It starts with the title. That’s a great title. It starts with the title, and it grows with every page. ‘The Narrows’ is one of the most effective horror stories I have ever read. It made me despair.
It’s not uncommon when reading horror stories to experience repulsion, sometimes shock, suspense if the author’s good at what they’re doing, and at times they can leave you utterly, utterly drained. However, this is the first time a horror story has ever driven me to despair. Despair not just for the characters in the story, but for all of us.
‘The Narrows’ is about a small group of survivors of a nuclear attack, three teachers and the pupils they got out of their school. They take refuge in an underground system of canals and the adjoining caves and passage: the Narrows. Of course, they find more than they were expecting down there.
What Bestwick does so wonderfully here is to draw out the hopelessness of their situation. There is no good way out. There is no way out. On the surface, there’s only radiation sickness and death; in The Narrows there is something else, perhaps something worse. As he draws you through their story, as more options are cut off, as more goes terribly wrong, you cannot help but despair at realising that even if the best happens for them, the characters will still never see sunlight again.
And this, I think, is the core of what is so effective about the story. It forces you to confront the fact that, even if everything goes your way, you’re still going to end up dead. You’re going to have a probably painful, undignified and lonely death. If you’re lucky.
This story has traditional horrory scares, and things that slither in dark corners, and lightless passages that won’t let you back to where you came from, but it is the all-pervading sense of doom, unavoidable doom, that makes this story truly horrifying. This is one of the best short horror stories – no, one of the best short stories I have ever read.
I found the story in Best Horror of the Year 1, but it’s also available in this anthology from Pendragon Press, edited by Gary McMahon. The Ellen Datlow anthology I found to be patchy (entertainingly so), but it had some really good stuff from Nicholas Royle, Glen Hirshberg, Steve Duffy, Daniel Kaysen, Ray Russell, and Margo Lanagan. It’s great value, and you’re sure to find something you like (although I think ‘The Narrows’ is worth the price of entry on its own).
The Fade To Grey anthology has other stories from Paul Finch, Mark West, Gary McMahon, and Stuart Young, all of whom are up-and-coming British horror writers with some great stories under their belts. If they are all as good as this story it will be £7.99 well-spent.