This review first appeared in Horrified magazine
This mini-collection appears to be a sampler for a series of four Elements of Horror collections by Blakey-Novis, and each of the eight short tales within is associated with a particular element. Home shows great promise, and Blakey-Novis writes well, but several of the stories don’t quite deliver on their intriguing set-ups.
First we have ‘Quake’. The narrator – obsessed with tectonic forces and natural disasters – travels to seek them out, ending up in the Philippines under the pretence of humanitarian work. To his delight, the islands are struck by an earthquake and he is drawn, like a moth to a flame, towards the huge cracks left behind. Deep in the earth, he encounters something that’s never described, save what portions of anatomy are visible in the dim light available. The ending leaps forward in time and feels only tenuously connected to what came before.
‘Deep Breaths’ begins with a post-mortem discussion between a Detective Constable and a coroner, taking place over the body of a girl. She has been murdered in a very particular way, which suggests we have a dark thriller on our hands. However (and here’s where I felt this collection started to show its problems) we’re then inside the head of Marcus, the killer, and the police are forgotten – never to re-appear. Marcus is guided by an inner voice to become a serial killer, each of whose murders must somehow feature or honour one of the four elements. However, the story only shows us two. I was left with more questions than even the most ambiguous story should leave unanswered. Where are the other murders? Where are the police? What’s the payoff? The story seemed to promise more, but then ended immediately.
The frustrating thing is that it’s not the only such tale. Blakey-Novis is good with ideas, writes well, and can set up an intriguing and involving scenario, but often the endings fail to deliver. I’m all for ambiguity: several recent collections by other authors have shown a mastery of writing just enough, leaving a story at precisely the right point without explaining everything away (Only The Broken Remain (Dan Coxon, 2020) and Where We Live (Tim Cooke, 2020)). But too many of the stories in Home felt like they needed a little more encouragement to draw out a satisfying conclusion.
‘The Flames of Hell Are Coming’ shows real potential, and I’d like to see it expanded to novella length. A family – mum, dad, twin girls on the cusp of adolescence – have recently moved into a new house. The girls are exploring the attic and discover a box which transforms (or possesses) one of them, turning her violent and aggressive. However, the father’s actions at the climax – foreshadowed in the dramatic opening – had led me to expect something which would justify such an act of callousness. Again, the ending could do with a little work, but this is a promising story.
The title story is also one of the stronger tales. In ‘Home’, Blakey-Novis strongly evokes the childhood sensation of exploring a small patch of countryside which feels like a whole world. The narrator, as a boy, is given the run of his new home but warned to stay away from the well. Of course we know how that’s going to turn out, don’t we? He’s clever about it, using a ball of twine tied round a rock to plumb the well’s depths in order to know how deep – and therefore dangerous – it is. But in order to do so, you have to disturb the water at the bottom, and something else gets disturbed too. ‘Home’ is tense and atmospheric, and would work well as a short film.
The final story, ‘Dark Waters’, is by far the strongest, most accomplished, atmospheric, and gripping tale in the collection. Blakey-Novis has saved the best to last, and this one delivers from start to finish. Set in the post-Covid future, a young couple have money to burn after lockdown. Giddy with the possibilities of travel they find themselves – without any plans beyond the day in hand – in Bucharest. Investigating possible day-trips, they hear of a romantic, magical waterfall. Despite the screams of anyone reading, they allow themselves to be taken to it for a cut-price rate by a local drunk. The waterfall lives up to its billing; even after the efforts required to get close up, it seems worth the trip. However, magic doesn’t necessarily mean rainbows and unicorns, and the area is fenced off for a reason…
A short story collection themed around the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water? ‘Tell me more,’ I thought as I began. Unfortunately, I was still thinking it when I finished. Home is an intriguing collection, showing much promise but too often failing to satisfy.