La Cage

Yesterday I went to Norwich for a performance of La Cage aux Folles, a musical in which an obnoxiously right wing politician with an anti-LGBT agenda gets shown the error of his ways through the combined efforts of a celebrity restaurant owner and a drag queen.

Today Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States.

In this particular reality, I have little hope that life will imitate art.

The show was brilliant – funny, life affirming, and stuffed up to the eyeballs with glitter and glam.

Go see it, if you get the chance.

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Filler content with short story collections

Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-

EPISODES FROM ANOTHER WORLD

Storylandia is the title of ‘The Wapshott Journal of Fiction’, published by Wapshott Press. The Spring 2015 issue, STORYLANDIA #15 (Wapshott Press pb, 142pp, $7.50), is dedicated to the work of Julie Travis, a writer who will be familiar to older readers from the early days of our predecessor The Third Alternative and possibly from other places as well. It contains five stories, all of them previously unpublished, and which, though the writer admits a preference for the term “slipstream”, have about them much that should appeal to horror genre purists.

Opening proceedings is ‘From the Bones’ which begins with the discovery of two separate burials on Dartmoor and the unearthing of ancient bodies that have been miraculously preserved and yet prove to have writing on their bones. For amateur archaeologist Vivienne this is the first revelation in a process that leads her to a new understanding of the history of the land, and meetings with those who guard and preserve it. There’s a whiff of writers like Machen and Blackwood about this, but underlying it a kind of pantheism or Gaia worship. Superficially the story is one of mystery, with grace notes of horror, particularly in the strange girl Humm and the things she appears capable of, a character who in some of her attributes brings to mind the unsettling female spirits of J-Horror cinema, though Humm’s intent is not as purely malevolent. But at the same time there is a purpose to all the horror, the terrible deaths that take place, sacrifice to some greater good; there is a feeling akin to sanctity that drives the plot, a reverence for the bleak and wild landscape that is so eloquently rendered on these pages. ‘Grave Goods’ is the story that to my mind seems most deserving a horror label, the tale of Eddy Dobbs who is afforded the chance to wreak revenge on his abusive father in the afterlife. On the surface this story seemed a bit contrived to me, with the idea that you can take goods into the afterlife and that it would be possible to smuggle instruments of torture into a coffin – while I don’t say such things would be impossible, they seem to me rather more in the nature of plot convenience than something that is at all likely. Allow for this though, and something more interesting is on offer, with Travis exploring the nature of abuse and how we are shaped by the incidents in our childhood, so that Eddy, although he regards himself as a good man and in many ways is one, contains within himself more than a little of his father’s worst traits. The story ends with a plot twist and a thoroughly nasty image that sums up the ways in which betrayal takes place. Told from the viewpoint of Case, who is puzzled by the claims of new flatmate Marie and her lack of any ‘Scar Tissue’ on her perfect body, the next story is an account of a strange new life form, one that leaves the reader unable to determine if this creature is a monster or simply different, if she is to be an object of fear or someone who deserves our pity. Marie has experiences that most of us would envy, but is the cost that she pays too high? Travis unravels the mystery with a skilled hand, slowly piling up the clues and leading us deeper into her maze of a story before showing what lies at its heart.

