OR: Hungry Hearts

Following on from Tuesday’s blog entry, here’s the second part of a feature on the work of Gary McMahon that originally appeared in Black Static #14:-


Hungry Hearts (Abaddon paperback, 311pp, £6.99) is the latest in the ongoing ‘Tomes of the Dead’ series, and sees McMahon stretching his wings at novel length and tackling one of the horror genre’s famous monsters, the zombie. It is arguably a more plot/action driven piece than the novellas in Different Skins, but no less well written and with serious themes underlying the surface spills and thrills. The last ‘Tome’ I reviewed had more than its fair share of typos, but I’m happy to report that was only a blip and Abaddon are back up to standard, with only a few mistakes in this volume, and nothing to cast a pall over the reading experience. McMahon’s writing has also benefited greatly from professional editing, with none of awkward phrasing that occurred in the Screaming Dreams book (but may not have transferred to the reprint).

Rick Nutman is a rookie policeman and former member of the armed services, who finds himself on the front line when the city of Leeds erupts in violence. The truth, which the authorities are finding it hard to factor into their planning, is that the zombie apocalypse is here: Nutman and his comrades are fighting the living dead. As their task becomes ever more hopeless he decides to abandon his post and return home to protect his wife Sally. For Daryl the apocalypse is an opportunity to become the ruthless killer he has always known himself to be and so, after meting out some tough love come rough justice to his domineering mother, Daryl goes in search of the woman he has stalked for weeks, Sally Nutman. Returning home to find his wife now a zombie, Rick does the best he can to make Sally harmless, believing that somehow a cure can be found. He knocks out her teeth, stuffs her mouth, binds her arms and sedates her, then sets out to escape the confines of the doomed city. Meanwhile Daryl has reached the conclusion that if killing Sally Nutman the once was not as satisfying as he expected, the only option is to do it again. He sets out on the trail of Rick and Sally, growing in confidence and becoming more ruthless with every step of the journey. The three travel north in search of a fabled island, a place of sanctuary where perhaps a cure for the zombie plague awaits and the final scenes of the drama can be played out.

There’s lots here that seems familiar. For starters, the title comes from a Springsteen song. For seconds, it’s a zombie story and so references to Romero’s oeuvre abound – a besieged shopping mall seen in the distance (Dawn of the Dead), vigilantes who torment zombies before killing them and Daryl’s efforts at capturing his exploits on camcorder (Diary of the Dead) etc. I also caught, in the opening scenes of police action in a tower block, what I believe is an allusion to an earlier McMahon story, ‘State of the Estate’. And then there are some of Rick’s police colleagues who have monikers like Finch and, ahem, Tennant (I’m not going to hazard a guess as to where Nutman* got his name from). These are details that give the reader in the know a tiny thrill of recognition, without in any way detracting from the enjoyment for those not steeped in zombie cinema, small press history or Gary McMahon’s back catalogue.

The one weak spot is Daryl, who at times lumbers perilously close to the land of cliché, given his mummy dear motivation and conscious decision to become a killer simply because he can, with the subsequent determination to off Sally for a second time because he wants to be a trailblazer of sorts. Daryl comes over as somebody who has perhaps watched too much reality TV and is an uncomfortable reminder of the sometimes melodramatic past of horror fiction when silk hatted fops roamed free, doing unspeakable things and twirling their moustaches while muttering about how it’s all down to them being evil (pronounced with a lisp). But if McMahon fails to make the character completely convincing, he also stops short of rendering him risible, and as the book progresses Daryl steadily grows into the role of serial killer, so that by the end it is possible to accept him on his own terms even if doubts remain about how we got to this point.

That objection aside, McMahon has a lot of fun with the tropes of the zombie sub-genre. There’s plenty of excitement to the story as the various parties pursue their own agendas, with the action coming thick and fast from the off and seldom letting up. The opening scenes are especially compelling, with police resources stretched to breaking point and the authorities left wrong footed and helpless by both the scale and nature of the catastrophe. The camaraderie and loyalty of men in uniform is tested to destruction, with the realisation that sometimes nothing can be done, and all that remains is to protect those you care about as best you can, and drag whatever can be saved from the wreckage. The explanation for the zombie apocalypse is satisfyingly vague, – as diffuse and intangible as global warming or economic meltdown – meaning that it can’t be dismissed on any logical or scientific grounds. Daryl aside, the characters are well drawn and believable, even such minor ones as the old man and young girl who help Rick with his quest.

A case could be made for regarding the zombie apocalypse as simply the background for a love triangle, with Sally as the bone over which two alpha males tussle. Rick is the antithesis of Daryl – a family man, a useful member of society, someone who has sacrificed for others. But he is also a man who is seriously in denial, someone who refuses to accept that his great love affair is over, who will do literally anything to keep the dream alive, including endangering others and, in what is perhaps the book’s most squirm inducing moment, a spot of recreational necrophilia. Rick is, in his own way, just as insane as Daryl, only more convincingly so. His actions seem entirely reasonable to him, and at times it’s hard for the reader not to wear the same shoes and wonder where personal lines would get crossed. That Rick eventually works through his issues and finds peace is the whole thrust of the narrative. The subtext of the book seems to be that no matter how bad things become some feelings and concerns endure, even if they sail off into largely uncharted water and don’t manifest in ways that get the rubber stamp approval of polite society.

*Now I’m going to hazard a guess that it came from author Philip Nutman, something I didn’t twig to when I first wrote this review.

