Song for a Saturday – Sledgehammer

Time to crack some nuts.

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Filler content with themed anthologies – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s blog entry, here are a further four reviews to complete the feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #40:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

Edited by Alex Davis, X7 (KnightWatch Press pb, 87pp, £6.99) comes with the subtitle “a seven deadly sins anthology”, with a different writer dealing with each transgression.

Nicholas Royle kicks off with lust and ‘Dead End’, a subtle and beautifully written story in which the immediacy of sex is used by the protagonist as distraction activity, a way to keep at bay the nightmares of his past. Royle lays nothing out clearly, but that in its way makes the denouement all the more satisfying as we discover the horror nibbling away at the edges of the idyllic present shown to us. In Amelia Mangan’s ‘If I Were You’ envy is explored through the medium of a man who voyeuristically watches his estranged sister, emulating details of her life, the life he might have had if their parents hadn’t abandoned him, the story unsettling and creepy in the way it shows this obsession developing, but underneath that essentially a sad piece, a study of somebody who has been left bereft and finds an unusual way to grieve.

Gluttony and black comedy go hand in hand for the outrageous ‘Gravy Soup’, with the members of an elite eating club discovering a new delicacy, one that leads them not only into temptation but to death and worse. It’s a familiar theme, but author Simon Clark manages to write new changes to his bill of fear and satisfy the most jaded of appetites. Wrath is slipped off its leash courtesy of Alex Bell with ‘The Devil in Red’, in which a hired gun lawyer learns rather more than he wishes about the circumstances that led his latest client into prison accused of murdering his wife, the story a fine example of madness under control and the subgenre in which one man knows a truth others remain oblivious to.

The greed of the multinationals brings about ecological disaster on an unprecedented scale in Simon Bestwick’s ‘Stormcats’, with a man who was a PR guru for an oil company bearing witness to the deaths of his wife and child as the waters rise and the things that lurk in the water come in search of flesh. It’s a decent enough story, albeit perhaps a little too preachy for my liking, with Aaron as the stereotypical corporate bad guy, though I did like the way in which the monsters manifest as cats in the wake of the death of the family’s pet. In Gaie Sebold’s ‘Walls’, the relationship between proud Darren and enchanted Chrys has an undercurrent of abuse, the story deftly blindsiding the reader and then rearing up in all its manifest glory as the prisoner shakes off her chains and visits a fitting vengeance on her captor, complete with feminist subtext. Last, and to my mind least, we have ‘Seagull Island’ by Tom Fletcher, sloth personified by a man who simply lays down on a rock to die, or may already be dead hence his inability to move, the story evocative but nothing more than that, no extra oomph factor to make it work that much more.

NEW GHOST STORIES (The Fiction Desk pb, 168pp, £9.99), edited by Rob Newman, consists of the two winners and the ten best runners up in a ghost story competition organised by The Fiction Desk, a publisher with a greater mainstream sensibility than most who venture into these waters, and given that I’d expected quite a few grandmothers to be taught the art of egg sucking, but I’m happy to say that fear was misplaced and, while there might be some familiar themes on offer here, mostly they’re handled with ingenuity and freshness of intent.

Case in point, ‘At Glenn Dale’ by Julia Patt, a story concerned with the eponymous sanatorium, a ruin populated by ghosts, and it tells of what happens when two teen rivals decide to spend a night there as some sort of macho ritual, but the story behind the story concerns homo-eroticism and possibly murder which the ghost stuff covers up. It’s a clever piece and very well written, Most Haunted meets Happy Days, with the setting and characters perfectly realised on the page.  Eloise Shepherd’s ‘Journeyman’ has a ghost come into the house of a fading boxer and his two sons, though there is the suggestion that something else may be going on as well, seen in the way the boys seem scared and the way in which the protagonist is locked out of the house at the end after a display of temper. A ghost of sorts watches over ‘Tom’ in Oli Hadfield’s story, acting as parent in absentia or whatever the term is, while the boy’s own parents are messing up their lives, the story a eulogy for lost love and wasted opportunities, a condemnation of bullying and paean to young love.

‘Washout’ by Matthew Licht has two deadbeats inspired to turn their lives round when they encounter a corpse, the story written with a strong ear for dialogue, but not really going anywhere, so that the joy is in the journey rather than any destination. The problem of how to dispose of a dead parent’s ashes is treated with some humour in the droll ‘Half Mom’ by Jason Atkinson, but the story ends on a note that is one part despair, one part desperation and two parts hope as the ashes are dealt with and an unshakeable bond set in place. The protagonist of Amanda Mason’s ‘No Good Deed’ helps an old shopping trolley lady only to find that this act of kindness has invited a ghost into her life, one that simply won’t go away, the narrative entertainingly escalating through the danger levels until the woman is desperate enough to do practically anything to get free of her spectral burden.

A bird symbolises the ghost of a young boy’s mother who died in a fire in ‘Chalklands’ by Richard Smyth, and further tragedy ensues, the story not really going anywhere or giving a convincing explanation for what takes place. A woman is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband in the gentle ‘Old Ghosts’ by Ann Wahlman, his spirit lingering until she feels ready to move on with her life, the ghost perhaps a metaphor for the sense of loss, the way in which we aren’t quite ready to abandon past loves or have them abandon us. Linda Brucesmith presents an account of how Paganini rises from the grave to force a violinist to play his masterpiece, ‘The 25th Caprice’, the story written with a lush feel and a great final twist, the author having a lot of fun with her presentation of the idea, though to my mind slightly pushing the envelope as regards credibility.

‘A Whole Bloody Century’ by Jonathan Pinnock is an extended joke of sorts, a wry, humorous story that presents an entertaining diversion into the sort of territory Wilde or Benson might have explored, with tongue firmly in cheek. Miha Mazzini’s ‘In the Walls’ has a young woman connecting with an older man who enables her to hear the coughing of her dead child, the story eloquent and sad, the chill arising from the woman’s desperate need to connect with the son she has so tragically lost and with a novel twist in the idea of a haunting by proxy. Last of all is the prize winning ‘Guests’ by Joanne Rush, in which a woman whose husband is away doing surveillance work in Serbia is herself haunted by all the ghosts of the dead from that conflict, overrunning her house and making demands that eventually lead to disaster. It’s a bittersweet tale that blurs the line between the supernatural and obsession bordering on madness, a story infused with a sense of history and a yearning for justice, but with an underlying realisation that the latter is unlikely.