‘Theophany’ is the longest story in the collection and at fifty pages may even qualify for novella status. It returns to themes and ideas Travis explored in her 2008 story ‘Darkworlds’. A chasm opens in the grounds of the Tower of London, allowing the creatures of the Darkworld access to our dimension, while members of the Association plot to make money by selling property in the Darkworld to those of the plutocracy who hope to avoid death. While the bioweapon that is Yellow Jack spreads his terror throughout the city, others struggle to avert disaster by returning the ravens to the Tower. My precis gives only a hint of the convoluted plot and everything else that’s contained within its boundaries, the memorable characters that populate the narrative, the way in which legends and reality and dreams interweave, the shocking moments of violence and descriptions of tormented flesh, and who can forget the image of Yellow Jack on a skeletal horse pursuing a London double decker bus? It is the best of what is on offer here, a story that is as entertaining as it is inventive, with echoes of Barker and the King/Straub collaborations, as I observed when reviewing ‘Darkworlds’. Finally we have ‘Widdershins’, which initially begins as a combination of folklore and ghost story, but then develops into a fully-fledged exploration of time shifts and overlapping dimensions, couched in terms of the fairy tale. It’s a fascinating conflation of ideas, with some wonderful descriptive passages and larger than life characters, especially the unforgettable Mme Gargoyle. By way of coda we get an ‘After Wor(l)ds’ from the author, with Travis speaking of how the numinous has touched on her life and the effect of place on her writing, the ways in which her concerns have evolved and changed over the years (she also uses the phrase “episodes from another world”, which I’ve shamelessly filched for the title of this feature).

With the subtitle “Tales of Another Europe”, LOST CARTOGRAPHIES (Invocations Press pb, 152pp, £8) brings together six stories that, to quote from author Cyril Simsa’s introduction, explore the continent as “a locus of otherness”. As with the Travis, there is a deep and abiding concern for the land, for the sacred places and the areas where the veils between worlds grow thin, for the genius loci that are to be found when one wanders off the beaten path.

Set in the same year as Stoker’s publication of Dracula, and sharing similar events and narrative devices, ‘Imbibing History’ is the longest of what’s on offer, and also to my mind the best. From the journal of the geologist Rosamund Harper, one of those redoubtable female explorers who were a feature of the Victorian age, we learn of her excursion to Hungary and a meeting with Hieronymus Zibrt, an old man who lives alone in a ruined castle, shunned by the locals, and who claims to be a nine hundred year old vampire. And we have his account running concurrently, Zibrt’s admiration for this remarkable woman, her learning and apparent lack of fear, the way in which she takes his appetite for blood in her stride. The narrative unfolds at an almost leisurely pace, with Zibrt recounting details of his long life and the intricacies of vampirism, while Harper responds with observations from science, literature, and psychology, name dropping Darwin and Freud. It is an evocative and fascinating account of a meeting of two minds, of two intellects in sync despite their differences, and it leads to a fatal decision for one of them. With the strong sense of place, the setting so vividly described by Harper, and the reek of authenticity regarding the period in which it is set, a time when science is making so many inroads but superstition remains embedded in the culture, I found it thoroughly engrossing and loved every word of the story. Simsa gives us not a bloodsucking monster along the lines of Dracula and Lestat, but a fully rounded individual, one who has desires and a personal code just as we do, with only the matter of how he feeds to separate him from our common herd.

There’s another unusual encounter in ‘Journey’s End’, with a Dutch merchantwoman meeting Mistress Ragana, who is the embodiment of Death. Again, though lit up with some exotic descriptive passages, this is primarily a meeting of two minds, with the women finding that they have much in common, are both professionals at what they do. That aside, there are more than a few echoes in the text of classic story ‘The Appointment in Samarra’; one could even argue that it provides the framework on which Simsa builds his interpretation of the material. ‘On the Feast of Stephen’ taps into the almost universal legend of a sleeping hero who will rise from the grave to save the country in its hour of need, in this instant Good King Wenceslas whose spirit is invoked by a group of Czech pagans, only his loyalty is first and foremost to the land, not to the curious bipeds who infest it and believe themselves the measure of all things. Written with tongue in cheek, as it chronicles the magic ritual that brings about this chain of events, it’s a story that shifts gradually into more serious territory and comes with a degree of polemic, criticising man’s abuses of his environment, and suggesting that we are the ultimate illness, the sickness that infects this planet, a familiar theme in much horror and science fiction, but seldom as agreeably pitched as here. In ‘Under the Waves’ a water sprite who lives in a pond in the grounds of a feudal estate outside of Prague forms a bond with two young men that is broken by the advent of WWI. Simsa is deft at portraying this unlikely threesome, the commonalities and ties that bind them, while running through it all is an almost elegiac quality, a sense of loss, with the sprite’s tales of how things used to be only a foreshadowing of the changes that are to come as the modern world takes form, rising from the ashes of WWI.

