Monday, 18 December 2017

2017 Review.

So then, that was 2017 - a year in which, somehow, we managed to avoid nuclear annihilation again. Not for the want of trying, it has to be said. Whilst the world in general seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, what of that microcosm which is horror? How’s that fared then?
From a personal perspective, very well thank you. The number of visitors to this blog finally passed the 100,000 mark - which is very nice - but more importantly, this year I achieved one of my writing ambitions by having a novel accepted for publication and my thanks once more go to Adam and Zoe at Crowded Quarantine Publications for making my dream a reality with the release of Witnesses in January 2018.
Another ambition was achieved with the placing of one of my stories in a pro-rate paying anthology. The ambition lay not in the earning of money for the story (although that was very nice…) but in sharing the pages of the book with writers who have long been literary heroes of mine.
These achievements were only possible because of open submission policies by both the publishers involved. The whole debate around open subs/invite only sprang to life earlier in the year with some pretty strident views expressed by both sides. Given what I’ve just said, it’s not hard to work out which side of the argument I stand on. Invite only is great – as long as you’re one of the invited. Ultimately, I guess the risk is of a closed shop and a stifling of the genre and no room for new voices to be heard. Nothing is ever that straightforward of course and I can appreciate the points put forward by the inviters; quality assurance being the prime one. Which is true… to some extent. Some anthologies I’ve read this year had stories from invited authors which were, well… a bit crap to be honest. Some of them were barely horror stories so I’m of the suspicion that – in some cases – the invites serve as a release mechanism for trunk stories which have failed to find homes by more conventional means.
The thing is, there’s room for both and a mix of the two seems the most satisfactory way forward. I’ve been invited myself and accepted willingly so I can’t really complain that much. My experiences with Dark Minds Press has shown the amount of work generated by having an open subs call and, with that in mind, I can see why a lot of publishers are beginning to place restrictions on what they will accept. No vampires, werewolves or zombies is an oft-repeated directive – which is kinda sad really. I like monsters and I really like stories which use them in original ways. Being original with well-established tropes is a sign of real skill as a writer in my opinion, I’d be sorry to see them banished completely because of prejudice against them.
Maybe it’s snobbery. There seems to be a lot of it about. Literary versus pulp is a battle which has long raged – with a tendency by practitioners of the former to look down on those of the latter. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Good writing takes skill and dedication whatever the genre or sub-genre. And yes, I regard literary fiction as a genre in its own right, with its own tropes, clich├ęs and rules. Badly written literary fiction is awful. Worse than awful.
Bad literary criticism is even worse. Whilst I don’t regard it as a sacred duty, I like to think my reviews are useful to potential readers of books. What I don’t claim is any kind of depth; my reviews (on the whole) point out the positives in what I’ve read and act as an advert for books and stories I think should be read.
Mind you, if some of what I’ve read this year is what literary criticism is then I can’t see myself attempting it anytime soon. Orgasmic delight at spotting typographical and grammatical errors seems to be the order of the day (although making the leap that this is evidence that an author doesn’t know how to write rather than just, I don’t know, a mistake is probably too big a one to make) along with a healthy dose of personal insults (“hack”, “dolt”, “blowhard” certainly seem personal to me). I’m not sure I could bring myself to be so mean-spirited – even if I then pretended that IT WAS ALL A JOKE afterwards. The thing about satire is it’s supposed to be funny – if you have to explain to people that you’re joking then you’re probably not doing it right. Calling names is puerile and diminishes the person doing it, whilst using a chronic, neurodegenerative disease as a “witty” insult is, frankly, beneath contempt.
Typos are an irritation though – that said, every now and then they do add an extra something to a passage albeit unintentionally. However, it’s probably time to call time on a few persistent offenders: During a thunderstorm, lightning – not lightening, strikes; aircraft are housed in hangars, not hangers; and an infected wound will ooze pus, not puss (unless, of course, the story involves weird, feline body horror of some kind).
Anyway, back to 2017. Interestingly, and amusingly, a bizarre rumour began to circulate before this year’s Fantasycon that the entire British horror community were far-right, Nazi sympathisers. (Or “very fine people” as the leader of the Free World might have it). These rumours appeared to originate from a source close to the centre of the community about 11,000 miles away from the UK. The "warnings" were issued in an entirely “not a personal vendetta” kind of way and actually manged to persuade some people that they were true. My, how everyone laughed. Still, as politicians the world over seem to be proving with demoralising frequency, you can pretty much say any old kind of shit these days and people will believe it. (On a serious note, if you are one of those who believed the story, drop me a message – I have bridge for sale you may be interested in).
2017 also saw the closure of another handful of small presses, bringing about the expected sympathy/recrimination depending on how those closures affected you personally. On the whole, the reasons for the closures were financial – whether through bad planning or bad luck not enough books were sold to keep the presses going. I do believe horror is going through a revival but this still doesn’t seem to be reflected in sales of books. Much as a “like” on Facebook is appreciated, buying a book is a much better way of expressing support.
Which brings me to Dark Minds Press. We released three books this year, Mark West’s collection Things We Leave Behind, Laura Mauro’s novella Naming the Bones and the anthology Imposter Syndrome. In January we’ll be releasing Chad Clark’s novella Winter Holiday which, as it turns out, will be my last involvement with the press.
Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. It was becoming increasingly difficult to juggle writing, reviewing and editing/formatting/publishing on the one day I have available every week and so something had to give. It's a decision I didn't make lightly, and which I pondered over for many months but a successful small press needs a level of dedication and commitment I find I'm no longer able to provide. It’s been an honour working with the authors and artists in the ten years since we set up the press and I hope we’ve done justice to their visions. I’m proud of every book we’ve published.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. The time has arrived, yet again, for my picks of the best the horror genre has had to offer in the last twelve months with the award of the fabled Dark Muses. To reiterate, these awards are voted for by a panel of one and reflect the piece of writing in each category which has impressed me the most. Much as I might try, I can't read every book which is published so, obviously, my choices are taken from those I have had the opportunity to look at. The award exists only in virtual form and has been designed by Peter Frain, aka 77studios, who created the distinctive red, white and black covers for the Dark Minds Novella range:




BEST NOVEL

I managed to read thirty one novels this year although only twenty of them were horror, and of those only thirteen were published this year. Crowded Quarantine Publications set the standard high with their two novel releases this year, Yellow Line by Kristal Stittle and Luke Walker’s Ascent which both pitched small groups of survivors against original, deadly menaces in a subway train and a high rise building respectively. Both were hugely enjoyable reads, original and inventive and will be a hard act to follow for whoever comes next.
Tim Lebbon unearthed some interesting Relics in what will be the first of a series of novels featuring creatures of mythology presented in a new, somewhat menacing, light whilst the discovery of something ancient and not very nice on the titular holy mountain provided much terror in Christopher Golden’s Ararat. I enjoyed both but felt the suspension of disbelief was perhaps a little too much in the former whilst the latter seemed a book of four quarters; the first three of which were a little slow, with pretty much all the action concentrated in the final one.
Adam Nevill moved into more psychological terror with Under a Watchful Eye, a book I enjoyed as much for the way in which it was written as the intriguing, and deeply unsettling, narrative. Equally impressive in terms of its construction was Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes with its multiple viewpoints leading to an ending with a twist which more than lived up to its pre-publicity.
S. P. Miskowski used a line from Nirvana's All Apologies for the title of her novel I Wish I Was Like You  - entirely fitting, given its setting of 90's Seattle. And entertain us she did, producing a ghost story with a difference, a book which skipped between narrative voices in a clever, and at times almost meta-fictional way.
Getting the blend between comedy and horror right is a tricky business – especially at novel length, but such was achieved by Daniel Marc Chant and Vincent Hunt with their hugely entertaining take on professional exorcism Devil Kickers. It worked so well because it was a case of the plot being enhanced by the jokes rather than simply being contrived in order to facilitate them.
Willie Meikle proved yet again that he is one of the best writers of pulp/adventure/horror stories with Infestation – a glorious mash-up of cryptozoology and sweary Scotsmen set in a chillingly remote location.
Chris Kelso once again proved he was a force to reckon with, and a writer of incredible imagination and skill with his follow up to the brilliant Unger House Radicals. Shrapnel Apartments was another dazzling array of images and ideas, an assault on the senses in which reality took on a whole new meaning, an examination of fame - and those who pursue it - to die for.
It’s an amazing book, and very nearly walked away with the Dark Muse for best novel but that honour goes this year to Beneath by Kristi DeMeester. Set in rural Appalachia, it’s a disturbing mix of ancient evil, fundamental Christianity and sexual tension – an incredibly dark book which left me feeling not a little troubled after I’d finished it.
(Interestingly, this result means that for two years running, my favourite novel of the year has been published by Word Horde – last year the “trophy” went to John Langan’s The Fisherman. A critic of some repute, in relation to Word Horde, once expressed wonderment at “why any sane and intelligent person would want to buy these books in the first place.” (After hilariously, deliberately misspelling the publisher’s name as “Word Whore” – but then nothing says "wit and sophistication" like "whore"). Well, I guess the answer is because they’re excellent. (Mind you, the same person thinks dementia is funny so their opinions probably aren’t worth a whole lot anyway).

