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 clich├ęs 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.

Friday 21 February 2014

Cartesian Hell.

A zombie novel? By Gary Fry? Surely not... For an author renowned for quiet, philosophical horror, that particular sub-genre would seem, on the face of it, a strange choice for his latest publication from DarkFuse. Why, it's like Dylan going electric or Robert De Niro pissing over his legacy by moving into shit comedies... Whilst the latter is, and will always remain, unforgivable, I actually preferred Bob Dylan when he picked up his Fender and I'm pleased to say that my feelings at Gary's move into more traditional horror tropes are equally as positive.
That's because Severed is absolutely trademark Fry, thus time using the well established zombie mythology to provide another contemplation of philosophical theory. Yes, there's plenty blood and gore on display here after a mysterious package in a London store releases a zombie plague but no sooner have you said "cogito ergo sum" than we're knee deep in not only guts but theories of dualism and Cartesianism.
I'm guessing there are few horror novels where the hero is a social scientist but that's the case here. Actually, hero is probably the wrong word, protagonist would be better as the former suggests a nobility that is most assuredly lacking in the character of Stephen Hobbs (and anyone who's seen Quatermass and the Pit will raise a smile at that particular surname) who, as well as having a doctorate in Behavioural Sciences seems to have a sub-speciality of arrogant twattery. Hobbs is not a sympathetic creation and full credit to Gary for using such an awful main character to anchor the book. There are reasons for his defects of course, which are hinted at throughout the story and finally revealed at the end. Those reasons provide context which means you'll understand why Hobbs is the way he is. You still won't like him though.
It's Hobbs who is brought in by the Government as an adviser once the outbreak has been brought under control by quarantining those affected within the city. The transformative process from human to zombie has been identified as a "severance" - a splitting of the body and the mind, the former becoming the zombies which roam the streets, driven by base instincts, the latter ascending to the sky in the form of ghost-like spirits that encircle the city - a marvellously creative image which graces the book's cover.
And it works. The philosophical theory really does provide a believable explanation of what is happening - it's such a good fit that I'm surprised no-one's done it before.
As a thesis then, the theoretical framework is robust. I have to say however, there are a few flaws in the methodology. The source of the outbreak is actually a MacGuffin but I felt that the discovery of its nature and the antidote was handled a wee bit superficially. Of course there's the risk of bogging the reader down in too much technical jargon but I felt this whole section of narrative was underdone, finding the "cure" was too easy. There are a couple of set pieces that seem bolted on and which aren't fully developed (the bombing of a major London landmark and a mindless banker (is there another type?) bringing about financial ruin at the press of a button) and I felt two of the key characters were underdeveloped, serving only as devices to allow plot developments. The first, scientist Penelope Chambers, features in a key moment but by doing something that seemed out of character and a wee bit hard to accept whilst the second is "the military man" who I felt was a little too stereotypical in his actions. Interestingly, he is never named - possibly, in so doing, the author is acknowledging the role he plays in the narrative.
Criticisms aside, Severed is a thoroughly entertaining read, one which skillfully mixes the visceral horror you'd expect from a zombie book with intellectual concerns, the two facets sitting alongside each other perfectly.
Whether it's reasoned argument or gut instinct that informs your decision making, you really should buy Severed, it's a cut above the rest.

