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.

Drunk on the Moon.

I've never gotten into Tom Waits. I know I should, just so I can prove that I really "know my stuff" and can impress others who take their appreciation of music VERY SERIOUSLY. Trouble is - as much as I've tried - I just can't listen to Mr Waits without thinking that he's putting a silly voice on when he's singing and that somehow prevents me appreciating the undoubted skill and artistry behind his compositions. I do like Radiohead though...

Anyway, I may not get off on his music but I do know that one of his songs is Drunk on the Moon - a title shared by a new short story by Paul D Brazill. It's main character is ex-Police Detective Roman Dalton, now a Private Investigator - who just happens to be a werewolf too.

The story is a beautifully written piece of noir, employing the sardonic first person narrative to great effect. If I'm being picky, Brazill uses the phrase "a murder of crows" twice in the story and describes the moon as gibbous the same number of times - and with the story being so short the second appearance of both jarred a little. This is a minor quibble though as the writing throughout is of the highest quality, mixing humour and horror extremely effectively.

This appears to be the first in a series of stories and it does read like that - the "origins" story if you like, introducing the character and giving some back-story. There aren't any real twists and turns (something I kinda expect with noir/PI stories) - the plot mainly describes Dalton's unique way of dealing with situations - but hopefully there'll be more of this in future stories. The real joy of this story isn't so much the plot as the language itself - it's the journey, not the destination if you will.

I enjoyed Drunk on the Moon very much (not least because it contains my favourite Absinthe joke) and I look forward to further stories in the series.

Monday 11 July 2011

Bite Sized Horror.

Bite Sized Horror is a selection of six short stories selected by Johnny Mains and published by Obverse Books.

The Brighton Redemption by Reggie Oliver opens the collection and is a pastiche of a Victorian ghost story, a series of extracts from the journals of the Rt. Rev. Cyprian Bourne-Webb, on his first post-ordination appointment to Brighton. It's difficult to imagine writing a period piece not in the style of the time but it takes a good writer to pull it off - it's too easy to fall into the trap of showing off, letting the reader know just how much research ahs been done in the pursuit of authenticity and somehow losing sight of the basic need to tell the story, style over substance in effect. That is most certainly not the case with The Brighton Redemption and Reggie Oliver has created a story that is full of atmosphere, strongly drawn characters and some genuinely chilling images. Even the dream sequences - all too often a horror cliche, an easy way out - are effective (very effective in fact). It's a strong start to the collection, a story I enjoyed very much.

The Between by Paul Kane tells the story of Joe whose day starts badly at his divorce lawyers then gets a whole lot worse when he becomes trapped in a lift. From fairly mundane beginnings the story changes direction completely once Joe (and the small group with him) become trapped. I'm not too sure about this one - the main body of the story is a roller-coaster adventure, a bit like a seventies disaster movie (who lives, who dies..?) but then at its conclusion it becomes more profound. I liked the ending more than the rest of the story leading up to it but don't think it works overall - introducing the concept of "The Between" (albeit an interesting one) doesn't sit comfortably with all the narrative driven stuff that precedes it.

His Pale Blue Eyes by David A Riley is the third story in the collection and - truth to tell - had me groaning inwardly as I started to read it as the dreaded Z-word made its appearance in the third sentence. I'm not too sure where my anti-zombie prejudice came from but it's possiby that I think - as monsters go - they're fairly limited in their horror potential. They eat you - that's pretty much it, the horror is generated from attempting to gross the reader out, not something that does it for me. Also, they seem to be "flavour of the month" right now and that always runs the risk of quality plummeting as writers collectively jump on the bandwagon.

I'm pleased to say, however, that I really liked David's story. It approaches the zombie apocalypse trope from a slightly different direction, focussing on the human survivors, and in particular a young girl called Allison. The zombies are there right enough (plus some survivors trapped on a store roof - ? a nod to Dawn of the Dead) but the real horror of the story comes from the actions of humans, not the shambling flesh-eaters. The title of the story is its last line too - and its a very, very effective one at that.

The Unquiet Bones by Marie O'Regan had me groaning as I started reading it too - a couple's car breaks down in a remote location outside a spooky old building. Unfortunately, unlike the previous story, I groaned all the way through this one as the cliches just kept on coming. Cliches and iconography are okay in small measure, they're familiar to all readers of horror fiction and can help cement the template of the story - they're almost reassuring sometimes - but to construct a whole story around them, and not bring anything new to them, is something I find disappointing. This story also contains a lot of another bug-bear of mine, having the evil creature/monster/nemesis spouting a load of exposition. "Yes, I'm going to kill you and wreak havoc in your world but first I'm going to tell you a little about myself..." I'd like to think the story was an exercise in post-modern irony but I'm not entirely convinced...

The Rookery by Johnny Mains is the shortest story in the collection but in my opinion is vying for consideration as the best of them all. Of all the stories it's the one most grounded in reality - and is all the more effective for that. Roger is a gamekeeper whose life has become one of misery, damaged by his divorce. His only solace comes from the bottle or seeing his son Sean. The description of Roger, his life, his views is brilliantly done and it's all too apparent that things aren't going to end well. The conclusion may be expected but Mains delivers it with a panache and flair in a scene that is totally unexpected given the tone and style of what has gone before.

