Filler content with Bachman, Koontz, Dodds, and Kikuchi

Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-


(Hodder paperback, 352pp, £6.99)

Richard Bachman is Stephen King, just in case there’s anyone left who doesn’t know that. Oh, and Joe Hill is his son, though we’re still not sure if either of them was on the grassy knoll.

The eponymous hero of this novel, Clayton Blaisdell Jr, is a giant of a man, but not quite all there, as the saying is. The most successful years of Blaze’s adult life were those when con artist George Rackley took him under his wing and used Blaze in his criminal schemes. But George is dead now, nothing more than a voice in Blaze’s head, guiding him past the traps that lay in wait as Blaze attempts to bring off the pair’s dream of a big payday by kidnapping a millionaire’s baby. Of course the simple-minded Blaze never really stands a chance, and the hard nosed FBI agent in charge of the case doesn’t intend to give him one.

In his introduction to the book King explains that it is a trunk novel, written many years before and thought lost, only now seeing the light of day. He also, doing the reviewer’s work for him, identifies it as a homage to Of Mice and Men with Blaze as the Lennie Small character and Rackley as his mentor George Milton, though there the resemblance ends as Rackley, at least posthumously, is not as benevolent, and Blaze learning to operate independently and resist what the voice of Rackley tells him to do is one of the main plot arcs.

Along the way King fills in much of Blaze’s back story, the act of parental brutality that unhinged his mind, the abuse from teachers and others that led him to where he is now, and the rare moments of kindness and joy, such as an excursion to Boston and an idyllic summer on a farm, but none of it fated to last, that give Blaze the hope of happiness and then cruelly snatch it away. Only with George does he find some self-worth, the little man never looking down on him, always treating him with respect and showing him how to make his way in the world. The idyllic quality of these last memories suggests that the voice Blaze hears is not that of George at all, but his own evil genius.

The prose here is nothing special, but it powers the story along its character driven route, with King in an uncharacteristically unsentimental mood. He has sympathy for Blaze, shows us in minute detail how he got to be the person he is, but offers no attempt to pardon or condone the crimes that he commits. If the book has a message, it’s simply that if individuals are denied kindness and those chances most of us take for granted, then nothing good will come of it. Blaze is, regardless of his actions, a good man, one without a scrap of meanness in him, which cannot be said of his pursuers, however in the right they may feel themselves to be, and underlying it all is the old saw about but for the grace of God there go I. This is not King at his best (well, if that were the case it probably wouldn’t be published under the Bachman byline), but it is King in a reflective mood, telling a story with a heart and telling it well.


(Harper Collins hardback, 357pp, £17.99)

It’s a tale of two couples. In the blue corner we have Amy Redwing, who devotes her life to finding good homes for abused dogs, and her significant other, the architect Brian McCarthy, and in the red corner are their polar opposites, ruthless crime baron Harrow and his consort, the deranged Moongirl. The links between the two pairings stretch back into the past, and as far as the latter couple are concerned there’s unfinished business needs taking care of, the kind for which an out of the way spot where nobody can hear you scream is ideal, and they have just the right bait to require Amy and Brian’s attendance. But there’s a wild card in the deck. Brian has started to have psychic flashes and all the evidence indicates they’re somehow connected to Nickie, a beautiful golden retriever Amy has just rescued from a drunken owner, a dog with strange abilities and who may be able to turn the tide in their favour.

This is pretty much typical Koontz, with an intriguing story and a ferociously paced narrative, short chapters and terse language driving it relentlessly forward, but there’s also a leaning towards sentimentality, seen most obviously in all the stuff involving dogs, so you can almost picture the author going dewy eyed as he tapped at the keyboard. The supernatural elements seem very much like a plot convenience, one that the book would have worked just as well without, and the final twist is a particular bone of contention, with no real purpose other than to let Nickie play dogus ex machina and provide the requisite happy endings all round.

