Monday, 4 December 2017

Witnesses. (Blatant self-publicity).

It’s with a great degree of pleasure that I can announce that my novel, Witnesses, is now available for pre-order from Crowded Quarantine Publications, with a publication date of 31st January next year.
It was accepted after an open submissions period in 2016 and since the announcement was made I’ve been anticipating the actual release with – it has to be said – a fair degree of excitement.
Adam Millard has done a great job on the edits, translating my meandering prose into proper English and has produced an absolutely stunning cover. He’s taken my suggestion of “err… maybe something with a church on it” and produced an amazing piece of art. I love the 70s pulp paperback feel of it, the creases on the cover a lovely, and clever touch. I was blown away when I saw it for the first time and my love grows for it every time I look at it. (Which is probably more than would be deemed “normal”).
It’s beautifully produced and rendered but also encapsulates the themes of the book, with the two figures, the church and yes – the tentacles…
Witnesses takes as its inspiration the Book of Revelations and the prophesies concerning Armageddon contained within. Given that this is my debut (published) novel, I thought I’d make life really hard for myself by setting it in four different time periods in four different locations around the world: World War One Belgium; Virginia in the United States in 1946; Malaysia in 1977 and the North East of England in the present day. (One of these required less extensive research than the others).
Perhaps it would have been easier to write the four sections one at a time and then cut and paste but, for my sins, I chose not to do it this way. The way the narrative jumps back and forth between the different time periods/locations is exactly as I wrote it – a process which stopped me getting too bogged down in one particular narrative thread and which hopefully keeps the momentum of the book going, dropping clues and revelations so that the reader will slowly work out what’s going on along with the book’s protagonists.
That’s the plan anyway…

I really enjoyed writing Witnesses and am proud of what I’ve produced – even prouder after having seen the amazing job Adam has done. It will also be available as an e-book but you can pre-order the paperback here.

And here's the blurb:

The End Times are upon us…
In the small village of East Lee in north-east England, Dave Charlton is studying for his PhD, an academic work that will probably be read by only a handful of people. His research is of limited interest – certainly nothing that will change the world.
The world is changing though, and as his perception of reality mysteriously begins to alter - bringing new abilities to see what others cannot, a stranger arrives with revelations which will transform the course of his life for ever – and the lives of everyone else on the planet.
Dave finds himself a key player in a story as old as time itself, forced into a situation where the decisions he makes really are the most important in the world. He has become part of the endless cycle of conflict between the forces of good and evil, the struggle which will culminate in the final battle: Armageddon.
Moving between the present day, the battlefields of World War One Belgium, 1940s Virginia and Malaysia in the 1970s, WITNESSES is an epic tale of destiny and apocalyptic horror.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Made for the Dark

