Filler content with novellas

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

THREE NOVELLAS

LITTLE GHOSTS (Omnium Gatherum Media pb, 40pp, $6.99) by Mary Borsellino is a letter the story’s protagonist is writing to a woman she considers a “mentor”. We learn of her early life on a kudzu ridden family estate with her alcoholic mother. Estranged from others, she finds comfort in wandering the estate and daydreams about the ghost of a girl buried in the grounds. Off studying journalism in New Orleans she takes to alcohol, men, and visiting speakeasies, perhaps as a way to avoid confronting her true sexual leanings, all of which leads to conflict with her straitlaced family.

Set in the early years of last century, there’s a southern gothic feel to this work, the sense of decay and desuetude and tiredness running through the text, but also a feel of triumphalism, of problems confronted and overcome. Our narrator is a person born out of time, somebody who just doesn’t fit in and punished terribly for her inability to conform to the social conventions of her day. At the same time she finds, through the gift of imagination, a way to deal with the troubles that beset her, transforming her tormentors into ghosts through the medium of fiction, giving literature a redemptive power in her life. And, as a side issue, she also comes to a realisation of who she really is and how to deal with that, ways in which to take life on her own terms. While very much a work of historical fiction, set in a period when women were struggling to find a voice and path to empowerment, Little Ghosts is at the same time a work with powerful resonance for our own age, where many of the same problems persist. And, last of all, it is a truly beguiling work, written with a unique voice that demands to be heard. I loved it.

NEVER NOW ALWAYS (Broken Eye Books pb, 98pp, $9.99) by Desirina Boskovich presents us with a future in which children are kept in a facility run by the Caretakers and overseen by the Voice, subject to a strictly regimented lifestyle and occasional experiments. One child, Lolo, is plagued by memories of the past, particularly of a sister she once had, and so revolts against the system to find her sister, but what she learns is anything but comforting.

This is a book of two parts, the main thrust of the narrative embodied in subtitle ‘A Future of Lost Memories’. For most of the story, with Lolo struggling to grasp a past that constantly eludes her, a quest that is told through her eyes with an occasional departure to those of sister Tess, it is a convincing depiction of the struggle against both memory loss (you could make a case for this being a metaphor for dementia, albeit self-induced on the part of the human race) and a tyrannical and arbitrary system of government. In this sense it fits in neatly with other “reality” scenarios such as The Matrix and much of Dick’s work, and there is even a feeling of Logan’s Run to the book’s end game. Overall it is impressive for the way in which it portrays the fog of mental confusion and Lolo’s fight to make sense of what is happening to her.

Where the book fell short for me, and also contrarily its most original element, is in the rather vague explanation for what is taking place, the justification for mankind’s collective amnesia. It’s a revelation that didn’t quite ring true, seemed more like an excuse or pretext for the reality Boskovich wishes to portray rather than a credible rationale to underpin the story. In conclusion, I’d characterise this as one of those books where the journey is far more rewarding than the destination.

In Richard Farren Barber’s PERFECT DARKNESS, PERFECT SILENCE (Hersham Horror Books pb, 150pp, £8), Hannah is head of the clean-up crew in a world that has unravelled. Every day the crew go out to dispose of the bodies that have gathered in the field approaching the small community where plague survivors have found hope of a kind, under the auspices of the charismatic Andrew Hickman. But Hannah is on the brink of making discoveries that will lead her to question everything about their community and the way in which it survives, the morality of the whole enterprise.

This is perhaps the bleakest of the books I’ve read by Barber. The backdrop is almost infernal in nature, with the destruction wrought by the plague brought to horrific life on the page, Hannah and her crew wandering through a landscape composed almost entirely of dead bodies. The effects on the group are powerfully evoked, with tensions between them and the pariah status they have with others in the community all part and parcel of being the ones who perform a dirty but necessary function. Hannah herself, a lesbian whose lover is lost somewhere out there in the “bad lands” (probably dead) is a straightforward individual who nevertheless gives rise to complications in her response to others and their actions, such as her rejection of co-worker Patrick’s amorous advances and her naïve belief that Hickman will do the right thing.

Underlying all this is the consideration of power and what those who have it will do to preserve their positions. While it feels like the author is on Hannah’s side, he does a good job of making Hickman and his deadly pragmatism a convincing alternative. The central question posed so effectively by this book is what, if any, is the difference between the mercy killings that Hannah commits and the killing of others for the greater good. Short and powerful, the novella confronts such moral quandaries and frames them in a way that is as entertaining as it is challenging. Bleak and uncompromising, Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is a read that is as uncomfortable as it is rewarding, not least for its lack of easy answers.

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Filler content with a novel and a collection

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

DOUBLE ACTS: S. P. MISKOWSKI

According to a blurb in the back of her latest novel, S. P. Miskowski is “one of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years”, and I have to agree with that assessment as I wrote it and the latest evidence bears it out. She is a writer who continues to surprise me or, to paraphrase your investment adviser, “past performance is not indicative of future direction”.

Case in point, that latest novel which deservedly won a This Is Horror Award and was a Stoker Award nominee. I WISH I WAS LIKE YOU (JournalStone Publishing pb, 252pp, $16.95) is nothing at all like Miskowski’s previous outing at this length, the Shirley Jackson Award nominated Knock Knock (lots of awards getting mentioned here, which should tell you something). While that book had about it the feel of a work at home within the parameters of the horror genre in general and southern Gothic in particular, this new novel is entirely modern in cast, something that could pass muster as a mainstream work regardless of the fact that the narrator is a vengeful spirit and a plethora of homicides and other nasty acts take place between its covers. It is a murder mystery and a ghost story, a work of psychological horror and a misery memoir, all wrapped up in a bag of literary tricks that will delight fans of the type of fiction that revels in taking risks. In fact I believe I could make a case for it being the twenty first century equivalent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho with a woman instead of a male protagonist, poverty instead of unbridled wealth, petty acts of revenge in lieu of more grandiose atrocities, but seen from the perspective of a narrator every bit as self-absorbed and oblivious to the “not me” as Patrick Bateman.

The book opens with the discovery of Greta Garver’s dead body. In a city that is still coming to terms with the death of Kurt Cobain her death is dismissed as just another Goth suicide. Greta however, or her ghost to be exact, knows better, knows that she was murdered by her great nemesis Eve Wallace and sets out to be revenged. Greta’s back life – teenage years without a rudder, directionless, and then meeting with the cynical and bitter Lee Todd Butcher, once a contender in the crime writing stakes, now a former hack reduced to teaching, whose “friendship” doesn’t extend to giving her a free pass on shitty writing. Out of sorts with her “mentor”, Greta flounces, packs her bags and heads off to Seattle, there to become a successful writer, except reality doesn’t accommodate her. After various setbacks, she manages to snag a job as theatre critic on a free newspaper, and sets about wreaking revenge on the woman who, in lieu of any self-awareness, she holds responsible for all her failures, but of course things still aren’t going to plan for our plucky anti-heroine.

