Monday, 17 July 2017

Shadow Moths.

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

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

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Anatomy of Monsters

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

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

Monday, 3 July 2017

Creeping Stick

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

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

Monday, 12 June 2017

Beneath

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

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

Monday, 8 May 2017

Sacculina

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

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

Monday, 1 May 2017

Ascent

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

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

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Little Gift

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

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