Unsung Heroes of Horror Fiction:
Richard Farren Barber
The world of dark fiction is littered with unsung heroes whom consistently produce excellent work, but for whatever reason fly under the radar and rarely pick up the attention, reviews, discussion or credit in the horror community they often deserve. Why is this? Is it because they don’t shout loud enough on Twitter or have 2000 friends on Facebook? Could it be they lack the confidence to self-promote their work or are too busy looking after their kids? Perhaps their publisher lacks clout, or they jump from publisher to publisher to get a deal, or work a demanding day job which eats into their personal time? I have no idea what the answer is; maybe there isn’t one, but I regard the excellent Richard Farren Barber to be one of these unsung heroes. In conversation, he revealed that he “writes for the sheer joy of it” and as he has a full-time job writing will probably always remain a hobby. The horror community is full of guys like Richard and they are as important to the genre as the likes of Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. And you never know, the next Ritual or Bird Box may well come from Richard, or someone like him who both catches the train to work and a lucky break.
I do not know Richard particularly well; except for the fact that he hails from Nottingham (England), supports the football (soccer) team Nottingham Forest and works in a university. We share many Facebook friends, similar favourite authors, and have the occasional online chat about books and publishing. In the last couple of years, I’ve taken a real shine to his fiction, so this article spotlights a selection of his work.
Since his debut short story Gone Fishing featured in Gentle Reader in 2007 Richard has had approximately fifty stories published and had been writing for a further five years before making it into print. Over this period, he wrote continually, including novels, but never seriously tried for publication and rarely showed the finished product to anyone. Who knows, could there be an undiscovered masterpiece lurking in the back of a sock drawer?
At some point, he developed a greater belief in his work and his output increased, including six novellas, three of which I feature here. The three which are not included are The Power of Nothing, The Sleeping Dead and Odette. However, from a personal point of view, it was Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (2017) which initially piqued my interest and I later included this excellent novella in my ‘Top Ten of the Year’ for HorrorDNA.Com.
In 2018 Richard followed this with another quality novella Closer Still, which although it was released into the adult market, had strong Young Adult (YA) leanings. Once again this featured in one of my annual roundups, this time on the Ginger Nuts of Horror website. All Hell was also released in 2018, this was a First World War story which was included in the four-novella anthology The Darkest Battlefield. A personal landmark for Richard; 2019 saw the release of his debut novel The Living and the Lost which I reviewed favourably for the Ginger Nuts of Horror site a couple of months ago.
Richard has his own unique style and a very quiet, understated method to his writing. It is most certainly horror, but do not expect fireworks or head spinning, his technique relies more upon atmosphere, humour, a strong sense of location and character development. He is quintessentially a British writer and his fiction retains this strong flavour whatever supernatural happenings might be occurring. As Richard has spent almost his entire life living in the Nottingham area of England it is no surprise that this is the location for much of his fiction. Richard’s favourite football team even make an appearance in The Living and the Lost!
If you’re looking to take a chance on a new author today, Richard Farren Barber is worth a closer look. This is where you can start:
Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (2017, Hersham Horror)
This meditative near post-apocalypse tale is set in the aftermath of a deadly virus which has decimated most of the population of Britain. Meandering at a deliberately slow and thoughtful pace, there is little in the way of action or violence. Don’t let that put you off though, this character-driven tale is a cut above most post-apocalyptic tales.
Hannah leads a clean-up crew whose job is to gather and burn the infected bodies of the vast numbers of people who have died in this plague. As many as 2,000 bodies are scattered on the outlying fields waiting to be cleared, moved, then incinerated in a huge pit. The action takes place in an isolated town which has fences keeping survivors who may still be infected from entering their perimeters. Because the other town members are wary of contamination, they are equally suspicious of Hannah and her crew who live in a separate part of the compound. Much of the story effectively balances the dynamics of Hannah, her job, with her colleagues Andy, Patrick, and others. They are a tightknit group who trust each other, but on the other hand, don’t really know each other that well.
Before long, Hannah’s crew clashes with the enigmatic Dr. Andrew Hickman (The Esteemed Leader), who is the charismatic self-appointed top-dog of the group, using motorcycle hard-men (The Caretakers) as his muscle to control the town. The bikers also scour surrounding areas for uncontaminated survivors, who they find sparingly. The story picks up pace when Hannah questions the motives of Hickman, and what he believes they have to do to survive. This is very powerful stuff, and some very fine writing shows us that impressive character-driven scenes can have a greater impact than the crash, bang, wallop of action and violence.
