Monday, April 23, 2018

Broughton, Cassell & Hall, Sussex Horrors (2018)

Jonathan Broughton, Mark Cassell & Rayne Hall, Sussex Horrors: Stories of Coastal Terror and Other Seaside Haunts. Herbs House, 2018. Pp. 128. ISBN 978-0-99306-015-1. $12.99/£7.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

Themed anothologies are a staple, not just of the horror genre, but just about every class of speculative fiction. And since moving to Britain, I've encountered an increasing number of collections based around particular areas, most notably the Terror Tales of… series, edited by Paul Finch (Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Terror Tales of East Anglia, Terror Tales of Wales, etc.). When I picked up Sussex Horrors I was expecting a similar premise; a collection of stories from various authors about terrors somehow centered around or unique to Sussex county. In that respect, I was mistaken; Sussex Horrors, rather than being quilted together by a single editor out of many contributions by different writers, is the lovechild of a menage-a-trois made up of authors Jonathan Broughton, Mark Cassell, and Rayne Hall. These three authors wrote each of the twelve stories comprising the book (four per author), and presumably also served as mutual editors. I will admit to a pang of disappointment when I picked the book up; the variety of authors, writing styles, and themes in an anthology is one of the things I treasure most about them. But I have to concede the novelty of the idea. However, the value in novelty only lies in how successful it is. And was this book successful?

To start off, I have a small issue with the description of the book as a whole. When I pick up a book entitled Sussex Horrors, I generally expect the stories within to involve Sussex in some seminal way. And, given the subtitle, probably have something to do with the sea. And I'm afraid that quite a number of these tales fail to meet this criteria. Several of them, such as ‘Stealth of Spiders’ and ‘You Have One Message’ (both by Jonathan Broughton) could have been set in Colorado without any noticeable change to the narrative, save perhaps a few place names. Others, such as Mark Cassell’s ‘Away in a Mangler’ and ‘Demon Alcohol’ could be taking place in really any coastal tourist town, not specifically in Sussex. Honestly, the whole collection could have been simply titled Coastal Terrors without needing any change to the contents. It’s not a deal-breaker, by any means, but I did find it a bit puzzling for a collection with such a specific title.

The three authors all have very distinct voices and writing styles, which is a definite advantage in a collection like this. Rayne Hall’s stories had a very classic feel to them—among her contributions were ‘Seagulls,’ a neat little Hitchcock-ian tale, ‘Scruples,’ a classic gothic yarn, and ‘Double Rainbows,’ which could have been taken right from the script pile of Tales of the Unexpected. Her only real misstep was ‘Normal, Considering the Weather,’ in which the voice of the narrator never properly gelled for me. The story was told through a series of letters from the narrator to her grandmother, but those letters never felt right to me. I don't know, but when I write to my Nana I don't usually include passages like “Women wear mini dresses so short they air the cellulite on their buttocks, and shirtless men show still-white beer bellies.” Maybe it's just me.

Mark Cassell is clearly trying to pay tribute to some of the greats in weird fiction with hi surreal imagery and bizarre narratives. His stories “The Nest’ and ‘Demon Alcohol’ make the list of some reviewers’ favourites in the anthology, and it’s not hard to see why; they are gruesome, creative, and marvellously freaky. But honestly, I wasn’t terrifically impressed by them. Weirdness in a story is a great thing, but it still requires a certain level of internal logic and narrative flow that I felt these tales lacked. ‘The Nest’ in particular was a series of “hows” and “whys” that all amounted to the most inefficient reproductive system since Alien. However, one of his other contributions, ‘Away in a Mangler,’ was possibly my favourite stories in the collection, being delightfully gruesome and brutal. However, one part of it irritated me; the villain had a “quirk” that was never explained nor had any real narrative purpose. The only reason that I can see for it being there was as another nod to Hitchcock, but unlike ‘Seagulls’ this just came off as unnecessary.

Sorry to say, but Jonathan Broughton’s stories were probably my least favourites of the anthology. ‘You Have One Message’ came off as a weaker version of Stephen King’s Cell. ‘The Stealth of Spiders’ was meant to be a character piece, but none of the characters felt real to me, and the ending fell flat. I will say that his third story, ‘Furzby Holt,’ was one I very much enjoyed; think Lovecraft, but with with a sense of humour. I could easily see Simon Pegg in the main role. However, ‘The Pensioner Pirates of Marine Parade’ was likely my least favourite story out of the entire anthology. It had the core of an interesting idea to it; it is the story of two elderly women rebelling against the legalisation of the forced euthanasia of elderly citizens, manifesting in a “euthanasia cruise ship” docking in their seaside town. I liked the idea of a light-hearted look at how society often devalues the elderly and considers them disposable. However, I feel that the message was undercut by the fact that one of the main characters, Daphne, is disrespected and disregarded even by her own partner in crime. Daphne has no dialogue, her cognitive abilities are doubted and sometimes mocked, and she seems to have no input into the duo’s actions. This makes the protagonist, an old woman who rails against others for disrespecting and disposing of the elderly, come off as more than a little bit of a hypocrite. Daphne does get the last laugh in the end, but the story does not end well for her, and I feel that it does not make up for her treatment in the rest of the story.

All in all, this is not a bad collection. All three authors have their strong points, and there are more than a few tales worth reading in here. That being said, nothing stood out particularly well to me, and a few of the stories fell a bit flat. In addition, there was a weird lack of connection to Sussex for a collection meant to be centered around it. A fun read to enjoy on the beach or in a cafe, but not destined to go down as one of the classics.

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