Synopsis: Join a group of survivors who wash up on a deserted island only to make a horrifying discovery. Meet a cold-hearted killer who befriends a strange young girl at a motorway service station. Travel along eerie country lanes in a world gone dark, enter a block of flats with the most monstrous of occupants and accompany a ruthless estate agent on a house sale that goes apocalyptically wrong. These eleven twisted tales of the macabre from the bestselling author of The Chalk Man and The Burning Girls are your perfect companions as the nights draw in… If you’re brave enough.
I’ve been a fan of C.J. Tudor’s novels since her debut in January 2018 with The Chalk Man; it was one of the first books that I reviewed for this blog and it has become something of an annual tradition to review her subsequent novels. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of personal reasons, Tudor and her publishers decided to cancel her planned 2022 release in favour of developing next year’s book, The Drift. Luckily for me and my ongoing streak, they also decided to publish a collection of short stories to fill in the gap for this year!
Each of the eleven tales featured in the collection comes with a foreword that gives some context and motivation behind the story, many of which were written during the pandemic and have a post-apocalyptic feel to them. For the purposes of this review, I will give a short ‘micro-review’ of each story and a final score for the entire collection as a whole.
1.) The End of the Liner
An odd hybrid of Wall-E and Snowpiercer, The End of the Liner features a post-apocalyptic society living aboard giant cruise ships after dry land becomes uninhabitable. Forced to follow the rules of “the creators”, those living on the ship must maintain the monotonous routine of a themed cruise for the rest of their lives until they are “retired” overboard.
A short, sharp jab of post-apocalyptic horror, The End of the Liner plays with the traditional murder mystery format, but adds a sinister dystopian twist. Within fifty pages, Tudor evokes memories of stories as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale and I am Legend, whilst delivering an effective “be careful what you wish for” twist.
2.) The Block
Originally intended as a YA Horror novel, The Block feels reminiscent of a Doctor Who adventure (a fact that’s referenced in the story itself) with monstrous beings chasing a group of teenagers in an abandoned tower block. Tudor does a brilliant job at capturing the essence of her locales on the page, making this grimy urban nightmare come to life. The twist ending is somewhat predictable, but I enjoyed the sudden shift from typical teen drama to alien horror midway through the tale. Extremely visual and cinematic, it would have been a perfect fit for the classic “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” series on Nickelodeon.
3.) Runaway Blues
A haunting short story about love, music and betrayal, Runaway Blues shares a lot of in common with Tudor’s debut novel, The Chalk Man, particularly in regards to the ending. Tudor describes it as “her most King-esque short story” in her foreword, but I would argue that it’s the most C.J. Tudor-esque short story in the collection so far. She has always had a knack for blindsiding readers with that sudden knife-in-the-gut twist and it is on full-display here, even if it does feel a bit derivative of The Chalk Man’s shock ending. I really enjoyed the slow build-up surrounding the mystery of “The Fat Man” and I love how well she captures the narrative voice guiding the tale.
4.) The Completion
Possibly the weakest story in the collection, The Completion has an interesting build-up with the concept of an unscrupulous estate agent (is there any other kind?) attempting to con an elderly man into selling his house, only to have the tables turned on him. There are some effective moments – Tudor does a great job making readers connect with her narrators – but it is the final confrontation and resolution of that conflict that feels a bit weak, perhaps because it feels unearned and unfulfilling. The dialogue feels slightly off too; I get that the estate agent is meant to be unlikeable, but it seemed a bit too irreverent an ending. I’d have preferred a more serious and karmic ending for the character, in line with the film that inspired the final act; The Wicker Man.
5.) The Lion at the Gate
Ticking off many of C.J. Tudor’s regular motifs (teen nostalgia, urban horror, subtle supernatural threat, unreliable narrators), The Lion at the Gate is a genuinely creepy tale that leaves the reader wondering what is truth and what is fiction. Tudor builds up the tension nicely, turning a quiet cul-de-sac into a grim nightmare with horror lurking beneath the mundane. The sudden ending caught me off-guard, as did the ambiguous ending – without getting too deep into spoilers, my take is that the supernatural bits were imagined and the real threat was a lot more human in nature. Definitely one of the more impactful stories in this collection, The Lion at the Gate is a thought-provoking read – no matter which interpretation you take from the conclusion.
