Wednesday 16 November 2011

It Knows Where You Live.

It Knows Where You Live is the latest collection from Gary McMahon, published by Gray Friar Press as a limited edition hardback with every book signed by, and containing a personal message from the author.
Given that all 100 copies of the book have sold, it's a bit redundant of me to make any recommendations (even more so than usual...) about the book but irrespective of that I wll say that this is an excellent collection from the consistently brilliant Mr McMahon.
The collection opens with Just Another Horror Story which is anything but, in reality a cleverly structured story touching on themes of paranoia and which creates a strong sense of claustrophobia with the protagonist trapped in a (seemingly) constant cycle of horror.
Hope is a Small Thing Dying in a Bin Behind an Abandoned Kebab Shop is one of the longest titles I've seen for a short story but also one of the best. (It may even be the quintessential Gary McMahon title?) It's another cleverly constructed tale told from the viewpoint of the most unreliable of narrators. In the first paragraph he tells us how it's the "normal things...[that] take on an unholy resonance" a sentiment reiterated with devastating effect at the end of the story.
Barcode is a topical story dealing as it does with the effects of the Global Recession (Part Two in a theatre near you soon!) and is disconcerting in the way that it actually ends on an optimistic note - not at all what I was expecting from the King of Bleak..!
Among the Leftovers is, I think, my favourite story in the collection. It's a strong concept for a story but one that works brilliantly. It's a short piece but still manages to be both scary and profound, having much to say about the human condition.
When One Door Closes is another story inspired (if that's the right word in this context) by the recession. It's almost a fable and underlines very effectively how it's the ordinary Joe - at the bottom of the financial food chain - who is the one to suffer the most from massive, world-wide failures. Unlike Barcode this has a much bleaker (and therefore, unfortunately probably more realistic) conclusion.
The Chair first appeared in Black Static and was, if memory serves, my first exposure to Gary McMahon. I remember it puzzled me at the time, I wasn't entirely sure what it was about but had my theories... Re-reading it now confirmed those theories but I have to say reading the next story The Table helped greatly in cementing them. You want ghostly furniture-based stories? Gary McMahon's your man. C.S. Lewis might already have grabbed the Wardrobe but the place Gary's furniture is a conduit to is no Narnia...
Nine Lives takes us back out of the supernatural realm with a harsh tale of infidelity and revenge. If you like cats, maybe give this one a miss...
Truth Hurts is a love story. Yup, that's right. It's a twisted love story of course with the title a real affliction for one of the protagonists. It's a metaphor made real (with horrific consequences) which, in a paradoxical way, somehow manges to reinforce its meaning.
Down is perhaps the most traditional scary story in the book. It's an effective little chiller that preys on our fears of being trapped in the dark. My love of the "Stumphole Cavern" monologue notwithstanding, I really liked this homage to RamseyCampbell.
Sounds Weird  is possibly the bleakest story of the collection. We all have our "what if..?" moments, regrets over decisions made or not made that in hindsight we would have handled differently. The grass isn't always greener but sometimes not even having the opportunity to find out makes the reality we find ourselves in even harder to take. The reality the characters in this story find themselves in is about as bleak as it gets - and there's no-one better than Gary McMahon at describing that world.
The Row treads more traditional supernatural ground. Are places haunted - or is it the people who visit them? There's just the right amount of ambiguity in this tale of a row of houses with a dark history and their influence on the council surveyor visiting them prior to their planned demolition.
The Sheep  is set on my home patch of Northumbria and begins with the all too accurate proclamation that "it always rains in Northumbria in the springtime". It surely does - when it's not snowing that is. There's a feel of Lars Von Trier's  Antichrist about this one with a troubled couple seeking solace in nature and coming across... well, in the film a fox disembowels itself, turns to the camera and says "chaos reigns!" The titular creatures in this story don't actuually speak but chaos well and truly reigns by the story's conclusion. I really liked it.
Small Things do matter. Common courtesies and pleasantries make life better for all of us. This is another fable-esque (is that a word?) story telling of the dangers inherent in forgetting those niceties,opening up the first cracks in the ultimate breakdown of society. It's a dark fable of course, and extreme - but chillingly effective.
It Knows Where You Live rounds off the collection in fine style, reflecting a lot of the themes already explored in the earlier stories, wrapping them all up in a neat little tale about a DVD of the same name with malevolent properties.
This is an excellent collection of stories and maintains the exceptionally high standard Gary McMahon has already set with his previous work. Should you go and buy it? Yes, of course you should. Except you can't. But if you could...

Sunday 6 November 2011

Quiet Houses.

You can't beat a classic ghost story. I love horror in all its incarnations but if I want to be scared - I mean really scared - then it's ghost stories I'll go for every time.
Quiet Houses is a collection of stories by Simon Kurt Unsworth from Dark Continents that prove just how terrifying the ghost story can be. It's a portmanteau collection with all the stories featuring the exploits of parapsychologist Richard Nakata, a clever framing device that works very well, there being an overarching story that links the individual tales.
Nakata's investigations take him to a variety of locations and it's these that make up the various short stories in the book. I have to say there isn't a weak link amongst them, all the stories are excellent and - most importantly - scary as hell.
One of the stories Scale Hall I'd read already in the Where The Heart Is anthology but all the other stories are original to this collection. I loved them all but perhaps my favourite is The Temple of Relief and Ease which features a location that's scary enough even before the story itself unfolds.
These are classic ghost stories (which work just as well as stand alone pieces) and this is one of the best collections I've ever read. Perhaps I'm a bit jaded having read so much horror fiction that I'm rarely scared or horrified by what I'm reading. That wasn't the case here - these are genuinely scary stories.
In his afterword, Simon says he likes Nakata and that he'll be back. That's great news - I can't wait to read more.
Quiet Houses is a brilliant book and I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Black Static 25.

