Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Favourite Short Stories: 2021

Here we go, my favourite post of the year...

This is the ninth time I've done this (you can find links to lists from previous years here) so I won't bore you with too much preamble. Suffice to say, these stories (and the odd poem) really worked for me and I hope you find some which work for you too. (For each, I've linked to the publication where I read the story, which isn't always where they were first published.)


G.V. Anderson: Shuck (The Deadlands #2)
Kelly Armstong: Drunk Physics (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
Jen Ashworth: The Note (Out Of The Darkness, Unsung Stories)
Elizabeth Bear: On Safari In R'lyeh & Carcosa With Gun & Camera (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
Simon Bestwick: The Hungry Dark (Out Of The Darkness, Unsung Stories)
Gary Budden: Collector Of Games (Tales From The Shadow Booth #4)
Nadia Bulkin: Someday You Will Regret Not Replying (Southwest Review #106)
A.S. Byatt: The July Ghost (Sugar & Other Stories, Penguin)
A.S. Byatt: The Changling (Sugar & Other Stories, Penguin)
Ramsey Campbell: The Page (By The Light Of My Skull, PS Publishing)
Ramsey Campbell: The Watched (By The Light Of My Skull, PS Publishing)
Ramsey Campbell: The Wrong Game (By The Light Of My Skull, PS Publishing)
Eliza Chan: The Making Of Broken Embers (Cooties Shot Required, Broken Eye Books)
Autumn Christian: A Human Rupture (author's website)  
Chloe N. Clark: Swingman (Monkeybicycle
Aislinn Clarke: Skeleton Day (Uncertainties V, Swan River Press)
Georgia Cook: Ghost Light (The Quiet Ones #1)
Georgia Cook: Haunted (Reflex Action)
M.R. Cosby: The Bells Line Of Road (Oculus Sinister, Cthonic Matter)
M.R. Cosby: The Trains Don't Stop Here (The Trains Don't Stop Here, Dark Lane Books)
M.R. Cosby: Not So Much Pride, More Perseverance (The Trains Don't Stop Here, Dark Lane Books)
Steve Duffy: White Noise In A White Room (Weird Horror #1, Undertow Publications)
Brian Evenson: Mother (The Baffler July 21)
Brian Evenson: The Other Floor (Oculus Sinister, Cthonic Matter)
Brian Evenson: The Shimmering Wall (Electric Lit)
Tracy Fahey: I Write Your Name (I Spit Myself Out, Sinister Horror Company)
Tracy Fahey: Ghost In The Machine (I Spit Myself Out, Sinister Horror Company)
Corey Farrenkopf: The Burnt Floor (Florida Review)
Emily Faulkes: Feeling Watched (The Antihumanist 2nd Ed.)
Kurt Fawver: Introduction To The Horror Story, Day 1 (Nightmare #98)
Kathy Fish: Collective Names For Humans In The Wild (Jellyfish Review)
Laur A. Freymiller: The Mothers (Nightmare #111)
Gary Fry: The Careless Companion (Shades Of Nothingness, PS Publishing)
Gary Fry: Abolisher Of Roses (Shades Of Nothingness, PS Publishing)
A.T. Greenblatt: The Family In The Adit (Nightmare #103)
Thomas Ha: Where The Old Neighbours Go (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
Sarah Hans: Chorus Of Whispers (Stitched Lips, Dragon's Roost Press)
Lucie McKnight Hardy: The Devil Of Timanfaya (Tales From The Shadow Booth #4)
Sean Hogan: To See The Sea (Uncertainties V, Swan River Press)
Jess Hyslop: Food Of The Gods (New Myths #54)
Jess Hyslop: The Last Scribe Of Tazarhal (Translunar Travelling Lounge #5)
Gabino Iglesias: Bad Green, Quiet Black (Stitched Lips, Dragon's Roost Press)
Michael Kelly: That Which Crawls From Dark Soil (Nightmare #102)
Michael Kelly: In The Blue Hour (The Antihumanist 2nd Ed.)
Chris Kelso & Brian Evenson: Jenny Longlegs (Three-Lobed Burning Eye #34)
Alys Key: Scratching (Weird Horror #2, Undertow Publications) 
John Langan: Where The Hollow Tree Waits (Weird Horror #1, Undertow Publications)
John Langan: Vile Jellies (Oculus Sinister, Cthonic Matter)
John Langan: Washed In The Blood Of The Sun (Uncertainties V, Swan River Press)
Eileen Gunnell Lee: You Cannot Return To The Burning Glade (Reckoning #5)
Tonya Liburd: 10 Steps To A New You (Fantasy Magazine)
James Machin: The Tribute (Tales From The Shadow Booth #4)
Tim Major: Goodbye Jonathan Tumbledown (Out Of The Darkness, Unsung Stories)
Laura Mauro & Chris Kelso: The Recidivist (Punk Noir)
J.A.W. McCarthy: Contrition (Oculus Sinister, Cthonic Matter)
J.A.W. McCarthy: With You As My Anchor (Sometimes We're Cruel, Cemetery Gates)
J.A.W. McCarthy: Black Doves (Sometimes We're Cruel, Cemetery Gates)
Victoria McCurdy: This Is How You Fail To Ghost Him (Monkeybicycle)
Gary McMahon: On The Walls (At Home In The Shadows, Black Shuck Books)
John McNee: Midnight At The Doom Cabaret (Doom Cabaret, Sinister Horror Company)
Alan Moore: Not Even Legend (Uncertainties V, Swan River Press)
Adam Nevill: On All London Underground Lines (Hasty For The Dark, Ritual Limited)
Aimee Ogden: The Cold Calculations (Clarkesworld #183)
Jon Padgett: Flight 389 (Nightmare #109)
Hailey Piper: Why We Keep Exploding (Stitched Lips, Dragon's Roost Press)
H. Pueyo: Nobody Lives Here (The Dark #66)
Gareth E. Rees: Meet On The Edge (Out Of The Darkness, Unsung Stories)
Sally Rooney: Mr Salary (Faber Stories)
Iain Rowan: Now, The Weather (101 Words.Org)
Robert Shearman: Shaggy Dog Story (We All Hear Stories In The Dark, PS Publishing)
Phil Sloman: The Interview (Meghan's Holiday House Of Books)
Simon Strantzas: That House (Bourbon Penn #25)
Ashley Stokes: Hardrada (Tales From The Shadow Booth #4)
Sonya Taaffe: Every Night And All (Nightmare #109)
Sonya Taaffe: Tea With The Earl Of Twilight (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
Steve Rasnic Tem: The Dead Outside My Door (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
Patty Templeton: Artown Correctional Center (Stitched Lips, Dragon's Roost Press)
Kristina Ten: The Dreadful & Specific Monster Of Starosibirsk (Weird Horror #2, Undertow Publications) 
Ali Trotta: When The Wraith Smiles (Nightmare #111)
Cameron Ulam: Propagate (It Calls From The Forest 2, Eerie River Publishing)
Stephen Volk: Adventurous (Weird Horror #2, Undertow Publications) 
Kelly White: When The Snow Falls (Monkeypantz)
Shaoni C. White: Diamond Cuts (Uncanny #41)
Aliya Whiteley: Luisa Opines (Fearsome Creatures, Black Shuck Books)
Aliya Whiteley: Wrapped (Fearsome Creatures, Black Shuck Books)
A.C. Wise: To Sail The Black (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)
John Wiswell:  Open House On Haunted Hill (The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2, Pyr)