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Trailer Trash – Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I’ve never played the game, though I have dim memories of watching one of the films. Maybe I’ll watch this too.

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OR: Different Skins

The first part of a feature on the work of Gary McMahon that originally appeared in a somewhat different form in Black Static #14:-


I read Gary McMahon’s first story ‘Neighbours’ in the taboo breaking 90s horror magazine that was Nasty Piece of Work, and I’ve read much of what he’s produced since, going from short stories in obscure and largely forgotten publications through to books from independent presses, and now he has a novel from out from Abaddon that, to use a clichéd phrase, is available in any good bookshop. McMahon is at that point in his career where he’s straddling the great divide between the world of the talented amateur and that of a professional writer, with one foot planted firmly in the small press and a toe of the other dipped tentatively in the waters of the mainstream. It remains to be seen if he’ll go on to the better things his talent merits, like others before him such as Tim Lebbon and Simon Clark, or fade and fall back into obscurity. Life lessons from the genre of horror – nothing is certain, and the good guys and girls don’t always get what they deserve.

Different Skins (Screaming Dreams paperback, 115pp, £7.99) has an introduction by Tim Lebbon and contains two novellas, a form that seems to hold a compelling attraction for McMahon. It also has an unfortunate choice or two of words in the text and quite a few typos, including one that will probably come back to haunt the author in later years like the porn tapes made by some serious actors and actresses in their youth (‘…through which oozes the rancid puss of society’ – sorry Gary, but it’s too funny not to share). I’m told that these are the result of an oversight prior to printing and that they will be corrected in the next edition, so if you have a copy and don’t see any errors then that will be why.

Errors and all joking aside, these are two very powerful and emotionally grounded works of fiction. Opening novella ‘Even the Dead Die’ is the story of the self-named Mike Angelo, a man whose life course was set in stone by the rape of his sister and her subsequent incarceration in an asylum, an event for which he holds himself in part responsible, because he failed to ‘deal with’ her attacker, leaving the law to take its course. When Jen dies Mike is plunged into an even deeper depression, but at the same time it’s a moment of almost epiphany, a key that unlocks reality and enables him to see the world in an entirely different way. The novella’s mantra, courtesy of The Specials, is ‘This town is coming like a ghost town’. The city of London is populated by spirits of the dead, though they are seldom entities to be feared; just another tribe of street people or the homeless, registering only subliminally, if at all, with the living. Mike’s eyes are opened to this, and with Sheena as his guide he ventures further into this newly revealed underworld, learning of his sister’s terrible fate, forced to work as a sex slave in a specialist brothel by the ghost of the man who raped her in life, so that even death doesn’t bring an end to her suffering, and as a result finding a way to redeem his own past behaviour.

The story has about it the feel of a series in the making, with Mike Angelo ready to step up and become the new John Constantine, and a unique and fascinating backdrop that offers almost limitless opportunity for plot development. It’s also a story with obvious forerunners, each scene bringing to mind past exemplars – a spectral visitation that is straight out of The Eye (the film McMahon names as his initial inspiration for the novella), a trek to a disused underground station that’s reminiscent of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, fallen angels with more than a passing resemblance to Barker’s Cenobites, a scene in a brothel with echoes of Beetlejuice. McMahon wears his influences lightly, but he puts them to his own use, producing work that is firmly rooted in a recognisable tradition, though with new twists and turns that move the genre on. A dialectic if you will, with this novella as the synthesis of McMahon’s imagination and all that has contributed to make him the writer he is today.

Mike Angelo is a difficult and not entirely likable character. Underlying so much of what he does is a disgust for modern life, a rejection of the values of urban living that is couched in almost entirely miserablist terms. His first person account details this disgust, both with the city environment and its denizens, in a language that doesn’t make him seem a sympathetic narrator; it’s only when he realises that there are much worse things abroad in the city than obese and smelly tube travellers that the story moves on, becoming not so much personal revulsion as a critique of inhumanity and the living conditions that promote it. Similarly it’s possible to overlook the hair shirt Angelo’s fashioned for himself out of failure to avenge his sister’s rape, though not so easy to pardon the neglect he has shown her since, but at the same time these sins of omission are the driving force behind his need to put things right. The guy knows he’s made mistakes, and he’s grabbing at the chance for redemption, which contrarily makes him, warts and all, just the right protagonist for this novella. If McMahon does write more about him, I expect the character to grow and the compassion that occasionally flashes through his patina of world weary cynicism to deepen.

The true strength and appeal, if that’s the right word, of ‘Even the Dead Die’ is in McMahon’s unusual and compelling vision of the afterlife. Ghosts are not scary monsters in white sheets and clanking chains, but just another species of despairing outcast, metaphors for the lost and lonely of society – the beggar on the street corner we ignore, the wage slave who serves up our burger and fries but barely registers as human, the prostitute we fuck but want to know nothing about other than the price. There are harsh echoes here of the depiction of coloured people in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and also of a story I once read (by Kim Newman I think, but I’m not 100% sure) in which the poor gaze longingly in through the windows of an exclusive restaurant but are dismissed as ghosts by the wealthy diners within. The dead in McMahon’s story are simply not on the living’s radar, condemned to inhabit the places and perform the tasks that we shun, to do anything for a simple contact, to not be ignored, and an even more terrifying prospect awaits them, because as the novella’s title declares, ‘Even the Dead Die’, and what happens after that is unknown and inconceivable. As far as that goes they’re not so different from us, just pale shadows of those left behind.

