Monday 16 December 2013

2013 Review.

Playing somewhat fast and loose with the whole concept of tradition, here is my traditional look back at the last twelve months to highlight the pieces of writing that I've enjoyed the most and to choose those I regard as the best. It's a purely personal view of course, there's no nominations process, no voting - the stories, novels and novellas I've decided on are simply the ones that have - to be slightly wanky - had the most profound effect on me, the ones that have moved me the most. I've read a lot this year but haven't come close to reading everything that the horror genre has had to offer so these "awards" are obviously chosen from that cohort of dark fiction I have had the time to read.
The writing world has suffered some great losses during 2013, a roll-call that is depressingly long. Of those great names who have left us, two in particular had the most impact on me. James Herbert was my introduction to horror. Reading The Survivor opened the door to a world I've spent a great deal of time in ever since. It terrified me at the time but left me wanting more. I re-read it this year and found it just as effective, recognising many of the set-pieces and realising that they had lodged in my subconscious all this time. It's a shame that his final book was so awful but it's the early Herbert I'll remember, The Rats, The Fog, The Dark...
Iain Banks was another literary hero of mine, producing darkly humorous, literary novels alongside high concept science fiction. The Wasp Factory was a stunning first novel and I still regard The Crow Road as a masterpiece. His final novel, The Quarry, was pretty much quintessential Banks; friends gathering at a remote house, getting stoned and drunk and discovering dark secrets from their past. The fact that one of the characters is dying from cancer made the work almost unbearably poignant.
And then, as the year was drawing to a close, Joel Lane died. I never met Joel, never knew him but some of those who did have posted incredibly moving and heartfelt tributes to him which have given an indication of how special a person he was. I knew only his writing but the strength of his convictions, his politics were all too apparent within those poetic words. And it's the words by which he, and all the other writers who have passed away this year will be remembered - that is their legacy.
It was Joel's Where Furnaces Burn that consumed much of my reading time in February, and which somehow made that bleakest of months seem even bleaker... It's an incredible collection of stories that take the reader to the dark side and which, on many occasions, leave them right there. It deservedly won the World Fantasy Award this year and is amongst my favourite single author collections of 2013.
This category has been one of the hardest to decide a "best of" as the standard has been incredibly high with many contenders to choose from. Honourable mentions go to James Everington's Falling Over, Gary Fry's Shades of Nothingness, Simon Bestwick's The Condemned, Stephen Volk's Monsters in the Heart and Nathan Ballingrud's North American Lake Monsters. The latter, in particular, merged the mundanities of real life with the supernatural elements to brilliant effect, each story a character study (often of deeply broken people) that shed light on the human condition. Those qualities were also displayed in my actual pick for best single author collection, Michael Kelly's Scratching the Surface. I loved this book, literally didn't want to put it down, eager to start the next story. The horrors within are subtle but beautifully realised, the stories emotional and profound.
Multi-author collections have been more of a hit-and-miss affair this year but that's the nature of the beast - it's rare to find a collection where every story floats your boat. The Terror Tales series from Gray Friar have re-attained the high standard of the first volume set in the Lake District with their London collection and I look forward to seeing what delights Terror Tales of the Seaside will bring. Shadows & Tall Trees maintains its consistently high standard and Crystal Lake Publishing have produced a couple of commendable themed anthologies with For the Night is Dark and Fear the Reaper. In terms of the collections that have most impressed me however, runners-up prizes go to Hersham Horror's Anatomy of Death and Penman Press's Ill at Ease 2. (There's a link between those two publications but no prizes for working out what it is). The collection that most impressed me in 2013 however, on the basis that the standard across all the stories was, in my opinion, the highest is The Unspoken edited by William Meikle. It's a fine collection (and for a good cause) with the highlights for me the stories by Simon Kurt Unsworth and Gary McMahon.
The choice of best individual short story was a difficult one too. Shorts are the majority of what I read so the pool from which to choose was a pretty deep one. Highlights, in no particular order, were Stephen Volk's A Paper Tissue from Monsters in the Heart (which also included the amazing After the Ape though I had read that before) and Stephen Bacon's Apports in Black Static - the magazine in which Ralph Robert Moore's All Your Faces Drown in my Syringe - an incredibly dark story that does exactly what good horror fiction should - disturb. A late entry, so to speak, it almost took the crown for my favourite short of 2013 but, after much consideration, that particular "honour" goes to The Fox by Conrad Williams, one of the chapbooks produced by This is Horror. Laden with metaphor, it's a disturbing tale of karma showcasing the immense skill of one of the best writers of literary horror there is.
It's been a pretty good year for novels too though these have taken up less of my reading time than other formats. Early in the year I enjoyed Alden Bell's follow up to The Reapers are the Angels, Exit Kingdom. It's basically the zombie apocalypse as written by Cormac McCarthy but it's hugely enjoyable stuff and, in my opinion, superior to Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy. Gary Fry produced a mind-boggling piece of psychological horror with Conjure House and (hot off the press, I only finished it last night) Gary McMahon rounded off the year nicely (or not so nicely, if you know what I mean) with another classy piece of writing in The Bones of You. Adam Nevill punched all of creep-out buttons in House of Small Shadows, wrapping up the imagery in a clever plot in a novel that was more subtle, but no less scary than last year's Last Days.
Stephen King produced two novels this year; Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining which made up for its lack of scariness with a tense and exciting narrative and some typically wonderfully drawn characters and Joyland which I probably enjoyed more, a crime novel that created a wonderful sense of nostalgia and plenty of emotion in its short (for King at least) length.
My favourite novel of 2013, however, was a hugely entertaining Stephen King novel that wasn't actually written by him. Joe Hill's NOS4R2 was a glorious tribute to the author's father but so much else besides. The King references worked but didn't hinder the plot which was a clever amalgam of the Dracula story, super-hero mythology and a whole host of other influences besides. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn't and the end result is a (cliche alert!) roller-coaster of a book that never lets up, even creeping into the notes on the typeface at the end of the book...
I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the novella is the perfect format for horror. Avoiding the problems of having to maintain atmosphere and tone over a huge word count, it still gives enough room for character and plot development. 2013 has been a vintage year for the novella and has provided the most difficult of all these choices as to year's best.
I love reading the books of William Meikle and John Llewellyn Probert knowing that I'm pretty much guaranteed to be entertained by what I encounter within those pages but both authors have provided something a little different this year in some very impressive novellas. Willie's Clockwork Dolls is a lot darker than usual, a philosophical story examining fate, destiny and our place in the universe whilst John's Differently There was an elegiac, personal piece of writing examining mortality and the choices and decisions we make. I loved them both.
Simon Bestwick spoilt us with a collection of six novellas in The Condemned. All were of the highest standard but the stand-out for me was The Schoolhouse, a powerfully written piece in which the style and form perfectly capture the descent into madness of the story's protagonist.
Spectral Press continued their tradition of producing fine fiction with Stephen Volk's Whitstable. The book has been widely lauded - and justly so - it's a beautifully written tribute to Peter Cushing that combines biographical detail with an intensely moving storyline.
The novella that most impressed me in 2013 did so because it did exactly what I want from a horror story. It disturbed me. The plot itself is scary enough but it's the questions it raises in the reader's mind, the air of paranoia, of not knowing what's real and what isn't that has stayed with me, and which still affects me now, so long after having read it. My choice of the best novella of 2013 is Gary McMahon's Nightsiders .
A vintage year? Time will tell but it was a bloody good one in terms of the quality of writing on display. A sad year too, for many reasons including the passing away of another hero of mine, someone whose skill and artistry had a profound influence on me - most effectively in this scene. Merry Christmas, and here's to a great 2014.

