OR: Scaremongers

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #9:-

Scaremongers edited by Andrew Haigh. Published by Tanjen. ‘B’ format paperback, 280pp, £6.99.

Legend has it that short story collections without a theme are notoriously difficult to place with publishers, though as the success of Nicholas Royle’s Darklands anthology would seem to prove, they have no qualms about climbing on board once the bandwagon is well and truly rolling. Independent publishers Tanjen then are to be congratulated for supporting this project, royalties from which are to be divided among three animal welfare charities.

Editor Andrew Haigh, whose name might be familiar to some by virtue of his illustrations in Peeping Tom and other magazines, has put together a collection of twenty four stories and one poem. Contributors include some of the most prestigious names in horror fiction, people like Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z. Brite, Dennis Etchison, Simon Clark, and Stephen Gallagher, plus a few who will only be known to those, such as myself, who trawl the pages of small magazines like Maelstrom.

As well as raising money for good causes this beautifully produced volume serves as an advertisement for the horror genre itself, a sort of state of the art address as the millennium approaches. And the overwhelming impression you are left with after reading the book is one of abundant good health and variety. This is not a collection aimed at a particular market niche, but one that celebrates the genre’s diversity. All tastes are catered for within its pages, from the blood and gore of Brite’s Self Made Man to the subtle effects of Different Now by Michael Marshall Smith, from the atmospheric Cat and Mouse by Campbell to the pitch black comedy of Rhys Hughes’ The Purloined Liver, from the eroticism of Cleo Cordell’s The Witch Mark to the eerie feel of The Plans They Made by Joel Lane. Chances are if you enjoy storytelling that’s a little bit out of the ordinary then you’ll find plenty that will appeal in this collection.

Go on. Be good to yourself and be nice to animals at the same time. Buy the book.

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Trailer Trash – Take the Night

Out on Friday the 8th of July.

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OR: The Hellfire Club

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #9:-

The Hellfire Club by Peter Straub. Published by Harper Collins. Paperback, 588pp, £5.99.

Imagine that the authorship of Lord of the Rings was called into question, with accusations flying that Tolkien pinched the idea and much of the plot from a fellow writer, who had then vanished off the face of the earth. Such is the basic premise of Peter Straub’s latest novel, though of course the book in question is not LoTR, but an entirely fictional work called Night Journey, supposedly written in 1938 by Hugo Driver while staying at the writers’ retreat of Shorelands. The prosperity of Chancel House is founded on the success of Night Journey and if doubts about the book’s provenance are shown to be valid the family-run publishing company faces financial ruin. When Nora Chancel, wife of Davey, the family heir, is abducted by the serial killer Dick Dart, who for reasons of his own wants the past uncovered, the quest for the truth about what happened at Shorelands all those years ago begins in earnest.

Straub is a writer whose work has changed much over the years. Early books such as Julia and If You Could See Me Now were densely written chillers with the emphasis on atmosphere and psychology, in the manner of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. With later books like Ghost Story and Floating Dragon he became more accessible, moving into the blockbuster territory occupied by his compatriot Stephen King, with whom Straub collaborated on The Talisman. Most recently he seems to have abandoned the supernatural elements which used to be his stock in trade, preferring to write novels of suspense rather than horror, a trend which The Hellfire Club continues.

There is horror in this book, such as the disturbing scenes where Dick Dart rapes Nora, but while such incidents add to the overall verisimilitude of what is related they remain only peripheral to the novel’s main concerns. More properly considered this is a mystery story of that sort where the truth is buried deep in the past and the characters must be part archaeologist to unearth it, the kind of thing Robert Goddard used to do so well. Many of the features typical of such fiction are present – the madwoman safely shut away in an upstairs bedroom with her secrets, the tyrannical head of the family, the servant who is much more than he seems, the son and heir of dubious birth. Straub takes it all and mixes it up to present us with something that is by turn startlingly new and comfortingly familiar.

I have some reservations. Dick Dart is a chilling creation, the most frightening fiend since Hannibal Lecter, as one critic avows, but I can’t help feeling that alliterative name trivialises him somewhat. And I was irritated by the way in which people conveniently drop dead whenever Dick and Nora need a car. The title is something of a red herring, in that while there is an institution called the Hellfire Club in the book it is largely irrelevant to the story. Such quibbles fade into insignificance though as Straub’s masterly prose sweeps you along and revelation follows hard on the heels of revelation.

This is not Peter Straub’s best book as King claims in the cover blurb, but it is a marvellously readable story, peopled with believable characters and packed with enough twists and plot turns to keep all but the most jaded reader guessing.

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Rock n’ Roll Star/The World Goes On

We end this month long celebration of BJH with a double bill.

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Books Read in 2006

This post follows on from Books Read in 2005, which I posted at the end of May.

