My Review of ‘Horror Without Victims’: An Anthology by DF Lewis

Posted: August 20, 2013 in Books of the Month

howviHorror Without Victims: An Anthology by DF Lewis

Megazanthus Press 2013

ISBN: 9781291451436

Website: http://howivi.wordpress.com/

Horror Without Victims is a sublime anthology of short fiction compiled by the man it seems I’m legally obliged to call “the inimitable” DF Lewis. Comprising twenty-five original horror fictions written – as the back cover blurb states – “independently by twenty-five different authors who responded to the theme ‘Horror Without Victims’”, the collection further builds on Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as one of the most interesting compilers of short fiction anthologies working in Britain today.

Lewis’s talent is a subtle one. The anthologist can too often draw together a collection of great stories which is ultimately, and sadly, less than the sum of its parts. Often the stories do not hang well together. I’ve read many reviews of anthologies which describe them as “curate’s eggs.” But in his decade as the editor of the Nemonymous series, and in his more recent publications of The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies and The First Book of Classical Horror, Lewis has honed his quiet behind-the-scenes skills. He has accumulated a great wealth of wonderful stories and, through exhibiting them correctly, he has shown that the skilled anthologist is a visionary, a curator, and a creative force in his own right. That so many of the stories from his various collections have made it into the various ‘Best Of…’ roll-calls at the end of the year is a testimony to Lewis and his art.

I’ll return to the back cover blurb again. In it Lewis states that the “serendipitous gestalt” of the twenty-five tales on show here “seems to aspire towards a curative force for all of us.” I’m not exactly sure if it was serendipitous, but the stories do compliment each other very well here. There are clever echoes which reverberate through from one story to the next; there are distinct melodies which ring out in tale after tale. And I can’t help but think that the reason for this is Lewis’s chosen theme.

‘Horror Without Victims’ was perhaps a risky choice for a theme for a horror anthology. Horror is supposed to come with a splattering of blood, guts and gore. It’s supposed to contain victims. And here’s my admission. I actually submitted to this anthology. I’ve been published in two previous Lewis Nemonymous books and in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies. But this time I found it incredibly difficult to address the theme. I started about six different stories and then felt them wilt at my fingertips. My stories became my victims. Eventually I did find a voice, and a story, and I submitted it. And I was thoroughly glum when I received DF Lewis’s email informing me the story had been rejected. However, now I’ve read the anthology as a whole, I can see why. Though my story was good, it just wouldn’t have ‘played well’ with the other pieces in this book.

My story didn’t speak of the sublime. Because if there is one common trend in this collection, I would say that it is this. This is horror which is all wrapped up in a sense of place. This is psycho-geographic horror. These are tales of the sublime. Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the concept of the sublime. It states: “The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities.”

Dennis talked of his crossing of the Alps being beautiful but “mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair”. Shaftesbury talked of his revulsion; described a “wasted mountain” which stood, Ozymandian, as a “noble ruin”. But he also talked of his awe. “Space astonishes”, he said. And he decided that “the sublime was not an aesthetic quality in opposition to beauty, but a quality of a grander and higher importance than beauty.”

Horror Without Victims astonishes. Tony Lovell’s wonderfully evocative front cover which shows a man seemingly hovering above the ground is instructive. For here there are forces at work which are grander than beauty. I shall now briefly consider each story in turn in the light of how they respond to the theme, and how they also address the binding concept of the anthology.

The first story, ‘Embrace the Fall of Night’ by John Howard speaks almost directly to this supposition. Channelling those excellent examples of ‘sublime’ fiction – Heart of Darkness, At the Mountains of Madness, and Frankenstein – it recalls Kurtz’s famous line: “The horror! The horror!”  Howard writes: “…on this world there are places and situations where human beings undergo change and emerge as something else, with new knowledge and perhaps understanding. Also that there are places where the human race is nothing special but just another animal species, in competition with others; or where there would be no human race if ‘natural’ conditions were to apply.”

