"The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Dark Ink
Written by Rebecca Rowland
2018, 274 pages, Fiction
Released on September 14th, 2018
The debut anthology The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight by Rebecca Rowland is an unpredictable mix of seventeen tales uncovering horror of the everyday variety. Forget vampires, werewolves and ghosts, instead Rowland turns her flashlight upon the unpleasant things which occur behind the curtains of the seemingly normal homes. Much of Rowland’s inspiration comes from everyday life; newspaper articles, notorious crimes or snippets from television and were written over a six-month period between 2017 and 2018. After you’ve read a few of these stories you’ll be looking twice at that friendly old lady from across the street or the guy mowing his lawn. Although not all the tales click, there are some were very good ones, and a handful of others had me chuckling or scratching my head.
If I was to pick an absolute favourite, that would be "Open House", where a childless couple play a sadistic and unpleasant game with an unfortunate child every Halloween. This story is really original, darkly funny and an absolute corker. The way it leisurely unwraps itself over a normal Saturday afternoon is pure genius. The couple target their potential victim by visiting school open functions and if they spot a child who does not have a parent in close attendance, they invite the kid to a fabricated birthday party. Hoping the parent doesn’t look at the invite too closely and stupidly leaves their kid at the non-existent party, then the rather unpleasant shenanigans kicks off. This is a beauty of a story and I could really visualise the poor fat kid getting rammed full of candy and puking up everywhere as everything escalates. It also has a great ending which will have you cringing. This collection is worth renting on Kindle Unlimited for this story alone.
Other strong entries include "Boundaries" in which a high-school drama teacher becomes obsessed with a transgender pupil who visits his office after school every night to hear him bragging about his previous glory years on the big stage. I really enjoyed the way this edgy tale unfolds and it has a couple of real cringe-worthy moments and a top-notch ending. It’s worth noting that a number of the stories have a strong school theme and as Rowland works in education, her personal experience definitely adds a level of authenticity to these particular entries. "Petrichor" is another highlight, told over many years of an abusive relationship in which a father controls his family through fear and violence. This begins with smacking his two girls when they are small for scribbling on a desk, to much more serious abuse when they are close to leaving school and dreaming of escaping to university; when the cracks begin to grow with the escalation of violence. This is a well-structured story which really gets into the head of the little girls, and it is interesting to see the author does not hold back on violence inflicted upon female characters. This is also the case with a few other stories.
"Stiff as a Board" is a good laugh and is a quirkily original inclusion and could make an amusing thirty-minute television sketch if the tone was correct. A concierge for a posh apartment block, who has a loser for a husband, helps lug the shopping of an ungrateful tenant to his apartment. But upon arrival in his flat the guy has a heart attack and dies, but the concierge does not call the police; instead she senses and opportunity in which her waster husband takes full advantage. Rather than out and out horror, it is black comedy, which is pitched just right. "It Comes Around" is a shocking, but very cleverly simply told tale of school bullying which held my attention throughout, with some powerful imagery and an unexpected twist halfway through. The bullying scenes are graphic, believable and ultimately quite shocking. There is much to enjoy in "Annabel, Me" also, a sick little number with another very strong school connection which is equally well told; concerning a teacher friendship which becomes an infatuation and then something much worse.
"Munchies" is perhaps the strangest entry in the anthology. After a man persuades his wife to start a family, her reluctant pregnancy comes with a dreadful side effect. You hear of pregnant women getting the ‘munchies’ for jars of pickles, peanut butter and what not, but in this story it’s so much worse. But the way in which the husband deals with it is equally quirky. Odd but very readable and quite funny.
There are a few other stories which are well written, but ultimately are hindered by predictable endings. I enjoyed "Interlopers", in which a very unpleasant rich lawyer kills two immigrants with her car and uses her influences to escape jail. But I saw the ending a mile away. Likewise for "A Shot of Knowledge", in which a substitute teacher’s curiosity about how a veteran colleague controls his classes comes back to seriously bite her on the backside. There is also a powerfully written rape and revenge story "All Bets Are Off", but the plot has nowhere to go. "Just a Taste" tells the tale of a grandfather recounting a scary story to his grandkids, the story he tells them is nastily compelling, but the ending is so predictable it is untrue. In actual fact, ‘the story within a story’ could exist without the boring old grandad aspect at all.
A few stories seem a bit pointless or just do not go anywhere worthwhile. These include "SWM Seeks Release", about an online dating site predator; "A Clean Getaway", a one-night stand that goes wrong; and "Déjà vu", focussing on a game of Russian roulette that really bites the bullet. The very best short stories are often remembered because of their endings and this is one of the areas where this collection comes up a touch short, as twist or unpredictable endings are not its strongest feature.
A very well-known UK horror author who brought out two highly successful and award-winning anthologies in 2016 and 2017 commented that he had many other stories he chose to omit, as he felt quality was more important than quantity. I would give Rebecca Rowland this same advice. Although there are some good stories in The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, seventeen is a lot and in the end, it becomes a slog to finish it. It’s probably best enjoyed and dipping into here and there. If a few of the weaker stories had been culled, the anthology would have been all the better for it.
None of these seventeen stories had previously been published or even submitted and rejected. One could suggest it was very naïve publishing a single author anthology with completely untested stories without testing the water with magazines or online publications. After all, attempting to get your work published in magazines is a tried and tested journey for any budding writer. Ever experienced and well published authors still get rejected or excited by that acceptance letter! I’m sure a few of the better stories here would have found homes in dark fiction magazines, and the process could have helped the author weed out the weaker entries. Rebecca Rowland took a chance, she could have crashed and burned, but instead just about pulls it off.
Although "Open House" is a quality and original tale, the anthology lacks genuine outstanding stories for which the collection would be truly remembered for. However, the author should be applauded for producing such a solid and wide-ranging collection which bravely avoids supernatural horror; she has a wicked sense of humour, explores surreal situations with panache and tackles some tough uncompromising areas of everyday horror.