Monday, 14 December 2015

2015 Review

Is it that time already? Apparently so. Who’d have thought that twelve months could have passed so quickly? Anyway, here it is again, my annual round-up of the horror fiction that has passed before my eyes during 2015 along with the announcement of the Dark Muses, the much-coveted (in at least one million of the parallel universes that Quantum Physics assures us truly exist) awards for excellence. The awards will go to the novel, novella, single author collection, anthology and single story which have impressed me the most. The design for the award is by 77studios, who did a great job on the cover for the first in the line of novellas that Dark Minds Press are publishing – Slaughter Beach by  Benedict J Jones.


It’s been quite a year for the small press Ross Warren and myself set up between us, after a hiatus of three years, we managed to publish three books in 2015, the aforementioned novella, our third anthology Darkest Minds and a collection from Frank Duffy – Hungry Celluloid. It’s been a great experience, working with the authors (and artists – much kudos to the incredibly talented Neil Williams and 77studios as well as Mark West) on the books and, hopefully, producing something they’re proud of too.

All three books would of course feature prominently in the nominations for the Dark Muses but some self-imposed conflict of interest type scenario must unfortunately come into play thereby disqualifying them from consideration. My own personal bias aside however, the quality of the craftsmanship of all the authors involved deserves to be recognised and the best way to do that is to click on the images at the side here and purchase a copy. Go on, do it. Seriously, you won’t regret it.

So, with the irritating ad-break over (at least it didn’t crash your whole system like the bloody ones on 4od do) it’s time to launch into the awards proper:

(All the awards are based purely on what “did it” for me this year and as such are purely subjective. Much as I would like to, I can’t possibly read everything that’s published (despite what my wife thinks) so, of course, there’s a high likelihood that the best piece of horror writing ever simply failed to pass in front of my eyes and as such has failed to get a mention. So (again) having thus removed any vestige of kudos associated with them, the Dark Muses for 2015 go to):


Best Novel.

Okay, let’s begin with the bad news. The Scarlet Gospels was awful. The feeling of disappointment I felt as I skim-read the last few chapters of this long-awaited new novel from Clive Barker is beyond description, by me and possibly by Barker himself given the evidence presented here. It all started so well – the prologue is classic Barker and, having finished it, I settled in for a thrilling journey to the dark side, anticipating the intense horror and vivid imagination that had played such a big part in my formative years – I, like so many others, list The Books of Blood as among the best horror fiction I’ve ever read. I think The Scarlet Gospels would have been a bad book no matter who had written it but the fact that it was Clive Barker who created it just makes it all the worse. Harry’s Harrowers are possibly the most annoying characters ever created. Doing little more than follow Pinhead on his rampage through Hell, they seem solely to exist to facilitate a tacked-on set-piece towards the end of the book with a hideously stereotypical fundamentalist preacher. So many times I wanted Pinhead to halt his mission so that he could turn on them instead… And, much as it may sound like it, this isn’t bigotry informing my views here. The issues Barker is addressing (I assume) deserve so much better than this.

A much more satisfying vision of Hell came courtesy of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective. Here was a book full of the imagination and imagery so sadly lacking in The Scarlet Gospels. Even without the comparison, The Devil’s Detective is a marvellous book containing great characters, an intriguing plot and imagery which has stayed with me long after I finished the last page.

Mankind fared badly in a number of novels this year, facing threats both from the natural world and of its own making. Tim Lebbon provided a tense and thrilling monster apocalypse in The Silence whilst global warming provided the basis for Adam Nevill’s end of the world scenario in the simply stunning Lost Girl. A threat to civilisation provided a tangential backdrop to Sarah Pinborough's The Death House but the resulting narrative was small scale and deeply moving while Rich Hawkins built upon the impressive groundwork of his zombie/Lovecraftian apocalypse of The Last Plague with the second book in the planned trilogy, The Last Outpost. This was an outstanding book, smaller in scale than its predecessor but all the better for that, an elegiac, thoughtful book - contemplative and profound and yet still scary as hell. Another post-apocalyptic series of books was initiated by Simon Bestwick this year with the first of the Black Road series manifesting in Hell’s Ditch – this time nuclear war providing the starting point for the new civilisation.

