Monday, 16 December 2013

2013 Review.

Playing somewhat fast and loose with the whole concept of tradition, here is my traditional look back at the last twelve months to highlight the pieces of writing that I've enjoyed the most and to choose those I regard as the best. It's a purely personal view of course, there's no nominations process, no voting - the stories, novels and novellas I've decided on are simply the ones that have - to be slightly wanky - had the most profound effect on me, the ones that have moved me the most. I've read a lot this year but haven't come close to reading everything that the horror genre has had to offer so these "awards" are obviously chosen from that cohort of dark fiction I have had the time to read.
The writing world has suffered some great losses during 2013, a roll-call that is depressingly long. Of those great names who have left us, two in particular had the most impact on me. James Herbert was my introduction to horror. Reading The Survivor opened the door to a world I've spent a great deal of time in ever since. It terrified me at the time but left me wanting more. I re-read it this year and found it just as effective, recognising many of the set-pieces and realising that they had lodged in my subconscious all this time. It's a shame that his final book was so awful but it's the early Herbert I'll remember, The Rats, The Fog, The Dark...
Iain Banks was another literary hero of mine, producing darkly humorous, literary novels alongside high concept science fiction. The Wasp Factory was a stunning first novel and I still regard The Crow Road as a masterpiece. His final novel, The Quarry, was pretty much quintessential Banks; friends gathering at a remote house, getting stoned and drunk and discovering dark secrets from their past. The fact that one of the characters is dying from cancer made the work almost unbearably poignant.
And then, as the year was drawing to a close, Joel Lane died. I never met Joel, never knew him but some of those who did have posted incredibly moving and heartfelt tributes to him which have given an indication of how special a person he was. I knew only his writing but the strength of his convictions, his politics were all too apparent within those poetic words. And it's the words by which he, and all the other writers who have passed away this year will be remembered - that is their legacy.
It was Joel's Where Furnaces Burn that consumed much of my reading time in February, and which somehow made that bleakest of months seem even bleaker... It's an incredible collection of stories that take the reader to the dark side and which, on many occasions, leave them right there. It deservedly won the World Fantasy Award this year and is amongst my favourite single author collections of 2013.
This category has been one of the hardest to decide a "best of" as the standard has been incredibly high with many contenders to choose from. Honourable mentions go to James Everington's Falling Over, Gary Fry's Shades of Nothingness, Simon Bestwick's The Condemned, Stephen Volk's Monsters in the Heart and Nathan Ballingrud's North American Lake Monsters. The latter, in particular, merged the mundanities of real life with the supernatural elements to brilliant effect, each story a character study (often of deeply broken people) that shed light on the human condition. Those qualities were also displayed in my actual pick for best single author collection, Michael Kelly's Scratching the Surface. I loved this book, literally didn't want to put it down, eager to start the next story. The horrors within are subtle but beautifully realised, the stories emotional and profound.
Multi-author collections have been more of a hit-and-miss affair this year but that's the nature of the beast - it's rare to find a collection where every story floats your boat. The Terror Tales series from Gray Friar have re-attained the high standard of the first volume set in the Lake District with their London collection and I look forward to seeing what delights Terror Tales of the Seaside will bring. Shadows & Tall Trees maintains its consistently high standard and Crystal Lake Publishing have produced a couple of commendable themed anthologies with For the Night is Dark and Fear the Reaper. In terms of the collections that have most impressed me however, runners-up prizes go to Hersham Horror's Anatomy of Death and Penman Press's Ill at Ease 2. (There's a link between those two publications but no prizes for working out what it is). The collection that most impressed me in 2013 however, on the basis that the standard across all the stories was, in my opinion, the highest is The Unspoken edited by William Meikle. It's a fine collection (and for a good cause) with the highlights for me the stories by Simon Kurt Unsworth and Gary McMahon.
