Monday, 18 December 2017

2017 Review.

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




BEST NOVEL

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

BEST NOVELLA

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

BEST ANTHOLOGY

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

BEST COLLECTION

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

BEST SINGLE STORY

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


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


Monday, 4 December 2017

Witnesses. (Blatant self-publicity).

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

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

And here's the blurb:

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

Monday, 16 October 2017

Made for the Dark

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

Very proberty indeed.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Great British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills

Dark Satanic Mills is the subtitle given to the second volume of Great British Horror published by Black Shuck Books. I reviewed the first volume here with its stories set in rural environments, the location having changed for the second book with a move to the urban sprawl.
First up is Tools of the Trade by Paul Finch, a story which throws more light on the Jack the Ripper story, with a journalist offered the story of a lifetime revealing the true identity of the serial killer following the discovery of new evidence. A little surprisingly, the story isn’t set in London but Tunbridge – the location of Jack’s escape from the capital. It’s a strong start to the collection, thoroughly researched and provides a believable (albeit fictional) identity for Jack.
It’s also quite long. The ending, when it finally arrives, is very effective but it does take a long time to get there and, after all that’s gone before, feels a little rushed. I’d have really liked a little bit more time spent on the final scenes in an abandoned hotel – possibly the best location ever invented for a horror story.
Cate Gardner provides the second tale, Fragments of a Broken Doll, another trademark story in which the real darkness lies beneath the slightly surreal surface. The mysterious Trill lives with Harry in a house which backs onto a prison. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the house in which the true character of Trill is revealed. And it’s not pleasant. For anyone. It’s – as might be expected – an odd little tale that creates an almost palpable tension as the scene plays out. Strange and disturbing.
Andrew Freudenberg’s The Cardiac Ordeal is a high concept piece dealing with moral dilemmas. Shane and Linda’s daughter Emma goes missing – the victim, it turns out of a kidnapping. Things get darker when Shane is approached by the kidnapper and promised his daughter’s return if he agrees to carry out a series of tasks.
I guess the story is about how far a parent would go to protect their child – the tasks Shane must perform involve breaking the law – and escalate in seriousness as the story progresses. The final task, of course, is the most difficult to perform – the hardest test of his love for his daughter. There’s a twist thrown in for good measure but, much like the opening story, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed, that the decisions made were done so a little quickly. That said, it’s an effective ending to a tale very much in the Tales of the Unexpected/Twilight Zone school of storytelling.
The Lies We Tell are the basis for Charlotte Bond’s story. Its protagonist is Cathy, an estate agent with a well-developed selfish streak allied with a sense of self-importance second to none. Not a nice person then, and one who’s parenting skills could do with a little work.
When notes bearing handwritten numbers start getting posted through the letterbox and she starts hearing a strange clicking noise that no-one else can, things start to get a bit weird. To be fair, you’ll probably work out what the strange sounds and notes mean long before Cathy does – but that’s because she’s too self-absorbed to understand anything outside her sphere of existence. But that doesn’t matter, it merely makes the ride towards the story’s dark conclusion (with a hint of a very grim fairy tale about it) all the more enjoyable.
The guest international author for this volume is Angela Slatter who provides the book’s first urban myth story in Our Lady of Wicker Bridge. The myth tells of a pale woman who will approach those who were suffering and offer them a deal. The story is old in present tense, lending it an air of immediacy and revolves around social worker Tricia, taking over the “beat” of her mentor Hermione who has gone missing, leaving behind the burnt out remains of her car.
It’s a deeply atmospheric story that vividly creates the desolation of the housing estate in which most of the action takes place. Throw in a deeply scary little girl and the scene is set for a wonderful modern ghost story which is one of the highlights of the collection.
There’s much gory delight to be had in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Church With Bleeding Windows (the bleeding referring to the red stuff rather than being a mild profanity). It involves a demonic entity doing incredibly nasty things to people and is a rollicking good yarn for the whole of its relatively short running time. The reasons for the monsters actions are actually very clever and the story conjures up some startling images, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of body horror.
