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.