First things first: the Disclaimer. I am the Jack Rollins who has a story in this book, and since contributing my story to the anthology, MBLA, who published this piece, are now my literary agents. So, this anthology presented a great opportunity to me as a writer. However… my reviews are based on what I read and how much I enjoyed it, pure and simple.
Still here? Okay, let’s crack on.
The book opens with information on International Animal Rescue, the charity to whom the proceeds of the book sales will be donated. We then get into the introduction from Keith Chawgo, which goes into the darker Christmas traditions. I really liked the introduction, it reminded me of some things I had forgotten, and introduced me to some aspects of the holiday with which I was previously unfamiliar.
Cassandra Swan‘s poetry is threaded throughout the anthology. I’m no fan of poetry and have seen some poor examples in horror anthologies. I really enjoyed Cassandra’s contributions to this volume and in particular Pocket-Sized Wreath and Christmas Disease made an impression on me.
Next up, Fiona Dodwell‘s story The Wassail takes back the idea of the stranger knocking at your door at Christmas, as a disturbance, a wassail, as opposed to our more modern dilution of the tradition – Christmas caroling. This is the first story I’ve read by Fiona and it won’t be the last. She sets the scene perfectly – a wonderful period piece, of a wintry night interrupted by a panicking stranger. The story plays out to a chilling climax, involving a story within the story. I don’t do spoilers, so you’ll just have to find out all the details for yourself!
Then, Kealan Patrick Burke brings things up to a more contemporary setting with Visitation Rights. This is the story of an estranged father granted… well… visitation rights with his children, drawing up bitter memories. The agony of the estranged father is captured with painful, acidic realism as he tries to please these children who have spent so much time without him – they seem like strangers to him, unresponsive to his efforts. The direction the story takes will sting your eyes, as it did mine, I feel certain of it. Excellent.
Matt Hickman is an author I have enjoyed some authorly social networking and discussion with in recent months. The Naughty List was the second story I’ve read by him and he brought great atmosphere, tension and plays out like a modern day cautionary fairy tale.
Andrew Lennon brings us Killing Christmas… a Christmas story set in October! A grumpy office worker makes it on Santa’s naughtiest list by basically being a miserable bastard as the world around him prepares for the festive season. His name is marked, and old St Nick is NOT happy with him! Short, punchy and vicious. Like a psychotic elf.
Next comes Marjorie, by Brooke Lerma, one of the more thought-provoking stories in the book and, in some ways a neat companion to my own entry. By that I mean, the central characters are dealing with a real-life problem represented in as accurate a manner as possible, but whereas my story sees the horror intermingled with the real-life problem (dementia, in my case), Marjorie lives in a world where horrific things are playing out around her, and she is blissfully unaware, isolated in her own tragedy. There is a literary quality to the story and the protagonist that non-horror fans probably wouldn’t expect from a horror tale (or any genre fiction, for that matter). I guess what I’m saying is that without the horror, there is a story here that would work as literary fiction, too. This one caught me off-guard and surprised me.
Michael Bray‘s With These Hands is a fantastic piece of work. Set at Christmas in a hot, sweaty Tobago, tragedy strikes a couple of holidaymakers who take a trip to get their marriage back on track. Arcane powers reveal that sometimes it’s better that some secrets remain hidden!
Next in the book is Ghosts of Christmas Past, by Jack Rollins– little old me. I’ll let other people tell you if it’s good or not, but I certainly enjoyed writing it, and drew upon my experience of working as a carer to portray the impact of the onset of dementia on the characters as the horror unfolds around them.
Stuart Keane‘s On The First Day of Christmas really gets into the childhood excitement and sleeplessness of Christmas Eve and it’s all as lovely as candyfloss… then you remember this is a Stuart Keane story and we are soon dragged into the realm of childhood fears and wondering if even our parents can take the bad things away…
Then we have Graham Masterton, and I’m having difficulty not saying “who comes along and shows us all how it’s done”, because the stories are all excellent in their own rights, but you know… Graham just sort of turns up in here and shows us all how it’s done. Anti-Clause is incredible. So atmospheric, so cool, so wish I’d written this.
Finally, M.R. Sellars brings the final story of the book, Merry Axemas – A Killer Holiday Tale. What starts as an investigative thriller, which isn’t usually my cup of tea, builds into a compelling horror chiller. I say investigative thrillers aren’t usually my back to read, but I do like some movies in that genre and the character Sheriff Carmichael is absolutely unmissable. He’s like Sam Elliot, merged with Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men, plus Sherlock Holmes. The main character Constance Mandalay is drawn into the mystery of a gruesome series of Christmas-time murders, with Carmichael as her jaded guide. This story is flawless, and I mean that. Characters sit around and talk to each other for most of the time, but everything they say makes everything they do all the more gripping. The closest thing I can liken it to is the TV show True Detective, where it’s about the characters, not the action, but when the action pops up it’s goooooood!
So, okay, I’m writing this after Christmas has faded, and if you’re reading this in late autumn or winter approaching Christmas, pick a copy up. If it’s earlier in the year, stick it on your Christmas list, or buy it now and have it on your shelf or in the kindle, ready for advent. This collection is totally unmissable.