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Favourite Books 2021

I'm not sure I've ever done the same format for my annual favourite books post, and so here's another way of doing it for 2021. Categories, winners and runners up. I'll no doubt do something different again next year. (By contrast, my annual short story post is a model of consistency, and will be coming soon...)


So, here we go:

Best Collection: Sometimes We're Cruel, J.A.W. McCarthy - full write up here

Runner Up: The Trains Don't Stop Here, Martin Cosby - Aickmanesque strangeness, without being derivative or needlessly opaque (a hard trick to pull off)


Best Anthology: Uncertainties V, ed. Brian J. Showers - has an intro that should be read by all authors & connoisseurs of creepy, unsettling fiction. And the stories that follow more than live up to its promise.

Runner Up: Stitched Lips: An Anthology Of Horror From Silenced Voices, ed. Ken MacGregor - the anthology that introduced me to the most new authors this year


Best Novel: Mistletoe, Alison Littlewood - a wonderfully creepy, chilly winter ghost story, which still more than worked when I read it in the middle of summer

Runner Up: Crooked, Austin Grossman - Richard Milhous Nixon + Lovecraftian beings & dark magic


Best Novella: John's Eyes, Joanna Corrance - a brilliant concept (artificial eyes go HAL on their owner), brilliantly done

Runner Up: The Exercise, Mark West - WW2 period horror, a page-turner which avoids all the usual triteness that phrase conjures up



Best Non-Fiction: Writing The Uncanny, ed. Dan Coxon & Richard V. Hirst - the best book on writing I've bought since Wonderbook, which is saying something

Runner Up: Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium, Sam Dyer  - not exactly 'on brand' for this blog, but a pure hit of nostalgia and 8-bit creativity


Best Misc: The Essential Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson - I'm a big softie really

Runner Up: Casting The Runes RPG, Paul St. John Mackintosh - full write up here

 

Best Reread: 'Salem's Lot, Stephen King - what more can I say about this one that I have't already?

