Close to Midnight ed Mark Morris
Flame Tree Press, pb, £9.15
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
I was lucky enough to review After Sundown from Flame Tree Press in 2020 and was impressed by the sheer scope and quality of the stories selected for inclusion. I was introduced to authors I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise and enjoyed most of the stories included. A rare thing for a short story collection. So, when I had the chance to review the latest collection, Close to Midnight, I jumped at it.
There wasn’t an overall theme for the stories that I could identify, which I didn’t mind. It meant I had no preconceptions before reading, so I enjoyed the story for what it was. For example, Souvenirs by Sharon Gosling was an enjoyable story about an older man reminiscing over his life as he travels up the country to move into a nursing home near his daughter. I felt his sense of injustice at downsizing his whole life into a small room and was disgusted at his daughter’s manipulation. She pretends to take him to dinner, only to stop at an antique emporium, so he can get rid of more stuff. The story was so well-written that I didn’t question the lack of horror until the ending hit me. I loved it.
Another favourite, Remains by Charlie Hughes, is a clever piece which plays on the typical ghost story where the ghost is not the horror element. I appreciated how the story built our sympathy towards the ghost, so we feared for her even though she was already dead. Remains focused on the horror people commit to others, as does The Operated by Ramsey Campbell, which explores how much torture a person can take before betraying a friend to make it stop.
The stories don’t fit into one genre, either. Jenn Ashworth’s Flat 19 blends science fiction with horror when Eve clones herself multiple times so the clones can do her work and look after a family while she has a much-needed break. Collagen by Seanan McGuire leans towards cli-fi, exploring the effects on the environment of everyday chemicals we use in our quest to appear youthful.
Some stories worked better than others for me, but a short story collection where every story hits the mark is rarer than a unicorn. Overall, the majority did. They were clever and thought-provoking, like my ultimate favourite story, The Nine of Diamonds, by Carole Johnstone. The protagonist gets a job with a company called The Nine of Diamonds which specialises in cursing people. Their clients have vendettas against individuals, and The Nine of Diamonds puts employees on the case to cancel restaurant reservations, bombard them with junk mail and post negative things about them on social media and dating websites. Little things to wear a person down over time. I can’t tell you too much, or I’ll spoil it for you, but it was everything I wanted in a short story, realistic characters, a compelling backstory pushing the story forward and a truly satisfying ending. It’s worth the price of the collection alone. Highly recommended.