Monday, 15 October 2018

I Am The River

I Am The River is a novel by T E Grau and is published by Lethe Press. Anyone who visits this blog regularly will know how big a fan I am of Ted’s writing with his previous, shorter works featuring heavily in my year’s best picks. Those frequent visitors may also be aware of my penchant for historical stories too so it will be no surprise to them to learn that this novel’s setting, during the years following the Vietnam War, raised my expectations to even greater heights.
The novel’s protagonist is Israel Broussard, a G.I. echoing Thomas Wolfe’s sentiment that you can’t go home again, stranded and adrift in Bangkok, battling his personal demons via therapy – courtesy of both medics and bottles. Broussard is haunted by his experiences, literally – the ghosts of his past manifest as a huge, black dog which follows him everywhere: Black Shuck.
So too, Israel is plagued by visions of a river rising up around him, a less overt image than the black dog and perhaps one related to his experiences. The scenes in Bangkok are related in first person, present tense and, as such, are wide open to the interpretation of unreliable narration – Broussard is, after all, a damaged man. However, this narrative choice is important in the overall construction of the novel, intermingling as it does with third person, past tense flashback sections detailing the mission which proved to be Broussard’s downfall. This swapping of narrative styles is effective in creating a sense of disorientation in the reader but also allows a brilliant masterstroke towards the story’s conclusion when the two styles merge as Broussard’s personal journey into his heart of darkness reaches a critical point. I’m a huge fan of books where narrative styles are used in creative ways and this is one of the finest examples I’ve seen in a long time.
The mission which provides the straw to break Broussard’s back is no ordinary one, rather a Psy-Ops exercise carried out in Laos. It’s another great decision on the author’s part to choose Laos as a location. The country was invaded and occupied by North Vietnam and was used as a “safe” area for their troops to retreat into as well as a supply line. Unable to officially send troops into Laos to engage combat, America instead dropped two million tons of bombs on the country (almost as many as during the whole of World War Two) – creating a legacy in which 300 people are still killed to this day every year because of unexploded ordnance. The details of the mission are cleverly kept a secret from the reader as well as Broussard and his fellow expendables. When it is finally revealed, it seems outlandish and ridiculous – on a par with the CIA’s list of plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro – but when it’s deployed… oh man, it sent a shiver down my spine. There’s some brilliant writing going on here –as is the case throughout the novel – pulling the reader into the bizarre events which unfold.
The culmination of these scenes, as far as Broussard is concerned, is an act of extreme violence which sows the seeds for his subsequent fall from grace. It’s a brutal scene, one that’s difficult to read. The violence is graphic but not gratuitous – far from it, there could be no other way to write such a significant moment, to show the depths to which war can bring a man.
Yet again, I’ve been blown away by Ted’s writing. A stated earlier, the use of different narrative techniques is outstanding. In particular, some of the first person sections have an almost poetic feel to them, a stream of consciousness from a damaged mind reflected not only in the choice of words but also, very cleverly, the formatting of those words on the page. Whilst this is mainly an internal story, the scene setting of the environments in which it occurs is also handled magnificently with some striking imagery which will linger long in the mind; the spectacular Plain of Jars, the megalithic landscape which is the site of the mission and hundreds of flames – burnt offerings - floating down a river to name but two.
There’s much reference to the belief of wandering ghosts throughout the novel and, in essence, that is what Broussard is. Far from home, (and all of the prejudice he faced there as a black man from the southern states), he’s a literal lost soul looking for redemption. It’s his journey towards that goal which is the story of I Am The River and it’s a journey I’m glad I took. This is an outstanding piece of writing and, given that there is so much in it, it’s surprising that it’s at the shorter end of the word-count for a novel. It’s a book that satisfies on so many levels and one which has raised my expectation for what Ted comes up with next to even higher levels.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Dark Masters Trilogy

