Mark West,
Strange Tales
(Rainfall, 2003)

For the horror fan with eclectic tastes, Strange Tales, Mark West's first collection of short stories, has a little bit of something to satisfy every horrific craving.

If you like fairly classic ghost stories, there's "Together Forever." If you like in-your-face gore and shock, there's "Up for Anything." Or if you like a more subtle, personal horror, there's "Empty Souls, Drowning." It's all there for the taking.

Being one of Britain's up-and-coming horror writers, it is no surprise to find his words sounding comforting and -- dare I say -- charming, while simultaneously bludgeoning our sensibilities with his frightening subject matter.

Strange Tales is a collection of 11 short stories originally published between 1999 and 2003 in various print and electronic formats. Most of West's protagonists suffer from common, everyday problems, just like the rest of us. His characters deal with daily frustrations ("Having a Bad Day"), unrequited love ("The Darkest Hour") and a lack of fulfillment ("Dead Skin"). The difference between West's characters and most of us in real life is that West's characters find release from their problems through an unhealthy use of electronic appliances, physical assault and episodes of tasteful necrophilia.

The greatest aspect of Strange Tales is its variety. It seems as though West made it a point to put a jarring gore-fest next to a more subtle yarn, giving the entire collection the feel of a rollercoaster ride. For me personally, "Empty Souls, Drowning" -- a story of two lonely individuals finding each other for just one night -- is the most powerful piece in the entire collection. Another favorite was "Speckles," a fun short story in which a neat-freak finds himself covered in nasty spots. And then there are instances in which some of the stories seem to abandon trying to chill your heart and settle instead on trying to simply turn your stomach, but even in these instances you get a real sense that the author is enjoying himself and makes no apologies for going for the gross-out.

The bottom line is that if the stories in this collection do not scare you, they will disturb you. And if they do not disturb you, they will make you want to vomit. One thing is for certain, though, the stories do not just lie flat on the page. They have effect. On a nine-fingered scale in which one finger is atrocious and nine is heavenly, I'd give Mark West's Strange Tales eight fingers. And now that I have finished reading the collection, I think I need a shower.

by Gregg Winkler
24 December 2005