“I’d left her out here all alone, with nothing but the snow and the night that closes in too soon. How could anyone live so remotely without it creeping into them – the cold, endless blue dark?”
That’s taken from ‘The Snow Child’, Alison Littlewood’s story which opens my latest anthology, Isolation: The Horror Anthology. There’s good reason why I placed it first in the book. When I originally came up with the idea of isolation as a unifying theme for an anthology, this was the kind of story I was expecting. Frozen wastes, distant towns, the cold, and the dark, the effects that has upon the mind… That was the horror of Isolation.
It’s a familiar trope in horror stories. From The Thing to Ally Wilkes’s debut novel All the White Spaces, the frozen wastelands of the poles are ripe with terror (without forgetting, of course, The Terror). The extreme conditions are clearly part of that – I’ve read that sustained exposure to extreme cold can cause hallucinations – but there’s also the solitary world they create. It’s little surprise that the most memorable image from Kubrick’s The Shining, after Jack Torrance smashing through a door, is poor old Jack sitting frozen in the snow. The Outlook Hotel is far from civilisation – we’re not shocked when things go south.
What surprised me when the stories started coming in for Isolation: The Horror Anthology, however, was how diverse their interpretation of that theme was. I was expecting those icy wastes, and the abandoned cabins in the woods, and the settlements (or the families) cut off from society – but what I received was so much more interesting, and more personal.
One of the threads that runs through the stories in Isolation is the possibility of being isolated within society. I suspect this is part of the Covid-19 pandemic’s long shadow. Even those of us who live in inner cities found ourselves cut off from society during the various lockdowns and mask mandates – it no longer seemed unfeasible that you might reside in one of the biggest cities on the planet and still be starved of human contact.
Some of the stories in Isolation explore this explicitly. Others appear to have been influenced by the pandemic even if they never name it. Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Blind House’ features a freelance editor who is working from home, and who freely admits that “He preferred his fellow tenants, not that he saw much of them, even those who shared the middle floor with him.” The reference to the new culture of working from home is clear, along with an accompanying fear of big cities, crowded spaces. Reading it again, I’m strongly reminded of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.
Sometimes the isolation is less literal. Angela Slatter’s ‘Solivagant’ tackles the loneliness of being trapped in an abusive relationship. This is a horror story, so the relationship just happens to be with a vampire – but as Kitty Lang says, “Maybe she sees all the years in my face that I normally hide. Maybe she sees how many of them I’ve been alone despite a constant companion I should have ditched an eon ago; how deep that isolation has eaten into me.” The solitude and fear of being trapped with an abusive partner is just as terrifying as the snowy wastes – and, for many of us, even more real.
Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘How We Are’ also captures the loneliness of being an outcast within society; someone either labelled as ‘different’, or self-identifying as being unlike the crowds of people around them. In the story, this is complicated even further by an ‘ability’ that only manifests when she lays hands on other people – once again, the lack of physical contact during the pandemic casts its shadow.
Beyond this, some of the stories take us to a post-apocalyptic future. Tim Lebbon’s ‘After the Bridge’ shows us an isolated survivor of an unspecified disaster. “I drink water that seeps down through the soil,” he confesses when he’s finally reunited with what remains of humanity. “I eat worms and woodlice and an occasional spider, and a few times I’ve managed to catch something larger.” This is isolation stripped back to its barest truth: the human desire to survive. The life he has lived is debasing and often disgusting, but despite the loneliness, he has still hung on, waiting for a day when it will end.
And that’s the other surprise that these stories delivered as I compiled them for the anthology. Yes, isolation can be hard to bear. It goes beyond loneliness, and takes on a raw, aching quality, a yearning for company and support, a hand to hold in the darkness. But when that hand comes – when a connection is finally made, as it sometimes is in these stories – it’s like the curtains have been thrown open and the light streams through.
Isolation: The Horror Anthology, edited by Dan Coxon, is out now, published by Titan Books in North America and in the UK. Here’s the synopsis:
Lost in the wilderness, or alone in the dark, isolation remains one of our deepest held fears. This horror anthology from Shirley Jackson and British Fantasy Award finalist Dan Coxon calls on leading horror writers to confront the dark moments, the challenges that we must face alone: survivors in a world gone silent; the outcast shunned by society; the quiet voice trapped in the crowd; the lonely and forgotten, screaming into the abyss.
Experience the chilling terrors of Isolation.
Featuring stories by:
- Nina Allan
- Laird Barron
- Ramsey Campbell
- M.R. Carey
- Chịkọdịlị Emelumadu
- Brian Evenson
- Owl Goingback
- Gwendolyn Kiste
- Joe R. Lansdale
- Tim Lebbon
- Alison Littlewood
- Ken Liu
- Jonathan Maberry
- Michael Marshall Smith
- Mark Morris
- Lynda E. Rucker
- A.G. Slatter
- Paul Tremblay
- Lisa Tuttle
- Marian Womack
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