UK imprint Spectral Press, “a British Fantasy Award-nominated small independent imprint publisher,” has hitherto been known for “very limited edition signed and numbered single story chapbooks,” as well as occasional themed anthologies such as “an annual Christmas Ghost Story anthology.” They made something of a departure, though, with “the very first volume of what is hoped to be an annual publication, The Spectral Book of Horror Stories,” and with good reason.

In an introduction that harks back to the great Fontana and Pan series of UK horror anthologies of the 1960s and 70s, Mark Morris explains that his ambition “is for The Spectral Book of Horror Stories to become a watchword for genre excellence,” and it seems he’s made a good start towards that ambitious goal. Morris contacted writers “whose short fiction I particularly admired,” and invited their submissions. “Such was the quality of the stories, in fact, that I found myself quickly faced with the onerous task of having to turn down good stories by established writers.” So this collection represents the cream of the croup.

Established authors in the volume include Ramsey Campbell, whose “On The Tour” kicks things off, but there’s also plenty of (for now) lesser-known names and newer authors. And although it’s horror from a British publisher with a strong British bias, there are many American settings and even American authors here.  Rio Youers’s “Outside Heavenly,” for instance, reads like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” rewritten by Flannery O’Connor.

On this showingIf you want to look for any distinguishing marks of British horror and dark fiction, versus the current bounty of North American weird fiction, I’d say there is less Mythos around here – fewer capitalized nouns, grimoires, eldritch elder gods and the rest of the panoply of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. There’s also more conscious social and even political criticism – John Llewellyn Probert’s waspish “The Life Inspector,” for instance, harks back straight to J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls.” However, this could also be a product of Mark Morris’s tastes, which appear pretty wide and inclusive. Supernatural and cosmic horror often takes a back seat to straight – alright, severely warped – psychological horror, but rarely without the kind of finely wrought prose that transforms even the most mundane situation. In fact, there is some very strong writing on display here, the dialog in Brian Hodge’s “Cure for a Sickened World” being one particularly fine example. Some stories are inevitably going to be weaker and less appealing to some tastes than others, but the overall standard is conspicuously high.

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories will be available in paperback and ebook format, and “will be launched at this year’s Fantasy Con to be held in York, September 5th, 6th & 7th, but we have decided to put the book on preorder.” I don’t think you need any further prompting from me to take up the offer…

TeleRead Rating: 4 e-readers out of 5


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