And: “With fiction, the observer cannot truly be involved. And yet… Sometimes I have the belief that it could inspire emotions ranging from wonder, through awe and dread, to horror – perhaps this is because the reader as voyeur is not in fact only that, but is a voyager as well. The reader is involved; the reader can know – and be known.”

“Victimhood,” he posits, “is in the eye of the victim.”

In ‘The Horror’, by fellow Leodian author Gary McMahon, there is a compulsion in the protagonist to enter into the unknown and the unknowable – in this case a dark and lonely cabin in the Lake District. With a nod to Lovecraft, the ever-reliable McMahon explores the outer edges of our world, the liminal regions which are populated by mingled horrors and despair. He writes: “Before the pit there was something else, but no living soul is old enough to remember what it was. These things are not written down. They are consigned to oral history.”

This yearning, this desire for something more than simply settling back to watch soap operas in suburbia is again evident in the excellent ‘Clouds’ by Eric Ian Steele. Steele betrays a hunger for the awesome, for the out-of-the-ordinary. Change – escape even – is wrought by a beautiful gloaming sky on a full-moon night. “He stayed there, rooted to the spot, watching the subtle changes in the firmament – the way spectral moonlight illuminated a burgundy halo of clouds from within, filling the heavens with extraordinary shades of purple and blue. The sky was an ocean that promised escape and lands beyond imagining.”

Clouds come, waft over the town like “a giant lung that was exhaling” and start to swallow up houses on the aptly named Grey Street. The protagonist claims: “Nobody wanted the rules of the world they lived in to suddenly, inexplicably change overnight.” However it is made plain he did desire this, subconsciously, subliminally. He desired more. And here the sublime is a curative force.


The same change is brought about in Alistair Rennie’s ‘The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation’. Here the action is transferred to the Turkish capital, Istanbul. Our protagonist is a commercial agent for Quarterman and Quarterman: Superior Turkish Carpets and Oriental Miscellany. Essentially this is the story of a boat trip on the Bosphorus. The commercial agent is the only passenger on board and he undergoes a journey which he will never forget, full of “wonder upon wonder”, under the guidance of the inimitable Captain Khan,

Experience, confronting the awesome, the sublime, is also the subject of ‘Waiting Room’ by Aliya Whiteley. This tautly-written piece takes place in a facility which is well-stocked with jigsaw puzzles, and this is a jigsaw puzzle of a piece, as the reader attempts to complete the picture. In a world in which it appears “impossible to connect, simply connect” the story is an attempt to quantify, to describe “what lies beyond the realms of human understanding” i.e. death: “”There was a haze, that gave way to milky-blue, and within it – what? The indescribable place that called to me within which there could be no more questions.”

‘For Ages and Ever’ by Patricia Russo is another story which centres around our understanding of death. This is an intriguing second-person narrative which takes place in an altered world which runs to seemingly arbitrary rules: in this city, nobody can cry between the hours of three and five pm. You can only grieve… now. This is a place of “too many secrets (…) too many half-truths and equivocations.” And for the protagonist, a young girl, the urge to find out what lies within the haunting, and haunted red house, which is “bright as an open wound” becomes almost too much to bear. It snags her imagination, and also makes her fearful: “As a child, you used to sneak glances at it…”

Everyone in the city knows about death, but they will not attempt to explain it. They all “lived in the Place of the Red House, and so they were all complicit”. And so, our intrigued child must go to Aunt Far Away, who is a kind of gatemaster, or keyholder, in order to clarify the opacity of the interior of the Red House.

 

‘Night in the Pink House’ by Charles Wilkinson is another astonishing read. At its heart, this is a story about ways of seeing. It contains a killer hook: the first line reads: “The day we went down to the beach Slater insisted his interest in torture was of a scholarly nature.” Slater is conducting a research project provisionally entitled The Phenomenology of the Scream. Slater’s research assistant – and his eyes too: Slater is blind – is a young man who takes it upon himself to hire a local woman to fake screams, which he records and plays back to his master. But Slater is not fooled. Eventually he concludes that the screams are not contextualised: “It is not the horror,” he said at last, “that does the damage; it’s love that leaves the casualties bleeding on the field.”

