Monday 17 November 2014

The Hammer of Dr Valentine.

The Hammer of Dr Valentine is the much-anticipated sequel to John Llewellyn Probert's novella The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine and, like its predecessor, is published by Spectral Press. In the first book, the titular medic carried out a series of elaborately gruesome murders on fellow members of his profession, the modus operandi of which were based on the films of Vincent Price. In this follow up, and employing the principle of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", another set of gloriously over the top murders are presented, dripping in Kensington Gore and modelled on the films produced by Hammer.
As with the first book, the author's enthusiasm for the subject matter leaps off the pages and the end result is yet another thoroughly entertaining - and yes, Proberty romp that will bring a smile to the face of anyone familiar with the classic British films that are referenced within. Actually, it will bring a smile to the face of anyone who reads it whether they're familiar with the source material or not as the author brings his trademark tongue-in-cheek style of writing to the proceedings, managing the tricky skill of presenting truly awful things happening to people in such a way that it's entertaining and yes, even enjoyable.
The people the terrible things happen to in this instance are journalists, specifically the journalists who collaborated on a book detailing the crimes perpetrated in Nine Deaths and John takes great delight in showing them up to be shallow and devious - so much so that you'll end up rooting for Dr Valentine. Who here has not whiled away the time thinking up gruesome ways of murdering a Daily Mail journalist? Yes you have. Admit it.
Some of the joy to be had from reading the book is working out which films are being referenced but John has done a grand job here "re-interpreting" the original death scenes and putting a new spin on them. There's enough of the original to make the nostalgic among us go "aaah..." but plenty originality to appreciate too. I didn't spot them all but have to admit to cheering when, in the book's climax, that scene from that Dracula film got a nod.
The good news is that this won't be the last we see of Dr Valentine. The final scenes drop a hint - or perhaps that should be premonition - of what's to come in the next book. DCI Longdon, Valentine's world-weary pursuer from the first book makes a welcome reappearance here and will hopefully feature in the next book too. Might be best if he doesn't make any trips across water though...
The Hammer of Dr Valentine is another highly entertaining, and ingenious piece of writing from John Llewellyn Probert and one which I highly recommend that you purchase. Which you can do here.

Monday 10 November 2014

No One Gets Out Alive.

No One Gets Out Alive is the latest novel from Adam Nevill and is published by Pan. His previous novels have all been tours de force of intense, frightening and highly imaginative writing and evidence that he has completely mastered the skill of creating and maintaining an intense and scary atmosphere for the whole of the longer form. The Ritual is the most intense novel I’ve ever read whilst Last Days is one of the few novels scary enough to actually make me put it down in an attempt to regain some composure. No One Gets Out Alive weighs in at over 600 pages so the big question in my mind before beginning it was whether Adam could pull off the same trick and maintain the tension for such a long time.
The answer of course is yes. No One Gets Out Alive is an exercise in mounting – and then sustained – terror that will leave you wrung out when you finish it. It’s a tough read – not because of the prose and structure, both of which are, as ever, immaculate – but because of the subject matter. It’s another seamless mix of horror arising from the darkest facets of human behaviour and the supernatural but the former means there are some brutal scenes in here which are not for the faint-hearted. (Mind you, if you’re faint-hearted, it’s highly unlikely you’d be considering this as a book to read, or reading a review on a horror blog for that matter). The violence is shocking - because it should be, and is written in such a way that the horror of what is happening impacts on the reader without ever feeling exploitative.
NOGOA has a female protagonist, repeating the pattern of Adam’s last book House of Small Shadows and his earlier novel Apartment 16 the lead character in this instance being Stephanie Booth, on her own in Birmingham, moving from one temping job to another, desperate to find somewhere cheap to live. That opportunity is provided by 82 Edgehill Road and its landlord, the wonderfully named Knacker McGuire.
There are echoes here of Adam’s short story The Angels of London in Gray Friar Press’s Terror Tales of London which featured a similar opening scenario with that story’s protagonist, Frank, renting a flat from landlord Granby – undoubtedly  a prototype upon which the more fully-fledged character of Knacker was based. Knacker is a wonderful creation, the personification of sleaziness, shuffling and slimy with just enough accent inserted into his dialogue to make it ring true and add to the characterisation. At no point does he proclaim to be “ever so ‘umble” but the obsequiousness is all too apparent nonetheless. Knacker and the accommodation at 82 Edgehill Rd are so horrible that you can’t help but scream at Stephanie to get the hell out but the author has obviously given the scenario a lot of thought and has come up with entirely plausible and, it has to be said, heart-breaking reasons why Stephanie is unable so to do.
The scares start as soon as Stephanie moves in, subtly at first with some brilliantly drawn scenes of disembodied voices, cold atmospheres and glimpses of apparitions but the horror really kicks in with a vengeance with the arrival of Knacker’s cousin Fergal, bringing with him an air of violence which all too soon becomes reality and a realisation of the true nature of what is actually going on inside the house.
Alongside the physical horror of the reality of Stephanie’s situation, the supernatural elements are also ramped up – and no one is better than Nevill at describing the decaying, scratchy, scuttling things that dwell in darkness – culminating in a powerhouse of a denoument in the house that will leave you breathless.
And then you realise there are still over two hundred pages to go…
It’s a clever move. The last section of the book allows all the exposition about the history of 82 Edgehill Rd (and its inhabitants) that would have felt bolted on and incongruous in the opening section (and which would certainly have made the task of keeping Stephanie in the house that much harder) to be presented, providing context – and creating an entirely plausible mythology along the way – for the events within the house.
A gentle coast towards the end of the book then?
Yeah, right. Remember that scene in the movie Poltergeist after the spiritualist pronounces the “house is clean”? And then what happens..? No one, reader included, gets away that easily…

No One Gets Out Alive is a fine addition to Adam Nevill’s oeuvre, another classic piece of horror fiction and evidence that here is a writer at the very top of his game. Read it if you dare. I highly recommend that you should though.

Monday 3 November 2014

Back to Black.

All good things must come to an end and so it is with the Spectral Press serialisation of Simon Bestwick's Black Mountain. Fittingly, the end came on Hallowe'en with the release of the last installment, The Dancers in the Pines - and it's hard to believe that the saga began way back in December of 2013. I reviewed the "work in progress" here so it seems only fitting to complete that process now that the last words of the novel have been committed to... err...the virtual ether.
It's taken another six episodes to complete the story of the eponymous Welsh mountain since that last review which described the fate of Russell Ware, the journalist who'd coined the phrase "The Bala Triangle" to describe the area around Mynydd Du, a place where unexplained phenomena and mysterious deaths and disappearances are rife.
The subsequent installments follow the same pattern as the first five, presented as transcripts and testimonials, presenting the evidence accumulated by Ware and, as the progressing story reveals, earlier visitors to the region. The book as a whole is the literary equivalent of a Matroyshka doll, revealing layer upon layer of information, digging deeper and deeper into the history of the region (episode 9 - Ancient Voices - takes the story back to the Roman occupation of Britain and even then hints that the evil goes back even further than that).
I'll state again how complementary the episodic release of the story has been to this style of presentation. Each episode works as a story in its own right but also reveals enough new information to keep the reader hooked and desperate for the next installment.
The story began way back in 2013 with the introduction of the author himself as the narrator and as the book neared its conclusion I had concerns as to how this device would work. All I will say is that it does work - and in an extremely clever and entertaining way. Call it post-modern, meta-fiction even but however you look at it, it's bloody good and rounds off the ten month journey in style.
Mention needs to be made too of the stunning art work which adorns the covers of the individual episodes, provided by Neil Williams. It's great news that a print version of the complete book will be produced next year so that the art - as well as the words - can be fully appreciated. The cover image I've used for this review (episode 10, The Watcher) is my favourite of them all - and is possibly my favourite of the episodes too. I mentioned the "found footage" analogy in my previous review and this device is used within the story itself in this installment to great effect. I had to put the kindle down at one point, so effective - and downright scary - was the imagery being presented. That hasn't happened since I read Adam Nevill's Last Days - so kudos to Mr Bestwick for that.
If you haven't already, you can buy Black Mountain here (and visit the Spectral site for the first installment) - you really should.

