The New Gothic, an anthology of twelve stories, is edited by Beth K. Lewis and published by Stone Skin Press. It’s a good collection, worth reading.
Gothic horror usually counts on a mounting sense of dread and/or disgust to carry the reader, rather than shock or terror. The fear comes on more slowly, with that faint tickle at the back of your neck, and at its best, a gothic tale creates a sense of otherworldliness, where the characters, and the readers, begin to doubt their own senses. A gothic tale is more likely to rely on a dilapidated house or a dark stretch of forest than gore, dismemberment or mayhem to pack its emotional punch.
The word “New” in the title is a bit of false advertising. None of these stories moves too far from the familiar conventions of the sub-genre. On one hand, it would be difficult to write a serious cubicle-rat-gothic story, or a Starbucks-gothic story (“Baristas go into the supply room for the Kona blend… and they don’t come out!”). No story in this collection really pushes the envelope. It’s still a good collection to read if you are trying to get a flavor of the gothic style.
The stories are:
“Dive in Me” by Jesse Bullington and S.J. Chambers. Three girls try to find a secret swimming hole and get in over their heads.
“The Debt Collector” by Fi Michell. On the eve of World War II, a speculator confronts a long-lived eccentric in an English village. Neither man is quite what he seems.
“The Death Bell” by Laura Ellen Joyce. A ritual and an awkward third date converge.
“A Meeting in the Devil’s House” by Richard Dansky. Two men come to an abandoned mansion in the southern countryside; each has an appointment with the Devil.
“No Substitute” by Steve Dempsey. A terrible family legacy is carried forward to a modern dining room.
“Reading the Signs” by Ramsey Campbell. A man driving late at night gets lost, and has a terrifying encounter.
“The Boy by the Gate” by Dmetri Kakmi. Four friends, sitting around a comfy hearth, tell ghost stories. One story tops the others.
“Viola’s Second Husband” by Sean Logan. A boy’s enforced stay with his grandparents grows increasingly more disturbing.
“The Devil in a Hole” by Mason Wild. In rural France, a man’s piety proves deadly.
“The Whipping Boy” by Damien Kelly. A boy who is being bullied by his cousin is given a magical implement to protect himself, but the cost is high.
“The Vault of Artemas Smith” by Phil Reeves. A man searching for his client, Atremas Smith, finds far more than he wants to.
“The Fall of the Old Faith” by Ed Martin. A college student becomes obsessed with the ruins of a building in the heart of the forest.
My favorite was “Reading the Signs.” Jack Vernon has gotten off the motorway by mistake, late at night, while he is driving home. Ahead, he sees a man walking. The man’s proportions seem off somehow; the head is too small and the body too long. As he approaches, the body twists in an impossible way. Vernon realizes he is seeing a man with a boy riding on his shoulders. When he stops to ask for directions, he ends up offering them a ride. The tension mounts through seemingly innocent comments. The back of my neck was crawling the whole time I read this. Campbell managed to make an innocent license-plate game creepy, and, while setting the story firmly in the present day, to reach back to old folktales for the source of the terror. Leave it to horror master Ramsey Campbell to show us how it’s done.
“A Meeting in the Devil’s House” has all the gothic grace notes; the abandoned mansion with some rooms that are, inexplicably, perfectly maintained; concrete descriptions of the moss-draped forest outside the walls; characters who emerge quickly through dialogue. The twist at the end was satisfying, but what I liked best was Richard Dansky’s dark-folktale tone, perfectly managed throughout the story.
I enjoyed Fi Michell’s “The Debt Collector,” but on some level I yearned for it to be a graphic novel. While the descriptions of the sleepy little village with its quiet streets – maybe a little too quiet – and the moldering mansion with its great works of art, rang all the gothic bells, the story morphs into monster-hunting at the end. I liked that, although I felt the story fell a bit short with the development of Leesa. Her role in the story is important and we deserved to know more about her.
I have to say “The Devil in a Hole” grew on me. The plot was predictable. At one point, the protagonist, a first-person narrator, stops to do something and explains why, and from that point I knew exactly what was going to happen in the tale – and I was right. The story stayed with me though, and I’ve decided I really like this dark twist on a “simpleton” tale. Mason Wild’s description of the French countryside of the time is pitch-perfect. The afterword says that this was Wild’s first published story. I would look for more from him just for the quality of his prose.
In “No Substitute,” excellent physical description and brevity save an otherwise predictable story. Steve Dempsey has an eye for the perfect detail that conveys starvation or hypothermia, and he uses the idea of a poisoned legacy or family tradition to good effect here.
Damien Kelly accurately captures the slow horror of being trapped for a summer with a bully, especially an adept one, who manages to win the adults over to his side. In “The Whipping Boy” the young Irish main character cannot find a way to protect himself from his vicious cousin Shaun. Even worse, Pius’s younger brother Leo idolizes Shaun, and Shaun takes care never to hurt Leo, so Pius is even more isolated. A neighbor offers Pius a weapon. The neighbor may be something more than human, and he offers Pius two choices. The horror is not what happens when Pius makes the choice; it’s how that choice changes him. This piece is a little longer than it needs to be but Kelly’s descriptions of the isolated rural homestead where the boys spend summers is well rendered.