It is later revealed that the research assistant now lives in Africa, a place “where horror is understood – as a part of life, not something that needs an explanation.”

‘Point and Stick’ by Mark Patrick Lynch is another dynamic exploration of ways of seeing, and voyeurism.

‘The Blue Umbrella A Reverie’ by Mark Valentine is a story concerned with the art of reading, which he describes as an “adventure in the imagination”. Reading here is the curative force which allows our protagonist to escape the numb reality of the “old Victorian sanatorium resort” in which he resides. At first, the “uninterrupted dreariness” of his world soothes him, however, just like in ‘Clouds’ it is the discovery of the sublime – here in the form of a library, and in books – which jerks him out of his slumber.

“And so day by day he lived in expectation that his own story might take the strange twists, could be marked by the unexpected encounters, that often happened in the books.”

Books are his awakening. They are his miracle, L-Dopa drug. They are his curative force. They change his world-view: “The world, in short, was often presented to him as if it were some great unread, and as yet unfinished, book.”

In ‘Lambeth North’ by Roseanne Rabinowitz we meet a triumvirate of London women who discover odd, ornate tiles on a corner building as they walk the streets. Symbologists would have a field day with all of the references to the power of three here – they find a three-pointed star which eventually causes some of the sheen of modern London to fall away. London, in fact, is seen as a palimpsest. Turn a corner and the déjà vu of history presents itself: “The details of the street in front of her were still hazy. But her sense of smell was sharp: there was rank water, an odour of human waste and sickness she has known well from work. Tides of water flowing into the street reflected the dim light. Several bodies were laid out on a cart, partially covered with sacking. Two of them were child-sized. A warm wind blew in her face and she almost gagged; when she took a backward step the stink grew fainter. Yet her friends carried on talking as if nothing was amiss. Diane still knew she was in the park; it was still cold and still windy.”

Lewis talks of the ‘curative force’, but in ‘The Cure’ by John Francis we are offered a whole new meaning to the term ‘miracle cure’. We might ask, what exactly are we being cured of. This piece reminded me very much of some of the short fiction of Stephen King – particularly ‘Survivor Type’. Here, Lionel Duxbury has been diagnosed with a rare illness, and he goes to drastic lengths to find a ‘way out’: “And this was why he was in this ridiculous situation in the first place, giving money to people he didn’t know, sitting on a plane with the windows blacked out so he couldn’t tell what hour of the day or night it was; because, even in such a bizarre situation with such an exaggerated risk, it meant he at least had some control of his situation; without his money they wouldn’t be doing this – they wouldn’t exist without his illness. They were here because of him.” A compulsive read.

‘We Do Things Differently Here’ by David Murphy is set in the parallel universe of “Efferentia”. In this tale, a woman goes to live with her partner’s family in a foreign land. Before she leaves, her family warn her to be “wary of the oddities of Efferentine life”.

The first example of this oddity comes when the family adorn their guest bedroom with a bouquet of dead flowers to honour her arrival. These flowers gradually begin to regain their vitality. Then, upon browsing the family’s bookshelf, she discovers it is filled with other oddities. Books such as The Life of Humphrey Heseltine 2003-1936 line the shelves. “A quick skin through the pages revealed the books did, indeed, begin with the death of the subject and end with the circumstances of their birth.”

Eventually the protagonist comes to realise that the oddities are closer to home too. And she receives the shock of her life at a funeral. This is an engaging read and another piece which explores taboos which surround death.

Talking of taboos, ‘Lord of Pigs’ by DeAnna Knippling is perhaps the most memorable story in the collection. And it is certainly the most viceral. And definitely the scariest piece in the collection. Knippling is not – ahem – ham-fisted about her horror: this tale – tale? – really brings home the bacon. It is a nightmarish study of a man, one longpig – Uncle Chuck – being eaten by pigs. “The pigs were surrounding him, mostly. Big ones, little ones. Their hair sparkled in the wire-cage lights overhead. Black hair on pink pigs, white hair on black pigs, all mixed up.” And: “Uncle Chuck’s skin was the colour of a fresh-scrubbed pink pig.” The suggestion which underscores this story, is that the ultimate taboo – cannibalism – might have occurred. For sure the ending recalls The Silence of the Lambs and some of the action recalls Harris’s later work Hannibal. An uneasy, but compulsive read.