Monday 20 October 2014

High Seas Drifter

Never judge a book by its cover. Sage advice. Except of course if that book cover has on it the words Jeffrey Archer - in which case judging is entirely appropriate. It has to be said though that it's sometimes difficult not to appraise the merits of a book by what's presented on its cover and the art work which adorns the front of it is as important as what's contained within those covers. And yes, I know the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" is not meant to be taken literally but its use in that context allows a neat introduction for the new novella from Pendragon Press - The Derelict by Neil Williams, the context being that Neil has made a name for himself already in the small press with some astounding cover art. His credits are too many to mention here but anyone enjoying the current Terror Tales series from Gray Friar Press or Spectral's serialisation of Simon Bestwick's Black Mountain will be very familiar with his work. (Scroll down slightly and you'll see more of his work adorning the cover of Horror Uncut).
As might be expected, Neil has provided the art work for his own book and quite a cover it is too, absolutely dripping with atmosphere. The good news is, that atmosphere is created just as effectively by the words within - this is an extremely well written, and crafted piece of work.
Presented The Rime of the Ancient Mariner style, with an "old, mad drunkard" sharing his tale for the price of an ale, the story relates events surrounding the discovery by the schooner Albin Grau of the seemingly deserted brig Persephone. And yes, those names are entirely significant, Grau a production designer on a famous 1922 horror film and Persephone the daughter of Demeter, the goddess whose name was appropriated for the name of a ship in a relatively famous novel of 1897.
Nods then to iconic works from the past but also to more contemporary horrors, the discovery of the "deserted" ship referencing Event Horizon and Alien as well, of course, as the Marie Celeste. It's no surprise then that the Persephone isn't quite as deserted as it first seems.
The use of these familiar tropes in way diminishes from the power and effectiveness of the novella however. As I stated earlier, the atmosphere is beautifully created and that results in the reader becoming completely immersed in the story which unfolds. And quite a story it is too, cracking along at a fair old pace and with some brilliantly constructed set-pieces. One in particular, involving a rowing boat and rope clambering will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Derelict is a good, old-fashioned (in the best possible way) horror yarn and I had a whale of a time reading it. It's the prefect tale for a Halloween night so get one now before the end of the month. Get one anyway (which you can do via the publishers), it's a great read. The novella is available in paperback (as a limited, signed edition) or as an e-book though I would recommend the former simply for a full appreciation of the art work which adorns it.
Neil's There Shall We Ever Be was the highlight of the Ill at Ease II collection - a subtle, slow burner of a story which demonstrated his skill at creating an atmospheric piece of writing. The Derelict is further evidence of those skills and I recommend it highly.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Horror Uncut.

If one of the functions of horror fiction is to hold a mirror up to society, to reflect real life fears and concerns, then right now must feel like a literary feeding frenzy for purveyors of the weird with the global recession rumbling on and a set of austerity measures put in place by a group of millionaires suffering from the unfortunate delusion that they know what's best for everyone. Perhaps the best line of fiction to arise from the present climate is David Cameron's claim that "we're all in this together", the utter-bullshitness of which must place it high in the list of all-time How Stupid Do You Think We Are? quotations, (or the Clarkson List as it's coming to be known), but now we have Horror Uncut from Gray Friar Press which contains seventeen stories of "social insecurity and economic unease" which provides a much higher quality of fantasy writing altogether.
The collection is edited by Tom Johnstone who completed the book after the tragic death of its co-editor Joel Lane and who provides a thoughtful and insightful afterword to the stories.
Specific policies provide the inspiration for many of the stories, including Ptichka by Laura Lauro, A Simple Matter of Space by John Forth and The Ghost at the Feast by Alison Littlewood, the latter the only story in the collection to directly feature the politicians responsible in a story which examines the relationship between MP and constituent.
As an employee of the NHS I'm all too aware of just how "safe" the institution is in the hands of the present government and the threat of privatisation and its general mismanagement provide the basis for David Williams' The Procedure (which unfortunately I felt got the tone wrong and suffered from a twist that was obvious early on) and Joel Lane's A Cry for Help which opens the collection with perfectly pitched, biting satire. Funding - or lack of - for mental health services is the subject of one of the best stories in the collection, Thana Niveau's No History of Violence which ends the book on a truly chilling note.
Supernatural themes are relatively scarce for a book of horror stories but are employed most effectively in Gary McMahon's Only Bleeding (whose title gives a hint as to which metaphor is put to use in it) and Simon Bestwick's The Battering Stone, another story of his to feature the character of Paul Hearn and which hints at ancient forces feeding off misery and austerity.
Capitalism rears its ugly, greedy head in Priya Sharma's The Ballad of Boomtown and Stephen Hampton's The Sun Trap in which the family unit becomes allegory for the banking crisis in a story that's probably a little too predictable and which suffers from a few too info-dumps.
Exploitation is the keynote of Anna Taborska's The Lemmy/Trump Test, David Turnbull's The Privelige Card and another trademark John Llewellyn Probert piece The Lucky Ones. The exploitation is of the poor, by the rich - a scenario that forms the backdrop to John Howard's Falling Into Stone in which metaphor and harsh realism mix together perfectly.
 A more subtle, tangential approach to the effects of the austerity measures on individuals is exhibited in Roseanne Rabinowitz's Pieces of Ourselves and Stephen Bacon's The Devil's Only Friend, affecting ghost stories both.
Optimism of a sort is provided by Andrew Hook's The Opaque District which is set in a future where queuing for food is the norm and where protagonist Jay is offered a glimpse - a promise  - of somewhere better... Better times ahead then? Maybe not.
Horror Uncut may not change minds or influence policy but it's an excellent collection of stories that do have important things to say. It has to be said it's unlikely to appeal to Daily Mail readers - which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it.
Highly recommended.

Monday 29 September 2014

All Change.

Mutator is the latest offering from Gary Fry and is released by DarkFuse. As expected, it's another slice of philosophical conjecture lurking within the framework of a horror story - another Frydian thesis. Previous books by Gary have focused on the dichotomy between mind and body but there's a different subject matter on display in Mutator with musings on evolutionary theory providing the backdrop to the narrative thrust.
The story centres around James who has just moved into his remote Yorkshire home with his dog, Damian. Yes, a dog called Damian. Unfortunately, it's Damian with an "a" and not Damien with an "e" thereby precluding any jokes about omens but there's plenty foreshadowing going on here - something Gary does extremely well - with encounters with spiders and distorted reflections worming their way into the reader's subconscious, subtly building a contextual framework. It's too overt to be truly subliminal but the effect is the same.
An encounter with a neighbour raises concerns over the house's previous occupant and the discovery of a hidden room containing scientific equipment and journals deepens those concerns. Things really come to a head with arrival of a small, silver ball which falls from the sky and which turns out to be spaceship containing...
Suffice to say, what it is that emerges from the ball provides the horror of the story but is also the basis of its philosophical concerns. As a cognitive scientist, James understands that it is consciousness alone which can adapt immediately to its environment via perception and learning, that the physical body is incapable of such rapid change. Until, that is, he discovers the craft's occupant.
My main criticism of Gary's previous book, Savage, was that it was too short to adequately develop the themes contained within it and I have to make the same comment about Mutator. He's created a truly original monster here with massive potential but I feel the short length of the novella means it's not fully exploited and that the plot contrivances are, as in Savage, exacerbated. I think there's massive potential for this creature and would love to see the ideas on display in Mutator evolve (ha!) into a longer form.
Don't get me wrong though, Mutator is a great read. Despite the emphasis I've given to the theoretical aspects in this review, they in no way overwhelm the story and there's plenty plot to be getting on with and enough gore and gloopiness to satisfy hardened fans of "wet work". The trend of horrible things happening to small mammals established in Savage is maintained here.
Mutator is another trademark blend of horror and philosophy - archetypal Fry - and further evidence of an author making his mark (or should that be Lamarck) in the world of weird fiction. I recommend it highly.

Saturday 20 September 2014

The End.

