Examining The Fairer Sex in Richard Davis’ The Female of the Species

Shadow Publishing’s collection of Richard Davis’ short fiction, The Female of the Species And Other Terror Tales, is the type of book that I love to see from small presses — a gathering of never-before-collected tales by an overlooked writer from decades past.  Davis is perhaps best known for his editing work, and most notably for editing volumes 1-3 of The Year’s Best Horror Fiction (the series later edited by Gerald Page and Karl Edward Wagner), but he was a writer as well, and quite a good one.  Shadow Publishing’s owner, David Sutton is the perfect person to resurrect the author’s work, as he knew Davis back in the day, and in fact purchased a story from him for publication in the 1971 anthology New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural.

That 1971 date falls smack in the middle of Davis’ fiction-writing career: all 11 stories he published are gathered here, and they originally appeared between 1963 and 1978. Also included is an interview Sutton conducted with Davis in 1969; the text of a speech Davis gave on horror fiction at a 1971 convention; an article that Davis wrote about Late Night Horror, a short-lived BBC for which he was Story Editor; and a bibliography.

Despite all the wonderful ancillary material, the main draw is obviously the fiction, and there’s a lot to like in that department, starting with the title story, which is related via the narrator Jim’s journal entries, a series he’s started while his beloved wife Viola is traveling to visit her brother.  Unfortunately, Viola’s plane crashes, leaving Jim devastated and lonely…until he adopts a kitten, who quickly bonds with him.  What ensues is perhaps a tad predictable, but it’s effectively told, resulting in both suspense and chills.

Jim was a loner even before Viola’s death, and a similar social outcast, although female in this case, features in “The Lady by the Stream,” the story of a middle-aged spinster’s growing obsession with a young boy in her neighborhood.  There’s nothing supernatural to be found in this story, but it’s probably the most disturbing tale in the collection.  The following story, “The Inmate,” also documents a disturbing relationship, this time between the wife of a wealthy man who’s created his own private animal preserve and one of her husband’s animals…namely a gorilla.  Unlike its predecessor, though, “The Inmate” is a bit too sensationalistic — likely a result of the fact it was tailored for its appearance in the often over-the-top Pan Book of Horror series — to ultimately be successful.

The other three tales I want to mention all prominently feature young boys and their fathers.  In “The Clump,” a cheating husband is on holiday with his family, visiting a small Caribbean island.  The husband is so busy scheming to kill his wife that he pays no attention as his son wanders into a forested area of the island that’s the subject of local superstition…for good reason.  The father in “The Nondescript” is much more attentive, and helps his son Bob to identify just what it is that he’s found in the attic of the old home they’ve just moved into.  The attic find is an eponymous nondescript — a fake creature, created by attaching the shaved torso of a monkey cadaver to a fish tail, employed during the 18th and 19th centuries by hucksters to extract money from the gullible.  Unfortunately for Bob and his father, there may be a real-life inspiration for their taxidermic terror.  The father in “Guy Fawkes Night” is selfish and overbearing, and after his actions lead to the death of his son’s beloved dog, the son is determined to exact revenge, which he does in frightening fashion.

There are one or two subpar stories, most notably “A Nice Cut off the Joint,” which has logic holes you could drive a truck through, and I don’t care for the cover art by Caroline O’Neal, but every other aspect of The Female of the Speciesis top-notch.  It’s a shame Davis, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see the appearance of this collection, but readers who appreciate 1960s- and ’70s -era horror should rejoice, for there’s much to like here.

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