Monday, 31 October 2016


Scourge is the latest novella from Gary Fry and is published by Snowbooks.. It’s another potent blend of philosophy and horror, telling the tale of Lee Parker, a working class boy from Bradford made good having earned a PhD in psychology at Oxford. Gleefully ignoring Thomas Wolfe’s warning, he does go home again, returning to the city of his birth for a meeting on – ironically (or not, ha ha!) - social mobility.
Here he bumps into an old schoolfriend, John Marsh whose work on a building site has led to an eerie encounter with a strange creature, not quite human, with excessively jointed limbs and yellow eyes. His interest piqued, Lee’s unofficial research uncovers the legend of the Felachnids, hybrid creatures, part spider part cat said to roam the wilds of northern England. Thus, he travels to the village of Nathen, to speak to a local expert and determine whether the creatures are real or just a story spun by the residents – and finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue.
Such is the main thrust of the narrative but, this is a Gary Fry story and so it’s the ideas which are important here, rather than plot. Which sounds like a criticism. It isn’t. There are few who can use allusion and allegory as well as Gary, framing philosophical concepts in an entertaining narrative and such is the case here. Plot devices are a joy to behold when done properly but here, as with so many of Gary’s stories, the plot itself is a device – the means to introduce and discuss philosophical, sometimes psychological topics in an accessible – and yes, entertaining – way.
To be honest, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of ideas going on here (to coin a well-established term from another culture), chief among them – to my untutored mind at least – the ideas of chaos and order and the conflict between them; control and the lack of it. Much is made of drug use in this novella, (Lee himself directly affected by it) with its inherent loss of control and the dangers thereof.
It’s probably the most political piece of Gary’s I’ve read, with much made of the multicultural aspects of Bradford portrayed as a massive positive and references to “fear of the other” – a trait exploited by the Felachnids. There’s a passing reference to Isis and the implication that a minority can, if their methods are potent enough, have a massive influence upon society, again, a tactic put to devastating use by the monsters of the piece.
A symbol is referenced frequently in the novella, a sigil used by the Felachnids. It’s angular shape is given the possible explanation of representing their jointed limbs but the similarity to another, extremely well known symbol is difficult to discount.
Scourge is a first person narrative as, I believe, it has to be – allowing the theories and thought processes of Lee as he uncovers more and more about the Felachnids to be shared with the reader. Inherent within this structure, and pretty much unavoidable however, is the tendency to “tell” rather than “show” and this is perhaps most apparent in a set-piece involving an encounter with one of the Felachnids. It’s a creepy scene –all scuttling limbs and hissing – but would have been perhaps even more effective if told in a third person narrative. A minor criticism however.

I enjoyed Scourge immensely, it’s a book that engages the reader both emotionally and intellectually – and you can’t get much better than that.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Electric Dreamhouse - Midnight Movie Monographs.

The Electric Dreamhouse Press is a new imprint created by editor Neil Snowdon and which publishes via PS Publishing. The focus of the imprint is cinema – in particular horror cinema – and its inaugural publications are the first two books in a planned series of Midnight Movie Monographs.
The movies under consideration are at different points along the spectrum of horror although both were made in the 1970s, arguably the most exciting decade in film history.

Theatre of Blood is a glorious mix of horror and black comedy and was released by United Artists in 1973. Directed by Douglas Hickox, it stars Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearian actor on a bloody quest to dispatch a group of theatre critics who failed to honour him with an award, using the Bard’s plays as inspiration for the murders.
Given the subject matter, and tone of the film, who better to write a book about it than John Llewellyn Probert, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of film and – more importantly – a deep love of the horror genre? It’s a fair bet that John knows exactly who the second assistant Grip on The Brides of Dracula was – a fact that even the actual second assistant Grip on The Brides of Dracula probably can’t remember. John’s love of the genre comes across in every book he writes (and on his review site The House of Mortal Cinema) and it’s on full display here too. This is a detailed analysis of the film but is written with such glee and enthusiasm that it truly is a joy to read. In his introduction, John describes it as more like a commentary track on a DVD than a weighty thesis and that’s exactly how it reads as, scene by scene, he explains what’s going on, why and how - adding priceless nuggets of trivia along the way.
The film is a favourite of John’s – and inspired his glorious Dr Valentine novellas – and was one he experienced for the first time back in the eighties as part of the horror double bills shown on TV. Such was my experience and I had to smile when I found out that I was not the only person whose abiding memory of the film was Robert Morley’s poodles… I was also pleased to see that John is still unsure as to whether Diana Rigg’s disguise was meant to fool the audience or not, even on first viewing as a callow youth I was never taken in by it and was therefore unimpressed by the “reveal” scene.
I loved this monograph, a perfect combination of information and fandom.

The second of the two books is Jez Winship’s analysis of Martin, George A Romero’s 1977 alternative take on the vampire legend.

