Monday 18 December 2017

2017 Review.

So then, that was 2017 - a year in which, somehow, we managed to avoid nuclear annihilation again. Not for the want of trying, it has to be said. Whilst the world in general seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, what of that microcosm which is horror? How’s that fared then?
From a personal perspective, very well thank you. The number of visitors to this blog finally passed the 100,000 mark - which is very nice - but more importantly, this year I achieved one of my writing ambitions by having a novel accepted for publication and my thanks once more go to Adam and Zoe at Crowded Quarantine Publications for making my dream a reality with the release of Witnesses in January 2018.
Another ambition was achieved with the placing of one of my stories in a pro-rate paying anthology. The ambition lay not in the earning of money for the story (although that was very nice…) but in sharing the pages of the book with writers who have long been literary heroes of mine.
These achievements were only possible because of open submission policies by both the publishers involved. The whole debate around open subs/invite only sprang to life earlier in the year with some pretty strident views expressed by both sides. Given what I’ve just said, it’s not hard to work out which side of the argument I stand on. Invite only is great – as long as you’re one of the invited. Ultimately, I guess the risk is of a closed shop and a stifling of the genre and no room for new voices to be heard. Nothing is ever that straightforward of course and I can appreciate the points put forward by the inviters; quality assurance being the prime one. Which is true… to some extent. Some anthologies I’ve read this year had stories from invited authors which were, well… a bit crap to be honest. Some of them were barely horror stories so I’m of the suspicion that – in some cases – the invites serve as a release mechanism for trunk stories which have failed to find homes by more conventional means.
The thing is, there’s room for both and a mix of the two seems the most satisfactory way forward. I’ve been invited myself and accepted willingly so I can’t really complain that much. My experiences with Dark Minds Press has shown the amount of work generated by having an open subs call and, with that in mind, I can see why a lot of publishers are beginning to place restrictions on what they will accept. No vampires, werewolves or zombies is an oft-repeated directive – which is kinda sad really. I like monsters and I really like stories which use them in original ways. Being original with well-established tropes is a sign of real skill as a writer in my opinion, I’d be sorry to see them banished completely because of prejudice against them.
Maybe it’s snobbery. There seems to be a lot of it about. Literary versus pulp is a battle which has long raged – with a tendency by practitioners of the former to look down on those of the latter. Which, of course, is ridiculous. Good writing takes skill and dedication whatever the genre or sub-genre. And yes, I regard literary fiction as a genre in its own right, with its own tropes, clich├ęs and rules. Badly written literary fiction is awful. Worse than awful.
Bad literary criticism is even worse. Whilst I don’t regard it as a sacred duty, I like to think my reviews are useful to potential readers of books. What I don’t claim is any kind of depth; my reviews (on the whole) point out the positives in what I’ve read and act as an advert for books and stories I think should be read.
Mind you, if some of what I’ve read this year is what literary criticism is then I can’t see myself attempting it anytime soon. Orgasmic delight at spotting typographical and grammatical errors seems to be the order of the day (although making the leap that this is evidence that an author doesn’t know how to write rather than just, I don’t know, a mistake is probably too big a one to make) along with a healthy dose of personal insults (“hack”, “dolt”, “blowhard” certainly seem personal to me). I’m not sure I could bring myself to be so mean-spirited – even if I then pretended that IT WAS ALL A JOKE afterwards. The thing about satire is it’s supposed to be funny – if you have to explain to people that you’re joking then you’re probably not doing it right. Calling names is puerile and diminishes the person doing it, whilst using a chronic, neurodegenerative disease as a “witty” insult is, frankly, beneath contempt.
Typos are an irritation though – that said, every now and then they do add an extra something to a passage albeit unintentionally. However, it’s probably time to call time on a few persistent offenders: During a thunderstorm, lightning – not lightening, strikes; aircraft are housed in hangars, not hangers; and an infected wound will ooze pus, not puss (unless, of course, the story involves weird, feline body horror of some kind).
Anyway, back to 2017. Interestingly, and amusingly, a bizarre rumour began to circulate before this year’s Fantasycon that the entire British horror community were far-right, Nazi sympathisers. (Or “very fine people” as the leader of the Free World might have it). These rumours appeared to originate from a source close to the centre of the community about 11,000 miles away from the UK. The "warnings" were issued in an entirely “not a personal vendetta” kind of way and actually manged to persuade some people that they were true. My, how everyone laughed. Still, as politicians the world over seem to be proving with demoralising frequency, you can pretty much say any old kind of shit these days and people will believe it. (On a serious note, if you are one of those who believed the story, drop me a message – I have bridge for sale you may be interested in).
2017 also saw the closure of another handful of small presses, bringing about the expected sympathy/recrimination depending on how those closures affected you personally. On the whole, the reasons for the closures were financial – whether through bad planning or bad luck not enough books were sold to keep the presses going. I do believe horror is going through a revival but this still doesn’t seem to be reflected in sales of books. Much as a “like” on Facebook is appreciated, buying a book is a much better way of expressing support.
Which brings me to Dark Minds Press. We released three books this year, Mark West’s collection Things We Leave Behind, Laura Mauro’s novella Naming the Bones and the anthology Imposter Syndrome. In January we’ll be releasing Chad Clark’s novella Winter Holiday which, as it turns out, will be my last involvement with the press.
Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. It was becoming increasingly difficult to juggle writing, reviewing and editing/formatting/publishing on the one day I have available every week and so something had to give. It's a decision I didn't make lightly, and which I pondered over for many months but a successful small press needs a level of dedication and commitment I find I'm no longer able to provide. It’s been an honour working with the authors and artists in the ten years since we set up the press and I hope we’ve done justice to their visions. I’m proud of every book we’ve published.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. The time has arrived, yet again, for my picks of the best the horror genre has had to offer in the last twelve months with the award of the fabled Dark Muses. To reiterate, these awards are voted for by a panel of one and reflect the piece of writing in each category which has impressed me the most. Much as I might try, I can't read every book which is published so, obviously, my choices are taken from those I have had the opportunity to look at. The award exists only in virtual form and has been designed by Peter Frain, aka 77studios, who created the distinctive red, white and black covers for the Dark Minds Novella range:


I managed to read thirty one novels this year although only twenty of them were horror, and of those only thirteen were published this year. Crowded Quarantine Publications set the standard high with their two novel releases this year, Yellow Line by Kristal Stittle and Luke Walker’s Ascent which both pitched small groups of survivors against original, deadly menaces in a subway train and a high rise building respectively. Both were hugely enjoyable reads, original and inventive and will be a hard act to follow for whoever comes next.
Tim Lebbon unearthed some interesting Relics in what will be the first of a series of novels featuring creatures of mythology presented in a new, somewhat menacing, light whilst the discovery of something ancient and not very nice on the titular holy mountain provided much terror in Christopher Golden’s Ararat. I enjoyed both but felt the suspension of disbelief was perhaps a little too much in the former whilst the latter seemed a book of four quarters; the first three of which were a little slow, with pretty much all the action concentrated in the final one.
Adam Nevill moved into more psychological terror with Under a Watchful Eye, a book I enjoyed as much for the way in which it was written as the intriguing, and deeply unsettling, narrative. Equally impressive in terms of its construction was Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes with its multiple viewpoints leading to an ending with a twist which more than lived up to its pre-publicity.
S. P. Miskowski used a line from Nirvana's All Apologies for the title of her novel I Wish I Was Like You  - entirely fitting, given its setting of 90's Seattle. And entertain us she did, producing a ghost story with a difference, a book which skipped between narrative voices in a clever, and at times almost meta-fictional way.
Getting the blend between comedy and horror right is a tricky business – especially at novel length, but such was achieved by Daniel Marc Chant and Vincent Hunt with their hugely entertaining take on professional exorcism Devil Kickers. It worked so well because it was a case of the plot being enhanced by the jokes rather than simply being contrived in order to facilitate them.
Willie Meikle proved yet again that he is one of the best writers of pulp/adventure/horror stories with Infestation – a glorious mash-up of cryptozoology and sweary Scotsmen set in a chillingly remote location.
Chris Kelso once again proved he was a force to reckon with, and a writer of incredible imagination and skill with his follow up to the brilliant Unger House Radicals. Shrapnel Apartments was another dazzling array of images and ideas, an assault on the senses in which reality took on a whole new meaning, an examination of fame - and those who pursue it - to die for.
It’s an amazing book, and very nearly walked away with the Dark Muse for best novel but that honour goes this year to Beneath by Kristi DeMeester. Set in rural Appalachia, it’s a disturbing mix of ancient evil, fundamental Christianity and sexual tension – an incredibly dark book which left me feeling not a little troubled after I’d finished it.
(Interestingly, this result means that for two years running, my favourite novel of the year has been published by Word Horde – last year the “trophy” went to John Langan’s The Fisherman. A critic of some repute, in relation to Word Horde, once expressed wonderment at “why any sane and intelligent person would want to buy these books in the first place.” (After hilariously, deliberately misspelling the publisher’s name as “Word Whore” – but then nothing says "wit and sophistication" like "whore"). Well, I guess the answer is because they’re excellent. (Mind you, the same person thinks dementia is funny so their opinions probably aren’t worth a whole lot anyway).


