Filler content with salt

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static ~36:-

SALT PUBLISHING

Salt is a small UK publisher with a penchant for punching well above its weight, as witness the appearance of Alison Moore’s first novel The Lighthouse on the short list for the Man Booker Prize for 2012.

Alice Thompson’s sixth novel, BURNT ISLAND (Salt Publishing pb, 211pp, £8.99) is the story of writer Max Long who, having been critically acclaimed but never commercially successful, decides to produce a horror novel as everybody knows that’s where the money is, and to further this end he applies for a writer’s retreat on isolated Burnt Island. Unfortunately the accommodation is not quite what he expected, but also on the island is bestselling author James Fairfax, who kindly puts him up. As Long stays with Fairfax he becomes involved with the writer’s precocious daughter Rose and intrigued by the mystery of his missing wife, while suspicions are planted in his mind that Fairfax might not actually have written the book on which his reputation rests. Reality and hallucination overlap, as Max finds himself not only writing a horror novel but a character in the work, the plot galloping full forward to the end twist.

Though the bleak and vividly realised setting is a far cry from the Greek islands, this book put me very much in mind of The Magus by John Fowles, with the same sense that psycho-dramas are being enacted to ensure the protagonist behaves in a particular way, but with a soupcon of The Wicker Man to add genre spice. In Max the writer personality dominates the stage, a man obsessed with his craft to the extent that it has cost him his marriage and he is in danger of losing his son, but at the same time he is unable to abandon the idea that he is somehow special, and the inhabitants of Burnt Island reinforce that prejudice, with the local doctor who just happens to have read all his books and the young woman offering sexual favours. As the narrative progresses we come to realise that Max is dangerously unhinged, or perhaps perilously sane might be a better description, and the events that take place push him to the edge, so that he finds it increasingly hard to differentiate between fact and fantasy, fiction and real life, as with Rose who writes him into her sexual fantasies. In the context given Bob Dylan’s comment about letting you be in my dream if I can be in yours seems wholly apposite, only for dream read story.

At the end Thompson seems to be hinting that writing is a parasitic occupation, a form of vampirism even, writers taking the events of others’ lives and using them as raw material, and in the relationship between Fairfax and Long that is taken to an extreme. Exquisitely written, with a real feel for the wide open spaces and the indifference of nature, but at the same time showing how these things are mirrored in the human heart, this is a miniature gem of a book, one that tells us something of the gothic while remaining thoroughly modern in the telling, with a meta-fictional streak that places the practice of writing itself under the microscope.

Stephen McGeagh’s debut novel HABIT (Salt Publishing pb, 167pp, £8.99) is set in Manchester, and gives us as a protagonist unemployed Michael, who at first brush reads like somebody in a wet dream Iain Duncan Smith had one night after reading The Daily Mail as he stumbles between Job Centre and pub, but strip away the veneer, look a bit closer and the picture emerges of somebody who is struggling, an essentially good person in a fix through no fault of his own, a young man who is loyal to his mates and family, who shares what he has with those in need.

The pivotal moment comes when Michael meets Lee, and she takes him to a massage parlour in the Northern Quarter run by her ‘Uncle’ Ian. Michael finds himself strangely drawn to 7th Heaven, despite having carmine coloured dreams inspired by the parlour, and takes a job there. As he learns more about Ian, Lee and the unusual ‘family’ of outsiders attached to parlour, Michael recognises it as a place where he belongs, among people who share the same desires, traits that he never realised he possessed until contact with others of his kind brought these appetites to the surface. But Michael can’t abandon his humanity completely, and this hesitation on his part is the undoing of them all.

