By Neil Davies

Reviewed by Jim Steel

This is the first story collection from Screaming Dreams, and a fine looking thing it is too. It's also the first collection from Neil Davies, who should be familiar to Whispers of Wickedness folk from his stories on the site. One of them, the witty When the Fires Die,

appears in here, although it is not really typical of the contents. Anniversary, although not in the collection, (possibly because it's not his strongest story) is probably a truer example of what you will find. If you like them, then get this book.

The collection opens strongly with The Midnight Hour, a bleak and powerful look at the situation of a woman who has locked herself in a room through grief after a plague has devastated most of humanity (including her family). There are other survivors but the reader begins to wonder if she has been rendered insane by the whole experience. This story also inspired Steve Upham's cover illustration.

The next three stories also feature people with dysfunctional home relationships, which do make one wonder... Fortunately this just seems to be coincidence, as the rest of the collection bears out. Argument and The Shadow deal with men who are in dying relationships, but in Ribbons it is a man who shares a house with his dysfunctional sister. The ribbons in this B-movie of a story are vampire-like creatures that attach themselves to the necks of townsfolk. The Americanisms in the story don't quite convince, although that's not a problem in the other stories that Davies sets there. The worst thing about Away With The Fairies is the title. One night a long-distance trucker runs over something that was far too small to be human but didn't look like an animal. He doesn't stop. Then, at a diner, he meets a strange hitchhiker who leaves with a dangerous looking individual. It's a bleak, well-written story. Death By Popcorn on the other hand, is a serial killer thriller set in a cinema. In a lovely bit of editing, its final paragraph blends into the unconnected story that follows, Frozen Food.

Many of the fourteen tales in here are bleak indeed. Photographs is genuinely creepy--a photographer starts to see a figure appearing in her pictures and who seems to be watching her. Bonding is a brutal tale of a new management initiative to persuade office workers to get on better. It goes spectacularly wrong. But often Davies has injected a splash of dark humour that helps keep the reader going. In Virgin Flesh it is a bit heavy-handed as a bunch of ghouls and a vampire discuss their poor diet. (Maybe I just a have a problem with vampires, as they feature in the final story, which was another one that didn't press my buttons. The Extreme Makeover of Helen Watson deals with the viciousness of pupils in an American school in a decidedly non-Buffy way.) In The Perfect Marriage, told in diary entries, the humour works. It's a hard thing to pull off, and is largely subjective anyway.

Road-Rage is the only story that I've not yet mentioned, and it's a cracker. A journalist is interviewing a hitman who insists that he can see the ghosts of his victims. But, as he drives her out into the country, she starts to wonder about his motives.

So there we have it. Around two-thirds of the stories are successful, which means that the collection as a whole is worth your time. Davies has included story notes at the start of the collection that don't really contain spoilers (no more than this review does), but you can quite happily leave them to the end if you'd prefer.

The Midnight Hour by Neil Davies. Published by Screaming Dreams, 13 Warn's Terrace, Abertysswg, Rhymney, Gwent, NP22 5AG, South Wales, UK, B format pb, 160pp, £7.99

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