The latest anthology from editor D. F. Lewis aims to give us HORROR WITHOUT VICTIMS (Megazanthus Press pb, 269pp, £9.50), but I’d argue that some of the stories involve characters who don’t consider themselves to be victims, which isn’t quite the same thing. There are twenty five stories in total, more than the contents of any two other anthologies here combined, and they appear to be organised along the lines of a tenuous linking system that makes for an interesting reading experience, but on the downside has some of the weaker stories pushed to the end as a result so that the anthology winds down rather than explodes.

John Howard gets things off to a fine start with the elegiac ‘Embrace the Fall of Night’, a meditation of sorts on some ecological end of days and how mankind could or should respond, if at all, the theme of not being victims woven into the text. ‘The Horror’ by Gary McMahon is more conventional stuff, with Hilary drawn to an isolated cabin where the horror of the title is waiting for her. It’s a strange, atmospheric piece, with an almost Barkeresque feel to what happens, Hilary’s calmness and acceptance in counterpoint to the reader’s gathering sense of unease. In ‘Clouds’ by Eric Ian Steele a man’s reality is deconstructed, with the eponymous clouds swallowing the landmarks of his world, the story moving from an existential malaise bordering on madness to the final realisation that he himself is the destroyer and that this is a necessary step to the creation of a world more to his liking, solipsism as metaphor.

Alistair Rennie riffs on Michael Douglas film The Game in ‘The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation’, with a man in Turkey gifted an adventure of sorts, one in which his appreciation of life is enhanced, the story compelling with its beautifully realised sense of place and the mysterious chain of events, albeit I’m in two minds as to whether the ending is something of a damp squib or entirely appropriate. It may be both. The ‘Waiting Room’ is a sort of half-way house between this reality and something else in Aliya Whiteley’s story, a place people go to pass through the Red Door when they are ready, the idea of transformation at the heart of the narrative, and the need to be reconciled with our current existence before we can pass on, perfectly ordinary and everyday events playing off against the attraction of the unknown. Patricia Russo’s ‘For Ages and Ever’ presents us with a reality that is carefully regulated, society reinvented along the lines of some Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and a young girl determines to rescue people from the Red House at the centre of her community. What she discovers when she passes through its door is both terrifying and redemptive, raising questions as to the true nature of evil in this world, Russo finishing off her tale of hints and omens with just the right note of ambiguity.

One of my absolute favourites and among the best stories I’ve read so far this year, ‘Night in the Pink House’ by Charles Wilkinson is told from the perspective of a man employed as an interrogator by Mr Slater, owner of the eponymous desres. There’s the suggestion that the house itself is somehow sentient and possibly malign, while its owner delights in “musical” arrangements formulated out of screams. The amorality of the narrator and the restrained tone of voice in which he regales us with an account of off kilter events, combined with the collision of stiff upper lip value systems and something far more perverse make this into a superb story, and by way of a bonus it is set in my native Norfolk. A weird, almost Aickmanesque incident is described in ‘Point and Stick’ by Mark Patrick Lynch, as a man witnesses an act of transformation and ponders its backdrop, the story made all the more effective for the way in which nothing is explained.

The walls between the worlds wear thin in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘Lambeth North’, as three friends look back on the changing face of the city in which they live and one of them is gifted a vision of the past. The story is rich in nostalgia and captures perfectly the easy camaraderie of old friends with their shared cache of common experiences, a quality that makes the outré element feel ultra-realistic, a strange incident that is incorporated seamlessly into the everyday lives of these women. John Travis presents the attempts of a wealthy man suffering from illness to find ‘The Cure’ offered by a guru with an island retreat, the whole story hinging on a delightful play on words, nothing more than an extended and elaborate, but highly enjoyable joke, poking gentle fun at certain modes of spirituality along the way.

A woman travels to the country of her boyfriend in ‘We Do Things Differently Here’ by David Murphy, only to discover that in Efferentia certain things run backwards, including some biological functions, the story conceptually daring, with Murphy carefully working out the implications of this scenario, then bringing it all crashing down on the reader’s head in a moment of unbridled horror as the protagonist realises what is to happen to her. In DeAnna Knippling’s story ‘Lord of Pigs’ a young girl discovers the body of her uncle in among the pigs and has to release them so that the other members of her family won’t shoot the animals, the story strange and oblique in its implications, hinting at something ineffable lurking behind the façade of the events described, an aspect of the sacramental in the act of flesh consumption that takes place.

In his teen years James is offered a sexual experience ‘Like Nothing Else’, but it only spoils him for anything else in Christopher Morris’ strange story of abuse and rape, a piece that is as disturbing as it is surreal. Rog Pile’s ‘In the Earth’ has a couple who live near to a giant dump learn about the genius loci of the place and discover their role in caring for it, the setting and characters vividly realised, and with an environmental subtext woven into the narrative, one that finds the most miraculous of things in the least likely places. The protagonist of ‘Scree’ by Caleb Wilson seeks a place of safety and security in a constantly shifting landscape, a reality where everything is being sucked down into some gaping maw and all our hero can do is ride the tide. It is perhaps the most original and conceptually unique story in an anthology where such qualities are par for the course, but doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with that originality.

In Jeff Holland’s brief ‘In Dreams, You’re Mine’ a man confronts the thing that he fears most, a scarecrow in a field, only to find that the menace is impossible to pin down, that the thing that makes the figure so alarming is in fact a quality that he more or less discounts. There’s a novel ghost in Michael Sidman’s ‘The Yellow See-Through Baby’, the story told from the perspective of a young boy who is having incontinence issues, and externalises this fear in the form of the baby of the title, the story grounded in the reality of a very recognisable situation even as it injects outré elements into the plot. ‘The Boarding House’ by Kenneth C. Wickson features another ghost, one that is only hinted at and never actually seen by the story’s protagonist, though somebody who does see it gives evidence of something terrible, the story all the more disturbing for this lack of anything tangible, so that our minds conjure up something far worse from the information we are given. ‘The Callers’ by Tony Lovell marks a family reunion of sorts, with the daughter seeing the senility of her father foreshadowed in her own aural hallucinations and misunderstandings. It made me think of an Alan Bennett version of Saki’s story ‘The Open Window’.

