Tom Johnstone, has very kindly answered some of my questions about Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease, which he co-edited for Gray Friar Press. It contains work by Alison Littlewood, John Llewellyn Probert, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Gary McMahon, Anna Taborska, Joel Lane, Simon Bestwick, Andrew Hook, among others.
I am tremendously pleased to be included with a reprint of my story, ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, which originally appeared in Black Static (Issue 28 ). I wrote it after reading an article about the impact of the recession on Ireland, which featured an abandoned estate. It is estimated that in 2011 there were 2,881 semi or unoccupied housing developments in Ireland.
Tom, what inspired the anthology?
It was a kind of spur of the moment thing: I introduced myself to Joel Lane at a convention, and mentioned stories he’d written like ‘A Cry for Help’ and ‘For Their Own Ends’, which had used horror to comment on the privatisation of the NHS. He’d also co-edited a politically-themed anthology of weird fiction for Gray Friar Press with Allyson Bird, called Never Again, dealing with racism and fascism. We discussed the idea that a similar anthology on the Coalition government’s austerity measures might be a natural follow-up. Not long afterwards, we approached GFP with a pitch, and they agreed to publish it. It helped that Gary Fry of Gray Friar was interested in the theme, having written a very disturbing novella for Spectral Press about the global financial crash and its aftermath, The Acceptable Face of Tyranny (2012).
Although I’d read other horror stories dealing with social and political themes, the stark economy of Joel’s tales, together with their low-key, visionary weirdness, were a revelation to me about how a story of this kind can put across ideas about inequality and deprivation without being preachy. ‘A Cry for Help’ originally appeared in fourth volume of the Black Book of Horror anthology series from Mortbury Press. Perhaps the quintessential Black Book of Horror author, John Llewellyn Probert, was another writer whose work, in quite a different way, pointed out to me the possibility of using horror to explore social themes, with what seemed to me almost a trilogy of contes cruelles satirising different aspects of the twenty first century media culture. It’s something of a delight to me that in Horror Uncut, as well as reprinting Joel’s tale, ‘A Cry for Help’, I’ve been in a position to print an original story in a similar vein from John, turning that trilogy (if such it was) into a quadrilogy.
What aspects of the recession does the anthology cover?
‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ and ‘Falling into Stone’ both deal with the effect of the crisis on the housing market and the effect this has had on people in the construction industry, in the Irish Republic and and the UK respectively. Other stories, like ‘The Sun Trap’ and ‘The Opaque District’, focus more on the instability of the financial markets, but in very different ways.
Not all of the tales are specific to the recession though. Many of them tackle the austerity measures that have arisen apparently in response to the banking crisis, though I’d argue that neo-liberal politicians, particularly the Conservatives, saw the situation as an opportunity to further their political and economic objectives: now that the immediate threat of economic meltdown seems to have faded (for now!), privatisation and cuts to services continue unabated, if anything intensifying as the Tory Right becomes more and more assertive.
This all sounds very dry and academic, but the fiction in the book explores these themes through characters we can all relate to. Stephen Bacon’s haunting tale shows the rapid change in the economic and social landscape, with long-established household names like Woolworths vanishing almost overnight, through the eyes of a young man just released from prison, with his own demons to face…
Other stories, like Anna Taborska’s and David Williamson’s, show the cruelty of austerity in a starker and more brutal fashion.
Why horror rather than SF?
SF may at first seem a more politically engaged genre than horror (if horror is indeed a genre, and not, as some would argue, a state of mind). It often has a vast canvas, where the fates of worlds hang in the balance, with writers plotting future history in meticulous detail. Horror on the other hand often begins at home. It’s a very intense and intimate type of fiction, dwelling like erotica in the realm of the senses, in the stark reality of the human body’s needs and vulnerability, whether or not the source of the horror is natural or supernatural. This is particular true of the genre trope ‘body horror’, a theme that appears in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s tale, as well as Joel Lane’s.
While SF might hint at humanity’s mutability, its ability to change (perhaps for the better), to transcend normal physical limitations by means of space travel, immortality, and so on, horror tends towards a more pessimistic view of human nature, where happy endings are rare, if they ever happen at all! This is especially true in the short form, which many consider to be horror’s natural home…
These are of course massive generalisations, and what about the convergence of horror and SF in many examples of genre fiction, notably ‘body horror’, and the theme of dystopia / post-apocalypse (these often overlap too – a kind of ‘Dystopalypse’, if you will!), which has an obvious political dimension? Classic examples of this include Franz Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its nightmare vision of political repression as a literal death sentence, Gerald Kersh’s ‘Comrade Death’, showing the grotesque consequences of the bio-chemical weapons trade, and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, which scandalised America with its satire on small-town conservatism. A more contemporary instance is Carole Johnstone’s British Fantasy Award-winning tale of austerity and climate chaos, ‘Signs of the Times’. There are one or two examples of this kind of near-future vision of Hell in Horror Uncut…
Also, you can turn the argument round, and argue that a lot of SF is politically reactionary, projecting colonialist or neo-liberal assumptions and paradigms into outer space and/or the far future! Horror, on the other hand, is one of the most extreme and subversive forms of literature, dealing with the disturbance of the ‘natural’ order, either by supernatural events or unnatural acts. Dennis Etchison has argued that, while the classic crime narrative tends to conclude with the restoration of the social order, horror fiction tends to end with disorder, catastrophe, tragedy, things falling apart. Either that or it lacks a conclusion altogether: the ‘inconclusive ghost story’.