About The Dark is the first story in issue 25 of Black Static and is by Alison Littlewood. A trio of truanting kids take shelter in "Dark Cave" from the rain... A - on the face of it - somewhat cliched beginning to a horror story. What follows, however, is far from cliche, is in fact a cleverly written character study, a coming of age story with - it has to be said - "dark" overtones.
What the kids discover in the cave is - The Dark, and it's as much a character in the story as the three teenagers. Adam is the key figure in the story and it's his change that the story's all about. there's a nice touch of ambiguity in the story - is the dark a real, supernatural presence or is it already inside Adam, waiting for the right moment to assert itself? It's an excellent story and a really strong opener for this issue.
The Curtain Parts is by Christopher Fowler and tells of "Estuarine" June who is flat-sitting for a friend in what turns out to be a very strange apartment block. What unfolds when the lights go out is a surreal nightmare involving anatomical dummies and bondage. (Which has to be the strangest sentence I've ever written). There's a feel of Rosemary's Baby about the story in the way it creates the unsettling atmosphere of a stranger in a new building filled with bizarre characters. It's a scathing indictment of the class sytem... I think. Simon Bestwick's Welcome to Mengele's told of those with enough money indulging in their most depraved fantasies and there's a similar theme at play here. Very strange, and very disturbing.
The Travellers Stay is by Ray Cluley (or Mr Black Static as I'm sure he'll be come to known if the league table of contributors is anything to go by) and will have all those who regard Eats Shoots and Leaves as a bible frothing at the mouth at the lack of apostrophe in the title. Ah well - read on and stop frothing, the title's actually a clever play on words which will become apparent as the story progresses. Like About The Dark, it starts on a bit of a cliche with a family arriving at a seedy motel. Like the other story though, it becomes so much more - or should I say it metamorphoses into something quite different? The writing at the beginning of the story is brilliant, perfectly describing the tensions between the family members. (Which is not to say that it's not well written through the rest of the story - it is - it's just that the opening is particularly effective). It's another surreal trip but an extremely effective one.
What would you get if you crossed Richard Wagner with Richard Matheson? Anti-semitic vampires wandering the streets of Los Angeles? A Valkyrie riding the wing of a plane, slowly picking the engine to bits? Or maybe The Holy Spear by Barbara A. Barnett - a post-plague-apocalypse story set in Philadelphia. The story borrows heavily from I Am Legend and Parsifal - the latter more directly with scenes lifted directly from the opera and the general theme of a Grail Quest - in this case finding a cure for the plague. The story references the opera directly so it's not being sneaky by nicking the story and presenting it as something new but, as with any "reimagining" of stories, the new version has to bring something new otherwise the whole idea is redundant. This is a readable story but there's nothing particularly new or innovative about it. I guess I'm predisposed not to like remakes as there's always that feeling of the author using someone else's imagination to their own ends. That said, Apocalypse Now is oneof the greatest films ever made and that's just Heart of Darkness in Vietnam. (Mind you, it does have that helicopter attack with that stirring music by - oh, who was it again?)
Best. Summer. Ever. is by Nathaniel Tapley and is basically a comedy monologue written down. It works well, and is clever, managing to create a strong character despite its short length and format and slowly introduces a very dark storyline. The monologue is an effective comedy device, very inclusive of the audience who fill in the gaps. I'm old enough to remember Bob Newhart whose stock in trade was the monologue but I have to say my all time favourite is this classic by Mark Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen.
All in all, another really strong issue.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Terror Tales of the Lake District.

I love The Lake District, it's like a second home to me and I've holidayed there since I was very young. It's where I go to recharge my batteries and is a constant source of inspiration to me. I also love horror stories so the new anthology from Gray Friar Press Terror Tales of the Lake District was one book I was very much looking forward to reading. It's edited by Paul Finch and contains thirteen (naturally) stories set in that beautiful part of North-West England.
Even before you open the book you're going to be freaked out by the cover art by Steve Upham - a well creepy image of Tom Fool, the Mad Clown of Muncaster, whose story is recounted in one of the factual inserts between the stories which tell some of the myths and legends associated with The Lake District.
Little Mag's Barrow by Adam L.G. Nevill opens the collection in fine style. It's an extremely atmospheric tale and genuinely scary. In it, the thoroughly unlikeable Kitty takes possession of the isolated cottage that gives the story its name for a weekend break. It turns out Kitty isn't entirely on her own after all and the scene in which the cottage's other occupant reveals themselves is brilliantly written.
The Coniston Star Mystery is by Simon Clark and tells of a diving expedition to locate the wreck of a steamer which sank in the lake in 1910, taking with it the body of escapologist Iskander Carvesh. One of the diving team has motivations other than financial gain for making the dive and these provide a twist of sorts at the end of the story. (As an aside, the epilogue is dated "one year later" - I think it could have worked as well had it been "one month earlier".)
Devils of Lakeland is by Paul Finch and is an atmospheric ghost story of a childhood haunting that has terrible repercussions in adult life. The pedant in me got riled at Catbells being called The Catbells and the reference to (the non-existent) Borrowdale Village but these are minor quibbles about what is a very enjoyable story which retains an air of mystery throughout.
The Moraine by Simon Bestwick brilliantly captures the whole feeling of getting lost in the mist when out walking, something I've done many times, once on top of Scafell Pike where I managed to do a complete 180 degree turn and ended up heading in completely the opposite direction. Fortunately, my predicament wasn't made worse by having some deadly creature pursuing me as does befall the protagonists in Simon's story. It's tense, scary and exciting, another excellent story from one of my current favourite authors.
The Claife Crier by Carole Johnstone is similar thematically to the previous story in that a couple out walking are terrorised by a monster. I think this is an even scarier story than Simon's and manages, in its short length, to create well drawn characters and a completely believable father/daughter conflicted relationship which adds depth to the story. Oh, and there's the added bonus of Carole's trademark writing speech in dialect - a rare skill that's tricky to pull off but which she accomplishes with consumate ease.
Jewels In The Dust is by Peter Crowther. It begins with a quotation from the 17th Century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. That's always a bit intimidating, here's an author flexing their intellectual muscles, foreshadowing a weighty piece of writing, one that's going to require some concentration and deep thinking to appreciate. He then spoils the illusion somehwhat by mis-spelling Jackson Pollock's name but hey, it took some of the pressure off! I'm waffling on here to avoid having to talk about the story itself which I really didn't like. It's a tale about as far removed from terror as you can possibly get (though it is set in the Lake District), all about death - and a love which transcends death. I'm cringing as I write that last line, aware of how corny it sounds but then that's how this whole story felt to me. A family who I instantly disliked for being just too nice (including little Tommy who is so cute it's nauseating), go for a picnic at the behest of the grandmother who belives she's finally going to die. It's all meant to be uplifting stuff - there's even a visit from dearly-departed grand-dad - but for me it tipped over the edge of sentimentality to tumble down the slippery slope of mawkishness and I personally found the final line of the story to be jaw-droppingly patronising.
Above The World is by Ramsey Campbell and restores the balance admirably. This was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me as I'd read this story many years ago in an earlier anthology. It's a classy piece of writing - as one would expect - and is beautifully atmospheric, recreating the atmosphere of the Lakes wonderfully. It's a ghost story where the surroundings really do add to the fear and confusion that beset the protagonist. Lovely stuff.
The Jilted Bride Of Windermere is by Gary Fry and, like The Claife Crier, is an updating of a pre-existing legend. The title pretty much gives away what's going to happen so there are few surprises here but the strength of the story is in Gary's skills at creating believable - albeit thoroughly unlikeable - characters, including the first person narrator.
Walk The Last Mile is by Steven Savile and is by far the darkest piece in the book. (No mean feat considering there are stories here by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick). It's another first-person narration that extremely effectively changes tone as the story progresses. From what appear at first to be romantic recollections it changes into... well, something else entirely. Nothing nice though. It's cleverly written and constructed and of all the stories has lingered most in my memory after completing the book.
Framed is by Peter Bell and unfortunately opens up the big box of Horror Cliches and digs deeply into it. Here's the set-up: A couple of petty thieves drive out to a graveyard reputedly haunted by a malevolent spirit in order to stash their booty. Can you guess what happens next? Yup, you're right.
Night Of The Crone is by Anna Taborska and fails to close the lid of the box opened in the previous story. I smiled a bit at the thought of a farmer writing a sign in dialect like it was an actual language but the smiles soon faded. It's a bit of a stretch to think that a bunch of modern day yobbos would a). believe and b). act on a legend about buried treasure. They do though, desecrating a stone circle in the process. Can you guess what happens next (the clue's in the title)? Yup. You're right.
Along Life's Trail is by Gary McMahon. It's not the typical dark, gritty fare that usually characterises Gary's work (there's a hint of marital discord but little more) but it's an entertaining - and scary - story in which the act of stumbling across an old deserted building results in a supernatural connection being made that has disastrous, (and gory) repercussions.
Striding Edge is by Reggie Oliver and uses the eponymous ridge walk on Helvellyn as the setting for some bizarre encounters between a man and some of his old school friends. It's another classy piece of writing from Mr Oliver (and reinforces my own prejudices aginst organisations like the Boy Scouts) which makes an already scary place even scarier. A traditional spooky story from the current master of that particular sub-genre.
Terror Tales... is a really strong collection (despite my reservations about some of the stories). Of them all, I think the Bestwick, Johnstone and Campbell stories capture the unique atmosphere of the district the best. Highly recommended.

