First published back in November of 2016, British author Richard Ayre’s short story collection ‘A Hatful Of Shadows’ promised ten tales of horror, sci-fi and darkness.

Fifteen Minutes – 21 Pages
Fifteen minutes is a hell of a long time when you’re dead.  A lesson that billionaire Harry Lane would learn the hard way.  Not that he didn’t deserve everything he got.  Not that those fifteen minutes of pain, suffering and gut-wrenching desperation weren’t exactly what he’d already dished out with little to no remorse.  Just ask his late wife.  Just ask Annie Green…

Disgustingly rich middle-aged man meets beautiful young waitress and invariably becomes obsessed with ‘having’ her.  And when it doesn’t work out, when things start to turn sour, so does he.  What he can’t have, no one else will.  It’s a classic premise.  Not one that’s exactly bubbling over with uniqueness, but Ayre puts his own dark little twist on it.  However, it’s through the characters, the backstory and the change in temperament, where Ayre really scores the points here.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully easy to read short tale.  And one with a little touch of Laymon about it.  Dunno about you, but I’m sold right there.

The Faceless Man – 6 Pages
The stories of the faceless man had been whispered about ever since 1854.  The year the mine’s lift snapped and crashed down, jamming the shaft.  Fifty-seven men and boys had died that day - suffocating in the dark claustrophobic depths of the coal pit.  Since then there had been many sighting of the faceless man.  Each and every time, a tragic disaster soon followed.  Shafts would come crashing down.  Seams closing in on the trapped coal miners, deep in those underground tunnels.  They all dreaded the faceless man.  For seeing him invariably meant certain death…

Based (in part) on a tale Ayre’s late father had once told him about a seam closing in on him whilst working down in a coal mine, the lasting impression the story left upon Ayre is evident in the utterly oppressive feeling of claustrophobia that the author manages to instil in his short (just over 300 word) story.  Due to its condensed length, there’s not much room to play with many different layers or twists.  But for a short, sharp, straight-to-the-guts-of-the-matter read, it’s just damn fine reading.

Home At Last – 9 Pages
He liked his new home.  It fitted him well.  He’d had many houses over the years, but never one he would call home.  Not one like this.  Not one he could grow into.  Of course he had to kill for it.  A necessity when taking over such a perfect home.  But he had to admit, the slaughter had been fun.  Almost as much as the look on the face of the six-year-old girl.  The girl he would soon call home…

Ok, so the above synopsis kind of gives the game away.  But then to be fair, Ayre doesn’t exactly conceal the secret behind the story.  In the first couple of pages he drops a couple of elephant-sized hints about the ‘twist’ in the story.  So much so that from the beginning of the short you pretty much know where he’s going with it.  Nevertheless, knowing what’s going on somehow doesn’t detract from the impact of this fucked-up dark and twisted offering.  Trust me – this one’s pretty messed-up.  It’s sci-fi horror akin to ‘The Hidden’ (1987) with one long trail of congealing blood left in its wake.  Predictable but still stomach-churningly dark.

The Door – 2 Pages
The door stays closed now.  It’d done so for years.  But something behind the door is waiting.  Waiting for someone to come again…

Ayre throws down a piece of 100 word flash fiction with the sole intention of creating a creepy as hell atmosphere.  In such a short word count it’s hard to believe the sense of dread that he’s somehow manged to induce.  To me this shows quite a skill.  You can read it in less than a minute, but it’s after effects linger on for much, much longer.

The Villain Of The Piece – 11 Pages
The last few years of Rob’s life had been tough.  He’d walked out on his family for no good reason that he could see.  He’d given his wife everything he had.  All he had left was debt and the unbearable weight of regret.  Why had he walked away?  Why had he ruined everything?  Now he sat alone in his friend’s kitchen, with nothing but alcohol as a companion in the lingering gloom of his life.  It was time to make a decision.  Time for the misery to end…

Holy Christ on a bike – this is a dark read.  Ayre set out to write a horror story that wasn’t supernatural, but rather something that was horrific because of its inherent darkness.  And the man’s certainly achieved this.  It’s personal, real, and utterly downtrodden – the story festering in an abyss of suicidal misery.  It’s written incredibly well, with touches to it feeling heart wrenchingly personal.  It’s not a read that anyone in their right mind can or will enjoy.  But it’s a powerfully evocative one.  Just don’t expect to come out of the other side smiling.

No Triple X – 17 Pages
It wasn’t the first time that Scaggs had been to the city.  He’d stopped off a few times whilst on shore leave – enjoying the different vices this particular quarter had to offer.  The drink.  The drugs.  The women.  Although Scaggs preferred just to watch.  He wasn’t into the physical stuff.  He was happy to simply watch the girls under the glow of the red lights.  But tonight he wanted something different.  Tonight he wanted something a little more.  And then he saw the sign leading into a dark alleyway.  It promised “Something more.  No Triple X”.  The tempting mystery alone was enough to draw Scaggs in…

Ha!  This is a good ‘un.  Akin to something J R Park might dream up, what we have here is a seedy little short that drips with erotic mystery and strange seduction.  It’s got a hell of a good idea behind it, and plenty of damn good Clive Barker-esque descriptions giving flesh to its bones.  However, quite early on Ayre drops in some colossal hints, which completely give the game away for the big twist ending.  Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly entertaining read and one that’ll keep you gripped until the end.