The Dark Masters Trilogy is published by PS Publishing and brings together the two previously published novellas, Whitstable and Leytonstone alongside the concluding story in the series, Netherwood. All are written by Stephen Volk, and are fictionalised accounts of episodes in the lives of notable talents in the creative arts, Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley respectively, the books’ titles originating from the locations in which those events occur.
I’ve already reviewed both Whitstable and Leytonstonehere and here – so this review will focus mainly on Netherwood. The titular location is a boarding house in Hastings, the final residence of the Great Beast himself, the wickedest man in the world, Aleister Crowley and the place to which he summons novelist Dennis Wheatley. Although this meeting is fictional, the two men had actually met in real life some years earlier at the Hungaria Restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, and it’s this prior connection which Crowley, (and the story), exploits. Following the meeting, Wheatley based some of his characters on Crowley – thinly enough that umbrage, or even offence could be taken. Possibly enough that some kind of revenge would seem appropriate…
Perhaps the most notable achievement of the two previous novellas was the degree of characterisation they presented, offering new insights into both Cushing and Hitchcock. Such skill is even more evident in Netherwood with an equal emphasis on both Wheatley and Crowley. Whilst this is a work of fiction, it is - has to be – grounded in fact and the requisite exposition and back-story is presented here in masterful fashion. The novel opens with a scene set on a train in which Wheatley meets a young soldier and his sweetheart, the dialogue – both internal and external – providing the story of Wheatley’s military service in a way that appears seamless and natural. Anyone aspiring author, (and a few established ones), should use this trilogy as a masterclass in developing character. The information is all there but isn’t dumped on the reader, rather it’s presented as part of the natural flow of the narrative, character is revealed by action and interaction. It’s sublime stuff.
It’s a little unfortunate that Wheatley is up against Crowley here; unfortunate in that in comparison to the force of nature that is the most famous member of the Golden Dawn he comes across as a little anodyne. Crowley, however, is a different matter altogether. Despite his frailty, (he was at this point close to death), he dominates every scene; unstable, eccentric, impossible to read there’s a real sense of unease and disquiet whenever he appears. Anyone whose “career” is built on spouting, to all intents and purposes, bullshit, requires a huge amount of charisma to be successful and this was undoubtedly the case with Crowley. Charismatic enough to entice a figure of the establishment such as Wheatley, (a man who is inwardly please that the soldier on the train doesn’t recognise him), to answer his call.
The reason for Wheatley’s attendance turns out to be more than just catching up on old times however. He is there to help Crowley, to face a threat which will be too much for the frail, heroin addicted “beast” to confront on his own. Once again, great skill is shown in presenting the scenario around the threat and the discussions which convince the staid author to participate.
That participation involves the performance of a magick ritual, the presentation of which is yet another highlight of this brilliant novel. As seen through the experiences of Wheatley, it’s a stream of altered consciousness full of graphic and disturbing imagery.
It’s the crowning glory of Netherwood that Crowley’s motivations in involving Wheatley remain ambiguous. The hint of revenge – or spite - suggested earlier may be the case but other interpretations hold equal weight. Redemption is a common theme in conclusions and this too may be the case. Netherwood pours away the snake-oil, revealing the hidden depths to Crowley’s character and it’s possible that a personal tragedy is the driving force behind this final act. Maybe the motivation was his humanity after all.
Humanity – or, more precisely, human nature – has been the underlying theme of all three books in the trilogy. The three books have followed a traditional structure with the second part the darkest by far. A strange claim perhaps, given the black magic and Satanism which is so much a feature of Netherwood but my feelings on finishing this final part of the trilogy were ones of optimism, not least because of the stirring meditation on the nature of art – and artists (another theme of the whole trilogy) – on which it ends.
Each book in the trilogy is a masterpiece. Combined, they produce a kind of synergy, creating an outstanding reading experience. Perhaps their greatest achievement is to provide convincing portrayals of their protagonists despite being fictional accounts, all done through the skill and craftsmanship of the writing. Now that’s real magick.