The story is told from Hannah’s point of view, keeping her sexuality private from the rest of the group she dreads finding the body of her wife Sophie amongst the piles of dead. This recent apocalypse is described quite sparingly and the author says much with very few words allowing the reader to use their own imagination. Early signs of contagion begin with gum infection and eventually spreads to painful ridges on the spine, apart from that information is kept to a minimum. Much of it is a pretty grim, but powerful read, as Hannah increasing questions what they have to do to survive up until the brutal but realistic ending.
This novella is an excellent apocalyptic horror story which the author reflects upon a comparison to a post-Brexit UK in his informative endnotes.
All Hell (part of The Darkest Battlefield four novella anthology, 2018, Demain Publishing)
All Hell was a thoughtful and observant change of direction, as it was set in the Nottingham area during the First World War. It deals with the women left behind in the ‘Home Front’ who had waved off their husbands, sweethearts, friends, sons, and fathers to fight in the trenches of France and Belgium.
Guilt is a major theme of the story with the sentence “How much is enough?” being frequently repeated. What extremes would a woman go to if it guaranteed the safe return of her loved ones? Be it her son, husband or father. What price would you pay? In this powerful story, the women all dread the hateful B104 letter which is delivered by the post-boy on the bike with the squeaky chain, a sound the local women hear in their nightmares. Much of the tale is built around the threat of this letter arriving and everyone sighing in relief when the boy passes their house, rather someone else than their son or husband. The women pray, work long hours in factories making munitions, but still death comes closer and closer as they realise it will not be a quick war.
The story opens with one of Mary’s neighbours receiving the B104, she and her best friend June offer their condolences to the poor woman and in doing so meet a new woman who nobody knows, but do not challenge her presence. Something about this woman if different and she implies prayer is not enough; she appears at odd times and casually infiltrates herself into the lives of the local women who will do anything to give their sons even the smallest chance of coming home in one piece.
All Hell is a pensive reflection on how war affects those who are left at home; who suffer the horror of uncertainty, not knowing what happened to their loved ones with grief manifesting in strange ways. William, Henry and the rest of the boys all joined the Battalion of Sherwood Foresters (specific to Nottingham) and this meant that if soldiers who were fighting together suffered heavy casualties, they often lived very close together and this is reflected in a powerful sequence near the end of the novella where the local women are distraught to see two postboys, both with bags bulging with the feared B104 letter. I do enjoy seeing authors writing outside of their comfort zone and Richard Farren Barber’s understated style and quiet supernatural touch work perfectly in this absorbing study of grief and powerlessness.
This anthology is a sequel to Darker Battlefields (2016, editor Adrian Chamberlin) which is a collection of Second World War supernatural novellas featuring Richard’s Odette. At the moment the only places to read both novellas are in these anthologies.
Closer Still (2018, Black Shuck Books)
Closer Still is a ghost story of the highest quality which is also great for teenagers. I tested it on my thirteen-year-old daughter who absolutely loved it and read it in a few brief sittings, totally convinced by the realistic hustle and bustle of daily school life featured in the story. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is bullied by a group of girls who used to be her best friends, with the torment often taking place at school and is merciless; physical, verbal and online. She tries to avoid the others but is frequently cornered in dark cloakrooms or on the journey to and from school. Something about the way she holds herself says ‘victim’ and as the novella develops, teachers and parents get involved, with Rachel becoming more isolated and withdrawn.
When not at school much of the rest of the novella takes place in Rachel’s bedroom where she regularly sees the ghost of her dead ex-best friend Katie. The author convincingly gets inside the head of a deeply unhappy, lonely, and isolated teenage girl who has been ostracised from her friendship group.
Before the death the girls were inseparable and the elephant in the room surrounds what happened to the friendship and caused her death of Katie? The author expertly shrouds this until late into the story which picks up pace nicely as the ghost grows more powerful. There is more going on than meets the eye and the story will have you thinking of the loudmouths from your own teenage years.
The ghost Katie is a fine creation. She retains many of her human characteristics and gives off mixed messages in her friendship with Rachel but gets darker as the story moves on. Indeed, are they friends at all? From Rachel’s point of view, it is better to have a friend who is a ghost rather than no friends at all.
