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.

Monday, 9 July 2018

In Dog We Trust



In Dog We Trust is an anthology of horror stories featuring the titular beasts which is published by Black Shuck Books and edited by Anthony Cowin. It’s an interesting choice of theme for an anthology and one with a somewhat checkered pedigree. I have rose-tinted memories of both Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Crown International Pictures’ Zoltan, Hound of Dracula but less fond memories of The Pack, a film I saw in my teens as part of a double bill with the Food of the Gods (although it was the supporting film of that combo and I may well have been so terrified by the sight of Ida Lupino’s giant chickens in the main feature that it affected my appreciation).
James Herbert gave us Fluke which is actually very good, not least because it was a departure from his usual fare and as such, not really horror at all. The crowning moment of canine horror has to be Cujo though, a book I’ve only just re-read recently and which is, despite the author being unable to remember writing due to various chemical diversions, one of his best. The film is pretty decent too.
There are a variety of approaches to the theme on display here, with some of the authors presenting their stories from the perspective of the dogs themselves. This is the case with Lily Childs’ Queen Bitch and Willie Meikle’s Leader of the Pack.  Having two dogs myself, the latter did make me smile with its knowing insights into canine psychology and it has a killer last line. It also encompasses another theme running through the anthology, that of a disaster befalling humankind which results in dogs becoming the dominant species.
Adam Millard’s take on that apocalypse is the phenomenon of Hikikomori, or shut-in syndrome in which humans withdraw from society, hiding in their own homes. At first, dogs are used to help out, running errands for their reclusive owners but gradually the relationship changes, the dogs filling the space left behind by their erstwhile masters…
A canine apocalypse is hinted at in Mark West’s Chihuahua, with a group of strangers encountering the beginning of the end at a petrol station (a set-up which reminded me of a scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, another animal-apocalypse scenario). It is, I have to say, an odd little story – not because of the subject matter but because of the way it ends. I’m all for leaving stuff to a reader’s imagination but this seemed a little, well, abrupt.
The scientific manipulation of our canine friends provides the basis for a couple of stories. Mulligan Street by DT Griffith introduces us to the Coywolves, genetically modified hybrids which possibly deserve a longer run than this story gives them, only hinting as it does at their nature. There’s a lot of high concept stuff going on in Steven Chapman’s Good Girl but there’s maybe a wee bit of shark-jumping going on with the limits of credibility stretching almost to breaking point. It’s a curse of the short story format that big ideas are compressed and I feel that this story in particular suffers from that with no real explanation of the science and technology which play such a big part in it.
One of my favourite stories in the anthology is Amelia Mangan’s I love You Mary-Grace, a wonderfully atmospheric tale with a strong feel of Southern Gothic which provides a fresh spin on the werewolf legend. It’s a story which creates and introduces its own new mythology; that of the dog-headed people, a beautifully constructed slow-burner of a tale told in a distinctive and authentic first-person voice.
Despite being man’s best friend™, dogs unfortunately often bear the brunt of some of the more sickening manifestations of human nature. Revenge is the motivating force in Michael Bray’s Burger Van, the titular vehicle a source of “special” meat whose provenance incurs the wrath of a marauding pack of dogs whilst the final story in the collection, Phil Sloman’s A Dog is For Death, delves into the murky world of dog-fighting to create a highly effective tale of revenge from beyond the grave.
The nature of the beast is under scrutiny in Gary Fry’s Man’s Best Friend, a suitably ironic title for this examination of relationships, abusive and otherwise and it’s this same comparison between animalistic tendencies which provide the basis for the outstanding story of the collection – in my opinion – Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley.
There are few better than Ray at crafting a story around a central theme, constructing a framework on which to hang ideas and motifs to create a reading experience that is as enjoyable as much for the way it has been written as the narrative it contains. Such is the case here, with its tale of a wildlife documentary crew filming African Hunting Dogs. There’s nature red in tooth and claw here, with savagery in a hostile environment all told in an ingenious first person narrative. The author masterfully manages the growing sense of unease throughout the story, building the tension towards a denouement which – whilst not unexpected given all that has preceded it – is truly horrific.
Painted Wolves opens the collection and provides a powerful introduction to what is a very strong anthology. Whilst some of the ideas don’t quite hit the mark, the writing throughout is of a uniformly high standard and there’s much here to enjoy. It’s probably fair to say that the wrong species ended up with the opposable thumbs, far better they had gone to a branch of the animal kingdom with more intelligence but within the pages of this book at least, every dog does indeed have its day. Anthony Cowin has done a great job here, producing an anthology of great quality.

In Dog We Trust will be launched at Edge-Lit on 14th July.



