Monday 19 December 2016

2016 Review.

In 2016, it’s not been so much “whither the small press?” as “wither the small press” with a number of independent publishers calling it a day. Chief among these were Boo Books and Gray Friar Press, both of whom consistently produced excellent books and it’s a real shame to see them go, not just on a personal level but for the whole independent press scene.
Whilst upsetting, it’s not entirely surprising. My own involvement with Dark Minds Press has shown me just how much work is involved in producing a book for publication, time and work – and money. Most small presses are run, I guess, because of the enthusiasm of their proprietors who are willing to dedicate their own time and money towards the job of getting books they care about out there. Very few, I would imagine, are able to turn any kind of profit, the sales from each book pretty much pay for the production costs of the next one – if they’re lucky.
Support for small presses comes in all shapes and forms I guess, but really, the absolute best way to show support is to - wait for it - buy a book. Breaking even at best is a precarious business model but that’s the reality for many small presses. If books don’t sell then the losses incurred will be too much to bear. Art for art’s sake is a motto I thoroughly approve of but art has to be created in the first place and that creation involves a lot more than the inspiration and skill of the artist themselves. Horror is, I believe, undergoing somewhat of a revival at the moment and that really is in huge part due to the efforts of the independent presses who provide some of the best, and most stylishly produced books out there. Be a shame if we lost that…
Here endeth the lesson.
And so we come to my annual appraisal of the horror literature I’ve had the pleasure (mostly) of reading this year, and the presentation of the Dark Muse awards for those pieces of writing which in my opinion, were the best of the bunch in the categories of Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Anthology, Best Collection and Best Single Story.*

*NB No actual award will be presented, the prize for the winning authors is simply my undying admiration for their skill and craftmanship.

The (albeit virtual) award has been designed by 77studios, the same team (kind of) who have created all the covers for the Dark Minds Novellas. Check out more of their work here.
So, without further ado, the Dark Muse Awards for 2016 go to:

I’ve read almost thirty novels which can be classed as horror this year – that total would have been even higher if I’d managed to motivate myself to pick up Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors, the final book in his epic vampire trilogy but it’s been so long since I read the second book, The Twelve, that I’ve completely forgotten what was happening and who all the characters are. One day perhaps.
I had similar issues with the third Obsidian Heart book from Mark Morris – The Wraiths of War. If ever a book needed a recap at the beginning, a “story so far”, it was this one. The plot was complex enough as it is, with the main character jumping backwards and forwards in time, meeting different iterations of himself and the people around him as well as a shape-shifting villain who could mimic them all too. I did enjoy the book, but have to admit I was in the dark for most of it, trying to remember who was who and why they were doing the things they were. The conclusion is entertaining enough – with a few twists –and I’m a sucker for anything set in World War One but I would have enjoyed it all the more had I not been fumbling around in the dark for most of it. Perhaps a single volume omnibus of all three is the way forward. Or backward. Or sideways.
Another trilogy came to an end this year too – Rich Hawkins’ incredibly impressive Last Plague series. The third and final book was The Last Soldier and I loved it, the author cleverly focusing in on individual stores amidst the apocalypse he has created, making this a moving and emotional piece of writing.
Some of The Last Soldier is set in my home county of Northumberland and I still get a kick out of seeing places I’m familiar with appearing in books. Such was the case also with Benedict J Jones second Charlie Bars novel The Devil’s Brew a potent blend of London nous and pagan horror with some interesting character names and also in Gary Fry’s Siren of Depravity which I regard as one of the best things he’s written, certainly his best novel, getting the balance absolutely right between big ideas and narrative thrust. (The book gets extra marks for allowing me to pun in Latin when reviewing it).
My biggest disappointment this year was Joe Hill’s The Fireman simply for creating a brilliant, new way of bringing about an apocalypse and then pretty much ignoring it to focus in on a bunch of petty-minded people for most of its impressive word count. Having been impressed with much of her short fiction, I was very much looking forward to VH Leslie’s novel Bodies of Water. Whilst there is much to commend it – not least its politics – I felt it drowned somewhat in its watery metaphors which were so abundant I found myself groaning when the next one came along. At one point “navel” was mis-spelt as “naval” and I’m still not sure whether this was intentional or not. My final disappointment was Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s novel of witchcraft in small town America. Again, I so wanted to like this book but very quickly became annoyed with the smart-arse tone of the narrative voice.
A couple of creature-features passed before my eyes this year, Pressure by Brian Keene and Invasive from Chuck Wendig. Of the two, I preferred the latter but felt both were lacking in some set-pieces which might have been expected given the sub-genre they inhabited, instead focusing in on the human monsters caught up in things.
In what may prove to be the ultimate in prescience, a good number of novels have featured post-apocalyptic worlds. Aside from Joe Hill and Rich Hawkins, other authors taking up the mantle have included Steve Byrne, whose Craze combined plague and sorcery to chilling effect and Terry Grimwood who provided a neat variation on zombie lore with Deadside Revolution. Both were high concept books which I enjoyed very much but I felt Steve’s book was probably three novels worth of ideas crammed into one whilst Terry’s may well have benefited from a shorter word count.
The post-apocalyptic world that Simon Bestwick created in Hell's Ditch received another airing in the second of the four books which will make up the Black Road quartet, Devil's Highway. The end of the year proved a real treat for fans of Simon's writing (myself very much included) with the publication of another novel, the genre-bending quantum physics expounding The Feast of All Souls.
I’ve often thought of writing a ghost story set on Everest and even have the locations on the Southeast Ridge planned out in my head. Probably won’t bother now as there’s no way I could better Michelle Paver’s Thin Air – even if it does use Kangchenjunga as its haunted peak instead. I loved this old-school horror for its brilliant evocation of the period – including its casual racism – and for generating some truly scary scenes, making full use of its treacherous and isolated location. A similar cold and remote location was put to extremely good effect in Stranded by Bracken Macleod.
Duncan Bradshaw provided possibly the most entertaining of the novels I read this year with his time and location jumping epic of ancient rituals and cosmic horror Hexagram. I’m a sucker for a historical horror and Duncan definitely put in the research miles here, creating authentic recreations of, among others, Civil War America and Ripper-era London.
The Hellraiser mythos was much better served this year after the crushing disappointment of 2015's The Scarlet Gospels with the publication of Paul Kane's Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell, a thoroughly entertaining crossover novel which honoured, and added to, the traditions of both mythologies.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones is a superbly original take on werewolf mythology, cleverly combined with a coming of age story set in the backwaters of the USA whilst Paul Tremblay followed up the brilliant Headful of Ghosts with the equally compelling and mysterious Disappearance at Devil’s Rock.
Two novels in particular blew me away with their style, books where as much pleasure was to be gained by the way they were structured and their technique as the narratives they contained. Unger House Radicals by Chris Kelso is an assault on the senses, a whirlwind of imagery and ideas which paints a very dark picture indeed, with much to say about the nature of art and those who create and align themselves with it. James Everington finally managed to bring The Quarantined City to the wider world, having fallen foul of the Spectral Press debacle, being in the midst of publishing the book in serial form as the Press imploded. (Actually, he was pretty much the last author to be published by Boo Books too. There appears to be a pattern developing here…) I’m glad he did though because the book is a triumph. Structured as a series of stories within stories, its twisting, turning narrative constantly wrong-foots the reader before finally – and very satisfyingly – wraps itself up in a breath-taking conclusion.
It was reviewed in The Guardian too.
The Quarantined City very nearly made it to number one spot but had the misfortune to be published in the same year as the novel which I have judged to be the best I’ve read. (Something else Spectral can be blamed for then). The “honour” of receiving the Dark Muse for Best Novel 2016 goes to a truly incredible read, a story whose imagery remains with me still, a tale both intimate and epic all wrapped up in beautiful prose. My favourite novel of 2016 is John Langan’s The Fisherman.

2016 has certainly been the year of the novella for me, having managed to publish two of my own but also having the privilege of working with three fantastic authors, Gary Fry, Paul M Feeney and Rich Hawkins for the Dark Minds Novella series. Given my own involvement in these books, it would be inappropriate to consider any of them for a Dark Muse, but - should you be interested -  links to buying themcan be found at the side of the page...
It was great to see a new book from Gary McMahon with the publication of his novella The Grieving Stones. I have to say it wasn’t archetypal McMahon (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), abandoning much of the bleakness you would normally associate with him to tell a more traditional tale combining haunted house and folk horror tropes. It’s still quite bleak, just not – well, you know. I did like it though.
New pretender for the crown of King of Bleak, Rich Hawkins had a prolific year in 2016 with – among all his other work – five novellas to his name. I’m very pleased to have been involved in the publication of Ruin but Rich also added to the world he created in the Plague trilogy with stand-alone novella The Plague Winter as well as the not-for-the-squeamish excesses of Deathcrawl and Scavengers. Best of all though, was King Carrion, his visceral take on vampire lore.
Gary Fry produced two novellas set in the place he grew up in and the place he now lives. The latter featured in The Doom that Came to Whitby Town which unleashed cosmic horror on the seaside town amid some nicely barbed observations whilst Scourge used Bradford as a melting pot of humanity and ideas in a though-provoking read.
Paul Kane’s The Rot used the device of presenting the story in the form of transcripts from a recording made by a survivor of a zombie-esque apocalypse, something that lost some of its impact, and authenticity as the – really quite long – story continued, the narrative lapsing into more detail than realistically would have been err… narrated. I can, and have, found exceptions for this before (and have argued the case) but much is made of “testing… testing” type dialogue at the beginning of chapters to reinforce that this is a recording. Clever story though even though some of the science might be a bit dodgy.
Medical matters, mythos and murder were all combined in two extremely entertaining novellas from John Llewellyn Probert, Knife to Skin and Dead Shift - both prime examples of John's trademark mix of horror and dark humour. Very Proberty both.
Hersham Horror released four novellas simultaneously, spoiling everyone for choice. James Everington provided a politically nuanced ghost story in Paupers’ Graves whilst Stephen Bacon went all Dickensian (with a touch of Steampunk) for his highly entertaining Laudanum Nights. Mark West tapped into the creepiness of deserted buildings most effectively with The Factory but I think my favourite of the four was my first reading encounter of Phil Sloman and his serial killer with a twist story Becoming David.
Philip Fracassi obviously took Samuel Goldwyn’s (possibly apocryphal) recommendation to “start with an earthquake” literally in his novella Fragile Dreams with such a natural disaster opening the story, tumbling down a building on his protagonist, trapping him and leaving him as prey to visitations form real and/or imaginary friends/foes. I loved the blend of psychological, physical and cosmic horror on display here.
This is Horror’s contribution to the novella market came in the form of two books; A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman and They Don’t Come Home Anymore by TE Grau. Both were incredibly good reads, encompassing themes and narratives far beyond the limits of genre writing, both demanding second reads to fully appreciate the depths of the individual narratives. I loved them both.
Such was my appreciation of the TIH novellas that I find myself in the position of announcing a winner of consecutive Dark Muse awards, a hitherto unprecedented achievement. For so many reasons, not least because I’m still thinking about it, the award for Best Novella goes to Ted Grau for his multi-layered, thoughtful and intelligent book They Don’t Come Home Anymore.

Gray Friar Press certainly went out on a high with the publication, in January, of the latest in the Terror Tales series with a volume of stories set in, and around, the ocean. It’s one of the strongest in the series, with no weak stories and at least two outstanding ones and it’s great news to hear that the series has found a new home with Telos Publishing.
CM Muller easily hurdled the “difficult second album” barrier with another top notch collection of stories in Nightscript 2. Highlights included (what surely must be) a deeply personal story about grief, Apartment B from Steve Rasnic Tem and a concept I think would suit a longer piece involving undertakers to the Mob in Eric J Guignard’s The Inveterate Establishment of Daddano & Co.
Themes for anthologies this year ranged from colours (Chromatics), the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt Not) and the signs of the zodiac (13 Signs). I enjoyed all of them – on the whole – but there’s perhaps an argument that too specific a theme can hinder the creative process a little.
More loosely themed, and therefore more engaging were Green and Pleasant Land with its stories of folk and rural horror interpreted, in the main, very successfully and The Hyde Hotel whose titular location provided the backdrop for some high quality tales. Worth checking out.
The concept behind Dead Letters was an intriguing one, with each of the authors involved mailed a package containing an item, or items around which their story had to be based. All of the stories were of the highest standard with Ramsey Campbell’s meta-narrative and some dark goings on from Adam Nevill probably the pick of the crop.
Joe Mynhardt’s bid to take over the world with his Crystal Lake Publishing was aided greatly by the Gutted anthology. The book includes some big names, really big names (Barker, Gaiman, Campbell) but their stories are matched by pretty much all the other authors involved. I would always recommend a physical book over an ebook but reading Gutted on the latter increased my enjoyment of Paul Tremblay’s A Haunted House is  a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken immensely. Ingeniously constructed, it also has the advantage of being incredibly scary too.
The Sinister Horror Company continue to do great things, not least the publication of their second volume of Black Room Manuscripts, a collection of twenty one stories - with all proceeds going to charity - showcasing a pleasingly wide variety of styles and takes on horror short story writing. Top picks for me were Screams in the Night from JR Park and Laura Mauro's Terry in the Bed by the Window.
My choice as the best anthology of 2016 however, goes to Something Remains, a book dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane who died three years ago. The stories within are inspired by, and based on, notes left by Joel and each individual author has done a remarkable job in creating them in such a way that you would believe Joel had written them himself. It's a superbly produced book and I can think of no better way to honour his memory.

The news that Shadows & Tall Trees will return in 2017 is wonderful as it was consistently one of the best journals of weird fiction out there. In the hiatus following the publication of Volume 6 in 2014 however, Undertow Publications have produced a number of excellent collections among them Singing With All My Skin and Bone – poetic and eerie stories from Sunny Moraine.
Laird Baron’s Swift to Chase and Michael Wehunt’s Greener Pastures provided intense and unsettling literary horrors but possibly the most disturbing collection came from the ever-brilliant Ralph Robert Moore whose stories in You Can Never Spit it All Out took me to places I didn’t really want to go, mixing the surreal and weird with the mundane in a deeply unsettling series of novelettes.
Lighter fare but with much imagination on display was provided by two alumni of the Sinister Horror Company, with Daniel Marc Chant’s Tales of the Unexpected-esque Into Fear and Duncan P Bradshaw’s variations on a zombie theme Chump.
Tracy Fahey boldly published a collection of stories all told in first person in The Unheimlich Maneuver, a technique which at first seemed to work against itself but ultimately proved to be extremely effective in a book of shifting perceptions and realities. Anyone not lucky enough to have a copy of James Cooper’s first two collections, now out of print, would – and should – leap at the opportunity of purchasing Headspace, which combines the stories from those books along with a brand new one.
A quote from a perceptive reviewer calling Stephen Volk a “master craftsman” appears on the back cover of his beautifully produced new collection The Parts We Play and the stories within are evidence indeed that this is no wild claim. A wide variety of styles and subject matter are on display here, ranging from the not-so-much-envelope-pushing-as-ripping-open-and-contents-spilling The Arse Licker to, in my opinion at least, a tender love story in Wrong.
A similarly wide ranging content is to be found in Mark Morris’ Wrapped in Skin, a book which once again renders him a runner up in the Dark Muse awards. I loved this collection and, in any other year would have easily topped my “best of” list. However, there was only ever going to be one winner this year, with the award for Best Collection going to a book which is outstanding in every way; not just the stories contained within which take you to some very dark places indeed – and sometimes leave you there - but also the production values of the tome itself.
My favourite single author collection of 2016 was Adam Nevill’s Some Will Not Sleep.


Aside from those contained within collections and anthologies, there are so many ways in which single stories can now be accessed and it’s heartening to see the resurgence of the chapbook format continuing alongside the availability of ebook downloads of single stories. Also becoming more common appear to be novelettes, those “in-betweeners” which have word counts longer than that of a short story but not enough to be classed as a novella.
It was the chapbook format which brought Philip Fracassi to my attention, with the publication this year of two outstanding horror stories, Mother and Altar. Both managed to pack great characterisation, plenty of plot and some extremely effective horror into their (relatively) short word counts.
Other chapbooks which made an impression this year were the Kafka-esque Stag in Flight from SP Miskowski and the deeply unsettling cosmic/wilderness horror of Scott Nicolay’s Noctuidae.
Rich Hawkins embraced the single story download route with a couple of crackers, Broken Soldier and Fathoms, haunting tales both.
Released as a very nicely produced hardback with an interior design as impressive as the words on the page, was James Everington’s novelette Trying To Be So Quiet. Death and grief, life and love are all here in a deeply affecting ghost story.
Having already awarded Adam Nevill the Dark Muse for his collection, it would be unseemly to single out one of the stories for an individual prize but to be honest, the standard was so high that any one of them could have won. Not content with producing such an amazing collection, he also provided a stunner in Terror Tales of the Ocean with Hippocampus – a story with no characters which still somehow manages to create a palpable sense of dread.
The story I judged to be the best of 2016 arises from another collection however, namely The Parts We Play from Stephen Volk. The story is a reprint, having first been published back in 2013 but this was my first encounter with it and the feeling of having just read something truly incredible when I’d finished it was so powerful that there was no hesitation in awarding the Dark Muse to The Peter Lorre Fan Club.
The story is presented as a dialogue, a conversation between two old friends, apparently meeting up again after some time apart. As the conversation proceeds, a sense of unease slowly grows as its true nature is gradually revealed. To do all this through dialogue alone is no mean achievement, to do it so effectively is evidence of great skill indeed. At its conclusion, the story breaks away into a passage of third person narrative and the release of tension is like a slap in the face. Then the goosebumps start as the real horror begins. An incredible piece of writing from – yes – a master craftsman.

And so it ends. Another set of awards completed and another great year for horror writing. the choices I've made this year have been some of the hardest so far which can only say good things about the quality of horror fiction in 2016. My thanks to all the authors who have provided me with so much entertainment over the last twelve months and a heartfelt wish that this renaissance in horror and weird fiction continues well into the future. There's a genuine risk that the real world May well Trump fiction in terms of horror, which only means that the role it plays in holding a mirror up to society is all the more important.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday 15 December 2016

Devil's Highway

Devil’s Highway is another(!) new novel from Simon Bestwick and is published by Snowbooks. It’s the sequel to last year’s Hell’s Ditch and is the second volume in the Black Road quartet of post-apocalyptic novels.
I reviewed Hell’s Ditch here ending with the statement that I looked forward to the follow up books so I was more than chuffed that I was offered an advance review copy of Devil’s Highway. I was also chuffed to see that this second book in the series contains a brief re-cap of the events of the first one – something I wish other publishers would do. Hell’s Ditch featured a huge cast of characters in multiple plotlines so it was good to be reminded of who was who and who did what… Dumbing down? Nope – the refresher acted almost like a teaser trailer, setting the new book up very nicely.
So… what happened next?
Much of the narrative of Devil’s Highway is taken up by a battle between the rebels and forces of the military dictatorship running the country. This is, in effect, a siege of the rebel stronghold, the location of which has been discovered, and is told at breakneck speed from multiple viewpoints. It’s a technique, I have to say, that’s difficult to cope with – the rapid changes in scenes, characters and viewpoints is a lot to take in and led to a wee bit of confusion from time to time…
Which, of course, shows just how effective a technique it is. Once I’d settled into the rhythm of the writing, I was put in mind of the night-time bridge bombardment sequence in Apocalypse Now, a confusing amalgam of noise and visuals in which no-one, characters in the film and viewer alike seems to have any real idea of what’s happening. Such is the impression I got with these opening scenes in Devil’s Highway, the fog of war recreated on the page to impressive effect.
All of the characters who survived Hell’s Ditch return, Helen Damnation, Thereus Winterborn, Gevaudan Shoal and all the others but there’s also the introduction of the Catchmen, part human, part robot – relentless killing machines created by the Tindalos Project. I loved the concept of the Catchmen – was put in mind of the old TV programme The Nightmare Man, particularly in the scenes involving a one-on-one combat between Helen and one of the monsters. An army of the Catchmen is the military’s secret weapon, deployed to devastating effect during the siege. The ability to reconstruct themselves even when destroyed renders them virtually indestructible…
As the battle reaches a crucial moment, Simon make the bold move to interrupt the action and begin a series of flashbacks, taking the story back to the fall of the first bombs heralding the beginning of the nuclear destruction.
A bold move, yes – but one which pays off handsomely. Here we have the origins story of not just Helen but also other key characters within the narrative. I loved these scenes, from the description of the bombs hitting to the “oh my God” moments – of which there are many - in the development of the characters. Context is everything and the whole series is, I believe, strengthened by its inclusion here. It’s a grim read, conjuring up images of the worst of mankind, and the horrors of previous conflicts with its descriptions of extermination squads and mass graves. This part of the novel is its strongest, a welcome break from the onslaught of the battle scenes and world-building of the highest order.
Who lives? Who dies? These, and many more questions will be answered within the pages of Devil’s Highway as the battle ends and the survivors make plans for the future. The book fulfils the role of the middle volume of a series admirably, progressing the narrative whilst setting things up for the final instalment. The back-stories add an extra edge to the inevitable showdowns and the introduction of a shadowy and mysterious character raises the expectation of new horrors in prospect.

I look forward immensely to how the quartet of books will conclude, can’t quite believe I’ll have to wait a year to do so…

Monday 12 December 2016

The Feast of All Souls.

The Feast of All Souls is the new novel from Simon Bestwick and is published by Solaris Books. The titular feast is, of course, Hallowe’en so it makes absolute sense to release the book in December. Actually, it does given the central theme of the novel is the non-uniformity of space-time. Oh yes, there’s a great deal of quantum mechanics and physics to be getting on with here. Luckily, there are also malevolent ghost children, ogres and mysterious red-cloaked figures…
The story begins with the return of Alice to her home town, attempting to pull her life back together after the death of her daughter and the break-up of her marriage. Her new home, 378 Collarmill Road, has a history though with a former resident Arodias Thorne, a Victorian mill owner a prominent part of it. When ghostly apparitions begin to appear – most notably the malevolent children seemingly hell-bent on attacking Alice – that history begins to reveal itself.
This process is enabled by a switch in the narrative between the events of the present day and the “confession” of Mary Carson, employee – and ultimately lover of – Arodias Thorne. It’s all nicely atmospheric stuff which I enjoyed, but all the while I was concerned that the book would turn out to be a variation of James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall – not that that would be too bad a thing but certainly not what I would have expected from Simon.
Those fears, of course, proved to be foundless as the novel incorporates this well-worn trope into a much bigger narrative, one which turns out to be an extremely potent blend of science fiction, horror and thriller.
378 Collarmill Road is a special place, a portal to other realities and dimensions and it’s the journey through these shifting realities which forms the intricate and twisting plot of the Feast of All Souls. There is, it has to be said, a lot going on in this book, a mixture of themes and genres and in the hands of a lesser writer it could have turned out to be a car crash. This isn’t the case here though, Simon keeps full control over all the themes and ideas, merging them perfectly into a gripping – and horrific – whole.
Towards the conclusion of the book, there’s a break from the action to present Alice’s back-story and I have to say this was my favourite part of the book. The writing here is incredible, presenting a tragic and horrifying scenario in a deeply moving way. It’s placement in the narrative is perfect, a moment of quiet and contemplation before the conclusion.
The plot requires a fair bit of exposition from the characters but this is handled about as well as it can be, never an easy task but the theories expounded are certainly interesting ones, creating  logical – if highly imaginative – explanation for the supernatural goings-on.

I really enjoyed The Feast of All Souls, loved the imagination on display. Scary, thrilling but in places also incredibly moving. 

Monday 28 November 2016

This is Horror Novellas.

I have much to thank This is Horror for – the website dedicated to all things – err… horror has introduced me to many new authors whose work I’ve then gone onto investigate further and enjoy. Amongst these authors I can count Stephen Graham Jones and Paul Tremblay, novels from whom are included in my favourite reads of this year. Last year, their chapbook The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud had the “honour” of being my choice as the best single story of 2015.
Much joy then, at the news of the publication by them of two new novellas, A House at the Bottom of a Lake by Josh Malerman – whose Bird Box took an audacious concept and crafted it into an amazing novel and They Don’t Come Home Anymore by TE Grau, whose book The Nameless Dark was my pick for the best collection of 2015.
Two very different stories but sharing a common theme – the transition from childhood to adulthood, with both novellas having as their protagonists seventeen year-olds. Teenagers are, of course, a staple of horror; films have been using them as cannon-fodder for decades now, sacrificing them to Freddys, Jasons and their ilk in order to appeal to marketing demographics. Given the calibre of the authors though, it’s fair to expect a little more than gratuitously violent death scenes from these novellas and, unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what you get.

James and Amelia are the teenage protagonists of A House at the Bottom of a Lake and the story is that of their burgeoning love affair. One of their dates involves a boat-trip out onto a lake which leads to the discovery of a second, adjoining body of water and ultimately to a third lake. It is beneath this last stretch of water that they discover the house of the title as they glimpse its roof beneath the surface.
Strange that no one knows of its presence before now, strange too that the lake beneath which the house lies is a new discovery for James, already familiar with the area. So it is that the seeds are planted in the readers’ minds that this is all in the teenagers’ (or possibly only of them) imagination, that their discovery of first, true love is as significant a find as that of a house hidden in a lake. Is the house real or just a huge metaphor?
Whatever, their curiosity leads to further explorations of the building and, much like the change from air to water, so too the atmosphere of the book changes, a sinister mood replacing the joy and excitement of the beginning of the relationship.
The world inside the house is wonderfully created as is the slowly growing sense of dread – and that things are not quite as they should be… Why, for instance, have none of the house’s contents floated away? It’s when James attempts to find an answer to this that things turn very bad – leading to some extremely well crafted and effective creepiness.
Which kinds brings us back to the whole metaphor theory… Maybe love should be accepted for what it is, to question it will only destroy the whole thing..? Maybe it’s not about the house anyway – it’s perhaps significant that this is A house at the Bottom of A lake and not The House…
Deep thoughts – but then this is a story with depth in every sense of the word.
Read it as a metaphor or as a piece of magic realism, the choice really is yours. Either way you’ll find much to enjoy in this novella; some beautiful prose, spot-on characterisation and some genuinely creepy set-pieces enhanced marvellously by the claustrophobic surroundings of a submerged house.

Where A House at the Bottom of a Lake is all about depth, it could be argue that They Don’t Come Home Anymore is all about shallowness as it’s a trait displayed by many of the novella’s characters. Much of what I appreciated in Ted’s collection The Nameless Dark were the characters he created to populate his stories. The horrors he placed them in were all the more effective because they were believable and fully-formed and it’s no surprise to find that those character building skills are prominently on display here too.
The story follows lonely Hettie’s attempts to ingratiate herself with Avery, the most popular kid in the class. Following Avery’s hospitalisation with leukaemia - an event which is televised, such is the state and integrity of TV news these days - Hettie steps up in her quest, determined to save the other girl by whatever means necessary.
So begins her attempts to find a real vampire, for who better to cure a cancer of the blood and provide lifelong – everlasting – immunity?
Her quest takes her on a journey through the counter-culture of LA, leading her to an arcane bookstore with a cynical owner then onto a book signing by a cult authoress of vampire books. It’s here she encounters another group – not fans of the author, too cool for that - who claiming to be “real” vampires she's looking for.
There’s much joy to be had here in the author’s dissection of the personas his characters inhabit, peeling away the façade of style to reveal the cynical shallowness behind. The vampire chic presented by them is little more than a front for the truly horrible people they really are.
Nasty – but nothing as compared to actual, real vampires…
It’s a fine moment when the book changes tone from what has been almost a satirical look at the artificiality of horror and those who embrace it as a lifestyle in an effort to fit in or look cool and introduces some real horror of its own. It’s a bold move but one which pays off handsomely.
There are still twists to come though, a few more surprises for the reader before the book reaches its conclusion. There’s a lot going on in They Don’t Come Home Anymore, a rich vein of themes dare I say – artificiality, peer-pressure, loss of innocence, a sense of identity and many more besides - perhaps demanding a second read through to fully appreciate them all. It's a book which deserves real critical analysis - a much deeper and more detailed critique than this one but I have to say I loved every word of it.
To label both of these novellas as “coming of age” stories is perhaps too simplistic but the choice of having protagonists on the cusp of adulthood is definitely significant. Both are incredibly imaginative pieces of work and, in keeping with the subject matter of the Malerman book, definitely have a lot going on beneath the surface. Both are insights into human nature and, although they perhaps approach the subject from different directions, what they uncover is compelling.

I highly recommend both novellas, which you can buy here.

Monday 21 November 2016

Siren of Depravity

Siren of Depravity is the new novel from Gary Fry and is published by Darkfuse. It’s been two years since his last novel, Severed, although in that time he’s written a number of high quality novellas and short stories. I’ve enjoyed all the novellas but often felt that the ideas and philosophical musings contained within would be better suited to a longer form, allowing them a little more breathing space, room to expand – or expound even.
So it was with much anticipation that I delved into this new novel. Depravity’s not really my thing (not since that damned restraining order anyway) but I knew that the novel would contain a whole new take on the subject matter, would engage the intellect as well as the emotions.
The story begins innocently enough, at the seventh birthday party of Eva, the daughter of the book’s narrator Harry Keyes. It’s a small, family affair with a few school friends, Harry’s mother and his wife Olivia. When Harry receives a phone call from his estranged brother Dexter, things begin to get a lot worse…
A visit to Dexter uncovers a shock revelation about the family and sets the wheels of the narrative of the novel firmly into motion. The meeting between the two brothers is a beautifully crafted scene, slowly introducing a sense of unease and themes which will develop throughout the course of the novel. Harry’s brother is presented as a frail, shadowy figure and come its conclusion, the reader is left with the impression that there is much more to his request for a visit from Harry, it’s more than apparent that Dexter is sinister.
So begins Harry’s investigations into the dark secrets of his family’s past, in particular that of his abusive father, long dead. I loved this first half of the book, felt the first person narrative worked extremely well, involving the reader in each of Harry’s new discoveries, uncovering revelations and clues.
The story Harry uncovers is, I have to say, incredibly dark – perhaps the darkest I’ve seen from Gary. His travels take him into the depths of Northumberland, somewhat eerily to the towns of Morpeth – just down the road from where I now live – and Crawcrook, just down the road from where I was born and raised. Man, that’s dark… Joking aside, the story is grim, more than fulfilling the promise of the novel’s title.
Given the investigative/revelatory nature of the story I shall say no more about the plot for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sometimes Gary’s stories are really just devices for putting across his ideas and suffer slightly because of that but this is a proper narrative, gripping and thought-provoking. There are nods here to Stephen King’s Revival – acknowledged by the author – with its considerations of the similarities between science and, not so much religion in this case but certainly arcane beliefs and rituals but also, I felt to Pet Sematery. Yes, it’s that dark. Much of the really grim stuff is related second and even third-hand but this distancing does little to diminish the impact.
The plot is full of twists and misdirection. As more dark secrets are uncovered, you’ll find yourself doubting all of the characters, believing them pretty much capable of anything. Is Harry’s journalist contact all he says he is? What of his wife – will there be an Olivia Twist? In the pre-publicity for the book, mention was made of the twists in the tale but rather than distract from the reading experience, I felt this enhanced it. No gimmicks here though, the revelations aren’t simply for shock value (though many are shocking), all of them are integral to the plot and serve the narrative admirably.

I loved Siren of Depravity, in my humble opinion it’s one of the best things Gary has written – certainly his best novel. It’s dark, grim and pretty unrelenting but I do recommend you read it. You can, and should, buy it here.

Monday 14 November 2016

The Devil's Brew - a few words with Benedict J Jones.

Me and Ben Jones go way back. Well, a dozen or so years at least, having first encountered each other on a now defunct horror writers forum. In that time we’ve both battled our way through the world of small press publishing, trying our best to get the stories in our heads out onto paper and into the hands of discerning readers.
I’ve strayed from the path a little bit, dabbling in reviews and publishing but the latter gave me the chance to work with Ben on his novella Slaughter Beach which very successfully launched the Dark Minds novella series and his collection of weird westerns, Ride the Dark Country. That collection was a joy to work on, westerns being a particular favourite of my own choices of reading material and our work together on it ultimately led to us creating the Dark Frontiers series featuring weird western novellas. Volume 1 is out there and work has already started on Volume 2.
As well as horror and westerns, Ben can knock out a brilliant war story and also writes a great deal of crime fiction, much of it featuring his character Charlie Bars. Charlie has already appeared in a number of short stories, the novella Skewered and a novel, Pennies for Charon. Tomorrow sees the release of the second Charlie Bars novel, The Devil’s Brew (published by Crimewave Press) which – much to my delight, transplants Charlie from his home in London to mine, the wilds of Northumberland. To celebrate the release, I thought I’d ask Ben a few questions about the book and the writing process itself:

For anyone who has yet to experience Charlie Bars, tell us a little bit about the character, where he comes from, how he came to be where he is…
Charlie Bars is an ex-con with three strikes to his name from south-east London. After the last stretch inside he swore to go straight (well as straight as he can…) and tried to make a living with his art. Failing that he ended up working in his uncle’s kebab shop where he hooked up with private detective Mazza Toshak. The two became partners after the events in my novella “Skewered” and from there they ended up in a heap of trouble in the occult-tinged “Pennies for Charon”. “The Devil’s Brew” is, in part, the mental fallout from the earlier stories and the toll it has taken on Charlie. When I first started writing the stories I wanted to stick as close to reality as I could (in some of it anyway…) and with that I wanted to depict the real damage, both mental and physical, that comes from violence.
I like to think that deep down Charlie is a decent man; he has done bad things but when stacked against some of the people he comes up against his shades of grey are just that little bit lighter. He really isn’t a hero by any means but when it gets down to brass tacks he can normally be relied on to do the right thing – however contrary that may be to the law.

Previous stories have all been set in London with the city almost becoming a character itself. Were you worried about taking Charlie out of the city?
I’d be a liar if I said that it didn’t worry me. Charlie is a hugely a product of his environment, from his speech and outlook to the ways in which he acts. To take him away from the backdrop which had always been a big part of all the previous stories, another character if you will, was a big jump to make. But I found that the countryside became every bit as much of a character as the city.
It was actually really useful to put Charlie in a position away from his geographical comfort zone. In London he has a support network of sorts whereas out there he doesn’t have that. It made me, and Charlie, ask some serious questions and I hope it helped the readers to connect with him in a different way.

I know you enjoy a good western – and have written a few yourself. I think Devil’s Brew is a western, albeit one set in Northumberland, would you agree?
At its heart, yes. One of my favourite non-western westerns is “Cop Land” and I think there are some shades of that towards the end, which I hadn’t even thought of until you asked that. The elements are all there for a western if you changed the setting and gave Charlie a big hat. That isolation that you get in a lot of westerns, the lone lawman miles from help, was something that I actively sought out. I considered a few different settings but Northumberland just fitted so well. From chats that we have had before I remembered you describing the remoteness out there and as soon as I started in on it I knew it was the right place.

Pagan rituals and folk horror have a big part to play in the novel. Was that an area you were interested in already? Did you do much research?
Yes, the initial spark of an idea came from reading about a series of horse mutilations out in Dorset a few years back and it got me thinking what kind of person could do that to an animal – and why. I’m a huge fan of rural noir and folk horror and that all started to feed into the story once I got going.
I sat down and re-watched a number of films as I was working on the book; “The Wicker Man”, “Straw Dogs”, and several others. As well I re-read Robert Westall’s “Yaxley’s Cat” which I first read two and a half decades ago and has always stuck with me. I think that was where the bill hooks came from and the cat…

I love the research part of writing – I’m guessing you do too..?
I do! I find it easy to get so lost in the research that I forget to actually write the story and end up going down all sorts of strange pathways. History is absolutely fascinating to me and the more of it I look into the more I find I want to know. At the moment I’m lost in researching the later Holy Roman Empire for a story that will end up being about six thousand words… But one of the things I like the most about researching stories is that I normally end up with a load of other ideas from things that I stumble across.

Do you prefer to have a whole story mapped out in advance or is it a case of just start writing and see where it takes you?
On the whole I don’t have it all mapped out. I tend to have a few scenes in mind, perhaps an idea for the ending and the beginning, but a lot of the fun for me is getting from point A to point Z; what comes in between tends to be new to me as it hits the page.
The problem with this method is that I can get bogged down in between… I might get ten thousand words done and then not know how to bridge it towards the end. It is all a learning curve really but I could never imagine myself plotting a novel out to every last detail before I started on it – that would feel too much like work…

Does the muse constantly whisper in your ear or is there a time when you’re not thinking of stories?
I’m always thinking of stories but writing them is another thing. I do like to have a bank of story ideas that I dip in and out of. There have been whispered ideas that have stewed in my brain and in some cases on paper for years before I actually write them in a way I am happy with.
In a lot of ways when the stories first come to me that is just for me when I walk along and think “what if…” Then I tell it to myself, research it a bit, retell it and then think about writing it down, then if it has legs I might actually write it properly.

Looking to the future, what can we expect from Charlie Bars and from yourself?
From Charlie there is a “long-short” that I’m hoping to see released and I’ve recently finished the third novel which is tentatively entitled “The Gingerbread Houses”. There’s also a half dozen shorts with him I really should finish with topics ranging from Rwandan war criminals to lost dogs to flashers to Nazi gold. I’ve also been thinking a couple of the supporting characters might deserve their own shorts (although Mrs Shandy already got one!).
Apart from that I am working on a pair of world war two era horror tales that might make it to novel length. One set in Paris and the other in the Indian Ocean.
As well as that I’m looking forward to putting out another volume of Dark Frontiers because I do love a horror western!

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of The Devil’s Brew and can confirm it’s another hard-hitting thriller, with some action set-pieces definitely not for the faint-hearted and a significant nod towards the supernatural. Imagine if you can Get Carter meets The Wicker Man and you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

You can buy Devil’s Brew here.

Monday 7 November 2016

Great British Horror: Green and Pleasant Land.

Green and Pleasant Land is the subtitle for the first in a planned series of yearly anthologies of Great British Horror which will be published by Black Shuck Books.
Each book in the series will be themed and act as a showcase for ten British authors and, a little confusingly, one international contributor. I guess Great Mainly British Horror is a bit clunky for a title. Anyway, such inconsequential ramblings aside, and stifling my natural urge to recoil from anything displaying even the slightest hint of nationalism, it was with some degree of anticipation that I delved into the book – the names on the minimalist (and thus very effective) cover (each story does have its own illustration though, which is a nice touch) were all well known to me and I was keen to see what the theme for Volume 1 – small town, rural and folk horror - would bring out of them.
The opening story is VH Leslie’s Hermaness, sharing its name with the most northerly point in Britain. Many of the author’s previous stories have included clever wordplay, using dual meanings and interpretations of words to cunning effect, mixing the literal and metaphorical and this tale of a couple on the edge of a breakdown in their relationship is no exception. There have been times in the past when I thought the cleverness of the writing overwhelmed the stories themselves but that isn’t the case here, the balance is perfect and results in a deeply atmospheric tale with brilliantly drawn characters. It’s a strong – if enigmatic – opening to the book.
Folk horror is absolutely to the fore with the next story, Rich Hawkins’ Meat for the Field. I’ve always thought Harvest Festivals have always had a slightly unsettling aspect to them, hiding behind a front of respectable religion whilst in fact being pagan rituals worshipping ancient, evil deities. Just an opinion obviously. Those slightly deranged views – or at least the spirit of them – are channelled in this story which uses its remote setting to full effect, describing a very different type of festival more akin to the Wicker Man than evensong on a Sunday evening. Rich cleverly tells the story through the eyes of an archetypal broken protagonist, finding himself unable to perpetuate the horrors that have been such a part of his life thus far. It’s a subtle, affecting piece that couches its horror in a deeply personal story.
Strange as Angels by Laura Mauro is next, telling of Frankie’s “adoption” of a strange winged creature who she, and friend Jimmy accidentally crash into. Frankie has issues, not least with Jimmy and the creature somehow becomes a talisman, carrying with it hopes for an escape from an existence which is stifling her. A bond forms even as the true nature of the “angel” manifests and its strange appetites become apparent. Written in present tense, I loved the strangeness – and ambiguity - of this story all the way through to its devastating conclusion.
Ray Cluley provides The Castellmarch Man, which brings a couple of geo-cachers into the world of the eponymous myth. There’s a scene involving a disturbed romantic encounter in a barn which put me in mind of a similar one in King’s Gerald’s Game – and which I found equally as disturbing. The sense of unease engendered in that scene continues all the way through the rest of the story to a properly creepy conclusion in the tunnels beneath a Welsh castle.
Ostrich by David Moody is a first person narrative from the wife of a controlling husband. His obsession with his lawn is simply one facet of a personality so self-obsessed and patronising that the relationship he has with his wife is tantamount to abuse. Given the author’s pedigree, this is a surprisingly gentle tale with a not entirely unexpected ending that provides a little context to the narrator’s apparent naivete.
The international contributor for Volume 1 is Barbie Wilde who provides Blue-Eyes. I found this to be the weakest story in the book, its bizzaro, explicit horrors a far cry from what might be expected of rural of folk horror. On completion of the book, I still found that it jarred with the overall tone of the volume and am surprised it was included. Still, if tales of necrophilia are your thing then you’ll probably enjoy it.
James Everington cleverly describes Britain as a foreign country in his story A Glimpse of Red. As Beyza waits for son Altan to disembark from the school bus, dark secrets from the past emerge, shedding light on her current predicament. It’s a story that uses its ambiguity to devastating effect, blurring the lines between reality and imagination, a haunting story in which the ghosts of the past and present conspire to misdirect the reader, raising questions as to what exactly has happened.
Mr Denning Sings in Simon Kurt Unsworth’s story, as part of the highlight of his week – Sunday service at church. Coughing from another member of the congregation disturbs his enjoyment however, the fact that he is unable to locate the source of the noise only adding to his irritation in this cleverly constructed character piece which slowly reveals the prejudices of – and the darkness within - the titular protagonist. Great last line by the way.
Adam Millard’s He Waits on the Upland is a shaggy dog story which has a great time misdirecting the reader. Farmer Graham has two concerns in his life, a neighbour’s dogs attacking his sheep and the dementia which is slowly claiming his wife Jenny. Unable to do anything about the latter, he decides to address the former by staking out his flock, gun at hand ready to sort out the problem with the dogs once and for all. The conclusion to the story is jaw-dropping in its audacity, creating an image which will linger long in the memory, managing to be outrageous and yet somehow touching at the same time.
Misericord by AK Benedict returns to more subtle horror, an atmospheric piece involving researchers, an ancient church and - flying ants. It’s a slow burner of a story with an underlying sense of menace, tapping onto the spiritual nature of the landscape and the ancient buildings scattered across it, hinting at a subtle kind of possession.
The last story in the book is also the longest, Quiet Places by Jasper Bark. Not usually one for holding back on the excesses of horror, this is a restrained tale of life in a remote Scottish village in the Highlands. Cue much channelling of small town mistrust of outsiders, throw in a heady mix of folklore and familial pacts and what you end up with is a nicely supernatural – if somewhat traditional – tale, perhaps the closest the book has to offer in terms of folk horror.

Green and Pleasant Land is a book I enjoyed a lot. The emphasis is on subtle, supernatural horror and the traditions and superstitions of the British Isles are all well represented here. The next volume will be dedicated to urban horror and I look forward to seeing which authors are chosen and what they come up with.

Monday 31 October 2016


Scourge is the latest novella from Gary Fry and is published by Snowbooks.. It’s another potent blend of philosophy and horror, telling the tale of Lee Parker, a working class boy from Bradford made good having earned a PhD in psychology at Oxford. Gleefully ignoring Thomas Wolfe’s warning, he does go home again, returning to the city of his birth for a meeting on – ironically (or not, ha ha!) - social mobility.
Here he bumps into an old schoolfriend, John Marsh whose work on a building site has led to an eerie encounter with a strange creature, not quite human, with excessively jointed limbs and yellow eyes. His interest piqued, Lee’s unofficial research uncovers the legend of the Felachnids, hybrid creatures, part spider part cat said to roam the wilds of northern England. Thus, he travels to the village of Nathen, to speak to a local expert and determine whether the creatures are real or just a story spun by the residents – and finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue.
Such is the main thrust of the narrative but, this is a Gary Fry story and so it’s the ideas which are important here, rather than plot. Which sounds like a criticism. It isn’t. There are few who can use allusion and allegory as well as Gary, framing philosophical concepts in an entertaining narrative and such is the case here. Plot devices are a joy to behold when done properly but here, as with so many of Gary’s stories, the plot itself is a device – the means to introduce and discuss philosophical, sometimes psychological topics in an accessible – and yes, entertaining – way.
To be honest, there’s a veritable smorgasbord of ideas going on here (to coin a well-established term from another culture), chief among them – to my untutored mind at least – the ideas of chaos and order and the conflict between them; control and the lack of it. Much is made of drug use in this novella, (Lee himself directly affected by it) with its inherent loss of control and the dangers thereof.
It’s probably the most political piece of Gary’s I’ve read, with much made of the multicultural aspects of Bradford portrayed as a massive positive and references to “fear of the other” – a trait exploited by the Felachnids. There’s a passing reference to Isis and the implication that a minority can, if their methods are potent enough, have a massive influence upon society, again, a tactic put to devastating use by the monsters of the piece.
A symbol is referenced frequently in the novella, a sigil used by the Felachnids. It’s angular shape is given the possible explanation of representing their jointed limbs but the similarity to another, extremely well known symbol is difficult to discount.
Scourge is a first person narrative as, I believe, it has to be – allowing the theories and thought processes of Lee as he uncovers more and more about the Felachnids to be shared with the reader. Inherent within this structure, and pretty much unavoidable however, is the tendency to “tell” rather than “show” and this is perhaps most apparent in a set-piece involving an encounter with one of the Felachnids. It’s a creepy scene –all scuttling limbs and hissing – but would have been perhaps even more effective if told in a third person narrative. A minor criticism however.

I enjoyed Scourge immensely, it’s a book that engages the reader both emotionally and intellectually – and you can’t get much better than that.

Monday 10 October 2016

Electric Dreamhouse - Midnight Movie Monographs.

The Electric Dreamhouse Press is a new imprint created by editor Neil Snowdon and which publishes via PS Publishing. The focus of the imprint is cinema – in particular horror cinema – and its inaugural publications are the first two books in a planned series of Midnight Movie Monographs.
The movies under consideration are at different points along the spectrum of horror although both were made in the 1970s, arguably the most exciting decade in film history.

Theatre of Blood is a glorious mix of horror and black comedy and was released by United Artists in 1973. Directed by Douglas Hickox, it stars Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearian actor on a bloody quest to dispatch a group of theatre critics who failed to honour him with an award, using the Bard’s plays as inspiration for the murders.
Given the subject matter, and tone of the film, who better to write a book about it than John Llewellyn Probert, a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of film and – more importantly – a deep love of the horror genre? It’s a fair bet that John knows exactly who the second assistant Grip on The Brides of Dracula was – a fact that even the actual second assistant Grip on The Brides of Dracula probably can’t remember. John’s love of the genre comes across in every book he writes (and on his review site The House of Mortal Cinema) and it’s on full display here too. This is a detailed analysis of the film but is written with such glee and enthusiasm that it truly is a joy to read. In his introduction, John describes it as more like a commentary track on a DVD than a weighty thesis and that’s exactly how it reads as, scene by scene, he explains what’s going on, why and how - adding priceless nuggets of trivia along the way.
The film is a favourite of John’s – and inspired his glorious Dr Valentine novellas – and was one he experienced for the first time back in the eighties as part of the horror double bills shown on TV. Such was my experience and I had to smile when I found out that I was not the only person whose abiding memory of the film was Robert Morley’s poodles… I was also pleased to see that John is still unsure as to whether Diana Rigg’s disguise was meant to fool the audience or not, even on first viewing as a callow youth I was never taken in by it and was therefore unimpressed by the “reveal” scene.
I loved this monograph, a perfect combination of information and fandom.

The second of the two books is Jez Winship’s analysis of Martin, George A Romero’s 1977 alternative take on the vampire legend.

I have a suspicion that my first (and only) viewing of Martin was as part of the aforementioned horror double bill series, though I may be mistaken. (I shall ask John Llewellyn Probert, he’ll know). Whenever it was, my memories of it are less substantial than those of Theatre of Blood (although those of the latter were enhanced by my viewing of it at a night class run by the Tyneside Cinema a few years back) but, to my dishonour, I do remember being less than impressed by it. This is something I can only put down to youthful arrogance and naivete – “art house” were dirty words to me back in the day… (Thankfully, I have obtained a degree of maturity now. In film appreciation at least).
This book is a lot more formal affair, a more detailed – if not forensic – analysis of the film. These books are of course monographs – in effect personal opinions – but there’s a weight to everything Jez puts forward in this book and, after reading it, if you weren’t already you’ll be very aware of how much thought and care is put into making a film even down to the details of the camera angles employed and the props used – even a paperback book glimpsed for only a few seconds in one scene has a deep significance.
I loved reading these books. Genre films –and horror films in particular – often have a bad press, dismissed as throwaway entertainment, lacking in any artistic merit. This is patently untrue of course and books such as these are proof, if it were needed, that the reality is quite the opposite.
Do you need to have seen the films to enjoy the books? Err… yes, probably. The structure of both volumes is the same, in that the authors describe the film scene by scene, adding insight and information as they go. In truth, once you’ve finished the book, you’ll technically have seen the film as everything that happens has been described. My tip: Watch the film, read the book, watch the film again.

Neil has created something good here – something really good. The list of forthcoming titles is impressive, as are the authors lined up to present their thoughts and opinions on some classics of horror cinema. It’s a project I hope to see going from strength to strength, and I wish it every success in the future.

Monday 3 October 2016

Unger House Radicals.

Imagine, if you can, asking someone who’s just taken a tab of speed what they think art is. There’s a good chance their answer will be similar to the contents of the new novel from Chris Kelso, Unger House Radicals, which is published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Which sounds like a criticism – but isn’t – it’s simply the best analogy I can come up with for one of the strangest, and best books I’ve read in quite some time.
In truth, there aren’t enough –isms to describe it, take your pick from nihilism, existentialism, cynicism and a whole host of others. Closest to the point is probably that hoary old standard of post-modernism and there’s no doubt that this novel displays all the trademarks of that particular movement from its fractured narrative (what narrative there actually is: there’s a beginning and a middle – not necessarily in that order – but no real end, at least not in the classic sense of the word) to its liberal sprinklings of references to luminaries in the field (Baudillard, Duchamp, Rothko) and its use of multiple viewpoints, characters and media. It’s a stunning display of imagination and skill, a meta-metafiction which raises a multitude of questions about the role of art and its relationship with reality. It’s a work of fiction and yet reads almost like a thesis, an analysis of art via a critical realism approach.
Have I sold it to you yet?
Vincent Bittaker is a film student, eager to make a name for himself, who serendipitously meets up with Brandon Swarthy, a serial killer with multiple personalities who shares his dreams of creating a new movement, Ultra-Realism, and with whom he begins an intense relationship much like Rimbaud and Verlane did back in the 1850s. Unger House is the location in Louisiana where their magnum opus will be filmed.
Death is the only true reality and so art, if it is to be regarded as authentic must mirror that reality – such is the thinking of the two as they prepare to commit murder in the name of said art. Rothko once claimed that “the exhilarated tragic experience is … the only source of art” and this proposition is taken to the nth degree as the two kidnap and kill a girl, filming her brutal murder. This scene is described in vivid detail in the book, and is truly horrifying – as it should be. It’s a tough scene to read and yet I carried on, the emotions I felt those of disgust – and in effect, by so doing, became proof of, and complicit in, the couple’s twisted philosophy. I read horror fiction to be entertained… Except, of course, these are fictional characters, there is no philosophy, there are no Unger House Radicals.
This book seriously messes with your head.
The murder, with a few scenes following, pretty much marks the end of the main narrative thrust of the book, with the remainder taken up with a series of vignettes featuring different characters. The film, unsurprisingly, achieves cult status and the individual storylines which conclude the book – a bold move by the author it has to be said – cleverly throw light on the impact the film has on society, and whether or not its creators’ original aims have been realised.
Unger House Radicals is a difficult read – but only because of its subject matter, the writing here is of the highest quality and the way the book has been constructed is nothing short of amazing. A comparison to the film Natural Born Killers is perhaps appropriate, Swarthy is certainly a psychopath and Bittaker obviously shares some of those traits, but there are also similarities in their construction; the film uses different film stocks, camera equipment and so on to create its discussion of the links between violence and the media and the ways in which both influence each other. A similar argument – this time between violence and art – is made in the book, this time using literary, rather than filmic devices.

Unger House Radicals is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is a good thing. It blew me away with its style and approach and I strongly recommend that you read it too.

Monday 26 September 2016

Some Will Not Sleep.

