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Left in the Dark: The Supernatural Tales of John Gordon

by John Gordon

edited by Frank Chigas

(Medusa Press, $40.00, 316 pages, hardcover, 2006, ISBN 978-0-9725324-1-9.)

Review by Mario Guslandi

cover scanJohn Gordon is the author of fifteen fantasy novels (including the classic Giant Under the Snow, recently reissued by Orion), three short story collections and over fifty short stories.

Ostensibly addressed to a readership of young adults and children -- who, incidentally, constitute the main characters of most of his stories -- Gordon's books are by no means to be labelled as children fiction. On the contrary his darker tales are so disquieting that you may want to hide the present volume and keep it out of reach if you have some kid in the house.

This volume, published by the small Californian imprint Medusa Press, collects thirty of Gordon's best supernatural tales spanning more than thirty years of his career as a writer of dark fiction and constitutes an affectionate homage by an emerging USA publisher to a British master of terror.

Needless to say, the book is so good that each story would deserve to be praised and commented upon, but I'll limit my comments to the pieces that, for one reason or another, strike me as the most remarkable (not an easy task, I assure you).

The title story, "Left in the dark", sets the tone by portraying a frightened little boy rescued by a supernatural intervention. "Death wish" is a delightfully ambiguous tale where what could happen is more important than what actually takes place...

In "The burning baby", a terrifying story told in a detached, compelling style, a sinister revenge allows a dead, pregnant teenager to get even with her seducer, while in "Better the devil you know" the love games among a group of small town youngsters are tainted by the obscure menace of ancient horrors.

"Under the ice" is a superb tale, chilling in more than one way, disclosing the terrible secret lying under the surface of an iced lake.

Weird families are among Gordon's favourite topics, as in "Bone meal", a nasty piece depicting the disreputable activities of a dangerous family, "Never grow up", an unforgettable, very dark tale featuring a wicked mother, a weak father and their smart but unhappy son, and especially in the outstanding "Catch your death", one of the author's most acclaimed masterpieces, providing excellent characterization of a selfish old mother, her unhappy daughter -- a teacher -- and two very smart kids. Other fine examples are "Grandmother's footsteps", a quietly frightening tale where a family's skeleton in the cupboard is revealed to a little boy during a Christmas reunion and "Little black pies", a nasty piece about sisterly hate lingering beyond the grave.

There is, however, a great variety of themes. "The Basil pot", although a trifle too long, manages to produce a fascinating atmosphere while describing how a scholar pursuing his studies on Keats discovers a deadly secret in the life of the unsympathetic museum curator.

"Without a mark" is a captivating, atypical crime story in which the mystery behind the life and death of an old married couple is discovered by the young nephew who inherits their house.

In the subtle, unsettling "Vampire in Venice" the time-honoured vampire cliché is revitalized in a flawless narrative style.

The splendid "The girl outside" is a very short but delightful yarn about a young reporter who, while covering a centenarian's birthday, realizes how past and present are really alike and the frightening "The black prince" narrates the strange occurrences taking place in a museum during the night.

Gordon is a superb storyteller, capable of easily producing suspense and dread thanks to a steady, masterful narrative style, a great command of the language and an uncanny ability to credibly draw his characters. Besides, he manages to elicit shivers and disquiet without ever resorting to violence, gore or splatter.

In other words he's a great writer whose best short fiction is at last gathered in this volume, a treat for anyone and a pleasant surprise for those readers who may not be familiar with the work of this gifted author.

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