Anatomy Of Death is an anthology of five stories, selected and edited by Mark West. The theme of the books is Mark’s first love in horror: “slim, gory, gruesome paperbacks with vividly livid covers” from the 70s/80s. Obviously a bit different in tone from the more literate ‘weird fiction’ I normally review on here, but it’s a style I've been thinking about a lot recently with the death of James Herbert. Let’s face it, for most of us our first experience with horror isn't going to be The Haunting Of Hill House, it’s going to be The Rats, handed round the playground at far too young an age, with dog-eared pages where the naughty or violent bits are. At least, it was for me.
So this anthology came along at exactly the right time. I'm always going to prefer Aickman, but sometimes we all need horror that’s less existential angst, more worry about if the psycho-knife-man will get you.
But! The first story in the book - Pseudonym by Stephen Bacon – is not so much written in the “sleazy horror” style but a meta-tale about an author of such books. The author in question is old and hasn't published for decades, but bizarrely he suddenly accedes to an old interview request – which becomes confession as much as interview. Until the end it’s pretty restrained, and as much like an MR James story as James Herbert. I liked it.
By contrast, The Cannibal Whores of Effingham by Johnny Mains isn't restrained – there’s nothing metaphorical about this title. The story starts with a pretty gruesome and explicit death and doesn't relent from there on in. This one is written with a sense of fun and, I suspect, with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s tone somewhat jars with that of the previous story, but it’s no less compelling for that.
Out of Fashion by John Llewellyn Probert is different again, a historical tale where the horror seems to be a blend of Lovecraft and the body-horror of Cronenberg. It tells of an Edwardian doctor with shades of Sherlock Holmes about him, and a patient who visits him with a very odd affliction. This is the only tale in the book whose ending took me completely by surprise, partly due to the time period it’s set in – you’ll see what I mean if you read it.
And then there's The Arselicker – Stephen Volk. Um. I'm not sure what to say about this one – possibly my favourite story in the anthology, and certainly the most memorable. It reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk at his most uncompromising – there’s a story of his, Guts, that’s achieved a certain notoriety, and Volk's tale is very much in the same territory. I won’t say much about it, for fear of diluting it’s impact for readers. If you're the kind of person who can't help grinning when a story you think couldn't get more outrageous suddenly does, you'll love this one.
Mark West’s own contribution, The Glamour Girl Murders, is set in the 70s and, as you might guess from the title, about a seriously sleazy murderer, as well as a photographer who is, in his own way, equally sleazy. I always like Mark’s no-nonsense prose style and it fits perfectly here – the longest story in the book and a fitting end to a strong collection.