With the next story we shift gears slightly, moving into the future, with an investigator trying to unmask a former politician wanted for crimes against the state. In outline ‘Poorly Formulated Questions’ reminded me of one of those pieces in which a crusader for justice gets to expose the former Nazi war criminal in hiding, but what moves the narrative on and gives it a thoroughly contemporary feel is that the crimes involved here have to do with climate change denial, and in the body of the story is an intriguing argument in which personal freedom is weighed in the scales against the survival of society as a whole, the rights of the individual versus those of the many. It’s a fascinating discussion and one where you find it so easy to see both sides of the argument, even if ultimately the right course of action isn’t really in doubt, though Simsa provides an ending that goes somewhat against the grain. And finally we have ‘Queen of Sumava’ set in a communist state where the border guards find themselves under inspection by a political officer sent by the Central Party, somebody who doesn’t appreciate the way things are done locally, with a blind eye turned to people smuggling and a nature spirit intervening when things go wrong. At the heart of the story is a clash of cultures, that between a new political ideology and something far older, a belief system grounded in respect for the land, with dogma crashing on the rocks of reality. As already noted, it’s a theme that runs through several of the stories in these two collections and which give the respective authors’ work a certain originality, a quality that strongly differentiates them from those tales where the genius loci is simply a convenient monster on which to hang a plot line and complementary atrocity show.

Both collections are highly recommended.

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Trailer Trash – Split

The latest offering from M. Night Shyamalan looks promising.

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Filler content with themes – Part 3

Following on from last Sunday’s post, the third and final part of a feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

Publisher Gary Fry recently announced the closure of Gray Friar Press, which has for nearly a decade been a fine exemplar of how to run a successful small press, along the way publishing many fine works, including first collections by Stephen Bacon and Thana Niveau, and winning the Horror Writers Association’s Specialty Press Award for 2013. Its presence on the UK horror scene will be sorely missed.

The penultimate volume in the series, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS (Gray Friar Press pb, 262pp, £8.99) is edited by Paul Finch and, like its predecessors, contains snippets of local legend and folklore slotted between the stories (e.g. brief articles on the Loch Ness monster, Glamis Castle, etc., and a host of lesser known subjects), bonus content that is every bit as fascinating as the fiction and, in several cases, might have provided inspiration for the contributing authors, with the weirdness of Scotland’s wild, open places captured unforgettably.

Ian Hunter serves up the first slice of Tartan garbed goodness with ‘Skye’s Skary Places’, the title referencing an unusual pamphlet that offers visitors to the area an entrée to places off the usual tourist routes, but in pursuing one such avenue a family group stumble well and truly into terra incognito. Atmosphere is central in most of these stories, and Hunter certainly brings the terrain alive, showing the perils that lurk aback of outwardly scenic panoramas, and in the fate of one of his protagonists revealing that the world is not as quietly ordered and rational as we would like it to be. In ‘The Dove’ by Helen Grant a female academic becomes fascinated with the legend of a clergyman hanged for witchcraft, but in prying too much Freya herself becomes part of the story. Her obsession felt a bit too much like a plot convenience for my liking, and the end twist was pretty much what I expected, but like Hunter before her Grant is excellent at describing the wild and desolate places to which Freya’s search takes her, especially the minatory aspect of them which is all too potent.

