That’s Croft, Lara Croft.
That’s Croft, Lara Croft.
Reviews of six novels by women writers that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-
Angela Marsons made her reputation as an eBook bestseller, subsequently moving over into print. EVIL GAMES (Zaffre Publishing pb, 438pp, £7.99) is the second volume in a series dealing with the adventures of D. I. Kim Stone, a police officer in the Black Country. Having just brought an investigation into a paedophile to a successful conclusion, Stone is plunged into another ugly case when a convicted rapist, now out of gaol having served his sentence, is brutally murdered. It appears to be an open and shut case, but Stone isn’t happy with the obvious suspect, at least as regards motivation, and believes that there’s more to it. The trail leads her back to highly respected psychologist Alexandra Thorne, who takes a personal interest in the Detective Inspector. Coincidental with this, the paedophile case, which was supposed to be done and dusted, throws up some uncomfortable complications. Kim Stone finds herself battling on two fronts, and to make it through to the other side she needs to confront the traumatic events of her own childhood.
To deal with my one quibble first, in Thorne the author seems to be attempting to create a female rival to the iconic Hannibal Lecter, albeit her killer works through manipulating others rather than acting directly as Lecter does. The problem is that she lets us inside Thorne’s head, and while outwardly she may seem like a cold and callous killer, one who is supremely in command of her urges, Thorne’s inner life at times seems like that of a petulant child throwing hissy fits whenever she doesn’t get her own way. Of course that may be an accurate reflection (Marsons injects enough criminal psychology references into the story to make us believe she has done her research), but all the same it’s hard to take an arch fiend seriously when the image in your head is Blakey from On the Buses snivelling “I’ll get you, Butler!” (My apologies to younger readers, who probably won’t have a clue what I’m going on about.) The menace of Lecter lies in the fact that his motives are essentially unknowable, but in the case of Thorne, while her actions and agenda might chill, at the same time there is something of the comic figure in her person which slightly undermines the overall effect.
Okay, having dealt with that objection, I’ll gladly admit that there is a lot to like about this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it otherwise. It is a fast paced, undemanding read, with plenty of plot complications and the ability to keep the reader off balance by throwing up unexpected developments. Some of the scenes, particularly those dealing with child abuse and the rape victim reliving her attack, are harrowing and not for the easily offended. And while we may applaud the prospect of both paedophile and rapist getting their just desserts, Marsons reminds us that there is always collateral damage, with her sensitive portrayal of the rapist’s mother and her suffering, and of the mother of the abused girls, who third parties are eager to believe must have known what was going on and facilitated her husband’s behaviour. The best thing about the book though is Kim Stone herself. She is the archetypal crusading police officer, intent on justice at any cost, but with enough embellishments to make her stand out from the crowd. A loner, socially inept, and yet with an easy going camaraderie with the officers under her command; the banter between Stone and her subordinates is one of the book’s delights, introducing an element of light relief in among all the darkness. And what we learn of the character’s past, the terrible things she has gone through, makes us respect Stone and all she has achieved that much more, while Marsons shows the character softening somewhat and allowing others into her private space. As of this moment, DI Kim Stone is my very favourite motorcycle riding police officer.
Catriona Ward’s debut novel RAWBLOOD (W&N pb, 370pp, £7.99) is an inventive Gothic ghost story that won the British Fantasy Award for Best Horror novel in 2016. Spanning some ninety years, it’s the story of the Villarca family, who own the great mansion Rawblood on windswept Dartmoor. We start in 1910 with eleven year old Iris Villarca who lives in Rawblood with her father Alonso. He informs her that the family suffer from a condition known as horror autotoxicus, and members die young unless they follow a set of “rules” that, among other things, eliminate the possibility of love, something Iris will find hard to accept given the feelings she has for local lad Tom Gilmore. And then we learn the true history of the Villarca family, with scenes ranging back and forth in time from 1839 to 1919 and a variety of viewpoint characters, until we arrive at the terrible revelation that explains the curse that haunts the family, the ghost of a bone-white woman with talons to tear the souls of her victims from their bodies.
All the ingredients of the classic Gothic tale are present in this book. We have a madwoman and scenes set in an asylum for the insane that are heartrending in their cruelty. We have forbidden love on the windy moors and all the pangs attendant on that unrequited passion. We have doctors in frock coats performing obscene and hubristic experiments in dark basement rooms. We have Rawblood, the house from which the novel takes its name and that dominates the action; even though Ward never describes the house in any great detail, its brooding presence is felt on every page, with the wind blowing through empty corridors and screams heard in the night. We have echoes of Poe’s Usher brood in the account of the family illness, with Alonso Villarca conjuring up images of Vincent Price in the mind’s eye. We have the bleakness of desolate and storm blasted Dartmoor, and we learn of the superstitions and folklore known to its denizens. We have scenes that take in the gentility of the British abroad and the horrors of World War I.
