Sunday 20 January 2013


Habit is the debut novel from Stephen McGeagh and is published by Salt Publishing. First novels can be a hit-or-miss affair sometimes (and are the subject of an excellent article by Nicholas Royle - who has himself had work published by Salt - which can be found here) but on the whole I've been impressed with recent (and not so recent, retrospective viewings of) examples I've come across. Notable examples have been Adam Nevill's Banquet For the Damned and Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box both of which I compare favourably with what I think is the best debut horror novel ever, Clive Barker's The Damnation Game.
I became aware of Habit by way of an online recommendation by Gary McMahon. If he was blown away by the darkness and bleakness of the book then it was one I certainly had to experience for myself, to see if I would be equally as impressed.
Impressed is an understatement. Habit is a short novel but it wasn't just the word count which made me  read it in one sitting, the narrative and, more importantly, the writing itself meant I couldn't put it down until I'd finished the whole thing. Another favourite first novel of mine is Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and there are similarities between Habit and that novel in terms of the characters inhabiting them but they also share an amazing narrative voice (or voices in the case of Trainspotting...), both are written with great style and confidence, both have distinctive prose that makes them something very special indeed.
Habit is a clever title, and fits the novel beautifully. It describes the existence of Michael, the first person narrator of the book whose life revolves around trips to collect benefit and the pub, the latter with his friend and sister. It's also an obvious reference to drug use and addiction, a theme the book moves into in its second half, although not in the way that might be expected.
Despite its brevity, Habit manages to cram a lot in. It's a post modern dream in that it blends genres, and does so seamlessly. From gritty, urban realism the story segues into horror, (and I mean proper horror) but it's testament to the skill of the writer that this transition in no way feels clunky, gimmicky or somehow tacked on. The events that unfold seem like an entirely natural progression from the narrative that preceded it.
Habit is dark, bleak and uncompromising. There aren't many (or any...) likeable characters in it and many horrible things happen within its pages.
I loved it.
On the basis of this first novel, Stephen McGeagh is destined for great things. I for one am looking forward very much to his next publication. Habit will take you to places you really don't want to go to but trust me, stick with it, the journey is absolutely worth it.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

The Ghosts of Christmas Past...

Ah yes, Christmas, a time of giving, a time of goodwill to all men, a time of tradition... A dinner of turkey, the giving of presents, the blowing-off of porch roofs... (Okay, the last one may not be a tradition as such but it certainly played a big part in my festivities this time round). Tradition it was though to tell scary stories at this time of year, preferably around a roaring fire with a glass of brandy in hand, a practice whose motivations and origins are discussed by Johnny Mains in the introduction to the latest offering from Dark Musings' favourite publisher Spectral Press, the beautifully produced collection of stories that is The 13 Ghosts of Christmas.
It's a good title for a book (and which sits above a striking bit of cover artwork from Vincent Shaw-Morton which perfectly captures the essence of ghostly yuletide tales) but, if I'm being pedantic, isn't an entirely accurate description of the contents. There are thirteen stories here for sure, but they're not all about ghosts. Is this a problem? Of course not, only the worst of pedants so far up their own fundament would take issue with this. I actually think this a strength of the book, not too long ago I reacquainted myself with the collected stories of both Charles Dickens and M.R. James. I enjoyed the experience immensely but I have to admit that towards the end it was a case of oh, another ghost story... Variety is the spice of life and there's plenty of that in here, all of the highest quality.
The collection is book-ended by two stories that are actually about ghosts. John Costello's An Odd Number at Table opens the collection and ticks another box for the pedants being set, as it is, at Christmas. I liked the story, it's a strong opener for the book, but felt the revelation, when it came, wasn't that much of a revelation and the story's coda I found creepy, but not for the reasons you might expect...
Adrian Tchaikovsky's Lost Soldiers is the final story in the book and is an extremely atmospheric piece which makes good use of its Lincolnshire location (and weather). It's a good story but I felt the slightly jokey style of the narrator detracted a little from the overall scariness of the piece.
The spirit of M.R. James is most apparent in All that is Living by Nicholas Martin but the story felt a little disjointed, changing the character point of view midway through.
The story that most closely adheres to the tradition of the Christmas ghost story is William Meikle's Carnacki: A Cold Christmas in Chelsea. William was one of my "finds" of last year and I enjoyed this reincarnation of William Hope Hodgson's character as much as I did his Dark Melodies collection. It's an atmospheric story, well told, with a nice, traditional feel to it.
All the stories in this collection are of a high quality, there's no filler here - I enjoyed all of them. I fear Richard Farren Barber's Where The Stones Lie may have suffered somewhat by my having just read the latest Spectral chapbook The Way of the Leaves which arrived alongside my copy of 13 Ghosts as there are similarities between the stories. It's a cracking tale though, atmospheric, scary and moving.
The stand-out stories for me were firstly Thana Niveau's And May All your Christmases, a story whose premise is profoundly scary (although non-ghostly!) and which contains a curious typo which somehow escaped the ominous squint of Mr Marshall Jones.
Gary McMahon's Ritualism is another great piece of writing from the ever-consistent King of Bleak. Again, it's not a ghost story but is deeply scary nonetheless, creating a new urban myth and confirming everyone's worst fears about gangs of kids hanging around on street corners.
My favourite story in the collection though is Martin Roberts' Now and Then. It's also the shortest story in there but is stylishly written and structured, sad and scary. It worked for me.
The 13 Ghosts of Christmas is yet another impressive addition to the Spectral back catalogue. Kudos to Simon Marshall Jones for reanimating this tradition (here's hoping bear-baiting and witch hunts aren't next on his list) and I wish him every success with future editions, hopefully it'll be a tradition that continues long into the future.