The Fifth Black Book of Horror ed. by Charles Black (Mortbury Press, 2009)

The Fifth Black Book of Horror ed. by Charles Black (Mortbury Press, 2009)

It must be common knowledge that The Fifth Black Book was originally intended to be a Pan Horror Authors special – Charles Black’s post to that effect is still there for anyone to see at the Vault (I saw it yesterday); but what of this book, presumably intended to have been The Sixth Black Book of Horror? So far, I have to say that the writing is second to none.

Mrs Midnight by Reggie Oliver: The Essex is a rambling old barn of a theatre, once the setting for many old time music hall stars. Jill Warburton is interested in restoring it to its former glory, and gets TV host Danny in on the act to raise money. The Essex’ other claim to fame is that it backs onto a courtyard where Jack the Ripper once dispatched a victim. In a litter of handbills, amid more famous names, Danny is intrigued to find a listing for “Mrs Midnight and her Animal Comedians”.

Danny learns that ‘Mrs Midnight’ – actually a female impersonator named Simpson Graham - had given a disastrous performance at the theatre the same night that the Ripper murder had taken place. More digging reveals that Graham was a struck-off doctor who had once been low on the list of Ripper suspects and had published a gruesome book extolling the benefits of zoophagy – or eating the organs of still-living animals.

Danny takes his findings to his friend Bill Beaseley, who has a long-term interest in the Ripper murders. Possibly it’s because Danny has the hots for Jill – and is frustrated by the presence of blonde-haired rival Crispin de Hartong – that he misses exactly what’s going on around him, in particular, the seemingly omnipresent bag-lady with the rotting shawl who is dogging his footsteps.

Pleasingly grotesque.

The Man With a Hole in His Head by Marcus Gold: Ritzy Jacobs is in a bad place. Specifically, he’s got on the wrong side of Krobo King by taking him for fifteen grand. Now Krobo has his street cred as criminal kingpin threatened, and in order to keep his respect he has to make an example of Ritzy.

He does this by hammering a very large nail into Ritzy’s skull.

Incredibly Ritzy doesn’t die; but the nail does damage the part of his brain that allows him to feel pain.

A story of violent revenge sparking its way down a criminal chain, this one is sharply written and compulsively readable. I have a Marcus Gold listed as the author of The Cave in the 29th Book of Pan Horror Stories, so I suspect this is one of the Pan Horror authors tracked down by the indefatigable Black.

After reading this one, I said to my partner that what seemed to mark the Pan stories from others wasn’t so much the gore, which could always be found in copious quantities elsewhere, but the sheer nastiness of the stories’ protagonists.

She said: “Yes. They had absolutely no redeeming qualities. But sometimes they were quite groovy.

Starlight Casts No Shadow by Ian C. Strachan: Something has killed the Indian workers in Unit Twenty-Eight. It’s not only killed them, it’s stripped the very flesh from their bones. A grisly whodunit – or a whatdidit – Ian Strachan’s story is tersely and effectively told. Regular readers of Filthy Creations will know that Charles Black interviewed the author for FC 2, when it was revealed that Strachan had 9 stories in 4 editions of The Pan Book of Horror under 4 different names (one of those names, his own).

Leibnitz’s Last Puzzle by Craig Herbertson: The fourth story and the third Pan Horror author in evidence, Craig Herbertson’s story expertly combines the traditional smoking-room horror tale with a mind-bending mathematical puzzle, which, if solved, could unleash a demonic force. Norton and Lubeker are two university pals who invite scandal when they abandon their work – a ‘significant’ mathematical treatise – and take off into the Yorkshire Wolds on a camping trip. For a time they seem to have disappeared off the face of the Earth; but then Mulholland receives a letter from Norton inviting him to join them.

He finds Norton amid a collection of esoteric books on subjects ranging from maths to occultism; and there is a strange device made of mirrors whose purpose he can’t divine. He also sees a letter which could only have been written by the scholar and alchemist Leibnitz. This letter alone could establish the students’ reputations.

The two have found a curious structure, apparently a Masonic temple, situated on the two sides of a ravine. And this is where Mulholland finds Lubeker, with what appears to be a bizarrely incomplete human corpse. Somehow Leibnitz has stumbled on an equation that opens a door into another dimension, and passing through it has rendered him an exploded thing, horribly incomplete.

“You might have seen those anatomical drawings in the medical books or perhaps that dreadful body sculpture that was paraded around Europe. Try to imagine that. Add what you see under a very good microscope, an eclipse and lots of moving mayflies trapped in a glass. Laugh if you like, I can get no closer to an explanation of that dreadful thing.”

Working from Leibnitz’s letters, Lubeker has now become completely obsessed with solving the puzzle, even though solving it might lead to disaster.

I found it quite a demanding story. Herbertson’s piecing together of history with whole cloth is brilliant; I wasn’t sure how much was imagination, how much based on fact. The mood of the traditional smoking room story is perfectly judged. I’m not sure if this one will appeal to all readers, but I am sure it’s an excellent story.

