Trailer Trash – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

I missed the first one, but this does look like it could be a lot of fun. James Bond meets John Steed meets Indiana Jones, with attitude.

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Filler content going round in rings

This review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-

Vertical hb, 281pp, $24.95                                                     

The central character in this sequel to the acclaimed Ring is Ando, a forensic scientist whose marriage has broken up after the death by drowning of his son, an accident for which he still holds himself responsible. Ando is asked to perform the autopsy on Ryuji, a brilliant philosopher with whom he went to university, who has died in mysterious circumstances. His findings make little sense and the issue becomes even more clouded as the results of various tests conducted on tissue samples taken from the body arrive. Mai, one of Ryuji’s students, tells Ando that a journalist called at the philosopher’s apartment to enquire about the whereabouts of a certain video tape, and from following up this lead he becomes acquainted with the story of murdered Sadako and the video to which she gave life, a tape that causes the death of anyone who watches it. Sceptical at first Ando is convinced as the evidence mounts, but a new and even more terrifying possibility takes shape as hospitals around Tokyo report deaths similar to that of Ryuji, but with no known link to the lethal video. The ring virus is evolving into new forms and may well be unstoppable.

This is an impressive novel, with a plot borrowed from the great body of supernatural fiction but told from a scientific viewpoint in a story where gene sequencing and DNA, cryptography and forensic medicine all have a vital part to play, so that what we get reads like a cross between M R James and Michael Crichton. Spiral is cleverly constructed, with each part slotting neatly into the whole and compelling the necessary suspension of disbelief as the reader is drawn along, every bit as credulous as poor Ando but forced to accept the evidence as it piles up, each step in the drama taken with a flawless logic at its back. Suzuki’s quiet and effective prose is perfect for what is being related, the very ordinariness of much that takes place only serving the better to emphasise the horror and unnaturalness when it occurs. So much of the plot is character driven, with Ando the consummate professional, but also a deeply troubled individual, one for whom the sins of the past recur in the present, which is perhaps a leitmotif of the book as, for all that what she does is horrific, Sadako herself is almost a sympathetic character, so that it’s impossible for the reader not to feel some identification with the terrible fate she suffered, raped and imprisoned in a well, and to almost applaud her will to grasp a second chance at life. The secondary characters are every bit as rounded, especially the young Mai, impressionable and in love with Ryuji, and Ando’s best friend Miyashita, his faithful companion on this voyage of discovery.

Spiral transcends its distinguished predecessor in so many ways, with enough shocks to please the most jaded Horror aficionado and a sense of wonder to refute those who believe shocks is all the genre has to offer. As the story draws to its conclusion Suzuki introduces an element of the metafictional, with the publication and success of Ring becoming a vital ingredient of the plot, a step that is both logical and unnerving for the reader. In the final pages Spiral addresses the vital questions with which the Horror genre more than any other is qualified to deal, asking what we as individuals are capable of and pondering what the future holds for us as a species, embracing a fatalism that borders on the profound and hinting at even more revelations to come in the final volume of the trilogy, Loop.

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Song for a Saturday – Money for Nothing

Yep, money for nothing, that’s what we need.

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Filler content with our gang – Part 3

Following on from Tuesday’s post, this is the third and final part of a feature on work by Black Static columnists that originally appeared in #57 of the magazine:-

OUR GANG (continued)

Ralph Robert Moore’s ‘Into the Woods’ column debuted last issue, but his fiction first appeared in #37 and since then he’s become one of our most regular contributors. He even has a story in this issue. YOU CAN NEVER SPIT IT ALL OUT (Sentence Publishing pb, 399pp, $18), Moore’s third story collection, contains ten stories and all of them are of novelette length. Three of the stories are previously unpublished and three of them got to first strut their stuff for the world in the pages of Black Static. One of the latter three was ‘Dirt Land’ which originally appeared in #49. It’s a tale of the course of true love not running smooth, as Roy and Audrey try to make a go of things in a backwoods community that is the embodiment of all those fears about inbreeding. Everyone is dirt poor except for the presiding potentate, Roy’s abusive Uncle Hollis, and sex is seldom an expression of love so much as something to do because you’re bored and can’t afford a television, except in the case of Hollis, for whom it is an exercise of power. Nobody expects justice, and everyone gets what they expect. While the plight of Roy and Audrey is bad enough, Moore makes it unimaginably bleaker through the agency of Hollis and the inhuman offspring that he sires. It is a grim but compulsively readable story, one that fulfils Moore’s agenda of horror without hope, and if we can identify with these people and feel for them, it is not without a shudder and a thanks to whatever powers that be that we are not in a similar situation.