There’s a similar quality to ‘Strone House’ by Barbara Roden, a beautifully executed ghost story in which a visitor to the grounds of a stately home that has seen far better days finds something he didn’t at all expect lurking in the landscape. The desolate and overgrown grounds of the estate are vividly portrayed, and Roden constantly wracks up the tension with numerous little touches of detail that hint at something outré taking place but at the same time could be dismissed as the product of an overactive imagination in a setting that encourages suggestibility, only to then deliver the coup de grace with a reveal of what has happened in the past in this place. Tom Johnstone’s ‘Face Down in the Earth’ is somewhat simpler, as a modern day businessman gets to pay for the sins in his family’s past, an entertaining story with a few good shudders along the way to a suitably grotesque finale. A reporter investigates a haunted house in ‘The Dreaming God Is Singing Where She Lies’ by William Meikle only to find that the truth behind the story is far stranger and more deadly than he could have anticipated. In tone it’s a piece that’s very similar to the Johnstone, but more comprehensively executed with a deft build up and unsettling touches of detail, all leading into the final note of ambiguity, one that leaves us suspecting the worst but with wriggle room to delude ourselves that a more prosaic explanation is available.

At only three pages, Rosie Seymour’s ‘The Housekeeper’ is a word portrait of an idyllic marriage, the understated and matter of fact narration expertly luring the reader in before the expected, but no less satisfying, final twist is delivered, one that questions our concepts of what is normal and what is acceptable when love figures in the equation. It reminded me of Roald Dahl at his most blackly comedic. One of the longer pieces in the collection, ‘The Executioner’ by Peter Bell is the story of two climbers in the Hebrides who stray from the usual path, Bell weaving tales of ancient myths and monsters into his narrative by way of foreshadowing what is eventually to come. Superficially, it’s an entirely routine tale of stumbling across something that would better have been left undiscovered, with characters who border on caricature at times. However, what Bell does exceedingly well is bring the landscape to life on the page, with some marvellous descriptive touches that make you wonder if he would be better employed writing copy for the Scottish Tourist Board, but underlying the beauty there is always the sense that this land has unlimited potential for treachery, that conditions can change in mere moments, with a sun dappled day transformed into something deadly, and whatever monsters lurk in the landscape are simply the embodiment of that propensity to change.

The protagonist of ‘You Must Be Cold’ is a dour and surly Scot, who has lost out in love and for whom his socialist past is just a fading pipedream, an alcoholic who earns his crust as a professional digger at archaeological sites, none of which sounds especially promising, but author John Whitbourn brings him to vivid life on the page, informing his story with a sardonic wit and barbed dialogue. Driving the plot is an encounter with a ghostly figure, one who offers our hero all the things that he has longed for, but at a price, and regarding that I have a slight quibble in that it introduces an element of polemic that seemed slightly at odds with the main narrative conceit. I’d guess that if you wanted to encapsulate both the story and its central concept in one phrase, then it would be that old sore about it being better to travel than arrive. M. R. James appears to feature in ‘The Fellow Travellers’ by Sheila Hodgson, haring off to Scotland with a colleague in search of a rare book and possibly stumbling across the secret of immortality. It’s the only previously published story in the anthology, and to my mind one of the weakest, with characters stumbling across each other in unexpected places with a frequency that would put a Brian Rix farce to shame and a health spa that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Carry On movie, plus touches of The Woman in Black stuffed into the background. There’s a good idea or two hidden in the narrative, but overall I thought it a terrible mish mash and not something I was at all inclined to take seriously.

Graeme Hurry’s ‘Shelleycoat’ was another slight offering, with a man told of a local beastie and then stumbling out of the pub and straight into the creature’s arms, with only the unique nature of the monster to redeem an otherwise disappointingly humdrum and predictable story. An order of occultists delve into the past of Aleister Crowley in ‘The Other House, the Other Voice’ by Craig Herbertson, a story that put me in mind of Wheatley’s oeuvre, with some larger than life characterisation and lovely touches of humour that perhaps owed more to the influence of P. G. Wodehouse. It was a nicely wrought romp of a story, with a finely tuned sense of the ineffable hiding behind the curtain of the everyday, and there’s a strong suggestion that the author has used these characters before, and if so then I hope he will feel tempted to do so again. One of the most subtle pieces in the book, D. P. Watt’s ‘Myself / Thyself’ presents us with the picture of a lonely, disconnected boy, who believes that he can see ghosts, or rather has visions of people from other times and places. It’s not a particularly novel concept, but in focusing on the displacement of his protagonist Watt takes the story off in another direction, one where horror rubs shoulders with potential for endless wonder in a power house of a finale.

