Filler content with yet more novellas

Reviews of four more novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #38:-

MISCELLANEOUS NOVELLAS (continued from Tuesday’s post)

William Meikle’s latest novella from DarkFuse, BROKEN SIGIL (DarkFuse eBook, 55pp, $1.99) is the story of Joe Connors, a policeman working Internal Affairs, who has to investigate the shooting of another officer, only in this case the victim, Johnny Provan, was formerly Connors’ partner and best friend, until he began an affair with Connors’ wife. The shooting seems straightforward enough, but what intrigues Connors is the sigil carved into Provan’s flesh and the mystery of why he moved into the apartment block outside which the shooting took place. Joe finds a building where the walls between the worlds are thin and which provides solace for broken people. His own room is waiting.

Meikle has been producing some of his best work under the aegis of DarkFuse, and this novella is no exception. At the heart of the story is a singularly striking variation on the haunted house theme, presenting the idea of a form of magic that enables us, through certain objects, to connect with those who have died, to interact with them and find solace of a kind through doing so. For Connors the person he wishes to contact, like Provan before him, is his wife Brenda, tragically killed in a car accident while leaving him for the other man. But Joe is not the type of man to be satisfied with things seen through a glass darkly. He’s a loose cannon, one who shows no respect for the rules of the place and through his actions he threatens to bring it all crashing down around their ears.

If Meikle’s idea of a haunted house is the blue sky concept in this story, what makes it so real and affecting is his depiction of broken and embittered Joe Connors, a man who, while outwardly holding it all together, is operating only on instinct much of the time. His obsession with his dead wife, a woman he lost long before the accident that put an end to her mortality, informs and drives the whole narrative, with sadness and desperation oozing off of the page. And, in a witty twist, Meikle winds into the story the film of The Maltese Falcon, with events on the screen mirroring what happens in the real world, dead Brenda peering out at Joe while she recites the words of Mary Astor rather than her own, Joe’s relationship with Provan reflected in that of Spade and Archer. It is a bravura performance, one that ends on a note as bittersweet as it is appropriate.

Toby Tate’s THE BLACK CHURCH (DarkFuse eBook, 76pp, $2.99) opens with the fiery death of Daniel Ivanov’s father, leaving unanswered the riddle of why he was trying to destroy a valuable family heirloom, a prayer rug from the family’s East European homeland. Now the owner of the rug, Daniel sees faces in the design – his girlfriend, his business partner – and soon after those people die. At the same time he has vivid dreams of the building of a Black Church many centuries ago and the murder of a child. From an elderly émigré he gets the back story, and realises what he has got himself into.

There’s not a lot to be usefully said about this. It’s pretty much your bog standard cursed object story template, well written and deftly melding past and present, dream and reality. The characters are credible, the deaths suitably horrific, Daniel’s concern for the fate of his loved ones easy to empathise with, and the back story wouldn’t seem out of place as an episode of Hammer House of Horror, but all the same it feels very much like something written and plotted by the numbers, bringing nothing to the table that we won’t have seen before. I enjoyed it and it entertained me for the hour or so I took to read it, but all the same I doubt if I’ll remember anything much about The Black Church in a couple of months’ time, it will just fade into the background noise of genre.

Mary SanGiovanni’s THE FADING PLACE (DarkFuse eBook, 39pp, $1.99) has a back to basics feel about it. Charlene Van Houten has just strapped baby Haley into the car seat when a woman steps out with a gun. Charlie has the length of a car journey to figure out a way to save herself and her baby from the deranged Simone. And that’s pretty much it, as far as plot goes.

This reminded me very much of McCammon’s novel Mine, especially in the chilling picture that emerges of Simone, her history of madness and abuse, the desperate need for a child and to prove herself by caring for it, even though it becomes obvious that she is totally unsuited to be a mother. Despite this, the reader can’t help but feel some sympathy, even while agreeing with Charlie’s decision to kill the woman at the first opportunity. Charlie is the antithesis of Simone, a sane woman embracing violence to achieve her ends, willing to do whatever it takes to protect her child. The cat and mouse game that plays out between the two of them, each trying to get beneath the other’s skin, makes for a riveting read, even as you feel that the story is somewhat slight.