This is a grim, bleak novel, written in a spare, every word counts prose style; a story that takes horror genre tropes and brutally subverts them. Michael’s life is so unrelentingly miserable and pointless that he is willing to embrace something that horrifies him, simply because he finds acceptance within the ranks of these outsiders. The prevailing mood here is one of not so quiet desperation, of people who are driven in pursuit of anything that offers a semblance of hope, and in the fate of the punters who come to 7th Heaven in search of sexual gratification we see the worst fears of the would-be exploiters, the rich and self-satisfied realised, that the poor will in some way consume them, drag them down and expunge their existence. What we have here is a variation of the cannibal family/tribe, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre brood, translated to an urban setting, but in such a way that it ties the book into the whole literature of non-human species existing alongside of human beings and just under the radar, though the supernatural aspect is highly ambiguous if not non-existent and what we get here is far grimier and more downbeat than anything to be found in the pages of Charlaine Harris et al. It reminded me of nothing so much as the film Society, but with a far more shocking act of ‘union’ in lieu of the transformative ‘shunt’. The message, if there is one, seems to be that only those at the top and bottom of society’s food chain can abandon conventional morality, those who have nothing to gain by adhering to social mores or lose through abandoning them, though here, for Michael and the others,  ultimately that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Not so much a horror story as misery memoir etched on human flesh and with blood red trim, this is a powerful first appearance from a young writer who will bear watching.

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Song for a Saturday – Leah

Bruce.

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Filler content with novels

Four novel reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-

MISCELLANEOUS NOVELS

I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of short story collections by Ralph Robert Moore, and said as much in the pages of this magazine, but AS DEAD AS ME (Sentence Publishing paperback, 205pp, $13.95) is my first novel, and it came as something of a shock. Considering the originality of his work in the short form (an example appears in this issue of Black Static), I was surprised to see him tackling one of the horror genre’s most familiar tropes, the zombie apocalypse, though the author gives it his very own, uniquely individual spin.

Our protagonist Jack opens the book by getting involved in a car crash, when driving to visit his girlfriend. Hospitalised, he is in a unique position to view the onslaught of the zombie plague, barely escaping with his life and surviving through scavenging until rescued by a military unit. Led by the avuncular Colonel, this small band of survivors flees to an island free of zombies, hatching plans to rebuild civilisation with all the zeal of a Wellsian artilleryman planning the downfall of Martian invaders. Jack becomes a respected member of their community, taking part in foraging raids that bring back an oil tanker to meet the community’s energy requirements, food and livestock and medical supplies from the mainland, and in a daring raid on a prison for women adding to their genetic stock. The future is looking bright, but of course this is a work of horror fiction and there are no happy endings, with the tipping point now reached and the narrative plunging into a dive from which neither characters or reader can recover, with flesh on every side and not a man alive, to paraphrase Coleridge, though you’ll have to read the book yourself to determine if doing so is apt or not.

As Dead As Me is, as I’d expect from Moore, a well written and fast paced story, one that takes no prisoners. As regards the plot, I have only the one reservation, in that I would have expected some of the survivors to have seen Romero’s Land of the Dead and twig what is going on with the zombies at the end, and also – plot spoiler alert!!! – I’m not convinced that water pressure wouldn’t have crushed any zombies attempting to reach the island by walking along the sea floor, so on that score the ending doesn’t quite ring true. Credibility may be beside the point however, in that the bleakness of the book’s last pages, underlining the futility of man’s attempts to survive, is the whole point of the story, with a final, soul crushing image of endless numbers of zombies marching from one horizon to the next and never finding what they seek.

While this is, undeniably, a dystopian zombie novel, one in which the living do not get back up off the deck and show the dead what they are made of, Moore plays fair with the reader who came expecting something more upbeat, providing plenty of thrills and spills along the way and offering visions of hope, even if only to ultimately render them all null and crushed beneath the wheels of his narrative. There’s plenty of sound and fury, as with the fight on the oil tanker, various running battles and the increasingly desperate efforts to escape from the prison as the zombie horde batter at the gate and walls. Along the way we get peaceful interludes, moments in which we can see what Jack and the others are made of, the kind of people they might have been in other circumstances, and the grace under pressure that they demonstrate in the face of a world that has fallen in on itself and in doing so torn away everyone they ever loved. By making his characters so fully rounded, Moore gives us a reason to care about them, and this in turn makes the book’s resolution all the more poignant and painful. Kudos also to him for avoiding clichés in developing his dramatis personae; nobody here goes mad or betrays the others, the soldiers don’t turn into murderous zealots and the solitary scientist on the scene doesn’t just happen to be the one who unleashed the zombie plague in the first place, all of which I found rather refreshing. These are just ordinary human beings, acting with common decency in the face of the unacceptable, and that is all she wrote.

