I am a fan of The Twilight Zone: there’s nothing that can compare to that ending of the classic episode “To Serve Man,” but many of the stories in Nightmares of the Damned give it a run for its money. Author Frederick Pangbourne’s story assembly is taut and effective; he doesn’t waste paragraphs on fruitless tangents and keeps the reader engaged. The collection of nineteen tales is a colorful array of classic horror tropes (the wilderness monster, the cursed object, the haunted house) reinvigorated in innovative ways. To up the ante further, instead of relying on the “old faithful” monsters of yore, the author exhumes and pumps fresh blood into a few from forgotten folklore.
The first of my favorite five stories in the collection is the opening tale, “Beneath the Ice,” which begins rather serenely: a lone fisherman sits pensively, enclosed by a makeshift shack. When he spots something curious slip by just under the ice near his feet, he investigates, but he never lives to report his findings, and his death is gruesome. This is Pangbourne’s dark fiction in a nutshell: deceptively placid on its surface while a more sinister life force lies in wait, ready to spring upon the reader when s/he least expects it. Featuring the Misiginebig from Algonquin legend, “Beneath” is a monster fable taken in a fresh direction: the ending genuinely surprised me and served as an effective welcome mat to the rest of the stories.
The author borrows another classic creature lost to time, Germany’s körper dieb, for “Buried Horror,” when a couple moves into a new home and unearths a written narrative detailing a shape-shifter’s visitation of a former resident. Continuing this “found objects” motif is “Dead Storage,” where employees of a lakeside bed and breakfast discover a mysterious steamer trunk in a forgotten area of the basement designated for abandoned items. In both stories, the protagonists learn, too late, that some things are better left lost to time. Similarly, in both stories, the creep factor progresses methodically into overdrive, and anyone with a poorly lit cellar will be loath to visit it after reading either.
In “It’s Right Behind You,” Rose’s estranged father passes away, leaving a sizable estate to his only child, but there’s one catch to her inheritance: Rose must stay overnight in his house alone for a full evening. To amuse herself on this sleepover, she explores the manor’s abandoned rooms, but it’s her own unresolved anger at her parent that becomes the catalyst for a fate that awaits her in the room containing his remains. Finally, like many of Pangbourne’s tales in this collection, the penultimate story, “Speak of the Devil and the Devil Appears,” could easily be adapted into a frighteningly fantastic episode of the new Creepshow. In it, Elise is found covered in blood; her husband is missing, and she can utter nothing but two cryptic words. Later, as she rests in her hospital bed under observation, she continues to clutch the one item she held tightly as the police converged on her home: a seemingly innocuous framed photograph of a doorway. “‘What happened?’ Tanner asked. ‘What happened to David?’” Elise’s response, “You can’t just conjure up the devil and expect him to leave empty-handed,” is chilling and its later application is reminiscent of [my] cult favorite, Event Horizon, in the very best way.
Horror fiction only works when the reader is invested in being scared, which is why the same plot devices (darkness, death, monsters, the unknown) appear over and over: they are what most of us fear. Pangbourne uses this knowledge wisely—there is a trigger for every reader in Nightmares—and he does so with the refreshing originality and rare preciseness that’s required to elevate everyday horror to exceptional horror.