Title: Phobic: Modern Horror Stories
Author: Various, edited by Andy Murray
My Copy: Kindle edition, 2007.
A fairly unforgettable collection of “modern horror” stories from 2007, edited by UK writer Andy Murray. There are some interesting stories in here but by and large it appears to be just an average collection of half-baked concepts of what “modern horror” means to these authors. Many of the stories share similar themes, namely: the fear of losing one’s children or family unit; the fear of adult loneliness or isolation, and the fear of the modern world’s increasing reliance on technology.
I bought this book mainly because it contained stories by Matthew Holness of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentlemen. I love TV shows like Darkplace and The League of Gentlemen, so I wanted to see if these stories would be straight horror, as opposed to comedy-horror. I’d read another Holness story a few years ago (Possum, from The New Uncanny), and I was keen to read more of his work. Thankfully, both Holness’ and Dyson’s stories were two of the strongest stories in this collection (though nothing particularly special otherwise). Holness’ story, The Sounds Between, is a strange, almost dream-like observation of the perils of a constantly connected technological world, and the subsequent images and messages of terror and fear which flow within. Violent imagery, black humour and paranoia are all present in this story, but the gruesome and puzzling climax left me a little disappointed. Still, I enjoy Holness’ writing style and I’d be happy to read more of his fiction in the future.
Dyson’s contribution, The Coué, tells the story of a collector of arcane, esoteric items, who buys a supposedly legendary item from a salesman at his shop. This story doesn’t have much in the way of “modern” horror – the only element of which exists as a series of messages on an internet forum which serve to illuminate the dealer’s mistake at buying the mysterious “Coué”. I thought this was one of the strongest stories in the volume – Dyson has an effective, simple style and many aspects of this story were genuinely creepy. Again, as with Holness’ story, the climax of the story left me slightly disappointed, mainly because it seemed like a non-sequitur – the readers aren’t given any exposition or further information on the mysteries presented in the text, the story simply ends on a scary, gruesome note. Still, I’ll definitely be reading more of Dyson’s work based on this tale. I recently bought his 2000 collection Never Trust a Rabbit and if the stories are as good as this, it’ll be worth a read.
The other stories I enjoyed in this volume are as follows:
The Dogs by Hanif Kureishi – A very short entry, more a vignette than a full story. Kureishi’s minimal style is at odds with the violent, horrific subject matter. This was another example of a writer not relying on the story being “modern horror”, but it does hit that eternal fear: the fear for the safety of your children. I’ll be looking for more of Kureishi’s writing in the future.
By The River by Maria Roberts – A fairly run-of-the-mill apocalyptic tale, but I found this to be a pretty good, engaging story, as seen through the eyes of the child whose mother wants to work hard and live through the UK’s energy and resource crises of the early 2000s. Set in the North of England and written in the style of a diary, it’s a bleak account of a global heat wave, a prolonged drought and the eventual breakdown of British society. Elements of the narrative involving a local lynching and the murmurs and movements of canal underpasses make this story a decent exercise in horror.
Lancashire by Nicholas Royle – Another exercise in “family horror”, wherein two parents and their children visit another family in a different town. There’s am overarching sense of dread throughout this tale and whilst the writing is a little rough in places, there is a strong atmosphere of unease running all the way up to the horrific climax, which was fairly predictable but effective nonetheless. I liked the way in which small details were dropped in the text, hinting at the new family’s true motives. If I remember correctly, there’s one mention of some strange Satanic practices in the smaller villages of Lancashire that just adds weight to the awful discovery at the end of the tale.
The rest of the book is filled with pretty unremarkable stories (many of which I have already forgotten), but I also wanted to highlight some of the worst stories here also, mostly as a reminder to myself and also perhaps as a warning to anyone thinking of reading this:
The Part of Me That Died by Frank Cottrell Boyce – An interesting concept that’s ultimately let down by the misguided combination of surreal humour and existential dread. I felt like had the author tried a different method of telling this story, it may have been much more effective, but sadly the addition of late 1990s children’s TV characters to this story just make it too absurd to be frightening.
Digging Deeper by Ramsay Campbell – Campbell is often hailed as one of the UK’s best horror writers, but I haven’t read all that much by him. I hope this story isn’t indicative of his usual style, as it was pretty disappointing throughout. The story concerns a premature burial, and the supposedly-deceased’s attempt at getting help from the emergency services, via a mobile phone found in his burial suit. There are some really interesting elements to this tale, such as the call handler’s claim that the buried man sounds too old to be alive, and that there may have been some foul play within his family, pre-burial, but overall I found the writing, themes and concepts to be overly campy and melodramatic. For example, when the buried man tries to dial the emergency services, Campbell writes: “He uses a finger to count down the blurred keypad and jabs the ninth key thrice”. I know it might sound like I’m just being picky, but that sentence (and others like it) were just too contrived for me to enjoy the tale… at times it did feel as if I was really reading a Garth Marenghi thriller.