The release of a new book by Adam Nevill is always cause for celebration. For over ten years now, he has consistently produced novels and short fiction which has terrified and disturbed readers – myself, very much, included. Not many authors have written books which I’ve had to stop reading because they were creeping me out too much but Adam is one of them.
It’s a rare skill. To produce such an extreme emotional response in a person simply through words on a page is amazing. Dark arts may be involved but a more likely explanation is a remarkable dedication to the craft of writing, something Adam talks about in his book Cries from the Crypt and which is apparent in everything he writes.
Breaking a run of novel releases, this year’s book is a collection of short stories called Some Will Not Sleep – a title which, on reflection, could refer either to the characters within or the readers once they’ve finished it. It’s published by Adam’s own Ritual Ltd.
There are eleven stories in the book, eight of which are written in first person narrative, and each and every one is a cracker – here you’ll find monsters (including those of the human variety), ghosts, arcane rituals and some of the most disturbing imagery ever put on paper… Those familiar with Adam’s novels will also find here the seeds from which some of those epics grew.
Children, and childhood fears, feature prominently in the collection – indeed, the book opens with one such story, Where Angels Come In. It takes the Spooky Old House On The Hill That No-one Dare Enter trope and runs with it, describing the break-in by the story’s narrator and his friend Pickering into such an establishment. It’s a familiar set-up and readers will have a warm glow of anticipation as they begin the story, relishing the thought of spooky goings-on, perhaps a half-glimpsed shadowy figure scaring the boys so much that they run home, tails between their legs… Except, of course, this is an Adam Nevill story. The horrors are not so much hinted at here as pushed centre stage. Beginning with the bizarre statues the boys discover in the grounds of the house, the terrifying images come one after the other as the house’s residents reveal themselves to the boys. And then attack…
It’s an incredibly strong opening tom the book, utterly terrifying – that terror intensified by a wonderful closing paragraph which acts as a book-end – and dredging up all those childhood nightmares, tapping into the images that scared us as kids and proving, most effectively, that they’re just as terrifying to adults.
Children also feature in two other stories, both set outside the UK. Pig Thing takes place in New Zealand and is in essence a siege story, with children in a remote house terrorised by the titular monster. One of the many strengths of the story – along with the description of the Pig Thing itself – is the acceptance, from the outset, that the monster is real. No time is wasted here attempting to suspend the reader’s disbelief, no effort made to rationalise – the Pig Thing exists, and it’s bloody terrifying.
Japan is the setting for The Ancestors. Told in first person from a child’s perspective, it’s a potent mix of imaginary friends (or not…) and haunted toys. Anyone who has read Adam’s House of Small Shadows will know just how scary the latter can be and that’s put to very effective use here in a story which gradually builds up the tension to a truly disturbing climax.
The imagery and imagination employed throughout this collection are typical - if not quintessential – Nevill but the most direct references to his longer works are to be found in two stories in particular: To Forget and be Forgotten has, as its central character a night-watchman in an apartment block (here in Antwerp), a job Adam himself endured and which also features in his novel Apartment 16. Our first-person narrator takes the job in order to fulfil his wish to be anonymous, to hide from society but finds himself embroiled in very strange goings-on indeed. There’s a hint of Rosemary’s Baby here I guess but this story is very much its ow beast – and proof that old people can be just as scary as children.
Readers of Adam’s novel The Ritual will recognise many of the references in The Original Occupant with much of the story taking place in sub—arctic Scandinavia. It’s a semi-epistolary account of a friend of the narrator’s disappearance in that region. It’s an odd little story, in that for much of it I was unsure of which time period it was set in. The language, the gentlemen’s clubs which feature and the fact that much communication is done by letter had the story placed somewhere in the twenties or thirties in my mind but then, late in the tale, a helicopter appears. It’s a minor criticism of a story that relies less on disturbing imagery and overt terror than on implied, suggestive horror. It’s an entertaining companion piece to The Ritual but is set in a different enough world that its enjoyment won’t be diminished if the novel hasn’t already been read.
As mentioned previously, all the Nevill trademarks are to be found within the covers of Some Will Not Sleep but it also contains one of the least Nevillesque stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading too. The Age of Entitlement is a subtle, psychological slow-burner of a tale with two pretty much unlikable protagonists. There are hints at some possible supernatural elements but these are simply there to add to the slowly growing sense of unease which builds as tensions between the protagonists increases. No clacking trotters here, no withered hands or yellow fangs - but this is definitely a story about a monster.
A human monster also takes centre stage in Yellow Teeth, telling, as it does, of the lodger from Hell – uninvited and unwilling to move on. Add in that this also happens to be the most unhygienic person in the world and the scene is set for much glorious description of disgust which, come its conclusion, verges on body horror. It’s a potent (but definitely not fragrant) blend of psychological and physical horror which then becomes something else again when the reason for the lodger’s bizarre behaviour becomes clear, turning into a story of a descent – or possibly ascent – into Hell.
Florrie is the last story in the collection and is Adam’s take on a haunted house story. What sets this apart from other such tales is the idea that the house itself may be doing the haunting rather than its previous occupants. Haunting shifts almost imperceptibly into possession as the protagonist’s world alters around him and the story – and therefore the book – ends on one of the most chilling lines I’ve ever read.
The spirit of Cormac McCarthy haunts What God Hath Wrought? – in particular his masterpiece Blood Meridian. It’s a superb weird western, and – like McCarthy’s novel – has, as one of its characters, a malevolent preacher making his way through the wilderness of the American West. I do love a good weird western and this is up there with the best of them (I loved the story when I first read it in the Gutshot anthology and enjoyed it just as much second time around). The story’s main set-piece is a battle with the preacher’s followers, the vampiric Nephites, and this is handled with great aplomb, written as skilfully as the earlier passages of dialogue which drip with authenticity. It’s one of the longer stories in the book but deserving of its length and I was gripped from start to finish. And what a finish… the story ends with a revelation of epic proportions, leaving the reader with an image upon which to ponder. It’s a stunning end to a stunning story.
The remaining two stories in the book are Doll Hands and Mother’s Milk. Often, when structuring reviews, the last few paragraphs are a quick round-up of the stories which didn’t work so well, a kind of “also included were…” Not so here. These two stories, in my opinion, were the stand-outs of the collection. I’ve (somewhat unfairly perhaps) lumped them together because I regard them as coming from the same stock; I believe both are incredibly stylishly written, almost surreal, celebrations of the grotesque.
Of the two, Doll Hands provides more context for the bizarre happenings described, set as it is in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the majority of survivors are horribly disfigured and the processing of human flesh for consumption is the norm. The story is narrated in a naïve, almost child-like style which only serves to intensify the horror being described.
Mother’s Milk is a vignette, a brief – and nightmarish - glimpse into the life of a family of grotesque creatures. Possibly human, or at least once human – the story does not reveal. In fact, very little is revealed about why or how these creatures have come about; the narrator of the tale holds down a job but the family home is isolated and secluded, allowing their bizarre life to continue. This lack of information may be troublesome to some readers but I loved the fact that I was simply dropped into the middle of this surreal existence with no context or reason.
The imagery, so much a feature of Adam’s work, is incredible. It’s not an easy read – at least with a film you can look away from the screen when the worst bits come on but that’s not so easy with a book… I’m still not sure exactly what Mother’s Milk is about but I loved it. This is pretty much how I feel about Eraserhead and the emotions evoked by that film are the same ones I had when I finished reading this story. This isn’t just a case of style over substance either, this is an amazing reading experience, truly the stuff of nightmares.
I feel I can’t recommend Some Will Not Sleep highly enough. All of the stories within of are of the highest quality and those already familiar with Adam’s novels will have the added pleasure of seeing where some of the ideas for those great works came from.

Here is evidence of great talent, of a writer embracing and expanding a genre. The imagination on display is second to none and is matched by a prose style many would kill for. Adam Nevill is a great ambassador for horror and the genre is lucky to have him.

Monday 19 September 2016

King Carrion.

King Carrion is the new novella from Rich Hawkins and is published by The Sinister HorrorCompany. Both author and publisher are on a bit of a roll at the moment with a veritable flood of literary delights washing over the horror landscape. It’s often the case that quantity is inversely proportional to quality but that certainly isn’t the case for Sinister Horror – who are producing some top-notch books – or Rich himself who continues a run of consistently entertaining horror stories with this novella, his take on vampire lore.
The novella opens with a deeply atmospheric prologue set in 49 AD Northern England. It’s a stunning opening to the book which I loved every moment of. There’s much dramatic imagery on display here, and some lovely prose. I loved the line “The wind mourned the loss of another day.” The opening sets the scene brilliantly, and introduces the titular character, a creature of darkness – its face hidden behind swaddled rags, tainted with the smell of death and corruption…
All jolly stuff then, and topped up with a multiple sacrifice. The Romans are coming however, and amongst the many things they did for us was to attempt to wipe out pagan beliefs in their occupied territories and so it is that King Carrion makes his escape, hiding away from the world until the time is right to emerge once again and claim dominion.
It’s a great prologue, and I wish it could have gone on longer but, no sooner is the page turned than we’re transported to the modern day. Enter Mason, an archetypal Hawkins protagonist, a man of sorrows, just released from prison after serving time for causing a fatal road accident. Mason is haunted by the accident, those terrors manifesting themselves in the form of the Dead Girl, the innocent victim of his crime.
Mason’s journey back to see his wife lead him to a town in southern England – at precisely the same time that King Carrion has returned from his self-imposed exile. Cue much gory action and suspense as KC (and his moonshine band) run riot through the streets, converting the populace to vampires.
Nothing sparkles here except the prose; these vampires are vicious, feral beasts who revel in the death and destruction they bring about. These are definitely at the 30 Days of Night end of the vampire spectrum.
There are few who can write an action set-piece better than Rich and he has a field day here, describing the numerous battles with the vampire horde. What makes him an even better writer is that he can handle the quitter stuff with aplomb too. There’s proper emotion going on here amidst the gore.
All things of course lead to a climactic encounter with King Carrion himself at the vampire’s vividly described lair…
I loved King Carrion, a great example of old-school horror delivered with style and gusto. My one criticism of the book is that – as with the prologue – it’s too short. This criticism is two-fold; firstly for selfish reasons – I wanted to spend more time enjoying the book, but secondly because I think the material required a longer form, there’s enough going on here to fill a novel easily.
There’s a scene where Mason glimpses a vision of King Carrion’s past life and experiences which cried out for more detail and, as mentioned earlier, the prologue could easily have been extended. Cramming so much into a novella-length book certainly moves the story along at a cracking pace but the world Rich has created here is one I think would definitely benefit from a higher word count.
This minor quibble aside, I really do recommend that you check this novella out. You’ll have a blast and at the same time enjoy the writing of one of the future stars of the horror writing world. Rich already has an impressive back catalogue and I’m certain this is indicative of great things ahead.

You can buy King Carrion here.