Song for a Saturday – One of Us

I should have posted this last Saturday, but was otherwise occupied.

Prince with one of my favourite Joan Osborne songs, as I simply couldn’t decide which of his own songs to feature.

 

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Filler content courtesy of Virgin

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #7:-

TWO FROM VIRGIN

Teatro Grottesco (Virgin paperback, 280pp, £7.99) is a collection of short stories by Thomas Ligotti, an author who has been compared to Poe and Lovecraft. While he is the lineal descendant of both, a strand of despair permeates Ligotti’s work that makes HPL’s bleak vision of Great Old Ones and man’s unimportance seem unduly optimistic. A more fitting counterpart might be found in the philosophy of the Marquis De Sade, but whereas Sade’s perspective led him into excess and unrestrained hedonism for Ligotti even pleasure is insignificant. His work is nihilism given a voice, a black hole that swallows all meaning, but the paradox is that this nullity is couched in prose of the finest quality, a language that compels even as we register unease at the things it has to say.

Teatro Grottesco contains thirteen stories, divided into three sections, ‘Derangements’, ‘Deformations’ and ‘The Damaged and the Diseased’. All of the stories are told in the first person, with a voice that on occasion seems almost monotone, a matter of fact narration of grotesque events and the suggestion that really these are no more noteworthy than other events, those that we regard as everyday matters.

One representative story from each section then.

The narrator of ‘The Clown Puppet’ believes that everything is nonsense. He tells us this constantly, as if to convince himself. He (I am guessing at gender – Ligotti tells us nothing conclusive) does however experience occasional visits from a hideous clown puppet and gives an account of the most recent, which took place in a medicine shop, and this too is nonsense, only the clown puppet doesn’t come to visit him, but the owner of the shop, who disappears with it into a back room. The narrator never learns of the owner’s fate, but suspects that he may have encountered the entity that pulls the clown puppet’s strings. Like all of Ligotti’s work, this story is riddled with ambiguity. Is the deranged narrator simply imagining customers at the shop where he works as hideous clown puppets, a guise that sees people as both figures of fun and slightly sinister, and under the control of some unseen puppeteer? It’s one of several possible scenarios, and Ligotti does not commit himself. Instead he leaves the reader to decide, and of course one possibility, as the narrator would surely agree, is that it is all nonsense, with the measured prose and clown imagery of the piece an end in itself, the only meaning we can expect to procure.

While personal derangements are at the heart of stories in the first section, those in the second centre on the working life and the Quine Organization (Q. Org), a corporation that has grown to the point where its activities are indistinguishable from those of the state. The narrator of ‘Our Temporary Supervisor’ is an employee at a Q. Org factory, assembling metal pieces, but he has no idea of their purpose or eventual destination. Changes are brought in, as Q. Org is ‘always making adjustments and refinements in the way it does business’. The temporary supervisor is a monstrous figure, never seen except by the one employee who ventures into his office and disappears, later reported dead. New working practices are introduced. The production rate grows exponentially, the working day ever longer. The narrator tries to resign, but Q. Org is not currently accepting resignations. He leaves all the same, only to return because there is nothing else for him. It’s a hellish picture of pointless production, a Kafkaesque vision of human beings reduced to worker ants but with even less purpose or direction, and it ends on a yet more chilling note, the possibility that even death won’t end their servitude.

In the third section matters of aesthetics are addressed. In Ligotti’s scheme of things artists and writers, those who seek to fashion beauty and prise meaning from life, are indeed the ‘damaged and diseased’, and art a symptom of their condition. The ‘Teatro Grottesco’ is a sinister, shadowy organisation, invisible to the general populace and yet all powerful, reminiscent in many ways of Tristero in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Rumours abound about the Teatro, but nobody is quite sure what it does when it comes to a town. People engaged in the arts go missing for a period of time and when they resurface will say nothing of where they have been, but the pursuit of art is something they have put behind them. An encounter with the Teatro destroys the will to creativity. The narrator, a writer, invites the Teatro into his life by claiming to have already been approached and written his latest work about them. He succeeds in his aim but their intervention is nothing he could have imagined. It’s a story that has many of the familiar tropes of horror fiction (e.g. an organization that is out to ‘get’ people), but run through the blender of Ligotti’s imagination and what emerges is entirely unexpected, a grotesque street theatre, laced with surreal and bizarre imagery. The conclusion to be reached, if any, is that art can only exist in the service of anti-art, that any hope of greater things is doomed to failure.

