PHOBIC: Modern Horror Stories

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COMMA PRESS 2007

Edited by Andy Murray

Previous reviews of this publisher: HERE

Work by Matthew Holness, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Christine Poulson, Jeremy Dyson, Emma Unsworth, Nicholas Royle, Paul Magrs, Lavinia Murray, Conrad Williams, Paul Cornell, Chaz Brenchley, Maria Roberts, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Shearman.

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

25 thoughts on “PHOBIC: Modern Horror Stories

  1. Sounds Between
    by Matthew Holness

    “Someone coughed loudly in his face and Philip turned away in disgust, prompting an insult that he ignored, fearful of provoking further confrontation.”

    An amazing nightmare cloying slice of life in Philip’s soundworld and in the previously sound world before the new noumenon, his life with his partner Mary (if that is is she?) with hints of sirens and something insidious transpiring on the roads or underground trains around Thameslink, involving balloons and human heads as life’s virus as well as a mobile phone virus, a threat that mingles with life’s general anxieties and one’s suspicions as to one’s partner, and who sent what in which dream, all as part of his voice-over job in media films depicting atrocities. Wartime, — and roadkill, too. Loved it, and for something first published in 2007, it is the PERFECT co-vividness of hallucinatory disease, if it is a hallucination at all!

    “Their balloon, Phil realised, feeling suddenly calm. Not his, or Mary’s, but theirs.”

    My other reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/matthew-holness/

  2. And from such Holness hauntings, at their simplest, of balloons with smiley faces to those monochrome-grey swagged TV puppets and zipped-up human-size costumes with which I was brought up in the 1950s, now to the zippies and twinkies and tubbies as other more colourful versions in the 1970s of the next backstory…except not colourful enough? Just doughy-eyed stalkers?

    The Part of Me That Died
    Frank Cottrell Boyce

    “This had gone on for weeks. This absence of want.
    ‘That’s why I’ve come here. You remember me. You knew me before. What did I like?’”

    From absence to its equivalent as a separate presence.
    A haunting and well-characterised frontstory of marital murder and the resultant whodunnit plot.

    Ps: I knew Sooty in the 1950s with Matthew’s father Harry. And I am thus devastated…that part of me now dead.

  3. 9E36B468-8555-44FA-9D85-324234642AFA

    Fred Barker puppet, from my experience of early children’s TV in real-time

    The Dogs
    Hanif Kureishi

    “…numerous other dogs, in various colours and sizes, streaming out of the undergrowth from all directions. Who had called them? Why were they there?”

    This flash fiction takes on even more frightening aspects as a result of the context of this book so far, and of the ‘next door’ book simultaneously being reviewed *here* so far!

    My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/11/02/best-british-short-stories-2020/#comment-20262

  4. Safe as Houses
    Christine Poulson

    Minimalist smarthouse, its architect the husband living there with his miscarriage-bereaved, miscarriage-haunted, dream-fraught wife, and their toddler son Toby; the wife’s twin sister is staying for Christmas. Significant that the unviable foetus had been female?
    Arguably a disarming magic-trick played on a viewing monitor for Toby as a to be or not to be baby, a secret room the trick’s cabinet of vanishment, the trick crying now become real even for the adults in the room.
    Simply creepy, too. Nothing smarts so much as simplicity, I guess.

    My previous review of this author:
    https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/12/10/the-new-abject-tales-of-modern-unease/#comment-20462

  5. The Coué
    Jeremy Dyson

    “He looked academic and gentrified, so it was a surprise to hear a heavy Essex accent when he spoke.”

    “The Coué was made to take. It draws it out of you like salt draws water. It feeds on that which you love the most.”

