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Beneath the Ground

edited by Joel Lane

(The Alchemy Press, 10.99, 205 pages, limited edition paperback signed by editor, published January 2003.)

This small-press volume, according to its editor, comprises "thirteen stories of the mystery and terror that wait beneath the cover scanground". I'd hesitate, however, to describe this as a horror anthology; while there's certainly mystery to be found in this baker's dozen, there's precious little terror. One might almost describe it as sub-terror, sub terra. Ouch. On the bright side, these tales are predominantly original works, with only a couple of reprints included, most notably a 1970s Ramsey Campbell thrust firmly to the front of the book.

On the whole it's the tales that lean towards mystery rather than out-and-out monster tomfoolery that provide the best fare in Beneath the Ground. 'The End of a Summer's Day' is Campbell's contribution, perhaps not one of his most remarkable pieces, but still an effective slice of weird fiction. Lane chooses to follow this with 'In the Tunnels' by Pauline E Dungate, the obligatory cannibals-underground story, which similarly glimmers without really dazzling. It's a welcome height in retrospect, however, once David Sutton's 'Tomb of the Janissaries' comes along -- clumsy, unsubtle, and wrapped up far too conveniently. It's not until this point, four stories in, that the collection starts to look a lot more promising, with Tim Lebbon's 'The Empty Room'. There are shades of Lovecraft's 'The Statement of Randolph Carter' about this one, but here the agent of death is a young boy's avarice rather than the unseen subterranean horrors. A well-constructed character piece.

John Howard's story, '"Where Once I Did My Love Beguile"', is a bit of an odd one. It's another good character study, but at the last it seems to give up on the climax it was aiming for, and simply trails off. Not so 'Going Underground' by Mike McKeown, which knows exactly where it's going -- and so do we. It's a proficient tale, but it covers well-trodden (under)ground. Simon Avery's 'Lost and Found', I'm glad to say, is another matter. By now, halfway into the book, I was still waiting for a story to really knock my socks off; in the centre of the collection, appropriately enough, is where I believe I found its centrepiece. This finely crafted tale of loss, like Tim Lebbon's story, shows Lovecraftian tendencies without ever unveiling the eldritch horrors at its heart, but it's wonderfully suggestive of the form those horrors might take. It's followed by another winner in Paul Finch's 'Grendel's Lair', which opts for psychological horror rather than the supernatural. Alas, this high level is not maintained for long, and I can only describe DF Lewis' 'From the Hearth', in the words of Steve Coogan's Dr Terrible, as "truly diabolical". I don't know quite what the author was aiming for here, but he's missed it with a terrible flow of overwrought metaphor and garbled symbolism.

'Nights at the Regal' by Jason Gould, a melancholic piece that sits firmly in the mystery camp, offers welcome relief in its lightness of touch and weight of feeling. Nicholas Royle's 'Empty Stations' starts out in similar emotional territory, with its protagonist longing for something more but uncertain what to do when he's presented with it; at the end, however, the story is marred somewhat by the entirely unnecessary introduction of a first-person narrator. And downward, downward into Derek Fox's 'The Stone Man', another tale of malicious young boys. Where 'The Empty Room' succeeded, 'The Stone Man' fails: it's just too explicit with its monster. What potential there was here for a subtle piece of youthful fearmongering is lost in the breathless overexcitement of the author's style. Like a teenage lover, Fox just can't wait to rip his way to the final graphic exposure. Fortunately the editor has saved a good story for the end -- 'To Walk in Midnight's Realm' by Simon Bestwick. This tale of love and death leads us into the underworld itself, a twisted modern Orpheus. It's the good-looking cousin of 'Tomb of the Janissaries' and 'The Stone Man', its zombies exposed to our sight for just long enough -- a flash of something here, a glimpse of something there. And while it takes a little while to get properly started, it manages not to lose our interest during the initial build-up.

Five or six good stories and only a couple of real duffers isn't bad going for yer average short story collection. Just don't be deceived by the lurid cover illustrations -- the horror is a little thin on (and beneath ... ) the ground.

Review by John Toon.

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