Monday 9 December 2013

Anyone for Menace?

Menace is the new novella from the prolific Gary Fry and is his latest collaboration with the consistently impressive Dark Fuse. Gary is carving out a niche for himself as a purveyor of quiet, psychological - even philosophical - horror and Menace is another example of this, creating a sense of unease that grows throughout the story as model Jane begins to realise that she may have been selected for a photographic assignment in Whitby for reasons other than her looks.
The photo-shoot is for a book cover, an autobiography of novelist Luke Reacher and it's while she's at the remote location that Jane has a ghostly experience, seeing a group of children who mysteriously disappear when she seeks them out. The appearance of those same children on the final book cover is the first in a series of disturbing events encountered by Jane as she slowly uncovers the truth behind who - and what - Luke Catcher really is.
There's a strong feeling of paranoia running through the book but it's the theme of possession that's the strongest. Jane is pregnant and the knowledge of this adds to the dread the reader feels as the story progresses. There's some ambiguity generated around whether what is happening to Jane is real or just her own grip on reality slowly being eroded although the conclusion of the story is, well... pretty conclusive. And dark. Very dark.
Menace is another cracking read from Gary Fry. With perhaps a little more emphasis on the narrative thrust of the story than some of his recent offerings, it still works exceedingly well as an extremely effective psychological chiller.

Monday 2 December 2013

Still Ill at Ease.

Ill at Ease was a collection of three stories that was also one of my first reviews. I enjoyed it very much so was pleased to see the follow up collection published recently by Penman Press which contains stories from the three original contributors (Mark West, Stephen Bacon and Neil Williams) joined this time by four new authors.
It's Stephen Bacon who starts off the collection with his story Double Helix. It's a clever title, a reference to the molecular structure of DNA - the genetic material which is altered and mutated to cause cancer, the disease from which the story's protagonist is suffering but also hinting at themes running through the story itself. Stephen describes it as one of the most optimistic stories he's written and it is optimistic, a story of regret but also hope. There's a fantastical element to proceedings but it's the emotional impact that's most profound. It's another classy piece of writing from a writer who's fast becoming a master of subtle, understated horror.
There's a distinct change of tone with the next story, The Shuttle by Shaun Williamson. It's a grim, shocking story about a couple's attempts to start a family inspired by the author's own experiences as described in the notes that accompany this, and all the other stories in the collection. I have to say it didn't quite work for me, I would have preferred a more subtle approach to the subject matter rather than the in-your-face horror that I felt was probably trying a wee bit too hard to shock.
Masks is by Robert Mammone and is a story I enjoyed very much. It's cleverly written and constructed, slowly revealing the story beginning with an almost surreal conversation in a funeral parlour and culminating in an atmospheric and gruesome climax in the subway system below Melbourne.
One Bad Turn by Val Walmsley uses bullying as the basis of its storyline. It also throws in a touch of ancient evil (here given physical manifestation as a yew tree) to enliven proceedings. It's probably the most "traditional" horror story in the collection and the conclusion is suitably dark and possibly not what you might expect.
Personal fears (and experiences) provide the motivation for Mark West's The Bureau of Lost Children, those fears in this instance centering around every parent's worst nightmare - losing their child. It's a story of two halves, beginning with a routine tale of a trip to a shopping mall. When Scott's son Josh goes missing in a computer games store however, panic sets in and Mark captures those feelings brilliantly. There's a feel of "The Twilight Zone" about the story's conclusion (which is in no way meant as a criticism) and the reason behind the boy's disappearance will have you looking suspiciously at those doors marked "Staff Only" on your next trip to the mall.
It's to be hoped Paradise Lost by Sheri White isn't based on personal experiences. It's the shortest story in the book but its theme is possibly the most epic. How will the world end? With a bang or a whimper? Mankind's demise in this particular tale is gruesome in the extreme - but makes for a hugely entertaining story.
Neil Williams' There Shall We Ever Be is the longest story in the collection and rounds it off in fine style. I think it's my favourite story in the book. It's a slow burner of a story, subtle and beautifully crafted. Its a contemplation of the past, of how history influences the present day. It's a story of childhood fears and memories, of how a notion that a sense of "place" is a real, tangible thing. A wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, it's a fitting end to a high quality collection of stories.
Ill at Ease 2 is highly recommended and you can buy it here and here.

Monday 25 November 2013

The Ravine.

Friday nights as a kid always meant one thing - The Virginian on telly. Although I was probably too young to fully appreciate the storylines, it must have sparked something within me, generating a love of westerns that continues to this day. My love of horror developed a bit later but it too has grown and developed over the years in parallel. What could be better then than a horror/western fusion, a combination of my two favourite genres? Well, not a lot actually.
The Ravine is William Meikle's latest novel published in a variety of formats by Dark Regions Press, following on from their last collaboration, the immensely entertaining (and wonderfully produced - the hardback edition truly is a thing of beauty) Sherlock Holmes: The Quality of Mercy. 
Part of the joy of genre fiction is the familiarity of its conventions, there's some comfort to be derived from reading a story where we immediately know what the characters are going to be like. Using stereotypes, archetypes even can be lazy writing though, and it takes real skill to use them in such a way that they bring a knowing smile to the reader but still endow them with enough depth for the reader to care about them and what happens to them. William Meikle does this and that's what makes his books such a joy to read.
Mysterious gunslinger? Yes. Noble cavalry officer? Yup. Rancher down on his luck? Oh yes. The Ravine has them all. What it also has are angels, demons and zombies, oh, and some very weird fish. Chuck all those elements together and you end up with a cracking tale of adventure and horror with some brilliantly effective set-pieces. What you also get is a tale of honour and redemption - the story could have been set in any time period or location but the western setting is perfect for it, a harsh environment where men, and women, very often had to do what men, and women had to do.
I loved The Ravine, and heartily recommend it.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Fear The Reaper.