There’s a lot going on here, far more than my plot synopsis above can convey. Central to the story is the Seattle setting, and as somebody whose main awareness of the city comes courtesy of reruns of Frasier, Miskowski’s vivid descriptions of the streets and buildings, the newspaper wars and bustling theatre scene, give Seattle an entirely different cast and bring it alive in compelling detail. The impression is of a metropolis on the make, a city that never stands still, but not through restless energy in need of an outlet; rather it feels like a town that simply doesn’t know what to do with itself, what it aspires to, and so is constantly backtracking and running in circles. And as far as that goes, the city seems to mirror the personality of protagonist Greta Garver, who also doesn’t seem to know what to do with her life, whose every action is predicated on responding to others and reacting to them, rather than finding any course of her own. Each step that she takes results in digging a bigger hole, but for Greta the point is that it’s her hole, dug by her and nobody else. Lee Todd gives her good advice about the difficulties of a writing career, and her only response is to attempt to prove him wrong. Other opportunities come her way, and she fouls them up, simply because she doesn’t really want anything, except petty revenge for imagined slights. Greta is a marvellous and memorable creation, not a monster, but somebody all too human and fallible; Patricia Bateman for the twenty first century, to overwork my previous comparison. She can never be happy, because everything she achieves, every step forward, turns to ash as soon as she takes it. Near the novel’s end she sees joy on a child’s face, and it’s a moment of epiphany, a recognition of something that has always stuck just out of reach in her own life, but it changes nothing.

No woman is an island, and so Greta is surrounded by a cast of larger than life characters, each of them complete with their own idiosyncrasies and personality foibles. Miskowski doesn’t stint, even on those who have walk on parts. The genius loci of the book is Lee Todd Butcher, both as an actual person and as a ghost who pops in to check up on Greta before moving on to other realms. Beneath his acerbic personality, is somebody who actually cares what happens to her and who is critical with her good in mind, but Greta is too up herself to see that and reacts to his criticisms in entirely the wrong way. All the people who befriend and try to help her – upstairs neighbour and play director Vaughn, fellow writer Daisy, newspaper man Charlie – end up feeling betrayed and let down, and Greta is unable to stop herself acting like this even though these are people she appears to like. Eve Wallace, while assuming monstrous qualities in Greta’s imagination, is in many ways just the sort of person Greta could so easily have become given different circumstances, and perhaps this is the true source of her hatred. Certainly as ghosts the two feel very much like twins separated at birth.

Another delight of the book are the metafictional and, possibly, biographical touches. Lee Todd is prone to writing diktats, and some of these head up several of the chapters – don’t start a book with the discovery of a dead body, don’t use a dead person as narrator, and so on – and Miskowski in mimicry of her protagonist’s modus operandi gleefully flouts each and every one of them, only with very different results. The Seattle theatre scene, which is so central to the book’s last third, is one that Miskowski knows well and brings to vivid life on the page, a cauldron of creative energy so much of which appears misdirected or futile, experimentation simply for the sake of being different, while the story that Greta submits to a writing competition can be found in the author’s collection Strange Is the Night. Peppered throughout the book are snapshots of the mental states of people on the verge of suicide, with spectral Greta giving them that little push or jolt of encouragement, and the cumulative effect of these scenes is to create a mood of bleakness that would make any self-respecting miserablist throw up his hands in despair. These tiny misery memoirs are invaluable in providing context for Greta’s own psychology, showing that she is a person without a trace of empathy or compassion, utterly devoid of self-understanding.

Engrossing throughout, the book becomes a powerhouse in the final pages, as Greta finally confronts the complete mess she has made of her life, even though it doesn’t seem to provide her with any closure, just another reason to feel sorry for herself. It is a moment of self-realisation, but as with every other such where Greta is concerned it doesn’t truly sink in and take root. Miskowski has produced an exemplary novel, one that deals intelligently with themes of creativity and self-absorption, one that leaves the reader with much to think about and is every bit as brilliant as the work Greta Garver dreams of producing but can’t deliver. I loved it.

The author’s latest collection, STRANGE IS THE NIGHT (Trepidatio Publishing pb, 252pp, $16.95), contains thirteen stories, three of which are seeing print for the first time, and another which has the distinction of previously appearing in Black Static #45. Three of the stories – ‘This Many’, ‘Somnambule’, and ‘Stag in Flight’ – I’ve reviewed before and so, as per standard operating procedure, instead of going over old ground with the attendant risk of contradicting myself, I’ll post the text of those previous reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com.

Opening the proceedings is ‘A.G.A.’, which is not the name of a brand of cooker but an acronym for something else entirely. Over late night drinks in a bar Ed explains to his good friend Phil how bad things always happen to people who cross him, only Ed is not as friendly to Phil as you might think given the chatty tone, and his words carry a veiled threat. This is an old style story, one along the familiar lines of revenge foretold, and most readers will guess the end, though here Miskowski pulls an extra trick by leaving it all up in the air, so that both Phil and the reader are left to ponder if Ed is just shooting the breeze or warning of a genuine peril. With its chatty tone, the author capturing perfectly the voices of her characters, the story has an amiable feel to it, in direct contradiction of what is actually taking place, and it’s a great curtain raiser for what follows, with the author getting tone of voice just right. In ‘Lost and Found’ a female milquetoast chooses to vacation by visiting the haunts of her favourite writer, but stumbles into a reality where what happens to her mirrors events in the writer’s life, the story offering us a song in praise of those who fail to make their mark, who are not so much living their lives as just passing through, guests in a hotel from which they can never really depart or feel at home. Imagine Hotel California reinvented as a Jonathan Carroll short story and you’ll have an idea where this piece is coming from.

In ‘Fur’ Mary ends up going on an unusual date thanks to the efforts of her employer at the dog grooming parlour. The story is offbeat, to say the least, cultivating a mood of strangeness even while it stays just the right side of the line between the real world and the numinous, with all Mary’s doubts and insecurities given form in the person of Johnny. It culminates in an ending that hints at something more outré, a link of sorts between the two characters. Three students sharing the bills for the ‘Animal House’ find that they must take on a fourth to make ends meet, only new roomie Kirsten is not what she appears to be, with disastrous consequences for all. This is an assured feat of storytelling, a tale that takes its time to build, drawing in the characters effortlessly and showing how they interact, with casual hints that not all is well, the sense of menace slowly mounting until it bursts forth in all its horror. In fact I’d argue that the true value of the story lies not in the terror unleashed, which may be down to either Kristen or the house itself, or some amalgamation of both, but to the near perfect characterisation Miskowski gives us.

