SSM Guest Review: How to Make Monsters by Gary McMahon from Sharon Ring

Collection: How to Make Monsters
Author: Gary McMahon
Publisher: Morrigan Books
Published: Sept 2008

I originally read this collection of stories back in May 2009. It was one of my earliest introductions to Gary McMahon’s work. I’ve reviewed it once already but couldn’t resist the chance to have this collection added to Gav’s Short Story Month. I’ve edited the first review to add some more recent thoughts on the collection but have left much of the review intact. So, here follows most of the original review, closely followed by an additional thought or two.

I’ve read all the stories in this collection twice now and am already itching to read through them again. There are fourteen stories in all, some of which you may have come across in other publications, many of which are brand new to this particular collection.

What Gary has achieved in this collection is outstanding story-telling. He has peeked into the darkest recesses of our lives, spotted the monsters that lurk there and dragged them out for examination under a harsh spotlight.

There is plenty within the pages of Gary’s book to make even the most hard-hearted horror reader squirm uneasily. Some stories hit harder than others, but as with any kind of story-telling, this depends on the reader as much as the author.

Now for the hard part, picking out a handful of stories from this exceptional collection.

First up is Pumpkin Night, a seemingly quiet tale of a grieving husband. As he carves a Halloween pumpkin, he begins to reminisce about his wife and their life together. With ritualistic precision he completes the carving, revealing the darker side of their marriage and his plans for the future. For the first few paragraphs of this story, I felt I was reading something almost gentle in tone. I was expecting a spooky twist, but certainly nothing like the gruesome revelations that ensued. This is definitely one to read by candlelight this coming Halloween.

Next up is Owed, a story of debt and revenge. Owed covers the depths and limits of what debt can do to people with financial worries. A single mother finds herself with only one option left to help clear her debt to a loan shark. What follows is truly unpleasant and it does not make for easy reading. Where McMahon leads this tale though, makes the disturbing narrative all the more poignant, when the mother finds help from a most unexpected source.

Last up is the final story in the collection, A Bit of the Dark. It’s the longest of the tales and is easily one of the most unnerving short stories I’ve read in a very long time. The narrative is centred on three characters; father, mother and son. They’ve come to visit the site of a freshly demolished orphanage where Frank (the father) spent some of his early years. They were not happy years, and Frank is hoping that after seeing the demolished building he can begin to close the door on the horrendous troubles he suffered there. Nothing is that easy though; father, mother and son are swiftly pulled into a frightening battle. This is a genuinely creepy and disturbing story, with some intense imagery that will cling to your mind long after you’ve put the book down. It’s also heart-breaking in places, I cried more than once whilst reading this particular story.

Read this book. Be troubled by it. Be scared by it. Most of all, be safe in the knowledge that British horror writing is alive, kicking and screaming, in the very capable hands of Gary McMahon.

The three stories I chose to focus on in the original review each revolve around a family. This is a theme which crops up in many of Gary’s short stories; something he explores at great length and with consummate skill. Grieving families, broken families, dysfunctional families; he shies away from none of it. His short stories, often set in the most urban and suburban of locations, take the reader into the darkest of territories and explore many of the most frightening and disturbing aspects of family life. In the original review I said that “British horror writing is alive, kicking and screaming, in the very capable hands of Gary McMahon”. I stand by this; Gary is far and away one of the most outstanding and disturbing writers of the British horror scene.

You can see more from Sharon on her blog –

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