Friday 21 October 2011

Derby Scribes.

Derby Scribes highlights the work of the eponymous writing group alongside stories from some guest authors. It's published by Stumar Press and can be bought here if you want a proper book or from the usual outlets if e-books are your thing.
In The Spirit Of Darwin opens the collection and is by Simon Clark, an author whose work I enjoy very much. I was lucky enough to meet Simon way back in the day when Nailed By The Heart had just been published (in a triple-header reading with Stephen Laws and Chaz Brenchley) and found him to be a really nice bloke. This story tells of a (possibly imagined) meeting between an elderly gentleman and (the spirit of) Charles Darwin and explores the concepts of tribalism and racism in the context of human evolution. Weighty stuff and, if I have a criticism, it's that the subject matter perhaps required a more serious, weighty approach to do it justice. It's effective enough though, and a strong start to the collection.
Brylcreem And Pipe Tobacco is by Stuart Hughes whose story Unfinished Business was included in the Alt Dead anthology. It's a gentle tale of a soon to be remarried widow's visit to a medium to contact the spirit of her deceased husband. There's a twist of sorts at the end, the implications of which - if you think too deeply about them, as I'm wont - could cause serious psychological damage to the poor woman. Nah - I'm not being serious, but then again neither is the story. Stuart's Alt Dead story packed an emotional punch, this one's a bit of (albeit enjoyable) whimsy.
Stump is by Victoria Charvill and had me - well, stumped I guess. The last book I'd read before Derby Scribes was Simon Bestwick's excellent collection Pictures Of The Dark which is the darkest stuff I've read in a long time (as well as being absolutely brilliant). Talk about one extreme to another... Stump tells the story of a little girl and her pet guinea pig. All I can say is that it's the best story about a girl and her pet guinea pig I've ever read.
Leaving Jessica is by Jennifer Brown and tells of a woman on the run, and assuming false identities, from her gangster husband. The story has a great first line and a tense opening passage and then becomes a narrative describing the logistics of what the woman goes through when a change of identity is needed once more. This would have worked better, in my opinion, as a more character driven piece, exploring the emotions of the woman's situation, constantly on the run, never able to form lasting relationships -having to inhabit every new persona that comes along. The last line of the story is as strong as the first, and hints at what could have been an interesting character piece had Jennifer chosen that route.
Last Respects is by Richard Farren Barber, another writer whose story in Alt Dead I very much liked. This story was always going to be a winner for me, feeding in as it does to my obsession with World War One It does its job very effectively, recreating the horrors of trench warfare brilliantly and leading to a poignant conclusion.
The Wake Up Call is by Alison J Hill and cleverly creates a baffling, paradoxical storyline involving a man involved in a hit and run accident. As I was reading it I was trying to work out how it would all be resolved, expecting an amazing reveal at the end. Everything is explained at the story's conclusion but in a way that I found a bit disappointing - actually, quite a bit disappointing.
The Gallery is by Conrad Williams and is the longest story in the collection. It's also the best, telling of a future dystopia where -amongst many other things - reading of books is outlawed. Conrad creates a believable world with zeppelin-filled skies and manages a few nice in-jokes at his own, and other authors' expenses. Despite the humour though, there's some heavy stuff in here, including concentration camp imagery. There's a nice touch having the enforcers of the regime wearing hooded uniforms - a nod to the hoodie culture of today perhaps. Classy stuff.
Dave's Dinosaur by Peter Borg will either work for you or not depending on your sense of humour. A short, surreal tale it has a nice, ironic last couple of lines but is probably a wee bit too left-field to appeal to many. (And the Nick Clegg simile is s right old clunker).
An Interstellar Taxi Ride by David Ball also depends on your sense of humour as to how it will work for you. The lead character is called Seymour Niples and if that has you in paroxysms of laughter then this is the story for you. It tries - I guess - to pass comment on celebrity culture but it's awkwardly written and the ending is about as abrupt as they come - I honestly thought the last few paragraphs had been accidentally omitted in the editing process.
Obsolete is by Christopher Barker. A man (Daphne Tramp!) escapes from the house in which he's been held prisoner for many years to a world which is completely unfamiliar to him. It's a competent enough story but is far too exposition-heavy in its conclusion.
The Smell Of Fear is by Neal James and tells of a neighbourhood ganging up on the local bully. There's a twist at the end which may make you re-read to see if it all works (a la Sixth Sense). It does - apart from one thing. *MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT* Dogs don't sweat (except through their tongue and pads) so they wouldn't wake up "bathed in a thin film of sweat". (It's sad that I know stuff like that but I do...)
Derby Scribes is -as with most anthologies - a mixed bag. Some of the stories are a bit rough around the edges but the fact that they've arisen from a writing group, trying out themes and concepts, may be the reason for that. All in all it's an enjoyable collection.

Friday 14 October 2011

The Mill.

I've resisted buying a Kindle for so long now, being an old traditionalist I much prefer a proper book you can hold in your hand (err.. like a Kindle) and then keep forever on your bookshelves (unlike a Kindle!)
Truth to tell, I've still resisted and don't own one of the magic boxes. What I have done though, is download the free Kindle for PC software onto my laptop which means I can now access the wealth of literature that's out there in the virtual world. Okay - so it's not exactly portable but I've had to give up reading on the way to work anyway after I caused that seventy three car pile-up on the A1. (Maybe if I'd been driving an automatic...)
Anyway, I'm glad I've taken the plunge (or dipped my toe in the water at least) because it's allowed me to download The Mill by Mark West.
I've sung Mark's praises on this blog before - he consistently produces high quality writing - and The Mill is another example of that quality.
It's a slow burner - as so many brilliant horror stories are - with the supernatural aspects  first hinted at then gradually introduced as the story progresses. The strength of the story lies in Mark's ability to create real characters that we care about and also to tap into - and describe beautifully - their emotions.
And this is a very emotional story, dealing with loss and grief. It's a tricky thing to pull off well as there's always the risk of laying the angst on too thick and - given that this is a horror story - somehow lessening the emotional impact with an outlandish conclusion.
Mark avoids both those pitfalls in The Mill with consumate skill. The emotional content genuinely is moving and is never mawkish or sentimental and the conclusion fits in perfectly with - and is as moving as - everything that's gone before.
It's a great story and is an excellent example of there more to the horror genre than rampaging zombies. It's a classy piece of writing and you can get it here.