Made for the Dark is the new collection from John Llewellyn Probert and is published by Black Shuck Books. There are eighteen stories within the book, all of which act as a marvellous showcase for one of the most distinctive voices in horror today.
Previous collections from John (The Catacombs of Fear, The Faculty of Terror) were presented as portmanteaus – with the stories linked by a bridging device and that concept has been taken a step further with this collection, containing as it does an introduction to each story from the author a la Twilight Zone. It’s a clever technique, pulled off admirably – aided greatly by the front cover picture of the great man himself seated behind a desk, waiting to show you his special somethings…
I’m still waiting to hear from the OED for official recognition but many moons ago I coined the term “proberty” (as defined here) and it’s a word I’m more than happy to apply to this collection which I would be so bold as to describe as quintessential. It’s a difficult art, combining horror and humour and can, in the hands of a less skilled practitioner go horribly wrong but that’s certainly not the case with John’s writing. Much of what he describes is truly awful and I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining – whenever something gruesome and outlandish happens to a character – the author waiting for a reaction, a slight arch to one of his eyebrows and a tilt to his head, “are you really going to laugh at that..?”
Actually, I might be alone in that.
The humour, of course, helps to leaven the impact of the horror but it’s still extremely effective and some of the stories in this collection are worthy of Barker at his best. (By which I mean Clive and Ronnie).
If Made for the Dark is the quintessential JLP collection then I would suggest The Anatomy Lesson is the quintessential story, containing as it does just about everything you might wish to find in a proberty tale, Grand Guignol horror, an element of performance and… doctors. John is of course a doctor himself so it’s no surprise to see that particular profession cropping up in many of the stories in the book, including pulpy crime story The Girl with no Face, Victorian apocalypse Out of Fashion and The Secondary Host – possibly my favourite story in the book. Telling the story in first person necessitates a change from John’s familiar narrative voice and I think that – and the lack of the trademark comedy flourishes - make this an extremely effective chiller with a marvellous premise and mythology to back it up.
The Girl in the Glass also has a doctor as its protagonist but is also a cleverly constructed ghost story (using a very effective image as a reveal) and ghosts also crop up in Six of the Best – a glorious attack on TV ghost-hunter programmes with a nasty twist to it, not to say some very mucky bits.
There’s a touch of cynicism in that tale, a feature of some of the other stories; The Life Inspector and How the Other Half Dies gently rip apart their protagonists’ characters but the harshest treatment is given to charities in It Begins at Home – in which art imitates life – but not in a good way. (Interestingly, the story preceding this, the WW2 set The Death House with its heady mix of Nazis and Lovecraftian horror could be a case of life imitating art). A similar theme to that of It Begins at Home is to be found in The Lucky Ones, a title dripping in irony if ever there was one.
Humour is one of John’s trademarks for sure, but – as he displayed emphatically in his novella Differently There – he’s equally as capable of melancholy and pathos. This is admirably demonstrated in A Life on the Stage – a theatre-set swansong to bring the house down and The Man Who Loved Grief – a fairytale-esque (albeit a rather grim one) meditation on love and – well, grief.
There’s plenty more to enjoy besides these, tales of reincarnation, ancient rituals and the perils of reviewing online. There’s even – much to my delight - a weird western, Blood and Dust complete with an invisible monster a la Forbidden Planet (the film – not the shop) which is the final story in the book. With its fish out of water protagonist English professor John Summerskill, it’s closer in tone to The Sherriff of Fractured Jaw than Unforgiven but I enjoyed it immensely and it’s a fine end to a very impressive collection.
I enjoyed every moment I spent between the covers of Made for the Dark. For those already familiar with John’s writing it will be like settling down for a natter with an old friend (preferably in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of brandy) whilst for those yet to encounter his work it’s the perfect introduction.

Very proberty indeed.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Great British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills

Dark Satanic Mills is the subtitle given to the second volume of Great British Horror published by Black Shuck Books. I reviewed the first volume here with its stories set in rural environments, the location having changed for the second book with a move to the urban sprawl.
First up is Tools of the Trade by Paul Finch, a story which throws more light on the Jack the Ripper story, with a journalist offered the story of a lifetime revealing the true identity of the serial killer following the discovery of new evidence. A little surprisingly, the story isn’t set in London but Tunbridge – the location of Jack’s escape from the capital. It’s a strong start to the collection, thoroughly researched and provides a believable (albeit fictional) identity for Jack.
It’s also quite long. The ending, when it finally arrives, is very effective but it does take a long time to get there and, after all that’s gone before, feels a little rushed. I’d have really liked a little bit more time spent on the final scenes in an abandoned hotel – possibly the best location ever invented for a horror story.
Cate Gardner provides the second tale, Fragments of a Broken Doll, another trademark story in which the real darkness lies beneath the slightly surreal surface. The mysterious Trill lives with Harry in a house which backs onto a prison. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the house in which the true character of Trill is revealed. And it’s not pleasant. For anyone. It’s – as might be expected – an odd little tale that creates an almost palpable tension as the scene plays out. Strange and disturbing.
Andrew Freudenberg’s The Cardiac Ordeal is a high concept piece dealing with moral dilemmas. Shane and Linda’s daughter Emma goes missing – the victim, it turns out of a kidnapping. Things get darker when Shane is approached by the kidnapper and promised his daughter’s return if he agrees to carry out a series of tasks.
I guess the story is about how far a parent would go to protect their child – the tasks Shane must perform involve breaking the law – and escalate in seriousness as the story progresses. The final task, of course, is the most difficult to perform – the hardest test of his love for his daughter. There’s a twist thrown in for good measure but, much like the opening story, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed, that the decisions made were done so a little quickly. That said, it’s an effective ending to a tale very much in the Tales of the Unexpected/Twilight Zone school of storytelling.
The Lies We Tell are the basis for Charlotte Bond’s story. Its protagonist is Cathy, an estate agent with a well-developed selfish streak allied with a sense of self-importance second to none. Not a nice person then, and one who’s parenting skills could do with a little work.
When notes bearing handwritten numbers start getting posted through the letterbox and she starts hearing a strange clicking noise that no-one else can, things start to get a bit weird. To be fair, you’ll probably work out what the strange sounds and notes mean long before Cathy does – but that’s because she’s too self-absorbed to understand anything outside her sphere of existence. But that doesn’t matter, it merely makes the ride towards the story’s dark conclusion (with a hint of a very grim fairy tale about it) all the more enjoyable.
The guest international author for this volume is Angela Slatter who provides the book’s first urban myth story in Our Lady of Wicker Bridge. The myth tells of a pale woman who will approach those who were suffering and offer them a deal. The story is old in present tense, lending it an air of immediacy and revolves around social worker Tricia, taking over the “beat” of her mentor Hermione who has gone missing, leaving behind the burnt out remains of her car.
It’s a deeply atmospheric story that vividly creates the desolation of the housing estate in which most of the action takes place. Throw in a deeply scary little girl and the scene is set for a wonderful modern ghost story which is one of the highlights of the collection.
There’s much gory delight to be had in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Church With Bleeding Windows (the bleeding referring to the red stuff rather than being a mild profanity). It involves a demonic entity doing incredibly nasty things to people and is a rollicking good yarn for the whole of its relatively short running time. The reasons for the monsters actions are actually very clever and the story conjures up some startling images, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of body horror.
