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Well it looks as if my New Year's resolution to spend less money on books has already gone up in smoke. Only joking, of course I don't do resolutions. And in any case I simply had to bag Fourbodings, a quartet of supernatural novellas by Terry Lamsley, Simon Clark, Tim Lebbon and Mark Morris, edited by Peter Crowther (all from 2005). It's a rare book and generally unavailable in the UK, so when I saw a signed copy for £12 I had to pounce! The retail price is usually quite starborgling (starting at around $50), but is it worth it? I'm sure you're all dying to know before you part with your hard-earned moolah.

The book's jacket amusingly proclaims the collection to be "a quartet of uneasy tales, from four members of the macabre". I'm not sure what the conditions of membership are, or what you get for your membership fee, but all four authors are certainly well known on the British horror scene and their writing often displays the qualities of "subtlety and imagination" Crowther identifies as characterising macabre fiction. Terry Lamsley is my favourite of them all, and although he only gets bottom billing on the book's cover he's allowed to kick off the collection with 'So Long, Gerry'. It features the usual "ordinary bloke" who rents a flat at a suspiciously low price, only to find that there are no free lunches: the neighbours are an appalling rag-bag of society's bottom-feeders and there are distinct traces of another, female occupant in the flat. Lamsley is very adept at conjuring suffocating unease from the most mundane of situations, and the slow-building sense of doom and class anxiety present in stories like 'Under the Crust' also feature here. However, this is not one of my favourites. It goes on for too long and the conclusion is too obvious. There are couple of good moments when he exhibits his flair for the surreal and nightmarish image, and it certainly helps if you loathe small children, but overall the effect is more depressing than frightening (there is none of the strange beauty that sometimes appears in his stories) and the lack of resolution is frustrating rather than tantalising or unnerving. Any reader new to Lamsley would be better served by one of his collections such as Dark Matters, as his distinctive voice comes through more vividly there.

Undeterred by this disappointment I ploughed on through Simon Clark's 'Langthwaite Road', a story about an accident blackspot and a strange young rock musician who hatches a bonkers plan to put a stop to the carnage. This is a theme that has a lot of potential - the blackspot is on a road that once led to Langthwaite, a village that is now underneath the sea (though the usual fishermens' tales about the church bells still tolling abound.) But rock music and horror fiction are a dangerous combination (see Philip Caveney's unintentionally amusing novel Bad to the Bone or Karl Edward Wagner's very non-amusing 'Did They Get You To Trade'.) As Elvis Costello once said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and that applies to fiction as well as to music reviews. Any story that relies on a detailed description of music is going to be disappointing on some level, because the reader can't hear it, and Clark's story suffers as a result though it's not as laughable as it might have been. It also suffers from having too much crowded into one story and the sunken village angle doesn't get a proper work-out. But on the plus side it has a satisfying resolution and an unusual combination of ideas.

Next is Tim Lebbon's 'In The Garden, Where Belladonna Grows'. I have happy memories of Lebbon's novella 'White', so I was hoping he'd redeem the collection. This one's about an old woman who has been exiled from an unspecified city by her husband, a shadowy figure who nonetheless comes across as a total bastard. She has spent 16 years living rustically in a remote valley, and has started to quite like it, but now her peace is disturbed by the arrival of a series of increasingly dishevelled messengers from the city. Her husband wants her to come back and forgive him, but what will she come back to? This is certainly a memorable story, with some splendid atmosphere provided by the leafy, flower-bedecked wilderness surrounding our heroine. I don't usually like stories that are heavy on allegory, and could do without the fairy-story repetitiveness of the first half, but there is a decent build-up of suspense and a couple of enjoyably nasty events that prove the macabre has plenty of room for good old-fashioned gore. But I was most marked by the surprise denouement, which completely overturns what until then has read as just another piece of apocalyptic eco-horror. It's certainly unsettling and new and it gets the "thumbs up" from me.

Mark Morris provides the finale with 'Stumps'. It's about an average couple, Bridget and Colin, who move to the countryside with their kids in the hope of a "fresh start" (Bridget has been unfaithful to Colin, and wants to make amends.) While they are restoring the house and garden to their former glory they discover a number of strange-looking wooden stumps in the garden. Little do they know how large these things are going to loom in their lives over the next few days...Mark Morris is a writer I've seen around for a long time, but nothing he's written has ever really blown me away. Until this story, which really impressed me. It's become quite fashionable lately for authors to embed Jamesian elements or scenes into stories preoccupied with more modern sources of horror, and Morris does this well. The first dream scene is almost outrageously Jamesian, even using some of his expressions, but updated to a casual modern style.

This scene actually becomes more powerful as the story goes on, lurking at the back of the mind while an admirably varied panoply of horrors afflict poor Bridget and her husband. And Morris shares James' willingness to set the scene by dwelling on the mundane, homely details of house redecoration, summer barbecues etc. The text could've done with a bit of trimming and the pace does slacken a bit in the middle (the first foray into the woods is overdone) but by the final chapters Morris has us back on track for a really shocking finale. I was distinctly unwilling to turn the light out after reading this one in bed, energy saving be damned - if Morris writes any more like this then the Green Party will be wanting a word with him! It also offers a pleasing depiction of female friendship in the face of trouble. My favourite story in the book.

So there you have it - four very different explorations of the novella format, of varying levels of success. Supernatural fiction authors seem to be increasingly attracted by this form, which I can understand - it provides more scope for character development and atmosphere build-up than the short story. Some of my favourite recent fiction has taken this form - Lisa Tuttle's 'My Death' or Elizabeth Hand's 'Near Zennor' for instance - but it does have its pitfalls. One sometimes gets the feeling that writers have chosen to go down the novella route because their writing is overly-padded and won't "fit" into a short story, but they don't want to make the commitment to a full-length novel. You can imagine MR James or EF Benson being horrified at the idea of taking up so much of the readers' time with their "spook stories"! All the stories here could do with a bit of trimming (especially the Lamsley one) though arguably that's Peter Crowther's fault since he's the editor. However, the Lebbon and Morris stories fully exploit the longer format's potential for immersing the reader in an eerie atmosphere, although they are quite different from each other - Lebbon's story is a more unified, single-note narrative while Morris crams his novella with many different types of terror.

But to get to the nitty-gritty, is Fourbodings worth the money? I'd have to say it's not. It's a handsome book, and the last two stories are definitely worth seeking out, but if I'd paid $50 for it I'd have been disappointed. I like the concept of the collection, but I can't help thinking I'd have been happier with a good varied short story anthology! Having said that, this is my favourite Crowther collection - it certainly beats his short story anthologies such as Narrow Houses and Touch Wood. And he's the only author to have a legible signature on the first page, so good for him.


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