The Yorkshire seaside is deceptive. Whitby and Scarborough especially both trade on a combination of old world jollity and modern junk food, promising you a little history, a little sea spray, some chips and maybe the odd vampire. But there’s rich, deep veins of horror beneath the hilly coastal towns. The future washes ashore there just as the past is washed away and that constant ebb and flow, and what it gives and takes away, is at the core of this new anthology from editor Scott Harrison.
Punch and Judy shows are always a bright, cheery nightmare and they’re at the heart of ‘That’s The Way To Do It’ by Alison Littlewood. This is the sort of story you expect Mark Gatiss to be introducing as part of ‘The Man in Black’, a brilliantly executed look at the absurdist horrors of seaside entertainment. Littlewood’s got a keen eye for the ridiculous, and yet somehow enthralling, entertainments offered on the Yorkshire coast and the story is beautifully executed throughout, especially the nightmarish final moments.
What really works here though is the awareness of character and human nature. Littlewood has a sharp eye for how intelligence is no certainty of safety and how alone someone who doesn’t get the joke can be. That’s the cruellest cut here and the most interesting dash of horror; seeing it approach doesn’t matter. But you have to watch anyway.
‘Landlady interface’ by Lee Harris sees a welcome lightning of tone and may also be the first piece of Beachpunk SF. Or perhaps BandBPunk. It’s a smartly handled piece that takes a definite stylistic left turn at the top of the first page and rides it all the way to the end of the story. It’s crammed full of SF terms and phrases and, in the hands of a lesser writer, they’d feel archaic and out of place. But just like Littlewood uses human nature to enhance the horror of her piece, Harris uses language as a secondary character note in his. We don’t see the ending coming, neither does the lead but by the time we get there we can certainly appreciate the artistry and grace in the hustle. An elegant pseudo-crime story executed with wit, it’s also a world I could stand to see returned to. Here’s hoping Harris’ lead has another holiday planned soon.
‘Scarborough in July’ by Sadie Miller is beautiful. If the other stories here use the seaside of Yorkshire as a lens to tell stories through, Miller reverse the process. Here the story is a camera obscura following a group of characters through their lives on one day in Scarborough. It’s an elegant, Victorian shambles of a town and Miller’s love for it shines through as we follow a woman working in a chip shop, a young man working at a hotel, an actress and others through the endlessly important, endlessly small mountains and valleys of daily life. Miller has tremendous love not just for her characters but the shapes they make as they carve their way through the world and that’s what this story ultimately is; a time lapse photograph of lives, some human, some not quite, in a busy seaside town. Poetic, Joyceian in parts and beautiful.
Harrison’s own story ‘The Last Train to Whitby’ is the other piece that could definitely stand revisiting. The ghost of Graham Greene, on holiday and unsure how he feels about it, stalks Harrison’s story as it follows a damaged secret agent back to the last place he ever wanted to return. If Harris’ piece is B&BPunk then this is Seaside noir, as the lead struggles to stay ahead of his boss’ hitman, those he damaged the last time he was here and his own increasingly violent tendencies. Bloody. damaged and gripping, this is a story that eats its ice cream with one hand on the gun in its pocket. Here’s hoping that either this agent, or the others hinted at in the piece, will return.
‘The Woman in the Sand’ by Trevor Baxendale treads similar ground to Littlewood’s piece but chooses a more impressionistic route. The story of Kate, a young woman taking her son Tom to the beach on holiday, it shares Littlewood’s keen awareness of both the passage of time and the fragility of childhood innocence. Overlaid on this is an elegantly cranked sense of unease as Kate and Tom befriend a sand sculptor whose work begins to look more and more familiar as the days go by. There’s a very brave choice made here regarding resolution that will frustrate some readers but paid off extremely well for me. Baxendale excels at the sense of something otherworldly brushing past you in the waves and that’s exactly what you get here. The whisper of something perhaps not awful, but certainly alien, written in the sand.
Gary McMahon is one of the finest horror authors of his generation and his work here proves that. ‘She Who Waits’, like the best stories in this anthology, bases its horror on real, human loss. Ash, grieving for the death of his wife, is drawn back to the places they went during a holiday in Scarborough. He’s a ghost seeking a ghost, haunting his past as it haunts him. Ash is the classic horror victim in many ways, a damaged character who has wandered into the deep woods, but McMahon never denies him agency. He’s a smart, compassionate man whose mind is continually dragged to one thought. He’s not stupid, he’s not one dimensional, he’s just hurt. The predator that zeroes in on him is chillingly rendered but what will stay with you is the ending. Like the best ones here it’s complex, shot through with happiness and release even as the horror builds.
‘The Girl on the Suicide Bridge’ by JA Mains is dead tied with ‘Scarborough in July’ as my favourite story here. Mains’ story, like many here, deals with grief but turns it a very different way. Here grief isn’t a destination so much as the first stop on a map, as Elsie, his lead, sets off to try and understand both why her brother killed himself and why so many people chose the Valley Bridge to end their lives. This mirrors real life, where the bridge was a notorious suicide hotspot. Elsie’s response is grounded, believable and completely honest. She wants to know, she finds out and in doing so carries out an act of heroism that will stay with you long after the book’s done. As lyrical as Miller’s piece and as subtly otherworldly as Baxendale’s it’s a haunting story about love and death and how they connect. It’s also one of the absolute highlights of a staggeringly well put together anthology.
Sue Wilsea’s ‘Scarborough Warning’ rounds the anthology out with a definite step change in both tone and subject matter. It’s a really dangerous game to play, somewhere between close up magic and a street con artist but Wilsea writes with such confidence that every single things she shoots for she hits. A romance, a tragedy and a very particular kind of horror story combine in a piece filled with painfully acute, devastating observations of human nature. The smallest scale story in the anthology, it punches far above its weight and closes the book out on a real high note.
Scott Harrison is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best editors in the business. His anthologies are always varied, always intelligent and most importantly always crammed with invention, enthusiasm and talent. This one is the best so far of an extremely impressive run. The line for the next anthology starts here. I might write a postcard or two whilst I wait…