We’re on a break – blogus interruptus for a few days while I get on top of all the things that are trying to get on top of me.
Here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers:-
We’re on a break – blogus interruptus for a few days while I get on top of all the things that are trying to get on top of me.
Here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers:-
Following on from yesterday’s post, the remaining two reviews from the ‘Five Collections’ feature that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-
FIVE COLLECTIONS (continued)
A traditional thirteen stories go to make up SOUL SCREAMS (Stumar Press pb, 123pp, £6.99), a first collection from small press stalwart Sara Jayne Townsend. There’s also a foreword by Sally Spedding, plus an author introduction and story notes explaining how some of these tales came into being.
Kicking off is ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, a rather grim ditty in which the new tenant in a block of flats and his mate witness a psychic recreation of past crime, the story well written and characterised, sending a tiny shiver up the spine. In ‘Jimi Hendrix Eyes’ we get a three way love affair, with an obsession with Hendrix mutating into bloody murder, the author particularly good at capturing the feel of people in love who wish to deny that this is happening to them. The death of one member of the ‘Trio’ plunges the other two into despair and possible suicide, the story excellent at portraying the unquenchable grief of those left behind. ‘To Dream of an Angel’ concerns a woman who has a dream of the death of her lover and is convinced that this is a premonition, the story engaging but not really going anywhere.
‘Kay’s Blues’ presents us with a woman whose period pains are so intense that if she isn’t left alone she gives over to homicidal rage, but while the story was entertaining enough, with a minatory subtext for male readers, it did seem slightly over the top, with no explanation of how the bodies of butchered boyfriends are disposed of. ‘The Wedding Hat’ causes Alex to have vivid visions of how people are going to die, and her inability to change any of this leads her to kill herself, rather than continue allowing these nightmares to rule her life. ‘Morgan’s Father’ is a routine piece about a revenant determined to protect his daughter from harm even in death, a story where whatever gratification there is for the reader comes from seeing a nasty piece of work get his deserved comeuppance. We get a vision of hell in ‘Train to Maladomini’, with a young man realising that he has died and is to travel on a train for all eternity, his personal hell, the story achieving its ends with a similar ‘just desserts’ strategy to its predecessor.
A woman becomes obsessed with ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’ and his irresistible sex appeal, her whole life falling apart and ending in madness as she attempts to pursue the unattainable. There’s a surreal flavour to ‘Just Don’t Scream’ as a young man agrees to place his head in a magician’s guillotine to win a bet, with dire consequences, the WTF moment arriving when you least expect it. In ‘Cigarette Burns’ Kelly and Scott murder her abusive father, but although she thinks that she has escaped an impossible situation in a final twist it is revealed that things are not going to get any better, the story hinging on the surprise element, but the meat of the narrative residing in the convincing depiction of bullying. The emotive depiction of Kelly’s plight made it the best story in the collection. A woman who picks up a musician in a bar finds that she has a deadly rival for his affections in the shape of ‘The Guitar’, the story an engaging read, but entirely predicatble.
And finally we have ‘Someone to Watch Over You’ in which a dead woman relates how she acts as a guardian angel for those she loved in life, with the hint that other such entities may be looking out for the rest of us. It’s an uplifting end to a solid collection. Townsend is an assured writer, somebody who knows how to tell a story well, and these are all straightforward pieces with nothing that is particularly demanding or, by the same yardstick, unrewarding. Essentially, what we have here is good, old fashioned meat and two veg fiction, each story complete with the expected desiderata of beginning, middle and end.
Staying with the food analogy, if Soul Screams is meat and two veg fiction, then the stories between the covers of BUSY BLOOD (Exaggerated Press pb, 106pp, £5) are the literary equivalent of one of those blazing hot curries where the restaurant owner lets you have the meal free if you manage to clear the plate without having a coronary, and they certainly won’t suit every palate.
Billed as ‘Combo stories by Stuart Hughes and D. F. Lewis’, this slim volume contains eleven collaborations. Title story ‘Busy Blood’ is initially set in a hospital where strange things take place, and then these overlap into the city, or something like that. ‘Combing the Brain’ is something to do with playing computer games in prison, with reality shifting. ‘Queer Tumours’ concerns a man who is having trouble relating to his children in the wake of their mother’s death and his acquisition of a new partner. In ‘Beyond the Comfort Zone’ Ella visits a strange hospital to get rid of the symbiont inside of her. ‘The Mansion with Two Bedsits’ is something to do with the demise of the welfare state, possibly. ‘Meticulously Prepared for Madness’ was even more abstract than the others, and looking back I have little or no idea what it was about. ‘Bad Moon Visions’ was my favourite piece, a tale of inhuman warriors and their women, plotting and fighting with each other. ‘The Sirocco-Scarred City’ is another slice of WTF. In ‘Hide and Sleek’ somebody with their house on the market has to deal with a rather ugly customer, and there’s something about a werewolf too. ‘Ambulance Chasers’ is about Tom swallowing a marble. Finally we have another goody with ‘Free Sex’, which involves a number of disparate people getting together in a room for some very unusual adventures, or something like that.
