Monday, 3 December 2018

Witnesses (#2)


Today sees the release – I should say re-release – of my novel Witnesses. It was first published in February by Crowded Quarantine Publications but unfortunately turned out to be their last book before closing down. The rights reverted back to me and, rather that begin the lengthy process of touting the book around again I decided to put all the experience I’d gained through Dark Minds Press to re-edit and re-format Witnesses myself.
Having worked with Neil Williams on many of the Dark Minds covers, he was an obvious choice for the new cover and, yet again, he’s provided an amazing work of art to grace the novel. In a twilight zone-esque moment, I recognised the mountains which provide the backdrop to the cover as my favourite walk of all time, the head of the Newlands Valley in the Lake District – a fact not known to Neil when he was creating the cover. I’m fortunate, I guess, that my book has had two outstanding covers.
This new edition contains a new foreword and the notes at the end about how the book was written have been extended but the text remains otherwise the same (apart from one typo which somehow got through the editing process first time round which is now fixed). Whilst this can be considered as Witnesses: Redux, I resisted the urge to include an extended section set in a French plantation as I felt it would slow the momentum. Whilst the words remain the same, I’ve played around a little with the layout and decided to use different fonts for the different timelines and characters within the novel to “enhance” the reading experience. (This is only available in the paperback – those reading the kindle version will have to suffer the confusion and bewilderment that readers of the original version had to endure). (Which was deliberate BTW).
I’m very proud of Witnesses, it’s a book I put a lot of work into. Initial reaction was very positive and I hope that continues now that the book is once more available. You can buy the book here.

Monday, 12 November 2018

The Darkest Battlefield.


I’m very happy to announce that a new collection of WW1 based horror novellas, The Darkest Battlefield, is now available to pre-order. It’s the inaugural publication from Dean M Drinkel’s new publishing venture Demain and is a sequel of sorts to Darker Battlefields which was published a couple of years ago.
The kindle edition features my own novella, The Lost, alongside stories from Richard Farren Barber, Paul Edwards and Terry Grimwood. A paperback is in the pipeline which will feature the added bonus of a novella from Dean himself.
The idea for The Darkest Battlefield was proposed by Dean shortly after publication of Darker Battlefields and once the decision had been made that he would be publishing the book, all that remained was for an editor to come forward. Ignoring the eminently sensible advice to never volunteer for anything, I offered my services and as a result, found myself in the wonderful position of reading three superb novellas – stories whose company I am honoured to share here.
My own novella is set against the backdrop of the Third Battle of Ypres – or the Battle of Passchendaele as it’s come to be more commonly known – a conflict which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and which was fought in some of the worst conditions imaginable with persistent rain turning the battlefield into a quagmire in which thousands drowned. The option to not participate because it was raining was not one available to them. A senior officer, visiting the battlefield towards the end of the fighting burst into tears and asked his driver “did we send our men into that?” Passchendaele was also the place where the German army first used mustard gas, and this plays a hugely significant role in my story.
I’ve long been obsessed by the Great War, something which I believe dates back to when I was ten or eleven and picked up some books in my great-uncle’s house about the conflict. What I read in there horrified me and when I asked my uncle about his experiences he refused to go into any detail and even as young as I was I could sense his discomfort. I’ve subsequently learned that my paternal great-grandfather was a hussar at the Somme (though I’m not sure if he participated in one of the last cavalry charges ever) who was killed by a sniper and that my maternal grandfather was bayoneted in the shoulder and held as a prisoner of war.
I’ve used the conflict as the backdrop for many of my stories and it’s a subject I’ll no doubt return to in the future. I’m very proud to be a part of this project, the stories presented here taking a variety of approaches to the theme. Also included is a foreword from Adrian Chamberlin and original poetry from John Gilbert.
You can pre-order The Darkest Battlefield here.

All Hell
By Richard Farren Barber
The horrors of the Great War are felt all over the world, not least by those left behind, the mothers of the soldiers fighting in the trenches. They wait every day for the arrival of the delivery boy bringing the letters that tell of the death of another son, hoping that this is not their turn. They will do anything to ensure the safety of their boys.
When a mysterious stranger arrives in New Radford, she brings with her the promise of hope, a way of ensuring the safety of the young men of the Nottinghamshire town. Mary Fothergill is drawn to the woman, desperate to keep her sons William and Henry alive - but will the woman’s demands be too high a price to pay?

