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.