Friday 22 April 2016

Wrapped in Skin.

Wrapped in Skin is the new collection from Mark Morris and is published by ChiZine Publications. It contains fourteen stories, spanning the last ten years of his writing career – a career I’ve followed with much enjoyment since reading Mark’s first novel, Toady, which I read back in 1989 when it was first published. I loved the book, for its imagination, its cultural references (not least to The Jam) and because it referenced Raggety, the stick-like troll creature from the Rupert annuals who scared the shit out of me as a kid. I was born in the same year as Mark and it was great to see an author who was writing books – horror books no less – which reflected my world, my influences.

Much joy then, to see this collection is now available. Mark’s novella Albion Fay was one of my highlights of last year’s reading and I await, with bated breath, the conclusion to his Wolves of London trilogy later this year. Even better, I had read only two of the stories previously – The Red Door, one of the more enigmatic tales in the collection, a story of loss and faith and Waiting for the Bullet, a high-concept tale of adrenalin junkies, time-travel and, ultimately, fate and human nature.

The past may be a different country, it can also be The Scariest Place in the World – and the eponymous story is an example of a recurring theme in this collection, (and Mark’s writing generally), that of the past coming back to haunt us. These hauntings are both metaphorical and literal and I have to say it’s an absolute joy to read horror stories unafraid to use classic tropes, not in a post-modern, ironic way but because they are scary – proper scary. The opening story, Fallen Boys, is a prime example of this. A group of kids, an outsider among them, go on a field-trip to a supposedly haunted mine… Proper scary.

Children feature in many of the stories, and most effectively too. Creepy kids are another staple of horror fiction and there’s a lovely example to be found in Feeding Frenzy, a surreal tale of a dysfunctional father/son relationship that culminates in a killer last line. Whilst this story has its tongue firmly in its cheek, another story which has children as main characters, Puppies for Sale is a much harder read, distressing and disturbing it’s a story whose ambiguities are its strength and which was, for me, the highlight of this collection.

There’s a variety in tone in the stories here - which is not a weakness but rather a strength, evidence of Mark’s versatility as a writer. Just when you’ve finished smiling at the clever trickiness of White Wings you’re hit with the bleak, real-life horrors of Complicit. Like a good album, the running order has been carefully picked here methinks. The collection is a potent blend of supernatural and real-life horrors, somehow becoming more than the sum of its parts. Hell, it even features Sid Vicious in a Faustian deal.

Wrapped in Skin is a classy collection, and a marvellous showcase for one of the real talents in the horror writing world. The prose is crisp and uncluttered, a joy to read. No fancy stylistic ticks here, no self-indulgent purple passages but every now and then a simile or description will pop up to take your breath away. It’s a book I highly recommend.  

Monday 11 April 2016


One of my discoveries this year – by which I mean an author whose work is new to me, rather than implying any kind of Svengali-esque arrangement – is Philip Fracassi, whose novelette Mother was the highlight of my reading schedule in February. Mother was published by Dunhams Manor Press and so it was with much delight that I saw publisher and author had once more collaborated to produce Altar – a story which I devoured in one sitting, not because of its (relatively) short length but because I was gripped by the story, unwilling to pause because I wanted to see in which direction the narrative would find itself progressing next. It’s one of the many joys of Altar that it consistently confounds expectations, leading the reader down one narrative path only to change direction – often in the most unexpected of ways.

This misdirection is achieved by telling the story from multiple viewpoints, a technique which serves to build tension as the story jumps between characters, offering brief glimpses of how their own narratives are progressing before switching to another. The reader begins the story knowing something bad is going to happen – this is, after all, a horror novelette but this fracturing of the narrative has an unsettling effect, adding to that tension in a most effective manner.

The story begins innocuously enough with a family’s trip to their local swimming pool, housed in the Akheron Community Centre. Fortunately, neither mother Martha nor her children Abby and Gary are scholars of Greek mythology otherwise that particular name may well have given them second thoughts about going anywhere near the water. It’s another strength of the story – and Philip’s writing – that the characters of all three family members are fully realised in the first few pages of the novelette.

Once in the pool area, the family members go their own ways and the slow build-up of tension begins: The introduction of an older boy brings with it an undercurrent of violence waiting to happen, further unsettling the reader; Gary remembers disturbing dreams of malevolent amphibians brought on by a childhood accident; Abby wanders off on her own, seeking her own entertainment; Martha remains on her own, poolside, slowly slipping into a spiral of self-loathing.

Then a crack appears on the bottom of the pool…

Not long before beginning Altar I’d read Scott Nicolay’s Noctuidae and was mightily impressed by the way in which the weird and the everyday came together, and was most impressed of all by the fact that no attempt at explanation was given, adding to the mystery and – well, weirdness – of the story. I shared those feelings on completing Altar (and feel the story bears ample comparison with Nicolay’s work) – the climax of the story is wonderfully strange, and beautifully written. The denoument is made even more effective by the structure of the story, the way in which the tension is built pretty much from the outset. Out of left field it may be, (or not, actually, there are hints along the way), but it’s utterly devastating. And brilliant.

Altar is a wonderful piece of writing. As an added bonus it’s a wonderful piece of horror writing and I highly recommend that you should read it. Like me, you may even want to read it twice. You can buy it here.