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      Howard Jackson: Nightmares Ahead.

        Red Rattle Books, £ 7.99.    

Nightmares Ahead is the fourth collection of horror stories from Red Rattle Books.  The previous collections have been impressive but Nightmares Ahead raises the bar and by some height. 

Nightmares Ahead consists of what Howard Jackson has written for his own blog and the vampire and zombie collections of Red Rattle Books.  These have been supplemented with stories commissioned for Nightmares Ahead.  This ensures a good balance between the 1500 word vignettes, his vampire and zombie stories and original attempts to incorporate into the horror genre themes not previously addressed.

Los Perros Muertos is the longest story in the book.  The complicated relationship between Raymond and Anna and the threat from the creature, that may or may not exist, grips from beginning to end.  If this was not enough, Los Perros Muertos has a twist that, like the famous Rosebud, should not belong in the story but does.

The writing in Nightmares Ahead is challenging, disturbing and brilliant.  The writing has plenty of style..  The gruesome The Task That Had To Be Done consists only of sentences that begin with ‘and’, ‘because’ or ‘but’.  This bold innovation is not only poetical but suits perfectly the notion of primitive obedience. 

In his introduction to Nightmares Ahead, Howard Jackson writes that his intention is to ‘harrow the mind’.  He does that and more.  Although the horror can be subtle, the author states he is interested in neurosis and yearning rather than stomach churning effect, the stories always disturb, even in the non-horror bonus story at the end where previous regret overshadows the possible happy ending.  The story, Footsteps, has a threat of brutality that terrifies.  Other stories, like Dressed And Ready To Go, leave a satisfying cold chill on the spine.  The title of The Risk Assessor suggests the mundane but in its 1500 words it offers a very convincing argument against the existence of God.  This philosophical strength adds weight not to just this story but the whole collection. 

In Nightmares Ahead, existence and relationships bewilder.  Disappointment, confusion and misunderstood promise mean that the stories have emotional impact.  There is much that provokes thought in Nightmares Ahead.  In Missing Out identity conflicts with curiosity.  This subtle tale insists that the reader must remember the never avoided cost to human beings.  It combines an old-fashioned magical ghost story with modern working class realism. All the stories are thought provoking but this does not mean that they do not terrify or scare.  Even the oblique Honeymoon where a groom marries a bride with a secret that she never reveals is creepy.  Again the style is bold.  Who speaks to whom is made clear not by formal identification but by clever dialogue.  The back of the book mentions that familiar horror types are present in the collection.  This is true and they will appeal to horror fans.  But the sly references to Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Randolph Scott, Herman Melville, three inch soldiers, nicotine addicted Miniature Schnauzers and romantic economists make Nightmares Ahead alluring and very different.  It raises the bar indeed.

By Irene Keith.