This novella was a knockout which combined several clever storylines utilising social media, bully, teenage angst, friendship, guilt, the supernatural and explores how a tiny act can escalate into truly horrible life-changing consequences. Closer Still ticked all the key boxes with very well-drawn characters, a believable storyline in an everyday school setting, loaded with atmosphere, and a powerful ending.
The Living and the Lost (2019, Black Rose Writing)
Richard Farren Barber’s debut novel opens with Karl, who is in his early twenties, starting a new job for the Borough of Long Draeston Department of Environment and Waste. Karl is pleased to have finally landed a steady employment after a period drifting and believes he will be involved in emptying the homes of the recently deceased. The job advert had vaguely mentioned “waste disposal and people skills” as a requirement. He finds himself doing just this, but not in the way he expects. His boss and mentor is Archie, who is a veteran of the department and shows Karl the ropes whilst grumpily passing on his years of wisdom. However, once he is on the job he realises that they are cleaning houses of dead spirits whom have refused to move on, for a various of reasons. After watching the first cleaning Karl is thrown in at the deep end and is scared witless helping Archie with this rather strange job.
I really liked the way this ‘cleaning’ department was portrayed as a genuine council department. When not on the job Karl hangs out with Archie and other workmates Paddy, Anna, and George and it realistically portrays men dealing with everyday paperwork (B2 Work Docket) and the daily plod of mundane day to day work. This works exceptionally well and the author slowly expands the story around the co-workers as Karl moves from new boy who does not quite fit in to more of a team player.
The author gives very little away about how the supernatural aspects work, but this is not a particular drawback and only makes the reader pay attention to the occasional nugget sneaked in. For example, there is a great scene where Archie flips out after realising Karl had been drinking and was therefore more susceptible to being noticed by the dead.
The haunting sequences were convincing and quite downbeat; from powerful presences, the speaking of different languages and use of very simple dialogue such as “he’s still here” was very expressive. The novel had so many nice understated touches; Karl started to smell (it is never explained why) but his parents understandably think it is because he is working collecting garbage! Also, bearing in mind this is 2019 and cash is in short supply, at a certain point Archie and the boys are threatened with redundancy, or early retirement. I doubt you would see this sort of down to earth plotline feature in an American supernatural novel!
A crisis, and near tragedy after a routine exorcism goes wrong plays a key role in the plot development. Archie has skeletons in his closet and the result is the spirits of the deceased (The Lost) almost being able to force their way back into our world. I would highly recommend The Living and the Lost, which is peppered with a host of engaging characters, an authentic slice of British life mixed with an excellent supernatural themed story.
Closing remarks on Richard Farren Barber’s fiction
Amazon UK has 26 references for Richard Farren Barber, many of which highlight the wide range of quality horror anthologies he frequently appears in. Indeed, this is possibly the tip of the iceberg as Amazon often neglected to include the individual author details in their search index; a great example being The 13 Ghosts of Christmas which has his tale Where the Stones Lie from the anthology Richard is most proud to be featured in, alongside the likes of Gary McMahon.
Whenever I chat with authors I always enjoy hearing about their influences and was not surprised when Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell came up. Combined, those two greats have influenced a generation or more. However, for many of us, authors from our childhood also remain with us well into adult life and Richard ranks the pioneering YA writer Robert Westall amongst the greats; The Scarecrows, Break of Dark, The Machine Gunners amongst his favourites. After he read The Machine Gunners in school he was hooked, but his absolute choice remains Futuretrack Five.
These days Richard stills ranks Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell amongst his favourites still active in horror today, adding Adam Nevill, Paul Tremblay and Joe Lansdale to his roll of honour.
Since the recent publication of his debut novel The Living and the Lost Richard has finished the second edit on his next horror novel, which has the working title of Fodder, which is a supernatural story told from a vampire’s point of view. Whilst juggling multiple projects, another work in progress is a co-written fantasy novel which he believes is going to be a real beast of a tome. Whilst juggling the second edit of novel number two, Richard is just about to start the first draft of yet another new work. Did I say earlier he also had a day job?
It does not look like it has been updated much lately, but you can find out more about Richard here: http://www.deadfallonline.co.uk/ which lists many of his published short stories, not covered in this article. Or find him on Twitter: @RFarrenBarber.
He is an author well worth investigating further.