Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 3

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

Strange Tales by Mark West.

Rainfall Books pb, 84pp, £7.99

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover and certainly that seems to be the case with Strange Tales, the tasteful image of an attractive young lady, the author’s wife, hinting the stories it contains will be svelte, elegant and sophisticated, but in reality the collection is much more in your face than the photograph would suggest. Of the eleven stories on offer many are short and bloody, contes cruel often in the most negative sense of that label, possibly the prompt for a cover blurb comparison with Clive Barker that, sadly, the contents don’t justify.

“Infantophobia” gets the collection off to a promising start, the tale of a serial killer who performs abortions on pregnant women. The dark psychology behind his actions, grounded in a childhood misunderstanding, is credible enough and the actual scenes in which he operates on his victims are appropriately gut churning, culminating in a truly savage and memorable final twist. Gut churning also describes most of the action in the longer and lesser “Having a Bad Day”, in which a woman comes home after a hard day at the office to find her husband has committed suicide and, for the most specious of reasons, instead of calling the police takes it upon herself to dispose of the body. Cue garishly described scenes in which the corpse is signed, sealed and delivered (euphemism). As black comedies on the theme of how to get rid of a dead body go, this isn’t especially funny, and the corny punch line only accentuates the daftness of it all. The irony is that, when dealing with the mental states of the protagonists before the gore kicks in, West hints at a more rewarding story to be told, one grounded in the insecurities and emotional crises of his characters, but sacrifices this opportunity for the far less interesting schlocker option.

“Empty Souls, Drowning” is the best of what’s on offer, a sign of what West is capable of when he stops wanting to show that Richard Laymon a thing or two and instead deals with the material on its own terms, with two lost souls interacting in a rundown seaside town at the fag end of the season, a story full of subtle emotional nuances and a genuine feel for the suffering of the characters, all made that more effective by a strong evocation of place. The bleak landscape, so chillingly described, seems to mirror the inner turmoil of the people who loiter in the seafront arcades and cheap B&Bs trying to make sense of the traumatic events in their past. And then we’re back in the land of a thousand knives with “Dead Skin” and Rebecca, whose one aim in life is to get it on with a dead guy and she won’t rest until her dreams come true, only the stiff won’t get stiff if you know what I mean. There’s an attempt here to get under the skin of the character and explore what makes necrophiliacs tick, and that’s a commendable aim, but it’s overshadowed by the macabre elements of the story so that ultimately all we have is just another shock set piece. “Speckles” is one of the better stories, a tale of obsession slightly reminiscent of Poe on a bad day, no mean feat as Poe’s bad days were better than most writers’ good ones. The protagonist’s zeal to stay clean drives him to ridiculous and ultimately horrific lengths. The foundations of his condition are laid out with authority and some insight into such aberrant mental states, while the chilling final line of dialogue is perhaps the most effective pay off in the book, or would have been if the author had let it go at that instead of making what happens concrete with an unnecessary last paragraph. “Up for Anything” also has a truly nasty twist in the tail, as our heroine, an S&M devotee who thinks safe words are for wimps, takes her preference for ‘head’ to a logical conclusion. Not so much a story as a grotesque show and tell.

So far true invention has been at a premium and now it seems to excuse itself completely. “Together Forever” has one of the oldest clichés in the book, any book, the dead lover who won’t let go, and does nothing interesting with it. Most Horror fans will know exactly what to expect after the first page or so, and those who don’t are probably too young to be reading this stuff anyway. Ditto for “The Darkest Hour”, in which a man and woman link up at a nightclub and the only real question in the reader’s mind is which one of them is going to turn out to be the homicidal maniac. Full of heavy handed hints, this story is nothing more than a tiresome going through the motions.

After this sudden rash of banality it’s a treat to stumble upon “The City in the Rain”, which has the most original premise in the collection, as the metropolis itself falls victim to some fatal malaise and tries to heal itself by preying on the unruly bipeds who stalk its streets. It’s an intriguing concept and one that might usefully have been developed at greater length, perhaps even provide the seed for a novel, and in its current form provides a striking and dramatic image to fester in the mind. For the last two stories we’re back to business as usual, with “Dreaming of a Black Christmas” a simple cuckolded husband takes bloody revenge piece, recommended only to those who find divorce an unacceptable alternative, and “Beaches” which falls back on the familiar concept of the man who haunts himself. To damn with faint praise, these are competently written but that’s all that can usefully be said of them.