There are two things in life - or so we're told - that are unavoidable; death and taxes. Whilst Starbucks, Google and Amazon may beg to differ on the latter, there's no denying the inevitability of the former. And it's death that provides the theme of the latest anthology from Joe Mynhardt's Crystal Lake Publishing (showing commendable skill at choosing the best of the two options) with Fear the Reaper - a great title for a book, showing contemptuous disregard of the advice offered by The Blue Oyster Cult and bearing a tremendous cover from Ben Baldwin.
The book opens with Hecate, a poem by Adam Lowe which nicely sets the tone for the rest of the collection, one which - on the whole - sticks closely to the theme, a definite plus in my opinion.
The Life of Death by Mark Sheldon is the first story, somewhat fittingly as it tells of the birth of Death (note the capital letter) in a piece that reads like a fable, or a grim fairy tale but which for me could have been trimmed somewhat (with or without a scythe), the novelty aspect running out long before the words actually did.
There are twenty one stories in the book and all are of a high quality making this a substantial - but fulfilling - read and also excellent value for money. The authors all bring their own slant to the mythology of The Grim Reaper and the subject of death as a whole, some more successfully than others. My Dark Minds partner in crime provides a cleverly constructed story in A Life in Five Objects that provides a neat twist in the tail whilst Stumps by Jeff Strand proves that cheating death isn't actually such a good idea after all. It's a gruesome story but its dark, black humour makes it work, something I felt wasn't really the case with Dean M. Drinkel's Der Engel der Liebe which strayed a little too close to gratuitousness for my liking.
Stephen Bacon's Rapid Eye Movement is more a story of love than death but is a beautifully written, highly emotional piece and Gary Fry's The Final Peace focuses on those left behind coping with bereavement, a heartfelt, moving piece of writing.
The highlight of the collection for me was John Kenny's The Final Room in which Sam, a petty criminal on the run from the police stumbles into a shack in a swamp wherein he discovers his destiny... It's a great story with an ending that perfectly encapsulates the theme of the collection.
Fear the Reaper is a very, very good collection of stories with plenty of variation and originality in the different interpretations of the theme. It's the strongest of all of Crystal Lake's releases thus far and one I highly recommend.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Monsters in the Heart.

Stephen Volk's versatility as a writer has perhaps never been better demonstrated than by two of his stories published this year. This is the writer behind the elegiac, moving tribute to Peter Cushing that was Whitstable and also the masterclass in gross-out, the outrageous Arse Licker. Both were - for very different reasons - brilliant pieces of writing so it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to the release of his latest collection of stories, Monsters in the Heart from Gray Friar Press. There are fifteen stories in the collection, two of which are brand new and not previously published.
The first story is After the Ape which I'd already encountered in the Never Again anthology. I was blown away by it then, by its originality and imagination and was similarly affected on this second reading. Centering around events after the fall of King Kong from the Empire State Building it merges real life horror (and political comment) with iconic fictional characters to produce a - frankly - stunning piece of writing.
The death of another fictional icon is the starting point for Hounded another highly imaginative piece using the character of Dr Watson, here attending a seance after the death of Holmes and inadvertently releasing something terrible in the process (the title of the story providing a clue as to what that might be...)
There is much variety within the fifteen stories, in style and content. Some read like fables (Swell Head, Fear) whilst others touch on the surreal (Easter, Air Baby). There are "real" monsters, Monster Boy is an affectionate tribute to those created by the movies whilst Appeal For Witnesses updates an ancient mythology into a police procedural that put me in mind of some of Joel Lane's stories. In White Butterflies and Notre Dame the monsters are all too human, whether through violence and aggression or religious intolerance.
Who Dies Best provides a satirical look at the movie making business with a novel approach to filming death scenes whilst the immensely disturbing In The Colosseum uses inner city violence and voyeurism to deliver a blistering attack on the current state of TV broadcasting.
Pied a Terre is a ghost story but ironically is the one I enjoyed the least. In his notes, Stephen acknowledges the risks he took in writing the story, that offence could be taken. I wasn't offended but did feel slightly uncomfortable reading it. Good horror should make the reader uneasy, just not like this...
The Hair is a good old fashioned horror yarn, a tale of voodoo rituals leading to a conclusion that's truly horrible. And which, when you think about it a wee bit more, becomes even more horrible.
A Paper Tissue is possibly the least overtly horrific story in the book but which for me was the highlight of the collection. There's nothing supernatural in this tale of a couple holidaying in Italy but the writing is superb, a perfect description of a relationship that's failing until a chance encounter changes everything. The conclusion of the story is truly unsettling - subtle but deeply disturbing.
Monsters in the Heart is a marvellous collection. Imaginative, intelligent writing from a master craftsman. Highly recommended.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Fry's Lurkish Delight.

Lurker is the latest novella from Gary Fry and is published by DarkFuse. It tells the story of Meg, recently moved to the coast in order to rebuild her life following a miscarriage, seeking rehabilitation in the splendour of the countryside which is now her home. The story begins with the line "He was leaving her again" - specifically referencing the fact that her husband is leaving for work, meaning a two day absence because of the distances now involved, but also cleverly and succinctly  providing insight into the state of their relationship. Harry's insensitivity, selfishness and lack of awareness are established in these opening scenes, somehow he sees himself as the victim, that it's him who's made all the sacrifices.
Instead of support and love, Meg feels only isolation - those feelings exacerbated by the surroundings she now finds herself in. Only a few pages in and already the tone is set, disaster must surely be lurking just around the corner...
There's beauty too of course in those surroundings and a vivid picture is painted of that environment. An incorrect classification of a centipede as an insect aside, Gary does a great job in describing the wildlife and scenery of the landscape around Whitby, creating - for a while at least - an image of rural idyll.
It's when Meg stumbles upon some ancient mine workings that the so far understated feelings of isolation and paranoia come to the fore. Ruins are creepy places, dripping with atmosphere, and that atmosphere is brilliantly captured in the sequence where Meg becomes aware of something lurking in the shadows...
Lurker is a monster story but there's still some doubt as to its actual nature, what - or who - it is, even after the final page has been turned. This is a Gary Fry story so its the psychology that's as important as the narrative thrust and it's this that gives the story its edge. How much of what Meg sees and experiences is real and how much is a figment of her own imagination, her damaged psyche? The tale is very cleverly constructed with images encountered in the "real" world - including TV documentaries and kids playing outside the house, (arthropods in the garden) - taking on a darker significance in Meg's eyes. Many authors would have chosen to write this story in first person, creating an unreliable narrator so it's to Gary's credit that he tells the story in third person but still manages to create an extremely effective air of ambiguity.
I'd recommend, if at all possible, that you read Lurker in one sitting and thereby immerse yourself fully in the experience, allow the repeating - though subtly changing - imagery to get inside your own head.
The denoument of Lurker is open to interpretation - but then all the best ones are. It's a subtly crafted tale that packs a lot into its relatively short length. In much the same way that a certain American author has created an outstanding canon of work set in his own North Eastern coast, so Gary Fry is slowly doing the same thing here in the UK.
I loved Lurker and thoroughly recommend it.

Monday 19 August 2013

Falling Over.

