As American horror superstar (and self-described fanboy-at-heart) Stephen King explains in a conversational and entertaining introduction, this slender yet impressive anthology owes its very existence to his enthusiasm for short, chilling fiction. It all started when his British publisher (Hodder & Stoughton) promoted his latest single-author collection (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams) with a short story contest.
King had doubts (the past experience is a good, if cruel teacher).
He only reluctantly agreed to pick the winner. Others winnowed the 800-plus entries down to a mere 6 finalists. These were presented to King who discovered with a mix of surprise and admiration that all of them were quite good—and totally publishable. This made his decision kind of tough.
Still, his appointed duty was to select a single winner—so that’s what he did.
Yet he felt vaguely unsatisfied with this cut and dry result. So King talked the company into publishing all six tales, along with his introductory essay, in this separate book. Cemetery Dance Publications, a respected independent press from Baltimore, Maryland, soon came onboard to do the US edition (which is what I read).
Stephen King’s involvement (and the clout he has in the publishing world) notwithstanding, the book’s essence is found in the half-dozen original, pleasingly varied and unsettling, sometimes quite gripping stories. All are by writers new to me, of course—but discovering this so much new-to-me talent at once only added to my enjoyment in this book.
And each story is preceded by a one-page of bio of the author, followed by a few words about King’s work (favorite King books/stories, what they most admire about his work, etc.). I confess to finding these add-ons oddly fascinating.
But to the stories!
Elodie Harper won the contest, thus her “Wild Swimming” leads things off.
This is an exceptionally atmospheric tale, written entirely as a series of emails.
This technique puts a modern spin on the grand old tradition of epistolary storytelling and works extremely well. An Englishwoman who delights in swimming in obscure locations reports her impressions (including an unease that eventually blossoms into abject terror) concerning the murky reservoir that adjoins the village in Lithuania she’s gotten stuck in. Beneath the cold, mysterious water await the remains of the town’s medieval heritage—drowned by a misguided Soviet-era development project. More than ancient buildings lurk down there, warns a spooky old peasant lady. But of course Chrissy didn’t listen, with seriously—and satisfyingly frightful—results.
The story also provides artist Vincent Chong with inspiration for a piece of wonderfully eerie cover art.
Next up, Manuela Saragosa gives us a grieving child who names her new stuffed animal after her late Daddy. At the same time, Mom recovers from the loss to start a relationship with a new man. Conflict ensues. Love mutated into obsessive anger, the unrecognized power of children and weirdly threatening toys—these are all things King himself has explored repeatedly. It may be the most predictable of the stories here, but it’s still well-written and heartbreakingly effective.
The real-life weirdness embodied these days by the dictator of North Korea informs “The Spots” by Paul Basset Davies. It’s a first-person account of how a once blindly-loyal follower realizes just how ruthlessly paranoid his country’s unnamed Leader is. This finely honed, matter-of-factly-told and searing, straight-faced satire on the Cult of Personality idea pushed to its most bizarre limits manages to be both absurdly funny and shiver-inducing.
A full squad of playfully amoral toys takes center-stage in Glasgow-native Michael Button’s “The Unpicking.”
Once the little boy the toys refer to only as He and the house’s other humans are asleep, they climb out of their storage chest to entertain themselves. Lately, they’ve gotten really bored—priming them for risks that go well beyond that posed by Winston, the family’s predatory feline. Naughty Rupert, the most recklessly bold of the crew, proposes a new game. It proves interestingly fatal to one of their number. Alas, poor Bunny—reduced to a tangle of thread, some folds of empty fur, and random balls of foam padding! He and His mother may prove even more interesting targets, however . . .
Stuart Johnstone’s story turns one man’s intense dislike of clichés into a motive for mayhem. It’s somehow all the more chilling for having run its course off-stage. The tension builds deliciously—will the young and slightly dumb Louisiana cop finally insist on checking the contents of our anti-hero’s vehicle and thus provoke more violence? Good stuff, indeed.
Neil Hudson brings everything to a mostly successful finish with a post-Nuclear Holocaust story called “The Bear Trap.”
As Hudson states upfront, the preteen farm boy protagonist here is named after the comic strip character in Calvin & Hobbes. Like his namesake, Hudson’s Calvin has special affinity for animal companions. Unfortunately, this Calvin seems just a little too much the rural hayseed stereotype for complete believability, even taking into account his youth and the trauma he’s witnessed.
But on the plus-side, he’s every bit as cheerfully vicious a survivor as you could ask for.