I wanted to like this collection.
I expected to like it.
But I didn’t.
In trying to put a finger on why, I wonder if it’s because these are such disparate writers that their styles just don’t gel (though obviously they feel otherwise). Lewis flying solo is a writer whose work bubbles over with ideas and exuberant, wild prose. He’s not an easy writer, and often you read his work for the sheer joy of the language and the imagery it projects rather than for any sense. Hughes isn’t as prolific, and what I’ve seen of his fiction places it squarely in the meat and two veg category alongside the likes of Sara Jayne Townsend (and, with his Stumar Press hat on, he’s the publisher of Soul Screams). Hughes is the straight man to Lewis’ wild talent, a will to clarity colliding with the nebulous, but the virtues of both writers seem to be downgraded as a result of their collaboration; Hughes’ plotting isn’t as steady, Lewis’ language not as fluid. And so we get what I’d call ‘fuzzy fiction’, like watching a David Lynch film backwards, with the sound off and a gossamer veil in front of the screen, so that you have the feeling something slightly marvellous might be taking place but can’t quite grasp what it is – it’s too vague, too quick, too slippery to ever get a handle on – or maybe, just maybe, nothing marvellous is taking place at all, just the emperor trying out some new clothes.
Bottom line, it’s all highly subjective with this type of work, and today Busy Blood failed me or possibly I failed it, but either way the failure is a done deal.
I don’t like those blazing hot curries either, no matter how many pints of lager you get to chuck down your neck afterwards.
Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-
Most of the short story collections and anthologies that come in for review are rather meaty tomes, but just recently we’ve had an influx of slimmer volumes, as if all the publishers have sent their doorstops off to the gym to shed some pages.
Given that I can’t see a publisher’s name on the book and the only place it currently seems to be available for purchase is the author’s website, I’m going to hazard a guess that EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS WRONG (Pb, 67pp, £8.50) by Irish writer Graham Tugwell is self-published, but no matter as Tugwell has some decent credits on his CV and all five of these stories have appeared previously in publications of varying degrees of respectability.
Opener ‘Romancing the Crab’ is as bizarre as the title makes it sound, told from the viewpoint of somebody who asks the crab who works down at the florists out on a date, but Darren finds that there’s a bit more to this than he anticipated. Surreal and blackly comic, the story highlights the difficulties of dating by throwing them into relief with the distorting fictional device, and with a possible subtext on themes of prejudice. Interestingly the Crab is never given a name. I also wonder, given a lobster love story in last year’s Chômu Press anthology Dadaoism, if crustacean romance is the new black.
‘We Left Him with the Dragging Man’ is more conventional horror, though still told with Tugwell’s trademark short, snappy paragraphs and terse language. It deftly builds the picture of a group of schoolboy outcasts, and how they feel they must deal with a sociopath in their gang, luring him to an abandoned house where the fabled ‘dragging man’ dwells, only things don’t go to plan and what doesn’t kill Alby only makes him stronger. With hindsight, the story could be a variation on I Know What You Did Last Summer, a lively and entertaining outing made all the more so by the pace and impressionistic feel of the prose. ‘High Five, Danny O’C’ has a young man being led astray by someone who claims to be the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, culminating in disaster, only the ending seems to suggest that Danny O is just an imaginary friend used as a pretext to justify bad behaviour, the story shot through with a larger than life feel and an air of exuberance.
‘Unskin Me with Your Neck of Knives’ was the weakest story, the tale of a woman whose dearest wish comes true when she sprouts knives around her neck, or something like that. I suspect there may be a masochistic subtext lurking in the shrubbery, but if so then I’m afraid it didn’t work at all for me. Tugwell’s prose is at its most imagistic in this piece, but at the expense of the plot. Last we have the best story, ‘They’ve Come to Paint the Doors Again’, set in a world where creatures seem to be crossing over from some other reality and taking possession of the human occupants of houses, whose doors are painted red as a warning. The story is told from the viewpoint of Tom, whose job is to do the painting, and who learns that his own daughter has become the latest victim. Tugwell resists the urge to pin everything down here, instead giving us suggestion and leaving the reader to fill in the gaps, which makes the story all the more effective, and while the implications of the text run deep, set firmly centre stage is a very human tale, that of a father dealing with the loss of his daughter, wondering if somehow he is to blame. It’s good stuff, and a strong end to a solid collection, one in which I think the ‘pure’ horror stories are the most successful.