Falling Over is a collection of short stories written by James Everington and is the first time I’ve encountered his work. It won’t be the last. It’s a special moment when you read a new author and immediately get the feeling that you’re onto something special and such was the case here. The stories in this collection are evidence of great talent at work, both emotionally and intellectually stimulating.
The first story gives the collection its title and is one of the best stories I’ve ever read about paranoia. (And I don’t just say that because they will probably read this). Written in first person – as it had to have been – it’s a marvellously ambiguous tale that slowly builds an - ultimately almost unbearable - atmosphere of confusion and mistrust. There’s a hint of Bodysnatchers about it but the premise is presented in wonderfully written prose that allows the reader to tap into, and experience for themselves, the paranoia of the narrator. An unreliable narrator? Probably. Maybe. Possibly not… An uncertainty that adds another layer of enjoyment to the story. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking piece of writing and a strong start to the collection.
The theme of paranoia is also evident in Sick Leave (which riffs on ring-a-roses, another reference to falling over) but which also throws fears of sickness and death into the mix along with a hint of alienation, the latter something it shares with New Boy which incorporates an extra measure of guilt for good measure. (And which also features a fall…)
Fate, Destiny and a Fat Man from Arkansas explores themes of – well, fate and destiny as it happens, the eponymous American a manifestation of the unavoidable karma meted out on two burglars who choose to break into the wrong house.
Light relief comes in the hundred words of Haunted which delivers everything you could possibly want from a piece of flash fiction with great aplomb.
The Time of Their Lives presents another view of mortality and is cleverly written from the perspective of a young boy, unable to grasp the reality of what is happening in the hotel he is begrudgingly staying in with his grandparents. The central theme will call to mind a couple of films which I won’t name for fear of spoilers but I will mention that the atmospheric writing conjured up images of sequences in Kubrick’s The Shining for me.
I personally believe that one of the circles of Hell (one quite near the centre actually) is made up entirely of thousands of suburban neighbourhoods, each with their own residents committee setting the standards of what’s required in order to "fit in" with the community. If you’re of a similar mindset then you’ll probably end up rooting for The Man Dogs Hated – an individual who falls way outside expectations in this tale which exposes the petty mindedness and hypocrisy of those who cast judgement on others, those who fail to conform to their own version of what’s right and proper.
The last two stories in the collection are perhaps the darkest. Drones is another first person narrative (and all the more effective because of it) from a soldier whose job is to carry out remote attacks by UAV, witnessing the death and destruction via computer monitor. This distancing effect has a profound effect on him, desensitising him to the terrible acts he is committing, rendering the act of killing automatic and emotionless. It’s a descent into madness tale which – if I was being overly-analytical – could have something to say about video gaming but, whether this was the intention or not, the ending is very dark, and very effective indeed.
The final story has the ironic title Public Interest Story – just how ironic it is becomes apparent as you read. It’s basically a (well deserved) diatribe against the British Press and the monumental hypocrisy of that institution. It’s not press intrusion that’s the theme here, rather manipulation and the horrifying ease with which public opinion can be influenced by untruths and prejudices presented as facts. There’s another theme running through the story too, that of mob mentality - the two feeding off each other to bring about a conclusion horrifying as much for its inevitability as what actually happens.

Falling Over is a fine collection of intelligent, thought-provoking horror which I thoroughly recommend that you buy. You can do that here.

Monday 12 August 2013

The Hole.

The Hole is the latest novel from William Meikle and is published in a variety of formats by Dark Fuse.. It tells of the bizarre happenings in and around a small town in America where a strange humming noise brings about headaches and nosebleeds in the local population. It brings about much more besides however, namely huge holes in the landscape into which large parts of the town – and its inhabitants – topple.
As if this weren’t bad enough, creatures begin to emerge from the hole, to terrorise the survivors…
Oh, and the Government have set up barricades manned by military personnel around the town with orders to let no one leave…
So the scene is set for another tour de force of pulp fiction from the imagination of the best purveyor of out and out genre fiction currently plying their trade.
The Hole cracks along at a fair old pace (and is relatively short for a novel) and I devoured it in three sittings. Even though the narrative hurtles along, there’s still room for character development which makes you care about what happens to the protagonists despite their genre cliché origins – no mean feat in itself and testament to William’s skill as a writer.
The story’s influences are many and varied, strongest I guess is Invasion of the Body-Snatchers but I also felt the resonance of Stephen King’s Under The Dome and The Mist with their themes of isolated groups of people under the threat of something beyond their comprehension. The Hole is very much its own beast though, using – and acknowledging - these themes and influences but adding a hefty dose of originality to produce an end product which is a heady mix of science fiction and horror with some genuinely creepy set-pieces. There are contemporary cultural references too, HAARP, CDC and FEMA get a look-in and, as a resident of the “desolate” North East of England, I was pleased to see fracking getting a mention too.

On his website, William explains that he writes as an attempt to escape and that’s exactly what I did when reading The Hole. It’s a thoroughly entertaining book, one that took me back to the novels and films that first captured my interest in the genre. You pretty much know what you’re going to get with a William Meikle book which I say not as a criticism but as something positive as, without fail, they always meet – if not surpass - those expectations. I like to think that he has a whale of a time writing his books, I know I do when I’m reading them.

Monday 5 August 2013

Differently There.

Differently There is a new novella from John Llewellyn Probert and is published by Gray Friar Press. It tells the story of Paul Webster, admitted to hospital on the night prior to his operation to remove a cancerous tumour. The nature and location of the lesion mean that the operation is a risky one, the outcome uncertain and it's this enforced confrontation with his own mortality that provides the context for the story which unfolds.
Anyone familiar with John will know that he has faced a similar situation himself recently and this experience obviously informs the writing which, as expected, is a joy to read. The subject matter means that this is indeed something different from John, a more contemplative, melancholic piece but in so being, proves just how good a writer he is, whatever the style or theme of the story. There is a touch of whimsy at the beginning of the tale, with descriptions of the mundanity of the room in which Paul finds himself and the furniture therein. It's actually a very effective device and it was nice to see it reprised at the story's conclusion.
The novella is written in the present tense which works beautifully and is entirely appropriate given the storyline. As Paul drifts in and out of consciousness, he dreams of past experiences, gradually realising as the night progresses that there is a significance attached to them and also that there is something more to them than merely reminiscence. The memories he has are subtly altered, at first it seems by his love of fantasy and horror somehow merging into them but in reality by something a lot more sinister.
To describe more would be to give away too much but the truth of what is really happening is slowly revealed and leads to a moment of decision that is the most important of Paul's life.
Differently There is an exploration of how the decisions we make, the memories we collect influence our lives and make us who we are. It's about the mistakes we make and how we respond to them. It's about optimism and, dare I say it, the human spirit. It's a love story - or, if I may be so bold - a love letter. John's own love of horror and science fiction shines through and it's significant that special mention is given to Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man.
It's a fabulous piece of writing - I use the word in its most literal sense as well as its more colloquial. There's a moral for sure but it's written with so much style that it's nowhere near preachy. It's ironic that a story whose subject matter is death and mortality is actually such a life-affirming piece of writing. I had goosebumps when I finished reading Differently There - and yes, I had to wipe away a little moisture from my eye. (I think the bloke sitting next to me on the train believed me when I said I had some grit in it). It pretty much goes without saying that I recommend it most highly.

Monday 29 July 2013

Conjure House.