Ligotti’s is a distinct and powerful voice. He is one of that small band of writers who seem so invested in their work and with a consistent vision, that you pause to wonder where the fiction ends and life begins.

The Perils & Dangers of This Night (Virgin paperback, 262pp, £7.99) is the fifth book out of the Virgin stable, and the first that isn’t a reprint of a title previously available from a small press. I’m not familiar with author Stephen Gregory’s past work, but he has an impressive pedigree, with an earlier novel that won the Somerset Maugham Award.

The setting for Perils is Foxwood Manor, an exclusive prep school in Dorset, where 12 year old Alan Scott is left in the care of headmaster Dr Kemp and his wheelchair bound wife one Christmas, while his feckless mother enjoys herself abroad. Kemp is fixated on bringing out Alan’s musical talent (the boy has perfect pitch), regardless of the holiday season. But then matters are thrown into confusion by the arrival of old boy Martin Pryce and his girlfriend Sophie. Their car apparently breaks down and, with Foxwood Manor snowed in, the couple invite themselves to stay, but Pryce has an agenda of his own.

This is a short book, but it packs a considerable punch, with not a single word wasted. Gregory effectively sets the mood in the first half, with his picture of the vast Manor house, all its winding corridors and endless rooms, set in an empty tract of countryside, far from any other habitation, and with the blanket of snow emphasising this isolation, so that Foxwood itself almost becomes a character in the story. The characters are perfectly drawn – Alan with his feelings of loss and abandonment, the tyrannical Dr Kemp, with hints that there is something more unsavoury than a mere bully about the schoolmaster, and his wife who acts as both peacemaker and foil for his bad moods. Into this volatile mix comes the wild card that is Martin Pryce. Suave and arrogant at first, a fun loving rebel who seeks to win Alan over and turn him against the Kemps, Pryce soon reveals a dark side to his nature, growing increasingly crazy as the book progresses, until nothing seems beyond him. Driven by a tragedy that occurred to his brother, also a Foxwood old boy, and which may be purely imaginary, nothing more than a justification for his own actions, the monstrous Pryce dominates the story. His transformation from borderline sane to outright psychopath is seamless, with no way to tell at what exact moment the line is crossed. Secrets from the past are revealed and schemes for revenge put in motion. There follows a tautly written and tense fight for survival, with escalating atrocities and changes of fortune, as Alan uses his superior knowledge of the school to advantage.

By using Alan as the narrator, or rather the adult Alan trying to get back inside the mind of the twelve year old, Gregory adds another frisson to the story. Everything is seen through a child’s eyes, with events such as sexual encounters, which an adult might take in his stride, given a more disturbing cast. The end result is a book that reads like somebody thought it would be a good idea to introduce the characters from If to the setting of The Devil’s Backbone (yes, there is a hint of the supernatural, but only a hint) and then get them to play out the plot of Die Hard. And yes, that does sound like a horrendous fix-up, but it works marvellously well, and the end result is one of the best examples of literary horror I can recall reading recently.

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Trailer Trash – The Conjuring 2

You just knew this had to happen, right?

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Filler content from Skillute

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-

SKILLUTE REVISITED

Back in Black Static #33 I reviewed S. P. Miskowski’s Shirley Jackson Award nominated novel Knock Knock and her follow up novella Delphine Dodd. Now here we are nearly two years and ten issues later, and it’s time to cast an appreciative eye over the two novellas that complete the Skillute cycle.