Six stories make up LITTLE RED TRANSISTOR RADIO FROM TRIESTE (Nine Arches Press pb, 125pp, £7.99) by Serbian writer Dragan Todorovic, and the eponymous little red transistor radio gets mentioned in all of them, though far as I can recall its country of origin is only listed in the first.
There’s a biographical feel to ‘Little Red Transistor Radio from Trieste’, with the sequence of events organised in chronological order by year, telling the story of a young man’s life, events both personal and political that shape him, and all of it set to a background of music drifting from the talismanic radio. It’s an absorbing synopsis of a life, one made all the richer by the way in which the reader is left to fill in the spaces and to mark touchstones with his or her own experience of this history. My favourite story, ‘Camera Obscura’ tells of a photographer who discovers a modified camera that lets him take pictures that show things that are not there or slightly different from reality. The story takes us inside the mind of a voyeur, one who has the feeling that he is missing something and seeks to capture it through the lens of his camera, but the story suggests so much more, culminating in madness so that we come to question the viewpoint of this unreliable narrator.
The next two stories have their moments, descriptive grace notes and eloquent turns of phrase, but don’t seem as cohesive or work as well as the first two. ‘What I’ve Seen’ is a visionary piece, with a man having reality explained to him by an angel, apparently, the shifts here making the story too obscure for its own benefit. ‘Deathroom III’ appears to be a meditation on grief, with the protagonist visiting his dying mother in hospital, but he is also visiting the hypermarket and mourning the fact that his art won’t be exhibited, and frankly the whole thing left me cold.
Things pick up again with the engaging ‘Postcards from Past Winters’, the account of two broken people trying to relate and royally fucking it up, with a strong sense of nostalgia for lost love running through the piece, scars both physical and emotional manifesting as they run from each and any chance of happiness. Finally we have the surreal and oneiric ‘14 Years’, with a man told that after fourteen years in the hospital his mother has been cured, but the whole thing spirals off in other directions so that you don’t really have a clue what the story is about, it all becomes a dream of the reader filtered through the writer or possibly vice versa.
This was a very mixed collection, one in which the good outweighed the bad, but not as striking as I’d hoped it would be, though kudos to Nine Arches for introducing UK readers to the work of somebody from a different cultural backdrop to the usual suspects.
Anne Michaud’s GIRLS & MONSTERS (DarkFuse eBook, 123pp, $3.10) contains five novelette length stories, opening with ‘Death Song’, set in the town of Lakeside View, whose water is supposed to be inhabited by Limnade, a mermaid who feasts on human flesh. Liz is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, involved with Jo, the son of the wealthy mayor, but circumstances cause their separation, and when she returns to the town after an absence of many years it is to a showdown with both the mayor and Limnade. At the heart of this story is the idea of sacrifice, of appeasing impersonal forces for personal or societal gain, but woven in with that is a description of the America of the Haves and Have Nots, a keenly felt tale of unrequited love and a truly revolting monster, one that is as original and off the wall as it is icky.
In the next story the ‘Black Dog’ of depression takes concrete form for Scarlet, a young girl who cuts herself and is away from her family on a trip to London. In a downbeat ending she finds that she can only control the dog, prevent it from harming others, by taking it into herself, the story working extremely well as a study of depression, with hallucinatory overtones, and also informative about the practices of American teens abroad, like an angst ridden and sensitively written version of some Road Trip nonsense. Animals are disappearing from the neighbourhood in ‘A Blue Story’ and it’s up to feisty teen Katherine, who is at odds with her mother post-marriage break up, to sort things out, discovering that the new neighbour has some unsavoury personal habits. For all practical purposes this is Fright Night but with something else in lieu of vampirism, a competent female protagonist instead of a klutzy male, and no ‘helpful’ horror host, so nothing like at all really, but it works marvellously well and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
A trip to Germany and a visit to the house of her deceased grandparents brings teenager Chris into an encounter with the secrets of the past in ‘Dust Bunnies’. She has to cope not only with seeing the boy she left behind but also deal with the monster in the cellar and fix the troubled relationship she has with her older sister. Fortunately Chris is up to it, and what develops is a fascinating and inventive tale, one in which first judgements are found to be wanting, with believable human dilemmas in counterpoint to the monstrous and an underlying current of compassion. Last story ‘We Left at Night’ is the most obviously horror tale and also the grimmest, with a family unit struggling to survive and reach safety against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, one which is all the more effective through being so obliquely drawn. As the preponderance of young protagonists might suggest, this book is being ‘sold’ as Young Adult material, but that needn’t concern anybody here – I’m an old git and I loved all of these stories.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
I love the music, and I love the sentiment expressed in the lyrics, but all the same I can’t hear the opening line without thinking, “Yeah! Right! That’s gonna happen!”