And for 2006 I read exactly one hundred books, down eight from 2005’s total. In terms of new discoveries, no writers leap out. A lot of my reading was done for review, but aside from that there was a month focused on vampire novels, a month of American thriller/crime books, and a month of horror (mostly Leisure paperbacks), and the last two months of the year had more than their fair share of poetry collections.

On this day in 2006 I was reading “Living Dead in Dallas” which, along with April’s “Dead Until Dark” was my introduction to Charlaine Harris, Sookie Stackhouse, and the town of Bon Temps, the source material for TV show True Blood. And on the day I turned 52 I dipped a toe in charity volume “One City”, with long stories by Alexander McCall Smith, Irvine Welsh, and Ian Rankin, all set in the city of Edinburgh.

One book that I can’t recall the author of, or learn from Google, Amazon, or my own record keeping efforts – “Demons in the Dark”, which weighed in at 173 pages. If anyone recognises the title and can tell me the author, please reply in the comments.

Okay, here’s the list:-

Wild Things – Charles Coleman Finlay

Bernie Hermann’s Manic Sextet – Edited by Gary Fry

Twisted Souls – Shaun Hutson

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: City of Night – Dean Koontz & Ed Gorman

Nemesis – Vincent Cobb

Nightmare on Elm Street: Protege – Tim Waggoner

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection – Edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Edited by Richard Lancelyn Green

The English Soil Society – Tim Nickels

Mean Mode Median – Aliya Whiteley

King of the Birds – Alison L. R. Davies

Dusk – Tim Lebbon

An Occupation of Angels – Lavie Tidhar

Brainchild – Diverse Hands

Glass Soup – Jonathan Carroll

Milo’s Run – Danny King

Dark Corners – Steve Volk

King of the Road – Charlie Williams

Strange Itineraries – Tim Powers

Some of Your Blood – Theodore Sturgeon

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson

Lilith’s Dream – Whitley Strieber

Carmilla – Sheridan Le Fanu

The Hand of Dracula – Robert Lory

The Vampire Tapestry – Suzy McKee Charnas

Dead Until Dark – Charlaine Harris

The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula – Roderick Anscombe

The Skin Gods – Richard Montanari

The Ephemera – Neil Williamson

Cinema Macabre – Edited Mark Morris

The Face of Twilight – Mark Samuels

Fine Cuts – Dennis Etchison

Nietzsche’s Kisses – Lance Olsen

Sexy Dreams – Diverse Hands

Comes the Dark – David Taub

Pig Island – Mo Hayder

Practical Demonkeeping – Christopher Moore

Monster Island – David Wellington

Dead Horsemeat – Dominique Manotti

Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

The Pocket Essential Hammer Films – John McCarty

Rumble Tumble – Joe R. Lansdale

Living Dead in Dallas – Charlaine Harris

Three Things About Me – Aliya Whiteley

Demons in the Dark

The Bloodstone Papers – Glen Duncan

A Cold Heart – Jonathan Kellerman

Want to Play? – P. J. Tracy

Trace – Patricia Cornwell

Metro Girl – Janet Evanovich

Blood of Angels – Michael Marshall

Entombed – Linda Fairstein

Night Fall – Nelson De Mille

Off Season – Jack Ketchum

Caliban and Other Tales – Robert Deveraux

Shelter – L. H. Maynard & M. P. N. Sims

Family Inheritance – Deborah LeBlanc

Naomi – Jonathan Aycliffe

The Conqueror Worms – Brian Keene

Monstrosity – Edward Lee

World of Hurt – Brian Hodge

The Face of Twilight – Mark Samuels

The Culled – Simon Spurrier

Sorcery in Shad – Brian Lumley

Death Hulk – Matthew Sprange

Stray Dog – Gareth O’Callaghan

Black Water – Joyce Carol Oates

Fear and Trembling – Amelie Nothomb

Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Scent of Your Breath – Melissa P.

Harold’s End – J. T. Leroy

When Graveyards Yawn – Edited Sean Wright

Paranoid Landscapes – David Mathew

A Fine Dark Line – Joe R. Lansdale

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – Wendy Cope

High Windows – Philip Larkin

Tell Me the Truth About Love – W. H. Auden

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – T. S. Eliot

Death of a Naturalist – Seamus Heaney

How Much of Us There Was – Michael Kimball

Cuts – Malcolm Bradbury

Travels in the Scriptorium – Paul Auster

The Waste Land and other Poems – T. S. Eliot

One City – Alexander McCall Smith/Ian Rankin/Irvine Welch

A Spy in the House of Love – Anais Nin

Telling Lies – Sophie Marceau

The Dream Room – Marcel Moring

All You Who Sleep Tonight – Vikram Seth

Spanking the Maid – Robert Coover

Roland Penrose – Edited by Joanna Drew

The Betrayed – David Hosp

Perdido – Chase Twichel

The Ruins – Scott Smith

Cycle of the Werewolf – Stephen King

The Colorado Kid – Stephen King

Paradoxia: A Predator’s Story – Lydia Lunch

Secret Story – Ramsey Campbell

The Ray Bradbury Chronicles 2 – Diverse Hands

The Gods of Winter – Dana Gioia

The Order of the Day – Andrew Greig

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OR: Bite

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #9:-

Bite by Richard Laymon. Published by Headline. Paperback, 378pp, £5.99.