Conjure House is the latest novel from Gary Fry and is published by Dark Fuse Publishing. The striking cover art hints at what lies within, suggesting another venture into Cosmic Horror and indeed that's exactly what the reader will get with a tale of ancient horrors resurfacing in the present day.
There's a lot more to it than that though, a whole lot more. As well as being on one level a thoroughly enjoyable horror story, with some well constructed set pieces, Conjure House is also an exploration of some fairly weighty topics; the nature of perception, the pursuit of omniscience and whether it's science or art, intellect or emotion, the head or the heart that best allows an understanding of the universe we live in, of what we are - of why we are.
Deep stuff indeed and fitting that the small village in which the story unfolds is called Deepvale. (On the subject of names, I have to admit to getting quite excited at reading a novel where the main character shares my christian name (I need to get out more, I know) but some of the gloss wore off when I realised that "Anthony" was probably chosen in order to be shortened to "Ant" - with all the insignificance that variation carries with it). The theme of perception is probably the strongest to run through the book, a new twist on the story of the four blind men describing an elephant giving rise to imagery and symbolism that becomes increasingly significant as the story progresses.
The four main protagonists are nicely drawn characters but in reality they are little more than devices to explore the science v art debate, being a psychologist, a musician, an artist and a writer. This isn't a problem once you accept what their role in developing the narrative is, that narrative being more of a fable rather than an attempt at gritty realism. Gary has a very distinctive voice, easily identifiable. It's cerebral, intellectual - (and any of the other words my thesaurus has listed against "scholarly") - and sometimes I've had problems with that, not because I don't understand some of the longer words - even though that has been known to happen - but rather when it seeps into the voices and thoughts of the characters in the story. This does happen on occasion within Conjure House but the narrative flows along at such a rate that it's a minor quibble. (Another minor quibble, but one that took me out of the story is that Lisa, the writer, a writer of horror screenplays, doesn't recognise the word Cthulhu. I rationalised this away by assuming that within the novel Cosmic Horror was a reality and therefore the fiction of, say, Lovecraft didn't exist (much like characters in soap operas don't watch soap operas) but that's not the case as Paul, the musician, has appropriated the name for his band. As I say though, a minor quibble).
The psychology theory in no way overwhelms or distracts from the narrative though, in fact blends in to it perfectly, enhancing it to produce a quality piece of writing that will stimulate both emotion and intellect. It's a rare skill to be able to combine the two but Gary has it in abundance. I enjoyed Conjure House very much and it definitely gets an opposable thumbs-up from me.

Monday 22 July 2013

North American Lake Monsters.

It's always a joy to come across an author whose work you haven't come across before and be blown away by the quality of what you read. Such was the case last year when I read Nathan Ballingrud's novella Wild Acre in the Gary McMahon edited Visions Fading Fast. That story was one of my best reading experiences of that particular year so it was with much anticipation that I began reading his latest collection of stories, North American Lake Monsters which is published by Small Beer Press.
Wild Acre is one of the nine stories making up this collection, all of which are as impressive - if not more so - than that particular tale of a man under pressure undergoing a transformation, a theme that echoes throughout all of these stories. There's redemption to be found here, but not always, but in most of the stories the characters undergo an epiphany of sorts, usually as a result of some kind of interaction with - for want of a better phrase - supernatural forces.
And therein lies one of the strengths of Nathan Ballingrud's writing. The supernatural elements are woven into the narrative effortlessly. They never appear tagged on, their presence in the stories appearing perfectly natural, part of the plot rather than the key device around which everything hangs. There are real monsters in these stories, and yes, the unholy trinity of vampire, werewolf and zombie all appear but in ways that are subtle and understated and which enhance rather than exploit the mythologies built up around them.
The true horror in these stories lie within the protagonists and, in more than one case, the lives they lead. These are broken people in broken relationships and are all expertly drawn characters. The dialogue is perfect, often short and terse but conveying a wealth of character in only a few words. There's an element of sadness and despair in most of the stories and the conclusions are often abrupt and ambiguous. There are those who will complain at this, those who like everything neatly resolved and tied up come the story's end. I'm not one of those people so I loved all of them.
North American Lake Monsters is a stunning collection of stories. Intelligent, literary writing that uses horror in a profound way, examining and exposing the darkness that lies within us all.

Monday 15 July 2013

The Condemned.

The Condemned is a collection of six novellas by Simon Bestwick and is published by Gray Friar Press. These aren't new stories - the oldest dates back to 2001 and the most recent is from 2010 - but they were all new to me and, given my admiration of Simon's other work, it was a collection I was very much looking forward to reading.
World War One is a bit of a fixation for me so you can imagine my delight at discovering the first of the stories, Dark Earth, used those events as its backdrop, a first person narration by Private Bill Sadler, giving testimony at his court martial for murder, mutiny and desertion (thereby the most literal of the "condemned" in this collection). The story doesn't hold back on its descriptions of the horrors of war (the concept of battlefields being made up mainly of human remains a particularly chilling one) and benefits from the use of first person - and the unreliability frequently associated with it - to present an alternative explanation as to why the madness was perpetuated. It's a barn-storming start to the collection with strongly drawn characters which manages to be thought-provoking amidst the blood and guts.
There's a change of tone in the second story The Narrows which tells of a small group of survivors escaping a nuclear blast by entering an underground canal system. Unlike the visceral horrors of the first story, this is more a psychological horror, expertly creating a palpable sense of claustrophobia as the group travel deeper and deeper into the underground darkness. It's unremittingly bleak and utterly encapsulates the feeling of despair felt by its protagonists, a story that slowly chips away at the reader, drawing them into the nightmare unfolding before them.
A Kiss of Old Thorns comes as some (relatively) light relief after the intensity of the first two stories, employing the trope of Arcane Ritual To Defend Against Ancient Evil to good effect, the arrival of an escaping gang of bank robbers disrupting the world of this story's guardian - to devastating effect. It's probably the most conventional horror story of the collection.
The Model returns to more psychological themes but has a wonderful creation in Ken, a shadowy figure who employs life models but who takes much more than just sketches from them. It's an atmospheric tale, hinting at its horrors rather than explicitly showing them.
And then there's The School House, the highlight of the collection for me and up there amongst the best stories I've ever read. Reading this story is like having a waking nightmare; it's full of disturbing images - and acts - and moves seamlessly between past and present, dreams and reality in a confusing, overwhelming and utterly terrifying way. In his story notes, Simon explains his attempts to "evoke the feel of someone going out of his mind as intensely as possible". He has succeeded admirably in this - The School House is one of the most powerful stories I've read and is a wonderful piece of writing.
The Condemned is - given the author - fairly free from political statement. There's comment on the futility of war in Dark Earth of course, and it's no coincidence I'm sure that the protagonists in many of the stories are homosexual, "condemned" not in their own eyes but by the attitudes of others. The last story in the collection however, Sleep Now in the Fire, grabs hold of political metaphor and symbology and has a whale of a time with them. The demonisation of the inhabitants of sink estates takes on a more literal meaning within this tale and I smiled when I saw that the "monsters" here were called BLUEboys and that the weapon used to combat them them were red stars (along with a socialist concept of co-operation and revolution). Not as much as I laughed when the location of the source of the evil was discovered mind you... There's even a nice little dig at religion. It's a rollercoaster ride of a story with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and makes an entertaining conclusion to an excellent collection of stories.
I heartily recommend The Condemned, horror writing at its best.

Monday 24 June 2013

The Unspoken.

