The Weeks that Were
Underground Reading: And Eternity by Piers Anthony

New Releases: House of Fear, edited by Jonathan Oliver

House of FearThe haunted house is one of the staples of horror fiction. Poe, Lovecraft, Bierce, Machen, Simmons, King, Barker... everyone has taken turns hammering planks into the archetype's extension.

Still, despite the long tradition, it isn't an easy foundation upon which to build. Houses aren't, by nature, particularly active villains. A good haunted house story has to recapture that nameless, overpowering dread that you get as a child going down into a dark basement. You know, objectively, there's nothing that will get you, but there's still something wrong about the place. As a kid, this makes perfect sense. There are bad places. They smell funny and come equipped with the china-cabinet-sense of "ought not being thereness".

Trying to transcribe and rationalize that atmosphere is a nearly impossible task, yet House of Fear, the new collection from Solaris, contains no less than nineteen original attempts - and almost all of them succeed. The authors, a collection of some of horror's edgiest names, approach the job from all angles. Their responses vary from the stoically traditional to the far corners of the "house" definition.

Without going through all nineteen, a few stand out as particularly strong or creative explorations of the haunted house idea.

Lisa Tuttle ("Objects in Dreams may be Closer than they Appear") and Stephen Volk ("Pied-a-terre") use haunted houses as representations of what a house signifies, rather than writing about conventionally spooky structures (although Mr. Volk's story is one of the few with an actually ghosty ghost). A house isn't a building - it is the representation of a family (or couple's) hopes and dreams. It means far more than four walls and a roof. Both stories have their hauntings, but they're more likely to elicit a forlorn sniffle than a shriek. 

Embarrassingly, I'd never read a Robert Shearman story before this collection - despite repeatedly hearing his praises sung at cons and pubs across England. His "The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World" is very weird and very dark, using a house as a measurement of a couple's 'success', as well as a physical space that contains an every-increasing set of challenges. It isn't conventionally scary. Rather, the story rather cruelly strips the mystique and the majesty from one of the most dominant Western myths - the story of Genesis.

For more overtly horrifying tales, Jonathan Green ("The Doll's House), Adam Nevill ("Florrie") and Weston Ochse ("Driving the Milky Way") are the types of stories that will keep the reader up at night. Mr. Green, known more for his swashbuckling fantasy series, unveils an unexpected dark side in this tale of a crumbling family and the difficulties of raising a child. Adam Nevill, no stranger to the haunted house story, has a similar take, but in the case of "Florrie", it isn't about children, it is about the elderly. Mr. Nevill transforms a grandmotherly parlour into a truly horrible place. Mr. Ochse's haunted house is a caravan in the middle of the desert - a playhouse for children over the summer and the gateway to a terrible obsession.

There are few more traditional stories in the mix. Rebecca Levene's "The Windmill" is the closest to the Victorian ghost story/morality play model. It takes place in Brixton Prison and follows a truly damned soul as his comeuppance catches up with him. Joe Lansdale's "What Happened to Me" reminds me a bit of Arthur Machen's "The Willows" with its portrayal of the sinister atmosphere of an isolated house and its surrounding orchard. However, Mr. Lansdale is a little less subtle than Mr. Machen and some of his trademark action sneaks in. 

Like any anthology, there are some slow points (although, thankfully, not a single line of poetry). Sarah Pinborough's "The Room Upstairs" is a little sluggish - relying on an emotional connection between two characters that only grudgingly grows into fruition. Garry Kilworth's "Moretta" was, if anything, the reverse. The story is a rapid plunge through a very traditional sort of haunted house. It has a twist ending with no foreshadowing and too much explanation, a pet peeve with this sort of literature. Finally, Nicholas Royle's "Inside/Out" simply lost me in its post-modernism. Given more space to play (e.g. his new novel, Regicide), I enjoy his unconventional approach more. But the complexity introduced in this confined space made it hard for me to enjoy.

This is an incredibly strong collection, even more solid than last year's End of the Line. Reading through the first half dozen stories, I was surprised that there wasn't a weak moment in any of them - a rare feeling with an anthology or collection of any sort, especially horror, which is an emotive and tricky genre. House of Fear bats well above the average for any anthology; a collection of innovative and disturbing stories on a classic horror theme.


By Jared (@pornokitsch), who grew up to be most scared of subsidence.