The novella continues to establish itself as the best medium for horror – such is my considered opinion – and there have been some brilliant examples this year, making this the hardest of all my choices. It was a n honour to work with Laura Mauro on her novella Naming the Bones, a book which - had it not been disqualified because of my involvement in it - would have been among the contenders for the Dark Muse without a doubt.
Although they’re described as “short novels”, the four stories in Joe Hill’s collection Strange Weather are, I would guess, technically novellas. I enjoyed them all – to varying degrees – and particularly like the way he rarely offers up explanations for the supernatural elements of his tales, thereby adding to the mystery and wonder. A critic of some repute sees this as a weakness in his writing, enough to brand the author a “hack” but this is definitely a strength of any horror fiction, allowing the reader to engage both their imagination and intellect when reading. (And something that didn’t seem to do Robert Aickman any harm). Best of them all was Loaded, which actually features no supernatural element at all but is a powerful comment on gun culture, a devastating story which slowly gains momentum, heading inexorably towards the most powerful of conclusions and showing that there’s really no such thing as a “good guy with a gun”.
Hersham Horror continued their Primal range with three new releases this year, the best among which was Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence which made a profound political statement with its post-apocalyptic allegory.
Mythological creatures provided the basis for two very different novellas in 2017: Dave Jeffery’s Frostbite provided a new take on the legend of the Yeti, coming up with a spectacular theory for their existence amidst a fast-paced, cross-genre thriller that contained more twists and turns than a mountain road. I have the East Coast main line at the bottom of my garden but some people have fairies – or not, as the case may be. Such claims were scrutinised in a very cleverly written novella from Alison Littlewood, Cottingley, which used an epistolary style to provide a chilling character study using the story of the faked 1920’s photographs of fairies – which fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – as its starting point.
A similar, epistolary style was used by Justin Park in Mad Dog, with the story of a prison riot ingeniously constructed from a series of witness testimonies. I’m always massively appreciative of authors who try out different ways of presenting narratives and this hard-hitting novella does just that.
Gary Fry’s The Rage of Cthulhu read more like a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s original Call with similarities in the plot and some familiar names. It perhaps strained credibility a little too far come its conclusion but still managed to include some of the author’s trademark philosophical musings.
Paul Edwards gave us Infernal Love, a gloriously over-the-top homage to 60’s and 70’s occult horror. Blood drenched and full of marauding demons, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Philip Fracassi’s choice of monster for his novella Sacculina may, at first glance, have seemed a little odd but it turned out to be inspired in this tense story of a fishing trip gone horribly wrong. There’s real depth to the tale, lifting it above its pulp origins, with superbly drawn characters interacting with each other in realistically moving fashion. The action scenes are handled just as deftly – and are gripping in more ways than one.
It’s a difficult job to bring something fresh to the ghost story but that’s exactly what Stephen Graham Jones does with Mapping the Interior, a novella that plays with the reader’s perception as much as its protagonist, a young boy who discovers there’s more to the house he lives in, and his own history than he had ever imagined whilst the haunted “suicide forest” of Aokigahara in Japan was used to great effect as a setting for Adam Millard’s Swimming in the Sea of Trees.
Stephen Volk once more displayed his consummate skill as a writer with The Little Gift, a story with no supernatural trimmings whatsoever which still managed to create a real sense of horror. Beautifully written, with not a word out of place, it’s a character study which lingers long in the mind after reading.
My favourite novella of 2017 however, was written by an author I was reading for the first time. Because of the imagination on display, the imagery created and the truly unsettling nature of the story, the winner of this year’s Dark Muse of best novella is Liam Ronan for the brilliant Creeping Stick, a novella whose style I compared to Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, a comparison I still stand by.


With the untimely demise of Shadows and Tall Trees with Volume 6 in 2014, a gap opened in the market for collections of literary, weird fiction. That gap was more than adequately filled by Nightscript – which has become an annual highlight of the genre. But then… S&TT returned this year with Volume 7 – and, in preparation for a fight, had bulked itself up to nineteen stories. Nightscript Volume 3 cared nothing for this increase in fighting weight though. Indeed, within its own pages lurked twenty three stories. Perhaps the balance would be shifted by the inclusion of two authors in both volumes – a Strantzas/Devlin double punch?
All of which inane rambling merely serves to show that the weird fiction community was very well catered for this year, with two high quality products to satisfy their needs. Personally, I find myself drifting slightly away from the weird, heading back to more traditional horror and so found that two such large collections were a slight case of overload for my struggling brain. Don’t get me wrong, I love gentle horror and lap up ambiguity but when I find myself scratching my head at what I’ve just read, unable to discern its subtle nuances and metaphors the process loses some of its appeal.
A book calling itself Masters of Horror is setting the bar high for itself but to be fair, the anthology staking this claim did include in its contributors some who could lay claim to such a title. Not all of them though and – although it was to be expected, given that the editor was Matt Shaw – there was a higher than average number of extreme horror stories. I’m not a fan generally, preferring to be frightened rather than disgusted by what I read but felt that even within this sub-genre some of the stories selected were less than masterful.
Charity anthologies seem to be a common occurrence these days and one of this year’s best was Trapped Within edited by Duncan Bradshaw. Again, I was less keen on the extreme stories but it’s a strong collection with my three favourite stories coincidentally having connections to the sea. Duncan himself provides a cracker of a story Q&A - a straight-up body horror which lacks his trademark silliness. Much as I love his sense of humour, it’s great to see him writing “serious” stuff – something I mentioned to him, advising that he should do more. It’s advice I’m glad to see he’s taken to heart, as he finishes work on his new novel Cannibal Nuns from Outer Space.
An interesting theme for an anthology was provided by The Anatomy of Monsters which produced a set of stories which provided new takes on classic monsters of lore. I enjoyed it a lot but the book appears to have disappeared without a trace even before it was released. Which is a shame.
Black Shuck Books followed up last year’s Great British Horror: Green and Pleasant Lands with Volume two in the series, Dark Satanic Mills. Moving from rural to urban horror, the book contained some strong stories which channelled the fears and paranoia of life in the city.
With the demise of the Spectral imprint, Mark Morris has moved onto a new series of annual horror anthologies, namely New Fears. It’s an anthology I enjoyed a lot, its non-themed nature possibly a strength, with particularly effective stories from Kathryn Ptachek, Stephen Gallagher and Ramsey Campbell but, that said, there were a few stories which I felt were odd choices for a horror collection – given the lack of any discernible horror in them. Despite this, the mix of themes and the skilful writing on display here makes New Fears my pick for best anthology of 2017.


It’s been a really good year for single author collections too, with some big-hitters laying out their respective stalls for our delectation.
Adam Nevill provided my favourite collection of last year with Some Will Not Sleep and has followed that fine book up this year with another amazing set of stories in Hasty for the Dark. The horrors contained within are less overt and visceral than the preceding volume but none the less terrifying for that.
The Sinister Horror Company manged to release eleven titles this year, among them four collections. Paul Kane provided his variations on the theme of Death whilst there was a very impressive debut from Kayleigh Marie Edwards in Corpsing. Justin Park provided the other two, with Death Dreams both In a Whorehouse and At Christmas. As alluded to earlier, Justin is an author unafraid to try out different ways of presenting stories and that is very evident in the stories contained in these two collections which contain variety of narrative styles and techniques. Who’d have thought the phrase “I love you” could contain so much horror? Justin Park does – and he’ll tell you why.
Bracken Macleod, whose Stranded I enjoyed very much last year, provided possibly the most eclectic collections of stories (in terms of themes and style) with 13 Views of the Suicide Woods which included both literary and extreme variations on the horror story whilst Ralph Robert Moore gave us the amazing Behind You with eighteen short stories and novelettes, all of which were as dark and disturbing as you might expect from one of the most stylish writers out there. (And which contains one of my favourite stories of his, the impeccably crafted Men Wearing Makeup).
I Will Surround You is a stunning collection from Conrad Williams which brilliantly showcases his ability to find horror in the most mundane of situations, delivered in impeccable prose and another of my favourite authors, Simon Kurt Unsworth brought us his fourth collection, Diseases of the Teeth, which I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because it contained a new story featuring psychic investigator Richard Nakata.
Philip Fracassi has now become one of those authors whose work I await with great anticipation. My introduction to his writing came via the novelettes Mother and Altar – both of which are contained in his collection Behold the Void along with seven other stories which display perfectly the range and imagination of this deeply talented author. Trust me, every story in here is brilliant.
Call me one of the great unwashed if you will, but a huge part of my appreciation of a piece or writing is the sheer enjoyment it gives me. The term “guilty pleasure” is an odd one if you think about it –surely pleasure is pleasure (not in a “Brexit is Brexit” kinda way of course) and there should be no guilt attached to it. “Literary and intense” brings its own type of pleasure, “pulpy and action-packed” does too. Both take skill to be done properly.
All of which preamble leads to the announcement of the winner of 2017’s Dark Muse for Best Collection. It goes to a book which gave me so much joy when I read it; clever and witty and yet properly horrific, a book not afraid to use well established tropes but at the same time being devastatingly original, a collection which would make you laugh on one page then send a shiver of dread down your spine on the next. The Dark Muse goes to John Llewellyn Probert’s Made for the Dark.


Rich Hawkins released a couple of cracking short stories for Kindle this year: She Hunts in the Woods summoned an ancient, woodland deity to wreak havoc on those unfortunate to stumble into her realm while Warm Shelter made extremely effective use of some very disturbing imagery.
Adam Nevill’s Hippocampus made an appearance in no less than three different books this year – granted, one was his own collection – testament to just how good it is. Told entirely without characters, its roving-eye view of a deserted ship provides just enough information for the reader to paint their own picture of the events which have just taken place. It’s very clever, and very, very good.
The New Fears anthology contained enough strong stories to win the Dark Muse, among them Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek, a genuinely creepy story from Ramsey Campbell – Speaking Still, and my favourite of the book, Shepherds’ Business by Stephen Gallagher, a beautifully atmospheric tale which slowly builds to a shattering conclusion – a moment of pure horror as the reader realises the terrible thing which has happened along with the story’s protagonist.
The Ellen Datlow/Lisa Morton edited Haunted Nights provided a collection of stories themed around Hallowe’en. Stephen Graham Jones provided another excellent ghost story in Dirtmouth but my favourite was Eric J Guignard’s A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds – a tale which turned out to be just as weird as its title might suggest, telling of gang fights between ghosts on La Dia de Los Muertos.
My two favourite stories of the year come from the same author and are both to be found in the same collection. The runner-up prize goes to Philip Fracassi’s The Horse Thief, a wonderfully weird tale in which a disparate set of characters, including an Asian gangster as well as the eponymous criminal, fight over the soul of a horse god. There’s a touch of Magic Realism about The Horse Thief, and I loved the way the eclectic characters, the weird narrative and even a touch of social commentary combined to produce an outstanding story.
The award of the Dark Muse goes to the last story in Behold the Void: Mandala is a superbly constructed tale of fate and destiny. It’s a slow burner of a story but one which has a momentum which builds and builds, leading inexorably to its tragic conclusion. There are scenes described in here which are as tense as anything I’ve ever read and the story has just the right amount of a supernatural element to be pretty much perfect.

So, there you have it. Congratulations again to all the winners and massive thanks to all the authors and publishers who have provided such great entertainment for me over the last twelve months. Here’s hoping that 2018 proves to be just as good.

Monday 4 December 2017

Witnesses. (Blatant self-publicity).

It’s with a great degree of pleasure that I can announce that my novel, Witnesses, is now available for pre-order from Crowded Quarantine Publications, with a publication date of 31st January next year.
It was accepted after an open submissions period in 2016 and since the announcement was made I’ve been anticipating the actual release with – it has to be said – a fair degree of excitement.
Adam Millard has done a great job on the edits, translating my meandering prose into proper English and has produced an absolutely stunning cover. He’s taken my suggestion of “err… maybe something with a church on it” and produced an amazing piece of art. I love the 70s pulp paperback feel of it, the creases on the cover a lovely, and clever touch. I was blown away when I saw it for the first time and my love grows for it every time I look at it. (Which is probably more than would be deemed “normal”).
It’s beautifully produced and rendered but also encapsulates the themes of the book, with the two figures, the church and yes – the tentacles…
Witnesses takes as its inspiration the Book of Revelations and the prophesies concerning Armageddon contained within. Given that this is my debut (published) novel, I thought I’d make life really hard for myself by setting it in four different time periods in four different locations around the world: World War One Belgium; Virginia in the United States in 1946; Malaysia in 1977 and the North East of England in the present day. (One of these required less extensive research than the others).
Perhaps it would have been easier to write the four sections one at a time and then cut and paste but, for my sins, I chose not to do it this way. The way the narrative jumps back and forth between the different time periods/locations is exactly as I wrote it – a process which stopped me getting too bogged down in one particular narrative thread and which hopefully keeps the momentum of the book going, dropping clues and revelations so that the reader will slowly work out what’s going on along with the book’s protagonists.
That’s the plan anyway…

I really enjoyed writing Witnesses and am proud of what I’ve produced – even prouder after having seen the amazing job Adam has done. It will also be available as an e-book but you can pre-order the paperback here.

And here's the blurb:

The End Times are upon us…
In the small village of East Lee in north-east England, Dave Charlton is studying for his PhD, an academic work that will probably be read by only a handful of people. His research is of limited interest – certainly nothing that will change the world.
The world is changing though, and as his perception of reality mysteriously begins to alter - bringing new abilities to see what others cannot, a stranger arrives with revelations which will transform the course of his life for ever – and the lives of everyone else on the planet.
Dave finds himself a key player in a story as old as time itself, forced into a situation where the decisions he makes really are the most important in the world. He has become part of the endless cycle of conflict between the forces of good and evil, the struggle which will culminate in the final battle: Armageddon.
Moving between the present day, the battlefields of World War One Belgium, 1940s Virginia and Malaysia in the 1970s, WITNESSES is an epic tale of destiny and apocalyptic horror.

Monday 16 October 2017

Made for the Dark

Made for the Dark is the new collection from John Llewellyn Probert and is published by Black Shuck Books. There are eighteen stories within the book, all of which act as a marvellous showcase for one of the most distinctive voices in horror today.
Previous collections from John (The Catacombs of Fear, The Faculty of Terror) were presented as portmanteaus – with the stories linked by a bridging device and that concept has been taken a step further with this collection, containing as it does an introduction to each story from the author a la Twilight Zone. It’s a clever technique, pulled off admirably – aided greatly by the front cover picture of the great man himself seated behind a desk, waiting to show you his special somethings…
I’m still waiting to hear from the OED for official recognition but many moons ago I coined the term “proberty” (as defined here) and it’s a word I’m more than happy to apply to this collection which I would be so bold as to describe as quintessential. It’s a difficult art, combining horror and humour and can, in the hands of a less skilled practitioner go horribly wrong but that’s certainly not the case with John’s writing. Much of what he describes is truly awful and I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining – whenever something gruesome and outlandish happens to a character – the author waiting for a reaction, a slight arch to one of his eyebrows and a tilt to his head, “are you really going to laugh at that..?”
Actually, I might be alone in that.
The humour, of course, helps to leaven the impact of the horror but it’s still extremely effective and some of the stories in this collection are worthy of Barker at his best. (By which I mean Clive and Ronnie).
If Made for the Dark is the quintessential JLP collection then I would suggest The Anatomy Lesson is the quintessential story, containing as it does just about everything you might wish to find in a proberty tale, Grand Guignol horror, an element of performance and… doctors. John is of course a doctor himself so it’s no surprise to see that particular profession cropping up in many of the stories in the book, including pulpy crime story The Girl with no Face, Victorian apocalypse Out of Fashion and The Secondary Host – possibly my favourite story in the book. Telling the story in first person necessitates a change from John’s familiar narrative voice and I think that – and the lack of the trademark comedy flourishes - make this an extremely effective chiller with a marvellous premise and mythology to back it up.
The Girl in the Glass also has a doctor as its protagonist but is also a cleverly constructed ghost story (using a very effective image as a reveal) and ghosts also crop up in Six of the Best – a glorious attack on TV ghost-hunter programmes with a nasty twist to it, not to say some very mucky bits.
There’s a touch of cynicism in that tale, a feature of some of the other stories; The Life Inspector and How the Other Half Dies gently rip apart their protagonists’ characters but the harshest treatment is given to charities in It Begins at Home – in which art imitates life – but not in a good way. (Interestingly, the story preceding this, the WW2 set The Death House with its heady mix of Nazis and Lovecraftian horror could be a case of life imitating art). A similar theme to that of It Begins at Home is to be found in The Lucky Ones, a title dripping in irony if ever there was one.
Humour is one of John’s trademarks for sure, but – as he displayed emphatically in his novella Differently There – he’s equally as capable of melancholy and pathos. This is admirably demonstrated in A Life on the Stage – a theatre-set swansong to bring the house down and The Man Who Loved Grief – a fairytale-esque (albeit a rather grim one) meditation on love and – well, grief.
There’s plenty more to enjoy besides these, tales of reincarnation, ancient rituals and the perils of reviewing online. There’s even – much to my delight - a weird western, Blood and Dust complete with an invisible monster a la Forbidden Planet (the film – not the shop) which is the final story in the book. With its fish out of water protagonist English professor John Summerskill, it’s closer in tone to The Sherriff of Fractured Jaw than Unforgiven but I enjoyed it immensely and it’s a fine end to a very impressive collection.
I enjoyed every moment I spent between the covers of Made for the Dark. For those already familiar with John’s writing it will be like settling down for a natter with an old friend (preferably in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of brandy) whilst for those yet to encounter his work it’s the perfect introduction.

Very proberty indeed.

Monday 2 October 2017

Hasty for the Dark.

Hasty for the Dark is the new collection from Adam Nevill and is the follow up volume to last year’s Some Will Not Sleep which has deservedly just won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Like that book, Hasty… has been published by Adam’s own Ritual Limited and – also like the previous volume – is a beautifully produced hardback, this time featuring illustrations from Adam’s brother Simon, evidence that talent really does run in the family with the pictures perfectly envisioning the dark imagination of the author.
The book features nine stories, written between 2009 and 2015 - the period of time which began with the publication of Apartment 16 and ending with Lost Girl – and it’s a bonus, amongst many of the pleasures to be enjoyed within these pages, to see the subtle references to those works – and the novels which were published between them – in the stories collected here.
The opening story is On All London Underground Lines, which tells of the journey from Hell on the titular transport network. Or possibly the journey through Hell… Told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator, it effectively channels the frustrations and sense of dislocation and powerlessness experienced by many a traveller on the underground system, the feeling of being part of a herd, endlessly being shifted here, there and everywhere at the whim of the Gods of Transportation.
Of course, there are other horrors to be endured, the crowds through which the narrator struggles to find a way through are somehow different, there’s a hint of decay about them, something monstrous. So self-absorbed is our narrator, however, that – although he sees the horrors around him, his own personal needs render the monsters little more than annoying obstructions to his progress, placed there simply to get in his way. The imagery, whilst ignored by the narrator, is startling and a joy to read.
Next up is The Angels of London, which shifts the emphasis from travel in the capital city to life within it – more precisely that in rented accommodation. Tenant Frank comes into conflict with landlord Granby over a rise in rent and faces threats of retribution from the “family” who lease the property. Anyone who has read Adam’s novel No One Gets Out Alive will find echoes of that book’s loathsome landlord Knacker McGuire in the character of Granby who presents himself here as little more than a messenger boy for the “family” – a servant of sorts – conjuring similarities to Renfield, in thrall to a terrifying and monstrous master. Whilst the landlords might be described as blood-suckers with regards their rent demands, it turns out they’re far worse than mere vampires – and those demands go far beyond money…
Always in Our Hearts takes the reader on a very strange journey indeed, with taxi driver Ray hired to carry out a relay of journeys, dropping passengers off and picking up the next fare at the same house. All the passengers carry large bags which seem to contain something living although what this is remains a mystery throughout all the journeys, Ray’s curiosity increasing along with the reader’s as to exactly what all this is about. All is revealed at the final drop-off, neatly resolving the mysteries developed along the way and culminating in a bizarre climax. A strange offering indeed.
I had already read many of the stories in this collection but none so recently as Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) which I’d only just encountered in the New Fears anthology. Scholars of Greek Mythology will have an idea of what this story will be about just from its title and will probably smile at the names Jason and Electra – the protagonists of this tale of a first date going horribly wrong. This tale was written as a homage to Robert Aickman and hits the mark perfectly, presenting a series of strange, unexplained events and ending on a note of ambiguity, leaving the reader unsettled and disturbed. Along the way, it conjures up some deliciously creepy imagery by way of an inspired location – an abandoned zoo in which all of the animals (possibly) have gone.
The Days of Our Lives is one of my favourites in the collection, telling of a marriage made in Hell and featuring some classic Nevill imagery (to say nothing of some nice cross-pollination with his novels). The story borders on the surreal in some of its descriptions of the bizarre relationship between the story’s narrator and wife Lois and goes onto some very dark territory. Whilst the previous story unsettled the reader in a subtle way, the discomfort brought about by this tale is a lot more overt. It’s a genuinely disturbing piece of writing which forms the dark heart of the collection.
Hippocampus is up next and is my favourite story within Hasty for the Dark. I was blown away by it when I first read it in Terror Tales of the Ocean and am no less impressed on revisiting it here. It’s an extremely cleverly constructed story, and one which features no characters. It’s perhaps the literary equivalent of a found footage film, the narrative taking the form of a journey through an abandoned ship, describing what is present in each of the rooms encountered. This is no benign mystery like the Marie Celeste, the evidence uncovered reveals something terrible, and incredibly violent has happened to the crew. The real skill of the narrative is to engage the reader’s imagination, presenting them with the evidence and getting them to work out what has happened. There’s horror aplenty here but perhaps the greatest of them all is that this is not just the description of an aftermath but also a prelude.
Call the Name is the second of the four tribute stories in the collection, this time the author in question being HP Lovecraft. It’s the longest story in the book and is set in the same world as Adam’s novel Lost Girl. The environmental disaster described in that book provides the backdrop to this story and – a la Lovecraft – much scientific evidence is provided to explain just how things got as bad as they did, all impressive stuff, thoroughly researched and presented in a frighteningly believable way. Huge themes of revenge against mankind, the despoilers of the planet feature here and it’s an interesting proposition that it might not be the stars being right that herald the return of the Old Ones so much as the earth being wrong.
White Light, White Heat is the third tribute story, this time channelling the style and tropes of mark Samuels – a writer who, to my shame, I have yet to encounter. I have read Ligotti however, and found much to compare with that particular author in this unremittingly grim take on corporate life, a soul-destroying existence that grinds down its workers until the only possible source of hope is resistance. Interestingly, and possibly significantly, the industry under examination here is publishing.
The final story in the collection is also a tribute with Ramsey Campbell the recipient of the honour in Little Black Lamb. Again, it’s a masterful job of recreating the honoured author’s style and technique, the story injecting a heavy dose of sinister into a domestic setting, with a tale of a couple receiving memories which are not their own, images and thoughts which drive them towards a disturbing, and again deeply unsettling, course of action.
Hasty for the Dark is a superb collection of stories, and a worthy successor to Some Will Not Sleep. In comparison to the earlier book, its horrors are perhaps more subtle, less overt but are no less effective for that. The grotesqueries of that first volume have been replaced by suggestion and more ambiguous terror but the stories here still do a grand job of horrifying the reader.
There are links to Adam’s other books for sure, but also connections between the stories themselves. A recurring image will make sure you never look at a seahorse in the same way again and there are tantalising hints of the mysterious “Movement” which will hopefully bear much fruit in forthcoming works.

This is a stunning book in every regard, a wonderful retrospective of one of the most gifted purveyors of horror fiction currently plying their trade. It’s t be hoped that this yearly ritual of short story releases continues into the future, I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

Monday 25 September 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas; The Stories Continue.

Accompanying Richard Farren Barber’s Perfect Silence, Perfect Darkness which I reviewed here, Hersham Horror are also launching two other novellas in their Primal Range at this year’s Fantasycon.

The first if these is Monstrous by Charlotte Bond. It tells of Jenny who – pretty much against her will – is relocating with her mother Pamela, following the breakdown of a relationship, to Haven - a woodland commune in the depths of Northumberland. As they settle into their new life, so they encounter the community’s other residents – and the secrets they carry with them.
Add a mysterious presence stalking the woods around them and the scene is set for Jenny’s journey of revelation, uncovering – in both literal and metaphorical terms – the nature of the beast in and of her new home.
Although the focus of the book is Jenny, the narrative is third person and presents events from various characters points of view, making much use of italicised inner thoughts for context and exposition.
Actually, probably a little too much. It’s a technique I don’t mind, (and am guilty of myself frequently), but there’s an awful lot of it in here – often running to paragraphs’ worth – so much that it often distracts from the narrative, taking you out of the book as if the characters are taking you to one side and whispering explanations to you.
The “monstrous” of the title refers to the thing in the woods (nicely hinted at until finally revealed) but it’s also the word used by some of the less tolerant members of the commune to describe others whose lifestyles fail to meet their high moral standards. Of course, the reality is that that’s how they themselves should be described. It’s a point which could perhaps have been made a little more subtly in the novella but a nice touch nonetheless.
Events finally reach a conclusion with a confrontation in the woods with the creature which has been stalking the commune – and the uncovering of connections and dark secrets. There are surprising revelations here, along with some deadly violence and it’s the latter which provides my biggest stumbling block in the book. Jenny is presented as rational and sensible, a counterpoint to the weirdness in the commune and I find it hard to accept that she would witness what happens and not even consider informing the police. Perhaps a more isolated setting for the book would have helped here, an island perhaps – truly cut off from society. Maybe it’s because I live not far from the location of the fictional commune; I love the wildness and emptiness of Northumberland but it’s not that remote…
Despite these criticisms, Monstrous makes for an enjoyable read, with lots of ideas and themes going on within it. It’s a good book, and one I recommend – I just feel with some things done a little differently it could have been a very good book.

Bury Them Deep is a dictum I remember well from my Murder for Beginners course and is also the title of the third novella in the Primal range written by Marie O’Regan.
It’s a supernatural thriller, told from the viewpoints of two characters – Maddie and Frank. The story begins impressively, not to say enigmatically, with Maddie’s uncovering of a skeleton – that of her mother who, it turns out, has been murdered. Things get even weirder when Maddie starts a conversation with her mother, in the process revealing her quest to find the remains and the itinerant life that has been forced on her to avoid the killer herself.
The second narrative thread details Frank’s story – describing his exploits as a serial killer of women via his own thought processes and innermost thoughts and as the novella progresses, it jumps between the two threads, slowly revealing the connection between the two storylines.
The two plotlines circle around each other until finally they collide in a confrontation in which the natural and supernatural combine to devastating effect.
I liked Bury Them Deep a lot, not least for the structure of the book, the clever way in which the two storylines weave together. There are twists to enjoy along the way, and it’s a nice touch to have Maddie almost as “weird” as Frank (though without the homicidal tendencies of course…) The final confrontation may have a touch of Deus ex Machina about it, and may stray towards sentimentality but the denouement is suitably dark.
Bury Them Deep is a short read – I have to admit I was surprised when I reached the end of it as there were still a lot of pages left in the ARC I was provided with – but there’s the bonus of two short stories included alongside the novella.

I’m firmly of the belief that the novella is the best medium for horror and Hersham Horror are doing a great job in solidifying that idea. I look forward to what the Primal Range will deliver next.

Monday 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

Shrapnel Apartments is the new novel from Chris Kelso and is published by Crowded QuarantinePublications. It’s a follow-up to Unger House Radicals which I reviewed here and which was one of my favourite reads of last year.
Unger House Radicals dealt with the creation of a new art-form, Ultra-Realism, by film student Vincent Bittaker and serial killer Brandon Swarthy – whose relationship I likened to that of Rimbaud and Verlane. In possibly the most contrived pun I’ve ever managed (which is saying something) if UHR is Rimbaud: First Blood, (there’s certainly plenty of the red stuff spilled in its pages), then Shrapnel Apartments can surely be regarded as Rimbaud: First Blood Part II.
There’s a marked slump in quality between the two films but not, I’m very pleased to say, between the books. Whereas John Rambo appears in both films, undergoing an amazing transformation from traumatised, disillusioned veteran to some kind of invincible superhero, Bittaker and Swarthy barely get a look in – although they are referenced occasionally – Shrapnel Apartments is set in a post-Ultra-Realism world, a world in which the radical has become part of the establishment.
As with Unger House Radicals, the book is written in a scattershot style, from the perspectives of multiple characters. There’s perhaps more of a narrative thrust to this one though (or perhaps thrusts – there’s more than one story to be told here) and even a hint of (possibly) cosmic horror with the introduction of a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of the mysterious entity known as Blackcap and his assistant King Misery – first alluded to in an opening sequence set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s suggestions throughout the book that Blackcap is guiding events, toying with humanity to achieve his own, nefarious ends.
The storylines running throughout Shrapnel Apartments include those of child-killer Beau Carson and his investigation by corrupt cop Bobby Reilly, a spat between critics Gottleib and Mancuso (primarily about Ultra-Realism) and the eternal suffering of Florence Coffey. The individual stories are told in a variety of narrative voices, mainly first person testimonies (although it’s often not clear exactly who it is who’s speaking…) interspersed with third person sections, police records, random soliloquys and – significantly – autopsy reports. It’s a dazzling display of technique, the seemingly random sections bombarding the reader with images and ideas yet undergoing some kind of synergy to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts which will leave you breathless in its audacity.
Whilst Unger House Radicals was all about art, it’s a bit more difficult to pin down a single theme for Shrapnel Apartments although I’ll stick my neck out and boldly suggest it might be about the nature of evil itself. The titular apartments are (actually, may or may not be) the location of a reality TV show – a la Big Brother – so there’s evidence of evil right there and, given the references to Jazz music (which everyone knows is the work of the devil) which appear in the book I’m relatively confident in this assumption.