‘In the Skin’, the second novella from Different Skins, is pitch black in tone, as bleak as a loveless marriage and probably the best thing yet I’ve seen from the pen of Gary McMahon.

It’s a case of the cuckoo in the nest, as first person narrator Dan returns from a business trip to New York to find that his son Max is a different person, a feeling he can’t shake off even though his wife assures him that it’s only the changes you get with any fast growing boy. But Dan is an unreliable narrator, and his trip to New York didn’t go quite as he remembers it, while the idea in his head that his wife was attacked, necessitating their move to the countryside, leaves out the small detail of the identity of her assailant. Dan’s world appears to be falling apart, and central to it all is the malicious dwarf who visits him at night and when confronted taunts him with threats of taking away all that he holds dear. As things unravel the plot moves ever closer to a horrific act of violence, one which is both shocking and tragic.

This story doesn’t have the scope of ‘Even the Dead Die’. There are no despairing visions of the afterlife, none of the sound and fury of a society in collapse. Instead ‘In the Skin’ offers the reader a minimalist drama, a painfully intimate account of a man’s life unravelling, with Dan as the monster at the heart of his own labyrinth.

McMahon is superb at showing us the signs and portents of mental illness – the hardcore material on his computer of which Dan has no memory, the meetings in New York which turn out to be false memories, begging the question of where he really was – infused with an element that, if not actually the supernatural itself, hints at something truly outré and monstrous. There’s a Lynchian feel to it all, a sense that nothing is truly comprehensible here, that understanding will always remain just beyond our, and Dan’s, grasp. At back of it all is the oedipal, with the dwarf possibly representing son Max and the embodiment of Dan’s fear that he is being replaced – in his home, in his workplace, in his wife’s heart and bed – by his own offspring.

The ending when it comes is rendered in blood red hues, and takes the breath away, with the violence all the more keenly felt because we have come to know these people, learned to care about them, and in getting under our skin they have brought with them the knowledge that we could be monsters too, that Dan is just a distorted reflection of our own lives, a path not taken thanks to lucky breaks or the proper medication. This is a difficult story to read, and one that must have been even harder to write, and at its heart is the message that we are all human and all fallible, and for such as us happiness may not last and love might not endure, but the real horror is in the possibility that the pain and suffering is something we inflict on ourselves.


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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

I’m not a big fan of “Benny and The Jets”, so we’ll skip to the title song on Elton’s seventh album.

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Books Read in 2013

This post follows on from Books Read in 2012, which I posted at the end of January 2023.

And for 2013 I read one hundred and forty four books, six down from the previous year, and again the majority of them were for review in Black Static, though I also served on one of the British Fantasy Award judging panels, which added a bit of fantasy as fibre to my literary diet.

On this day in 2013 I was reading Haunted by James Herbert, while on the day I turned 58 I was reading Rupetta by N. A. Sulway. Looking down the list no writer stands out as an important new discovery, and for best book it’s a toss up between Roger Clarke’s riveting A Natural History of Ghosts and The Wide, Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies, a wonderful collection of stories by John Langan. Fifty Shades of Grey was a gift from a friend and so I felt obliged to read it (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it). She gave me the next two volumes as well, but we fell out so I gave them to a charity unread.

Here’s the list:-

A Feast of Frights From the Horror Zine – Edited by Jeani Rector

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Four – Edited by Ellen Datlow

A Season in Carcosa – Edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Snr

Coldbrook – Tim Lebbon

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – Wendy Cope

The Fox – Conrad Williams

The Late Great Creature – Brock Brower

Trinity – Kristin Dearborn

Stalking You Now – Jeff Strand

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror – Edited by S. T. Joshi

Darker Minds – Edited by Ross Warren & Anthony Watson

The House That Death Built – John Llewellyn Probert

The First Book of Classical Horror Stories – Edited by D. F. Lewis

Danse Macabre: Encounters with the Reaper – Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Vampyric Variations – Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Fifty Shades of Grey – E. L. James

Unhallowed Ground – Daniel Mills

Children of No One – Nicole Cushing

Girls & Monsters – Anne Michaud

Adamtine – Hannah Berry

Weaveworld: 25th Anniversary Edition – Clive Barker

Long Shadows, Nightmare Light – Mark Morris

Spin – Nina Allan

Vampire Circus – Mark Morris

Dark World: Ghost Stories – Edited by Timothy Parker Russell

F9 – Michael McBride

In a Season of Dead Weather – Mark Fuller Dillon

It Sustains – Mark Morris

Abarat: Absolute Midnight – Clive Barker

House of Rain – Greg Gifune

Haunted – James Herbert

Creakers – Paul Kane

Whitstable – Stephen Volk

Axe – Terry Grimwood

Dr Black and the Guerillia – Brendan Connell

A Haunting of Ghosts – Maynard Sims

Hauntings – Edited by Ellen Datlow

In Delirium’s Circle – Stephen J. Clarke

The Tainted Earth – George Berguño

Path of Needles – Alison Littlewood

This House is Haunted – John Boyne

The White Devil – Justin Evans

An Antique Land – John Shire

The Demeter – Martin Jones

The Shadow Out of Time – H. P. Lovecraft (adapted by I. N. J. Culbard)