Back in July I did a list of my favourite books of the year so far, and as it’s now October time for another update.
For the months July through September, I read a total of thirty three books, some of which were really, really rather short. I’ve also started but not as yet finished eight other titles. Nothing about this is an exact science.
So, in the order I preferred them when I wrote the list ten minutes ago (and, of course, it may be subject to change), here’s my top thirteen books for 2015 so far, with new entries shown in bold:-
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings – Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)
Fearful Symmetries – Edited by Ellen Datlow (CZP)
The Death House – Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)
The Devil’s Detective – Simon Kurt Unsworth (Del Rey)
The Wolf in Winter – John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Black Tongue – Marko Hautala (Amazon Crossing)
Gifts for the One Who Comes After – Helen Marshall (CZP)
Ghosters – Ralph Robert Moore (Sentence Publishing)
The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley (Tartarus Press)
Probably Monsters – Ray Cluley (CZP)
Blood 20: Tales of Vampire Horror – Tanith Lee (Telos Publishing)
Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)
The Spectral Book of Horror Stories – Edited by Mark Morris (Spectral Press)
It breaks down as six novels, five collections, and two anthologies. Tartarus Press appear twice on the list, and CZP has three listingss.
I’m too lazy to check publications dates, but quite a few of the titles listed weren’t first published in 2015, 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.
Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-
LOVE ON THE ROCKS: ANDREW HUMPHREY IN REVIEW
It’s been five years since his debut collection Open the Box and now Andrew Humphrey is back (not that he’d ever been away) with two new books. Other Voices (Elastic Press paperback, 221pp, £5.99) contains thirteen stories that, in the words of the publisher, encompass ‘the genres of urban horror, science fiction, crime and slipstream’, most of them set in a Norfolk landscape that Humphrey has made his own.
Back cover blurb aside, science fiction is not really a genre I think of Humphrey in connection with. Rather he uses the trappings of SF on occasion, but only as backdrop to his trademark stories of alienation and estrangement. Lead story ‘Grief Inc’ is a good example. The setting is a Norwich of the near future, one in which society has reached such a point of collapse that comparisons to downtown Beirut are not far off the mark. Carter, the story’s protagonist, makes a living by using his ability to take away the grief of others, but the irony of his situation is that he cannot deal with his own dissatisfaction and know the relief his customers feel, must make do with a cynical philosophy that allows no room for caring. It’s only by confronting his own shortcomings and taking a risk on somebody else that he is able to break the pattern in this gripping and beautifully realised dystopian tale.
The science fictional elements are more overt in ‘Mimic’, a Dickian story, in some ways reminiscent of The Prisoner TV series. Men at a secret underground installation guard aliens who can take any shape, including human form, giving rise to the suspicion that one of them has been replaced by a duplicate, but how can they know? It’s a familiar genre trope, but Humphrey plays a new riff on an old theme by conflating concepts of memory and identity with an ever more pressing sense of paranoia induced by the motives of the faceless bureaucrats who control these men’s lives. The same interplay between the personal and larger events can be seen in ‘Tilt’, which opens with a series of inexplicable explosions rocking the world, possibly heralding the Rapture and End of Days. For Humphrey’s characters though this drama played out on a global scale is just background noise for their business as usual marital discord, the wife using the opportunity to settle a few old scores and the husband’s response largely one of diffidence, giving the story a bleak subtext along the lines of the more things change the more they stay the same. It seems that not even the end of the world will allow us to break out of the old routines, only empower us to indulge them with even less restraint than before.
‘Think of a Number’ is the most overtly horrific of what’s on offer. A young man training as a killer for hire goes back to murder all those who abused him as a child, when his father farmed him out to a paedophile ring. This is a grim and unflinching story, one that neither looks away from nor sensationalises the terrible events it describes, and whatever pleasure there is for the reader comes from the satisfaction of seeing the evildoers get their deserved comeuppance and a sliver of insight into the mind of the killer. There’s a different father and son pairing in ‘Dogfight’, with the two attempting to bond after the death of their wife/mother, but for the boy any olive branch extended by the man is tainted with the memory of past betrayals. They find common ground in the old wartime stories of the boy’s great grandfather and time slip visions of a dogfight in the empty skies over Norfolk. The story has echoes of Graham Joyce’s Tiger Moth, but Humphrey gives it a uniquely compelling resonance with the way he depicts hostility within the family unit and the hint of hard won trust coming to the fore at the end, even though it may cost both man and boy their lives.