Cancer plays a big part in my life given that I work in a pathology laboratory where the principal work is in the diagnosis of this horrible disease. I must have read mountains of literature about it, and spend most of my day looking down a microscope trying to identify it so was intrigued to see this new collection of short stories edited by William Meikle which is subtitled An Anthology for Cancer Relief. It contains seventeen stories and all profits will be going to the Beatson Cancer Research Institute, a laudable aim, and - given the quality of the writing on display here - will hopefully be hugely successful.
Many of the stories within The Unspoken use the theme of cancer as their basis, either overtly or indirectly whilst others have no link to it at all (or are so tenuous that I missed them completely). Notable amongst these is Harbinger by Stephen Laws, an enigmatic, ambiguous tale that I loved precisely for those reasons. It was great to see something new from Stephen (although I'm not sure when the story was written) who was - is - a bit of a hero of mine, having written some brilliant novels set in his - and my -home region, and who probably didn't get the recognition he really deserved.
The theme of the desperation of being diagnosed with cancer leading to Faustian deals is explored in ascending order of success by Stephen James Price's Pages of Promises, Anna Taborska's Underbelly and, in my opinion the best of the three Stevens Savile and Lockley's The Last Gift.
There are contributions too from the editor- The Unfinished Basement - which I'd encountered previously in his wonderful Dark Melodies and the publisher, Johnny Mains with another story I'd read before in his collection Frightfully Cosy and Mild Stories for Nervous Types, with The Cure - a truly disturbing story that was the highlight of that collection for me and which still has the power to shock even on second reading.
David A Riley provides a blood-soaked slice of fantasy in A Girl, A Toad and a Flask whilst John Shirley gives us the board meeting from Hell (aren't they all..?) in Where the Market's Hottest.
The two stand-out stories for me were ones where the theme of cancer was used most tangentially, Gary McMahon's Bitter Soup highlights the decay and necrosis associated with the disease in a harrowing tale full of disturbing imagery and Simon Kurt Unsworth's Photograph's of Boden, a psychological horror that plays on the theme of the inexorable spread of a life-changing, life-threatening process.
The Unspoken is an excellent collection of stories covering a wide range of styles. Given that cancer is derived from the Greek word for crab, it's only fitting that Guy N Smith has a story in here too. You can buy it here and here and I thoroughly recommend that you do.

Friday 14 June 2013

Let's Drink to the Dead.

In much the same way as The Sisters of Mercy spawned The Mission and err... Ghost Dance, so Simon Bestwick's novel The Faceless has given rise to this collection of three short stories  set in the town of Kempforth and featuring some of the characters from the book which was my choice as best novel of 2012.
There's a twist in the tales though as they're all set in the eighties, long before the contemporary events described in the novel. It's a ploy that works extremely well, not only establishing the history - the dark history - of the town but adding insight to the characters themselves, describing events that moulded and formed them, adding depth.
This is most effective in the opening story, The Sight, a story that's about as dark as it can get telling of the childhood horrors experienced by Alan and Vera, a tale of abuse and the abused which is unremittingly disturbing. It reminded me a lot of Joe Lansdale's Night They Missed the Horror Show, a story in which a dead dog being tied to the back of a car is the least horrible thing to happen in it. It's the strongest of the three stories and a powerful start to the collection.
The second story Gideon is the least effective of the three, using the trope of Hitch-hiker Given Sanctuary By Creepy Stranger to allow an exposition-heavy account of the history of Ash Fell in the post war years. It covers a lot of ground already explored in the novel but despite this is a nicely constructed, creepy story with some disturbing imagery.
How Briefly Dead Children Dream is the final story, the longest of the three, and tells of a battle between "The Shrike" - a wonderful creation, fusing human and supernatural evil - and two elderly residents of Kempforth over the souls (and bodies...) of two children. It's a thrilling end to the collection and even manages some moments of poignancy amidst the mayhem and horror.
It's not vital to have read The Faceless to appreciate these stories but I would recommend that you should read the novel before delving into them. (I'd recommend it anyway because it's a brilliant book). I'm not sure if they were written prior to, during or after the novel but they're a wonderful companion piece to it.
Disturbing and horrifying, Let's Drink to the Dead is another brilliant piece of writing from Simon Bestwick. Buy it you should, and you can do that here.

Sunday 2 June 2013


Whitstable, written by Stephen Volk, is the third novella in the Spectral Visions series published by the consistently wonderful Spectral Press. As with the previous novellas, it's a beautifully produced product, the limited edition hardback a real collector's item.
The story is set in 1971 and is a fictionalised account of an episode in the life of Peter Cushing following the death of his beloved wife Helen. It begins with Cushing a broken man, overwhelmed by grief and the writing in these opening pages is so, so powerful, capturing perfectly the conflicting emotions of a man who has lost the love of his life, his raison d'etre,  unwilling - unable even - to move on with his life. It's beautifully written but heart-breaking, made all the more poignant by the fact that this is the description of a man everyone who reads this book knows, or at least knows of. Everyone will have their own impressions of Peter Cushing and it's a fairly safe bet that the majority will hold him in great esteem, a true gentleman who brought gravitas, dignity even to every part he played. Even at a young age I was aware of this, often using it as a counter-argument to my parents whenever they expressed concerns at the type of film I was watching and so obviously enjoying. "But Peter Cushing's in it," I would reply, "he's a proper actor..."
A chance encounter with a young boy on the beach (Carl Drinkwater, a name with resonances to Carl Bridgewater, another young boy with a tragic childhood in the seventies) provides the catalyst to pull the actor from the decline into which he's fallen. Making the assumption that Cushing is in face Van Helsing in real life, the boy asks him to deal with the "vampire"- his mother's new boyfriend - who "visits at night-time" and "takes his blood" - a naïve interpretation of events that both Cushing and the reader know refers to something much more disturbing.
At one point, Carl says "I can't move. I'm heavy and I've got no life and I don't want to have life anymore." It's almost a perfect summation of how Peter Cushing is himself feeling - and may be the impetus for his decision to help the boy but Stephen Volk skilfully "hides" the words in the middle of a section of dialogue, subtly adding it in without drawing attention to it. It's a masterful piece of writing.
The narrative of the novella then describes the newly galvanised actor's investigation of, and ultimate confrontation with the boy's tormentor, that confrontation occurring first at a market (where Cushing claims the man's sole) and then in a cinema in a cleverly written dialogue set against descriptions of the film playing on screen, Cushing's own The Vampire Lovers.
Whitstable was a joy to read, it's a perfectly pitched character study and Stephen Volk's admiration for the actor shines out from the pages. The period detail is lovingly created and rendered and references to the actor's body of work are plentiful without being a distraction. At times it's unbearably sad - a reference to the Morecambe and Wise show of all things brought a lump to my throat - but ultimately it's an uplifting experience and a fitting tribute to the great man.
As an actor, Peter Cushing battles countless on-screen monsters. This battle with an all too human monster, and his own personal demons, makes Whitstable an instant classic.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Shadows and Tall Trees 5.