Monday, 1 October 2018

The Pale Ones

The Pale Ones is a novella by Bartholomew Bennett and is published by Inkandescent. Both author and publisher are new to me but, having now experienced the wonder that is The Pale Ones, I’m glad that connection has been made. Inkandescent’s mission statement, “a commitment to ideas, subjects and voices underrepresented by mainstream publishing” is a noble one and worthy of support. On the basis of this novella, a commitment to quality is also apparent.
The Pale Ones has been described as literary horror, a term about which I have mixed feelings. Whilst I enjoy both genres – yes, I believe “literary” is as much a genre as thriller, Sci-Fi or romance – and there are some sublime examples of the combination of the two, there are also others in which the horror element is noticeably lacking, the author believing that creating a sense of confusion and bewilderment amounts to the same thing. Getting both aspects right is a joy to read and that’s very much the case with this novella.
It’s set in the world of second hand book dealers and begins with our narrator encountering Harris, a fellow-collector, who advises him to purchase a specific book, World War Two Destroyers. A relationship develops between the two, culminating in a joint expedition to the north of England to seek out new (i.e. old) stock. Whilst my punning heart was slightly disappointed that this wasn’t a trip to Hull and back, (they don’t get as far as the port), the unsubtle meaning of that potential bad joke still stands as Harris proves himself to be the companion from Hell.
The first person narrative allows much enjoyment to be had from his cynical reporting of the pair’s adventures. There is, of course, a suggestion of unreliability; much like the protagonist of Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a book referenced more than once in the story, the narrator has some alcohol – and relationship – problems. This potential unreliability adds a frisson of ambiguity to some of the scenes he describes, bizarre behaviour from associates of Harris, Harris’ description of his customers as “children” and, most potently of all, glimpses of strange creatures sculpted – so it would seem – from papier maché
It was wasps that confirmed to Charles Darwin that God was not responsible for the creation of life and the flying insects subliminally hover around the fringes of this story. (Actually, not that subliminally – they are on the cover of the book). Wasps, who create nests made of chewed up paper; wasps who kill the hosts from which they hatch – not to say their own parents and siblings; wasps who spoil any summer picnic. (Okay, not all of these are relevant to this story).
The Pale Ones is a journey of discovery for the narrator. Yes, it’s a tale of book hunting but what he uncovers amounts to much more than a rare first edition. The realisation that his meeting with Harris was not a chance encounter (the opening line of the novella is really quite important), and that it’s not the books themselves which are so important to him is only the beginning of his discoveries and the narrative slowly builds towards a denouement that will leave you shocked as well as sending a shudder along your spine.
The Pale Ones gets it absolutely right. Beautifully written prose, loads of ideas buzzing around and – most importantly – proper scary. I loved it, and look forward to what both author and publisher come up with in the future.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Wolf's Hill

