The Female of the Species & Other Terror Tales By Richard Davis. Book review

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES & OTHER TERROR TALES By Richard Davis, (“Writers from the Shadows #1”), Shadow Publishing 2012, Paperback 240 pages, £7.99

Reviewed by David A. Riley

Richard Davis, who died in 2005, was always far better known as an editor than as a writer, with ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’, ‘Tandem Horror’, ‘Space’, ‘Spectre’ and the Armada Sci-Fi series, not to mention his work on television with the BBC’s ‘Late Night Horror’ and ‘Out of the Unknown’. But he was also an extremely good writer, as this collection shows. All the stories here were previously published in anthologies from the 60s and 70s, such as the ‘Fourth and Sixth Pan Books of Horror’, ‘The Ghost Book’, ‘New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural’, ‘No Such Thing as a Vampire’, and ‘The Jon Pertwee Book of Monsters’, which contains Richard’s last story in 1978, ‘The Nondescript’. The collection is rounded off with an introduction by David A. Sutton, an article that Richard wrote (‘What We Were Looking for in Horror’), an interview originally published in 1969 in the literary fanzine ‘Shadow’, a further article by Richard (‘Horror in Fiction’) and a bibliography.

These constitute all of Richard Davis’s stories, and illustrate the versatility of his subject matter and the easy style of his writing, which reminds me very much of R. Chetwynd-Hayes without the (often unwanted) humour.

The title piece, ‘The Female of the Species’, is written as a journal, detailing the protagonist’s increasing fears about his sinister wife, both before and after her death. It’s a chilling story that grows increasingly tenser, involving love, death, and witchcraft.

‘Elsie and Agnes’ is a straight forward ghost story, though with more than one twist, and involving one of Richard’s recurring themes of a loveless, wasted life.

‘A Day Out’ is another ghost story, full of the joys of a 1960s seaside resort but with a final dénouement that may not come as a total surprise but is nonetheless shocking.

The sadness of a wasted life is again the central theme of ‘The Lady by the Stream’. Elizabeth is the harried minder for her over demanding wheelchair-bound mother. Never having had the chance to marry and have a family of her own, she finds fleeting warmth from the friendship of a ten year old boy she meets by a stream, fishing. The inability of other people to let this innocent relationship endure, though, results in an appalling climax, perhaps the most violent and chilling in this collection. ‘The Inmate’ is a tale of bestiality in the truest meaning of the word. I found to be the weakest, least convincing story, though it is well written, with Richard’s customary skills at characterisation.

In ‘A Nice Cut off the Joint’ Helen Bentley, a surgeon, finds that doing a native chief a favour in saving his life results in a Voodoo curse, presumably from a local witchdoctor put out by her skills, and the growth of a dangerous, all demanding appetite for fresh meat.

‘Guy Fawkes Night’, Richard’s earliest story, originally appeared in the ‘Fourth Pan Book of Horror Stories’. A period piece that starts in the 1920s it tells in retrospect what happened one fateful Guy Fawkes Night when the father of the protagonist’s friend disappears. Nearly everyone believed he ran away with his mistress, but thirty years later the horrific truth comes out.

In ‘The Sick Room’ Richard returns to the supernatural with a boarding house with a bedroom that may have an evil spirit. A man decorating has already slipped and broken his back for no apparent reason. Everyone who stays there either dies or murders whoever they’re with. A dark, grittily told story.

‘The Clump’ is set on a small Caribbean island. The clump in question is the local name for a small wood. This one, though, has a sinister reputation. Unfortunately, the young boy who wanders in to explore it when the cruise ship he is on stops by doesn’t know this at the time. Nor does his father, who is more concerned over his plans to poison his wife. The description of the entity that haunts the wood reminds me of the kind of thing depicted in much more recent Japanese horror films.

‘The Nondescript’ is a nineteenth century artefact made of a fish tail and the shaved torso of a monkey, cleverly joined to look like a grotesque creature. Young Bob finds one in the family attic in a glass case. Shortly he comes across another, better preserved, under a large rock close to a local pond. Unlike the first this may not be an artefact at all, as his father finds out when he discovers what happened at a ruined mansion whose owner, a collector of curiosities, died many years ago under suspicious circumstances. This is a rollicking tale, with some great descriptions of the Nondescript and a fittingly action-packed climax.

As Dave Sutton remarks in his introduction these stories are firmly set in the era in which they were written. To me that only adds to their charm. It’s a shame Richard Davis did not write more, but at least, thanks to Shadow Publishing, what there is have been collected together and made available.