Thursday 13 December 2012

2012 review.

With a couple of exceptions I've enjoyed everything I've read this year so it wasn't a straightforward decision working out which were my favourite works of fiction of 2012. The bulk of my reading was short stories so it seems appropriate to start with that format for this review.
Choosing the single best story I read this year was the most difficult decision considering the size of the field of competitors. Before proclaiming the "winner" (there are no awards associated with this, simply my undying appreciation) there are a couple of honourable mentions to be made, two of which come from the pen of Gary McMahon, a great writer who has proven over the last few years that quantity and quality are not necessarily inversely proportional to each other, in his case quite the opposite applies. The first is in his collection Tales of The Weak and The Wounded and is Diving Deep, the second from the recently released To Usher, The Dead and is The Good, Light People - both stories transcended the words on the page, addressed profound issues in a way that left me breathless, moved in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on, absolutely the best way to be moved. Stephen Bacon's Daddy Giggles was a superbly written story that addressed its dark subject matter in a non-expoitative way and which brought home the tragedy and horror in a suupremely effective way. My favourite individual story of the year though has to be Ray Cluley's Night Fishing  from Shadows and Tall Trees 3. I waxed lyrical about the story in an earlier review here and can say that I'm still as impressed by the story now as I was then.
With respect to single author collections, kudos again to Gary McMahon's Tales of The Weak and The Wounded which I think is his best collection since How To Make Monsters, and a nod of appreciation to Conrad Williams' Born With Teeth, an astounding collection of literary horror stories where I gained as much pleasure from the writing itself as the plots and narratives. My favourite collection however -and the single most enjoyable reading experience of the year, has to be Stephen Bacon's stunning debut collection Peel Back The Sky. My full review is here and I once more urge you to buy this book which displays the considerable talents of a writer who is destined for great things.
Visions Fading Fast was edited by Gary McMahon and was a collection of novellas that displayed how effective a medium it can be. Standout for me was Nathan Ballingrud's Wild Acre, another story where the tone and writing transcended the words on the page. Spectral Press goes from strength to strength, their line of Spectral Visions novellas have so far been of the highest quality and until very recently, John Llewellyn Probert's The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine was top of the list for my favourite novella of 2012.
That was until a week or so ago when Mike O'Driscoll's TTA Press novella Eyepennies came through the letterbox. This is an outstanding piece of writing. To describe it as a contemplation of life, death and music kinda works but this is so much more. It's beautifully written and the non-linear structure reflects perfectly the confusion within the narrator's mind. It's as near perfect a piece of writing I've read, intensely disturbing and yet somehow moving. Read it if you possibly can.
The decision on my favourite novel was a close run thing too. That man McMahon crops up yet again but I'm sneakily disqualifying his two Concrete Grove novels as they're part of a trilogy that kicked off in 2011. That said, Silent Voices and Beyond Here Lies Nothing are wonderful books, excellent on their own merits but the trilogy as a whole truly deserves to be called a classic. Runner up for best novel - though only just - is Adam Nevill's Last Days. This is quite possibly the scariest book I've ever read. Hardened as I am to horror stories (or so I like to think) after 30 odd years of reading them, this book still manged to scare the shit out of me. My review is here. (Pigs will fly, I thought, before a book manages to scare me again).
The best novel of the year in my opinion however, is Simon Bestwick's tour de force of horror The Faceless. This book pressed so many of my buttons it was scary. Actually it was scary, bloody scary. Great writing, great story. My review is here.
It's been a good year for horror. Although it may still be struggling for acceptance in the "mainstream" the quality of the writing produced by the many small (and medium-sized) presses is second to none. Despite the onslaught of e-books, many publishers are still  producing high quality products (hard copies if you will), notably Pendragon Press and the aforementioned Spectral Press. The chapbook is making a bit of a comeback, another pleasing development. (My personal favourite of 2012 being Mark West's What Gets Left Behind - Mark's another writer I hope is destined for great things next year).
Here's to an even better 2013.
Merry Christmas!

Monday 3 December 2012

To Usher, The Dead

To Usher, The Dead is a beautifully produced book from Pendragon Press and is a collection of stories from Gary McMahon featuring his character Thomas Usher, the conflicted hero of the novels Pretty Little Dead Things and Dead Bad Things.
The stories, fourteen in all, take place prior to the events that unfold in the two novels, a kind of "Usher, the early years" if you will, and provide a back-story for the character, tracing his development and charting the changes he undergoes as his psychic abilities uncover the dark truths hidden behind the veneer of reality. It's true abyss-staring stuff here and yes, as the stories progress, the abyss does a lot of staring back...
The opening story Late Runners is really quite benign, especially when compared with some of the stories that follow, a gentle story that is sad yet touching and introduces Usher's abilities as a benign force.
There are some traditional ghost stories in here, Reflections, for example that deals with a mirror that may, or may not be haunted, and there's a welcome nod to the Banshee in Even The Wind Fears but as the book progresses the darker elements begin to appear and as it draws to a conclusion it's obvious that Usher regards his gift as more of a curse than a blessing.
There's an absolute belter of a story in this very strong collection. The Good, Light People is one of those stories that leave me with goosebumps when I've finished reading them. It wasn't till I'd finished the book that   I saw that there were notes on each of the stories and  that Gary himself thinks this is the best story he's ever written. It could well be. It's profound and disturbing, addressing the issue of faith in a thought-provoking and utterly terrifying way. It's a turning point too in Usher's progression, ending on an epiphany of sorts, one which will define his life from here on in.
To Usher, The Dead is another fine collection of stories from Gary McMahon. I loved the two novels, put them on a par with the Concrete Grove trilogy, and these stories are a wonderful addition to those two books, adding to the character of Usher and introducing the themes and ideas that are brought to fruition in the novels.
A few typos aside (and a TOC that seems to gone somewhat awry with its page numbers) this is a beautifully produced book (I particularly like the black page marker). The stories date back to 2005 but this collection as a whole reinforces the fact that Gary McMahon is consistently one of the best, if not the best writers of contemporary horror fiction around.
Absolutely, thoroughly recommended.

Monday 26 November 2012

Ward 19

Probity  n. honesty, uprightness, integrity

Proberty  a. horror writing in the style of grand guignol, with a rich vein of dark humour.

There's no such word as proberty of course, but there should be. John Llewellyn Probert has carved out a niche for himself in contemporary horror writing that surely makes him worthy of his own adjective. (The campaign starts here...) Ward 19 is the latest offering from the master of the finely crafted horror story and is another thoroughly enjoyable trip to the darkside.
It's the first of what I'm hoping will be a series featuring CID coroner Parva Corcoran. It's set in St Margaret's Hospital and concerns the activities of a serial killer whose M.O. involves removing strips of skin from his victims. It's a novella and as such involves packing a lot into a short running time, necessitating the use of much exposition and it's to John's credit that he manages to achieve this without it coming across as clunky and annoying.
The medical terminology rings absolutely true and I had to smile when I read about the white sheets draped over the boxes used to transport bodies to the mortuary in an attempt to disguise them, the same thing is done in the hospital I work in and no, nobody is fooled...
The plot rattles along at a cracking pace (although, it has to be said, doesn't involve a great deal of investigation) and is just gruesome enough without being simply gross. The killer is suitably deranged as are their motives and there's plenty information given on Parva's back story to intrigue the reader.
The "cover" of the novella is a joy to behold, (part of me wishes hospitals really did look like this instead of the bland shopping malls the PFI culture has created - if they did it would certainly reduce the number of malingerers...) so it's a shame the story's only available electronically (here) as it would make an impressive addition to anyone's bookshelf.
Ward 19 was a joy to read and I look forward to more adventures for Parva. For a long time to come...