Last up, NIGHTMARE MAN (DarkFuse limited hc/eBook, 67pp, $30/$2.99) by Alan Ryker. Jessie suffers from night terrors, so bad that he has to sleep in a separate room and on occasion has hurt both himself and wife Shannon by lashing out. Central to these events is the figure of the Nightmare Man, a character he created for a comic book when a child. Contributing to the problem is the tension between his thwarted artistic ambitions and the day job, which involves calling people up on behalf of a debt collecting agency. His troubles come to a head when Jessie joins an experimental programme, and new drugs cause his dreams to externalise, the Nightmare Man threatening his children.

This is a well written and engaging story in which a lot of ground is covered effortlessly, from experimental drugs and sleep therapy, through to the drudgery of a demanding occupation, one that takes an emotional toll of the employee, set against the artistic talent that Jessie feels he has betrayed. Ryker deals with all this with aplomb, making his characters completely believable and adding moments of gritty description that bring a smile to the face. At heart what we are dealing with here is the idea that dreams thwarted can sour our lives, leaving us trapped in domesticity and resentful of those we hold to blame for that situation. It’s a scenario that will possibly resonate with many ‘under achievers’, and for Jessie the solution to banishing the Nightmare Man, a monster of the Id, lies in finding a way to reconcile his higher aspirations with the more mundane demands of earning a living in the real world. He does so in a way that will warm the heart.

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Trailer Trash – The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

Apparently the first was so successful it justified a sequel. Franchisation is only a breath away.

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Filler content with novellas

Reviews of four novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #38:-

MISCELLANEOUS NOVELLAS

THE RÉPARATEUR OF STRASBOURG (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 44pp, £12/£25) by Ian R. MacLeod is the story of Ezekiel Morel who makes a career for himself out of repairing damaged artwork in the churches of Strasbourg, but who cannot help sometimes improving on the original, adding his own little touches. The mysterious and beautiful Ariadne visits him in the middle of the night and commissions Ezekiel to paint her portrait, but not as she now appears, as she will look in twenty years’ time. Many years later, unchanged to the naked eye, she once again commissions Ezekiel, this time to paint her as a hag. But when the revolution comes to France, Ezekiel is placed in danger. His estranged son Roland holds power in the city and wishes to be avenged on his father for the slights of the past. Ezekiel finds himself a prisoner, and Ariadne is there too, truly the hag he had painted her as.

This is an engaging story, well written and with convincing characters, with the antipathy between father and son a plot driver. MacLeod brings the period to life on the page, the feel of a time of changes, a land in turmoil as all the old values are swept away and nothing new comes to take their place. The novella cannot help but have a political dimension, especially in the final confrontation between Ariadne and the citizen court, so that it is hard not to read more meaning than the author intended into passages like “the new, small gods who suck the lifeblood of decency from this country”, to interpret them as commentary on current world affairs. There is nothing here that is really new – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro for one has portrayed the vampire as a critic of human affairs in the context of a historical drama, while Ariadne’s origin echoes scenes from Somtow and Rice – but Macleod’s rendition is lively and fun, a diverting alternative to the sparkly template of recent years, showing the vampire as a moral creature but not without malice when provoked.

FLYING FISH (PS Publishing signed jhc, 60pp, £24.99) by Randall Silvis is a more substantial work, albeit the whole vampire thing is a flag of convenience for review purposes. The setting is Hogg Island off the New England coast, a settlement in decline, its community of fishermen dwindling each year. Devon seeks a way out by engaging in an affair with the enigmatic Louisa Cecelia Christensen, or Queenie as she is known to the locals. Queenie doesn’t grow old like other people, and some of the locals claim she was bitten by a vampire spider. The men she takes as lovers see an upturn in their fortunes soon after, unless they are indiscreet in which case certain death befalls them. Devon is ambivalent about his experience with Queenie, who appears to be a child though she is much older than he is, and uses his gift for fiction to make sense of what he is feeling, reading the stories to Queenie.

