The Author Behind the Editor
Renowned as the editor of countless successful books of dark fiction, including the mythical Pan Book of Horror Stories, Dark Voices and Dark Terrors anthologies (co-edited with Stephen Jones), David Sutton is also the author of a number of excellent supernatural short stories that appeared over thirty years in some of the best genre magazines and anthologies. Unaccountably they have never been collected in a single volume before. Sean Wright of Crowswing Books finally took the matter in his own hands by giving Sutton the chance to showcase his work as a horror author in Clinically Dead and Other Tales of the Supernatural, an elegant, beautifully produced collection. It was high time, and the publisher must be praised for his thoughtfulness and good taste.
The selected tales deal with a variety of subjects but, curiously enough, the core group of stories seem to revolve around the theme of a modern man (usually a British tourist) facing the mysteries and the horrors of an ancient world that he barely knows, let alone understands. Interestingly, and not meaning to do injustice to Sutton’s originality, this seems to be a topic particularly dear to a certain pack of British horror writers, arguably to be numbered among the most prone to employ the chiaroscuro in their fictional work. Basil Copper is the first name coming to my mind, and one of Terry Lamsley’s latest novellas ("Made Ready") tackles a similar subject.
So in the subtly unsettling and masterly crafted "The Holidaymakers", pagan rites and beliefs still ominously linger in remote places, while in "Changing Tack" a girl on vacation taking a trip to visit ancient ruins — once the location of a witch coven — undergoes a kind of predictable shape-shifting. Of course Greece provides the ideal scenery for unearthing ancient horrors as in "The Janissaries", an effective tale about an excursion to a monastery turning into a nightmare, and in the compelling "Those of Rhenea", revisiting the darkest Greek myths through the experience of two unsuspecting tourists.
On a different note, "Photo-Call" describes in a grim fashion à la Dario Argento, the long-awaited but disturbing encounter of a young photographer with his professional idol. The title story "Clinically Dead" is a tragic journey into illness and its related horrors. In "Monkey Business", a compelling new tale making its first appearance in the present collection, a monkey skull becomes the instrument of a terrible curse which passes down from one individual to another.
"La Serenissima" constituted Sutton’s own contribution to the excellent and now scarce anthology, Phantoms of Venice — another of his wonderful exploits as an editor. A decaying Venice is the apt setting for an extremely disquieting story with an unusual erotic undercurrent, featuring two twin sisters facing an inexplicable evil.
And now to the best and the worst of the book. By far my favorite story is "How the Buckie was Saved", an outstanding supernatural sea tale set during WWII, displaying a steady, skilful narrative style and superb characterization. By contrast in the novella "In the Land of the Rainbow Snake", a rather implausible story of aboriginal magic, Sutton appears like a fast-track runner unfit for long-distance races. A master of the short story, he seems ill at ease with long fiction, his evocative and concise prose getting so diluted as to induce, now and then, a mild sense of boredom.
With said exception, the book is highly recommendable to any dark fiction enthusiast, either familiar or unfamiliar with the author’s work. Clinically Dead collects only a portion of Sutton’s large but neglected production so we are left with the hope that more volumes by this fine writer will become available in the future.