The choice of best individual short story was a difficult one too. Shorts are the majority of what I read so the pool from which to choose was a pretty deep one. Highlights, in no particular order, were Stephen Volk's A Paper Tissue from Monsters in the Heart (which also included the amazing After the Ape though I had read that before) and Stephen Bacon's Apports in Black Static - the magazine in which Ralph Robert Moore's All Your Faces Drown in my Syringe - an incredibly dark story that does exactly what good horror fiction should - disturb. A late entry, so to speak, it almost took the crown for my favourite short of 2013 but, after much consideration, that particular "honour" goes to The Fox by Conrad Williams, one of the chapbooks produced by This is Horror. Laden with metaphor, it's a disturbing tale of karma showcasing the immense skill of one of the best writers of literary horror there is.
It's been a pretty good year for novels too though these have taken up less of my reading time than other formats. Early in the year I enjoyed Alden Bell's follow up to The Reapers are the Angels, Exit Kingdom. It's basically the zombie apocalypse as written by Cormac McCarthy but it's hugely enjoyable stuff and, in my opinion, superior to Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy. Gary Fry produced a mind-boggling piece of psychological horror with Conjure House and (hot off the press, I only finished it last night) Gary McMahon rounded off the year nicely (or not so nicely, if you know what I mean) with another classy piece of writing in The Bones of You. Adam Nevill punched all of creep-out buttons in House of Small Shadows, wrapping up the imagery in a clever plot in a novel that was more subtle, but no less scary than last year's Last Days.
Stephen King produced two novels this year; Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining which made up for its lack of scariness with a tense and exciting narrative and some typically wonderfully drawn characters and Joyland which I probably enjoyed more, a crime novel that created a wonderful sense of nostalgia and plenty of emotion in its short (for King at least) length.
My favourite novel of 2013, however, was a hugely entertaining Stephen King novel that wasn't actually written by him. Joe Hill's NOS4R2 was a glorious tribute to the author's father but so much else besides. The King references worked but didn't hinder the plot which was a clever amalgam of the Dracula story, super-hero mythology and a whole host of other influences besides. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn't and the end result is a (cliche alert!) roller-coaster of a book that never lets up, even creeping into the notes on the typeface at the end of the book...
I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the novella is the perfect format for horror. Avoiding the problems of having to maintain atmosphere and tone over a huge word count, it still gives enough room for character and plot development. 2013 has been a vintage year for the novella and has provided the most difficult of all these choices as to year's best.
I love reading the books of William Meikle and John Llewellyn Probert knowing that I'm pretty much guaranteed to be entertained by what I encounter within those pages but both authors have provided something a little different this year in some very impressive novellas. Willie's Clockwork Dolls is a lot darker than usual, a philosophical story examining fate, destiny and our place in the universe whilst John's Differently There was an elegiac, personal piece of writing examining mortality and the choices and decisions we make. I loved them both.
Simon Bestwick spoilt us with a collection of six novellas in The Condemned. All were of the highest standard but the stand-out for me was The Schoolhouse, a powerfully written piece in which the style and form perfectly capture the descent into madness of the story's protagonist.
Spectral Press continued their tradition of producing fine fiction with Stephen Volk's Whitstable. The book has been widely lauded - and justly so - it's a beautifully written tribute to Peter Cushing that combines biographical detail with an intensely moving storyline.
The novella that most impressed me in 2013 did so because it did exactly what I want from a horror story. It disturbed me. The plot itself is scary enough but it's the questions it raises in the reader's mind, the air of paranoia, of not knowing what's real and what isn't that has stayed with me, and which still affects me now, so long after having read it. My choice of the best novella of 2013 is Gary McMahon's Nightsiders .
A vintage year? Time will tell but it was a bloody good one in terms of the quality of writing on display. A sad year too, for many reasons including the passing away of another hero of mine, someone whose skill and artistry had a profound influence on me - most effectively in this scene. Merry Christmas, and here's to a great 2014.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Anyone for Menace?

Menace is the new novella from the prolific Gary Fry and is his latest collaboration with the consistently impressive Dark Fuse. Gary is carving out a niche for himself as a purveyor of quiet, psychological - even philosophical - horror and Menace is another example of this, creating a sense of unease that grows throughout the story as model Jane begins to realise that she may have been selected for a photographic assignment in Whitby for reasons other than her looks.
