Monday, 29 April 2013

Bloody Angels.

Bloody Angels is the second Parva Corcoran mystery by John Llewellyn Probert, featuring the CID coroner whose first outing was in the thoroughly entertaining Ward 19. This is a slightly longer story and allows John to incorporate even more extremely nasty murders - this time centred around a religious theme - into the plot which twists and turns towards its conclusion.
The murders are horrific but this is more mainstream crime fiction than horror and comes complete with the requisite line up of potential villains and red herrings in abundance, and it's to John's credit, and testament to his skills as a writer, that he manages to pack quite so much plot and character into a relatively short piece.
It may be due to my own lapsed catholicism but I do love stories that use a religious theme so it was a real pleasure to read Bloody Angels - but then it's always a pleasure to read John's stuff, his enthusiasm leaps off the page at you. This is a good book.
The denoument is suitably surprising and entertainingly complex - but eminently satisfying, making sense of all that has gone before. There are more hints too at Parva's past and the events which have formed her character - hopefully these will be expanded on in future storylines. God knows what John has in store for the residents of Bristol next (although after this offering I'm not sure God will want anything to do with him...) but I can't wait to find out.
Bloody Angels is bloody good and you can buy it (in e-format) here. Be a sin not to really.

Monday, 22 April 2013

For the Night is Dark.

For the Night is Dark is a collection of twenty stories published by Crystal Lake Publishing, a new small press operating out of South Africa and masterminded by author Joe Mynhardt. It's edited by Ross Warren who provides an entertaining introduction to the book which is a chunky little fella, running to over 400 pages.
As the title suggests, the stories are themed around fear of the dark - or at least the majority of them are. It has to be said that in a number of cases the link is a tenuous one (in the sense of tenuous to the point of non-existent) but this shouldn't be held against the book, indeed one of the stories that fall into this category is one of the most enjoyable, A Snitch in Time by Robert W Walker, a tale of hitmen that twists and turns throughout its short length.
The opening story, His Own Personal Golgotha by G N Braun also has tenuous links to the overarching theme and perhaps relies a little too much on imagery for its impact, a case of style over substance. There's a definite change in tone with the next story, Carole Johnston's 21 Brooklands: Next to Old Western, Opposite the Burnt Out Red Lion, which, as well as having the best title of all the stories, firmly establishes the theme of nasty things that happen in the dark.
The horror in these stories comes in many forms, most overtly in Gary McMahon's In the Darkest Room in the Darkest House on the Darkest Part of the Street (the second best title in the book) and Stephen Bacon's Room to Thrive - the latter a story that will definitely grow on you. The dark itself becomes a monster in Jasper Bark's How the Dark Bleeds, a potent blend of arcane rituals and gore. The creepiest story in the collection, and the one that best evokes those childhood fears of the dark as depicted in Ben Baldwin's cover art, is Mr Stix by the ever-consistent Mark West.
Benedict Jones provides another example of his own brand of crime/horror fusion with Hungry is the Dark, a story that transforms the darkness within us all into something a lot more tangible and the collection is rounded off with another cleverly constructed story from the extremely talented Ray Cluley.
For the Night is Dark is a strong collection of stories and bodes well for future publications from Crystal Lake. Joe's enthusiasm for the genre is second to none and I wish him every success in establishing a new outlet for horror writing.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Sleazy does it...

Anatomy of Death is the third in the line of Pentanths (collections of five themed stories) produced by Hersham Horror. It’s edited this time round by Mark West, someone whose work as an author I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. His writing has always struck me as subtle and understated with a strong emotional core – quiet horror if you like, so it was a bit of a surprise to see that the theme for this collection was the sleazy, pulpy fiction that was so prevalent in the seventies when horror was going through its equivalent of the punk movement. Indeed, the subtitle for this collection is Five Sleazy Pieces (which, if made into a film would probably also star Jack Nicholson).
Given the subject matter of the book it was another surprise to see that the first offering was from Stephen Bacon, another writer whose work I admire for its subtlety and emotional impact. Pseudonym is a first person account of a journalist’s interview with Gilbert Hudson, an author whose heyday was in the seventies writing the sort of lurid pulp novels that provided the inspiration for this collection. It’s a clever way to start the anthology, providing as it does a brief history of the horror genre and how writing styles – and readers’ tastes – have changed, including a nice little dig at the Twilight saga and it’s hideous (if sparkly), teenager-friendly offspring.
It’s a slow build of a story that uncovers the secrets Gilbert Hudson has been living with for most of his life (and which led to his adoption of a pseudonym), secrets involving an incident that’s bizarre enough to earn its place in any respectable pulp fiction… The denoument is suitably gross and creepy too and Pseudonym is a cracking start to the collection.
Don’t let the title of Jonny Mains’ story fool you. The Cannibal Whores of Effingham is in fact a searing socio-political satire, a scathing indictment of the ravages of capitalism and an allegory for the global economic collapse.
Actually, it’s not…
The title kind of gives it away really, and you pretty much get what you might expect. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the eponymous characters biting off more than they can chew when their next victim turns out to be even more deranged and psychopathic than they are. It’s basically just an excuse to throw in as many “shocking” scenes as possible although the impact is lessened by repetition and the fact that none of the characters involved are in the least bit likeable. It’s an exercise in exploitation, and succeeds admirably in this, just don’t expect intense characterisation and thought-provoking plotting.
John Llewellyn Probert’s Out of Fashion is the shortest story in the collection and calms things down a bit after the excesses of the previous tale. It’s another first person narrative and is set in Victorian London. There’s not so much sleaze but plenty of anatomy with John cleverly merging his medical knowledge into the unfolding narrative. The use of first person is interesting given the conclusion of the story but it’s an entertaining short that gives a whole new meaning to the phrases “Clothes maketh the man” and “fashion victim”.
Arse-Licker is by Stephen Volk and is a story that not so much pushes the envelope as tears it open and tips its contents out. Much like Jonny Mains’ offering, the title pretty much encapsulates what the story is all about but it’s to Stephen’s absolute credit, and skill as a writer that the gloriously gross content is transformed into an amazing piece of fiction.
The key scene, in which metaphorical becomes literal, is absolutely horrible. In a good way. It’s a long scene and will have you wanting it to come to an end long before it actually does, but it’s written with such brilliant dark humour that when a moment of epiphany (or should that be epi-fanny?) is reached it will have you laughing out loud. It’s a hard trick to pull off but Stephen does it brilliantly, there isn’t a bum note in there.
Darkly comic, this is certainly the most memorable story in the collection. Lurid? Yes. Sleazy? Yes. Tongue-in-cheek? Most definitely.
Mark’s own story The Glamour Girl Murders completes the collection and is probably comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original stories. It’s set amongst the world of “glamour” photography and porn and takes place in a seventies London which Mark captures perfectly with some lovely period detail.
It’s a murder mystery as the title suggests and fulfils nicely all the pulp traditions with a suitably monstrous killer and a climax (yes, I chose that word specifically) set in a thunderstorm. Oh, and a shady character called McMahon…
Anatomy of Death is fine addition to the Hersham back catalogue. Horror is indeed a broad church as Mark says in his introduction. Tastes may change, the genre will evolve (as it has to) but at the end of the day you can’t beat a bit of pulp.
You can buy the book here.

