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Horror fiction has always had a special relationship with the short story. While not not so long ago, there was a huge market for anthologies of short fiction of every type, in more recent times, it is only in a handful of genres that short fiction continues to thrive. And one of the great strongholds of the short story of course is the weird tale. And horror fiction is perhaps somewhat unique in that it is a genre where collections of tales of terror perennially sell well, and where writers who exclusively work in the short form can command equal status with novelists or script writers. Indeed many of the great names in the field - Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, and MR James - have made their names by penning legendary short stories.
Perhaps this should not be surprising, for the tradition of telling ghost stories is one that predates written literature. Indeed, alongside the telling of jokes and humorous stories, spinning tales of terror is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Additionally however the short story is a literary form that often favours a surprise ending; for while one can tell an effective traditionally structured three act tale in the short form, there is something very satisfying about a little story that delivers a twist in the tale. Indeed one of the great masters of the short story was O Henry, an early 20th century writer whose tales so often delivered a surprise reveal at their climax that such plot twists were for many years referred to as “an O Henry ending”.
Of course, such sudden shocking or unexpected endings are ideally suited to horror tales or fantastical stories. As well as countless short tales of horror and science fiction, numerous comics books from the infamous EC titles onwards have made shock ends their stock in trade, while on the screen anthology movies such as the classic Amicus portmanteau films, and TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Tales of the Unexpected, have all lead us to expected that short weird fiction should come with a twist in the tale fitted as standard.
However while the urge to build up a short story to a suitably shocking reveal has an understandable attraction, the short weird tale is capable of more than just delivering final shocks. However, it would seem that few have the inclination to do so. However some brave souls have ventured beyond the usual. The great Ramsey Campbell has penned many short stories which are more a journey through nightmarish places and situations rather than build-ups to what we now often refer to as M Night Shyamalan twists, with a particular favorite of mine being “Among the Pictures are These” which is nothing more than a description of a series of surreal and sinister drawings he rediscovered in a childhood notebook.
Thomas Liggotti too has successfully experimented several times with the short form - “Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” is indeed the transcripts of several highly unusual lectures, while his collection Noctuary contains a section entitled “Notebook of the Night”, which is a series of very short vignettes of an eerie and unsettling nature. So then, while there are more possible areas of travel for the horror short story than the usual twist-in-the-tail pathways, possibly it requires a true master to navigate into these uncharted territories…
However the current horror field is not without its own bold travellers willing to follow the light of strange stars. And one such soul is Adam Nevill, who has been consistently breaking new ground in book after book, unleashing fresh new horrors with every new work and never content to settle into any kind of more-of-the-same routine. And while he is primarily known as a novelist, like many working in weird fiction, he has been producing short fiction alongside his longer works, penning a string of short stories that have been collected into two volumes so far - Some Will Not Sleep (2016) and Hasty for the Dark (2017). Much like his novels, these collections show us a writer who pushes against settling into some kind of house style - Nevill is a writer who believes each tale, whether long or short, needs its own voice, it’s own narrative style. Likewise he has never settled down into one groove and served up the same kind of horrors again and again. Indeed these collections of his short fiction are excellent showcases of the breadth and range of his writing.
Now when it was announced that his own Rituals Limited imprint would be releasing a new collection of short fiction this year, many of us thought that this would be a third volume collecting together the assorted short fiction he had produced in the last few years. However as it turns out that Wyrd and Other Derelictions, in true Nevill style, was to be a very different beast. To begin with only one of the seven tales in this new volume have seen the light of day anywhere else. Furthermore, this septet of terrors are told in the same individual style, and there is a central conceit that links these tales together. But this is not, as we might normally would expect, shared plot points that chain the separate stories together - although I am sure Nevill devotees will have a lot of fun considering whether these stories inhabit the same universe, or take place in the worlds conjured in his novels. Rather this set of tales share a definite literary approach, with each being the results of the same narrative experiment - to draw a loose musical comparison, Wyrd and Other Derelictions is more a concept album rather than a best of.
The basic premise for the book originated with Hippocampus, the story that opens this new collection, and indeed is the only story to have appeared elsewhere before. This tale of horror on the seas was originally penned for an anthology edited by Paul Finch. Alongside producing his own tales and novels, since 2011 Mr Finch has been curating a series of themed anthologies - a series that began with Terror Tales of the Lake District, and so far there are eleven volumes in the series that collect stories based around a specific region or geographic theme, with tales coming from authors new and old. The ninth volume in the series had a maritime theme - Terror Tales of the Ocean (2015) - and Nevill penned Hippocampus for it.
He was, as he relates in a very illuminating essay that rounds off the book, very unsure whether the story would make it into the anthology, for in Hippocampus we take a tour of a ship in the dead of night, and as we move from location to location on this benighted vessel, it is clear that something very strange and very terrible has happened here. However this was a story with a difference - a tale told without any dialogue, without any characters, and even without any kind of narrator. It was a brave experiment in storytelling, but Finch included it in the anthology, and what’s more, despite appearing to be somewhat difficult or challenging, readers loved it too. Indeed Hippocampus went on to be republished in further books, three times in fact to date. Ellen Datlow selected Hippocampus to join the ranks of tales in Best New Horror (2016), and the story made landfall again the following year in another themed collection Beauty of Death II; Death By Water (2017) edited by Jodi Renée Lester and Alessandro Manzetti. Finally and perhaps most prestigious of all, Hippocampus was chosen by the legendary Ramsey Campbell for inclusion in The Folio Book of Horror Stories (2018) where it appeared alongside classic tales by masters such as Poe, Lovecraft, James, Blackwood, Machen, King, and Ligotti.