Phantoms and personal rivalries become entwined in ‘Broken Spectres’ by Carl Barker, with two mountaineers coming unstuck in time on the slopes of Ben Nevis. I’m not quite sure why protagonist Martin would wish to tell his aggressively alpha male friend Steve that he’s in love with his wife while they’re alone together on a mountainside, unless he has a death wish, but that quibble aside this is an absorbing story, rich in incidental and historical detail, and presenting a convincing picture of the camaraderie of climbers. However it runs out of steam a little towards the end, with apparently no idea where to take the plot, and so introducing the monster in the machine by way of providing an unexpected resolution. With strong echoes of Jeepers Creepers, Gary Fry’s ‘Jack Knife’ brings another local legend to life, with some unsettling details and nasty wet work, and something of Rain Man in the characters of Barry and brother Sam, who has severe learning disability, Fry excelling in his depiction of the loving relationship between the two, with its undercurrent of resentment on the part of Barry. It’s a brief story, one that presents a unique menace and doesn’t outstay its welcome in doing so.

We get more of the Wheatleyesque in ‘The Foul Mass at Tongue House’ by Johnny Mains, in which an occult ritual goes wrong, with dire consequences for both the housekeeper who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the magician himself who finds that he can’t control everything. It’s a slight piece, perhaps intended as humour to judge from the over the top title, but if so then it didn’t raise even the ghost of a smile on the face of this curmudgeonly old reader, though there were one or two nice touches of the grotesque along the way to a resolution that seemed more like a running out of steam, or possibly ectoplasm in the circumstances. Finally we have ‘There You’ll Be’ by Carole Johnstone, the tale of two lovers ensconced in an island retreat and trying to recapture the bright past of their relationship. Told in the first person by the female protagonist, it’s a beautifully written and keenly felt story that puts human emotions in the foreground, but with ghosts of the past threaded through the narrative. It’s pastoral and outwardly idyllic, but with disaster always a step away, just as the tragedies of the past are only hidden behind a curtain we have drawn over such events. The subtext seems to be that we are responsible for our own happiness and unhappiness, that we can so easily become ghosts in our own lives or be haunted by the shades of what might have been. It was a wonderful end to a strong collection, one that perhaps more effectively than in most of the previous volumes in this series celebrates the setting, making it an essential part of these stories, a character in its own right, so that you feel these tales could not have been told if they’d taken place elsewhere.

The latest volume in the series, Terror Tales of the Ocean, I reviewed in #51 because it went well in partnership with another seagoing anthology (reviewers get to do themes too), and to cut a long review short, my conclusion was that you should most definitely get a copy.

Goodbye Gray Friar. We’ll miss you.

NB: This review is slightly edited from how it appeared in #53 as at that time I was under the impression the Terror Tales anthology series would cease with Gray Friar, but subsequently learned it is to continue with Telos Publishing, who have Terror Tales of Cornwall slated for a January 2017 release.

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2016: The Story So Far- Final Quarter

Back in October I did a list of my favourite books for the first three quarters of the year. The year now being well and truly over, I can give a final tally of the books I enjoyed the most over the past twelve months.

I read a total of 161 books in 2016, which was fifteen more than I managed in 2015, with fifty two of them completed in the last quarter (in the month of October I simply selected the shortest books in my TBR pile and whipped through them at the rate of one a day, more or less).