Little Red Transistor Radio from Trieste – Dragan Todorovic

A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof – Roger Clarke

The Flight of the Ravens – Chris Butler

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – James Rose

Roadkill – Joseph D’Lacey

Burnt Island – Alice Thompson

Shadows Edge – Edited by Simon Strantzas

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair – Cate Gardner

The Great God Pan & Xelucha – Arthur Machen & M. P. Shiel

The Descent – James Marriott

Helen’s Story – Rosanne Rabinowitz

The Castle – Franz Kafak (adapted by David Zane Mairowitz & Jaromir 99)

Microcosmos – Nina Allan

Spin – Nina Allan

Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories – Nina Allan

Where Furnaces Burn – Joel Lane

Everything Is Always Wrong – Graham Tugwell

Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers – Elizabeth Stott

The Jungle – Conrad Williams

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

A Pretty Mouth – Molly Tanzer

Shift – Kim Curran

Hair Side, Flesh Side – Helen Marshall

The Alchemist of Souls – Anne Lyle

Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed

Emergence – Gary Fry

Dogs With Their Eyes Shut – Paul Meloy

City of the Lost – Stephen Blackmoore

Visions Fading Fast – Edited by Gary McMahon

Blood and Feathers – Lou Morgan

Lord Horror: Reverbstorm – David Britton (graphics by John Coulthart)

Let’s Drink to the Dead – Simon Bestwick

The Condemned – Simon Bestwick

Soul Masque – Terry Grimwood

Nightsiders – Gary McMahon

Shadows – Isla J. Bick

The Bones of You – Gary McMahon

Financial Accounting for Dummies – Steven Collings & Marie Loughran

Shifters – Michael G. Preston

Fair Coin – E. C. Myers

Mechagnosis – Douglas Thompson

Mayhem – Sarah Pinborough

Charm – Sarah Pinborough

Countess Dracula – Guy Adams

Hunger – Melvin Burgess

The Revenge of Frankenstein – Shaun Hutson

Don’t Stand So Close – Eric Red

The New Flesh – Keith Deininger

Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites – W. H. Pugmire

La Squab: The Black Rose of Auschwitz – David Britton (illustrated by Kris Guido)

The Wide, Carnivorous Sky & Other Monstrous Geographies – John Langan

At Fear’s Altar – Richard Gavin

Corrosion – Jon Bassoff

Revenant Road – Michael Boatman

The Sea Change & Other Stories – Helen Grant

Written by Daylight – John Howard

Hell Gate – Elizabeth Massie

Darkscapes – Anne-Sylvie Salzman

Stoker’s Manuscript – Royce Prouty

Getting Out of There – M. John Harrison

M – Hilary Scudder

As Dead As Me – Ralph Robert Moore

Chalk – Pat Cadigan

Bloodstones – Edited by Amanda Pillar

Midnight and Moonshine – Lisa L. Hannett & Angela Slatter

Lurker – Gary Fry

Shades of Nothingness – Gary Fry

Emergence – Gary Fry

Menace – Gary Fry

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair – Cate Gardner

Conjure House – Gary Fry

Rupetta – N. A. Sulway

Prickle Moon – Juliet Marillier

The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories – Joanne Anderton

Razorjack – John Higgins

Flying Fish – Randall Silvis

The Reparateur of Strasbourg – Ian R. MacLeod

Broken Sigil – William Meikle

The Black Church – Toby Tate

Whom the Gods Would Destroy – Brian Hodge

The Fading Place – Mary SanGiovanni

Love & Zombies – Eric Shapiro

Nightmare Man – Alan Ryker

Small Animals – Alison Moore

Puck – David Rose

Remains – G. A. Pickin

Sullom Hill – Christopher Kenworthy

Hell’s Door – Sandy DeLuca

Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide – Joseph A. McCullough

Messages from the Dead – Sandy DeLuca

Veins and Skulls – Daniele Serra

Sow – Tim Curran

Worm – Tim Curran

Shattered – C. S. Kane

Monster Massacre – Edited by Dave Elliott

Dead Five’s Pass – Colin F. Barnes

Mock the Week: Scenes We’d Like to See – Dan Patterson

Field – Tom Fletcher

Lexicon – Christopher Burns

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OR: Off the Rails/The Memory of Blood/Hell Train

Following on from Tuesday’s blog entry, here’s the second part of a feature on Christopher Fowler’s work that originally appeared in Black Static #28:-


Of course Fowler doesn’t write just short stories: he has some twenty odd (in several senses of the word) novels in his back catalogue, with the Bryant & May series a significant part of his oeuvre. Begun in 2004 with Full Dark House, the series now stretches to nine volumes chronicling the adventures of elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the two leading lights of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, with the two latest books just released, one in hard and the other in paperback.

BRYANT & MAY OFF THE RAILS (Bantam paperback, 384pp, £7.99) picks up where previous volume On the Loose left off, with the Unit in new premises and given a week to clear up its last case by capturing escaped killer Mr Fox. The trail leads them to the London Underground where Fox takes another victim, but the case becomes complicated when a woman is pushed down some stairs. It appears that two killers are operating on the Underground. While one plot strand leads to the uncovering of Fox’s real identity and the killer’s back story, another takes us to a group of students playing a sophisticated game on the Underground, one that puts their lives at risk.

This book is the familiar mix of gentle humour, convoluted mystery and off the wall detection fans of the series will have come to expect, but given that little tweak which stops it all becoming formulaic. The contrast between eccentric Bryant and the methodical May, the manner in which the two play off each other, is at the story’s heart as ever, with the other characters fleshed out and romance burgeoning all round. Fraternity, brother of the murdered Liberty, is introduced as a new character. The mystery is as ingenious and satisfying as usual, with a touch of CSI in the use of flash mobs and the like, so that there’s a feel of crime fiction with an almost cosy sensibility in collision with the modern, technological world, while the use of the Underground as a setting enables Fowler to drop all sorts of odd facts and learned asides into the text, presenting a veritable cornucopia of urban legends and ghost stories, an undergrowth to the story that enriches it incalculably.

