Review: Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease edited by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone (Whitby: Gray Friar Press, 2014). 247pp. ISBN 978-1-906331-46-7, paperback.

Posted by Benjamin E. Noad on March 16, 2015 in Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

horror uncut

Imaginatively brilliant and hauntingly provocative, this collection of weird tales harbours a ruthless critique of the seemingly absent dialectic in mainstream political dialogues: where can we locate an ethical dimension in today’s climate of austerity, as financial crisis and corporate greed impose devastating welfare cuts upon so many? The lurid excesses encountered in these horror fictions counteract institutional corruption on various levels, revealing a climate of hardships that cannot be obfuscated by the tabloid sensationalised scapegoating of migrant workers and benefit claimants. In this respect, Horror Uncut champions the very notion of the dispossessed and the disparaged. Shocking though some of its content may appear to be, these matters are guaranteed to psychically linger once the last of its pages has been turned. As Tom Johnstone’s foreword to the anthology modestly claims:

I believe this anthology breaks new ground, with tales of terror and the supernatural about the ‘bedroom tax’, food banks and the dismantling of the NHS, ushering in a new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will I hope, change the way we look at it. (Horror Uncut 1)

It would be somewhat churlish to suggest that satirical horror has any potential as a catalyst for promoting social change, and yet, Horror Uncut enables an alternative platform for voicing such concerns by viscerally reflecting the cultural grounds that are at stake outside of the text. The aesthetic medium of horror alone will not induce fear in hierarchical powers, but it certainly produces and encourages political interest enough to unsettle them.

 

For this reason, Johnstone’s afterword to the collection makes for especially pleasing reading. Here, Johnstone manages to articulate an intelligent critique of neo-liberalism, maintaining the role horror has, and has yet to play in very contemporary socio-political issues:

Fiction can’t actually change society, can it? It’s just a mirror held up to nature, isn’t it? But when did you last see a poster or a leaflet campaigning for civil liberties that didn’t reference George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four to warn against the dangers of excessive surveillance? This is not the only example of the language or imagery of popular genre fiction at the very least influencing public debate. What of the campaign literature that seeks to shame low-paying or exploitative employers by comparing them to Ebenezer Scrooge…? (Horror Uncut 231)

Such a context is foregrounded in self-awareness, and, on this point, we might also wish to direct some critical focus towards independent specialist publishing groups themselves: there is something assuredly Gothic in the economic means of production with Horror Uncut; the circulation of such anthologies is, in the main, undersold and overlooked by allegedly canonical gazes upon culture, but nonetheless, these small publishing houses exhume anxieties common to all; yet these anxieties remain buried, encrypted or repressed by the superego-like tendencies of a neo-liberal governmentality. In this sense, the Gothic surplus of Gray Friar Press proves quite formidable indeed.

 

To turn to the stories themselves, the book consists of seventeen imaginative tales, each one articulating a ruthless critique of things as they are and things as they could too easily become. The satirical element which is present in some of these fictions is a difficult task to manage, especially given the highly sensitive nature of its political context; morbid humour risks appearing on one hand too tentative, and on the other, guiltlessly insensitive. The success of whether any shock-satirical effort works, then, must surely be measured on the extent to which it manages an uncanniness and not outright offensiveness. For this reason, it is best to consider what Horror Uncut contributes to social debates against austerity, and reader responses will inevitably be mixed towards some of these tales. Anna Taborska’s “The Lemmy/Trump Test” (79-85), for instance, offers a nightmare vision of an upper-class mob rule where “scroungers” (81) are hunted for sport as “they” manifest in zombie-like fashion around food banks. Needless to say, this piece hits close to home, but in satirising perverse social exclusion policies the effect is to exemplify their tragic and familiar reality; Taborska does not make light of poverty and human degradation, her story exemplifies the insatiable agendas of human greed, and it is in many ways a means of demonstrating the inherent stupidity in divide and rule tactics rhetorically used in tax payer/ “scrounger” dichotomies. David Williams’s “The Procedure” (125-133), a terrifying account of the cost of unorthodox private healthcare; and John Llewellyn Probert’s “The Lucky Ones” (43-54), a very explicit attack on exploitation in reality television, manage this ambitious humour in a very convincing way.
Where these fictions centre on horror itself, the effect can be truly quite moving. “No History of Violence” by Thana Niveau, a short but disturbing tale, aptly demonstrates one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the entire collection:

Most people took their sanity for granted, never knowing how awful it could be to have to fight for it, gaining ground inch by torturous inch. Now it seemed like a wish denied. Had she dreamt it all? Robin was the one with the hallucinations but Sara suffered alongside him. It was no picnic being ‘normal’ when your partner lived in a world you couldn’t even see. (Horror Uncut 215)

Niveau’s story is an assault upon the measures the Department for Work and Pensions take in using privatised firms to declare people experiencing health difficulties ‘fit to work’. This is not merely a revenge tale, however. Niveau expands upon the fallibility of a universal normality by inviting us to participate in a wider conceptual discourse of mental ill-health where carers and healthcare professionals are as open to abuse as their clients; so too, is the reader a participant in this vulnerability. Other notable contributions include Priya Sharma’s “The Ballad of Boomtown” (23-42), which has a writing style at times reminiscent of Angela Carter; and also the beautifully descriptive and chilling vampire tale “Only Bleeding” (71-78) by Gary MacMahon. This was a genuine pleasure to read, an ambituous yet thought-provoking volume.

 

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