Wolf’s Hill is the third book in the four volume Black Road series written by Simon Bestwick and published by Snowbooks. The previous two volumes are reviewed here and here.
Events in the post-nuclear-apocalyptic world have thus far seen the formation of a rebellion against the ruling Reclamation and Protection Command led by the wonderfully named Helen Damnation ably assisted by a host of other characters, not least the Grendelwolf Gevaudan Shoal. Added to this is a heady concoction of science and ancient magic as the military commanders seek to procure the ultimate weapon to use against the rebels.
Both previous books did an admirable job of creating a fully realised post-apocalyptic world populated by realistic, fully rounded characters (with detailed back-stories) whilst at the same time sustaining a narrative which hurtles along at breakneck speed. Wolf’s Hill is no exception to this; indeed, it expands the world Simon has created and also introduces a raft of new characters. Reading this book, I was perhaps even more impressed than I already have been at the work involved in creating the world and its huge cast of characters. I have visions of a huge piece of paper, probably covering an entire floor of a room, covered in names, locations and events with arrows and lines connecting them all like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Here we’re introduced to the Garalakh Tep Sharhr, the “Dwellers beneath the Hill” – a whole community hitherto unknown who, it’s implied, will play a huge role in what is building up to be the decisive battle between the two opposing forces. It’s a bold move, waiting until the third book to introduce them but it’s one that pays off and which is handled very cleverly – their presence revealed in one set of characters’ timeline, their history in another. I was put in mind of Simon’s Black Mountain series of stories whilst reading these scenes – no bad thing. Their introduction also feels part of the natural progression of the narrative, not bolted on for convenience.
Make no mistake, this third volume in no way treads water, is not simply filler before the big finish. There’s more plot here than you can shake a stick at, not least the very bold move to present divisions within the rebellion and a threat to them from an unexpected source.
Whilst Helen faces up to these problems, Tereus Winterborn begins strengthening the alliances between the regional commanders using a mixture of politics and thinly veiled aggression. It’s here that I had my only problem with the book as Simon has chosen to name his commanders after notable personalities in the indie horror world. Granted, he has changed the sex of many of them but I found it took me out of the story as I was reading these scenes – imagining Jim McLeod as a woman will do that to a person.
Such minor criticism aside, there’s still so much to enjoy between the pages of Wolf’s Hill. I particularly enjoyed the character development of Dr Mordake, whose back story is presented here. The good doctor is set to play a major role in the conclusion so it was good to see him get a starring role here.
I loved Wolf’s Hill; it’s no mean feat to keep up the pace and energy of a series this far into it but Simon has succeeded admirably in so doing. It’s not hyperbolic to describe the series as epic – there can be no denying that it is. This really is a massive achievement and deserves no little respect for that. This is a major work and should be recognised as such. The best thing is, of course, there’s more to come - and I can’t wait to see how everything concludes.

Monday, 13 August 2018

At the Mercy of Beasts.

Monsters. I love ‘em. Of all the myriad variations of horror, it’s the monsters I love the most. They were my first love, my gateway drug if you like, and it’s a love which has endured for many years now. I recently saw an online discussion about the need to suspend disbelief in horror movies/books, the implication being that it was a hindrance to the enjoyment of a piece of work. To some extent this is true, if an author asks too much of a reader then it can ruin the reading experience but I’ve always regarded the suspension of disbelief as a vital part of my enjoyment of horror. I read horror as an escape from reality, as entertainment, and the books I enjoy the most are those which present alternative realities, worlds in which monsters can, and do, exist.
(And yes, human beings can be monsters too. But that is reality and God knows there’s enough examples in the world right now to make reading it in a piece of fiction pretty much redundant).
(I blame Scooby-Doo. The disappointment I felt as a child when the ghost/mummy/zombie was revealed as a real person has stayed with me all this time).
Which self-indulgent rambling brings me to At the Mercy of Beasts, a collection of three novellas by Ed Kurtz. The joy I felt at discovering this book was pushed to almost unbearable limits (I know, but bear with me, suspend your disbelief) when I found out that each of the stories took place in historical settings. Surely this was too good to be true?
No, it wasn’t. I loved every bit of this book; the period detail, the characters, the plotlines and - of course - the monsters.
The opening story is Black’s Red Gold, set in the Texas of 1919 and detailing the exploits of a pair of oilmen, Black and Wells, whose drilling operation uncovers a rich seam of the titular substance, a fluid similar to oil – though different in colour – but which, it turns out, burns for much longer.
The fluid is biological rather than geological however, emanating from the first of the collection’s beasts, a huge tentacled monster residing underground. The knowledge that the Red Gold comes from an animal (from huge vesicles on its back) does nothing to deter Black in his efforts to extract the fuel, his desire to become rich over-riding any concerns for the welfare of the beast.
It’s a tale of exploitation then, and one which becomes darker when the beast fights back and the men sent down into its lair become infected with bubo-like sacs which are filled with the same fluid. It’s a development which gives a whole new meaning to the term Human Resources…
It’s a strong start to the collection, the story’s political allegory sitting very comfortably and unobtrusively within a cracking, and at times darkly humorous, narrative.
Next up is Kennon Road, which takes place in the early years of the twentieth century in the Phillipines shortly after the Phillipine-American war. It’s a story which, unlike the first which created a new monster (albeit one which put me in mind of Gla’aki), uses an established myth – that of the manananggal – to provide its creature.
And boy, what a creature. Reading a cold description of the manananggal in Wiki or suchlike fails to bring out the true horror of this vampire-like monster but that’s certainly not the case in this incredibly atmospheric tale. Kurtz’s take on the mythology results in a truly disturbing creation and the passages in which it features are deeply unsettling. Anyone who thinks monsters are old-hat and have lost their power to terrify should definitely read this novella.
The story takes the form of an investigation into a series of grisly murders, a template which allows exposition with a natural feel to it, a few twists and turns along the way and a number of incredibly effective set-pieces.
Deadheader rounds of the collection and is the most contemporary of the three novellas being set in 1977. The title has nothing to do with fans of the Grateful dead but refers to the practice of truckers taking on a cargo without going through the usual formalities and paperwork. The trucker in this case is Pearlie Pearce, a brilliantly realised character who picks up hitchhiker Ernie Kinchen, a Vietnam veteran haunted (literally) by his time in the warzone.
It’s a fast-paced, incredibly pulpy story featuring car chases and fights. The monsters here are vampiric in nature too, modelled on the chupacabra, fittingly given the story’s US/Mexico border setting.
Deadheader provides a thrilling end to a superb collection of stories. Along with Kennon Road it provides ample proof that there’s plenty life in the old monsters yet. Honestly, all those publishers who state “no vampires (or other monsters) in their submission guidelines are missing a trick. It was a joy to read At the Mercy of Beasts and it’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Bad Vision

