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.