Terror Tales Of The Scottish Lowlands edited by Paul Finch (book review).

Each book in the ‘Terror Tales’ series focuses on an area of Britain and features short fiction accompanied by articles about ‘real-life’ weird phenomena. The appeal to local readers must guarantee a few sales but there’s plenty to like for any UK horror fan and even Johnny Foreigner might derive some pleasure there from. Here’s what you get in ‘Terror Tales Of The Scottish Lowlands’.

‘The Moss Trooper’ by MW Craven takes place in Gretna, famous for marriages. David Middlemass nips out for a whisky and finds at the bar a man named Storyteller. ‘His face looked like it had been hacked out of teak with a butter knife. He had fierce eyes, a blade of a nose and his skin was the texture of a pork scratching.’ Storyteller narrates some gory Middlemass family lore from the turbulent 17th century in a tale that neatly combines history and terror.

In ‘The Strathantine Imps’ by Steve Duffy, Amanda and her little brother Euan grow up in an isolated Scottish castle where the aristocratic daddy is high on drugs all the time and their care is left to a succession of nannies. When daddy’s friend Alge shows up he has a creepy interest in little Euan. This builds a sense of dread with elegant prose but is vague on the supernatural stuff .

‘Gie Me Somethin’ Ta Eat Afore I Dee’ by John Alfred Taylor has Alex Latimer hunting down the corpse of an ancestor who’s meant to have died with hidden treasure. An unlikeable character, rude about Scottish cooking and black pudding in particular, ‘a flavour of sorts, if salt and used motor oil was a flavour’. He deserves his fate.

‘Land Of The Foreigner’ by Tracy Fahey combines the tale of a failing relationship and a haunted Spanish pirate wreck on a remote Scottish island to good effect. Present tense narration isn’t my favourite mode but it works here.

‘Proud Lady In A Cage’ by Fred Urquhart starts off with a humble lady in a kind of cage. Sobre, serious, unimaginative Bella Logan mans the customer enquiries desk at her store’s new premises but is tormented by icy cold when at her station, along with waking dreams of being in an iron cage dangled from castle battlements, mocked by an angry mob. What the Devil’s going on? A clever haunting story with an unusual heroine. I liked her and the late author is worth googling.

Strange events in 1979 at the famous Edinburgh fringe in ‘Drumglass Chapel’ by Reggie Oliver. A small theatre company puts on a production in a disused church now owned and leashed out by the council. The previous users were an obscure protestant sect called Jabezites who said the Antichrist would come in 1939 and reign for forty years before Armageddon. Low key character study which I enjoyed but the ending was vague.

‘Two Shakes Of A Dead Lamb’s Tail’ by Anna Taborska features terrifying sheep which, with the exception of one memorable New Zealand film, ‘Black Sheep’, are not the usual creature choice for horror writers. Scary moments and a hint of Philip K. Dick.

‘The Ringlet Stones’ by Charlotte Bond uses a refrain: ‘That’s what you do when you love somebody.’ Meg loves Erika and so goes hiking in the Galloway forest, then goes off the main trail because Erika wants an adventure, then regrets it. The Scottish monster was scary and the drama built up nicely or horribly. I started it thinking, ho-hum, they meet a monster but it was very well done in a Stephen King kind of way. Teeth!

Our ma used to sing ‘Coulter’s Candy’ when we were young so I know the song. In this story by Johnny Mains, Robert Coltart gets in trouble with the law and tries to get out of it with the help of the Fairy Queen. An enjoyable yarn with comprehensible use of dialect. The facts cannot be verified on Coltart’s Wikipedia page but it might be true.

‘Echoes From The Past’ by Graham Smith competently builds up the scary atmosphere as ghostly sounds terrify new homeowner Jennifer, a baby laughing. Her husband is away and the police she dares to call clearly thinks she’s a nut. The ending felt a bit tacked on.

‘Herders’ by William Meikle may have been inspired by ‘The Dancing Men’, a Sherlock Holmes story where stick figures are used in a coded message. Meikle’s story features a similar script but these are discovered in an archaeological dig at a Roman ruin where the floor is covered in three-inch high stick figures. There’s a pattern: ‘No limbs, no limbs, no head, no head, left arm gone, left leg gone, no legs, no head.’ The explanation is original and the yarn unfolds to a shocking conclusion.

Tommy loves Dallis and when he hits her now and then it’s probably her fault, she tells herself. ‘Birds Of Prey’ by SJI Holliday seems to be an accurate portrait of domestic abuse, which really ought to be a thing of the past but may be increasing, alas. I found the subject depressing but in this fictional case, Dallis gets help. An insightful story psychologically that might make someone, either victim or perpetrator, see the light. Let’s hope.

In ‘The Clearance’ by Paul M Feeney, James can see ghosts and see them off, too, in his own unique way. He’s invited by Randolph Lumley to a ruined stately home in Perthshire which that aristocratic gentleman has lately inherited and fears is haunted. A nice antidote to certain BBC shows where the inheritors of stately homes are treated with rather too much reverence and the crimes of their ancestors lightly glossed over.

Last, but by no means least, in fact, it’s probably my favourite is ‘The Fourth Presence’ by SA Rennie. Hugh Creighton, failed author and black sheep of the family, returns to Scotland for the funeral of his very famous brother Charles who died in the Antarctic on his last expedition. His widow Kathleen, like everyone else, was only a tool to further his ambitions so she won’t miss him much. Yet there are strange rumours about something terrible happening out there and maybe something came back too. SA Rennie beautifully captures the atmosphere and vocabulary of 19th century fiction. His protagonist had a story published in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ and this might have appeared there, too. Either that or ‘Weird Tales’. A great conclusion to a very readable book. All but two of the stories are original to this anthology so you won’t see them anywhere else.

In the ‘Terror Tales’ series, the fiction is interspersed with ‘true’ stories of real horrors written by editor Paul Finch so you get a lot for your money, especially as the eBook version is so cheap, something more small publishers are doing. As with any rich collection of stories not entirely dissimilar in nature, ‘Terror Tales Of The Scottish Lowlands’ is best taken in small bites, like haggis.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2021

(pub: Telos Publishing, 2021. 310 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK), $17.68 (US). ISBN : 978-1-845831-94-3). Ebook: Price: £ 2.20 (UK), $ 2.99 (US).

check out website: www.telos.co.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.