Monday, 4 June 2018

Broken on the Inside


Broken on the Inside is the sixth of Black Shuck Books' Shadows series, mini collections of short stories. The books, which contain between two and five stories each, serve very nicely as a taster of the featured authors’ work and thus far have presented the wares of Paul Kane (twice), Joseph D’Lacey, Thana Niveau and Gary Fry. The newest addition to the series comes courtesy of Phil Sloman, a writer whose work I have very much enjoyed since I first encountered it via his novella Becoming David.
As well as featuring a single author, the books are also themed – in this case, the theme being that of mental disintegration, individual journeys into darkness leading to tragic consequences, in some cases for the protagonists themselves, in others for the people they come into contact with. The work of a modern day Poe then, (Edgar Allan rather than Cameron). Such tales are a standard in the realms of horror fiction and it’s often the case that the author will choose a first person narrative in their telling in order to add a touch of unreliability to the proceedings. It can be – and frequently is – an effective technique but it’s to Phil’s credit that he eschews this narrative voice, presenting each tale in third person yet still managing to create that unreliability and more ambiguity that you can shake a stick at.
The collection shares its title with the first story in the book, a previously unpublished tale which sets up the rest of the volume perfectly and which is, in my opinion, the strongest of them all. What I liked about it was the excellent characterisation (a feature of all Phil’s writing – I’m pretty certain he’s a people watcher) and the way in which the story is constructed, constantly wrong-footing the reader so that the conclusion, which is very clever, is made all the more potent. There are some great ideas going on in here – not least of which being the downside of technology - cleverly presented with just the right amount of black humour.
There’s a lot more black humour on show in the second story, Discomfort Food. It has a similar story arc to the opener, with the journey undertaken by the protagonist running along the same lines. It perhaps suffers a little because of this even though the narrative is presented in a very different way and also, maybe, because it was written for a very specifically themed anthology and there’s a feeling that the story was adapted to meet the book’s requirements. Which actually sounds more critical than I intend to be as there’s much to enjoy here, not least the opening scenes which feature a very bizarre conversation cleverly introducing the story’s main character whilst at the same time adding that all important touch of ambiguity and weirdness.
There’s a bizarre conversation going on in the Man Who Fed the Foxes too. Of the many startling images on display in Lars Von trier’s Antichrist, one which sticks in my mind is the trapped fox uttering “Chaos reigns” and so of course my mind conjured up that scene as I read this story. In the same way as the “things talking which can’t actually talk” technique (a term I’m thinking of copyrighting) employed in the preceding story, the conversations here are an outward manifestation of the psychosis within, the voices outside the protagonist’s head if you will. Grief is the motivating force in this story, the engine driving Paul Wilson’s journey to the dark side, a more benign influence than the paranoia and trauma which featured in the earlier stories but the end result is just as dark.
That end result is pretty grim, but is presented in such a way as to suggest what is happening rather than displaying it in all its gory detail. Grim things happen in There Was an Old Man too but this time the horrors are more overt. Whilst again taking the psychological breakdown of its protagonist as its main theme, this story ventures into body horror territory, presenting a scenario in which the psychological becomes the physical and which gives a new resonance to the phrase being eaten up inside.
Rounding off the collection is Virtually Famous, a story which I was very happy to play a small part in unleashing upon the world, first appearing as it did in Imposter Syndrome. It’s another cleverly constructed story, jumping back and forth between characters and timelines and – more importantly – reality and its virtual counterpart. Again, there are a whole host of ideas being presented here, including a fairly damning assessment of human behaviour and it’s a story in which the structure is perfect for the tale it tells, its fractured nature serving to confuse the reader, blurring the lines between what is real and what is not.
It’s a strong ending to a very strong collection. Along with the clever ideas already mentioned there’s a great deal of intelligence in the writing. Ideas are great but it takes skill to craft them into stories that are as enjoyable to read as these five are. This skill, along with a keen eye for the minutiae of human behaviour in all its dark reality mark Phil out as a writer to watch for in the future. I for one look forward keenly to what he comes up with next.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Dead Sun


