Filler content with chapbooks

Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-

CHAPBOOKS

ROADKILL (This Is Horror, 28pp, £4.99) is written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, involved in a race with a woman known as Dubb. They are driving Vindicators at 180mph along a stretch of road called The Final Five, circumventing various obstacles in their path. Both are Gentleborn folk, members of some rigidly hierarchical society, one where everyone has a function defined by their name/clan. The winner of the race will receive Convergence, and become one of the Boymen, ageless seekers after wisdom.

You can approach this work on two levels. Superficially it’s a kind of Death Race, dragsters driven at high speed along a dubious racetrack, and on that level it’s certainly an exciting read, author Joseph D’Lacey’s slightly breathless prose capturing perfectly the thrill of speed and the demands on the driver. The heart of the story though lies in the backdrop, the vision of a barely populated Earth and wandering clans, the ceremonies and rituals that hold their society together. And in the prevalence of blood in their way of life and hints such as the fact that the Boymen are ageless and never leave the Dark Hall, we gain vital clues as to the nature of what has happened. Beneath the surface trappings is a familiar theme given a strikingly original twist.

But perhaps the most significant moment in the text comes when the Black Fox, a nature spirit of some kind, asks both drivers what they truly wish for when they and their people already have everything they need, an interlude that seems almost intrusive, a blip in the narrative arc, but one that deftly questions the values and aspirations we hold dear, the fact that we never seem to be satisfied. This is the best thing I can recall reading by Joseph D’Lacey, with all the sound and fury of novels like Meat and The Garbage Man condensed into a single poignant story, one that challenges the reader. I loved it.

TOUCH ME WITH YOUR COLD, HARD FINGERS (Nightjar Press, 15pp, £3.50) is the story of Maureen who thinks she is in a serious relationship with Tony and then one night she goes round to his flat to find him almost comatose and sitting in a chair facing a mannequin seated opposite. Tony has no idea of where it came from, and there are disturbing signs that the thing may in fact be alive. Tony appears to be hopelessly attracted to it, and in attempting to deal with her ‘rival’ Maureen might have bit off more than she can chew.

This is the first work I can recall seeing by writer Elizabeth Stott and it’s certainly an impressive piece, with a subtext on gender and sexual politics underlying the surface mood of creepiness. Maureen has ambitions to change Tony, to make him the man she wants him to be, but the implication seems to be that he also has visions of how Maureen should be, and his will appears to be the stronger, even though he seems unaware of this, with the result that her personality is subsumed. It’s a subtle work, one that captures perfectly the feel of this embryonic relationship and the futility of love in the face of conditioned expectations, with some delicious dialogue as the put upon Maureen comes to terms with her fate. And, of course, you can ignore all of this and simply see it as a spooky tale of the supernatural, one in which the doll is much more than it appears to be.

THE JUNGLE (Nightjar Press, 13pp, £3.50) put me in mind of Bradbury’s classic tale ‘The Veldt’, though the resemblance is only superficial. An over-protective father takes his son Fred out for a trip in the world, but the man’s grip on reality appears to be tenuous. He is starting to see things, people transmuting, and images from the painting of a jungle that he is producing back in his studio are bleeding into the real world. The father loses sight of Fred in a jungle gym.

This is the second Conrad Williams chapbook I’ve reviewed this year. The Fox set the bar extremely high, and this doesn’t quite clear it, but it’s still an excellent slice of disturbing fiction, the sense of unease growing as the story progresses, so that we wonder when the line is crossed and a father’s natural concern for the safety of his child becomes a terrible, stifling obsession. It’s beautifully written, as always with Williams, and the flawed personality of the father comes over well, with so much revealed by means of the snap judgements he makes about other people. And, underlying it all, there’s a feeling of angst and existential menace, the suggestion that reality can be altered through a system somewhat similar to sympathetic magic, the world of the painting seeping over into reality.

I’m not sure if AN ANTIQUE LAND (Invocations Press, 56pp, £5) belongs under the Chapbook heading, but I don’t know where else it would fit and so, in Kate Bush parlance, ‘I put this moment here’.

The inside cover defines this small book as ‘A Cryptic Caprice; Collected and Edited by John Shire’, and that’s a fairly accurate description regarding a work for which such terms as Borgesian and meta-fiction seem to have been invented. It all revolves round a travel book published in 1909, An Antique Land by Henry Piers Thursby Curtis, a volume for which he invited various explorers and travellers to submit their stories. Specifically we are reading the journal of a man who got lost in the desert and was sold as a slave to an order of monks. The Librarians, as they are known, at their mountain retreat care for the Library of Untouched Works, the Virgin’s Library, and our narrator is to join their ranks.