In the order I preferred them when I compiled the list just ten minutes ago (given a different time and mood, the rankings might alter), here are the thirteen books that gave me the most pleasure in 2016, with new entries shown in bold:-

The Pleasure Merchant – Molly Tanzer (Lazy Fascist Press)

The Parts We Play – Stephen Volk (PS Publishing)

You Can Never Spit It All Out – Ralph Robert Moore (Sentence Publishing)

The Sea of Blood – Reggie Oliver (Dark Renaissance Books)

The Night Clock – Paul Meloy (Solaris)

You’ll Know When You Get There – Lynda E. Rucker (Swan River Press)

Ventriloquists – David Mathew (Montag Press)

Horrorology – Edited by Stephen Jones (Jo Fletcher Books)

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eight – Edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books)

Uncertainties Volume 1 – Edited by Brian J. Showers (Swan River Press)

Singing With All My Flesh and Bone – Sunny Moraine (Undertow Publications)

The Secret of Ventriloquism – Jon Padgett (Dunhams Manor Press)

A Song of Shadows – John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

It breaks down as four novels, six collections, and three anthologies. Swan River Press is the only publisher to appear twice on the list.

By my count, six of these books weren’t first published in 2016, so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading in 2016’ 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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Song for a Sunday – Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

I’ve been having fun, but as far as blogging goes the last six days have disappeared down a rabbit hole.

Here’s Bowie.

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Filler content with themes – Part 2

Following on from last Friday’s post, the second part of a feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

As the title might suggest, there’s a comedic element to many of the stories in JEWS VERSUS ZOMBIES (Jurassic London eBook, 92pp, £2.99), edited by Rebecca Levene and Lavie Tidhar, with any profits from sale of the book going to charity. And I should perhaps mention that there’s a companion volume Jews Versus Aliens.

This anthology of zombie stories with a difference opens with ‘Rise’ by Rena Rossner. Twelve yeshiva students decide to sleep on top of graves in an attempt to imbibe the wisdom of their occupants, but instead of the wise men they seek the students settle down on the graves of their wives, who rise out of the earth to commune with them. Beautifully characterised and with some lush, descriptive passages, this is a story that celebrates life through the presence of death, with the female zombies not minatory at all, but helping the students and letting them go when it is necessary. It’s a warm, life affirming story, with more than a touch of delicious humour. Ofir Touche Gafla’s story is set in a future where the dead have returned to life, but Solvi has grown tired of all that this renewed existence has to offer him, even Goth metal and celebrity status, and so he goes to ‘The Scapegoat Factory’ who give the dead purpose to their lives by allowing them to take the blame for unsolved crimes. It’s a fascinating idea, but in spite of that and regardless of the title, scapegoating is only a side issue in this lively tale of zombies searching for a way out of the tedium of their lives. There’s a wealth of incidental invention, throwaway ideas that put me in mind of the oeuvre of Rhys Hughes, and some pleasing touches of humour.

I’m not at all sure what to make of ‘Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith’ by Shimon Adaf, which seems to be all over the place, with references to Artificial Intelligence, time travel, Jewish mysticism, a midwife who helps deliver demon babies in return for the ability to keep her own dead son alive, and that’s just part of it. With prose passages intercut with epistolary episodes, it keeps the reader guessing what will happen next, and it’s certainly intriguing, with a wealth of ideas, but it’s also one of those pieces where you need a cryptic crossword mind set to have any hope of grasping whatever pattern is lurking there. We get a more regular zombie apocalypse courtesy of Daniel Polansky in ‘Ten for Sodom’, with Ben trapped on top of his building and plotting ways to thwart the appetites of the rapidly approaching zombie horde. While it doesn’t do anything much new with the theme, this is a convincing word picture of a man stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and trying to summon up the courage to do what he must. Sarah Lotz takes a different tack with ‘The Friday People’, giving us a picture of a generation of old people who never seem to die, who just plough on into the future while their children age and see opportunities slipping away from them. In some ways it reminded me of Dan Simmons’ story ‘The River Styx Runs Upstream’ though in that tale the zombie state was used as a metaphor for dementia, whereas Lotz’s concerns are primarily to do with financial impact. You can, and it’s not a particularly long stretch, even see the central concept of the story as a metaphor for our own society, with a constantly growing population of older people, though having passed the sixty year milestone myself this is not a place I really want to go to.

