A Paint Pot Full Of Blood

Books

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?

 

33 comments on “A Paint Pot Full Of Blood”

  1. Colin says:

    There are some good collections around but most are very hit and miss. I did really enjoy Nocturnes 2 by John Connolly.
    A few really stick with me from other authors,
    City of broken hearts by Ethan Cannin
    Norman Wisdom and the angel of death by your good self!
    The Cranes that built the cranes is also a great collection by Jeremy Dyson
    I have to admit I struggled with most of the finalists from this years Sunday Times short story competition.

  2. SteveB says:

    For a single author, it’s quite hard to both create variety and maintain a standard across an entire collection. (Present company excepted obvs!)
    John Whitbourn’s Binscome Tales I could recommend, if you don’t know them.
    As a teenager I used to devour the Spectrum sf anthologies. Many of those tales stayed with me now a lifetime. Also the van Thal horror anthologies.

  3. SteveB says:

    ^^ Binscombe Tales

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    Although not a true fan of supernatural and horror, I have read several very good collections I was given from Sarob Press, formerly of Wales, now France — a number of the stories by Steve Duffy. I have to say that there is more than a touch of Christopher Fowler in him or perhaps, I am subconsciously always looking for more Christopher Fowler. Anyway, like CF, very well written and in a sub-genre I would call ‘supernatiuralistic,’ again, similar in feeling to the several of CF’s non-B&M short stories I have read.

    Having said all of this, I am, nevertheless, a great fan of the American-British author, Henry James and, in particular, his impressionistic, psychological and ambiguously supernatural tales (including, of course, the Gothic ghost story exemplar, ‘The Turn of the Screw’). Often considered too intellectual, abstract and psychological to be part of mainstream horror — he is ,nonetheless, a master of unease, discomfort and lurking shame which I find sufficient to raise my level of dread.

    As for anthologies of short stories in general, to me it is often similar to being able to eat only a few crisps (chips) at a time and put the bag away. I tend to read until ‘short story’ fatigue sets in. Strangely, this doesn’t seems to happen when reading a novel for long stretches of time or, in fact, on occasion, all the way through (with a pause or two, of course). I’m sure there’s now a new psychological term or explanation for it. I think themes can add a good deal of interest to a collection, assuming they are either broadly inclusive enough or otherwise lend themselves to enough story variety to keep the reader’s attention. For example, different takes on the ‘locked room’ or ‘portal’ themes in a mystery or fantasy anthology, respectively.

  5. Peter T says:

    Bosch and Sickert are too obvious; a much better choice would be Caravaggio.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    I would certainly nominate the Norwegian, Edvard Munch and many of his works, including, of course, ‘The Scream’ for subject matter on which to base supernatural or horror stories. In fact, his life itself, with its persistent deep-seated fears of mental illness, anxiety, depression and near alcoholism could form the basis for several stories.

  7. Roger Allen says:

    I’d recommend Robert Aickman’s own “strange stories” (his own term) and his Fontana “Ghost Story” anthologies.
    The graphic-novels-before-the-term-was-invented of Edward Gorey and Raymond Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman combine humour and shock.
    Two “straight” novels involving forged paintings that take on their own realities are The Recognitions by William Gaddis and What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    Speaking of reading fiction, psychologists and neuroscientists have known for a while now that reading it provides a wide variety of cognitive and social beneficial effects, even over non-fiction. In fact, this is so well accepted that a number of medical schools and schools of nursing have incorporated the teaching of the humanities and the arts in their curricula with the goals of enhancing  empathy, altruism, compassion, and caring toward patients, as well as to sharpen clinical communication and observational skills.

    So if you happen to notice your GP pressing the chestpiece of their stethoscope to you with one hand, while reading a paperback in the other, just remember it’s for your own good. Which also, to my mind, raises the possibility of an entirely new new promotion scheme for CF’s books. Something along the lines of, ‘Christopher Fowler can make you a better person.’

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    Just happened to glance at your Twitter page. Not best pleased you didn’t tell us here of the brilliant news that your immunotherapy is working, before the 280 character crowd. Couldn’t be more delighted. Note to CF’s immune system. Keep up the good work.

  10. Paul+C says:

    Susan Hill’s novel ‘The Man in the Picture’ is a superb ghost story about a haunted painting. I read it every Xmas. Even better than her celebrated ‘The Woman in Black’. Highly recommended.

    One of the best writers of tales of terror (her own preference) currently active I know is Joyce Carol Oates – for such a major writer to enjoy horror stories seems rare and many of them are excellent. I prefer anthologies with a mixture of topics rather than a single theme as the latter usually become samey – with the exception of Peter Haining who was the master anthologist of my youth.

