Short story collections are good ways of finding new authors to try out. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read an anthology book and ended up putting a load of new authors onto my list of books to eventually get round to reading. After Sundown is a great example of this, as not only is there only one writer in it that I already knew of, but with no connective theme to bring these stories together, other than horror itself, there is a huge variety in the tone, style, and feel of all of them.
The book features twenty stories in all, sixteen of which come from already established writers, and four from an open submission to the publisher. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to pick out these four submitted stories, as all of them were of such high quality. There is also a great variety here, with stories that feel very modern and relevant to events going on in the world today, stories with a science fiction bent to them, some traditional ghost stories, a Victorian chiller, and some very strange and ‘trippy’ entries too. Whatever style appeals to you most, there’s definitely going to be at least one story in this collection that satisfies
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‘Butterfly Island’ by C.J. Tudor is the first story in the collection, and one that feels very different to many of the others. It centres on characters in some kind of apocalypse-like scenario. It’s not clear what’s happened to the world, but it seems there aren’t many people left around, and that life has become something of a cheap commodity. The lead character murders a couple of thugs at the start of the story, and this seems to be something that no one bats an eyelid at.
This narrator, along with a group of his friends and some other survivors, decide to head to Butterfly Island, a remote island that was shut off by a reclusive millionaire before the end of the world. However, once they arrive on this deserted island they find brutalised remains, and begin to be hunted through the jungle by more than one killer assailant. This story has an action adventure feel to it, and makes me think of the brightly lit movies of the early 2000s that seemed to love using tropical locations to film in.
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In contrast to this story ‘Creeping Ivy’ by Laura Purcell is much darker and more Gothic in tone. Told in the form of a journal recovered from the ruins of Hindhead Manor, it tells the story of a man in the 1800s, the former master of Hindhead Manor. The story recounts the events following the death of his much older wife, a woman he describes as having hated, and who spent all her time in her greenhouse tending to her beloved plants.
The author of the journal is happy with the passing of his wife, finally feeling free of her, yet also harbours guilt at being responsible for her death. Dismissing all of his staff, he chooses to be alone in the Manor, yet begins to sense that there is some other presence there with him, one that could be responsible for the sickness overtaking him. This story is much darker in tone and setting, and made me think of classic ghost stories like The Woman In Black, thanks to the creeping madness that seems to be setting into the lead, and the isolated setting of the story.
‘Murder Board’ by Grady Hendrix is in comparison a much more modern story, and one that feels a little comical in places. Following an aged rock star and his much younger wife in their isolated modern mansion, the two of them play a game during a torrential storm. They use a Ouija board. The older rock star claims that this board has advised him through important decisions throughout his life, and believes in it completely. However, when the board spells out ‘i will kill u’, this leads to a dangerous situation.
Convinced his wife wants him dead, the rocker convinces his assistant to murder her, which leads to a domino event that leads to worse and worse as the story unfolds. ‘Murder Board’ is one of those stories where things spiral out of control, and where you wish the characters would just talk to each other, but their misunderstanding and desperation are ultimately what leads to tragic events, rather than any obvious outside force.
My favourite story in the book has to be ‘Branch Line’ by Paul Finch, which sees a man recounting the story about the time he and a childhood friend walked up an abandoned train line during the 1970s in order to get a load of porn mags (what else were kids in the ’70s supposed to do?). During this journey one of the teens recounts a few stories about how the track is supposed to be haunted, one of which is particularly chilling.
Thinking it’s just the usual kind of local stories, they forget about the supposed ghost and focus instead on the prize awaiting them, but when they have their own horrific encounter the story takes a terrifying turn. The slowly building atmosphere of this story, along with the very normal, recognisable setting, made it incredibly creepy.
This collection has some amazing stories in it, some that are a slow burn, others full of visceral fear. It has ghosts, monsters, and very human horror. It presents a range of stories that include the fantastical and make the everyday into something that inspires fear.
After Sundown is out now from Flame Tree Press.