In BRYANT & MAY AND THE MEMORY OF BLOOD (Doubleday hardback, 351pp, £16.99) a wealthy property speculator who owns a theatre and is staging a play, holds a party at which his son is murdered, apparently hurled from the window by Mr Punch. Naturally the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in, but even with Bryant and May on the case there are more murders to follow, with speculator Robert Kramer’s love of Punch and Judy figures central to the plot and his psychology. To further complicate matters, the daughter of a politician is involved, and so there is pressure to keep her name out of the papers, while another, unrelated murder and attempt to steal Bryant’s memoirs could very well put the Unit’s existence in peril.

Just like its predecessor, this is a wonderful entertainment, cleverly playing on such tropes of the detective genre as the locked room mystery and the ‘end reveal’, with all the suspects assembled and a last gasp unmasking of the killer. The way in which the Punch and Judy figures are incorporated into the narrative offers an intriguing backdrop, with Fowler filling in details of their history and fleshing out the narrative with this fascinating material. The greater story arc reaches its apex, with the Unit set up for a showdown with the duplicitous Kasavian in the next book, and suggestions that Bryant and May are settling into new routines, with one losing his home and the other drifting away from his girlfriend. And yet the reality of these characters, and the bond that holds them all together, is marvellously evoked on the page.

I don’t think I would much like the socially stunted Arthur Bryant if I knew him, but I’m more than happy that such people exist and that they are celebrated in oddball and eccentric books like this. As I’ve observed before, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is a quintessentially British invention, taking an agreeably sideways view of popular culture, accepted history and consensus reality, offering the perfect antidote to those who have wearied of the latest hideous progeny sprung fully formed from the minds of Baron Cowell and Count Von Murdoch.

Also quintessentially British, though with a slightly more disreputable pedigree, are the monster movies produced under the aegis of Hammer Films, and Fowler pays tribute to these with his latest standalone novel HELL TRAIN (Solaris paperback, 272pp, £7.99).

American writer Shane Carter comes looking for a writing gig with Hammer and is given a week to produce a script, which ultimately is rejected. ‘Hell Train’ is the never made film, set at the time of World War One and located in Eastern Europe, where several English people find themselves on the locomotive Arkangel and en route to Hell itself, each one tested in a manner peculiar to themselves. Vicar Thomas must resist the blandishments of the Red Countess, who appeals to both his lust and love of gambling, while wife Miranda’s greed is her undoing when the coffin of a royal personage is left in her care. Nicholas, who has absconded from the town of Chelmsk with local girl Isabella, must deal with two challenges, one being real and involving soldiers whose regiment he deserted from and their vampiric commander, and the other bringing home to him his responsibility for the life of another, someone he abandoned and left to a terrible fate, but to whom he can now make amends. Isabella is at the centre of it all, destined to marry locally and carry on the family tradition in connection to the train, and ultimately her actions will decide the fate of them all.

No two ways about it, this is a highly contrived novel, one that uses wheels within wheels to justify the infelicities of its plot, the Hammer Horror film framework to the story allowing Fowler to get away with considerable liberties. It provides a context, one with which most readers will be familiar, empowering us to overlook plot stretches and any lack of credibility, taking it all in our stride with (a no doubt severed) tongue firmly in cheek, and as the story barrels along gaining momentum all the time it feels like we are among old friends, each portmanteau adventure striking chords of memory, recollections of some glorious time when the Gothic past exploded onto the screen in lurid Technicolor and only Peter Cushing stood between us and the monsters, a time when horror could still be unabashedly fun even if tainted with the world sickness. Yes, there’s a lack of cohesion to the overarching design, a feeling at times that things are just being piled in together, but the invention is unrelenting and each segment delights with the horrors it throws up for the reader to enjoy. It captures perfectly the atmosphere and gleeful mayhem of the films that inspired it, and I loved the various elements – zombie soldiers, carnivorous insects, vampires, femme fatales, ghouls etc. – while overseeing all is the daunting figure of the Conductor, and lurking in the background something far worse than even him.

Hell Train is not a great horror novel or a work that is going to be hailed as breaking new ground – that is not Fowler’s intention – but it is a horror novel that is great fun, a fiction that eschews many of the genre’s conventions while celebrating its past. Fowler knows his stuff, and more importantly he knows how to show the reader a good time, so while we lament the Hammer film that was never made we can still read this book and enjoy the roller-coaster ride the author has waiting.

Your train is waiting on Platform One. Tickets please!

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Trailer Trash – John Wick: Chapter 4/Infinity Pool

Another double bill this week, with the latest franchise entry and something decidedly weird from David Cronenberg’s son.

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OR: Red Gloves

The first part of a feature on the work of Christopher Fowler that originally appeared in Black Static #28:-


Just in case anybody reading this hasn’t been paying attention, you need to know that Christopher Fowler who pens the ‘Interference’ column for this very magazine is also a noted purveyor of speculative fiction, with several awards tucked away in his old kit bag.