The Carbon Heart by Conrad Williams is the story of MacCreadle, investigating the disappearance of Jenny's father. In the same way that The Brighton Redemption followed the conventions of style for a Victorian ghost story, so too does The Carbon Heart, written in first person and having a noir-esque feel to it. The erupting volcano in Iceland provides plenty of atmospheric background to the story - both literally and metaphorically and I think this is my favourite story in the book. The scene where MacCreadle interviews the driver involved in a car accident is reminiscent of a similar passage in Gary McMahon's Pretty Little Dead Things. It's a powerful story in which the strangeness and supernatural elements creep up on you slowly and has an ending which puts everything you've read previously into a whole new perspective.

All in all this is a strong collection with a good variety of subject matter and styles.

Monday 4 July 2011

Small Is Beautiful.

Thank God for the small press, they’re doing a great job of keeping horror alive (or undead..?) for those of us who love the genre. Trips to Waterstones or Smiths can be fairly dispiriting when you look at the Horror section – if they even have one – a couple of shelves if you’re lucky, dominated by King and Koontz with very little else on show. Not that I have anything against King and Koontz (well, not King anyway…) but being spoilt for choice generally isn’t a problem you’ll encounter there.

A terrible state of affairs? Well, maybe. For anyone dreaming of making a living as a writer, horror probably isn’t the way to go but I think the small press set-up has a lot of advantages, not least of which being that they’re run by enthusiasts – people who love horror, care deeply about it and want to see quality work published. And that’s the key word – quality – both in terms of the physical product itself and also the writing contained within. Look at the Spectral Press chapbooks – they truly are things of beauty.

Given that I’m involved in a small press I’m obviously going to be biased but I think as a general principle it’s the small independents in any field who reliably produce the quality stuff, and I’m happy that horror writing is in such good hands.

Won’t be giving up the day job any time soon though…

Saturday 2 July 2011

Ill At Ease.

Ill At Ease is an e-chapbbok containing three stories from Stephen Bacon, Mark West and Neil Williams. Neil is new to me but I've read stories from Stephen and Mark before and been mightily impressed so I was very much looking forward to this mini anthology.

I'm glad to say that I wasn't disappointed at all by this collection and here are my thoughts on the stories:

(May contain spoilers).

Waiting For Josh by Stephen Bacon opens the collection and is a story about coming to terms with the past and how guilty secrets can - over the course of time - slowly destroy people. Stephen states in his notes that he wanted the story to be one of psychological suspense rather than out and out horror and he's succeeded admirably in this. Although the story concerns a London based journalist returning to Scarborough to visit his seriously ill friend Dale, it is two characters who appear only briefly in the story that carry the emotional punch - Dale's mother, an indirect victim of the events that led to her son's physical deterioration and Mr Landsmoor, a lonely grief-stricken man and another victim of the tragedy that is the core of the story.

It's a beautifully written story - the description of a bedroom in the Landsmoor house is spot on and it's nice to see Northern England portrayed in glowing terms rather than a cliched "it's grim up North" kind of way. The story is sad and moving and the atmosphere it achieves is one of melancholy. It's a story of guilt and remorse for sure. Redemption? Maybe. There is atonement for past sins here but (in a similar way to Ian McEwan's book) it's in reality too little, too late. The damage has already been done.

This is a strong start to the collection (and is in my opinion the best of the three stories). My only reservation was that it was similar in tone to the story Stephen had published in "Where The Heart Is" - which I'd read quite recently. A minor criticism though as this story (and the other one) are in no way diminished by those similarities.

Come See My House In The Pretty Town by Mark West is another story in which the sins of the past have profound consequences on the present. David is invited by his old friend Simon to spend a weekend in the village of Hoelzli where he's recently moved to escape the rat race. With its duckpond, red phone boxes and thatched cottages, it's the embodiment of "ye quaint olde English village" and as such will immediately set the alarm bells ringing in the head of all dedicated readers of horror.

This is a nicely paced story which drip feeds information to the reader and culminates in a final reveal which serves to enhance the events taking place.

Funfairs and carnivals are fertile ground for horror writers and the Hoelzli Fair is used to good effect here. I share a coulrophobia with Mark so anything involving clowns works for me. (They truly are evil, how anyone could think they're suitable entertainment for children is quite beyond me...) The passage describing their first appearance is beautifully written - deeply sinister with an undercurrent of threat.

I had an idea where the story was heading as I was reading it which turned out to be correct, although the specifics of it I got wrong. Agian, this is in no way a criticism as the story is a cracking read, fast paced with twists and turns while at the same time allowing really good characters to be drawn. As Simon says at the beginning of the story, "... this is some adventure".

Closer Than You Think by Neil Williams is the only story of the three to use a supernatural theme. Horror is most effective when grounded in reality, set against the mundane and so it is here - it's a story of a haunting, although it's not a place that's haunted, rather a child's car seat.

There are some effective chills in the story and a nice, almost in-joke about Korean ghosts (which got me bang to rights as the picture I was forming in my head was definitely Grudge/Ringu inspired!) My only real criticism is that I would have preferred a little more build up to the creepiness. Obviously this isn't always easy in the short story format but it's apparent from the scene right at the beginning where Dave retrieves the seat from a skip that there's something wrong with it. (And raises an internal logic question - which I generally hate doing, preferring to go with the story and suspending disbelief - as to why the previous owner didn't just set light to the bloody thing instead of chucking it in a skip).

It's a good end to a great collection. The first two stories are perhaps more thematically linked but all three work well together, highlighting the horror (supernatural or not) to be found in the mundane and it proves an excellent showcase for the talent to be found in the current British horror writing scene. Highly recommended.