Rounding out the collection are some notes in which West explains how these stories came into being, which are interesting not only in their own right but for the picture they give us, which I personally found thoroughly endearing, of a young writer devoted to his craft and in love with the Horror genre. And that perhaps is the key fact about this collection; West has had a fair number of stories published in the Small Press but he is still relatively young and feeling his way. He shows real potential in the four better stories, but the remainder are at best unremarkable. If his talent is to truly grow then he needs to develop his plots more instead of always taking the easy option and rein in the tendency to end every other story with the most graphic and bloody scene his imagination can conjure up. There are times when the gore works (e.g. “Infantophobia”) and enhances the impact of the story, and there are other times when it seems to be an end in itself, a way of papering over the fact that the author has nothing interesting to tell us.

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Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 2

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

SPARE PARTS

Stuart Young

Rainfall Books pb, 99pp, £8

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Spare Parts, like all the publications I’ve seen from Rainfall Books, is an impressive piece of kit, a slim and elegant volume that would grace the shelves of any Horror aficionado, with a striking cover image, a Janus plus one figure, the third visage that of a grinning skull. Inside we get six illustrations, three each from talented artists Bob Covington and Dave Bezzina, that in imagination and attention to the fine detail compliment perfectly the written contents. In addition there’s an introduction by Tim Lebbon, albeit for anyone familiar with the Small Press scene the work of Stuart Young surely needs no introduction and this volume showcases six of his finest stories.

“Boxes” is the longest of these, and also the most satisfying, the tale of a man whose great love has just come to an unhappy end and who takes an illicit drug that enhances memory. Gratified at first by the way in which it helps him get through a rough patch, he sees his friend fall victim to the hallucinations that accompany the pharmaceutical and is soon himself in a similar condition. Bottom line with this story is that it’s The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, only with memory in place of enhanced vision, but Young makes it special by the depth of characterisation he brings to the piece, making his hero a genuinely sympathetic guy, the quintessential loser in love who we can all identify with at one time or another in our lives, and giving us a series of events that seem perfectly ordinary, banal even, until the horror takes hold, culminating in a series of vivid and disturbing hallucinations that undermine him completely. This is a moving and powerful piece of writing. Shortest story, “Face at the Window”, is equally adept at playing with the reader’s emotion, giving us the case of an old lady who is haunted by a zombie standing outside her house, but as the story progresses it is revealed that she is a victim of Alzheimer’s, the contrast between the make-believe terrors of Horror fiction and the very real horrors attendant upon mortality giving the story depth and an emotional kick. Young’s descriptions of senile dementia bears the stamp of authenticity, with such touches as the dress put on backwards, forgetfulness and general lack of personal care sending a shiver up the spine. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story though is the way in which Mary has been simply abandoned by those trusted with her care, presenting the reader with a savage and pertinent indictment of the way society treats its most vulnerable.

“Midnight in a Perfect World” brings to mind the film Groundhog Day, with a woman using a supernaturally charged clock to preserve the perfection of a love affair, only to have her self-contained reality break down as the clock itself falters, a story that wins the reader over with wonderful touches of character and a genuine feel for how relationships between people work, the doubts and uncertainties that beset us all, the process of getting to know each other, so that the fantastic elements of the story are built upon a solid foundation. “Swamp ‘Gator Blues” is perhaps the story that has the most to offer by way of pure entertainment, with no subtext or ‘message’ to convey, just a fast paced and hugely entertaining tale of a father, his son and best friend, wandering into the bayous and finding a whole lot more trouble than anyone has the right to expect. The plot doesn’t ease its grip on the reader for a second, with more overt terrors than in the other stories and a truly downbeat ending. The feeling that exists between the three characters (to call it male bonding would be to trivialise) is conveyed with real skill, making it all the harder when the shit hits the fan, and combined with the obvious gusto Young brings to the telling it enables us to overlook the slightly silly modus operandi driving all these events.