2011 was his twenty fifth year as a published writer of short fiction, and in lieu of a national holiday complete with street parties and special commemorative coins for the little children, PS Publishing decided to mark the occasion with the collection RED GLOVES (PS Publishing hardback, 422pp, £19.99), a double volume consisting of, aptly enough, twenty five stories. In the first volume, titled ‘Devilry’, we get what are referred to as London Horrors, stories set in the great metropolis for which Fowler feels such an obvious affection even as he subjects its citizens to the most terrible of fates, while in ‘Infernal’ he lays the table with World Horrors, tales of a more cosmopolitan complexion.

Before getting to the fictional nitty gritty we are confronted with Fowler’s introduction, ‘Zygomaticus’, in which he chronicles some of the events that were making the news during the writing of the book and so possibly influenced him, with a subtext that truth really is stranger than fiction.

First story out of the traps, ‘The Rulebook’ starts with various sets of rules that the boy protagonist must adhere to, before venturing into the story proper, which concerns careless talk and taxidermy, the narrative always keeping reader and character off balance, so that you never really know how much is down to Paul’s imagination and what to credit as fact, but shot through it all is a strand of the sinister feeding into a revelation that in reality there are no rules, anything can happen and probably will.

Next up is ‘Dead Ground Zero’, Fowler’s contribution to the Stephen Jones created Zombie Apocalypse!, which I reviewed in a previous issue, and I’m not going to repeat the exercise here. In fact several of these stories have been previously published – ‘The Adventure Of Lucifer’s Footprints’, ‘Down’, ‘The Stretch’, ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside’ – and are tales I’ve already reviewed before, so for the purposes of this feature I’m going to ignore them and concentrate on the ‘fresh’ material.

‘Locked’ sells the reader a few dummies about hauntings and the like, before revealing the true nature of the intrusions that disturb Tam’s sleep in her new flat. The story deftly mixes menace and mystery with black comedy, the ambiguous ending the perfect final note, and underlying it all a sobering subtext about how we are never truly safe, not even in the confines of our own home, with all the windows locked and the doors bolted. In the short but effective ‘Lantern Jack’ the resident pub ‘bore’ tells a patron about the watering hole’s chequered history, the various episodes of violence and madness totally absorbing, and with a cumulative effect of mounting unease so that though the end twist isn’t entirely unexpected it nonetheless satisfies and appeals to our sense of what is right. ‘An Injustice’ is the tale of a trio of ghost hunting students that seems rather contrived in retrospect, even though you suspend disbelief while reading, but the heart of the story lies in the narrator’s attitude, the guilt that haunts him because he did nothing to rectify an intolerable situation and the double-edged realisation that not all the things that haunt us are dead.

‘The Deceivers’ is a cleverly wrought tale of madness, as two young men out to impress a girl create a local legend, only in a manner somewhat akin to the tulpa or thoughtform of Tibetan religion the legend becomes accepted fact and turns round to bite them on the arse. At the end the reader has no more idea of what is fact and what is fantasy than the poor, bemused narrator, with the two inextricably entwined and showing how we can so easily become the victims of our own ‘propaganda’. In the gleefully over the top ‘Killing the Cook’, a housewife with delusions of inadequacy decides to settle things once and for all with her off the telly, and turns up with murder in her heart and a knife in her handbag at a Nigella Lawson signing, the story delighting with its sheer audacity and the prevailing mood of urbane insanity that Fowler does so well, restrained at first but constantly waxing stronger until it overwhelms everything else.

There’s a whole After Hours vibe going on with ‘Enjoy’ as a chinless wonder trying to impress his work colleagues goes out in search of cocaine and has adventures far weirder and more surreal than anything that happened to Griffin Dunne. Undercutting the story is a subtext about the dangers of status and valuing ourselves through the eyes of others, with the character only achieving happiness once he has accepted his own level. The last stop on this whistle stop tour of Fowler’s imagination takes us back to 1952 and a London beset by the worst fog in its history. The story is titled ‘Bryant & May In The Soup’, aptly enough, and introduces us to the detecting duo when they were young men, here charged with solving a seemingly impossible murder, one where only Bryant seems to think that there’s a crime to investigate, the story as amiable, good natured and ingenious as any of their other outings. And if you don’t know who Bryant and May are, then patience gentle reader and all will be revealed further on in the feature.

And so to the second volume, ‘Infernal’, but before Fowler’s Horror Show hits the road to Greece, Russia and places beyond, we are gifted an introductory moment of ‘Unheimlich’, in which the author writes about his love of travel and also the abiding sense of the uncanny, neatly tying the two things together.

No stories that I’ve previously reviewed in this half, but all the same I’m going to give the opening two stories – ‘The Eleventh Day’ and ‘Piano Man’ – a miss as they’ve previously appeared in Black Static and also one from later in the collection, ‘The Conspirators’, which was previously published in Crimewave, as the chances are good that regular readers will already have seen these gems.

Two tributary streams run down to the same sea in the third story, ‘The Girl On Mount Olympus’. In one a young woman goes to the Greek Islands with her lover and is betrayed, while in the other a young couple prepare to spend their lives together, the man reassuring the woman that there is nothing to fear at the Aquapark. The point where these separate and very different strands collide brings both horror and a threnody on the emptiness of love and bitterness in the human heart. Flash fiction ‘Halloween Dog’ is all trick and no treat, with a spirit returned into the body of a dog on the night of All Hallows when the walls between the worlds are thin, and thinking that it is going to get some sexual action but instead something else entirely takes place. There’s a neat idea here, though the story is somewhat insubstantial compared to what else is on offer, a sting in the tail offering. Hard on the heels of that comes ‘Poison Pen’, one of the few stories that didn’t quite work for me, outstaying its welcome with the whole enterprise drifting into the tediously formulaic as the various beneficiaries of a will meet horrific ends, and the real purpose of the legal document is exposed in a contrived and not especially convincing resolution. This is one of those stories that probably sounds great in theory but all too often falls flat in the execution.

