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Now for my second Halifax purchase! Terror Tales of East Anglia is the latest of Paul Finch's regional anthologies, where stories by some of Britain's most famous modern horror authors alternate with short, to-the-point chunks of local folklore and supernatural phenomena. And all in a cheap(ish) paperback! I enjoyed Terror Tales of the Lake District, but issues with Paypal prevented me from buying the daftly-named Terror Tales of the Cotswolds. So I was delighted to find this latest number in Halifax, in tangible form on Reggie Oliver's bookstall with no bloody "payment gateways" (actually Portals to Hell) to navigate.

I really like what I've seen of East Anglia, with its endless bleak fields and fenland and its windswept beaches. It's also an area that's inspired many authors throughout the centuries - Hereward the Wake and Dickens, sure, but more recently Graham Swift's modern classic Waterland and the novels of John Gordon. And its landscape is perfect in so many ways for supernatural fiction. However, I've only had a tourist's eye view of the region and know almost nothing about "real life" in modern-day East Anglia, so the handful of stories offering social commentary seemed promising. Alison Littlewood's 'Like Suffolk, Like Holidays' which casts an acerbic eye over the apparent perfection of a Suffolk holiday resort, was a disappointment - it wasn't actually about the real Suffolk at all, only an idealised version of it, though I suppose it could be filed under "critiques of gentrification". More impressive was 'Loose' by Paul Meloy and Gary Greenwood, which twins a famous figure of East Anglian folklore, the demonic dog Black Shuck, with a narrative of Polish immigrants seeking work in the fields and restaurants of the area. Not the most stylishly written story, but fun and with an unusual angle.

Black Shuck appears again in Simon Bestwick's 'Shuck', an equally contemporary tale which offers a terrific fusion of various local black beast myths spiced with some of that patented Simon Bestwick feminism and class fury. It's also fast and furious and begins so powerfully that I almost felt like it was me who had been clobbered by Beast Number One, rather than the beleaguered heroine. Paul Finch's own contribution, 'Wicken Fen' is an equally adroit and thoroughly creepy refurbishment of an old Fenland legend, and if anything he is even more seething with feminist rage than Bestwick (none of which will come as a surprise to fans of his collection Ghost Realm!) The atmosphere of a lazy boat holiday, with sunlit rippling waters and plenty of beer, gradually gives way to something more sinister and is a potent reminder of just how isolated that part of the world can be once you hit the backwaters.

As I have hinted above, East Anglia enjoys a unique relationship with water - the Dutch may have been partially successful in draining the marshes centuries ago, but a large part of the land is made up of marshes, fens and water meadows, and the whole east coast is being devoured by the sea at a disturbing pace. So it is unsurprising that some of the best stories here have an aquatic or marine feel! As a counterpoint to to Finch's fine evocation of fenland in the Summer we have Mark Valentine's 'The Fall of the King of Babylon', a wintry, dark and profoundly weird tale set on the Island of Ely, a bizarre town-within-a-town with an economy based entirely on eels and, in this story at least, an uneasy autarchy. Valentine has already written one great East Anglian story exhibiting profound local scholarship, 'The Axholme Toll', and though this story is more modern in feel it's also very good. Christopher Harman's 'Deep Water' takes us down to Norfolk's wintry coast for some stylish fishy fun and Gary Fry's 'Double Space' offers a drowning of a more unusual kind.

Of course, no East Anglia-themed collection would be complete without a nod to M R James, who was associated with many local spots at various stages of his life and often wrote about the area's bleak beauties. It was actually quite startled by the sheer amount of antiquarian and James-inflected stories here. I was reading this book in parallel with the Book of Shadows and half the time I kept forgetting which book I was actually reading! There is even a cameo from James himself in Johnny Main's 'Aldeburgh' (the real location of 'A Warning to the Curious')! Not all these stories are top-notch but Steve Duffy's 'The Marsh Warden' is a great old-fashioned spook story with an authentic period tone. Both the Fry and Harman stories also reference James, and in fact the Harman piece is a great companion to his Book of Shadows story 'Quis Est Iste'. There are a couple of church stories, including Roger Johnson's 'The Watchman' from Dalby's old Ghosts and Scholars collection, though neo-Jamesian Reggie Oliver's 'The Spooks of Shellborough' seems more inspired by H Russell Wakefield classics like 'The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster'! A great tale of golf-course malice and seaside town intrigue, with a dash of gritty British history to stop things feeling too quaint and cosy.

All in all a really good collection! I understand that Sarob Press have now run out of copies of the Book of Shadows, but to be honest I think lovers of antiquarian fiction are just as well-served here, and for a fraction of the price! Finch does a super job of reflecting all the different glories and mysteries of East Anglia, and I think Terror Tales of East Anglia deserves a place on the shelf of anyone even faintly interested in horror.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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