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The Pumpkin King and Other Tales of Terror

by R. David Fulcher

Rating: ****

The Pumpkin King and Other Tales of Terror is a concise collection of twenty horror shorts, some only a few pages, and all subtly different in form, perspective, and tone.

There is a reassuringly classic feel to Fulcher’s horror anthology which opens with “Eulogy to E.A. Poe”. Overall, the tales are traditionally spooky, with a couple of exceptions, and combined with Fulcher’s measured yet descriptive prose provide spine-tinglingly creepy reading.

Subtle yet comparable themes thread through several stories, from the settings to character motivation. Often the individuals subjected to terror are either vulnerable or possibly not quite reliable, yet all are credible characters and the horror is believable.

Fulcher knowingly draws on some recognizable horror tropes yet without tokenism. There is a pleasantly familiar feel to the stories for fans of the genre, but Fulcher employs a wealth of snappy and inventive twists, making the collection feel intriguingly fresh.

The first tale, “Marienburg Castle” was horribly atmospheric and one of a triumvirate set in a time of combat adding an additionally disturbing layer to the narrative. Fulcher’s writing shivers with dread and unease from the opening paragraph and although barely four pages long, the characters, especially Walker, are immediately engaging.

The titular story, “The Pumpkin King”, is a masterclass in a short horror. Simple, effective, and psychologically nasty. Similarly, the other gourd-related tale, “Pumpkin Seed Spit”, was one of the strongest with a surreal, visual quality and a dark 80s schlock-horror vibe.

A couple have a tiny sprinkling of occasional humor, “Heavenly Strains” and “A Matter of Taste” have subdued comic asides and, in both, slightly pathetic protagonists.

In “The Man Next Door”, the chilling weirdness is enhanced by using the perspective of Billy, a child, and the contrast of Fulcher’s nicely realized sun-bleached, late 70s setting.

The sixth story, “My Days With Mahalia” is unfolded in epistolary form and features a B-17 aircraft, one of a number to do so. Like the majority of Fulcher’s distilled narratives, the fear comes from the unknown or the unsaid with both reader and protagonist using their imagination to drive the horror.

Merry are We of the Lake” is brushed with science-fiction and lovely, descriptive imagery. Likewise, “Dreaming, The Copper City” with its whiff of futurism. “A Night for Animals” and “The Watcher’s Web” flicker across into fantasy and retribution.  

A couple are a little too abrupt; “Night Flight” feels underdeveloped and “For the Children” is a touch abstruse. “A Night Out Mr. Bones” was slightly predictable.

However, “Extra! Extra!” and “The Flight Dummy” simmer with macabre, grisly violence. The latter is especially frightening with the added fear factor of an unmanned passenger jet flying at altitude and, consequently, a chillingly desperate and thought-provoking ending.

The last three stories differ gently, shot through with a dark, mythical air and a generous pinch of folkloric horror, qualities which are foregrounded by Fulcher’s softly archaic register.

The first of the concluding trio, “The Huntress” has a rich, gothic sensuousness inspired by Wilde’s Dorian Gray but very much its own compelling tale. “The Faerie Lights” tips a nod to The Brothers Grimm and the shadowy, eldritch “The October Man” unsettles with preternatural unearthliness, and lingers with sinister poignancy. It was the perfect choice for the closing tale.

The Pumpkin King and Other Tales of Terror is a neatly crafted grimoire of ghoulishness. Highly recommended. 

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