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 fa├žade 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.