The End. This is the end, my only friend, the end…So sang Jim Morrison in the 1967 song bearing that ominous title. Its initial release was too early for even me to remember but the song is one of my cultural landmarks because of its use in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now – its plangent tones accompanying the death of Colonel Kurtz, the music and lyrics providing the perfect accompaniment to the striking imagery on screen.
That was thirty five years ago (yes, I know…) but it made such an impact on me that I can’t help but hear the song whenever I hear those two words. (Pavlov – and possibly his dogs – would be proud).
So yes, there it was, running through my head when I read that the new novel from Gary McMahon shared that particular title. Whilst the song is about the end of a relationship (and various oedipal fantasies…) the book is about the end of the world – or at least mankind’s existence on it. It describes present day events surrounding the appearance of a “suicide plague” which compels huge swathes of the population to kill themselves – apocalypse now indeed.
It’s a first person narrative – a device which works brilliantly to convey the confusion as well as the horror of the situation and which also means that there are no real explanations for why what is happening is happening. There are hints and clues yes – a couple of the book’s most effective set pieces describe the appearance of messages implying that someone is to blame – but anyone seeking a full and detailed explanation will be disappointed. This is a good thing.
The narrator is Mack, in London on business when the plague hits, hundreds of miles away from his blind and pregnant wife Kay who is back home in their isolated cottage in Yorkshire. The bulk of the novel concerns Mack’s journey back home, accompanied by a small group of fellow survivors and it’s his determination to be reunited with the woman he loves that provides the emotional core of the book.
The journey is, of course, fraught with difficulty and danger. As if simply negotiating their way through traffic pile-ups caused by the mass suicides wasn’t enough, the survivors also have to contend with the “Leftovers” – zombies for all intents and purposes - who have become aggressors, determined to take as many people with them as they can, oblivious to their own horrific injuries and who provide the book’s gross-out moments in abundance. Much uncoiling of intestines is to be had…
The success of the book of course depends on the character of Mack, its narrator, and Gary does a brilliant job of creating an everyman that the reader can root for, enhancing that character with the romance between him and his wife to whom he is desperate to return. It’s therefore an incredibly bold move to, in a single scene, completely undermine the empathy and trust the reader has invested in the character when he makes a decision to follow a particular course of action.
It’s a move that works brilliantly though, shocking the reader, unsettling them and leaving them uncertain right up until the end of the book at which point context – of a sort – is provided. That’s not all the ending provides although to say more would be unfair. It’s incredibly powerful though, and deeply moving.
In the early days of this blog I referred to Gary McMahon as “The King of Bleak”. Whilst this was meant as a compliment it could also be seen as pigeon-holing or labelling –a suggestion that Gary is a “type” of writer. This, as anyone who has read his work will know, is far from the truth but, I’ll tell you what, if you do want bleak there aren’t many better as The End convincingly demonstrates.
On the surface, The End reads as an exciting horror novel – and can be enjoyed simply on that basis - but there’s real depth here too with musings on humanity itself, (and not the more benevolent interpretations of the word) with suggestions that the plague is the ultimate outcome for mankind's greed and selfishness and the destruction they inevitably result in.

The End is evidence indeed that Gary's mojo is risin' and is published by Newcon Press. You can - and I thoroughly recommend that you should - buy it here.

Monday 25 August 2014

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories.

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories is a non-themed anthology from Spectral Press which contains nineteen stories selected – and edited – by mark Morris. It’s a stellar line-up of well established authors contributing to the book and this, along with the high standard established by Spectral with everything they’ve so far published meant my expectations were high for this new volume. Having now read an advance review copy of the book I can say that those expectations were more than fulfilled – this is an outstanding collection of stories and a brilliant advertisement for the short form of horror writing.
Leading the procession is On the Tour by Ramsey Campbell, a tale of narcissism and delusion centred around Stu, one-time drummer in Scotty and the Scousers who is convinced a Beatles tour in Liverpool is incorporating a visit to his own home. Stu’s character is skilfully drawn and Campbell succeeds in eliciting – if not empathy then certainly sympathy - from the reader. There’s a dark undercurrent (or should that be a backbeat?) to the tale however and as the story progresses this comes to the fore, leading to an ending whose inevitability in no way diminishes its tragedy.
On the Tour isn’t the only story to use music as a backdrop, it’s a theme that occurs in Reggie Oliver’s The Book and the Ring which reintroduces the character of Jeremiah Staveley from his earlier story Quieta Non Movere a sixteenth century composer of choral music. To be honest, there’s nothing too original in the story itself – a tale if witchcraft and deals with the devil – but the real joy of the piece is in the way it’s written with the author presenting it as a written testimony from Staveley himself, beautifully creating the Elizabethan language and style of writing.
Musicians feature in Brian Hodge’s Cures for a Sickened World – this time a black metal group – Balrog – whose latest album has been mauled by an egotistical critic, Mr Sunshine. Revenge ensues, with the critic’s words turned back on him – literally, as a form of torture. It’s a bleak story with a nihilistic feel to it which gradually descends deeper and deeper into the darkness.
The fourth music themed story is Conrad Williams’ The Devil’s Interval. The story immediately struck a chord with me (sorry – pun intended) as, like its protagonist, I’m a self-taught (i.e. hopeless) guitarist. Pretty much anything that involves going beyond the third fret instils a mild sense of panic in me and I truly believe barre chords are a thing of the devil. What actually is a thing of the devil is the guitar featured in the story, a Fender Strat which unleashes havoc in this witty, yet dark riff (yeah, I know…) on Faustian themes.
The devil – or at he very least the imagery associated with him – plays a part in Rio Youers’ Outside Heavenly – the title referring to a town with surely one of the most ironic names ever. The story starts with the discovery of a mutilated corpse in a burning house and then gets progressively darker as the testimony of the murdered man’s wife gradually uncovers a demonic story with its roots in a strange settlement just outside of town…
There’s fire aplenty in the Youers story and it’s another recurring theme in the book. It has a significant role to play in Angela Slatter’s The October Widow – a vital component in a yearly ritual of renewal, a ritual involving sacrifice and burnt offerings carried out by the enigmatic Mirabel so that the natural order of the world can be maintained. Mr Spock’s philosophy circa Wrath of Khan that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is the rationale behind this ceremony but unfortunately it’s a tenet not everyone agrees with – with disastrous results.
Finding oneself in a new environment can often be a strange experience, the feeling of being an outsider, not fitting in and it’s this scenario that’s exploited in Funeral Rites by Helen Marshall, Something Sinister in Sunlight by Lisa Tuttle and Eastmouth by Alison Moore. The former finds Canadian Nora taking lodgings with Mrs Moreland and becoming entangled in a family tragedy. The arrival of the coffin containing Moreland’s son Sean brings about a suitably creepy conclusion and casts new light – or possibly darkness – on the characterisation that has preceded it.
Something Sinister in Sunlight has British actor Anson living and working in Los Angeles but nearing the end of his tether, thoroughly disappointed at the way things have turned out, typecast as psychopathic killers. In essence a variation of Misery, an encounter with a fan leads to some blurring of the lines between what’s real and what isn’t.
Eastmouth has Peter taking girlfriend Sonia back to his home town, the Eastmouth of the title in what is a beautifully written short story. The prose is concise with not a word wasted and perfectly creates a growing sense of unease that all is not what it seems in the small coastal town. It isn’t and the perfect prose and pacing continues to culminate in one of the best last lines of a story I’ve seen in quite some time.
In his introduction, Mark Morris pays homage to the Pan and Fontana horror stories and two stories in this collection probably recapture the spirit of those stories the best. Stolen Kisses by Michael Marshall Smith is a short, first person account of how jealousy can lead to extreme measures – even if it means hurting your best friend – a slight tale that’s all about the last line.
The Dog’s Home is by Alison Littlewood (and yes, that apostrophe is exactly where it should be) and turns out to be a gloriously nasty tale with a suitably gruesome conclusion which pulls the dog blanket from under your feet. Marley and Me it ain’t. Thankfully.
Alison is one of the Spectral alumni to appear in the book, another is John Llewellyn Probert whose contribution is The Life Inspector. A man with a clipboard comes knocking at the door of Franklin Chalmers armed with a series of questions designed to determine the value of his life. It’s a high concept piece with all the dark humour and flourishes you’d expect from the author but I feel there were a lot more opportunities to take some swipes at upper middle class twittery than were on display here.
Spectral’s first publication was Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark so it’s only right and proper that he should have a story in this first anthology. Dull Fire is much like the characters within it in that it doesn’t pull its punches. Those characters are McMahon archetypes, damaged and broken – haunted by, and scarred by their pasts, both literally and metaphorically. The plot may seem a little contrived, relying too much on coincidence but to some extent that’s not important – it’s the emotional impact that counts and this story has that in abundance. It’s a dark fable (interestingly, written partly as a way to escape a year’s creative block) and although I felt a few paragraphs at the end which diluted the story’s impact could have been trimmed this remains a disturbing, angry piece of writing.
Disturbing is the right word to describe the imagery in Steve Rasnic Tem’s The Night Doctor with its generation-spanning harbinger of death. A figure whose appearance put me in mind of a seventeenth century plague doctor, it’s a brilliant creation – scary enough as a childhood bogeyman but even scarier when it’s adults who see it…
Quite what Robert Shearman’s Carry Within Some Small Sliver of Me is actually about is, frankly, beyond me. To call it surreal would be accurate and yet somehow inadequate. It’s… well, Shearmanesque is probably the best way to describe it. There’s startling imagery aplenty in this very grim fairy tale about a Girl called Beverley who’s a bit of a monster.
The “weird tales with SL in their title” tradition continues with Tom Fletcher’s Slape – a strange word with all sorts of connotations, the meaning of which is explained by a character called (fittingly) Eels. It’s a tale of milkmen that’s far from everyday and embodies that strange other-worldly sense of dislocation felt during pre-dawn hours. It’s an odd little piece which drops in hints and clues about a particular customer on the round who may, or may not be slightly sinister… Odd and confusing yes – but therein lie its strengths.
Weird Tale with SL in its title number three is Stephen Laws’ The Slista – another strange title conjuring up pictures of some weird creature, slimy and evil. Which isn’t that far from the truth as you’ll discover reading this gem of a story. To say the narrator has a distinctive voice is to understate the case dramatically as the story is told in the pidgin English of one of a “family under the stairs” characters, relaying a significant event in which changes are afoot for the strange brood. It’s a Marmite story to be sure and I had to read it twice for the full effect to sink in. I loved it though, especially the way so much of the bigger story – of which this is a vignette – is portrayed through what’s being said.
The book ends with two stories of the highest quality. The penultimate tale is Nicholas Royle’s This Video Does Not Exist. The best horror fiction disturbs and unsettles the reader and that’s precisely what this story does. It begins almost comically with the first person narrator, an un-named university lecturer, discovering that he can’t see his head in his reflection in the mirror. The story has a touch of the surreal in these opening scenes as he desperately tries to determine whether what he is seeing (or not seeing, as the case may be) is real. Things take a turn however with the introduction of a news story about a gruesome murder in London and then become darker still when an internet search for videos takes the narrator – and reader – to some places they really don’t want to go. It’s (as expected, given the author) an enigmatic and beguiling tale but one whose imagery and overall feel will leave you shaken.
The collection is rounded off by Newspaper Heart from Stephen Volk, author of one of Spectral’s biggest successes, the critically acclaimed Whitstable. This is a novella too but it’s a tale so well told you’ll want to read it in one sitting. A plethora of cultural references place the story in the 1970’s – specifically the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night and revolves around a lonely boy’s construction of a guy. As time goes on, a relationship develops between the boy and his surrogate friend…
It’s a wonderful story which explores the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. The characters are perfectly drawn and the author cleverly introduces information and revelations that cast them in ever changing lights. It builds and builds towards the climax and when that climax arrives it’s utterly devastating and will leave you reeling. It’s an astounding piece of writing and a wonderful finale for what is an amazing collection of stories. In his introduction, Mark Morris states his ambition is for “The Spectral Book of Horror Stories to become a watchword for genre excellence”. On this evidence he’s already succeeded, and the release of subsequent volumes is much to be anticipated.

