I have a lot of time for Stephen Volk.
He has made some cracking TV — Ghostwatch, and the extremely underrated Afterlife — and I rather enjoyed his film The Awakening.
And he has good form as a prose writer too, with his novella Whistable being one of the most bleakly moving pieces of writing I’ve read recently. At the time I took great delight in describing it as “lovingly crafted, yet fundamentally honest and believable”, a description which I stand by today.
Short stories are one of the loves of my life. They are undoubtedly the path of less glory — nobody ever made their fortune writing tales under 5,000 words long — but there’s a delight to what can be conveyed with a minimum of words.
So when I received (unsolicited) in my inbox an advance review PDF of Stephen’s new short story collection Monsters in the Heart, I jumped at the chance to see how he took to and used the form to elucidate and entertain.
- My God, the opening story is bleak! “After the Ape” is set in the aftermath of the events of King Kong, where a despondent Ann Darrow languishes in a hotel room mourning for the slain simian. It’s a piece mired in depression and hopelessness, and tingles with emotion. Very raw, very exposed, and very moving.
- “Who Dies Best” is one of those curious stories where the central conceit is so far-fetched that the story seems at first to have over-reached. But though I don’t anticipate Hollywood adopting the “snuff movie” format any time soon, this is a dark and potent musing — without hysteria — on the effect and destination of increasing violence in films.
- “Monster Boy” goes for a powerfully realist tone, and it was honestly one which struck me very close to the core. A introverted child develops an obsession with monster movies, in large part thanks to his grandfather. The story mixes together the intense and emotional familial bond of the lonely, with the odd places we find the courage to stand up for ourselves. I also love the comic/character Hellboy, so this story was always going to hit the spot for me.
- Ah, for a classic tale made modern. “Notre Dame” is its famous literary namesake with an updated setting — but not just an updated setting. Like “Who Dies Best” its a dark vision of the future. Not altogether realistic, perhaps, but it’s not meant to be. There is enough all-too-possible about arch-conservative authority forces taking ownership of the moral questions around the reproductive process to chill like a Daily Mail story. The delay in introducing the central feature of the setting makes it feel like a rapid slide into nightmare; a sense of realising too late what is going on.
- “A Paper Tissue”, on the other hand, is more realist, more grounded in the real world. As such, its horror is of a subtler, creeping breed. A couple grown apart in their marriage bump into an old friend and companion on holiday, and the dark suggestion of abuse in the mirrored relationship rekindles the couple’s feelings for each other. It’s unsettling rather than appalling, with an unposed question around costs and benefits of any given situation.
- “Fear” was very good. It was also very different. Set in classical Japan, a samurai journeys at the Emperor’s order to investigate a village plagued by ghosts. I don’t want to spoil anything about the conclusion, which some may find silly, but I enjoyed as an excellent example of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
- I was reminded of the controversial “Home” episode of The X-Files whilst reading “Swell Head”. Which is a mostly imperfect comparison, as I don’t really think “Swell Head” is a horror story. Rather, it’s a tragedy, of a man’s lifelong devotion to his malformed brother, and the sad conclusion to his story. As with “A Paper Tissue”, the horror is in the order of unsettling rather than terrifying.
- Now, “In the Colosseum” is horror. A picture editor is sucked into a rawkous party of TV industry elites, bearing witness and participating in the debauchery and casual cruelty in which they revel. This is a story about two classes of people, and about who might be watching behind the glassy eyes of CCTV cameras. It’s dark and very explicit, but it’s also an excellently written story.
- I don’t really know much of the Sherlock Holmes mythos, so “Hounded” was a bit of a novelty for me. Years after Holmes’ death, an elderly John Watson cannot escape the truth of the Hound of the Baskervilles. This story blends the suggestion of the paranormal and inexplicable with Holmes famous process. Eliminating the impossible may leave the truth, but when the line between possible and impossible is blurred, who can tell what resides where?
- I confess that I didn’t really get “Air Baby”. The tale of a couple who long for a baby and one day find one, it didn’t really click for me. I get the nonsense-like language is attempting to create a children’s story, but…it felt like it was lacking something.
- Again, “Easter” was difficult to get my head around. A crucifixion reenactment in the front garden of a Bristol suburban house. The juxtaposition of the weird and the banal has a certain power, and like “A Paper Tissue” this is a study of relationships. It’s not particularly horror, and doesn’t contain any monsters, but it is rather beautiful.
- “White Butterflies” was one of my favourite stories in the collection. In impoverished Kazakhstan, a boy and his brother travel to salvage fallen pieces of rockets as they are launched into the heavens. The picture is bleak, the horror in the inescapable world, and the language it is posed in nothing short of beautiful. A dark, sorrow-filled tale with a distinctively otherworldly — yet all too real — tone.
- More than a ghost story, “Pied-a-Terre” is a complex piece of work, painting piece by piece a picture of a life and a relationship through the eyes of a woman awoken to the harm she is suffering. Viewing a house for her husband to use as a weekday working base, Miriam is beset by ghostly happenings. It is actually a fresh relief for the ghost to be the cure, rather than the source, of the evil in the main characters life, and unlike many of the stories in this collection the ending is upbeat and rings with hope.
- “The Hair” is nothing new in terms of a “careful what you wish for” cautionary tale. A wife’s insecurity and jealousy combines with voodoo magic to form her undoing. If the course of the plot isn’t strikingly original, the prose drips with a delicious Afro-Caribbean life, and the abrupt dark twist in the final lines is as satisfying as it is disturbing.
- “Appeal for Witnesses”, on the other hand, was a strange note to close on. A dark and gritty urban horror meets crime noir, in which a police officer gets in over his head investigating a stabbing and disappearance. The story gets progressively weirder throughout, and when it finally does reach its end the dark conclusion hits like a punch to the gut with the realisation that monsters can be very, very real.
A frankly remarkable collection of stories, all in all, summed up with a short treatise on the nature of monsters culled from his Black Static column “Coffinmaker’s Blues”. Stephen has also included a short section explaining how each of the stories came about, which is truly fascinating — though I am glad I didn’t skip to the end before finishing all of the stories.
Stephen has a peculiar gift for creating moving and disturbing stories, with particularly potent use of language. As is probably expected of a screenwriter, he has an excellent ear for dialogue and an acute sense of atmosphere. As a bit of a conneseur of the short story, particularly in darker genres, I have to say Monsters in the Heart is up there with the very best. Setting out to read this collection is a journey, and an exploration, and I can definitely recommend it as well worth the commitment.