Runner Up: The Master & Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov - a dark delight, even the second time around



Friday, 17 December 2021

Fiction: 'Advent'

This story appeared online last year as part of a creepy advent calendar of stories for the wonderful Sinister Horror Company (who publish Trying To Be So Quiet & Other Hauntings, as well as much other sinister goodness).

When I originally got the invite to write a story for the project, I decided to be get all meta, and try and write a horror story about someone opening an advent calendar (because that's just the kind of twat I am). The piece was originally published on the 17th of December, which is when its set, and also my birthday. So I thought I'd republish it here, a year to the day later. Thanks to Justin Park at Sinister for asking me to write it in the first place.

Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog... if we get past the 17th December, that is.



Advent

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He cut himself on the cardboard doing so, sucked the pad of his finger. There was a chocolate wrapped in red foil inside; he looked around for his son but his son wasn’t there, so he ate it, dropped the foil to the ground. Tasted blood.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He cut his finger on the cardboard doing so. There was a chocolate wrapped in yellow foil inside; he looked around for his son but he wasn’t there. He called his son’s name but there was no answer, so he yelled again, then ate the chocolate, dropped the foil to the ground. Tasted blood.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He reopened a cut on his finger doing so. There was a chocolate wrapped in orange foil inside; he looked around for his son but his son wasn’t there. He called his wife’s name instead, but she wasn’t there either. He listened for the sounds of weeping in the house, then ate the chocolate, dropped the foil to the ground. He felt sick and at the same time hungry. Tasted blood.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. There was a callous on his finger that stopped him cutting himself. He looked around for his wife and son but they weren’t there. What were they so scared of? He’d slept it off now. He unclenched his fists. He ate the chocolate, dropped the red foil to the pile of it on the ground. He felt sick and at the same time hungry. Tasted blood, which couldn’t be right?

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. The thick callous on his finger stopped him cutting himself. He looked around for his wife and son but they weren’t there. What were they so scared of? He was sober now. He unclenched his fists. He ate the chocolate, dropped the orange foil to the pile on the ground. He felt sick like he’d eaten too much chocolate and at the same time hungry like he’d eaten nothing but. Tasted blood, but from where?

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He didn’t cut himself. He looked around for his wife and son but they weren’t fucking there. What were they so scared of? He was sober now. He hit the wall, remembered her face. How she’s been slicing beetroot at the chopping board at the time. He ate the chocolate, dropped the yellow foil to the pile of it on the ground. His insides felt sick, emptied. Tasted blood, which when he spat it out was stained brown.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He didn’t cut himself. He looked around for his wife and son but they weren’t fucking there. What was he so scared of? He’d kill for a drink. He hit the wall, remembered her face, how she’d said she wasn’t going to let him do it again. He ate the chocolate, dropped the foil to the pile of it on the ground. His insides felt sick, emptied, muddled. Tasted blood, like he always did.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He didn’t cut himself. He looked around for his wife and son but couldn’t see them. What was he so scared of? He hit the wall, remembered her face, how she’d said she wasn’t going to let him do it again. Said she’d see him in hell first, and he’d said prove it you bitch. There were drifts of foil around his feet. He ate the chocolate. His insides felt sick, emptied, wounded. Tasted blood, like he always did when he got angry.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. He couldn’t feel his fingers. He looked around for his wife and son, for anyone, but everywhere was grey and misted in his sight. What was he so scared of? He touched the wall, saw the colour his hands left it. She’d said she’d see him in Hell, and he’d said prove it you bitch. How she’d been slicing at the chopping board at the time. He puked up chocolate even as he ate it. His insides felt sick, emptied, wounded. Tasted blood; his fingers had been clutched to his gut and he tasted blood off them.

***

The next day, he opened the window on the advent calendar: 17th December. Tasted blood.

The cold foil around his feet was red and orange and yellow, like flames.





Friday, 3 December 2021

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume 2

Very pleased to say my story 'The Sound Of The Sea, Too Close' has been reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror Volume 2, edited by Paula Guran and out now for Pyr. The lineup selected for the book lives up to the title and I'm proud my story found a place in among such great authors. 


The book is available here: The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror Volume 2, Pyr 2021 (UK | US)


The story was originally published by Micheal Kelly in the brilliant anthology Shadows & Tall Trees #8 (Undertow Publications).




Monday, 18 October 2021

Recommendation: Sometime's We're Cruel by J.A.W. McCarthy


This will be no surprise to any long-term readers of this site, but I read a lot of horror/weird/strange short-fiction. And I try to make sure I'm reading work not just by the established names but by newer authors - by which I mean those who've yet to release a first collection. Of course, a lot of these stories prove to be not so great, but when I do read a new author whose work seems promising I'm sure to make a note of their name - to include them in my end of year short story lists; to keep them in mind for future books I might edit; and of course to remind me to buy their debut collection when it is released.

