Midnight in the Graveyard (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

52948330._SX318_SY475_This anthology of ghost stories opens with two tales that, while very different, each succeed in creating a dense, oppressive atmosphere. “Devil’s Dip” by Shannon Felton is about a bitterly disappointed man who gets a call from an old friend, reminding him of a teenage incident on a reputedly haunted stretch of highway. Meanwhile, in Chad Lutzke’s “Tug O’ War” a bleakly unromanticised depiction of a dying man surrounded by his loved ones is followed by a climactic séance going horribly wrong.

The next few stories are gentler, although they tend to reach macabre conclusions. In “Euphemia Christie” a student becomes obsessed with a local grave, but faces hostility when she investigates the life of its occupant. “Justin’s Favorite” by Jeremy Hepler is the story of a woman who, while alone in her new home, meets a malevolent spirit with a connection to her partner. Todd Keisling’s novelette-length “Holes in the Fabric” examines the aftermath of a religious sect’s mass suicide, with a woman being forced to revisit bad memories and confront her religious faith when she meets the ghost of a childhood friend who joined the order. Kenneth W. Cain ‘s “Dog Days” is an epistolary narrative set in a house where, for decades, dogs have gone mad; the letters that make up the story turn out to have been written by now-dead occupants. Then comes Hunter Shea’s “Drown”, about two paranormal investigators visiting a haunted bed and breakfast.

These tales are solid but relatively sedate, most of them – “Dog Days” being the clearest exception – hewing close to ghost story conventions. Afterwards come several stories which, between a theme of childhood fears and an recurring plot point of helping scary-but-benevolent ghosts on to the afterlife, would have been largely at home in an anthology of children’s horror. This is not necessarily a criticism: at their best the tales in question capture a Ray Bradbury-esque feel, and even the weaker examples might evoke fond memories of reading Goosebumps under the bedsheets.

“Those who are Terrified” by Elizabeth Massie is about three girls who meet a ghost while playing in their grandfather’s basement; after they get over their initial fear they agree to help the spirit to pass on. Jason Parent’s “Russian Dollhouse” follows a group of teenagers as they visit a Halloween haunted house, where the exhibits are tailored around their personal fears – and turn out to be deadly real. “Sawmill Road” by Ronald Kelly involves a group of kids meeting the ghost of a man who died in a sawmill; the subject matter is grisly, but a framing device in which the now-grown-up children reminisce about the affair ensures that the blow is softened. Meanwhile, in “The Graveyard” by Lee Mountford a timid teenage boy accompanies the local bully on a trip to a haunted cemetery.

Sitting alongside these kids-around-a-campfire tales are stories that head in rather darker directions. Somer Canon’s “Join My Club”, about a boy in an abusive household who befriends a ghost, combines a child’s perspective with grimly adult subject matter. “Bettor’s Edge” by Tim Meyer is about a gambler who agrees to spend a night in a haunted casino suite on a bet, only to meet a figure from his shady past. The quota for warped sex is filled by John Everson’s “The Cemetery Man”, which mixes visceral perversion with a genuine gothic atmosphere. Here, a student is pressured by his morbid girlfriend into graveyard copulations, only to encounter the living dead.

Some of the anthology’s entries have a sick sense of humour that lends a distinct EC Comics flavour. In “Cool for Cats” by William Meikle a housekeeper murders her cat-lady employer, only to find that she was not in the woman’s will. She kills the cats in spite and continues her gold-digging ways, only to be reunited with her dead boss. Allan Leverone’s “Last Call at the Sudden Death Saloon”, about a journalist visiting a purportedly haunted town, builds a morbid atmosphere and culminates in a twist straight out of a fifties comic. In “Swamp Vengeance” by Brian Moreland a Florida alligator-hunter finds his wife conspiring with her adulterous lover to kill him; he responds by kidnapping and taking them to a swamp home not only to deadly wildlife, but to vengeful Native American spirits.

A couple of the stories give the impression of trying to convey what it feels like to have a horror author’s perspective on the world. “New Blood, Old Skin” by Glenn Rolfe is the story of a horror writer who notices strange things happening around his home, starting with the discovery of disturbing pictures by his small son. Kelli Owen’s “Ghost Blood” introduces us to a caretaker who can see bloodstains even after they’ve been cleaned; the story culminates in an encounter where old blood mingles with blood that is rather more recent.

No ghost story anthology would be complete without some period pieces. “The Glimmer Girls” by Kenneth McKinley is a novelette about the Radium Girls scandal, which finds much ghostly symbolism in the motifs of glowing and decay. The hero of Alan M. Clark’s quasi-Dickensian tale “The Putpocket”, meanwhile, is a nineteenth-century teenager who hears strange stories about a mysterious individual or ghost placing lost objects in people’s pockets. The boy’s harsh situation reaches a head when the putpocket gives him an item from his family’s tumultuous past.

“The Gravedigger’s Story” by Kathryn Meyer Griffith is not a period story, but somehow retains an old-fashioned flavour. After a serial killer dies, one of his victims returns as a ghost and visits her grandfather – a gravedigger – to help put the remains of herself and the other murdered girls to rest. This fairly sedate story is interested more in a sense of place than in visceral details, although the latter are present and carefully deployed.

Although most of the stories in the anthology are original, it does include a pair of reprints from 1989. “Haunted World” by Robert McCammon is a humorous story with a melancholy subtext, depicting a world in which the dead are coming back as ghosts and now treated as a mundane fact of life: Thomas Edison has even been talked into appearing on a TV chat show. The main character is a family man who persuades himself that the ghosts are too intangible to do harm, until a spectral Viking leaves a scratch on his table. “The Ring of Truth” Thomas F. Monteleone tells the story of a marine who takes the ears of his victims as trophies, and later finds that members of his squad are dying off one by one. The result is a grimly convincing depiction of military brutalisation that has a supernatural sting in the tail.

The book concludes with “Portrait” by Kealan Patrick Burke, about a little girl whose mother has died and her father disappeared. The implication is that her father killed her mother, but the girl fails to comprehend this. As we see the girl’s everyday surroundings becoming twisted and malevolent in her parents’ absence, the story creates a thoroughly ghostly atmosphere even before the literal supernatural aspect comes into play.

As a finalist for a Splatterpunk Award, Midnight in the Graveyard feels somewhat out of place, given that many (but by no means all) of its stories fit into the tamer end of the horror spectrum. As an anthology of ghost stories, meanwhile, it is a success, boasting a broad and varied selection of pieces that show just how much life there will always be in this most well-trodden of macabre subgenres.

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