Beautifully written, this is a strange, haunting tale, the kind of thing that Alice Hoffman might produce on a good day. The imagery is every bit as vibrant as the shadow boxes that Queenie creates, things of dark and light, shifting so that they can never be pinned down. In a way it is a story about the rite of passage, from young manhood into the world of adults, of accepting responsibility and taking positive action. Devon doesn’t make his fortune, but eventually he does come to the realisation of what he wants from life and finds the courage to take that leap into the dark. The stories within the story are like the gemstones encrusted in a piece of jewellery, valuable in their own right while enhancing the work as a whole. They add to the bigger picture, as does the final poem, titled ‘Flying Fish’, that Devon tells to Queenie. This is the kind of text for which the word wise is appropriate. Silvis is a wise writer, telling the story of a wise woman, one who is every bit as magical and unique as others imagine her to be, though not in the ways they imagine. I loved it.

The latest instalment in Paul Meloy’s emerging cosmology, DOGS WITH THEIR EYES SHUT (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 58pp, £11.99/£24.99), ties in to previous stories detailing the conflict between the Firmament Surgeons and the Autoscopes, stories which have appeared in various magazines, including those from TTA Press, and are assembled en masse in the collection Islington Crocodiles. Of particular note, it continues the adventures of Lesley, who we first met in the British Fantasy Award winning story ‘Black Static’, from which this magazine took its name.

Fascinated by dogs as a child, the unnamed protagonist moves into a caravan park where he is befriended by Bix, and the canine’s companionship opens him up to strange dreams of a place called Quay-Endula and the young woman Lesley, who captains the ship Rogue Angela and sails in search of salvage to snatch from the grasp of the Toyceivers and their Outrage Contraptions. Along the way he learns something of his true identity and heritage, the role he is to play in the coming war, but before he can get to grips with that our hero must travel to Quay-Endula with Bix and save Lesley from the Flyblown Man.

Meloy has produced a complex, convoluted story, with a plot that constantly twists and turns, one in which his dexterity at balancing very human concerns against the greater cosmic backdrop shines through. Central to it all is the richness of his creation, with Lesley in a fantasy template world of taverns and murky backstreets, of fighting ships and funicular railways that feels as real as it is marvellous, a place where she interacts with extraordinary people in an ordinary way, a manner that adds depth to the other concerns, the threat of war with a merciless enemy. Similarly in our world the narrator’s love of dogs and memories of an idyllic childhood are juxtaposed with talk of Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes, Paladins and Ingress Gantries, elements that play off each other to stunning effect. With hindsight, the war between Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes has a Miltonian feel to it, a battle between legions of angels and their fallen brethren, with the fate of all Creation hanging in the balance, while on a less serious note, the metal frames that snatch ships from our world to that of the Quays put me in mind of nothing so much as those grab machines they have in seaside amusement parks. Meloy’s invention can’t be faulted, with some memorable scenes of mayhem vividly realised on the page as the Toyceivers fly their Outrage Contraptions, and who can forget such wonderfully named villains as the Flyblown Man and Nurse Melt. And, as a final incentive, for those with a dog fetish there is plenty here to make you feel vindicated in your support of man’s best friend. At the end we’re left thoroughly satisfied and at the same time aching for more, and more is what Meloy promises, with the warning that it’s all going off in Lakenheath.

IN THE BROKEN BIRDCAGE OF KATHLEEN FAIR (Alchemy Press eBook, 53pp, £1.03) is the latest work from the pen of Cate Gardner and, I believe, the first contender in a new line of novellas from Alchemy Press. When we meet her at the start of this story, the eponymous heroine is trapped inside a room filled with outsize furniture, including a birdcage so large that she can sleep inside it. She has no idea of what she’s doing there or memories of her past life, and she is convinced that somebody or something is observing her, studying her behaviour. All this changes when a mirror appears on the wall, one that allows egress to other realms. Kathleen enters the Perfume Emporium, where monstrous Frederick Schentenfreude III concocts his wares by stealing the scent of living beings. Our heroine determines to revive one of his victims, the boy Bobby for whom she conceives a sudden infatuation, but to do this she must convince Schentenfreude that she is romantically interested in him, deal with Bobby’s girlfriend Allyson, and visit Hell where the charismatic Gilbert Down also desires her.

I could make a case for Kathleen being an unborn child come resurrected soul, and in this scenario the story becomes a pre-natal fantasy, a journey of self-discovery and preparation for what is to come, with the room a womb which is too big for her at first but by the end of the story too small forcing Kathleen to leave its confines and travel down a corridor into the light. In support of this interpretation, with its echoes of Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum, at one point Gilbert informs Kathleen that she’s not even born yet. And there is something of the child about Kathleen in the way that she latches onto Bobby and determines to have him for herself regardless of his or anyone else’s feelings, and the way in which she is prepared to lie and cheat to forward this agenda. In part the story is a rite of passage for the character, a psycho-drama in which Kathleen overcomes her own selfishness and learns to be a better person.

I am of course grasping at straws and, to mix a metaphor or two, doing so with no idea of which particular straw might break the camel’s back of this narrative. Whatever the point or purpose of the story, it exists as a linear series of cause and effect events, a framework within which Gardner exercises that imaginative playfulness which is representative of her work at its best. She gives us larger than life characters, monsters and devils with something of the angelic about them. She presents a novel and compelling vision of hell, with a new variation or two on the idea of the demonic pact as a side dish. She writes about such marvellous things as a duel fought with balloons and a perfume created by stealing the essence of people. She shows us sympathy for the devil and crafts a beguiling fable, one that constantly delights with its verve and invention, and which will resonate in the reader’s mind long after the book has been closed and put away.

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Song for a Saturday – Ring Out Solstice Bells

I’m not quite festive yet, but definitely getting there.

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More filler content with yet more Australians

I don’t have time to blog at the moment, and so to stay with what appears to be this week’s theme, here are a couple of reviews of books by Australian authors that originally appeared in Interzone #242:-

TICONDEROGA PUBLICATIONS

Nominated for a World Fantasy Award, Australian writer Lisa L. Hannett’s collection BLUEGRASS SYMPHONY (TP pb, 258pp, $25AU) contains twelve stories and has an introduction by Ann Vandermeer. And, while much of the content is more appropriately labelled fantasy than horror, even those stories set in wholly invented realities have about them something of the horrific, so there’s no need for genre purists to believe this work isn’t for them.

Beautifully told, there’s a eulogy feel to opening story ‘Carousel’, with moths descending on the dead body of a girl in a barn, and the bulk of the story telling of how she got there, a tale of bullying and abuse, but with a last line that somewhat redeems that, offering us the option to believe, not so much in bad men, as in men (and women) who make bad choices. In ‘Down the Hollow’ a young woman is sacrificed to bring about a much needed thaw, but she isn’t the person others believe her to be, with terrible consequences ensuing for the one who loves her most. This is a ghost story, but at its heart is another tale, one that takes in guilt and the need to prove oneself worthy of a parent’s love, a tale permeated with sadness and in which the ghosts are our better selves, the whole played out against the backdrop of a cruel and judgemental society.

Next up is the brilliant ‘Them Little Shinin’ Things’, in which a mid-wife with designs on the husband of her charge consents to bring a changeling child into the house, only to find herself tricked by the twig-wife. Hannett captures the voice of her narrator perfectly, the self-justifying and hard done by tone, using it to drive the story to its powerful ending, offering a novel twist on the trope of the changeling and some truly macabre imagery as the story works its way into your consciousness and won’t let go. ‘Fur and Feathers’ is even further out there, with fortune telling chickens and a woman married to a were-fox, the story sounding ridiculous in the abstract but working wonderfully well and delighting with the conceits sprinkled throughout the text, at its core a tale of love well lost and found again.

‘From the Teeth of Strange Children’ was the longest and best story, told from the viewpoint of a young woman taken by vampires to be a brood mare, the narrative offering a new interpretation of vampires, one that gives a nod in the direction of the aristocratic archetype while allowing an almost unparalleled level of viciousness, the story compelling and with enough wet work to unsettle the most hardened fan of the subgenre. ‘Depot to Depot’ finds Hannett in a more reflective mode, with the sad tale of a trucker whose role, like that of Charon, is to escort the spirits of the dead to where they are supposed to be, the story throwing the reader a dummy and then gradually revealing its true intent.

And then there’s the witty and engaging ‘Commonplace Sacrifices’ in which a sprite or similar magic being helps a woman to get out of an abusive relationship, the story offering an insight into a magical world that is hidden from most of us, a glimpse of its rules and regulations, the inner workings. The dead body of the opening story is mirrored in the last, ‘Forever, Miss Tapekwa County’, with beauty contests in which the winner is pickled, the moment frozen in a horrific tableau that has the very opposite effect to that intended, the death of beauty rather than its celebration, a powerful and salutary end to a very strong collection, one that I unreservedly recommend.

BREAD AND CIRCUSES (TPpb, 268pp, $25AU) by Felicity Dowker has a similar blasé attitude to genre boundaries, while still serving up enough of the true grue to more than satisfy the horror demographic. Case in point, ‘Bread and Circuses’, which is set in a post-zombie apocalypse world, where the living survive in cemeteries, the one place the zombies won’t venture, and distraction is provided by a bloody game in which victims are sent out to confront the undead, with a lesbian couple being selected for bucking the community’s elite. The idea here doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible, but Dowker writes well, capturing perfectly the love between her two leads and the way in which they are ostracised, showing how prejudice and political manipulation will outlive us all in a powerful tale, so that universal themes overwhelm any objections as to the particular. Next up is the creepy ‘Jesse’s Gift’, which is to sacrifice himself for a friend when the two children are threatened by a demonic Ice Cream Man, the story unsettling for the hints it gives of the true nature of the world and the way in which the most innocent aspects of childhood are corrupted, but offering a core of hope at the personal level, indicating a means to redemption.

‘From Little Things…’ is a tale of revenge, put in motion when an unhappy man set in a hard place discovers a tiny dragon, the victim of a magician’s spell, and helps to set it free, the story both whimsical and entirely serious, with the tension between the two strands playing out to the advantage of both and the guilty delight of the reader. ‘Us, After the House Came Back’ is my favourite piece in the collection and one of the finest stories I’ve read so far this year. The idea is breathtakingly simple, a mysterious substitution along the lines of Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but we see this from the viewpoint of a child, the daughter of an abused mother, and the matter of fact narration makes the horror of what is happening all the more intense, with a coda to the tale that raises questions about morality and pragmatism, the story powerful and moving in a way that reminded me of Gary Braunbeck’s work.

‘To Wish on a Clockwork Heart’ is another highlight, Dowker taking a familiar plot device and twisting it through a full one eighty degrees to deliver a strikingly original tale, with protagonist Marc encountering a clockwork fairy, the wonderful Pendula, and feeding her on his blood in exchange for a wish, but of course there is a catch, the story gritty and violent even as it teeters on the edge of absurdity. In ‘Phantasy Moste Grotesk’, another story that made me think of Braunbeck, a self-absorbed, borderline masochistic couple are lured to a strange carnival, by way of an object lesson in self-discovery, the story disturbingly off kilter and with the suggestion that the ‘grotesk’ element is only a reflection of inner self. A boy thug, sentenced to community service at an old people’s home, encounters ‘The Blind Man’, a vampire of sorts who feeds on the eyes of his victims, the story cleverly showcasing the idea of the abuser and the abused who grows into that role model.

