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.