Marie O’Regan provides a fairly traditional haunted house story in Sleeping Black – in which Seth and Trudy inherit a house form his Grandmother, the family home of long-established chimney sweeping business. The appearance of small, black handprints herald a series of strange phenomena and ghostly encounters in a tale which provides little in the way of surprises and which treads a pretty well-worn path. It’s well written, and nicely paced but the use of so many familiar tropes render it a little predictable.
Gary Fry begins his contribution with the line: Every city, town or village has one: Station Road. It’s a statement I can verify, given that I live on one myself. The location provides the title for his story, albeit slightly tampered with to give us Satin Road. The removal of the letters features in the tale itself, a schoolboy prank against Dean, ostracised as a weirdo because of his penchant for horror and heavy metal (mind you…), who lives on the aforementioned road in a joke only those who lack the ability to spell could truly appreciate.
The dislike of Dean extends to his headmaster, Mr Rhodes, the only real friend he has being the narrator of the story who has a shared interest in horror. Sympathy for the devil can have its drawbacks though, as our narrator finds to his cost after Dean moves away from the area leaving a series of inexplicable events in his wake.
It’s another thought-provoking piece from Mr Fry, with a degree of ambiguity in the story’s conclusion regarding what has actually happened – and how, and why…
Non Standard Construction by Penny Jones provides the tale of a tenant James in the big city finding cheap accommodation to rent and then discovering the reasons why it was such a bargain. The reason in this case being the term which provides the story’s title, referring to the concrete – rather than brick – used to build them.
Except of course, in this story it means something else too. Building and tenant seem somehow connected in a story where the notion of taking possession is neatly flipped on its head.
Gary McMahon brings us The Night Moves, a story which channels his own experience in martial arts to tell of Miles, who sneaks into an abandoned warehouse to perform a kata – a sequence of martial arts moves designed to show skill and technique. Of course, Miles performs alone, there is no one there to judge him, the ritual is a solitary endeavour. And ritual’s the key word, as revealed in a back story, Miles has learned the kata from the mysterious Hoodoo, a homeless man with a mysterious past. The night moves he performs hold a dark secret – in essence it’s a black kata.
I really enjoyed this story and it’s probably my favourite of the book. There’s some nice references to The Concrete Grove books and in particular the mysterious Loculus with The Night Moves adding to that pre-existing mythology marvellously.
The final story in the collection is /’dƷɅst/ (my nearest approximation to it…) by Carole Johnstone. It’s the second story of Carole’s I’ve read featuring Glaswegian police – the first being Wet Work which appeared in Black Static. Like that story, this one features her trademark use of dialect in her characters’ dialogue. I have to confess, generally this is a pet hate of mine, whatever the dialogue is I’m always put in mind of Dick van Dyke’s uncanny portrayal of a cockney in Mary Poppins, and – as a northerner myself – I’m always frustrated by writers who think we pronounce “u” as “oo”. We don’t. Nobody does. Grumpiness and intolerance aside, I have to say that Carole always does a very good job of it although it does sometimes take you out of the story a little bit when you have to re-read a sentence to work out what’s being said.
Ironically, pronunciation lies at the heart of this story (and is reflected in the title) with a serial killer leaving notes at the scenes of their crimes written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system designed to elucidate the correct pronunciation of words but, tellingly, pretty much requiring a PhD to understand.
It’s a cracking story, and a thrilling end to the book but, if I can return to my aforementioned grumpiness, it’s more of a police procedural thriller than horror.

