Monday 17 December 2018

2018 in review

Right then, that’s another one done. As 2018 draws to a close it’s time for another ramble through the archives to pick out my personal highlights of the year. In a revelation even more shocking than last year’s announcement that I was leaving Dark Minds Press (the shock for most being that I was actually involved in the first place), I have to announce that there will be no Dark Muse awards this year…
The reason for this is that this year I’ve changed my reading habits. Whereas in previous years I’ve pretty much focused exclusively on new releases from small presses – with a view to a potential review – I decided to take the pressure off a little in 2018 and take my time over what I read, much of which involved re-reads of books from my past. Stephen King has featured much in this re-reading process and I began the year with The Stand and IT – both epics which rekindled my love of losing myself in long novels. This pretty much set the pattern for the year and I’ve read more novels than any other form this year, short stories have very much taken a back-seat.
As a result of this, I simply haven’t read enough of the shorter forms to compile a list long enough from which to select. Granted, all the awards I’ve given before have been limited by the pool from which I select but this year that problem was exacerbated and it didn’t seem fair to choose the best of such a small field.
As such, the list presented at the end is a top ten of my favourite reads of the year and combines novels, novellas and short stories.
The decision to leave Dark Minds was driven by a desire to spend more time on my own writing. I don’t take it personally that, since I departed, DM was nominated for two British Fantasy awards. It’s great news too to see that Ross is going to keep Dark Minds going and I look forward to experiencing a DM publication as a reader.
With regards freeing up more time to write, it’s slightly ironic that I’ve spent a big portion of my time in 2018 editing three novellas and formatting a PhD thesis. (Seriously, if you think formatting a novel or anthology is difficult, give one of those a go). I also had the joy of re-formatting my novel, Witnesses, which I’ve recently self-published after Crowded Quarantine Publications folded shortly after its initial release.
It was, I have to say, a labour of love. Witnesses is a book I’m extremely proud of so I was happy to go the extra mile with its re-release, putting a lot of work into the layout and formatting. I can now laugh in the face of section breaks, headers and footers in Word. I was lucky to have a great cover for the first printing and Neil Williams has produced another stunner for its re-release.

Counting Witnesses as one publication, my tally for 2018 is four – which meets the informal target I set myself a few years back. My second publication was a brace of short stories released for Kindle, Past Horrors. 25000 words for less than a quid was a tempting offer for a small number of people but it wasn’t until I ran an offer giving it away for nowt that people really took notice. It flew off the shelves, to linger on virtual TBR piles for years to come. Am I bitter? No. OK, the yacht and villa are still on hold but – given this is something I do to keep me sane, and not to earn a living – I’m more than happy that there are people out there actually reading my stories. It is, after all, what they’re for. To quote Neil Hannon, “a song is not a song until it’s listened to,” I feel much the same way about stories – so thanks to everyone who downloaded Past Horrors.
(Next time I'll feature a Golden retriever with psychic abilities. That number 8 spot will be mine...)

Third up was my short story Collateral Damage in the marvelous George A Romero tribute anthology Stories of the Dead which was edited by two very fine authors in their own right, Duncan Bradshaw and David Owain Hughes.

November brought the release of my novella The Lost in an anthology of World War One horror novellas, The Darkest Battlefield, which was published by Dean M Drinkel’s new venture Demain Publishing. I’m sharing the pages with writers whose work I’ve long admired and am flattered to be in their company. I also had the pleasure of working with them on the edits to the stories. It’s available now as an ebook with a paperback version due in the new year.

The writing continues. I’m currently 55000 words into a second novel which leaves around another 30000 words still to do. That should be complete next year as will, hopefully, the project I’m working on with my good friend Benedict J Jones; a series of interconnected stories featuring a WW2 Special Ops unit with supernatural overtones.
So then, to my top ten list. It is presented here in no particular order and features those pieces of writing which have given me that extra something above and beyond just being entertained. It’s fair to say that I wish that I could write stuff half as good as this – there are a couple which set the bar so high that I’m filled with despair that I could never achieve that level of skill (but in a good way…) – so massive thanks to all the authors here listed.
Here’s to more of the same in 2019.

Hell Ship by Benedict J Jones
Maniac Gods by Rich Hawkins
Shiloh by Philip Fracassi
I am the River by Ted E Grau
The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk
Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley
Ningen by Laura Mauro
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
Where the Wounded Trees Wait by Paul Edwards
The Pale Ones by Bartholomew Bennett

Monday 3 December 2018

Witnesses (#2)

Today sees the release – I should say re-release – of my novel Witnesses. It was first published in February by Crowded Quarantine Publications but unfortunately turned out to be their last book before closing down. The rights reverted back to me and, rather that begin the lengthy process of touting the book around again I decided to put all the experience I’d gained through Dark Minds Press to re-edit and re-format Witnesses myself.
Having worked with Neil Williams on many of the Dark Minds covers, he was an obvious choice for the new cover and, yet again, he’s provided an amazing work of art to grace the novel. In a twilight zone-esque moment, I recognised the mountains which provide the backdrop to the cover as my favourite walk of all time, the head of the Newlands Valley in the Lake District – a fact not known to Neil when he was creating the cover. I’m fortunate, I guess, that my book has had two outstanding covers.
This new edition contains a new foreword and the notes at the end about how the book was written have been extended but the text remains otherwise the same (apart from one typo which somehow got through the editing process first time round which is now fixed). Whilst this can be considered as Witnesses: Redux, I resisted the urge to include an extended section set in a French plantation as I felt it would slow the momentum. Whilst the words remain the same, I’ve played around a little with the layout and decided to use different fonts for the different timelines and characters within the novel to “enhance” the reading experience. (This is only available in the paperback – those reading the kindle version will have to suffer the confusion and bewilderment that readers of the original version had to endure). (Which was deliberate BTW).
I’m very proud of Witnesses, it’s a book I put a lot of work into. Initial reaction was very positive and I hope that continues now that the book is once more available. You can buy the book here.

Monday 12 November 2018

The Darkest Battlefield.