I have a suspicion that my first (and only) viewing of Martin was as part of the aforementioned horror double bill series, though I may be mistaken. (I shall ask John Llewellyn Probert, he’ll know). Whenever it was, my memories of it are less substantial than those of Theatre of Blood (although those of the latter were enhanced by my viewing of it at a night class run by the Tyneside Cinema a few years back) but, to my dishonour, I do remember being less than impressed by it. This is something I can only put down to youthful arrogance and naivete – “art house” were dirty words to me back in the day… (Thankfully, I have obtained a degree of maturity now. In film appreciation at least).
This book is a lot more formal affair, a more detailed – if not forensic – analysis of the film. These books are of course monographs – in effect personal opinions – but there’s a weight to everything Jez puts forward in this book and, after reading it, if you weren’t already you’ll be very aware of how much thought and care is put into making a film even down to the details of the camera angles employed and the props used – even a paperback book glimpsed for only a few seconds in one scene has a deep significance.
I loved reading these books. Genre films –and horror films in particular – often have a bad press, dismissed as throwaway entertainment, lacking in any artistic merit. This is patently untrue of course and books such as these are proof, if it were needed, that the reality is quite the opposite.
Do you need to have seen the films to enjoy the books? Err… yes, probably. The structure of both volumes is the same, in that the authors describe the film scene by scene, adding insight and information as they go. In truth, once you’ve finished the book, you’ll technically have seen the film as everything that happens has been described. My tip: Watch the film, read the book, watch the film again.

Neil has created something good here – something really good. The list of forthcoming titles is impressive, as are the authors lined up to present their thoughts and opinions on some classics of horror cinema. It’s a project I hope to see going from strength to strength, and I wish it every success in the future.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Unger House Radicals.

Imagine, if you can, asking someone who’s just taken a tab of speed what they think art is. There’s a good chance their answer will be similar to the contents of the new novel from Chris Kelso, Unger House Radicals, which is published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Which sounds like a criticism – but isn’t – it’s simply the best analogy I can come up with for one of the strangest, and best books I’ve read in quite some time.
In truth, there aren’t enough –isms to describe it, take your pick from nihilism, existentialism, cynicism and a whole host of others. Closest to the point is probably that hoary old standard of post-modernism and there’s no doubt that this novel displays all the trademarks of that particular movement from its fractured narrative (what narrative there actually is: there’s a beginning and a middle – not necessarily in that order – but no real end, at least not in the classic sense of the word) to its liberal sprinklings of references to luminaries in the field (Baudillard, Duchamp, Rothko) and its use of multiple viewpoints, characters and media. It’s a stunning display of imagination and skill, a meta-metafiction which raises a multitude of questions about the role of art and its relationship with reality. It’s a work of fiction and yet reads almost like a thesis, an analysis of art via a critical realism approach.
Have I sold it to you yet?
Vincent Bittaker is a film student, eager to make a name for himself, who serendipitously meets up with Brandon Swarthy, a serial killer with multiple personalities who shares his dreams of creating a new movement, Ultra-Realism, and with whom he begins an intense relationship much like Rimbaud and Verlane did back in the 1850s. Unger House is the location in Louisiana where their magnum opus will be filmed.
Death is the only true reality and so art, if it is to be regarded as authentic must mirror that reality – such is the thinking of the two as they prepare to commit murder in the name of said art. Rothko once claimed that “the exhilarated tragic experience is … the only source of art” and this proposition is taken to the nth degree as the two kidnap and kill a girl, filming her brutal murder. This scene is described in vivid detail in the book, and is truly horrifying – as it should be. It’s a tough scene to read and yet I carried on, the emotions I felt those of disgust – and in effect, by so doing, became proof of, and complicit in, the couple’s twisted philosophy. I read horror fiction to be entertained… Except, of course, these are fictional characters, there is no philosophy, there are no Unger House Radicals.
This book seriously messes with your head.
The murder, with a few scenes following, pretty much marks the end of the main narrative thrust of the book, with the remainder taken up with a series of vignettes featuring different characters. The film, unsurprisingly, achieves cult status and the individual storylines which conclude the book – a bold move by the author it has to be said – cleverly throw light on the impact the film has on society, and whether or not its creators’ original aims have been realised.
Unger House Radicals is a difficult read – but only because of its subject matter, the writing here is of the highest quality and the way the book has been constructed is nothing short of amazing. A comparison to the film Natural Born Killers is perhaps appropriate, Swarthy is certainly a psychopath and Bittaker obviously shares some of those traits, but there are also similarities in their construction; the film uses different film stocks, camera equipment and so on to create its discussion of the links between violence and the media and the ways in which both influence each other. A similar argument – this time between violence and art – is made in the book, this time using literary, rather than filmic devices.

Unger House Radicals is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is a good thing. It blew me away with its style and approach and I strongly recommend that you read it too.