Monday 27 January 2014

Black Static #38

Black Static 38 is dedicated to Joel Lane and opens with a heartfelt tribute from Nicholas Royle which, as is only right and fitting, concentrates on Joel's writing, illuminating his character through the words he left us. Stephen Volk's consistently entertaining column is pretty heartfelt too, a plea for art for art's sake echoing - depending on your own cultural experiences, Theophile Gautier, Edgar Allan Poe, Metro Goldwyn Mayer or 10CC - and the freedom for story-tellers to write what they want - need - to rather than what market forces dictate they should. There are similar themes in Linda Rucker's Blood Pudding which bemoans the curse of branding and the sometimes detrimental effect this can have on "horror".
The fiction begins with Andrew Hook's A Knot of Toads. Of all the stories Andrew has contributed to Black Static this is my favourite and is my pick for the best of this issue. It's a thought-provoking take on the themes of fate and destiny which raises more questions than it answers (always a good thing in my opinion). It's told in first person (as are five of the six stories in this issue) which adds to the uncertainty and ambiguity, the narrator himself unsure as to whether he is in control or being controlled, whether his actions - and their outcomes - are predestined or all down to himself. I loved the themes contained in this story and my only criticisms are technical ones; an unfortunate typo suggested one of the characters lived in Wales rather than the Lake District, there's no railway line to Keswick (other than the disused one that's now a path) and no local would use the phrase "Lake Windermere" - as every quiz aficionado knows, there's only one "lake" in the Lake District - all the others are Meres or Waters. Minor quibbles though, and probably (actually, definitely) more an indication of my own pedantry.
Tim Waggoner's The Last Fear is a tight little story about night fears and paranoia. Waking in the night, the protagonist makes the decision to open "The Door", the one which plagues his dreams, dreams in which he has to hurriedly lock it against unseen assailants. What he discovers beyond "The Door" provides just the right amount of ambiguity to make it a well written and entertaining - if not entirely original - story.
Passion Play is Malcolm Devlin's first published story - and a very impressive first it is too. It tells of a police reconstruction of the last reported movements of a missing girl and is cleverly structured with impressive use of flashbacks. The missing girl is Cathy and it's the narrator of the story who is playing her in the reconstruction. The two had been friends and one of the flashbacks describes their discovery of images of the "Cross-Hatch Man" in the Stations of the Cross in their local church. There's a lot going on in this story but it all pulls together brilliantly. There's religious imagery, a real/imaginary monster and themes of identity and perception. It's an incredibly assured piece of writing and I look forward to more from the author.
The Hanging Tree by Maura McHugh is first person narrative number four and tells of the malign influence of the eponymous tree which has a history of suicide attached to it. The narrator was born beneath the tree at the moment her mother discovers the body of her father hanging from it and there are hints throughout that some kind of connection was made at that point with the tree - or something associated with it - influencing and directing her life from then on.
Passchendaele is an appropriate title, and theme for a story given the centenary of the commencement of the first world war and I have to say, given my own obsession with that particular period in history, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I have to say the story wasn't what I was expecting but that in no way affected my appreciation of it. I liked it very much. The main character is Hewson, a museum curator, visiting the Ypres area in preparation for a new exhibition. Whilst there, he begins to experience strange phenomena, sights and sounds that suggest the landscape around him is haunted - and with its history how could it not be? It's a subtle, atmospheric and poignant story that beautifully captures the horror and waste of the Great War.
The last story is John Grant's His Artist Wife. It's the longest story in the issue and is cleverly constructed to tell a story within a story within a story. There's murder and infidelity in this tale of a pulp-fiction writer working on his latest novel based on the wedding-night disappearance of a composer's wife. There's much life imitating art (or art imitating life) in a twisty, turny story of admittedly unreliable narration. I enjoyed it pretty much until the ending which didn't so much surprise as disappoint me.
Black Static continues to be the flagship publication for literary horror and it's always with much anticipation I await the next issue. You can (and should) buy it here.

Monday 20 January 2014

Demons and Devilry.