BEST NOVELLA

The novella continues to establish itself as the best medium for horror – such is my considered opinion – and there have been some brilliant examples this year, making this the hardest of all my choices. It was a n honour to work with Laura Mauro on her novella Naming the Bones, a book which - had it not been disqualified because of my involvement in it - would have been among the contenders for the Dark Muse without a doubt.
Although they’re described as “short novels”, the four stories in Joe Hill’s collection Strange Weather are, I would guess, technically novellas. I enjoyed them all – to varying degrees – and particularly like the way he rarely offers up explanations for the supernatural elements of his tales, thereby adding to the mystery and wonder. A critic of some repute sees this as a weakness in his writing, enough to brand the author a “hack” but this is definitely a strength of any horror fiction, allowing the reader to engage both their imagination and intellect when reading. (And something that didn’t seem to do Robert Aickman any harm). Best of them all was Loaded, which actually features no supernatural element at all but is a powerful comment on gun culture, a devastating story which slowly gains momentum, heading inexorably towards the most powerful of conclusions and showing that there’s really no such thing as a “good guy with a gun”.
Hersham Horror continued their Primal range with three new releases this year, the best among which was Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence which made a profound political statement with its post-apocalyptic allegory.
Mythological creatures provided the basis for two very different novellas in 2017: Dave Jeffery’s Frostbite provided a new take on the legend of the Yeti, coming up with a spectacular theory for their existence amidst a fast-paced, cross-genre thriller that contained more twists and turns than a mountain road. I have the East Coast main line at the bottom of my garden but some people have fairies – or not, as the case may be. Such claims were scrutinised in a very cleverly written novella from Alison Littlewood, Cottingley, which used an epistolary style to provide a chilling character study using the story of the faked 1920’s photographs of fairies – which fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – as its starting point.
A similar, epistolary style was used by Justin Park in Mad Dog, with the story of a prison riot ingeniously constructed from a series of witness testimonies. I’m always massively appreciative of authors who try out different ways of presenting narratives and this hard-hitting novella does just that.
Gary Fry’s The Rage of Cthulhu read more like a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s original Call with similarities in the plot and some familiar names. It perhaps strained credibility a little too far come its conclusion but still managed to include some of the author’s trademark philosophical musings.
Paul Edwards gave us Infernal Love, a gloriously over-the-top homage to 60’s and 70’s occult horror. Blood drenched and full of marauding demons, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Philip Fracassi’s choice of monster for his novella Sacculina may, at first glance, have seemed a little odd but it turned out to be inspired in this tense story of a fishing trip gone horribly wrong. There’s real depth to the tale, lifting it above its pulp origins, with superbly drawn characters interacting with each other in realistically moving fashion. The action scenes are handled just as deftly – and are gripping in more ways than one.
It’s a difficult job to bring something fresh to the ghost story but that’s exactly what Stephen Graham Jones does with Mapping the Interior, a novella that plays with the reader’s perception as much as its protagonist, a young boy who discovers there’s more to the house he lives in, and his own history than he had ever imagined whilst the haunted “suicide forest” of Aokigahara in Japan was used to great effect as a setting for Adam Millard’s Swimming in the Sea of Trees.
Stephen Volk once more displayed his consummate skill as a writer with The Little Gift, a story with no supernatural trimmings whatsoever which still managed to create a real sense of horror. Beautifully written, with not a word out of place, it’s a character study which lingers long in the mind after reading.
My favourite novella of 2017 however, was written by an author I was reading for the first time. Because of the imagination on display, the imagery created and the truly unsettling nature of the story, the winner of this year’s Dark Muse of best novella is Liam Ronan for the brilliant Creeping Stick, a novella whose style I compared to Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, a comparison I still stand by.

