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House of Fear edited by Jonathan Oliver

House of Fear edited by Jonathan Oliver is predominantly a British anthology, filled to the rafters with the best of the current crop of our writers even if one is a renegade American now living in Scotland and another is a renegade Englishman now living in Amsterdam. Only two actual Americans have made the cut. This is not to suggest the haunted house is, or should be, a British speciality and others will trespass at their peril. But rather to reflect the taste preferences of the editor. This is his second anthology for Solaris Books — for the record, Jonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief for both Abaddon Books and Solaris Books.

“Objects In Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear” by Lisa Tuttle is a beautifully told variation on a traditional scenario. The realisation of the woman is perfect in pitch as she finds herself once again in a car looking for that dream house. “Pied-à-terre” by Stephen Volk is another story where the characters of those involved are instantly recognisable. The two marriages are captured in a relatively few words. Having lived for a time in a house not unlike the one described, the type of home strikes a resonance in my memory. The only element of uncertainty is the author’s decision to make the ghost a real person. It’s not that I disapprove. Indeed, the story hangs on the issue of identity. But I’m not sure it’s entirely fair on the reader because it changes the nature of the experience from straight fiction to a kind of parable in which a message about how to find happiness (or avoid further pain) is passed from “beyond the grave”. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen offers us a fantasy in which a hack screenwriter is given the chance to hang out with Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, et al. This strikes me as legitimate magic realism because we’re asked to see the characters as they were in life. Stephen Volk seems to be inviting us to see this ghost as a kind of catalyst to encourage women to re-evaluate their lives. I don’t know, off-hand, whether this person was a counsellor or interested in supporting battered wives but the ghost is apparently appearing to a “type”. It’s not a notorious fact about this individual’s life. So I’m inclined to think Stephen Volk is imposing this motive on to the ghost and thereby converting a good story into something gratuitously exploitative.

“In the Absence of Murdoch” is a completely entrancing contribution from Terry Lamsley. He’s been a consistent performer for some years now (shame no-one has ever been able to persuade him to write a novel) and this displays a slightly weird sense of humour at work as birds of different types leave the nest and/or crash on landing. This should be a contender for an award for best short story of the year. “Florrie” by Adam L G Nevill takes us down the well-trodden path of possession as the new owner of a home finds himself increasingly identifying with the interests and prejudices of the older generation. This is elegantly done. “Driving the Milky Way” by Weston Ochse is another wonderful story, this time dealing with the innocence of youth. That it bends the editorial brief by selecting an RV rather than a house is neither here nor there. There’s great sadness here and, although the survivor’s response is not terribly rational, his obsession is credible. I hope he can join his friends on their journey.

“The Windmill” by Rebecca Levene nicely diverts the reader’s attention and produces a slightly vicious story of revenge. Imagine a man slowly losing the things he holds most dear, starting with this car. It might tip him over the edge. “Moretta” by Garry Kilworth is somewhat less successful in that it’s traditional with people dying in an old house. In these days of fictionalised CSI technicians to pore over all potential sources of evidence from the scene of unexplained deaths, including all the furniture in the rom and the bedding, it seems inconceivable the house could have remained in the state as described in this story. Personally, I would have cleaned and tied up the place, changing the bedding before sleeping in the bed. Perhaps I’m more fastidious than our heroes. This is not to deny the creation of good atmosphere, but to recognise a falling off from the more general high standard of stories to date.

Jonathan Oliver: Mac owner but not yet wireless

“Hortus Conclusus” by Chaz Brenchley restores us to a more inventive approach with the sad truth that the dead may be jealous of our continued life. Why should they be the ones to die? Why couldn’t it have been us? Moving along: as an atheist, I can only say, if I was going to have a God, “The Dark Space in the House. . .” by Robert Shearman gives me the picture of the kind of guy I would want, even though He does seem somewhat hung-up on negative psychology. This is great fun. “The Muse of Copenhagen” by Nina Allan is a most pleasing story of a succubus from Scandinavia finding a home in England.

Christopher Fowler inverts expectations in “The Injustice” by speculating on what people should do with the evidence they obtain when searching for the supernatural. To whom do they owe a duty of care? Put another way, if the ghost-hunters fail to act on what they find, should they be liable for any injustice this causes? Perhaps I should not be surprised to find stories of real emotional intensity in a book blending the supernatural with horror but “The Room Upstairs” by Sarah Pinborough adds a rather unexpected dimension. Other stories in this anthology have dealt with varying shades of emotion in a fairly narrow range. This represents a provocation into more honest feelings. What we have lost can never really be recovered. All we can hope to do is replace the missing with something new that helps take away the pain. Even then there’s no guarantee of lasting happiness, only the hope of better times to come. “Villanova” by Paul Meloy plays in the same sandbox as the seminal The Stone Tape by Nigel Kneale. Sometimes places record past events and, given the right trigger, these recordings can be replayed. So it is when a family go on a holiday break to a French campsite out-of-season. They find themselves caught up in a replay of what has gone before.

“In Widow’s Weeds”, Christopher Priest has come up with an interesting way of giving tuition. Although the learning outcomes appear significant, there may be downsides to explore before marketing this method for more general use. “The Doll’s House” by Jonathan Green is a classic story as postpartum depression may have been triggered by the arrival of the titular toy and its housekeeper. “Inside/Out” by Nicholas Royle is intriguing both as a commentary on our station in life (in a more general version of the u and non-u sense) and as a story about a man who finally reconnects with a memory of a tender moment only to recognise this internalised memory may be a trap. “The House” by Eric Brown is an elegant variation on the “house” theme, nicely trapping our older hero in the clutches of his dead wife’s curse. Let’s hope the moonlight ending is real and not a “ghostly chicken coming home to roost”. “Trick of the Light” by Tim Lebbon takes us down another well-trodden path but does so with some style. Finally, “What Happened To Me?” by Joe R Lansdale produces the ultimate grandstand finish. It captures the simple trusting love a young girl may have for another girl met in the woods. She brings the girl home and they grow up together but, as is always the way with families, there comes a time when these friends must part, leaving the girl from the woods behind. She grows bitter and angry with anyone who comes to occupy the house. It’s a riveting, page-turning read leading to a genuinely satisfying note on which to end the anthology. If hauntings are evidence of bitterness and anger, let’s hope there can always be a chance for reconciliation and healing.

Without exception, these stories most powerfully create a sense of the places and the people who inhabit them. Rather than merely plot-driven, they show us the humanity of those who may find themselves exposed to the supernatural. Weak or strong, everyone does their best to move on with their lives, although not always with complete success. This is a singularly impressive anthology. The fact I have spent rather longer than usual discussing these stories should indicate how much I have been provoked into thought (in a good way, of course). House of Fear should be read by everyone with an interest in high-quality ghost and horror stories.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, House of Fear has been shortlisted in the Best Anthology category by the British Fantasy Society, with “Florie” by Adam Nevill shortlisted in the Short Fiction category.

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