‘Tactrate Metim 28A’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum is, near as I could figure, a bunch of rabbis arguing about scriptures and a couple of them setting off a zombie plague by raising a dead rabbi to ask him to clarify a point about cucumbers, and after that it just gets silly. This should have been funny, but with the constant declaiming and almost as many footnotes as there were sentences, I found it tiresomely annoying. One of those occasions when you remind yourself that it’s for charity, grit your teeth, and read on. There’s a touch of Bradbury to ‘Wiseman’s Terror Tales’ by Anna Tambour, the story of Irving Wiseman who wants to build rockets when he grows up but while away serving in WWII he is besieged by a cohort of dead women who want him to design brassieres. It is a glorious confabulation of fact and fiction, with the dead women who come to visit Irving just fantasy figures from the pulp magazines he reads, making you wonder if what is really going on here is simply a sublimation of libido, but regardless of what interpretation you put on the material it can’t be denied that Tambour has produced a warm, funny, and ultimately moving story of life in the midst of death.

Lastly we have ‘Zayinim’ by Adam Roberts, set in an alternate reality where in the wake of a Nazi victory in WWII everyone except the Jews became zombies. An embattled group of Jews fight to survive while a young woman looks for the key to safety in the pages of Nietzsche. Again, it’s pretty much business as usual regarding the zombie apocalypse, at least in the picture of a small group fighting against terrible odds, but Roberts makes it that little bit special through the backdrop to the action, related in an almost fable like infodump and with the humour attendant on his main character, the young Jonie seeking wisdom and answers in the pages of Beyond Good and Evil, but not quite grasping what she is reading, susceptible to all sorts of misunderstandings. The story brings this brief collection to a pleasing finish.

First there was Dark Minds and then there was Darker Minds and now, logically enough, we have DARKEST MINDS (Dark Minds Press, 204pp, £7.97), edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson. After an introduction by the editors in which it is revealed that the theme behind the anthology is “the concept of crossing a border”, one that I felt was at times so loosely interpreted as to be meaningless, we get down to particulars with an unhappy rich man setting off on a ‘Vacation’ courtesy of writer Glen Krisch. The crux of the story lies in the nature of the vacation being offered, and to reveal that would be a spoiler, but I can say that it is a fascinating concept, one that has implications both as reality and metaphor, and the story itself is beautifully written, with subtle hints in the text of where protagonist Callahan is really coming from, his motives for taking such a drastic step.

Robert Mammone’s story examines the plight of ‘Refugees’ trapped in a detention centre and the dilemma of the officials who have to deal with them, but in this case a particular family is not at all what it seems to be. It’s an interesting story, one that touches on our fear of the unknown and latent xenophobia lurking behind outwardly civilised behaviour, but at the same time in this case it appears that the fear is justified, as the plot careens towards a monstrous and horrific denouement, one that reveals the outré nature of these outsiders. ‘The Great Divide’ by Clayton Stealback is the first person narration of a man who obviously has serious mental health issues, with the gist of the story hidden in the cracks between lines of meaning, so that a picture eventually emerges of something far more sinister than what we see in the foreground of the story. It’s an interesting attempt at delineating madness on the page, but a little too obliquely slanted to entirely succeed for my liking. After the death of his wife, the protagonist of Ralph Robert Moore’s story ‘The 18’ begins to see her likeness in the faces of countless other people, and this in turn leads to a revelation about the nature of reality. As with most of Moore’s stories, this is fast paced and packed with offbeat ideas, the plot gripping with its revelations, albeit to me these did seem a little too obvious to have gone unremarked on by the rest of humanity for so long, and then culminating in a final breakthrough with regard to the consensus reality that both undercuts and validates all that has gone before, a celebration of uniqueness in a world where all seems the same.