I’m very happy to announce that a new collection of WW1 based horror novellas, The Darkest Battlefield, is now available to pre-order. It’s the inaugural publication from Dean M Drinkel’s new publishing venture Demain and is a sequel of sorts to Darker Battlefields which was published a couple of years ago.
The kindle edition features my own novella, The Lost, alongside stories from Richard Farren Barber, Paul Edwards and Terry Grimwood. A paperback is in the pipeline which will feature the added bonus of a novella from Dean himself.
The idea for The Darkest Battlefield was proposed by Dean shortly after publication of Darker Battlefields and once the decision had been made that he would be publishing the book, all that remained was for an editor to come forward. Ignoring the eminently sensible advice to never volunteer for anything, I offered my services and as a result, found myself in the wonderful position of reading three superb novellas – stories whose company I am honoured to share here.
My own novella is set against the backdrop of the Third Battle of Ypres – or the Battle of Passchendaele as it’s come to be more commonly known – a conflict which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and which was fought in some of the worst conditions imaginable with persistent rain turning the battlefield into a quagmire in which thousands drowned. The option to not participate because it was raining was not one available to them. A senior officer, visiting the battlefield towards the end of the fighting burst into tears and asked his driver “did we send our men into that?” Passchendaele was also the place where the German army first used mustard gas, and this plays a hugely significant role in my story.
I’ve long been obsessed by the Great War, something which I believe dates back to when I was ten or eleven and picked up some books in my great-uncle’s house about the conflict. What I read in there horrified me and when I asked my uncle about his experiences he refused to go into any detail and even as young as I was I could sense his discomfort. I’ve subsequently learned that my paternal great-grandfather was a hussar at the Somme (though I’m not sure if he participated in one of the last cavalry charges ever) who was killed by a sniper and that my maternal grandfather was bayoneted in the shoulder and held as a prisoner of war.
I’ve used the conflict as the backdrop for many of my stories and it’s a subject I’ll no doubt return to in the future. I’m very proud to be a part of this project, the stories presented here taking a variety of approaches to the theme. Also included is a foreword from Adrian Chamberlin and original poetry from John Gilbert.
You can pre-order The Darkest Battlefield here.

All Hell
By Richard Farren Barber
The horrors of the Great War are felt all over the world, not least by those left behind, the mothers of the soldiers fighting in the trenches. They wait every day for the arrival of the delivery boy bringing the letters that tell of the death of another son, hoping that this is not their turn. They will do anything to ensure the safety of their boys.
When a mysterious stranger arrives in New Radford, she brings with her the promise of hope, a way of ensuring the safety of the young men of the Nottinghamshire town. Mary Fothergill is drawn to the woman, desperate to keep her sons William and Henry alive - but will the woman’s demands be too high a price to pay?

Where The Wounded Trees Wait
By Paul Edwards
At the battlefield memorial at Mametz, Caryl searches for the place where her grandfather Huw lost his life. Gifted with a psychic ability passed down from her grandmother, she begins a journey into the past, uncovering truths which throw light not just on her family’s history but her own life.
Amidst the revelations of Huw’s final days, connections form as past and present grow ever closer and Caryl’s own destiny is revealed.

By Terry Grimwood
The sacrifice of war has new meaning for Major Ernst Dreyer.
The son of an abusive father, he has escaped his past and is now a Major in the German army, his company held in reserve as the British mount their attack.
His request that the men be moved up to the front line arises from more than a sense of honour or patriotism – much more is at stake than the future of his homeland. A deal has been made, one which must not be broken.

The Lost
By Anthony Watson
Amid the rain and mud of Passchendaele, an army chaplain and medical officer form a friendship and uncover the cursed history of the battlefield which is their temporary home.
An evil long since dormant is reawakening and the pair find themselves in a race against time to combat the supernatural horrors of the past, even as the third battle of Ypres rages around them.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Mr Sucky

Mr Sucky is the latest offering from Duncan P. Bradshaw and is published through his own imprint EyeCue Productions. With a word count coming in at somewhere between a long novella and a short novel, it’s an everyday tale of serial-killer-becomes-vacuum-cleaner, a trope which has been woefully underused within the genre. Vacuum cleaners had been around for some fifty years by the time Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis but he chickened out, preferring to use a giant insect to express his weird father complex thing.
Those expecting gritty social commentary will be disappointed if they pick up Mr Sucky but those looking for some cleverly crafted bizarro fiction will find much to enjoy here. It’s a mix of extreme horror and comedy (“Gore-Com”) which manages to combine both elements very effectively. I’m generally not a fan of extreme horror but when it’s presented in such a gloriously over-the-top fashion as it is here you can’t fail to be impressed by the imagination that has gone into some of the set-pieces. Before I started Mr Sucky, I wondered how a vacuum cleaner could possibly murder people but now I’ve finished the book, I feel I’ve been educated (and quite possibly know too much about the process).
So the “Gore” half of the equation works well, how about the “Com”? It’s really hard, being funny. Many have tried before and failed but there are some outstanding examples of horror/comedy hybridity out there too. It’s difficult because everyone’s sense of humour is different, one man’s side-splitting hilarity is another man’s melancholy and despair. Personally, I pride myself on my grumpiness but I have to say that Mr Sucky had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. (Cue awkward conversations with my better half as to what it was that had made me laugh. “Well, there’s this hoover, possessed by the spirit of a serial killer, who’s just sucked someone’s intestines out…”) It takes skill to get the blend right and it’s here in abundance.
The “hero” of Mr Sucky is Clive Beauchamp, a serial killer with a split personality, the two halves of which provide the (mainly) first person narrative of the story. The events of the novel/la take place in the Quantico motel (a reference, I presume, to the FBI building – an organisation whose first director was J Edgar someone). Clive is setting up his latest kill, unaware that it will be him who will be Dyson with death – unsuccessfully as it turns out – himself becoming the victim, initiating a chain of events which, by a series of bizarre and unfortunate turns of fate, results in his spirit being transferred into the titular vacuum cleaner.
Following this, much chaos ensues.
To be honest, Clive’s reanimation as a domestic appliance is one of the less bizarre things to happen as the varied cast of characters make their appearances. It’s all very cleverly done with the humour ranging from broad to subtle, the violence from intense to very intense. What I particularly enjoyed was the structure of the narrative which was fractured, jumping around in time and point of view. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction with its disrupted and looping timelines; Pulp Suction perhaps.
I had a blast with Mr Sucky, enjoyed the hell out of it. It takes a strange, twisted kind of imagination to produce something as bizarre yet enjoyable as this and, luckily for us all, that’s exactly what Duncan P. Bradshaw has.

Monday 15 October 2018

I Am The River

I Am The River is a novel by T E Grau and is published by Lethe Press. Anyone who visits this blog regularly will know how big a fan I am of Ted’s writing with his previous, shorter works featuring heavily in my year’s best picks. Those frequent visitors may also be aware of my penchant for historical stories too so it will be no surprise to them to learn that this novel’s setting, during the years following the Vietnam War, raised my expectations to even greater heights.
The novel’s protagonist is Israel Broussard, a G.I. echoing Thomas Wolfe’s sentiment that you can’t go home again, stranded and adrift in Bangkok, battling his personal demons via therapy – courtesy of both medics and bottles. Broussard is haunted by his experiences, literally – the ghosts of his past manifest as a huge, black dog which follows him everywhere: Black Shuck.
So too, Israel is plagued by visions of a river rising up around him, a less overt image than the black dog and perhaps one related to his experiences. The scenes in Bangkok are related in first person, present tense and, as such, are wide open to the interpretation of unreliable narration – Broussard is, after all, a damaged man. However, this narrative choice is important in the overall construction of the novel, intermingling as it does with third person, past tense flashback sections detailing the mission which proved to be Broussard’s downfall. This swapping of narrative styles is effective in creating a sense of disorientation in the reader but also allows a brilliant masterstroke towards the story’s conclusion when the two styles merge as Broussard’s personal journey into his heart of darkness reaches a critical point. I’m a huge fan of books where narrative styles are used in creative ways and this is one of the finest examples I’ve seen in a long time.
The mission which provides the straw to break Broussard’s back is no ordinary one, rather a Psy-Ops exercise carried out in Laos. It’s another great decision on the author’s part to choose Laos as a location. The country was invaded and occupied by North Vietnam and was used as a “safe” area for their troops to retreat into as well as a supply line. Unable to officially send troops into Laos to engage combat, America instead dropped two million tons of bombs on the country (almost as many as during the whole of World War Two) – creating a legacy in which 300 people are still killed to this day every year because of unexploded ordnance. The details of the mission are cleverly kept a secret from the reader as well as Broussard and his fellow expendables. When it is finally revealed, it seems outlandish and ridiculous – on a par with the CIA’s list of plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro – but when it’s deployed… oh man, it sent a shiver down my spine. There’s some brilliant writing going on here –as is the case throughout the novel – pulling the reader into the bizarre events which unfold.
The culmination of these scenes, as far as Broussard is concerned, is an act of extreme violence which sows the seeds for his subsequent fall from grace. It’s a brutal scene, one that’s difficult to read. The violence is graphic but not gratuitous – far from it, there could be no other way to write such a significant moment, to show the depths to which war can bring a man.
Yet again, I’ve been blown away by Ted’s writing. A stated earlier, the use of different narrative techniques is outstanding. In particular, some of the first person sections have an almost poetic feel to them, a stream of consciousness from a damaged mind reflected not only in the choice of words but also, very cleverly, the formatting of those words on the page. Whilst this is mainly an internal story, the scene setting of the environments in which it occurs is also handled magnificently with some striking imagery which will linger long in the mind; the spectacular Plain of Jars, the megalithic landscape which is the site of the mission and hundreds of flames – burnt offerings - floating down a river to name but two.
There’s much reference to the belief of wandering ghosts throughout the novel and, in essence, that is what Broussard is. Far from home, (and all of the prejudice he faced there as a black man from the southern states), he’s a literal lost soul looking for redemption. It’s his journey towards that goal which is the story of I Am The River and it’s a journey I’m glad I took. This is an outstanding piece of writing and, given that there is so much in it, it’s surprising that it’s at the shorter end of the word-count for a novel. It’s a book that satisfies on so many levels and one which has raised my expectation for what Ted comes up with next to even higher levels.

Monday 8 October 2018

The Dark Masters Trilogy

The Dark Masters Trilogy is published by PS Publishing and brings together the two previously published novellas, Whitstable and Leytonstone alongside the concluding story in the series, Netherwood. All are written by Stephen Volk, and are fictionalised accounts of episodes in the lives of notable talents in the creative arts, Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley respectively, the books’ titles originating from the locations in which those events occur.
I’ve already reviewed both Whitstable and Leytonstonehere and here – so this review will focus mainly on Netherwood. The titular location is a boarding house in Hastings, the final residence of the Great Beast himself, the wickedest man in the world, Aleister Crowley and the place to which he summons novelist Dennis Wheatley. Although this meeting is fictional, the two men had actually met in real life some years earlier at the Hungaria Restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, and it’s this prior connection which Crowley, (and the story), exploits. Following the meeting, Wheatley based some of his characters on Crowley – thinly enough that umbrage, or even offence could be taken. Possibly enough that some kind of revenge would seem appropriate…
Perhaps the most notable achievement of the two previous novellas was the degree of characterisation they presented, offering new insights into both Cushing and Hitchcock. Such skill is even more evident in Netherwood with an equal emphasis on both Wheatley and Crowley. Whilst this is a work of fiction, it is - has to be – grounded in fact and the requisite exposition and back-story is presented here in masterful fashion. The novel opens with a scene set on a train in which Wheatley meets a young soldier and his sweetheart, the dialogue – both internal and external – providing the story of Wheatley’s military service in a way that appears seamless and natural. Anyone aspiring author, (and a few established ones), should use this trilogy as a masterclass in developing character. The information is all there but isn’t dumped on the reader, rather it’s presented as part of the natural flow of the narrative, character is revealed by action and interaction. It’s sublime stuff.
It’s a little unfortunate that Wheatley is up against Crowley here; unfortunate in that in comparison to the force of nature that is the most famous member of the Golden Dawn he comes across as a little anodyne. Crowley, however, is a different matter altogether. Despite his frailty, (he was at this point close to death), he dominates every scene; unstable, eccentric, impossible to read there’s a real sense of unease and disquiet whenever he appears. Anyone whose “career” is built on spouting, to all intents and purposes, bullshit, requires a huge amount of charisma to be successful and this was undoubtedly the case with Crowley. Charismatic enough to entice a figure of the establishment such as Wheatley, (a man who is inwardly please that the soldier on the train doesn’t recognise him), to answer his call.
The reason for Wheatley’s attendance turns out to be more than just catching up on old times however. He is there to help Crowley, to face a threat which will be too much for the frail, heroin addicted “beast” to confront on his own. Once again, great skill is shown in presenting the scenario around the threat and the discussions which convince the staid author to participate.
That participation involves the performance of a magick ritual, the presentation of which is yet another highlight of this brilliant novel. As seen through the experiences of Wheatley, it’s a stream of altered consciousness full of graphic and disturbing imagery.
It’s the crowning glory of Netherwood that Crowley’s motivations in involving Wheatley remain ambiguous. The hint of revenge – or spite - suggested earlier may be the case but other interpretations hold equal weight. Redemption is a common theme in conclusions and this too may be the case. Netherwood pours away the snake-oil, revealing the hidden depths to Crowley’s character and it’s possible that a personal tragedy is the driving force behind this final act. Maybe the motivation was his humanity after all.
Humanity – or, more precisely, human nature – has been the underlying theme of all three books in the trilogy. The three books have followed a traditional structure with the second part the darkest by far. A strange claim perhaps, given the black magic and Satanism which is so much a feature of Netherwood but my feelings on finishing this final part of the trilogy were ones of optimism, not least because of the stirring meditation on the nature of art – and artists (another theme of the whole trilogy) – on which it ends.
Each book in the trilogy is a masterpiece. Combined, they produce a kind of synergy, creating an outstanding reading experience. Perhaps their greatest achievement is to provide convincing portrayals of their protagonists despite being fictional accounts, all done through the skill and craftsmanship of the writing. Now that’s real magick.

Monday 1 October 2018

The Pale Ones

The Pale Ones is a novella by Bartholomew Bennett and is published by Inkandescent. Both author and publisher are new to me but, having now experienced the wonder that is The Pale Ones, I’m glad that connection has been made. Inkandescent’s mission statement, “a commitment to ideas, subjects and voices underrepresented by mainstream publishing” is a noble one and worthy of support. On the basis of this novella, a commitment to quality is also apparent.
The Pale Ones has been described as literary horror, a term about which I have mixed feelings. Whilst I enjoy both genres – yes, I believe “literary” is as much a genre as thriller, Sci-Fi or romance – and there are some sublime examples of the combination of the two, there are also others in which the horror element is noticeably lacking, the author believing that creating a sense of confusion and bewilderment amounts to the same thing. Getting both aspects right is a joy to read and that’s very much the case with this novella.
It’s set in the world of second hand book dealers and begins with our narrator encountering Harris, a fellow-collector, who advises him to purchase a specific book, World War Two Destroyers. A relationship develops between the two, culminating in a joint expedition to the north of England to seek out new (i.e. old) stock. Whilst my punning heart was slightly disappointed that this wasn’t a trip to Hull and back, (they don’t get as far as the port), the unsubtle meaning of that potential bad joke still stands as Harris proves himself to be the companion from Hell.
The first person narrative allows much enjoyment to be had from his cynical reporting of the pair’s adventures. There is, of course, a suggestion of unreliability; much like the protagonist of Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a book referenced more than once in the story, the narrator has some alcohol – and relationship – problems. This potential unreliability adds a frisson of ambiguity to some of the scenes he describes, bizarre behaviour from associates of Harris, Harris’ description of his customers as “children” and, most potently of all, glimpses of strange creatures sculpted – so it would seem – from papier maché
It was wasps that confirmed to Charles Darwin that God was not responsible for the creation of life and the flying insects subliminally hover around the fringes of this story. (Actually, not that subliminally – they are on the cover of the book). Wasps, who create nests made of chewed up paper; wasps who kill the hosts from which they hatch – not to say their own parents and siblings; wasps who spoil any summer picnic. (Okay, not all of these are relevant to this story).
The Pale Ones is a journey of discovery for the narrator. Yes, it’s a tale of book hunting but what he uncovers amounts to much more than a rare first edition. The realisation that his meeting with Harris was not a chance encounter (the opening line of the novella is really quite important), and that it’s not the books themselves which are so important to him is only the beginning of his discoveries and the narrative slowly builds towards a denouement that will leave you shocked as well as sending a shudder along your spine.
The Pale Ones gets it absolutely right. Beautifully written prose, loads of ideas buzzing around and – most importantly – proper scary. I loved it, and look forward to what both author and publisher come up with in the future.

Monday 17 September 2018

Wolf's Hill

Wolf’s Hill is the third book in the four volume Black Road series written by Simon Bestwick and published by Snowbooks. The previous two volumes are reviewed here and here.
Events in the post-nuclear-apocalyptic world have thus far seen the formation of a rebellion against the ruling Reclamation and Protection Command led by the wonderfully named Helen Damnation ably assisted by a host of other characters, not least the Grendelwolf Gevaudan Shoal. Added to this is a heady concoction of science and ancient magic as the military commanders seek to procure the ultimate weapon to use against the rebels.
Both previous books did an admirable job of creating a fully realised post-apocalyptic world populated by realistic, fully rounded characters (with detailed back-stories) whilst at the same time sustaining a narrative which hurtles along at breakneck speed. Wolf’s Hill is no exception to this; indeed, it expands the world Simon has created and also introduces a raft of new characters. Reading this book, I was perhaps even more impressed than I already have been at the work involved in creating the world and its huge cast of characters. I have visions of a huge piece of paper, probably covering an entire floor of a room, covered in names, locations and events with arrows and lines connecting them all like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Here we’re introduced to the Garalakh Tep Sharhr, the “Dwellers beneath the Hill” – a whole community hitherto unknown who, it’s implied, will play a huge role in what is building up to be the decisive battle between the two opposing forces. It’s a bold move, waiting until the third book to introduce them but it’s one that pays off and which is handled very cleverly – their presence revealed in one set of characters’ timeline, their history in another. I was put in mind of Simon’s Black Mountain series of stories whilst reading these scenes – no bad thing. Their introduction also feels part of the natural progression of the narrative, not bolted on for convenience.
Make no mistake, this third volume in no way treads water, is not simply filler before the big finish. There’s more plot here than you can shake a stick at, not least the very bold move to present divisions within the rebellion and a threat to them from an unexpected source.
Whilst Helen faces up to these problems, Tereus Winterborn begins strengthening the alliances between the regional commanders using a mixture of politics and thinly veiled aggression. It’s here that I had my only problem with the book as Simon has chosen to name his commanders after notable personalities in the indie horror world. Granted, he has changed the sex of many of them but I found it took me out of the story as I was reading these scenes – imagining Jim McLeod as a woman will do that to a person.
Such minor criticism aside, there’s still so much to enjoy between the pages of Wolf’s Hill. I particularly enjoyed the character development of Dr Mordake, whose back story is presented here. The good doctor is set to play a major role in the conclusion so it was good to see him get a starring role here.
I loved Wolf’s Hill; it’s no mean feat to keep up the pace and energy of a series this far into it but Simon has succeeded admirably in so doing. It’s not hyperbolic to describe the series as epic – there can be no denying that it is. This really is a massive achievement and deserves no little respect for that. This is a major work and should be recognised as such. The best thing is, of course, there’s more to come - and I can’t wait to see how everything concludes.

Monday 13 August 2018

At the Mercy of Beasts.

Monsters. I love ‘em. Of all the myriad variations of horror, it’s the monsters I love the most. They were my first love, my gateway drug if you like, and it’s a love which has endured for many years now. I recently saw an online discussion about the need to suspend disbelief in horror movies/books, the implication being that it was a hindrance to the enjoyment of a piece of work. To some extent this is true, if an author asks too much of a reader then it can ruin the reading experience but I’ve always regarded the suspension of disbelief as a vital part of my enjoyment of horror. I read horror as an escape from reality, as entertainment, and the books I enjoy the most are those which present alternative realities, worlds in which monsters can, and do, exist.
(And yes, human beings can be monsters too. But that is reality and God knows there’s enough examples in the world right now to make reading it in a piece of fiction pretty much redundant).
(I blame Scooby-Doo. The disappointment I felt as a child when the ghost/mummy/zombie was revealed as a real person has stayed with me all this time).
Which self-indulgent rambling brings me to At the Mercy of Beasts, a collection of three novellas by Ed Kurtz. The joy I felt at discovering this book was pushed to almost unbearable limits (I know, but bear with me, suspend your disbelief) when I found out that each of the stories took place in historical settings. Surely this was too good to be true?
No, it wasn’t. I loved every bit of this book; the period detail, the characters, the plotlines and - of course - the monsters.
The opening story is Black’s Red Gold, set in the Texas of 1919 and detailing the exploits of a pair of oilmen, Black and Wells, whose drilling operation uncovers a rich seam of the titular substance, a fluid similar to oil – though different in colour – but which, it turns out, burns for much longer.
The fluid is biological rather than geological however, emanating from the first of the collection’s beasts, a huge tentacled monster residing underground. The knowledge that the Red Gold comes from an animal (from huge vesicles on its back) does nothing to deter Black in his efforts to extract the fuel, his desire to become rich over-riding any concerns for the welfare of the beast.
It’s a tale of exploitation then, and one which becomes darker when the beast fights back and the men sent down into its lair become infected with bubo-like sacs which are filled with the same fluid. It’s a development which gives a whole new meaning to the term Human Resources…
It’s a strong start to the collection, the story’s political allegory sitting very comfortably and unobtrusively within a cracking, and at times darkly humorous, narrative.
Next up is Kennon Road, which takes place in the early years of the twentieth century in the Phillipines shortly after the Phillipine-American war. It’s a story which, unlike the first which created a new monster (albeit one which put me in mind of Gla’aki), uses an established myth – that of the manananggal – to provide its creature.
And boy, what a creature. Reading a cold description of the manananggal in Wiki or suchlike fails to bring out the true horror of this vampire-like monster but that’s certainly not the case in this incredibly atmospheric tale. Kurtz’s take on the mythology results in a truly disturbing creation and the passages in which it features are deeply unsettling. Anyone who thinks monsters are old-hat and have lost their power to terrify should definitely read this novella.
The story takes the form of an investigation into a series of grisly murders, a template which allows exposition with a natural feel to it, a few twists and turns along the way and a number of incredibly effective set-pieces.
Deadheader rounds of the collection and is the most contemporary of the three novellas being set in 1977. The title has nothing to do with fans of the Grateful dead but refers to the practice of truckers taking on a cargo without going through the usual formalities and paperwork. The trucker in this case is Pearlie Pearce, a brilliantly realised character who picks up hitchhiker Ernie Kinchen, a Vietnam veteran haunted (literally) by his time in the warzone.
It’s a fast-paced, incredibly pulpy story featuring car chases and fights. The monsters here are vampiric in nature too, modelled on the chupacabra, fittingly given the story’s US/Mexico border setting.
Deadheader provides a thrilling end to a superb collection of stories. Along with Kennon Road it provides ample proof that there’s plenty life in the old monsters yet. Honestly, all those publishers who state “no vampires (or other monsters) in their submission guidelines are missing a trick. It was a joy to read At the Mercy of Beasts and it’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday 30 July 2018

Bad Vision

Bad Vision is the latest in the Hersham Horror Primal range of novellas. The series is into its third year now and has produced some high quality books thus far. The first in this year’s additions to the series comes from one of the good guys of the horror community Dave Jeffery.
The story begins intriguingly with an interview in a police station, pitching the reader straight into the narrative and introducing the novella’s protagonist Ray Tonks who is admitting to the murder of his wife…
A dramatic opening then, and one which leads into the events prior to Ray’s arrest via a series of extended flashbacks. These introduce the story’s other protagonists, Ray’s wife Denise and his work colleagues Eloise and Mike. Also introduced is the central conceit of the book, that Ray has an ability to predict future events, a “gift” he obtained following a schoolyard injury to his head.
Similarities then with The Dead Zone and, as becomes more apparent as the story progresses, The Medusa Touch. The author acknowledges the influence of the latter in his notes at the end of the book but it’s credit to Dave that he’s taken a familiar, and well-used, trope and created something new with it, something uniquely his own.
It’s the descriptions of Ray’s visions which provide some of the most effective sequences in the book as he experiences ordeals such as earthquakes and plane crashes as if he were there himself. If the horrors of vicariously witnessing these scenes of death and destruction were not horrific enough, things do get worse for Ray as the frequency and intensity of the visions increase – occurring randomly and often inconveniently – and change from what turn out to be real events to something more intangible, presenting images of torture and horror in some unknown, hellish landscape.
Ray’s day job, as a Clinical Risk Manager in an NHS Trust bears much resemblance to Dave’s own and his knowledge and expertise in the field of mental health allows him to create a thoroughly authentic work environment for his characters as well as fully realised back stories and histories for them. His knowledge of mental health issues allows for a sensitive exploration of them not just in the case of Ray – whose condition can surely classified as such – but for the other characters too. The multifactorial nature of these issues is presented here, nature and nurture both playing their part.
Not content with one storyline for the novella, Dave manages to cram a couple of others in too. Ray’s wife is having an affair (the description of a marriage in slow decline is very good indeed) and there’s also the small matter of a serial killer – nicknamed the Frankenstein killer because of their propensity to remove body parts from their victims – on the loose to contend with too.
This storyline takes up much of the running time and, if I have one criticism of the book, it’s that it possibly takes up too much. It is very cleverly done, with plenty of twists and turns along the way but – even though there are links to the main narrative – it perhaps distracts a little too much from what for me was the stronger of the storylines. This sub-plot is cleverly handled though, playing with the reader’s expectations and assumptions and has a resolution that (ironically, given the theme of the book) you won’t see coming.
The conclusion to Bad Vision is excellent, the Ray Tonks who sits in the police interview room is a man changed massively by his experiences. It’s a sequence which is extremely powerful, presenting a whole raft of ideas and philosophical musings and it’s something I wanted more of, and which I think could actually have benefitted from being longer in order to give those ideas room to breathe.
Which all sounds a little critical. Which I guess it is – but in a good way. I really enjoyed Bad Vision, felt it brought something new and interesting to a well-worn trope. These distractions aside, the writing here is assured and confident, with convincingly drawn characters behaving realistically in a fast-paced plot. The fragmented nature of the narrative is handled excellently by Dave and adds to the reading experience, the twists and turns along the way playing with notions of what’s real and what isn’t.
Bad Vision is a fine addition to what is proving to be a fine series. A potent mix of psychological and visceral horror, it’s a book I recommend highly.