Dogs aside, the meat of the story lies with those two couples, and if the Devil doesn’t have all the best tunes he can certainly pitch the most intriguing characters. Amy is a good person and Brian is a good person and that’s pretty much all that needs to be said. The tension between Harrow and Moongirl though is palpable, so that every time the action shifts to them the reader has no idea of what might happen. Harrow, regardless of his inclinations to bloody murder, is the more in control of the pair, but having constantly to guard against showing a moment’s weakness, fascinated by his partner in the way that a moth is drawn to the flame. Moongirl is a chilling creation, fond of tormenting Hope, her handicapped daughter, getting her kicks out of burning property with the owners still inside, unable to have sex without the lights off: Koontz gives her enough kinks for a whole mental ward, but they are just window dressing, quirks of character with no real attempt to get at the psychology behind them. On the latter score, more is done with Billy Pilgrim, Harrow’s lieutenant, who always names himself after Vonnegut characters and justifies his actions with a philosophy of cynicism and blackly comedic take on the human condition.

On balance the good here outweighs the bad and so, recommended I guess, but not if you’re a cat person.


(Bright Spark paperback, 284pp, £7.99)

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, this is the worst case of proofreading I have ever seen, so bad that I e-mailed the author to enquire if I’d been sent an uncorrected proof copy by mistake. There’s repeated confusion over names, the most annoying instance a scene in which police are discussing the case, with the killer’s name first substituted for that of the detective in charge and then for the forensics expert. Elsewhere words are added or missed from sentences, or simply misspelled, so that we get phrases like ‘to choke of the detective’s air supply’ and ‘involuntarily as his scrambled for purchase’. Typos unfortunately seem to be a given of the publishing industry, even at TTA where we do our best to eliminate them, but the level of carelessness here is appalling and the cumulative effect of all these tiny errors is to continually pitch the reader out of the narrative. John Dodds tells me that the problem is to be addressed in any further print run, but all the same caveat lector.

From a plot point of view, it’s the tale of a mad artist, a horror/crime pedigree that stretches back via John Connolly and Jose Carlos Somoza to innocent days of yore when Vincent Price went doolally in a wax museum. Dodds’ Chapman brothers’ wannabe is abducting young women from the streets of Glasgow, and for journalist Ray Bissett things get personal when his daughter Caroline goes missing. Ray has a past with Kendrick, the detective in charge of the case, and so manages to get himself seconded to the investigation, and the race is on in deadly earnest to find Caroline before she becomes a component in somebody’s masterpiece.

Allowing for the lack of originality, Dodds makes a good fist of portraying the mad artist and making him seem believable, albeit the story’s main twist became obvious long before the actual reveal. The plot holds the interest with some credible developments and convincing depiction of police procedure, if you can accept the idea of Ray being allowed the kind of access he gets here, and it did seem to hinge on a flimsy pretext, a red herring of a plot strand having to do with an MP with sticky fingers. Neither Ray nor Kendrick seemed particularly likable characters, though this in its way helped to make them more credible, with the feisty Caroline and sexy scientist Isla much more engaging. The weak spot is the prose which, even allowing for the typos, is littered with phrases that just don’t seem to have been thought out or cause the reader to do a double take, such as having somebody stare acquisitively where inquisitively would have made more sense in context or describing the back of a head as ‘almost as impassive as the front’. The writing here gets the job done, certainly, but it’s not very elegant. On the front cover blurb, Michael Moorcock gives Dodds his seal of approval (‘one of the most promising new writers I have read’) and I’ve had cause to praise his work on other occasions, but if his talent is to realise its potential he needs to work a lot harder than appears to be the case here, to show a novel the same attention he would a shorter work, and he needs an editor who’ll care enough to make him do that.


(Del Rey paperback, 272pp, $9.95)

J-Horror is flavour of the month in La La Land, with Hollywood studios queuing up to find suitable Japanese properties and make them over for western audiences, usually sacrificing the very elements that made those films so effective in the first place. Anyway, it’s nice to see that the traffic isn’t all one way, as witness this novel from the creator of Vampire Hunter D, which comes with the subtitle The Tale of the Meiji Dracula (Meiji refers to the period 1868-1912 when Japan underwent an intensive programme of modernisation).

The pretext for Dracula’s visit to Japan in 1880 is contrived in the extreme. A samurai warrior was transported back in time and space to feudal Transylvania, where he fought alongside Dracula against the Turks. Dracula is visiting to inform his family of the man’s fate. Yes, well…

Early on at least there is little attempt by Kikuchi to make the material his own. The Count’s arrival in Japan, by night and aboard a deserted ship, has Made in Whitby stamped all over it. Similarly he has a Renfieldesque cat’s paw to work his will on and hides out in a supposedly haunted mansion. The forces arrayed against him include a Van Helsing clone, who has the necessary knowledge of vampires, and two young ladies, one of whom gets turned by Dracula and the other who valiantly resists. Only the names and setting have been changed.