Marie O’Regan provides a fairly traditional haunted house story in Sleeping Black – in which Seth and Trudy inherit a house form his Grandmother, the family home of long-established chimney sweeping business. The appearance of small, black handprints herald a series of strange phenomena and ghostly encounters in a tale which provides little in the way of surprises and which treads a pretty well-worn path. It’s well written, and nicely paced but the use of so many familiar tropes render it a little predictable.
Gary Fry begins his contribution with the line: Every city, town or village has one: Station Road. It’s a statement I can verify, given that I live on one myself. The location provides the title for his story, albeit slightly tampered with to give us Satin Road. The removal of the letters features in the tale itself, a schoolboy prank against Dean, ostracised as a weirdo because of his penchant for horror and heavy metal (mind you…), who lives on the aforementioned road in a joke only those who lack the ability to spell could truly appreciate.
The dislike of Dean extends to his headmaster, Mr Rhodes, the only real friend he has being the narrator of the story who has a shared interest in horror. Sympathy for the devil can have its drawbacks though, as our narrator finds to his cost after Dean moves away from the area leaving a series of inexplicable events in his wake.
It’s another thought-provoking piece from Mr Fry, with a degree of ambiguity in the story’s conclusion regarding what has actually happened – and how, and why…
Non Standard Construction by Penny Jones provides the tale of a tenant James in the big city finding cheap accommodation to rent and then discovering the reasons why it was such a bargain. The reason in this case being the term which provides the story’s title, referring to the concrete – rather than brick – used to build them.
Except of course, in this story it means something else too. Building and tenant seem somehow connected in a story where the notion of taking possession is neatly flipped on its head.
Gary McMahon brings us The Night Moves, a story which channels his own experience in martial arts to tell of Miles, who sneaks into an abandoned warehouse to perform a kata – a sequence of martial arts moves designed to show skill and technique. Of course, Miles performs alone, there is no one there to judge him, the ritual is a solitary endeavour. And ritual’s the key word, as revealed in a back story, Miles has learned the kata from the mysterious Hoodoo, a homeless man with a mysterious past. The night moves he performs hold a dark secret – in essence it’s a black kata.
I really enjoyed this story and it’s probably my favourite of the book. There’s some nice references to The Concrete Grove books and in particular the mysterious Loculus with The Night Moves adding to that pre-existing mythology marvellously.
The final story in the collection is /’dƷɅst/ (my nearest approximation to it…) by Carole Johnstone. It’s the second story of Carole’s I’ve read featuring Glaswegian police – the first being Wet Work which appeared in Black Static. Like that story, this one features her trademark use of dialect in her characters’ dialogue. I have to confess, generally this is a pet hate of mine, whatever the dialogue is I’m always put in mind of Dick van Dyke’s uncanny portrayal of a cockney in Mary Poppins, and – as a northerner myself – I’m always frustrated by writers who think we pronounce “u” as “oo”. We don’t. Nobody does. Grumpiness and intolerance aside, I have to say that Carole always does a very good job of it although it does sometimes take you out of the story a little bit when you have to re-read a sentence to work out what’s being said.
Ironically, pronunciation lies at the heart of this story (and is reflected in the title) with a serial killer leaving notes at the scenes of their crimes written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system designed to elucidate the correct pronunciation of words but, tellingly, pretty much requiring a PhD to understand.
It’s a cracking story, and a thrilling end to the book but, if I can return to my aforementioned grumpiness, it’s more of a police procedural thriller than horror.

I enjoyed Dark Satanic Mills a lot, and it’s a strong follow up to Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a wonder as to which of the lyrics of Jerusalem will be chosen for Volume 3 – an anthology of chariot stories perhaps, or will mountains be the subject? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the urban theme was pretty much incidental to most of the stories in here with perhaps only the Johnstone and Slatter stories using the city as a character but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of them. Whatever the theme, I look forward to next year’s release, this really is shaping up to be a great British series of books.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Hasty for the Dark.

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

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

Monday, 25 September 2017

Hersham Horror Novellas; The Stories Continue.


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

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


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

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

Monday, 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

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

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