First published back in November of 2017, ‘Masters Of Horror’ is an anthology compiled by extreme horror author Matt Shaw which aimed to exhibit the talent of the very best authors of contemporary horror fiction.

Introduction – Matt Shaw – 2 Pages
Matt Shaw opens the doors to his anthology with a short introduction letting us know his prime objectives for the collection – to bring horror back into the horror genre.  The anthology may not necessarily be a compilation of all the very finest writers from the nastier side of horror; some as Shaw tells us, were too damn busy at the time of putting the tome together, but it does however showcase a whole host of names who have an undeniable skill in delivering the grizzly, gut-wrenching, viler stuff.  This is the repulsive.  The terrifying.  The stuff that gets under your skin.  So get yourself comfy, settle down for the evening, and prepare yourself for one hell of a treat in terrifying tales from the twisted art of horror.

The Cyprus Shell – Brian Lumley - 10 Pages
Two years ago in Cyprus something happened to Major Harry Winslow which put an end to his appetite for all things shellfish.  It was why he excused himself from Colonel George L Glee’s dinner party so early.  The oysters brought back memories from when he was an officer commanding a small unit in Kyrea positioned along the coast overlooking the Mediterranean.  His company included a young Corporal by the name of Jobling who fancied himself as something of a conchologist during his off-duty hours.  However when Jobling discovered a strange spine-covered sea-snail, one which he was sure had never been seen before, things quickly started going downhill for the young corporal.  His diary documents the curious events leading to his untimely death.  His examination of the sea-snail.  His theory on its abilities.  On how it was able to hypnotise those that came into contact with it.  Of how it could get inside his head…

Author Brian Lumley’s no stranger to Lovecraftian fiction.  Here we have a story that’s absolutely drenched in the sort of gentlemanly prose you’d see in a Lovecraft/Ashton Smith tale of creeping crawling Cthulhu chaos.  Written in the format of a letter sent from an embarrassed Major to a retired Colonel - a letter apologising for departing from a formal dinner so early due to the arrival of shellfish to the table - the tale that unfolds is one that’s quite cautious in its pacing, only very gradually revealing the deep-sea horror as it nudges towards a cold and uncaring conclusion.  With mood appropriately set – it’s a story (well, the first half of a two ‘letter’ tale – with the second half concluding the anthology) that gradually but very purposefully gathers momentum, urging the reader into the dark delights that await.

Again – Ramsey Campbell - 12 Pages
Upon tiring of Wirral Way, Bryant decided to take a wander down the overgrown railway line to see where it would lead to.  After a short while he realised he’d no idea where he was, and so, upon hearing the sound of passing lorries, decided to venture off the old railway line and into the neighbouring fields.  It was shortly after this that he saw the lonesome bungalow with a figure standing just outside of it.  Feeling parched from the heat of the day bearing down on him, Bryant wondered whether he might get a drink there whilst he asked the way to the road.  As he drew closer, he saw the figure was a frail old lady, beckoning him to her.  She was in some distress, having locked herself out of the bungalow.  Luckily Bryant was there to assist.  Although there was something about the old woman that unsettled Bryant.  Something about the amount of perform she was wearing.  Something about the flies that buzzed around inside the property.  Something about the rotten smell that seem to emanate from deep within the bungalow’s dusty interior…

There’s a reason why Ramsey Campbell’s regarded as Britain’s most respected living horror writer – and that because he’s fucking awesome.  Campbell’s been churning out horror novels for over four decades now.  His tales, although almost always dark and drenched in oppressive gloom, show a magnificent variety and imagination.  For his offering to the anthology we have another perfect example of just that.  This story is nightmarishly strange and cloaked in such an oppressive atmosphere of mounting unease that at times it’s hard to breathe.  There’s no getting around the fact that this is a disturbing and messed up read.  What’s more nauseating than a withering old woman with a serious S&M fetish – well, one that’s hellbent on using you as her next plaything that’s fucking what.  You wanna be creeped out?  Then read this tale.

Survival – Sam West - 18 Pages
Jon Oxley was struggling.  The deadline for his short story submission was looming.  Just three days left and he still had nothing written.  The only brief he’d been given was one word: Survival.  At thirty-eight-years-old he only had one book under his belt.  It was a semi-autobiographical self-published debut entitled ‘The Dark Inside’ that he’d penned about his darker moments.  Now he was worried that might be all he had to give.  That his inspiration had since dried up.  With three days left, he was becoming desperate.  Nevertheless, even though he knew he shouldn’t be wasting his time, he still decided to take a walk to the local pub.  It was a Monday afternoon, but the draw of The Fox and Hound’s twenty-one-year-old barmaid, Alice, was too much to supress.  He tried to convince himself that maybe there could be some inspiration to be found in seeing her.  Maybe, just maybe, Alice Logan’s firm young body could draw something out of him he could use.  It was all about the writing he told himself.  All about the writing…

Oh Sam West, you have a dark side.  Bobbing for rotten apples in a barrel of psychological-disturbed murk can yield such grim delights.  And that’s exactly what we’ve got here.  Sam’s no doubt all too familiar with the pressures of writing.  Of eking out some nuggets of inspiration from the darkest depths of your imagination.  What is it that conjures up these horrific thoughts?  These harsh and rampant imaginings of sadism and pain?  Well, for our disheartened writer, Sam gives us a worrying glimpse of how truly messed up some people can be.  And coldest of all is the way it’s delivered.  A first-person-perspective portraying a horrifying split-personality that jumps back and forth with such suddenness, but within spitting distance of reality, that it fucks with you good and proper.  This my friends is gritty, grizzly, psychological horror with a taste for merciless victimisation.  If you’re going to take one thing away from reading this cold-hearted tale, it’s never trust a horror writer.  They’re hiding shit.

Mary – J.R. Park - 22 Pages
Father Farrington had spent all morning scrubbing faces out of the carpet.  He could still remember each and every one of them.  The twisting influence of agony that screwed their features into nightmarish masks.  There had been light inside of each of them.  A divine spark the priest had been seeking out.  But so far the light had escaped him.  He knew he was agitated.  He’d been that way ever since he’d taken pity on that poor, young woman.  A soul in distress that had led to him questioning his faith.  Causing him to seek proof.  He’d been pondering this when the knock on his door had come.  A chance thief masquerading as a Jehovah’s Witness.  But Father Farrington is the last person you want to steal from.  What goes around, comes around…

God damn if this isn’t some dark as fuck nightmarish horror wallowing in a rusty vat of soul-destroying depression.  The structure behind the story is probably its most uniquely interesting aspect.  Park’s utilised a strange domino effect perspective, with the first-person-perspective jumping from character to character as they’re introduced into the snowballing narrative.  Absolutely nothing can be predicted along this weirdly infectious route that slowly corrodes away your nerve endings.  It’s like a strange cross between a David Cronenberg and David Lynch film that’s been given a Tarantino style structure and Rob Bottin’s been assigned the duty of going to town with the creepy-ass special effects.  Messed up.  Very, very messed up.

Doll Face – Peter McKeirnon - 12 Pages
Barbara woke in a small room with stone walls and no windows, naked and chained to the wall by her ankles.  She felt groggy and disorientated.  Why was she there?  What events had led to her being naked and shackled to the wall of this cellar?  The stench of the man before her spoke volumes.  He was undoubtedly her captor.  The vile beast responsible for her abduction.  She could barely speak.  Her body felt like lead.  But she could still hear.  Although the words meant little to her.  “Time for you to meet the family”…

And then the fucking darkness swallows you up!  What we have here is a brutal and uncompromising vision of kidnap and murder that slices through your nerve endings.  It’s blood-chillingly cold, nauseatingly disorientating and lays on the horror in fucking spade loads.  The tale’s a twisted cross between the opening chapters of Mike Duke’s ‘Ashely’s Tale’ (2015), Wayne Simmons’ ‘The Girl In The Basement’ (2014) and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974).  It’s downbeat and gut-churningly grim without a hint of hope left in its fetid skin.  This my friend is brutal horror.

A Taste Of Mercy – Andrew Freudenberg - 10 Pages
They were the first port of call for those patients that wouldn’t survive transport to more civilised facilities.  Of course treatment here guaranteed nothing.  They were in the trenches of the frontline.  I was not where Doctor Marlow envisioned he’d be.  But a drunken argument with his immediate superior had secured him a place in this miniature version of hell, right in the trenches with all the other poor sods.  Marlow couldn’t deny his current predicament wasn’t affecting him.  This cursed war had rendered him into a broken shadow of his former self.  But with the arrival of the girl he was starting to see another way.  The girl was dying but still had so much to offer.  And Marlow would take whatever he could…

This one’s a grower.  The pacing at first is decidedly reserved.  One that sets the atmosphere, sets down the dirt, blood and stench of death that’s a mainstay within the whole piece.  From here we’re granted an exclusive frontseat view of one man’s descent into madness.  However, where the tale’s pacing was somewhat reserved, things soon start to pick up, as the good Doctor’s slipping sanity takes a turn for the worse.  Within the space of a few pages he’s gorging on entrails and nibbling off the meat from the snapped off ribs of the young female casualty he’s taken a fancy to.  Oh yeah, didn’t I mention that Freudenberg crams in a shit tonne of cannibalism into his short tale? It’s pretty grim.  Horrifically bleak.  And damn damn depressing.

Chocolate – Mason Sabre - 10 Pages
Rebecca was sure that Cynthia had been at it again.  Her daughter’s sudden kleptomaniac tendencies were worrying her.  Stealing chocolate she understood.  But Rebecca was convinced her nine-year-old daughter had been taking other things.  Air freshener and cooked meat.  It was getting out of hand.  However, when caught in the act, Cynthia would attempt to divert the blame, saying the stolen items were for Roger.  According to her Roger always wanted things.  The problem was, there was no Roger.  Cynthia had invented him.  A convenient scapegoat.  And Rebecca was having none of it…

This is one of those entertaining little horror stories where you can pretty much guess where it’s going, but it’s really no less enjoyable because of this.  Yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to know what little twist Sabre has up his sleeve.  But it’s all about how much horror he offloads with his big reveal.  Ultimately that’s where the relative success of the short lies – in how weird and grotesque Sabre’s pushed the horror.  Sabre clearly knows this, and he doesn’t disappoint one bit.  It’s like a campfire story gone hellishly twisted.  Wonderfully creepy and executed with a savage eye for horror.

The Contract – Shaun Hutson - 18 Pages
Frank Hacket hated hospitals.  But if George Vaughn asks you – you come.  Vaughn was a man who had used Hacket’s services many times in the past.  And Vaughn paid well.  So Hacket never declined one of his jobs.  But now Hacket was in hospital, pretty much on his deathbed.  He’d been told the cancer would spread from his lungs to his brain before the end of the week.  That he had less than a month if he was lucky.  Nevertheless, Vaughn had one more hit for Hacket.  This one he’d pay big for.  A million for the kill and for Hacket to bring back the index finger from the right hand of the target.  A simple enough job.  No security.  No issues.  He just had to get it done inside a week.  That’s all.  It had to be done before Vaughn’s time ran out…

This is absolute classic Hutson.  It’s the sort of short story that sends you back to that glorious era of Hutson’s blood-splattered rough and raw thrillers – here with Frank Hacket taking up the ‘Sean Doyle / Nick Ryan’ role.  Hutson’s a man who likes to build up plenty of tension.  That and a healthy side serving of mystery.  You get plenty of both here.  There’s a few giveaway hints thrown in early on, but Hutson never really discloses what’s really going on until the very end.  Again, it’s a classic Hutson twist ending. Over-the-top and properly embracing his marriage to horror.  An unpretentious horror and gritty thriller crossover.  You’ve just got to love Hutson.

Dead-Eyed Dick – Anton Palmer - 18 Pages
Despite his height, despite his weight, despite the biceps that bulged through the sleeves of his polo shirt, Richard Smith was damn near certain that he was the smallest guy in the pub.  He had the looks, the body, the pussy-magnet car and a micro-penis thrown in for good measure.  That’s right, sitting south of that rippling six-pack, he boasted a solid three and a half inches of wrist-slashing shame.  His so-called mates had heard rumours of his micro-manhood.  Which was why, the worse for alcohol, Richard had taken the bait and by the end of the night, a contract had been drawn up on the back of a beer-stained menu and signed by both pissed-up parties: if his mate Jason was to die – Richard would get his penis.  All nine inches of it.  However, when Richard is ridiculed by a leather-skinned old slapper, he decides it’s time to do something about his problem.  After all…Jason wasn’t really much of a mate.  More a drinking buddy...if that…

If you thought some of the stories so far in this anthology we’re pretty weird, then trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet!  This here story is beyond odd.  It’s completely fucking nuts (pardon the pun).  We’ve got an instantly dislikeable but wealthy prat with a micro penis, who kills his mate in order to have his far grander appendage surgically transplanted onto him.  So far, so good.  Then our now somewhat better endowed patient begins to transform into a huge fucking cock and balls.  Yep.  I kid you not.  A huge man-sized knob, pumped and primed and ready to go off.  It’s an absolute classic piece of weird-out bizarre, somewhat akin to Saul Bailey’s infamous short ‘Eggbeater’ (2016) with its outlandish cock-inspired weirdness.  For imagination alone it’s a cracker.  Add to that a near-constant stream of dark humour, concluding with a horrifically gruesome finale, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a magnificently fucked-up short story.  Sheer unadulterated genius.

Beast Mode – Wrath James White – 20 Pages
In the four years he’d lived in the building, he’d not once stepped foot into the fitness centre.  That was before.  This is now.  It was time to shift those thirty-odd pounds he had hanging off him.  Time for the beer belly and man boobs to go.  He had just six weeks to transform his body.  Just six weeks to go from zero to hero.  From day one he’d switched to the Primal Diet.  Low-carb, high-fat and moderate protein.  But it was the bodybuilding book that would really do the hard work.  Over the next six weeks he’d push his body to the limits.  This book would see to that.  It would become his new bible.  Beast Mode: The Six-Week Body Transformation Workout.  And then he’d be ready for anything.  Including those ravaged godforsaken Las Vegas streets outside…

Hell yeah!  What a story.  For those who aren’t already aware, outside of being a writer of extreme and downright disturbing fiction, Wrath James White is also a former World Class Heavyweight Kickboxer, distance runner, and a professional Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts trainer.  And here we see his in-depth knowledge of building your body up, slammed into a tight-ass tale of high-adrenaline preparation for the most desperate struggle for survival of your life.  Yeah, I’m not going to give anything away here, but trust me, there’s plenty in here besides workout regimes and low-carb recipes.  It’s fast-past and furious.  The characterisation is superb.  And the way that White lazily slips in the reality of the situation is sheer fucking genius.  This is a good ‘un.  Man is this a good ‘un.

Dewey Davenport – Shane McKenzie - 10 Pages
Dewey Davenport’s parents used to fight a lot.  As a mere six-year-old, their arguments didn’t seem to make much sense to him.  And then his mum went away on a sudden last minute holiday, and it was just him and his dad left in their house.  Which meant it got messy pretty quickly.  Messy and smelly.  His dad didn’t like tidying.  Nor did he like buying in groceries, or washing, or any of the usual parent stuff.  But it was the smell which worried Dewey the most.  The stink that was coming from the basement.  Hopefully his dad would sort that out soon, before the neighbours started complaining…

Shane McKenzie’s got a deviously dark mind.  We’ve seen it time and time again in his work.  Here we see it at work through the eyes of an innocent six-year-old boy.  Yeah, it doesn’t take long for you to work out what’s really going on behind the façade that Dewey’s dad’s putting on.  But that’s not the point of the tale.  It’s through the complete innocence of our narrator, whereby the story’s able to drive a veritable pitchfork through your guts.  To see things through his eyes, yet you know, or fear, the truth of the matter.  It’s hard-hitting and grim, and McKenzie plays on it perfectly.

Zolem – Tonia Brown - 32 Pages
Rebecca was into erotic asphyxiation.  She claimed it was the only way she could reach that precious moment of ecstasy.  Of course Dan obliged.  He was nothing if not loyal to his woman.  Even if she did constantly remind him that he wasn’t of good Jewish stock like her.  It was a matter that she never let him forget.  His Christian upbringing had left little impression on Dan, but it clearly irked his lover.  Or so it would seem.  But neither upbringings could help the two of them when Dan, in the throes of his own blissful moment, puts too much pressure on her larynx, crushing Rebecca’s windpipe and closing off her access to life-giving air forever. The last thing that Dan wants, is to go to prison for murdering his girlfriend.  He’s got to do something.  He knows he can’t call the cops.  But maybe he could call upon the services of Rebecca’s neighbour.  Rebecca’d always told him the guy practised some mystical kabalistic shit.  Maybe he could do something.  Maybe he could bring Rebecca back…

This is about as black as comedy can get.  I say comedy, because there’s clearly some desert-dry wit in there, but otherwise it’s pretty fucking grim.  In essence we’ve got a hapless lad called Dan who accidentally suffocates his girlfriend to death whilst having sex.  Desperation kicks in and he tries to get the weirdo neighbour to use mystical powers to bring her back.  However, behind all of this is a second underlying substory - one about two guys coming together in the unlikeliest of messed-up circumstances.  On top of this there’s the whole religious background conflict adding its own two pence worth into the mix.  Woven together, these multiple layers make for one hell of a compelling read, putting plenty on your plate to dig into.  It’s akin to ‘Shallow Grave’ (1994) crossed with a toned down version of ‘Thanatomorphose’ (2012).

The Pit – Graeme Reynolds - 18 Pages
He woke with the overbearing stench of death flooding his senses.  His mind swam with confusion as he tried to make some sort of sense from where he was.  He could see he was outside and the darkened sky told him it was night.  Furthermore judging from the clarity of the stars, he guessed he was some distance from civilisation.  His entire body ached.  A painful area on his stomach made him wince whenever he moved, although he didn’t think he was injured.  At least, not badly.  Scrambling around in the dark, his surroundings start to reveal themselves.  The dead bodies.  The men, women and children in various stages of decomposition.  The grime-encrusted earthen walls around him.  He was in a pit.  A ten foot deep pit, ankle deep in putrefying gore.  And he’s not alone…

Holy shit!  This is how you do it.  This is horror.  One-hundred-percent ball-ripping, head-pounding horror with an atmosphere so palpable you can hardly breathe through the cloying, chocking thickness of it.  Author Graeme Reynolds paints a ludicrously vivid picture of the fetid pit our protagonist wakes within.  It’s so well described, so utterly convincing, that your guts will more than likely start churning as the vile horror of it all drags you into the stinking pit as well.  But there’s so much more to this story than just that.  First of all there’s the complete loss of all memory that our tired and aching protagonist is up against.  Reynolds ever-so-slowly drip feeds us clues about the other characters and our man’s past.  But whilst the fog of confusion is thick and near impenetrable, Reynolds throws in some truly inspired nuggets to heighten the intrigue and muddy the atmosphere yet further.  I can’t stress enough how well written this short tale is.  And for all the old-school pulp loving horror fiends out there – just you wait for the ending.  Hand on heart, I’m struggling to think of a short story I enjoyed more than this one.  And I’ve read a shit load in my time.  Absolutely incredible.

Hippocampus – Adam L.G. Nevill – 10 Pages
On and on the great steel vessel is carried by the rolling waves.  Aboard there is a haunting stillness.  A silence that shouts.  A coldness that penetrates every inch of the ship.  From room to room, there seems to be a void of life.  A distinct loss of activity.  Clues of what took place can be seen everywhere.  Splashes of blood.  The stump of a lone foot left abandoned.  Everywhere, the echoes of something terrible. Madness and horror…

Adam Nevill is a master of nihilistic darkness.  The atmosphere he creates with his words, the hopeless void that bears down upon the reader – I know of few authors who can come close.  Here we have a statement of such.  A story that pulls the reader into a pit of all-encompassing despair.  There’s no immediate horror.  No clawing-at-the-door threat.  Instead the blood-chilling horror is created in the stillness from the aftereffects.  The piecing together of madness.  The recreation of horror in your own mind.  They say the most harrowing horror is that which you imagine yourself.  Nevill knows this, he works with it, feeding the imagination but never, ever replacing it.  That is his strength.  That is what we see here.

You Can Go Now – Gary McMahon - 10 Pages
The dinner party was winding down when Jim announced he had a story to tell to his guests.  It was a creepy tale that he promised the remaining guests was completely true.  He was there when the woman, the victim of the story’s chilling horror, came out of her catatonic state and spoke of what she’d seen.  Of how she’d been home alone when she’d heard the noise coming from her kitchen.  Of how she’d gone to investigate, and found a small, thin, midget-like man, bald, naked and glistening, and trying to squeeze in through their cat flap.  It was enough to put her into a state of shock.  Jim swore the story was true.  That he’d heard it first-hand from the woman.  None of them believed him.  But there was something in the story that spoke to Gemma.  Something that burnt away the hollow darkness that lurked behind her life.  Her sham of a life.  And her deepest, darkest loss…

Horror can be born from so many places.  From so many dark reaches and emotional scars.  Author Gary McMahon is a man who knows how to reap horror from the fertile ground of the human psyche.  A deeply troubled and emotionally crippled life can paint such a harrowing picture.  When the mind is beaten down and broken, some of the most powerfully evocative horror can be born – and ultimately…hopefully…exorcised.  Here we have just that.  A twisting, turning, never-motionless story that weaves layer upon layer into a complex tapestry of hardship and loss and from the very darkest abyss.  Vaguely reminiscent of Duncan Ralston’s disturbing masterpiece ‘Woom’ (2016), the story utilises a heavy dose of symbolism to stamp the underlying message upon the reader.  It works.  My god does it work.  And through this, because of this, it leaves you feeling that little bit stronger.

Down There – Ryan Harding - 22 Pages
Kendra Jane still couldn’t bring herself to think of Centerville as home.  They’d upped and moved out into the relative wilderness.  Their new home feeling isolated and alone, with the blockade of trees surrounding the property only furthering Kendra’s dislike for their new surroundings.  Of course, Russell loved the woods.  He was the sort of annoying younger brother who would.  Of course Kendra didn’t like them.  But she had to admit there was little else to do around there but venture into the woodland.  So when their new neighbour, Gwendolyn Marie, suggested they venture past the treeline, Kendra begrudgingly agreed.  Although she wasn’t expecting to be shown a perfectly symmetrical arch of trees.  Nor was she expecting to hear about a young girl who reportedly went missing in there only last year.  It was said the Woodsman got her.  And this was his home…

God damn, why the fuck are woods so bastard scary?  ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999) capitalised on the backdrop bigtime.  As did Adam Nevill in his terrifying novel ‘The Ritual’ (2011).  Of course there’s been thousands others to adopt this particular backdrop, but naming those two seems particularly relevant here.  And that’s because they share very similar themes.  Throw in a Wendigo-style demon, lurking in the woods awaiting offerings from those who venture into its territory, and you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head.  It’s all pretty damn dark and eerie.  And the ending, oh yes the frigging ending, it rips your bits off like it’s fucking sport.

Letter From Hell – Matt Shaw - 8 Pages
The letter had been delivered by hand.  The writer of the letter – one Laurence Tope – wrote that he wanted to offer the family his deepest sympathies.  Losing a loved one, especially if it’s a young child who’s been snatched away from you, must be a living hell.  The not knowing.  The emptiness.  The longing to see their beautiful face once again.  It must tear you apart.  Seventy-three-year-old Tope knew this.  He pined for their loss as well.  Which is why he felt compelled to write to young eight-year-old Hayley’s mother.  To offer his sympathies and tell his story, in the hope that through it she will manage to find some kind of peace.  Maybe…

Spoiler alert!  Reading this section of the review may well lead to the twist being ruined for you.  So if you’ve not already read Shaw’s ‘Letter From Hell’ then I’d advise you skip this paragraph.  You have been warned.  Anyway, on to the review.  Here we have a story that’s told through the words in a letter which has been sent to the distraught mother of an abducted child.  Because of this particular format, the story automatically seems all the more harrowing for it.  What’s more, knowing how true-to-life it is, is like a cold blade gradually being pushed up into your gut.  If you’re not altogether with what depraved serial killer Albert Fish did, then you might want to read up on him.  The horror revealed in Shaw’s short story, is undoubtedly based on the letter Fish wrote to the mother of Grace Budd – the ten-year-old girl he kidnapped and murdered before dismembering and consuming her flesh.  Shaw makes numerous references to Fish’s disturbing letter – such as the immortal line “she died a virgin”.  It’s cold and hollow.  A terrifying insight into the mind of what is surely pure evil.  A madman.  A vicious killer.  A sadistic, perverted cannibal.  And with his expanded letter, Shaw’s captured the vileness of this horrendous horror perfectly.

Eye For An Eye – Matt Hickman - 16 Pages
Steve woke lying on a grimy medical gurney, his torso bare apart from a filthy, ripped blanket barely covering his groin.  He had no recollection of how he’d gotten there.  As his disorientation gradually dissipated, he realised that he was both strapped firmly to the medical gurney and paralysed.  Close to the bed, laid out on a stainless steel bench, lay an array of gore encrusted medical apparatus.  Beside the filthy tools, a glass jar, filled with transparent liquid accompanied by an ugly looking pink organ.  It’s at this point that Steve realised he was in some serious trouble.  The blood splattered doctor standing in the doorway merely confirmed this…

Waking up in a darkened room, disorientated and having no fucking clue of how our protagonist got there, is a opener that’s kind of been done to death in horror.   In fact it seems the whole ‘waking up restrained and about to be tortured’ set up has become a recurring premise over recent years.  However, to be honest that’s not really such a detrimental drawback.  Many horror stories use similar themes and ideas.  It’s where the author takes the story from there that ultimately consolidates the tale’s success or not.  For his offering, author Matt Hickman leads his tale through a spiralling descent into fucked-up-ville with a seemingly relentless assault of extreme horror violence that’s designed to pulverise the reader before unveiling the larger picture behind the story.  The tale’s carved into two halves, one being the smash-in-the-face horror (entitled ‘Per Aeternitatem’ roughly translated as ‘For Eternity’), and the second being the backstory that led us there (entitled ‘Rependo’ roughly translated as ‘Counterbalance’).  Whether this purposeful splitting of the story works is your call.  For me, it felt too separated.  But ultimately the tale, for all its gruesomeness and savage brutality, is a damn good read.  Reminiscent of Christopher Smith’s film ‘Creep’ (2004) in a very good way.  Damn I enjoyed that film.  Gonna have to give it a re-watch soon.  Cheers Matt.

Three Black Dogs - Daniel Marc Chant - 20 Pages
N’kaelu loved the Church of St. Jerome.  He also loved the people of Upper Ridley who worshipped therein, even the ones who had shown him little by way of kindness.  Sometimes he was sad that the colour of his skin, and his status as a slave, excluded him from entering the church.  But he took solace from knowing he was watched over by the Great Spirit and would one day be in Heaven.  This particular night, as was often his way, N’kaelu had stayed on after the service.  Only once night had fallen over the African countryside did he venture into the church’s holy grounds.  But tonight he found he was not alone amidst the shadows of the graveyard.  N’kaelu spotted a woman approaching the church’s lynch gate.  She carried in her arms something wrapped in a blanket.  The strange woman spoke of wolves that stalked her.  She pleaded for shelter in the church.  For sanctuary from the beasts that prowled in her wake.  Although a mere African slave could not grant such admittance, N’kaelu nevertheless opened the door to her, offering the woman safe passage through the church grounds, past the wild back dogs and into the sanctuary of Gods House.  It was a simple offer of human kindness.  But one that would ultimately condemn N’kaelu to Hell… 

Don’t you just love it when an author utilises a rarely used setting, an often sorely overlooked backdrop or historical period, as they weave their darkly imaginative tales.  Here author Daniel Marc Chant has flung us into the midst of Africa in the troubled times of offensive white dominance and the slavery of the native people.  Already the story offers up an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.  It’s one that cuts your insides as it works its way down inside of you.  And it’s from here that Chant sets the foundations for his spiritually-impregnated horror of misjudgement, deceit and sympathy-sapping cowardice.  There’s little to pull you out of the gloom of this piece.  Chant’s tale instead works somewhat systematically at beating you down further and further, until like the tale’s principal character, we’re bloodied and beaten and almost willing to succumb to the Hound of Hell itself.  It’s dark and sinister with more grit in its teeth than you’re able to spit out.  There may be a message lying in the broken bones left in its wake, but by the time you reach the tale’s conclusion, you’re likely to feel too beaten down to care.

Checkout – Amy Cross - 10 Pages
She would get so friggin’ bored, day in, day out, sitting at the checkout, putting through everyone’s groceries.  But she always had Thursdays to look forward to.  She loved Thursday evenings.  That’s when John A Sinclair came in.  She’d clocked his name from his loyalty card, back when he’d first come into the store.  He was undoubtedly the hottest guy she’d ever seen in the flesh.  She knew he was out of her league.  After all, she was just a checkout girl.  But there was no harm in admiring him right?  Although the girl he’d had with him the last time he came into the store was undoubtedly a slut.  Surely he knew he could do better than that?  Although since then, he’d been looking scruffier and scruffier.  Something was clearly up…

I love the prose of this one.  The way it’s delivered in short, snappy, straight-to-the-point snippets of our protagonist’s life.  And of course it’s all about this guy she’s evidently obsessed with.  Some handsome hipster with a slutty girl hanging off his arm.  What really works damn well thorough is with the interesting (and quite inspired) perspective that’s afforded to the checkout girl towards a regular shopper.  Author Amy Cross utilises this weird voyeuristic viewpoint to build up an incredible amount of mystery and suspense.  Sadly, if you ask this reviewer, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the build-up.  But nevertheless a damn, damn good read.

Loco Parentis – Kit Power - 12 Pages
Mr Ross had been a caretaker at the school for almost as long as the building itself had been there.  The kids all knew him.  As did the parents.  He’d become part of the school’s furniture.  A mainstay figure if ever there was one.  He’d stand by the gates each day and watch as the kids came in.  Smiling at them as they passed.  Noting their little faces.  Of all the things he knew in life, he knew kids.  Knew how they were.  Could spot the good ones.  The ones who’d play up, but were good at heart.  And he knew how to spot the bad eggs.  Little eight-year-old Freddie was one of the good ones.  Cocky and cheeky, but a good ‘un.  That was why, when Mr Ross saw the hurt on Freddie’s little face, he knew it stemmed from something bad.  He could see it plain as day.  Anyone could.  He couldn’t remember ever seeing a kid showing hurt like that before.  And he knew not many things could do that.  But despite knowing he shouldn’t interfere, knowing that simply reporting it was the right protocol to follow, he nevertheless chose a different route. Mr Ross cared.  Cared deeply for these kids.  For the innocents.  For Little Freddie…

Christ-on-a-bike these stories are getting hard-hitting now.  You’ve probably got an inkling of where this story’s going.  But how far down that path is Kit Power going to venture?  Well, considering the sheer vengeful brutality shown in his novella ‘Lifeline’ (2014), it’s a reasonable assumption to anticipate quite a fucking assault on the senses is to follow.  And trust me, Power doesn’t disappoint.  The question is, how much comeuppance, how much merciless vengeance do you find justifiable?  For me, Kit delivers exactly what I want to see.  This is fiction.  It allows us to experience shit we wouldn’t in reality condone.  Well, maybe not openly condone anyway.  But goddamn does it feel oh so satisfying to see some honest-to-god brutal comeuppance dished out on a cold stainless steel platter.  Man I love Kit Power’s writing.  I’ve said it before - numerous times in fact – but I’m going to say it again, this guy’s like the reincarnation of Laymon.  Brutal, uncompromising and oh so enjoyable hard-hitting horror.

In The Family – Adam Millard - 12 Pages
The Frewers were not what some would call ‘a happy family’, but they were a family nonetheless.  They’d barely acknowledge the presence of Jim’s father.  He was a drunk and a layabout, flittering from one job to the next – never able to hold down a job for more than a few weeks.  But when Jim’s Granddad came to visit, now then, that was a special time.  He’d have stories of his adventures and exploits overseas.  For an eight-year-old like Jim, it was the cause for much excitement.  However, this latest visit would prove to be a life-changing event for Jim.  But unfortunately not a good one.  It was during one of Granddad’s little stories – this one involving a Kurdish fella named Ahmet and a stolen motorcycle – that Jim’s Granddad started to melt, until all that was left of him was a puddle of fleshy goo.  It was the first time Jim had seen or heard of anything like this happening.  And unfortunately for Jim, it appeared that ‘The Melt’ was an affliction that ran in their family…

Adam Millard is a veritable master of the wacky, weird and downright disgusting.  He’s a champion of Bizarro and an undeniable horror heavyweight.  His tales are nearly always laced from head to toe in a thick drool-like coating of tongue-in-cheek black comedy.  But it’s the weird, wacky imagination at the root of his stories where the real gold is found.  Take this oddball offering as a prime example.  Here we have a family who suffer from a hereditary condition whereby they will, at some point in their lives, melt away to nothing but a big old puddle of goo.  It’s a strange condition that no one outside of the family believes is real, but one which will ultimately bring about the untimely end of each of them. In a nutshell that’s the story.  Weird and worryingly amusing.  Of course Millard injects plenty of witticisms and amusing banter into the whole affair.  It’s as ludicrous and off-the-wall as it sounds.  This is proper grin-inducing wacky-as-hell horror entertainment.

The Priest Hole – Guy N Smith - 8 Pages
Ever since her husband, George, had left her for another woman, Rachel had felt uneasy in the house she shared with her son, Tom.  Rachel knew that the farm house was definitely haunted, even though Tom scoffed at the suggestion.  All manner of strange things had happened in recent weeks.  And with Tom discovering a priest hole in the kitchen ceiling during his attempts to renovate the house, Rachel’s unease had escalated further.  Now he was staying out for the night at his girlfriend’s, she was alone.  Just her and their ageing sheepdog, Sheba.  Alone until a knock at the door came.  A nocturnal visitor who would confirm all of her deepest fears…

You’ve got to love Guy N Smith.  The undisputed godfather of pulp horror.  Over four decades in the business and he can still spin a creepy, chilling yarn like the best of them.  Here we have another short, sharp stab at spectral horror; drenched in gruesome history atop Smith’s signature rural backdrop.  There’s a noticeable withdrawal from blood splatter and bold brutality in his offering here.  And perhaps the story has lost some of the punch we so often see within Smith’s work.  But it nevertheless holds its own – with just enough intrigue and suspense to keep you seeking out the answer to this unravelling piece of ghostly horror.

Just Breathe – Jaime Johnesee - 8 Pages
Pain enveloped her as he poured rubbing alcohol on her back and then set it alight.  It was her punishment for smiling too much around his friends.  The methheads he’d been trying to convert to Snort.  Jimmy Mecklenburg was a dealer and sadist.  She knew she had to get away.  She knew the decision to leave Jimmy was huge.  He’d broken her self-esteem long ago.  But he never expected her to build it back up, a scrap at a time.  But she’d done it.  And now she’d reached her breaking point.  The time to get out.  Get away.  Rebuild a life worth something.  Now was the time.  Now was the time to run…

I feel sick.  That was one fucked-up intense ride.  Holy shit is this a twisted tale.  It’s short.  Like being thrown in a vat of acid.  You can’t maintain that sort of pain for long before numbness kicks in.  And at no point does author Jaime Johnesee allow the relief of numbness to wash over you.  There’s more pain and suffering and spiralling darkness in this short story than you’re likely to find in an entire bookshop of horror.  This is extreme.  From the very first line to the heart-in-mouth ending, it’s blow after blow of brutality where all hope is clawed away beneath your pain-blurred eyes.  Fuck I need a drink.

Raintown Sam – Craig Saunders - 14 Pages
Sam Dunwich was a man who didn’t know much about much.  He was a drinker and not a very good one, but dedicated if nothing else.  Seventy-five years old, with one arm missing and all his teeth gone, Sam was far from well-liked in Harold’s Ford.  Locally known as Raintown, Sam had spent his largely jobless life lurking in the gloom of the town’s one and only pub – the Lionhart.  It was where he lost the first of his teeth.  On the dirt and grime of the pub’s floor back in ’83.  Back then he’d picked up work at the travelling circus when it came to town.  A little extra money to help along his drinking habit.  The time when Sam’s life would change forever…

I’m a big fan of Saunders’ work.  The man churns out such a variety of fiction, born from such originality and flair for storytelling.  Often there’s an ever-present hardship that underpins the tale.  Inner turmoil will often play a dominant role.  Something that’s bitterly evident here.  However, although there’s a thick latticework of storytelling at the heart of the short, you can’t help but feel that something’s missing.  Not all the parts to the tale fit.  Some final, potentially vital jigsaw piece, has been left unrevealed.  As the story draws to a gloomy close, it’s hard not to be left wanting more.  Just one more piece of the puzzle to bridge that final gap.  It’s an ache that not so much frustrates but leaves you quietly seeking something else.  Saunders can write.  In fact he can write fucking well.  But I can’t help but feel that this slimmed down offering hasn’t shown this best abilities.  Intriguing and compelling, but ultimately missing the fuller picture that’s usually such an integral part of his work.

The End Is Where You’ll Find It – Michael Bray - 16 Pages
Autumn was in full force when Sam and Sophie decided to take a walk through the park near to where they lived.  It was something they didn’t often get chance to do.  Their busy lives getting in the way of spending time, simply relaxing in each other’s company.  As they meandered lazily around the surprisingly quiet park, they stumbled upon a narrow path disappearing into the tree line with a sign exclaiming ‘Sunshine Park’.  Neither of them knew about the existence of another park in the area.  Sam knew Sophie hated new places.  He was all too aware she had an overwhelming fear of getting lost.  And even though this was in a local area, a place she knew well, something in her gut told her not to go down the path.  But despite her silent reservations, the two decided to take a wander into the park they were both quietly sure hadn’t been there before…

One thing Michael Bray can do incredibly well is set an atmosphere.  In his ‘Whisper Trilogy’ the undeniable strength of each book lay with the cloying, underlying threat which swarmed through the stories like a plague of bottle flies.  In this short story, the atmosphere is quite different.  The horror is less visible.  It’s not one where you can point a finger and go “that’s the threat, that’s what’s fucking after me”.  Instead it plays with inherent phobias.  It’s like a nightmare sequence where your terror just mounts and mounts uncontrollably.  In fact, by the end of the short tale I bet half of you have your hearts thumping out of your chest, or a faint whisper of sweat glistening across your brow.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  That’s what phobias like this do to people.  And that’s the strength of Bray’s unnerving horror.  Bastard.

Don’t Make Fun Of The Haunted House - Jeff Strand - 8 Pages
Harvey planned to make fun of the carnival’s haunted house even before they’d gotten inside.  He’d vomited immediately after he and his almost-girlfriend June had ridden the Ferris Wheel, and now he felt he had to prove his bravery.  They both had “ride all day” wristbands, so even if it was a completely lame ride (of which Harvey was sure it was going to be), it wasn’t as if it had cost them anything.  He’d commenced his show of bravery as soon as they’d gotten in the queue; poking fun at the guy at the entrance dressed as the Grim Reaper.  However, as Harvey was soon to learn, you should never make fun of the haunted house.  For some things can become far, far scarier than they first seem…

Don’t you just love the carnival?  We’ve all been there, young teenagers trying to impress the girl we’re with.  And what works so well with Jeff Strand’s story is how he’s written this so perfectly from the perspective of Harvey.  Stuff like describing “this old dude who looked almost thirty” and coping-a-feel under June’s top being the sole intention of the experience.  It’s witty and colourful and doesn’t take any inch of the story too seriously.  Of course there’s a twist.  It’s inventive and well executed and it’s designed purely to put a grin on your face.  Roll up, roll, for some grisly horror entertainment!

Trust Issues – Mark Cassell - 12 Pages
Aaron had found the man cowering beside the truck, jabbering about things lurking in the fog.  It wasn’t until Aaron had gotten him to their boss – the notorious Deacon – that the man – Michael – had begun to explain what had happened to him and the men he was with.  They’d been transporting three containers of goods when they encountered the fog.  A fog so thick they found no light could pass through it.  Whilst they waited for the fog to pass, Michael had decided to inspect the containers, which led him to discovering the glass cube.  A huge aquarium-like tank with some kind of device fixed to the bottom section.  But strangest of all, the fog was leaking from the top of the cube, and phantom-like shadows were sweeping through the impenetrable murk.  The next thing Michael knew, the men accompanying him were gone.  Vanished into thin air as if they’d been taken away by the fog.  There was something very sinister going on with the cube.  Something that Deacon knew all about…

Here’s an odd one.  Author Mark Cassell has crammed a veritable cacophony of weird and wonderfully elaborate ideas into his spectral horror…meets sci-fi…meets gritty gangster thriller.  It’s utterly over-the-top and ingeniously contrived, with back-stabbing and hidden agendas clouding the chaotic affair yet further.  This is not the sort of story you can put down and pick up later.  You need to be in the thick of it, and see it through to the end, if you’ve any hope of connecting the dots and then coming out the other side with a good idea of what the hell’s going on.  Okay, so rather than building on any of the characters, Cassell has instead chosen to spend literally one-hundred-percent of his time firing off crazy-ass plot twists and strange inter-woven sub stories.  The end result is a tale that knocks cardboard cut-out characters around a madman’s stage until the final curtain is drawn and you’re left to wonder what the hell you just went through.  Utterly entertaining.  Amazingly imaginative.  Fucking wacky as a lunatic’s wetdream.

The Silent Invader – Paul Flewitt - 6 Pages
Yvonne was one of its favourites.  It had had a long life.  A voyeur’s life, watching and learning; then making its influence plain.  Over time the two of them would become friends.  A bond would develop.  It would tell its stories.  They always listened.  And over time, they would act upon them.  And when its work was done, it would disappear back down the wire and on to its next new friend; a new ear to whisper its fables into, satisfied with its work…

One thing that short story anthologies allow you to do is experiment.  So often you’ll see authors trying out strange new ideas, and weird new perspectives for telling their deviant little stories.  Here we have British author Paul Flewitt going for a classic ‘influence’ style horror, whereby our corrupting antagonist works its way from ‘new friend’ to ‘new friend’ making them kill with no remorse, but there’s a proper twist to it all.  What Flewitt’s done is write the story using the first-person-narration of our roving Manson-esque corruptor.  It’s different and damn intriguing because of the piecing-together-of-the-details nature of it.  And it’s ultimately this that makes the story work.  A silent invader indeed.

The Clay Man – Clare Riley Whitfield - 8 Pages
She woke to blackness thinking she’d been buried alive.  The girl before her didn’t last long.  She could hear her begging – but it did her no good.  The girl was being replaced.  Strangled to death with wire and then flung into the pit of rotting flesh below.  The man introduced himself as Elliot.  Told her that their programme would start tomorrow.  That he was there to help her become the best version of herself.  That was how it all began.  Her training.  The torment.  The physical and mental anguish her abductor would put her through.  He must hate women.  Really hate women.  Why else would he being doing what he was doing?...

Yep – here we have another tale where the victim wakes up to find that they’ve been kidnapped and are nothing more than a plaything for their depraved captor.  Although this isn’t exactly true here.  Instead we have a story that’s pretty much a shortened and diluted down reworking of Mike Duke’s ‘Ashley’s Tale’ (2015).  If you’ve read Duke’s novella then you’re probably going to be a tad disappointed with this short.  Whether in the knowledge of the former story or not, Whitfield’s condensed offering covers no further ground, and instead plays the same tune, although missing the hard-hitting depths that Duke explored.  Nevertheless it’s written well, and for those that haven’t experienced the gut-punch of Duke’s debut – this short will probably hit far, far harder than those that have.

Animus – Jim Goforth - 32 Pages
It was ten-year-old Braden Holloway who first heard that something bad was coming.  After a while he’d told his father, but the warning had fallen on deaf ears.  It’s not that Jared Holloway didn’t care.  Far from it.  But ever since his wife, Cindy, had died, Braden had been struggling with coming to terms with the loss of his mother.  What had once been a bright and joyful young boy had spiralled into a withdrawn introvert with an ever-expanding fantasy universe of make-believe characters.  But Jared still needed to work.  They needed money to get by, so he’d have Isabella over to look after Braden whilst he was out working at the Night Owl – Augury Falls’ favourite drinking hole.  And if Augury Falls had one thing it was good at, it was drinking.  It was the only common element that bound everyone who resided there together.  Alcohol, for better or for worse, was Augury Falls’ connecting ingredient.  But now something bad was infiltrating the intoxicated minds of its residents.  A malignant darkness that was creeping over the downtrodden town.  And with it, came the promise of violence.  Blood, pain and violence…

This is one of those stories that pulls you in with a whole bundle of hooks.  There’s a good depth of characterisation with plenty of characters brought into the tale, a number of different threads converging together, intense action, proper suspense, and a bucket load of violence and gore.  It’s proper, action-rich energetic horror with a story somewhat akin to that of James Herbert’s ‘The Dark’ (1980) and Richard Laymon’s ‘One Rainy Night’ (1991).  In fact, Goforth’s writing and prose isn’t all that far removed from these two masters of the genre.  There’s an undeniable balancing game going on.  Weighing up the various intricate aspects of the tale, the characterisation, and setting of the scene, against the desire to charge forth and get the readers’ hands good and bloody.  Goforth does a valiant job of taming the beast of utter carnage.  It reads well with a good pace behind it.  Although a slight trimming of the fat would undoubtedly pull the story out from the pack a lot more.  Nevertheless, a triumphant masterclass in tight, eventful and action-packed horror.

The Deep-Sea Conch – Brian Lumley – 10 Pages
Upon receiving Major Harry Winslow’s letter of apology, Colonel George Glee decided to write back with his own story.  Although, neither Winslow’s tale of hypnotic gastropods, nor the one Glee retells appear to have affected his appetite, like they had Winslow’s.  Nevertheless this second story of deep-sea strangeness has an eerie tang of an age-old grimness about it.  One which was dredged up from the seabed, some two-thousand-seven-hundred fathoms beneath the Atlantic.  The story of a deep-sea conch that was believed to have been extinct for over sixty-million years.  But now Glee’s conchologist friend from Harden had one in his possession.  And somehow, quite incredibly, the snail inside was still alive.  The snail was undoubtedly one incredible beast…

And here we are, back once again in the quietly eerie world of Lumley’s deep-sea Lovecraftian letter correspondence. Where the first letter in this two-part offering dealt out a cold and creeping psychological chill, this second slice of the mouldering seafood pie lays down a more firmly-rooted gut-punch that’s delivered through a gradual, brick-by-brick build up, until the final horror is unveiled.  This here my friend is some creepy-as-hell eerie horror.  It’s a brave man who throws back an ice-chilled oyster after reading this final offering.  A brave man indeed.

Hell’s Labyrinth - Afterword – Chris Hall - 16 Pages
[Write-up by Justin Park]
Chris Hall begins his afterword with an introduction to the curator, Matt Shaw. Giving us a context of who exactly the man behind the book is. He then proceeds to take us down the twisting corridors of the hellish labyrinth that was Masters of Horror. Taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the complete collection, a kind of flashback, where he recounts each story one by one, reminding the reader of what we’ve read and giving us a neat summary of the book. It allows us to give the anthology an holistic perspective and drives home just how diverse the stories have been. Each summary shows just how much Chris has got under the skin of the horror in each tale. And this is where the strength of this section lies.

Chris’ love of horror literature in all its different styles comes fizzing off the page. There’s an excitement and effervescence that is contagious, and I dare you not to find yourself nodding along to him in agreement as he enthuses about not just the horror we’ve read, but the genre as a whole, and where its future is headed.

It’s the perfect tone to end the book; a celebration of both old and new, and one that, with Chris’ tongue-in-cheek delivery, leaves us with a wry smile.

The anthology runs for a total of 471 pages.

© DLS Reviews



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