Shadows & Tall Trees 5 is the latest edition of the literary horror journal from Michael Kelly’s Undertow Books.It so happens that it’s the last time it will appear in this particular incarnation, as from here on in, the stories will be published as a yearly trade paperback. That’s a shame in one respect given that the publication will be less frequent but, given that it’s quality – not quantity – that really counts, it’s not that big a hardship as the stories Michael collects are consistently of the highest quality.
Issue 5 which, like issue 3 has glorious cover art from Eric Lacombe, maintains that high standard of quality with aplomb, containing eight wonderful stories and, in a development I’m very happy to see, a non-fiction essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper by V.H. Leslie whose Senbazuru was one of the highlights of Issue 4.
The fiction gets off to a cracking start with Gary Fry’s New Wave, a story of startling imagery and dark secrets that perfectly balances reason and logic against supernatural terror to create the right amount of ambiguity in a haunting tale with a killer last line.
Casting Ammonites by Claire Massey is the shortest story in the collection but was another of my favourites, its short length actually a bonus in that I read it and then re-read it pretty much straight away, trying to interpret what this labyrinthine, enigmatic tale was all about. I’m still not sure I have, but therein lies its true pleasure.
Next up is A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin which was the highlight of the issue for me for its wonderful writing and the way it subtly, by suggestion and implication, uncovers a dark secret from the past.
The narrative voice in D.P. Watt’s Laudate Dominum was a little too didactic for my taste although a necessary device given the story’s protagonist whilst Moonstruck by Karen Tidbeck provides a heady mix of lunacy – in its most literal sense – and menstrual angst in an (almost) apocalyptic fable.
Ray Cluley has fun with a horror cliché – the hiker wandering into a lonely pub and hearing the locals telling scary stories – and I did too reading Whispers in the Mist, a story that plays with the reader’s expectations right up until the very end.
The Other Boy by Daniel Mills is another beautifully written ghost story where childhood tragedy haunts the present day and Widdershins by Lynda E. Rucker completes the collection with a story that uses another classic horror trope of the newcomer/outsider uncovering dark secrets, doing so in a most effective way.
Michael Kelly has once again demonstrated his unerring skill in selecting stories of the highest quality for Shadows & Tall Trees, stories that stimulate both intellect and emotion. Issue 5 may mark a farewell to the current format but I’m confident that the high standards already achieved will be maintained in the new annual collection. The new volumes are promised to be “bigger and better” – I can’t wait to find out.

You can buy Shadows & Tall Trees  here or, if you prefer, here or even here. 

Monday 20 May 2013


I already knew who Joe Hill was - or rather who his father was - before I started reading his books. I was determined not to let the familial connection sway my opinions of them, positively or negatively - but soon realised that this wasn't going to be an issue anyway, the quality of the writing on display was so high that any comparisons became redundant, Heart Shaped Box is one of the best first novels I've read and Twentieth Century Ghosts is an almost perfect collection of short stories. It was with some anticipation then, that I waited for the release of  Joe's new novel NOS4R2. (Or NOS4A2 if you're American - it's that whole tomato/tomato thing (a comparison that obviously works better said out loud than written down, (patronise/patronise maybe, nope, that's no better at all really))).
Anyhow, given I've now fulfilled an ambition to write a sentence containing three sets of brackets (parentheses), I can move on and say that NOS4R2 more than fulfils the promise of Joe's earlier books, indeed is even more impressive.
I hesitate to say something sound-bitey like "this is the novel in which Joe Hill finds his true voice" because in reality this is actually the book in which he comes closest to using his Dad's voice. This, I hasten to add, is not meant as any kind of criticism. In a book where one of the many themes explored is that of family it's entirely fitting that this should be Joe Hill's homage to Stephen King. The clues are there for everyone to see, with references to characters and locations from his father's books, (and his own too...). The family pet is a St Bernard reminiscent of Cujo, NOS4R2 is the registration number of a Rolls Royce Wraith with similar "properties" to King's Christine and the main character Vic McQueen has a special gift that leaves her damaged every time she uses it much like Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone.
NOS4R2 is a big book, but then it has to be to cram in all the themes, references and plotlines. It works on so many levels, a criticism of the commercialism of Christmas, a treatise on the power of creativity, a love story, a "vampire" story, a superhero story... the list goes on. It's so skillfully written though that you never feel overwhelmed by everything that's in there, all the disparate elements combine with each other to form a perfect whole. Holding it all together are well drawn characters about whom you care deeply driven along by a plot that will keep you hooked through the entire (just short of) 700 pages. For any fan of horror fiction, reading NOS4R2 is like having all your Christmases come at once.
Hill has created an iconic villain in Charlie Manx, a truly horrifying creation with real depth who - despite carrying all the vampire references around with him - manages to come across as original and unique. His Renfield - Bing, The Gasmask Man - is an equally impressive creation.
You'll laugh, you'll cry (really, you will...) but most of all you'll be moved and entertained. I can't fault NOS4R2 on any level, it's already my favourite novel of the year and it's going to take something truly spectacular to dislodge it from the top spot.

Monday 29 April 2013

Bloody Angels.

Bloody Angels is the second Parva Corcoran mystery by John Llewellyn Probert, featuring the CID coroner whose first outing was in the thoroughly entertaining Ward 19. This is a slightly longer story and allows John to incorporate even more extremely nasty murders - this time centred around a religious theme - into the plot which twists and turns towards its conclusion.
The murders are horrific but this is more mainstream crime fiction than horror and comes complete with the requisite line up of potential villains and red herrings in abundance, and it's to John's credit, and testament to his skills as a writer, that he manages to pack quite so much plot and character into a relatively short piece.
It may be due to my own lapsed catholicism but I do love stories that use a religious theme so it was a real pleasure to read Bloody Angels - but then it's always a pleasure to read John's stuff, his enthusiasm leaps off the page at you. This is a good book.
The denoument is suitably surprising and entertainingly complex - but eminently satisfying, making sense of all that has gone before. There are more hints too at Parva's past and the events which have formed her character - hopefully these will be expanded on in future storylines. God knows what John has in store for the residents of Bristol next (although after this offering I'm not sure God will want anything to do with him...) but I can't wait to find out.
Bloody Angels is bloody good and you can buy it (in e-format) here. Be a sin not to really.

Monday 22 April 2013

For the Night is Dark.

For the Night is Dark is a collection of twenty stories published by Crystal Lake Publishing, a new small press operating out of South Africa and masterminded by author Joe Mynhardt. It's edited by Ross Warren who provides an entertaining introduction to the book which is a chunky little fella, running to over 400 pages.
As the title suggests, the stories are themed around fear of the dark - or at least the majority of them are. It has to be said that in a number of cases the link is a tenuous one (in the sense of tenuous to the point of non-existent) but this shouldn't be held against the book, indeed one of the stories that fall into this category is one of the most enjoyable, A Snitch in Time by Robert W Walker, a tale of hitmen that twists and turns throughout its short length.
The opening story, His Own Personal Golgotha by G N Braun also has tenuous links to the overarching theme and perhaps relies a little too much on imagery for its impact, a case of style over substance. There's a definite change in tone with the next story, Carole Johnston's 21 Brooklands: Next to Old Western, Opposite the Burnt Out Red Lion, which, as well as having the best title of all the stories, firmly establishes the theme of nasty things that happen in the dark.
The horror in these stories comes in many forms, most overtly in Gary McMahon's In the Darkest Room in the Darkest House on the Darkest Part of the Street (the second best title in the book) and Stephen Bacon's Room to Thrive - the latter a story that will definitely grow on you. The dark itself becomes a monster in Jasper Bark's How the Dark Bleeds, a potent blend of arcane rituals and gore. The creepiest story in the collection, and the one that best evokes those childhood fears of the dark as depicted in Ben Baldwin's cover art, is Mr Stix by the ever-consistent Mark West.
Benedict Jones provides another example of his own brand of crime/horror fusion with Hungry is the Dark, a story that transforms the darkness within us all into something a lot more tangible and the collection is rounded off with another cleverly constructed story from the extremely talented Ray Cluley.
For the Night is Dark is a strong collection of stories and bodes well for future publications from Crystal Lake. Joe's enthusiasm for the genre is second to none and I wish him every success in establishing a new outlet for horror writing.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Sleazy does it...