‘Kebab Bob’ is one of three men linked by a metal pole that passes through their bodies, the result of a tragic accident; a case of love misjudged leads him to attempt the dangerous act of separation from the others. The central concept is as dazzling as it is audacious, taking the idea of conjoined twins and then artificially raising the odds, and much of the appeal of the story lies in how Moore works out and deals with the ramifications of this situation. Otherwise it is a story of love misplaced, of how we expect so much from life and are punished for it. Bob, who has much about him that is admirable, refuses to accept his lot; he dares to dream of more and risks his whole life in pursuit of something ineffable, throwing his fate into the hands of a backstreet surgeon, for such is the nature of both love and self-delusion. ‘During the Time I Was Out’ is the story of former con Pablo, who has the misfortune to stray onto the radar of an unusual sexual predator, one who simply won’t take no for an answer. On the surface this is a story about the ultimate femme fatale, one who ruthlessly invades the lives of her victims, with Moore giving the subject matter another twist, and it’s hugely enjoyable on that level. Look beneath the surface though and what you find is a subtext about the nature of power, delving into the psychology of those who use it, however arbitrarily, and those who are subservient simply through the inability to make their own choices, who collude in their own victimhood.

Similar themes inform ‘She Has Maids’, the story of shy Emily and her love for racing car driver Ben, their plans for a life together, but the woman who sponsors his driving career has other ideas because “Vickie always gets what she wants!” The story could almost be seen as a metaphor regarding the powerlessness of the American dream in the face of unscrupulous megalomaniacs, those who will tell any lie, commit any act simply so that their will remains paramount. With larger than life characters, especially the evil Vickie, who readers will love to hate, with unsettling imagery and a suggestion of witchcraft in the workings, this story is a wonderful example of what Moore is capable of at his very best. Patrick Morgan is the ‘Imperfect Boy’, but life in NYC sharing a three bedroom apartment with other students in a dangerous neighbourhood and acquiring the feisty Gretchen as a girlfriend toughens him up. The central scenario is made all the more strange by an infestation of faces, something that is never explained, just pitched at the reader, an outré element in an otherwise realistic story. At heart this is once again a story about the use of power, seen most obviously in the attitude of Patrick’s father when he takes Gretchen home to meet the folks, but also elsewhere, perhaps best in Gretchen’s thoughts on her past life and the freedom she thought to achieve. For Patrick it is about stepping out of the shadow of his deceased sister, on whom the family pinned so many hopes, and winning the respect of others and Moore reveals this through subtle hints and asides, never baldly stating the situation, but allowing the reader enough information to draw conclusions.

‘They Hide in Tomatoes’ is probably the most off the wall tale of spectral possession that I have ever read. It starts with an unlikely love triangle, with Wade dealing with both the loss of his father and the failure of his romantic aspirations, before we get into the supernatural stuff, which here is reified as a medical procedure of sorts. But garish and disconcerting as the act of exorcism is, in many ways reminiscent of procedures in Moore’s excellent novel Ghosters, lurking at the back of it all is something even more unsettling. This is a story where it is hard to know where reader sympathies should lie, Moore making us feel both disgust and empathy with protagonist Wade, but at the end it closes with what is the closest to a measure of hope found in any of these stories. Uptown girl Jessica takes on waiter Vinnie as a ‘Boyfriend’, and gets drawn into his world where men are men and women are grateful, or something like that. This is one of the few stories in which there is no macabre element as such. A finely tuned study of sexual politics and power plays, it contains some deliciously funny dialogue and off the wall characters, and is informed by an acute understanding of the insecurities that can often be disguised by a brash and violent front.