Of course, the setting is central. Over the years critics have made much of a socio-economic interpretation of Dracula, the bloodsucker representing the inroads of foreign competition into British markets, and there’s something of that here, with the Count’s arrival at a time of change in Japanese society, when the country was opening itself up to foreign influences, and his superiority in combat seeming to epitomise this Europeanization. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is a ball held by a prominent politician, at which Japanese women are seen to dress in the latest Parisian couture and dance Viennese waltzes, with those who cling to the traditions of their country regarded as hopelessly gauche and backward looking. And yet it is these very traditions, embodied in the figure of the young swordsman Daigo, who adheres to outmoded ideas of personal honour, that provide the will and discipline to resist the vampire, where European prowess cannot.

The picture of a society undergoing monumental changes is at the heart of this book, as one way of life is replaced by another, and also the suspicion that the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Kikuchi’s appeal is not in the way he depicts the fight against Dracula, even when the story moves, as it inevitably must, from the merely derivative to more novel fare, giving us sword fights and martial arts spectacles that are entirely alien to Stoker’s seminal text (though not to more modern exemplars, such as Blade). Rather it lies in the significance he invests that struggle with and the way he portrays a culture in turmoil, the clash of ideas and competing philosophies. Whether he does enough to raise the story above its obvious antecedents is debatable, as at the end I still had the feeling that I had read something rather slight, a prototype for a significant book rather than the thing itself, with the story rushing headlong to its conclusion when a slower, more reflective pace might have better served.

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Song for a Black Friday – The Way It Is

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Bruce Hornsby and the Range.

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Filler content with Pendragon Press

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-


From Welsh publisher Pendragon Press we have two very different novellas. Neil Williams’ THE DERELICT (Pendragon Press pb, 53pp, £4.99) is very much in a traditional vein, even down to the framing device for the story in which a retired sailor who lives many miles from the sea while in his cups reveals to a drinking companion the details of his last, horrendous voyage.

The schooner Albin Grau is sailing from Wismar to Hartlepool with a cargo of asphalt, when second mate Gilling spies what appears to be a derelict, the brigantine Persephone, and even though it has no sail the ship manages to keep pace with them. The captain and some crew members investigate, finding the vessel abandoned and with no explanation as to what has happened to its crew. They decide to tow the ship to a safe harbour for the salvage money, but on the first night something from the Persephone crosses over to the Albin Grau and attacks members of the crew. This is the beginning of a desperate fight for survival, one in which the innocent sailors find themselves up against a supernatural nemesis.

And yes, as the name Persephone suggests, this is a variation on Dracula’s voyage to Whitby aboard the Demeter (see The Demeter by Martin Jones, which I reviewed in #36, for a similar treatment), though I don’t recall the V word ever being mentioned, only suggestion.  Originality aside, this is an entertaining read, with well-drawn characters and a convincing verisimilitude when it comes to dealing with the nautical elements, bringing to mind the work of William Hope Hodgson. Williams invests his story with a daunting sense of the vastness of the ocean and how perilous the situation of men is when afloat on it in our wooden vessels, and implicit in that vastness is also a sense of the mysterious, that it may contain wonders and perils undreamt of by we landlubbers. The fight against the vampiric menace is excellently paced, with science and superstition in conflict as well, their disbelief making the more practical members of the crew victims, while those who pay heed to the old stories are better prepared, such as the Russian Dmitry. I could wish that perhaps it had been slightly less derivative of Dracula, but a minor quibble, as this story certainly stands on its own two sea legs and rewards the reader with thrills and spills aplenty. It was a good way to pass an hour or so, an engaging and compelling story.

From a tale with a distinctly nineteenth century feel to it, to one as thoroughly modern as the latest app in Mark West’s DRIVE (Pendragon Press pb, 90pp, £4.99). On a course in the town of Gaffney, one night David Moore finds himself at a party where he meets and befriends Natasha, offering her a lift back to her flat. En route they cross paths with three skinheads in a souped up Audi who are cruising the night streets in search of trouble. David and Natasha find themselves in the thugs’ sights and must flee down empty streets and onto the motorway pursued by the vicious Mal and his two mates. It’s a deadly game of cat and mouse, one in which every avenue of escape and source of help seem closed to them, and that ends when the couple are forced to take a one way road onto an isolated farm where, realising that the game has gone on too long and become far too serious for them to be allowed to live, David and Natasha must stand and fight.