It’s called Bite, so naturally there’s a vampire, or at least someone who claims to be a vampire. His name is Elliot and Cat had him kill her husband, who did unspeakable things. The only problem is that now Elliot shows up in her bedroom at night and does unspeakable things. There are a lot of unspeakable things in this book; at times the characters seem to talk about nothing else. Cat turns to Sam, her teenage sweetheart. He hasn’t seen her for years and doesn’t believe in vampires, but quickly gets with the programme, hiding in Cat’s wardrobe to emerge clutching a wooden stake at the critical moment. Sixty pages in and Elliot is dead, or perhaps that should be deader. At this point the book takes to the road and the real story begins. With Elliot wrapped up in a tarpaulin and bundled in the car boot, Cat and Sam set off into the desert in search of a burial site, along the way getting into more scrapes and meeting up with more weirdos than Thelma and Louise ever dreamed of.

This, in case you haven’t guessed, is a very silly book. None of the characters are likeable. Cat comes over as manipulative and scheming, while the most charitable thing that can be said about Sam is that he’s a lovesick dope. They are both monumentally stupid, which is probably just as well, as if anyone acted sensibly for more than five minutes at a stretch the plot would fall apart. The only intriguing thing about the book, the is he/isn’t he a vampire twist with regard to Elliot, is a card Laymon has played before and to much better effect in The Stake. The rest is just warmed up leftovers with a splattering of tepid gore, and soon becomes tiresome.

I like Richard Laymon, though I have reservations about certain aspects of his work, especially the sometimes cavalier treatment of sexual violence (rape in Laymon books seems little more traumatic than finding a pimple). Most of his novels are fast paced and entertaining, while the best, such as Island, rise above the limitations of their material to shine a light on some darker corners of the human psyche. Bite though reads like it was cobbled together over a wet weekend to please the bank manager, and should only be purchased by Laymon completists or people who might otherwise donate their money to a political party.

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Trailer Trash – The Black Phone

Based on a Joe Hill story that appeared in The Third Alternative #39.

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OR: Last Rites & Resurrections

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #8:-

Last Rites & Resurrections. Edited by Andy Cox. Published by TTA Press. ‘B’ format paperback, 170pp, £5.99.

For close on three years Andy Cox has been publishing fiction that eludes easy definition in The Third Alternative, and now we have this handsome anthology of short stories culled from the pages of that magazine. Contributors include some of the most seasoned performers on the independent press scene, people like Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane, Mike O’Driscoll, and Conrad Williams, along with a smattering of new names that will undoubtedly become more familiar with time.

These are stories set at a tangent to what we customarily understand by such terms as genre and mainstream perhaps owing more to the writings of Borges, Garcia Marquez and the magic realists than they do to Western literary tradition. They offer, as Andy Cox is at pains to point out in his Introduction, a third alternative. Thematically they seem to be linked by a shared sense of loss and a deep seated need to come to terms with the grief this engenders, but if so they approach the subject from a wide variety of idiosyncratic and oblique angles.

Take the title story, ‘Last Rites and Resurrections’ by Martin Simpson. The narrator of this story stops his car one day to move a dead animal from the road, and the animal speaks to him, explaining how it came to be killed. In the days and weeks that follow he has many similar encounters. Whether he is actually experiencing some breakdown in natural law or, on a more prosaic level, has simply lost touch with reality is largely irrelevant. The plot device of dead animals that talk works as a mechanism enabling the narrator to come to terms with tragedies in his own life, the death of his son and break up of his marriage. A premise that could so easily have been rendered ridiculous or reduced to schlock horror, instead becomes the foundation for a story full of tenderness and compassion. A remarkable debut for Martin Simpson.

There’s a Ballardian feel to many of these stories, in that when extraordinary events take place the how and why of them isn’t so important as the way in which people react. In Lawrence Dyer’s ‘The Angel of the Moor’ the discovery of a dead body acts as a catalyst for the protagonist, bringing into focus dissatisfaction with his own life, while the heroine of ‘The Guinea Worm’ by Julie Travis is led to a similar moment of epiphany by the ‘chance’ find of a series of horrific photographs. In ‘A Breath of Not Belonging’ by Rick Cadger two of life’s also-rans are able to transform their sordid existence through the medium of love and mutual need.