The other thing that comes over very well, is the need for hard choices to be made, with the wounded killed rather than left behind to become zombies, the abandonment of ideas of faithfulness in the face of the need to breed, and with even the zombies considered for reproduction, raising questions that will probably polarise the readership and introduce a grim streak that undercuts the story. And so yes, Moore has written a zombie novel, but it’s not just another zombie novel. He takes the familiar and makes it heartrendingly sad, but not at the expense of the action fans of this subgenre will have come to expect from zombie fare.

Eric Red’s DON’T STAND SO CLOSE (Short, Scary Tales Publications hardback, 268pp, £19.95) is the story of new kid in town, seventeen year old Matt Poe, for whom the ultimate teenage wet dream becomes a reality, with beautiful teacher Linda Hayden lusting after his hot young bod and drawing Matt into a torrid affair. But when Matt decides to end things after becoming enamoured with nice girl Grace McCormack, the daughter of the town’s Sheriff, his teacher turns out to not be quite as obliging as she is in other ways. In fact Ms Hayden has a history of this type of thing, travelling round the country from one educational institution to another and seducing the students in her charge, often driving them to suicide.

This is a fast paced tale of teenage lust turning sour, and entertaining enough on that level, with plenty of twists and turns, the kind of thing that Richard Laymon in his heyday would have knocked out of the park. More than anything it reminded me of the film Swimfan, with a teacher replacing the besotted bathing beauty in the role of sociopath with benefits, and of course by making his femme fatale a teacher Red opens up a whole other can of worms touching on our fears regarding the people we trust to look after our children. But there are problems. For starters, I’m not quite convinced by the idea of Ms Hayden fitting into each new community and moving on when her ‘work’ is done – there would presumably be relocation fees, expenses etc., and I would hope schools run background checks on the staff they employ, but none of this seems to have been satisfactorily addressed. Eric Red is a scriptwriter whose credits include Near Dark and The Hitcher, and perhaps this background explains why he can’t resist the clichéd ending of having the monster escape and live to slay another day, while the explanation via back story that he gives for Linda’s behaviour, laudable as it was in creating motivation and some sympathy for the devil, complicates things in that Matt Poe no longer seems such an obvious victim for her.

The biggest obstacle for me though is the writing. There are too many scenes where I simply can’t envisage how the action takes places, as when Matt has his hand up Linda’s dress during a burial ceremony and apparently no-one notices (yes, they’re standing at the back of the crowd, but either Linda hikes up the dress or Matt has to bend double, neither of which convinces), or the scene when a jock is knocked out of the cab of a farm machine by an assailant he hasn’t noticed in the small space and manages to fall onto the spokes of the thresher at the front of the vehicle. I don’t say these things are impossible, but as described here I simply can’t visualise them. Another thing I found annoying were sudden shifts of perspective, so that we’re reading about Matt and Grace, he and she, him and her, and then disconcertingly it changes to something more detached like ‘the teenager’ or ‘the kid’. There are also moments of the ‘eyes rolled round the room’ type, as when Matt is in the living room of Ms Hayden’s house and ‘whirled to see the grandfather clock upstairs loudly toll nine o’clock’. The sex scenes, where delicacy of expression is almost obligatory, are especially cringe worthy, with references to motors revving and pocket rockets, while phrases like ‘He was overcome with overwhelming lust and sexual fever’ and ‘His fingers met moistness as her gloved fingers pressed his fingers deep inside her’ seem to have been penned with one eye on the Bad Sex Awards. As well as being about horny teenagers the novel sometimes feels like it could just as easily have been written by one. I’ve loved what I’ve seen of Eric Red’s work as a scriptwriter (the films referenced above), but have serious doubts about his prose chops on the basis of this evidence. Don’t Stand So Close needed a thorough edit to realise the potential of the story, instead of leaving the reader with a sensitive ear wincing at such prose indelicacies.