BEST ANTHOLOGY

With the untimely demise of Shadows and Tall Trees with Volume 6 in 2014, a gap opened in the market for collections of literary, weird fiction. That gap was more than adequately filled by Nightscript – which has become an annual highlight of the genre. But then… S&TT returned this year with Volume 7 – and, in preparation for a fight, had bulked itself up to nineteen stories. Nightscript Volume 3 cared nothing for this increase in fighting weight though. Indeed, within its own pages lurked twenty three stories. Perhaps the balance would be shifted by the inclusion of two authors in both volumes – a Strantzas/Devlin double punch?
All of which inane rambling merely serves to show that the weird fiction community was very well catered for this year, with two high quality products to satisfy their needs. Personally, I find myself drifting slightly away from the weird, heading back to more traditional horror and so found that two such large collections were a slight case of overload for my struggling brain. Don’t get me wrong, I love gentle horror and lap up ambiguity but when I find myself scratching my head at what I’ve just read, unable to discern its subtle nuances and metaphors the process loses some of its appeal.
A book calling itself Masters of Horror is setting the bar high for itself but to be fair, the anthology staking this claim did include in its contributors some who could lay claim to such a title. Not all of them though and – although it was to be expected, given that the editor was Matt Shaw – there was a higher than average number of extreme horror stories. I’m not a fan generally, preferring to be frightened rather than disgusted by what I read but felt that even within this sub-genre some of the stories selected were less than masterful.
Charity anthologies seem to be a common occurrence these days and one of this year’s best was Trapped Within edited by Duncan Bradshaw. Again, I was less keen on the extreme stories but it’s a strong collection with my three favourite stories coincidentally having connections to the sea. Duncan himself provides a cracker of a story Q&A - a straight-up body horror which lacks his trademark silliness. Much as I love his sense of humour, it’s great to see him writing “serious” stuff – something I mentioned to him, advising that he should do more. It’s advice I’m glad to see he’s taken to heart, as he finishes work on his new novel Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space.
An interesting theme for an anthology was provided by The Anatomy of Monsters which produced a set of stories which provided new takes on classic monsters of lore. I enjoyed it a lot but the book appears to have disappeared without a trace even before it was released. Which is a shame.
Black Shuck Books followed up last year’s Great British Horror: Green and Pleasant Lands with Volume two in the series, Dark Satanic Mills. Moving from rural to urban horror, the book contained some strong stories which channelled the fears and paranoia of life in the city.
With the demise of the Spectral imprint, Mark Morris has moved onto a new series of annual horror anthologies, namely New Fears. It’s an anthology I enjoyed a lot, its non-themed nature possibly a strength, with particularly effective stories from Kathryn Ptachek, Stephen Gallagher and Ramsey Campbell but, that said, there were a few stories which I felt were odd choices for a horror collection – given the lack of any discernible horror in them. Despite this, the mix of themes and the skilful writing on display here makes New Fears my pick for best anthology of 2017.