Ward writes of all this with absolute conviction, capturing perfectly the voice of each member of her disparate cast and bringing them to life on the page in all their gaudy complication, making us care for them. She gives us tragedy and horror, and in the figure of the Villarca family ghost she presents a truly memorable spectre, something to stand up there with the likes of Sadako and Jacob Marley with his clanking chains, or MRJ’s chilling line about a “face of crumpled linen”. Underlying all this is a sense of compassion for the terrible things we put ourselves and each other through, and an awareness of the natural landscape in all its awe and majesty. It is a splendidly inventive book, written with a keen knowledge of the tradition in which it stands and the ambition to push the envelope that bit further. It is just the sort of book that will always seem fresh and throw up new revelations and interpretations on each new reading. I recommend it highly.
I should also mention that the UK paperback contains some bonus material – a short story, an interview with the author, and a list of Catriona Wards “top ten terrifying tales”. I’ve no idea if these made it into the US edition, which was released under the title The Girl from Rawblood.
TO BE CONTINUED
1984 and with the release of Born in the USA it was indeed Glory Days.
In 1985 I saw Bruce and the boys perform this and a host of other songs from the album at Wembley Stadium.
It was phenomenal.
A review that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-
There are nineteen stories in SINGING WITH ALL MY SKIN AND BONE (Undertow Publications pb, 240pp, $17.99), the first collection by American writer Sunny Moraine, two of which are previously unpublished. Written in the first person and with an almost stream of consciousness technique, opening story ‘Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale’ sets the tone for much of what follows. Set in a post-apocalypse world, it starts with a celebration of beauty and all the things lost, a kind of requiem, and slowly but with an inexorable energy moves into darker territory, showing how the people live now, scraping a meagre existence from the land, trusting no-one, indulging in cannibalism, even of a loved one. It was one of the most powerful stories I have read recently, heartfelt and cutting deep, a paean of disgust at human folly, a funeral dirge for the lost and the lonely.
Title story ‘Singing With All My Skin and Bone’ is an account of witchcraft, the nature of power and how to get it, the sacrifices required and self-immolation. Again it’s a powerful piece of prose poetry, surging with a frantic energy and manic imagery that sticks in the mind’s secret places. ‘A Perdition of Salt’ is a highly unusual ghost story, the ghost in question being an accumulation of moisture with intelligence and the will to be reunited with a past lover. Beautifully written and evocative, it catalogues the need to let go, to accept death as a phase shift into some other state of being. Susan in ‘Cold As the Moon’ is stranded in a frozen landscape, left alone to look after baby sister Carol, after her mother dies and her father turns into a bear, having first taken action to maroon them where they are. Seen through a child’s eyes it’s an almost mystical tale of transformation, with the bleakness of the setting perfectly captured on the page, and an unreliable narrator so that we can never quite be sure how genuine that bear transformation is.
‘I Tell Thee All, I Can No More’ explores a new kind of sexuality, that of people who fuck drones, and expands to consider the relationship options attendant on such practices. It’s a fascinating account, on the surface very matter of fact, but underneath that a strong subtext about how people are being alienated from each other, distanced by the technology that is supposed to connect us. A migrant worker carries the myths and folklore of his home to the new land in ‘Across the Seam’, the story cleverly blurring the line between fact and fiction and introducing an almost hallucinatory quality. ‘Dispatches From a Hole in the World’ is set in the aftermath of a global suicide plague, one that has wiped out millions, if not billions of lives, each victim recording the details of their own demise, and the story is told from the viewpoint of a researcher scanning the archives in the hope of finding an explanation for what took place. It’s a fascinating idea and Moraine develops it well, with a rich wealth of material and the hint of a subtext regarding the human need to care for each other and what happens when that need is not met.
Two young men, one with a crush on the other, feed living animals to a strange house in the aptly titled ‘Event Horizon’, but when one of them announces that he is going away and the other gets trapped by bullies things change with regards to the mysterious building. In one way this is a haunted house story, with a desres that is every bit as sinister as others within this subgenre, but the human dimension drives the story, with the conflicting passions of the people involved colliding in a way that leaves them all in a hopeless situation. It is a strange and compelling story, beautifully written and involving. There’s a phantasmagorical feel to ‘The Horse Latitudes’, with a couple of men on the run from the local mob saved by a tsunami, imagery of horses overlapping everything else and injecting a hint of magic into the narrative, that what is happening is in some way preordained. We’re back among the drones for ‘All the Literati Keep An Imaginary Friend’, with psychiatrists employed to figure out why the mechanical killers seem reluctant to carry out their purpose, but of course things take a slightly different turn, with the mental health professionals becoming obsessed with their patients. Again what we have bubbling away in the background to the story are thoughts on how we interact with technology, the ways in which it performs purposes we possibly do not intend, both beguiling and alienating us from each other.
