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...