‘Nobody I Knew’ is the story of Claudia, who is unlucky in love, but each of her failed relationships leads back to the most important one of all, that with her father and the feelings of betrayal he imbued in her, and in doing so almost set her up to fail in every subsequent relationship. It is a sad story, one where we sympathise with Claudia, but at the same time realise that she is her own worst enemy, that the tragedies that befall her are in large part her own doing. It’s written with sensitivity and an awareness of how the dreams of childhood are so often misplaced, with harsh realities to come in the adult world. Maggie the protagonist of ‘Suddenly the Sun Appeared’ is instructed by God on how to build a perpetual energy machine after the suicide of her husband. As with many of these stories there’s an exaggerated for dramatic effect to much of what happens, with Maggie roaming the country and having adventures like some latter-day Don Quixote, and unlike many of the other stories there is an almost feel good quality to what occurs. It’s deceptive though, and the ostensibly upbeat ending is mostly sleight of hand on Moore’s part, hiding the sadness that Maggie has experienced.

Finally we have ‘Drown Town’ (originally published in Black Static #43). Frank Wick goes to rescue his daughter Joan when the prison where she works is covered by forty feet of water and she is trapped with a rapist. The situation is bleak and the interaction between the characters even bleaker, with the realisation that Frank simply can’t do the right thing no matter how he tries. It’s a story with no hope of a happy ending, and a strong end to the most recent collection from a writer who is relentlessly pushing the envelope. Along with Stephen Volk’s The Parts We Play it was my favourite short story collection of 2016, and a book that I would definitely consider required reading if you are at all interested in what horror can accomplish when it doesn’t accept the expectations foisted upon it by those who are only aware of the genre’s limitations and not its potential.

Also from Moore we have FATHER FIGURE (Sentence Publishing pb, 449pp, $20), his first novel. The title was originally published by Bookbooters in 2003, only for the company to go under soon after the book appeared. Moore made the book available on his website as a free PDF, which was downloaded over 100,000 times, and has now released Father Figure in a print edition through his own Sentence Publishing (details from the ‘Preface to the 2015 Edition’).

In the isolated Alaskan town of Lodgepole, Daryl Putnam wakes from a nightmare and goes out for a walk, discovering the body of a murdered woman by Little Muncho Lake. As a hospital worker with experience of autopsies, Daryl gets involved in the police investigation, uncovering evidence that suggests this was far from an ordinary homicide. Coincidental with this is his meeting with flower shop worker Sally and their burgeoning relationship. The catalyst to their romance is the wealthy Sam Rudolph, a new arrival in town, a fiftyish man who gives the impression of being much older. Sam’s rudeness is the initial spur for Daryl and Sally’s meeting, and as the relationship progresses they find themselves fascinated by him, even when his behaviour is repugnant (he makes racist and misogynistic remarks with an abandon that would put Donald Trump to shame). But as the story develops their disgust moves to something akin to adoration, with Sam as the spider at the centre of a web in which the two are trapped, unable to free themselves it seems, and acquiescing in whatever he has planned for them.

Weighing in at over 175,000 words this is not a novel for those with a short attention span. And it is most definitely not for the feint hearted or easily offended, with graphic descriptions of sexual acts and violence throughout, at times reading as if The Witches of Eastwick had been written by the Samuel R. Delany of The Tides of Lust, with Sam Rudolph as the Daryl Van Horne character. Nothing is gratuitous though. Rather, the sex and violence are part and parcel of what Father Figure is all about, exploring many of the same themes and ideas that are to be found in Moore’s short stories, with abuse and the nature of power and sexuality at its core.

Moore writes well concerning the mechanics of the sex act, and yes there is an erotic component to much of what he commits to the page, and he doesn’t allow us to look away when things get more than a little squidgy. This is not the vanilla S&M of the Fifty Shades set. At the same time though, I suspect that what really interests him is the psychology behind the things that are taking place, the reasons that make us undertake emotional journeys that we know are dangerous for us, and the use of sex as both a weapon and a means to transformation.

The evil genius of the novel, Sam Rudolph is a truly memorable character, seeming both capricious and totally amoral, a Luciferian archetype with a lousy attitude that would shame the worst red neck. At times his behaviour seems petty and almost comedic, the actions of a man aspiring to the outrage and bad taste school of comedy exemplified by Frankie Boyle and others, but then Sam commits some act that shows how truly nasty he is. At the same time Sam embodies our fascination with evil. There is no denying that he is a far more interesting character than Daryl or Sally, and ultimately they are both mesmerised by him. He offers them a path to transformation, to become more like him, and they find that they are prepared to submit to his will entirely to accomplish this, but in doing so they think that there won’t be consequences, that they can take the good and reject the bad. Daryl and Sally represent the realisation of the American dream, young and in love and with nothing but good things waiting in their future. And yet this isn’t enough for them, they want far more, and so they are vulnerable to the wiles of the tempter that is Sam Rudolph. It is innocence itself that is destroyed through what happens to these two young people, and it is done by a monster who acts as he does simply because he can.

