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.