I wrote my first horror story when I was 9. It was called Blood Busters and was inspired by my favourite film that week – a little charmer called Dream Demon that involved a man burning to death in front of his child and a memorable scene with Tim Spall eating what appeared to be a plateful of guts. I can’t remember exactly what the story was about but I do remember the way the teacher looked at me when she read it, as if she didn’t know whether to shout at me or have me sectioned. It was a look I would come to know well – from my mum when I chose to stay in with the curtains closed and watch Dr Terror’s House of Horror instead of going out to play in the garden, from a colleague when I used discussions about horror films to communicate with a 13 year-old student who had not produced any school work in a year and, still, frequently when people ask me what kind of stuff I most like to write. I can’t help feeling that, for many, horror is still seen as an inferior genre. Perhaps because they grew up around gratuitous video nasties in the 80s or maybe they assume that because it often deals with the supernatural and the fantastic, it has no relation to real life and the more serious challenges that authors are trying to respond to in fiction. This, of course, could not be farther from the truth. You only have to read ETA Hoffmann, Susan Hill or Stephen King, who explores themes of friendship and human weakness more thoroughly than any other writer I’ve come across, to know that the genre is perfect for dealing with the everyday neuroses and struggles that everybody can relate to. Horror stories test relationships, question our principles and make solid the fears we are too embarrassed to admit we have.
So, imagine my pleasure when I came across Storgy’s Shallow Creek competition. Entrants were presented with a scrapbook of information – a map of the town and a specific character, item and location. I don’t want to go on about my story or the writing process as that is for another day. Instead, I want to describe the unique experience of reading that story in the context of the other 20 and the feeling I got knowing that I was in the company of others who probably understand what it’s like to ignore the doorbell because you are engrossed in the latest James Herbert novel.
The first thing that struck me about Shallow Creek was the quality of the writing. I am one of these people who get a high from submitting a story, only for that high to diminish as the days go on until I am sure that what I produced was clumsy and unoriginal. I rarely re-read one after it’s served its purpose. Therefore, by the time the book came out, I had a paranoid suspicion that, for my story to have been accepted (and shortlisted), the finished product would be of a similar standard. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The styles that are used in the book are both accomplished and even experimental in some cases, making it impossible to tell the difference between the entries from the competition and the three pieces written by paid authors. For example, if, like me, you are a word nerd and get excited by rhymes and form, ‘Pentameter’ offers a surprisingly smooth narrative that relies on the obsessive use of ten-syllable lines that, when broken by characters other than the protagonist, make the reader as uncomfortable as he is.
‘“Hey Jud, you should have seen the other guy.”
‘But it’s a joke, so it’s also a lie.’
Then there is the voice of the town in ‘Tide’ that comments passively on the events that befall a tugboat captain with a guilty secret.
‘This is a small place and we are more than a few. What’s taken to be secret usually isn’t, and from a pile of overheard fragments and whispered fibres, it is not beyond us to weave a tapestry of near-truths.’
I even enjoyed reading my own story back after seeing my character, as I now think of her, pop up in other places throughout the book. Dave Danvers thinks she’s the ‘prettiest girl in the world’, you know.
As with many horror stories, it is the visuals that stay with us and communicate what the writer wants to say. In this area, Shallow Creek is vibrant with dark and sensuous imagery, from the peeling gaffer tape on Bubba Cody’s neck to the mossy road in Silverpine Forest that was never allowed to be finished. Cursed trinkets, ghostly figures, sacrifice, ironic karma, lost love and, underlying this, a search for balance in the lives and fates of the characters.
It is to be expected that, having selected 21 independent writers who have never met to contribute to an anthology, Shallow Creek will hold an element of discontinuity. However, unless you are the kind of person who needs to pause your reading to whip up a timeline and family tree, the stories fit together surprisingly well. It is testament to the skills of editor Tomek Dzido that he refrained from more heavy reworking, so that the stories could be rolled out the way each writer intended; for that I thank him.
Hard copies of Shallow Creek can be bought here: