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…