Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Bite Sized Horror” selected by Johnny Mains (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “Bite Sized HorrorHERE

ABOUT JOHNNY MAINS: Johnny Mains is a Scottish editor and writer of horror fiction. His bibliography includes the anthology Back From the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, The Horror Fiction of Mary Danby, and his debut collection, With Deepest Sympathy. Mains is also a regular contributor to The Paperback Fanatic, a magazine devoted to pulp paperbacks.

ABOUT OBVERSE BOOKS: Obverse Books is a small British publisher, specializing in publishing genre short story collections. Founded in 2008 by Stuart Douglas and novelist Paul Magrs, Obverse Books’ goal is to provide attractively packaged, high quality shorter fiction at a reasonable price to the genre market.

FORMAT/INFO: Bite Sized Horror is 96 pages long divided over six short stories and an introduction by Johnny Mains. June 30, 2011 marked the UK Paperback publication of Bite Sized Horror via Obverse Books. Cover art is provided by Paul Hanley.

ANALYSIS: Inspired by the New England Library paperbacks of the 1970s, The Obverse Quarterly is a set of four paperback short story collections published by Obverse Books—available both by annual subscription and as single volumes—with each book covering an area of interest to fans of genre fiction including horror, fantasy, science fiction and detective stories. The first of these collections is Bite Sized Horror, which is edited by Johnny Mains and features six brand new stories.

Leading off Bite Sized Horror is Reggie Oliver’sBrighton Redemption”. Set in Brighton in the year 1885, and presented in the form of extracts from the journals of Right Reverend Cyprian Bourne-Webb, “Brighton Redemption” revolves around Alice Southern, a prisoner who may or may not have murdered her three-year-old half-siblings—twins—twenty-two years ago. Skillfully written and absolutely chilling, “Brighton Redemption” is definitely the highlight of Bite Sized Horror and a terrific way to open the horror anthology.

The follow-up story, Paul Kane’sThe Between”, is nearly as great. “The Between” starts off ordinary enough with Joe Hardwick fighting for the sole custody of his son, before shifting to a stuck elevator/lift and its seven occupants. At first, the scenes in the elevator/lift reminded me of the horror film Devil, but things quickly moved in another, more gruesome direction, with the book referencing a different horror flick: “It’s not SAW and it’s not bloody Die Hard, either. This is Jaws.

Ten-year-old Allison stars in “His Pale Blue Eyes” by David A. Riley, a post-apocalyptic zombie tale about a girl who will go to any lengths to save her parents. “His Pale Blue Eyes” seemed strikingly familiar to me—probably because of all the zombie fiction I’ve read recently, not to mention The Walking Dead television series—but it’s still one of the best stories in the anthology.

Unfortunately, the second half of Bite Sized Horror is not nearly as impressive as the first, with Marie O’Regan’sThe Unquiet Bones” and “The Rookery” by Johnny Mains the two weakest entries in the anthology. The former is like a bad/cheesy B-Horror movie from the 80s, even beginning with a young couple stranded in the middle of nowhere and a scary looking building the only refuge in sight. Potentially, “The Unquiet Bones” could have been a lot of fun to read, but one-dimensional characters, wooden dialogue and uneven storytelling prevented the story from reaching its potential. “The Rookery” meanwhile, seemed more like an allegory about divorce and child custody than a true horror tale, especially considering the story’s ambiguous conclusion.

Closing out the anthology is “The Carbon Heart” by Conrad Williams. Conrad Williams is a favorite of mine, and the main reason for my interest in Bite Sized Horror since I was not familiar with any of the anthology’s other contributors. Sadly, “The Carbon Heart” is not one of the author’s best efforts, lacking the visceral intensity I’ve come to love & expect. Instead, the story—like “The Rookery”—seems more allegorical than horrifying, with the fifty-year-old protagonist reflecting on life, death and the passage of time. That said, Conrad Williams’ writing continues to amaze:

Aren’t we all striving for immortality? Don’t we all fail it? The books we write crumble to powder, the music goes out of fashion, the speeches are appropriated and bastardised. Relationships fail. Things go bad. Everything and everyone gets forgotten. At least, for some of us, we manage for that not to happen in our own lifetimes. I thought of Jenny and the people who had known her and knew her now. Not many. Before long they would all be gone and she would exist for nobody. All those billions of people that have drifted across the face of the planet. Shadows and outlines. Phantoms. Fates.

CONCLUSION: Bite Sized Horror may not be perfect, but the stories that stand out—“Brighton Redemption”, “The Between”, “His Pale Blue Eyes”—are exceptional and pay for the cover price all by themselves, while even the misfires possess redeeming qualities. Admittedly, I was disappointed by Conrad Williams’ contribution, but that was overshadowed by all of the talented new authors I became acquainted with. So all in all, Bite Sized Horror is a successful start to The Obverse Quarterly, which I look forward to continuing with in Zenith Lives!

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