In Western tale ‘The Boy Thug’ Fowler creates one of his least appealing characters in the form of the outlaw Giddens, the story Sade-lite but never less than compelling as it moves to its inevitable conclusion. Underlying the surface violence is a bitter irony, with the amoral and ruthless outlaw undone only when he finally forms an emotional bond with another. ‘The Velocity of Blame’ concerns two Americans on extended holiday in South East Asia and a misunderstanding with the locals that results in tragedy, the story informed by a light subtext that implies this is payback for deeds in the past of the politician narrator, an aide of Kissinger. What goes around comes around would seem to be the message at this story’s heart, or perhaps it’s more a case of perspective informed by guilt.

‘Arkangel’ is an alternative telling of the central conceit in Fowler’s novel Hell Train (see later), with a couple of English boys out to exploit an Eastern European girl, and the intervention of a spectral steam train that was originally built to take Jewish prisoners to the extermination camps. The story holds the interest all the way, giving us a fine juxtaposition of eternal verities and a desperate fight for survival with the modern sensibility that values everything in hedonistic, self-indulgent terms. Similar concerns inform ‘The Mistake at The Monsoon Palace’, a keenly felt reversal of values story set in India and with a muted supernatural element. An American tourist abandons her old life to become the guardian of a local shrine, but at the same time the young boy who benefited from her largesse grows up to be the developer who wishes to tear it all down. This clever story poses questions about the mutability of identity and how things of value are being lost to the modernising urge.

Though I can’t pin down a particular point of reference there’s something very Bradburyesque about the story ‘Beautiful Men’, with its eponymous males who are otherworldly beings here on a fact finding mission. As the protagonist’s attraction to these ethereal creatures blossoms, the story offers both a muted eroticism and terrible sadness in its conclusion, making it one of the most effective and affecting pieces in the collection. Finally we have ‘Bryant & May’s Mystery Tour’, which is set in the present time, with the detectives boarding a London sightseeing bus to arrest a murderer, the story dialogue driven as May addresses clues to unravel the mystery while Bryant passes acerbic judgement on the tour guide’s shortcomings, a fine and entertaining way to end this excellent collection.

Here’s looking forward to the next twenty five years, and I do hope somebody thought to give the Queen a copy of this collection to mark her Jubilee. (Before moving on, I should mention that, for the benefit of those who like theirs’ with bells and whistles on – and that probably includes ERII – PS also do a slipcased jacketed hardcover of the book, signed by the author and in a limited edition of 100 copies, retailing at £49.99.)


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Mary Queen of Arkansas

Third track from the first album.

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NR: Nocturnes

Originally published in 2004, when Charlie Parker was only four books old, Nocturnes is John Connolly’s first collection of short stories. The Parker books, the work for which Connolly is best known, have a supernatural element but get marketed under the crime fiction or thriller label. There’s little to none of that blurring of the boundaries with the stories in Nocturnes which are situated firmly in the horror and ghost story tradition, with references to the inspiration of M. R. James and Stephen King on the book’s back cover entirely apposite.

The collection opens with a novella, “The Cancer Cowboy Rides”. In a grotesquely memorable opening scene the disease ridden bodies of a family are discovered at an isolated farm. A man by the name of Buddy Carson books into a motel in the small town of Easton and manages to raise the hackles of Sheriff Lloyd Hopkins, but the lawman can’t begin to envisage the threat Carson represents as the town’s inhabitants fall victim to cancer. We’re firmly in Stephen King territory here, with the same laid back prose style and solid characterisation, the pitch perfect evocation of a small town where everybody knows everybody else, and then into this mix the injection of something terrible, something that simply doesn’t make sense. Connolly delivers his story with incredible panache and energy, along the way making us care about these people and what is happening to them, and the use of cancer, which is a reality in so many lives, makes the whole thing feel close to home and yet more horrific. Even his portrayal of Buddy Carson has that extra dimension of credibility, showing us that the guy isn’t simply a monster, that at some point he had qualms about what he is required to do, even if he has put them far behind him. It’s a solid curtain raiser for what follows, and from this point on readers know they’re in safe hands.

Second story “Mr Pettinger’s Daemon” has more than a touch of the Jamesian about it, with a clergyman sent to an isolated parish where he learns rather more than he needed to know about the activities of his predecessor, who is literally digging into the past. The story builds deftly with an almost wry note to the protagonist’s character, his contempt for the bishop and hatred of war coming over especially strongly, and you can see why both he and Mr Fell stuck their noses into the wrong places, with a chilling end note to the story, the sense that what has occurred is an interruption rather than a resolution, a stopgap and nothing more. Haunted by memories of his younger brother’s abduction, a man takes steps to protect his family from “The Erlking”. There’s a fairy tale feel to this story, with the isolated wood in which the family live and the demonic nature of the evil they confront, but at the same time something very modern, a sense that the monstrous Erlking is just another paedophile. It’s a story that operates on several levels. There’s a similar sensibility to “The New Daughter”, a variation on the changeling trope. A father and his children move to an old rectory with a suspicious past and nearby is a mound or fairy fort. Connolly is superb at building the feel of menace, with hints in the text as to what is going on and a truly sinister note struck at the story’s conclusion.