Demons and Devilry is the latest in the Pentanth series from Hersham Horror and contains five stories edited by Stuart Young on the subject of, well... demons and stuff. Does the spirit of Dennis Wheatley live on?  - (quite possibly, inside the body of Iain Duncan Smith it could be argued) - the stories in this anthology may go some way to answering that.  It's the fourth in the series and I can't help thinking the publishers missed a trick here by not waiting for another mini anthology to hit the presses before this one so it could be the fifth in the series thereby opening up the possibilities of much fun and games around the whole Pentagram/Pentanth thing. I digress, however.
The anthology begins with Peter Mark May's The Abhorrent Man. The story begins in the Carthage of 146BC during the sacking of the city by the Romans. Amidst the mayhem, a demon is released in an underground temple. The narrative then jumps forward to the 1920s whereupon an archaeological dig unearths the temple with drastic consequences.
There's a lot going on in this story - quite possibly too much for it's relatively short running length. Cramming so much in results in a lot of telling rather than showing and because of this, many of the scenes lack a sense of atmosphere. The author has obviously done his research, and it shows, but much of it seemed shoe-horned in and it's unfortunate that one of the characters quotes a temperature in degrees Celsius some twenty years or so before the scale was introduced. The Abhorrent Man isn't a bad story, it's actually a very good one - unfortunately it's been crammed into too few words and has suffered accordingly.
There's plenty of atmosphere in the second story however, Thana Niveau's Little Devils. It cleverly uses children as the protagonists, allowing their innocence and naivete to take them deep into some very dark places that adults would naturally avoid. Exploring a building site, they discover dead rats and bones scattered around the remains of a fire. Then things get a lot worse... The imagery associated with devil worship is well known, perhaps even cliched, but it's put to very good use in the story's conclusion, providing some genuine shudders and making this the strongest of the five tales.
Next up is The Devil in the Details - a nice pun of a title as might be expected from its author John Llewellyn Probert. And a very proberty tale it is too, exhibiting all the hallmarks of the author's distinctive style. Beginning with an almost cinematic description of a house on the Welsh coast (you can imagine the long helicopter tracking shot with a sinister voice-over as you read it) it's a darkly humorous piece about the less than successful attempts of Maxwell Chantry to summon Lucifer himself, aided and abetted by a sinister surgeon with a penchant for torture. I liked it a lot, laughing out loud on a few occasions and enjoyed the twist in the tail.
David Williamson's The Scryer takes some old horror tropes (or cliches if you're being cynical) and does... well... not much with them really other than to place them in a fairly mundane story. There aren't too many surprises in this tale of Dan, who, upon inheriting a big old house in the country, discovers a book made from human skin and a mirror. You can probably guess what's going to happen, and unfortunately you'll probably be right.
Rounding off the collection is Guardian Devil by Stuart Young, a novella no less which transports the reader from an S&M club to the Kabbalah's Tree of Life and back again, gaining enlightenment on the way. It was an experience for me as I've never been to either of those places and hopefully this vicarious experience of them will be the closest I come. Much like the opening story of the collection, there's a lot going on here and I echo my criticisms of The Abhorrent Man here, suggesting that there may be too much going on. Stuart has obviously done his research as well but I can only assume that he was somehow possessed by the malevolent spirit of Dan Simmons who forced him to Write All Of It Down. There are vast tracts of kabbalistic theory here and unfortunately they sometimes take you out of the story, interrupting the flow. It's all fascinating stuff, and makes for some startling imagery and set-pieces but it's a lot to take on board when all you really want is a scary story about demons. (Somewhat contrarily, I would have preferred that the connections to Cable St and its history mentioned in the story were actually developed a bit more so I guess there's no pleasing some people...)
Guardian Devil is pretty strong stuff - definitely not for the delicate flowers out there - and a lot of it is quite shocking. It's a hard hitting, disturbing story which - despite the reservations I've already mentioned - provides a strong conclusion to the collection.
The devil may have the best songs but he doesn't always have the best stories. There's enough in Demons and Devilry however to prove that there's life in the old dog yet.

Monday 13 January 2014

A Spectral double bill.

