A Paint Pot Full Of Blood
Oh no, I thought, haunted paintings. Elderly men raising flickering candles to canvas as the figures move…
It’s a supernatural genre that has never worked for me, except for Oscar Wilde’s coded parable, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, and even that falls apart when films literalise the painting to show not a nameless horror but an ugly old man. Paint and canvas now seem an impossibly quaint way to haunt someone in an age of the Dark Web and internet trolls.
Thankfully, the writers behind ‘Ars Gratia Sanguis’ (brave title) don’t settle for the obvious. The small press anthology, astutely edited by publisher Steve J Shaw, explores the eerie effect of art upon the living. Which is not to say that art is dead. Far from it, in fact…
This is the sixth collection of Great British Horror from Black Shuck Books, each dedicated to a particular subject, and I’m a sucker for specialist horror. Surprisingly, few authors chose to feature famous paintings or artists (although Bosch turns up). One would have thought Walter Sickert would have been perfect for this, but Dickens gets a look-in in Stephen Volk’s elegant novella-length ‘The Waiting Room’.
One story that especially stayed with me took an oblique view of the brief. In Muriel Gray’s ‘From Life’ a mother is unable to prevent her unreachable child from seeing between worlds, with tragic consequences. Children feature heavily in the volume; Sean Hogan has an easygoing style that lifts a standard subject as a husband’s encounters with an eerie little girl expose marital bitterness.
I devoured Steve Duffy’s ‘The Acolyte’s Triptych’ because it was set up with such panache and has a terrific subject. During the war London’s art galleries were denuded and the works were stored in underground locations. What if such an exodus reunited a work that needed to be kept in pieces? The Quatermass-style story builds ever-mounting dread as the removal men set out to deliver their art. It’s so well sustained that I found the ending an anti-climax, although it’s in keeping with such traditional tales. Still, Mr Duffy’s story illustrates the effects of art on a bigger canvas, and is all the better for it.
There are rather too many tales with domestic settings, and I wonder if this is born from a lack of confidence or some side effect of authors being told to ‘write what you know’. I’d have enjoyed some tales with broader horizons. We still labour under the influence of MR James et al, and perhaps it’s time to let just a few of the old tropes go. However, I admire the editor’s perverse choice of traditional subjects for the anthologies, which cover the sea, the countryside, Midsummer’s Eve and so on. It’s also a pleasant change to read tales from the Midlands and the North!
I’m planning to read further volumes now…
What do you think about short story anthologies, small press or mainstream? Especially themed ones?