This Library brings to mind the idea of Platonic forms, that these unwritten tomes are the ideal books of which those in the real world are mere shadows, and occasionally one volume will escape and become an actual book. Appended to this stem narrative, are other sections detailing the origins of An Antique Land, offering snippets of criticism, quotations and comments that touch on what books represent to us, even photographs and illustrations.

It’s collage writing, but does it actually tell a story? No, I don’t think that it does, at least in any conventional sense of the term. Instead it offers a kaleidoscopic vision of literature, giving us different ways to look at books and reassessing their place in our existence. In the end only the books are real, it is we who are the fiction, characters in a drama that timelessly plays out, or at least that is how it appears in this brief but touchstone narrative, one that will set the ideas spinning inside the mind of the reader.

All four books are available in limited editions of 125, 200, 200 and 100 copies respectively, and the first three are signed by the authors. The price shown for the Nightjar Press volumes includes p&p, but for Roadkill you’ll have to pay extra, while An Antique Land appears to be available only through Bibliomancy on Amazon.

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Song for a Saturday – The Boys Are Back in Town

Well, after the proverbial forty days and nights in the wilderness I am back. Can’t say how long it will last though as currently, thanks to the incompetence of BT I have no home internet access and can only post in public libraries, which is going to get really old, really quick.

Here’s Phil and the boys.

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We’re on a break…

…so that I can whisk The Actual Girlfriend off to somewhere exotic like Yarmouth (don’t laugh – there are parts of that town which are out of this world) and attend to other stuff that needs doing without tying myself up in knots.

Back in ten days to a fortnight, depending.

Be nice to each other while I’m gone.

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Song for a Saturday – Over the Hills and Far Away

You all know this one.

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The Performers

Three biopics that I watched recently dealing with the lives of famous performers.

Walk the Line (2005)

A film based on the life of country singer Johnny Cash, telling of his childhood with an abusive father and the tragic death of his older brother, two acts that were the formative events of Cash’s life. There follows early marriage, Cash trying to juggle family life and holding down a job with his desire for success as a singer. And eventually it all takes off for Cash, but life on the road and easy access to drugs and alcohol is the singer’s undoing. He reinvents himself by performing at Folsom prison and becoming the iconic ‘man in black’. In his personal life he finds happiness by finally persuading fellow performer June Carter to marry him. This is an inspirational film, beautifully shot and with memorable performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles, the latter winning a Best Actress Oscar. Both actors perform their own songs, and they’re not too shabby about it either. The excitement of the music industry comes over well, the early days of such pioneering figures as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, when anything must have seemed possible, and set against that we have the puritanism of much of the country scene, with members of the public happy to call June a slut for her divorce. The pitfalls of fame and addiction are laid out in a non-judgemental manner, while at the same time the film makes no excuses for how Cash behaves. At its heart this is a love story, the romance between the slightly earnest Cash and the bubbly Carter, with the latter grounding the former. It’s an excellent film and one I expect to watch again, and the day after seeing it I played my Johnny Cash Greatest Hits CD a couple of times to mark the occasion.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

There’s also romance here, in a film that chronicles the tempestuous six year affair between keyboard superstar Liberace (an amazing performance from Michael Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). As a kid I used to watch Liberace on the television and loved his theatrical flair and flamboyant showmanship. I might have considered him camp, but had no idea he was gay (nobody famous was gay, back then – homosexuality is a modern invention ;-)). The great dichotomy in this film is that of the star’s public persona and his private life, with the need to prevent even a whiff of scandal paramount. Liberace does not come over as wholly admirable. He uses Scott to serve his own sexual desires, and although the younger man benefits with a lifestyle he could only ever imagine, there is no doubt as to which one of them calls the shots in the relationship. For Scott the luxury alone simply isn’t enough, something that Lee can’t quite grasp; when Scott wants a hug, Lee gives him a diamante bracelet. It is this tension that tears their relationship apart, with jealousy adding yet another frisson. And when finally Scott is replaced with a younger model, the star is almost vindictive in forcing terms onto his former lover, but you sense that Lee is driven to act as he does by fear. This fear of public exposure is the bane of both their relationship and the society of the time, and though things are better now I believe we still have a long way to go. At the end, with AIDS making discussion of Lee’s sexuality a moot point, there is something akin to a deathbed reunion between the two men, with each recognising how much they had together and how much they lost. I loved every minute of this film and found it compulsively watchable.