Though it’s the most recently published, I believe AXE (Double Dragon eBooks, 294pp, £3.06) is Terry Grimwood’s first novel. Forty something Steve Turner still clings to his dream of success as a rock musician, occasionally playing with his band at night while keeping body and soul together by working on a building site during the day. He hooks up with Lydia Walker, a white bread woman who appears to be out of his league, but who is attracted to his gruff honesty and has a past that includes an abusive husband, from whom she is in hiding. All seems well until Steve becomes the owner of a parcel of old music, which may have been written by legendary guitarist Andy Crane, a man who died in mysterious circumstances. As he plays this strange music, Steve is transformed, tapping into the hellish power of The Song that underlies all existence and unleashing forces that are inimical to life as we know it.

Axe lacks the ambition of Grimwood’s later books, titles like The Places Between and Bloody War, and the prose sophistication of Soul Masque (see above). What we have here is a bog standard, balls to the wall tale of forbidden music and gateways to power, of cursed instruments and unwelcome revenants, told with considerable panache and working so well because of the humanity Grimwood brings to the endeavour, the way in which he makes the people central. At the heart of the story is Steve’s relationship with Lydia, gradually deteriorating as The Song captivates him, Steve becoming a distorted mirror image of her hated husband, with the idea of love saving them both a straw at which they clutch. Steve is changed in other ways, getting angry with his band mates who seem ready to give up on the dream of rock stardom, to accept that they are now family men, with responsibilities. Seen in the relationships of some of the other characters, the underlying theme here seems to be that there comes a moment to abandon our dreams before they sour and taint the rest of our lives, our whole world. Add to that an intriguing back story courtesy of Andy Crane and his enigmatic lady love, some finely drawn characters, plus a battery of spectral effects and in your face horror imagery, and the end result is a novel that, while it won’t break any moulds or win any awards, is an entertaining read from a writer who knows his stuff.

Lastly we have MECHAGNOSIS (Dog Horn Publishing paperback, 144pp, £12.99), Douglas Thompson’s fourth novel, and the third that I’ve read by him. Scott Malthrop is a murderer, but one who is able to hide his crimes through the manipulation of time. His house has been given over to an enormous device known simply as The Machine, built by Scott and his father, and which he believes enables him to travel in time. But as Scott’s distortions of the fabric of reality grow ever more extreme, he comes to the attention of Wroclaw, a local Police Inspector, and two angels sent back from the end of time. The only escape route for Scott Malthrop, is to disappear inside the bowels of The Machine.

It’s a short book compared to its predecessors, but probably Thompson’s most challenging work to date, and I’d be lying if I claimed to understand it fully. If I’m engaging with it correctly, the master conceit here seems to be that objects (and The Machine is just an assemblage of objects, a personal Palace of Memory) have the potential to induce sensations so intense that they transport us back to the time when we first encountered them (think Proust’s madeleine, though as I haven’t actually read In Search of Lost Time that comparison could be totally off target). Memories are made real, in a world where the mechanical and the organic have fused to create some new form of gnosis, knowledge. Onto this scenario Thompson has grafted a police investigation, one that is as satisfying as it is convincing, with shades of The X-Files in the mix, and add to that the spiritual/metaphysical aspects which question the nature of reality and consciousness itself. And yet it remains a very human book despite the esoteric concerns. Scott’s crimes are committed primarily to keep his secret, but at the same time by preserving their bodies in The Machine he can ensure those he loves remain close to him, like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians choosing the moments in which to live. Beautifully written, beautifully characterised, particularly in the case of Wroclaw, an old man yearning for the things he feels he has missed out on, this is a book that will reward future readings, one that like The Machine itself, has secrets to reveal, visions of other realities.