Not all the stories work. I was especially disappointed by ‘Supple Bodies’ from the usually excellent Conrad Williams. Beautifully written, full of detail and subtle shades of emotion, this is the story of a rape victim trying to make some sort of sense out of her ordeal, but when the supernatural element appears at the end it seems intrusive and unnecessary, an avoidance rather than a resolution of all that had gone before. Such let-downs are the exception rather than the rule though, and even the stories that don’t quite come off are so well written that you don’t feel time spent reading them is wasted.

My personal favourite was ‘The Ties that Blind’ by Mike O’Driscoll, in which the inhabitants of a small American town are menaced by a seemingly invincible killer. This could so easily have been hackneyed and clichéd, but O’Driscoll writes with such sensitivity and insight into his character’s motives that it all comes over as fresh and original. Mat Coward’s ‘Clean and Bright’ is a wry, humorous study of obsession. While ‘Because of Dust’ is the best story that I’ve seen from Chris Kenworthy, a finely observed and moving account of the death of a loved one.

There are sixteen stories in this collection and taken as a whole they are representative of the best that the independent press has to offer. Subscribers to TTA magazine will no doubt argue about what stories should or should not have been included. What cannot be disputed is that this is a collection of remarkable range and an effective answer to those who see magazines like TTA, BBR and, indeed, Maelstrom itself, as nothing more than a dumping ground for writing that couldn’t hack it commercially. Do yourself a favour and buy the book while stocks last.

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Offhand, this might be my favourite BJH song (I can’t be sure without checking back through the entire discography – so many good tunes).

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NR: Witch Bottle

After an absence of eight years, Witch Bottle sees author Tom Fletcher make a triumphant return to the bosom of the horror genre from which his novel writing career launched in 2010 with The Leaping. (By way of a sidebar, there’s another Tom Fletcher who was a founder member of band McFly and since 2012 has had considerable success as a writer of children’s books – hopefully nobody will get the two confused.)

Years ago Daniel walked out on wife Ellie and newborn daughter Marianne. He now works for the Bean as a milkman, delivering to isolated farmhouses and other places in the Lake District. Lately he’s been haunted by a hooded figure and in his past there is a vision of a ravenous giant. Other people on his rounds are seeing ghosts to their horror, and Daniel has an intuition that it is all somehow connected to the proliferation of the Fallen Stock men, who gather up the corpses of diseased livestock and take them away in their black vans. Daniel’s new girlfriend Kathryn is a witch and produces witch bottles that will help to keep the ghosts at bay, but Daniel gets a very clear warning from the Fallen Stock men that she is to desist from this activity, which is interfering with some plan of theirs. To thwart the Fallen Stock men’s evil and head off the threat of a spiritual malaise infecting reality, Daniel must first confront the horrors of his past – what happened between him and wife Ellie, and the truth about his younger brother.

I couldn’t get into this book at first – there was rather too much about the working life of a milkman and the intricacies of running a business than I had an appetite for – but Fletcher interjected the odd slice of weirdness that kept me reading, and all the milkman stuff proves to be a case of setting the scene and grounding his story in the everyday so that when the shocks come they hit all the harder. And yes, the book comes on like gang-busters eventually, with the Fallen Stock men a sinister, minatory creation, but agents of a greater evil, while the dreams had by Daniel, Kathryn, and Ellie fill in yet more of the story, with their revelatory hints of what is taking place in the metaphysical realms.

In the back story of Daniel, Ellie and the birth of Marianne we have a compelling portrayal of modern romance and the strictures implicit in the act of having a child, with Marianne’s birth a true nightmare, while what follows after sees Daniel afraid that the events of his past will repeat themselves. Playing counterpoint to this is his current love affair with Kathryn, one that is far more grounded and at the same time less committed, neither of them feeling that they have found ‘the one’. Kathryn has her own fascinating back story, one of abuse and righteous revenge that enlarges on the misogyny theme implicit in the material. The political dimension is touched on too, with feelings of hopelessness helping to fuel the negativity of the Fallen Stock men, or rather providing the raw fuel for their depredations. In a similar vein, Daniel’s difficulties with fellow worker Ryan is influenced by the differences between them (woke versus gammon, to over simplify), and then there are the problems that Daniel has with his disconnected mother and rapacious uncle, all of which make the book feel very real.

Daniel has writerly ambitions of his own, and there is the suspicion that the story he hopes to tell one day is itself a reflection of what is happening in our version of reality. In the figure of the ravenous giant we have a disturbing and yet appropriate metaphor for what ails the world compounded with moments of horror and scenes of gore, and that all of this is taking place in an area of outstanding natural beauty adds to the feeling of wrongness, with scenes from the past to remind Daniel of how wonderful his life once was.

Folk horror with a cosmological feel and political subtext, with plot twists and shocks galore, Witch Bottle is a powerful and multi-faceted work, one that reflects the zeitgeist of the times and is arguably Tom Fletcher’s best novel to date.

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