Sunday 9 October 2011

The Burning Soul.

The Burning Soul is the tenth book in the consistently brilliant Charlie Parker series by John Connolly.  It's another convoluted, multi-layered thriller by one of the best writers around at the moment. I've been reading this series since the first novel Every Dead Thing and am in complete admiration at how the quality is not only maintained but seems to improve with every new book.
What I've always liked about the books is the combination of the standard PI thriller with supernatural elements. Those supernatural elements came to the fore in my favourite book in the series The Lovers in which Parker's true nature was revealed.  The next book, The Whisperers somewhat surprisingly drew back from this (although the plot involved a decidedly supernatural object) and The Burning Soul is the same, making me wonder whether John Connolly is worried about becoming too "genre."
That's not to say there isn't a supernatural element to The Burning Soul, it may be half way through the book before it happens but it's definitely worth the wait.
The plot - as in all the other books - twists and turns and there are plenty of surprises along the way. The storyline is convoluted but never confusing.  The dialogue fizzes as normal and Parker's first person narration throws up the usual crop of pithy one-liners. Of one character Parker remarks "Now here was Walsh, looking like a man who has just been roused from a deep sleep in order to rescue an unloved cat from a tree..." Brilliant.
As well as having a great plot, beautifully drawn (and entirely believable) characters - regulars will be pleased to see Angel and Louis making an appearance - the writing itself is of an incredibly high standard. I think this book has the best opening chapter I've ever read. It's clever writing too, at one point I congratulated myself on spotting a mistake, a kind of continuity error - only to discover later in the book that it wasn't a mistake at all and was actually an important plot development. (At which point I congratulated myself again for noting it in the first place).
To recommend The Burning Soul is an entirely academic thing to do given that - like it's predecessors - it's  a firmly established fixture in the best seller lists but, if there is someone out there who hasn't discovered the series yet then I firmly urge them to do so.  Don't start here though, begin with the first book and you'll get enormous pleasure from watching the characters change and develop.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Alt Dead.

Alt Dead is a horror anthology, the first publication from Hersham Horror Books and contains sixteen stories.
Shape Without Form, Shade Without Colour opens the collection and is by Stephen Bacon. It's great to see one of Stephen's stories opening an anthology because - as I've mentioned in an earlier post - he's rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors and this story reinforces that opinion.  Stephen writes in an understated style, there are no frills, bells or whistles (which is in no way a criticism!) and that style ably serves this tale of loss and grief.  It's a slow burner which gradually introduces its supernatural elements, done in such a way as to complememt the air of melancholy the subject matter, and the skillful writing creates.
Till Death Us Do Part by Stuart Young carries through the themes of guilt and loss in a story about Janet who is suffering from Cotard's Syndrome, believing she is dead.  It's an excellent piece of writing that brilliantly captures the frustrations of those having to deal with mental illness. It's a story about loss and grief for sure, but it's also about guilt. The ending is horrifying and heart-breaking.
Everybody Floats is by Gary McMahon and explores that same theme of guilt from another perspective. The imagery in this story is superb - and genuinely unsettling. It's another great story from a brilliant writer (and one I particularly enjoyed as I read it on holiday, on the Northumberland coast, by the sea...)
Last Supper is by Dave Jeffrey and marks the arrival in the anthology of the dreaded Z's. Anyone who's read any of my earlier posts will know zombies aren't my particular cup if tea but I have to say I liked this story a lot - told from the perspective of a helpless victim, the attack of the creatures is genuinely terrifying.
Mr Huxton Goes Camping is by Mark West and tells the story of workaholic Phil Huxton whose life is deteriorating around him because of his dedication to his job. It's a cleverly written story - and one that I immediately re-read on completion just to confirm what I thought had happened. It's sad and poignant and I loved it. Mark's another writer I've "discovered" fairly recently and everything I've read of his has been of a consistently high standard. His story in the Where The Heart Is anthology was probably my favourite of that collection.
Running With The Dead is by Zach Black and continues the impressive start to this anthology.  Like Mark's story that precedes it, it's a moving piece which examines the transition between life and death. The ending is touching and uplifting.
In Bits by R.J. Gaulding changes the tone set by the last two stories in the most extreme way. A private eye story, subtle it ain't. It probably tries too hard to conform to noir conventions in the way it's written and ends up being a wee bit over-written. Probably tries too hard to shock too. There's a twist which works okay but which doesn't significantly improve the story and it ends on a massive clunker of a cliche.
The Clinic by Jan Edwards is a game of two halves.  It starts off really well with an interesting, sinister premise. All goes well till the end where it's revealed that... I won't spoil it for you but my reaction on reading it was nononononono!!!
The Shufflers is a collaboration between Steven Savile and Steve Lockley. Another story with strong, unsettling imagery with the eponymous creatures making their relentless way across snow-covered fields to a remote farm. Creepy stuff and a nice variation on the zombie trope.
The Z Cruise by Katherine Tomlinson is a black-comedic tale of a "Disaster Cruise" which goes horribly wrong when the passengers go ashore to an island inhabited by - well, the Z in the title probably gives that one away and probably explains why I wasn't too impressed by the story either.
Fisher Of Men by Adrian Chamberlin is another story heavy with imagery - this one's literally dripping in it. A carnival float turns out to be a vessel of revenge from beyond the watery grave in a tale that was just too much for my own fairly tolerant suspension of disbelief.
The Men In High Castles by Ian Woodhead has the feel of being an extract from a much longer piece, seemingly set in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world where society is divided between the haves and have-nots. It's an entertaining enough break-in caper but has possibly the most abrupt ending of any story I've ever read.
Unfinished Business by Stuart Hughes is an interesting mix of dreams and reality and tells of ghostly revenge and retribution. It's a nicely constructed story but the last few lines of the story seemed a little rushed - I think they could have been expanded into a longer scene to increase the impact of the final revelation.
A Real Buried Treasure is by Stuart Neild and represented - for me - the low point in the collection. Stuart's bio tells us his previous work includes Giant Killer Eels, a Killer Granny series and a novel about violent, swearing killer gnomes. Which gives a pretty fair indication of where he's coming from with regards to writing serious horror. I finished A Real Buried Treasure and my immediate reaction was WTF! The premise of the story is flimsy at best then becomes more ludicrous, leading to a denoument that's just ridiculous. There's a massive info-dump at one point that sits there like a brick in custard. Not my favourite then, and I'm still not sure how it fits into the theme of the anthology.
Talk Show is by Richard Farren Barber and is a return to form for the anthology. It tells of a late-night talk show DJ, about to broadcast what will be his last show. The reasons why it's his last show become clear as the story progresses - the themes involved are common to a couple of the stories earlier in the collection but this is the best of them, written with a nice sense of irony and creating a believable atmosphere of isolation.
The Jacket by Johnny Mains is the last story in the collection and had me in two minds. The first of those minds really liked the beginning of the story, a period piece that seemed to be developing into an MR James-ish ghost story. The second mind was ultimately disappointed by the conclusion, the story having taken a very different direction indeed, with events becoming just a wee bit too outlandish for my tastes.