The book is being launched in September at FantasyCon and once it is you'll be able to buy it here.

Monday 28 July 2014

Unknown Causes.

Unknown Causes is a collection of eighteen stories by Frank Duffy and is published by Gallows Press. The book was my introduction to Frank’s writing and, having now read these tales of subtle and understated horror I can honestly say that I’m glad that introduction was made as what’s contained between its covers is some of the most unsettling fiction I’ve had the pleasure – if that’s the right word – of reading in quite some time.
Many of the stories herein are vignettes, short glimpses into bigger narratives and it’s a device that works splendidly, raising questions in the reader’s mind (most frequently – it has to be said -  “what the hell is going on here?”), questions that aren’t always answered – at least not directly. The prose is beautiful, poetic even, but these stories make demands of the reader, the brain definitely needs to be fully engaged to get the most from them. Those looking for resolution, for clear explanations of the strange events which unfold will be disappointed.
This is a good thing.
I always feel it’s slightly lazy to compare writers with one another, something that carries with it the risk that you somehow suggest an element of unoriginality but I think the stories within Unknown Causes do bear favourable comparison with the writing of Ramsey Campbell with their suggestions of something intangible, but not quite right lurking just out of sight and also, befittingly given that this year is the centenary of his birth, Robert Aickman whose trademark Weird Unexplained Shit (I forget which learned journal I lifted that reference from) is lovingly recreated here. Reality is altered within these tales and ambiguity abounds leading to a sense of dislocation, an uneasiness in the reader. These stories will disturb you.
As befitting such a haunting collection, ghosts and spirits glide in and out of its pages - malevolent and benevolent, sometimes making reparation, sometimes making demands. A creeping sense of paranoia infiltrates many of the stories, horrors both internal and external are explored. Revenge is a recurring theme as is that of familial relationships. Many of the characters populating the stories are lost and not just in the literal sense of the word. A couple of stories are more traditional fare with twists in the tail and feel almost like light relief from the darkness that surrounds them. Not that light though…

Unknown Causes will take you to some very dark places – and sometimes you won’t even know how you got there. Reality has never felt as fragile as it does in these eighteen stories and Frank Duffy’s elegant prose creates a palpable sense of unease. The tales which unfold here do precisely what good horror writing should – unnerve and unsettle the reader. It’s a collection I recommend thoroughly.