Another mid-trilogy novel was provided by Mark Morris with The Society of Blood, the follow up to The Wolves of London and part of the Obsidian Heart trilogy. Much as I enjoyed it, I felt it suffered from trying a little too hard to be complicated with its jumps in time and constant uncertainty about whether characters were really who they were or actually a shape-shifter – these questions constantly reiterated in the first person narration. I’m sticking with the trilogy though as the concept and imagination on display are things I appreciate greatly – hopefully The Wraiths of War will provide some clarity and resolution to the saga.

David Mitchell provided another dose of literary horror with Slade House – a short read, set in the same world as last year’s The Bone Clocks, this was a series of interlinked ghost stories told, characteristically, from different narrative voices.

My choice for my favourite novel of the year was a difficult one but after much contemplation the short list was whittled down to two. Runner-up position goes to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. I loved this book for the way it was constructed – and the way it deconstructed. Ostensibly a story about demonic possession, it very cleverly plays with the conventions of that sub-genre to produce a thought-provoking, intelligent – and most importantly, really scary – piece of metafiction.

My favourite novel of this year however – and therefore the winner of the Dark Muse award for Best Novel 2015 – is Ghosters by Ralph Robert Moore. Taking the format of ten stories liked by shared characters and an overarching storyline, Ghosters is a work of genius. The author’s imagination shines out from every page and he’s created a wonderful set of characters to populate the alternate reality he’s built around them. Scary and profound, disturbing but at the same time darkly funny I enjoyed the experience of reading Ghosters immensely. I may never look at oregano in quite the same way again but I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of the titular protagonists.


Best Novella

The general consensus appears to be that the novella is the perfect length for a horror story. This view, of course, has no factual evidence to support it nor is it based on any extensive research. Also, it has nothing to do with the fact that I’ll be having one of my own published next year. Nothing at all. No Siree. Certainly, this year delivered a rich crop of novellas of such high quality that the decision as to which I regarded as the “best” was an extremely difficult one.

The first review I did in 2015 was for a novella – Leytonstone by Stephen Volk. This tale of the young Alfred Hitchcock proved equally as impressive as Stephen’s previous novella in the Dark Masters series Whitstable, showcasing the author’s innovation and craftsmanship to great effect.

Rich Hawkins provided a smaller scale end of the world scenario than his Last… novels with the stars becoming right over a small town in the west Country with his hugely entertaining Black Star, Black Sun whilst remote locations were used to equally potent effect in Willie Meikle’s Tormentor – the location in this instance the Isle of Skye, lending itself to some proper creepy goings-on.

I really liked Andrew David Barker’s debut novel The Electric so was looking forward to reading his follow-up novella Dead Leaves. Whilst I enjoyed it, I was left a little disappointed, feeling the story lacked originality (especially in the “love” story) and relied a little bit too much on name-dropping songs and films to create a sense of nostalgia.

Cate Gardner showcased her distinctive, quirky style of writing with The Bureau of Them, a high-concept story packing an emotional punch where ghosts mingle with the living in a moving story of loss, love and longing.

Pendragon Press provided a special treat for novella-lovers with The Lost Film – two for the price of one with a story each from Stephen Bacon and Mark West. I loved them both and think it’s one of the best things Mark in particular has written. His protagonists are often decent, honest and downright nice people so it was nice to see him have a “hero” who wasn’t quite as pure – and the concept underlying the story was brilliant.

And so to the winner… As with the novels I’ll announce the runner-up and then the champion. Second place goes to Albion Fay - a beautifully written story from Mark Morris which combines all-too-human horror with nicely ambiguous supernatural elements seamlessly to create a deeply moving, affecting piece of writing.

The actual winner of the Dark Muse for best novella is a different kettle of fish altogether. Which is not to imply that it’s not beautifully written – it is. And very clever too, providing some nice insights into the human condition at the same time as hurling an alien invasion at them and killing them in fiendishly outlandish ways. Just for the sheer bravura of it, and the feeling of being well and truly entertained by the whole thing when I finished it, The Last Bus by Paul Feeney gets my vote.

Best Multi-Author Collection

Aickman’s Heirs, published by Undertow Publications and edited by Simon Srantzas brought together fifteen brilliant stories inspired and influenced by the writing of Robert Aickman. An easy option would have been to have gone with pastiches and that probably would have been an entertaining enough book to read but that isn’t the case with Aickman’s Heirs – his ghost may not haunt the pages within but his spirit is certainly there.