Forgetfulness is at the heart of ‘Nepenthe’, a savage story in which a woman who does not wish to feel asks to have her heart locked up by the Secret Squirrel, but then comes a blackly comedic twist, Dowker rendering the almost cartoon nature of what takes place in the darkest of tones to deliver a shocking revelation that undercuts what has gone before and turns the story into a sociopathic fable. ‘The Female of the Species is More Deadly Than the Male’ has a woman who was forced into an abortion given the chance to swap places with the man who put her through this, the story savage and soliciting both sympathy and glee at the appropriateness of the revenge meted out. Finally the feminism running through many of these stories moves centre stage in ‘The Emancipated Dance’, as lonely Penny stumbles across a community of women and joins their dance, the story celebrating the feminine principle and its transformative power.

These stories and six others, each with an individual afterword by the author, make for a showcase volume, and alongside Hannett’s collection it amply demonstrates that dark fiction down under is in good hands.

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Filler content with Australians – Part 3

Continuing on from Tuesday’s blog entry, three more reviews and the third part of a feature on the work of Australian writers and editors that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-

AUSTRALIA, MON HORREUR (continued)

THE BONE CHIME SONG AND OTHER STORIES (FableCroft Publishing paperback, 203pp, AU$19.95) contains thirteen stories by Joanne Anderton, another writer who deftly blurs the lines between horror, fantasy and science fiction, though as with Marillier horror isn’t the main dish brought to table.

Title story ‘The Bone Chime Song’ is a fantasy but with shades of horror, as a woman who works with bones is asked by her former lover to help solve some murders, with a fine undercurrent of emotion, the sense of a past between this man and woman, complementing the surface feeling of weirdness as we step through a world in which Necromancers enforce the law and blood sacrifice is part of the judicial system. ‘Mah Song’ is set in a world which is ruled by satellite computers who require human components to keep functioning, with a theocratic society organised in a way to supply them with this cannon fodder, until an ailing young man breaks all the rules in an attempt to be cured of what is killing him, and at the heart of the story, providing a human element in counterpoint to the overall sense of wonder, is the relationship between a sister and her brother, who is chosen to be the Mah Song. It’s a tale rich in detail and circumstantial invention, one where the reader at times can guess more than the characters.

There’s definitely a horror vibe going on in ‘Shadow of Drought’, something noted by protagonist Lou, as her friends are picked off one by one by mysterious black statues, the tension steadily growing as the plot unfolds, with the suggestion that the townspeople are complicit in their deaths, sacrificing their young for the sake of rain and crops, the story a powerful evocation of despair and playing knowingly on the tropes of the genre it so blithely references. Creatures fashioned out of bone by an artist come to life in ‘Sanaa’s Army’, helping their creator destroy a monster that preys on street children, the story obliquely told and revelling in the aura of sympathetic magic. There’s a Lovecraftian feel to ‘From the Dry Heart to The Sea’, as Damla who runs the ferry bears witness to the transformation of Town and its people, the story touching on themes of the outsider and intolerance, of trying to bend nature to our will or conforming to it.

Surreal and filled with grotesque imagery, ‘Always a Price’ features a cat that can use its claws to dig out illness in human beings, extracting cancerous tumours, the story deeply unsettling, like Lynch’s Eraserhead on speed. ‘Death Masque’ is another surreal fantasy, set in a strange reality where Henry seeks to wear a death mask in sympathy with his deceased son, the story a parable on the ways in which we deal with grief, but with the strangeness perhaps laid on a little too thick, so that it distracts from any emotional thrust of the narrative arc. In the dying world of ‘Flowers in the Shadow of the Garden’, great floating gardens circle the earth and people like Asfar harvest their bounty, but the city-states wish to possess these wonders for themselves, resulting in conflict until a mutual threat causes them to work together. This is a rich story, full of wonderful details, a sense of history and a world that is unravelling, but with a romantic subplot and also a lesson in co-operation as a way forward.