Similar themes are examined in ‘Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained’ with a man’s relationship with his mechanical limb put to the test when the opportunity arises to replace it with one of flesh and blood. At the heart of the story is a question about what it means to be human, the validity of the cyborg persona. A man on a beach is given a skull that he is told belongs to him in ‘Memento Mori’, the ramifications playing out as he carries the skull round the boardwalk with him. Again the skull acts as a distancing device, a way to put the issue of the man’s mortality at the very heart of the story and consider how he can live on. ‘The Cold Death of Papa November’ is the story of a grieving man who seeks his dead wife in Eastern Europe, where the suggestion is made that she worked as a spy. There is the sense of a relationship between the cancer that killed her and the radiation sickness of Chernobyl (though that name is never mentioned). It is a clever story with a strong sense of how we can be haunted by grief and the effects that has, and underlying this the truth that we can never really know another, but ultimately it’s all perhaps a little too diffuse for my taste, with the feeling that much of the text is simply going through the motions, and attempting to make a story out of what might have worked better as a metaphor or symbol. Simply put, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough substance.
‘So Sharp That Blood Must Flow’ offers a bloody variation on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the little mermaid, with this time around the piscine marauder seeking revenge on the prince who betrayed her. Vibrant and alive with invention, it is a wonderful tale that deals with its central themes of love unrequited and the search for justice with verve and originality. I love the title ‘Tell Me How All This (And Love Too) Will Ruin Us’ but the body of the story, with a woman trying to complete a ritual come rite of renewal is a bit more of an acquired taste. I liked it, but at the same time don’t regard it as one of the best in this collection, in part because it all feels a bit too oblique for my taste. The protagonist of ‘Love in the Time of Vivisection’ is being physically dismantled by her persecutor, but there is evidence that she is a willing participant, seeking answers to questions that only he can provide and entering into an unholy bargain. Written in an episodic style it’s a powerful piece, grim and compelling in its matter of fact account of butchery.
‘A Shadow on the Sky’ tells of a quest to find the queen of death machines in a desert in a post-apocalyptic world the story deftly turning on its heels to celebrate the inauguration of a new god. It’s a clever piece, atmospheric and with a strong sense of place, the bleak landscape made vibrant with repressed energy on the page. Suicide is revisited in ‘It Is Healing, It Is Never Whole’ which takes us to an afterlife where souls are processed by officials and placed on a train, and one of the processors finds a soul that has an unusual effect on him. This vision of the afterlife is grandiose and original, reducing the whole thing to the level of a packing plant and then adding an outré element that enables us to proceed a bit further and discover what might lie behind the next veil. Finally we have ‘The Throat is Deep and the Mouth is Wide’ in which a woman who works a telephone line talking to lonely callers has one such that leads to an existential query, the story unnerving and unsettling as it unfolds with hints of much more going on behind the scenes than we are shown in the forefront.
Straddling the speculative genres with consummate artistry and a seemingly effortless panache, Singing With All My Skin and Bone is one of the best collections I’ve read in recent years. The stories are haunting and lyrical, written with compassion and the fire of righteous anger, the work of a writer with a unique voice and important things to tell us.
Jennifer Lawrence will be your Valentine, if her handler needs what you have.
A review that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-
NIGHTS OF BLOOD WINE (Telos Publishing pb, 220pp, £12.99) by Freda Warrington contains fifteen stories, four of which are previously unpublished, and spans some twenty years of her career. The opening section of ten stories are set in the world of her ‘Blood Wine’ series of novels, detailing a vampire society that exists beneath the radar of humanity, while the five in the second section are either independent or set in other worlds the author has portrayed in her work. All of the stories are standalone, though enjoyment will almost certainly be enhanced through some familiarity with the characters and their milieu.