Game Over was a collection of stories which used video gaming as its inspiration. Being as old as I am, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a high proportion of the stories used older generation games as their influence, providing a bit of a nostalgia-rush for me. All the stories were of a high standard but I have to say that Simon Bestwick’s take on Frogger – The Face of the Deep - was a highlight, and quite one of the strangest stories I’ve read for some time.

Joe Mynhardt’s Crystal Lake Publishing gave us The Outsiders this year, a five author collection of interlinked stories on a Lovecraftian theme. All the stories are centred around the fictional gated community of Priory but there were many more connections between the individual stories, with shared characters and events. I’m guessing quite a lot of work and planning was involved to achieve this but it was definitely worth it. It was good to see the racism angle examined too – a bold move but again, one which paid off handsomely.

The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories effortlessly maintained the high standard of Volume 1 and Mark Morris has done a sterling job of whittling down the massive response to the open submission to the final line-up.

The anthology I enjoyed the most this year however is the first in what I hope will be a long series. It was a dark day when Michael Kelly announced that there would be no more Shadows & Tall Trees – a publication which had always guaranteed the highest quality, literary weird fiction and horror. Step in CM Muller, who – with the publication of Nightscript 1 – has filled the void left by the departure of S&TT, producing a lovingly crafted collection of “strange and darksome tales”. I loved all the stories in here, all were of the highest quality and all were, indeed, darksome – creating images that still lurk in the dark recesses of my imagination. The 2015 Dark Muse for a multi-author collection therefre goes to Nightscript 1.


Best Single Author Collection

A couple of the single author collections I read this year were actually published in 2014 so, purely because of my negligence, they fail to qualify for inclusion in the Dark Muse awards. I’m certain both authors will be utterly devastated by this news so by way of some recompense I offer up honourable mentions for Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Strange Gateways and Scott Nicolay’s Ana Kai Tangata. Both were packed with imagination and originality but the latter in particular was a revelation, here is an author genuinely doing something different and producing amazing work. I look forward with great anticipation to whatever he comes up with next.

I’ve long been a fan of Ray Cluley’s work so it was great to see his first collection, Probably Monsters, come out this year. Being a fan (though not in any creepy, stalking kind of way. Yet.) meant that I’d read many of the stories already but there was much joy to be had in revisiting them and the ones I hadn’t read confirmed that he’s one of the best, and cleverest writers out there at the moment.

Sing Me Your Scars was a collection of deeply emotional and moving stories from Damien Angelica Walters. A potent blend of original ideas and re-workings of established mythologies the writing here is of the highest order, poetic and elegiac and proof that the most effective horror is that which is hidden inside beauty.

The Swan River Press published The Anniversary of Never, a posthumous collection from Joel Lane. It’s a beautifully produced book and an excellent collection of stories which serve both as a fitting tribute to Joel and also a reminder of just how much he will be missed.

This year’s Dark Muse for a single author collection goes to one of my “discoveries” of the year. I’m frequently late to the game, stumbling upon authors who have been grafting away for years but often, and certainly in this case, it’s worth the wait. The collection of stories which had the biggest impact on me in 2015 is Ted Grau’s The Nameless Dark. There are fourteen stories in the book, with the majority using Lovecraftian tropes and themes as their inspiration but it’s the variety of styles and narrative voices that author uses to tell his tales that most impressed me. It’s an excellent collection.


Best Single Story

Black Static continued to provide some of the best horror writing of the year in the six editions published in 2015. Whilst some failed to hit my own personal mark (another stream of consciousness from some bloke down the pub? Really?) I always regard that as a plus, it would be a tedious and bland world where I liked everything. Highlights this year were Laura Mauro’s The Grey Men, Stephen Bacon’s Bandersnatch and Ralph Robert Moore’s Dirt Land – an incredibly dark piece of writing that leaves you feeling absolutely desolate when you finish it. (This is a good thing). Another of Rob’s Black Static stories, Men Wearing Makeup provide the best last line of a story I’ve read for quite some time with second prize in that category going to Andrew Hook’s Blood For Your Mother.

Ray Cluley’s Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow provided an excellent post-Christmas read. More trademark wordplay, metaphor and allusion conjuring up a winter’s tale with as much psychological drama as Shakespeare’s play but without the happy ending. It's a Siriusly good piece of writing.