Bob Lock brings down the curtain with ‘You In Your Small Corner, And I In Mine’, an engaging but rather slight piece in which a young girl vanquishes the creature that troubles her at night and reminds us that only two letters separate victim and victor. With stories by Mark Valentine, David V. Griffin, Katie Jones, L. R. Bonehill and Nick Jackson also between its covers, this is among the strongest anthologies published in 2013 and confirms Lewis’ standing as one of the most innovative editors currently working in the field of fantastic literature.

Lastly we have DARKFUSE #1 (DarkFuse eBook, 74pp, $3.49) edited by Shane Staley, the first issue in a regular anthology series from the American publisher, and the only book here without a theme. It opens with ‘She Sleeps in the Depths’ by William Meikle, the story of Fallon and Val, who both suffer from the same malady, hearing an ancient Scottish folk tune that leads them endlessly north to The Old Man of Hoy and whatever awaits beneath the waves. It’s a fascinating piece, with a deft build up and engaging characters, Meikle bringing alive the wild places in which his story is set, and if I have any reservation at all it’s that the ending seemed a tad anti-climactic, of the “and then they all lived happily ever after” variety with the problem vanquished far too easily after the build up.

From Michael Penkas we have ‘Better Heard and Not Seen’ in which Kevin is terrified by the monster in the closet, something so fearsome that even the ghost of a previous occupant of the house is scared by it, the story moving smoothly to a neat final twist in which Kevin’s abusive and disbelieving mother is gratifyingly hoist by her own petard, or something like that. William R. Eakin contributes ‘Carrion Fowl’, the tale of a new life form that preys on mankind, turning people into creatures like itself, and the protagonist of the story tries to reconnect with his transformed wife, the idea intriguing but with a narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere, only offers us a little savagery for its own sake.

Chandler crashes his car on an isolated patch of woodland and is trapped in the wreckage in ‘Jaws of Life’ by E. G. Smith, but the children who find him don’t seem in the least bit interested in bringing help and slowly, long after it’s occurred to the reader, it becomes obvious to Chandler that he has fallen into the clutches of a cannibal family, the story well executed but with nothing that genre fans won’t have seen at least a half dozen times before. In Gary McMahon’s story ‘Netherview’ is the name of a new housing estate that a couple visit on a day out, but when they get locked in after dark they discover that they are not the only occupants. This is typical McMahon, with Roy realising how much he loves Ria in his moment of testing and the threat of Netherview quietly and confidently laid out, the author relying on our imagination to fill in the gaps, while the open ending hits the spot just right.

Finally we have ‘Children of the Horned God’ by Christopher Fulbright, which begins with a car crash and the body of a woman taken by a horned being. Clay determines to either rescue or avenge his missing wife, but in his quest to find the truth he learns rather more than he might wish in a bleak story that hints at ancient rites of sacrifice, with a downbeat ending that seems slightly against the run of play but nonetheless eminently suitable.

That’s all folks!

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Trailer Trash – Final Girl

Little Miss Sunshine is all grown up.

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Filler content with themed anthologies – Part 1

Four reviews that originally appeared as part of a feature on themed anthologies in Black Static #40:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES

Conceived as an anthology of stories built round tropes popularised by Dennis Wheatley, such as devil worship and demonology, DEMONS AND DEVILRY (Hersham Horror Books pb, 180pp, £7) contains five stories in total, including work from both editor and publisher.

Peter Mark May’s ‘The Abhorrent Man’ concerns an organisation  that, like The Legacy in the Poltergeist TV series, has been set up to combat outbreaks of the supernatural, and this particular story takes founding member Stephen Marsden to Tunisia, there to confront a demon imprisoned in the ruins of Carthage. It’s probably the story that captures best the feel of its source material, with characters cut from the same English stiff upper lip mould as the Duc de Richlieu and company, regardless of actual ethnicity. It’s also the weakest story, with a plot that isn’t really all that interesting, just by the numbers, a prose style that is workmanlike at best and, at least in the PDF I was sent for review, some embarrassing typos, such as a soldier who is ‘pieced through the gut’ by a javelin, and continuing confusion about whether Carthage has been buried for two millennia or just two centuries.

Matters immediately pick up with the sinister ‘Little Devils’ by Thana Niveau, which is rather more like Fearsome Five meet The Blair Witch Project than Wheatley, but splendidly done, as a group of children stumble across a half built house, one that is not quite as empty as they believed. Niveau has great fun with the material, giving us a compelling picture of spoiled brat children and escalating tension with signs that something is seriously awry at this blighted residence, and a final twist that hints at a far more terrible fate for picked upon Pippa than any of us can imagine. John Llewellyn Probert is a writer who is always entertaining, and that’s particularly true of his delightful black comedy ‘The Devil In The Details’ in which a black magician’s attempts to secure a virgin sacrifice for his ritual keep coming undone, despite help from the kind of doctor you really don’t want to make house calls. The whole thing is rendered in a deliciously deadpan style, with such wonderful lines as “The virgin was delivered early that evening, along with an invoice” and a gleeful joy in the macabre visions pasted on the page, all culminating in a sting in the tail comeuppance for the protagonist, showing that evil doesn’t pay, or at least that it can always be outbid by a greater malevolence. Similar territory is explored in ‘The Scryer’ by David Williamson, which is almost as much fun as the Probert, with a Mr Kelly, who is in dire straits financially, inheriting a country mansion. Williamson plays a strong suit in characterisation, with Kelly and his distinctly down market family (they christened their daughter Kelly) playing off of each other in a Beverley Hillbillies gambit, and further comic relief courtesy of some butter wouldn’t melt, slightly condescending lawyers, but undercutting it all is a rather nifty tale of possession, with plenty of nice touches of detail and atmosphere, before Williamson pulls the blood stained rabbit out of the hat at the end, to applause all round, including from me.

