Most of my life has been consumed by short stories. My first book, as editor, was a tribute to my love of the Pan Horror books. From there I started experimenting with the short form as a writer of three collections of Pan Horror tributes, homages, knock-offs; call them what you will. However, it’s through editing Best British Horror, first for Salt Publishing, then Newcon Press, that I’ve found my true calling as an editor, a compiler, a navigator to the myriad of nightmares that can be yours with a simple turn of the page. I suppose that every book I edit is my own personal anthology – however, to be given carte blanche like this has sent me into a mild panic. I can pick any short story I want? Where to begin, where to be…
Category: Johnny Mains
Johnny Mains is an award-winning editor and award-losing author. He created the critically acclaimed Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians series (co-edited with Robin Ince), is halfway through his biggest project to date, his ‘Ghosts’ trilogy: A Suggestion of Ghosts (2017), An Obscurity of Ghosts (December 2018) and A Finality of Ghosts, (December 2019). The trilogy recovers lost works of supernatural fiction by female authors from 1850 – 1903 and are reprinted for the first time since their initial publication. He also edits the Best British Horror for Newcon Press and his first novel, A Distasteful Horror Story, is published in December.
‘Near Zennor’ by Elizabeth Hand
‘Near Zennor’ is a tale suffused with grief, and is the closest thing to a magician’s trick that you’ll find in fiction. Hand has written a note-perfect tale. The story is a gut-punch and out-Aickman’s Robert Aickman, the master of the weird tale. It concerns an American who finds a stash of letters left by his British wife, who has recently passed away. The letters reveal that she, along with two of her friends, when they were thirteen, visited an author called Richard Bennington, and the story goes down a very dark road.
The widower travels to Cornwall to solve the mystery and finds himself in a world that may not be our own. It’s a deeply disturbing tale – made all the more terrifying by the fact that the author says, “As my original author’s notes states, the inexplicable events that Evelyn experiences as a girl in fact happened to myself and two friends when we were 13. To this day, I have no explanation for them; I only know they actually occurred. For decades I’ve had that in the back of my mind as something to use in a story, and it finally all came together in ‘Near Zennor’”.
First published in A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books, 2011
‘Granny’s Grinning’ by Robert Shearman
Rob Shearman is one of the only people on the planet whose stories consistently surprise, shock, delight, horrify and nauseate me all at the same time. ‘Granny’s Grinning’, I’m loathe to say, made me throw up in my mouth a little, which will no doubt make Rob’s day. It’s only because what came before in the tale was simply a normal domestic family Christmas story that just happened to have a suit that could turn you into a real life zombie. Then, when Granny gets vocal, the tale goes from amusing to all-out horrifying and, once read, it’ll never be forgotten.
First published in The Dead That Walk, Ulysses Press, 2009. Collected in Remember Why You Fear Me, ChiZine, 2012
‘When Charlie Sleeps’ by Laura Mauro
Laura Mauro, who this past Sunday won a British Fantasy Award in the ‘Best Short Story’ category, is in my mind one of the forefront authors of this new ‘Golden Age’ of genre writing. ‘When Charlie Sleeps’ is a tale about a creature in a bath who controls the mood of the city of London and the three women who look after him. That this story is inspired by the Skunk Anansie song ‘Charlie Big Potato’ makes the tale even more weird and gives an added dimension to the decay and chaos in the story.
First Published in Black Static #37, 2013. Collected in Best British Horror 2014, Salt
‘All That You Love Will Be Carried Away’ by Stephen King
King is a rite of passage, and he certainly was mine when I first read Pet Sematary at a very impressionable age. However the older I got, the more I enjoy his short stories – they are more delicate than his verbose novels and they give you King at his very, very best. I don’t know what it is about this tale of a salesman who collects graffiti in bathrooms while on his travels – but it grabbed me when I read it in his collection Everything’s Eventual, in 2002. I read it once a year and it’s a beautiful, poignant tale with an almost happy, almost suicidal ending.
First published in The New Yorker, January, 2001. Collected in Everything’s Eventual, Sribner/Simon & Schuster 2012
‘Skullpocket’ by Nathan Ballingrud
By far the best story in this anthology (I’m not lying when I say the other tales in this book simply didn’t stand a chance when the editor included this one), ‘Skullpocket’ features Jonathan Wormcake, the Eminent Corpse of Hob’s Landing – and Nathan builds a world that is extremely tilted, but man alive I would pay whatever price I had to visit it. It starts like a piece of ‘high-pulp’ (the best compliment I could ever give) and you’re unsure if you’re reading a children’s story and then… you forget about what it is or isn’t and just read it. It’s a horror yarn that has a horrific ending that completely works – and that’s a rare thing, indeed.