Monday 14 July 2014

Shadows & Tall Trees 2014

Shadows & Tall Trees 2014 is the sixth volume to bear that name and is an anthology of literary “strange and weird tales” edited by Michael Kelly and published by Undertow Books. It’s a new format for the journal, having moved from bi-annual to annual publication and, as a result, contains more stories – seventeen in fact. There’s a worry that this increase in the number of stories might somehow result in a decrease in quality but this fear has proven to be without foundation, Kelly’s eye for good writing remains undiminished and this is an outstanding collection of stories, ranging from very good to truly excellent, it’s all grade A stuff.
This grading certainly applies to the second story, Michael Wehunt’s Onanon which tells of Adam’s uncovering of a family secret although I’m sorely tempted to say that B+ would be the perfect grade for it, it’s certainly a story that creates a buzz.
(Those of you who regularly read this page - you know who you are, both of you - may have spotted an egregious error in the original posting of this review in which I completely ignored Eric Schaller's To Assume the Writer's Crown: Notes on the Craft, falling into the trap of reading it as an essay, a piece of non-fiction. That's the problem with meta-fiction, it can be a trap to the unwary - myself included. In my defence, it just goes to show how clever a writer he is, hiding something very dark within something seemingly so innocuous.)
It’s not a themed anthology but there’s a definite connection between many of the stories thematically. In particular the device of moving into a new home is one which recurs throughout. The Quiet Room by V.H. Leslie deftly weaves the myth of Philomela into a story of teenage angst and fractured relationships when widower Terry moves into a new house with daughter Ava having been reunited after a split from his wife Prue. It’s an atmospheric tale in which silence is far from golden.
Summerside by Alison Moore is the name of the house bought unseen at an auction by the Irvings. Unable to bear living there themselves, they rent out an extension built onto it. This is a pretty much perfect short story, told in a neutral voice and offering no real explanation for the disturbing events which unfold, simply reporting what happens but in so doing hinting at something terrible associated with the building.
Vrangr is the location of another house, this time an inheritance in North Dakota for Arthur Speth in C.M. Muller’s first published story. This is a surprise in itself as the writing here is so assured it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. The first of many more publications I’m hoping though. It’s a literary piece that twists and turns, disorienting the reader in much the same way as happens to Arthur himself. It’s an odd name for a house, an odd word in fact having only the one vowel but it’s the perfect name for the location – and the story itself - as anyone with the time to hunt down its original meaning in Scandinavian will discover.
The Space Between is a collaboration between Ray Cluley and Ralph Robert Moore and is the third “moving into a new home” story as I’ve come to clunkily classify them. This time it’s a downsizing as newly redundant Don and his wife Carolyn relocate to a more affordable apartment building. Left alone through the day, Don neglects his job-seeking to instead explore the crawl space between apartments, spying on his neighbours. Voyeurism soon turns to vicariousness however as Don’s forays turn from a desire to a need. A story of obsession then, but also a story about relationships – the line “it really isn’t important who should have loaded the dishwasher” a perfect encapsulation of what it is to be in a relationship (although I acknowledge that quoting it out of context may lessen its impact here…) The Space Between is a wonderful story, deeply disturbing and which will take you – much like Don – to some very dark places.
Entering a new building involves the literal crossing of a threshold but a more metaphorical interpretation of that theme – the journey from life to death – is the basis of some of the other stories within Shadows & Tall Trees. Avoidance of that particular journey is the subject of Kaaron Warren’s Death’s Door Café – a high concept idea in which a last chance is given to those unwilling to take those final steps, a concept which is fleshed out brilliantly in the story which creates a wonderful sense of unease.
Christopher  Harman’s Apple Pie and Sulphur is set in the Lake District though distractingly seems to combine real and fictional locations (is Connerstone really Coniston?) though I’m guessing this won’t be too much of a concern to anyone less anal about what is one of my favourite places in the world i.e. everyone except me. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection – perhaps a wee bit too long – but builds an effective air of paranoia and disorientation before journey’s end arrives for the story’s three main characters.
Shaddertown is by Conrad Williams and tells of Peggy’s daytrip into town with grandson Billy, a trip which includes a tour of “Underground Manchester”. It’s no surprise, given the author, that this is a beautifully written story, an impeccable character study of an old woman nearing the end of her life. It’s a testament to Conrad’s skills that even minor characters – some of whom don’t even appear, are only mentioned – are as fully drawn as Peggy herself. The denoument may come as no surprise but it’s poignantly and movingly done. It’s a very fine piece of writing.
Death visits in Robert Levy’s The Vault of the Sky, The Face of the Deep – this time for a Russian woman haunted by a terrible memory from wartime, an era that provides the backdrop to Tara Isabella Burton’s The Golem of Leopoldstadt. Vengeance is at the heart of the conclusions of both stories but manifests itself in very different ways.
The concept of history impacting on the present which was a feature of both those stories is echoed in Charles Wilkinson’s Hidden in the Alphabet in which the controversial – and deeply disturbing – practices of a film director come back to haunt him when he is reunited with his son. There’s  a contemplation of what Art is (or perhaps what an Artist is) within what, on the face of it, reads as a revenge tale.
The Statue by Miriam Frey is an odd, fable-like tale that shows that Teddy Bears and/or picnics are not prerequisites for big surprises in the woods whilst R.B. Russell’s Night Porter riffs on the new environment motif – this time it’s a new job for the protagonist – in a tale that ends with just enough ambiguity to leave you wondering what, and even who, the villain of the piece is.
First person narratives are used to outstanding effect in two stories in particular. Road Dead by F. Brett Cox is the shortest story in the book – a piece of flash fiction – but still manages to pack in an amazing amount of storyline. The real joy lies in the narrative voice however, a stream of consciousness from a witness to bizarre and terrifying events is presented in a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, emphasizing the fear and panic he feels at what he’s describing. Brilliant.
Robert Shearman’s It Flows From the Mouth has a very distinctive first person narrator too. Although it’s never specified in the text, there’s a definite suspicion that the narrator – John - has Asperger’s Syndrome and thus has no social or empathetic skills. The fact that this means that he says exactly what he thinks and also describes exactly what he sees makes him, ironically, the most reliable of narrators. The story revolves around a reunion with friends still grieving the loss of their son. Whilst he is incapable of feeling emotion, his friends are seemingly unable to cope with the same and are “dealing” with their grief in very bizarre ways. A memorial statue to their son, erected by the father, provides a heavy dose of weirdness and this is where the decision to use such a distinctive narrative voice comes into its own. What John sees happening seems impossible, surely the result of an overactive imagination. And yet… It’s a very, very clever story which I enjoyed a lot.
The final story in the book is David Surface’s Writings Found in a Red Notebook. As its title suggests, it’s presented as a series of extracts from a diary – the literary equivalent of a “found footage” film. It’s a device that could go wrong if handled badly but that’s definitely not the case here. The sequential extracts convey perfectly the disintegration of the couple lost in the desert to whom it belongs – that disintegration both physical and psychological. They also convey the mounting feeling of dread they are experiencing and the final lines – which happen to be the final lines of the book as well – are truly and utterly chilling. It’s the perfect placement of this story within the anthology and a perfect end to a stunning collection of tales.

In his introduction to the book, Michael Kelly states that he believes short stories are “the perfect art form”. It’s a bold statement to make but he’s backed it up with enough evidence here to make it a hard one to argue against. The book is dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane and I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.

Monday 30 June 2014

The Eerie Ennui.

The Sleeping Dead is a new novella from Richard Farren Barber and is published by DarkFuse. The title - along with the striking cover image - give an immediate sense of what the story will be about (the cover in particular, having already been used for Ralph Robert Moore's amazing zombie novel As Dead As Me) but anyone fearing yet another run-out for that particular sub-genre will be reassured that this is something altogether different.
The story begins with Jackson Smith on his way to a job interview at a building called the Pinnacle. Calling a character Smith doesn't imply a lack of imagination on the part of the author, rather places them immediately as an everyman, a perfect choice of protagonist for this particular story as it allows the reader to experience the confusion and fear alongside him as the world he knows changes forever.
It's a slow build-up to the revelation of what is happening, beginning with Smith's bus journey to the interview with one of the passengers behaving strangely and then, once off the bus, his witnessing a suicide jump from a bridge. The scene builds on the sense of unease created on the bus journey and that unease intensifies exponentially during Smith's interview from hell (we've all had them, but never anything like this) and the events which follow.
To his horror -and ours - Smith finds himself in the midst of mass suicide, everyone (or so it seems) is somehow driven to kill themselves, sometimes in dramatic (and gory) fashion but, more often that not, simply lying down and giving up the ghost, becoming the Sleeping Dead of the title.
In his escape from the Pinnacle, Smith rescues Susan, an unwilling participant in a joint suicide, and the bulk of the story revolves around their journey through the streets of the city, allowing the author to create some truly chilling set-pieces, their journey across a bridge a scene that will linger long in your memory.
Whatever force it is that is driving people to kill themselves preys on Smith and Susan too and it's the references to the "voices in their heads" that raises the possibility that this is an allegorical tale about depression. Susan's first response to her rescue by Smith is anger, something that reflects another facet of this terrible condition. Allegory or not, The Sleeping Dead is an accomplished piece of writing which creates a truly chilling scenario that grips the reader from first to last. And as for the "last"? Pitch perfect as far as I'm concerned.
The wonderful sense of unease and paranoia created in Richard's earlier novella The Power of Nothing is expanded on and magnified here. It's a great piece of writing and I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday 9 June 2014

The Three.

The Three is a novel by Sarah Lotz that begins with a gripping, present tense account of a plane crash as experienced by one of the passengers, a dramatic – and extremely effective - opening to one of the most compelling novels I’ve ever read.
The crash (of Sun Air Flight 678) is one of four which all happen on the same day – Jan 12th 2012, henceforth known as “Black Thursday” – across four continents, the events of which (and those following) form the basis of the book within a book – Black Thursday, From Crash to Conspiracy by Elspeth Martins – which makes up the bulk of the novel.
Presented as a series of interviews and testimonies, the book gives an epistolary, multi-voiced account of the aftermath of the crashes and in particular the miraculous survival of three children (the “Three” of the title). It’s a clever technique and one that works brilliantly. There’s a large cast of characters involved and it’s credit to the author that each one of them has a distinctive voice and personality. Many of the interviews are prefaced by short introductions from Martins and it’s within these that hints of what’s to come – and often shocking revelations – are planted.
Whilst on one hand The Three works perfectly as an eerie, supernatural thriller there’s so much more to it than that. It’s a deeply political book, one that has much to say about society and the ease with which those in power – or desirous of power – can use, or rather exploit tragedy to their own ends, for their own personal gain. It’s about truth and the manipulation thereof. The target here is religious fundamentalism – the zealots latch onto the survival of the children, presenting them as heralds of an imminent apocalypse, choosing their own interpretations of events to fit the their theories – but it’s not too big a step to see this as an allegory of recent political events. It’s perhaps no coincidence that it’s the crashing of four planes which is used by those with vested interests as a launching pad for their own extreme agendas and it’s telling that within the book a major plot development involves an American soldier on foreign soil…

The Three is an amazing read, a perfect combination of style and substance. It’s a novel that can be enjoyed on many levels, a chilling supernatural thriller that you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve finished reading it. Which you should do by buying it here.