‘Ms. X Regrets Everything’ consists of text from a parole appeal by a woman serving a long term gaol sentence, intercut with scenes from her past life (the story is quite specific as to the woman’s identity, but today I’m trying to avoid spoilers). While she doesn’t exonerate the character or shy away from her violent actions, underlying the text is an attempt to understand how somebody could come to act in such ways, how devalued as a human being Ms. X must have felt, and the ironic title refers to far more than the murders she helped commit. Natalie looks out for her sister Sandy, and doesn’t baulk when a phone conversation hints at something terrible having taken place in ‘A Condition for Marriage’. The story is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of a well-written piece with thoroughly believable characters. There’s a double whammy to the ending, with more than a hint of further trouble ahead, and a final sentence that underlines the “special” nature of the sister.

Returned to the scenes of her early struggles, now a famous playwright, Jane is disturbed by more than memories in ‘The Second Floor’. It’s a story in which past and present events overlap and inform each other, with the feeling that you can never get away from the things that went wrong back in the day, no matter how far you travel or what you accomplish, the whole underpinned by an insider view of the theatre scene in Seattle. ‘Death and Disbursement’ is told from the viewpoint of a call handler at an insurance company forced to deal with a particularly difficult customer. Again nothing is overtly presented, and yet you sense that there is something lurking in the background, that the threat is more substantial than just an angry old white guy with an attitude. Miskowski excels in making the ordinary seem strange and menacing in this most unusual of Halloween stories.

In title piece ‘Strange is the Night’, a story inspired by Chambers’ ‘The King in Yellow’, a vindictive theatre critic gets his much deserved comeuppance. Miskowski is excellent at portraying Pierce, the ways in which he exploits his position and the self-loathing and sense of failure that drives him to act as he does, then brings it all to a glorious conclusion with an outré and highly appropriate resolution, one in which the macabre invades and swamps the everyday. Finally we have ‘Water Main’ in which dissatisfaction with her boyfriend’s shortcomings as a plumber lead Nancy to seek somewhere else to live, with unforeseen consequences. The opening scenes of relationship discord and dissatisfaction with physical environment are handled well, but only set the scene for what is to come, with Nancy stumbling into a nightmarish scenario, one where crawling babies seem to be emblematic of the man she has chosen to live with, of all her wrong life choices in fact. It’s a powerful and hallucinatory ending to a strong collection of stories, a volume that effectively showcases the range and talent of one of the most original and distinctive new voices on the scene.

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Filler content with dreams and a void

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

DOUBLE ACTS: PHILIP FRACASSI

Philip Fracassi made his mark as a screenwriter, but is now proving to be a force within the horror genre. His debut collection Behold the Void won a This Is Horror Award for 2017 (as did Black Static – let’s blow our own trumpet) and we’ll come to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about 2016 novella FRAGILE DREAMS (JournalStone Publishing pb, 106pp, $9.95).

Matthew has just turned up for a job interview when an earthquake brings the building down on top of him. Trapped under tons of rubble, he is forced to relive memories of his past, deal with physical and psychological pain, and nightmarish visions of what is happening to him. For the reader the experience is distinctly unsettling, ranging from unfocused sadness at the vagaries of life in this world, through body horror and the trauma of life threatening injury, to an almost metaphysical and Lovecraftian vision of the apocalypse.

Fracassi is superb at characterising Matthew, so that we instinctively sympathise with him and wonder at the things that have happened in his short life – the loss of friends and family, the joys of love and parenthood, and all the other stuff that most of us go through in one form or another. The way in which his psyche is so cunningly unravelled is masterly executed, with an ending that leaves us open to believe he has been saved (though for what?) or that this is all simply the last, deathbed hallucinations of a mind whose synapses are burning out, a near death experience. It is an impressive and immersive experience, one that rewards the reader with more than enough in the way of thrills and spills, even if the protagonist is pinned in place, while touching on archetypal human feelings and situations. In so many ways it made me think of how it must feel to be a survivor or trapped in such catastrophes, not only those thrown up by vagaries of the natural world, such as earthquakes and tidal waves, but inevitably the manmade alternatives such as 9/11.

By way of bonus material we have the story ‘Death, My Old Friend’ in which the protagonist has Death as a best friend, the relationship inevitably strained by the demands of the role. It is a clever conceit, executed with a delightful wit and tongue in cheek humour, the mood eventually shifting to one of sadness and acceptance, so that ultimately the story is uplifting, a negation of the idea that we all die alone. I loved it.

BEHOLD THE VOID (JournalStone Publishing hc/pb, 294pp, $29.95/$18.95) contains nine meaty stories, of novella or novelette length, and gratifyingly only four of them have been previously published. After an introduction by Laird Barron we get into things proper with ‘Soft Construction of a Sunset’ whose title and modus operandi reference Salvador Dali, but which in mood and narrative complexity reads like a particularly fine and challenging episode of The Twilight Zone. We start with a dream and end with a nightmare, and in between there is madness and the impossible, as Fracassi takes an old plot device and turns it into a fabulous new confection of pure distilled horror, making the perfect curtain raiser for what is to follow.

‘Altar’ has an otherworldly incursion at a public swimming pool, but playing counterpoint to the numinous aspects of the story are real world horrors of a difficult divorce, childhood fears, bullying, and sexual abuse. It’s a story that starts with the prospect of joy, then reminds us through shifting perspectives that such happiness is all too often brief and illusory, a patina pasted over the real terror of the world, until in the final pages that horror moves centre stage in all its ghastliness, while at the same time offering a kind of benediction to the benighted. Gabino is ‘The Horse Thief’ stealing thoroughbreds for his employer Fat Ted, who sells them on to people with “exotic” tastes, but in this story the pair have a client who is far weirder than their usual customers, with the occult thrown in for good measure. This is a story that starts almost mundane, if perhaps more than a tad horrific thanks to its backdrop, but slowly gets further out as the story progresses, with Gabino’s night time journey and encounters along the way setting the scene for the arch-weird vibe of the story’s finale. It’s an intriguing and compelling piece, with a suitably macabre atmosphere and larger than life characters, and made all the more satisfying for the lack of any real explanation, simply hints that something truly outré is taking place.

Sylvia’s Nana tries to teach her the secrets of the Old Wood and witchcraft in ‘Coffin’, but the young girl cannot keep such things to herself, resulting in horrific death and leading on to a denouement even more unsettling. In a way this reminded me of The Witch, with its similar feel of something momentous and awful taking place just out of sight and beyond understanding, and the reverence it holds for the wild wood, playing counterpoint to the sassiness and fearful exuberance of a wilful young girl. ‘The Baby Farmer’ is a story that challenges conventional ideas concerning good and evil, with echoes of film Frailty in the underlying concept. A priest is involved in an illicit affair with a woman who has an unhealthy interest in Amelia Dyer, a renowned killer of babies, but the payoff gleefully muddies the water as to the motives of all involved. With larger than life characters and a rich back story, including verbatim text from the confession of Amelia Dyer, the narrative both horrifies and undermines our beliefs in a moral world order painted in terms of black and white, and I suspect will fiercely divide readers on the rightness of what takes place.

Adolf’s life is turned upside down by the terrible and unusual death of his father in ‘Surfer Girl’ and his mother takes up with Steve, who brings the family down to Mexico for a holiday. This strange, rambling story seems to be cataloguing the events that lead to the birth of a serial killer, as Adolf’s actions become more deranged and his nihilism poisons everything. For the reader the horror resides in our fear of what he will do to the young girl who has fallen into his clutches, and Fracassi has enough sense to let the story’s finale take place offstage, with a hint that Steve isn’t so different from Adolf. ‘Mother’ reads rather like something a novelist of social realism might produce, only with the added element of witchcraft and a monster at the end. It is the story of Howard and Julie, their idyllic love affair and marriage, and how it is consumed by bitterness and failure, leaving one to turn to the dark side and the other to become a victim. The power of the story lies in the interplay between the ordinary and the outré, two sides of the same coin, each reinforcing the other, with touches of chilling detail along the way that disturb and unsettle the reader as our sympathies veer between the two combatants.

‘Fail-Safe’ is, to paraphrase something in the story itself, the werewolf version of Schrodinger’s Cat. When mother turns, she is locked in a room in the basement with various fail-safe devices, including a poison gas release. But when father also becomes trapped in the room, their young son must decide on whether it is safe to release them or not. This was a fascinating conceit for a story and Fracassi plays it to the hilt, sucking every drop of tension out of the idea and showing how the son’s own psychology might involve a wish to see his parents die. I loved it. Finally we have ‘Mandala’, which reads like Gerald’s Game played by two kids out of a Bradbury story, except Mike and Joe are way too wise in the ways of the world and this is not idyllic Green Town, but somewhere far darker. A children’s game goes horribly wrong with dire consequences for one of the participants and with a malevolent spirit thrown into the mix. Everything here is damned near perfect, with a situation ripe with potential for mayhem and Fracassi raising the stakes with every turn of the page, taking the reader to the edge of his seat and back again several times, and with a back story and very human characters that we can believe in and empathise with even if we don’t quite like them as much as maybe we ought to. It is a very strong end to a first rate collection.

There’s a kindle edition of the collection available for those with shelf space issues and, according to an announcement on the author’s website, later in the year there’ll be a new edition of Behold the Void released by the good people behind The Lovecraft Ezine. Watch that space.

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Filler content with peacocks and tree spirits

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

DOUBLE ACTS: MICHAEL EISELE

Many writers follow the same career path: you get a story published and then another story, and then a load more stories, in ever more prestigious and better paying outlets as you hone your skills, until finally you’re ready to cherry pick the best fictions from your back catalogue and release them as a first collection, with a few new pieces to entice those who’ve followed your career so far. And then again, every so often there’s a writer who breaks the mould, who appears out of nowhere with a fully developed prose style and kitbag stuffed with literary tricks, whose first collection bursts on the scene without warning or fanfare, like Athena stepping forth from the head of Zeus.

Case in point Michael Eisele, whose debut collection THE GIRL WITH THE PEACOCK HARP (Tartarus Press hc, 268pp, £35) appeared in 2016, containing fifteen stories, none of which had been previously published.

The opening stories in this collection are all concerned with artistic and creative endeavour, themes that recur in Eisele’s work, but married to a style that has something of the fairy tale about it. ‘An Old Tale’ is set in Russia and tells the story of the rivalry between two ballerinas, one a poor girl with immense talent and the other a rich girl with influence. While the latter might triumph in the eyes of the world, it is the purity of the former’s vision that wins her the only accolades that matter in this beautifully written and meaningful story. ‘The Beginning’ is the story of the childhood love between an aristocrat and a gipsy girl and what happened when they tried to make a marriage in adulthood, despite the restrictions of society. The girl’s exuberance finds root in the couple’s son, who while a talented musician simply can’t play the tunes of other people without “tinkering”. Musical expression here is a metaphor for freedom of the human spirit and Eisele appears to be saying that once a work of art has one interpretation/one way of playing it, then it is in effect dead (the inference is that tales too must be constantly retold and reinvented if they are to live). Wide ranging and with a sure understanding of human emotions and the constraints imposed by society and the expectations of others, this was a superb study in disillusionment and at the same time striving for the best. Sequel ‘The Music’ continues the theme (and one of the characters) with a gipsy violinist resisting the attempts of a “maestro” to commit his wild music to the page, to imprison the tunes in musical notation, instead preferring the invention and spontaneity of live performance, the uniqueness of that single moment.

‘The Lighthouse’ has a man who accepts a job as lighthouse keeper succumbing to the blandishments of a mermaid, with dire consequences. It’s a bittersweet tale, one in which the miraculous and the thing sought after are shown to have a vicious streak, though Eisele is canny enough to keep open the possibility that there is good reason for their hostility. With what might easily be interpreted as a passing reference to the oeuvre of Lovecraft, this is the first story in the collection that could properly be regarded as horror fiction. We’re back in old Russia for ‘The Eyes’, with a young woman discovering the truth about her own nature on a wild and unwise sleigh ride, Eisele’s evocation of the winter scenery and the “uppity” nature of his protagonist are spot on. In ‘What Dreams May Come’ we have complementary narratives. In one Meryl attempts to get ahead in the world of advertising, facing all the difficulties that women must confront, and in the other a powerful winged being chooses a mate from among the lesser males vying for her attention. The crux of the story lies in which narrative best reflects the reality of the situation, and as far as that goes Eisele is bordering on a plot that is cliché ridden, but he rises above the banality of the conceit through vivid descriptive writing and characterisation, ultimately offering us a compelling parable that addresses issues of female empowerment and the difficulties presented by the so called glass ceiling.

The female protagonist of ‘Gloria and the Selchie’ in her search for the ideal partner enslaves a supernatural being, with terrible consequences waiting further down the line. There are some delightful touches of black humour in this piece and the matter of fact style of the telling, with hints of an omniscient narrator, effortlessly lure the reader in before the jolt of the harsh denouement. ‘Frogs’ put me in mind of a Lafcadio Hearn story that I can’t recall the title of (and aren’t fussed enough to look up), but is set in Russia rather than feudal Japan, with a communist Commissar who dismisses the superstitions of the simple villagers in his charge only to discover to his cost that there is sometimes superstition with good reason. It’s a predictable enough piece, but made enjoyable by Eisele’s thoroughly engaging prose and the delight of seeing a bad lot get what is coming to them. We’re back among the gipsies for ‘Milosh’, a story of youthful love and betrayal that doesn’t really offer much in the way of surprises but is satisfying and eloquent, with a convincing picture of prejudice and intolerance, subjects that never really go away and, at the present moment, seem more painfully relevant than ever.