J.A.W. McCarthy's debut was definitely on my list to buy, and I'm here to tell you that her first collection Sometimes We're Cruel definitely doesn't disappoint. In fact it's one of the best debuts of the year.

There are twelve stories here—six reprints, six original—and every one is original in conception and accomplished in execution. McCarthy takes varied and disparate horror tropes— including ghosts, psychic invasion, wicked (step)mothers, doppelgängers, body horror, Frankenstein-ish creations—and fuses them together with unifying themes and imagery. The stories speak to each other, echo each other, without ever becoming samey or indistinct. I get the sense that, as well as carefully crafting each of these individual stories, McCarthy has taken the time to order and structure this book as a collection as well. As someone who approaches the ordering of a collection in the same way I used to make mix-tapes for friends at university, I appreciated this very much.

I talked above about this book in the context of a first collection, but that's not really fair: Sometimes We're Cruel isn't a 'promising' first book, it's a collection of fully realised brilliance by an author who, whatever she goes on to accomplish, has already created something very special. 

Sometimes We're Cruel (UK | US)


Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Hallowe'en Horrors

I'll be appearing at the Hallowe'en Horrors event at the Derby Quad on October 30th, running a workshop  on writing weird, strange, off-beat, and creepy fiction. Details and a link to get tickets are below:


Join us for the first part of a very special day of horror writing, with five workshop sessions looking at a wide range of aspects of the genre! QUAD’s Literature Officer Alex Davis will be your host throughout, and will be joined by acclaimed authors Sophie Draper, James Everington and Angeline Trevena for an exciting day of dark inspiration, imagination and information!

3:30pm-4:30pm: James Everington – The uncanny: making the everyday seem strange in fiction

Anyone can make a werewolf or spectre sound scary, but how do writers approach more mundane horrors? This workshop will focus on picking out those details in apparently innocuous, everyday situations and making them seem just that little bit ‘off'. Perfect for making your readers uneasy without them knowing quite why….

Further details & tickets here.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Recommendation: Casting The Runes RPG by Paul StJohn Mackintosh


In my younger days, I used to regularly play RPGs, including AD&D, Paranoia, and most relevant here, Call Of Cthulhu, a role-playing game based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. It's a bit hazy in my memory, but I think I encountered Lovecraft's mythos via the game first, and then starting reading the fiction. So along with reading Campbell and King for the first time, Call Of Cthulhu was probably another formative stage on my journey to being a writer. (Although other than a tale in The Outsiders, I don't really write Lovecraftian mythos stuff.)

The new RPG Casting The Runes is based on the ghost stories of M.R. James (and mid-40s me much prefers M.R. James to Lovecraft). After getting the rulebook, I didn't know how I'd actually play the game, but via the wonders of Zoom, I revived the gaming group I'd played with 20 years previously, and ran a few sessions.

The rulebook for Casting The Runes is organised exactly as you might expect, with some introductory remarks followed by sections on character creation (characters here are called 'Investigators'), the game mechanics, monsters and magic, the historical time period, running games, and two sample adventures. The rules themselves are somewhat different to RPGs I've played before, especially when it comes to using 'Investigation Skills' which aim to avoid ludicrous, game-damaging situations where a highly trained investigator rolls a 1 and so misses a really obvious clue like a huge bloodstain right in front of their nose. As you might imagine, while combat features, players aren't super-heroes, and fighting the supernatural beings is likely to be more of a last resort than a significant feature of every play session. I thought the 'Stability' mechanic, allowing for the psychological impacts of player encounters with ghosts, black magic and like, was really well done, and adds a sense of tension and danger to even non-physical confrontations.

Where the book really shines is in the setting specific sections, both in giving the background for the Edwardian time-period, and information about running games in the style of M.R. James.  The two example adventures in the book are excellent introductions to the game. The book itself is really nicely presented, with period B&W photographs and creepy illustrations throughout really helping to set the tone.

The only downside of the rulebook for me was that I could have done with a few more examples of character creation and the rules in play. (The rules are tweaked versions of a more generic ruleset called Gumshoe, which I looked into online to get a feel for it.)

But overall this was a really interesting game, and both me and my friends had great fun playing it. And it was really enjoyable to come back to RPGs after all these years. Hopefully, we'll keep playing.

In summary, if you're an experienced role-player and are interested in an investigation focussed supernatural game, I'd highly recommend this. If you're new to RPGs and intend to be the run the sessions, there are probably easier first games out there, but if the M.R. James connection appeals to you don't let that put you off, you just might need to do a bit of online reading before stating your first game. There's also an friendly Facebook group run by the author where you can ask questions & find character sheets etc.

You can purchase the game online, in physical or PDF formats, at The Design Mechanism or DriveThru RPG.