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.