Communication – 15 Pages
It started off as just a laugh.  An app that recorded your dreams so you could watch them back during the day.  The DreamSphere app was free, so practically everyone had it.  Everyone saw the whole thing as just a bit of fun.  But gradually the way people saw the world changed.  Privacy seemed to become a dirty word.  Everything seemed to be in the public domain all of a sudden.  So no one saw the first warning signs.  No one saw the danger.  Except him…

This one’s fucking awesome.  By far and away the best story in the collection.  It’s clever, thought provoking and the pacing and structure of the short is perfectly executed.  Outside of ‘Minstrel’s Bargain’ (2015) this is probably Richard Ayre at his best.  It’s not the concept that works so well.  It’s how he moves the story along, how everything snowballs on a both personal level and at the same time on a global ‘epidemic’ scale.  In that way it’s pure David Moody through and through.  And goddamn does it work well.  Absolutely excellent.

A Dead Man’s Revenge – 15 Pages
The girl at the motel’s reception desk couldn’t help her reaction at seeing the withered old man.  His gaunt face and decaying breath clearly repulsed her.  Christopher knew all too well what his appearance was like to others.  He also knew how he could breathe life back into his dying body.  It would be so easy.  He could be glutted.  He could be strong again.  But then wouldn’t that make him as bad as the monsters that made him?  As deplorable as her?  But he needed to be strong for what he had to do.  He needed blood so that he could face up to her and finally kill the one who had cursed his life and so many others…

I have to admit, I’m not all that keen on vampire fiction.  Nevertheless, Ayre’s done a pretty good job at throwing down a reasonably compelling piece of horror fiction – with a vampiric grittiness that sits somewhere between ‘Near Dark’ (1987) and ’30 Days Of Night’ (2002).  It’s a story of vengeance and self-loathing.  One that shows the vampiric disease from the inside.  It works well, and delivers a moderately satisfying conclusion.  Although ultimately the turf the story treads is very well worn, and for that, it unfortunately loses much of its overall impact.

Toy Soldiers – 17 Pages
The War was now in its thirteenth year and had claimed the lives of billions of people.  Yet the atrocities continued.  However for Corporal Jack Deacon from the 5th Northumberland Rifles, there would be a break from the slaughter.  A month, maybe two, away from the madness of war.  A landmine had done it.  Blown off his two arms.  Now he had to wait for the replacements.  Wait to be whole again.  Wait to be fixed…

Ayre’s next offering incorporates a classic and well-used sci-fi premise; one we’ve seen time and again such as in the likes of ‘I, Robot’ (2004) or the ‘In His Image’ (1963) episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.  For his take on the ‘big twist’ Ayre weaves a delicate thread of unravelling mystery through the short tale, laying down suggestive breadcrumbs until we’re at the moderately predictable reveal at the very end.  I’d guess most people will see the twist coming.  However, the short’s still pretty darn entertaining – with solid characterisation and an intriguing setting, making for not a bad little offering in all.

Soulbringer – 13 Pages
He’d found a small dank corner in the abandoned croft where he could spend the night in relative shelter.  Under the flickering glow of the small fire he’d built, the hunchbacked man slowly dried his clothes.  As the night reached its darkest point he mulled over the injustices he’d suffered.  The torment the villagers had bestowed upon him.  His hatred had become an impotent energy.  It gradually consumed him.  Years of being an outsider, of being different, of having nothing now boiled deep inside of him.  He could no longer contain his anger.  His hurt and his pain.  A lifetime of misery had brought him to this moment.  And then from the impenetrable darkness of the croft came a voice.  It appeared he was not alone…

For his final offering in the collection, Ayre offers up precursor-of-sorts to his debut novel ‘Minstrel’s Bargain’ (2015).  Here, we see how the bargain itself originally came about.  In the dank darkness of an abandoned old croft, a lowly outsider makes a dark pact.  It’s clearly set in bygone times where villagers would force outsiders out of their community because of their deformities.  It’s a cold and harsh short – drenched in misery and a seething hatred.  However it does pave the way for ‘Minstrel’s Bargain’ (2015) quite nicely; affording the novel a lengthier backbone for the pulpish horror that’s to come.

With ‘A Hatful Of Shadows’ Ayre promised ten tales of horror, sci-fi and darkness…and that’s exactly what you get.  Although the stories are all fairly short, even for short stories, they each deliver a solid slice of their chosen genre.  Indeed, each and every offering has its own strength and uniqueness.  There’s an impressive variety between each story, with Ayre adapting and modifying his style of writing with each tale.  The end result is a collection that keeps you engaged and entertained throughout.  And it’s a collection that showcases the sheer versatility of this excellent new voice in dark fiction.

The collection runs for a total of 134 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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