Editor Stuart Young’s ‘Guardian Devil’ is the longest story in the book and the most ambitious I’ve seen from his pen in some time. Seeking support for their charitable endeavours, Becky and Sajid are lured to a strip club by a coven of financiers who have something else entirely on their minds. Hard choices are required of both characters, who by sacrificing themselves to protect the innocent manage to find a kind of redemption for their own past sins. Young doesn’t make it easy for either his characters or the reader, with Sajid revealed as a paedophile pimp in his past and Becky’s earthly body brutally raped while her psyche interacts with her assailant on a spiritual plane. The graphic nature of what is taking place, Young writing with a no holds barred sensibility, makes the story a distressing read at times and he comes close to being gratuitous and exploitative, but fortunately manages to stay just the right side of the line. The trippy aspects of the story, those events that take place on the astral plane, are handled with a visionary zeal, one that leaves the option open for the reader to interpret everything that happens as metaphor or symbol, with roots planted convincingly in kabbala magic and an underlying message about the need to forgive, ourselves and others. It was a fascinating and challenging read, one that will probably reward further scrutiny, though I have to admit I was a bit puzzled by the selection of Becky and Sajid, why they in particular were chosen for the ritual instead of those with more knowing attitudes. It’s something I felt Young needed to provide a bit more explication about.

Edited by S. P. Miskowski & Kate Jonez, LITTLE VISIBLE DELIGHT (Omnium Gatherum Media pb, 168pp, $13.99), invites contributors to explore their obsessions, “the irresistible, undeniably dark, potentially maddening, yet essential concept to which an author returns time and again”. The anthology contains eleven stories, including pieces by both editors, and each story has an afterword in which the authors discuss their obsessions.

Opening proceedings is Black Static columnist Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘The Receiver of Tales’, with fiction itself as a very obvious obsession for writerly folk, only here translated into a kind of vampirism, the story’s protagonist needing to hear the tales of others, they in turn conferring a kind of parasitic immortality, but also a terrible burden. It’s a concept fraught with subtext and metaphor, and Rucker wraps it all up in a compelling narrative, one that can simply be read at face value, the story of a woman who is either cursed or blessed with a condition for which there is no cure or resolution. Cory J. Herndon’s ‘Needs Must When the Devil Drives’ is the short story version of Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay as the man who financed the invention of time travel returns to live out his own life over and over again, each time trying to rectify the mistakes he made before, the story delighting with its invention and keeping the reader continually off balance as we get yet another variation on a theme, but underlying it all a genuine sense of tragedy, of a man haunted by his own existence.

In ‘A Thousand Stitches’ Kate Jonez presents the beautifully written and uplifting story of a sweatshop worker’s attempts to get out from under, but the final twist presents us with the possibility that either madness or the supernatural is involved, leaving the reader to decide, though neither can detract from the fact that Laura Beatty has saved herself, whatever crutch she needed to pick up to do so. The protagonist of ‘The Point’ by Johnny Worthen is obsessed with the end of the world, imprisoning himself in a fallout shelter and serving meals to his imaginary guests, people he has known in the past and whose conversation allows us to trace the development of his pathology. The moral of the story, obvious to everyone except the protagonist, is that he has in effect ended his own life by focusing everything on the imminent apocalypse and it’s a common enough theme, but seldom done as engagingly as here.

Blake, the protagonist of James Everington’s ‘Calligraphy’, discovers that words are written on his face, seared into the flesh of his body, the story developing along similar lines to The Scarlet Letter but using the device to offer a vision of the scapegoat, Blake accepting the sins of others, the overall effect one of surrealism and reality dysfunction, with a subtext rich in meaning. A mother who attempts to control her young daughter’s life invites trouble into the family circle in ‘This Many’ by S.P. Miskowski, when a birthday party takes a surprise turn. The story moves deftly from an account of somebody who is simply a bit overbearing, and possibly trying to recapture something of her own childhood, into far more sinister territory, the threat at first understated and ambiguous, then smashing down with the impact of a sledgehammer in a resolution that melds family life and urban myth to disturbing effect. One of the shorter pieces, ‘JP’ by Brent Michael Kelley is the account of a man so devoted to his dog that he will do anything to save the animal’s life, the story moving from calm to a horrifying crescendo of madness, murder and mutilation, and written with a tone of voice that solicits belief even as we realise how ludicrous and over the top this all is.

Mary Borsellino’s ‘Kestrel’ didn’t really work for me, the title coming from the name of the character, but made no more use of. Kestrel has both difficulty talking to others and cannot feel pain, but she overcomes these handicaps through the medium of writing a film script, at which point the whole story just becomes the delivery device for a glib punch line about pain and art. ‘An Unattributed Lyric, In Blood, On a Bathroom Wall’ by Ennis Drake feels like the most personal story, a meditation on death, rejection, and writer suicides that carries over from the story itself into the author’s notes on the story, breaking down the third wall. It’s a powerful piece, moving and at the same time disturbing for the hints of personal darkness planted in the text.

Probably the shortest story in the book, ‘Black Eyes Broken’ by Mercedes M. Yardley presents a pseudo-surreal account of a woman who seems fated to break everything in her life that she cares about, the story another one that didn’t quite work for me, a little too lacking in substance despite the evocative prose. Lastly we have ‘Bears: A Fairy Tale of 1958’ by Steve Duffy, which reinvents the fairy story as a parable on immigration and xenophobic prejudice, as a family of bears move into the neighbourhood and find that they do not fit in, resentment culminating in the hooliganism of Goldilocks trashing their house. It’s written with tongue set firmly in cheek and a skill for gonzo invention, but at the same time serious points are being made, the story just our spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It’s the perfect end to an interesting and strong collection, one that is remarkable for both the variety of material on offer and the consistency of quality throughout.

The theme of SPLATTERLANDS: REAWAKENING THE SPLATTERPUNK REVOLUTION (Grey Matter Press pb, 282pp, $15.99) is pretty clear from the title. Edited by Anthony Rivera & Sharon Lawson, this anthology looks for inspiration to the extreme and graphic horror of the splatterpunk movement, which peaked in the 90s and arguably laid the groundwork for torture porn cinema. It contains a traditional thirteen stories, and it’s safe to say that most of them are not for the squeamish.