There are echoes of the Bullingdon Club in the next story. A scholarship student at a prestigious private school bears witness to “The Ritual of the Bones” with horrifying consequences. It’s a story that captures perfectly the feel of the outsider, the underdog who will never have his day, and in its final revelations confirms all the rest of us have feared about the true nature of the upper classes. The nightwatchman at an abandoned train factory discovers that something outré is taking place in “The Furnace Room” at night, but the nature of the haunting ties in to events in his past. This was another solid tale, with a mounting atmosphere of dread and revelations that give the story an entirely different and more rewarding spin than if it had been a simple haunting. Two police officers down from London to investigate an inexplicable murder in the sticks find themselves at the mercy of “The Underbury Witches”. There’s some great characterisation here, especially of Inspector Burke and Sergeant Stokes, while it is possible to feel some sympathy for the witches, with their first victim a deserving bully and abuser. Running along in the background is a strong feminist subtext, with the historical witches and then the women in the present day each the victims of misogyny.

To a blocked writer “The Inkpot Monkey” is a blessing, but as Mr Edgerton discovers to his cost such things come with a high price. This was a delightful story that pitches its idea and runs, leaving the reader to applaud Connolly’s conceptual audacity and the verve of its telling, and possibly in the case of some of us to wish for a monkey of our own. Another cleric is sent to an isolated parish in “The Shifting of the Sands”, but at the coastal settlement of Black Sands he is far from welcome and his congregation worship other gods. In part this story reminded me of MRJ classic “The Casting of the Runes”, but Connolly brings a marked invention to the narrative and manages to capture the sense of old gods that predate Christianity and will linger long after it has left these shores.

There’s a sinister enchantment to “Some Children Wander by Mistake” as William’s desire to visit the circus and see the clowns takes a macabre turn. The story has a fablesque feel to it, while the visions of the clowns and the way they speak among themselves is truly unnerving and will remain with me long after the story has been forgotten in its finer details. The sense of loss is almost palpable in “Deep Dark Green” as young lovers swim in the shunned waters of Baal’s Pond and one of them survives to forever regret their mistake. Connolly gives us an underwater world, sinister and unforgiving, with an eerie feel to what transpires and intertwined with that, for the narrator at least, a sense of longing tinged with regret. Elegiac is the word I am looking for.

“Miss Froom, Vampire” is proud of the flowers and vegetables she grows in her garden, but they serve a purpose other than winning rosettes at the county fair. This is a vampire story with a difference, told in a tone that is studiously cultured and urbane, one might almost say Wodehousian, and playing its cards close to its chest until the last minute. For all that she is a monster you can’t help but like the eponymous Miss Froom. We’re back to traditional ghost stories with “Nocturne”, in which a man and his young son move into a house that previously belonged to a child killer. Connolly’s execution is perfect, drip feeding the reader information and then plunging us full on into the nightmare that is waiting for his protagonist. It works splendidly as a ghost story. Two climbers go against local warnings to plumb the depths of “The Wakeford Abyss”, but what they find is too terrible to contemplate in this variation on The Descent. Despite the horror of the end, there is an almost amiable feel to this story, the characters revelling in their craft and each of them fully drawn examples of the gentleman adventurer, so that you feel for them and want them to survive even if the logistics of the plot might come to dictate otherwise.

Having opened with a novella, the book closes with another, one that will delight Connolly aficionados. In “The Reflecting Eye: A Charlie Parker Novella” our hero is called on to investigate an isolated house in the woods, the former home of a man who killed multiple children, the case bringing him into contact with the Collector. This is a story that slips down a treat, a reminder of how good Connolly can be with his Charlie Parker hat on. What makes it so special are the steps he takes to establish both the character and the setting, the joys of Portland, the sleaze of souvenir hunters who specialise in death, small and big time criminals, the sinister nature of the house of mirrors at the story’s centre and the entity that lives there and demands sacrifice. Parker is fully drawn, a man who has known loss and does his best to bring some justice into the world, yet can’t stop himself from wisecracking even when it costs him dear. Add in the dynamic duo of Louis and Angel, former assassins for hire and now dear friends and righteous allies in Parker’s crusade, and the sinister figure of the Collector, whose motives are unknown and whose shabby appearance is in counterpoint to the menace that he represents, and you end up with a thoroughly entertaining read that doesn’t set a foot wrong, which is pretty much par for the course where Parker is concerned.

But this isn’t the end of the collection. Connolly gives us three more stories as extras, tales previously available only through the author’s website. A man’s wife to be is murdered before their wedding, but she returns to share “The Bridal Bed” in a tale that is eminently readable, albeit most readers will realise where the narrative is going long before the end is reached. His car broken down at night in an isolated spot, “The Man from the Second Fifteen” falls victim to monsters lurking in the undergrowth, but at the same time he has a feeling that somehow it might all be his own fault. This is a story that is gratifying for seeing a rather bumptious character get his comeuppance, though you can’t help feeling that he doesn’t really deserve what happens to him, but I guess if you’re a character in a horror story it goes with the territory. Finally there’s “The Inn at Shillingford” where an insurance salesman books in to his cost. Again this is another traditional ghost story, a variation on the haunted house template, with the requisite shocks and dark history, a tad predictable but still entertaining, as are all the stories in this wonderful collection, which I recommend unreservedly.

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