2010s, 2016, anthology/collection, British, dark fantasy, ghost story, haunted house, Horror, Jonathan Oliver, K.J. Parker, Nina Allan, novella, Rebellion/Solaris, Robert Shearman, Sarah Lotz, Shirley Jackson Award nominee, short fiction, Tade Thompson, weird fiction
I hate this house. It’s freezing cold, it eats people and it stinks of petrol.
One house, five stories, five hauntings, five terrifying novellas. I do love a good theme anthology, and this one has a dynamite setup: five novellas by five different authors, each one set on a different story of the mysterious Irongrove Lodge. This is, of course, a haunted house on a quiet London street, a place that straddles the line between our calm, quiet reality and the unspeakable madness of a darker, nefarious world.
Editor Jonathan Oliver has picked a nice group of up-and-coming genre stars to populate the Lodge. Nina Allan is a fantasy-horror-SF author, and of the five she’s the one I’m most familiar with; I was just impressed by her novella The Harlequin and have heard others sing the praises of her novel The Race. I’ve seen Robert Shearman’s episodes of Doctor Who, and read several of his award-winning horror stories (I just touched on one in my review of the Nightmares collection). K.J. Parker, the pseudonym of Tom Holt, has published several popular fantasy trilogies. I have not read anything by Tade Thompson, though I’ve heard plenty of good things about his Making Wolf (a noir-thriller set in Nigeria) that it’s been on my to-read list for a while now; nor have I read Sarah Lotz, who’s written a number of YA, urban horror, and zombiepocalypse novels under various pseudonyms.
Nina Allan’s story “Maggots” starts the collection off right; it follows a young man home from college, spending time with his close-knit family. He begins to suspect something is wrong with his aunt; she disappeared briefly while on holiday in another town, and she hasn’t seemed or acted right ever since. He’s the only one who thinks anything is amiss, and decides he’s the only person capable of finding the reason his aunt has changed. What he finds is Irongrove Lodge, and the secrets held by its first-floor resident that might break his mind. Allan methodically builds tension and grim unease, draws you into the mind of this young man, connects you to his family, and ends up hitting you with a belt of cosmic horror and plot twist in ways that weren’t ever expected. I found this novella downright chilling, and it was one of my favorite stories in this volume. (Turns out I wasn’t alone on this, as it earned a Shirley Jackson Award nom.)
Next up is K.J. Parker’s “Priest’s Hole,” about the resident on the second floor of Irongrove Lodge. He’s a shapeshifter who can become someone else in body and blood, just for a little while. He survives doing odd-jobs using this skill—giving someone an alibi, appearing as a deceased relative or idol. He hates these jobs, and is haunted by them almost as much as his checkered past: the disappearance of his wife and her paintings, or the failure of his mathematician father whose Nobel-winning theorem was refuted a few years later. Then on one job, he’s stabbed and almost killed—but by who, and why? Parker’s writing is quite good, and I kept going on the strength of that writing alone, but I have to say that I found the story ponderous as it just did not grab me; it seemed trapped in the protagonist’s internalized struggles, cloaked in a surreal haze, jumping back and forth between past and present… it felt more like a fever dream.
Tade Thompson’s entry, “Gnaw,” follows a young couple and their two children moving into the third story of Irongrove Lodge. Harry Newton has sunk all of his savings into this beautiful Georgian home, hoping to give his wife Tara a taste of the wealthy life she grew up with. But Tara feels an eerie presence in this place. Bizarre messages, phantom noises, and odd occurrences start to add up. It’s the children who first see the things—the spirits that lurk within the house’s darkness. And they have a gnawing, ravenous hunger. “Gnaw” started out as a haunted house/ghost tale reminiscent of American Horror Story, with great characterization and some intense atmosphere. It only got better when the story’s layers and twists were revealed. This excellent tale picks up the pace compared to the two previous stories, and I was hooked until its gripping finale.
Robert Shearman has written “The Best Story I Can Manage Under The Circumstances,” and it’s a hard story to review—definitely the weirdest and boldest of the novellas, somewhere on the borderline between metafictional horror and bizarro fiction. It starts off with an almost fairytale opening about a loving couple who give birth to a head; on its first birthday, the head meets a woman who gives birth to a torso, and sometime later, another woman gives birth to its arms and legs. We leave this composite thing to follow a young boy who always seems to find doorways on his bedroom walls, possibly an escape from his parents’ failing marriage. all of which lead him to the monstrous composite creature from earlier. The weirdness level progresses from there. Let’s just say this wasn’t my cuppa tea.
The last story, “Skin Deep” by Sarah Lotz, may very well be a case of saving the best for last. Accused murderer Malika has been nicknamed “The Butcher” from the horrific wounds inflicted on her boyfriend Robin. What sells the story is the way it’s told—it’s written like a series of interviews, cycling between the listing agent, the interior designer, the clean-up guy, various best friends, a member of the jury, all of whom frame the story and foreshadow its details before we get the killer’s view of what happened: she claims it’s ghosts—that the oppressive Irongrove Lodge did it, by driving Robin insane. Heck, before you even know what’s going on, people are referring to her as The Butcher and letting their opinions flow. That leads to a very memorable and effective story, aided by solid writing, excellent atmosphere, and an intriguing mystery.
Between these stories are snippets from the journal of someone investigating Irongrove Lodge and its horrors throughout the ages—a framework written by editor Oliver. They do work to build Irongrove Lodge as a kind of nexus for weird terrors and hauntings, though none of them seem connected. I must say I expected the anthology to be a little tighter in connecting the stories together—I didn’t expect each novella to reference characters in the other tales, but they seem to exist in their own worlds, unrelated to the horrors on other floors. That makes it more terrifying in a way: a house so evil and mysterious that it attracts so many kinds of nightmares, one custom-tailored to terrify the inhabitants of each flat.
Of the stories, three were standouts—Lotz, Allan, and Thompson were my favorites, in roughly that order. I enjoyed Parker’s story but wasn’t grabbed but it—I think it suffers from having same slow, methodical pacing as Allan’s story which preceded it. Shearman’s was a bit too weird for me, and I have the feeling that will be the case for a lot of other readers, though others will read it and discover that they love bizarro horror. (Obvious disclaimer that not everyone likes every story in an anthology due to personal preference goes here.) And while I think the theme could have been tighter, overall I enjoyed the anthology. I think Five Stories High is worth reading on the strengths of “Maggots,” “Gnaw,” and “Skin Deep” alone, as those are three fantastic stories by authors I’m keen to read again.
Title: Five Stories High
Editor: Jonathan Oliver
First Published: 1 December 2016
What I Read: Solaris ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley/Solaris)
MSRP: $9.99 pb / $6.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1781083924/ B01LYNCX39