Not that it matters. What any reader takes from any book is absolutely an individual experience. What I took from Shrapnel Apartments was an admiration for a writer willing to try new things, be experimental and doing so brilliantly. This is yet another assault on the senses from Chris Kelso and I thank him for it. There’s great skill on display creating the distinct and individual voices of the characters but also in corralling all the disparate elements into a thought-provoking, dazzling and thoroughly satisfying whole.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence

Given the current political climate, there’s a very strong possibility that the whole sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction could be lost to use, re-packaged as contemporary drama so it’s probably a good idea to make the most of it while it’s still here.
Such an opportunity is provided with a new novella in the Hersham Horror line (which launched very successfully last year with these titles) from Richard Farren Barber – Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (a title which may, or may not, reference a James Lovegrove story – but which I kinda hope does because of the context).
The apocalypse in this book is not the result of handing the nuclear codes to a man with the reasoning capacity and awareness of a spoilt toddler - this is a work of fiction - but of an infection, a plague, which wipes out the majority of the world’s population, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. A familiar trope for sure, but those anticipating the arrival of hordes of zombies will be disappointed for in this scenario the “infected” are still very much alive, a threat simply because of the risk of infection they (literally) carry. Once dead, they remain dead – a situation which brings with it many practical implications for the survivors…
It’s the disposal of the corpses which is the job of Hannah, the protagonist – and narrator – of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Along with her team, she retrieves the fallen bodies of those who have made it as far as the outskirts of the village in which she and the other survivors now reside, in order to remove them and with them the risk of further contamination.
It’s the epitome of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” and there’s much grimness to be had in the descriptions of what the team have to do. There’s much opportunity for character development too, with the personalities of the team emerging from the ways in which they approach their grim task.
The community is led by the charismatic Dr Andrew Hickman who has shaped the rules and policies by which the village is kept safe behind its walls and quarantine zones and it’s these which provide the subtext to the novella. The political allegory of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is writ large, the paranoia and exclusion of the survivors towards the infected (and – crucially – the “possibly” infected) holds a mirror up to the current political climate here in the UK and other countries which, frankly, should know better.
In this context, Perfect darkness, Perfect Silence is incredibly powerful. The last act (the final solution) performed by Hannah and her crew is to tip the dead into huge funeral pyres – scenes which cannot fail to evoke images of much darker times, and a salutary reminder of the real cost of extreme ideologies.
I was mightily impressed by this novella and regard it as the best that Richard has written thus far. Despite the “heavy” politics it still works as an exciting read with fully drawn characters and a great deal of imagination on display. It’s a cleverly constructed world Richard has created here and his use of Hannah as a protagonist gradually discovering – or uncovering – exactly what is happening is something he handles expertly.

I highly recommend Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. It will be launched, alongside the other new novellas in the series, at FantasyCon in September.

Monday 24 July 2017


Cottingley is the new novella by Alison Littlewood and is the second in a new series of four being published by NewCon Press. The book uses as its backdrop the events of 1917-1920 in which photographs purporting to be of real fairies were taken by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, which gained a deal of notoriety when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used them in an article for the Strand Magazine, regarding them as genuine and proof of the existence of the creatures.
The novella is set in 1921, when interest in the photographs was beginning to wane and is written in epistolary style, consisting of a series of letters from Lawrence Fairclough, an elderly widower who lives in the village of Cottingley and who, if he is to believed, has uncovered new – physical – evidence of the fairies.
Other than the first letter which is addressed to Conan Doyle himself, the remainder are written to Edward L Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society and another true believer in the veracity of the photographs. Fairclough has discovered the body of a fairy, and has his own photographs…
The fairies Fairclough describes are far from benign, indeed, physical harm is done to both his daughter Charlotte and granddaughter Harriet by the creatures. These are the fairies of ancient folklore, malevolent and dangerous.
As the novella progresses, the letters document a change in Fairclough as his obsession with the fairies grows. The replies he receives are not shown but the writing here is so skilful that they don’t have to be – the distancing of Gardner from Fairclough is all too apparent from the increasingly frustrated tone of the letters the widower constantly sends.
The use of letters as the narrative voice in Cottingley is an inspired one, providing insights into the character and personality of their author. Fairclough’s initial excitement at his discovery gradually turns to frustration and hubris, his own vanity leading to anger and arrogance. It’s all beautifully done, the changes introduced subtly and carefully. This character study is the real heart of the book, the fairies and the truth or not of their existence merely the canvas upon which the portrait is being painted.
This deterioration of course leads to Fairclough becoming the most unreliable of narrators. There’s much to suggest that his evidence for the fairies is as genuine as the photographs taken by the girls (who finally admitted they were fakes in 1983). Reading the letters through this filter casts a much darker hue on the story, provides a disturbing viewpoint for some of the incidents he records in his correspondence.

I enjoyed Cottingley very much indeed, cleverly constructed and written with exactly the right amount of ambiguity to keep you thinking about it long after you finish it. You can, and should, buy it here.

Monday 17 July 2017

Shadow Moths.

Shadow Moths is the first release from Frightful Horrors, a small UK publisher whose mission statement is to recreate the chapbook format of yesteryear in ebook form, via their “quick reads” – short stories from authors designed to act as a showcase for their talent.
Cate Gardner supplies two stories for this debut publication: We Make Our Own Monsters Here and Blood-Moth Kiss. Anyone familiar with Cate’s writing will find much to enjoy here whilst it will act as a perfect introduction to her slightly surreal and whimsical style of writing to those yet to experience it.
It has to be said that these stories are definitely in the weird fiction camp, being neither particularly frightful nor horrific, but beneath the surface of the strangeness dark currents flow.
The opening story concerns puppeteer Check Harding and his stay in the Palmerston Hotel prior to a job interview. There’s much surreal humour to be had here, with receptionists hiding behind desks and ankle-deep shag pile carpets. The humour is gradually replaced by a slowly creeping sense of dread when Check makes the trip to his interview wherein a bizarre, transformative experience occurs in which puppeteer becomes puppet, a bargain somehow made which will change his life forever.
The darkness at the conclusion of We Make… is made more profound by the humour which precedes it. There’s less of that on display in Blood-Moth Kiss, which is set in an air-force base during the onset of a nuclear war.
Sections of the story are titled with the date and time which, if read carefully, offer some hint as to what this complex and puzzling story may really be about. I loved the imagery in this one, anyone who had accidentally crushed a moth will be aware of the ash-like substance which remains and this metaphor is use dis to very good effect in this – and I use the word deliberately – haunting tale.
These are, as stated from the outset, quick reads – easily devoured in a single sitting. As with much of Cate’s work, a second reading is always something I’d recommend. First time round, just lose yourself in the poetic weirdness, second time try and discern the hidden meanings – and the brevity of these two tales certainly allows for this.

I enjoyed my time in the weird world of the Shadow Moths and strongly recommend you try it for yourself. You can buy the book here.

Monday 10 July 2017

The Anatomy of Monsters

The Anatomy of Monsters is a new anthology from Stitched Smile Publications and is edited by Robert Teun. Monsters are, of course, a staple of horror and many people’s – myself included – introduction to the genre. The theme behind this anthology was an interesting one: new takes on old legends, stories which would provide new interpretations on classic monsters, perhaps provide new insights into their lives (or undeaths as the case may be).
The book is a mixture of original stories and reprints with eighteen tales covering a wide range of subjects. Vampires are the subject of the opening story, Gary McMahon’s I know I Promised You a Story, a tale which adopts an approach similar to George A Romero’s Martin, creating a compact little tale which actually serves very well as an introduction to the book, ending on a nice use of the “inviting in” trope to set up the rest of the stories in the anthology.
Origins stories abound here, with authors presenting their own takes on why and how monsters came into being. This is done in straightforward fashion with Alex Laybourne’s The Birth of Djinn and Jess Landry’s Gorgons using narrative styles in keeping with the historical periods under scrutiny whilst a more adventurous style is employed with Greg Chapman’s Conjoined and Carl Jennings’ Losing Visibility which provide alternative explanations for Jekyll and Hyde and The Invisible Man respectively. Perhaps the best of the early insights into… stories is Steven Chapman’s Le Mort Vivant which uses the setting of the tunnels beneath the Paris opera House to great effect in this engaging tale of the Phantom’s early years.
It’s the later years of Frankenstein’s Monster which are the subject of Brian Hodge’s A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, a story which cleverly uses the paradoxical combination of sensitivity and destructive potential of the creature to chilling effect.
I have a particular fondness for werewolves so found myself a little disappointed at their appearance here in Nicholas Vince’s Family Tree. It’s a story in which the tone seems a little inconsistent and which lays its cards (and plot) out at the very beginning. What follows is that plot playing itself out (therefore without any surprise elements to it) amidst some clunky exposition/info dumps. Even more disappointing was Whitechapel, 1888 by Alisha Jordan. The subject matter is obvious from the title but the story gives away its “secret” – the identity of the Ripper - at the outset and then proceeds to be little more than a lurid description of the murders themselves, details which will be known to anyone with even a passing interest in the case but presented here a little too gratuitously.
Also slightly disappointing, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else of his I’ve read, is Josh Malerman’s Basic Shade. Set in prehistoric times, it tells of the creation of the first ever ghost – a clever concept but one I felt wasn’t quite realised in the final story.
Laura Mauro appropriates an REM song title for Nightswimming in which the real monster of the piece isn’t the one you might be expecting whilst Simon Bestwick shows a romantic side to his talents (albeit interspersed with graphic horror and monsters lurking in caves) with To Walk in Midnight’s Realm.
The Darkness in Our dreams is a high-concept piece from Phil Sloman told almost as a fable which describes the birth of nightmares. It’s cleverly done, and has some suitably disturbing imagery to back up the narrative. I liked it a lot but I think my favourite story in the collection is Daniel I Russell’s Rational Creatures, a story which best fits the book’s title, a historical horror which combines the dissection table with high art.

I enjoyed my time uncovering The Anatomy of Monsters. It’s an entertaining mix of stories and styles and (on the whole) well written throughout. The balance between old and new both in terms of reprints and originals and the monsters themselves is just about right. This is Volume 1 in a proposed series and I look forward to seeing what future editions will bring.

Monday 3 July 2017

Creeping Stick

Creeping Stick is a novella by Liam Ronan and is published by Pendragon Press. It’s a debut by Liam and, I have to say, a mightily impressive one, written with great style and confidence and marking the author out as someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Set in the Welsh village of Hafoc in the early years of the twentieth century, it tells of the arrival – via shipwreck – of the sinister figure of Raziel Menalaus Spindle, a disfigured and deformed character, his physical appearance giving rise to his nickname – Creeping Stick. Accepted by, and slowly becoming an influential figure in the Hafoc’s society, Spindle unveils his plans to build a “Home for Progressive Youth”, an idea which is met with full approval until the details of what will actually take place within the home are discussed. The techniques he is to employ to “further” the children seem to be counter to religious teaching and it’s this which leads to a breakdown in the relationship between the village elders and Spindle.
Shunned by the villagers, Spindle becomes an outcast, reappearing on the day of the summer fayre with gifts of barrels of beer. The villagers drink freely, and fall into drug-induced slumber.
Then the children disappear…
It’s only when a girl escapes Spindle’s clutches to return to Hafoc that the true horror of what Spindle has been up to is uncovered. With his plans for his home dashed, he has instead constructed a building hidden out in the dunes which lie on the edge of the village: the House of Perpetual Lament.
The story is told as a first person narration, by Hafoc’s priest – witness to all of the events and a member of the group who set out for the House of Perpetual Lament in the story’s conclusion. It’s a distinctive voice, written in a style appropriate to the period of the book and it’s credit to the author that it’s maintained throughout the length of the novella. Presented as the confession of a dying man there’s obviously the risk of this being an unreliable narration but to be honest, this is of little consequence as the tale which unfolds is such a gripping one. What’s even more impressive is the amount of imagination on display here. The scenes set in the House of Perpetual Lament are a joy (if that’s the right word…) to read, as one horror after another is uncovered by the group of villagers. Vivid descriptive prose abounds here with some startling, not to say, disturbing imagery on display. The writing here is reminiscent of Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, that’s how good it is, and presents a potent mix of body horror, creeping tension and even a dash or two of steampunk imagery.
There’s a lot going on in Creeping Stick. Within the gloriously entertaining narrative there’s a commentary on small town narrow-mindedness, the use and abuse of power and it could even be read as an addition to the religion versus science debate or a musing on faith, or the lack of…
Creeping Stick is a wonderful piece of writing and an incredibly impressive debut. There’s a hugely entertaining epilogue too which at first seems completely remote from the novella itself but which gradually reveals its subtle links to the preceding narrative.

I loved it, and strongly recommend you check it out for yourself, which you can do here.

Monday 12 June 2017


Beneath is the debut novel from Kristi DeMeester and is published by Word Horde. Set in the 1980s, its protagonist is Cora, a journalist sent to rural Appalachia to research a story about an evangelical preacher who incorporates snake handling into his services.
What follows truly is a journey into the heart of darkness, in which buried secrets are unearthed – among them Cora’s own, a back-story revealed which adds context and nuance to the horrors she uncovers.
Beneath is not an easy read. Cora’s investigations take her to some very dark places, and there are scenes which are difficult to read – not because of the writing, which is immaculate throughout - but because of their subject matter. I’ve often expounded the theory that the mark of an effective horror story is that it unsettles and disturbs and that's very much the case with this novel. There’s nothing gratuitous or exploitative here though, the prose is calm, assured and understated – which makes the horrors being described all the more profound.
There are human monsters here for sure, but there’s also a supernatural element to the horror. The author has created a mythology in which to embed her story which works brilliantly, the dark forces she conjures providing a wonderful device with which to address the many issues the book raises. These supernatural elements are introduced gradually and very cleverly. Dreams and reality merge, wrong-footing and disorientating the reader before taking prominence in the book’s closing chapters. Confining the story to its remote location works extremely well here, with neither the protagonists nor readers exactly sure of what is happening and to how many.
Multiple themes run through the narrative, twisting around each other like snakes in a pit. There is much metaphor and allegory here (even the choice of Cora as a name has a significance) with the aforementioned serpents providing much of the real and suggested horror. A combination of snakes and religion usually leads to temptation and this is one of the stronger motifs on display here – a weakness in some, a weapon to others.

Beneath is a marvelous debut novel. Unafraid to tackle difficult issues, it provides a bleak and compelling examination of human nature whilst at the same time creating a believable, and terrifying mythology. It’s another fine addition to the steadily growing ranks of literary horror and a book I thoroughly recommend.

Monday 8 May 2017


I have to admit to being a sucker for a good old creature feature. There’s nothing quite like a story of man against monster, whether those monsters are of the supernatural or natural kind. Shark movies seem to be making a bit of a resurgence lately but none will ever top the magnificence which is Jaws. Perhaps it’s the combination of the isolation of being out on the open sea and the threat of the creature itself which makes maritime monsters especially terrifying. Cast adrift on open water, it’s feasible that any creature can be made scary – certainly the case with sharks, giant squid and killer whales. Even as benign a creature as a whale can be rendered terrifying – especially if it’s white.
Such is the setting for the new novella from Philip Fracassi, Sacculina which is published by Journalstone. The monsters faced here are a mutated species, a surprising choice on the face of it perhaps but, as it turns out, an inspired one, the scenes at the book’s conclusion deftly handled by a writer with abundant skill and technique, creating real tension amidst the more visceral elements.
Brothers Jim and Jack charter a boat to go on a fishing trip with friend Chris and their father Henry, a chance to re-forge old ties and bond following the release of Jack from prison. There’s a little bit of foreshadowing before the boat even leaves port with the captain trying to warn them off because of bad weather, only to accede to their wishes but taking them to a different, safer(!), location…
It’s all lovely, traditional stuff and it’s the familiarity of the set-up which creates a warm glow of recognition in the reader, a sense of anticipation at what is still to come once our heroes are out in the middle of nowhere.
Given the environment the men find themselves in, the opportunities are there for much discourse and recollection with back stories floating to the surface, revealing much about the characters, revealing hidden depths. Tensions – familial and otherwise – are exposed, nicely adding to that of the overall narrative; the journey out to sea mirrored by that into the souls of the protagonists themselves. These sections are nicely done, allowing insight without slowing the pace or being a distraction. There’s even space for a little profundity, musings on life and the nature of existence – again without holding up the narrative which slowly ramps up the tension and feelings of dread until the real horror arrives.
And it is real horror. The attack of the creatures is handled with as much skill as the character development which has preceded it. Trust me, this is intense stuff with some sequences definitely not for the faint-hearted. The pacing here is superb, exciting and frantic, a lovely counterpoint to the slow build of tension which has gone before.
I loved Sacculina; pulpy enough so as not to betray its creature-feature origins but elevated by very skilful writing so that while you still may not care for some of the characters, at least you’re interested in them. Having already released a collection which is a contender for year’s best, Philip has here provided a novella with an equally strong claim to that title.