  11. Roger says:

    Glad to hear immunotherapy is going well, Admin.

  12. SteveB says:

    @Roger Allen Yes Robert Aickman’s “The Swords” appeared in one of those anthologies and I never forgot it. It’s just so … strange!

  13. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I’ve mentioned before that Old Devil Moon was the first CF book I came across. I immediately wanted more.
    Another short story anthology would be very welcome, themed or not.
    Glad to hear that the treatment is working.

  14. admin says:

    As of this moment I have created thirteen volumes of strange tales, and have even written a couple while in treatment. The complete collection will be coming at some point but my publishers work in mysterious (to me) ways.

  15. Paul+C says:

    Just browsing through a website called AZQuotes which contains thousands of famous quotations including 6 by CF !

    The best two are : (1) Clutter, either mental or physical, is the sign of a healthy curiosity and (2) Life is a very beautiful dream. I’m so glad I chose not to wake up from it just yet.

    Sorry, off piste again……….

  16. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Looking forward to the unpublished volumes.
    Personally, I prefer individual volumes to complete collections in large, unwieldy formats which are more difficult to read held in one hand with coffee in the other, but that may just be me.

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Cornelia Well, you’ll be happy (?) to know that the virtual reality boffins have come with a system that will allow you to put on a pair of glasses/goggles and through voice commands or hand motions, read a “physical” book — Proust’s otherwise hernia-inducing ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ if you like. So — more or less hands free or at least one hand free, if you use a Bluetooth-type remote for those situations where you probably don’t want people nearby looking at you strangely or any more strangely, considering your odd looking eyewear.

  18. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I think I’ll pass on that one, Stu.

  19. BarbaraBoucke says:

    I rarely look at Twitter, but I read Ed DesCamp’s comment in the previous post so I looked to see what you wrote. To borrow six words from a Gilbert and Sullivan lyric – “Never mind the why and wherefore” – congratulations and onwards!!

  20. Peter T says:

    Ace news! KBO! And personally I rarely find an occasion that deserves exclamation marks.

  21. Helen+Martin says:

    If the Twitter only comment was intended as a test of readership – well, not me, but I am thrilled to hear the experimental treatment is working.
    I’m not a horror fan (even if I do follow John L Probert) but a few individual stories have stuck with me, including Saki’s seemingly innocuous “The Open Window” Somehow the effect on the poor soul listening to the tale has always upset me (that and the fact that it took me three exam periods to remember that Saki was H.H. Munro). Themed short story collections can get to be a bit much because you end up looking for whatever element is being collected unless it’s a broad theme like End of the Line which had a great collection of stories involving trains/undergrounds and included one of Chris’. That sort of collection can include humour as well as horror and makes for a more readable collection. National collections work, too, but John Doe’s Horror Stories not so much because there isn’t a variety of techniques as in the others cited.

  22. Hazel Jackson says:

    Not really on topic for dread, but one of my favourite collections of themed short stories is The Irish RM by Somerville and Ross, about the adventures of an English Resident Magistrate in Ireland around the turn of the 20th century. It captures perfectly that wry leprechaun quality in the Irish character and several of the stories have a flavour of the supernatural lurking around the edges. The series, adapted by Rosemary Anne Sissons, was brilliantly filmed for TV in 1985 on location in Kerry and Wicklow. The casting was near perfect starting Peter Bowles as the hapless Englishman and an outstanding cast of Irish actors as the locals, led by Bryan Murray, constantly entrapping him in their schemes. I recently found the boxed set viewable on Acorn TV (available via Amazon TV channel Subscriptions). This has the rather disconcerting quality that the sub titles, should you want to use them, are out of sync with the speech….. but the filming and casting brilliantly bring the books to life.

    Great news, about your treatment. Fingers and toes crossed for you going forward.

  23. Hazel Jackson says:

    Not really on topic for dread, but one of my favourite collections of themed short stories is The Irish RM by Somerville and Ross, about the adventures of an English Resident Magistrate in Ireland around the turn of the 20th century. It captures perfectly that wry leprechaun quality in the Irish character and several of the stories have a flavour of the supernatural lurking around the edges. The series, adapted by Rosemary Anne Sissons, was brilliantly filmed for TV in 1985 on location in Kerry and Wicklow. The casting was near perfect starting Peter Bowles as the hapless Englishman and an outstanding cast of Irish actors as the locals, led by Bryan Murray, constantly entrapping him in their schemes. I recently found the boxed set viewable on Acorn TV (available via k Amazon/Prime TV channel Subscriptions). This has the rather disconcerting quality that the sub titles, should you want to use them, are out of sync with the speech….. but the filming and casting brilliantly bring the books to life.