The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories contained a number of stories which could vie for the best of year slot, Paul Meloy's Joe is a Barber and Robert Shearman's Lump in Your Throat were stand-outs but my personal favourite was Stephen Volk’s Wrong which I read as a deeply touching love story.

Gary McMahon showed a lot of soul in his beautifully crafted (in all aspects) chapbook There's a Bluebird in my Heart whilst in Nightscript 1 David Surface showed us that The Sound that the World Makes is a deeply unsettling one.

However, the single story which had the biggest effect on me in 2015 – and thereby the winner of the Dark Muse – came by way of the This is Horror chapbook series. Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth is unsettling, disturbing and speaks to the darkness that is within us all. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of writing that fills your mind with images you’ll never really get rid of.

So that’s it. Another year, another review. Who knows what lies in store for 2016, but if it produces horror writing of the same quality as this year it won’t be half bad.

Merry Christmas – and a happy 2016.


Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Hell's Ditch: Blog Hop - War Without End.

I was honoured to be asked to review Simon Bestwick's new novel, Hell's Ditch (you can read the review below this post) and equally as honoured to be asked to participate in his blog tour promoting the book.
So here is the latest instalment, a thoughtful essay on a different kind of fall-out, and a salutary reminder that the consequences of military intervention last far beyond the end of hostilities...

War Without End

When I was working on my new novel Hell’s Ditch, set in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, I watched Peter Watkins’ ‘after the bomb’ film The War Game. It touched on an aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction that often gets overlooked: the psychological.

Along with the physical casualties of nuclear attack in the film – victims of blast, heat-flash or firestorm, and those suffering lingering deaths from body burns, radiation poisoning, malnutrition and previously treatable disease, Watkins also depicts thousands of survivors suffering ‘complex states of shock’ following their experiences – PTSD, as we’d call it now.

For most of them, of course, the help they’d need would be sparse to non-existent. Similar figures – ‘Spacers’ – appear in Robert Swindells’ 1985 novel Brother In The Land. The country will be filled with the emotionally damaged and shattered, while the children growing up in the aftermath are potentially feral or psychopathic.

There are those who deride PTSD as a wholly modern phenomenon, the product of namby-pamby liberal minds: “Trauma?” one former WWII soldier once said to me? “We didn’t have any of that – we just came home and got on with things.” But coming home and getting on with things doesn’t mean those problems don’t exist; they may be better hidden, may resolve themselves differently, but they’re still there.

Throw that into the mix, and then you also have to take into account a whole new way of life, one that’s a desperate, non-stop struggle for survival. There aren’t any supermarkets any more: food is in short supply. If you want to eat, you grow it, forage it, catch and kill it, or you receive it as a reward for work. Those are the grim realities of a society whose infrastructure has been shattered.

Everyone is, in one way or another, mad; the lucky ones have simply found a brand of neurosis or psychosis that can make a world like this bearable.

In a country like America or Australia, with huge expanses of comparatively unspoilt wilderness, it would be possible to escape the war and its after-effects – not just the ruins, wreckage and corpses, but the awareness that they exist – and start over. Before you can even begin healing from a trauma, getting yourself out of that situation is essential. But in a small country like Britain, where could you go? Nowhere would be untouched: wherever you fled, the ruins would be there. Existing wildernesses would be contaminated; new wildernesses formed out of the rubble and ashes. Wherever you looked would be the ruins of homes like the ones you’d lived in, or dreamed of living in, of shops from which you’d once bought the means of survival or acquired consumer goods you didn’t need with money you didn’t have.

Everywhere you looked, you’d be reminded of the people and the way of life you’d lost. You’d be in a state of permanent trauma, and permanently surrounded by triggers. Small wonder, then, that in the world of Hell’s Ditch people see ghosts: in fact, almost everyone does. They take it for granted; they live with it, and call it ‘ghostlighting’. Wherever you look, it brings the past alive; memories awake, and come to prey on you.

Even with the best will in the world, many who’ve managed to survive horrendous experiences – the refugees fleeing Syria now, or survivors of the recent massacre in Paris – will have memories that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Hell’s Ditch takes that to its logical conclusion: everyone in this world is fighting a war without end.

You can buy Hell's Ditch here.