Michael R. Martin recently came onto our radar with his fantastic sci-fi horror novel ‘Screams in the Woods’. Well written, great characterisation and an engaging and genre bending plot it - was an easy book to recommend.
It was then, to my absolute delight, that Martin’s follow-up publication ’13 Dark Tales’ should drop into my inbox, this time an anthology boasting 13 classic horror themed tales aimed at chilling rather than grossing out the reader. It didn’t take long for me to discover that fluid and descriptive writing style which had made ‘Screams in the Woods’ such a page turner would see me devouring these shorter stories at a rate which could be discerned as a certifiable addiction!
Let me begin by introducing a number of the stories, beginning with my favourites: ‘Dead and Breakfast’, ‘Black Shuck’ and ‘Day of the Demon’, each different thematically, but equally chilling in their own right. Made perhaps most apparent by the ‘Day of the Demon’ title (a clear tribute to the chilling classic ‘Night of the Demon), each of these stories do give a distinct nod to familiar horror tales. Indeed, the notes in the preface state that there was a good deal of inspiration taken from local folk-law and mythology; for me, this was a warm fuzzy familiarity akin to getting into your own bed at the end of the day. The instantly recognisable, ‘Dead and Breakfast’ with its Lovecraft inspired creature and ‘townsfolk’, the ‘Black Shuck’, a heart-warming twist on the classic ‘black dog or Barghest’ tales which I know from my love for Yorkshire folk-law and amusing (although ultimately ill-fated as most are) tale about how demonology could be the solution for issues with have A.S.B.O recipients living next door – ok, so that one hasn’t necessarily been done before, but the whole demon summoning for revenge thing has!
In each of these examples Martin showcases his finesse as a master story-teller, bringing vividly chilling images hurtling into your imagination without sacrificing pace or requiring trite or clichés expositions or comparisons which risk taking you out of the ‘moment’. It’s very difficult to put into words (for me, the non-published author anyhow), but the fluidity with which Martin writes often creates a desirable three-dimensional experience; whether it is down to his choice of sense targeted adjectives or his poignant turns of phrase – or the combination of both – it has the desirable effect of drawing you in and keeping you suspended in the story.
(On this note: The dank rotten smell of the ‘Alhambra Hotel’ has lingered in my mind for days! (and the creature within – well that’s still lurking in the shadows of every dimly lit room in my house!)
When Martin isn’t trying to frighten you, his tales take on a more charming, fantasy-esk themes. Their recital is softer in tone, and more light-hearted in nature – although again they are not without a moral! In this vein, highlights include ‘The Goblin Stone’ and ‘The Performing Tree’. In these stories, heavily influenced by British folk-law, our rich British landscapes are vividly described in lush detail. Being from the UK and spending a good deal of time in the countryside it wasn’t hard to draw me in – the clashes with classic mythology and contemporary social issues once again put a refreshing spin on such yarns. Again, great characterisation helped to ground plotlines that could have easily strayed a little too ‘left field’, and a slightly more relaxed pacing made these less exhilarating reads than the others I have mentioned, but no less enjoyable.
Rounding off my review, and perhaps most important for fans of Martin’s science fiction themed thrillers, the stories entitled ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘Deep Secrets’ could easily be taken straight from a similarly themed TV show. As with all great ‘thrillers’, Martin crafts scenarios which bait the reader into developing their theories and conspiracies before the final reveal. Whilst for me these stories never quite have the same visceral end-impact that the more typical horror based ones, but it never ceases to amaze me just how plausible some of these ‘cover-ups’ could be, and indeed how paranoid you could make yourself trying to establish the coincidental from the covert should they occur in ‘real-life’.
Overall, I have little reservation about awarding 5 stars to this publication. I have read several anthologies recently (indeed my short attention span makes them something of my favourite type of book) and this, for me, sets a new benchmark. It retained the poise and maturity of writing I am coming to expect from the author, delivered in satisfying and tantalising bitesize chunks. As was also acknowledged in BTG’s review for ‘Screams in the Woods’, our rave reviews come amongst a throng of other critical praise – once again we concur!
As a footnote: if there were one tale I would love to see made as a short film it would definitely be ‘Death Watch’ – such a cool premise, the Reaper could have had a lot more fun than 30 odd pages afforded him!