The photo-shoot is for a book cover, an autobiography of novelist Luke Reacher and it's while she's at the remote location that Jane has a ghostly experience, seeing a group of children who mysteriously disappear when she seeks them out. The appearance of those same children on the final book cover is the first in a series of disturbing events encountered by Jane as she slowly uncovers the truth behind who - and what - Luke Catcher really is.
There's a strong feeling of paranoia running through the book but it's the theme of possession that's the strongest. Jane is pregnant and the knowledge of this adds to the dread the reader feels as the story progresses. There's some ambiguity generated around whether what is happening to Jane is real or just her own grip on reality slowly being eroded although the conclusion of the story is, well... pretty conclusive. And dark. Very dark.
Menace is another cracking read from Gary Fry. With perhaps a little more emphasis on the narrative thrust of the story than some of his recent offerings, it still works exceedingly well as an extremely effective psychological chiller.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Still Ill at Ease.

Ill at Ease was a collection of three stories that was also one of my first reviews. I enjoyed it very much so was pleased to see the follow up collection published recently by Penman Press which contains stories from the three original contributors (Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams) joined this time by four new authors.
It's Stephen Bacon who starts off the collection with his story Double Helix. It's a clever title, a reference to the molecular structure of DNA - the genetic material which is altered and mutated to cause cancer, the disease from which the story's protagonist is suffering but also hinting at themes running through the story itself. Stephen describes it as one of the most optimistic stories he's written and it is optimistic, a story of regret but also hope. There's a fantastical element to proceedings but it's the emotional impact that's most profound. It's another classy piece of writing from a writer who's fast becoming a master of subtle, understated horror.
There's a distinct change of tone with the next story, The Shuttle by Shaun Williamson. It's a grim, shocking story about a couple's attempts to start a family inspired by the author's own experiences as described in the notes that accompany this, and all the other stories in the collection. I have to say it didn't quite work for me, I would have preferred a more subtle approach to the subject matter rather than the in-your-face horror that I felt was probably trying a wee bit too hard to shock.
Masks is by Robert Mammone and is a story I enjoyed very much. It's cleverly written and constructed, slowly revealing the story beginning with an almost surreal conversation in a funeral parlour and culminating in an atmospheric and gruesome climax in the subway system below Melbourne.
One Bad Turn by Val Walmsley uses bullying as the basis of its storyline. It also throws in a touch of ancient evil (here given physical manifestation as a yew tree) to enliven proceedings. It's probably the most "traditional" horror story in the collection and the conclusion is suitably dark and possibly not what you might expect.
Personal fears (and experiences) provide the motivation for Mark West's The Bureau of Lost Children, those fears in this instance centering around every parent's worst nightmare - losing their child. It's a story of two halves, beginning with a routine tale of a trip to a shopping mall. When Scott's son Josh goes missing in a computer games store however, panic sets in and Mark captures those feelings brilliantly. There's a feel of "The Twilight Zone" about the story's conclusion (which is in no way meant as a criticism) and the reason behind the boy's disappearance will have you looking suspiciously at those doors marked "Staff Only" on your next trip to the mall.
It's to be hoped Paradise Lost by Sheri White isn't based on personal experiences. It's the shortest story in the book but its theme is possibly the most epic. How will the world end? With a bang or a whimper? Mankind's demise in this particular tale is gruesome in the extreme - but makes for a hugely entertaining story.
Neil Williams' There Shall We Ever Be is the longest story in the collection and rounds it off in fine style. I think it's my favourite story in the book. It's a slow burner of a story, subtle and beautifully crafted. Its a contemplation of the past, of how history influences the present day. It's a story of childhood fears and memories, of how a notion that a sense of "place" is a real, tangible thing. A wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, it's a fitting end to a high quality collection of stories.
Ill at Ease 2 is highly recommended and you can buy it here and here.