While Delphine Dodd was a prequel to the novel, ASTORIA (Omnium Gatherum pb/eBook, 112pp, $10.79/$3.28) overlaps and continues directly on from Knock Knock, opening with a recap of the events leading up to the funeral of Connie Sara, and told from the viewpoint of Ethel, who finds herself scared of her own child, terrified by the thought of what the girl might be capable of doing to her and others. After the funeral a distraught Ethel leaves Skillute, driving away with no goodbyes and no destination in mind. She takes on a new identity and finds a job housesitting in upmarket Astoria, but the man who hires her unexpectedly dumps his son on Ethel, spoiling the plans she has made for herself. There are other signs that not all is well with Ethel, that what is actually taking place happens only inside her head.

While characterisation is a vital component of all these books, it is in this one that it plays the most pivotal role, with the personality of Ethel placed under a microscope. Central to the story is the sense of guilt she has regarding Connie Sara, reeling from what she feels others may be thinking, sensing that they regard her as somehow culpable in what the child has done, that all of her evil is down to Ethel being a bad mother. This guilt follows her and makes any form of escape impossible, so that only fantasies remain as a viable alternative. In a telling moment, when asked what book she is reading, Ethel answers Frankenstein, the story of a man who made a monster, and it seems that she feels she is in a similar situation, that her child is equally unnatural and somehow this is her fault. Miskowski presents us with a compelling portrait of a woman’s dissolution, with happiness granted to her but proving short lived and illusory, and the ghosts of the past, particularly the boy she believes Connie Sara murdered, coming back to haunt her. A powerful performance, this is a nuanced and subtle work that shows Miskowski at her best and will reward many readings.

Which brings us to IN THE LIGHT (Omnium Gatherum pb/eBook, 110pp, $11.99/$3.06), the final volume in this trilogy of novellas. While Delphine Dodd preceded the events of Knock Knock and Astoria overlapped, this volume moves the story on, bringing us up to speed with what has happened to the characters and at the end offering closure of a kind. It’s told in three sections, each from the perspective of a different character, and lurking at the back of them all is the demonic entity that is Skillute’s monster in residence.

The first section is told from the viewpoint of Ruth, a child whose parents wish to buy the old Colquitt house where, we now learn, Marietta the psychically gifted engineer of Connie Sara’s death herself perished in a fire. Online Ruth learns of the house’s dark past and the murders that took place there, but while exploring the ruins she makes a grim discovery of her own. The second section is told from the viewpoint of Alicia, the wife of Marietta’s son Henry, mulling over past events in the moments before Ruth arrives at her door. In the third section Henry is trying to persuade local people not to oppose his plans to reopen the house as a shelter for the homeless, and also looking back at the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. His return home to Alicia is not a happy occasion.

This is a cleverly constructed tale, one that fills in the backdrop to the story and ties up some of the loose ends, as well as offering a different slant on some of what has gone before, all by way of setting us up for a final, showstopper of a confrontation. In her creation of the small town setting Miskowski is as good as ever at giving her work a solid foundation, the concerns of ordinary folk grounding the horror and making it seem all the more real. Ruth is the archetypal outsider, bullied by other children and “humoured” by her patronisingly right-on parents. She becomes a conduit for evil, even though she herself is innocent. And against this evil stands the bumbling Henry, a man who has turned his back on his supernatural heritage, his birth right, but nonetheless through his purity of intent and general goodness is fit to oppose the demonic entity that threatens them all. And that final confrontation crackles with power, the demon shown in all its hideousness, a creature that is not human but which seems all too recognisable, a coagulation of the worst traits to be found in our nature. Its utter disdain for life blazes off of the page, making this monster one of the most memorable of recent horror fiction. In the Light is a fitting final chapter to a work of great power and authority, and I can’t wait to see what Miskowski produces next.

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Song for a Saturday – IEYA

Been years since I thought about Toyah, though once upon a time I religiously bought all of her records.