Michael Laimo sets the tone with ‘Heirloom’, the story of Lucienne whose sexuality is intrexicably linked to the rifle that has been in her family for generations, the author exploring the origins of her fixation in a form of childhood abuse and then showing the way in which this seed has blossomed in her adult life, but despite Laimo’s best efforts it didn’t quite convince me, passing muster simply as a lively and well written atrocity show. Gregory L. Norris gives us a bargain basement Dexter with ‘Violence for Fun and Profit’ in which a man who has lost everything becomes a killer for hire, living off the map, but occasionally he’ll take out somebody who was really asking for it. On reflection the story could be called ‘The 1% Solution’ and, as far as that goes, while disapproving of his methods I found myself able to applaud his results in a tale that, depending on your point of view, is either a case of somebody overreacting or simply a matter of punishment fitting the crime.

A talentless but hugely successful musician finds that his natural gifts are enhanced by ‘Amputations in the Key of D’ in Jack Maddox’s story which explores the idea of suffering and handicaps to overcome as a goad to creativity, though not in a way that I found at all convincing. The only reprint, ‘Housesitting’ by Ray Garton was the most restrained piece on offer and definitely one of the best, as a woman who pries into the personal effects of her friend and neighbour discovers an ugly truth she would rather not know about but now can’t forget. Nothing bad happens as such, but the story chills with its revelation that we can never truly know the people we live beside, that the values we all claim to share are based on possibly false assumptions. By making the conflict one of an emotional and intellectual response, Garton gives us a situation we can all identify with and raises the tension in his narrative.

Gonzo invention comes to the fore in ‘Empty’ by A. A. Garrison, the story opening with the line “Shit and Cunt were husband and wife, named after famous saints”, and going further off the map with every additional page, as Cunt must travel back in time to kill author A. A. Garrison so that the Prophet will vomit in her slop bucket and she can refuel Shit. It was all somewhat ridiculous, but at the same time great fun, a black comedy with respect for no one and nothing except the demands of its over the top plotline. ‘Dis’ by Michele Garber plays its cards close to its chest, with a psychiatrist treating a woman who appears to be possessed by a demon, only there are problems in Tony’s life that make him prey to the creature, the story exploding in a display of revolting violence, and the reader left wondering if what we have witnessed is madness or satanic activity, the title signalling both the city of hell and dissociative personality types.

‘Dwellers’ by Paul M. Collrin has some nice effects in a story of transformation and apotheosis that doesn’t quite rise above the emptiness of the material. At the end of the day it is simply a series of impressions served up in fancy prose, like Barker running on empty, and doesn’t really go anywhere much. The singsong stream of consciousness lilt of Chad Stroup’s ‘Party Guests’ deftly builds a compelling picture of the personality of mentally challenged Geoffrey and slowly leads us to worry about these guests of his, the story a tour de force of inventive language, capturing what makes the character different and dangerous. There’s a killer on the road in ‘The Viscera of Worship’ by Allen Griffin, but murder here becomes a religious act, and the perpetrator too is open to the redemptive and transformative quality of violence, the narrative taking place at an oblique angle to modern life, coming from a place where more primal appetites need gratification than those of the 24/7 grind. It’s a tale of nullity, and on that level done extremely well, but ultimately doesn’t seem to have much to offer beyond a few atrocity scenes and hints of more going on behind the scenes.

A Viking raiding party find that their bloodlust is of little account in the great scheme of things evil, as they become ‘The Defiled’ at the hands of marsh-folk in Christine Morgan’s grimly gratifying tale of just desserts meted out to those who believe themselves innocent of anything other than acting according to their natures. A tale of the hunters become the hunted, abusers turned into the abused, it worked very well on that level. In ‘The Artist’ by James S. Dorr a chef with delusions of creativity wreaks an unlikely but inventive revenge on his cheating wife, in the sort of story Roald Dahl might have come up with, the matter of factness and underlying sadness of it all tinging the narrative with a note of bitterness. There’s a similar matter of fact quality to J. Michael Major’s ‘A Letter to My Ex’ in which a spurned husband spells out the nature of his revenge, but on this occasion I found it even harder to credit, even though the author addresses precisely the objections I had to the story. I guess the message the author is trying to put over, if any, is that people are often more evil than we are willing to believe them capable of, and that the need for payback completely destroys any sense of moral judgement.

Lastly we have the lively tale that is ‘Devil Rides Shotgun’ by Eric Del Carlo in which a police officer enlists supernatural help to resolve a series of brutal slayings, the story undercut with a delicious sense of humour and sparkling dialogue between detective and demon, so that despite the splatterpunk trimmings in the form of dead bodies on display it felt rather more like paranormal romance than what’s on the tin. No matter, as I found it highly entertaining and a nice, restrained note on which to bring down the curtain on this collection.

From an anthology whose roots are nourished by blood and bone meal to one that aspires to touch the night skies, the DARK HALL PRESS COSMIC HORROR ANTHOLOGY (Dark Hall Press pb, 136pp, $12.95), but shivers while doing so, and not just from the cold. It contains ten stories, most of them by writers I am encountering for the very first time, and the editor isn’t named.

There’s an early Ballard feel to opening story ‘The Yellow Dust’ by Oliver Smith, with the UK overcome by dust clouds and a couple living on inside an abandoned house as their world unravels around them, but look beyond the surface and Smith gifts us a subtext dealing with memory and grief, one that is personal as well as cosmic in scope. At heart the story is an elegy, for a life, for a way of life that is no longer sustainable. Lovecraft is the genius loci of ‘The Interview’ by James Pratt, with an alien informing mankind of the impending return of the Old Ones and offering to save a few choice humans, subject to terms and conditions as they say in all the best Ponzi schemes. There’s little that’s new here, with the usual subtext about the unimportance of human beings in the cosmic scheme of things, but it’s well told and with some engaging characters.