A Hunter and his apprentice follow the ‘Trail of Dead’ in pursuit of what they believe to be a necromancer, but something far more dangerous awaits them, the story shifting perspective and turning events on their head for an ending that merges action with a keen sense of loss. In ‘Fence Lines’ a family seek safety in a post-apocalyptic world by working on a sugar plantation, but there is a strange bargain made, a price that has to be met, with hints of sacrifice and transformation, a slowly burgeoning mood of unreality settling over the text as the narrative unfolds. Last story ‘Tied to the Waste’* has a tinker/witch who can restore dead things to life, but she is in thrall to her talent and appears to allow it to use her rather than the other way round, the story bittersweet and a bit too oblique for my liking. It left me wondering what the point of it all was.

Time for a novel I think, and so enter stage left THE BROKEN ONES (Anchor Books paperback, 368pp, $15.95) by Stephen M. Irwin, which is set in a time “not many years from now” and has one of the most audacious concepts I can recall seeing in some time.

The world changed on Gray Wednesday. The earth’s magnetic poles reversed themselves, causing chaos and an economic meltdown to make the banker induced flip of 2008 look like spare change lost down the back of a sofa. On a personal level, every person in the world now sees a ghost, somebody they knew in life and who was important to them, a change that is welcome and a comfort to some, but for many a source of torment, resulting in global madness and suicides on an unprecedented scale. Detective Oscar Mariani is part of the Nine-Ten Unit, charged with determining if crimes were in fact motivated by the urgings of the ghost, or simply human evil. His own ghost is a young boy, but he has no idea of the child’s connection to him. The game changes when Mariani gets involved in the murder of a young woman, a case that he is pressured to hand over to the regular police, and the trail leads him to an occult cabal, people who are ready to do anything to forward their agenda and for whom an honest police officer is simply a minor inconvenience.

I loved Irwin’s first novel The Darkening, and this baby is even better. The idea behind it, the setting in which the dead have returned, is vividly evoked, and a dazzling conceit. Irwin carefully works out all the ramifications of his backdrop and the responses that need to be made, so that his plot seems entirely plausible as police procedure. In Mariani we have the bluff honest cop of so much crime genre fiction, a man with a sense of integrity and refusal to compromise that costs him dear, in his past a failed marriage owing to the pressures of police work. He acts as he does, because only by staying true to himself can he function and hold his head up high. The other police characters are equally rounded, from the young and ambitious Neve de Rossa who sees her career as stalled thanks to her attachment to the Nine-Tens, through to the enigmatic Haig (an Australian Dudley Stone, regarding whom the jury is still out at the end of the book), Mariani’s supervising officer Moechtar, who appears to be sympathetic but with his hands tied, and his former partner Jon, a man whose star is on the rise. Then there are the two women at the heart of the story, the wealthy and powerful Ms Chaume, who seems fascinated by Mariani and wishes to bend him to her will, and streetwise Zoe, who doesn’t trust Mariani at first, but is persuaded to love him and place her own life in jeopardy. These are only some of the characters, with others that are just as fully drawn and memorable even though only peripheral to the action, such as serial killer Naville and Chaume’s factotum the ruthless Karl.

The plot is convoluted and engrossing, taking in serial killers and ritual sacrifice, with Mariani putting it all together piecemeal, each step along the way leading surely to the next and further vistas opening up before him. The supernatural scenes, with Mariani attacked by a demon and escaping to the other dimensional home of Erishkal are handled with a subtlety of approach and low key manner that makes them entirely convincing, while the presence of the young boy’s ghost strikes another note of mystery, one that is as unsettling as staring into his dead eyes.