Monday 23 July 2018

Maniac Gods

Maniac Gods is the new novella from Rich Hawkins and is published by the Sinister Horror Company. I’ve been a fan of Rich’s writing since his novella Black Star, Black Sun which I read back in 2015. Since then, his output has been nothing less than impressive, including the post-apocalyptic Last Plague trilogy of novels and his bloody and visceral take on vampire lore King Carrion.
Apocalyptic themes have been a constant in Rich’s writing and such is the case with this new novella. It tells the story of Albie Samways – a typical everyman Hawkins protagonist – whose daughter Millie disappears, along with the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, victims of a bizarre cult intent on bringing about their own version of the end days. The bond between father and child is another recurring motif in Rich’s books and here, as in all the other books, it provides a profound and moving emotional core to the story, a shining light amidst the darkness which engulfs everything around it.
It takes real skill to present such tender moments and not make them saccharine and this is most certainly the case here. Throughout, the writing is of such a high standard that I honestly think this is the best thing Rich has written. Just as these moments of hope and light pluck the appropriate emotional strings, so do the moments of horror. Where some would revel in the opportunity to layer on the descriptive prose, the approach here is the polar opposite. Indeed, many of the most horrific passages read almost like lists, basic descriptions of the nightmarish scenes and characters Albie encounters. Sparse and yet poetic at the same time it’s a devastatingly effective technique. The lean, stripped prose put me in mind of Adam Nevill, the creatures here presented akin to those of that author’s imagination but also to the very best of Clive Barker in his heyday.
And what horrors… Rich has created here a memorable set of creatures, most notably the Flayed – a group whose very name leaves nothing (yet somehow everything) to the imagination – acolytes to the mysterious leader of the cult Dr Ridings, himself a wonderful creation, his features hidden behind a bronze mask.
Religion is not so much a subtext of the novella than an integral part of it. It’s notable that Ridings calls those who oppose him “infidel” –a term perhaps more closely linked to certain faiths nowadays but which is a generic term for any non-believer. A key scene plays out in the wonderfully named Red Cathedral. It’s the gods worshipped by Ridings and his followers which provide the Lovecraftian overtones to the book, ancient deities lurking in other dimensions, awaiting their chance to break through the thin places.
Maniac Gods is a story brimming with so many great ideas that it might have worked better as a novel. That said, the shorter word count brings with it a sense of frantic urgency to the narrative, resulting in a thrilling ride towards a conclusion which is as good, and effective, as everything which has gone before.
This could be the quintessential Rich Hawkins book. For those who have yet to experience his writing there could be no better starting place. For those already familiar with his work, Maniac Gods will bring a warm tingle of recognition, and a new appreciation of his talent. At the very least, it should cement his reputation as one of the best writers currently working in the horror genre.

Monday 9 July 2018

In Dog We Trust

In Dog We Trust is an anthology of horror stories featuring the titular beasts which is published by Black Shuck Books and edited by Anthony Cowin. It’s an interesting choice of theme for an anthology and one with a somewhat checkered pedigree. I have rose-tinted memories of both Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Crown International Pictures’ Zoltan, Hound of Dracula but less fond memories of The Pack, a film I saw in my teens as part of a double bill with the Food of the Gods (although it was the supporting film of that combo and I may well have been so terrified by the sight of Ida Lupino’s giant chickens in the main feature that it affected my appreciation).
James Herbert gave us Fluke which is actually very good, not least because it was a departure from his usual fare and as such, not really horror at all. The crowning moment of canine horror has to be Cujo though, a book I’ve only just re-read recently and which is, despite the author being unable to remember writing due to various chemical diversions, one of his best. The film is pretty decent too.
There are a variety of approaches to the theme on display here, with some of the authors presenting their stories from the perspective of the dogs themselves. This is the case with Lily Childs’ Queen Bitch and Willie Meikle’s Leader of the Pack.  Having two dogs myself, the latter did make me smile with its knowing insights into canine psychology and it has a killer last line. It also encompasses another theme running through the anthology, that of a disaster befalling humankind which results in dogs becoming the dominant species.
Adam Millard’s take on that apocalypse is the phenomenon of Hikikomori, or shut-in syndrome in which humans withdraw from society, hiding in their own homes. At first, dogs are used to help out, running errands for their reclusive owners but gradually the relationship changes, the dogs filling the space left behind by their erstwhile masters…
A canine apocalypse is hinted at in Mark West’s Chihuahua, with a group of strangers encountering the beginning of the end at a petrol station (a set-up which reminded me of a scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, another animal-apocalypse scenario). It is, I have to say, an odd little story – not because of the subject matter but because of the way it ends. I’m all for leaving stuff to a reader’s imagination but this seemed a little, well, abrupt.
The scientific manipulation of our canine friends provides the basis for a couple of stories. Mulligan Street by DT Griffith introduces us to the Coywolves, genetically modified hybrids which possibly deserve a longer run than this story gives them, only hinting as it does at their nature. There’s a lot of high concept stuff going on in Steven Chapman’s Good Girl but there’s maybe a wee bit of shark-jumping going on with the limits of credibility stretching almost to breaking point. It’s a curse of the short story format that big ideas are compressed and I feel that this story in particular suffers from that with no real explanation of the science and technology which play such a big part in it.
One of my favourite stories in the anthology is Amelia Mangan’s I love You Mary-Grace, a wonderfully atmospheric tale with a strong feel of Southern Gothic which provides a fresh spin on the werewolf legend. It’s a story which creates and introduces its own new mythology; that of the dog-headed people, a beautifully constructed slow-burner of a tale told in a distinctive and authentic first-person voice.
Despite being man’s best friend™, dogs unfortunately often bear the brunt of some of the more sickening manifestations of human nature. Revenge is the motivating force in Michael Bray’s Burger Van, the titular vehicle a source of “special” meat whose provenance incurs the wrath of a marauding pack of dogs whilst the final story in the collection, Phil Sloman’s A Dog is For Death, delves into the murky world of dog-fighting to create a highly effective tale of revenge from beyond the grave.
The nature of the beast is under scrutiny in Gary Fry’s Man’s Best Friend, a suitably ironic title for this examination of relationships, abusive and otherwise and it’s this same comparison between animalistic tendencies which provide the basis for the outstanding story of the collection – in my opinion – Painted Wolves by Ray Cluley.
There are few better than Ray at crafting a story around a central theme, constructing a framework on which to hang ideas and motifs to create a reading experience that is as enjoyable as much for the way it has been written as the narrative it contains. Such is the case here, with its tale of a wildlife documentary crew filming African Hunting Dogs. There’s nature red in tooth and claw here, with savagery in a hostile environment all told in an ingenious first person narrative. The author masterfully manages the growing sense of unease throughout the story, building the tension towards a denouement which – whilst not unexpected given all that has preceded it – is truly horrific.
Painted Wolves opens the collection and provides a powerful introduction to what is a very strong anthology. Whilst some of the ideas don’t quite hit the mark, the writing throughout is of a uniformly high standard and there’s much here to enjoy. It’s probably fair to say that the wrong species ended up with the opposable thumbs, far better they had gone to a branch of the animal kingdom with more intelligence but within the pages of this book at least, every dog does indeed have its day. Anthony Cowin has done a great job here, producing an anthology of great quality.

