Monday 30 November 2015

Hell's Ditch

Hell’s Ditch is the new novel from Simon Bestwick and is published by Snowbooks Ltd. It’s the first in a planned series of four books and is set in post-apocalyptic Britain. The apocalypse in this case has nothing to do with zombies but is instead a result of nuclear war (something that was certainly a concern during my youth and therefore strangely, if not disturbingly, nostalgic) which has eradicated most of the human population and laid waste to huge swathes of the country.

The dominant force in this new Britain is a military dictatorship which has naturally led to the formation of a resistance and although both factions have their share of the narrative, it’s the latter who take precedence, with the narrative focussing mainly on the wonderfully named Helen Damnation, returned to the rebel fold after a closer than normal brush with death. There’s a hint of a resurrection theme to Helen’s story – or rather, backstory – which I’m guessing will be expanded upon in the follow up novels and which confers a messianic vibe to her.

As the first in a series, Hell’s Ditch has a lot of groundwork to do, introducing the new world but also a host of characters. There are plenty of them, operating in three different narrative strands but Simon does a great job of marshalling everything so that at no point do you feel lost, wondering what’s going on or who’s who.

Helen Damnation may be the main focus of the book but another of the characters is possibly the most memorable. He has a great name too – Gevaudan Shoal – which, if my suspicions are correct, nicely combines the two central themes of the book – nuclear warfare and err… wolves. (He could have been called Perigord Niblick but I think Simon chose the right combination). Much fun is to be had with many of the names in this book actually – the secret research programme which makes up one of the narrative strands is called Tindalos which will ring bells with students of Frank Belknap Long (and even Lovecraft) whilst the Styr – mutated creatures found deep underground – have a name which also provides a tenuous link to the consequences of radioactive fall-out.

Gevaudan is the last of the Grendelwolves (yes, I’m guessing – a reference to that Grendel) who becomes a powerful, lycanthropic ally to the rebels but also provides some of the more contemplative moments in the book. Death abounds here – much of it violent – but it’s Gevaudan’s own personal situation that provides some meditation on its true nature.

This is a book bursting with ideas. I particularly liked the idea of ghostlighting – the ability of characters to see the spirits of dead family - but all of them are good and bursting with imagination. The world Simon has created is entirely believable as are the characters who inhabit it. There’s even a little bit of politics – the naming of the military squads as Reapers seems too close to Drone terminology to be a coincidence and one character utters the immortal phrase “we’re all in this together” – and even a bit of ancient Celtic mythology thrown into the mix for good measure.

I loved the time I spent on the world of Hell’s Ditch and I look forward with much anticipation to the follow ups. It’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday 9 November 2015

The Lost Film.

The Lost Film is a two novella collection published by Pendragon Press. The writers involved are Stephen Bacon and Mark West – both of whom are authors whose work I’ve very much enjoyed in the past so it was with some degree of anticipation that I began reading the book. That anticipation had been building for some time, I’d first heard mention of the collaboration a good few years back on a now defunct forum where it had piqued my interest. The idea had been used to impressive effect in other books I’d read, most notably Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell and Rough Cut by Gary McMahon so  I was keen to see if these novellas carried forward that high standard. Reassuringly, they do – they’re not perfect but they are bloody good and provide a couple of cracking reads.

First up is Stephen’s Lantern Rock, the title coming from the name of the small island off the Cornish coast which is the home of reclusive film director Lionel Rutherford. Journalist Paul Madigan travels to the island (which comes complete with its own lighthouse) to interview the director, along the way meeting, and ultimately travelling to the island with, Ellie who – it turns out – has her own agenda and reasons for meeting up with Rutherford.

The setting is suitably gothic, and this ambience is maintained with descriptions of the house in which Rutherford dwells, a residence he shares with his butler/housekeeper Jonas – who has his own mysterious past… A storm hits whilst Madigan is on the island, stranding him and Ellie and allowing him the time to uncover the deadly secrets hidden in Rutherford’s film Experiments in Darkness.

Exposure to the film unleashes forces which have lain dormant on the island, most notably in the form of Theodore Zafan, a dark magician and leader of a cult and the terrifying tall creatures which stalk the rooms and corridors of the house. The story is a slow burner, gradually building up layers of intrigue and menace and culminating in a bloody, frenzied finale. This change in tone is handled wonderfully by Stephen and the final scenes are suitably reminiscent of some classic horror films.

The Lost Film is Mark’s novella, the longer of the two and telling the story of Gabriel Bird, a private investigator hired to unearth the whereabouts of Roger Sinclair, an exploitation film maker form the 1970s who has seemingly disappeared.

His disappearance coincided with the making of what Sinclair regarded as his magnum opus, Terrafly – a film so terrifying it had the power to drive those who viewed it mad. As Bird begins his investigation, clips from this lost film begin to appear on the internet…

Mark’s extensive knowledge – and love of – films is apparent all throughout this novella and his references to characters and films (both real and imaginary) add layers of verisimilitude to the story. Bird’s investigations bring him into contact with a host of beautifully realised characters and the plot twists and turns. The whole “just Google it” hurdle to any investigation story is leapt with room to spare and Gabriel has to do some proper legwork to uncover exactly what is going on.

What is going on is one of the best ideas I’ve read in quite some time. No spoilers obviously but the concept of the Monochromatics – characters seen in black and white in colour film – is a brilliant one, as is their explanation. There’s many a nod to Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (and, of course, its film adaptation Angel Heart) but also to Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire, the novella providing a very dark twist on the latter.

My only issue with the story is the introduction of a lost diary. Exposition’s always tricky and the device of the hidden journal is a handy get out of jail card but I felt in this instance it wasn’t necessary. Gabriel’s journey takes him to the place where all this explanation occurs anyway and I think having the expository dialogue that’s in the journal in a scene with Gabriel himself would have made an even more powerful ending to the story. Mark says in his notes at the end of the book that the idea grew from a single line - and it’s a great line. It’s just a shame that it’s hidden in the diary extract.

This criticism aside, I think this novella is one of the best things Mark has written. The two stories work extremely well alongside each other too – and the authors have cleverly cross-referenced each other very effectively. Unfortunately there’s a typo count that just edges into the “this is annoying” category but The Lost Film is a great example of genre writing, both stories are gripping, high-concept and scary – which is pretty much a perfect combination. It’s a book I highly recommend and you can buy it direct from the publisher.