Cover image is © Johnny Mains - used with permission
(Note: I feel it only fair to point out that the book I am writing about in this review-essay [With Deepest Sympathy] I actually read and commented upon before publication. This is principally why I have chosen to post this here rather than anywhere else – it might [and will] be seen as a conflict of interest in some respects. However, in this case, I genuinely feel that Johnny Mains’ work should be talked about, on two levels – first, he deserves recognition for his gargantuan efforts to republish The Pan Books of Horror and also Mary Danby’s stories, and secondly, I want to talk about how his involvement with those older tales has influenced his work, and also brought about a revival, perhaps, of appreciation for them.)
Now, I like a bit of gore in my stories as much as the next horror aficionado, but there are times when I think that certain stories disguise their lack of literary merit with bucketfuls of the red stuff, or that it’s nothing more than an excuse to either try and gross the reader out or just to see how inventive and sickening a writer can make the torture/murder scene. Some stories I’ve read concentrated solely on the visceral to the exclusion of just about any other consideration, leaving me slightly nauseous but ultimate dissatisfied and I walked away from it thinking “I’ve just wasted valuable time reading that…”
So, increasingly I find myself being drawn to the older horror/supernatural/ghostly stories, the kind that leave you to fill in the gaps and envision the action with something called your imagination. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t horror writers out there now who are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before. One such writer is Johnny Mains, a one-man champion of the crusade to bring back an older style of horror and ghost story. Within the past year or so he has published Back from the Dead, an anthology of new tales from some of the surviving writers whose work featured in the original Pan Horror books, along with a reprint or two. Then, he succeeded in persuading Pan-Macmillan to reissue the original 1959 first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories itself in facsimile (originally edited by Herbert Van Thal), along with a new introduction that charts the history of the series over the course of its more than thirty annual editions. Next year sees the publication of a collection of the stories of Mary Danby, who edited and contributed to more than a few volumes of both the Armada Book of Ghost Stories and the Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories.
Being so heavily immersed in such tales, it isn’t any wonder then that the flavour of all those old stories has thoroughly seeped into the ones included in his debut collection With Deepest Sympathy (published by Obverse Books). Fourteen tales are showcased here, many of which are based around his fictional town of Effingham-on-the-Stour: some of the stories work and others don’t. Mains has dutifully taken his cues from the time when stories suggested more than they actually described, and on that level they work considerably better than if he’d poured in some gratuitous gore just for the sake of it. The discomfort we feel from reading the title tale, With Deepest Sympathy, isn’t so much to do with what actually happens but arises from the sheer nastiness of Mrs. Primrose Hildebrand and the obvious pleasure she derives from upsetting and controlling people the way she does. The horror in The Bag Lady (the best story in the collection I think), isn’t just about a woman feeding children to a voracious sentient handbag, it’s the terror incipient in any parent’s heart when their child goes missing and also the horror when the woman in question appears to be going against natural instinct – women are meant to nurture and protect, not betray the trust of children. Life Through a Lens is also a terrific read: a prominent surgeon exacts his hideous revenge on a hospital photographer for not being professional enough when being presented with the aftermath of a car accident (which, ironically, happened to the surgeon himself). In this one, we really feel the building up of a subtle pressure, inevitably meaning something untoward is about to happen. And when it does, the reader really feels it.
It’s not all serious, however; Mains is also possessed of a blackly humorous streak as well. Losing the Plot, where an avid allotment holder has an encounter with a busybody council official which ends rather bloodily, is one example. Another instance is The Spoon, starring everyone’s favourite ‘psychic’ spoon-bender, Uri Geller – I have to admit that the ending had me wishing that it would happen in real life.
However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that not all the stories worked for me – the major one being The Family Business, which consists of nothing more than a description of how a funeral director/embalmer prepares a body, albeit the processes are being showed by the said embalmer to his young son who will one day inherit the business. Bloody Conventions has a nice idea at its core (author travels to convention, slowly losing his identity along the way) but it somehow missed the mark for me. The same can be said for Gun Money, a tale of a particularly nasty individual who not only contrives to leave hotels without paying but also steals money from the base of a memorial – the denouement, in one form or another, was obvious from the start. I also felt the end was rushed somewhat.
Overall, however, I can say that this collection is hugely enjoyable, atmospheric and delightfully spooky in places (check out Reconvened: The Judge’s House to see what I mean). Certainly for a first collection it shows potential and a lot of promise for the future. One other reviewer mentioned that Johnny shouldn’t rush to get to the end of his stories and to a certain extent whoever said that was right – some of the stories seemed to accelerate too quickly towards the end. However that may be, the fact remains that Mains is a writer at the start of his career and as such has the ability to take things in his own direction. In which case, I suggest you invest in a copy of With Deepest Sympathy right now and follow how Johnny Mains’ writing develops from here on in….
Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones
Publisher: Obverse Books
Publication date: October 2010