‘Sanity’ is in some ways the reverse of earlier story ‘What Dreams May Come’, with a woman in an asylum being treated for her visions of life as a mage in some other world. It’s an effortless read and passes the time in an agreeable manner, but this go round the whole thing felt just a little too familiar, a case of been there, done that, and bought the magic cape. While the next story is titled ‘Kelpie’ and indeed there is a kelpie in the narrative, it’s in the main misdirection on the author’s part. The soul of the plot lies in the fate of Dara, convicted of witchcraft, but finding that she is something else entirely. It’s a brief piece, one that deftly lampoons the prejudices of those willing to accept help from a healer, but then turning on them when the diktats of some higher power demand a zealot outcry, and written with a delightful twist at the end. ‘Monkey’ is a young boy imprisoned in an asylum, but community service “volunteer” Nadia recognises him for what he really is, and whether she wants to or not is the one that must do something about it and correct a terrible wrong. With this story Eisele ventures into Arabic mythology and folk belief, doing so with respect and sensitivity. One of the longest stories in the book, it is an inventive work, with a new perspective on the internet in general and the dark web in particular, plus a cast of larger than life characters who burst off the page with their rebellious but ultimately noble natures. I loved it.

Title story ‘The Girl with the Peacock Harp’ is in fact a poem, five pages of rhyming verse that detail the just desserts meted out to a lout who doesn’t appreciate good music, or something like that. It’s thoroughly charming, and I suspect rather forgettable. ‘The Change’ is a werewolf variation, with the story’s protagonist a wolf most of the time and having to learn to act human, an idea used before by Ursula K. Le Guin I believe, though not explored as thoroughly. This is amusing and at the same time rather sad, while offering for humans an exercise in seeing ourselves through the eyes of others that feels a bit harsh, in part deservedly so. Finally we have ‘Rolf’, a story told by a crippled beggar seeking alms. It concerns a master mason who unwittingly got dragged into one of the Devil’s plots. A fascinating account, it addresses once again the theme of creativity, with the suggestion that sacrifices are demanded, the ending as predictable and/or inevitable as it was gratifying. It was a strong end to a collection that cast a wide net and was never less than enjoyable and rewarding.

Two years on and we have Eisele’s second collection, TREE SPIRIT AND OTHER STRANGE TALES (Tartarus Press hc, 291pp, £35), and with this book we see an author growing in confidence and flexing creative muscle. Eisele now has the confidence to present fantastic scenarios and settings that stand on their own two feet, without the benefit of a “real world” backdrop, while his welcome use of strong female protagonists feels even more evident than before (even the stories with a male lead, have a woman in the background and shaping the way things fall out).

The collection opens with the story of the painter Schalken and his friendship with a magical being called ‘Mouse’. It’s a piece that touches on many themes, including the hardships of the artistic life and the conflict between being true to oneself and wishing to please a paying client, wrapping it all up in a magical story of otherworldly beings and the truth of our lost empathy with nature. Eisele brings his characters to vivid life on the page, and infuses the narrative with a sense of both loss and hope. ‘Aedan of the Taexili and the Giant’ is a David and Goliath variation, with young Aedan triumphing over his adversary through showing a kindness alien to the nature of his people’s champions. It’s a story that has a delicious sense of irony running through it, with chivalric codes mocked and the true heroes of the piece shown as the women in the story. There’s a fairy tale quality to ‘Leshi’, with Gregor coming into his inheritance and able to revive the fortunes of his family through an alliance with a nature spirit. This is a story that honours old traditions, at its heart the idea of man and nature in balance to the profit of both, all wrapped up in an intriguing plot involving a search for lost treasure and with compelling characters in the deluded Gregor and his more down to earth sister.

The occultist Wilhelm wishes to command the djinn and will do whatever it takes to attain his goal in ‘Sacrifice’, but the “virgin” he has chosen to use to forward his plans has ideas of her own. The story is predictable, but pleasing all the same for the way in which it unfolds, an almost leisurely pace, and what it reveals of a magician’s life, with the inevitable satisfaction of seeing a bad piece of work get his deserved comeuppance. Reading like a cross between The X-Files and The Jungle Book at times, ‘Come Not High’ offers us a charming alternative to the creation myths, the story as delightful as it is engaging. ‘The Professor and the Nixie’ reads like an alternative version of ‘Leshi’, with an academic fleeing Nazi persecution encountering a water spirit of sorts, or perhaps a ghost. The reader of course knows most of what is going on, even if the Professor remains oblivious, but that doesn’t undermine the power of the story, much of which is rooted in the conflict between traditional values and the new values represented by the Professor in a mild form, and more tellingly by National Socialism. At the story’s heart is the Professor’s moral dilemma, and in a way he loses the chance at love of a kind through making the wrong decision, or perhaps he escapes one fate worse than death only to embrace another. Comedy is provided by the figure of housekeeper with attitude Frau Metz.

In title story ‘Tree Spirit’, woodcarver Arv is chosen by his matriarchal society to fashion a totem, but instead decides with the encouragement of a tree spirit to fashion a canoe and escape the community he finds so parochial and stultifying, but not everyone has the same agenda as he does. A slow, meandering piece, this is a story that grips the attention and holds it all the way, with a subtext that seems to affirm it is better to travel in hope than arrive, the narrative given extra depth by its shamanistic undertones. An injured man is saved through the intervention of the gipsy woman known as ‘Willow Rawnie’, only latterly discovering that he has had an encounter with the numinous. It’s a familiar plot and runs along well-travelled lines, feeling rather like the ghost story equivalent of comfort food, but satisfying for all that, with its evocation of time and place, and the spectral atmosphere of the piece. Building caretaker ‘Mr Saria’ is not at all what he seems, and neither is one other person in a short story that gives us an amusing variation on the idea of aliens among us. ‘The Wife’ is a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ variation, with a young woman throwing her cap at the lord of the manor, only to find that she must take steps to protect herself from what appears to be, in all but name, a werewolf. It’s a clever piece, deftly turning the tropes of the genre on their head, and with resonances that bring to mind the older, bloodier traditions of the fairy tale.

The next story is the first of three concerning the witch Janet Evelyn and told by her familiar ‘Brown Jenkins’ (Janet names him after a Lovecraft creation). It gives us a fascinating account of the true story of witches, and how Janet comes into her heritage, the whole underpinned by sympathy for the witches and condemnation of the way in which they are spurned but at the same time used by the world of men. Fear of those who are different and double standards are the drivers of this story. ‘The Gardinel’ has the witch dealing with problems presented by the creature that is her house, one of many intriguing and inventive otherworldly beings in these stories. A short piece it entertains and at the same time widens our understanding of Janet’s world. Finally in ‘The Black Man’ a preacher pays suit to Janet Evelyn, who falls for his flattery despite Brown’s warnings, but eventually his real motives are revealed and Janet takes suitable revenge. At the heart of the story is the hypocrisy of men, who condemn witches and other fallen women but still want to sleep with them, who use religion as a means to further their own vices, and of course we can delight in the misfortune that befalls the eponymous character.