A man wakes from stasis sleep in ‘The Unknown’ by Tim Jeffreys to find the spacecraft has landed on an unknown world and the rest of the crew are missing. His attempts to discover their fate don’t particularly bring the narrative to life, but they do lead into an almost sublime ending, one in which the final twist seems to be at the expense of the reader. In ‘Night Terrors’ by Mike Pieloor a man accesses another reality when he sleeps and is pursued by malevolent Hunters, and a scientist wishing to help enters Ben’s Dreamscape. It reads like a cross between The Cell and Basil Copper’s story ‘The Janissaries’, and offering nothing, either in conception or in terms of execution, that they hadn’t done better. Darin Kennedy’s ‘The Eye of the Beholder’ has writer Patrick addressed by total strangers who impart cryptic messages. The premise caught my interest, but the ending is a little too weak for the build up, soliciting an indifferent shrug rather than anything more positive.

The protagonist of ‘Starstruck’ by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is an inmate at a mental hospital who meets a former film starlet and learns the reason for that woman’s own collapse from sanity, with the threat that she too will be gifted a similar clearness of sight into the true nature of reality, the story intriguing but not really delivering on its promise, all seeming a little too vague and first draft. Silas learns of the pact his father has made with a monster in ‘Goddess of Our Fathers’ by Josh Strnad, the story well written and engaging, with an agreeably hideous entity offering bribes as well as threats in its attempt to hang on to human servitors. Men building a railway line unwittingly unleash an ancient evil in the unremarkable and forgettable story of ‘The Events at Frenchman’s Creek’ by D. J. Tyrer.

One of the more effective pieces, ‘The Ceiling with No Hook’ by Johannes Pinter is an enigmatic and gratifyingly strange account of a painter/decorator lured to a house that feeds on him, the story all the more chilling for the lack of detail regarding why this is happening, what the point of it all is. Last but not least, in ‘A Drawing of the Sky, A Song of Change’ by Bear Weiter a shaman must destroy creatures that come from the stars to preserve the future of the human race, the story a mildly entertaining diversion into familiar territory, but with nothing to make it really stand out in the memory.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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Filler content with DarkFuse – Part 3

And following on from Thursday’s blog entry, here’s another five reviews and the final part of the feature on DarkFuse novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-

DARKFUSE NOVELLAS (continued)

Nicole Cushing’s I AM THE NEW GOD (DarkFuse eBook, 92pp, $3.49) deals with similar themes of godhood and identity, but in an entirely different manner. Greg Bryce is a student who suddenly starts to receive letters from a man who calls himself the hierophant telling him that he is the new god, his destiny to recreate the world after completing the steps of the sevenfold path. The hierophant is a defrocked priest who takes instruction from the severed head of John the Baptist, which he first encountered on a pole in a field. Greg has spent time at a place called Restful Meadows and is off his medication, so the idea of being a god definitely appeals to him. There follow various exploits, beginning with the creation of Hop-Frog and a difference of opinion with his Japanese roommate, resulting in the need to vacate the premises. And that’s just the start of Greg’s problems, because being a god isn’t the cushy job you’d expect it to be. There are all sorts of sacrifices that have to be made.

In case you haven’t guessed from my plot synopsis, this is an utterly bonkers story, with Cushing feeding on the delirium of her two lead characters, piling one unlikelihood on top of another as their complementary manias run completely out of control. The matter of fact style of the telling only makes it seem all the stranger, with various adjunct sections, such as a policeman phoning Greg’s mother, that add to the verisimilitude of the whole. Eventually and possibly post-mortem, we have Greg observing the beginning of a new cult, one that celebrates his godhood, and addressing the reader directly, telling us what he has done to the world and instructing us to worship him, at which point the fourth wall gets completely broken down, and for the reader the real question is, to paraphrase the great Hawkwind in one of their finest moments, “Has the world gone mad or is it Greg?” Either way, this is a marvellous piece of gonzo storytelling, like Dunsany on drugs.

Gonzo storytelling is a classification that could be applied with as much if not more justification to Eric Shapiro’s LOVE AND ZOMBIES (DarkFuse eBook, 75pp, $2.99). In the wake of an event known as Bright Thursday the world suffered a zombie outbreak which was contained by the military, but there is always the threat of a recurrence. Henry gets hit up by his oldest friend Sam Kranson to drive to Las Vegas and the desert beyond, there to find a female zombie to deliver to the Christopher family to take part in a business venture they plan. He’s not really happy with the arrangement, but accepts anyway as it will enable him to earn a lot of money, enough to wed girlfriend Teresa. Henry and Teresa have an unusual relationship, in that he can only have sex with her when they bring a stripper into the equation. Naturally when they get out in the desert things go seriously awry, not least because Sam is an arsehole of the first rank, and poor Henry has to tackle zombies, mobsters, the police and a disgruntled girlfriend.

Yep, this is most definitely gonzo storytelling, with a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, some over the top characters, plenty of gun toting/zombie shooting action, and a wealth of unlikely coincidences, such as Henry just happening to know the inventor of the zombie cure (they work at the same pizza place). It’s written in a slightly breathless style, with Henry addressing the reader directly and at times resorting to such things as compiling lists of events that happened in the past, or undermining the plot by telling people what he should do and then acting in exactly the opposite way. And then there is the whole thing with strippers, which seems to have been added simply for gratuitous thrills, and does nothing whatever to forward the action, but does mean some more interesting characters can be introduced into this helter skelter of a storyline. It all sounds like a mess and really shouldn’t work, but it does and entertainingly well. You just have to hold your breath when things go way over the top and release at the moments when they calm down again. I loved it, craziness and all.

When Henry and Sam were out in the desert I hope they kept an eye out for Emily, the protagonist of CEREMONY OF FLIES (DarkFuse eBook, 96pp, $2.99) by Kate Jonez. Emily accidentally kills a man in Las Vegas and goes on the run with a stranger in a car, only once you’ve killed one man it comes easy and before you can say abracadabra Emily (who sometimes goes by the name Kitty) is shooting anyone who looks at her wrong. Next up is the boy who keeps appearing and who they decide to adopt and call Harvey for no particular reason. At an isolated Spanish Mission in the desert they encounter nuns and a priest who has his own ideas about taking care of the boy, which has Emily waving her weapon again. And then there’s the Mayan apocalypse and a motorcycle gang of four, riders who may have traded in horses for horsepower. Intercut with all of this are infodump slices giving us the back story on the places the characters visit, the car they drive, the Mayan calendar etc.