La Vie en Rose (2007)

The story of singer Edith Piaf, about whom I knew nothing before watching this except that she was French and sang ‘No regrets’. The film takes a non-linear approach to its material, with scenes from past and present intercut and a fuller picture emerging as we watch and garner more information. Edith’s abandonment by her mother, the formative years when she was raised in a brothel. Her first success as a nightclub singer and then becoming a national and international star. Marriages and romances, particularly a doomed affair with a boxing champion who was killed when his airplane crashed en route to visit Edith. The later years in which she was dogged by ill health, rumours of criminal associations in her past, and attempts to relaunch her career. Death of liver cancer when only forty seven. It’s a fascinating story, and star Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her performance, one that was much deserved. Cotillard shows a superb range of expressions and versatility, appearing in one scene as an overbearing superstar and natural beauty, and in another as a bitter, wizened question mark of a woman, who does nothing except feel sorry for herself. And yet despite my fascination with the film, the impression left of Piaf is far from favourable. She is abusive to others, always insistent on getting her own way, largely uncaring who she hurts. In her person are embodied all the sins of fame and hubris, and ultimately she is an icon with feet of clay. It’s just about possible to understand how she got that way, but at the same time, unlike with Cash and Liberace, very hard to feel any sympathy for her.

Anyone else got any favourite biopics?

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Filler content from the late nineteenth century

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY NOVELLAS

Chris Butler’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static’s sister magazine Interzone, whose pages he’s been gracing since 2003, and because of that connection we’ll give him a free pass into the horror wing at TTA Towers.

THE FLIGHT OF THE RAVENS (Immersion Press hb, 96pp, £10) is a book that should appeal to horror aficionados every bit as much as it will to the fantasy demographic I suspect the author had in mind when writing. It’s one of those books that slips nicely through the gaps.

The story opens in Amsterdam in1889, as Elizabeth enters an abandoned house with her brother Bernard, where she sees what appears to be a man consume him with flames, and also the vision of a raven. The scholar Huginn, a friend of her parents, is particularly interested in what has happened, returning ten years later when Elizabeth has grown up and works as a teacher. At first attracted to him, Elizabeth is later made uneasy by Lukas Nostrand, a wealthy business man who intends to enrol his son at her school. Nostrand is linked both to the house where Bernard perished and to Huginn, who is not all he seems (though for those up on their Nordic mythology the character’s name is a dead give-away). Lurking at the back of all this is an even darker menace, one with the potential to wreak great destruction if our heroine, who has developed psychic powers, including the ability to view the past, makes the wrong decision.

Butler has crafted a complex story, one that initially seems like a variation on the vampire myth, with the early scenes bringing to mind Murnau’s Nosferatu, but by grafting elements of Norse mythology onto the concept of the psychic vampire who feeds on the life force of others, he creates something more original. At the heart of the narrative is the concept of sacrifice, embodied in the figure of its ostensible villain, but while Nostrand does terrible things, we are shown that he commits these acts for a good reason, to save others from an even worse fate, and this moral quandary, a question of ends justifying means, elevates The Flight of the Ravens above much similar fare.

I have quibbles. Some of the characters stretch credibility, as with Huginn whose allegiance to pagan gods never seems to give anyone pause, while sub-plots involving his mad wife and the woman he has a one night stand with don’t add much to the overall story arc, and in the latter case seemed rather contrived. Elizabeth however is an admirable creation, somebody who has been touched by the supernatural and grown thanks to the experience, a fully rounded woman of her time, making her own way in the world. Butler is equally adept with his descriptive writing, with the scenes of fiery destruction so vividly realised that the heat almost seems to rise from the page as the city burns, while Nostrand’s despair at the death of his loved ones, the pivotal event that set his course, is achingly rendered, Butler’s compassion for his villain’s suffering overriding all else.

This is a strong story, with far more to commend it than not, a gripping account of personal tragedy and the greater good, convincingly rooted in its milieu, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

UNHALLOWED GROUND (DarkFuse eBook, 197pp, $2.99) by Daniel Mills is set in 1891 and opens with Henry Feathering on a train journey to stay with his uncle Edward at Bittersweet Lodge in Berwick. He meets brother and sister Justice and Clemency, and is attracted to her through a shared love of Gothic literature, Poe in particular. The siblings are invited to visit at Bittersweet and Henry subsequently proposes to Clemency, but Edward warns him against bringing her to live at Bittersweet, which he is to inherit on his uncle’s death. Edward believes that the Lodge is haunted by the vengeful spirit of Lily Stark, who killed herself and is buried in the grounds, and who he holds responsible for the early death of his own young bride. Though Justice is opposed to the match, the marriage takes place and the happy couple move into Bittersweet, but tragedy ensues.