Almost as a side issue we have a compelling mystery plot, one that in many aspects conforms to the small town horror template, with the characters experiencing nightmares, local wildlife acting strangely, and the matter of the dead woman by the side of the lake, to name just a few of the effects the author throws at the page. Add in the way in which Moore describes the scenery, so that Lodgepole and its environs, the people and places, almost become another character in the story, and you have a fully rounded novel, one that might at first blush seem a tad obsessive about sex, but if you persevere will reward the act of reading many times over. Immensely readable and informed by a lucid intelligence, Father Figure belongs up there with the likes of Delany’s The Mad Man, Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Sade’s oeuvre, The Story of O, and other works of transgressive literature that challenge our assumptions of what is normal and what goes beyond the pale.

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Trailer Trash – mother !

I’m hoping this turns up at the local cinema, but not optimistic.

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Filler content with our gang – Part 2

Following on from last Friday’s post, this is the second part of a feature on work by Black Static columnists that originally appeared in #57 of the magazine:-

OUR GANG (continued)

Gary Couzens took over from Tony Lee as our resident film buff in #51 and prior to that his story ‘Served Cold’ appeared in #11. OUT STACK AND OTHER PLACES (Midnight Street Press pb, 293pp, £9.90) is his second collection and opens with an introduction by Andrew Hook who, with his Elastic Press hat on, published Couzens’ first. The book contains eighteen stories, five of which are previously unpublished.

The eponymous ‘Out Stack’ is the story of two young people, a man and a woman, who have both been in love with the bisexual Patrick, and search for him when he goes missing, their quest taking them to the rocky outcrop of the title, the most northerly point of the British Isles. Told from the viewpoint of Adrian, it juxtaposes the search for Patrick with his own efforts to uncover his sexual identity, and the ways in which people use each other, offering a gripping exploration of character. ‘Electricity’ tells of the troubled relationship between Melissa and Charles, who as a child believed that there were ghosts in the television. The story is thoroughly engrossing for the dynamics of the relationship and the sense of something outré bubbling away beneath the surface, culminating in an ending that is sudden and yet ambiguous. Revenge is at the heart of ‘Splinters’ but Couzens has the nous to turn it into a tale of sexual assault and the damage, both physical and emotional, that such acts involve, taking us beneath the surface of the tale, exploring motivation and the nature of power.

Set in the jungles of Brazil, ‘The Missing Man’ is an entrepreneur who has gone AWOL, but the mystery of his disappearance only provides the bones on which Couzens pastes the flesh of his story, looking at the relationship between Roger’s wife and his accountant Greg, the interplay between the two characters the focus of the tale. It is a strange piece, one in which plot almost seems to be a side issue, and yet for the complexity of the emotional responses to the catalytic act it holds the attention from beginning to end. Idiosyncratically written, with each sentence beginning with the word ‘Because’, the next story is also a tale of abuse and revenge, but the terrible act to which every single word points is only the culmination of a gripping account of the victim’s psychology, Couzens emphasising reasons over actions. It is a compelling and riveting rendition. A trip to Poland to visit her boyfriend’s family, throws their relationship into a new light for the protagonist of ‘Noon in Krakow’, the story a case of travelling not so much broadening the mind as highlighting the differences between people who initially thought they had so much in common. Subtly written, with each event seeming to codify a flaw in the characters’ relationship, it is an absorbing story, one that will no doubt resonate with many readers.

In ‘After the Party’ a Hollywood fixer who cleans up the messes made by movie stars finds that he has finally had enough of his charges’ antics. There are echoes of James Ellroy’s work in the situation and Couzens writes with a real feel for the material. It is a story that has about it the reek of authenticity, informed by a feeling of disgust at what the rich and powerful and famous think they are able to get away with. Thea returns to her old stamping grounds for a work course, but it brings back memories of the ‘Jubilee Summer’, her punk past and the strange boy Luke. There’s a bittersweet feel to this story, a sense of sadness and loss, of promises made but not kept and the chance for happiness cruelly snatched away, but underlying all that there are still echoes of hope. There’s another trip into the past in ‘Daddy’s Girls’, as Nick goes to empty the flat of his dead sister Mary, but it’s a road to Damascus moment of sorts as he finally realises what was going on in his family many years ago. Themes of bullying and abuse, and identification with the outsider come to the fore in this heartfelt and moving story.

