(Megazanthus Press, 270pp, pb £9.50)
By some miracle of chance, I seem to have found my way onto a number of review lists. I’m not entirely sure how, as I don’t think my reviews are anything more than excited blathering about whichever book or film I’ve most recently read or seen.
But it does mean that I get to see a wide variety of books built around occasionally quite innovative ideas. I am, as regular readers will know, very fond of the short story as a form, and so multi-author anthologies are like a pick-and-mix grab bag of goodies for me.
I was especially interested when I received “Horror Without Victims”. As an idea, it seems so very simple. But when you sit and think about it for a bit, it actually subverts the very genre, being close to a contradiction in terms. I looked forward to a treat of top-of-their-game horror authors pushing genre boundaries.
I should also apologise to editor DF Lewis. He sent me the review copy some time back, but sadly it got misplaced midway through reading, during my great Essex-wards exodus. Thankfully it reappeared, allowing me to finish it and write this review.
- The opening story, “Embrace the Fall of Night” by John Howard, did not speak to me if I’m honest. It felt too cold, too removed, and far too abstract. It was an interesting approach to the theme, but as a story it lacked the vitality to draw me in enough for the cold descriptive language to properly chill me.
- Gary McMahon is one of my favourite contemporary writers and his offering, “The Horror”, shows off some of his power with stories and themes. It’s not an overly complex piece, but within a few simple strands of plot Gary turns the concept of victimhood on its head. Compelling stuff, without wasting words.
- Similarly, “Clouds” by Eric Ian Steele seems to play with perception. Is someone a “victim” of a horror, if they don’t regard it as a horror? The conclusion feels a little like a volte face from dark to light, but I guess that’s part of the point, and it’s a well-written little story.
- “The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation” by Alistair Rennie is a similar tack to “Clouds”, defining victimhood in the eye of the would-be victim. It has a vaguely Lovecraftian feel to it, taking atmospherics from its colonial setting. It’s pretty good, if that’s the sort of story you like, treading the line between feeling outdated and steeped in mystery.
- From the realist — if exotic — Aliya Whitely’s ”Waiting Room” is more abstract, more allegorical, and a whole lot weirder. But it also has a soft beauty, a lingering sense of vulnerability. I rather liked it, and its point that if everyone is a victim, the only people we can really be victims of is ourselves.
- I’m not sure if the editor has intentionally paired the stories, but “For Ages and Ever” by Patricia Russo is similar. It has a fantastical quality, and a much more direct focus on the role that individual perspective has on what constitutes victimhood.
- I’m not sure exactly what to make of “Night in the Pink House” by Charles Wilkinson. I enjoyed reading it, and it was quite dark, but aside from one particular element, I’m not sure how it qualifies as victimless. The horror is dark, though, the shadows in the depths of human nature.
- Mark Patrick Lynch’s contribution, “Point and Stick”, really peaked my interest. As well as an engagingly realistic setting and character, it takes the idea of perception and shows how it can be warped by a constrained knowledge of the facts. What looks like horror to one person may not actually be so, and someone who appears to be a victim could be precisely the opposite. But in the end, those constraints leave a near-infuriating veil of mystery.
- “The Blue Umbrella” by Mark Valentine is something different. A reverberating sense of sad entropy wrapped up in an odd bookishness. Its muted, but gloomy, imagery means that it isn’t one which stands out, but it does linger.
- I’m not familiar with Rosanne Rabinowitz, but her story “Lambeth North” is a particularly good offering. The story of three middle-aged woman, and the changing nature of their friendship. The horror isn’t from any tangible source, but a subtle, unstoppable creep of time running us all down and the wondering of what else lurks beyond what we know.
- Again, I’m not sure if “The Cure” by John Travis is victimless, but it’s certainly weird. A rich man accepts an offer of an outlandish cure from shadowy individuals, in what midway through seems the build-up to a weak pun. It actually gets much odder than that. I’m unsure.
- “We Do Things Differently Here” by David Murphy is not victimless. The sense of victimhood is the result of a strange perversion of nature, but it‘s victimhood all the same. A naive woman journeys to a strange land for love, and ends up fleeing with more than she bargained for when she realises the true nature of their way of life. It’s not a bad story, but I don’t really see how it fits here.
- DeAnna Knippling’s ”Lord of Pigs” is the sort of horror I can really go for. It’s dark, without being too dark, and uses the child’s point of view to employ a detail-by-suggestion style of storytelling. It’s also morally ambiguous, which is where the victimlessness comes in. There’s a resounding tone of innocence throughout the whole thing.