On the whole, Alt Dead is a strong collection and one that I'd recommend. Peter Mark May, the editor, dedicates the book to independent authors and I'd heartily agree with that choice.  It's great to see yet another small press coming into existence, providing another outlet for horror writing and I wish him every success with future publications.
The next book is already planned - Alt Zombie.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Dead Bad Things.

Dead Bad Things is the second Thomas Usher book by Gary McMahon, a sequel to Pretty Little Dead Things. This is a Thomas Usher book - it even says so on the front cover, but the novel actually features three main characters, each following their own plot lines - all of which eventually converge - and, of the three, it's Usher who appears the least.
He does enjoy two of the best set-pieces in the book however, a brilliantly written encounter in a cafe in which a connection is made between the parallel realities that make up Usher's world, and a surreal and terrifying trip through an abandoned warehouse.
The other two characters sharing the pages of Dead Bad Things both appeared in the first book, PC Sarah Doherty, embittered after a childhood of abuse from her recently deceased father and Trevor Pumpkiss - the stage psychic discredited by Usher in Pretty Little Dead Things.
The plot centres around the hunt for a child-killer.  This, combined with Pumpkiss's sexual predelictions make this another very dark piece from Gary and it is, at times, a difficult read - it will take you places you really don't want to go.  It's a credit to the author, however, and his skills at writing, that the story never feels gratuitous or exploitative, the horror of what's happening comes across loud and clear - there's no titillation here.
All the McMahon trademarks are here and images and ideas from some of his earlier works coalesce to stunning effect. This isn't meant as a criticism, seeing ideas evolve and form through a writer's work is fascinating.  It's those ideas that draw us to particular authors in the first place, in the same way that we like bands because of their sound - a sound that's distinctive and recognisable because they use the same chord progressions, instrumentation. Anyone who's read Gary's work before will have an expectation of anything new he writes.  Dead Bad Things delivers on those expectations in spadefulls.
My only real criticism of the book is that the conclusion is a wee bit exposition-heavy. Not in the usual way that I dislike exposition i.e. it's handled badly and comes across as clunky - Gary actually does it very well - but that there's too much, too much is given away about Usher's true nature.
There are similarities between the Usher books and John Connolly's excellent Charlie Parker thrillers, both in terms of the subject matter and the way the two series are written - first person perspective from the "heroes" mixed in with third person narrative. It was eight books into Connolly's series before Parker's true nature was revealed, following seven books of tantalising hints. Maybe it's a case of too much too soon with regards to Thomas Usher but we'll see... It's  a minor criticism and certainly won't stop me looking forward to the next book in the series.  There's resolution aplenty in Dead Bad Things but new threads are introduced too.  It's going to be interesting to see where Gary takes the character of Traci with an eye not a why.
It's a tough read, but there's loads of dead good things in Dead Bad Things.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Darker Minds.

Because we - by which I mean myself and Ross Warren - had such a good time with the Dark Minds Anthology (I had such a good time because Ross did all the actual work) we've decided to do it all again and next year we'll be publishing our second book Darker Minds. (Can you see a pattern..?)

We're now open for submissions, to wit:

The most merciful thing in the world... is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

H P Lovecraft

Dark Minds Press is now open for submissions for their second anthology, Darker Minds, to be published early in 2012.

We’re looking for submissions of between two and eight thousand words of dark fiction on the loose theme of “the power of the mind”.

How you choose to interpret this is entirely down to you but we’re looking for tales that will disturb and horrify.

Please e-mail your submissions to formatting your story in .doc or RTF format. Manuscripts should be double spaced, 12pt Times New Roman and use Italics, Bold or Underline as required. Please also supply a brief biography which will be included in the book if you are successful.

Payment is a flat rate of £10, on acceptance by Paypal, plus a contributor’s copy of the book.

Closing date for submissions is January 31st 2012

So please, utilise your own minds, and the hidden depths lurking within them, and send us your stories. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who bought a copy of Dark Minds - without those sales this second project wouldn't have been possible.  If you haven't already got a copy, pop over to Dark Minds Press and order yourself a copy, you won't regret it!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Night of the Demon.

Oh joy.  After years of waiting, one of my favourite films of all time is available on DVD.

The 1957 film adaptation of M R James Casting the Runes is on sale in the UK.

I saw Night of the Demon for the first time way back in the eighties when it was part of a double bill of horror films that BBC2 used to show on a Saturday night. I loved it then and still do, in my opinion it's a classic of horror cinema.

It's a cracking story, brilliantly filmed by Jacques Tourneur (who made the equally as impressive Cat People) and containing great performances, with Dana Andrews excellent as the sceptical Dr John Holden and Niall MacGinnis as the villain of the piece Dr Julian Karswell.  It obviously had some kind of influence on me as Karswell is my chosen user name for the various forums I inhabit and my own website is Casting Runes...

There's some nice touches of humour in there (I'm thinking the seance scene) and the special effects are actually pretty good.  There was some disagreement between director and producer as to whether or not to actually show the Demon. The film would have worked had they not - and added a touch of ambiguity - but I'm glad they did decide to show it as they managed to create one of the truly iconic images in horror.

If you haven't seen it then try to (there's no excuse now!) - you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday 6 September 2011


 All ordered...

Can't wait...

Like Christmas come early...

Saturday 3 September 2011

The Eighth Black Book of Horror.

The Eighth Black Book of Horror is published by Mortbury Press and contains thirteen stories selected by Charles Black. Below is my review of the stories making up the collection which DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Quieta non Movere by Reggie Oliver opens the collection and is yet another classy piece of writing from a writer who (to my shame) is new to me but who has produced some of the best short stories I've read in some time. (See my reviews for Bite Sized Horror and The Ha of Ha). This story bears some similarities to The Brighton Redemption which appears in Bite Sized Horror concerning as it does a cleric investigating supernatural goings-on written in the style of a period piece.  This is a good old fashioned scary story, the type to tell around a roaring fire ona dark winter's night.  there's no post-modern irony here, it's a traditional tale told in a traditional manner. I love horror that's grounded in reality, that holds a mirror up to society, but every now and then it's a pleasure to wallow in the classic traditions of horror literature.  I loved it. I've been so inpressed with Reggie Oliver's writing that I've ordered his new collection, Mrs Midnight and Other Stories.

The Last Coach Trip is by David A. Riley. Another author who's new to me, David's story, also in Bite Sized Horror, was so well written that it convinced me that there is still potential for good quality zombie stories.  This is another entertaining story about a day trip taken by a group of pensioners from a social club. One of them turns up late and appers out of sorts.  You'll probably guess why but the final twist in the story throws new light on everything that's gone before. It's a clever story and one I enjoyed very much.