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Song for a Saturday – You Learn

Here’s Alanis:-

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2015 – The Story So Far

Continuing a Trumpetville tradition…

For the months January through March, I read a total of thirty seven books, most of which were published prior to 2015.

So, in the order I preferred them when I compiled the list ten minutes ago (and, of course, it may be subject to change), here’s my top thirteen books for 2015 so far:-

Fearful Symmetries – Edited by Ellen Datlow (CZP)

Gifts for the One Who Comes After – Helen Marshall (CZP)

Ghosters – Ralph Robert Moore (Sentence Publishing)

The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft – Paul Roland (Plexus)

Dreams of Shreds & Tatters – Amanda Downum (Solaris)

Through Dark Angles – Don Webb (Hippocampus)

Lovecraft’s Monsters – Edited by Ellen Datlow (Tachyon)

The Madness of Cthulhu – Edited by S. T. Joshi (Titan Books)

Black Wings IV – Edited by S. T. Joshi (PS Publishing)

The Acolytes of Cthulhu – Edited by Robert M. Price (Titan Books)

The Dark Return of Time – R. B. Russell (Swan River Press)

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke – Edited by Jim Rockhill & Brian J. Showers (Swan River Press)

Whispers in the Dark – Edited by Scott Harrison (Snow Books)

It breaks down as two novels, three collections, one biography, and seven anthologies. Publishers CZP, Titan Books, and Swan River Press all appear twice on the list, as do Ellen Datlow and S. T. Joshi individually.

By my count, ten of these books weren’t first published in 2015, including those in the top four spots, so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading in 2015’ rather than ‘Pete’s best of the year’ (a not too subtle distinction) and, of course, I only read a fraction of what gets published.

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Trailer Trash – Maggie

Last week we had Abigail Breslin as a final girl, and this week she’s a zombie.

Way to go, Abi!

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Filler content with Pendragon Press

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-

PENDRAGON PRESS

Gardner Goldsmith’s BITE (Pendragon Press paperback, 81pp, £4.99) comes with back cover blurbs from Christopher Golden, Mark Morris and Brian Keene. It’s the story of Sylvester Cole, who you can think of as Philip Marlowe reinvented as a one man Winchester brothers. After too many years spent living off the map and killing vampires, Cole plans to retire, when into his life comes the beautiful Ashley, with a plea to dispose of the vampire tracking her. Though there are holes in her story, Cole is persuaded to help as a way of reconnecting with his humanity and assuaging any guilt he may feel at having slain her vampire sister, while the fact that Ashley is beautiful isn’t a disincentive either. There follow various alarums and excursions, one of which involves the police, before the rug gets pulled out from under the feet of both Cole and the reader.

There’s little that’s new here; we’re in territory that’s already been pretty well mapped by Charlie Huston with his Joe Pitt novels for one, and those who caught my Supernatural reference above will also have an idea where Bite is coming from. Goldsmith does come up with an excellent twist at the end, and what he lacks in originality in the body of the story is more than made up for with lashings of style. It’s the snappy prose and the character of Cole himself that brings sauce to the table. He is pretty much the stereotype for this kind of story, hard-bitten and not allowing himself to care, until redeemed by the love of a good woman, with a collection of interesting friends, possibly too much reliance on alcohol, a dark deed in his past, and the suggestion that this is something he is running away from. And all of this combines to make him an interesting anti-hero for the sixty or so pages of the novella, though if you passed the guy in the street you’d not give him a second glance, or possibly mistake him for a tramp. Goldsmith’s writing is appropriately terse, with some metaphors and similes that provide an interesting slant on the story and make the book a pleasure to read, while its depiction of a Las Vegas that seldom makes it onto the screen of CSI adds an intriguing backdrop. I had a good time with it, and am happy to play d’Artagnan to the three blurbeteers listed above. Recommended.