Monday 5 November 2012

Shadows & Tall Trees 4

Issue 4 of Shadows & Tall Trees from Michael Kelly's Undertow Books is now available. I came late to this impressive series of publications with Issue 3 being my first but was so impressed with it that I had no hesitation  in taking out a subscription for future editions, anticipating more high quality tales of "quiet" horror.
I'm happy to say that my expectations have been more than met by issue 4 which contains eight more examples of top notch writing.
It's another beautifully produced book with another stunning cover, this time courtesy of Sarolta Ban - a cover that definitely resonates with me as I live in a fairly rural part of the country and am currently surrounded by  literally thousands of crows and jackdaws as they flock together to roost in the fields that surround my house. Fortunately they're not as big as the ones depicted on the cover but I do feel like I've wandered onto the set of Hitchcock's The Birds every time I go out.
This is a fine collection of stories and all are classic examples of how subtlety and suggestion can be as terrifying - if not more so - than all out, in your face shock and gore. Metaphors and imagery are used to excellent effect within these pages, particularly so in Robert Shearman's Bedtime Stories for Yasmin which confronts a deadly serious topic in a story that reads like a fable and in one of the stand-outs of the issue Senbazuru by V.H. Leslie, a beautifully written tale set in Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. A tale of isolation and despair, the recurrent themes and imagery that run through the story are incredibly effective, the first person narrative adding to the ambiguity of what may or may not actually be happening.
The other stand-out story for me is the first in the collection, What We Mean When We Talk About The Dead by Gary McMahon. This is probably the "quietest" horror I've read from Gary but it's an extremely effective piece of writing. It tells of the visit of social worker Liz to the Everley household and the discovery of something quite unexpected. There's a downbeat, melancholic tone to the piece which absolutely suits its subject matter. It's scary, undoubtedly, but it's also thought-provoking, raising questions as to what exactly does happen when we die, how confusing that could be... Most of all, I found it incredibly sad, which shows the power and skill of the writing.
Michael Kelly has once again assembled a stunning collection of stories. Anyone seeking out high quality, thought-provoking, literary horror need look no further than Shadows & Tall Trees. 

Monday 29 October 2012

The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine.

I'm often asked "why do you like horror?" Actually, I'm not. Even within my massive circle of friends, neither of them has ever asked me. However, if anyone did ask, I could confidently answer that it's all my grandmother's fault for it was she who introduced me to the world of horror when she bought me, as a Christmas present, Denis Gifford's A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Quite why she thought this was a suitable gift for a ten year old I'll never know but I'm so glad she made that slightly controversial choice of gift as it did indeed open up a whole new world for me, one I've lived in for the near-on 40 years since. It's a great book and, being a pictorial history, planted many images in my subconscious that have remained there ever since. The book obviously had a similar effect on John Llewellyn Probert - he mentions it in his notes which accompany the hardback edition of the latest Spectral Visions novella from the consistently reliable and impressive Spectral Press. John mentions too the BBC2 horror double bills, another formative experience I share with him, one which introduced me to one of my favourite films of all time Night of the Demon and also one of the worst films I've ever seen, Night of the Lepus - a terrifying tale of giant rabbits that's every bit as crap as it sounds.
All this inane rambling is by way of introduction to the novella itself, which is a loving homage to those glory days of horror when incredibly complicated, highly contrived on-screen deaths were, well, entertaining rather than just gross and exploitative like today's Saw and Final Destination franchises. (Dear God, I feel so old...)
Having read many of John's short stories previously, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine appears to me the perfect book for him to have written, an ideal means of displaying the obvious affection he has for a type of horror that has (sadly, I guess) become relegated to little more than nostalgia. The plot - which cracks along at a fair old pace - revolves around a series of murders in Bristol, investigated by the world-weary DI Jeffery Longdon, a brilliantly drawn character who has all the best lines in a book crammed full of dark humour and who provides just the right amount of grounding for the frankly bizarre events described in the book. The tone of the writing is pitch-perfect, it would have been easy to write a pastiche, take the mickey out of the whole thing (a trap I felt Christoper Fowler's Hell Train, enjoyable as it was, fell in to), but John avoids this with consumate ease. His love of the genre shines through the writing and the whole thing is played "straight" as were the original films, this isn't a post-modern revision. I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoyed the films that inspired it.
The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine is another fine addition to the Spectral back catalogue, maintaining absolutely the high standards already set by its other publications. It's the most enjoyable thing I've read in some time. Horror can be fun, there's no shame in admitting that, and if proof were needed of that statement then look no further than this page-turner of a novella. As with all the best stories about deranged killers carrying out incredibly complicated and bizarre murders, the scene is well and truly set for a sequel. Dr Phibes rose again and managed to do so in a way that was more entertaining than his first outing. Here's  hoping that Dr Valentine is similarly inclined...

Monday 22 October 2012

What Gets Left Behind.

What Gets Left Behind is the latest chapbook from Spectral Press who are consistently publishing some of the best horror around at the moment. High standards have already been set in this series of chapbooks (this is number 7) so the question is whether this new story by Mark West maintains those standards. The answer is a resounding yes, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of Mark's previous work which I compare favourably to that of Stephen Bacon, sharing as it does a subtle, understated quality, brilliantly capturing the feelings and emotions of the characters within the stories.
What Gets Left Behind tells the story of Mike Bergen who has returned to his home town of Gaffney ostensibly to attend a works conference nearby. The true reasons for his return run much deeper however, Mike is there for closure, to put the ghosts of the past to rest so to speak, after a childhood tragedy.
The middle section of the story recounts those childhood events and demonstrates a great strength of Mark's writing with his ability to paint a truly nostalgic picture of childhood summers which seemed to last for ever, the days when it rained memorable because we had to entertain ourselves indoors...
This section however raises my only criticism of the story, the criticism being that it just wasn't long enough. True, I wanted to wallow in nostalgia a little bit longer but aside from that I felt that this section was a little rushed, cramming a lot of narrative into a short space. This is of course a short story and had to be tailored and edited to fit the chapbook format. I do feel though that the story does deserve a longer treatment, the events in the Gaffney of the 1980's would definitely benefit from another visit, the "Rainy Day Abductor" (whose activities impact on Mike's own tragedy) is a character whose story could definitely be expanded on. Gary McMahon is currently turning his Spectral entry What They Hear In The Dark into a longer format, I'd love to see Mark do the same with What Get's Left Behind.
What gets left behind in this case is guilt, the guilt that Mike feels over what happened to his best friend all those summers ago. "You can't go home again" so says Thomas Wolfe, and in Mike's case these are wise words that he should have heeded. Fortunately for the reader he doesn't, allowing a climax that is just ambiguous enough to raise the question of whether it is truly a supernatural tour de force or simply guilt and memories combining in a terrifying psychological cocktail. Either way, it's brilliant.
What Gets Left Behind is another great piece of writing from Mark West and another (absolutely standard maintaining) quality production from Spectral.

Monday 1 October 2012

Dark Melodies

Dark Melodies is a collection of short stories from William Meikle and is published, in a variety of formats, by Dark Regions Press. On his website, William describes himself as a writer at the "pulpy end of the market" - a genre that is, in my opinion, unfairly looked down upon. Horror, in particular, is a broad church - which is why I enjoy reading it so much. I enjoy the stories that hold up a mirror to society, using metaphors to comment and even sometimes educate but I also enjoy a good old monster story, of the kind that got me into the genre in the first place. Genre writing is frowned upon by those who think it panders to the masses, that it is easier to write than higher works of great literary merit. Bollocks, frankly. It could be argued that the "literary" novel is a genre in itself, following its own conventions and rules. Irrespective of genre, there is good writing and there is bad writing. Dark Melodies is good writing. Very good writing.
There are eight stories in the book, six of which are original to the collection. As the title suggests, the stories share a common theme of music. They share much more though. The book is cleverly constructed - like a symphony - with motifs and themes recurring throughout. The music in these stories is a key to unlocking another world, a theme explored most notably in The Unfinished Basement, The Death of Sergeant Macleod and the opening story in the collection The Tenants of Ladywell Manor - a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice which introduces cosmic horror to 19th Century society in a thoroughly entertaining way.
The story also introduces the phrase "lost to the dance" which then re-occurs in all of the other stories,  a clever device to create another link between them, akin to the main theme of a symphony being repeated in its different movements.
There are other linking devices too, the piano in The Persistence of Memory may or may not be the same one found in The Unfinished Basement (and may, or may not have been fashioned from a Navy ship in The Tenants of Ladywell Manor). The music, or rather the tune that is played to bring about mysterious and terrifying consequences, may be the same in every story - perhaps The Death of Sergeant Macleod..? A manuscript, detailing an earlier, disastrous encounter with the "other" world features in The Unfinished Basement and provides evidence for Meikle's Private Investigator Derek Adams to uncover the truth in a fittingly exciting - and thoroughly entertaining - conclusion to the book in Rhythm and Booze...
A couple of the stories, The Chamber of Tiamat and The Mill Dance, are more stand-alone, less linked to the overarching theme. I guess they're the key changes, the middle eight...
William Meikle is a new author to me but on the strength of Dark Melodies I will certainly be seeking out more of his writing. It's a while since I've been so entertained by a collection of stories. Dark Melodies was a pleasure to read -and I don't mean a guilty pleasure. It's a collection that struck a chord with me and I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

55 Reading Questions.

1.    Favourite childhood book?

Any of the Rupert annuals.

2.    What are you reading right now?

Dark Melodies by William Meikle

3.    What books do you have on request at the library?

None. Everything I read I buy.

4.    Bad book habit?

Terrible. I'm an addict.

5.    What do you currently have checked out at the library?

The art of pre-supposition and ignoring answers during an interview. (See answer 3.)

6.    Do you have an e-reader?


7.    Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

One at a time.

8.   Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

I'm probably more analytical when reading, worried about having to come up with something intelligent to say. I try not to let this spoil the experience.

9.    Least favourite book you read this year?

A collection I won't name. It was everything I expected it to be. If I really don't like something I won't slag it off in a review as I'm very aware everyone's tastes are different and doing so is usually just an ego-trip on the reviewer's part. This wasn't to my taste.

10.    Favourite book you've read this year?

Novel has to be The Faceless by Simon Bestwick, best book overall has been Stephen Bacon's collection Peel Back The Sky.

11.    How often do you read outside your comfort zone?

Rarely. I know what I like and tend to stick to that. Fortunately horror is a broad church so there's plenty variety in the genre to keep me interested.

12.    What is your reading comfort zone?


13.    Can you read on the bus?

Yes. And frequently do. (But more often on the train which is my way of commuting).

14.    Favourite place to read?

At home, stretched out on the sofa in front of the fire.

15.   What is your policy on book lending?


16.    Do you ever dog-ear books?

No, and anyone who does should be summarily executed.

17.    Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Ditto answer 16.

18.   Not even with text books?

What if I'd said yes to question 17?

19.    What is your favourite language to read in?

English. Books written in other languages make for very short  reading experiences.

20.   What makes you love a book?

Usually something intangible that I can't put my finger on. Being moved by what I've read. No dog ears.

21.   What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Usually something... (see above). (Not the dog ears bit though).

22.    Favourite genre?


23.    Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?

There are many genres I rarely read - some not at all. I don't feel as if I'm missing out though.

24.    Favourite biography?

Love All The People. (Bill Hicks).

25.   Have you ever read a self-help book?

Err... yes. In retrospect it didn't help.

26.    Favourite cookbook?

What makes one list of recipes better than another list of recipes?

27.    Most inspirational book you've read this year?

Most books I read inspire me to be a better writer. One day...

28.   Favourite reading snack?

Having to think of an answer to this leads me to the sad conclusion that I don't snack when reading, I'm too engrossed. (I will stuff food into my face at every other opportunity though).

29.    Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

It's never been ruined. I might have thought "that wasn't as good as they said" but that's not ruining anything.

30.    How often do you agree with critics about a book?

More often than not. Which is about right, we all have different tastes.

31.    How do you feel about giving bad or negative reviews?

Not good, so I try and avoid it. I still buy everything I review so I can choose which books I'll post about. I read a lot of collections and anthologies which are often - as they should be - a mixed bag so not liking a story within them and reviewing them is sometimes unavoidable.

32.    If you could read in a foreign language, what language would you choose?


33.    Most intimidating book you ever read?

I'm from the North East and therefore dead hard. It would take more than a book to intimidate me.

34.   Most intimidating book you're too nervous to begin?

I'm from the North... etc. etc. Seriously, they're books. If I'm interested, I'll read it, if not I won't.

35.    Favourite poet?

Simon Armitage.

36.    How many books do you have checked out of the library at any given time?
37.    How often have you returned books to the library unread?

I refer to my earlier answers about absence of library activity.

38.    Favourite fictional character?

Charlie Parker in John Connolly's books.

39.    Favourite fictional villain?

Too many to number. The villains are always more interesting.

40.    Books you're most likely to bring on vacation?

Small paperbacks. Oh - horror naturally.

41.    The longest I've gone without reading?

Days, tops.

42.    Name a book you could/would not finish.

Can't remember which one it was but it was something by Dean Koontz. I used to love Dean Koontz but then I read Ticktock and hated it passionately. Despite that I read another of his afterwards but got so hacked off with more tales of Golden Retrievers and feisty heroines escaping abusive backgrounds I had to stop.

43.    What distracts you when you're reading?

Distractions. I may be too engrossed to eat when I read but if the phone rings or the house starts to burn down I reckon I'll notice it.

44.    Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

The Road. Or maybe Fight Club.

45.    Most disappointing film adaptation?

No one film springs to mind. Films and books are different beasts, they work on us differently. The Road was great because it captured the feel of the novel, I guess that's where many films fall down.

46.    The most money I've ever spent in a bookstore at one time?

Probably around £70

47.    How often do you skim a book before reading it?

Once, briefly before actually reading it. I always read the blurbs and introductions though.

48.    What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?

If I thought it was shit. Or I died.

49.    Do you like to keep your books organised?

Organisation and me do not go together. They're in bookcases, that's about it.

50.    Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you've read them?

I'm a keeper generally. A while ago I was overcome with altruism (and a loft that couldn't take any more) and gave some books away to friends (who I knew would cherish them...)

51.    Are there any books you've been avoiding?

No. I'm from the North East. I'm hard. I'm not scared of books.

52.    Name a book that made you angry.

How To Get Angry in ten easy steps. If there'd been a novelisation of that film The Iron Lady and I'd read it, that would have done it as just the sight of Meryl Streep on the sides of buses advertising it made me angry. Except I'd never have read it in the first place. I don't know, I threw Ticktock at a wall when I finished it, that's about as angry as I've ever gotten with a book.

53.    A book you didn't expect to like, but did?

As I said, I buy the books that I review on the blog so I wouldn't buy something I wasn't expecting to like.

54.    A book that you expected to like but didn't?

Can't think of any. Some books haven't been as good as I thought they might but I can't remember not actually liking them. (The collection I mentioned earlier and Mr Koontz's offerings I wasn't expecting to like in the first place).

55.    Favourite guilt-free pleasure reading?

All my reading is for pleasure. All my guilt is kept for the bodies under the patio.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Beyond Here Lies Nothing.

