Filler content with numbers

This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-


Elastic Press pb, 278pp, £6                                         

As with the previous Elastic Press anthology, Alsiso, this also is a concept volume, potential contributors being asked to create a story with a number in the title and central to the plot, a challenge which was accepted by twenty three writers.

And, again as with previous Elastic projects, a goodly number of the contributors will be names familiar to readers of TTA. Joel Lane gives us ‘Where None is the Number’, the tale of a man who wins a large sum of money on a lottery and finds that it doesn’t bring him the happiness that was promised on the tin. This is an unusual piece for Lane in that, while every bit as downbeat as much of his other writing, it demonstrates an enviable comic talent, with a witty and laconic narrative voice that fires off a number of satirical barbs with pinpoint accuracy. ‘Two Moon City’ from Tim Lees is at the same time a witty pastiche of ERB’s Barsoom novels and telling reflection on the possible effect on a culture of having two moons with, as in all the best SF, human behaviour thrust under the microscope. Neil Williamson’s ‘The One Millionth Smile’ is beautifully written and the characters have a real depth to them, with a warmth and touches of detail that engage the emotions, but the  story didn’t quite work for me; the scenario, in which a family uses numbers to extend life was too contrived for the necessary suspension of disbelief. Editor Allen Ashley, the Dodo himself, and Tim Nickels join forces for ‘While We Were Sleeping, Numbers Took Over the World’, a catchy riff on the theme of CHIP and PIN, giving us civilisation as calculus and the collection’s most innovative piece, using typographical effects to provide a story as visually appealing as it is readable.

There are plenty of other good stories as well. ‘Approaching Zero’ by John Lucas is a deftly told account of a new plague that sweeps the world, causing people to ‘slim’ down their possessions and, obliquely, questioning our own attachment to material things. Mark Patrick Lynch’s ‘Breach of Contract, Clause 6A’ is an assured slice of Horror fiction, the chilling tale of a man involved in a rather suspect form of employment (or possibly a late night game show on C4), the attention to detail, the phlegmatic prose style and the protagonist’s apparent indifference to what he is doing all adding to the sense of unease. ‘Twenty One Again’ is the best thing I’ve seen from the pen of Neil Ayres, one brief but pivotal moment in the lives of twenty one people in the saloon bar of a public house presented in compelling detail, the writer capturing perfectly the feelings of his characters, their individual concerns and distinctive voices, and showing the way in which their stories overlap to create a gestalt piece in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a tour de force of social mimicry and observation, reading like nothing so much as Geoff Ryman’s 253 intercut with an episode of East Enders. In ‘Sixty Thousand Pieces of Glass’ a mosaic artist and her boyfriend fall under the spell of a charismatic cult leader, with a resolution that’s not for the faint hearted, author Sam Hayes demonstrating the same ability to get under the skin of her characters and draw the reader in, almost against his will, with a raw and painful emotional honesty that typified her novel Out of Mind. Donald Pulker’s Kafkaesque ‘Dial 1-800-2-To-Live’ presents the intriguing scenario of a dying man forced to jump through hoops in a vain attempt to save his life, while Phil Locascio’s ‘The Square Root of Two’ is the first person narration of an embryonic serial killer, a man obsessed with accuracy and cleanliness, the tone of voice never faltering for a moment and with a wicked twist at the end, though perhaps it does spread its madness a little bit thin to convince totally. Joy Marchand’s ‘The Sympathy of Five’ has a Russian émigré trying to establish a connection with his dead brother through the help of a gifted tattoo artist, but finding the cost rather more than he expected, an engrossing and moving account of loss and addiction. ‘Mine the Primes’ by Julian Todd is a delightfully tongue in cheek SF fable, presenting us with a future in which travel across the galaxy is achieved by exploiting prime numbers, a non-renewable resource, the story rising above the prevailing air of unreality to deliver a telling parable of ecological abuse and exploitation. Toiya Kristen Finley’s ‘7.33’ is a tale of voodoo curses and tangled emotional relationships, skilfully told and with some nice touches of detail, though I recoiled slightly from its somewhat old-fashioned denouement.

