{Book Review} Black Shuck Shadows – Collections 12, 13 & 14

Black Shuck Shadows: Collections 12, 13 & 14

Reviewed By J.A. Sullivan

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Collection 12 – At Home in the Shadows: Gary McMahon

  • Paperback: 120 pages
  • Publisher: Black Shuck Books (8 April 2019)

I love haunted house stories, and I thought that’s what I would be getting in At Home in the Shadows by Gary McMahon, but this collection digs so much deeper than simple spooks and things that go bump in the night. I was blown away by the strength of the writing, the unique and unusual plot lines, and the interesting characters.

The first entry, “Text Found on a Defunct Webpage,” foregoes a traditional storyline and delivers an online advertisement for what at first appears to be a normal Victorian home for sale. However, as the text continues strange items, such as ceiling hoists and a shower which provides scalding water only, begin to pop up. By the end, you’ll wonder at what sort of person would envision such a home and hope such amenities don’t appear in any houses near you.

The next three stories are interconnected by the characters. In “The Chair” we’re introduced to Ben in his childhood stifled by his alcoholic mother and grieving for his absent father. When he stops taking his medication, his view of the world shifts and his focus locks on to a mysterious chair which appears curbside every night.

Years later, we meet up with Ben as an adult in “The Table.” He accuses his girlfriend, Jill, of moving a table into his dining room, but soon realizes this piece of furniture has nothing to do with mere mortals. Dripping with atmospheric dread this story really got under my skin. Sometimes dark rooms and shadows play tricks on your mind, but perhaps it’s not a trick at all.

Next, “On the Walls” shifts the perspective to Ben’s now ex-girlfriend, Jill. After the death of her mother, Jill returns to her childhood home to clean out the house. She’s unable to resist a small curled up piece of wallpaper and soon strips the wall to reveal a drawing that is both familiar and completely foreign. The story plows into relationships between children and their parents, and the intangible nature of memories. Once you peel back the layers you can’t unsee what exists on the walls.

Lastly, we tag along with Sheila and Bruce as they view potential new homes in “Open House.” This was my favourite story in the collection, perhaps because at first the actions of the characters are so relatable. Many of us have spent countless hours house hunting, finding places that almost tick all the boxes of our wants, but not quite. Details of the homes start to bleed together making it difficult to recall exactly what feature belonged to which address. And it seems this is exactly what’s happening to Sheila and Bruce, but something much more sinister is afoot.

From start to finish, At Home in the Shadows is a solid collection of disturbing tales. I highly recommend reading it, and I’m looking forward to reading more by author Gary McMahon.

Collection 13 – Suffer Little Children: Penny Jones

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Black Shuck Books (May 15, 2019)

Children in horror stories are used often to explore two very different adult fears: the loss of a child’s life and the prospect that tiny humans are not what they appear. Although at first glance these terrors seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum (saintly child or evil incarnate), if you drill down both types of tales encircle our beliefs about the nature of innocence. In Suffer Little Children, Penny Jones delves into all this and more through six beautifully written short stories.

The collection starts strong with “Beneath Still Waters” as the reader shadows Richard’s day-to-day activities in the aftermath of his infant daughter’s death. He can still hear her cries, is startled by phantom phone calls, and cannot find the source of mysteriously appearing puddles. Is he experiencing grief fuelled hallucinations, or is he being haunted? This tragedy is every parent’s worst fear and Jones expertly draws out the depth of this father’s despair.

Next, we’re given a sharp contrast to the loss of innocent life with a story about a child who acts as dark as the night sky once the sun sets in “The Changeling.” Again, the reader is challenged to decide whether Tom is truly seeing something evil or if the sleepless nights of fatherhood are merely clouding his perception. While I enjoyed these first two tales, I would have preferred if they bookended the collection since they both present the question of reality versus perception, and they both have very similar openings (a father waking from bed in the middle of the night by strange noises).

The four stories that follow blur the lines between the genres of horror and literary fiction. While everyone’s definition of “horror” varies, my personal marker for the genre is an evoking of fear, and the remainder of this collection didn’t conjure that primal emotion for me. The stories are well written, and they do contain dark elements, but I would be hesitant to label them horror.