    I was born and have lived most of my life in Essex, and I am quite academic, but this story’s autosuggestion disarmed me completely. The nature of the ‘hero’ — who masquerades as Christopher Trace (the original presenter of Blue Peter in the 1950s) at one point — and look at the Coué I made earlier! The Coué to end all Coués, worthy of the Horniman Museum, I guess, and you will not hear it from me what it really is, as described in this story, in case I then have to relieve myself of its curse by downloading it on you! I loved the atmosphere of our hero’s curio shop, its downtrodden suburban surroundings, and his ‘girl friend’, his whole backstory, in fact, and the visit from the man with the Essex accent, probably me, summoned by the Coué to this chillingly absurdist story as a critically cancerous autosuggested swaddling of you rather than directly attacking you head on. How can I exorcise myself of this story’s eponymous object, having not only read about it but now associated myself within its gestalt here in real-time amid all the other forum exchanges and countervailing trolls on the Internet? The nature of the Coué is not a million miles from the nub of all the curios so far of this whole book and its ‘twin’ book, too, I vouch. There, I’ve let it out of the bag (or bell jar). Over to you, now. Seriously.

  6. Saturday Mary
    Emma Unsworth

    “His flat had no door at all. A single window channeled the sky’s pale light onto the floorboards. The walls were patterned with patches of damp. She heard a shuffle somewhere.”

    A distaff Joel Lane, no greater compliment, and her chance decisions, her chance crushes in dysurbia.

  7. The next story I first reviewed here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/the-dummy-other-uncanny-stories-nicholas-royle/#comment-12998, as follows:

    ==========================

    LANCASHIRE by Nicholas Royle

    “‘You can see Blackpool Tower on a good day.’
    It wasn’t a good day.”

    A story of two families with children having met in a park, meet up again in Lancashire to talk stained glass and The Cure. A house reached by the A666 with William Blake references. One family is grooming the other, it seems. With Lancashire hotpot. No knowledge of a cure or car here. Just that car’s rear-view mirror again. That utter deadpan hindsight, And where Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn are seen as clots in a green lung. Clots or blots or doubles for the new Satanic Mills?
    A perfect coda to this disarmingly perfect book. I have said it all already. A fiction dummy for reality itself. Perhaps ironically inducing that elusive cure for ills. And for a gang of other literary dopples.

  8. BEWARE SPOILER, read this creepy story first….

    The Foster Parents
    Paul Magrs

    “An old Charlotte Church CD was playing. Back from when she had the voice of an angel.”

    The Fosters, if not fosterers, next door are watched by the narrator wife as she and her husband are rather suspicious why a whole group of children suddenly arrive at the childless couple next door’s house, like the multifarious children whom a smiling puddingy pudgy Diana Dors seemed to have in her more wildly secluded Hammer House of Horror on old TVs, and I think it was the squeaking at the beginning from Mrs Foster that gave me the clue as to where their offspring must have all sprung from in the common context of these two Comma books that I am reviewing at the moment, where dolls and dummies, some without perfectly equal eyes, are here pulled, at least firstly piecemeal, from the garden , as if they once were ventriloquisable vegetables.

  9. ‘Pigeon Street’ was a children’s television series, written by Michael Cole, originally shown on the BBC in 1981 as part of its ‘See-Saw’ strand for preschoolers.

    A Fresh Pair of Eyes
    Lavinia Murray

    See and saw, indeed, as this strikingly expressed synaesthesia of one’s eyesight after laser surgery. Coming out into the rainy street with new sharp slants on life ….and people as pigeons? And when I say strikingly written, I really mean it. A stunning prose-poem of some length.

  10. Tight Wrappers
    Conrad Williams

    “Occasionally he fell asleep on his bed in his coat. He felt naked without it, or more specifically, that special form of insulation that his papers provided.”

    This is one of those landmark horror reads that you encounter from time to time. A story that initially will appeal to anyone who has experienced compulsive book collecting and who also understands…

    “‘No,’ Mantle said, trying to keep the edge from his voice. ‘I’ve never read The Da Vinci Code. It’s… not my thing.’
    He’d been offered a signed Mint in April, but he wouldn’t have forgiven himself, could never have allowed it to rub shoulders with his Lovecrafts and Priests, his M.R.s and his M. Johns.”

    Memories also of his father’s tragic backstory with scaffolding that gradually merges nightmarishly with the above compulsion. If I tell you more it would spoil it.
    Personally, I also visualised coatfuls of books lumping along from when the past possessed the more blurred type of wrapt shapes, shapes that used to entertain us when grappling upon and eventually distinguishing a conceivable gestalt as structured with 405 lines. So, not every network of fiction-truths such as those in this story can account for certain of its readers’ wayward reading, I guess. Focussing, as this reader often does, on triangulating the coordinates of life-stained, printed pages instead of screens.