Hangman Wanted: Apply in Writing by Paul Finch: Joel Gargan is out of work, and with a stretch in jail behind him his prospects are less than rosy; but the man on the phone doesn’t seem tooworried about Joel’s past. In fact he thinks it makes him ‘eminently suitable’ for the job he has in mind. But just what exactly does he want Joel to do?

Before he lets Joel in on the secret, he gives the ex-con the runaround, making him chase around town collecting messages at out-of-the-way places. When he’s finally persuaded that Joel is who and what he claims to be, at last he reveals what he wants him to do. Styles is a self-made millionaire, but there is nothing left in life for him. Wife dead, and dying himself from an incurable disease, he wants Joel to assist him in leaving this earthly plane in the least painful way he knows. And for three million pounds, Joel Gargan will do just about anything.

The prose here is polished but unobtrusive, quickly involving the reader and carrying him through; and the ending doesn’t disappoint.

In the Garden by Rosalie Parker: The woman is a keen gardener, and most of this very short first-person narrative details her love of her garden’s plants and flowers; but almost from the start we become aware that there is something not quite right about the conversation she seems to be holding. For one thing, her passion for the garden is equalled by her enthusiasm for ridding it of the foul pests which invade it.

Short but satisfying and quite nasty. This is another story that particularly reminded me of much earlier anthologies.

I can confirm now that this the same Rosalie Parker who won a World Fantasy Award and edited the anthologies Strange Tales and The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales.

Their Own Mad Demons by David A Riley: Nobby and Stinko are on an errand for Burger. He wants them to collect a package from the Gortons.

The two are less than enthusiastic. There are stories about the Gortons, none of them pleasant, most sketching a picture of a family possibly distantly related to the Krays but long disowned after failing to meet the standards of their East End cousins.

The family occupy an out-of-the-way farm, and when Nobby and Stinko’s van pulls up in the yard, you just know that Vinnie Jones would be cast to play big bastard Reggie Gorton. And the two of them know when he demands they get down from the van that he won’t ask how many sugars in their tea.

Stinko is taken away, but Nobby escapes.

Of course this is a David Riley story, and although David is quite comfortable writing about seriously twisted characters, we know this isn’t going to turn into Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels 2. And we’re not disappointed.

Nobby goes into hiding, but is soon disturbed by a bad smell. Somehow the less than affectionately named Stinko has escaped and found him. But there’s something different about Stinko, and now he persuades Nobby that he needs to go back to the one place on earth that he’d rather not go.

The Gortons, it seems, are more than a bunch of thugs keeping their heads out of sight of the law in a dilapidated farmhouse. What they got up to there was evil, and now something that they’ve called to aid them, is after Nobby.

Winter Break by Raymond Vaughn: An icy winter is setting in, and in the most miserable household in the Welsh hills, father is restricting electricity so overcoats are worn inside the house, and mum’s dog has been put down because he’s too stingy to pay vet’s bills.

God help the kid who slips and badly injures himself. Father has a brutal and penny-pinching remedy for that, too.

Told in two remorseless pages.

De Vermis Infestis by John Llewelin Probert: This is the one with the memorable opening line: “Someone had attacked M R James in the night.”

Later Tom finds that there have been other attacks in the cottage he and Sally have just moved into. Whoever or whatever the attacker is, it has a taste for paper. Books appear gnawed. And Boggis the cat has discovered something fascinating in the garden, something that had been deep underground. Whatever it is, it’s broken and wrapped in a bloodstained cloth.

Tom takes the thing to an antiques dealer for assessment; a journey that introduces us to three entertaining characters in as many pages. The antiques dealer has a strange tale to tell of the cottage that Tom and Sally now live in, and the “mad old woman” who lived there about a century ago. People who challenged her tended to end up dead, and in every case “the back of their skull had been eaten away.”

Wry and very black humour informs most of John Probert’s writing, and this story would have made an excellent addition to one of Amicus's portmanteau horror films.

Note: Since writing this, I've read another review of this book, with the comment that John Probert must be getting weary of those Amicus comparisons. Sorry, but the above comment was quite spontaneous, and I'd thought it original at the time. Besides, I can think of a lot worse things than Amicus films to have a story compared with!

No Such Thing as a Friendly by Richard Staines: I’d like to think this story about football horror set in 1970, with its bigoted coach Mad Mickey Clinch, is a thing of that time. As I don’t watch football, I don’t know. People are more politically correct, these days; but some say that just makes us bigger liars.

As a story, this one works well. 14th of June 1970, and Sir Alf Ramsey has decided that Vince Kemble’s team, which has finished 20th in the First Division, will play a friendly against Goboya.

Mad Mickey isn’t interested in playing a friendly; he plays football as “a game of war, not a skill.” And if any of the opposing side gets too clever, he orders his players to put the boot in.