The last two stories are perhaps the least of what Young has to offer, though still excellent. The title piece, “Spare Parts”, is a relatively straightforward tale of revenge, with an ambitious newspaper reporter having her life dismantled by the son of the woman she done wrong. It’s eminently readable and Young doesn’t put a foot wrong as the events unfold, while the ending is as unexpected as it is gratifying, but I could have done with a bit more focus on the idea that reporters are morally culpable for their actions, always lurking in the background but never taking centre stage. Finally “Spirits of Dark and Light” is a Boy’s Own Ghost story set against the backdrop of WWI, with a fearless fighter ace goaded into action by the vengeful spirit of a fellow pilot. Young makes a sterling effort at getting the atmosphere right, with all those little touches of detail that add verisimilitude, and yet readable as the story undoubtedly is I couldn’t really identify with the characters; they were frozen in one particular moment of time rather than possessed of a universality of experience to which I could relate. The horrors of war seemed somehow distant, detached even, while the final twist in the plot had about it a whiff of the anticlimactic.

Young’s writing is never less than rewarding, while at his best he is thought provoking and capable of genuinely moving the reader. This is a strong first collection, demonstrating versatility, a real feel for the material and an enviable maturity of outlook. Recommended.

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Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 1

As promised I’m going to save time this month with an impromptu Advent Calendar recycling reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website and which are now archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

Here we go:-

SECOND CONTACT and other stories

Gary Couzens

Elastic Press pb, 282pp, £8

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Gary Couzens is a writer whose work has always avoided easy categorisation, eschewing the pigeonhole of genre, written from both a female and male perspective with variations in sexual orientation, intruding slices of non-fiction into stories that are otherwise pure invention, and all of these traits can be seen, as well as the lack of any one defining characteristic, in this first collection of his short fiction from Elastic Press.

Title story “Second Contact” is set against the backdrop of the total eclipse of 1999, with various people from different walks of life assembling in Cornwall to bear witness to this event and interacting, the extraordinary nature of what is happening a catalyst to personal revelation. Not so much story as a series of overlapping character studies, in much the same way that the moon occludes the face of the sun for a short period of time, and for the reader a fascinating glimpse into other lives. And then in “Second Contact Revisited” Couzens reveals the background to the story itself, how it came to be written, publishing history and the debate as to its status as Science Fiction, his own personal circumstances at the time of the eclipse, incidental details that are irrelevant to our appreciation of “Second Contact” as a story and yet add another and even more fascinating dimension to the experience of reading it. The opening story, “Subject Matter”, comes at the matter of creativity from a similarly oblique angle, constructed like a Russian doll and detailing the real people who inspire artists in different media, playing games with our perceptions of how creativity works, a tactic made even more intriguing by the possible inclusion of Couzens himself as a character and his meeting with a woman those in the know will recognise as the pseudonym he uses when writing for Romantic markets, arguably evidence that writers are shaped just as much by the raw material of their craft as they shape it.

Couzens’ prose style is always impeccable, with an eye for the exact detail that will bring his characters to compelling and convincing life, and this is perhaps seen to best advantage in the previously unpublished novella “A Giant among Women”, the longest piece here and in many ways the most intriguing. Graham, who wants to be a writer, becomes Portia’s lodger. Though a beautiful woman, at 6′ 5” Portia feels herself to be not only out of sync with the rest of the world because of her size but also that in some way she falls short of her own ideals, insecurities that she hides behind a world weary and borderline cynical veneer. A lover of the arts, she is thwarted by her own lack of creativity, and compensates by surrounding herself with talented people. Graham is the latest addition to her coterie, and as we see Portia and the circle of hangers on who orbit round about her through his eyes an engrossing study emerges of emotional vacuity and our own need to feel valued. It falls off slightly at the end for lack of an aesthetically pleasing resolution, but then so does life itself. The other novella in this collection, the superbly creepy “Eggshells”, has a similar sensibility, with deft characterisation and little touches of ambiguity that delight, although the plot is at first reading more conventional. Heavily pregnant Vicky receives a letter, ostensibly from her husband’s previous wife who committed suicide. At first she suspects stepdaughter Hannah of mischief making, but as the story unfolds and other events of a sinister timbre occur it becomes apparent that something else entirely is happening and Vicky is led to question both her own sanity and how much she really knows about the man she loves. The story’s prevailing mood of uncertainty is developed with panache, but to Couzens’ credit at the end he deftly sidesteps all the old clichés you might expect to arise from this scenario, instead offering us a final and powerful affirmation of both love and life itself.