Another strong piece is ‘Like Nothing Else’ by Christopher Morris. This is a hugely unsettling story of losing your virginity to an alien species. It calls to question what it means to be human: “In those moments the experience was real, at least as real as anything else. It had a kind of truth.” Like the work of the author’s namesake, the satirist Chris Morris, this is an excoriating piece of art. It is a highly moral fable, bristling with quiet fury. It is brilliantly penned with admirable restraint.

‘In the Earth’ by Rog Pile reminds me of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, crossed with Stig of the Dump crossed with the creature that lurks at the bottom of the garbage disposal chute in the Death Star in Star Wars. The story namechecks Machen and Blackwood, Lovecraft and James and recalls some of their explorations of liminal spaces. Here the house of our protagonist “stands at the centre of a few acres of waste ground, a kind of no man’s land of scrub and long grass that the local council have been promising to use for development for twenty years but can’t quite seem to muster the enthusiasm.”

“I suppose it’s partly because of the dump, now that I come to think of it, that we’ve never attempted to raise children. Raising children in the shadow of that great mountain of rubble and junk could hardly fail to leave some impression on growing minds. It’s an unhealthy place.”

As the tale progresses, the mound starts to come alive revealing something buried beneath it: “The movement raced upward, dislodging smaller items of junk, and I could see the ground ahead of it crack open and throw up stones and dirt, until abruptly it reached the freezer box at the top and stopped.”

This chimes well with the next story, ‘Scree’ by Caleb Wilson. This is a tale which considers a man literally surfing junk (the web? Is this a metaphor?): “When it was a good sturdy board I could stay on it for weeks, looking downhill for days at a time if I was in a bad mood, watching the maw devour a continent, the tectonic plate buckling and then snapping in the center, sending up country-sized curls of granite, and then a curtain of grey dust. When I was in a happy mood, and didn’t want to think about the forty-five degree angle I and everything around me were sliding down, forever (or until we came to the maw), I would face uphill and watch the buildings that were sliding down the scree with me.”

Wilson’s story is surely the most left-field piece in the collection and it is a wonderfully inventive piece (I particularly enjoyed reading about all of the other things sliding along the scree with him – flat-packed furniture (bunkbeds), buildings, plazas, and a “strangely shaped iron coffer”.

‘The Week of Four Thursdays’ by David V. Griffin speaks more directly to the idea of the sublime.  This is a very sensual piece, in which colour plays a primary role. It begins with the intriguing first line: “There must have been a time when I did not know Veronica Carmichael. I cling to this idea even now, despite its irrelevance.”

Griffin references Balthus’ The Mountain, a painting which, like this story, considers the cycle of the seasons: “Autumn had come with that storm.” And: “She was wearing the dark yellow outfit she favored for stormy weather. I saw how deeply peculiar the color was: something not of a normal palette, a corrosive substance called yellow by some accident of language.” And: “White and violet lightning shattered the sky…”

‘In Dreams, You’re Mine’ by Jeff Holland is an excellently wrought flash piece about confronting your fears, here symbolised by a “forlorn” scarecrow.

‘Walk On By’ by Katie Jones is a tale about sympathy and empathy. Here the ‘monster’ does not live up to its stereotype: there is beauty in the beast, as well as in Jones’ one-eyed horse.

‘Vent’ by the excellently named (for a horror anthology) L.R. Bonehill is another stand-out story. At its heart, this is a tale about ventriloquism, which is pretty horrific even without Bonehill’s brilliantly evocative writing. There is something incredibly spooky about dummies and Bonehill captures this, plays on it, brilliantly “Night after night the dummy sat on Daddy’s lap, the two of them spotlit from above and bathed in the dusty glow of the footlights. Dressed in the same suit and tie, the same polka dot shirt, the same 20s style spats, wooden hair carved into the same slick cut. A man and his shrunken double resting atop his knee with a strange fleshless grin.”

