Made In Britain
WJ Brown reviews Made in Britain from HellBound Books: 'everything a horror anthology should be'...
Dubious cover art and slightly cringeworthy front matter aside, Made In Britain is an immensely enjoyable anthology of horror, with a truly eclectic array of stories and some genuine stunners between its covers. Thankfully, the front cover belies the contents: there aren’t many Carry On-style shenanigans in the stories themselves.
The first four stories have a delightfully retro feel about them, harking back to the 70s and 80s heyday of horror fiction. Ross Baxter’s ‘Britain’s Best Clown’ is about a circus performer who would give anything to revive the fortunes of his company; a homeless man has a reckoning in ‘From the Darkness Within’ by Charlene Bailey-Bacchus; a gentlemanly demon metes out gruesome justice in Justin Boote’s ‘Mr Elvid’; and three pathology students are punished for a macabre prank in ‘Formaldehyde’ by Munib Haroon. Whizzing through these stories feels like watching an Amicus portmanteau: they’re grisly, slightly dated, but oh-so fun.
Lex H. Jones’s ‘Foundations’ has a more contemporary feel. A film crew comes to the sleepy town of Walliston searching for some juicy local history, only to get more than they bargained for in a mysterious turret idolised by the townsfolk. It’s an intriguing piece of folk horror with a novel twist: we observe the events unfolding from the viewpoint of the townsfolk rather than the film crew, enabling the story to transcend the binaries — good/evil, city/country — that typify the genre.
If the preceding stories are in the vein of James Herbert, ‘After Midnight’ is a move into the more cerebral, but no less spine-tingling, territory of Ramsey Campbell. Michael Byrne’s story revolves around the stark creep of mortality and the insidiousness of dementia, as residents in a care home find themselves hunted by a sinister, nocturnal force. ‘I know what it looks for in a victim’, one of the characters says. ‘Mary, Maggie, Charlie. All dealing with prolonged sadness reaching apex. Whatever the specifics, they were in the throes of despair and I think that’s what it looks for in people. Feeding not just on those near death but those who have nothing to live for’. It’s somber reading, a King Lear-esque plunge into late life’s harrowing darkness — but it feels important, and rewards repeat readings.
Guy N. Smith is the biggest name here. The author sadly passed away on Christmas Eve last year, leaving a sprawling, immensely enjoyable oeuvre in his wake. Describing his writing style to Ginger Nuts of Horror in 2019, he said: ‘My readers are familiar with it, a story told simply, easy and fast reading. Long and complicated passages are not for them’. His contribution here, ‘Mirrored Evil’, is as comforting as a pair of old slippers, a haunted-house yarn that ambles from trope to trope before building to a climax simultaneously hair-raising and filled with pathos.
Kevin J. Kennedy’s ‘Yobs’ isn’t horror per se, but a vignette of gangland violence erupting on the streets of Scotland. James H. Longmore’s ‘The Swarm’, too, isn’t really horror, but more social realism with an alternate-history twist, as an act of violence in a council flat in punk-era Britain escalates into a riot that brings the whole country to its knees. And then there’s ‘Sisters of Solicited’ by David Owain Hughes, a hyper-charged, expletive-ridden dystopian fantasy that imagines the apocalyptic consequences of the #MeToo movement. It reads more like a 2000AD comic strip than a short story, and seems to delight in its own trashiness. That said, it’s pretty damn enjoyable — though reader discretion is definitely advised.
‘The Devil’s Tree’, by Lee Franklin, is one of my favourites here. It’s to do with a nightmarish tree growing beside a school and the terrifying stories attached to it. The prose has a hypnotic quality that I can’t quite place, simple but uncanny. It’s like Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood crossed with Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’, and it climaxes with a truly horrifying vision of hell that has been living in my head rent-free ever since.
‘To Put a Price on Love’ (J. C. Michael) and ‘Raven’s Curse’ (Nick Stead) are tales of a similar ilk: both feature men finding themselves haplessly embroiled in ancient curses, and both achieve much in the way of world-building and suspense within the short-story format. Andrew J. Lucas’s ‘Ocean’s Bounty’, a Lovecraftian horror set on the North Atlantic during World War 2, also impresses, providing a welcome change of scene — and a Nazi zombie, to boot!
In ‘Childe Abbas’, by Bill Davidson, eight-year-old Tilly thinks there’s something strange going on in her new town. Where are all the other children? The only one she has seen is a grubby little boy nobody else seems to be able to see, even when he’s taking chips from an old lady’s plate in the local cafe. And then there’s the sinister Councillor Beresford, who seems just a little bit too enthusiastic about the town’s pagan past… It’s a sinister little ditty with a Carnival of Souls vibe to it (you could stream the soundtrack whilst reading it for extra creepy effect). Davidson confines us to the little girl’s point of view, a perspective that becomes increasingly constricted and isolated as the story progresses, making for a haunting read.
David Turnbull’s excellent ‘Down Where the Hogweeds Grow Tall’ is a hypnotic tale of eldritch vegetation. The residents of a housing estate each feel drawn, with a passion touching upon lust, to the patch of unbridled greenery at the back of their houses. The story shifts from resident to resident as we witness each of their floral seductions in turn. It’s short-story writing at its best, giving us a novelistic experience in the space of a dozen pages. Turnbull personifies the horny vegetation to great effect: the sentences themselves become flowerheads teeming with its corrupting seed.
The floral horror is continued in ‘Ten Paintings of Nettle Wood’ by Michael Chapman, an ingenious chiller revolving around a collection of mysterious paintings. The paintings appear innocuous enough: ‘ten meter-square paintings of the same view of Nettle Wood, painted one day after the other’, they are, on the surface at least, almost identical, and contain no monsters or murderous figures — to begin with. We soon learn that the paintings depict the scene of the artist’s mother’s death, and that, upon completion of the tenth, he ‘hanged himself from one from one of these trees, so the story goes, but no-one agrees on which’. Reminiscent of M. R. James’s ‘The Mezzotint’, the paintings aren’t quite as lifeless as they seem — but it’s the horror unfolding outside the canvasses that packs the biggest punch here, creeping up on you unawares.
Richard Farren Barber’s ‘Tag’ closes the anthology in wicked style. It’s the first day of term at Paddy’s primary school, and there’s a new girl in class. There’s something very wrong with Jacqueline Fryer, but only the children seem to notice it: ‘She was old … the oldest person I had ever seen … Her face was covered with wrinkles and folds. Yellow nubs of cracked teeth hung loosely in her mouth. Her hands were folded one upon the other on the desktop and they twitched in spasms’. This could be the premise for one of those madcap 80s generation-swap comedies, but Barber has other ideas: one by one, children from the class begin to disappear, and Paddy and his mates are convinced that Jacqueline is responsible. As with ‘Childe Abbas’, I felt keenly the characters’ dread as the world closes in upon them, as their friends steadily disappear from the school register and, perhaps even more terrifyingly, from their memories: before long, Paddy and his mates can’t even recall the names of the children who have gone.
Made In Britain is everything a horror anthology should be, and HellBound is to be applauded for giving fresh talent a springboard onto the horror scene. Brexit might have divided the country, but a collection like this, showing just how multi-faceted and fertile the horror genre is, can only unify and instill us with hope.
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