While staying in a hotel with his family ‘Beside the Sea’ Paul is beguiled by Elizabeth, the daughter of another guest, but he cannot suspect how truly different she is. Told from the viewpoint of a child, this is another delightful story, one in which sibling rivalry and family passions are simply the backdrop to something far more intriguing, a relationship in which compromises have to be made and where toleration becomes the underlying plank without which the whole house of cards would crumble. I loved it. Set in Russia, ‘Cold’ tells of a stranger who comes to a remote village and shares with the child Masha his out of body experiences, but as so often with these stories the paranormal element serves simply as a catalyst to other concerns, Couzens concentrating on relationships and loneliness, the things we will do to find common ground with another and a place we can call our own. ‘Meetings with Leo’ is an account of a young woman’s encounter with the famous writer she had an affair with when she was sixteen, though we don’t know if she is an unreliable narrator, the story giving us both Anne’s version of what happened and Leo’s fictional interpretation. Central to the story is the way in which people use each other for gratification and validation, with the possibility that both versions of what happened are true, events simply seen from different perspectives.

‘The Girl on the Station Platform’ appears to be fleeing some men, but for the protagonist who helps her it brings back associations from his past, with a strand of sexuality and love underlying everything that happens. At the heart of the story is the theme of misogyny and abuse of women, whether it is the implied violence of the three men on the platform or the abusive language used by character Mitch, and for the reader the question is at what point one segues into the other. Co-written with Martin Owton, ‘Essential Chemistry’ tells of student Neil who thinks to solve his money problems by cooking drugs for a dealer, only to find that he is in much deeper than he intended. With threads of love and jealousy woven into the main narrative, it’s an engrossing story, one in which the characters are never less than alive and the vibrant music scene that serves as backdrop adds real depth to the story.

Bullied all her life, Donna is abducted by a couple and forced into a ‘Dog’s Life’. While not a horror story by any of the usual standards, this is a harrowing piece of work, detailing a young woman’s abuse and degradation, but also showing the life history that made her so vulnerable to such things, complicit in her own victimisation. It was an unsettling work, one that had about it the ring of truth told through art, and to my mind the best piece in the book. ‘Treffpunkt’ feels like a ghost story of sorts, with a young student backpacking round Europe encountering a couple trying to escape from East Germany against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sensitively written, it’s a piece that asks more questions than it provides answers, with the feelings engendered more important than what actually happens, the yearning for freedom and hope for the future. Set in Australia, ‘Spinning Fast’ is a tale of adolescence, a rite of passage, with the young Clytie learning to stand on her own two feet, pursuing her musical obsessions and falling in love with a young man, accepting that no matter how much she wishes it, nothing will ever stay the same. Again, it’s a gripping and very real account of human relationships, Couzens bringing the character and her concerns to vibrant life on the page and keeping you reading to the very end.

Finally we have the novella ‘Mourning Becomes Me’, which picks up on the character of Clytie, now a mother and living in Britain. The story is told from the viewpoint of daughter Martha who, after Clytie’s death, gradually takes on her identity. What we have here is essentially a tale of possession as mental illness, and yet Couzens is not judgemental, simply giving us the details, showing how Martha’s decision to take on the persona of her mother brings both happiness and sorrow. Ultimately it is the actions of other people that cause her apple cart to tumble over. It is a thoroughly absorbing account of unusual relationships, one that grippingly brings home the reality that we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors, that our morals and social codes are simply things of convenience, and possibly to be flouted when happiness hangs in the balance. How can this be wrong when it feels so right, would be Martha’s plaintive cry when confronted with the consequences of her actions. But at the same time we wonder to what degree she is herself disturbed that she should be so willing to subsume her own identity and, quite literally, become her mother. It was a wonderful story and the perfect end to a very strong collection, one that touches on themes of horror and the weird, but only by way of emphasising the very human problems we have to confront each and every day.


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Song for a Saturday – Once Upon a Time in the West

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