Set in France in 1925, opening story ‘Shadows on the Wall’ has two vampires competing for the services and blood of a young solicitor. With a touch of subtle eroticism, it deftly introduces us to the mores and working practises of the vampire world. In ‘The Fall of the House of Blackwater’ a vengeful vampire periodically returns to the grand manor he once ruled over to torment the members of the family that presently own it. The idea of a vampire posing as a ghost is a novel one, and Warrington brings her nasty protagonist to compelling life, so that we see in him the conflict between great power and a petty nature. Two vampires in a love hate relationship stumble across a weird family unit in Stalinist Russia in the story ‘The Dead Do Not Tempt Us’. Again it’s the characters that stand out, Warrington capturing perfectly the camaraderie and power dynamics between Pierre and Ilona, and using this to drive her story with its horrific revelations. In ‘Ultra Silvam’ a penniless nobleman rides to an isolated castle in search of a wealthy countess to claim as his bride, but she already has a vampire lover. This could almost count as a comedy of manners, with the rivalry and testosterone fuelled machismo between Otto and Gyorgy in the dinner party from hell at its heart, the humour undercut by an appreciation of the nature of true love. ‘The Raven Bound’ is the story of a bored vampire who agrees to commit a murder for hire, but things get complicated and the story evolves into an exploration of the ways in which the vampire can become enthralled by those he feeds upon, offering yet more insight into the vampiric condition.
Vampires are not the only supernatural beings in Warrington’s world, as Stefan recalls his meeting with a Nordic goddess in ‘The Ghost Who Looks Like You’, the story ranging off over the centuries, describing how Stefan first became a vampire and the circumstances in which he acquired a twin. It’s a compulsively readable document, full of interesting details about history, mythology, the world of faery, and the vampire condition, with underlying philosophical concerns about the nature of identity. In ‘My Name Is Not Juliette’ a woman fears that a famous ballet dancer her husband is infatuated with is the Lilith of legend, a demonic being, only the legends don’t have everything quite right. At heart this is a story of sexual politics, of how we are assigned roles and those conditions stifle our true nature, with Lilith standing for all the things that men fear and seek to control in women. A vampire becomes involved in the relationship between an artist father and daughter in ‘Little Goose’, but in conferring on her the gift of immortality he destroys the daughter’s artistic yearning. Ostensibly a tale of love and obsession, of family rivalries, this story comes with a strong subtext that implies artistry is ephemeral, a condition of our humanity rather than something that exists apart and of itself. ‘Las Muertas Invidas (or, The Living Dead)’ is the story of Claudia who is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit and prays for an intervention by the Lady of Death. With its depiction of the harsh conditions in a third world prison this story presents a strong portrayal of the human spirit under adversity, and shows how desperate people will believe in anything, even something that most of us might regard as monstrous. We get another story of love and obsession in ‘And Their Blood Will Be Prescient To Fire’, with the dancer Violette seducing a woman who reminds her of lost love Robyn, but it is Ruth’s sister who is obsessed with Violette and longs for her touch. There’s a lot going on in this story, which deals with obsession from both sides of the aisle, with the vampire looking for a human she loved and lost, and the humans placing their own expectations on Violette. We all exist not just as ourselves, but as the thing anticipated by others, who put their own desires on our shoulders and try to make us perform the roles they assign us.
The second section of the collection kicks off with ‘The Journal of Elena Kovacs’ in which a young woman in eastern Europe records how she fell under the spell of Dracula on paper given to her by Mrs Mina Harker, the story a blow by blow account of seduction, but with the sense that it is patriarchal authority that has made Elena so vulnerable, with one enslavement only swapped for another. In an autocratic society that forbids all forms of self-expression, ‘Cat and the Cold Prince’ escape to another world. Warrington excels in her depiction of a rigid, oppressive society, one in which there are Difference raids, but at the same time the plans of the Cold Prince seem equally oppressive, leaving shape changer Cat to find her own way and a subtext of sorts in the understanding that you cannot fight fire with fire. Fela is stranded in ‘Persephone’s Chamber’, needing to come to terms with her past before she can move on. This is perhaps the most elusive of these stories, part of a greater story cycle, and one that is touched with wonder but all a bit too hard to pin down for my taste. Beautifully written, as are all of these stories, it was the only one that I found disappointing. There’s a lovely comedic feel to ‘An Owl in Moonlight’, as a wedding guest informs his young nephew of the obsession with an ethereal being that meant he never got married himself. This is fantasy as P. G. Wodehouse might have written it, with a bittersweet ending that intimates all the things we would do for love. Finally we have the best story in the book for my money, ‘Ruins and Bright Towers’. Abused Sylvie and orphan Red strike up an unlikely friendship through a shared reading of Tanith Lee’s The Storm Lord, passages and events from the book intercut with the harsh reality of their lives, and the book inspiring these two young women to overcome their own problems, the men who seek to use them in one way or another. It was a powerful affirmation of the power of fiction and the ability of the human spirit to rise above adversity, and a splendid note on which to end this collection.
Nebraska is not one of my favourite Springsteen albums, but this track rocks.