[ Conference with the Dead by Terry Lamsley. Night Shade Books, 2005. 256 pp. ISBN 1-597-800-00-7.]
Terry Lamsley first thundered into the horror world when his self-published booklet of supernatural stories, Under the Crust, discovered by chance by the late Karl Edward Wagner, was nominated for three World Fantasy Awards and ended up winning the Best Novella award for its title story.
Two further short story collections published by Ash-Tree Press, Conference with the Dead (1996) and Dark Matters (2000), established Lamsley as one of the finest contemporary authors of dark fiction. Then, unaccountably, he quit writing and moved to Amsterdam—much to the dismay of anyone who loves good fiction. After a long hiatus, Lamsley has returned in 2005 with contributions to the anthologies Don't Turn Out the Light and Fourbodings, while a new collection featuring two novellas is forthcoming from Subterranean Press.
Conference with the Dead, winner of the International Horror Critics' Guild Award for Best Collection, has been out of print for quite a while, but praise to Night Shade Books for providing a new edition of the book which, trust me, is a veritable feast for anyone interested in supernatural and horror fiction. The volume collects ten stories and those fortunate enough to possess the limited edition will have the extra bonus of a previously unpublished story, "His Very Own Spatchen".
The stories are reminiscent of MR James and of Ramsey Campbell at their best, but Lamsley certainly has a style of his own; he is a terrific storyteller with an uncanny ability to establish unsettling atmospheres with only a few simple phrases. His prose is fluid and precise, his characters totally credible and his dialogue as natural as the conversations one hears everyday on a commuter train, without becoming sloppy or inconsequential.
When I first read "Walking the Dog" I thought it was one of the darkest, scariest tales I had ever put my eyes on. Nine years and many books later, I still feel the same: the mysterious, hungry, dog-like creature who dominates its human helpers as slaves will haunt your dreams for a long time. This outstanding story, pervaded by an eerie atmosphere of terror and helplessness, is one of Lamsley's most extraordinary creations, and should be sufficient to include Lamsley in the Olympus of great horror writers.
Other highlights collected here include "Blade and Bone," a nasty, excellent tale about a man exploring the countryside who unintentionally arouses evil forces best left alone. Terrible entities from the past will reach out to take their vengeance on the na´ve trespasser.
Not everything here is a gem, but even in the less accomplished stories, Lamsley's style shines through. "Inheritance," possibly the weakest story in the volume, portrays the upsetting legacy passed on his sons by an unloving father, whereas the superb "The Extension" once again displays Lamsley at his best. In this truly terrifying piece, the terrible secrets from an unholy past return to claim the soul of a man whose birth was a secret itself and whose mother was the centre of unmentionable, wicked deeds.
Lamsley's "The Break" finds a young boy on a holiday in a strange seaside resort with his ailing grandparents. The narrative has the texture of a nightmare where everything and everyone is weird and menacing, but it is so much so that as the tale proceeds (and goes on a bit too long), it becomes increasingly hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. By contrast, the short "Someone to Dump On" is a masterful piece where the realistic description of the inconveniences of an ill-fated holiday and the irritable mood of a discontented wife provide the background to a tragedy taking place beyond the boundaries of reality.
Another great story is "Running in the Family", ostensibly a ghost story where not one but two spectres make their appearance, actually the unmerciful description of a family's disintegration and the downfall of life's illusions. And in the unnerving, obscure "Screens" a malevolent man comes back from his grave to track down both humans and animals, while in the sad, disquieting "The Toddler" a little girl and her odd doll come back from a dark past to haunt forever a lonely woman.
"The Outer Darkness" is an unforgettable tale, one of the collection's highlights. Two men mourning the same woman, meet again in a desolate, disturbing afterworld which is emptiness and silence. If you missed this book the first time, I strongly advise you: don't repeat the mistake.