She was a bit out there, as I recall.

I think she’s a celebrity chef or something similar nowadays, but then aren’t all the iconoclasts of our youth (the term is relative).

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Filler content with Bryant and May

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #6:-

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

Christopher Fowler is a writer with many strings to his bow. Black Static readers will know him from his Interference column, but that’s just the start. There are the short stories, ten volumes of them by now, beginning with 1984’s The Bureau of Lost Souls and ending with last year’s Stoker nominated Old Devil Moon, and there are the novels – Roof world, Spanky, Calabash and Breathe, to name just a few.

More recently with the Bryant & May Investigate series of novels Fowler has dipped a toe in the murky waters of the detective/mystery genre, though anyone who comes to these books expecting police procedural, cosy or hard boiled fare, simply doesn’t know Fowler. He is his own man and the spin he puts on these mystery novels is uniquely off the wall, as witness Full Dark House (2003), the first volume in the series, winning the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award for Best Novel, while its successor, The Water Room, was nominated for the, possibly more apposite, Crime Writers’ Association People’s Choice Dagger Award. Fowler is a writer whose work confounds expectation and defies categorisation, and in the world of niche marketing he is probably a PR man’s worst nightmare.

Bryant & May Investigate concern the doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a little known division of the police force that operates out of premises in Mornington Crescent and concerns itself with crimes that are simply too outré for the regular police to deal with, while at the same time fighting off attempts by the higher ups to shut their operation down. And if anybody is thinking The X-Files then it’s a fair cop, but written with a distinctly British sensibility, the spirit of Doyle’s great detective wafting through the narrative and a humour rooted in character that puts me in mind of Wodehouse. In lieu of the sexy Mulder and Scully we get the doggedly unsexy Arthur Bryant and John May, octogenarian detectives who know where all the bodies are buried and are simply too good at their jobs to be put out to graze just yet, one of them a ‘true believer’ of sorts and the other a sceptic who is coming around to the ‘more things in heaven and earth’ viewpoint.

We move from the general to the particular.

White Corridor (Bantam paperback, 366pp, £7.99) is the fifth book in the series, and it starts with Bryant persuading May to accompany him in a van to a Spiritualists’ Convention, only for the two of them to get stranded somewhere on Dartmoor when blizzards hit. Back at the PCU medical examiner Oswald Finch is found dead in his own morgue, and as the room was locked from the inside only somebody with access could have committed the crime, which means all PCU staff are suspects. With a royal visit imminent, Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright heads up the investigation, getting telephonic help from Bryant and May, who have problems of their own to cope with. A young woman and her son are being stalked by a serial killer who has trailed them all the way from France, and stuck in a vehicle amid the snowdrifts the pair are sitting ducks, with only Bryant and May on hand to save them. Only nothing here is quite what it seems.

In The Victoria Vanishes (Doubleday hardback, 333pp, £14.99) Bryant is walking home one night when he sees a woman enter an olde worlde style pub, and the next morning her dead body is found, but The Victoria Cross has vanished, much to Bryant’s dismay. On further investigation the detectives discover that several other women have died in mysterious circumstances after visiting public houses (though these establishments did not vanish). It appears a serial killer is preying on women in public houses, and thus striking a blow at the very heart of the British way of life. The detectives must catch the culprit before news gets out and panic grips the nation. But of course, there is a lot more to it than that.

From a plot point of view, these books are so delightfully convoluted that they remind me of another cherished British institution, The Avengers. There’s the same madcap, anything goes invention about them, with Fowler’s tongue firmly in his cheek, though he stops short of the wilder excesses of that much missed programme. At times verisimilitude begins to slip, but you carry on because you trust that Fowler is clever enough to make the most preposterous of plot twists seem thoroughly convincing in retrospect and tie up all the loose ends satisfactorily. He has a keen awareness of how much the reader will swallow, and often gives his stories a solid foundation in topical events, as with The Victoria Vanishes, whose resolution echoes a political scandal of a few years back. It’s almost as if Fowler is invoking the fact is stranger than fiction defence in advance of any criticism, and by doing so tapping into our love of conspiracy theories and fear of government culpability.