It is when he doesn’t dodge the clichés that Couzens’ work is at its weakest. While the prose is every bit as elegant and measured as elsewhere “Miss Perfect”, in which a jealous wife unwittingly drives her husband into the arms of another woman, suffers from a plot that is so tired and trite even the soap opera scriptwriters hardly ever use it any more. Similarly, while Couzens tries hard to put a different spin on the subject matter, “Half-Life” is at bottom nothing more than a ghost story running along wholly familiar lines. “Eskimo Friends” is more intriguing, at least initially, presenting the scenario of a woman who gets drunk and is then date raped, only for the man who did this to commit suicide a day or so later. Couzens sets the scene with real authority, and the moral and emotional ramifications in the material could have made for a first rate story had they been properly explored, but instead he then tosses them away with some pseudo-supernatural hogwash about how there was something wild on the loose that night and everybody was acting badly. The stories that work best are those where the outré is used as a catalyst for events rather than as a get out of gaol free card, as in “The Day of the Outing”, another story with an idea that captures the reader’s imagination for its sheer audacity, with a picture of intervention on a cosmic scale. One day the world wakes up and finds that everyone knows who is gay; no more hiding or need to hide. For Simon, still not out of the closet, the implications are immense and we are allowed to share his experiences as he adapts to these new circumstances and the reactions of those around him. One may quibble with the idea that sexuality is quite so clear cut, but the subtext that there is nothing to fear except fear itself is the thought that lingers in the mind after reading.

“Drowning” opens with Maria at the bedside of her sister Beatrice, who has just attempted suicide, and as the story progresses with revelations about the sisters’ past and the favouritism shown Maria by their father the reader is drawn into a level of reality where everything, including happiness, is seen to be subjective. Childhood rivalry also features in “Amber”, with Toni returning as an adult to her old stomping grounds and in particular the woods where her eight year old cousin disappeared when they were playing all those years ago, and she has to confront her guilt about the incident and make peace with the past. The past similarly comes back to haunt the narrator of “Straw Defences”, a critically acclaimed writer who is shown how much of his success was grounded in hatred for the bully who made his schooldays a misery, though with this realisation comes an emotional nullity that short circuits his ability to create. In each of these finely drawn stories it is characterisation that drives the plot, with readers experiencing the pain and doubts of the people Couzens so effectively brings to life on the page.

Several of the stories have unusual narrative structures, such as the wonderfully evocative “Thunderhead”, in which a woman’s passion is juxtaposed with the fury of nature itself, the two elements interacting and seeming to feed off of each other, Couzens’ prose pyrotechnics making the story one of the most memorable in the collection. Similarly “This Flight Tonight”, co written with the indefatigable Des Lewis, plays games at the expense of the reader’s perceptions with shifting views of reality that inform and reinforce each other, the possible death of a man aboard an aeroplane the lynchpin of a series of interlocking stories, the whole neatly capped with an ending that compounds the ambiguity. “Migraine”, a fascinating exploration of gender and identity, offers us two different realities which intersect and overlap. In one world Penny is a woman who suffers from violent migraines and in another she is Peter, a man who feels that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body. Couzens treats this difficult material with genuine sensitivity and insight, and his depiction of a transsexual’s crisis of identity is the most convincing I have ever read. What comes over clearly is the compassion and understanding he has of the characters, even, and perhaps especially, when they are acting badly. The story itself becomes predictable and loses focus slightly at the end, but the depth of feeling makes it a remarkable feat of empathy.

These stories and four others go to make up a collection that is a fitting celebration of the ability of one of the most original and gifted writers currently working in the UK Small Press, and kudos to Elastic Press ( http://www.elasticpress.com for purchase details) for giving that talent a chance to shine and hopefully reach the larger audience it deserves.