Monday 19 May 2014

Dark Father

Dark Father is a new novel from James Cooper and is published by DarkFuse. I've been an admirer of James' writing since my first encounter with it in Black Static magazine and - on the recommendation of my partner in crime at Dark Minds, Ross Warren - his two collections of short stories, You Are the Fly and The Beautiful Red. The novel comes not long after publication of the author's novella Strange Fruit (from PS Publishing) - a dark coming of age story whose themes of childhood, violence and betrayal are echoed in Dark Father.
As the title suggests, the book concerns familial relationships, specifically those between fathers and sons. It does so in three separate storylines; the first a chase story in which a mother escapes her abusive husband along with her son, the second in which a father desperate with grief at the abduction of his own son takes drastic measures to "restore" his family and the third, set in a psychiatric hospital which focuses on "Mack", a man with Fregoli Syndrome, a disorder which makes him see the face of his father on everyone he encounters.
The prose, as expected, is pitch-perfect and Cooper creates some wonderfully drawn, and chilling characters. The book moves between the three storylines effortlessly and, as they progress, a feeling that there are connections  between the narratives over and above the over-arching theme grows. As indeed there are - and those connections are brilliantly engineered, often coming as revelatory shocks. To reveal those connections would be to spoil the experience of reading Dark Father as much of the pleasure of reading it lies in its structure, the way information is given to the reader and the way in which the narrative threads come together.
Horrific things happen, and there are subtle hints of the supernatural in Dark Father - one of the characters gains a form of second-sight in the most ironic of ways - but it is in essence an exploration of human behaviour - the darker aspects thereof in particular - and how, as Philip Larkin so poetically out it, your parents can fuck you up.
Dark Father is a wonderful piece of writing that satisfies on every level and I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday 12 May 2014

Killer Serial.

Having played a significant role in re-establishing the chapbook as a viable medium for literature, it’s heartening to see Spectral Press trying their hand at another format – that of the serialised novel – with the publication of Simon Bestwick’s Black Mountain. The serial novel has a long – and distinguished – history with Dickens and Conan-Doyle probably its most famous proponents. I’m old enough to remember – with much anticipation I have to add – the release of the instalments of Stephen King’s The Green Mile which was originally released in this format too.
Given the quality of both the publisher’s and author’s previous work, it was with the same degree of anticipation that I approached this series and with five of the ten episodes now available here it seems an appropriate time to review the ongoing saga of strange and mysterious goings-on centred around the titular Welsh location.
The story begins with The Red Key which introduces us to the narrator, a certain… Simon Bestwick. It’s a nice touch although Simon has admirably resisted the temptation to add a Fargo-esque “This is a True Story.” As a device I guess it’s the literary equivalent of cinema’s “found footage” – a trick that worked well in Blair Witch but which has seen diminishing returns pretty much ever since.
Part One introduces Rob Markland, a friend of Simon’s, now confined to a psychiatric ward, terrified into hiding from the world. What exactly it is that he’s seen and experienced which has had such a profound affect on him is what provides the narrative thrust of the story as - via the discovery of notes and transcripts belonging to Rob himself but also another investigator Russell Ware in whose steps he’d followed – evidence is presented of a history of strange phenomena occurring around the Black Mountain, or Mynydd Du to give its more romantic and atmospheric Welsh name.
The “found footage” technique is built upon as the narrative progresses as much of what is presented to the reader is a series of extracts and transcripts from recordings and notes made by the two investigators. It’s a brave decision to do it this way as there’s always the risk that the opportunity to create atmosphere could be lost but it’s an unfounded fear as the passages are so well written that the character of the interviewees – and their emotions – are conveyed perfectly to the reader. I even found myself shivering at some of the footnotes and comments (supposedly) written by the investigators themselves.
It’s a complex structure, in effect a story within a story within a story, and there’s plenty going on with suggestions of devil worship, strange glowing lights in the woods and shape-shifting monsters thrown in for good measure. In a way, the serial structure benefits this, each story is full to the brim with incident and further revelations – possibly too much to take in were the novel to be read in its entirety at one go. Having a chance to pause between episodes allows assimilation of what’s just happened, what the new plot developments are and – most importantly – leaves you wanting the next episode to come along to find out what’s going to happen next.
In these days of instant gratification and binge TV watching courtesy of box sets and online streaming, it’s refreshing to return to a more sedate form of entertainment. Some things are worth waiting for (it could be argued that all the best things are…) Black Mountain is a bold venture but one which in my opinion is paying off wonderfully. Although only available electronically, the production values we’ve come to associate with Spectral Press are still apparent, not least in the wonderful cover designs by Neil Williams. Above all it’s the writing that makes this serial adaptation so worthwhile and the style and substance Simon has brought to all his previous work is here in abundance. The dialogue (both internal and external) which has so far carried the story is pitch perfect and – even though it’s only half way through – Black Mountain is already an atmospheric, intriguing and, most importantly, downright scary piece of writing.
I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Though obviously I will…

Monday 21 April 2014

Savage Amusement.

The name Daryl has two possible derivations - from Middle English, meaning a place of wild animals, or Old French meaning "little darling" thereby pretty much covering both extremes of human behaviour. The 1985 science fiction film D.A.R.Y.L. featured as its eponymous hero a boy whose brain is a computer housed in a human body. Little wonder then that Gary Fry has chosen the name for the main character in his new novella Savage from DarkFuse which provides another blend of psychology and horror which is fast becoming the author's trademark.
(Of course, it may be that he's just a fan of Hall & Oates but as a theory I have to say that I can't go for that).
Savage finds the aforementioned Daryl - a cognitive scientist - in an isolated part of the Yorkshire countryside, seeking petrol for his car which is running low on his journey home from a conference in Durham. He stumbles into an area where the landscape seems too clean and precise, too ordered to be entirely natural and, within it, a village whose inhabitants reflect that unnaturalness, staid and formal - a group who make Presbyterians hedonistic by comparison. An encounter with a young woman provides some enlightenment when she asks whether he is one of the undisciplined...
Savage explores similar themes to Gary's novel Severed - the conflict between the extremes of human nature and behaviour. Are we animals kept in check by a sophisticated computer or is the programming of that computer flawed thus leading to indiscipline? There's much imagery employed here to reinforce the arguments, the disciplined world all hard angles and precision whilst the "savage" components are - well, I won't spoil it here but suffice to say the embodiment of the darker side of human nature is not something you would want to bump into on a dark night. There's even a self-referential sacrificial squirrel - which is possibly the most surreal sentence I've ever written.
There's a lot going on here, issues of perception are also raised and how context and environment play a significant role in how "others" are perceived but this actually leads to my only criticism of Savage - that it's really too short to do justice to the themes being explored. The reduced word count has given it a feel of being crammed in, magnifying the contrived feel to the narrative. A higher word count would have given the ideas more room for manoeuvre, space to breathe and allowed more subtlety.
A minor criticism however, as with all of Gary's other works Savage will stimulate the intellect whilst at the same time providing an entertaining read. It's available from DarkFuse in June. Not buying it would be a significant error of judgement...

Monday 14 April 2014

The Elvis Room.