Acting as both a sequel from The Taking of Annie Thorne and a missing chapter from The Other People, Gloria unites the two titles together with a chance meeting between two characters from each book – effectively a team-up for the ‘Tudor-verse’. To be honest, I’d forgotten some of the key details from both books since it had been years since I’d read them, although the story can still be enjoyed without any knowledge of those prior novels. Gloria is an interesting character and I can see why Tudor was keen to revisit her – I’d have been intrigued to find out what her role would have been in the ‘novel that never was’. Less horror and more crime thriller, Gloria is a fun albeit slightly self-indulgent spin-off that creates continuity between Tudor’s books, and has a neat little sting in the tale too.
7.) I’m Not Ted
More humourous than any of the other stories in this collection, I’m Not Ted is a short morality tale that telegraphs its twist fairly obviously up front, but is no less enjoyable for it. I really enjoyed seeing Tudor’s lighter side and the back-and-forth between Not-Ted and his guide was extremely funny. Without giving much away, I liked the premise of the story and operation occurring behind “the elevation department” – for some reason, it reminded me of The Cabin in the Woods and the bureaucracy attached to something supernatural.
8.) Final Course
A clear candidate for expansion into a full novel, Final Course is the highlight of the collection and tells the story of an Earth plunged into darkness with eldritch creatures lurking in the shadows, and the story of a father and daughter attending a dinner party in this post-apocalyptic nightmare. At times feeling like an Agatha Christie whodunit thanks to its remote country farmhouse setting, Final Course is replete with enough twists and turns to leave the reader feeling dizzy. Somehow Tudor is able to condense a whole world of possibilities into fifty pages, leaving this reader wanting more from this universe.
9.) The Copy Shop
Similar in tone to I’m Not Ted, The Copy Shop is less of a horror story and more of a quirky supernatural tale with a twist. Originally intended for publication in a woman’s weekly magazine, this story has an element of domestic whimsy that’s not typically seen in Tudor’s writing and feels akin to something from Tales of the Unexpected. It was surprisingly wholesome (again, possibly due to its intended audience) and doesn’t have the same sinister aftertaste that the other stories have. Fun to read and an interesting glimpse into Tudor’s non-horror style, The Copy Shop is a light-hearted record scratch on this eclectic mix-tape of adventures (pardon my mixed metaphors!).
Reminiscent of The Shining at times but with an ethereal eerie quality, Dust is another story that covers some of Tudor’s familiar motifs – most prominently, the unreliable narrator. The setting of an empty Spanish hotel covered in dust is extremely evocative and Tudor really digs under the skin of her protagonist, slowly revealing the dark secrets buried underneath denial and self-delusion. The plot is somewhat similar to I’m Not Ted, but wildly different in tone and the twist ending is expertly delivered at precisely the right moment. Again, this feels like it could be an episode of Tales of the Unexpected – bitesize horror that lingers in the mind long after the final page.
11.) Butterfly Island
With a Horror B-Movie vibe, Butterfly Island has an extremely engaging premise as a group of rag-tag adventurers make their way to an abandoned island where a reclusive billionaire once operated a butterfly sanctuary. Of course, the butterflies are flesh-eating butterflies and there’s a crazed killer roaming the island and well, then the action stops rather abruptly – so much so, that I had to check whether my eBook had pages missing or not. In her introduction, Tudor mentions that this is one short story she contemplates expanding into a novella, and I wholeheartedly recommend she does – I really liked the goofiness of the premise and think there’s plenty more of the story left to be told.
Surprisingly eclectic for a horror anthology, this collection showcases a broader spectrum of Tudor’s writing styles although her recognisable authorial flourishes are still present in some form. For me, Final Course might be my favourite story in the book, although Butterfly Island was equally as enthralling and deserving of expansion into a full novel. I also enjoyed the creepy atmosphere of Runaway Blues and the Goosebumps-esque YA horror, The Block. One common theme through many of the stories was the apocalypse as a backdrop and human nature preserving despite of it, whether it be cruise ships continuing to operate, estate agents continuing to ply their trade or dinner parties in secluded farmlands. Having lived through the coronavirus pandemic, mostly by binging Netflix and working from home, it feels strangely relatable.
Overall, this is a fantastic little collection of stories and I loved experiencing eleven C.J Tudor stories in a bite-size form. A true master of her craft, each story excels in slowly unravelling the dark mysteries surrounding its protagonists and the situations they’ve found themselves in. A Sliver of Darkness is the perfect accompaniment for these long autumn nights.
Overall Score – ★★★★
A Sliver of Darkness is available as an eBook from Amazon Kindle, or collected in a physical format on Amazon and all good bookstores. It is also available as an Audible audiobook, and can be downloaded free as part of its trial promotion.