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Thoughts on a Wednesday #8

ITEM: Relationship advice – if your significant other has a Nintendo, never refer to it as a toy. It’s a high tech entertainment device.

ITEM: Cold callers and scammers seem to have grown more persistent and argumentative. Five minutes ago I had some dick ring me about a credit agreement he claimed I’d had and when I denied this he insisted that I didn’t know the details of my own credit history. When I said that if he was genuine then having such details would be a violation of the Data Protection Act the guy got quite uppity.

A couple of weeks back, another guy rang me claiming to be from the Call Prevention Service, a scam to charge money for blocking nuisance calls. I told him that I was already registered with the Telephone Preference Service and he was breaking the law by calling me. I kept repeating this while he continued blustering, eventually seguing into a chant of “Arsehole! Arsehole! Arsehole!” I said “Yes, you are” and hung up. Four or five days later, somebody from the same outfit rang me and I told them I wouldn’t be doing business with them because a member of their staff had called me an arsehole. Snigger.

Seriously though, the powers that be need to tackle these pests, preferably with extreme prejudice. Where are the SAS when you need them?

ITEM: The Marquis de Sade once said ‘One can never ask for anything more than to kill and feel righteous at the same time, the gratification of one’s lowest instincts in the service of one’s highest.’

Well, actually he might not have said it, or if he did he might not have used those exact words (or their French equivalent), but I most certainly read it, or something similar, in a book about the Marquis, and the principle stands.

My suspicion is that the chief reason for the existence of right wing political ideology is to give self-centred arseholes carte blanche to act as they wish and still feel good about themselves.

2016, with the triumph of Trump and the GOP, UKIP and Brexit, seems to have proved my suspicions are well founded.

People who in previous ages would have cheered on the troops going off to the Crusades or held crowd funders for the Inquisition, who would have gathered on Tyburn Hill for a good rope party or camped out overnight to be sure of a front row seat at Madame Guillotine, nowadays read the Daily Mule and bemoan the perfidy of benefit scroungers and bloody foreigners, then wring their hands in glee at the thought of those bounders getting a bloody good hiding from a noble band of patriots. At times it all feels positively Arthurian.

Our parents and grandparents fought a war against Nazi Germany and its allies, and in doing so saved Europe from fascist rule, but our generation is challenged to embrace fascism-lite under the pretext of saving Europe from German rule, the irony of which would be amusing if it wasn’t so bloody tragic. And of course fascism won’t stay “lite” for long – I fear we are on a road where each step becomes easier than the last and by the time we all realise where we’re going it will be too late to turn back without some huge and bloody effort.

Edited to add that of course not all “right” voters are self-centred arseholes, or even a majority of them, and equally not all “left” voters are great humanitarians (I’m certainly not).

ITEM: Post-Trump Facebook looks like a battleground at times – carnage among the cat videos. I’ve only unfriended one person, which is remarkably restrained for me (or testimony to how sound my friend vetting skills are) – an arsehole who, in the wake of Trump’s victory, was getting off on the idea of Obama’s head on a pike. Too much.

Call me a hypocrite, but I’ve never unfriended anyone for going into raptures while contemplating the death of politicians on the right – our ideological enemies are always less human than our political friends. And post-Brexit, post-Trump, I can’t help wondering if attitudes like that are part of the problem, but I have neither the inclination or the time for self-analysis – there are things to see, and people to do.

ITEM: This is the time of year when I am especially pushed for time – on the one hand, Black Static reviews need to be written two weeks earlier than usual, and on the other friends and family are constantly nagging me to go Xmas shopping, visit and drink eggnog, write cards, put up decorations etc. As a child at heart, I love just about everything about Xmas; as an adult I resent the extra demands Xmas makes on my time and as an atheist I feel like a hypocrite for celebrating the birth of JC with such gusto (but I can live with that).

Anyway, long story short and all that, for the next few weeks I won’t be doing any original blogging here, just providing filler content.

The intention has always been to archive all of my reviews on this blog (and there are still a lot to go), so for December I intend to post all the reviews that are currently festering in the Whispers of Wickedness archive currently hosted by The Future Fire. Copy and paste is about all I’ll have time for.