Still Life is the latest novella in the Spectral Visions series published by Spectral Press and is written by Tim Lebbon, who joins ranks with Gary Fry, John Llewellyn Probert and Stephen Volk who have all produced books of the highest quality. It's another beautifully produced book with an amazing cover image by Jim Burns which illustrates key elements form the plot.
And quite a plot it is too. Epic in fact, and it's to Tim Lebbon's credit that he can create the world in which the story takes place, and convey all the detail the reader requires in a format as short as a novella. It's a vignette really, a glimpse into a much bigger story, but it works very effectively indeed.
An invasion by "The Enemy" (and I love the fact that no other detail is given in the book about them) has left a subjugated population, corralled into settlements and living under martial law. One result of the war - and an idea I absolutely loved - is the "Road of Souls", a road made up of the remains of those killed in battle (and illustrated on the cover). It's a great concept and reminiscent of the roads constructed by the Nazis from Jewish headstones in the concentration camps during the second world war. That echoing of concentration camps is also apparent in the description of life in the settlements, most notably in the characters of the "Finks", collaborators very similar to the kapos of the camps.
Where there's subjugation, so there is resistance and it's this that provides the main narrative thrust, centering in on Jenni, whose reluctance to become involved is overcome by - well, that would possibly give too much away, suffice to say that it provides one interpretation of the book's title.
Still Life is an immensely satisfying read and a fine addition to the Spectral Visions stable.
Ghosts is a collection of sixteen stories and one poem from Paul Kane, drawn from his back catalogue and based on the theme of, well, ghosts. The suitably atmospheric cover is by Les Edwards and it is, of course, another beautifully produced book.
It's a strong collection of stories, written in clear, precise prose - there aren't too many stylish flourishes here, this is straightforward story-telling. With so many stories, there's always the risk of it being a hit and miss affair and I did feel that was the case here, with one or two of the stories veering too far into sentimentality. It's difficult in these post-modern times to make a ghost story scary and the tale that probably best achieves this is Homeland which uses the haunted house trope to good effect.
The stand out stories for me were Kindred Spirits and The Suicide Room for the concepts behind them and Wind Chimes which is a nicely atmospheric tale with a twist. A DVD of the short film made form this story is also included.
Dickens provides the starting point for two of the stories in the collection. Humbuggered is an updated version of A Christmas Carol which didn't quite work for me, whereas Signals was my favourite story in the book. The story it references is The Signalman - which just happens to be my favourite Dickens ghost story. (And which is definitely the best of the BBC's adaptations). I was a little apprehensive starting Signals - a high risk of sacrilege and all that - but actually really enjoyed this clever sequel to the original.
Ghosts is the first in Spectral's Collections series and provides a strong start to what will hopefully be a long line to come.

Monday 6 January 2014

Broken Sigil.

I mentioned in my review of last year that I thought the novella was probably the best format for horror stories and - whilst I stand by that view (all these weeks later!) - I have to add the caveat that sometimes the themes and ideas imagined by the author demand a longer form so that they can be developed adequately. In the same way that some short stories outstay their welcome, so a novella can seem rushed, with too much crammed in. Such was the case with William Meikle's latest work Broken Sigil published by the ever impressive Dark Fuse.
Whilst this may seem critical or even negative, it's actually an indication of how much I enjoyed the book - I was literally left wanting more. It's a high concept story and the concept is an excellent one, one which I feel could easily be expanded into a full-length novel.
The story's protagonist is Joe Connors, a policeman working in the Internal Affairs Division whose latest investigation involves an "officer down" situation where one cop has killed another. The dead man is Joe's ex-partner and had at one time been his best friend, the reason for the breakdown in their relationship something which provides the basis for what happens when the investigation takes a step away from mundane reality and into something much more esoteric...
There's a distinct noir feel to the narrative, told as it is in first person and the dead partner scenario is a subtle nod towards The Maltese Falcon. As the story progresses, that novel (and film) becomes ever more significant.
To say to much about what Connors discovers in the house where the shooting took place would be to spoil the story but that's where the high-concept stuff I alluded to before really comes into its own. It's a highly imaginative premise and one which is delivered consumately (albeit too quickly...) Yes, Broken Sigil can be read as a police procedural with some supernatural overtones but there's so much more to it than that. It's a story of love and loss, of grief and obsession, of life after - or perhaps more accurately alongside - death and the lengths people will go to to cheat it. It's also a warning to be careful what you wish for and that some things are best left alone...
I really did want more from Broken Sigil, the concept behind it is intriguing as well as entertaining and I was sorry when it came to an end. It's a great read and I highly recommend it.