There are echoes of plenty of horror films here, such as Duel and Roadkill, but West makes the material his own, ringing numerous changes on a familiar template, while we root for the good guys and hate the bad guys. He does an excellent job of drawing his characters, especially the three skinheads, who are far more than the two-dimensional thugs typically found in such fiction, and all the more menacing for that. There are some nice touches of detail, such as the indifference to their plight of the petrol station cashier and the blasé certainty of the farmer coming to deal with trespassers on his land in the middle of the night. Parts of it seem slightly contrived, such as Natasha’s convenient loss of keys and phone, David’s phone not working, the empty police station, all of which allow for the prolongation of the main narrative line, but there’s nothing that seems too far-fetched. The final showdown at the pig farm is handled with flair, with the skinheads ready to do anything to dispose of their victims and the author offering no certainty as to how this will all turn out. Kudos also to West for avoiding the cliché of battlefield romance: David is happily married and remains so even when staring death in the face.

There’s nothing here that is going to stand the horror genre on its head, but chances are if you’ve been out walking late at night and wondered about the people in a passing car, then Drive will strike a chord. It doesn’t come with any heavy meaning or much in the way of a subtext, but it is a crowd pleaser, a horror story set in the urban landscape and tapping into our fears of what could so easily go wrong in this setting, a finely tuned tale that delivers all the thrills it says on the tin. I loved it, and I also think it would make a splendid little film.


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Trailer Trash – A Christmas Horror Story

It’s that time of the year again:-

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Thoughts on My Birthday

ITEM: An email arrives from a publisher with the Subject line, “The truth behind the most infamous criminals in history”, and one of the books being touted just happens to be Parliament: A Biography.

From the mouths of babes and advertising copy writers…

ITEM: Recently I was travelling on a bus with The Actual Girlfriend, and we saw a road sign that read “Studs Removed”.

After dismissing various alternatives as to its meaning, I casually remarked that the bus would be stopped and they’d make me get off.

It was meant to be funny, but not that funny.

ITEM: While cruising YouTube I stumbled across this video of Cher performing If I Could Turn Back Time:-

I can vaguely recall watching this on TV when it first came out, and being mightily taken with the lady’s appearance (euphemism).

Now, at age sixty one, she sort of reminds me of Alice Cooper, only with worse dress sense.

Oh, the perils and disenchantments of growing old.

ITEM: Little things that annoy a lot – the person in Poundland Dereham who comes along and turns all the DVDs so that they are facing front, when any idiot will tell you that from a consumer viewpoint being able to quickly run your eyes over the titles on the case spines is the desiderata.

Also annoying, and staying with the DVD theme, when shops place their money off stickers over a vital piece of information, such as running time or the names of cast and directors.

And the fact that the lawnmower, having dutifully performed to specification over the course of trimming four strips of lawn, then conks out when all I have left is one tiny rectangle of grass at the back of my bungalow.

Not as annoying though as when after I’ve spent twenty minutes trying to get the bloody thing to start, my brother-in-law comes over to help and it starts first time.

ITEM: I’m glad to learn that the World Fantasy Award statuette will no longer be modelled after the image of H. P. Lovecraft.

If the horror/fantasy genre wishes to be seen as inclusive and welcoming, as valuing diversity and differing points of view, then I’d suggest an award that could potentially alienate and insult more than half the world’s population is really not the way to go.

That seems like an obvious truth, and all those arguing against the World Fantasy committee’s decision, whether they are dismissing it with that old chestnut of “political correctness gone mad”, claiming that it disrespects tradition, or playing the fear of censorship card, are shouting into the wind.

Yes, Lovecraft was a great writer and somebody whose influence on genre fiction can’t be understated, both by virtue of his own work and the encouragement he gave to so many others.

And yet he was also undeniably a racist, and even by the standards of his time an extremist.

Nobody that I’ve seen, apart from a few scaremongers in the nay camp, is suggesting that HPL’s fiction will no longer be read or his name excised from the canon. Let’s celebrate Lovecraft and his work by all means, but not with eyes closed to his faults as a human being, or making excuses for them simply because we want our heroes to be untarnished.