I could of course – and probably will – pretend that this is an Advent Calendar of sorts, but as there are only twenty two reviews by me, we’ll need to bung in a couple of extras from somewhere to make up the numbers.

For anyone who’d like a fictional Advent Calendar, courtesy of yours truly and TTA Press, click here and enjoy.

ITEM: Last, but not least, a bonus trailer, because I fear the film may have been released by the time regular blogging resumes.

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Graphic Miscellany #3

Three more graphic novels read recently:-

Weird Tales Volume Two

Written and illustrated by Diverse Hands

This is not what I was expecting given the title, but it is a collection of short strips in which assorted writers and artists get to have their way with Mike Mignola’s creation Hellboy. There are twelve stories in all, some of them no more than vignettes. We get to go on vacation with Hellboy twice; once in Hell itself, and another time in some sort of limbo where he meets jazz musician Charlie Parker, or somebody claiming to be him. We see him tackle a Grand Guignol theatre group dealing in human sacrifice, watch him deal with some ghost children, battle a giant serpent in Guatemala, and so on, and so forth. There is even a pastiche in which a member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense gets to talk with a psychiatrist about the perils and mental toll attendant on his job, while in another story two members of the Bureau get to shoot the breeze and set the world to right because there is nothing on television. It’s a fun book, but all the same there’s nothing here that is truly memorable, at least at the story level. What makes the book stand out is the wealth of artwork on display, the very different styles and approaches to the material, some of which work gloriously well, others not quite so glorious, but always interesting and worth looking at. In addition to the strips we get a gallery of Hellboy paintings and another of pencil sketches, all of which are very impressive. And finally, as a bonus, there’s a Lobster Johnson strip, set in 1939 and attempting to capture the feel of the so called golden age of comics, with a lantern jawed hero tackling the Crimson Hood and assorted Nazis. It felt out of place and horrendously retro, and was something I could have well done without.

Leatherjack

Written by John Smith, illustrated by Paul Marshall

This is set in the far future where a galactic war is raging between “the Khmer Noir, ruled by the terminally ill Lord Qwish, and the Empire of Spinsters, half-senile fanatics headed by the Dowager Khan, who are leading a crusade against smut and indecency”. So basically then it’s your decadent and autocratic Roman Emperor type versus a future Mary Whitehouse. Key to the outcome of this power struggle is the library world of Shibboleth, currently under siege by the Spinsters. Qwish sends his top agent, the genetically enhanced Leatherjack, to pierce the library world’s force field and steal a book that may contain the information to save his life and grant almost godlike power. But Leatherjack himself is transformed by the so called Book of Whispers and goes off the grid, forcing Qwish to send the mercenary Mr. Whipcord in pursuit, but the two agents have a history, one that will impact on the future of the galaxy. This is storytelling on a widescreen, with a wealth of blue sky ideas and some grotesquely larger than life characters, such as the bloated monstrosity that is Qwish with his unbridled hedonism, the fanatical Spinsters, and the foppish dandy Whipcord with his talking rabbit familiar. Leatherjack by comparison is simply a tabula rasa, on which the will and desires of others can be transcribed. At the book’s heart is the struggle between two extremes, the regimentation and censorship of the Spinsters pitted against the arbitrary and tyrannical egotism of Lord Qwish, and underlying this is the deep seated need for a third alternative, a way that is both progressive and liberal, with the subtext that knowledge is power, that learning can transform lives and even the course of galaxies. The mightiest force in this universe is a book, which is something I can certainly get behind. Overall it is a bravura performance, visually reminding me of Lynch’s Dune and the TV series Lexx, with stunning pictures of conflict and life on other worlds. I enjoyed this graphic novel very much, with my only complaint it all seemed a bit inconclusive, as if this was simply the setup for further adventures, and perhaps that’s the case. I’ll have to check it out.