Inspired by the spirits, Onnai leaves her isolated community and people to pursue the seals that have abandoned them in ‘The Selchie’, only to stumble into the world of men and have to learn how to deal with their complicated ways. It’s a fascinating exercise in seeing ourselves as others see us, and made all the more effective by the restrained nature of the telling and the lack of any violence towards Onnai on the part of humans. Last of all we have ‘The Nun’s Tale’ in which an inmate at a home for retired priests tells of an encounter with a nun who had first-hand knowledge of the divine, though not quite in the manner which she had anticipated. There’s a tall tale feel to this last story, though the character (and the author) is a natural raconteur so that we hang on his every word as the story unfolds, with a convincing evocation of the jungle and its strangeness at the heart of the tale.

Eisele is an author with a unique perspective, albeit there’s much in his work that will feel familiar. These two collections contain stories that are polished, quirky and eccentric; that won’t quite fit into any genre straitjacket but instead entertain and enthral in part by virtue of their protean nature.

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Filler content with birds

A feature on the work of writer and publisher Nicholas Royle that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

NICK AND THE NIGHTJARS

As you’d possibly expect of somebody who named his press after the Nightjar, author Nicholas Royle is more than a tad interested in our feathered friends, and birds feature to a greater or lesser degree in many of his stories. Some of these stories are gathered in his third collection which is aptly titled ORNITHOLOGY: SIXTEEN SHORT STORIES (Configo Publishing pb, 194pp, £9.99). Two of the stories are original to this collection, while ‘The Obscure Bird’ was previously published in Black Static #18 (we like birds too).

The collection opens with ‘Unfollow’, in which a lonely man acquires raw material for a taxidermist he meets online and becomes obsessed with, his efforts steadily escalating with the help of the mysterious Max (a cat perhaps, but we never really know). It’s a fine story of obsession in the age of social media, one that disturbs with the way in which reader expectations are constantly undercut, and the final act raising questions as to the identity of Max while disturbing with its matter of fact pronouncements. Next story ‘Murder’ is full of subtle touches of detail and allusions out of left field that make you wonder what is really going on in this story of two couples sharing a holiday let. The human world and nature, red in tooth and claw, intimately intertwine. The male protagonist of ‘The Obscure Bird’ becomes a little too engaged with the behaviour of owls, resulting in dire consequences. It’s a story that gradually accumulates tiny but significant details, culminating in a horrific final twist and revelation.

‘Jizz’ presents us with an abusive husband on holiday with his wife and her sister, the story contrasting the idyllic foreign setting in all its natural beauty with the brutality of the leading man. It’s a piece that starts out grim and rapidly gets much worse, with a horrific ending that pins the story down as a modern day rendition of a tale from the Greek myths. It’s one of the best stories in a generally excellent collection. A man obsessed with books is confronted with a mirror image of himself in ‘Stuffed’, this short story making us question the relationship between literature and life, and the ways in which we can marginalise our very existence through sweating the small stuff. In ‘Pink’ a man whose life is collapsing around him finds his troubles embodied in the form of the bullfinch, a bird he has never seen before but which now permeates his world to the exclusion of virtually everything and everyone else.

The protagonist of ‘The Bee-Eater’ finds that bird emblematic of the fears of illness and all the other problems in his life, the story gradually building until it climaxes in a horrific overthrowing of the natural order. Another especially subtle tale, ‘Gannets’ gives us a lover’s triangle with a backdrop of bird watching and astronomy. It is all the more effective for what is not spoken, the assumptions made about each of the characters and how they will react, with an ending that seems to leave open the possibility of something far more portentous than what might otherwise pass as soap opera fodder. ‘The Larder’ could very well be a variation on the story of Bluebeard, with a man wondering what the woman he is involved with hides behind a door in her apartment, and her obsession with birds, particularly the shrike, providing some unsettling clues. Once again Royle doesn’t so much end the story as hit pause at the moment calculated to be the most unsettling.

‘The Goldfinch’ is perhaps one of the more puzzling stories, set in a world where “dead” people are visited by children for life lessons, and the protagonist of the story has visions of somebody from his past, a person he believed dead. There’s a dreamlike quality to the story, the narrative punctuated by images of random violence and self-harm, the occasional whiffs of surrealism, while a mood of bleakness and despair permeates the whole of the text. ‘The Kestrel and the Hawk’ is a short story in which the reader is left to fill in the gaps, regarding the motives of the story’s protagonist and the relationship between the two birds of the title. It is as fascinating as it is straightforward in the telling, and totally compelling, with an end that leaves everything open to interpretation. One of the longest stories and one of the best, ‘The Lure’ is the account of an English teacher in Paris, his relationship with one of the other teachers at his school and his fear of a blind man on the subway, except nothing here is quite what it seems, the story delighting in its misdirection and the sinister suggestions latent in the text, embodied in the image of a bird of prey and the lure of the title.

The ways in which a failed relationship can poison future romance is central to ‘The Nightingale’, but what makes it interesting is the way in which Royle casually drops science fictional references into what might otherwise be a simple tale of hearts and flowers. People have hard drives (possibly a metaphor for memory) and reality appears programmable, raising Dickian questions about the nature of existence, who is human and who is machine, while showing how past experience mediates future expectations in our psyche and emotions. A man who wishes to be a writer and who records his bird sightings in ‘The Blue Notebooks’ comes to question whether his memories and the things that he is seeing are genuine or not thanks to illness. Again this is a story built on shifting sand, with oblique techniques used to undermine the reader’s confidence in the narrator, just as his own self-belief is shattered. ‘Lovebites’ takes a novel approach to the theme of vampirism, developing its central conceit with a rigorous logic, touches of detail adding to the overall effect of this charming black comedy.

Finally we have ‘The Children’ which is set in an exotic holiday resort where tragedy strikes, though this is only a backdrop to the emotional and psychological problems of the story’s narrator. Again it is a clever piece, deftly tying together the personal and the societal, major and minor chords, and using each to illuminate the other. And, as in all of these stories, birds feature quite heavily, even if I haven’t mentioned them in this review.

With his Nightjar Press hat on, Royle continues to release two chapbooks every six months. The latest pair dropped in May, but first let’s take a look at last November’s duo, both of which were written by Claire Dean.

The protagonist of BREMEN (Nightjar Press chapbook, 14pp, £3.75) is a life-size mannequin created by an old woman at the behest of a tourist mourning her deceased lover. Now abandoned he wanders the streets and back alleys of Bremen seeking a purpose for his shadow existence, and trying to cajole the old woman to create a mannequin of the woman he loved.

This is a story of loss and grief, one in which attempts to externalise the pain have failed completely. The central idea of the old woman with her strange abilities and ways in which she profits from her gift is intriguing, but the real emphasis of the story is in the suffering of the protagonist, who has no reason to live and yet must continue on all the same. The backdrop of Bremen, with its ancient buildings and hidden ways, is brought to vivid life on the page, while the characters are drawn with a canny eye for detail. Ultimately what we have here is a tale of golems, stripped of religious intent and the protector role, themselves becoming victims in a world that simply doesn’t care. The “monster” does not terrify, but becomes a cause for pity in a tale where human needs power and channel the supernatural elements.

