I’ll try to avoid them but their may be inadvertent spoilers:
With Deepest Sympathy by Johnny Mains. Here we have Fourteen Tales of the odd and twisted and a foreword and afterward by two well respected authors in the genre. Perhaps Johnny Mains’ name was not in the collective imagination of the Horror public a few years ago and now it is. Odd enough in itself. Let’s see why.
Forewards are an exacting art. Many people avoid reading them and others perhaps avoid writing them. I’m glad Nicholas Royle wrote this one and glad I read it. It was a stunning piece of work. In two pages he managed to convey exactly the impression that one gains from a conversation with the author and exactly how things are going to turn out for him. A joy to read such economy in writing and such evident foresight.
We begin at the old judges house.
Reconvened: The Judges House.
Jillian Berry is a journalist and her friend Mary Reed an author of children’s ghost stories and horror. The old friends have not seen each other for a long while and their teenage days are long gone. She’s surprised to get a letter from her friend who is staying in Melrose on the Scottish Borders. Mary, despite a a few off putting incidents is back on the career path again, rewriting old stories. She’s made a remarkable discovery about Bram Stoker and she wants her friend to share in the discovery.
The discovery is a very special diary and its contents will lead to a house where bells will clang to advertise the presence of new guests treading on old ground. But they better tread warily. Judgments will be made but they might not be equitable or fair.
It’s a strong and exciting story with vivid characterisation.
With Deepest Sympathy
Ever been stuck in the queue behind some awful old bat who pretends she’s everyone’s friend but secretly hates the world. I think Johnny might have been. Mrs Hildebrand is writing letters of sympathy to the relatives of the recently deceased but perhaps she lacks a bit of the necessary tact. Lovely little nasty story with an original premise. Felt I’ve met the same woman but managed, just in time, to get across to the other side of the street
Clarke is a small time con artist working scams in Cork. He’s very clever at operating the scams but not so clever with locating them. Its never wise to interfere with gifts to the dead, especially when the dead used to do a lot of killing themselves.
He certainly would if he read this. It makes Trainspotting look a little tame. Its a bit – well, a lot – irreverent, rather funny; more of a tone poem than a tale.
The Bag Lady
It’s a small town and a small boy gradually becoming aware of the adult world around him: Murder, sex and more murder. But that understanding is a long way off. At the moment he’s content to roam the street with his mongrel dog, Biscuit. His parents aren’t happy because there’s something awful on the street kidnapping kids. Best not go near that lady with the red leather bag. But kids are kids. The siren sings a beautiful song too but don’t get too close or you’ll drown.
Falling in Love with a Dead Boy
Necrophilia, teenage death cult or platonic homoeroticism? The title says it all.
Losing the Plot
Martha likes growing things on her allotment but she can’t stand people who interfere. She’s going to lose the plot.
Richard Norton’s career as a horror writer has been gradually on the rise. He’s a bit of a loner and the meteoric rise to fame has been dented by a slump in the market. Its time to revitalise things with a convention. He’s hungry to penetrate that inner circle and eat at the big boys table; always difficult in any market but Horror has its own eccentricities. Strangely, they’re charging him money on the door and nobody seems to know him…
Ever wonder if Uri Geller used his mind to bend spoons or was it simply a parlour trick. In this short comic tale, Uri finds out for himself.
Well ‘The Spoon’ was funny but I stopped laughing halfway through ‘The Trapper’. Mary is pregnant and her husband Jacob ain’t too happy with it. Jacob might perhaps have thought to have the baby delivered at a hospital rather than Skull Ridge especially in view of the ghosts. This is a nasty, disgusting story which treads a thin line between nausea and horror in a very tactile fashion.
Life through a Lense
If there’s a terrible accident you want the best doctor on the job immediately – unless of course he is the victim. Sir Clarence Danby is on the receiving end of the surgery; he might have lost half of his face but none of skill which will come in handy when a few bits of trivia are settled. Affairs, romances and cool detached surgeons are all mixed in a potpourri of medical madness. This could have been a short novel rather than a long story.
The Family Business
Dribbling from the dead mouth of Pan Horror comes a short short that would have been termed juvenile, gimmicky, fatuous, offensive, a mere punchline to a weak joke. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dad’s job has benefits for the morbid interests of his son but is his son ready for the fun?
Jamie’s a small time dealer and he’s got the smack for the next delivery. Or has he? The most naive will know that the drug world is fueled by ownership. The little white packages exchange hands and every is – briefly – happy. The worst scenario for a junkie is not having the drug but there is a worse scenario for the small time dealer and this is also not having the drug. Jamie is in for a lot of trouble but he finds an unlikely ally in a small boy. It’s a modern world and a very cruel world.
That nice romance writer has been writing horror and unfortunately living it too. He’s been tracked down by a fan, not for the first time but perhaps the last. Sometimes the fans know too much.
After mumbled thanks Mains gives a neat explanation of the inspiration behind the stories. An excellent afterword by John L Probert follows in which he intimates that Mains has produced ‘…clever, lurid, punchy, nasty little tales…’. A fair summary. John L. Probert also mentions that Mains lives in the ‘real’ world and draws a comparison with literary horror and this book.
Both John L. Probert and Nicholas Royle have said most of what has to be said and there is little to add. The book is marred by typographical errors, there are occasional clumsy phrases, the pacing and grammar is sometimes questionable and the sheer variety of stories is at times bewildering. There is also a strange conflict in the authors voice: on the one hand you are always certain that you are reading Mains but at times you are never sure of where he is speaking from – poet, junkie, cheap magician, serious writer, clown or word master. I have a strong feeling that this collection came too early for Mains. At times some stories seemed to be chucked in for want of anything else. Perhaps in a few years a collection would have a more consistent feel.
There are many stories that would benefit from a rewrite and a far tougher editor.
But then again, would they?
I ask this because what shines out in ‘With Deepest Sympathy’ is that quality Nicholas Royle calls amateurism – in the best sense of the world – and what John L. Probert refers to as enthusiasm. I think this book would have been better as a paperback because that’s what its contents reflect: a kind of joy in writing horror, genuine enthusiasm, a love of the genre, nifty clever ideas and punchlines often brightened by crisp phrases, humour and strongly portrayed characters drawn from real life and experience. When the writing is at its literate best, in for example the prose poem ‘Falling in Love with a Dead Boy’ or ‘Reconvened: The Judge’s House’, you feel a slight disappointment that Mains has elevated the bar.
Did I enjoy ‘With Deepest Sympathy’? I finished it with a smile on my face and the knowledge that the money was well spent. It was entertaining, and while at times I want to be elevated when I read horror, I mostly want to be entertained.
You can get it here