ITEM: Today is my birthday. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but hopefully it will involve TAG and a hot tub.

I’m not that old.

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Filler content with Richards, Rardin, and Dansky

Three more reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-


(Pendragon paperback, 335pp, £9.99)

The latest title from Welsh publisher Pendragon consists of four novellas, two of them previously unpublished, from a writer who has appeared regularly in our predecessor, The Third Alternative, as well as a host of other genre magazines, and with a common theme of be careful what you wish for because your wishes may be granted.

Title story ‘No-Man’ starts with a young boy discovering an alien presence inside an old air-raid shelter at the back of his school. The eponymous No-Man is friendly and able to grant wishes. He makes everybody like Tom, and over the years helps him with his studies and then his career. There is a price, in that Tom can’t help wondering how much of his success is down to his own efforts, but all the same he can’t stop himself pushing for more. It’s only with the really powerful emotions that No-Man has trouble fine tuning things; he can make a woman love Tom, but the cost is she no longer actually likes him, the weaker emotion overwhelmed by the stronger. It’s a double-edged sword that results in severe complications. There’s an intriguing idea at work here, showing that however strange we may seem to aliens and vice versa, we’re still pretty odd to each other as well, and that there are consequences when we try to force other people to feel about us in a particular way. Richards is excellent at identifying all the possibilities of this fraught scenario and mining them in such a credible way that we can immediately empathise with Tom and his philosophy of “Where’s the harm?” and believe that we might act similarly even while knowing that what he is doing is wrong. I have one tiny complaint to do with the actual writing. In this story, and to a lesser degree in those that follow, there’s a tendency to split lines so that what might more naturally run as a sentence becomes question and answer (e.g. “Tom? Was by nature a quiet and thoughtful type…”). I’m not sure if this is a misjudged stylistic effect or simply a series of typos thrown up in the printing process, but I am certain that I found it irritating.

Second story ‘Postcards From Teri’ is a ghost story in which a man is haunted by the predatory spirit of his old lover, the postcards she mailed him from abroad acting as touchstones for dreams that seem compellingly real. It is the finest in the collection, and I reviewed it at length when it was originally published as a standalone novella by Tartarus. Rather than repeat myself I will post the original review to the TTA website at

Reading the other previously published story, ‘Under the Ice’, there will probably come a moment when you realise that it is yet another variation on that old favourite The Monkey’s Paw. David moves to Helsinki to be with the beautiful Krista, when his twin brother, her then lover, accidentally falls overboard from a ferry. The tragedy always haunts him though, and so when a magical artifact falls into his hands he wishes for Bobby to come back, which he does, only as a violent zombie whose behaviour casts doubt on Krista’s role in their shared past. Similarities to Paw aside, and those magical elements and the happy ever after ending they empower are the only weak part of the narrative, this is a gripping story, one that builds well, with each step along the way following on surely from the previous one, once you accept the given of supernatural interference. Richards deftly portrays the central ménage a trois, and is equally competent at capturing the feel of Helsinki on the page, with subtle touches of atmosphere and nuances that make it all credible.

Last story and the longest, ‘A Black Glass Slipper’ is a Cinderella fable for modern times in which Owen is beguiled by Eva, an obscenely expensive call girl, and decides to rescue her from the Russian gangster who ‘owns’ her. His attempt to involve the law fails, as does his plan to offer money, while Eva herself tells him that she is not interested, though of course Owen refuses to accept this, believing she wants to love him but is afraid. In desperation he seeks outside help of a satanic provenance, but fate has another cruel twist in store. I have mixed feelings about all this. It’s eminently readable and engaging, being at one and the same time the most promising story and also the one that disappoints the greatest. As a tale of obsession and self-delusion it works very well, with believable action and convincing emotions, as Owen is drawn in against his own wishes, unable to help himself, and the coldness of Eva comes over well, the indifference she has had to adopt simply to survive. It is an unsettling picture of the way in which humans can become brutalised, but then Richards introduces the satanic element and turns the story on its head. The two plot strands don’t really gel, with the supernatural stuff seeming not so much to arise naturally out of the story but as a clumsy deus ex machina introduced simply to provide the desired resolution. The subtext for me is that sometimes the horror of real life is enough; you don’t need the devil and all his tricks.