First published in Nightmare Carnival, 2014. Read it online here
‘Now Showing at the Roxy’ by Harry E. Turner
Harry E. Turner is probably better known for the trove of stories he gave to Pan Horror editor Herbert van Thal, but my favourite story of his is found in the rival series that was edited by Mary Danby. Harry is the most skilled author out there at mixing his horror with comedy, and his stories, more than any other, have influenced my own writing.
‘Roxy’ contains many spoof films such as The Son Of The Thing From The Slime, The Return Of The Curse Of the Hunchback Werewolf, The Nymphomaniac Mummy From 20,000 Fathoms Beneath The Earth’s Crust Meets The Boneless Snakeman, I Was A Sex Mad Teenage Vampire Dolly Bird From Outer Space, Bluebeard’s Journey Into The Intestines Of A Whale, I Was Dracula’s Transvestite Masseur and The Heart Transplant, Voodoo Drug Addict, Thigh Booted Nun Meets Abbot & Costello On Ice – and if that doesn’t tickle your funnybone, you’re probably inhuman…ah!
First published in the 10th Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, 1977
‘Our Man in the Sudan’ by Sarah Pinborough
It’s a real shame that Sarah Pinborough doesn’t write short stories anymore (one was published in 2016, her first since 2012) – but as she is now a rather awesome author of novels such as The Death House, 13 Minutes and Behind Her Eyes she has a good excuse. ‘Our Man’ is a tale of Middle-East supernatural intrigue. It is exquisitely detailed, and Sarah’s use of language to create a genuine frisson of unease in only several thousand words just makes me miss her short fiction all the more.
First published in The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories, 2008. Collected in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Robinson, 2010. Read it online here
‘Netherwood’ by Stephen Volk
I was lucky enough to be a beta reader on this, the final novella in Stephen Volk’s mind-blowing trilogy of works which had previously explored the lives of Peter Cushing and Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Netherwood’ is about two men, the jingoistic occult-author Dennis Wheatley and ‘The Great Beast’, Aleister Crowley. Steve creates a fictional account that you will believe actually happened by the end of the novella. Volk evokes the time, the sensibilities, the craziness and the inherent danger in dealing with a once great bull, bloodied but not yet done by the matador’s sword. A stunning work.
First published in The Dark Masters Trilogy, PS Publishing, 2018
‘The Clinic’ by Alex White
Without a shadow of a doubt the most horrifying and heart-wrenching story in the whole of the Pan Horrors, written by the pseudonymous ‘Alex White’ – a house name used by several Pan Horror authors, but in this case I believe ‘The Clinic’ was written by Conrad Hill. The story is about a young girl, Ellen, who is sent to a correction facility in France by her family for no reason in particular and is ‘corrected’. The last paragraph is among the most affecting in horror literature,
First published in The Fourteenth Pan Book of Horror Stories, 1977
‘The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper’ by Lynda E. Rucker
I bought this story from Lynda when I was putting together The Burning Circus anthology for the British Fantasy Society. This story is about a writer who is creating a play much in the same vein as the ‘The King in Yellow’ written by Robert W. Chambers. Rucker writes pure ‘Southern Gothic’ and is one of our great genre treasures; I was beyond honoured to publish her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange in 2013.
First published in The Burning Circus, 2013
‘The Judge’s House’ by Bram Stoker
The first horror short story I ever read, at primary school when I was ten. It was in a small red leather book, almost bible-sized, and I read it in a deserted classroom one lunchtime. I never forgot it and became rather obsessed with the story over the years. I turned it into a screenplay and tried to film it as my entry to a film school in Edinburgh (sadly, I never got in) and in 2010 wrote a sequel to the story called ‘Reconvened: The Judge’s House.’
Malcolm Malcolmson is a maths student who wants a bit of peace and quiet and hires the ‘Judge’s House’. A kindly cleaner does the exact same thing that is done to Jonathan Harker in Dracula and warns him away from the Judge’s House as clearly BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. Malcolm happily ignores her warnings and soon takes a long drop from a short rope. This story is still terrifying and takes me right back to that classroom thirty-two years ago.
First published in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, December 1891. Collected in Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, Routledge, 1914. Available to read online here.)
‘The Crow Palace’ by Priya Sharma
Priya is a gifted author and her stories remind me of the works of Angela Carter; she evokes that same kind of mystery, terror and awe as AC. If you haven’t read anything by her, please buy Priya’s debut collection All the Marvellous Beasts (2018) which contains this story. ‘The Crow Palace’ is one of the better ‘quiet horrors’ that I’ve read in recent years. Sharma’s use of language is rich and lush, the interactions between characters aren’t stilted; their conversations ebb and flow like a dawn tide and it’s the perfect story to round off my personal anthology. Its disquiet will haunt your thoughts.
First published in Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, Pegasus, 2017