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The collection shares its title with the first story in the book, a previously unpublished tale which sets up the rest of the volume perfectly and which is, in my opinion, the strongest of them all.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...

Monday, 12 March 2018

Widow's Point


The epistolary novel has a long and well-established history, dating back to the 18th Century and has provided the modus operandi for a number of horror novels – most famously Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The “found footage” technique of film-making has become almost a cliché these days but again, is well established (and had been around a long time before The Blair Witch Project hit the screens).
Whilst some books have had plots which revolve around the discovery of found footage, thus combining the literary and cinematic, Widow’s Point – the new novella from Richard and Billy Chizmar which is published by Cemetery Dance - takes this process one step further by presenting the book as a series of transcripts of video and audio recordings without an accompanying narrative to surround them.
The recordings have been made by writer Thomas Livingstone (always a good name for an explorer) during his investigation of the lighthouse in Nova Scotia which shares its name with the novella and are presented in sequential order, with each extract given a date and time.
After having been locked into the lighthouse by its custodian in order to begin his investigation, Livingstone’s video camera is damaged – meaning the majority of the book is made up of transcripts of the audio recordings. Which is a masterstroke.
Although there is much passion and emotion from Livingstone on display here, it’s the dispassionate way these extracts are presented, as a formal document, that gives them such massive impact. By presenting the information in what is actually a limited way – no flowery prose or vivid descriptions here – the readers themselves are made to paint their own picture of what is happening around, and to, Livingstone.
There’s extremely effective use of “noises off”, including some literal bumps in the night and a variety of voices other than Livingstone’s which subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – build up a feeling of dread. Many of these are commented on by Livingstone himself but most effective are those where he is absent from the recording, ignorant of the sounds described to the reader and which deliver a delectable frisson of terror.
There’s no denying that a whole boatload of clichés are in play here; man alone in locked, haunted lighthouse - but the way in which the story is presented reinvigorates these old tropes, painting them in fresh colours and, in the process, creating a genuinely chilling read. It’s a technique that could have gone horribly wrong but the authors have shown great skill in crafting this novella and it was a joy to read a horror story that was actually scary.
If I have any criticism, it’s that there’s a section at the end of the book which I felt was unnecessary. The transcripts are followed by an official police report which works exceedingly well. It’s after this, however, that another section is added which I felt the book would have been better off without.
This aside, I very much enjoyed Widow’s Point and recommend it highly to your reading pleasure.

Monday, 18 December 2017

2017 Review.

So then, that was 2017 - a year in which, somehow, we managed to avoid nuclear annihilation again. Not for the want of trying, it has to be said. Whilst the world in general seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, what of that microcosm which is horror? How’s that fared then?
From a personal perspective, very well thank you. The number of visitors to this blog finally passed the 100,000 mark - which is very nice - but more importantly, this year I achieved one of my writing ambitions by having a novel accepted for publication and my thanks once more go to Adam and Zoe at Crowded Quarantine Publications for making my dream a reality with the release of Witnesses in January 2018.
Another ambition was achieved with the placing of one of my stories in a pro-rate paying anthology. The ambition lay not in the earning of money for the story (although that was very nice…) but in sharing the pages of the book with writers who have long been literary heroes of mine.
These achievements were only possible because of open submission policies by both the publishers involved. The whole debate around open subs/invite only sprang to life earlier in the year with some pretty strident views expressed by both sides. Given what I’ve just said, it’s not hard to work out which side of the argument I stand on. Invite only is great – as long as you’re one of the invited. Ultimately, I guess the risk is of a closed shop and a stifling of the genre and no room for new voices to be heard. Nothing is ever that straightforward of course and I can appreciate the points put forward by the inviters; quality assurance being the prime one. Which is true… to some extent. Some anthologies I’ve read this year had stories from invited authors which were, well… a bit crap to be honest. Some of them were barely horror stories so I’m of the suspicion that – in some cases – the invites serve as a release mechanism for trunk stories which have failed to find homes by more conventional means.
The thing is, there’s room for both and a mix of the two seems the most satisfactory way forward. I’ve been invited myself and accepted willingly so I can’t really complain that much. My experiences with Dark Minds Press has shown the amount of work generated by having an open subs call and, with that in mind, I can see why a lot of publishers are beginning to place restrictions on what they will accept. No vampires, werewolves or zombies is an oft-repeated directive – which is kinda sad really. I like monsters and I really like stories which use them in original ways. Being original with well-established tropes is a sign of real skill as a writer in my opinion, I’d be sorry to see them banished completely because of prejudice against them.
Maybe it’s snobbery. There seems to be a lot of it about. Literary versus pulp is a battle which has long raged – with a tendency by practitioners of the former to look down on those of the latter. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Good writing takes skill and dedication whatever the genre or sub-genre. And yes, I regard literary fiction as a genre in its own right, with its own tropes, clichés and rules. Badly written literary fiction is awful. Worse than awful.
Bad literary criticism is even worse. Whilst I don’t regard it as a sacred duty, I like to think my reviews are useful to potential readers of books. What I don’t claim is any kind of depth; my reviews (on the whole) point out the positives in what I’ve read and act as an advert for books and stories I think should be read.
Mind you, if some of what I’ve read this year is what literary criticism is then I can’t see myself attempting it anytime soon. Orgasmic delight at spotting typographical and grammatical errors seems to be the order of the day (although making the leap that this is evidence that an author doesn’t know how to write rather than just, I don’t know, a mistake is probably too big a one to make) along with a healthy dose of personal insults (“hack”, “dolt”, “blowhard” certainly seem personal to me). I’m not sure I could bring myself to be so mean-spirited – even if I then pretended that IT WAS ALL A JOKE afterwards. The thing about satire is it’s supposed to be funny – if you have to explain to people that you’re joking then you’re probably not doing it right. Calling names is puerile and diminishes the person doing it, whilst using a chronic, neurodegenerative disease as a “witty” insult is, frankly, beneath contempt.
Typos are an irritation though – that said, every now and then they do add an extra something to a passage albeit unintentionally. However, it’s probably time to call time on a few persistent offenders: During a thunderstorm, lightning – not lightening, strikes; aircraft are housed in hangars, not hangers; and an infected wound will ooze pus, not puss (unless, of course, the story involves weird, feline body horror of some kind).
Anyway, back to 2017. Interestingly, and amusingly, a bizarre rumour began to circulate before this year’s Fantasycon that the entire British horror community were far-right, Nazi sympathisers. (Or “very fine people” as the leader of the Free World might have it). These rumours appeared to originate from a source close to the centre of the community about 11,000 miles away from the UK. The "warnings" were issued in an entirely “not a personal vendetta” kind of way and actually manged to persuade some people that they were true. My, how everyone laughed. Still, as politicians the world over seem to be proving with demoralising frequency, you can pretty much say any old kind of shit these days and people will believe it. (On a serious note, if you are one of those who believed the story, drop me a message – I have bridge for sale you may be interested in).
2017 also saw the closure of another handful of small presses, bringing about the expected sympathy/recrimination depending on how those closures affected you personally. On the whole, the reasons for the closures were financial – whether through bad planning or bad luck not enough books were sold to keep the presses going. I do believe horror is going through a revival but this still doesn’t seem to be reflected in sales of books. Much as a “like” on Facebook is appreciated, buying a book is a much better way of expressing support.
Which brings me to Dark Minds Press. We released three books this year, Mark West’s collection Things We Leave Behind, Laura Mauro’s novella Naming the Bones and the anthology Imposter Syndrome. In January we’ll be releasing Chad Clark’s novella Winter Holiday which, as it turns out, will be my last involvement with the press.
Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. It was becoming increasingly difficult to juggle writing, reviewing and editing/formatting/publishing on the one day I have available every week and so something had to give. It's a decision I didn't make lightly, and which I pondered over for many months but a successful small press needs a level of dedication and commitment I find I'm no longer able to provide. It’s been an honour working with the authors and artists in the ten years since we set up the press and I hope we’ve done justice to their visions. I’m proud of every book we’ve published.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. The time has arrived, yet again, for my picks of the best the horror genre has had to offer in the last twelve months with the award of the fabled Dark Muses. To reiterate, these awards are voted for by a panel of one and reflect the piece of writing in each category which has impressed me the most. Much as I might try, I can't read every book which is published so, obviously, my choices are taken from those I have had the opportunity to look at. The award exists only in virtual form and has been designed by Peter Frain, aka 77studios, who created the distinctive red, white and black covers for the Dark Minds Novella range:




BEST NOVEL

I managed to read thirty one novels this year although only twenty of them were horror, and of those only thirteen were published this year. Crowded Quarantine Publications set the standard high with their two novel releases this year, Yellow Line by Kristal Stittle and Luke Walker’s Ascent which both pitched small groups of survivors against original, deadly menaces in a subway train and a high rise building respectively. Both were hugely enjoyable reads, original and inventive and will be a hard act to follow for whoever comes next.
Tim Lebbon unearthed some interesting Relics in what will be the first of a series of novels featuring creatures of mythology presented in a new, somewhat menacing, light whilst the discovery of something ancient and not very nice on the titular holy mountain provided much terror in Christopher Golden’s Ararat. I enjoyed both but felt the suspension of disbelief was perhaps a little too much in the former whilst the latter seemed a book of four quarters; the first three of which were a little slow, with pretty much all the action concentrated in the final one.
Adam Nevill moved into more psychological terror with Under a Watchful Eye, a book I enjoyed as much for the way in which it was written as the intriguing, and deeply unsettling, narrative. Equally impressive in terms of its construction was Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes with its multiple viewpoints leading to an ending with a twist which more than lived up to its pre-publicity.
S. P. Miskowski used a line from Nirvana's All Apologies for the title of her novel I Wish I Was Like You  - entirely fitting, given its setting of 90's Seattle. And entertain us she did, producing a ghost story with a difference, a book which skipped between narrative voices in a clever, and at times almost meta-fictional way.
Getting the blend between comedy and horror right is a tricky business – especially at novel length, but such was achieved by Daniel Marc Chant and Vincent Hunt with their hugely entertaining take on professional exorcism Devil Kickers. It worked so well because it was a case of the plot being enhanced by the jokes rather than simply being contrived in order to facilitate them.
Willie Meikle proved yet again that he is one of the best writers of pulp/adventure/horror stories with Infestation – a glorious mash-up of cryptozoology and sweary Scotsmen set in a chillingly remote location.
Chris Kelso once again proved he was a force to reckon with, and a writer of incredible imagination and skill with his follow up to the brilliant Unger House Radicals. Shrapnel Apartments was another dazzling array of images and ideas, an assault on the senses in which reality took on a whole new meaning, an examination of fame - and those who pursue it - to die for.
It’s an amazing book, and very nearly walked away with the Dark Muse for best novel but that honour goes this year to Beneath by Kristi DeMeester. Set in rural Appalachia, it’s a disturbing mix of ancient evil, fundamental Christianity and sexual tension – an incredibly dark book which left me feeling not a little troubled after I’d finished it.
(Interestingly, this result means that for two years running, my favourite novel of the year has been published by Word Horde – last year the “trophy” went to John Langan’s The Fisherman. A critic of some repute, in relation to Word Horde, once expressed wonderment at “why any sane and intelligent person would want to buy these books in the first place.” (After hilariously, deliberately misspelling the publisher’s name as “Word Whore” – but then nothing says "wit and sophistication" like "whore"). Well, I guess the answer is because they’re excellent. (Mind you, the same person thinks dementia is funny so their opinions probably aren’t worth a whole lot anyway).

BEST NOVELLA

The novella continues to establish itself as the best medium for horror – such is my considered opinion – and there have been some brilliant examples this year, making this the hardest of all my choices. It was a n honour to work with Laura Mauro on her novella Naming the Bones, a book which - had it not been disqualified because of my involvement in it - would have been among the contenders for the Dark Muse without a doubt.
Although they’re described as “short novels”, the four stories in Joe Hill’s collection Strange Weather are, I would guess, technically novellas. I enjoyed them all – to varying degrees – and particularly like the way he rarely offers up explanations for the supernatural elements of his tales, thereby adding to the mystery and wonder. A critic of some repute sees this as a weakness in his writing, enough to brand the author a “hack” but this is definitely a strength of any horror fiction, allowing the reader to engage both their imagination and intellect when reading. (And something that didn’t seem to do Robert Aickman any harm). Best of them all was Loaded, which actually features no supernatural element at all but is a powerful comment on gun culture, a devastating story which slowly gains momentum, heading inexorably towards the most powerful of conclusions and showing that there’s really no such thing as a “good guy with a gun”.
Hersham Horror continued their Primal range with three new releases this year, the best among which was Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence which made a profound political statement with its post-apocalyptic allegory.
Mythological creatures provided the basis for two very different novellas in 2017: Dave Jeffery’s Frostbite provided a new take on the legend of the Yeti, coming up with a spectacular theory for their existence amidst a fast-paced, cross-genre thriller that contained more twists and turns than a mountain road. I have the East Coast main line at the bottom of my garden but some people have fairies – or not, as the case may be. Such claims were scrutinised in a very cleverly written novella from Alison Littlewood, Cottingley, which used an epistolary style to provide a chilling character study using the story of the faked 1920’s photographs of fairies – which fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – as its starting point.
A similar, epistolary style was used by Justin Park in Mad Dog, with the story of a prison riot ingeniously constructed from a series of witness testimonies. I’m always massively appreciative of authors who try out different ways of presenting narratives and this hard-hitting novella does just that.
Gary Fry’s The Rage of Cthulhu read more like a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s original Call with similarities in the plot and some familiar names. It perhaps strained credibility a little too far come its conclusion but still managed to include some of the author’s trademark philosophical musings.
Paul Edwards gave us Infernal Love, a gloriously over-the-top homage to 60’s and 70’s occult horror. Blood drenched and full of marauding demons, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Philip Fracassi’s choice of monster for his novella Sacculina may, at first glance, have seemed a little odd but it turned out to be inspired in this tense story of a fishing trip gone horribly wrong. There’s real depth to the tale, lifting it above its pulp origins, with superbly drawn characters interacting with each other in realistically moving fashion. The action scenes are handled just as deftly – and are gripping in more ways than one.
It’s a difficult job to bring something fresh to the ghost story but that’s exactly what Stephen Graham Jones does with Mapping the Interior, a novella that plays with the reader’s perception as much as its protagonist, a young boy who discovers there’s more to the house he lives in, and his own history than he had ever imagined whilst the haunted “suicide forest” of Aokigahara in Japan was used to great effect as a setting for Adam Millard’s Swimming in the Sea of Trees.
Stephen Volk once more displayed his consummate skill as a writer with The Little Gift, a story with no supernatural trimmings whatsoever which still managed to create a real sense of horror. Beautifully written, with not a word out of place, it’s a character study which lingers long in the mind after reading.
My favourite novella of 2017 however, was written by an author I was reading for the first time. Because of the imagination on display, the imagery created and the truly unsettling nature of the story, the winner of this year’s Dark Muse of best novella is Liam Ronan for the brilliant Creeping Stick, a novella whose style I compared to Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, a comparison I still stand by.

BEST ANTHOLOGY

With the untimely demise of Shadows and Tall Trees with Volume 6 in 2014, a gap opened in the market for collections of literary, weird fiction. That gap was more than adequately filled by Nightscript – which has become an annual highlight of the genre. But then… S&TT returned this year with Volume 7 – and, in preparation for a fight, had bulked itself up to nineteen stories. Nightscript Volume 3 cared nothing for this increase in fighting weight though. Indeed, within its own pages lurked twenty three stories. Perhaps the balance would be shifted by the inclusion of two authors in both volumes – a Strantzas/Devlin double punch?
All of which inane rambling merely serves to show that the weird fiction community was very well catered for this year, with two high quality products to satisfy their needs. Personally, I find myself drifting slightly away from the weird, heading back to more traditional horror and so found that two such large collections were a slight case of overload for my struggling brain. Don’t get me wrong, I love gentle horror and lap up ambiguity but when I find myself scratching my head at what I’ve just read, unable to discern its subtle nuances and metaphors the process loses some of its appeal.
A book calling itself Masters of Horror is setting the bar high for itself but to be fair, the anthology staking this claim did include in its contributors some who could lay claim to such a title. Not all of them though and – although it was to be expected, given that the editor was Matt Shaw – there was a higher than average number of extreme horror stories. I’m not a fan generally, preferring to be frightened rather than disgusted by what I read but felt that even within this sub-genre some of the stories selected were less than masterful.
Charity anthologies seem to be a common occurrence these days and one of this year’s best was Trapped Within edited by Duncan Bradshaw. Again, I was less keen on the extreme stories but it’s a strong collection with my three favourite stories coincidentally having connections to the sea. Duncan himself provides a cracker of a story Q&A - a straight-up body horror which lacks his trademark silliness. Much as I love his sense of humour, it’s great to see him writing “serious” stuff – something I mentioned to him, advising that he should do more. It’s advice I’m glad to see he’s taken to heart, as he finishes work on his new novel Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space.
An interesting theme for an anthology was provided by The Anatomy of Monsters which produced a set of stories which provided new takes on classic monsters of lore. I enjoyed it a lot but the book appears to have disappeared without a trace even before it was released. Which is a shame.
Black Shuck Books followed up last year’s Great British Horror: Green and Pleasant Lands with Volume two in the series, Dark Satanic Mills. Moving from rural to urban horror, the book contained some strong stories which channelled the fears and paranoia of life in the city.
With the demise of the Spectral imprint, Mark Morris has moved onto a new series of annual horror anthologies, namely New Fears. It’s an anthology I enjoyed a lot, its non-themed nature possibly a strength, with particularly effective stories from Kathryn Ptachek, Stephen Gallagher and Ramsey Campbell but, that said, there were a few stories which I felt were odd choices for a horror collection – given the lack of any discernible horror in them. Despite this, the mix of themes and the skilful writing on display here makes New Fears my pick for best anthology of 2017.

BEST COLLECTION

It’s been a really good year for single author collections too, with some big-hitters laying out their respective stalls for our delectation.
Adam Nevill provided my favourite collection of last year with Some Will Not Sleep and has followed that fine book up this year with another amazing set of stories in Hasty for the Dark. The horrors contained within are less overt and visceral than the preceding volume but none the less terrifying for that.
The Sinister Horror Company manged to release eleven titles this year, among them four collections. Paul Kane provided his variations on the theme of Death whilst there was a very impressive debut from Kayleigh Marie Edwards in Corpsing. Justin Park provided the other two, with Death Dreams both In a Whorehouse and At Christmas. As alluded to earlier, Justin is an author unafraid to try out different ways of presenting stories and that is very evident in the stories contained in these two collections which contain variety of narrative styles and techniques. Who’d have thought the phrase “I love you” could contain so much horror? Justin Park does – and he’ll tell you why.
Bracken Macleod, whose Stranded I enjoyed very much last year, provided possibly the most eclectic collections of stories (in terms of themes and style) with 13 Views of the Suicide Woods which included both literary and extreme variations on the horror story whilst Ralph Robert Moore gave us the amazing Behind You with eighteen short stories and novelettes, all of which were as dark and disturbing as you might expect from one of the most stylish writers out there. (And which contains one of my favourite stories of his, the impeccably crafted Men Wearing Makeup).
I Will Surround You is a stunning collection from Conrad Williams which brilliantly showcases his ability to find horror in the most mundane of situations, delivered in impeccable prose and another of my favourite authors, Simon Kurt Unsworth brought us his fourth collection, Diseases of the Teeth, which I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because it contained a new story featuring psychic investigator Richard Nakata.
Philip Fracassi has now become one of those authors whose work I await with great anticipation. My introduction to his writing came via the novelettes Mother and Altar – both of which are contained in his collection Behold the Void along with seven other stories which display perfectly the range and imagination of this deeply talented author. Trust me, every story in here is brilliant.
Call me one of the great unwashed if you will, but a huge part of my appreciation of a piece or writing is the sheer enjoyment it gives me. The term “guilty pleasure” is an odd one if you think about it –surely pleasure is pleasure (not in a “Brexit is Brexit” kinda way of course) and there should be no guilt attached to it. “Literary and intense” brings its own type of pleasure, “pulpy and action-packed” does too. Both take skill to be done properly.
All of which preamble leads to the announcement of the winner of 2017’s Dark Muse for Best Collection. It goes to a book which gave me so much joy when I read it; clever and witty and yet properly horrific, a book not afraid to use well established tropes but at the same time being devastatingly original, a collection which would make you laugh on one page then send a shiver of dread down your spine on the next. The Dark Muse goes to John Llewellyn Probert’s Made for the Dark.

BEST SINGLE STORY

Rich Hawkins released a couple of cracking short stories for Kindle this year: She Hunts in the Woods summoned an ancient, woodland deity to wreak havoc on those unfortunate to stumble into her realm while Warm Shelter made extremely effective use of some very disturbing imagery.
Adam Nevill’s Hippocampus made an appearance in no less than three different books this year – granted, one was his own collection – testament to just how good it is. Told entirely without characters, its roving-eye view of a deserted ship provides just enough information for the reader to paint their own picture of the events which have just taken place. It’s very clever, and very, very good.
The New Fears anthology contained enough strong stories to win the Dark Muse, among them Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek, a genuinely creepy story from Ramsey Campbell – Speaking Still, and my favourite of the book, Shepherds’ Business by Stephen Gallagher, a beautifully atmospheric tale which slowly builds to a shattering conclusion – a moment of pure horror as the reader realises the terrible thing which has happened along with the story’s protagonist.
The Ellen Datlow/Lisa Morton edited Haunted Nights provided a collection of stories themed around Hallowe’en. Stephen Graham Jones provided another excellent ghost story in Dirtmouth but my favourite was Eric J Guignard’s A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds – a tale which turned out to be just as weird as its title might suggest, telling of gang fights between ghosts on La Dia de Los Muertos.
My two favourite stories of the year come from the same author and are both to be found in the same collection. The runner-up prize goes to Philip Fracassi’s The Horse Thief, a wonderfully weird tale in which a disparate set of characters, including an Asian gangster as well as the eponymous criminal, fight over the soul of a horse god. There’s a touch of Magic Realism about The Horse Thief, and I loved the way the eclectic characters, the weird narrative and even a touch of social commentary combined to produce an outstanding story.
The award of the Dark Muse goes to the last story in Behold the Void: Mandala is a superbly constructed tale of fate and destiny. It’s a slow burner of a story but one which has a momentum which builds and builds, leading inexorably to its tragic conclusion. There are scenes described in here which are as tense as anything I’ve ever read and the story has just the right amount of a supernatural element to be pretty much perfect.


So, there you have it. Congratulations again to all the winners and massive thanks to all the authors and publishers who have provided such great entertainment for me over the last twelve months. Here’s hoping that 2018 proves to be just as good.


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.