While I wouldn’t describe these books as primarily character driven they are certainly character enriched. There is in the interaction of Bryant and May a sense of genuine warmth and affection that stops short of sentimentality, an awareness of personal foibles and shortcomings, but laced with tolerance. Bryant is multi-faceted, a pagan, polymath and fount of esoteric wisdom, something of the anachronism about him, and also a bit overbearing at times, one might even say a bully, albeit of the most charming variety and always with his ‘victim’s’ benefit in mind, and at the heart of the man is a personal code of honour and integrity. May shares his partner’s code, but is the more pragmatic of the two, in some senses the sounding board for the other man, Watson to his Holmes, but never the mere sidekick such a comparison might imply. These two have worked together for a long time and it shows; they complement each other perfectly, in a relationship that is a marriage in all but name, as comfortable as old slippers, but each man with his secrets and private spaces, so that the relationship can go on growing.

Then there are the supporting cast, the members of the PCU, an assortment of square pegs who, after trying many a round hole, have finally washed up in a place where they belong and where their unique talents will be put to good use. There’s Raymond Land, ostensibly the chief of the unit but in reality only a figurehead for Bryant, a bureaucrat whose career aspirations have floundered on the rock of the PCU but slowly coming to realise his consolation prize is the real deal. There’s Janice Longbright, a sexy woman with a lot to prove, both to her colleagues and herself, and there’s cantankerous medical examiner Oswald Finch and his replacement, young Giles Kershaw, who needs to use his intuition more and proves himself by throwing out the rulebook. There’s Detective Constable Colin Bimsley, who has a thing for Detective Constable Meera Mangeshkar, and she is completely indifferent to him, and so you just know that given time not only are they going to get together, but it will probably end badly. There are all of these and others beside, each one of them a bird with broken or clipped wings, and being slowly but surely transformed by the paternal Bryant and May into soaring eagles.

Each book opens with a mocked up duty roster and, in the case of The Victoria Vanishes, a set of staff bulletins, a neat touch which enables Fowler to introduce his dramatis personae and at the same time set the gentle, comedic tone for much of what follows. In similar grace notes Fowler demonstrates his love for and knowledge of the city of London, with the oracular Bryant holding forth about its lesser known byways and history, and he also shows off his esoteric learning, with a miscellany of obscure occult and mythological information that takes us down intriguing backwaters. But of course the ‘facts’ he slots into the narrative as erudite window dressing could simply be incidental invention, and perhaps the real value for the reader is in not knowing, of allowing the conjuror the secrets of his trade.

A subplot of each book involves an attempt by those in power to shut down the PCU, and though I haven’t read them I get the impression this also happened in previous volumes, introducing an element of the formulaic into the mix, but if so Fowler remains unpredictable to the end. As The Victoria Vanishes shuffles offstage the PCU seems to have suffered a fait accompli, and though you know and hope that they can come back from this blow, there’s also the possibility that Fowler may have decided it’s time to move on and nothing can be taken for granted. Underlying both books is a feeling of nostalgia tainted with fatalism, a sense that the times they are a changing and all the babies are being thrown out with the bathwater, that the precious things, the virtues we hold dear, are constantly under threat, and the perilous existence of the PCU is a metaphor for that process of erosion.

So get these books now while you can, treasure them for their whimsicality and originality and invention, because just as there is a bureaucrat with a hard on for the residents of Mornington Crescent you can bet that somewhere out there is a marketing apparatchik with a business degree doing profit and loss studies on Bryant & May Investigate.

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Trailer Trash – Penny Dreadful Season 3

While everybody else is getting excited about the new season of Game of Thrones I’m watching and rather enjoying the very first season of this little beauty:-

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