Having completed my literary journey through this stunning collection, my only question is how the hell have I not read more Graham Masterton before? Figures of Fear is an anthology of 11 tales that, for me, had the same impact as Stephen King's Night Shift or Clive Barker's first Books of Blood. It's a short story collection that opened my eyes to a new must-read author, leaving me giddy with anticipation for more, more, more!
Ex-Voto kicks things off with an interesting, classic sort of horror story about strange lands, misunderstood artifacts, the power of prophecy, and the perils of ignoring it. Nice twist at the end.
What the Dark Does is a fantastic story, full of atmosphere and chills, that really gets at our primal fear of the dark . . . and of what the dark disguises. Trust me, you'll never look at that shadowy bathrobe hanging behind the bedroom door quite the same way ever again.
Saint Brónach’s Shrift is an interesting story about guilt, choices, and the consequences they have. Definitely a sad ending to this one, almost a cruel sort of twist that really hit me hard and made me pause to think the whole thing through.
The Battered Wife is the one story in the collection I didn't care for. I felt the end was cruel, and seemed to blame the wife for her abuse, but since it came from the Shadows and Light anthology, which was published to benefit the Women's Aid charity in the UK, I'll give it the benefit if the doubt and assume I missed something. Regardless, it's another on the theme of choices and consequences.
The Night Hider is the first of two back-to-back portal stories, this one about a haunted wardrobe that is revealed to be the very same wardrobe that haunted C.S. Lewis and inspired his classic children's epic. I'll be honest, I loathed Lewis' saga for the saturation of Christian allegory, and thought the ending was the cruelest, most pandering thing I'd ever read as a young man, but Masterton manages to provide both a summary and a justification for what Narnia represents . . . and then goes all dark on us with the ending. Fantastic stuff.
Underbed is, by far, my favorite story in the collection, partially because I see so much of my childhood self in it, and partly because I loved the ending. Martin is an imaginative young boy who likes to slip under the covers and imagine he's an astronaut or an explorer, working the darkness and the claustrophobia into his fantasies. One night, he goes a little too far, and crawls out of his fantasy into a real adventure that takes him even deeper underbed, into the land of fear and darkness. The ending is quite sad, an all too plausible tragedy . . . with one last scene to follow that grabs hold of the dagger in your heart and twists it with devilish glee.
Night of the Wendigo got off to a slow start for me, and doesn't approach the power or the stylistic majesty of some of the other stories here, but was still a solid 'classic' story of monsters in the night. A lot of atmosphere to this one, with some quick scenes of brutality that are extraordinary in their impact.
Spirits of the Age was a rather surprising tale, part traditional ghost story, and part historical exploration. It all begins with the ghost of Queen Victoria wandering the darkened halls of Osborne House, spotted out of the corner of the eye or at a distance. When Michael finally manages to confront the regal old woman, and we find out precisely why she's returned . . . well, it's a mystical bit of historical reinvention that's handled very, very well.
Witch-Compass is probably my second-favorite of the collection, a story that's gleeful in its darkness and playful in its malicious evil. At its heart are familiar themes of being careful what you wish for, and of wishes having a price, but Masterton goes completely over the top and takes Paul completely over the edge with a tale that will leave you feeling guilty about every chuckle.
Resonant Evil is a bit of a weird story, relying so heavily as it does upon the study of synaesthesia, but it slowly builds to a climax that's both creepy and clever. You're not quite sure whether it's a ghost story or a tale of madness, until the final reveal, when an already dark tale gets darker still.
Beholder is the saddest of the lot, a story that's very much about theme of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. When Fiona accidentally catches a glimpse of her distorted reflection, she's initially horrified, but decides that too many beholders must have looked upon her and stolen away her beauty, leaving it trapped inside their eyes. If you think you can imagine the lengths to which she'll go to get her beauty back . . . well, you're halfway there.
There are several common themes in Figures of Fear, primarily those of portals, hidden worlds, the consuming power of fire, and the consequences of our choices. Don't go looking for happy endings or big moral lessons, though, because these are dark tales, with dark conclusions, and even darker twists to follow. A perfect collection for fans and newcomers alike. Just astounding.
Hardcover, 208 pages
Expected publication: March 1st 2015 by Severn House Publishers