"Beyond here lies nothing" is a phrase coined by the Roman poet Ovid. Another poet, Bob Dylan, used it as a title for a song on a recent album. Now Gary McMahon has chosen it as the title of the concluding book in the Concrete Grove trilogy from Solaris Books. It's an ominous phrase, about as pessimistic as you can get, and the perfect title for a horror story. It's a fitting title too, given that this is the last novel set in the housing estate in North East England created by Gary which has provided some of the best horror writing of the last couple of years.
As with the two previous books, the main characters in the narrative are different (aside from the Grove itself of course...) this time around they are Marc Price, a journalist researching a book on the "Northumberland Poltergeist", Abby Hansen, the mother of Tessa whose abduction as one of the "Gone Away Girls" has left her emotionally scarred and full of self loathing. DS Craig Royle is the policeman obsessed with the abductions whilst Erik Best, local gangster and bare-knuckle fight "promoter" from Silent Voices takes the last narrative strand.
There are cameo appearances by some of the characters from the earlier books (including one very surprising one) although the chapter given over to Tom Stains, the conflicted hero of The Concrete Grove seemed to me a bit over the top, the mention in passing he also gets later on would perhaps have been enough. A minor criticism though, and the only one I have to make...
One character making a very welcome return however is Captain Clickety, the tall, cloaked figure with the beaked face who this time around gets a back story of sorts. He (it?) is linked to the Northumberland Poltergeist and also, in a departure I very much enjoyed, to the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke in the 1500's. Clickety is a great creation and I have a feeling he may well crop up in some future short stories set in the world of the Concrete Grove. At least I hope so. This book is a fitting climax to the series but it would be a tragedy if there really was nothing beyond here with regards to stories.
The role of the third book in a trilogy is to tie everything up and Beyond Here Lies Nothing does this brilliantly. The whole parallel world concept has been developed throughout the series, the idea that the Grove is a doorway, a portal to this other world, a doorway to creation and these ideas are brought to stunning fruition in a climax that is as brilliant as everything that has gone before. There's great imagery in here - yet again - scarecrows are second only to clowns in the "scare the shit out of you" stakes and that fact is put to extremely effective use in this book. The fate of The Needle itself taps into imagery that has been burned into the subconscious of the whole world.
Gary McMahon has created an astounding series of books in the Concrete Grove trilogy. They truly deserve to be called classics. Each of the three books can be read as stand alone novels and enjoyed as such, but they are best appreciated as a whole, the ideas and story arcs that run through the three books are subtly introduced, cleverly developed and brought to an entirely satisfying conclusion in Beyond Here Lies Nothing.
Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Monday 17 September 2012

Peel Back The Sky.

Peel Back The Sky is a collection of 21 stories by Stephen Bacon and is published by Gray Friar Press. I've been a fan of Stephen's writing since I first came across him a few years ago when I read his story The Strangled Garden in Tales From The Smoking Room published by Benedict J Jones (and which is reproduced in this volume). Since then I've tried to track down as much of his writing as possible and have been thoroughly impressed with everything I've found. It was great news then when Gray Friar announced this collection and I've been eagerly awaiting its arrival. There's always the possibility that anticipation can make you build something up too much and the reality is a letdown but this is absolutely not the case with Peel Back The Sky. This is, in all honesty, one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read. There are no weak stories in here, no filler, every one drips with quality.
It's an eclectic mix, covering unambiguously supernatural elements as in With Black Foreboding Eyed (which gave me a warm glow of nostalgia, the mystery of Flannan Isle something I came across in my childhood) and Hour Of Departure, PA (including - yes, zombies), and Science Fiction. The strongest theme in the collection though is the darker side of human nature whether it be the spitefulness within a relationship described in The House Of Constant Shadow or from an external agent (a real monster) in Catch Me If I Fall, or the loss of innocence as a result of abuse in Persistence Of Vision and Daddy Giggles.
Even given the subject matter, these stories are two of the highlights of the book. Neither story is exploitative of its subject, are written in the precise, understated prose that is a feature of Stephen's work. The last lines of Persistence are a shock, changing your perception of everything that has gone before and are utterly heartbreaking. Daddy Giggles astounded me. This is one of the best stories I've ever read. On reading stories I often think "I wish I'd written that", after reading Daddy Giggles I thought "I wish I could write like that". Without resorting to hyperbole or melodramatic language, this story consumately portrays the impact of childhood abuse. The prose is matter of fact, undramatic but when I'd finished reading it I could feel the anger, the frustration of its protagonist Duffy. It's an incredible piece of writing, profound and moving.
I think it's these stories where Stephen's "voice" shines through but this collection shows his versatility as a writer, his ability to adopt different styles to complement the story he's telling. The Strangled Garden and A Solace Of Winter Rain are both written in the style of "Tales From A Gentlemen's Club" - and brilliantly so and there's an authentic period feel to The Toymaker Of Bremen and Cone Zero. 
Perhaps the most stylised of all the stories is Girl Afraid which is presented as diary entries from a nine year old girl. It's a device that works brilliantly (and which, despite his reservations in the story notes at the end of the book, one which Stephen pulls off brilliantly) and makes the story another highlight. Terrible things happen in this story, made all the more terrible by the innocence of the narrator. The horror lies not just in the events that unfurl but in the fact that the reader knows more than the narrator. It's another story about loss of innocence, in this case the most horrifying aspect of that is that the narrator doesn't know it's happened. But she will...
I am - to quote Stephen King on Dan Simmons - in awe of Stephen Bacon. This is an outstanding collection of stories from a writer who has mastered the craft of writing and who deserves great success. I can't wait for his debut novel. Peel Back The Sky is a showcase for his versatility as a writer but it's capturing emotions that is his greatest strength. There's a melancholic edge to a lot of what he writes but hey, it's the sad songs that have the most impact and the same goes for stories. It's fitting that the title of one of the stories - I Am A Creation Of Now - is a line from the last song, on the last album by REM. Melancholy indeed...
Peel Back The Sky is highly recommended, great stories from a great writer.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Visions Fading Fast.

Visions Fading Fast is a collection of stories published by Pendragon Press and edited by Gary McMahon. I have a signed hardback edition and once again, in my unremittingly dull quest to champion real books over electronic ones, I'm overjoyed to hold this book as an example of how the former are far superior to the latter.
It's an excellent way to determine someone's age to ask them to name some R&B acts. If they go for the Stones, The Animals or The Yardbirds then they're really old but appreciate what real music is. If their answer includes Beyonce and Rhianna then they're young, and unfortunately have no idea what real music is. (You may have guessed which category I fall in to).
This nostalgia for "better" times (or at least "better" music) lies at the heart of the opening story Blues Before Sunrise by Joel Lane. It tells of Simon, a musician on a quest to go back on the road with his band "Blue Away" who had enjoyed moderate success in the nineties. Given the story is about a Blues musician, it has a suitably melancholy tone to it, Simon is an alcoholic, desperately searching for some meaning to his life, that meaning possibly to be found in music. The middle eight of a song (or is it the bridge..?) marks a change of tone, or key. This story has a middle eight although it comes quite late in the piece (a late eight?) and takes the narrative into some very dark places - literally and metaphorically. If you've ever wondered where the blues come from, this story provides a possible answer. I liked Blues... very much, the musical references worked with me (being of a certain age...) and the writing, as to be expected from Joel Lane, is poetic and beautifully crafted.
Wild Acre is by Nathan Ballingrud and is the first piece by him that I've read. On the strength of this story it won't be the last. A horrific, violent incident in the Blue Ridge Mountains leaves the protagonist Jeremy reassessing his own self worth, the incident leaving him with feelings of guilt and cowardice. It's a beautifully written character study of a man under extreme pressure, it's a transformation story, though not the kind you might be expecting from the opening passages. It's emotional stuff and those emotions are brilliantly described by the author. 
Dancer in the Dark is by Reggie Oliver, the modern day MR James. I'd already read this story in the collection Mrs Midnight and Other Stories where it nestled among other tales of Theatre Folk about whom Reggie Oliver writes with consumate skill. There aren't any likeable characters in here, it's a tale of bitchiness and back-stabbing but written in distinctive Reggie Oliver style. It almost comes as a bit of light relief after the intensity of the previous story but it has its dark moments, most notably a scene beneath the pier on Brighton beach...
The History Thief is a high-concept story from Kaaron Warren, another first-time author for me. Alvin has died and is slowly decomposing on his lounge floor but his spirit wanders, and has developed the ability to physically enter the living, thereby becoming privy to their innermost feelings and thoughts. It's a clever idea and one which could easily be expanded into a longer work. There's a twist - of sorts - at the end of the story but I felt this weakened it somewhat, here were much darker avenues the story could have meandered down...
Paul Meloy's Night Closures is the last story in the collection and, like the first, makes much of nostalgia and  (in this instance childhood) memories of things past. Striking a chord always makes reading a story that much more enjoyable but there's a risk of overloading with nostalgia (and therefore sentiment) and forgetting about the narrative. This doesn't happen here. There is a reason for all the reminiscing and, when the story reaches its conclusion, its emotional impact is massively increased. Like the first story it's melancholy but it's a great end to a really strong collection of stories.

Monday 30 July 2012

Busy Blood.

Busy Blood is a collection of stories by D.F. Lewis and Stuart Hughes and is published by The Exaggerated Press. I love reading Des Lewis' real-time reviews but have to say that a lot of the time I have absolutely no idea what he means (a failure in my understanding rather than in his ability to communicate I hasten to add) so it was with a degree of trepidation that I started reading this book, with a mind to reviewing it, my concerns being that the writing would be so far over my head that I would have nothing insightful to say about it. (That said, it could be the case that I never have anything insightful to say about anything I review...)
Still, life is nothing without a challenge and, having now finished the book, I can say that to some degree my fears were confirmed, there were many occasions when reading one of the stories, or even after having completed it, that my reaction was "what the **** was that all about?" but this is in no way a criticism of the book. Many of Des' reviews communicate the emotions and feelings he experiences when reading rather than straightforward critiques of the stories themselves. Which, after all, is the most important thing. The function of art - in whatever form - is surely to create some kind of emotional response. My emotional response to Busy Blood, and the stories therein, definitely was one of confusion - which was in turn unsettling, which, when you think about it, is exactly what you would want from well written horror.
And this is definitely well written horror. I've banged on about Des Lewis a lot so far in this review but this book is a collaborative effort, the other author Stuart Hughes has written stories I've enjoyed in other publications (most recently in Hersham Horror's Alt-Zombie) and it's a compliment to both him and Des that you can't tell where the joins are. I'm not sure if the two authors wrote individual stories or collaborated within the stories themselves but either way I found it impossible to tell who wrote what, the tone and style of the writing is maintained throughout.
And it's the tone that's the key here. For whatever reason, this is an unsettling (there - I've used the word again so it must be true) collection of stories, disturbing even. It would be easy and superficial to describe them as "descent into madness" tales but they all share a theme of reality shifting and changing around the protagonists, (and not in a good way), of having the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Many of the stories touch on surrealism - not my favourite style of writing usually - but manage to avoid the pitfalls that many Surrealists fall into of simply writing self-indulgent in-jokes (or bollocks as I like to call them) that are meaningless to anyone but themselves.
Busy Blood is a tricky read, but it's definitely worth the effort. Good writing should engage the brain and that's exactly what this collection does. You may well have to work out your own theories on what the stories are about, it may well be that many of them aren't actually "about" anything anyway. This is a good thing.
Can genre fiction be literary? Yes it can, and Busy Blood is the proof.

Monday 23 July 2012

Darker Minds.

So, Darker Minds has been sent to the publishers - not long till we get to see the real thing. I'm very excited about this, I'm biased obviously but I think this is a really strong collection of themed stories from some of the best writers out there at the moment. I'm already in discussions with Ross about the next Dark Minds Press project which I'm very, very enthusiastic about.
Anyhoo, by way of a teaser, here's a trailer for the book from the immensely talented Mark West. Not only is he a great writer - I'm chuffed that we have one of his stories in the book - he can put together some pretty nifty visuals too.

You can order the book here.

Monday 16 July 2012


Arcs is a short story by Clayton Stealback and is available for download from Smashwords here. I've been a fan of Clayton's writing since our paths first crossed (virtually) on the now defunct forum. If you want High Concept then Clayton's your man, the stuff that comes out of his head is evidence of a fertile imagination at work and this is once more evident in Arcs. 
Isaac is cursed - or so it seems. He exerts a malign influence over everyone he comes into contact with, including his foster parents whose story is told in flashback, beginning with worrying signs involving cheese and ending in tragedy - a sentence I guarantee you've never seen before but which will hopefully pique your curiosity enough to download the whole story.
The story begins with a wonderfully atmospheric set piece which is nicely referenced at the story's conclusion with a lovely metaphor. It's main thrust concerns Isaac's attempts to track down his real father and discover the origins of his "curse". Given that this is a search for information, the risk of the exposition fairy working overtime is high but Clayton manages his way around this extremely well, structuring the story so that the reader isn't overwhelmed with information and discovers the true nature of Isaac's "affliction" piece by piece.
It's a clever concept, extremely well executed and even introduces an air of ambiguity (and some supernatural overtones) towards the climax.
The character of Isaac is well drawn - at first a sympathetic victim but, over the course of the story, becoming something else entirely.
Arcs is an imaginative, atmospheric and thoroughly entertaining story from a writer with great potential.

Sunday 8 July 2012


Alt-Zombie is the latest publication from Hersham Horror and is a collection of 21 stories (or 22 if you buy the print version) about the titular monsters. I have to say that I'm not the greatest fan of zombies (especially since one of them ate my dog) but I had high hopes for this book after enjoying Hersham's first collection Alt-Dead and seeing the names of some of the authors contributing stories. Given that the Alt is short for alternative I was also hoping for some new takes on the zombie trope, willing to have my views changed. I'm pleased to say that, on the whole, the collection achieves that and, with one or two exceptions, this is a really strong, enjoyable anthology.
There is some "standard" zombie fare in here but it was good to see that a lot of the stories really did try to do something different. Most notable in this regard was Alison Littlewood's Soul Food - quite possibly my favourite story in the collection which has the most tenuous link to zombie mythology but which provides a thought-provoking, and moving tale that puts a whole new slant on the phrase "you are what you eat". 
The collection opens with Gary McMahon's Thus Spoke Lazarus which is a revisionist take on the bible story of the raising of Lazarus. It's cleverly written and, as a lapsed catholic, I enjoyed it immensely. There's a moment in the story when the risen Lazarus realises why he's been raised from the dead and I experienced a frisson of pleasure as I realised too. A great ending to the story and a great opener for the book.
The "religious" theme is also used in Adrian Chamberlin's The Third Day, though in a less humorous (I'm sure Gary's tongue was firmly in his cheek when he was writing his story) - and more post-apocalyptic - way than Lazarus.
Humour is a feature of a few of the stories. It works well in Stuart Hughes' Ded End Jobz, a story whose subject matter would generate some cracking headlines in the Daily Mail but which ends rather abruptly, less well in Blind Date by David Williamson. The latter requires a suspension of disbelief far beyond the norm and strays to close to offensive to be really funny. It also contains, at one point, a "breaking the fourth wall" moment. This is either an example of clever, post-modern meta-fiction or just bad writing.
Mark West provides a lovely little vignette of a story in In Cars which crams a lot into its short length and beautifully captures the feel of extreme horror colliding with mundane reality.
Other highlights are Stephen Bacon's Scarlet Yawns (the best title of all the stories) which channels the spirit of The Thing with its paranoia and body horror set in an isolated Scottish theme park and Stuart Young's White Light, Black Fire in which the zombies aren't the worst monsters and which also contains some metaphysical ruminations about the nature of the soul.
It was a brave decision to include a story which uses The Holocaust as its backdrop but I'm afraid Shaun Hamilton's Acceptable Genocide fell into the trap of being exploitative, a little too lurid in its descriptions of the horrors meted out to the inmates of Auschwitz. The reality of what happened in the concentration camps is horrific enough. To use them in a story about zombies seems somehow disrespectful.
Dave Jeffery's Ascension? is probably my favourite story in the whole collection. It's a beautifully written slow-burner of a story that has your perceptions changing the further on you read. In a less overt way than Stuart Young's story it presents the human survivors of "zombie apocalypse" as the real monsters and raises questions as to what "humanity" really is. It's classy stuff.
So has Alt-Zombie changed my views on zombie fiction? Not entirely - I fear the bandwagon will roll on for a while yet - but it has proved that talented writers can discover something new and different from within the tropes and mythology of the living dead. Alt-Zombie is a strong collection in which the highlights far outweigh the occasional stumbles. There's gore and gross-out yes, (though not as much as you might expect), but there are also cleverly written, thought-provoking stories. Hersham Horror have produced another fine quality product and it's one I heartily recommend.