Sunday 16 February 2014

DarkFuse #1

Darkfuse #1 is the first in a series of short story collections from DarkFuse publishing. The publishers have established a fine reputation with their novels and novellas, many of which I've enjoyed myself so expectations were high for this, their first foray into the shorter form. I'm pleased to say that those expectations were met, and surpassed - this is an excellent collection of stories without a duff one among them.
The collection kicks off with a story from William Meikle, She Sleeps in the Depths - which incorporates most of the trademarks we've come to expect from the prolific Scottish author. There's shades of the opening scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with - instead of visions of a mountain - a mysterious folk tune compelling Fallon to the seas around The Old Man of Hoy to discover its origins, a trip that brings him into contact with Val who shares his obsession. The source turns out to be suitably Meiklesque and spectacular, providing an exciting and entertaining start to the collection.
Better Heard and Not Seen by Michael Penkas is a creepy little story of night-time hauntings which cleverly plays on the old themes of the "thing in the closet", neatly subverting them and showing that the age old defence mechanism of hiding under the bedclothes isn't always the best strategy...
Carrion Fowl is by William R Eakin and is my favourite story of the collection. The premise is clever enough - a PA scenario in which a "plague" transforms people into the eponymous birds but it's the style of the piece, the way in which it is written that's the most impressive. A first person narrative that changes in tone and style to mirror the transformation of the narrator, the calm, measured pace becoming ever more frenetic and driven as the story progresses. It's a gem of a story from an author new to me.
Jaws of Life by E. G. Smith is an intense piece centering around the attempts of a man trapped inside his crashed car to escape from the wreckage, trying to enlist the help of some very weird children who stumble upon him. There's a great sense of atmosphere generated here - the car has crashed in an isolated location, deep within the woods - and the desperation of Chandler is well portrayed, realising his only hope lies in trying to get through to the children. The story's conclusion has a horrible inevitability about it and will probably not come as a surprise but still manages to provide some effective shocks.
Gary McMahon provides Netherview which turns a seemingly innocuous visit to a show-home on a new development into a tense story of paranoia and mistrust where nothing is really what it seems. The air of superficiality and soullessness is beautifully conveyed and there are hints as to the history of the place (with nods to The Shining and Poltergeist) which subtly add to the atmosphere of dread that slowly builds as the story progresses. The ending is a shock, but suitably bleak...
The collection is rounded off with Christopher Fulbright's Children of the Horned God. An atmospheric tale that provides a very dark take on Wiccan mythology and shamanism, another story in which nothing is really as it seems, a tale of murder, sacrifice and regeneration.
DarkFuse #1 is an impressive start to what will hopefully be a long series of short story collections and I look forward to the next one with much anticipation.

Monday 3 February 2014

Samurai and Other Stories.

Samurai and Other Stories is a collection of stories by the prolific William Meikle and is published by the equally prolific Crystal Lake Publishing. The opening story gives the collection its title and tells of a group of shipwrecked sailors uncovering something terrible in a Japanese temple, a story which displays many of the author's trademarks; a historical setting, a band of "real" men/adventurers encountering the supernatural, beautifully choreographed action and a nice tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
Historical settings are a feature of many of the stories, most effective amongst them being Inquisitor in which the tables are turned on the eponymous protagonist in a tale of 15th Century Cosmic Horror, (not something he was expecting...) and The Havenhome - a story that provided the backbone to his novel Night of the Wendigo.
Another theme common to Willie's writing, his love of music, also winds its way through the stories, a folk-song provides the basis for a Revenge From Beyond The Grave story in The Shoogling Jenny, whilst The Scotsman's Fiddle plays a tune that opens doorways to places best left alone. The power of music is demonstrated dramatically in Rickman's Plasma - and not in a good way...
Private Investigator Derek Adams makes a couple of appearances, in A Slim Chance which ends the collection on a suitably dark note and Home Is The Sailor, a gloriously over the top zombie tale that I'm guessing won't be used by the Largs tourist board in any of its literature.
There are monsters here aplenty, many of them big, nasty creatures to be fought with sword and gun but the worst monster of all - of the human variety - is to be found in Living the Dream, a dark story of obsession and murder. Samurai is full of action and adventure, thrills and spills and plenty of supernatural chills. There's depth to the stories too though, and real emotion. These are most apparent in two of the quieter tales, The Yule Log - a melancholic tale of loss and Turn Again, my favourite story of the collection which illuminates the circular nature of existence, the links between the microcosm and macrocosm. Heavy stuff but presented with a deft touch, and evidence that there is so much more to William Meikle than a purveyor of pulp.
Samurai is a great collection, page turning stuff that will keep you entertained throughout. You can buy it here.