I’ve mixed feelings about all this. The writing zings, grabbing you in the opening sections when Emily tells it like it is, but the longer the story goes on the less novel it seems. The overall effect is one of surrealism cranked up to the max, like a peyote dream of the end of days made into a David Lynch film. The characters didn’t grab me though, seeming to lack any real depth, just be shadows acting out the author’s script and with little sense of who they really are (e.g. Emily’s transformation from remorseful killer to ruthless gun girl didn’t quite ring true), their actions simply poses they adopt for the duration, with the fluidity of nomenclature hinting at this superficiality. I liked the infodumps; they didn’t really add anything to the story, but were an engaging attempt to do things differently, and made me think of Tom Robbins’ work. Doing things differently is what this book is all about, or that’s how it feels to me. Overall I don’t know if I enjoyed it or not, though I’m leaning towards not, but it certainly was a trip I’ll remember.

WHEN WE FALL (DarkFuse eBook, 84pp, $3.49) is my first encounter with the work of Peter Giglio, but hopefully won’t be the last. Thirteen year old Ben Brendel is going through hard times, following the death of his best friend Johnny and worst enemy Ryan. He finds consolation in the company of Aubrey, the seventeen year old daughter of family friend Roy Rose, who shares his love of making 8mm movies, and even though he knows it’s unwise Ben starts to have feelings for her that aren’t strictly to do with friendship. But Aubrey is having problems of her own, after the failure of her relationship with jock Craig, and Ben begins to see the ghosts of both Johnny and Ryan, one insulting him and the other asking for help. It all ties together in ways he can’t know and when his world falls apart Ben has to find a way to do the right thing, for the sake of both the living and the dead.

This is a powerful coming of age story set against the backdrop of small town America in the 1980s, a milieu that author Giglio brings to vivid life, with the characters arguing about Reagan, troubled by the spectre of Nam and indulging in Star Wars nostalgia. The heart of the novella has to do with Ben’s journey of self-discovery, his having to come to terms with Johnny’s death and forgiving himself for surviving, while at the same time learning to let go of the bad things in his past. His situation is mirrored in that of Aubrey, who is dealing with similar feelings of guilt and remorse, though for entirely different reasons, and the tragedy of the book is that she can’t follow the advice she gives to Ben.

The two characters are opposite sides of the same coin, with Giglio getting under their skin to reveal the terrible things they have to cope with. This is Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois, moved on thirty years and seen through a glass darkly, and although there are supernatural grace notes, as with Ryan’s ghost, the real thrust of the narrative has to do with human fallibility. It is a pitch perfect rendition of teenage angst, the trials and tribulations of young love and learning to accept what you cannot change. There is wisdom in Giglio’s words, and for a Ben a lesson that is hard won.

While he doesn’t seem as preoccupied with sexual matters and the use of horny teenagers as protagonists, the writer Tim Curran most reminds me of is Richard Laymon. His philosophy seems to be why sod about with spectral effects and the like when you can go straight for the jugular with a bloody big butcher knife.

Case in point SOW (DarkFuse eBook, 92pp, $2.99) in which Richard is afraid that his pregnant wife Holly has been possessed, after they visited an abandoned farm with its dilapidated piggery. To everyone else she appears normal, the Hallmark picture of an expectant mother glowing with health, but to Richard she has been replaced by a vile, foul mouthed hag, and the only person she will allow to attend her is Mrs Crouch, a midwife who Richard fears is the reincarnation of a four hundred year dead witch. All his attempts to expose the truth come undone, until finally Richard can only return to the piggery for a final confrontation with a monstrous sow, an archetypal creature that has a plan for us all.

With echoes in the plot of The Omen and The Exorcist, plus Ligotti’s Great Black Swine, in other hands this might have played out as a clever psychological drama, but Curran is his own man, and from the very first we know that Richard is not hallucinating, that this terrible possession is a matter of reality, something against which he must fight, however futile it seems. And so instead of psychology we get pure schlock horror, with one repellent vision after another on the page as Richard grows increasingly desperate, culminating in an image of bleakness and defeat that is truly unsettling. The book is a tour de force of grotesque invention, piling one gruesome vision on top of another, taking the cherished ideal of motherhood and twisting it into something abhorrent, and while Curran provides a coherent and compelling storyline, you suspect that his plot is just a pretext for this gleeful atrocity show and tell. Sow won’t be for everyone, and you should avoid it like the plague if your sensibilities lie only in the Jamesian end of the horror spectrum. Me, I like a bit of gore on occasion, to wallow in excess when it’s done well and not simply gratuitous, and this is a splendid example of the type. Splatterpunks, eat your hearts out.

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Song for a Friday – Shiny Happy People

Yes, song for a Friday.

Deal with it.

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Filler content with DarkFuse – Part 2

And following on from Tuesday’s blog entry, here’s another five reviews and the second part of the feature on DarkFuse novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-

DARKFUSE NOVELLAS (continued)

From Castell Community College, with its shadowy corridors and unwanted guests, we neatly segue into reviewing a haunted house story or three.

In SHATTERED (DarkFuse eBook, 95pp, $2.99) by C. S. Kane, Stacey Sheldon and her fiancé Liam move into a flat in an old building on Claremont Street, the only place where they can afford the rent. From the very start she senses that something is wrong. Claremont Street has a reputation for housing sex offenders and junior arsonists, there’s fungus clinging to the walls in the bathroom and the central heating doesn’t work. Things escalate, with Stacey having nightmares and hallucinating, all of which causes problems with an at first sympathetic Liam, and those problems will continue until, with the help of a convenient infodump from an elderly neighbour, Stacey can get to the bottom of what went on in the flat many years before.

