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.