Inevitably, this happens. But the Goboyans don’t take this lying down, and when their star player is injured, the second-half is played with a strangely heavy replacement ball.

When I first read this one, the obvious hoax in the author's name went straight over (or under) my head. I'm the original innocent! (There could be another explanation.) I was of course advised (too late) that 'Dick Staines' and his website was a hoax. Word is that the site might come down - which personally I think a shame - but here's a link to it for the moment: Richard Staines: Confessions of a Horror Writer; and here's a link to the forum page where I first posted this review, which has me being taken in by the hoax hook, line and sinker: The Workshop of Filthy Creation: Fifth Black Bookof Horror.

Lastly, here's a link to the thread at Vault of Evil, where you might be able to work out - if you don't already know - the true identity of 'Richard Staines': Vault of Evil: What's the worst horror fiction you have read (ever)?.

And the next one up? Schrodinger’s Human by Anna Taborska: The man’s hobby is torturing small animals, and when the cat appears, he’s quick to lure it inside. But tempting it down from a high kitchen cupboard isn’t as easy as he’d expected. That night he has a curious dream of hell. And in the dream the cat is walking beside him.

He begins to hear voices, and the cat still refuses to eat or to get close enough for him to catch it. That’s when the schoolgirl knocks at his door.

She’s attractive, but the voice in his head has other suggestions about what to do with her; and when he awakes, there’s an unusual amount of cleaning up to do, and the cat isn’t hungry any more.

This one’s well written, and gruesome enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty horror readers.

I began Googling Anna Taborska, and found this story by her at The Horror Zine ezine: Halloween Lights.

There is also an IMDb page listing her as a TV Producer, Director and Researcher (WW2 atrocities seems to be her subject) as well as a writer of horror stories: Anna Taborska.

You mean you still haven't bought this book?

Buy The Fifth Black Book at Mortbury Press.

The Chameleon Man by David Williamson: Charlie Benton is the possessor of an astonishing and horrible talent. Just as some men can imitate others’ voices or mannerisms, Charlie can imitate their diseases. Symptoms of diseases that have long been eliminated by the progress of modern medicine can now, through the auspices of Charlie’s twisted and diseased body, be studied and recorded at will and in perfect safety. Charlie has given displays of his talent before across Europe and America; but tonight he intends to give the greatest display of all.

And he does.

Unfortunately, it isn’t enough for one loudmouthed member of the audience, who challenges Charlie to mimic yet one more medical condition.

I’ve learned that David Williamson is in fact a fifth Pan Horror author in this anthology; he had three stories published in The Pan Book of Horror Stories vols. 28 and 30 under his own name, and a fourth story in Pan 30 as ‘William Davidson’.

Two for Dinner by John Llewellyn Probert: Julian Partleton is the uncomfortable guest of his employer Marcus Randall, who has invited him to dinner. From the start it’s obvious that this is The Dinner From Hell. The meal would probably be delicious, if only Julian’s gut would stop churning with nerves so that he could appreciate it. If only Randall would come out and make it clear what’s on his mind, probably it wouldn’t be so bad?

But then he does make it clear; and in fact it’s worse, much, much worse.

Randall has noticed that Julian’s attentions have not been limited to his son’s music lessons. The music teacher has also found time to spend with Randall’s wife. Randall is an incredibly wealthy man, possessive about the people and things in his life. And now that Julian finds himself unable to move from the table, Randall begins to explain the uses of certain implements arranged nearby, the pliers, for instance, the wires.

John Probert has here muted his more customary humour to concentrate on chills. This one is quite elegantly done, and suspenseful, too.

I've decided to leave in the 'personal favourites' choice which I included at The Workshop of Filthy Creation, but I had misgivings at the time; it had become just too damned difficultand painful making such choices, and in the end it was always just my choice, probably subject to change with time. So for probably the last time, that part of the write-up is below. But ask me later and I'll probably have changed my mind - and I'm sure not doing that again!

Trying to sort out some personal choices from this anthology isn’t easy and will probably be a task doomed to failure or controversy. I keep scrolling up and down the page and thinking, “How can I pass that one over?” So the following titles are mentioned with reservations and – if possible – explanations: For compulsive readability, and completely irredeemable characters, Marcus Gold’s The Man With a Hole in His Head. For unsettling eeriness in a story that doesn’t waste a word and haunts me like a dream, Rosalie Parker’s In The Garden. Of the two John Probert stories, I preferred De Vermis Infestis for the sheer Amicus Horror entertainment value of its supporting characters, which alone make the story worth reading.

And at this point, when I start looking back at the other authors and titles, I realise there’s no point writing more; everyone will have their own favourites here anyway.

Another great anthology.

And thank you, Mr Black!

Rog Pile

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This review first appeared at The Workshop of Filthy Creation

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The Fifth Black Book of Horror ed. by Charles Black; Cover art Paul Moodie

The Fifth Black Book of Horror ed. by Charles Black

Cover art by Paul Moodie

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