Bad Vision is the latest in the Hersham Horror Primal range of novellas. The series is into its third year now and has produced some high quality books thus far. The first in this year’s additions to the series comes from one of the good guys of the horror community Dave Jeffery.
The story begins intriguingly with an interview in a police station, pitching the reader straight into the narrative and introducing the novella’s protagonist Ray Tonks who is admitting to the murder of his wife…
A dramatic opening then, and one which leads into the events prior to Ray’s arrest via a series of extended flashbacks. These introduce the story’s other protagonists, Ray’s wife Denise and his work colleagues Eloise and Mike. Also introduced is the central conceit of the book, that Ray has an ability to predict future events, a “gift” he obtained following a schoolyard injury to his head.
Similarities then with The Dead Zone and, as becomes more apparent as the story progresses, The Medusa Touch. The author acknowledges the influence of the latter in his notes at the end of the book but it’s credit to Dave that he’s taken a familiar, and well-used, trope and created something new with it, something uniquely his own.
It’s the descriptions of Ray’s visions which provide some of the most effective sequences in the book as he experiences ordeals such as earthquakes and plane crashes as if he were there himself. If the horrors of vicariously witnessing these scenes of death and destruction were not horrific enough, things do get worse for Ray as the frequency and intensity of the visions increase – occurring randomly and often inconveniently – and change from what turn out to be real events to something more intangible, presenting images of torture and horror in some unknown, hellish landscape.
Ray’s day job, as a Clinical Risk Manager in an NHS Trust bears much resemblance to Dave’s own and his knowledge and expertise in the field of mental health allows him to create a thoroughly authentic work environment for his characters as well as fully realised back stories and histories for them. His knowledge of mental health issues allows for a sensitive exploration of them not just in the case of Ray – whose condition can surely classified as such – but for the other characters too. The multifactorial nature of these issues is presented here, nature and nurture both playing their part.
Not content with one storyline for the novella, Dave manages to cram a couple of others in too. Ray’s wife is having an affair (the description of a marriage in slow decline is very good indeed) and there’s also the small matter of a serial killer – nicknamed the Frankenstein killer because of their propensity to remove body parts from their victims – on the loose to contend with too.
This storyline takes up much of the running time and, if I have one criticism of the book, it’s that it possibly takes up too much. It is very cleverly done, with plenty of twists and turns along the way but – even though there are links to the main narrative – it perhaps distracts a little too much from what for me was the stronger of the storylines. This sub-plot is cleverly handled though, playing with the reader’s expectations and assumptions and has a resolution that (ironically, given the theme of the book) you won’t see coming.
The conclusion to Bad Vision is excellent, the Ray Tonks who sits in the police interview room is a man changed massively by his experiences. It’s a sequence which is extremely powerful, presenting a whole raft of ideas and philosophical musings and it’s something I wanted more of, and which I think could actually have benefitted from being longer in order to give those ideas room to breathe.
Which all sounds a little critical. Which I guess it is – but in a good way. I really enjoyed Bad Vision, felt it brought something new and interesting to a well-worn trope. These distractions aside, the writing here is assured and confident, with convincingly drawn characters behaving realistically in a fast-paced plot. The fragmented nature of the narrative is handled excellently by Dave and adds to the reading experience, the twists and turns along the way playing with notions of what’s real and what isn’t.
Bad Vision is a fine addition to what is proving to be a fine series. A potent mix of psychological and visceral horror, it’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Maniac Gods