Monday, 15 April 2013


Gary McMahon's latest novella Nightsiders is published by Dark Fuse Publishing and is available in hardback and electronic formats. In reality, unless you're a member of the their book club, you're unlikely to get your hands on a copy of the hardback and, given that there's a waiting list to join the book club, chances are you'll end up downloading the electronic version.
Download it you should though, as this is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, one that transcends its genre sensibilities and which works on many levels, a feast for the imagination and the intellect.
The story begins with Robert Mitchell and his family returning from holiday to take up residence in their newly acquired house in the village of Battle. Their discovery of another family, the Corbeaus already in residence at the house and claiming the property as theirs sets off a series of nightmare events that ultimately question the notions of reality and identity.
What begins as a standard horror trope along the lines of Straw Dogs or Funny Games (influences acknowledged by the author) transforms, as the story progresses into something even darker - and certainly more profound. The sense of paranoia and disorientation is expertly developed and the story's protagonist is a brilliantly realised character, deeply flawed, a man trying desperately to protect his family, driven by guilt over an attack on his wife in their previous life in London, desperate to reassert his masculinity. His confrontation of his own personal demons provides both the narrative, and intellectual thrust of the novella.
The book raises more questions than it answers but therein lies the joy of it. What is real and what isn't? What is reality anyway? Who - or even what - are we? Does the darkness dwell within us or alongside us?
Why is the local policeman called McMahon?
Nightsiders is a stunning piece of work and I'm glad I overcame my natural resistance to e-books to sample its wonders. (What is a "real" book anyway..?) A cracking horror yarn but also a thought-provoking piece of metafiction. Can't recommend it highly enough. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Scratching The Surface.

I've been a fan of Michael Kelly's editorial skills for some time now as evidenced in the literary horror journal Shadows and  Tall Trees published by Undertow Books. He obviously has a fine eye for high quality stories so I was very much looking forward to reading some of his own stories to see if that expertise was mirrored in his own writing.
Scratching the Surface, a recently re-issued collection, is proof indeed that this is the case.
It's one of the most impressive collections I've read in some time, each story within it is individually perfectly pitched and written but as a whole they combine to make this a sublime reading experience.
I'll quote here from John Pelan's original 2007 introduction to the collection in which he says "These are stories that not only make you think, they make you feel." That's as good a definition of what art is, what art does, there is and it's a sentiment I entirely agree with in regard to this collection. These stories will make you feel, and what they make you feel won't always be pleasant or comfortable. Difficult issues are tackled within these pages, issues we probably don't want to have to face up to ourselves, issues it's certainly difficult to write about but Michael Kelly does so with great skill and a gentle, almost poetic prose that makes the reading itself a pleasurable experience even when the narratives take us into dark places.
This is an examination of the human condition and underlines the truth that the real horrors are the ones of our own making. These stories truly do scratch beneath the surface of what it is to be human, uncovering the darkness therein. It's deeply emotional writing, with beautiful metaphors and allegory which somehow make the "quiet" horror all the more profound. There's a supernatural element to many of the stories but this is handled with aplomb and great skill and never lessens, indeed often enhances, the emotional impact of the writing.
I can't single out any of the stories for special praise as I enjoyed all twenty to the same extent. That said, the order of the stories has been well chosen, the themes of the book flowing and developing as you make your way through it. The final lines of the final story, Worse Things, are an absolute bombshell and left me with goosebumps.
Scratching The Surface is a stunning collection of stories that I can't recommend highly enough.