In Dog We Trust will be launched at Edge-Lit on 14th July.

Monday 4 June 2018

Broken on the Inside

Broken on the Inside is the sixth of Black Shuck Books' Shadows series, mini collections of short stories. The books, which contain between two and five stories each, serve very nicely as a taster of the featured authors’ work and thus far have presented the wares of Paul Kane (twice), Joseph D’Lacey, Thana Niveau and Gary Fry. The newest addition to the series comes courtesy of Phil Sloman, a writer whose work I have very much enjoyed since I first encountered it via his novella Becoming David.
As well as featuring a single author, the books are also themed – in this case, the theme being that of mental disintegration, individual journeys into darkness leading to tragic consequences, in some cases for the protagonists themselves, in others for the people they come into contact with. The work of a modern day Poe then, (Edgar Allan rather than Cameron). Such tales are a standard in the realms of horror fiction and it’s often the case that the author will choose a first person narrative in their telling in order to add a touch of unreliability to the proceedings. It can be – and frequently is – an effective technique but it’s to Phil’s credit that he eschews this narrative voice, presenting each tale in third person yet still managing to create that unreliability and more ambiguity that you can shake a stick at.
The collection shares its title with the first story in the book, a previously unpublished tale which sets up the rest of the volume perfectly and which is, in my opinion, the strongest of them all. What I liked about it was the excellent characterisation (a feature of all Phil’s writing – I’m pretty certain he’s a people watcher) and the way in which the story is constructed, constantly wrong-footing the reader so that the conclusion, which is very clever, is made all the more potent. There are some great ideas going on in here – not least of which being the downside of technology - cleverly presented with just the right amount of black humour.
There’s a lot more black humour on show in the second story, Discomfort Food. It has a similar story arc to the opener, with the journey undertaken by the protagonist running along the same lines. It perhaps suffers a little because of this even though the narrative is presented in a very different way and also, maybe, because it was written for a very specifically themed anthology and there’s a feeling that the story was adapted to meet the book’s requirements. Which actually sounds more critical than I intend to be as there’s much to enjoy here, not least the opening scenes which feature a very bizarre conversation cleverly introducing the story’s main character whilst at the same time adding that all important touch of ambiguity and weirdness.
There’s a bizarre conversation going on in the Man Who Fed the Foxes too. Of the many startling images on display in Lars Von trier’s Antichrist, one which sticks in my mind is the trapped fox uttering “Chaos reigns” and so of course my mind conjured up that scene as I read this story. In the same way as the “things talking which can’t actually talk” technique (a term I’m thinking of copyrighting) employed in the preceding story, the conversations here are an outward manifestation of the psychosis within, the voices outside the protagonist’s head if you will. Grief is the motivating force in this story, the engine driving Paul Wilson’s journey to the dark side, a more benign influence than the paranoia and trauma which featured in the earlier stories but the end result is just as dark.
That end result is pretty grim, but is presented in such a way as to suggest what is happening rather than displaying it in all its gory detail. Grim things happen in There Was an Old Man too but this time the horrors are more overt. Whilst again taking the psychological breakdown of its protagonist as its main theme, this story ventures into body horror territory, presenting a scenario in which the psychological becomes the physical and which gives a new resonance to the phrase being eaten up inside.
Rounding off the collection is Virtually Famous, a story which I was very happy to play a small part in unleashing upon the world, first appearing as it did in Imposter Syndrome. It’s another cleverly constructed story, jumping back and forth between characters and timelines and – more importantly – reality and its virtual counterpart. Again, there are a whole host of ideas being presented here, including a fairly damning assessment of human behaviour and it’s a story in which the structure is perfect for the tale it tells, its fractured nature serving to confuse the reader, blurring the lines between what is real and what is not.
It’s a strong ending to a very strong collection. Along with the clever ideas already mentioned there’s a great deal of intelligence in the writing. Ideas are great but it takes skill to craft them into stories that are as enjoyable to read as these five are. This skill, along with a keen eye for the minutiae of human behaviour in all its dark reality mark Phil out as a writer to watch for in the future. I for one look forward keenly to what he comes up with next.