Robert Aickman argued that the ghost story was aesthetically superior to the mere tale of ‘physical horror’, occupying a lofty metaphysical plane, transcending and subverting the materialism of modern life. However, Stephen King’s view, that one of horror’s major underlying themes is ‘economic unease’, is as true of classic supernatural tales from the golden age of the ghost story as it is of any modern-day urban horror story from the mean streets. Edith Wharton and L.P. Hartley both wrote powerful tales about successful businessmen’s misdeeds coming back to haunt them. Supernatural Tales editor David Longhorn began a review of the new Shadows and Tall Trees anthology by asking, ‘Is modern horror obsessed with property values?’ The answer is yes! And it always has been. Why do people in ghost stories usually move into haunted houses? Because the rent is lower. The exception that proves the rule is the wealthy couple in Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’, a rare example perhaps of ghosts improving property values…
The Eighties horror boom coincided with the ‘monetarist era’ of Reagan and Thatcher, and much of the dark fiction of the time reflects this. One of the most powerful examples of this is Ramsey Campbell’s stark and claustrophobic psychological horror novel The Face That Must Die (1979, revised in 1983). Recently, authors from the current generation of ‘small press’ horror fiction creators have turned to themes of social deprivation (Gary McMahon’s Concrete Grove trilogy of novels from Solaris Press) and economic uncertainty (Gary Fry’s novella The Acceptable Face of Tyranny from Spectral Press) with memorable results. Horror often thrives on hard or uncertain times, allowing people to see their real fears play out in the form of fantastic imagery. So perhaps the age of austerity might have the positive side effect for the genre of ushering in a golden age of horror. Who knows?
The other reason for horror rather than SF is I’m more into it! I write it, read more of it, and have more idea of what I think makes good horror than I do makes good SF.
How did you find your first experience of editing?
As a first experience of editing, this was an unusual and traumatic one, due to the sudden death of the co-editor. Apart from my grief and shock at his passing, despite not having known him for long or particularly well, I was then faced with the task of bringing the project to fruition without the weight of his considerable experience, Joel having edited several anthologies before, including Birmingham Noir and Beneath the Ground (an anthology of subterranean horror).
Actually, it wasn’t as hard as I’ve made it sound though! Joel had many good friends among some of the finest talents in the genre in this country, and he had already approached them for contributions. Once I’d contacted them to assure them that the anthology was still on, many were only too happy to submit their stories (or in some cases write them with amazing speed if they hadn’t already). I’ve had a huge amount of help and support from the ‘horror community’, partly because of people’s deep affection for Joel, partly because the theme strikes a chord with a lot of people appalled by some of the things going on in this country. So I’ve had the honour of knowing that some very fine writers were cheering me on. Particular thanks must go to Gary Fry of Gray Friar Press for sticking with this despite my inexperience, and Joel’s mother Ella Lane for her help and support at an immensely distressing time for her.
Another thing I’m grateful for is that from the outset both Joel and Gary advised me to keep it ‘invite only’, which saved me drowning in a vast slush pile! It got to the point where I was almost panicking that I didn’t have enough stories. Another problem was balance, making sure the selection wasn’t repetitive, always a potential problem with themed anthologies. I think the books struck a good balance between ‘grand guignol’ and ‘quiet horror’. Given the nature of subjects like economic crisis and public service cuts, there is a bit of a bias towards urban settings, so it was nice to have ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, with a more ‘folk horror’ feel, set in an abandoned Irish new town, but in an isolated, rural area. Perhaps I should have pushed writers more in the direction of writing tales about hidden homelessness and poverty in rural areas! Then again, I might have been a bit too interventionist in my editorial approach in some cases. I know I’ve made mistakes, whether failing to mention Ramsey Campbell in my potted history of economic and social themes in horror in the book’s ‘Afterword’, or (worse!) failing to spot misspelled contributors’ names in the TOC, but I don’t think I’ve done too badly for a first timer…
About the editors:
Joel Lane (1963-2013), “the finest short story writer of his generation”, according to Allen Ashley and Simon Marshall-Jones, was an acclaimed author and poet, respected editor and committed socialist. He was the author of two novels, From Blue to Black and The Blue Mask, a novella The Witnesses Are Gone, and the collections The Earth Wire and Other Stories (winner of a British Fantasy Award), The Lost District and Other Stories, The Terrible Changes, Do Not Pass Go, and Where Furnaces Burn (winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award for best collection). He also edited Beneath the Ground, an anthology of subterranean horror, Birmingham Noir, a crime fiction anthology (co-edited with Steve Bishop), and Never Again, a book of weird tales against racism and fascism from Gray Friar Press. He died on November 25th 2013, from heart failure brought on by sleep apnoea, with diabetes as a contributory factor.
Tom Johnstone’s fiction has appeared in various publications, including Dark Tales, Supernatural Tales, the Black Book of Horror (volumes 9 and 10) and Brighton – The Graphic Novel. Horror Uncut is his first book as an editor.
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease is available from Gray Friar Press:
There are also two launch events, one in Manchester on October 24th, one in Brighton on October 26th, where copies will be available: