Monday, 8 August 2016

Hexagram

Hexagram is the new novel from Duncan B Bradshaw and is published by The Sinister HorrorCompany. It’s a bit of an epic, with the story spanning almost 500 years and taking in a variety of locations, beginning in the Inca capital of Cuzco in 1538 and progressing, via separate sections, through the Florida of 1716, American Civil War Cobb County, Georgia 1864, Ripper-era London and the Bahamas of 1981 before culminating (almost) in present day Wiltshire.
The underlying concept of the book is the notion that we are all made of stardust but provides a very dark twist on it – namely that the use of said dust, harvested from the dead, could be used in a religious ceremony to summon Gods.
The harvesting, of course, requires much rummaging around in viscera – a process gleefully described by the author on many occasions and which provides the core of the horror on display within the novel. It takes skill to write scenes like this, it’s all too easy to go for shock and gross-out but the scenes of disembowelment and evisceration are actually reined in, presented in such a way as to not be over the top and gratuitous but as a natural progression of the narrative – and, as such, are all the more effective for it.
It’s a gory book for sure but there’s a lot more to it than that. There is great imagination on display here, along with some very good writing indeed. There are even moments of real emotion amidst the gloriously dark humour. Again, it’s a fine line between being humorous and, well… being stupid but it’s one Duncan stays absolutely on the right side of all the way through.
There may be some dialogue in the opening chapters which feels a little anachronistic, but other than that the period detail is spot on. Duncan has obviously done his research and it shows. Facts are never shoe-horned into the narrative (no doing a Dan Simmons here) but are placed carefully to enhance the reading experience. If I have a criticism it’s that the Ripper section felt a wee bit short to me but that’s maybe because it’s a period of history I’m (a little bit too) fascinated in myself.

The story’s a high-concept one and its narrative is cleverly kept going with subtle links between the different sections. I have to say I had a blast with Hexagram, devouring it in a couple of sittings. (Despite its epic themes, it’s not a long novel). Clever, witty and extremely well written, I highly recommend it to your reading pleasure.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Disappearance at Devil's Rock

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is the new novel from Paul Tremblay and is published by Titan Books. Having been thoroughly impressed with Paul’s previous novel A Headful of Ghosts, I was eagerly anticipating this new book, curious as to whether the incredibly high standard set in that tale of (possible) demonic possession would be maintained.
It has. Oh yes. Very much.
This time, the story focuses on the disappearance of Elizabeth Sanderson’s son, Tommy, at the titular landmark. Actually, the huge boulder is actually called Split Rock – because of a fracture running the length of it – its more sinister name arising from a local legend. This duality is one of the many themes running through this skilfully constructed narrative in which nothing is what it appears to be. The rock is appropriately located in a park called Borderland, a name which sums up in a nutshell the whole concept of the book. Featuring a group of young boys as protagonists, this can be read as a coming of age story – the borderland between childhood and adulthood – and within its pages the natural and supernatural worlds abut with each other.
The plot of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock unfolds gradually, with the author slowly revealing its twists and turns. A hefty dose of ambiguity is mixed in, constantly wrong-footing the reader. It’s evidence of great skill and technique (also a feature of A Headful of Ghosts), leading the reader towards an understanding and then pulling the rug from beneath their feet. It’s a technique deserving of its own name. I suggest a “Tremblay”. (Whoa! The author really pulled a Tremblay there!)
The story is told via the recollections of Tommy’s friends Josh and Luis who were with him on the night of his disappearance and also by pages torn from Tommy’s own diary which appear mysteriously in Elizabeth’s house. (Or do they?) Through these testimonies we are introduced to Arnold, an older boy who befriends the trio and who may – or may not be – directly connected to Tommy’s disappearance. The police are involved of course, investigating the incident, and the closing chapters of the book consist of transcripts of their interviews – a brilliant way of doing things as it allows the reader to make up their own mind as to what exactly has happened. Or, at least, attempting to. It’s a case of picking out the least unreliable narrator.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock truly is a great piece of writing. It’s a journey into the darkness that lies around and within us all, creeping into the reader’s subconscious, primal fears much like the dark figure spotted by the eye-witnesses in the book creeps around the neighbourhood. I anticipate much discussion over the final scenes of the book, and in particular the final line but I loved it, gave a small cheer as I read it. (Not out loud of course…)

I honestly believe we’re entering a golden age of horror/dark/weird fiction and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is a fine piece of evidence to support that hypothesis. I recommend it highly.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Quarantined City

The Quarantined City is the debut novel from James Everington and is published by Infinity Plus. With a novelette (Trying To Be So Quiet) already published and a novella – Paupers' Graves – lined up for September, this is a productive year for James, which is excellent news for anyone who enjoys well-crafted, intelligent dark fiction.
It’s great to see the book finally out there in its complete form given the turbulent the turbulent history it’s so far endured. Its original incarnation was as a serialised novel published by Spectral Press, the release of its monthly episodes unfortunately coinciding with the unseemly demise of said publisher. Given that one of the many threads running through the book is the power of words to change things, there’s a certain irony about the whole situation. Last I checked, Infinity Plus were still there but, you know, still early days…
The structure of the book lends itself to serialisation, being split into six parts but, having re-read the parts which were published, along with the concluding parts which weren’t I can say that reading the novel all at one go is absolutely the best way to appreciate it. It’s a complex work, with a lot of balls in the air at one time and makes demands of the reader simply to keep up with it and I have to say being able to read it all at one go made that process so much easier.
Which all sounds like a criticism. Which it surely isn’t. Yes, reading The Quarantined City requires some effort from the reader – but good writing should. The narrative is deliberately confusing and ambiguous but the author does this so skilfully that you’re never completely lost as to what’s happening. The questions you’re asking yourself are the ones James wants you to be asking.
The plot revolves around Fellows, an inhabitant of the titular city, on a quest to uncover the stories written by reclusive author Boursier. Discover the stories he does, and the novel is structured in such a way that each of the six parts contains a story within a story as Fellows reads the individual works of Boursier.
In so doing, changes apparently occur within the city itself, Fellows’ grasp of reality subtly altering. Reality, of course, is a relative term – no more so than in the Quarantined City. The book can be seen as Fellows’ quest to uncover the secrets of the city – not least among them why the quarantine was enforced in the first place.
I’d love to say more about the narrative but fear that to do so runs the risk of straying into spoiler territory. I must say though that this is one of the most cleverly constructed novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The reader can’t help but be drawn into Fellows’ quest – the clues and riddles presented along the way heightening anticipation of the final reveal.
And wow, what a reveal! Perfect. All that has gone before is masterfully tied up in a brilliantly constructed conclusion. There is great joy to be had as each revelation is made; as each of the perplexing riddles seeded throughout the narrative are answered; as sense is finally made of the skillfully created confusion.
Honestly, make time to read the final part of the book – The Quarantine – in one sitting. It’s a masterclass in technique. The story within a story device is no better employed than here, the frequency of the interludes increasing to mirror the headlong dash towards resolution, the lines between who is writing and who is being written about blurring until…

I was blown away by The Quarantined City, loved its structure and its intelligence. The ability to produce such a mature and complex piece of work so (relatively) early in his career suggests great things lie ahead for James. I sincerely hope they do.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Fisherman

The Fisherman is the new novel from John Langan and is published by Word Horde. I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, from people whose opinions I respect so was very much looking forward to reading it myself. Having now finished The Fisherman, I can honestly say that it was one of the most satisfying reading experiences I’ve ever had. I loved the time I spent immersed in its pages, swept along by the narrative and wallowing in its perfectly created atmosphere. The old cliché of enjoying a book so much that you don’t want it to end absolutely applies here, the world which the author has created was one I didn’t want to leave.
Opening with a lovely riff on the first line of Moby Dick (a passage from which provides an epigraph) The Fisherman begins as a first person narration from Abe, recently widowed, his wife Marie succumbing to cancer, telling of his re-introduction to fishing and his meeting with Dan, a fellow widower whose wife Sophie and their children have died in a traffic accident.
Together, the two men find a kind of solace, a way of coping, in their shared interest of fishing and these opening passages are a masterclass in the depiction of grief and loss. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Dan suggests they try a new location to go fishing – Dutchman’s Creek – a river that can’t be found on any map, a place of mystery and intrigue which carries its own legends…
The author cleverly introduces the back story of Dutchman’s Creek, and the legend of the Fisherman by having it narrated by the owner of the diner in which the two men wait for a torrential downpour to end. This story makes up part two of the book – the bulk of it, in fact – and is entitled Der Fischer: A Tale of Terror. Which is about as apt a title as I can think of because the journey this tale takes the reader on truly is terrifying. Some of the imagery conjured up here will take your breath away – this is epic story-telling, encompassing huge themes. It’s in stark contrast to the intimacy and emotion of the opening section and – possibly – all the more powerful for that. Special mention here to whoever chose the painting (Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, 1870 by Albert Bierstadt) which has been used for the book’s cover as it perfectly reflects the narrative within, men portrayed as insignificant against the immensity of nature.
The writing here is perfect, deeply atmospheric and creating a world which is utterly believable, despite the strangeness and horror on display. It’s one of the best passages of horror fiction I’ve read in some time. The horrors which unfold herein are not so much foreshadowed and hinted at in the opening passages as directly referenced – teaser trailers if you will – and it’s a technique which works brilliantly, the pay-off more than fulfilling expectations. The writing throughout is of the highest quality.
Needless to say, Abe and Dan make the journey to the creek despite the story they’ve just heard and this results in an extremely satisfying conclusion which maintains the level of horror already established whilst at the same time revealing more about the characters of Abe and Dan.

I can’t recommend The Fisherman highly enough. It succeeds on every level – an intimate and personal character piece and an epic horror fantasy all at one go. I feel it is destined to become a classic of dark literature.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Fallen Soldier


Fallen Soldier is a new short story by Rich Hawkins and is published by… himself. Yes indeed, Rich has taken the plunge and gone and done the whole thing himself, no doubt incurring the wrath of all those who see self-publishing as the eighth deadly sin.

There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing, presumably as a result of the misguided opinion that an author will take this route because their work isn’t good enough to be accepted by “real” publishers. Bollocks, frankly. It’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards self-publishing between the music and writing industries. In the former, there’s a degree of kudos given to musicians who start off on their own, posting videos they’ve made themselves online, building up a fanbase before “making it big”. If you’re a writer doing the same thing the immediate assumption is often the one I opened this paragraph with.
 

Bottom line: What’s wrong with an author taking charge of all aspects of their own work?

Anyway, I digress. What about Fallen Soldier?

It’s great. I’ve expressed the opinion before that the novella is the perfect length for horror fiction, a view I stand by, but second in line has to be the short story. It’ll take you about twenty minutes to read Fallen Soldier but in that time you’ll experience ghosts, zombies and demonic troglodytes all tied up in a tightly paced narrative. There’s nothing worse than a short story that outstays its welcome but that most certainly isn’t the case here in this tale of the return of a soldier from the trenches of the Great War to find that the horrors he experienced there are nothing compared to those which await him on his arrival home.

The single short story format is making somewhat of a resurgence and it’s an absolute strength and positive of e-publishing that it makes this a readily available option. That said, great things are being done by small presses releasing chapbooks too. It’s a trend I’m extremely happy to see emerging, already this year I’ve relished two stories from Philip Fracassi (Mother and Altar) and one from Scott Nicolay (Noctuidae) which have been released as “singles”. Fallen Soldier – I’m very happy to say – has joined their ranks.

You should buy Fallen Soldier, you won’t find much better value for money for 99p. If you haven’t read Rich’s work before then it’s a great introduction, if you have then you’ll enjoy again his trademark mixture of visceral horror and thoughtful characterisation.

You can get it here.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Trying To Be So Quiet.


Trying To Be So Quiet is the new novelette from James Everington and is published by Boo Books. I’ve been a fan of James’ subtle, understated writing since reading his collection Falling Over back in 2013. When I reviewed it at the time, I called it intelligent and thought-provoking, an analysis I stand by and characteristics which have been on display in all of his writing since. No more so, I’m pleased to say, than in this new offering.

The story is told in third person with an unnamed protagonist, a highly effective technique which serves to distance the reader from him – effective in that this is entirely in keeping with the character James has created here, a man who is attempting to do the same with people around him following the death of his wife Lizzie. This is not simply a case of wanting privacy, and time to grieve alone however, more a case of being unable to grieve – such an intense emotional response is beyond the protagonist, much easier for him to compartmentalise, to hide his emotions behind walls, his – as the text describes them – “precious barriers and screens”.

