By Mark Samuels

Reviewed By David Price

MR James was a terrific teller of supernatural tales, and it was his habit, of a Christmas Eve, to read out fireside stories to a rapt audience. SittThe Lichen is a science fiction tale that owes more to the spirit of Quatermass than The X Files. The horror is subtly introduced, and Samuels allows his Daemons to creep up on you, rather than throwing them straight in your face. The old ingredients are in place (a 'Strangers on a Train' encounter with a wide-eyed madman, a tremendous thunderstorm), and if it's not the most startlingly original offering in the collection, it's still a compelling opener.

Nephilim is the story of a man's mental and physical disintegration. The effect is like sitting in a tub of water which is getting colder and colder by the minute. The nightmarish quality of this tale keeps the reader on edge, as it slowly spins away from the real world and into the realms of fevered delusion. Nothing is what it seems, and this tale is anything but predictable.

In Patient 704, a man becomes an inmate in an asylum he is investigating. Once again, perceptions are changed and each successive twist drags you deeper into the nightmare. Set in an asylum, it is easy to interpret the whole scenario as the product of a deluded mind; but once again, nothing is that simple.

Mysteries of the Abyss is powerful, grim, and a tremendously accomplished piece of writing. Gin Joe is a down and out on the streets of London, abused and humiliated by the world at large. Then one Christmas, after downing bottles of wine and whiskey, his past flashes before him. It's a fascinating revelation and the powerful writing places you right among the lowlifes on the freezing streets and stinking back alleys of nighttime London.

Poe is clearly an influence, and The Ailuromorph certainly has what The Master would describe as a 'Germanic' atmosphere; dark streets, an insomniac night prowler; and a sinister gothic house to which he is fatally drawn. Grey and sombre, the ending stays with the reader for quite a while after the reading.

The final story, Dedicated to the Weird, is a homage to the works of HP Lovecraft. A mediocre writer heads off for an unnamed location in search of inspiration. Fans of Lovecraft will recognize it as Innsmouth, and nobody comes away from there unscathed. Presented as a series of e-mails, Samuels captures the protagonists growing paranoia to great effect until, chillingly, the final e-mail descends into gibberish as the narrator loses it completely. It's derivative of Lovecraft, of course, and Samuels is best when writing in his own, distinct voice; but it's still an effective way to bring down the curtain on a really classy collection (to which Mark, himself, contributed all of the excellent artwork).

If you're into the works of James, Lovecraft and their ilk, this is the perfect collection to settle down before the fire, glass of wine in hand, to enjoy. Atmospheric gothic horror is back in fashion, and Black Altars is a collection to savour; Especially with the winter nights drawing in.

A Rainfall books publication

Return to Whispers review archive