Diabolica Britannica:A Dark Isles Horror Compendium Edited by Keith Anthony Baird
A Book Review by Laurel Hightower
One of the shining lights of this whole pandemic craziness has been the willingness of authors and other artists to contribute their work for free, either for public enjoyment at a time when many people are living with reduced income, or for charity anthologies to help out causes that are still in desperate need of assistance. One of the most striking to come my way this summer was Diabolica Britannica: A Dark Isles Horror Compendium. First of all, I utterly dig that title – it strikes a Gothic, commanding note, like we should refer to it simply as “The Diabolica” which, I think I’ll start doing and see if it catches on. The Diabolica is edited by Keith Anthony Baird, who also contributes a dark and delicious story, and boasts a TOC of some of Britain’s brightest horror stars, with all proceeds to benefit the UK’s National Health Service to help with the COVID 19 crisis. I’m not certain if there was a guiding theme for the anthology, as there’s a wide range of subject matter and tone covered between its pages, but the stories are woven together beautifully and make for an overall perfect horror experience. The great Ramsey Campbell wrote an introduction for The Diabolica, in which he took time to note what he enjoyed about each story, and it’s almost impossible not to do the same. Each story I read stood out in its own way, and each deserves the benefit of an individual mention.
The first story is “Carreg Samson”, a Welsh folkloric tale by Catherine McCarthy. It’s a strong choice for the opening, written in sweeping, dark historical tones. We’re drawn immediately into the mind of an ancient being, with a view and memory of centuries that has now found a focal point in the present. I’m a big fan of folklore horror and McCarthy strikes just the right note of ancient, earthly and inevitable horror. Following hard on McCarthy’s heels is “Tourist Traps” by Christopher Henderson, which takes us into a more modern mindset. It’s atmospheric, and I could sympathize with young Ben’s desire to delve into the real ghostly history of London. Henderson makes excellent use of the bloody history of the Tower of London, adding creepy touches of legend and deliciously disturbing imagery just before ending on the right note.
Next up is Beverly Lee’s “The Secret of Westport Fell”, with the perfect Gothic opening on a misty, forlorn lane. Lee’s masterful hand builds a brushstroke setting, with excellent pacing and plenty of creepy elements to make her readers snuggle into warm sweaters. This was another story that hit just the right note at the end – one thing that impressed me so much about this anthology was how well the writers wielded their craft of short fiction. The fourth story in the lineup transports us back to a more modern setting again in Arthur M. Harper’s “The Conductor”. I loved the subtle, bone-deep creep invoked by Harper’s descriptions of the lonely, rain swept train station and the utter, stomach turning wrongness of his Conductor. And in Janine Pipe’s “Footsteps”, we pivot once again, this time into a forest setting, with a theme of blood and carnage throughout. Pipe has a fun, tongue in cheek twist to her blood letting, and her story added a light but vicious streak to the whole.
Pipe’s story is followed by a contribution from Tim Lebbon, entitled “The Flow”. There’s a moody, quiet horror here, making use of my flat out favorite setting: a flooded town. There is something so intrinsically creepy about a lost, abandoned village covered in water and Lebbon makes the most of it. Another strong voice in the mix is Stephanie Ellis with “We Plough the Fields and Scatter”. Ellis’s contribution shines with her atmospheric take on lost folklore, a seasonal return to the old ways with fantastic witchy elements.
“Linger” by John F. Leonard, gives us an interesting twist on the haunted house story we’ve been craving. The subtitle of A Tale of Art and Abomination from the Dead Boxes Archive gives an intriguing glimpse into what’s in store, though I’d be surprised if you guessed the depths of the story before you arrived there. There’s definitely something off about Eddie’s sudden inheritance, but like us, he’s too invested in the answer to turn back before it’s too late. Next, Alyson Faye gives us an eerie water tale with “Song of the Moor”, a creepy, folkloric and feminine creature feature. Definitely hit a lot of high notes for me, and I loved the overall tone and story arc here.
Faye’s story is followed by an excellent look into archaic and historical horror from Keith Anthony Baird, with “Walked a Pale Horse on Celtic Frost”. Leading with a swift, moody flashback and then taking us into a modern anthropological search, Baird’s story sets a scholarly tone which is quickly overtaken by the diabolical. A bit of history, a bit of Gothic, a bit of witchy, and a touch of From Dusk Til Dawn. Sarah J. Budd comes next with a bleak look at adolescent horror in “The Hole”. Aside from the larger horror reveal in this story, which was creepy enough in its own right, Budd impressed me with her ability to paint a picture of the more mundane, but even less escapable horror that her protagonist’s life had become. I really felt for Lucy’s predicament, and that’s a high hurdle to jump in short fiction.
Morgan K. Tanner is next with his story “Scripted in Shadows”. This one is inventive, different, and bloody, which from everything I’ve heard, is signature to Tanner’s work. I love the inclusion of all the gory elements, and honestly, who hasn’t felt homicidal when their reading gets interrupted? Sarah E. England takes over next, whisking us back to small town horror with “The Coven”. I loved the dual story lines in England’s tale, the development of the setting and the main character, Lucy. Great witchy elements without being at all predictable, this was one I’d love to read an expanded version of.
Tying up this strong anthology is “Call the Name”, an excellent blend of environmental horror with cosmic elements from the masterful Adam L.G. Nevill. The exploration of the line of madness that follows all the women of Cleo’s family, their Cassandra-like fate as the secrets of the universe open to them, and the scholarly way they face their doom made for gripping entertainment.
Though originally a summer release, which garnered much well-deserved attention, it’s my opinion that The Diabolica is custom made for our descent into autumn and spooky season. Covering every favorite facet of horror, putting fresh and excellent spins on the best tropes and inventing all new ones, this is one of the strongest anthologies I’ve come across. Baird did an excellent job curating this one, and if you’re looking to sample some new favorite authors to love, this one is perfect for you. Five strong stars.