British horror has always had its fair share of authors, although these have been overshadowed of late by American writers. The British Isles were the birth of horror writing, with luminaries such as Sheridan le Fanu, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley delivering the goods early. Since the Victorian era there has been a dearth of horror fiction from the United Kingdom, notwithstanding the odd leading light such as Clive Barker and James Herbert.
Steven Jenkins is no newcomer to publishing, having had several novels and anthologies published in England in the early 2010s. Spine represents an effort on the part of Jenkins and his publishers to enter the Australian market. What, then, do Jenkins and Spine bring to the table, and do they uphold the traditions of English horror?
British horror has always been distinguished by a sense of understatement. We generally start very grounded in the real world then watch as our hero (whoever that may be) descends into a chaos of self destruction, usually from forces he or she unwittingly unleashed. This summery could well stand duty for any of the short stories contained within Spine.
This is not to say that the book is overly derivative or generic. Indeed, in Spine, Jenkins shows a fine understanding of the science of horror, in the intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary and the sense of otherworldliness this engenders. If there is a fault with the prose it is that the stories (and the collection itself) are very short, which does not allow for the reader to become familiar with the characters nor grounded in the story before the weird starts cascading in.
Jenkins does not rely overly on stereotypes, which is admirable, but his snapshots of stories, some little more than flash fiction, require some basic characterisation that a good stereotype would give.
In The Our-Side, we see a world ruined by the population’s desire to see the recently deceased. Crawl-Space shows us a young boy who is SURE there is something in the walls of his bedroom. All Eyes on Me treats us to an alien invasion from a very different perspective, while It’s A Wonderful Death explores the nature of suicide.
Jenkins takes a comic turn in The Devil’s Apprentice as we meet Satan’s 2IC, and this dark humour continues in the medical drama of Watch Over Me. Jenkins stretches his legs with the longer tale of The Home, in which the former residents of a nursing home have some unfinished business. The final story, One Pill for Perfect Vision shows us that anyone can get addicted if the payoff is sublime enough.
These stories pack a lot of storytelling into a very small package, and the reader may be left wanting more, not just brushing over the surface of the characters. More depth, more setup, would have been nice. The book’s strength however, is that these people are all very familiar. Jenkins takes us into the familiar lives of the schoolboy and the night-nurse, and that familiarity pervades the stories. Like the best of English horror, we are not seeing the sterile world of the mad inventor or the far-off soldier but, rather, the familiar everyday, and this gives the stories emotional punch.
Spine does what it says on the tin, twisting its tales nicely and with a certain familiar, English charm.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 7
Distributed by: Amazon Australia
Release Date: May 2015
RRP: $3.99 eBook