I enjoyed Dark Satanic Mills a lot, and it’s a strong follow up to Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a wonder as to which of the lyrics of Jerusalem will be chosen for Volume 3 – an anthology of chariot stories perhaps, or will mountains be the subject? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the urban theme was pretty much incidental to most of the stories in here with perhaps only the Johnstone and Slatter stories using the city as a character but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of them. Whatever the theme, I look forward to next year’s release, this really is shaping up to be a great British series of books.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Hasty for the Dark.

Hasty for the Dark is the new collection from Adam Nevill and is the follow up volume to last year’s Some Will Not Sleep which has deservedly just won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Like that book, Hasty… has been published by Adam’s own Ritual Limited and – also like the previous volume – is a beautifully produced hardback, this time featuring illustrations from Adam’s brother Simon, evidence that talent really does run in the family with the pictures perfectly envisioning the dark imagination of the author.
The book features nine stories, written between 2009 and 2015 - the period of time which began with the publication of Apartment 16 and ending with Lost Girl – and it’s a bonus, amongst many of the pleasures to be enjoyed within these pages, to see the subtle references to those works – and the novels which were published between them – in the stories collected here.
The opening story is On All London Underground Lines, which tells of the journey from Hell on the titular transport network. Or possibly the journey through Hell… Told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator, it effectively channels the frustrations and sense of dislocation and powerlessness experienced by many a traveller on the underground system, the feeling of being part of a herd, endlessly being shifted here, there and everywhere at the whim of the Gods of Transportation.
Of course, there are other horrors to be endured, the crowds through which the narrator struggles to find a way through are somehow different, there’s a hint of decay about them, something monstrous. So self-absorbed is our narrator, however, that – although he sees the horrors around him, his own personal needs render the monsters little more than annoying obstructions to his progress, placed there simply to get in his way. The imagery, whilst ignored by the narrator, is startling and a joy to read.
Next up is The Angels of London, which shifts the emphasis from travel in the capital city to life within it – more precisely that in rented accommodation. Tenant Frank comes into conflict with landlord Granby over a rise in rent and faces threats of retribution from the “family” who lease the property. Anyone who has read Adam’s novel No One Gets Out Alive will find echoes of that book’s loathsome landlord Knacker McGuire in the character of Granby who presents himself here as little more than a messenger boy for the “family” – a servant of sorts – conjuring similarities to Renfield, in thrall to a terrifying and monstrous master. Whilst the landlords might be described as blood-suckers with regards their rent demands, it turns out they’re far worse than mere vampires – and those demands go far beyond money…
Always in Our Hearts takes the reader on a very strange journey indeed, with taxi driver Ray hired to carry out a relay of journeys, dropping passengers off and picking up the next fare at the same house. All the passengers carry large bags which seem to contain something living although what this is remains a mystery throughout all the journeys, Ray’s curiosity increasing along with the reader’s as to exactly what all this is about. All is revealed at the final drop-off, neatly resolving the mysteries developed along the way and culminating in a bizarre climax. A strange offering indeed.
I had already read many of the stories in this collection but none so recently as Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) which I’d only just encountered in the New Fears anthology. Scholars of Greek Mythology will have an idea of what this story will be about just from its title and will probably smile at the names Jason and Electra – the protagonists of this tale of a first date going horribly wrong. This tale was written as a homage to Robert Aickman and hits the mark perfectly, presenting a series of strange, unexplained events and ending on a note of ambiguity, leaving the reader unsettled and disturbed. Along the way, it conjures up some deliciously creepy imagery by way of an inspired location – an abandoned zoo in which all of the animals (possibly) have gone.
The Days of Our Lives is one of my favourites in the collection, telling of a marriage made in Hell and featuring some classic Nevill imagery (to say nothing of some nice cross-pollination with his novels). The story borders on the surreal in some of its descriptions of the bizarre relationship between the story’s narrator and wife Lois and goes onto some very dark territory. Whilst the previous story unsettled the reader in a subtle way, the discomfort brought about by this tale is a lot more overt. It’s a genuinely disturbing piece of writing which forms the dark heart of the collection.
Hippocampus is up next and is my favourite story within Hasty for the Dark. I was blown away by it when I first read it in Terror Tales of the Ocean and am no less impressed on revisiting it here. It’s an extremely cleverly constructed story, and one which features no characters. It’s perhaps the literary equivalent of a found footage film, the narrative taking the form of a journey through an abandoned ship, describing what is present in each of the rooms encountered. This is no benign mystery like the Marie Celeste, the evidence uncovered reveals something terrible, and incredibly violent has happened to the crew. The real skill of the narrative is to engage the reader’s imagination, presenting them with the evidence and getting them to work out what has happened. There’s horror aplenty here but perhaps the greatest of them all is that this is not just the description of an aftermath but also a prelude.
Call the Name is the second of the four tribute stories in the collection, this time the author in question being HP Lovecraft. It’s the longest story in the book and is set in the same world as Adam’s novel Lost Girl. The environmental disaster described in that book provides the backdrop to this story and – a la Lovecraft – much scientific evidence is provided to explain just how things got as bad as they did, all impressive stuff, thoroughly researched and presented in a frighteningly believable way. Huge themes of revenge against mankind, the despoilers of the planet feature here and it’s an interesting proposition that it might not be the stars being right that herald the return of the Old Ones so much as the earth being wrong.
White Light, White Heat is the third tribute story, this time channelling the style and tropes of mark Samuels – a writer who, to my shame, I have yet to encounter. I have read Ligotti however, and found much to compare with that particular author in this unremittingly grim take on corporate life, a soul-destroying existence that grinds down its workers until the only possible source of hope is resistance. Interestingly, and possibly significantly, the industry under examination here is publishing.
The final story in the collection is also a tribute with Ramsey Campbell the recipient of the honour in Little Black Lamb. Again, it’s a masterful job of recreating the honoured author’s style and technique, the story injecting a heavy dose of sinister into a domestic setting, with a tale of a couple receiving memories which are not their own, images and thoughts which drive them towards a disturbing, and again deeply unsettling, course of action.
Hasty for the Dark is a superb collection of stories, and a worthy successor to Some Will Not Sleep. In comparison to the earlier book, its horrors are perhaps more subtle, less overt but are no less effective for that. The grotesqueries of that first volume have been replaced by suggestion and more ambiguous terror but the stories here still do a grand job of horrifying the reader.
There are links to Adam’s other books for sure, but also connections between the stories themselves. A recurring image will make sure you never look at a seahorse in the same way again and there are tantalising hints of the mysterious “Movement” which will hopefully bear much fruit in forthcoming works.

This is a stunning book in every regard, a wonderful retrospective of one of the most gifted purveyors of horror fiction currently plying their trade. It’s t be hoped that this yearly ritual of short story releases continues into the future, I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas; The Stories Continue.

Accompanying Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Silence, Perfect Darkness which I reviewed here, Hersham Horror are also launching two other novellas in their Primal Range at this year’s Fantasycon.