Mills’ excellent novella is rich in period detail and redolent of the Gothic narratives that are referenced throughout. And yet, bleak and minatory as the atmosphere of Bittersweet is, the real threat comes from the human heart. Psychology rather than the supernatural is at play, with the characters doomed by what they cannot confide to each other even as they talk of ghostly matters with no reticence whatever. This is a story where the true nature of what is happening is evident only to the reader, the characters wearing the blinkers of custom and propriety, though Mills is canny enough not to commit completely to this schemata, leaving elbow room for belief in a spectral cause. Further enriching the narrative is Mills’ deft touch at characterisation, with the obsessive Edward, lost in a world of ancient warfare, and his manservant Asaph who acts as an equal at times, while the humour of the original introduction of the siblings undercuts the menace that will later become apparent. Also wonderfully drawn are the cousins Phyllis and Edith, two spinsters who seem more at peace with themselves than any of the other characters, so that for a cynic the moral of the story could very well be that to attain happiness/contentment you need to leave all this horror stuff and romance equally well alone, that such things will just screw you up.

Of course, some of us like being screwed up.

And lastly we have THE DEMETER (Printers Blood pb, 144pp, £7), written by Martin Jones and lovingly illustrated by Derek Gray, produced in a limited edition of 40 numbered copies, and for the collector demographic there’s a special ‘deluxe’ edition of 10 copies (not seen), with signatures, slipcase, four track complementary CD and probably a genuine bloodstain from a genuine Transylvanian Count, though they don’t mention it in the marketing, all for the bargain price of £13.

At 144 pages I’m not sure if this is a short novel or a novella, but given the number of blank pages I suspect the latter. It’s prefaced by a quotation from Poe’s ‘M. S. Found in a Bottle’, but is basically the story of Dracula’s shipboard transport to Whitby, set in 1893 by Stoker but here transplanted to the present day and told by means of the journal entries written by the Demeter’s captain. Captain Nikolai agrees to a request from English archaeologist Dr Gregory to transport four sealed boxes of earth and pottery to Whitby, and initially all goes well, with the journal referencing gossip among the crew – first mate Anton, cook Leon, old hand Boris, new guys Peter and Petrofsky (who may be gay lovers). For Nikolai the challenge is to maintain discipline and soothe tensions among the crew, but as the voyage continues a strange mood of fatalism sets in, with unnatural weather conditions, reports of a stowaway hiding on board and members of the crew disappearing, all of which sets us up for the final, shocking revelation.

I have mixed feelings about this. Jones tells the story well, with the change in mood aboard the ship and Nikolai’s eventual madness captured perfectly on the page. Handled particularly well is the dawning realisation that the ship is travelling under its own steam and the men aboard are there only as sustenance for the vampire in the hold. The other characters, and the interplay between them, are painted with conviction so that we never have reason to doubt the credibility of what is taking place. On the down side, the plot doesn’t really hold any surprises as we already know the vampire is in the hold even if the crew don’t, and some aspects of the story don’t quite hold water, such as an archaeologist with budget problems hiring a ship to transport four boxes of earth, and the ship’s captain not looking for other goods to maximise the profits of his journey.

Reflecting on this book, I’m forced to wonder what the point of it all was, and the comparison that springs to mind is Borges story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, though the analogy isn’t a precise one, given that Martin Jones’ work is a contemporary retelling of an episode from Stoker’s Dracula, rather than a direct copy. We can, via such things as the smuggling of contraband material, the gay crew members, the sense of loneliness and isolation that infect the narrative, ground the book in the present day, even unfurl its bat wings to embrace the war on (t)error and exploitation of workers, but roughly similar allusions are already present in the source material, waiting to be discovered and interpreted by each generation of new readers. Jones brings little originality to the mix, just shifts the calendar, so perhaps not Pierre Menard at all, but the equivalent of a Hollywood remake of a classic with a cast of C-listers.  Of course, I’m being unduly harsh in these comparisons. I wouldn’t dismiss it as insubstantial or without merit, and enjoyed the book more than not, but all the same I feel The Demeter will appeal more to collectors than the general reader, and on the basis of production values and rarity it’s a real bargain at the asking price, with going deluxe probably the investment choice of preference for those who are serious about diversifying their portfolio.

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Trailer Trash – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

It’s a paradox. I have my doubts about Tom Cruise, what with the whole Scientology thing, but I pretty much always enjoy his films.

This doesn’t look like being an exception to the rule.

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