In recent times, fans of literary horror have been treated to a remarkable spate of short story collections that explore the fuzzy boundaries between genres and between worlds. The writers of these books might be considered heirs to the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman or the “dark tales” of Shirley Jackson. The latest addition to this pleasing trend: Dan Coxon’s debut Only the Broken Remain.
Take the arresting “Roll Up, Roll Up”, for example. Robbie applies to join the circus, and after a disastrous interview he unexpectedly finds himself hired. As he takes on a series of increasingly public roles, it becomes clear the ringmaster keeps him around not in spite of his ineptitude, but because of it. The story inevitably invokes Aickman’s classic “The Swords” – deliberately and humorously so, when Robbie is handed a sword with which to collect rubbish – but Coxon’s story has a strange and devious character all its own.
Paired with the opening story “Stanislav in Foxtown”, “Roll Up, Roll Up” introduces a theme that persists throughout the collection: that of a misfit finding ambiguous salvation among those who seem to exist on the outskirts of reality. This only grows stronger in “Feather and Twine”, the tale of a taxidermist who glimpses a winged creature – “something not quite like a man” – during a seizure. Abandoning his studies, Brandon devotes himself fanatically to his taxidermy business, seeking to create the ultimate escape. It is for the reader to decide whether Brandon’s final act is one of exultation or collapse.
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A trio of stories draw inspiration from the rich seams of folk horror. “Baddavine” is a delightfully ghoulish story about a small community assailed by the whispering voice of some unknown creature. It’s an inversion of the outsider theme, as the villagers form a mob to drive out this “threat”; who, in the end, is the true monster here? This story, “Rut” and “After the Reservoir” might all be set in the same place, with the latter two each involving a young man sighting something inexplicable amid the murk of an ancient wood.
There’s a taste of something quite different in “No One’s Child”, which, for this reader, stands as the most memorable story in the collection. It is also the only explicitly historical tale among a clutch of contemporary stories. The life of a young evacuee takes a dramatically odd turn when she meets a new “friend”, a cellar-dwelling being whose “grey metallic sheen” conjures up images of a fleshy robot. The pair proceed to take gruesome revenge on the girl’s despotic guardian. With an impeccable atmosphere and a distinctive voice, this story creates a world I wanted to spend more time exploring, even as I was repelled.
“All the Letters in His Van”, concerning a young couple stranded in a deeply sinister town, is a perfectly haunting way to conclude the collection… and, when you realise exactly what it’s doing, it is also very funny. In a variety of styles, Only the Broken Remain certainly fulfils its promise of “unearthing the no man’s land between dreams and nightmares”. This is weird horror to chill, unnerve and, occasionally, raise a wry smile.
Only the Broken Remain by Dan Coxon is published by Black Shuck Books.