The first if these is Monstrous by Charlotte Bond. It tells of Jenny who – pretty much against her will – is relocating with her mother Pamela, following the breakdown of a relationship, to Haven - a woodland commune in the depths of Northumberland. As they settle into their new life, so they encounter the community’s other residents – and the secrets they carry with them.
Add a mysterious presence stalking the woods around them and the scene is set for Jenny’s journey of revelation, uncovering – in both literal and metaphorical terms – the nature of the beast in and of her new home.
Although the focus of the book is Jenny, the narrative is third person and presents events from various characters points of view, making much use of italicised inner thoughts for context and exposition.
Actually, probably a little too much. It’s a technique I don’t mind, (and am guilty of myself frequently), but there’s an awful lot of it in here – often running to paragraphs’ worth – so much that it often distracts from the narrative, taking you out of the book as if the characters are taking you to one side and whispering explanations to you.
The “monstrous” of the title refers to the thing in the woods (nicely hinted at until finally revealed) but it’s also the word used by some of the less tolerant members of the commune to describe others whose lifestyles fail to meet their high moral standards. Of course, the reality is that that’s how they themselves should be described. It’s a point which could perhaps have been made a little more subtly in the novella but a nice touch nonetheless.
Events finally reach a conclusion with a confrontation in the woods with the creature which has been stalking the commune – and the uncovering of connections and dark secrets. There are surprising revelations here, along with some deadly violence and it’s the latter which provides my biggest stumbling block in the book. Jenny is presented as rational and sensible, a counterpoint to the weirdness in the commune and I find it hard to accept that she would witness what happens and not even consider informing the police. Perhaps a more isolated setting for the book would have helped here, an island perhaps – truly cut off from society. Maybe it’s because I live not far from the location of the fictional commune; I love the wildness and emptiness of Northumberland but it’s not that remote…
Despite these criticisms, Monstrous makes for an enjoyable read, with lots of ideas and themes going on within it. It’s a good book, and one I recommend – I just feel with some things done a little differently it could have been a very good book.

Bury Them Deep is a dictum I remember well from my Murder for Beginners course and is also the title of the third novella in the Primal range written by Marie O’Regan.
It’s a supernatural thriller, told from the viewpoints of two characters – Maddie and Frank. The story begins impressively, not to say enigmatically, with Maddie’s uncovering of a skeleton – that of her mother who, it turns out, has been murdered. Things get even weirder when Maddie starts a conversation with her mother, in the process revealing her quest to find the remains and the itinerant life that has been forced on her to avoid the killer herself.
The second narrative thread details Frank’s story – describing his exploits as a serial killer of women via his own thought processes and innermost thoughts and as the novella progresses, it jumps between the two threads, slowly revealing the connection between the two storylines.
The two plotlines circle around each other until finally they collide in a confrontation in which the natural and supernatural combine to devastating effect.
I liked Bury Them Deep a lot, not least for the structure of the book, the clever way in which the two storylines weave together. There are twists to enjoy along the way, and it’s a nice touch to have Maddie almost as “weird” as Frank (though without the homicidal tendencies of course…) The final confrontation may have a touch of Deus ex Machina about it, and may stray towards sentimentality but the denouement is suitably dark.
Bury Them Deep is a short read – I have to admit I was surprised when I reached the end of it as there were still a lot of pages left in the ARC I was provided with – but there’s the bonus of two short stories included alongside the novella.

I’m firmly of the belief that the novella is the best medium for horror and Hersham Horror are doing a great job in solidifying that idea. I look forward to what the Primal Range will deliver next.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

