Saturday 23 March 2013

James Herbert

The Survivor was written by James Herbert and was the first horror novel I ever read.
It scared the shit out of me.
It also had a massive influence on me and, I guess, the way I’ve “turned out”. It instilled in me – along with night terrors so profound I was literally at times scared to pick the book up and continue reading – a love of horror fiction which has persisted ever since.
I would have been thirteen when I read The Survivor – when it first came out bearing the stunning cover shown above.  “A tale of death and of an evil which transcends death” the tagline read, which I found incredibly enticing, even more so when I checked the dictionary and found out what transcend meant.
It was a case of perfect timing. James Herbert was massively popular at the time I began my “adult” reading career, riding on the best selling success of his previous novels The Rats and The Fog. Copies of both of those books were constantly being swapped around at school, dog-ears marking the particularly gross bits (and the sex scenes) – of which there were many.
His style was definitely pulpy and, to be fair, he never claimed it was anything else. In my opinion he did become a better writer as his career progressed, I think The Magic Cottage was a turning point of sorts, a gentler story, one that built slowly rather than relying on in your face horror.
I was lucky enough to meet James Herbert, albeit briefly, at a book signing some years back in Newcastle. It was a fleeting moment but I did get to shake the great man’s hand, twice as it happens, but even in that short time a couple of things happened which gave me some insight into the type of man he was. As I was waiting patiently in the queue clutching my books, I noticed his PR man fussing around, checking his watch and looking worriedly at the number of people still waiting to get their books signed. He expressed his concerns to the shop manager whereupon Mr Herbert interjected, telling both of them that it didn’t matter how long it took, he would stay and sign books for everyone who had come to see him.
Secondly, when I finally got to see him myself and, after the first handshake produced my own copy of the book. That signed I then took out another three of his books and asked if he wouldn’t mind signing them too. Of course he did, and then remarked on the fact that they were all hardback editions. I had read all the paperbacks, I explained to him and had now moved onto the hard covers. He seemed genuinely appreciative of this, and thanked me for it. Then he shook my hand again.
A brief moment but enough to increase my appreciation of James Herbert even more. He not only wrote the books I loved to read, he was a thoroughly nice – and humble - bloke too.
So yes, I’m sad at the news of his death. Like many others (or so it seems reading a lot of online tributes) I’ve drifted away from his writing in latter years. This is no place to justify that decision by offering a criticism of the writing, anyway the change was more likely within me, finding my tastes more in keeping with a different style of horror writing.
I remain though, eternally grateful to James Herbert for opening up a whole new world to me. He scared me so much that I wanted to experience it again, and again, and again…
The horror genre has lost someone special.

Monday 18 March 2013

Urban Occult.

Urban Occult is a collection of fifteen short stories edited by Colin F Barnes and published by Anachron Press. It opens with a powerhouse of a story by Gary McMahon (it would be unthinkable not to include a story of his in a book of urban horrors...) with the ironic title of Just Another Job. It's a disturbing tale with a very dark theme (which in less skilled hands could have been exploitative) centering around a couple of hit-men discovering very dark secrets in the remote house belonging to the paedophile they've been sent to kill. It's the literary equivalent of a kick in the face and a grim (and yes, bleak...) start to the collection.
By contrast, the next story Spider Daughter Spider reads almost like a fairy tale. It's a grim fairy tale though, an estranged father creating a golem-esque replacement for the daughter he is prevented from seeing. It's stylishly written and I enjoyed it very much.
Gary Fry's On The Horizon seems a strange inclusion for this collection given that it's not particularly urban or occult related. It's written in Gary's trademark style, very formal and precise, he is a writer with a very distinctive "voice". I love Gary's stories but I sometimes have a problem when this voice finds its way into the dialogue he writes, making it seem stuffy and stilted. I'm afraid this is what happens here, made worse by the fact that it's young kids who are doing the speaking. It's an interesting coming-of -age story with its fair share of phallic references and metaphors but I'm not sure it's the right story for this collection.
The urban occult theme is pretty well re-established and maintained by the remainder of the stories though. A lighter approach is taken with a couple of the stories, The Strange Case of Mrs West & the Dead by Sarah Anne Langton and The Remover of Obstacles by James Brogden in particular although I felt the latter suffered somewhat by being a wee bit too contrived for its own good. I have to say some of the stories were a bit too long as well, short stories should never feel as if they're dragging but I felt that this was unfortunately the case here on a couple of occasions.
The stand outs for me among the remaining stories were The Other Woman by Chris Barnham which is a ghost story with some nice twists along the way and Mark West's The Witch House in which Mark displays his talents for creating a nostalgic view of eighties childhood, something he did to supreme effect in his Spectral chapbook What Gets Left Behind. My only criticism of the story is that it feels more of a vignette than a stand alone piece but when it conjures up those childhood feelings and  fears of the "haunted house" (every town has one, at least when you're a kid...) it's a minor quibble.
Urban Occult is a strong collection of stories with a mixture of styles which should appeal to fans of out-and-out horror and fantasy alike.