Anatomy of Death is the third in the line of Pentanths (collections of five themed stories) produced by Hersham Horror. It’s edited this time round by Mark West, someone whose work as an author I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. His writing has always struck me as subtle and understated with a strong emotional core – quiet horror if you like, so it was a bit of a surprise to see that the theme for this collection was the sleazy, pulpy fiction that was so prevalent in the seventies when horror was going through its equivalent of the punk movement. Indeed, the subtitle for this collection is Five Sleazy Pieces (which, if made into a film would probably also star Jack Nicholson).
Given the subject matter of the book it was another surprise to see that the first offering was from Stephen Bacon, another writer whose work I admire for its subtlety and emotional impact. Pseudonym is a first person account of a journalist’s interview with Gilbert Hudson, an author whose heyday was in the seventies writing the sort of lurid pulp novels that provided the inspiration for this collection. It’s a clever way to start the anthology, providing as it does a brief history of the horror genre and how writing styles – and readers’ tastes – have changed, including a nice little dig at the Twilight saga and it’s hideous (if sparkly), teenager-friendly offspring.
It’s a slow build of a story that uncovers the secrets Gilbert Hudson has been living with for most of his life (and which led to his adoption of a pseudonym), secrets involving an incident that’s bizarre enough to earn its place in any respectable pulp fiction… The denoument is suitably gross and creepy too and Pseudonym is a cracking start to the collection.
Don’t let the title of Jonny Mains’ story fool you. The Cannibal Whores of Effingham is in fact a searing socio-political satire, a scathing indictment of the ravages of capitalism and an allegory for the global economic collapse.
Actually, it’s not…
The title kind of gives it away really, and you pretty much get what you might expect. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the eponymous characters biting off more than they can chew when their next victim turns out to be even more deranged and psychopathic than they are. It’s basically just an excuse to throw in as many “shocking” scenes as possible although the impact is lessened by repetition and the fact that none of the characters involved are in the least bit likeable. It’s an exercise in exploitation, and succeeds admirably in this, just don’t expect intense characterisation and thought-provoking plotting.
John Llewellyn Probert’s Out of Fashion is the shortest story in the collection and calms things down a bit after the excesses of the previous tale. It’s another first person narrative and is set in Victorian London. There’s not so much sleaze but plenty of anatomy with John cleverly merging his medical knowledge into the unfolding narrative. The use of first person is interesting given the conclusion of the story but it’s an entertaining short that gives a whole new meaning to the phrases “Clothes maketh the man” and “fashion victim”.
Arse-Licker is by Stephen Volk and is a story that not so much pushes the envelope as tears it open and tips its contents out. Much like Jonny Mains’ offering, the title pretty much encapsulates what the story is all about but it’s to Stephen’s absolute credit, and skill as a writer that the gloriously gross content is transformed into an amazing piece of fiction.
The key scene, in which metaphorical becomes literal, is absolutely horrible. In a good way. It’s a long scene and will have you wanting it to come to an end long before it actually does, but it’s written with such brilliant dark humour that when a moment of epiphany (or should that be epi-fanny?) is reached it will have you laughing out loud. It’s a hard trick to pull off but Stephen does it brilliantly, there isn’t a bum note in there.
Darkly comic, this is certainly the most memorable story in the collection. Lurid? Yes. Sleazy? Yes. Tongue-in-cheek? Most definitely.
Mark’s own story The Glamour Girl Murders completes the collection and is probably comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original stories. It’s set amongst the world of “glamour” photography and porn and takes place in a seventies London which Mark captures perfectly with some lovely period detail.
It’s a murder mystery as the title suggests and fulfils nicely all the pulp traditions with a suitably monstrous killer and a climax (yes, I chose that word specifically) set in a thunderstorm. Oh, and a shady character called McMahon…
Anatomy of Death is fine addition to the Hersham back catalogue. Horror is indeed a broad church as Mark says in his introduction. Tastes may change, the genre will evolve (as it has to) but at the end of the day you can’t beat a bit of pulp.
You can buy the book here.

Monday 15 April 2013


Gary McMahon's latest novella Nightsiders is published by Dark Fuse Publishing and is available in hardback and electronic formats. In reality, unless you're a member of the their book club, you're unlikely to get your hands on a copy of the hardback and, given that there's a waiting list to join the book club, chances are you'll end up downloading the electronic version.
Download it you should though, as this is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, one that transcends its genre sensibilities and which works on many levels, a feast for the imagination and the intellect.
The story begins with Robert Mitchell and his family returning from holiday to take up residence in their newly acquired house in the village of Battle. Their discovery of another family, the Corbeaus already in residence at the house and claiming the property as theirs sets off a series of nightmare events that ultimately question the notions of reality and identity.
What begins as a standard horror trope along the lines of Straw Dogs or Funny Games (influences acknowledged by the author) transforms, as the story progresses into something even darker - and certainly more profound. The sense of paranoia and disorientation is expertly developed and the story's protagonist is a brilliantly realised character, deeply flawed, a man trying desperately to protect his family, driven by guilt over an attack on his wife in their previous life in London, desperate to reassert his masculinity. His confrontation of his own personal demons provides both the narrative, and intellectual thrust of the novella.
The book raises more questions than it answers but therein lies the joy of it. What is real and what isn't? What is reality anyway? Who - or even what - are we? Does the darkness dwell within us or alongside us?
Why is the local policeman called McMahon?
Nightsiders is a stunning piece of work and I'm glad I overcame my natural resistance to e-books to sample its wonders. (What is a "real" book anyway..?) A cracking horror yarn but also a thought-provoking piece of metafiction. Can't recommend it highly enough. 

Monday 8 April 2013

Scratching The Surface.

I've been a fan of Michael Kelly's editorial skills for some time now as evidenced in the literary horror journal Shadows and  Tall Trees published by Undertow Books. He obviously has a fine eye for high quality stories so I was very much looking forward to reading some of his own stories to see if that expertise was mirrored in his own writing.
Scratching the Surface, a recently re-issued collection, is proof indeed that this is the case.
It's one of the most impressive collections I've read in some time, each story within it is individually perfectly pitched and written but as a whole they combine to make this a sublime reading experience.
I'll quote here from John Pelan's original 2007 introduction to the collection in which he says "These are stories that not only make you think, they make you feel." That's as good a definition of what art is, what art does, there is and it's a sentiment I entirely agree with in regard to this collection. These stories will make you feel, and what they make you feel won't always be pleasant or comfortable. Difficult issues are tackled within these pages, issues we probably don't want to have to face up to ourselves, issues it's certainly difficult to write about but Michael Kelly does so with great skill and a gentle, almost poetic prose that makes the reading itself a pleasurable experience even when the narratives take us into dark places.
This is an examination of the human condition and underlines the truth that the real horrors are the ones of our own making. These stories truly do scratch beneath the surface of what it is to be human, uncovering the darkness therein. It's deeply emotional writing, with beautiful metaphors and allegory which somehow make the "quiet" horror all the more profound. There's a supernatural element to many of the stories but this is handled with aplomb and great skill and never lessens, indeed often enhances, the emotional impact of the writing.
I can't single out any of the stories for special praise as I enjoyed all twenty to the same extent. That said, the order of the stories has been well chosen, the themes of the book flowing and developing as you make your way through it. The final lines of the final story, Worse Things, are an absolute bombshell and left me with goosebumps.
Scratching The Surface is a stunning collection of stories that I can't recommend highly enough.