- “Like Nothing Else” by Christopher Morris harks back to the victimhood in the eye of the victim theme which some stories had already touched on, but with a bizarre blend of fantasy and erotica. It’s brutal, and fairly squirm inducing, and I’m not sure if it didn’t push a little too far for my liking.
- “In the Earth” by Rog Pile was victimless. Genuinely victimless, not out of a technicality, but because the horror exists through a sense of foreboding, of something which might happen, somewhen in the future. It’s a deeper fear, which lacks the immediacy, and is employed well in a slow crescendo. A very good story.
- “Scree” by Caleb Wilson is an end-of-the-world story, which offers little to no background explanation for what’s going on. It’s metaphors are abstract and a sense of loneliness consumes it, but it isn’t imminent doom which is the most prominent feature, but endless waiting.
- David V. Griffin’s ”The Week of Four Thursdays” is the portrayal of the disintegration of a life, the personalisation of obsession which burns so brightly that it consumes all. The main character doesn’t care, doesn’t mind what is happening and certainly doesn’t consider himself a victim. There’s a fragrant sadness to it, but overall it feels like a piece suspended, waiting.
- “In Dreams, You’re Mine” by Jeff Holland is a short piece, about facing fears. Which is, again, a very interesting response to the theme. It’s a nice idea, that although facing fears can be terrifying, once done you cannot ever be said to be a victim.
- “Walk On By” by Katie Jones again takes the initiative. Here the lack of a victim is down to a choice — not of the would-be-victim, but the aggressor. It’s a standard story, which might have weathered a bit more fleshing out, but as a response to the theme it was very interesting.
- Why is it always ventriloquists and their dummies? There’s something fundamentally creepy about them, isn’t there? “Vent” by L.R. Bonehill ploughs this particular furrow, tying it up with maternal love and rejection. I see what Bonehill is getting at, and it‘s a potent piece certainly, but it would be very easy to take a very victim-centric reading of this tale.
- “The Yellow See-Through Baby” by Michael Sidman is a gem of a story. Really, a gem. Writing from the perspective of a toddler is difficult, and Sidman pulls it off with aplomb. In a similar way to Jeff Holland’s contribution, it’s about facing and overcoming fears, but the mode and method of that makes this a truly excellent piece of writing.
- The first thing I noticed about Kenneth C. Wickson’s “The Boarding House” was the semi-colons. So many semi-colons. And why were they there? I spent most of the story trying to figure it out. But erratic and eclectic punctuation aside, the story wasn’t bad. A little underexplained in places — we’re left to presume who “she” is — but a solidly workmanlike tale about a creepy house, alive with memory. I just wish I understood the damn semi-colons.
- Similarly in “The Callers”, it stood out straight away that Tony Lovell had got his tenses in a muddle. The story was in present tense, whilst the dialogue tags clung stubbornly to the past tense. Once you get past that, though, there’s a lingering sense of the sinister, which creeps over the text. Again, it’s underexplained, but here I think that’s the source of the horror. That something tragically malignant lurks just out of perception.
- “Still Life” by Nick Jackson might be my favourite story in the collection. The horror of it is based purely in the descriptive language, conjuring a clearly realised world of decay, neglect and ruin. The prose sent shivers down my back as I read it. The only minor criticism I have is that I wish it hadn’t been so forward about its victimlessness. A handful of sentences, too direct, too on the nose, and not at all needed. But even despite that, it was still a masterpiece.
- The closing story, “You in your small corner, and I in mine” by Bob Lock, was another short-but-strange one, and I rather liked it. Turning the tables on the horror by changing — literally — the perspective creates rather an upbeat little story. And for an anthology like this, closing on an positive note feels…right.
I always want to apologise for the length of these reviews. As a short story writer myself, I’m of the opinion that it’s only fair to give each story at least a few lines.
The anthology itself was a mixed bag, but then they always are. The story I saw as its crowning glory another reader would see as top of the rubbish heap. And that’s why I like reviewing. Everyone reads their own stories into them, and no two reflections on them will be the same.
But what DF Lewis has done here is provide a fascinating theme to rally his authors to push beyond the usual boundaries we box ourselves into. And in that he has done a great job, and should be lauded. This is an anthology which will make you think, and I can think of no possible better reason to recommend it.