    “a skin of words in which to wrap his pain.”

    My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/conrad-williams/

  11. To your mind, there was no greater injustice than to be doubted when you had told the truth, to be called a liar when you hadn’t lied, for there was no recourse then, no way to defend your integrity in the face of your accuser, and the frustration caused by such a moral injury would burn deep into you, continue to burn into you, becoming a fire that could never be extinguished.”
    — from ‘Report from the Interior’ by Paul Auster

    Horror Story
    Paul Cornell

    “I move forward to what announces itself as ‘Human Interior’. I click to enter Human Interior.”

    A man’s chilling experience of a computer role-playing game obsession seeming to overlap with real life, under the game’s inextinguishable threats upon the screen as well as in the room and environs where you play it, choosing those various options, your speechcraft, even when they contain adult typos in a game that kids can play, and kids’ screens in the 1950s, for me, also somehow seemed fraught with such overlap, overlapping with a projected life and the reality around you, puppets in the room as well as your head…. self raping self right down to where interiors never end, and never lie. Whatever the next unlikely context.

  12. The Deadly Space Between
    Chaz Brenchley

    “I only skipped towards it like a child anticipating treats. Even knowing that treats always, always disappoint in the end, I was still skipping.”

    I am still skipping along the Zeno Paradox path of this amazing story. How have I not read it before after all those shared convention breakfasts? It is a genuine classic of a ghost story blended with an art installation flour-mill that has created, by structural work, not only an official empty space between walls as cleared for performance or video art, but also a secret Casement, a space that was paranoiacally locked like all our lockdowns today, here with a ghost from the past as part of the ‘performance’ therein. So much to quote here, so much to say, from and about this work, but mainly I felt I was the narrator or I was the powdery ghost itself in this the author’s chilling work, within the space of its room. The Case of the Magus, I guess, now self-perpetuated in some locked-down space of my paradoxical head from where he had vanished interminably. The reviewer become the haunted narrator by perforce of ‘art’. So much to quote and say, but I leave it at only two figments, as a pure space’s glitches, this being the second… ‘Art is not required to be healthy, and it should never be safe!’ Oh, Ok, just one more figment beyond the ‘expressive shoulders and a giveaway spine’, the spaces around the words…

    “It was a square box of a space, windowless and spare, hanging indeterminately between two floors. Case inhabited that space like a bird confined, angular and pacing.”

  13. By the River
    Maria Roberts

    “Joe next door suggested hauling carpets up onto the roof to soak up the sun.”

    A remarkably well-written dream of a prophetic, if now apocryphal, heatwave apotheosis in 2006’s thirty year anniversary of its forerunner in the UK, an apocalypse equivalent to what our “epidemic” may become today… Even credit crunch saviour Gordon Brown singed browner!
    Earth’s crust peeled like apple skin. River just a mutation of a healing rêverie?

    “‘Communication is important,’ Mum bleated. ‘Don’t stay locked in your houses.’”

  14. And retrocausally clinching the sense of the previous story by my having now read the next story…

    Mortal Coil
    Robert Shearman

    (my previous reviews of this author linked from here)

    “And then, when death finally does happen, to someone you know, you go to long boring funerals and sit on hard benches in sullen silence, dressed in smart clothes that make you itch, with only flat wine and sausage rolls to look forward to. And the growing certainty that soon it’ll be your turn, the sausage rolls will be eaten for you.”

    A plain-spoken fable revealing how death has a retrocausation upon the whole of your life still to come.
    Reading it for the first time today has crystallised the New Normal today. We are all now the Nearly Dead, I guess. With most of us receiving almost identically worded letters in our own Death Envelopes… depending on what age group we have already managed to reach.

    8279A26D-CF84-4CCB-9E9E-DBDE2D928815”’It’s a mistake,’ she concluded, with a wisdom that Harry had never expected of her, ‘to see in the way you die an explanation of how you live.’”

    I watched Norman Wisdom films in black and white at the cinema when I was a child. I never really enjoyed them.
    Don’t laugh at me, the sad puppet sings. But Harry still tries to concentrate on the telly, this story says — in case the old stuff becomes worth exhuming, I guess.

    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life;

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