(Orbit paperback, 290pp, £6.99)

Jaz Parks is a CIA operative and the assistant to their top assassin Vayl, who just happens to be a several hundred year old vampire out of Romania. A former vampire slayer, who lost her team and is riddled with guilt as a result, Jaz’s job is to watch Vayl’s back, sniff out other vampires for him and generally make his life easy. The two are sent to investigate a plastic surgeon suspected of raising funds for a terrorist group connected to The Raptor, a vampire who is the arch nemesis of democracy (think Osama, with fangs). Things are much worse than expected though, with the bad guys plotting to unleash a demon from another dimension and a plague that will wipe out mankind. There are other complications too, not the least of which are Vayl’s former wife showing up and a traitor in the ranks of the CIA, while we also get some unsettling revelations about Jaz’s past.

This is horror lite, or paranormal romance, or whatever you want to call it; Bond meets Dracula according to the back cover blurb. I’d have gone more for True Lies post the Jamie Lee character’s conversion to secret agent, though Vayl is nowhere near as scary as the Governor of California. Jaz is an easy to like character, good at what she does and caring towards her family, agonising over mistakes she feels she may have made and wisecracking with the best of them (her penchant for wrecking cars is a running joke). She and Vayl have a good rapport, with the hint of a chemistry that promises interesting times ahead, while his enigmatic master act is intriguing without being so far out there as to repel.

After a slow start the book picks up speed and delivers the goods, with an exciting story packed with larger than life characters, technical wizardry and supernatural grace notes. The plot has more than its fair share of ups and downs for Jaz and Vayl (well, actually a lot more downs), with some knockdown fights along the way to a suitably enthralling and momentous final battle between the forces of dark and light, one in which it could easily go either way. Last but not least, what we learn of Jaz’s past sets up some intriguing puzzles to be resolved in future volumes.

It’s not compulsive reading, or even horror really, but I had a good time with this and expect I will with more from Rardin.


(Wizards of the Coast hardback, 384pp, $25.95)

His business failed, Jacob Logan returns to the small town of Maryfield in North Carolina and takes up residence in the family homestead. It’s a bittersweet return for him, bringing back memories of how he deserted his parents and betrayed their dreams to pursue his own. But things are not right. The fireflies, which Jacob’s mother said were angels sent to guide dead souls to heaven, will not come onto Logan land, and handyman Carl Powell keeps dropping dark hints about the house and his family. Matters escalate as Jacob sees signs that the house is haunted, while his car is stolen by a strange figure. It seems that certain prominent citizens have a vested interest in seeing Jacob remain in Maryfield, and will resort to anything to make that happen, be it violence or hand picking a bride for him. Restless spirits are on the wing and Jacob must get to the bottom of it all, or see people he cares about get hurt.

There’s good and bad to this book, if I’m allowed such an obvious statement. Dansky provides plenty of solid effects, with the sense of a haunting put over well, objects moved and doors shut, strange sounds at night and sudden changes in temperature, the whole nine yards of spectral manifestation in fact. The mysterious actions of Jacob’s car, which is stolen by a party unknown much to the indifference or bafflement of the police, but keeps turning up at the most inopportune moments to tease and torment him, along with Jacob’s visions and savage, inexplicable attacks by his neighbour’s dog all add to the building tension. It culminates in a final push to force him to take the necessary action to resolve matters or die in the attempt, which brings on a tour de force resolution to the book, a standoff against the forces not so much of darkness as those of desperation and the human longing for peace. All of this is to the good, but outweighed by the problems I had with the story.

I didn’t find Jacob particularly likable or care what happened to him (or the rest of his family either for that matter). He came over as a self-absorbed jerk, which made it impossible to sympathise over his troubles; curiosity was the best I could manage. The only engaging characters were librarian Adrienne, the honey trap element of the story, and feisty, go getter Jenna, Jacob’s city friend who comes to help him out and ends up with her life in peril. There are too many red herrings, such as Jacob’s various altercations with police officer Hanratty and his suspicions as to her past, while the idea at back of it all, the explanation for all that happens here, is simply risible. There are so many hints of much bigger things going on in the text, but the book just doesn’t deliver on them, as if the author had written himself into a corner and then couldn’t see a more rational way out of his character’s dilemma. Ultimately Firefly Rain is like one of those Hollywood blockbusters where all the money went on sfx, with only pennies over for script and casting.