‘Strawberry Hill’ is perhaps my favourite story and one of the most moving in the collection. The protagonist is forced to deal with an incident from his past, something he had thought long forgotten but has returned with a vengeance. It’s a beautifully written and chilling story that raises questions about personal culpability, the role of the voyeur and the sins of childhood, and does so in a way that drags the reader into its world, asking us all to hold a mirror up to our own faces. The past similarly comes back to haunt the present in ‘Old Wounds’. The protagonist’s son gets involved with an older woman, one who sounds suspiciously like the big love of his life, only she was supposed to have died years back in an S&M tryst gone wrong. It’s an artful story, one in which revelation follows revelation, with many subtle touches of emotion along the way and a surprising but entirely appropriate note of ambiguity at the end.
‘Last Kiss’ is the final story in the collection and also the longest. John uncharacteristically performs a good deed, saving a young man on the brink of committing suicide, only for it to come back and haunt him when the young man invades his life, exposing his flaws and infidelities to his trusting wife and absent mistress. It’s a measured piece, each step in the disintegration carefully charted and slotting neatly into the whole, with the various interlocking relationships compellingly detailed, John with wife Becky, with mistress Helen, with best friend Charlie, and a bright light shone on all the weak points. In John we get a typical Humphrey protagonist, the cheating husband and lover who thinks only of himself, but all the same can’t quite cope when others do unto him as he has done to them. It’s a powerful end to a collection that will linger long in the memory.
Similar themes of trust betrayed and love gone sour are played out on a larger canvas in the novel Alison (TTA Press paperback, 174pp, £9.99), but first I have to declare an interest. TTA also publish Black Static and so, while the reviewer will vigorously protest his impartiality, the reader may feel a need to flavour his comments with a pinch of salt and assume that he won’t mention the five typos the book contains or the very obvious plot glitch on Page 200 etc.
The novel opens with a scene of domestic bliss, Chris and Alison at home together and doing the ordinary things that lovers do, and then quickly hits us with another, shocking scene, Alison’s funeral and graveside recriminations as her family vent their anger at her suicide by blaming Chris. From then on it divides into two strands, one moving forward in time and the other reprising the relationship between Chris and Alison. Both strands are written in the first person and with Chris as the viewpoint character, but one is in the present tense and the other in the past, a simple but effective ploy that enables the reader to keep track as events segue and bleed into each other.
In one strand we get Chris’ first encounter with Alison, who is the flatmate of his then girlfriend Emma, and we see their relationship blossom into romance, his attempts to lure her away from a boyfriend who makes her unhappy and a controlling family. In the other strand we learn the secret’s of Alison’s life, the things which she never revealed to Chris and the complicity in her deceit of his best friends, nightclub singer Emma and drug dealer Spike. Both strands play off of and inform each other, while presiding over both like some evil genius, a spider at the centre of its web, is the monstrous Charlotte, Alison’s abomination of a mother. The tag line for this book is ‘every one has their dark side…’ Chris uncovers Alison’s guilty secret, but it’s the catalyst for getting in touch with his own dark side.
This is a fast paced story, one that I read in two sessions, punctuated by a break for pizza (spicy chicken, if you’re interested). Part of the speed is down to the short chapters, but it’s also owing to Humphrey’s terse, driven prose, with an almost machine gun delivery at times and cutting dialogue. He is superb at showing how love can develop, the ups and downs of a relationship, the ties that bind people, the things that can drive them apart, and pitching it all in terms the average reader will be able to relate to, events that carry the stamp of authenticity in personal experience. Gentle Chris is the ideal foil for damaged Alison, so that you sense things were always doomed between these two, and ultimately it is Chris’ innocence that is lost, while the other characters, manipulative Charlotte and amoral Spike, bullying Miles and needy Emma, are all just as fully rounded and well realised on the page. Humphrey never allows us a moment’s doubt as to the reality of these people or the ways in which they interact with each other. His piecemeal disclosure of the plot is an object lesson in how to hold a reader’s attention, lacing the narrative with a heady dose of violence and off the wall sex. It’s only in the latter regard, with the pivotal event that shaped Alison’s fatal ‘flaw’, that I have a smidgen of doubt as to credibility, but it’s a tiny voice whispering ‘Well, maybe’ rather than shouting ‘No!’, and not something I want to make a big deal about, or feel will in any way detract from the enjoyment of this entertaining and insightful study of dark psychology.
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for something new from Andrew Humphrey’s pen.
Out of this world entertainment?