“THE FOX” (Book Review)Book and Comic Reviews,Books/Art/Culture,News Sean Hogan
For those who subscribe to the notion that horror fiction thrives on brevity, the recent proliferation of small presses offering shorter tales of the uncanny for the equivalent price of a newsstand magazine is a welcome development. UK publishers such as Nightjar and Spectral have dedicated themselves to the chapbook form, and their success in finding and commissioning quality material can be measured in the number of these stories that have subsequently gone on to be included within the array of ‘Year’s Best’ genre anthologies.
With Conrad Williams’ THE FOX, This Is Horror submit their own latest contribution to the chapbook market. The multi-award winning Williams has described the act of writing short fiction as “instant gratification,” and one would hope the same holds true for the reader. Received wisdom has it that mainstream publishers are habitually leery of short stories, and yet much of the finest work in horror fiction has been written in the form; with commercial markets for such material becoming increasingly more limited, the dedication of these small presses to nurturing it should be both applauded and supported.
The tale itself concerns a city family’s camping holiday, undertaken with the usual vaguely misguided notion of spending some quality time together. Given the young age of the parents’ two daughters, one might think that some catered, all-inclusive creature comforts should have been in order, but the bourgeois desire to “get back to nature” wins out, with the result that the clan find themselves camping out in a frozen field, struggling to keep themselves warm, fed and well-rested.
As any horror fan knows, no good can come of urban folk straying into the rural backwoods, and this story proves to be no exception. Haunted by memories of an act of petty childhood cruelty, the narrator grows increasingly disturbed by the apparent presence of a fox on their campsite; the lurking spectre of predation and death rapidly casting a pall over the family’s attempts at cosy bucolic domesticity.
Williams’ build-up is tautly written, with a mounting sense of underlying unease. On the surface, nothing appears to be particularly awry, beyond a city family having to deal with the naturally-occurring everyday unpleasantries of countryside living. But the slowly-accruing patchwork of disquieting details—the animal noises in the night, the disappearing fox corpse—hint at a different state of affairs.
Truth be told, the slow burn of the story is superior to its eventual payoff; once we learn the precise details of our narrator’s childhood transgression, the ultimate reversal of the climax becomes slightly pat and predictable. But Williams’ rigid control over the gradual tightening of his narrative vice make the visit to this particular stretch of countryside well worth the journey, however uninviting the bleak surroundings might be.