Monday 25 June 2012

Jolly Good Chaps...

There I was, all ready to post up a piece about how chapbooks are the saviours of horror fiction when someone else goes and does it before me. This piece on the excellent This is Horror website pretty much sums up my feelings about the current crop of high quality chapbooks available to all discerning readers of horror fiction. (And I wholeheartedly agree with the point that they're the perfect length to be enjoyed on a commute to work). This is Horror have started their own line of chapbooks to which I've eagerly subscribed, and if they're all of the same quality as the first - Joe and Me by David Moody, then it's a decision well made.
I haven't read anything by David prior to this but Joe and Me has certainly whetted my appetite for more. It's a slow burner of a story, a first-person narration from Si, the "me" of the title, about his relationship with wife Gill and 8 year old son Joe. Si is a house-husband, Gill is a research scientist, developing an airborne vaccination against potential biological weapons. When the military take over the research it's clear that things are going to go badly - and so it proves.
This is a cleverly written story, apocalyptic but small scale at the same time, focussing on the family unit. The characters are all well drawn and entirely believable so that when the story reaches its conclusion, and a choice has to be made which will have profound effects not just for the family but the whole world, the decision arrived at is entirely believable too - and incredibly dramatic.
This is a great start to the This is Horror chapbooks and I look forward to the next issue in the subscription. That's going to be Thin Men With Yellow Faces by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick - which is pretty much my definition of a dream team.
The second chapbook I had the pleasure of reading on the train this week was The Eyes of Water by Alison Littlewood, the latest publication from Spectral Press. As with all the other publications from Spectral, this is a classy piece of writing. Subtle and understated, it delivers its horrors slowly and atmospherically.
Set in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, it tells of traveller Alex who and his old friend Rick - a diver who has been exploring the cenotes, flooded underground caves. When Rick's body is found with horrific - though somewhat inexplicable - injuries, Alex is called on to identify the remains by Rick's sister, an act which leads him to explore the circumstances surrounding his friend's death.
This exploration leads Alex into the flooded caves himself where he discovers... Well, that would be giving away too much, suffice to say that, like Joe and Me, a decision has to be made at the end of this story too which will have profound consequences...
The Eyes of Water is beautifully written, evoking a wonderful sense of atmosphere and creating well drawn characters. It's another quality production from Spectral and more than maintains the high standard already achieved.
Next up for Spectral is What Gets Left Behind by Mark West, pretty much a cast-iron guarantee that those standards are going to be maintained prospectively.
Can't wait.

Monday 18 June 2012

Last Days.

My first experience of Adam Nevill's writing was his excellent short story Little Mag's Barrow which opened the very good collection of stories in Gray Friar Press's Terror Tales of the Lake District. Shortly after I read What God Hath Wrought in Conrad Williams' collection Gutshot - a brilliant story that channeled the spirit of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien. Having been mightily impressed by both, I was eager to read Adam's novels Apartment 16 and The Ritual and was equally as impressed with these two longer works. The latter is possibly the most unrelentingly tense book I've ever read, a true "unputdownable" novel.
Adam is a wonderful writer, creating tension and imagery that is truly terrifying. His books are cinematic, reading one is the closest you'll come to watching a film in terms of your emotional responses. This is in no way damning with faint praise. It could be argued that it's easier for a film-maker to scare you than a writer, haing so many more "tools" available to them so for a writer to achieve the same takes real skill, creating imagery and working on the reader's imagination to instill fear rather than presenting it to them "on a plate" with added sound effects, crashing chords etc. Adam Nevill does this, in spades-ful. It's fitting therefore that Last Days concerns the making of a film. In this case a documentary about a mysterious cult, The Temple of the Last Days, led by the infamous Sister Katherine which (as the back cover blurb puts it) "reached its bloody endgame in the Arizona desert".
The novel charts the making of the documentary and it's a clever device, cleverly used. The reader discovers more and more about the cult at the same time as the novel's protagonist Kyle Freeman does through the course of the interviews he records with the cult's surviving members.
There are some nice references to Adam's earlier novels - Kyle has made a documentary about the events descibed in The Ritual and the book shares some locations with Apartment 16 (and some imagery, particularly in a painting that may, or may not hold the key to unlocking some of the mysteries of the cult).
I really liked Last Days. The film-making device works really well in telling the story, the characters are totally believable and, most importantly of all, it's scary as hell. There's a passage where Kyle is reviewing the recordings he's made after the first interview that is brilliant - tense, scary and utterly terrifying. I had to put the book down after I'd read it, it's that effective.
The tension is maintained throughout the whole novel and Adam has created some truly scary monsters in the "Blood Friends". As for the ending, I didn't think it worked when I first read it but having thought about it in retrospect I've changed my opinion - it's exactly what would have happened, is entirely in character. I can see it being a talking point though.
It's a great book, thoroughly recommended.

Thursday 26 April 2012

The Respectable Face of Tyranny.

The Respectable Face of Tyranny is the first of the Spectral Visions line of novellas published by the consistently brilliant Spectral Press. It's by Gary Fry whose Abolisher of Roses was the second of the Spectral Press chapbooks. It has to be said that this is another beautifully produced book and it's great to see the care and attention lavished on the chapbooks has been applied to this new range. I have the limited edition hardback but I'm guessing the paperback version is equally impressive.
The front cover is a stunning photograph of Saltwick Bay, the location for the novella, on the North East coast of England near Whitby. The picture is hauntingly evocative and so too are Gary's descriptions of it in the book itself. The plot concerns Josh, reeling from a divorce and personally affected by the Global Recession facing the prospect of living in a caravan near the bay with his teenage daughter Sally.
Actually the plot concerns a lot more than that. The driving theme behind it is the aforementioned recession, here transformed into cosmic horror, presented as an event devastating as the extinction of the dinosaurs, World War Two. You may think the recession was caused by a load of complete bankers. You'd be wrong. In a book dripping with metaphors, mankind is here presented as little more than fleas on a dog's back, its fate determined by forces way beyond its control or comprehension.
Thematically, the novella is similar to Gary's earlier novel Fearful Festivities. I enjoyed this a lot more though as I thought the novel was a wee bit too heavy handed with the metaphors, seemed overly concerned with hammering home its messages about greed, envy and consumerism gone mad. This has a better ending too.
The Respectable Face of Tyranny is quality in every sense of the word. The book itself is a thing of beauty and the story works well as a rattlingly good cosmic horror and a thought-provoking commentary on society. It's another great product from Spectral and I look forward to further editions. What's more, it contains the word Quotidian not once, but twice. Now that's not something you see every day.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Shadows & Tall Trees 3.

Shadows & Tall Trees is a collection of short stories - along with some film and book reviews - published by Undertow Books. It's the third issue of an occasional series of publications and, having read this one, I'm disappointed at having missed the first two. It's beautifully produced, a lot of thought and care has been put into the publication, crowned by an amazing cover by Eric Lacombe.
The collection opens with The Elephant Girl by Nina Allan. It's the story of Brigid, a teacher, who has a new pupil, Jeanie Henderson, in her class - the Elephant Girl of the title. First impressions of the girl are not good - "what an ugly child" - with immediate comparisons made to the bad fairy turning up uninvited at the christening of Sleeping Beauty. I liked this story very much, and it's a strong opener for the book. Brigid is pregnant, a cause for celebration but also for anxiety - she has already had two miscarriages. The story's strength is that it plays on these anxieties - and the mood changes associated with the hormonal imbalances brought about by pregnancy - to create an ambiguity as to whether Brigid's perceptions of Jeanie as some kind of bad omen are as a result of physiology or whether there really is something "strange" about the girl, the latter option reinforced by the reaction of the other children in the class to her. This ambiguity is maintained right to the very last sentence of the story and is all the more effective for that. It's an unsettling, thought-provoking tale.
L'Anneau de Verre is by Don Tumasonis and is a pastiche of an 18th Century account of events occurring in a town during the French Revolution. It's often the case that my heart sinks when I read stories which have been written "in the style of..." as they're often a case of style over substance, the author showing off how clever they are but then forgetting about any attempts at plot or characterisation. The worst examples are where the author goes so far over the top with recreating a style that the story becomes unreadable and ridiculous. Thankfully, that isn't the case here. It has to be said here are some fairly convoluted sentences in here but I found them entertaining, rather than irritating, to read. There are supernatural overtones and grisly ends and even a bit of social commentary. It's cleverly written and has both style and substance.
The Quickening is by Andrew Hook, a writer whose stories I've very much enjoyed in the past. This one is no exception to that, the story of Benedict, a man who sees the world around him changing in subtly disturbing ways (figures standing still, watching him, people around him beginning to limp...) Like Nina Allan's story there's a hefty dose of ambiguity here - there are references to blood tests for Benedict which may or may not be negative  - and the writing creates uncertainty as to whether the events happening are real or simply manifestations of a deteriorating mind. It's a disturbing tale, and has an open ending that effectively adds to the atmosphere that Andrew has brilliantly created.
Night Fishing is by Ray Cluley and is one of the best short stories I have ever read. Not just horror short stories, any kind of short story. Its construction is perfect, the writing superb and it handles the (big) themes it deals with marvellously. I had goosebumps when I finished reading Night Fishing I was so moved by it. I'ts a story about love and loss, it's a story about guilt. To write a story about suicide which includes supernatural elements and not come across as trite or somehow make light of what is a deeply serious issue is no mean feat but Ray has managed it here. (And a lot better than the film he references, which I've also seen and thought did a massive dis-service to the subject). It's an outstanding piece of writing and an example of what great writing can do.
Kill All Monsters is next up and is by Gary McMahon. My first thoughts on seeing the title were of naff Japanese films with men in monster suits stomping around model cities but this story is about as far away from that as you can imagine. A man, woman and child - throughout the story they remain un-named - arrive at a motorway service station for food and rest. There are obvious tensions between the couple and these are implied rather than overtly stated by some wonderful writing from the King of Bleak. The reasons for those tensions are revealed ultimately - and they're terrifying. The strained relationship is built around fear - those of the man which lead him to... well, nothing good and those of the woman, in fear of her husband but too afraid to leave, too afraid to try and stop what he's doing. It's a horrifying character study and another brilliant story from the prolific Mr McMahon.
The Sick Mannes Salve is by George Berguno and is probably the most traditional horror story in the collection. It's a good story which I enjoyed but I think it suffers from comparison with the other much stronger stories in the book. It rolls out a few cliches, an eccentric relative dies, an inheritance is due, bizarre conditions apply to said inheritance... The denouement isn't too much of a surprise (although I'm still not sure why the condition wasn't fulfilled - there's no explanation and the story seems a little rushed towards the end) and ends with a character uttering a sentence with an exclamation mark at the end of it - which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't...
None So Blind is by Stephen Bacon and is another classy piece of writing from a writer destined for great things. It's a cleverly written piece that has perceptions changing the further you progress through the story. What begins as - on the face of it - a gentle, Brief Encounter type romantic set-up soon begins to transform into something much darker as more and more is revealed about the two protagonists. It's a subtle piece, reflecting the understated nature of Stephen's writing, something I enjoy and find to be a massive strength of his. You will probably work out what's going on before the end of the story but that doesn't matter, it's not written as a "twist in the tail" piece and it's to Stephen's eternal credit that he doesn't try to do this or confirm your thoughts, simply letting the story run its course, ending on a melancholic note that perfectly mirrors the overall mood of the story.
Field Notes From The End Of The World is the last piece of fiction in the book and is by Kirsty Logan. The title's similar to Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Encounters At The End Of The World and the story shares an arctic location (and a disappearing penguin) with the film. The title's both literal and metaphorical of course, the story - or rather string of diary entries - charting the decline into madness - and probably murder - of a polar researcher. Telling the story through diary entries works well enough as a device, putting a new(ish) spin on an oft-told story but I guess that's the story's weakness, it's kinda all been done before.
Shadows & Tall Trees is a really strong collection of stories, a high quality product with high quality writing. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to Issue 4.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Silent Voices.

Silent Voices is the second book in the Concrete Grove Trilogy by Gary McMahon and is published by Solaris Books. Being the second part of a trilogy usually means a trip to the dark side where all the bad stuff happens, awaiting resolution in part three. (Or is that just Star Wars? Mind you, the really bad stuff didn't happen in that particular saga till long after the third instalment and George Lucas got his hands on some nifty new computers...) This is a Gary McMahon book though, so you're pretty much guaranteed very dark, very bad things happening irrespective of whether it's book one, two or three.
The story revolves around the characters of Simon, Marty and Brendan, adults now but who, as children, went missing for a weekend in the Needle, the derelict tower block at the heart of the Concrete Grove estate, emerging from it traumatised, abused and changed forever. Now, some twenty years later, they are plagued by dreams and memories of their experience and are drawn back to the Needle to face up to the evil they encountered there.
Yes, there will be the obvious comparisons to Stephen King's IT, but this novel bears those comparisons with ease. IT is possibly my favourite King novel but I can honestly say I enjoyed Silent Voices equally as much. Pennywise was great but Silent Voices has Captain Clickety - a brilliantly scary creation, the creature that haunts the three men's childhood, and present day thoughts. It's a great name for a monster, somehow mixing childhood innocence with an ominous feeling of dread. (Comparisons are probably appropriate too to Gary's earlier novella The Harm which explored the theme of childhood abuse resonating into adulthood).
The characters of the three men are brilliantly drawn and entirely believable. It's Simon (the only one to have escaped the clutches of the Grove) who drives the "reunion" but it's obvious he's simply the catalyst, fate has caught up with all three of them. All are plagued by visions and dreams (yes, the hummingbirds are back!) which makes for some pretty gruesome body-horror scenes, particularly in the case of Marty. (Think Cronenberg's Videodrome and you'll have some idea of what's in store...) It's bleak and unrelenting and, like the first book of the series, mixes ancient evil with modern day fears - and there's no one better at that than Gary McMahon.
There are big themes at play here, the Concrete Grove really is a doorway to Creation we're told (on page 20 so no spoiler!) something hinted at in the first novel and a theme which is expanded on in the book's final showdown. It may be a small book physically but it's an epic novel.
This is a great book. My dad is a twin and I live twenty minutes away from Morpeth but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of what is further evidence that Gary McMahon is a major force in the field of horror literature. (I'm aware that much of that sentence will mean nothing to you if you haven't read the book but hey...)
Silent Voices is a cracking horror story. It's also about good and evil, guilt and redemption. Most of all it's about friendship and what that really means.
Roll on book three.