In “The Death Bell” Grainne has begun to hear ringing in her ears, the onset of the terrifying disease that kills women in her family. Desperate, she invites her sickly nephew to visit her. Meanwhile, Sarah and Ryan go out on their third date. Sarah has decided that this date is the final test for Ryan, a nice enough man who is rather bland. Ryan has picked an expensive, upscale restaurant (the desserts come sprinkled with gold dust), and is trying a little too hard to impress Sarah. The horror is the moment in which these two storylines converge. Laura Ellen Joyce’s alternating points of view raise the suspense, and the story is just the right length to be frightening.
“Dive in Me” has a lot going for it. The ambiance is perfect. The sense of urban decay – suburban decay in this case – permeates the story. Three girls go searching for the sinkholes that are a local myth, the “suicide sinks.” The story is that a housing tract of McMansions was built outside of the small Florida town where they live. The land along the river was riddled with underwater caverns, and the builders disturbed the tenuous stability of the ground. Soon, sinkholes opened up and swallowed the houses whole. One of the girls, who arrives late to the meeting place, swears that she has found the “suicide sinks” and dares the other girls to come swim with her in them. Of course, things are not what they seem. The humid Florida countryside is exquisitely drawn, and there is a surreal moment when one of the girls, diving into the sinkhole, has a vision of a submerged house, mummified people sitting in an underwater living room watching TV. Jesse Bullington and S.J. Chambers pull off the physical descriptions handily. Unfortunately, the three main characters were so undifferentiated that two pages from the end I was still having to flip back to be reminded of who was who. This distracted me from the dramatic ending.
“The Boy by the Gate” uses a classic ghost story form; four friends after dinner telling scary tales on a dark and stormy night. After one woman, Rebecca, has topped up the cocoa and served cookies, it is her turn with a ghost story. Rebecca says the event didn’t happen to her but to a friend, Alice, who disappeared. Rebecca leaves the room and returns with a letter, the last letter her friend wrote, and reads it to the group. Alice’s experience is a conventional ghost story; as a visitor in Port Fairy in Victoria, Australia, one evening she sees a boy standing at the gate to a churchyard. She sees him again, and approaches him. He doesn’t speak, and both times he runs away into the darkness. The next time Alice sees him she offers to help him, which is probably a mistake. The story turns uncanny and frightening and ends with Alice’s disappearance. Once Rebecca has finished reading the letter, one of the group suggests a road trip to the town. This trip is never accomplished because of the next events in the story; and it appears that reading Alice’s letter out loud might not have been a good idea. I was thrown out of this story in a couple of places; most especially when the group members suddenly describe themselves as goths. What? The foursome is so staid and conventional they could qualify as anti-goths. Dimitri Kakmi’s story wins points, though, for a great bit of Emily Bronte homage at the end. This is a tidy ghost story with a shivery ending.
“The Vault of Artemas Smith” and “The Fall of the Old Religion” faithfully echo H.P. Lovecraft. In “Vault” our unnamed first-person narrator, trying to locate a client, enters a series of underground passages, where he is followed by a frightening creature he never sees. The high point of this story is Phil Reeves’s precise description of the safe in the basement; the safe that is a portal to the frightening underworld. “The Fall of the Old Religion” gives us a haunted woods, secret books, and a secret history in a small town. Ed Martin’s writing is atmospheric.
“Viola’s Second Husband” definitely ticks the boxes for Dread and Disgust, as our narrator, Jonathan, a young boy, is forced to spend a couple of nights with his grandmother and grandfather. The boy adores his grandfather, but the grandmother, Viola, is controlling and mean. She always looks the same, in her black dress with different-colored shawls, but the boy notices on this visit that his grandfather has gotten frail and needs to rest more. During the day, Grandpa tells Jonathan stories and walks with him in the garden while Viola shuts herself in her study, which is more like a laboratory. One night over dinner Viola launches into a story, out of the blue, about the fact that she was married once before, and Grandpa is her second husband. The first husband died shortly after the marriage in a car accident. Viola implies that he was the love of her life. Jonathan thinks the story is weird, and rude to his grandfather. He also finds some bones in the garden, although they are quite small, chicken bones maybe. It’s still creepy, but it isn’t the creepiest thing the boy encounters in his visit. Exploring the house one day, he finds Viola’s laboratory, and shortly after that discovers something disturbing. There is a resolution to the tale, but it never completely worked for me. The spell, or whatever it is Viola is working on, just seems to take too long. The Horrified Observer is a time-honored gothic trope but using it risks losing some sense of urgency. In this case, Jonathan is never in any danger unless Sean Logan is doing something so subtle that I missed it. Logan excels at creating atmosphere, though, and Viola’s house is just plain creepy.
While, as I said, I didn’t find The New Gothic to be very new, there are some finely crafted stories here. This is definitely a good sampler of the sub-genre. If you’ve wondered what gothic horror was, this collection would be a good starting place to answer that question.