Monday 30 April 2018

Dead Sun

Dead Sun is the new novel from Luke Walker, a book which is undergoing a second lease of life – or perhaps, more fittingly given its plot, experiencing the afterlife – having previously been published as ‘Set in 2013.
The book’s original title refers to a location, one in which most of the action (and there’s plenty of action…) takes place: a shortened form of Sunset – a place which exists between Heaven and Hell, a way-station for the dead. Limbo! You may cry – or even Purgatory if you’re of a certain persuasion – but you’d be wrong, Sunset is its own place entirely, populated and accessed by the souls of the recently departed as well as their corporeal forms and visited when necessary by angels and demons.
It’s to ‘Set that the story’s protagonist Emma Cooper finds herself drawn, escorted there by a visitor to her home who introduces himself as Xaphan – a demon, whereupon they meet up with the book’s other main character Afriel, an angel. Emma, so it would appear, is the key to resolving a crisis within ‘Set, a refusal by a collection of souls to move on…
It’s probably best to describe the book as dark fantasy rather than out-and-out horror (although there are moments, particularly involving the “deads” – zombies to all intents and purposes – which definitely fall into the latter category) but the darkness is leavened by a dry wit in the narrative, the humour arising from the anachronistic, almost surreal interaction between the mundane and the epically supernatural giving rise to many a chuckle. I try not to compare authors when reviewing but there’s a definite similarity to this novel and the Discworld books of Terry Pratchett, a set of books in which a demon asking an angel if they want to go for a pint (as happens here) is just as likely.
As it turns out, the backlog problem turns out to be just the beginning and, once the author has (skillfully) introduced the rules and mechanisms governing ‘Set, the crisis deepens further and the plot really takes off with the introduction of a host of new characters and locations.
Luke has done a great job of creating the worlds in which his characters play out the narrative, a huge amount of imagination is on display here. It’s a clever mix – the story is epic, spanning a number of worlds and time periods and yet underpinning it all is the idea that the whole business of life and death is just that – a business, the ultimate production line, a conveyor belt of the deceased being processed by workers with their own issues and complaints.
There’s a nice mix too of “real” demons and angels with some nice name-drops going on. Samael, as might be expected, is a bit of a bastard. It has to be said there are a lot of characters, many of whom are introduced quickly and, given they are all then dispersed into different locations and time periods, it can be a little tricky to keep up with what’s going on. Fear not though, just go along for the ride and enjoy the cleverly thought out conclusion.
I enjoyed Dead Sun very much – for its humour and the huge amounts of imagination on display within. It’s obvious a great deal of work has gone into creating the worlds in which the story takes place and that shows in the final product. Humour is always a difficult thing to get right but Luke has got the tone of the novel just right resulting in an engaging, fast-paced and hugely enjoyable read.
You can buy Dead Sun here.

Friday 27 April 2018


Shiloh is the new novella from Philip Fracassi, now published in paperback by Lovecraft ezine press following the release of a limited edition hardback version. Philip is a writer whose work I now anticipate with great relish, providing as he has some of my favourite reads of the last few years. That anticipation was pushed almost beyond limits at the news that the novella has a historical setting given my predilection for horrors set in the past.
As the title might suggest, the story takes place during the Battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War, April 6th – 7th 1862. “Suggest” is appropriate however, the battle as described in the novella is never given this name –and, whilst this is undoubtedly historically accurate given the story is told in first person, present tense – it also offers up the possibility that the title refers to something else – or someone else.
The aforementioned narrative voice is an ideal choice for the novella, making the reading experience immediate and personal, throwing the reader into the thick of the battle. These passages are brutal, vividly describing the horrors of warfare and the damage human beings can do to one another and are not for the faint of heart. The narrator is Henry, fighting for the Confederacy alongside his twin brother William. His voice is an authentic one, conveying the horror of his situation alongside his own emotional responses and, as the best first person narratives do, provides insight into his own character. Most notable of these, given what happens in the story, is his refusal to subscribe to religious belief, a decision made in the context of his upbringing as the son of a preacher.
This lack of belief in anything mystical is important as it adds veracity to Henry’s observations of what unfolds during the fighting. Much of the horror in Shiloh is visceral, the descriptions of the atrocities of combat, but there is supernatural horror here too, subtly introduced with some highly effective – and chilling – descriptions of strange figures glimpsed amongst the carnage but then building to a point where it is the dominant theme of the book.
Cleverly, one of the supernatural elements references a phenomenon which was actually reported during the battle (and which has only recently been explained) and Philip shows great skill in incorporating it into the narrative, weaving it into his own story, enhancing the eeriness of the story’s conclusion.
And what a conclusion… The subtle shift from visceral to supernatural throughout the story leads to an almost dreamlike final sequence, in essence the physical becoming the metaphysical. It’s a heady mix of allegory and mysticism in which themes of destiny, death and sacrifice are explored. War is a transformative experience for those involved, its effects dehumanising, turning men into monsters and it’s these ideas which power the final scenes of the book. The startling imagery which has featured throughout the novella continues here as Henry discovers the truth of what has been happening, a revelation which will change his world forever. It’s an incredibly powerful ending to what has already been a marvellous piece of writing and is, in my opinion, the author’s best work to date.
I loved Shiloh, loved it again the second time I read it. Also included in this edition is a short story, Soda Jerk which provides a taster for Philip’s forthcoming novella Sabbath. Consider my appetite whetted...

Monday 12 March 2018

Widow's Point

The epistolary novel has a long and well-established history, dating back to the 18th Century and has provided the modus operandi for a number of horror novels – most famously Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The “found footage” technique of film-making has become almost a cliché these days but again, is well established (and had been around a long time before The Blair Witch Project hit the screens).
Whilst some books have had plots which revolve around the discovery of found footage, thus combining the literary and cinematic, Widow’s Point – the new novella from Richard and Billy Chizmar which is published by Cemetery Dance - takes this process one step further by presenting the book as a series of transcripts of video and audio recordings without an accompanying narrative to surround them.
The recordings have been made by writer Thomas Livingstone (always a good name for an explorer) during his investigation of the lighthouse in Nova Scotia which shares its name with the novella and are presented in sequential order, with each extract given a date and time.
After having been locked into the lighthouse by its custodian in order to begin his investigation, Livingstone’s video camera is damaged – meaning the majority of the book is made up of transcripts of the audio recordings. Which is a masterstroke.
Although there is much passion and emotion from Livingstone on display here, it’s the dispassionate way these extracts are presented, as a formal document, that gives them such massive impact. By presenting the information in what is actually a limited way – no flowery prose or vivid descriptions here – the readers themselves are made to paint their own picture of what is happening around, and to, Livingstone.
There’s extremely effective use of “noises off”, including some literal bumps in the night and a variety of voices other than Livingstone’s which subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – build up a feeling of dread. Many of these are commented on by Livingstone himself but most effective are those where he is absent from the recording, ignorant of the sounds described to the reader and which deliver a delectable frisson of terror.
There’s no denying that a whole boatload of clichés are in play here; man alone in locked, haunted lighthouse - but the way in which the story is presented reinvigorates these old tropes, painting them in fresh colours and, in the process, creating a genuinely chilling read. It’s a technique that could have gone horribly wrong but the authors have shown great skill in crafting this novella and it was a joy to read a horror story that was actually scary.
If I have any criticism, it’s that there’s a section at the end of the book which I felt was unnecessary. The transcripts are followed by an official police report which works exceedingly well. It’s after this, however, that another section is added which I felt the book would have been better off without.
This aside, I very much enjoyed Widow’s Point and recommend it highly to your reading pleasure.