Home By The Sea is by Stephen Bacon who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. From mundane beginnings firmly rooted in reality - an ex-con heads north to Scarborough in an attempt at rehabilitation - the story moves into what first appears to be a standard "Creepy Old House" trope before reaching a climax that is genuinely unsettling. There's an image Stephen presents that's lodged in my subconscious which is truly disturbing - you'll know it when you read it. There's a nice touch of ambiguity too, which is always a good thing. Top notch stuff.

Boys Will Be Boys by David Williamson is up next. Have to say I have a few problems with this one.  If stories involving children genitally mutilating and then killing their parents is your cup of tea then this is the story for you. Gore and violence have always been part of horror and can be effective when handled properly. I feel this story was so extreme because it was trying to shock - trying too hard perhaps. The style in which it's written is emotionless, matter of fact, faux-naive and this somehow made it worse.  It's written that way to (I guess) represent the thinking of the kid in the story (who has to check the internet to find out what emotions are) and the title makes up the last line of the story, employed with heavy irony. It didn't work for me - maybe I dislike it so much because this review makes me sound like a bloody Daily Mail reader.

Behind The Screen is by Gary Fry. I liked the concept behind the conclusion of the story, the subject of the story watching helplessly from afar via webcam as terrible things happen to his family but felt that having the villain of the piece a real monster instead of just a deranged human being lessened the impact somewhat.  Also, having the main character such a sleaze-ball made empathy/sympathy difficult - his situation at the end of the story might have been even more effective if he'd been a happily married man.

I liked The Other Tenant  by Mark Samuels and felt it shared similarities with The Hack - a story by James Cooper in his collection The Beautiful Red.

Tok is by Paul Finch and a story I enjoyed a lot more than his contribution to the Death Rattles book.  I have a suspicion it's a story that may originally have been planned for his One Monster Is Never Enough collection as it's a story written around a real (!) creature of myth and folklore. Aside from some doubts over some of the logic in the story - following the murders of women on three consecutive nights, in order to protect his mother a man leaves his wife with her? - it's an entertaining read with a killer ending.  Being sad, I looked up the creature at the centre of the story in Wikipedia.  If only the residents of the housing estate under threat had done the same they'd have discovered they'd have been perfectly safe with just a few bricks...

Little Pig is by Anna Taborska and tells a Sophie's Choice-esque tale of the Russian occupation of Poland. The story is book-ended by two sections set in the present day which I feel would have worked better as just a single prologue.  You know when someone tells you a joke and finishes by saying "do you get it?" - I kinda feel that's what the epilogue does in this story.

Casualties of the System by Tina and Tony Rath is an odd little story which has me wondering how it qualified for a place in a collection of horrror stories.  It's told in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style and involves a radical new way of dealing with young offenders. Entertaining enough but a little too whimsical for my taste.

How The Other Half Dies is by John Llewellyn Probert and features a couple of characters whose smugness makes them instantly dislikeable.  The exposition fairy waves her magic wand fairly early on in the piece and pretty much gives away what's going to happen when the couple discover an intruder in their house.

Music In The Bone by Marion Pitman tells of an enigmatic musician with some interestingly manufactured instruments.  The title aside, there are enough clues all the way through this story to let you know what it's all about so the ending will come as no surprise.

The Coal Man is by Thana Niveau and tells of the present day repercussions of childhood rivalry turned tragedy.  It's an effective Bogeyman story, nicely told.

Mea Culpa by Kate Farrell provides a latin title for the last story to mirror that of the first.  I liked this a lot, a well written first person narrative which provides a fascinating character study.  There are a couple of twists at the end which work well, though even without them this would have been a strong finish to - in my opinion - a mixed bag of stories.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Nowhere Hall.

"Ache Ron, do you... AcheRon." Words that mysteriously appear on a mirror of the Vestibule Hotel, and words that hold the key as to what lies at the heart of Cate Gardner's Nowhere Hall.
This is the third in the series of chapbooks produced by Spectral Press - high quality publications featuring the work of the best names currently working in dark fiction.
Following stories from Gary McMahon and Gary Fry - both of which I enjoyed very much - Nowhere Hall tells the story of Ron Spence who, at the beginning of the story is hell-bent (or Hell-bound..?) on committing suicide by stepping out into traffic. A change of heart leads him to instead enter the Vestibule Hotel wherein awaits a host of bizarre experiences and flashes of his past life.
Ron is confused by what's happening around him and so too is the reader - but in a good way! There's a lot of symbolism here - much of it, I have to say, lost on me - but that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the story.  Just go with the flow and let the imagery wash over you and you'll have a great time reading this. 
What's it all about?  You'll have to judge for yourself but the word-play I quoted at the start of this review provides the answers in my head.
It's a beautifully written piece and absolutely maintains the high standards already set by Spectral Press's previous publications.  I'd obviously recommend it but to do so would be academic as all copies have already sold out. It's great to see horror so well served by a publisher with such high stanards of quality. Continued success seems assured for Spectral - which is great news indeed.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Black Static 24

A really strong issue this one - I flew through the stories a. because I enjoyed them so much and b. because they're all really short.  Perfect length in fact, there's nothing worse than a short story that out-stays its welcome (except maybe a novel that does the same, although there's more likelihood of giving up on a novel part way through -  I'll stick with a short to the bitter end).  The articles were as entertaining as ever, my favourite being Stephen Volk's Coffinmaker's Blues - I always find names a problem when I'm writing and frequently chicken out completely and don't use them. (Or I'll sometimes use names that are clever in-jokes - or at least what I imagine to be clever in-jokes). As for the stories:
Dermot by Simon Bestwick is first up and quite an opener it is. The story is cleverly written, raising questions as to what exactly is going on (who is this Dermot bloke? What exactly is Special Projects?) before revealing all - as is appropriate - at the climax.  And what a climax!  From mundane beginnings - man gets on bus - to something quite fantastic (in all senses of the word).  Dermot has special skills, skills he shares with the police for the "good" of mankind.  Those skills come at a price however - and the discovery of what that is provides a genuinely horrific and hard-hitting end to the story.  I'm new to Simon Bestwick's writing but have been impressed by what I have read - this story and his contribution to Death Rattles.
A Summer's Day by K. Harding Stalter is up next, and takes the form of a stream of consciousness (or perhaps unconsciousness) from the mind of what appears to be a human guinea pig for neurological "interventions".  Areas of his brain are probed to see what reponses are induced - all in front of an audience of students. There's no context given as to why this is happening - although the implication is that he is a criminal rather than a patient.  It's this lack of context that makes the story so strong however - given that these are internal thoughts being described it's hard to know what's real and what's being induced by the insertion of a range of probes into his brain.  As to the climax, it's open to any number of interpretations - which can sometimes be frustrating but works wonderfully in this story.
Recently Used is by Ramsey Campbell, a writer whose work made up a major proportion of my reading in the eighties and nineties, providing a more understated counterpoint to the (albeit enjoyable) excesses of Clive Barker.  I have such admiration for him that I was a bit daunted at the prospect of reviewing one of his stories ("I am not worthy...") This is, however, a beautifully written story - an examination of loss and grief.  It's incredibly sad and the ending is really powerful, offering little in the way of hope. Scary and moving - it doesn't get any better than that.  The best story in this edition.
Still Life is by Simon McCaffery and is a story I enjoyed very much.  Bizarrely enough, a while back I wrote a story about the type of creature that features in this tale and also used the Gulf War as a kind of backdrop to it.  I'm glad to see that Simon had more success with his story with regards to publication (mine currently languishes in the files of Triskaideka Press, awaiting the inevitable rejection slip...) as it is a very enjoyable piece of writing, a nice piece of gothic horror with a modern slant.
How The 60s Ended By Tim Lees is the last story and unfortunately - in my opinion - represents a fall at the last hurdle in terms of the quality of the stories in this edition. Which sounds a bit harsh - and probably is.  I didn't enjoy it as much as the other stories mainly because of the style it was written in - I don't have any problem with first person narratives but this one was written in a very staccato style, lots of short sentences, almost like bullet points and didn't flow very well. It's a melancholy story - as befits its subject matter - but I'm not entirely sure what it's doing in a horror magazine as it's a real stretch to classify it in the genre.
All in all though, a really strong issue and further proof that Black Static really is the best of its kind around. (Preferred the old covers though...)