Dead Sun is the new novel from Luke Walker, a book which is undergoing a second lease of life – or perhaps, more fittingly given its plot, experiencing the afterlife – having previously been published as ‘Set in 2013.
The book’s original title refers to a location, one in which most of the action (and there’s plenty of action…) takes place: a shortened form of Sunset – a place which exists between Heaven and Hell, a way-station for the dead. Limbo! You may cry – or even Purgatory if you’re of a certain persuasion – but you’d be wrong, Sunset is its own place entirely, populated and accessed by the souls of the recently departed as well as their corporeal forms and visited when necessary by angels and demons.
It’s to ‘Set that the story’s protagonist Emma Cooper finds herself drawn, escorted there by a visitor to her home who introduces himself as Xaphan – a demon, whereupon they meet up with the book’s other main character Afriel, an angel. Emma, so it would appear, is the key to resolving a crisis within ‘Set, a refusal by a collection of souls to move on…
It’s probably best to describe the book as dark fantasy rather than out-and-out horror (although there are moments, particularly involving the “deads” – zombies to all intents and purposes – which definitely fall into the latter category) but the darkness is leavened by a dry wit in the narrative, the humour arising from the anachronistic, almost surreal interaction between the mundane and the epically supernatural giving rise to many a chuckle. I try not to compare authors when reviewing but there’s a definite similarity to this novel and the Discworld books of Terry Pratchett, a set of books in which a demon asking an angel if they want to go for a pint (as happens here) is just as likely.
As it turns out, the backlog problem turns out to be just the beginning and, once the author has (skillfully) introduced the rules and mechanisms governing ‘Set, the crisis deepens further and the plot really takes off with the introduction of a host of new characters and locations.
Luke has done a great job of creating the worlds in which his characters play out the narrative, a huge amount of imagination is on display here. It’s a clever mix – the story is epic, spanning a number of worlds and time periods and yet underpinning it all is the idea that the whole business of life and death is just that – a business, the ultimate production line, a conveyor belt of the deceased being processed by workers with their own issues and complaints.
There’s a nice mix too of “real” demons and angels with some nice name-drops going on. Samael, as might be expected, is a bit of a bastard. It has to be said there are a lot of characters, many of whom are introduced quickly and, given they are all then dispersed into different locations and time periods, it can be a little tricky to keep up with what’s going on. Fear not though, just go along for the ride and enjoy the cleverly thought out conclusion.
I enjoyed Dead Sun very much – for its humour and the huge amounts of imagination on display within. It’s obvious a great deal of work has gone into creating the worlds in which the story takes place and that shows in the final product. Humour is always a difficult thing to get right but Luke has got the tone of the novel just right resulting in an engaging, fast-paced and hugely enjoyable read.
You can buy Dead Sun here.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Shiloh


Shiloh is the new novella from Philip Fracassi, now published in paperback by Lovecraft ezine press following the release of a limited edition hardback version. Philip is a writer whose work I now anticipate with great relish, providing as he has some of my favourite reads of the last few years. That anticipation was pushed almost beyond limits at the news that the novella has a historical setting given my predilection for horrors set in the past.
As the title might suggest, the story takes place during the Battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War, April 6th – 7th 1862. “Suggest” is appropriate however, the battle as described in the novella is never given this name –and, whilst this is undoubtedly historically accurate given the story is told in first person, present tense – it also offers up the possibility that the title refers to something else – or someone else.
The aforementioned narrative voice is an ideal choice for the novella, making the reading experience immediate and personal, throwing the reader into the thick of the battle. These passages are brutal, vividly describing the horrors of warfare and the damage human beings can do to one another and are not for the faint of heart. The narrator is Henry, fighting for the Confederacy alongside his twin brother William. His voice is an authentic one, conveying the horror of his situation alongside his own emotional responses and, as the best first person narratives do, provides insight into his own character. Most notable of these, given what happens in the story, is his refusal to subscribe to religious belief, a decision made in the context of his upbringing as the son of a preacher.
This lack of belief in anything mystical is important as it adds veracity to Henry’s observations of what unfolds during the fighting. Much of the horror in Shiloh is visceral, the descriptions of the atrocities of combat, but there is supernatural horror here too, subtly introduced with some highly effective – and chilling – descriptions of strange figures glimpsed amongst the carnage but then building to a point where it is the dominant theme of the book.
Cleverly, one of the supernatural elements references a phenomenon which was actually reported during the battle (and which has only recently been explained) and Philip shows great skill in incorporating it into the narrative, weaving it into his own story, enhancing the eeriness of the story’s conclusion.
And what a conclusion… The subtle shift from visceral to supernatural throughout the story leads to an almost dreamlike final sequence, in essence the physical becoming the metaphysical. It’s a heady mix of allegory and mysticism in which themes of destiny, death and sacrifice are explored. War is a transformative experience for those involved, its effects dehumanising, turning men into monsters and it’s these ideas which power the final scenes of the book. The startling imagery which has featured throughout the novella continues here as Henry discovers the truth of what has been happening, a revelation which will change his world forever. It’s an incredibly powerful ending to what has already been a marvellous piece of writing and is, in my opinion, the author’s best work to date.
I loved Shiloh, loved it again the second time I read it. Also included in this edition is a short story, Soda Jerk which provides a taster for Philip’s forthcoming novella Sabbath. Consider my appetite whetted...