In THE UNWISH (Nightjar Press chapbook, 16pp, £3.75) Amy joins her family on a retreat to an isolated cottage where they enjoyed holidays over twenty years ago, but her father is showing signs of onset dementia and sister Sara is being nasty to her, while his absence gives cause for doubt about the intentions of boyfriend Aiden. But the discovery of the ruins of an old book of fairy tales and the feeling that something is missing, makes her wonder if there was once another sister, one who has been unwished.

This is a subtle and creepy story, one that is rooted in very real human issues – sibling rivalry, fear of old age, doubt regarding a lover – but then turns everything on its head with the intrusion of the outré. It is existential horror, and we can’t really know if Amy’s fears are justified, or simply the creation of an overactive imagination and the problems of her everyday life. While her sanity may be debatable, there is no doubt that she has a lot on her plate emotionally and these assorted worries and the feelings of worthlessness they engender are what drive the story to its conclusion. Underlying this is an intriguing concept, the idea that fantasy can alter reality; that people can be wished out of existence. And then there is the opposite possibility: that they can be created through wishing also and the missing sister is simply an imaginary friend who didn’t make it into adulthood. It’s a clever story, one where the fantastic elements are grounded firmly in the everyday.

Moving on to May and we have THE HOOK (Nightjar Press chapbook, 18pp, £3.75) by Florence Sunnen. The narrator of this story is haunted by childhood memories of a cartoon with dancing skeletons. Home from university, she and her two year older brother “haunt” the family flat, while their parents pursue vague work projects in their separate rooms. Her brother begins to consume himself, starting with a toe and going on to larger body parts, with only the narrator concerned by what is happening; their parents seem entirely indifferent, in fact welcome their son’s taking on a “project”, and wish that their daughter would find something similar to call her own, which eventually she does.

A case could be made for this story standing as a metaphor for the problems of lack of direction and the self-destructive urges that confront our young people (the boy has an eating disorder, the girl finds another mode of self-harm), and the apparent indifference of the adult world. Taken at face value however, it is a surreal and disturbing excursion into the realms of body horror, with each step of the boy’s undoing minutely catalogued and filed away for later examination. While the reader shares the narrator’s low key horror and confusion at what is happening, it is perhaps the reaction of the parents, who seem entirely oblivious to the implications of what is taking place under their roof, events which they actually seem to encourage, that is the most unnerving aspect of the whole thing. Sunnen has created a work which can be approached on two levels, both the metaphorical and the literal, with the matter of fact telling an exercise in obliqueness that brings home the true horror of what is taking place better than any more sensational rendition could have done.

There’s a feel of the liminal to LIVING TOGETHER (Nightjar Press chapbook, 20pp, £3.75) by Matt Thomas, that the characters exist in a world that is tangential to rather than a part of our own, with vivid descriptions of a rundown cityscape and people living in abandoned cars, surviving out of the contents of carrier bags. Poverty is implicit in the text. The narrator, who has no name or gender, moves from one such squat to live with their sister and help care for her son Thomas, who is recovering from surgery, but soon after the narrator is pressured into seeking gainful employment, which they find helping Ben develop apps and websites for his new start up business, the specifics of which, like just about everything else here, are left vague. We stumble from one event to another, with the sister going missing for days at a time, the doctors at the hospital suspicious about what is happening with Thomas.

It is an oblique narrative, one that works through the creation of a mood rather than simply telling a story. And that mood, possibly a reflection of the zeitgeist of post-Brexit Britain, is one of quiet despair, a case of not so much travelling in hope as praying we never actually arrive, with my abiding memory from the book that of how Thomas’ flesh smells of rot and corruption, with any signs of a recovery simply misdirection on the part of the Almighty. These are snapshots of life on the front line in a rapidly decaying modern world, one where all the old values, the things we once cherished and were able to take for granted, have been swept away by a new system that enriches the few while making the rest internal refugees of the soul. Ultimately it is not a horror story so much as the very thing itself that is presented here on these pages.

Each chapbook is published in a signed edition limited to 200 copies, and the price shown includes UK p&p when ordering from the publisher (nightjarpress.weebly.com).

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Filler content with new fears

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

NEW WINE IN OLD SKIN

NEW FEARS (Titan Books pb, 408pp, £7.99) is not, as the title might suggest, an anthology exploring all the things that in this second decade of the new millennium are causing trepidation in the collective consciousness, but that even rarer bird an anthology of horror stories without a theme. Just the sort of books your grandparents talk about with a tear in their eye and magical words like Pan and Fontana on their lips.

After an introduction by the editor singing the praises of the anthologies that introduced a young Mark Morris to the thrills and spills of the horror genre, we get into his own attempt to reinvigorate the format with ‘The Boggle Hole’ by Alison Littlewood. Left with his grandfather while his mother and her new man jet off to the Bahamas, Tim is introduced to the concept of an entity called the Boggle, but breaks the cardinal rule of never stealing from a Boggle. With a perfectly characterised relationship between Tim and his grandfather, and seeing the world through a child’s eyes as one of its strengths, this is a subtle story that uses the supernatural elements to throw into stark relief human fallibility and the destruction of trust, with the prevailing mood one of sadness and feelings of loss.

Set on an isolated island where old customs and superstitions retain a hold, and told from the viewpoint of a newly arrived doctor, Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Shepherds’ Business’ captures perfectly the feel of times gone by and the conflict between science and folklore, culminating in an ending that is as shocking as it is unexpected. We go off the chart for ‘No Good Deed’ by Angela Slatter, which takes place in the world of her Bitterwood Bible and Sourdough stories. Slatter presents us with a pleasing variation on the revenge from beyond the grave trope, with a touch or two of Poe along the way and a gratifying comeuppance for the bad person. There are no real surprises, but the joy is in the telling, and what joy it is. Next up, ‘The Family Car’ by Brady Golden is a sinister tale that has about it the feel of an urban legend. When she was a child Lindsay’s parents and younger sister simply disappeared on a trip to visit her grandmother, and have never been seen again though Lindsay believes that she has had sightings of the family car. While it could be taken as a ghost story of sorts, the heart of this piece seems rooted in the power of obsession, and how an idée fixe can shape our whole lives making happiness impossible. For Lindsay there can be no rest until the mystery of the family car is solved and the story’s resolution seems to offer something in the manner of hope though not much, with the subtext that maybe, just maybe, the obsession is an excuse for Lindsay to not deal with other issues.

The longest and for my money the best story in the book, ‘Four Abstracts’ by Nina Allan is the account of the relationship between a wayward artistic genius and the woman who loves her, but can never really put the feeling into words. Seen through the eyes of Isobel Hampton, Rebecca Hathaway is a complete creation, believable both in terms of her genius and the madness that besets her family. The descriptions of various paintings (the four abstracts of the title) help to illuminate the story and the nature of Rebecca’s illness and aesthetic obsessions, which are part and parcel of the same thing. Allan retains a feeling of ambiguity throughout, so that we never really know if Hathaway’s health concerns are precisely as she believes them to be or something more mundane, while the matter of fact tone when describing landscape and human interactions just adds to the feeling of veracity. From first word to last, it is a compelling and thoroughly riveting read. I loved it. Brian Keene’s ‘Sheltered in Place’ is a very simple piece, presenting the reader with a horrific situation and then revealing that nothing is quite what it seems, entertaining for as long as it lasts and with a killer last line, one that turns all the values on their head.

