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.