    Great news, about your treatment. Fingers and toes crossed for you going forward.

  24. Paul+C says:

    Hi Helen – agree with you on Saki’s The Open Window – another two of his gems are The Unrest Cure and Sredni Vashtar. He’s the Oscar Wide of black comedy. My favourite horror short story is either The Lottery by Shirley Jackson which has the best shock ending ever or Incident at Owl Creek Bridge by the great Ambrose Bierce

  25. Paul+C says:

    Wilde I meant to say…..do’h!

  26. J. Folgard says:

    I love Black Shuck’s output generally, these anthologies are my favourites along with the “Black Shuck Shadows” collections, very slim (and nice) volumes with a good mix of back catalog and all-new stories from contemporary authors also featured in the ‘Great British Horror’volumes.

  27. Keith says:

    I think Dark Harvest did a wonderful job with their Night Visions series and also Stephen Jones’ Dark Terrors contained some fine horrors. The incomparable Centipede Press have reissued and revisited classics for those with very deep pockets.

  28. Ian Luck says:

    Anything by John Connolly is fine by me – even his series for younger readers (the Samuel Johnson trilogy) was dark enough to possibly make some older readers uneasy – but very funny, too. His two volumes of ‘Nocturnes’ are both superb.

    Robert Aickman was a very good writer, but the supernatural stories of his once friend, and then bitter rival, L.T.C.(Tom) Rolt, I would argue, are better. A great pity that he wrote so few, collected as ‘Sleep No More’. Worth seeking out.

  29. Bob Low says:

    As usual, I’ve come late to this one. I completely agree with Paul+C’s comments about Joyce Carol Oates – she’s a real treasure, a literary writer who always delivers high quality fiction, whatever the genre. As for anthologies, Mark Morris has been putting out great collections of original horror fiction for the last few years. I would recommend the two volumes of ‘New Fears’, and ‘After Sundown’. They are great showcases of the healthy state of horror fiction. He has a new one coming out soon, ‘Beyond the Veil’, which I’ve got on pre-order. Any anthology with the name Stephen Jones or Ellen Datlow on the cover is pretty much guaranteed to be worthwhile as well.

  30. Roger Allen says:

    I like Rolt’s stories, Ian Luck, and the way they incorporate the growth of industry into the conventional ghost story, but they are more conventional than Aickman’s in form, High Horse Riderless, a sort pf personal philodophy, and Winterstoke, which is his nearest approach to a novel, are both good too.

    An entertaining real-life variant of the “cursed portrait” was John Craxton’s portrait of Lucien Freud, which Freud denied was of him.

  31. Helen+Martin says:

    I wish our library didn’t shelve by genre. Mysteries are together, as is science fiction/fantasy so that authors who write across genres are divided. It should mean that a person wanting a Hillerman mystery wouldn’t read the Taos Bank Robbery by accident, but there it was in mysteries instead of the 900 section for history of the American Southwest. Somebody didn’t look carefully enough.
    I enjoyed Connolly’s Samuel Johnson trilogy which I read after those weird Irish LEPrecons and I’ve read every Saki story I’ve come across since The Open Window.

  32. Wayne+Mook says:

    The British Library did some lovely themed anthologies both crime and horror, Mike Ashley is a dependable name in their line. Not read any of the SF themed collections.

    Stephen Jones has a Mammoth Folk Horror collection out. Found out the years’ best #31 will be out from PS Publishing, I wonder if it will be 2019 or 2020.

    There was some anthology some years ago, Macabre Railways Stories by Robert Holmes wich i still have and enjoyed, a mix of horror and crime stories. And Zombiesque eds Antczak, Bassett and Martin Greenberg which tried different ideas about zombies, a story about a posthumous author quite literally and her living husband and a queen zombie that turns zombies into a sort of hive mind. Martin Greenberg has put out a number of quality tales.

    The title Art Gratia Sanguis, I guess is Art for Blood, or Blood’s sake, I did a quick translate and it came up as blood of grace.

    Wayne.

  33. Anji Doyle says:

    Hi Mr Fowler, I do read your blog posts regularly but don’t often comment cos I am prone to wittering haha! I absolutely adore anthologies and have loved the Stephen Jones collections. I cannot get enough of them and I am actually reading an anthology at the moment called Winter Chills edited by Nick Harper who owns a small publishing house called Blood Rites Horror, When I was growing up I loved readimf the Pan Horror Anthologies and personally I think they are an important medium for introducing readers to writers they may be unfamiliar with.

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