Sacculina is released on May 12th and you can buy it here.

Monday 1 May 2017


Ascent is the new novel from Luke Walker and is published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Beginning with the imminent threat of nuclear bomb detonating outside RAF Lakenheath, it’s a novel which hits the ground running.
Actually, that’s exactly how the narrative begins, with one of the book’s main characters, Kelly, crashing into the reception area of Greenham Place, the high-rise building which serves as the location for the rest of the novel, a safe haven from the blast which turns out to be anything but.
Once inside, she encounters others who have found themselves inside the building at the moment of detonation; her sister Alex, Rod, Dao and Simon – but no one else… At least no one human.
So begins a dazzlingly inventive, fast paced and disorientating tale in which reality is blurred as much for the reader as the protagonists themselves. They find themselves haunted, somehow their own individual fears manifest as apparitions and inexplicable encounters. Unable to escape from the building, they become captives, hunted as well as haunted by the ghosts of their memories and fears.
There’s a wonderful sense of unease and disorientation created in Ascent. The protagonists have no idea of what is happening, or why – and those puzzles are shared by the reader. Has the bomb gone off and they are all dead? Has time somehow frozen and trapped them in a kind of limbo? It’s a massive strength of the book that it raises these questions in the reader’s mind, carrying them along with the narrative which cracks along at a fair old pace, offering hints and suggestions along the way.
Hinted at all through the book, is the presence of some elemental force guiding the action, a suggestion that the building itself is a manifestation of that force, a nexus of evil as it were, tormenting the protagonists, exploiting their fears.
It’s the individual confrontations with their personal horrors which provide some cracking set-pieces, many of which are not for the faint-hearted. Even amidst the fast-paced action, each character arc is given time to develop as the group of five find their own ways to resolution and, given that the commonality in all their stories is an overwhelming sense of guilt, even redemption.
I loved Ascent, it’s a high concept story which is evidence of a great imagination at work. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, but Luke handles all the narrative threads and ideas perfectly and has created a book which works on a whole range of levels. Exciting, scary and thought-provoking. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Ascent is officially released on June 3rd but you can pre-order here.

Monday 27 March 2017

The Little Gift

One of my favourite things in the world is to read a story and then, once it’s finished, find myself still thinking about it, reassessing and re-evaluating what I’ve read, gaining fresh insights, revealing subtleties which registered only subconsciously on first exposure to the words.
Such was very much the case with the new novella from Stephen Volk, The Little Gift which is published by PS Publishing.
It’s a slim, but beautifully produced (and illustrated), volume and I rattled through it in a single sitting in less than an hour. Its brevity belies its content however as what we’re given here is a tale of massive depth, the words and story undergoing some magical synergy to create a piece of work which stealthily infiltrates your mind, a first person narrative which makes you believe the story is heading in one direction before craftily heading off somewhere completely different.
The first person narrative is absolutely essential to the story. Yes, the narrator is unreliable – but aren’t they all? Narrators (not to say readers) will always superimpose their own interpretations on stories but his unreliability isn’t the most important thing anyway. What the narrative provides here is a beautifully crafted exploration of character. And not a very nice character at that.
It’s difficult to say too much about the Little Gift without giving away key plot developments. Bad things happen, some very bad things happen – both directly and indirectly involving the narrator and it’s his attitudes towards these events which provide the deepest insights into his character.
I chose Stephen’s story The Peter Lorre Fan Club as my favourite of last year because of the skill with which he slowly unfolded the story by means of dialogue alone and there’s as much skill on display here this time using a monologue. Some may find metaphors for society in general in the attitudes of the narrator, but even as “just” a description of a fairly – actually deeply – unpleasant individual, The Little Gift is an outstanding piece of writing.

A week after reading it, I’m still mulling over The Little Gift. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing and I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Monday 6 March 2017

Behold the Void.

One of the many highlights of 2016 for me was “discovering” the writing of Philip Fracassi, with two novelettes, Mother and Altar and a novella Fragile Dreams. Much joy then, at the prospect of starting 2017 (kinda) with a collection from him, Behold the Void, which is published by Journalstone.
The two aforementioned novelettes make up part of the collection and my reviews for them can be found here and here. It’s with much joy again that I can report that I found the rest of the stories in Behold the Void to be of as impressively high standard.
Soft Construction of a Sunset opens the collection, a gloriously constructed tale in which the horror gradually reveals itself, a slow build-up of tension from the almost poetic opening lines to its twisted conclusion. Told in present tense, the narrative immerses the reader in protagonist Tom’s response to friend Marcus’ plea for help, a technique that pays of supremely when the reader realises the final horror just before Tom himself does.
Family dynamics have a big role to play in two of the stories, Coffin and Surfer Girl. Both are incredibly dark tales, with subject matter not for the faint-hearted and teenagers as their protagonists. The former delves into folk mythology with hints at a Green Man type character – although with a less than benign nature than would be traditional whilst the latter charts young Adolf’s trip to Acapulco with his mother and her new boyfriend Steve. It’s a marvellous character study of a disturbed psyche and has an opening line which is destined to feature in any number of “best ever” lists.
The Baby Farmer provides a potent cocktail of priestly indiscretion, child murder and apocalyptic prophesy in a story which switches between present day narrative and the historical diaries of a woman incarcerated for the kidnap and murder of children. It’s another cleverly constructed story, jumping between the two narratives and the voice employed for the diaries is impressively convincing.
Big decisions are required in Fail-Safe, a monster movie wrapped up in a psychological drama. At its heart is a moral dilemma, a classic head and heart conflict. It’s an almost Schrodingeresque scenario facing the son of two loving parents, one of whom definitely is, and the other who might be, a ravenous, blood-thirsty monster. Open the door and let them out? You decide…
The Horse Thief is one of my favourite stories in the book. There are hints of the surreal in this tale of the titular villain and his services to provide horses to clientele with very specific, and very strange requirements. The story’s strange nature, and darkness, put me in mind of the writing of Ralph Robert Moore – which is praise indeed. Tales of redemption are always winners for me and the route this story takes towards that end point (whether or not it’s achieved is open to discussion) is a hugely entertaining – if slightly disturbing – one. It’s strange and weird and I loved every moment of it.
The final story in the collection is Mandala and is probably my favourite of all of them. It’s also the story which most effectively encapsulates the theme suggested by the book’s title as it’s an exploration of the forces which dictate our destinies. Are our actions truly our own or are they guided by forces way beyond our imagining? It’s another impeccably constructed story – the major themes are introduced early on with descriptions of celestial bodies and tides – with a succession of inter-related events ultimately leading to tragedy. There’s a certain inevitability about what happens in the story – which, I guess, is the whole point of it - and the writing is so good that the reader cannot help but be drawn into the action which unfolds. There’s a long scene, on a beach, which is one of the most terrifying and tense I’ve read in a long time. It’s a story which is, well… cosmic. It’s also got scary ghosts in it.

Behold the Void is a stunning collection and one which I enjoyed immensely. I anticipate seeing it mentioned in many year’s best lists to come. I thoroughly recommend you check it out for yourself.