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Filler content with Barker, Gustainis, and Mick and Len

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #3:-


(Harper Voyager hardback, 248pp, £15)

The title is suggestive, in that having read the book you wonder if the Mister B who has gone is in fact Barker himself. According to the publishers this book is ‘the long awaited return of the great master of horror’, but that’s debatable. If you come to this expecting a return to the gory glory days of The Books of Blood, The Hellbound Heart or even Coldheart Canyon, then you are going to be disappointed.

The plot is the old chestnut about a genie trapped in a bottle and cajoling, threatening, bribing somebody to break him out, only here reinvented as a demon trapped in a book, this book actually, the one that you’re reading, and if that constitutes a plot spoiler then so does telling you that tomorrow the sun is going to rise. The demon, a Jakabok Botch, or Mister B. for short, tells his story to the reader, all the while beseeching him to burn the book, and what a story it is. Snatched out of Hell at an early age. Wandering the earth with the older demon Quitoon. Committing the requisite atrocities. Ending up in Mainz, just as Gutenberg invents the printing press. Learning the great secret that Heaven and Hell share in common. Getting imprisoned as a result. Cut.

The rot sets in from the outset. For any horror aficionado the thought of Clive Barker writing about Hell should be a cause for glee, but in the event what we get from the awesome imagination that spawned the Cenobites, the Iad Ouroboros and the Abarat, is something as mundane as a Ken Loach film; the father who spends a hard day at the sulphur pits, gets drunk and comes home to beat the wife and kids. It’s a caricature of the dysfunctional family, and giving the head of the family a forked tail doesn’t make it any more interesting or real. Once we get ‘upstairs’ all the book seems to be doing is marking time until the big revelation about the accord between Heaven and Hell, which again is not exactly great shakes, rather something most readers will guess before it is revealed and probably be able to reference previous examples of, while the demon’s ‘burn the book’ refrain soon gets tiresome and is a gift horse for reviewers more churlish than me.

I think my biggest problem with the book is that it is cartoon horror. Yes, Mister B. tortures people, gets horrifically burned, bathes in the blood of slaughtered babies, and so on and so forth, but none of it counts for anything much. It’s as inconsequential as the cat running full tilt into the wall, getting smashed flat, sliding to the ground and lying there in a puddle, only to get up five seconds later ready to do it all over again. There’s nothing here that actually hurts, that makes the reader feel for the characters and care about what they’re going through. Even the names are cartoon comedy. Can you read Quitoon without thinking ‘spittoon’ or hear Jakabok Botch without being reminded of the immensely irritating Jar Jar Binks?

Okay, let’s pause a moment and put some salve on those burns. Mister B. Gone is competently written and an easy, undemanding read. As a piece of horror whimsy it works fine and anyone unfamiliar with Barker’s oeuvre is probably going to have a good time. It’s only those of us with expectations who are going to feel short changed and wonder if the man once hailed as ‘the future of horror’ has forgotten how to write the stuff in any way that matters.

Now burn this review. Seriously. Burn it. Go on.


(Solaris paperback, 432pp, $15)

This is billed as “A Quincey Morris Supernatural Investigation” and shame on you, if you don’t instantly surmise that the character is somehow related to one of the three musketeers who helped Van Helsing end the career of Dracula.

Quincey shares his ancestor’s penchant for vampire slaying, as witness the scene setting prologue in which he ingeniously wipes out a nest of the varmints in a Texas town. Moving quickly on, we get to the main story in which Quincey goes to help a man whose family home appears to be under magic attack, calling in the aid of white witch Libby Chastain. At first they think they are dealing with a poltergeist, but in the event it appears they have stumbled onto the latest episode in a black magic vendetta stretching back to the Salem witchcraft trials, and have to dig deep into their resources, magical and human, to track down the culprit. In another plot strand that neatly dovetails with this, the FBI call in Van Dreenan, a South African policeman with experience of ritual slayings, to help them track down a killer leaving a trail of mutilated children’s bodies in his or her wake.

Gustainis does rather like to have too much of a good thing. Quincey Morris is the tip of a name dropping iceberg, with Amityville, The X-Files and The Exorcist all getting a look in, so that eventually you end up trying to find a connection for every single name (is detective Barry Love derived from Barker’s Harry D’Amour, and could Libby Chastain be descended from Paul Sheldon’s Misery?) and it becomes a distraction. Similarly, he lays it on thick with the supernatural menaces – vampires, werewolf, zombies, demons, succubus/incubus – introducing a new threat with almost every other chapter, so that you’re left wondering what’s been kept in reserve for any future investigation (the smart money is on Great Cthulhu)?

But these are quibbles. Nobody should be in any doubt that Black Magic Woman is a fast paced and highly entertaining work of fiction, one that comes at the reader like a dust devil with ambitions to be a tornado and doesn’t let up on the action for a second. Gustainis is in complete command of his material and he enthrals the reader as completely as any master magician. Nor is it simply a question of this book being a light hearted romp, a route it could so easily have taken. There are scenes involving the killing of children, including Dreenan’s back story, that are harrowing and definitely not for the squeamish, and kudos to Gustainis for telling them so instead of glossing things over for the sake of a PG rating.

It has memorable protagonists too in the form of the affable and eminently likeable Morris and his alluring helpmate, bisexual white witch Libby Chastain, and it’s gratifying for once to have heroes who are middle-aged rather than young bloods, though I’ve no doubt they’ll roll back the years when the film or TV series this book is crying out for is made. In a similar way Dreenan and his FBI companion, Fenton, are an engaging double act, with the one being indoctrinated into the outré world by the other, two men who are at first opposed but learn to respect each other and work together. Equally impressive are the bad guys, the monstrous Christine Abernathy, the evil Cecelia Mbwato and their henchman Snake.

Gustainis’ characters have almost nothing to do with the likes of Carnacki and John Silence, instead coming out of the same stable as John Constantine and Supernatural, with an emphasis on action above all else. He brings to the table a gusto and raw energy that is irresistible, repackaging the genre of the supernatural sleuth for the rock video generation. He won’t change your life or reinvent the tropes of horror fiction, but chances are you’re going to really enjoy what he does.


(Leisure paperback, 338pp, $7.99)

Emma Porter gets the chance to become personal assistant to Alex, the dynamic and charismatic head of the Keltner organisation, but her promotion is tainted with sadness as Emma’s lover Helen has just been killed in a tragic accident at her riding stables. Still, Emma throws herself into her new job, attending a weekend retreat her boss has organised at an isolated country house for his wealthy friends and business associates and it’s here that she gets the first inkling not everything is kosher, as the guests engage in sexual shenanigans with various members of staff and sinister undercurrents become apparent. Meanwhile Helen’s brother Tony has been looking into her death and finds a connection with Erik Keltner, Alex’s unsavoury younger brother. As he looks closer at the Keltners the more wary Tony becomes, suspecting that they might be involved in the white slave trade, but the Keltner’s secret and the plan they have for Emma is far worse.

This is old style horror, a tale that builds gradually to a crescendo, with dashes of sex and perversion added to the mix for flavour. Beautifully constructed, with Maynard and Sims neatly slotting each piece into place, it delivers its chills and surprises in a quite deliberate way, so that the reader is primed to accept each shock to the system by what has gone before, instead of having to cope with a gore overload from the outset. The back story of a demonic race co-existing with and preying on humans, so cunningly revealed, convinces totally, even allowing for the fact that it does sound slightly like vampires by any other name. The way in which these ‘outsiders’ practice their dark arts is disturbing, with more than a hint of Society in some of the scenes, and the story is further enriched by rivalry between the various demon factions, each resentful and scheming to bring down Keltner patriarch Louis, even his own family, with Emma pivotal to the plot.

Emma is an appealing heroine, both vulnerable and yet capable when pushed, with a climactic worm turning scene at the end. Tony and the parties who come to his aid, including a powerful magician with an agenda of his own concerning Emma and the Keltners, are equally well drawn, bringing to mind Wheatley’s Richelieu and cronies as they prepare to go into battle. The Keltners and their demonic allies are also strongly characterised, evil with a very human face rather than some ancient stereotype, each one of them given individual characteristics, in some cases even an empathy with those who should simply be their victims. In many ways Erik, the least powerful, is the most gripping, in that he is the one with something to prove and this is seen in acts of malice and casual brutality beneath his more assured brothers and sisters.

The only bum note is struck by the inconclusive ending, but I took that as a sign a sequel may well be in the works, and if so it’s very welcome. This is the best of the long works I have seen by this talented duo, a finely crafted novel that hints at their roots in traditional horror while being thoroughly modern, and which can only enhance their growing reputation.


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