Tales of the Lost by Richard Howard. Book review

TALES OF THE LOST by Richard Howard, Matador, Leics, UK p/b £8.99 (UK) 272 pages, www.troubador.co.uk/matador

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

When deciding whether to buy a book from an unknown author a number of criteria come into play, either consciously or subconsciously. It doesn’t matter if the book is mainstream, independent or self-published the same factors are important. The three most important factors are the cover, the blurb on the back and the first page, particularly whether it looks good. Not every book will satisfy all readers.

Richard Howard’s collection of thirteen short stories has a beautiful cover. Whether this gives a fair idea of the contents isn’t important as it is designed to attract, and it does.  The blurb is sparse, giving only a very general idea of the nature of the book. It doesn’t shout horror. Blurbs though are notoriously difficult to write, it being difficult to give the flavour of a book without giving too much away. Whether filling the space with puffs for a previous book is the right way to go, is debatable. A different issue is inside. It is a shame that Howard tends to have long paragraphs, especially at the start of stories so that the page lacks interest in its layout. This can be off-putting but easy to remedy.

Once the buyer has selected the book, it is all down to content. The stories here vary greatly in length and quality. Probably the best story is the shortest. ‘Dust’ is flash fiction and it is an example of a ‘be careful what you wish’ for story. The longest is ‘Flora’s Return’ which was inspired by a film version of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James. Set thirteen years after the original it relates events that happen when Flora goes back to the house where James’s events happen. There are good descriptive passages in the story as Howard has given himself the space to develop the setting. It helps to be familiar with the original to understand all the nuances.

Howard is an author who has a fondness for the masters of the ghost story such as M.R. James. The problem is that some of the quirks of period writers have seeped into Howard’s work, phrases of the ilk ‘little did he know…..’ which telegraph the idea that something nasty is about to happen. While some ghost stories can have a timeless element about them, the modern reader is often looking for new takes on familiar themes. Most of Howard’s stories lack the trappings of the contemporary and hover in a limbo that reflects no particular time. While this is not necessarily a problem it does make some of these stories feel as if they belong to another era. This is compounded in some, such as ‘Outrage’ where the principal character is contacted from beyond the grave. There is nothing wrong in recycling ideas but I would prefer an extra dimension so that the familiar is countered by the unexpected. This doesn’t happen enough in these stories.

In some ways, many of these stories are too short as many of the main characters are passive, with things happening to them rather them taking control. Whereas this is the rationale behind the story ‘The Life And Purpose Of Mr Henry Dodd’ I would have liked other to be more pro-active.

If you don’t mind creepy stories with a flavour of the old masters then you may find this book worth dipping into. For those who prefer cutting edge spooks, there are volumes they would probably prefer.