As he recounts in the aforementioned essay, the concept of telling a story without the usual narrative devices began to cast a strange spell on his imagination, and Nevill wondered if there were more tales to tell in this bold new style. Of course, as we now know, there were - six more derelictions as he dubbed them, tales which he describes thus -
Derelictions are horror stories told in ways you may not have encountered before. Something is missing from the silent places and worlds inside these stories. Something has been removed, taken flight, or been destroyed. Us.
Derelictions are weird tales that tell of aftermaths and of new and liminal places. Each location has witnessed catastrophe, infernal visitations, or unearthly transformations. But across these landscapes of murder, genocide and invasion, crucial evidence remains. And it is the task of the reader to sift through ruin and ponder the residual enigma, to behold and wonder at the full horror that was visited upon mankind.
And that is an excellent introduction to what the seven tales in Wyrd and Other Derelictions have waiting for you. Here we have an unsettling collection of tales that are highly individual and disturbing on a variety of levels. To begin with, the absence of the usual devices of storytelling, such as plot points unfolding over a period of time, characters to get to know, and cosy chatter of dialogue, is in itself subtly disconcerting. There is an absence of the familiar, of the expected structure of the short story, which has an insidious unbalancing effect on the reader. Reading these stories is very much like descending down a dark, rickety staircase where someone has not only removed the lights, but also the bannisters. And as you tentatively make your way down into the gloom, every now and then,several of the actual stairs are unaccountably missing too.
In every tale we are guided around a scene where something terrible has occurred, often in an extremely violent manner. But while you will encounter various tableaux of an often literally visceral nature, what makes these little journeys troubling isn’t the graphic gore. Firstly it is extremely disquieting to encounter these bloody scenes in calm, almost placid prose, where the horrors are related in quiet tones, dispassionate but with a touch of poetry entering the descriptions, almost like the hushed and cultured commentary of a guide in an art gallery. Often in horror fiction, far too many writers resort to lurid shrieking and lengthy anatomical descriptions to attempt to evoke the horror, however here Nevill deftly demonstrates that you can be truly disturbing with only a few well chosen words, quiet phrases that crystallize the violence into dazzling images that burn themselves onto the retina of your mind's eye.
However, make no mistake, while there is some very memorable carnage in these derelictions, the horror of these tales does not stem from the splatter. The grue is merely a side dish to a main course of insidious dread. For the secret masterstroke of choosing to tell these tales in this unconventional fashion is that instantly it sets the reader's imagination dancing to the author's tune. One might expect that building a story without the usual narrative devices like plot events or dialogue and character interactions would result in a somewhat static experience, merely a description of a frozen scene, and indeed in lesser hands that could have been the case. But these tales are skillfully constructed to include movement, the narrative quietly takes you by the hand and leads you through a series of locations. And rather than a stationary exhibit, what the reader experiences is more akin to an investigation, an exploration through a variety of scenes that slowly unfold their own uncanny and terrifying stories. Reading these derelictions is a very immersive experience, indeed the kind of horror and dread they conjure up are very similar to pleasing terrors one might experience in some of the better horror games of both the video and tabletop variety - ie being alone and slowly creeping around a truly terrible place where the realms of nightmare have bled and stained the world.
There is a sense of nervous anticipation as the stories play out. The reader is led to question the significance of what they are being shown, too work out what exactly has happened in these benighted and accursed places, with each individual tableau of horror linking together with the next, and slowly revealing larger, and ever more disturbing vistas of dread. The horrors of each scene is one thing, the vaster terrors they suggest is another. It is tempting to describe these stories as slow-burning but that is not quite the right phrase, for while it is true that these stories are told in a way designed to affect the reader slowly and subtly, they continue to do so long after you have finished reading and closed the book. Their images linger in your mind, and the possibilities they suggest will haunt you for some time.
Wyrd & Other Derelictions is a highly unusual short story collection. Whereas most anthologies of short fiction present us with a rattle-bag of tales of different styles and shapes, this volume is unusually and brilliantly consistent. And again I feel drawn to make a musical analogy, this collection plays out like a well structured record, with each story being a different movement in a symphony of high strangeness and weird terror. And what's more, each story, each newly revealed dereliction, feels like a development from the last, its horrors building on the dread and unease of its predecessor.
And like a brilliant LP, the book repays repeated revisits and careful listening. With return trips revealing fresh details and new aspects, things you haven’t noticed or terrible new possibilities you had not previously considered. This book really does showcase how much is possible in the realm of short fiction, and it also demonstrates that the arrangement of an anthology itself can be a work of art too. It is hard for me to single out any particular story for praise, for having read the entire volume several times, I increasingly feel it is a single work in itself, with perhaps all the stories being born of the same nightmare. The stories may be separate but their effect when experienced together is certainly cumulative.
And if you are looking for stories that genuinely capture the texture and feeling of being trapped in a real nightmare, look no further. For is it not the case that many of our own bad dreams take the form of being alone in some strange and uncanny place, a location where something awful has happened but you are not entirely sure what. Somewhere that you are compelled to wander through, somewhere you cannot leave, yet knowing that something may be waiting or lurking nearby.
I also think that Wyrd & Other Derelictions is destined in the future to be hailed as a classic of weird fiction, so grab a first edition now! As I remarked earlier horror is one of the few places where short stories are held in as high regard as longer forms of fiction. And Wyrd and Other Derelictions is certainly no poor country cousin to the novel. It is rather a masterpiece in itself.
For more on Adam Nevill and to buy books direct from Rituals Limited, do visit his website!