Monday 30 March 2015

The Devil's Detective.

The Devil's Detective is the first novel from Simon Kurt Unsworth and is published by Del Rey. I've been a fan of Simon's short stories for some time now (his collection Quiet Houses is one I recommend highly) so I was very much looking forward to reading this longer work. Having now finished it, I can honestly say that I found it just as impressive as everything else I've read by the author.
It's high concept stuff, the story (as the title suggests) revolving around Thomas Fool, a detective - or Information Man - working in Hell. Hell may be the destination for the dead but once there, its inhabitants can die again or, more pertinently, be murdered. The investigation of these killings (or, more precisely some of these killings - a triage system operates whereby the majority are simply filed away without being investigated) falls within the remit of Thomas and his companions Gordie and Summer. Throughout the course of the book, Thomas finds his feet, growing into the role. None of Hell's inhabitants know why they have ended up there and this confusion extends into Thomas' job - for much of the time he has no real idea of what it is he is supposed to be doing and the book is littered with self-deprecating snippets of his thoughts, he truly is a doubting Thomas.
The success of the book, of course, depends on how well the author does in creating the world in which the story takes place and it has to be said that Simon has done an outstanding job in this regard. The novel opens with Thomas gazing out over Hell from a vantage point high up, allowing the reader a brief guided tour of the world on display. Brevity is the key though, and the passage does all it needs to do - allowing glimpses without becoming a massive info dump. The places mentioned are visited throughout the course of the book, allowing the detail to be filled in then.
The Devil is in the detail of course, and again, the author has done a great job creating his own vision of Hell. There is much stunning imagery to be enjoyed here, in particular, the scenes of demons fishing souls from the sea of Limbo which washes up against the walls of Hell is one that will linger long in my imagination.
It's clear a great deal of thought has gone into the creation of this world - its inhabitants, with the hierarchical system of demons and humans as well as the locations - and it bears comparison with the imagination which created Discworld and, in particular the city of Ankh Morpork.
The plot itself involves a series of murders in which the souls of the victims have been removed. Fool's investigations bring him into contact with a host of marvellously drawn characters, Adam and Balthazar - a visiting delegation of angels from Heaven, Elderflower the bureaucrat, the Man of Plants and Flowers and so many others. As the narrative unfolds, Fool's confidence grows and the story is as much about his development as a character as the plot of the murder investigation itself (which, it must be said, has an eminently satisfying outcome). As he crosses Hell and High Water (literally) in pursuit of his investigation, Fool becomes a kind of folk hero to the human section of the population.
There's humour here too - a demon guarding the gates to Crow Heights having to stand on a box to see through them - and a lot of it is very subtle. The hospital in Hell is called the Iomante - a Google search of that revealed something that made me laugh out loud. There's plenty horror too though, no punches are pulled in the descriptions of the murders and bad things happen to people, some of which are deeply affecting.
I feel that I can't praise The Devil's Detective highly enough. I'm a big fan of imagination and it's here in abundance, dripping from every page. It's an incredible world the author has created and one which has so much potential for further stories. I sincerely hope that potential is realised.

Monday 9 March 2015

Black Star, Black Sun.

Black Star, Black Sun is a new novella from Rich Hawkins and is published by April Moon Books. It's my first encounter with the author (although I do have The Last Plague lurking on the kindle, waiting to be opened) but, if all his other work is as good as this, then it certainly won't be the last. I really enjoyed Black Star, Black Sun and was impressed by the writing as well as the plot and structure.
The story concerns the return of Ben Ottway to his childhood home of Marchwood. Ben is a broken man, still recovering from the disappearance of his wife, that trauma manifesting itself as a desire to self-harm. The visit home should help in his recovery, a chance to reconnect with happier times, with his elderly father - himself a widower - who still lives in the village.
Perhaps if the novella had been called Shiny Star, Bright Sun this would all go to plan and Ben would find both himself and some closure, undergo a profoundly moving reunion with his father and look forward to a new life. But it's not.
Soon the nightmares begin - of a desolate world filled with terrifying creatures - and it's not long before the lines are blurring between dreams and reality. Rich does a great job here, slowly increasing the sense of paranoia, gradually introducing the weirdness, building to a climax that's earth-shatteringly effective.
It's all very Lovecraftian of course, the horror is definitely cosmic but the author uses these well worn tropes and ideas in a way that breathes new life into them. He strikes the perfect balance between familiarity with the themes and bringing something original to the story. I did smile at the line "the stars were wrong."
The small town location works very well indeed - why shouldn't the end of the world begin somewhere insignificant? - with the characters Ben encounters, and their interactions, drawn perfectly. It's the descriptions of the mundane (the Roy Orbison CDs in the local store, the paperbacks with lurid covers by authors no one has ever heard of) that ground the story in reality and which makes the other-worldly horrors seem even more effective. The imagery Rich employs in the nightmare sequences is wonderfully unsettling.
The small community setting perhaps stretches credulity a wee bit too much with the character of Doyle - who has experienced a previous encroachment by the Black Sun - happening to live in Marchwood too but this is a minor criticism. Exposition's always a tricky one to pull off and it's handled skilfully enough by the author that it doesn't come across as clunky.
The ending is epic and perfectly suits all that has gone before. It's again testament to the author's skill that Ben's backstory is used here but not in the clich├ęd way that might have been expected.
Black Star, Black Sun is a great little novella. Atmospheric and unsettling, it packs a great deal into its relatively short word count. I recommend it highly. You can buy it here.

Monday 2 March 2015

Darkest Day.

It's alive! Well... almost. The third collection of stories from Dark Minds Press is almost with us. April 1st is the date we're targeting to release the new book which will contain twelve stories on the theme of crossing a border. An open submission resulted in some great stories passing before our eyes and some hard decisions had to be made in choosing the final selection but those that did make it into the book absolutely deserve to be there with the authors embracing the theme and providing their own distinctive takes on it.
The cover has been created by Mark West (alongside some back seat driving from myself) who also has a story in the collection and captures the feel - and theme - of the book perfectly.
It's been three years since our last anthology Darker Minds and, whilst that might seem like an unseemly headlong rush by Harper Lee, it feels a long time so it's great that momentum is building again. Thanks to all the authors for their patience...
Three really is the magic number. This is our third publication and, as already mentioned, comes three years after our last book. Coincidentally, three authors appear in Darkest Minds who have featured in all three books - Stephen Bacon, Benedict Jones and Clayton Stealback. Ooh, spooky... Here's hoping we manage to sell more than three copies.
Dark Minds Press arose from the flames of the now defunct Horror Writers forum (amongst whose regular contributors was a bloke called Joe Mynhardt - I wonder what ever happened to him..?) and has quietly carved out its own little niche within the small press world. I'm proud of the two books we've already released and am equally as proud of Darkest Minds. I've already had some discussions with my partner in crime Ross Warren about where we take things next and hopefully we'll be moving in a direction which will look at horror from a different perspective...
Anyway, I've had a great time working on Darkest Minds, working with Mark on the cover and with the authors whose stories I had the pleasure of editing. All that remains is to give the TOC (final order still to be decided) by way of whetting everyone's appetites.

It Came From The Ground by Stephen Bacon
Walking The Borderlines by Tracy Fahey
The Catalyst by Gary Fry...
Bothersome by Andrew Hook
Under Occupation by Tom Johnstone
Going South To Meet The Devil by Benedict J. Jones
Vacation by Glen Krisch
Refugees by Robert Mammone
The 18 by Ralph Robert Moore
The Great Divide by Clayton Stealback
The Sea In Darkness Calls by David Surface
Time Waits... by Mark West