Monday 2 April 2012

Tales of The Weak & The Wounded.

Tales of The Weak & The Wounded is the latest collection of stories from Gary McMahon and is published by Dark Regions Press. I ordered the signed hardback edition and I have to say it's a thing of beauty. If I needed more evidence that "real" books are superior to electronic versions then this is it, it's a beautifully produced book (with proper bookmark and everything..!) and just holding it, having it to keep forever on display, in my opinion add to the experience of reading the stories. Comparing a real book to an e-reader is like actually standing in a beautiful place as compared to looking at a photograph of it. (It has to be said, mind you, that I can get excited over a new pen so maybe my thoughts on the matter aren't that significant...)
The stories are bound together by a framing device of being cases studies discovered in the Daleside Institute, a now-derelict mental asylum in Northumberland which will be familiar to anyone who's read Gary's earlier novella Rough Cut. The prologue introduces John Shayne, presenter of the TV show All I Ever Haunted who discovers the case histories as part of his research into using the Daleside for a forthcoming episode of the show. (And allows the author to direct some well deserved digs at Most Haunted - a show that has set back the cause of parapsychology decades with its descent into pantomime).
It's fitting that the first story in a book which will guide the reader through some very dark places concerns a book that guides the story's protagonists to some very dark places... Guidance is a strong start to the collection, tapping into some of the fears about being lost in a strange (foreign) place.
Then comes Diving Deep, a story that begins like an episode of The X-Files, concerning the discovery of a seemingly man-made tunnel beneath the polar ice cap but then turns into something else entirely. I don't want to describe the plot and themes of the story too much but - I kid you not - this is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read. The writing is superb, particularly as the story heads towards its (profound - but in a good way!) climax. Diving Deep is the perfect title for this story - both in a literal and metaphorical sense. I had goose-bumps when I finished reading it (and not just because of the story's setting). Brilliant.
At this point I'm going to break away from giving a mini-review of individual stories (17 in all - this could be a very long post..!) but give a general overview of the collection as a whole. Suffice to say all the stories are excellent, there's no feeling of fillers being put in just to make up the word count.
A theme present in a lot of Gary's work is that there is a parallel reality to ours, a dark place full of monsters and that every now and then events - or individuals - bring about a connection between these realities. That connection might be via an MP3 download as in The Ghost of Rain' or a video film in Strange Scenes from an Unfinished Film. When the dark stuff actually gets into the real world the consequences are horrifying - Something's Coming, Those Damned Kids. The latter story incorporates another theme, the breakdown of society and, in particular its effect on young people. This theme is explored further in Teen Spirit, another cleverly titled story that manages to combine a creepy premise with social commentary - "and all their uncaring, uneducated minds can think of is to poke it with sticks..."
The last story in the collection The Nature of Things is a biting satire on that perfect example of the end of civilisation and society, reality TV.
There are proper monster stories in here too, The Leaner gives a very british slant on the classic Hollywood "teens trapped in a deserted house by a monster" trope whilst Bone Bag creates a very effective monster and at the same time mines the fear of illness and decay. Survivor Guilt is perhaps the most traditional story in the book but I loved it for its(highly effective) twist in the tail.
This is a great collection of stories and an excellent showcase for the highly talented Gary McMahon. There are enough images in here to haunt your dreams for months to come but there's also depth here, strong ideas and commentary. The best horror holds up a mirror to society, is grounded in reality and Tales of The Weak and The Wounded is an exemplar of this.
It was good to see the hummingbirds in the epilogue too...

Monday 12 March 2012

Rough Music.

Rough Music is the latest chapbook from the consistently brilliant Spectral Press, another high quality offering from the workshops of Simon Marshall-Jones and is the creation of Simon Kurt Unsworth. Quiet Houses was one of my favourite books of last year so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I waited for this to drop through my letterbox.
The story involves Cornish, a man with a guilty secret, one which is threatening to destroy his marriage. His sleep is disturbed by the appearance, in the middle of the night, of a strange figure a wearing papier-mache mask and banging a pan with a spoon. (Creating the rough music of the title).
That's quite a surreal image but one which - in the hands of a brilliant writer like Simon Kurt Unsworth - manges to be entirely disturbing. As the story progresses, the figure is joined by others, similarly masked, who join in the "music" and then begin acting, and interacting, in increasingly bizarre and disturbing ways.
The figures are of course manifestations of the turmoil in Cornish's mind. Guilt is a terrible burden, it takes over every thought process, a constant presence that nags away in the background, influencing emotions and actions, destroying relationships and the author brilliantly captures the mental breakdown of the protagonist, the surreality of the nightly shows a metaphor for his inner turmoil. The demons in his head made flesh...
It's a marvellous character study, written in crisp, clear prose but it's also a deeply unsettling tale. The imagery created really is disturbing (the story references Frank Sidebottom and I have to admit this is the image I had in my head when I first read about Cornish's nocturnal visitors - I always found Frank a bit creepy, and this story mined those concerns).
I've spent a lot of time recently reading "psychological" horror stories in preparation for the Darker Minds anthology so it's a tribute to this story that I enjoyed it so much after so many stories sharing a similar theme.
Rough Music is a classy piece of writing and another fine contribution to the Spectral Press back catalogue, maintaining the high standards set by the previous publicatiions.

Friday 9 March 2012

Darker Minds - The Stories...

 I'm very happy to reveal the list of stories which have made it into Darker Minds, the second publication from Dark Minds Press. It is:
Reflections From a Broken Lamp - John Travis
Tale of the Abnormal Beauty Queen - Robert Essig
Waste Disposal - Ray Cluley
The Man Who Remembered - Stephen Bacon
Cinder Images - Gary McMahon
The Way of the World - Gary Fry
John Bane's Grave - Charles Muir
Rise, Dead Man - Joe Mynhardt
Looking at Me, Seeing You - Mark West
The Listening - Benedict J Jones
Seeing Things - Robert Mammone
Slip Inside This House - Daniel Kaysen
Houses in Motion - Stuart Young
Shutdown - Clayton Stealback
Laws of Aquisition - Simon Bestwick
It's a great collection of stories from some amazing writers. It's an honour to have them in the book and it's a massive compliment to Dark Minds Press that they took time to submit their work to us. The selection process wasn't always easy, there were many great pieces of work sent to us that didn't get in and it was a privilege to read them. It is a themed anthology though and we were strict about applying the guidelines with regard to acceptances.
I say "we". I have to give my co-editor Ross Warren all the credit here. I had cunningly arranged to undertake a massively stressful house-move right in the middle of the reading period so as a result Ross did all the real work, filtering the stories before sending the real contenders to myself. Cheers Ross, you did a great job - much appreciated - and that is definitely reflected in the quality of the stories that have been assembled.
And so the final editing begins (I have moved now and therefore have no excuses...) I'm genuinely excited about this and can't wait to see the final product. We're aiming for publication in April so watch this space, and boards scattered across the internet for details on how to order.