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…