It seems very fitting that the first story in Steve Dillon’s “The Beard and Other Weirdness” begins with a quote from Clive Barker, being that this particular chilling collection would not be out of place rubbing shoulders with Barker’s works. The cover alone brings up good memories of the Books of Blood and Cabal. I will be honest, it was the artwork painted by Dillon himself which piqued my interest from the start.
Set mostly in the fictional English town of Bliss, this compendium of short stories, novellas and a smattering of dark poems, complement each other nicely, while remaining eerily unsettling. A broad and varied selection of his work, Dillon presents us with the literary equivalent of a well-matured, full-bodied red, accompanying a luscious, bloody steak. Each story leaves you salivating — eager for more from the very first taste.
Dillon is a well established and adept horror fiction writer — he knows exactly how to suck you in and bleed you dry. His writing style is not only gleefully dark, but curiously poetic – there is beauty here as well as terror. Each story is masterfully crafted and thoughtfully arranged. A number of characters reoccur in other tales, and intertwine with one another. They help to weave a dreadful tapestry of the town in its bleak entirety. Little nods to popular culture and other horror fiction bring a sense of realness to the stories. An almost, but not quite, breaking of the fourth wall. My favourite in the collection is the eponymous “Beard”, where long-suffering Denzell Darwin’s life gets progressively worse with each new hair he sprouts.
It’s clear that Dillon has drawn some strong inspiration from a smorgasbord of old-school horror classics, but his skills of reinvention mean that while we can identify the sources of his inspiration, we experience his stories as something gripping, exciting and brand new. As a result each story is as refreshing as it is cleverly nostalgic.
Dillon writes dialogue incredibly well, so much so, every different accent, pause and emphasis lingers in the reader’s ears, as if spoken directly from the page. His characters are well-rounded, often larger than life —the descriptions so good we can almost smell the reek of them. If I had one criticism, it might be that some of them follow a certain stereotype, but all good horror knows its tropes, and Dillon uses these to toy with our expectations — just when we think we have it all figured out, he throws us a deadly curve ball and sends us flying down a completely different path. Whether through 15,000 words or 100, Dillon knows how to maintain an intense and relentless pace.
Finally, like a good cigar after a fine meal, the collection is rounded off by a selection of harrowing poems. No naval-gazing teenage angst here, these are miniature gothic melodies, short enough to read in a few moments, but creepy enough to wriggle around inside your brain for hours.
As a fan of Barker, Campbell, King and Koontz, this collection positively thrilled me. There is absolutely no doubt that Dillon is a horror master, and his style is honed and polished. If you like your fear fiction to linger, “The Beard and Other Weirdness” will certainly scratch an itch.
Steve Dillon started writing stories and poems as a teenager. He has been hooked on horror since 1987, when he interviewed Clive Barker at the Weaveworld launch. Originally from Liverpool in the U.K., he now lives in Australia where he started Things In The Well in 2012 as the publishing arm of Oz Horror Con. He frequently publishes horror anthologies to help raise money for charity.
You can find him online at www.facebook.com/stevedillonwriter or on Twitter @ThingsInTheWell