The British School - The Contemporary Era - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The British School
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Any number of writers from both sides of the Atlantic have emerged in the past two decades to establish themselves as either popular or critically acclaimed figures. It would be misleading to claim that they form a “school” in any meaningful fashion or that they have much in common with one another aside from their nationality, but a number of them have produced substantial weird works that deserve to survive.

Jonathan Aycliffe (b. 1949), the pseudonym of Irish writer Denis MacEoin, who also writes thrillers under the name Daniel Easterman, achieved a notable success with Naomi’s Room (1991). Aycliffe etches with extraordinary poignancy the bereavement suffered by Charles Hillenbrand, a young Cambridge professor, and his wife, Laura, when their young daughter Naomi is apparently kidnapped and killed just before Christmas. Soon thereafter, strange events occur at their home; in particular, a woman and two children are seen in the attic window—and are even photographed by a reporter. This photographer also snaps a picture of Naomi standing between Charles and Laura in their garden. The atmosphere of weirdness builds as Charles investigates the history of the house, finding that it had once been owned by a physician, John Liddley, whose wife and children mysteriously disappeared in the 1840s. The convenient discovery of Liddley’s diary tells the whole story of his locking his family in the attic and killing them there. But further horrors are in store: Charles, the first-person narrator, is himself possessed by the spirit of John Liddley and repeats his crimes.

Naomi’s Room is a slim but intense novel of domestic tragedy and psychic possession. Unfortunately, Aycliffe attempted to duplicate its success with a relatively similar work, The Vanishment (1993), a stilted and predictable novel about another haunted house, this time in Cornwall, that exercises a baneful influence on a young couple vacationing there. Aycliffe has continued working in the tradition of M. R. James in the ghost novels Whispers in the Dark (1992) and Shadow on the Wall (2000).

An explicit M. R. James pastiche is Rune (1990) by Christopher Fowler (b. 1953), a novel-length rewriting and updating of “Casting the Runes.” In a contemporary London setting, we are introduced to Harry Buckingham, an advertising executive whose father was apparently killed by a rune. Suspicion focuses on Daniel Carmody, head of a communications company, ODEL, that apparently has grandiose plans to take over the control of all British communications. It is not clear that the James tale has been enhanced by this revision of time and setting. In any case, the exact message of Fowler’s novel remains unclear: Is he criticising the megalomania of corporations? government corruption? One needs something a little more innovative to justify a novel as long and tedious as this one. Fowler has written any number of other novels, chiefly focusing on the underside of London life.

Simon Clark (b. 1958) seems to be another writer attempting to cash in on the residual popularity of the blockbuster horror novel. Nailed by the Heart (1995) focuses on an old sea-fort that appears to be a kind of guardian against the incursion of the ghosts of terrorists who were killed decades earlier when the boat they hijacked sank to the bottom of the sea. But the development is hackneyed and the characterisation—especially the focus on a child, David Stainforth, whose parents are attempting to renovate the sea-fort—is intended to evoke the maximum amount of sympathy from impressionable readers. Clark has also written the Vampyrrhic Trilogy (1998—2010), drawing on Norse and African mythology.

A far more substantial writer is Graham Joyce (b. 1954), who infuses his work with a diversity of elements ranging from his working-class upbringing, his wide travels throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and influences ranging from Arthur Machen to Thomas Pynchon (about whom he wrote a master’s thesis). While it would be unjust to classify his work strictly within the realm of weird fiction, such novels as Dark Sister (1992), a tale of modern witchcraft, and The Tooth Fairy (1996), about a baleful entity far different from the innocuous childhood fantasy of the title, are clearly within the weird tradition.

Some British short story writers have emerged in the past two decades. Anglo-Welsh writer Tim Lebbon (b. 1969) has written plenty of novels, but his best work seems to be found in his short stories and novellas. Many of these tales fuse domestic conflicts with the supernatural in an effective manner, such as “The Repulsion” (2000), a subtle and ambiguous story about a troubled marriage. Dean and Maria have gone to Amalfi in an attempt to regain their love; but does Maria’s frequent and inexplicable disappearances symbolise how Dean has emotionally lost her? There is a distinctly Campbellian atmosphere to this tale. In “Life Within” (2000), a small boy is traumatised when his father kills some newborn puppies, and he is afflicted with hideous dreams of being a foetus in an amniotic sac; in the end he suffocates himself to death by putting a bag over his head. “The Last Good Times” (2000) is a pensive, melancholy tale of revenants.

Terry Lamsley (b. 1941) has also developed a high reputation, although it is not entirely clear that it is justified. Conference with the Dead (1996), for example, contains only one genuinely meritorious tale—and this one, “Blade and Bone” (1994), is nothing more than a skilful pastiche of M. R. James, featuring a revenant in the shape of a doglike skeleton. Otherwise, we find such an implausible tale as “Walking the Dog” (1996), in which a man, tasked with walking a nameless grey-green doglike creature for an hour every night, wonders whether the creature is from another planet or dimension. There are several other confused or routine ghost stories—“Screens” (1995), “The Toddler” (1995), and “Inheritance” (1996)—along with a long-winded tale of modern witchcraft, “The Extension” (1996). “The Break” (1996) is occasionally effective—a long, nightmarish novelette told from the point of view of a small boy who finds himself on holiday in a hotel filled with old people. Is it possible that the staff is draining them of their blood?

Joel Lane (b. 1963) began publishing in the late 1980s and has written novels, stories, and poems. He has often been referred to as one of the “Miserabilists”—a writer whose unrelenting focus on death, poverty, and hopelessness renders his work the fictional equivalent of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. But his tales are undeniably effective and often constitute significant social commentary on the social and economic inequalities of contemporary England. Some of his best work is in The Earth Wire and Other Stories (1994).

Another “Miserabilist” is Nicholas Royle (b. 1963), who is often confused with a writer of the same name who has written on weird fiction in the treatise The Uncanny (2003). Royle’s novels and tales are richly complex, reflecting a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of human character and also of the literary devices that can be used to explore them. His accomplished first novel, Counterparts (1993), interweaves several overlapping narratives while conveying a sense of both existential anomie and weirdness by its mingling of dream and reality and other elements that take the novel in the direction of surrealism.

Reggie Oliver (b. 1952) is the author of many plays that were written as early as the 1970s, but he took to writing horror tales in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Some of these stories are pastiches of M. R. James and Arthur Machen, but Oliver is far more than an imitator, and his skill at character portrayal and utilisation of a wide array of historical settings are impressive. The omnibus Dramas from the Depths (2010) contains his best work.