BEST COLLECTION

It’s been a really good year for single author collections too, with some big-hitters laying out their respective stalls for our delectation.
Adam Nevill provided my favourite collection of last year with Some Will Not Sleep and has followed that fine book up this year with another amazing set of stories in Hasty for the Dark. The horrors contained within are less overt and visceral than the preceding volume but none the less terrifying for that.
The Sinister Horror Company manged to release eleven titles this year, among them four collections. Paul Kane provided his variations on the theme of Death whilst there was a very impressive debut from Kayleigh Marie Edwards in Corpsing. Justin Park provided the other two, with Death Dreams both In a Whorehouse and At Christmas. As alluded to earlier, Justin is an author unafraid to try out different ways of presenting stories and that is very evident in the stories contained in these two collections which contain variety of narrative styles and techniques. Who’d have thought the phrase “I love you” could contain so much horror? Justin Park does – and he’ll tell you why.
Bracken Macleod, whose Stranded I enjoyed very much last year, provided possibly the most eclectic collections of stories (in terms of themes and style) with 13 Views of the Suicide Woods which included both literary and extreme variations on the horror story whilst Ralph Robert Moore gave us the amazing Behind You with eighteen short stories and novelettes, all of which were as dark and disturbing as you might expect from one of the most stylish writers out there. (And which contains one of my favourite stories of his, the impeccably crafted Men Wearing Makeup).
I Will Surround You is a stunning collection from Conrad Williams which brilliantly showcases his ability to find horror in the most mundane of situations, delivered in impeccable prose and another of my favourite authors, Simon Kurt Unsworth brought us his fourth collection, Diseases of the Teeth, which I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because it contained a new story featuring psychic investigator Richard Nakata.
Philip Fracassi has now become one of those authors whose work I await with great anticipation. My introduction to his writing came via the novelettes Mother and Altar – both of which are contained in his collection Behold the Void along with seven other stories which display perfectly the range and imagination of this deeply talented author. Trust me, every story in here is brilliant.
Call me one of the great unwashed if you will, but a huge part of my appreciation of a piece or writing is the sheer enjoyment it gives me. The term “guilty pleasure” is an odd one if you think about it –surely pleasure is pleasure (not in a “Brexit is Brexit” kinda way of course) and there should be no guilt attached to it. “Literary and intense” brings its own type of pleasure, “pulpy and action-packed” does too. Both take skill to be done properly.
All of which preamble leads to the announcement of the winner of 2017’s Dark Muse for Best Collection. It goes to a book which gave me so much joy when I read it; clever and witty and yet properly horrific, a book not afraid to use well established tropes but at the same time being devastatingly original, a collection which would make you laugh on one page then send a shiver of dread down your spine on the next. The Dark Muse goes to John Llewellyn Probert’s Made for the Dark.

BEST SINGLE STORY

Rich Hawkins released a couple of cracking short stories for Kindle this year: She Hunts in the Woods summoned an ancient, woodland deity to wreak havoc on those unfortunate to stumble into her realm while Warm Shelter made extremely effective use of some very disturbing imagery.
Adam Nevill’s Hippocampus made an appearance in no less than three different books this year – granted, one was his own collection – testament to just how good it is. Told entirely without characters, its roving-eye view of a deserted ship provides just enough information for the reader to paint their own picture of the events which have just taken place. It’s very clever, and very, very good.
The New Fears anthology contained enough strong stories to win the Dark Muse, among them Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek, a genuinely creepy story from Ramsey Campbell – Speaking Still, and my favourite of the book, Shepherds’ Business by Stephen Gallagher, a beautifully atmospheric tale which slowly builds to a shattering conclusion – a moment of pure horror as the reader realises the terrible thing which has happened along with the story’s protagonist.
The Ellen Datlow/Lisa Morton edited Haunted Nights provided a collection of stories themed around Hallowe’en. Stephen Graham Jones provided another excellent ghost story in Dirtmouth but my favourite was Eric J Guignard’s A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds – a tale which turned out to be just as weird as its title might suggest, telling of gang fights between ghosts on La Dia de Los Muertos.
My two favourite stories of the year come from the same author and are both to be found in the same collection. The runner-up prize goes to Philip Fracassi’s The Horse Thief, a wonderfully weird tale in which a disparate set of characters, including an Asian gangster as well as the eponymous criminal, fight over the soul of a horse god. There’s a touch of Magic Realism about The Horse Thief, and I loved the way the eclectic characters, the weird narrative and even a touch of social commentary combined to produce an outstanding story.
The award of the Dark Muse goes to the last story in Behold the Void: Mandala is a superbly constructed tale of fate and destiny. It’s a slow burner of a story but one which has a momentum which builds and builds, leading inexorably to its tragic conclusion. There are scenes described in here which are as tense as anything I’ve ever read and the story has just the right amount of a supernatural element to be pretty much perfect.


So, there you have it. Congratulations again to all the winners and massive thanks to all the authors and publishers who have provided such great entertainment for me over the last twelve months. Here’s hoping that 2018 proves to be just as good.


No comments:

Post a Comment