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.