And then there’s the one that works so well it throws everything else into the shade. You often see a particular story described as ‘worth the price of admission alone’, and usually it’s just hyperbole, but The Elastic Book of Numbers has a story which justifies the hype, Marion Arnott’s wonderful ‘When We Were Five’ which will probably turn up in every Horror genre Year’s Best that’s published (but I advise you to get the book now, just in case Ellen, Stephen et al are asleep at the wheel). The story is told from the viewpoint of a man remembering the days of his youth when, as a student, he visited Communist Russia and met the woman Valentina, a cleaner at the hotel where he stayed and graduate of the Siberian prison camps. Through a series of incredibly vivid dreams the protagonist experiences the most significant events in her life, bearing witness to the heartrending tragedy at its core and becoming caught up in Valentina’s revenge on the commissars who murdered her loved ones. This is a story in which, despite the supernatural elements incorporated seamlessly into the text, the real horror arises out of the actions of human beings. Arnott’s sense of place, her depiction of Mother Russia’s troubled past, is completely assured, with scenes and people who come alive on the page and sear their place in the reader’s memory, while the storyline is both emotionally harrowing and totally involving, holding the reader’s attention in a grip of iron until the final word has been read. It’s a landmark story in her career, another Prussian Snowdrops or Marbles, and, trust me, you are going to want to read it.

Arnott’s story is the jewel in the crown of a book that’s remarkable for the range and strength of the fiction on offer. Okay, not everything is of an equal fineness and there was at least one story that I hardly liked at all but, on balance, The Elastic Book of Numbers continues this publisher’s fine tradition of providing quality fiction at affordable prices and deserves to sell like it’s going out of fashion.

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Filler content with Gary McMahon in triplicate

Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-


The novella NIGHTSIDERS (DarkFuse eBook, 104pp, $3.10) is a slight departure for Gary McMahon. It’s the story of writer Robert Mitchell, who returns from holiday with his family – wife Sarah, daughter Molly, son Connor – to find that their house has been occupied by Nathan Corbeau and his brood, and that Corbeau has legal documents that prove the property belongs to him, despite Robert’s lawyer insisting otherwise. The Mitchells retire to a hotel to recoup and plan their next move, but as the narrative progresses doubts are raised about the existence of Nathan Corbeau, the idea mooted that he may actually be a fictional construct. In practical terms it doesn’t really matter, as the effect Corbeau and his clan have on the Mitchells is self-evidently detrimental, threatening to tear the family unit apart, reinforcing doubts that Robert harbours – about himself, about his wife and his own manhood – until finally he decides that they have to fight back and reclaim what is theirs.

As McMahon acknowledges in the afterword, this story is a tribute of sorts to the home invasion sub-genre, the kind of story in which ordinary, decent folk confronted by those who do not adhere to social mores are forced to adopt the methods of their attackers, to kill or be killed, to get in touch with their inner savage simply as a means to survive. And on that level it works very well indeed, with plenty of bang for your buck and some suitably garish set pieces. Where McMahon strikes off into unknown or little explored territory is with the introduction of a meta-fictional element, inviting an interpretation of the text in which Nathan Corbeau and his destructive family are the negative image of the Mitchells, the ‘nightside’ representation of all the things that they fear, the social tides that threaten their hold on the good life, so that in a sense, when they finally strike out intent on bringing the battle to the enemy, they fight themselves, an aspect of their own personalities.

The ambiguity of the ending seems to imply that this is a battle which ultimately can never be won or satisfactorily resolved, that people can only do the best they can and then move on with their lives, whatever shape those lives now take. On those terms the novella offers an interesting variation on a theme, one that plays games with and explores the tropes of this sub-genre, questioning our knee jerk identification with the victims when we indulge in such fictional and cinematic fare, suggesting that we share a destructive potential with the tribes of cannibals and rapists, torturers and bullies, those without restraint. As such Nightsiders becomes a fiction about fiction, with a subtext potentially more disturbing than the wet work that splatters its pages, that we are the monsters we seek to overcome, and conceding that sometimes, just sometimes, the monsters win.