Sir Edward Grey Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever

Written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi, illustrated by John Severin

An English milord comes to the Wild West in search of his nemesis, but instead Grey finds the mining town of Reidlynne, the scene of a terrible and unnatural tragedy. Its people are not too keen on him, but Grey manages to escape, and then with the aid of Wild Bill lookalike Morgan Kaler and his friend Isaac he tackles the sorceress Eris and the horde of zombies she controls. This is a pretty straightforward read, with little in the way of originality, and characters whose whole personality can easily be read from clothes they wear. The highlight is John Severin’s muscular, stylistically simply artwork, which feels very retro given the modern trend away from panels and with stuff exploding everywhere, and yet I liked it very much and thought it perfectly suited to the material. Having said that though, there really isn’t much to it and, while I like the idea in the abstract, the execution all felt a little flat.

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Trailer Trash – Passengers

I think I might make an effort to see this one.

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Filler content with a loney

The fourth and final Tartarus Press title that was originally reviewed in Black Static #49:-

TARTARUS PRESS

The Tartarus edition of Andrew Michael Hurley’s debut novel THE LONEY (Tartarus Press hc, 278pp, £35) has already sold out, though a diligent search of the internet might throw up some copies going spare at a dealer or two, or on eBay. For those whose google-foo is lacking, publishers John Murray have recently issued a paperback edition.

Smith and Hanny (Andrew) are brothers. The latter is a distinguished and respected cleric, while Smith works in a museum and is under a psychiatrist who treats him for a never clearly specified illness, though words like “fantasist” and “guilt” are bandied about. It wasn’t always like this though. As children Smith was the one who looked out for his mute and mentally disabled brother. Everything changed in 1976, when members of the congregation of Saint Jude’s Church under the leadership of Father Bernard headed off to an isolated part of the Lancashire coast known to locals as The Loney for an Easter retreat. The deeply religious Mrs Smith prays constantly and hopes that a visit to a nearby shrine will cure her son, but there are signs that something else is taking place in the background, a pagan tradition in which sacrifice is a vital ingredient. With the discovery in the present day of the body of a child, killed by a bullet back in the 1970s, all the memories that Smith has been holding at a safe distance come flooding to the fore, and all that remains for him is to protect his brother from the terrible truth of what happened all those years ago.

As the dustjacket write-up indicates, there is plenty here to bring to mind The Wicker Man, with a form of paganism almost codified into the landscape. This is no idyllic Summer Isle though, but a bleak and minatory environment, one in which man for all his delusions of mastery is only tolerated. Hurley is superb at describing that landscape, capturing the isolation of the setting and, with sounds in the night, leering natives and strange things lurking in the hedgerows, equally adept at showing that it is inimical to man, or at least to the group headed up by Father Bernard. The wind batters constantly at the walls of Moorings, the fortress like farmhouse in which the group are settled, a place of hidden rooms and grotesque stuffed animals, while outside the sea rages and shifting tides threaten to trap the unwary beachcomber, and as if to underline the hostility of the elements, something that at times feels almost personal, it is flooding that brings to light the child’s body that is the starting point for this story.

Equally well done is the characterisation, the various lines of power that stretch between the members of this insular group, the polarity represented by the overly zealous Mrs Smith and the more laidback Father Bernard leading to carefully understated clashes, while hovering in the background is the mystery of what happened to the congregation’s former priest, Father Wilfred. There is humour too, with some of the dialogue and observations, especially those concerning Mrs Smith, bringing to mind television sitcoms with a priestly slant. The story belongs to Smith though, who regards the adults with a cool eye and a reasoning brain, seeing their hopes and fears, and the cruelties they commit, petty and otherwise, drawing his own conclusions and keeping his own counsel.

Crises of faith are at the heart of it all, with questions asked as to the grounds of religious belief, and if we should stay true to our belief even when we suspect that it is only a comforting lie, that there are other and greater truths, though maybe not so agreeable. Smith has no answer to this dilemma, but finds solid ground in the determination to protect his brother come what may, to cherish and preserve Hanny’s faith even though he has lost his own. It is a human solution to a metaphysical conundrum, and Hurley’s achievement here is that he presents the reader with similar choices, allowing us the possibility of miracles but never clearly revealing their cause or the mechanisms through which they are accomplished. A beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing work of fiction, The Loney is also a book that touches on themes that are fundamental to the human condition.

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