The Broken Ones is a novel that is rich in detail and ideas, beautifully written and with a wealth of marvellous set pieces. I loved every page of it and can’t wait to see what Irwin produces next.

And so we face the final curtain, with MIDNIGHT AND MOONSHINE (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 319pp, £11.99), a collection of thirteen linked short stories or a mosaic novel (you decide) by the writing team of Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter. The common link here is the figure of Mymnir, the white raven who flees Ragnarok and tries to attain equality with the gods through her burgeoning power in the real world of Midgard, albeit one that is largely set in mythical times.

Opening story ‘Seeds’ tells of Mymnir’s escape in a long ship, her journey to an island kingdom, the failed pursuit of the black raven her brother, and how she seeded there the beginning of her empire, and woven in between all the magic of what is taking place is a picture of a black and vengeful deity, one who abuses her power. A tale of courtly intrigue in which two lovers attempt to thwart the Queen, ‘Burning Seaweed for Salt’ is remarkable for the keenly felt emotions, the detailed portrait of tyranny and the grotesque effects that litter the text.

In ‘The Morning is Wiser than the Evening’ the hapless hunter Magnus stays as a guest of the giant Surtr at his castle in the forest, but is turned against his host by the woman Blue Dove, the story like a fabulist blend of Bluebeard’s legend and Body Heat, all given a Nordic twist. ‘The Third Who Went With Us’ has Mymnir haunted by memories of the past, abandoning her island home and going in search of her brother Huginn, the story event packed and with a mythic quality that brings to mind other legends and belief systems. We learn more of the events in Surtr’s story in ‘To that Man, My Bitter Counsel’, told from the perspective of Ingrid, his former wife and now the mistress of Magnus, as he prepares to take Mymnir’s throne in her absence, the drama unfolding with all the casual brutality of a Greek tragedy.

‘Midnight’ moves the action forward in time and across to the New World, as French aristocrat Sophie disguises herself as a boy and goes in search of her lover Madeleine and legends of unearthly creatures, but what she finds is far more minatory in a tale that is convoluted, using letters and diary entries as well as direct description to forward the action. The shaman Delphine Laveau has to cope with the menace of Huginn, settled at the heart of a swamp in ‘Of the Demon and the Drum’ and negatively impacting on the surrounding reality, her guile serving far more than magic to compel the giant raven’s downfall, in a story that is rich in detail and with the ineffable feel of magic woven into the world, the voodoo deities showing kinship with their Norse brethren.

‘Bella Beaufort Goes to War’* brings us a later generation of the Laveau family, with two young women learning the magic arts and developing an unhealthy rivalry for the love of a feckless man, the tale rich in emotion and with magic warped to evil use in a beautifully written story, one in which the supernatural is just part and parcel of everyday life. The narrative carries forward into ‘Prohibition Blues’, with Bella’s children Maeve and Tallulah running afoul of her old nemesis Eugenia Laveau when they try to trade with the Faerie folk, the backdrop of gangsters and guns playing in counterpoint to the battle of magical forces, culminating in a lakeside standoff. Finally we have ‘Seven Sleepers’, with a mad Mymnir reviving the gods and believing she is to be their equal. The estranged Maeve and Tallulah must put aside their differences and join forces with other humans and faerie folk to avert Ragnarok, the story sizzling with action and a barrage of special effects that convince you the gods really have returned to this world, only for a final, damning line to show their lack of effect.

Hannett and Slatter have each written superb stories in their own right, but working in tandem they have reached new heights. Midnight and Moonshine is a brilliant book, a work rich in ideas and written in beautiful, evocative prose, with a sense of magic (and horror) as inextricably entwined with human existence. It’s a book that I think will reward repeat readings as you stumble across yet more links and allusions, and appreciation grows for what these authors have accomplished.

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Trailer Trash – Into the Woods

Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp do fairy stories in January 2015:-

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