So far, so ordinary. This has all the usual trappings of the ghost story form, bringing nothing new to the table. It’s done well, with the best part being how author C. S. Kane brings Stacey and Liam, along with the other characters, to life on the page. Their relationship, with its ups and downs, has the feel of something genuine about it, as do Stacey’s interactions with other people, particularly at the local shop where she finds employment, As far as the supernatural aspects of the tale go, it really doesn’t cut the mustard, with a barrage of familiar effects and jump moments of the sort you can find in any low budget horror movie and a clichéd prime mover courtesy of Nasty Spooks R’Us. I enjoyed it in a pass the time sort of way, but didn’t feel that my time couldn’t have been better spent. The author has talent, but needs better material.

I was similarly underwhelmed by Lisa von Biela’s ASH AND BONE (DarkFuse eBook, 64pp, $3.49), in which career criminal Eileen Maroni purchases the rundown Harbor Hotel in the town of Cromwell Bay and sets about becoming an honest woman, but there’s something odd about the place, especially room #8 which creeps out even her dog Beau and guests report that the room is “wrong”. Eileen discovers that the hotel has been built on the site of a sawmill that burnt down with considerable loss of life. Then second rate reporter Frank Foster spends a night in #8 and has vivid dreams of the fire, ones that seem so real he feels compelled to get to the bottom of what is going on.

You can probably guess the rest.

Once again this is pretty much your bog standard haunted house story, with all the familiar tropes brought into play; the kind of thing that might pass muster as a filler episode of Poltergeist: The Legacy or something similar. It all feels slightly contrived and has about it a going through the motions quality. Author Lisa von Biela has little to offer in the way of originality and, while there’s nothing here to give a reader pause, there’s nothing that will cause clammy hands or heart palpitations either (exaggeration for dramatic effect). It’s a simple story, simply told, and that’s all there is to it I’m afraid. If you want something special in the spectral stakes, then you need to look elsewhere.

Third time lucky perhaps, with ELDERWOOD MANOR (DarkFuse eBook, 46pp, $2.99) by the writing team of Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes. Down on his luck, Bruce returns with son Cody to the family home to visit one last time with his dying mother, at her behest. But his mother has already passed on and there are hints it was not a natural death. Father and son are trapped by the snow in isolated Elderwood Manor, of which Bruce has unhappy memories and always found a little strange. The building is as off kilter and minatory as ever. Built by the founder of a fertility cult, the ground soaked with the blood of women and their children, Elderwood is now home to a vegetable entity that wants to feast on Cody’s lifeblood, something Bruce must prevent at all cost.

This is an example of that estimable subgenre of a subgenre, the haunted (stately) house story, with all the usual tropes you’d expect – a vast, rundown house with a chequered history, a child in peril, snow as a means to cut the characters off from civilisation, grace notes at the end which doff their cap in the direction of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. At times it feels as if the authors had a shopping list of the usual ingredients with which to prepare their feast, but despite all this Hawkes and Fulbright just about manage to pull it off, thanks in the main to some striking touches of originality, such as the tree entity and the ceremony in the sub-sub-basement, and the imagery of dead women is put to effective use. It engendered a shudder or two, and I enjoyed it rather more than not, even while noting the formulaic elements.

We’re still stuck out in the wild for DEAD FIVE’S PASS (DarkFuse eBook, 106pp, $3.99) by Colin F. Barnes. The trouble begins with a badly injured girl who is talking gibberish in a sick room and scrawling arcane symbols on the wall in shit and blood. Her boyfriend is missing up the side of a mountain, and a gang of four other teenagers are about to get in a whole mess of trouble as they search for a newly discovered cave. It sounds like a job for mountain rescue, but Carise and Marcel have a history and issues that need addressing (her alcoholism; his relationship with another woman; the dead person in their shared past), and it takes the intrusion of Cthulhu’s little brother to bring them together again.

This is a pretty straightforward action piece that owes more to the monster mayhem end of the horror spectrum than the creepy side, potential sfx extravaganzas served up in lieu of atmosphere. It’s entertaining enough with well-drawn characters and an intriguing scenario. Initially a bit like Michael McBride’s 2012 DarkFuse novella Snowblind with the plight of the four climbers, it segues off into something far more ambitious, with the revelation of a cult at work and its attempts to summon an Old One through blood sacrifice. And from that point on, it’s a matter of destroying the monster by any means possible and preventing the people who conjured it up from doing any more harm, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if and how Marcel and Carise take care of business. There’s a fair bit of variety in the nature of the menace, with plenty of scenes of schlock horror, suggesting the book was written with one eye on cinema options, and yes, I think it would make a good film, or perhaps even a TV series along the lines of Supernatural in light of hints that Barnes may wish to develop the scenario some more.

I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like, but from what I have seen I think of Brian Hodge as a writer who produces stories that involve hard choices, both for his characters and for the reader by inference. That’s certainly true of his brilliant novella WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY (DarkFuse eBook, 76pp, $2.99), which has deservedly been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award.

The aptly named Damien has horrific memories of events in his childhood, things so terrible that he isn’t entirely sure they actually took place. Then his brother Cameron turns up with news that their abusive mother is dead of pancreatic cancer, and asks him to go with him to visit a warehouse where he is keeping a secret, but Damien finds something terrible waiting for him. He sets out to learn what he can of the past, his mother’s time as a nun, her involvement with the Fifth Way and The Starry Road, and comes to an understanding of what she was trying to accomplish through her actions, a discovery that has serious implications for both Damien himself and the entire human race.

Lovecraftian in emphasis, but with an X-Files impetus in the idea of crossing human and alien DNA, this is a story that teases our sense of wonder and yet has more than enough wet work to satisfy the most jaded horror fan. It is a truly dazzling feat of invention, with Hodge cleverly seguing from atrocity show to a feeling of cosmic of awe. Damien’s work as a scientist and his affair with exotic dancer Ashleigh, make him an engaging and genuinely likable character, while the horror story of his life plays out on the page in the most shocking manner, with one revelation coming hard on the heels of another as he pieces together the back story of his mother. The sublime collides here with the overtly horrific, and each is reinforced by the other to the betterment of the work as a whole. Hodge is a writer who uses horror to a greater end, and this is a striking example of his craft.

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