The nature of the monsters is more overt in McMahon’s short novel THE BONES OF YOU (Earthling Publications hb, 200pp, $45), the ninth and latest volume in Earthling’s series of books celebrating publisher Paul Miller’s favourite holiday of Halloween.

Adam Morris moves into a cheap rental property in the suburbs. Divorced from junkie wife Holly, he does his best to be a good father to daughter Jessica when she comes to stay, but there’s a serpent hiding in this cut price Garden of Eden. The derelict house next door was once the home of occultist and child killer Katharine Moffat, who marked Halloween in a somewhat less benign manner than Mr Miller, sacrificing those referred to as ‘radiant children’ in her cellar. And, with the season for tricks and treats fast approaching, Adam comes to fear that somebody is trying to revive Moffat, and his daughter Jessica could be part of their plan.

There’s nothing experimental about this book; it’s just an old fashioned horror story, with a plot considerably more complicated than my précis might suggest, albeit conforming to the tried and true schemata of beginning, middle and end, with wall to wall thrills and chills, the whole executed with considerable skill by a writer at the top of his game.

Adam Morris is the archetypal McMahon protagonist, a loner with a terrible secret in his past, somebody who has done bad things and is seeking to atone through doing right by others. As ever, McMahon is pitch perfect in his depiction of the character, totally convincing in the way he shows both Adam’s great anger and the unconditional love he feels for his child, so that you can easily believe and accept his willingness to die for Jessica, to kill those who threaten her. There are numerous red herrings, as with sometime lover Carole, who has her own connection to Moffat, and the young girl who comes to visit him late at night, claiming that her father wrote a book about Moffat and she shares his obsession. With plenty of grace notes along the way, all this leads effortlessly into the showdown in the cellar, with the spirits of Moffat’s victims materialising to bear witness to the fate of their tormentor, and her helpmates on hand to thwart Adam’s attempts to save his daughter, culminating in a firecracker of a ghoulish grand finale.

As a tale of supernatural terror The Bones of You fires successfully on all cylinders, but looking back I believe what makes the book work so well, what takes it to another level, is the portrait of a flawed man and the love that saves him, that enables us to see him as somebody, warts and all, who is worthy of the epithet hero. In McMahon’s oeuvre the heroes inevitably come with dirty hands, and in a way it’s this shop soiled quality that makes them both special and people with whom we can identify, the human frailty and flaws in their own nature that they have to overcome if they are to succeed. There’s no chance that you’ll be tricked if you accept this dark delight in lieu of Halloween candy.

With his editor’s hat on, McMahon’s VISIONS FADING FAST (Pendragon Press pb, 180pp, £9.99) follows the same formula as 2008’s We Fade to Grey, with five writers providing work at novella and novelette length. While it’s shown on the inside cover as ‘Volume 1’, I’ve heard no news as yet on any follow up to this selection of prime cuts.

Leading off is Joel Lane with ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, the story of blues musician Simon, who gets a chance to reform his failed band Blue Away and make it big again. Intercut with a compelling picture of the ups and downs in the career of a professional musician, somebody in love with his craft and who just has to make music, are details of Simon’s troubled personal life, showing how one informs the other. Back of it all there’s the suggestion of a deal similar to that Robert Johnson allegedly made with the Devil at a crossroads, with small details that add an outré feel to this powerful story, and the subtext that in some way all dedicated artists, whatever their medium, make such a bargain, sacrificing so many opportunities for personal happiness to their craft, even if the Devil isn’t involved in the mix.

The Lane was my personal favourite, but ‘Wild Acre’ by Nathan Ballingrud is the story that got the nod from Ellen Datlow for the latest edition of Best Horror of the Year. It opens with a contractor and two of his men standing guard on a building site hit by vandalism, but what comes out of the forest is not entirely human and the two men are killed, while Jeremy is left to deal with his own cowardice. The supernatural element of the story is simply a catalyst, enabling Ballingrud to focus on the perils of the Recession and the very human plight of a man who realises that he is not the person he believes himself to be, that others believe him to be, a man who has fallen short of the standards he expects of himself and others, that malaise colouring all of his subsequent life. As Jeremy self-destructs, in public and in private, emotional and economic currents tearing his psyche apart, Ballingrud’s narrative evolves into a compelling study of a personality fracturing under stress.

With ‘The Dancer in the Dark’ Reggie Oliver returns to the world of theatre, the story focusing on the cast of a new play by a right wing playwright and told from the viewpoint of a Nick Carraway figure, a young actor who joins the troupe and is drawn into events, an observer standing on the periphery of the action and occasionally intervening. The dancer of the title is fading star Billie Beverley, a target for the malice of the writer and other cast members, but the balance of power shifts as the narrative progresses, the old men in the company undone by strange events over which they can exercise no control. Beautifully characterised and paced, with barbed dialogue that conveys so much more than is actually said, this is a story in which sublime and chilling details mount gradually to a crescendo, though looking back on it you can’t quite put a finger on when the line was crossed, the kind of thing that Oliver does so very well.

There’s a touch of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) about ‘The History Thief’ by Kaaron Warren, whose hero Alvin finds that when he becomes a ghost he can steal the memories of other people, and fulfils a lifelong ambition to help the police with their enquiries. Eventually he is undone when he tries to help Mrs Moffat (possibly a relation of the lady in The Bones of You) find the killer of her child. Initially there’s a fun feel to the story, a lightness of touch that Warren brings to Alvin’s discoveries about his spirit state, but it’s undercut by a deep sense of sadness. What adds resonance is the portrait Warren gives us in the naïve but kind hearted Alvin of an overlooked person, somebody who has never really had any life to speak of, never truly connected with anybody else, and who in death finds a kind of satisfaction at second hand, even as his spirit state underlines how truly alone he has become, but only as prelude to a terrible act of betrayal.

By way of coda, we have ‘Night Closures’ by Paul Meloy, a far ranging, borderline stream of consciousness narrative rooted in 1970s England in which memories of events and the events themselves blur together, a mosaic gradually forming in which themes of bullying, neglect and loneliness shine brightly. We patch together the various pieces, details accumulating to suggest something truly macabre is taking place on the page, and finally what emerges is the story of a young boy and what happened to him, or perhaps a ghost story in which everyone appears to be a ghost, all leading up to the final terrible, heartrending denouement.

There’s not a dud here, and I doubt that these visions will quickly fade. I sincerely hope that this really is ‘Volume 1’.


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Song for a Saturday – She’s Bad

Somebody linked to this on Facebook the other day.

I can take or leave the music, but damn, I love the video.

Warning – it all gets a bit splodgy before the end.

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2014: The Story So Far – Second Quarter

Back in May I did a list of my favourite books of the year so far, and as it’s now July time for another update.

For the months April through June, I read a total of thirty three books, some of which were really, really rather short, and some of which I didn’t actually finish until yesterday even though I began them earlier. I’ve also started quite a few others that I haven’t as yet finished. Nothing about this is an exact science.

So, in the order I preferred them when I wrote the list ten minutes ago (and, of course, it may be subject to change), here’s my top thirteen books for 2014 so far, with new entries shown in bold:-

The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker (Pocket Books)

The Road – Cormac McCarthy (Picador)

The Three – Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Broken Ones – Stephen M. Irwin (Anchor Books)

The Unquiet House - Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Murder – Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)

The Lord Came at Twilight – Daniel Mills (Dark Renaissance Books)

Film Freak – Christopher Fowler (Doubleday)

The Ritual of Illusion – Richard Christian Matheson (PS Publishing)

Mercy and Other Stories - Rebecca Lloyd (Tartarus Press)

The Beauty of Murder – A. K. Benedict (Orion)

The Moon Will Look Strange – Lynda E. Rucker (Karōshi Books)

The Bright Day Is Done – Carole Johnstone (Gray Friar Press)

Seven novels, one novella, four collections and one autobiography, with Jo Fletcher Books the only publisher to appear twice.

And, although they’re both included in my tally for the year, I haven’t taken into consideration Carole Johnstone’s novella Cold Turkey, as it’s published by TTA Press, or Dana Gioia’s poetry collection The Gods of Winter, as I’ve read it umpteen times before.

And, of course, many of these titles were first published in 2013, if not earlier, so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading’ rather than ‘best of the year’.

Check back in three or so months to see which of these titles remain.


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The Great Apes

With the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last week, I decided to mark the occasion by watching three ‘ape’ movies from my DVD collection.

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

I haven’t seen this since I caught it at the cinema on release. Based on a true story, Sigourney Weaver excels in the role of Dian Fossey, who abandons her life back in the USA to go and live up a mountain in Rwanda and keep track of the local gorilla population. It’s a decision that costs her both love and eventually her life, but if the depiction here is correct not one that caused her much regret.

The scenery is beautifully shot, so that you can see why Fossey might fall in love with Africa despite the lack of home comforts, while the depiction of the gorillas, a blend of live action and actors in gorilla costumes, was magnificently done. Fossey is fearless in dealing with gorillas, getting close enough for them to touch and becoming one of the tribe in all but species. She comes to care deeply about them, with her original stay of six months becoming an open ended one, and the desire to protect them bringing her into conflict with native poachers and sometimes the local authorities. A romantic interlude with photographer Bryan Brown shows a soft side to the character and reminds us that she is still human, but this is not an entirely flattering portrayal with scenes that hint at an obsessive, tunnel vision type of personality, whose actions can hurt others as a result of ‘the end justifies the means’ style convictions, and with a strong suggestion that her mental health was not of the best. My only scruple is that the film didn’t really give us her initial motivation – why does a woman with marriage and a promising academic career ahead of her, suddenly abandon all that to go and live with gorillas? I’m sure she had good reasons, but this film didn’t pin them down for me.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

Before Ms Fossey made cohabiting with apes fashionable, there was of course the iconic figure of Tarzan, whose adventures as chronicled by Edgar Rice Burroughs and depicted onscreen by the likes of Johnny Weissmuller and Ron Eli were a staple of my childhood.

This film makes a valiant effort to be faithful to the source material, with its account of how the child John Clayton, the descendant of a Scottish Earl, ended up in Africa and came to be raised by apes. It is the quintessential depiction of the feral child, with John at first on the lowest rung of the ladder and then, through his human ingenuity, coming to dominate the ape tribe (there’s most definitely a species one-upmanship vibe going on here). However, he doesn’t fare quite so well upon return to human society, where the rules are somewhat more complex.

Again, this is a beautifully shot film, though in this case I’d say that the Scottish landscape is every bit as appealing if not more so than that of Africa (and one or two scenes on the Dark Continent appear slightly artificial). Christopher Lambert is compelling in the role of Tarzan, the epitome of the noble savage prototype. He prospers among the apes, where the rules are simple and he knows what is expected of him, but back ‘home’ he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Human values are different to those he has known, and John can’t adjust, his dilemma personified in the plight of the ape he regards as a father, imprisoned in a cage and shot when he escapes because humans are scared of him (compare this to the genuine feelings of regret and circumstantial pomp that surrounds the demise of Clayton’s human grandfather). The film compares life in the wild with life in society, and the latter is found wanting in terms of common sympathy and compassion, of simple honesty, even if the argument is somewhat skewed to get this result. Clayton judges us and finds us wanting, returning to the jungle where he can truly be himself, the self that Africa and the apes have made him.

King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the greatest ape story of them all, and you could make a case for this being the anti-Tarzan story, with an ape brought back to civilisation and it finding him wanting. On Skull Island Kong is lord of all he surveys, but taken out of his natural environment he’s just another way for the shysters to make a quick buck, and the only freedom open to him is that of the grave. Beauty may have killed the beast, but the real monster here is Jack Black’s Carl Denham, who sees the wonder of the world only in terms of what it can do to forward his career and increase his fortune (putting him on equal footing with the corporate suits he claims to despise).