Maniac Gods is the new novella from Rich Hawkins and is published by the Sinister Horror Company. I’ve been a fan of Rich’s writing since his novella Black Star, Black Sun which I read back in 2015. Since then, his output has been nothing less than impressive, including the post-apocalyptic Last Plague trilogy of novels and his bloody and visceral take on vampire lore King Carrion.
Apocalyptic themes have been a constant in Rich’s writing and such is the case with this new novella. It tells the story of Albie Samways – a typical everyman Hawkins protagonist – whose daughter Millie disappears, along with the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, victims of a bizarre cult intent on bringing about their own version of the end days. The bond between father and child is another recurring motif in Rich’s books and here, as in all the other books, it provides a profound and moving emotional core to the story, a shining light amidst the darkness which engulfs everything around it.
It takes real skill to present such tender moments and not make them saccharine and this is most certainly the case here. Throughout, the writing is of such a high standard that I honestly think this is the best thing Rich has written. Just as these moments of hope and light pluck the appropriate emotional strings, so do the moments of horror. Where some would revel in the opportunity to layer on the descriptive prose, the approach here is the polar opposite. Indeed, many of the most horrific passages read almost like lists, basic descriptions of the nightmarish scenes and characters Albie encounters. Sparse and yet poetic at the same time it’s a devastatingly effective technique. The lean, stripped prose put me in mind of Adam Nevill, the creatures here presented akin to those of that author’s imagination but also to the very best of Clive Barker in his heyday.
And what horrors… Rich has created here a memorable set of creatures, most notably the Flayed – a group whose very name leaves nothing (yet somehow everything) to the imagination – acolytes to the mysterious leader of the cult Dr Ridings, himself a wonderful creation, his features hidden behind a bronze mask.
Religion is not so much a subtext of the novella than an integral part of it. It’s notable that Ridings calls those who oppose him “infidel” –a term perhaps more closely linked to certain faiths nowadays but which is a generic term for any non-believer. A key scene plays out in the wonderfully named Red Cathedral. It’s the gods worshipped by Ridings and his followers which provide the Lovecraftian overtones to the book, ancient deities lurking in other dimensions, awaiting their chance to break through the thin places.
Maniac Gods is a story brimming with so many great ideas that it might have worked better as a novel. That said, the shorter word count brings with it a sense of frantic urgency to the narrative, resulting in a thrilling ride towards a conclusion which is as good, and effective, as everything which has gone before.
This could be the quintessential Rich Hawkins book. For those who have yet to experience his writing there could be no better starting place. For those already familiar with his work, Maniac Gods will bring a warm tingle of recognition, and a new appreciation of his talent. At the very least, it should cement his reputation as one of the best writers currently working in the horror genre.