The resurgence in the horror chapbook seems to be going from strength to strength with the well deserved success of the Spectral Press imprint as well as others, including This is Horror. One of the latter's publications, Conrad Williams' The Fox was indeed one of my picks of the best of 2013. I was very much looking forward therefore to their latest release, The Elvis Room by an author I must shamefully admit was new to me, Stephen Graham Jones.
My shame deepened after reading The Elvis Room, along with a growing sense of annoyance that I hadn't read any of Stephen's previous work as this is already a contender for my favourites of 2014 and is the best thing I've read so far this year.
It's a marvellous concept behind the story, a disgraced experimental psychologist investigating the urban mythology behind the so-called "Elvis Rooms" - a term made up by the psychologist to describe the room in every hotel that is kept empty just in case someone famous and/or important turns up unexpectedly needing a room. The myth is expanded to incorporate the death of a resident or residents when the "Elvis Room" is occupied.
It's a first person narrative from the perspective of the psychologist and so skilfully done as to create a brilliant character study. Driven would be a polite way to describe him, obsessive probably more accurate as his personal life and relationships wither and die, the price paid for his compulsive quest for knowledge. Obsessive? Yes. Unreliable? Maybe...
That obsessiveness is first displayed in the events that lead to his dismissal and disgrace (as well as that of a colleague) - a wonderfully atmospheric passage in which high-tech equipment provides evidence that ghosts do exist and that atmosphere intensifies as the story progresses and the (now maverick) investigations relocate to hotels, institutions that are quite possibly the spookiest places on the earth.
It's all high-concept stuff - something that often fails in horror writing as the original idea, intriguing and original as it may be, doesn't always resolve into a satisfactory conclusion. This is absolutely not the case here, the denoument and the explanation which is uncovered makes absolute sense, tying in perfectly with all that has preceded it and providing an eminently satisfying conclusion to the story.
Oh, and it's really scary too with some genuinely creepy moments that will make your hairs stand on end. (The reason for using that particular cliche will become apparent when you read the story...)
The Elvis Room is an outstanding piece of writing; intriguing, clever and downright scary and I thoroughly recommend it.

Friday 4 April 2014

The Horror Fields.

The Horror Fields is a collection of ten "rural" horror stories published by Morpheus Tales. I ordered the paperback version which was a chapbook design, something I guess that managed to keep the production costs down but which has had the unfortunate effect of forcing the text into such a tiny font size that it's quite difficult to read. (Especially when you're as old as I am).
The back cover proclaims Morpheus Tales to be "the UK's darkest and most controversial fiction magazine" so it was a bit of a surprise to find that the first story in the book, Untouchable by Rosalie Parker was so - well, gentle I guess. It's a tale of the past resonating into the present when a ranger, James, finds a torn red dress whilst working on a wall repair. There's a story within a story within a story here with hints of witchcraft and a subtly created sense of unease to provide an atmospheric start to the collection.
Figures in a Landscape by John Coulthart takes ley-lines and standing stones as its starting point in a wonderfully atmospheric tale which contains some lovely imagery and which hints at nature taking revenge for its desecration, here evidenced by lines of pylons extending across the countryside, reclaiming its powers in the most terrifying of ways.
Bluehill Gang by Don Webb seems a strange story to include in this collection. Actually, it's a strange story full stop, telling of an initiation ceremony for a group of kids made to spend the night in a remote hut. Enlightenment ensues, with glimpses into the nature of evil but - to be pedantic - the "rural" aspect of the story is slight to non-existent so it's odd that it's found a home in a themed anthology.
Where the Marshes Meet the Sea by Edward Pearce, on the other hand, perfectly encapsulates the theme of the anthology with a tale in which the landscape itself provides the horror, telling of the eponymous location, a place that doesn't feel right, evil even - sensations that turn out to be entirely justified.
It's odd to find that Live Bait Works Best has two authors, being as short as it is, but so it does - Murphy Edwards and Brian Rosenberger. Quite how the labour was divided I'm not sure, there's certainly no changes in flow or tone in the story to indicate where responsibilities for the narrative changed. This is a good thing and this is a good story. The title will probably provide enough hints as to what's to come but this story of an angling break for a businessman still manages to provide some extremely well drawn characters and a shocking conclusion.
There's political allegory overflowing in James Everington's Across the Water (even in the story's title) which tells of Griffin (and yes, that's a very specific and pertinent choice of character name right there) taking a summer job maintaining and operating a lock on a canal, a job that does indeed involve opening floodgates. It's a cleverly written tale of karmic revenge with Griffin's prejudices coming back to bite him literally (or not - as the case may be) by a bunch of parasites. Lovely stuff.
Bus Routes Through the Sticks is by Richard Farren Barber and it wasn't until I'd finished reading it that I spotted the lovely pun in the title. It's a familiar set-up - hiker gets onto a bus in a remote location and begins to wonder where it's taking him - but it's a fine variation on the theme with a well crafted sense of slowly building paranoia.
The Rocking Stone by Ian Hunter didn't quite work for me given the suspension of disbelief it required was just a wee bit too much. Not in the overall concept - which is a very good one (though similar to that of the Coulthart story) - but in the narrative framework that it hangs on. A shame, as the conclusion is very well done and very effective.
There's a fine line between literary writing and purple prose and, unfortunately, I feel A Remembrance of the Strange by Justin Aryiku falls into the latter category. I found it overwritten and overblown, the indulgent prose having to be clambered through to find the slight story hidden within it.
Whether you regard surrealism as a way to "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality" or simply as a load of self-indulgent bollocks, that opinion will inform your appreciation of the final story of the collection Stale Air by Rhys Hughes. I know little of absurdism, it's a genre I rarely encounter, I can't tell my Auster from my Albee and, given that it mostly revolves around characters discovering there is no inherent purpose in life, there seems little purpose in trying to offer an opinion of this story (other than it put me in mind of a pickled cabbage suspended over a sea of pink typewriters through which swim sharks singing Happy Birthday, backwards, in Portugese. Harsh, I know -but hey...)
As with any collection, The Horror Fields is a curate's egg. The good outweigh the bad though and I do recommend that you buy it - which you can do here.

Friday 28 March 2014

Reaping the Dark.

Long before Nicolas Winding Refn made his modern masterpiece Drive, Walter Hill – at the peak of his form and not long before making one of the best westerns ever The Long Riders - directed The Driver, both films having as their protagonist, getaway drivers. In both, the character was unnamed, referred to only as “Driver” and “The Driver” respectively and it’s a similar scenario with the protagonist in Gary McMahon’s latest novella courtesy of DarkFuse, Reaping the Dark which tells of Driver Z, given an opportunity to escape his life of crime when the proceeds of a heist gone wrong fall into his possession.
We do find out Driver Z’s name – it’s Clarke – and also that he lives his life by a strict code of rules, with precise instructions given to the people he works with which, along with maintaining a distance between parties courtesy of a go-between and his anonymity, ensure his safety.
Here is a man in full control of his life, taking charge of his own destiny.
The ethos he lives by is “never buy anything you can’t leave behind” which echoes that of Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s brilliant crime epic Heat. In that film, De Niro had Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna chasing him down whilst The Driver’s Ryan O’Neal was pursued by Bruce Dern. What’s after Clarke, however, is a lot worse – a demonic entity called a Reaper, the summoning of which makes up the story’s prologue; the heist which presents the opportunity of escape to Clarke and his pregnant girlfriend Martha has gone down at a building owned by the Order of the Dark Veil, a cult of devil worshippers…
What follows is a highly effective blend of crime/siege/horror story written, much to my delight, in present tense thereby adding a sense of urgency and immediacy to proceedings.
It’s a taut story which creates a palpable sense of tension as Clarke, Martha and the psychotic McKenzie (the other survivor of the heist) evading and taking refuge from the Reaper in a warehouse. It’s the supernatural elements that take precedence at the story’s conclusion though, in which the true nature of the Reaper is revealed.
There’s plenty horror here, visceral – as displayed in the showdown with the Reaper but also, and more profoundly, an existential horror as the author repeatedly pulls the rug from under your feet with a series of revelations that turn Clarke’s world upside down.

Reaping the Dark is a short but tense read that effortlessly blends the more esoteric elements into a skilfully created and authentic reality. It’s available from DarkFuse in May and I recommend it highly.

Sunday 16 March 2014

In the Valley, Where Belladonna Grows.