Definitions aside, the final story titled “Waxing” was my favourite. A young girl is being held at Hillcrest, caught between the worlds of being a child and womanhood. Certain she’s being drugged, she begins to refuse food, water, and other comforts. Unlike the first two entries in the collection, this story clearly shows the character is delusional, and that’s what makes the read even more fascinating. Deep from within the girl’s point of view, sorting out the reality of her situation is heart-wrenching. Excellently written, this is a story you’ll want to read several times.

Collection 14 – Shadowcats: Anna Taborska

  • Paperback: 124 pages
  • Publisher: Black Shuck Books (June 23, 2019)

Cats are a staple in the horror genre. From being the companions of witches to harbingers of death to fierce protectors, cats are the perfect fodder for tales of magic and mayhem. Shadowcats by Anna Taborska is an excellent collection of four short stories and one poem with these mysterious creatures at the forefront of each entry.

I, Cat” is a poem which kicks off the collection to a fantastic start, setting the tone for the stories that follow. Although brief the verse manages to capture the breadth of our strongest associations with felines.

Next up we meet Jane and Milly in “The Cat Sitter.” Beside Ash Wood in the English countryside, Milly the cat sits at the edge of a cottage property, staring into the forest. She doesn’t dare set a paw in the decaying woodland, and humans would be wise to follow her example. But when Jane enters the picture to cat-sit for her long-time friend Isabelle, she can’t resist exploring the ancient trees seemingly devoid of life. This twisted and rich tale involves flashbacks to Jane discovering the Necronomicon while visiting Miskatonic University, an urban legend of a witch, and episodes of lost time and sleepwalking, all culminating on Walpurgis Night. Tense and beautifully written, “The Cat Sitter” is one of the best stories Taborska delivers.

Equally strong, but entirely different in tone, “Schrödinger’s Human” was my pick of the litter. The main character (referred to only as “the man”) discovers a cat on his way home from work one evening, which awakens his childhood obsession of torturing animals. But Schrödinger, the bloodthirsty cat, has his own agenda, seemingly able to bend time and space, and manipulate the man’s thoughts. When a teenaged neighbour is misfortunate enough to knock on the man’s door, the nefarious nature of the cat is revealed. This ferocious feline is like a furry little cenobite, and after reading this story I will never look at a stray cat the same way again.

The last two stories, “Bagpuss” and “Marked,” were also well crafted, but they didn’t impact me as a reader to the extent of the others. Neurotic and anxious preteen Emily cascades into depression and madness after the death of her beloved cat, Bagpuss. While presenting an interesting situation, I felt the story was a few beats too long. Conversely, “Marked” struck me as having more story to tell. In this tale, The Organ Grinder bar is visited by a stray cat interested in only the seediest clientele. Don’t get me wrong, both these final entries were good reads, but the earlier stories outshone them.

Overall, I’d give Shadowcats two enthusiastic paws up and will be seeking out more works by Anna Taborska to read.

Collection 12 – At Home in the Shadows: Gary McMahon

Black Shuck Shadows presents a collectable series of micro-collections, intended as a sampler to introduce readers to the best in classic and modern horror.

In At Home in the Shadows, McMahon offers five tales of homeowner horror.

You can buy At Home In The Shadows from Amazon UK Amazon US

Collection 13 – Suffer Little Children: Penny Jones

Black Shuck Shadows presents a collectable series of micro-collections, intended as a sampler to introduce readers to the best in classic and modern horror.

In Suffer Little Children, Penny Jones offers six stories of juvenile peril.

You can buy Suffer Little Children from Amazon UK Amazon US

Collection 14 – Shadowcats: Anna Taborska

Black Shuck Shadows presents a collectable series of micro-collections, intended as a sampler to introduce readers to the best in classic and modern horror.

In Shadowcats, Anna Taborska offers five pieces of feline fear.

You can buy Shadowcats from Amazon UK Amazon US

Jennifer Sullivan

J. A. Sullivan is a horror writer and paranormal enthusiast, based in Brantford, ON, Canada. Attracted to everything non-horror folks consider strange, she’s spent years as a paranormal investigator, has an insatiable appetite for serial killer information, and would live inside a library if she could.

Her latest short story can be found in Don’t Open the Door: A Horror Anthology (out July 26, 2019), and other spooky tales can be found on her blog. She’s currently writing more short stories, a novel, and reading as many dark works as she can find.

You can follow J. A. on Twitter @ScaryJASullivan

Check out her blog https://writingscaredblog.wordpress.com

Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan

 

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