The narrative jumps around from present to past, filling in the back story of the romance. There’s much skilful character building to be enjoyed here – some subtle foreshadowing too, with a passing nod to Eliot’s The Wasteland – painting the protagonist as pragmatic rather than emotional, realist rather than romantic. He takes photographs that lack style and finds it difficult to comprehend why the architects of the grand buildings in Oxford would design such massive buildings knowing that they would be long dead before they were completed. He studies accountancy, Lizzie anthropology – the “study of everything.”

Little wonder then, that Lizzie’s death has such profound implications. How can a man who works so hard to hide his emotions accept – and even embrace – one of the most powerful of all?

Not easily. Work, and his work colleagues become even more of an irritation and his nihilistic world view intensifies. Then the blackouts begin, and this is where the supernatural elements of the story begin to ramp up. Glimpses of a figure in a mirror, shadowy at first but then coalescing into an all too familiar face and cracks appearing in plasterwork, the latter (along with the fractured nature of the narrative itself) a potent metaphor for the apparent breakdown of the protagonist. Special mention has to be given here to Helen-Marie Kelly whose Heavy Duty Illustration have provided a distinctive look to the interior of the book with an ever expanding crack moving its way down the page as the book progresses, enhancing the reading experience beautifully.

Events finally lead to a return to Oxford, where he and Lizzie first met as students. Here it is that the story finds resolution. And a very fine resolution it is too, skilfully and satisfyingly tying up all the ideas and narrative threads – what is actually breaking down may not be the character himself, but the walls he has built around himself. Trying To Be So Quiet is a book about death and grief for sure, but it’s also a book about life and love and the significance of moments, however fleeting. It’s about what may come after but, more importantly, it’s about the here and now.

I literally had goosebumps when I finished reading Trying To Be So Quiet. I strongly recommend that you see whether it will have the same effect on you.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Darker Battlefields.


 
It’s with an immense feeling of pride that I can announce that DARKER BATTLEFIELDS an anthology of war/horror novellas will soon be available from The Exaggerated Press. Pride because my own story, Winter Storm is one of the six contained within.

I still can’t quite believe that this is all happening but it is – and my heartfelt thanks go to Frank Duffy for drawing me into the fold in the first place. I massively appreciated the offer at the time and even more so now that the book will soon be a reality.

Thanks also to my good friends who read the early drafts of the novella – Ross Warren and Ben Jones – whose feedback was invaluable, and which made the story so much better than my first attempt. Ben is a walking encyclopaedia of all things war related and many of our conversations tended to veer off course and become flurries of ideas, many of which will hopefully see the light of day in future publications.

As befitting a collection of war stories, a camaraderie sprung up between the authors during the process of pulling the book together with shared feedback and support flying across the virtual ether so thanks again to Mark West, Paul Edwards, Richard Farren Barber, Dean M Drinkel and Adrian Chamberlin for their encouragement and enthusiasm. I have to say I still feel a bit like the new kid in class here but am honoured to be sharing a TOC with writers whose work I’ve long admired. I'm pretty certain Terry Grimwood's initial reaction to my inclusion would have been "Who?" but I'm again deeply appreciative that he was willing to take a gamble. A special nod goes to Adrian, who took on editing duties – not just for managing to coordinate the whole process but for finding even more ways to improve the fifth draft of Winter Storm. I salute you my brothers in arms!

The story of Winter Storm straddles both world wars, with a demonic encounter on a mountain in Turkey during World War One having repercussions in the snow filled ruins of Stalingrad in the Second World War. Whilst the Great War is my burning obsession, I’ve long been fascinated by the battle of Stalingrad, a siege which lasted over five months and which killed hundreds of thousands. The imagery from photos of the battle have long lurked in the depths of my subconscious so it was great to have an opportunity to use them in a story at last. I’m humbled that that imagery has been used by Ben Baldwin to produce the absolutely stunning artwork for the cover.

Having read the other stories, and seen the quality on display, I can only reiterate how proud I am to be part of this book.  All of the authors have provided their own unique take on the subject of war and the conflicts used range from biblical times, through the Napoleonic Wars via the world wars right up to recent events in Libya. I can’t wait to see it in the flesh.

The stories are:

ODETTE by Richard Farren Barber

THE SEARING by Paul Edwards

WINTER STORM by Anthony Watson

THIS ENVIOUS SEIGE by Adrian Chamberlin

THE EXERCISE by Mark West

DESCENSIS CHRISTI AD INFERNOS by Dean M Drinkel