idea there are words of theirs I’ll never read will haunt me to my grave. And possibly to hell, if I end up there; but based on the ideas presented in H is for Hell, I really, really hope not.
As I write this, I’ve just realised the significance of there being 13 stories in this collection. I’m glad Red Cape Publishing chose 13, as opposed to 666, as that would be far, far too many stories for one collection – no matter who was writing it.
I’m not going to go through each story in turn: no one wants to read a piece of writing which is actually thirteen reviews disguised as one. Instead I’ll talk about a few specifically, and the book as a whole. Atmosphere is one of the most important parts of this collection, and one thing which it gets entirely spot on. I’m no stranger to the perverse and disgusting; as well as being an avid fan of King and Jackson, I’ve read the entire works of Brett Easton Ellis multiple times, and American Psycho more times than I’ve seen my family in the last twelve months. I’m also a huge fan of horror films, particularly French new wave horror such as Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) and Inside (Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury, 2007). What I’m trying to say is this: it takes a lot to shock me. And this collection did just that, and repeatedly. One thing I loved about it is that it’s thirteen different ideas of what hell is. Obviously, no-one knows what or where or even why hell is – I’m not going to get into a theological debate here, don’t worry; whether you believe in hell or not is your business, not mine – and these stories each present a unique way of looking at it. And each, uniquely, made me feel uncomfortable, made my skin crawl, made me feel like I was unsafe, and that something would, at any moment, reach out from the shadows to gently brush my shoulder.
I can confidently say that the atmosphere in each story is spot on. Though not all the ideas hit the mark – some fall quite short in my opinion – it’s clear that every writer who has contributed to this collection has incredible talent and a vivid imagination. The wide range of stories vary on topic and execution, from ‘Blizzard of Black and Blue’, which is set in the modern day, but told as if it were a 19th century Gothic novel, to ‘The Hellhole’, told from the point of view of the devil himself.
‘Blizzard of Black and Blue’ is an absolutely fantastic story, and definitely my favourite piece in this collection. The clash in narrative styles is reflected in the story itself, in which an IT expert is tasked with bringing an old boys’ school into the 21st century. The story’s pace is slow, but this does nothing to take away from its quality. It deals with the classic Gothic theme of the home, taking a place of safety and making it unsafe, and it does so expertly. This collection is worth reading for this story alone.
Similarly brilliant is the penultimate story, ‘Copperhead’. This concerns a woman, abused by a teacher as a child, taking revenge on all men. It wobbles a little in the middle (when it gets a bit silly), but overall the story, and all the characters and events in it, was mesmerising. I particularly enjoyed the narrative shift which happened midway through; the first half is told by an onlooker, the second by Copperhead herself. It’s a brilliant little switch-up, and really adds to the quality of the story being told.
The final story in the collection, the brilliantly titled ‘We Don’t Talk About The Monster In The Second Bedroom’, deals with the idea of grief and loss, again taking the idea of the Gothic home and turning it on its head. It’s another ‘modern day meets the past’ story, and tackles the idea of hell in a much more abstract, but no less engaging way.
‘Paradigm 13’ takes place in hell itself, but the story is less about this, and more about a man’s love for his deceased wife. He’s ventured into hell to save her, but even more gripping than the setting is the love you can really feel when he talks about her. It’s King-esque, almost making you fall head over heels for someone who doesn’t even exist.
There are several more stories in this collection which I loved, and a few I didn’t really enjoy. However, this was only for their content; as previously mentioned, each story absolutely hits the mark in terms of atmosphere and high quality of writing, even if the events themselves sometimes didn’t quite land.
H is for Hell may seem like a silly title, but don’t let that put you off. This collection is fantastic, and one I definitely recommend. It absolutely leaves you wanting more, and some of the writing in it is definitely on the level of King and Jackson. But read it at your peril; I can’t guarantee you won’t sleep with the light on once you’ve finished.
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