Like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Martyn, the hero of Mark West’s ‘Time Waits’ has become unstuck in time, the net result of all his attempts to save a minute here and a minute there being an ontological shift in the nature of his existence. Underlying the narrative is a subtext about valuing the time we have, to think carefully about the ways in which we spend those precious hours and minutes. Gary Fry gives us a subtle, detailed portrait of an elderly woman coming to the conclusion that she is dissatisfied with her life, that long ago a wrong turn was taken or forced on her, ‘The Catalyst’ for this change the discovery of a mouse buried in a tin in her garden. It’s a tale of dark, brooding psychology, with far more hinted at than is actually revealed, where one thing leads to another culminating in a cathartic but shocking denouement. ‘Under Occupation’ by Tom Johnstone is a slight piece in which a heartless bailiff gets his deserved comeuppance courtesy of a spectral presence, and is well done, with some slight frissons along the way to a conclusion that is satisfying for those of us who like to see the bad guy getting a taste of his own medicine, even if it’s largely a case of fiction writing cheques that reality so often fails to pay out on.

Benedict J. Jones enters the fray with weird western ‘Going South to Meet the Devil’ which reads like the myth of Black Shuck transplanted to a Mexican/USA border setting and multiplied by a factor of ten. Gripping from the start, it’s a hugely entertaining piece, with excellent characterisation, vivid realisation of time and place, and an engaging supernatural menace, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last word of it. Like the Stealback, Andrew Hook’s ‘Bothersome’ is a depiction of somebody’s mental state, in this case I believe that of an elderly woman in a home and suffering from dementia. It’s a torrent of fractured words and imagery, beautifully conveying the muddled thoughts of the story’s protagonist, and engaging on that primal level, but with little to offer anyone in terms of story, the mantra of beginning, middle, and end.

‘The Sea in Darkness Calls’ by David Surface is the story of Jack, estranged from his wife and children, a guest who has overstayed his welcome in the house of his brother, and woven into the plot are images and memories from the past, focused on the death by drowning of a child, an act that haunts Jack. There are hints that everything is not quite as Jack wants us to think, that he bears more than a slice of the blame for his marital breakup and that something even more terrible is hidden in the past, with the story moving inexorably to a denouement that is tragic and haunting. Beautifully understated, Tracy Fahey’s ‘Walking the Borderlines’ gives us a matter of fact account of an encounter with the numinous and the fallout from that. The event itself is slight, nothing more than a hint of something dark in the shadows, something easily dismissed by the rational mind and in broad daylight, but the emotional toll of that moment lingers down the years and there is a high price to be paid in a story that has about it a feel of authenticity, that this is what it is really like to cross paths with a spectral presence.

And so we come to ‘It Came from the Ground’ by Stephen Bacon, the last and the longest story in the anthology, and the best by a country mile, whatever that is. It’s 1994 and photographer Jason is in war torn Rwanda with ambitions to take a picture that will define the decade and, coincidentally I’m sure, push his career into the stratosphere. Along for the ride and to help, are wife Karen and assistant Joel, who he suspects of having an affair. In search of a machete wielding, one-armed child warlord they set off into the heart of darkness with a local guide. But Africa turns out to be far more strange and deadly than they ever expected. From first word to last this story is gripping, with Bacon superb at drawing his characters, their motivations and the subtle undercurrent of tension that runs between them. He is equally adept at capturing the strangeness and minatory atmosphere of the African setting, with dead bodies scattered about a landscape that is rich in menace. And finally, after setting up a situation fraught with peril, injecting weird artefacts and events into the narrative, he unleashes a monster that is as unsettling and novel as it is deadly. Underlying all this are very human concerns, with a subtext that enquires how a child is transformed into a murdering warlord, what circumstances are required for such a thing to happen, and how can the world look away, and on the more personal level how much of Joel’s ultimate fate hinges on circumstance and how much on Jason’s antipathy. It is a brilliant story, and worth the price of admission alone.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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