Bonehill is masterful at ratcheting up the fear factor: “She heard a horribly pitched keening wail a thousand miles away and was only distinctly aware that the awful sound came from her. On and on it went, piercing her ears, impossibly long, impossibly mournful.”
While ‘Vent’ uses ventriloquism as a central theme, ‘The Yellow See-Through Baby’ by Michael Sidman reads like ventriloquism. The spookiest thing about this tale isn’t the ghost baby who haunts the nursery, playing with the real baby’s blocks, but actually the way Sidman fully inhabits the consciousness of the real baby, allowing him to speak very realistically.
’The Boarding House’ by Kenneth C. Wickson meanwhile is a compact, amusing tale of things that go bump in the night. “Shortly after moving into the boarding house I noted a strange feeling; there were noises of course: knocks and bangs, which were not to be unexpected; the feeling came on with the first time I heard the furnace kick: it was accompanied by a startling sound I can only describe as the bleating of a distressed or disturbed goat.”
But ‘The Callers’ by Tony Lovell is of an entirely different tone. This muted piece studies a series of ghostly visitors to the house of an ageing old man who suffers with Alzheimer’s disease. The old man lives in a house which “feels like a vault, a museum of ordinary life”, and the callers are ghostly echoes from the times the house was busy, when the old man had visitors and wasn’t alone. (Indeed the house becomes a palimpsest, just like London does in Roseanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Lambeth North’.

‘Still Life’ by Nick Jackson considers a painting, a freeze-frame: “It is quiet in this space – not even a clock ticks.” And yet, time does intrude on the picture, there are grubs in the apples. Wasps too. Mould grows. And fungus. “There are no victims here; this is simply what happens to old, abandoned houses. No blood stains have spattered the table cloth and the plasterwork is not scarred by shrapnel.” It is simply decay, a vital process in a world of “ceaseless momentum”. “There are, I repeat, no victims in this story.”

Bob Lock’s ‘You in your small corner, and I in mine’ concludes this collection and is perhaps the finest example of what Lewis calls “curative force”. This is a short, sweet tale of faith and hope, and how holding on to both, allowing them to become your “armour”, can bring about change for the better.

The Wikipedia entry on the sublime talks of how the early English writers of this school linked “horrors and harmony”. And Lewis has harnessed both in Horror Without Victims too.  In all, this is a riveting collection, and DF Lewis deserves a great deal of credit for conducting the talented twenty-five soloists, and for allowing them to become an ensemble.

Comes highly recommended.

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Comments
  1. Bob Lock says:

    Thanks AJ for the kind words, glad you enjoyed the antho and my story too 🙂

  2. No problem Bob, was a great read. It was my intention to write a much shorter review but the book was so good it deserved more detail!

  3. […] The first independent review of the HORROR WITHOUT VICTIMS anthology:  HERE. […]

  4. […] Things have been very busy with my two day jobs, so this blog has been left to ferment for a while. But I have found some time to post AJ Kirby’s wonderful in-depth review of Horror Without Victims. […]

  5. […] “…’Horror Without Victims’, the collection further builds on Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as one of the most interesting compilers of short fiction anthologies working in Britain today. Lewis’s talent is a subtle one. The anthologist can too often draw together a collection of great stories which is ultimately, and sadly, less than the sum of its parts. Often the stories do not hang well together. I’ve read many reviews of anthologies which describe them as “curate’s eggs.” But in his decade as the editor of the Nemonymous series, and in his more recent publications of The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies and The First Book of Classical Horror, Lewis has honed his quiet behind-the-scenes skills. He has accumulated a great wealth of wonderful stories and, through exhibiting them correctly, he has shown that the skilled anthologist is a visionary, a curator, and a creative force in his own right.” – AJ Kirby: https://paintthistownred.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/my-review-of-horror-without-victims-an-anthology-by… […]

  6. Anonymous says:

    […] Horror Without Victims reviewed to excellent effect by A. J. Kirby: […]

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