I have to confess that when I read the novella Still Life from Spectral Press, it was my first encounter with the work of Tim Lebbon. On the strength of that book, and given my enjoyment of it, I sought out more of Tim’s writing and as a result find myself currently nearing the conclusion of Coldbrook – a hefty tome but one which I’m flying through, faster than the spread of a zombie plague. Listed within the book are all of Tim’s other publications – an extensive back catalogue that, whilst whetting my appetite greatly with the prospect of some wonderful reading ahead also made me wonder how I’d managed to miss so many books for so long.
Working through that back catalogue is something I’m very much looking forward to and so it was with great pleasure that I discovered that Tim has set up his own enterprise in the form of Dreaming in Fire through which he will be publishing electronic versions of some of his short stories and novellas.
Figuring that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I did, I took a break from the breakneck pace of Coldbrook to sample one of these newly resurrected stories, In the Valley Where Belladonna Grows.
The story focuses on Mary, living a life of isolation in a remote valley. What at first seems an almost idyllic existence turns into something more sinister as information is slowly drip-fed to the reader – it seems Mary’s isolation has been enforced, she has been exiled from “the city” by none other than her husband, Sherlock, a man who has achieved status and power through less than reputable means.
It seems that the years of exile are over however, as a series of emissaries from the city are sent to persuade Mary to return…
In the Valley… is a story of changing perceptions, playing with expectations, presenting a scenario which raises questions in the reader’s mind and then slowly reveals information that offer clues and suggestions as to why Mary is where she is.
Or does it?
Certain aspects of Mary’s situation don’t seem to ring true – in particular, it’s stated that she hasn’t seen another human being for sixteen years which begs the question of how far removed from society can she actually be? It’s a clever device, planting the seeds of suspicion in the reader’s mind that all is not what it may seem. Much is made of the presence of Belladonna growing in profusion around Mary’s homestead, a plant well known for its hallucinogenic, as well as poisonous properties. Dreams and visions (of a generally post-apocalyptic nature) are woven into the narrative and add to the feeling of uncertainty - are her visitors real or imagined, and what of the wild dogs that terrorise the surrounding countryside? Are all of her experiences actually happening or simply the products of her own imagination – brought on by loneliness and isolation or the insidious influence of the Belladonna?
To say more would be to potentially spoil what is an extremely cleverly written story. Its conclusion is eminently satisfying and will cast a whole new light on all that has gone before. It will probably make you want to read it again so you can see just how clever it actually is. I did. (And it is very clever).

The idea to re-release a back catalogue in this way is one I heartily applaud and I look forward to more from Dreaming in Fire, especially if they are of the same high standard as In the Valley…

Friday 28 February 2014

Skewered and other London Cruelties.

 I first encountered Ben Jones on a now defunct horror writers forum. As is the case with many forums, despite the membership being in triple figures, there were only a few members who actually spent any time posting stuff up there. I was one and Ben was another and through the board we developed a virtual friendship as we both seemed to be singing from the same hymn-sheet as far as most of the discussions were concerned. That friendship moved from virtual to real when work would occasionally take me down to London – Ben’s home town - where we finally met up in person and spent many an evening talking about our shared enthusiasm for writing (and reading) as well as generally putting the world to rights. Alcohol may have been involved at some point.
The forum had a board where stories could be posted up for comment so I’d read a lot of Ben’s work before I’d met him and had been impressed by what I’d seen. It was clear he was destined for success and over the years he’s achieved that with publications in the small presses. It was only a matter of time before a collection was released and now that’s happened with Skewered and other London Cruelties from Crime Wave Press.
To celebrate the release of the collection, I thought I’d abuse the relationship we have by asking Ben a few questions about it and his thoughts on writing in general:

AW: The collection opens with Skewered , a novella which has plenty twists and turns. Did you have the ending sorted before you started writing and then work backwards from it or did the story develop as you were writing it?

BJ: Well, I had some of it sorted. In the early drafts a large portion of the end of “Skewered” was actually at the start as Charlie Bars explains how he’s ended up in a certain situation. I had a general idea of where I wanted the story to go but nothing was set in stone. That’s probably how I write a lot of the time; I’ll have a blurry idea for an ending and hope it becomes clearer as I work towards it. 

AW: Real Estate also features your character Charlie Bars – and I know you have plans to feature him again. Did you ever consider writing a crime story from the perspective of the police?

BJ: I’ve written things from a police perspective before, but none of them have seen print. Although they’re usually not your ‘straight arrow’ type of copper. On the whole though I prefer to try and write from a different angle. I’m a big fan of certain crime novels that come from the view of the police; Chester Himes’ “Harlem Cycle”, Ken Bruen’s “R n B” novels but I feel that it is too easy to fall into clichés which we see time and time again. I don’t think I’d rule out writing from any perspective but I think if I was to be from the police angle then I would have to be struck by something that I considered ‘different’. Although, that said, I am about to re-draft a horror piece about a group of corrupt London police officers being pursued by creatures summoned by West African witchcraft – does that count?

AW: I think it probably does, it could even be the start of a new sub-genre. You once pointed out to me the spot where a taxi driver had been beheaded… How important is location to you – do you regard London as a character in your stories?

BJ: I remember, suicide by beheading – not sure that’s the best way to go! Odd little macabre stories seem to crop up all over the city, and in other towns, cities and places I am sure. Sense of place and location is massively important to me. I’d like to think I manage to catch the city as a character but I’m not sure I always do. For me London is an ancient, living entity that has its own habits, strange rites and most importantly stories to tell. So many of my stories have been given to me by the city, in things I’ve heard, seen and read that it would be rude not to try and pay homage in some fashion. I really that capturing the city’s character is something I will be able to do more in the future.

AW: I know you’re a big fan of historical settings for your stories and I’m guessing that’s part of the appeal of writing your westerns. Do you enjoy the research that’s required to make them authentic?

BJ: Even when I was younger it irked me watching a western set during the American Civil War and everyone was carrying 1873 Colt Peacemakers or other firearms from two decades after the Civil War was over! So in terms of that I do try and make sure things are ‘correct’. A lot of the research books I read are things I read for pleasure anyway so I like to think it’s all just knowledge and enjoyment and if it gets used in a story then so be it but if it doesn’t then I’ll have enjoyed learning it. The other thing with reading, what some might term, ‘research’ books are the amount of story germs and ideas that you stumble across.

AW: Hungry is the Dark has supernatural overtones to it and I know you also write horror fiction. What’s your take on the current state of the horror genre?

BJ: It seems people have been saying this for years but I believe it’s going through a real revival. Horror novels are once again pushing into the mainstream with people like Adam Nevill and Alison Littlewood’s books being easily available and in the public eye. The quality and variance of styles across the genre is also at a peak. Plus with new small presses like Crystal Lake Publishing really pushing forward it seems like a great time to be a horror fan.

AW: You also write westerns. Do you go through phases, moving between genres, or is it a case finding the best vehicle for a particular story?

BJ: Normally the genre and story come to me at the same time or I’ll start thinking about wanting to write, say, a western today. But I do seem to run in phases knocking out a couple of stories in each genre at a time. With the fact that I do mix genres in can get a bit blurred… for example most of my westerns do have elements of horror in them so it isn’t a massive leap to move to a straight horror piece and then because a lot of my non-western fiction is London based stepping from a ghost tale into a dark crime story isn’t, again, a huge jump. 

AW: What’s your writing process? Do you just spill all the words out onto the page and then edit and refine or do you edit as you go?

BJ: Well I think it has changed over the years. These days I like to draw up a little plan and then plough through a first draft, sometimes long hand but mainly straight onto computer now. Then I’ll print it, have a read adding edits by hand and then redraft. After that it will either get drafted again or I’ll send it to a few people to read over and see what they think. Now and then, of course, I’ll deviate from this process perhaps because an idea strikes me and I want to see where it will take me or I’m trying to go with a ‘train of thought’ style piece.

AW: Have you any plans to write a novel? I think the shorter formats work best with horror but could definitely see the potential for a Charlie Bars – or even a Tomahawk Val western – novel from your good self…

BJ: I agree in terms of horror – a truly terrifying horror novel is a rare beast indeed. I am working on something longer in the horror genre but that is more a collection of shorts dealing with overarching themes and ideas. There is a Charlie Bars novel in the embryonic stage at present – I’m hoping to really get going on it in the next few months. I’ve just finished a horror western novella which I enjoyed writing immensely and have an idea for a ‘straight’ western that might be a novella or might be something a little bit bigger… Tomahawk Val is rather strange as he’s a character that came into being in a story that hasn’t even been picked up yet! So I have two long shorts, another half-finished and a shorter piece about him. The idea is that once more of this stuff has been published and I’ve written a lot more I’d like to try and put together ‘The Ballad of Tomahawk Val’, but as always we’ll see what happens.


My thanks to Ben for taking the time to answer all my questions.

Skewered and other London Cruelties is a brilliant collection of hard-hitting crime stories with a lovingly created sense of noir and the odd supernatural flourish. It’s a great showcase for a talented writer who is destined for bigger things to come. You can, and should, buy it here.