Friday 5 August 2011

Death Rattles.

Death Rattles is published by Gray Friar Press and is a collection of six stories supposedly based on a television series of the same name that aired on Channel 4 in 1984.

Ah yes – Death rattles – I remember it well… Except I don’t. As I’m sure the majority of horror fans won’t. It was massively controversial at the time (apparently), pushing the boundaries of taste as far as they would go. So controversial was it, in fact, that the tapes were destroyed…

Can’t remember that either.

Fortunately, the six authors involved in this collection did manage to catch an episode (albeit in circumstances that made the viewing experience fuzzy and hazy…) and, on the back of those memories have recreated the episodes as the stories that make up this collection.

Each story is introduced by the author’s recollections of their viewing experience. These are really entertaining – Simon Bestwick’s friend actually had copies of the series but – in a bizarre twist of fate that seems to surround every aspect of these programmes – he’s arrested and the police – yes the police! – destroy the tapes, thereby losing any real proof that the programme ever existed…

The collection has an introduction by Stephen Volk – no stranger to controversial TV drama, having managed to convince a hefty proportion of the population that his Ghostwatch was a real outside broadcast – which is again thoroughly entertaining, charting the history of the programme and its creator, Dennis Shapiro, a tale so bizarre it’s almost hard to believe…

This series was so controversial, so the introduction goes, because it showed the viewer trauma, in a gritty, social realism style. Strange then that the first story (or “Episode 1”) is Scattered Ashes by John Llewellyn Probert, a story of revenge from beyond the grave that would actually be more at home in the “Hammer House of Horror” series which everyone remembers. It’s a fairly classic gothic horror story which would hardly cause the controversy it apparently engendered at the time.

Next up is Seen and not Heard by Gary Fry. Another revenge from beyond the grave story that culminates in a scene worthy of a 1980’s video nasty. I feel the ending comes out of left field somewhat, not gelling with what’s gone on before which is actually an effective psychological chiller. We’ve all had dreams where we’ve been unable to speak, make a noise when there’s something we desperately need to tell someone and this concept is neatly turned on its head in this story where it’s the ghosts who are silent –something that adds to their menace.

Antlers by Thana Niveau is a story that starts off with the classic set up of a woman alone in a house with a weird bloke. Events turn horrible as might be expected but the way in which they develop is totally bizarre. The final images are shocking but I get the impression that this was an image Thana Niveau (sorry – Dennnis Shapiro) had in mind and that a story was clagged onto it.

The Children of Moloch by Simon Bestwick is by far the strongest story in the book and I can imagine if it was actually broadcast as a TV show the attendant controversy and outrage would be as described. It’s a hard hitting story of institutionalised abuse – and its consequences. It doesn’t pull any punches and is a “difficult” read – but an extremely powerful piece of writing.

Cow Castle by Paul Finch is the longest story in the book (presumably the original TV episodes were of varying running times) and one that I found to be a wee bit too long. It’s always difficult reading a story in which none of the characters are sympathetic and this was certainly the case here. There’s a fair bit of sexual content in here and it’s unfortunately presented in, at times, fairly gratuitous fashion. I was disappointed in it because I’d enjoyed One Monster Is Never Enough by the same author. The climax (!) of the story is a long time coming (!) but by the time it arrived I was so fed up with the characters I didn’t care what happened to them.

His Father’s Son by Gary McMahon is the last story in the book and tells of an unfaithful husband paying for his sins in the most terrible of ways. It features themes of guilt and retribution which are common to many of Gary’s stories.

It’s a strong finish to a collection I was ultimately a bit disappointed in. Whether or not Death Rattles truly did exist isn’t important (the stories mention the internet and DVDs but I guess that’s because they’re modern day “re-imaginings” of stories written in the ‘80s) – it’s a good concept for pulling together a group of tales but it’s unfortunate that I found the introductions more entertaining (and possibly more creative) than the stories themselves.

Sunday 31 July 2011

The Concrete Grove.

I can't tell you how nice it was to walk into Waterstones, head downstairs to their Horror section and find not one, but two copies of Gary McMahon's new book. (An event made all the sweeter by the fact that the copy I pre-ordered from Amazon ages ago still hasn't arrived). Gary is destined for great things so it was great to see tangible evidence of his first steps into the "big time."

The Concrete Grove is a housing estate in the North East of England that has become home to Lana and her daughter Hailey. It's home too to something much older and darker, something that is breaking through into the reality of the present day with unimaginable cosequences. (A theme explored in one of his earlier novels Rain Dogs).

Unimaginable, that is, unless you're Gary McMahon who does a superb job of combining the ancient supernatural elements with the contemporary horrors of modern life.

Anyone who's read How To Make Monsters will already be familiar with Lana, Hailey and their nemesis loan shark Monty Bright as they appeared in one of the stories in that collection called Owed. That story appears within The Concrete Grove, this time used as a pivotal scene that acts as a catalyst for the denoument of the novel. Also appearing in Owed were the Slitten - the role hinted at for them in the short story fully fleshed out in the novel.

A strength of all Gary McMahon's writing is his ability to create fully believable characters and this skill is displayed in spades in The Concrrete Grove. These are real people he's describing and even the "good guys" are flawed, not everything about them is sympathetic and the arcs they follow are dramatic but completely believable.

There's some startling imagery in here (plus some gore) and I particularly liked the use of hummingbirds as the connection between Hailey and the forces lurking in the Grove. There's plenty mythology around these birds in connection with the soul (does it really weigh 21 grams?) and they are used to very good effect in the story not least by providing a vivid contrast between something so beautiful and yet at the same time sinister.

This is a great book, one I enjoyed very much and firmly establishes Gary McMahon's position as one of the best writers of horror fiction currently working. I vey much look forward to the next two books in this planned trilogy and also to the next Thomas Usher story, Dead Bad Things.