Shrapnel Apartments is the new novel from Chris Kelso and is published by Crowded QuarantinePublications. It’s a follow-up to Unger House Radicals which I reviewed here and which was one of my favourite reads of last year.
Unger House Radicals dealt with the creation of a new art-form, Ultra-Realism, by film student Vincent Bittaker and serial killer Brandon Swarthy – whose relationship I likened to that of Rimbaud and Verlane. In possibly the most contrived pun I’ve ever managed (which is saying something) if UHR is Rimbaud: First Blood, (there’s certainly plenty of the red stuff spilled in its pages), then Shrapnel Apartments can surely be regarded as Rimbaud: First Blood Part II.
There’s a marked slump in quality between the two films but not, I’m very pleased to say, between the books. Whereas John Rambo appears in both films, undergoing an amazing transformation from traumatised, disillusioned veteran to some kind of invincible superhero, Bittaker and Swarthy barely get a look in – although they are referenced occasionally – Shrapnel Apartments is set in a post-Ultra-Realism world, a world in which the radical has become part of the establishment.
As with Unger House Radicals, the book is written in a scattershot style, from the perspectives of multiple characters. There’s perhaps more of a narrative thrust to this one though (or perhaps thrusts – there’s more than one story to be told here) and even a hint of (possibly) cosmic horror with the introduction of a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of the mysterious entity known as Blackcap and his assistant King Misery – first alluded to in an opening sequence set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s suggestions throughout the book that Blackcap is guiding events, toying with humanity to achieve his own, nefarious ends.
The storylines running throughout Shrapnel Apartments include those of child-killer Beau Carson and his investigation by corrupt cop Bobby Reilly, a spat between critics Gottleib and Mancuso (primarily about Ultra-Realism) and the eternal suffering of Florence Coffey. The individual stories are told in a variety of narrative voices, mainly first person testimonies (although it’s often not clear exactly who it is who’s speaking…) interspersed with third person sections, police records, random soliloquys and – significantly – autopsy reports. It’s a dazzling display of technique, the seemingly random sections bombarding the reader with images and ideas yet undergoing some kind of synergy to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts which will leave you breathless in its audacity.
Whilst Unger House Radicals was all about art, it’s a bit more difficult to pin down a single theme for Shrapnel Apartments although I’ll stick my neck out and boldly suggest it might be about the nature of evil itself. The titular apartments are (actually, may or may not be) the location of a reality TV show – a la Big Brother – so there’s evidence of evil right there and, given the references to Jazz music (which everyone knows is the work of the devil) which appear in the book I’m relatively confident in this assumption.

Not that it matters. What any reader takes from any book is absolutely an individual experience. What I took from Shrapnel Apartments was an admiration for a writer willing to try new things, be experimental and doing so brilliantly. This is yet another assault on the senses from Chris Kelso and I thank him for it. There’s great skill on display creating the distinct and individual voices of the characters but also in corralling all the disparate elements into a thought-provoking, dazzling and thoroughly satisfying whole.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence

Given the current political climate, there’s a very strong possibility that the whole sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction could be lost to use, re-packaged as contemporary drama so it’s probably a good idea to make the most of it while it’s still here.
Such an opportunity is provided with a new novella in the Hersham Horror line (which launched very successfully last year with these titles) from Richard Farren Barber – Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (a title which may, or may not, reference a James Lovegrove story – but which I kinda hope does because of the context).
The apocalypse in this book is not the result of handing the nuclear codes to a man with the reasoning capacity and awareness of a spoilt toddler - this is a work of fiction - but of an infection, a plague, which wipes out the majority of the world’s population, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. A familiar trope for sure, but those anticipating the arrival of hordes of zombies will be disappointed for in this scenario the “infected” are still very much alive, a threat simply because of the risk of infection they (literally) carry. Once dead, they remain dead – a situation which brings with it many practical implications for the survivors…
It’s the disposal of the corpses which is the job of Hannah, the protagonist – and narrator – of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Along with her team, she retrieves the fallen bodies of those who have made it as far as the outskirts of the village in which she and the other survivors now reside, in order to remove them and with them the risk of further contamination.
It’s the epitome of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” and there’s much grimness to be had in the descriptions of what the team have to do. There’s much opportunity for character development too, with the personalities of the team emerging from the ways in which they approach their grim task.
The community is led by the charismatic Dr Andrew Hickman who has shaped the rules and policies by which the village is kept safe behind its walls and quarantine zones and it’s these which provide the subtext to the novella. The political allegory of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is writ large, the paranoia and exclusion of the survivors towards the infected (and – crucially – the “possibly” infected) holds a mirror up to the current political climate here in the UK and other countries which, frankly, should know better.
In this context, Perfect darkness, Perfect Silence is incredibly powerful. The last act (the final solution) performed by Hannah and her crew is to tip the dead into huge funeral pyres – scenes which cannot fail to evoke images of much darker times, and a salutary reminder of the real cost of extreme ideologies.
I was mightily impressed by this novella and regard it as the best that Richard has written thus far. Despite the “heavy” politics it still works as an exciting read with fully drawn characters and a great deal of imagination on display. It’s a cleverly constructed world Richard has created here and his use of Hannah as a protagonist gradually discovering – or uncovering – exactly what is happening is something he handles expertly.

I highly recommend Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. It will be launched, alongside the other new novellas in the series, at FantasyCon in September.