Friday 15 March 2013

Let's get liminal.

"Third time's the charm" - or so it's said, and in that spirit Dark Minds Press are pleased to announce that they're open for submissions for their third anthology DARKEST MINDS.

We were extremely pleased with the reception both Dark Minds and Darker Minds received and spurred on by that made the decision to release the third book in the series.

It's been an honour to work with so many talented writers and artists thus far and we're looking forward to more of the same with Darkest Minds.

It's going to be another themed anthology (the precise guidelines are below) but the theme is hopefully general enough that it will stimulate, rather than prescribe to, the collective imaginations of all those submitting.

I'm looking forward to reading the stories and hopefully producing a high quality book that the contributors will be proud to be associated with.

Thanks to everyone who has made the Dark Minds dream a reality, the writers, the artists, the reviewers and everyone who has bought copies of the first two books.

Here's to a dark future...

Dare you cross the line..?

Borders surround us; visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical, natural and supernatural and every day we cross over them.

Sometimes it’s a fine line we cross between one place and the next, between one state of being and another. Love and hate, sanity and insanity, life and death…

Dark Minds Press are looking for submissions of stories between 2,000 and 7,000 words for their next anthology, Darkest Minds, centred loosely on the theme of crossing a border and the transformative effects this brings about. The border may be a physical one, a journey from one place to another or something of a more esoteric nature, the transition from life to death (or undeath…), journeying between parallel realities or states of consciousness…

Send your stories of the liminal along with a short biography, which will appear in the finished book should you be successful, to:

Please send manuscripts via Word attachment, double spaced in 12pt Times or Courier font with italics and bold as you would like them to appear, not underlined please.

Payment will be a flat fee of £10.00 payable via Paypal upon acceptance and one copy of the printed anthology.

The closing date for submissions is October 31st 2013.

Monday 11 March 2013

The Fox.

The Fox is the latest chapbook offering from the folks over at This is Horror and is written by the consistently brilliant Conrad Williams. Conrad's collection Born With Teeth was one of my highlights of last year, intelligent, literary horror that was enjoyable as much for the quality of the writing as it was for the stories themselves. As such, I was very much looking forward to this story, the third release in this series of so far very enjoyable short(ish) stories.
By way of a small digression, it is a joy to see this form of writing undergoing a resurgence. The length of these stories is just about perfect for the horror genre, long enough to develop plots and characters but not so long that padding is required. I love a good horror novel but I've ploughed through a couple of behemoths lately that frankly could have lost a couple of hundred pages without any real detriment to the plot. Much can be achieved in the shorter form and The Fox is a supreme example of this.
The set-up for the story is a familiar one with a family on a camping holiday, attempting to "connect" with nature. Connect they do, experiencing extreme weather conditions and encounters with the eponymous mammal.
Foxes have a well established connection with folklore and mythology, are regarded in some areas as familiars, possessing supernatural and magical qualities. Lars Von Trier's "love it or hate it" (I loved it) film Antichrist uses a fox in a pivotal scene (itself a "love it or hate it" moment - again, I loved it) and I have to admit I was put in mind of it when reading this story. It's a passing similarity though and certainly not to the detriment of the chapbook.
On the surface a man v nature story, there's so much more to this. The story's protagonist is certainly flawed, and it's his encounters with the fox which reawaken his guilty conscience, bringing back memories of his teenage years where his character was in part shaped by sexual frustration leading to acts of cruelty.
There's a hint of karma to the story too, the fox encountered in the present day setting may or may not be a supernatural entity, may or may not be "out for revenge" - in truth, it doesn't really matter, the ambiguity adds to the overall story, enhanced by this being a first person narrative from a fairly unreliable narrator. Chickens (pardon the pseudo-pun) definitely come home to roost in this tale.
The Fox is another quality piece of writing from an extremely talented writer. It's another quality product from the publishers and is one I highly recommend. You can buy it - or, better still a subscription, here.