Where The Wounded Trees Wait
By Paul Edwards
At the battlefield memorial at Mametz, Caryl searches for the place where her grandfather Huw lost his life. Gifted with a psychic ability passed down from her grandmother, she begins a journey into the past, uncovering truths which throw light not just on her family’s history but her own life.
Amidst the revelations of Huw’s final days, connections form as past and present grow ever closer and Caryl’s own destiny is revealed.

Maria
By Terry Grimwood
The sacrifice of war has new meaning for Major Ernst Dreyer.
The son of an abusive father, he has escaped his past and is now a Major in the German army, his company held in reserve as the British mount their attack.
His request that the men be moved up to the front line arises from more than a sense of honour or patriotism – much more is at stake than the future of his homeland. A deal has been made, one which must not be broken.

The Lost
By Anthony Watson
Amid the rain and mud of Passchendaele, an army chaplain and medical officer form a friendship and uncover the cursed history of the battlefield which is their temporary home.
An evil long since dormant is reawakening and the pair find themselves in a race against time to combat the supernatural horrors of the past, even as the third battle of Ypres rages around them.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Mr Sucky


Mr Sucky is the latest offering from Duncan P. Bradshaw and is published through his own imprint EyeCue Productions. With a word count coming in at somewhere between a long novella and a short novel, it’s an everyday tale of serial-killer-becomes-vacuum-cleaner, a trope which has been woefully underused within the genre. Vacuum cleaners had been around for some fifty years by the time Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis but he chickened out, preferring to use a giant insect to express his weird father complex thing.
Those expecting gritty social commentary will be disappointed if they pick up Mr Sucky but those looking for some cleverly crafted bizarro fiction will find much to enjoy here. It’s a mix of extreme horror and comedy (“Gore-Com”) which manages to combine both elements very effectively. I’m generally not a fan of extreme horror but when it’s presented in such a gloriously over-the-top fashion as it is here you can’t fail to be impressed by the imagination that has gone into some of the set-pieces. Before I started Mr Sucky, I wondered how a vacuum cleaner could possibly murder people but now I’ve finished the book, I feel I’ve been educated (and quite possibly know too much about the process).
So the “Gore” half of the equation works well, how about the “Com”? It’s really hard, being funny. Many have tried before and failed but there are some outstanding examples of horror/comedy hybridity out there too. It’s difficult because everyone’s sense of humour is different, one man’s side-splitting hilarity is another man’s melancholy and despair. Personally, I pride myself on my grumpiness but I have to say that Mr Sucky had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. (Cue awkward conversations with my better half as to what it was that had made me laugh. “Well, there’s this hoover, possessed by the spirit of a serial killer, who’s just sucked someone’s intestines out…”) It takes skill to get the blend right and it’s here in abundance.
The “hero” of Mr Sucky is Clive Beauchamp, a serial killer with a split personality, the two halves of which provide the (mainly) first person narrative of the story. The events of the novel/la take place in the Quantico motel (a reference, I presume, to the FBI building – an organisation whose first director was J Edgar someone). Clive is setting up his latest kill, unaware that it will be him who will be Dyson with death – unsuccessfully as it turns out – himself becoming the victim, initiating a chain of events which, by a series of bizarre and unfortunate turns of fate, results in his spirit being transferred into the titular vacuum cleaner.
Following this, much chaos ensues.
To be honest, Clive’s reanimation as a domestic appliance is one of the less bizarre things to happen as the varied cast of characters make their appearances. It’s all very cleverly done with the humour ranging from broad to subtle, the violence from intense to very intense. What I particularly enjoyed was the structure of the narrative which was fractured, jumping around in time and point of view. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction with its disrupted and looping timelines; Pulp Suction perhaps.
I had a blast with Mr Sucky, enjoyed the hell out of it. It takes a strange, twisted kind of imagination to produce something as bizarre yet enjoyable as this and, luckily for us all, that’s exactly what Duncan P. Bradshaw has.



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.