Two short stories add ballast to the book. ‘Alone’ was well written but negligible, a brief picture of a man waiting for them to come and get him, with a last sentence that throws the narrator’s reliability into question. More substantial is ‘Sigil’, with another lone man ruminating on the past, but as we come to realise the nature of the idyllic memories he so cherishes, the complexion of the story changes along with our sympathy for the character.

I’m not sure if FADE-OUT (Pendragon Press paperback, 122pp, £8) by Gavin Salisbury is a novella or a short novel, but I suspect the former. Jane Matthews appears to be an ordinary student, living at home with her parents, except that she is the only person who ever leaves the house. Over a period of time the rest of the family have lost the ability to communicate, with speech and writing denied to them. They have kept this a secret from the outside world, with Jane going out to do the shopping and having contact with others when necessary. But the acquisition of boyfriend Sean, who at first doesn’t believe what she tells him about the family, leads Jane to the realisation that the authorities need to be involved, and the family are committed to a medical facility, where doctors make some progress in teaching them to communicate with pictures, even though they can’t identify the cause of their condition. When Sean starts to stumble over his words, Jane arranges for them to join the unit also, but in the days ahead she becomes increasingly concerned about what is happening, prompting her to take drastic action.

Fade-Out is undeniably well written, told from the viewpoint of Jane and with the feel, in the opening sections at least, of some Ballardian soft apocalypse unfolding. Salisbury is very good at portraying the breakdown of the family unit, how each member copes with their disability and the attendant frustration, veering over into rage in the case of Jane’s father. She herself is an interesting personality, a young woman with a massive burden placed on her shoulders, and the way in which she responds to the crisis, a mixture of wanting to do the best for those she loves and resentment at what is happening, comes over very well.

And yet having set this situation up, Salisbury doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to do with it, and so the spectre of the evil government is raised, forcing Jane and Sean to go off the reservation. But nothing much happens consequently, no nationwide manhunt, with our heroine and her man staying just a step ahead of the men in black – they spend a few weeks as lodgers in a London desres and fomenting some sort of grass roots movement to spread awareness of the new disease, all of which felt like killing time, and slightly unconvincing (nailing up posters and holding public meetings in rented halls in the age of the internet and global village). More pertinently, I lost sympathy with Jane completely, given her apparent indifference to the fact that she may be spreading the disease. She is concerned only with wider issues insofar as they affect her family, and while applauding the author for avoiding the cliché of a pitchfork wielding mob the way in which her actions appear to be accepted as reasonable behaviour by everyone she informs of her mission struck a false note. I don’t think I would be quite as understanding if told by someone that they had a dangerous illness and didn’t really care too much if I caught it as a result of their actions. To me the character became entirely selfish, and when eventually her escape is revealed as an unnecessary ploy because the authorities haven’t gone ape shit after all, the whole thing fizzles out, with little to reflect on other than the various theories tentatively offered to explain the condition and the revelation that the stories Sean tells Jane of his family are all made up.

It is a book about communication, set in a time when technology has made it all too easy for us to talk with each other, but with an ever decreasing ratio of signal to noise, and ever increasing blurring of the line between fact and fiction. It poses the question of what happens when we are unable to communicate, left prisoners in our own skulls. And it also prompts thoughts about the reliability of communication anyway, and whether lies have a social worth, albeit mostly as a side issue. It’s a book with a lot of good ideas and strong themes, but I can’t escape the feeling that the author didn’t quite know what to do with them, how best to communicate his own message, falling between two stools, those of character study and thriller wannabe. I liked it, but I didn’t feel entirely satisfied, or convinced that this is how things would actually go down if such a plague appeared.

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