Monday, 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

Shrapnel Apartments is the new novel from Chris Kelso and is published by Crowded QuarantinePublications. It’s a follow-up to Unger House Radicals which I reviewed here and which was one of my favourite reads of last year.
Unger House Radicals dealt with the creation of a new art-form, Ultra-Realism, by film student Vincent Bittaker and serial killer Brandon Swarthy – whose relationship I likened to that of Rimbaud and Verlane. In possibly the most contrived pun I’ve ever managed (which is saying something) if UHR is Rimbaud: First Blood, (there’s certainly plenty of the red stuff spilled in its pages), then Shrapnel Apartments can surely be regarded as Rimbaud: First Blood Part II.
There’s a marked slump in quality between the two films but not, I’m very pleased to say, between the books. Whereas John Rambo appears in both films, undergoing an amazing transformation from traumatised, disillusioned veteran to some kind of invincible superhero, Bittaker and Swarthy barely get a look in – although they are referenced occasionally – Shrapnel Apartments is set in a post-Ultra-Realism world, a world in which the radical has become part of the establishment.
As with Unger House Radicals, the book is written in a scattershot style, from the perspectives of multiple characters. There’s perhaps more of a narrative thrust to this one though (or perhaps thrusts – there’s more than one story to be told here) and even a hint of (possibly) cosmic horror with the introduction of a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of the mysterious entity known as Blackcap and his assistant King Misery – first alluded to in an opening sequence set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s suggestions throughout the book that Blackcap is guiding events, toying with humanity to achieve his own, nefarious ends.
The storylines running throughout Shrapnel Apartments include those of child-killer Beau Carson and his investigation by corrupt cop Bobby Reilly, a spat between critics Gottleib and Mancuso (primarily about Ultra-Realism) and the eternal suffering of Florence Coffey. The individual stories are told in a variety of narrative voices, mainly first person testimonies (although it’s often not clear exactly who it is who’s speaking…) interspersed with third person sections, police records, random soliloquys and – significantly – autopsy reports. It’s a dazzling display of technique, the seemingly random sections bombarding the reader with images and ideas yet undergoing some kind of synergy to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts which will leave you breathless in its audacity.
Whilst Unger House Radicals was all about art, it’s a bit more difficult to pin down a single theme for Shrapnel Apartments although I’ll stick my neck out and boldly suggest it might be about the nature of evil itself. The titular apartments are (actually, may or may not be) the location of a reality TV show – a la Big Brother – so there’s evidence of evil right there and, given the references to Jazz music (which everyone knows is the work of the devil) which appear in the book I’m relatively confident in this assumption.

Not that it matters. What any reader takes from any book is absolutely an individual experience. What I took from Shrapnel Apartments was an admiration for a writer willing to try new things, be experimental and doing so brilliantly. This is yet another assault on the senses from Chris Kelso and I thank him for it. There’s great skill on display creating the distinct and individual voices of the characters but also in corralling all the disparate elements into a thought-provoking, dazzling and thoroughly satisfying whole.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence

Given the current political climate, there’s a very strong possibility that the whole sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction could be lost to use, re-packaged as contemporary drama so it’s probably a good idea to make the most of it while it’s still here.
Such an opportunity is provided with a new novella in the Hersham Horror line (which launched very successfully last year with these titles) from Richard Farren Barber – Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (a title which may, or may not, reference a James Lovegrove story – but which I kinda hope does because of the context).
The apocalypse in this book is not the result of handing the nuclear codes to a man with the reasoning capacity and awareness of a spoilt toddler - this is a work of fiction - but of an infection, a plague, which wipes out the majority of the world’s population, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. A familiar trope for sure, but those anticipating the arrival of hordes of zombies will be disappointed for in this scenario the “infected” are still very much alive, a threat simply because of the risk of infection they (literally) carry. Once dead, they remain dead – a situation which brings with it many practical implications for the survivors…
It’s the disposal of the corpses which is the job of Hannah, the protagonist – and narrator – of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Along with her team, she retrieves the fallen bodies of those who have made it as far as the outskirts of the village in which she and the other survivors now reside, in order to remove them and with them the risk of further contamination.
It’s the epitome of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” and there’s much grimness to be had in the descriptions of what the team have to do. There’s much opportunity for character development too, with the personalities of the team emerging from the ways in which they approach their grim task.
The community is led by the charismatic Dr Andrew Hickman who has shaped the rules and policies by which the village is kept safe behind its walls and quarantine zones and it’s these which provide the subtext to the novella. The political allegory of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is writ large, the paranoia and exclusion of the survivors towards the infected (and – crucially – the “possibly” infected) holds a mirror up to the current political climate here in the UK and other countries which, frankly, should know better.
In this context, Perfect darkness, Perfect Silence is incredibly powerful. The last act (the final solution) performed by Hannah and her crew is to tip the dead into huge funeral pyres – scenes which cannot fail to evoke images of much darker times, and a salutary reminder of the real cost of extreme ideologies.
I was mightily impressed by this novella and regard it as the best that Richard has written thus far. Despite the “heavy” politics it still works as an exciting read with fully drawn characters and a great deal of imagination on display. It’s a cleverly constructed world Richard has created here and his use of Hannah as a protagonist gradually discovering – or uncovering – exactly what is happening is something he handles expertly.

I highly recommend Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. It will be launched, alongside the other new novellas in the series, at FantasyCon in September.