All but a minute off three hours, the film is far too long. Some of the opening scenes could have been cut with no loss to the film’s sense, and there is too much faffing about once we reach Skull Island, as if everybody on the sfx team had to do a cameo. I could have done without the instant love affair between Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll, even if it was nice to see the writer get the girl for once, albeit only when his strong, dark and not so silent rival is done away with. And the whole thing is shamelessly awash in sentimentality.

For all that though, the film has an undeniable power. As visual spectacle it succeeds superbly, but more importantly it taps into archetypal imagery and mythic story forms to tell us something about the world and our need to drag things down to our level. Images of Kong looking bemused by Darrow’s song and dance routine, of Kong fighting the dinosaurs to save her, of Kong brought low and put in chains by human treachery, of Kong on top of the world and swatting the planes that annoy him as if they were no more than gnats, of dead Kong in a New York street like so much garbage, will linger in the mind long after the sentimentality is forgotten. Ultimately Kong is the modern world’s equivalent of the Harvest King, a young god sacrificed on the altar of commerce so that the profit margins continue to rise, and being cynical I could just as easily be talking here about Hollywood’s urge to scrape another buck by endlessly recycling old material.

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Trailer Trash – Lucy

Drug mule turns into Asimov Mule, or something like that:-

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Thoughts for a Tuesday #8

ITEM: Little things allegedly please little minds, and at the moment my little mind is inordinately pleased and amused by the vagaries of Subject header cut offs in emails.

This ‘classic’ comes courtesy of Zavvi, who only a short while back were using the word ‘MILF’ in their Mother’s Day promotion:-

Big Weekend – Even More Tit

Had it not been for the cut off, the second clause would have read ‘Even More Titles Added’.

It’s almost as if they do this stuff deliberately just to give idiots like me something to snigger over in our dotage :-)

Either that or somebody who previously wrote the punch lines to seaside postcards and/or scripts for the Carry On films has taken a new career path.

ITEM: I offer this next story as a warning against knee jerk reactions.

On seeing the headline ‘Bundy crossed line’, my immediate thought was something along the lines of ‘Well of course he did, you blithering boneheads. The guy murdered umpteen women’, only with more swearing.

Naturally it turned out to be another Bundy, some rancher dude in America who crossed a line.

That’ll teach me not to jump to conclusions.

ITEM: On the subject of swearing, people sometimes tell me that it isn’t necessary, and yes, of course, they’re correct in an abstract sense.

But then in abstract terms is anything necessary?

We consume food, in the short term to retain good health and in the long term to stay alive, but is it necessary?

We believe that it is, but in any greater scheme of things the universe simply doesn’t give a shit if we survive or not.

So when we use the word ‘necessary’ what we’re actually saying is that certain actions are required to achieve an end result we personally regard as desirable, such as staying alive.

On that basis, if the alternatives are punching somebody in the mouth or increased stress levels, then I’d say the occasional use of good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon expletives is very necessary indeed, and sometimes mandatory.

I’ve no idea if this is true or not, but it illustrates the point perfectly – in one of his Bond novels, Ian Fleming hypothesised a link between Japan having the highest suicide rate in the world and a lack of swear words in the Japanese language.

ITEM: I’m bemused, if that’s the word, by the climate change deniers in the US conservative camp. I suspect that for the GOP it’s simply down to the fact that they haven’t as yet found a way to blame global warming on Obama.

ITEM: Also bemused, if that’s the word, by the stories only now coming out regarding the alleged involvement of senior politicians in child abuse back in the Thatcher years, with hints of some terrible cover up at the highest level.

Actually, ‘bemused’ is most definitely not the word. Horrified or disgusted will serve much better.

Let’s hope that the truth comes out and if any are guilty, no matter who they are, let’s see justice done.

Fortunately I can’t see any of the current crop of politicians getting involved in such crimes, as deplorable as they are as human beings. The only thing that seems to arouse any of them is filthy lucre, manifested in the form of expense scams and sleazy fantasies about the huge corporate profits to be made from the public purse.

I suspect in ten, twenty years time, the term ‘money shot’ will have an entirely different meaning.

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