I strongly recommend The Concrete Grove.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies.

The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies is edited by DF Lewis and published by Megazanthus Press and is a compilation of twenty stories with a common (loose) theme of containing a horror anthology in its plot, thus allowing a nice play on words to provide the title of this collection.

The stories showcase a wide variety of styles and interpretations of the theme. Perhaps the most interesting of these interpretations is Tree Ring Anthology by Daniel Ausema that uses the pattern of rings in a tree trunk to chart significant events over the course of many years - including a nuclear holocaust and what appears to be the appearance of extra-terrestrial life forms. It's a clever story, beautifully written and even manages a sting in the tail.

A few of the stories left me cold and/or wondering what they were about (not something I'm afraid to admit to!) and a couple were a wee bit too long, almost approaching novella length. A couple (Tears of the Mutant Jesters by Rhys Hughes and Paper Cuts by Nick Jackson) veer a little too close to surrealism for my tastes. Couching a story in a bizarre framework tends to detract from any horror - which is, in my opinion, enhanced by basing the story in reality. Two stories that do this extremely effectively are Horror Stories For Boys by Rachel Kendall and Midnight Flight by Joel Lane, the former an excellent examination of the consequences of childhood trauma.

The two best stories of the collection for me are The Rediscovery of Death by Mike O'Driscoll which uses the classic trope of a haunted/cursed book but does so in a stylish way in a beautifully paced story that leads to a climax that - if not entirely unexpected - is extremely satisfying. Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver follows that story and is my favourite of the collection. A slow burning story it uses a first person perspective from a not entirely sympathetic narrator and conjures up images in its climax that are truly unsettling.

I have to give an honourable mention to Clayton Stealback for his story The Writer. I've known Clayton for a few years now and have enjoyed everything he's written. He very kindly asked me to have a look at the first draft of The Writer before he submitted it which I was more than happy to do. A requirement of submitting for this anthology was to have had a story reviewed by Des Lewis and Clayton qualified because of his story in the Dark Minds anthology. Because of my involvement with the story I feel I can't give an unbiased review of it. It is a cracker though. Really, it is.

All in all this is a strong collection with enough variety of style and subject matter to appeal to the majority of readers. A couple of typos aside (Sophia Lauren? and a couple of instances of words meant to be italicised left underlined as per the original manuscript) it's a high quality product with an amazing cover image.

Whilst not every story worked for me I would still highly recommend The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

What was that about? Don't know but it was great.

Since I've started up this blog and have begun reviewing stories I realise I've put myself in a position where I could make a complete prat of myself by completely mis-interpreting the author's intentions for a particular story. Undaunted, I'll give it my best shot anyway.
Ambiguity's a great thing, something I love in stories. Make the reader work, make them think - it's a big part of the enjoyment in reading a story (or listening to a song, watching a film for that matter) for me. Patting yourself on the back for unlocking the hidden meaning is always a good (if somewhat smug) thing to do. Chances are you've gotten it wrong but hey - it works for you.
Open endings are great too - stopping the story before its final resolution is an extremely effective device, again, it engages the reader's imagination, lets them fill in the blanks. Some people find it frustrating I know, usually the same people who dislike ambiguity and want to know EXACTLY WHAT WAS HAPPENING. Some of them even get angry. Bless. God forbid they should use their imagination when they're reading, put in a little effort. I loved Inception because it was a cracking story, brilliantly made but also made me think. And the end was perfect.
Anyway, this is really just a long-winded way of introducing the best music video ever made (IMHO) which is "Just" by Radiohead. Been around for ages but still as brilliant as the first time I saw it and went "what..? No..!" before realising just how brilliant the ending was.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Unspoken Water 1.

Unspoken Water is a collection of poems and short stories published by Red Raw Press and edited by Ian Hunter presented in chapbook format.

First up, I have to say I feel somewhat out of my depth attempting to review the poems contained in this collection. The phrase "I may not know much about it, but I know what I like" is entirely applicable here (and what I do like in my extremely limited exposure to the world of poetry is the work of Simon Armitage and John Hegley). Any form of art is about creating an emotional response and, like painting, poetry has more leeway to be abstract, to work on the subconscious, engendering that response by presenting random images and concepts. Of the four poems in this collection, the most effective for me was The Invisible by Kristine Ong Muslim, creating images of arcane rituals and dealings with dark forces.

As for the stories:

For Shame of Doing Wrong by Joel Lane opens the collection and tells the story of the aftermath of the breakdown of a relationship. This is a short but complex (perhaps perplexing is more accurate) story that on first reading had me wondering what exactly was going on. Subsequent readings did little to clarify the matter. This is in no way a criticism - I enjoy stories that make me think and I'm a sucker for a hefty dose of ambiguity. The theory that the true author of a story is actually the reader is one with merit - forming your own ideas of what a story is about brings its own sense of satisfaction. Is this a ghost story? Maybe. Still not sure who the ghost is though...

Pull My Finger by Gary McMahon is a more straightforward read and is a chilling story from (in my opinion) the best writer of horror fiction currently working. Old people can be incredibly scary to children and this story plays on those fears superbly. It's also about the fear of death and the scene where the young boy goes to see the body of his Grand-dad laid out in his coffin is incredibly effective - not least because it was something I experienced when I was young and the custom was still prevalent. Needless to say I didn't experience what happens in the story but it was still an un-nerving experience for me, truth to tell it terrified me. Anyone who's read Gary's All Your Gods Are Dead will no doubt recall a particularly horrible scene in a toilet - there's another one here that's equally as disturbing. It's another great story from Gary McMahon and is my favourite of the collection.

Little One is by Steve Rasnic Tem and tells of a section of society known as "Changers" - people with the ability to metamorphose. The story reads like a snapshot of a much bigger piece and I don't know if this is actually an extract from a longer narrative. It does work as a stand-alone piece though and though it may hint at a bigger picture there's enough information in the story for the reader to hold onto, there's the suggestion that not all Changers are comfortable with their unique powers, perghaps even a prejudice towards them from society as a whole.

The House On Anderson Mesa by Jeffery Scott Sims confused me at first written as it is in first person but using language and phrasing that seems formal and arcane - I honestly thought this was a period piece when I began reading it so it was a bit of a shock to realise it's actually set in present day. The style continues all the way through the story and to be honest I found it a wee bit jarring. It's in essence a haunted house story set in the desert around Flagstaff, with the story slipping into horror cliche occasionally. The ending is probably not as much a surprise as was probably intended and I found the last line to be... well, clunky.

On The Beach by Andrew Hook completes the collection. "When people see me, they see a disturbed young man" the narrator tells us early on in the story, a pretty strong indication of his unreliability with respect to the tale he's telling. It's a disturbing stream of consciousness from the mind of a man with a fixation on death - particularly water-related death - which may be as a result of a relationship interrupted by the attempted suicide of his partner. As with For The Shame of Doing Wrong, it's a story that's thought-provoking and open to interpretation. It's a strong bookend though for a very good collection of stories.