In ‘The Fold in the Heart’ by Chaz Brenchley the spirit of a man’s mentor returns, intent on taking other lives. The story is remarkable for the feeling of life at peace with itself and the natural world that it conjures up, and then for the way in which that feeling is overturned by spectral vengeance that takes the form of a disruption of all we hold right and dear, and for the credibly complicated motivations of the characters, both living and dead. ‘Departures’ by A. K. Benedict offers an intriguing and novel depiction of a place of limbo, a holding area somewhere between heaven and hell, with another chance offered to a lucky few. With an initially inebriated protagonist and echoes of the waiting room in Beetlejuice, this is a clever and inventive story that delights and entertains in equal measure. ‘The Salter Collection’ by Brian Lillie is a worthy entry in the Jamesian school of ghost story, with something terrible lurking in the archives at an institution of learning and an overly curious curator uncovering secrets better left forgotten. There’s an almost familiar feel to this story, with details deftly piled atop of each other and the whole forming a pattern both reader and protagonist find it impossible to deny, with the hint of something even worse lurking in the background and waiting to shuffle centre stage.

In ‘Speaking Still’ by Ramsey Campbell a man’s friend believes that he is receiving phone messages from his deceased wife, but the truth is even more unsettling. Campbell seizes on the potential of technology to throw our lives into disarray and leaves room for mental illness as an explanation for what takes place, but as ever there is the worm in the apple, the possibility that our well-ordered world of cause and effect is nothing such. Carole Johnstone’s ‘The Eyes are White and Quiet’ gives us a post-apocalyptic world in which mankind’s remnants are preyed on by “the whites”, and a blind protagonist who isn’t quite what she seems. This is a story that packs a lot into a short space, including hysterical blindness, monstrous creatures, vengeful nature, and survivor guilt, with a plot that keeps the reader continually off balance. ‘The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers’ by Sarah Lotz is the sort of story that gets made into a “bad taste” film by the likes of the Farrelly brothers, as its protagonist deals with the problem of how to cope when your grandmother pops her clogs on a trip to the cinema. It’s a black comedy and does exactly what it says on the tin, and that’s pretty much all I have to say on the subject.

Jason gets to go out with the leggy Electra in ‘Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies)’ by Adam L. G. Nevill, but her choice of a long abandoned zoo with a foreboding history does not augur well for their date. Nevill draws us in with his picture of a hormonal middle aged man looking for a trophy date, clouds the issue with some local history that hints at bad things in the past, and then completely undermines the scenario with his depiction of the ruined zoo and the things lurking in the shadows. It is a superb story, sinister and unnerving, with the devil and everything else in the details. Muriel Gray’s ‘Roundabout’ presents us with Danny, one of the intrepid heroes of Parks and Leisure, who decides that it’s past time to “shift The Dark Thing on the Blowbarton roundabout”. With tongue firmly in cheek, this is the sort of horror P. G. Wodehouse might have written if he’d been inclined to that genre and a lot more blue collar, or perhaps not. It strikes a warning note about the perils of public art projects, catches perfectly the camaraderie of its dramatis personae, inserts a sliver of unreality and echoes of the wild wood into our everyday world, and was great fun from beginning to end.

The House of the Head’ by Josh Malerman gives us an intriguing variation on the haunted dollhouse trope. Told from the viewpoint of adult Elvie May looking back at events that occurred when she was six, it chronicles the strange and deadly things that happened to the family inhabiting a dollhouse. The story cannily blurs boundaries, so that while we take it at face value there is always the possibility that all we are witnessing is some drama played out inside the head of an over-imaginative child, but this uncertainty as to the narrator’s reliability only make it all the more effective and disturbing, with a final line that tells of our inability to do anything substantial when it comes to changing how events turn out, the impotence of a young life. On a foreign holiday the protagonist of ‘Succulents’ by Conrad Williams runs into an unusual tour guide, one who is disrespectful of his family and talks about a serial killer preying on holidaymakers. It’s a story that keeps the reader off balance, never really sure where it’s coming from or going to, as events in the protagonist’s life, health and marital issues, colour the main storyline and hint at other interpretations. The young protagonist of ‘Dollies’ by Kathryn Ptacek believes that all her toy dolls are fated to die of smallpox, but this tiny drama plays out against a larger backdrop of family secrets and abusive behaviour. While the situation is unnerving and gets under the reader’s skins, it is the revelations and horrific twist at the end of this extra creepy piece that really pulls the rug out from under our feet. Christopher Golden’s ‘The Abduction Door’ tells us of a secret door in elevators through which children are seized by strange, otherworldly creatures. A loving father tries to save his daughter, but there is a heavy price to be paid. As with other stories here, there is a strong feel of the urban legend to this piece, but Golden makes it even more disturbing with the glimpse he affords us of the world beyond the door and his revelation about what happens to those who intervene in what is happening.

Finally we have ‘The Swan Dive’ by Stephen Laws, in which a man on the verge of suicide is embraced by a demonic entity and empowered to commit atrocities, though Laws blurs the lines sufficiently so that we have the option to believe that Swan is simply a manifestation of Elton’s damaged psyche. Event packed, it is in many ways a depiction of a strange form of vampirism, and while disapproving of what Elton is “pushed” to do we can’t quite help sympathising with him and approving of his choice of victims, or rather the victims that are presented to him, so that morality becomes a grey area. It’s a powerful ending to a collection of accomplished tales of terror, one that shows Morris, who cut his teeth as an editor with The Spectral Book of Horror Stories, has the expertise and good taste to pick winners, and that the modern horror story is in safe hands.

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Filler content from Cemetery Dance

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-

TWO FROM CEMETERY DANCE

As well as the flagship magazine from which the company takes its name, the good people at Cemetery Dance also publish a lot of fine books, with just about everyone who is anybody in the horror genre on their roster.

Let’s take a look at a pair of recent releases.

The last (and only) book I read by Bentley Little, way back in 2004, was the imaginatively titled The Collection, with thirty two short stories between its covers, and I recall it as something of a take it or leave affair. Maybe he’s gotten better or I’ve grown less demanding, but the pieces that comprise WALKING ALONE: SHORT STORIES (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 304pp, $25) are much more to my taste. There are twenty seven stories this go round, ranging in time from 1984 through to 2017, with many that have never seen print before. In the short form at least, Little seems to be an exponent of the short, sharp shocker school of horror, with the longest of what’s on offer coming in at twenty one pages, and most only just stumbling over the line into double figures, his prose a no frills style with the emphasis on getting the story done, the horrific effects made all the more vivid in context.

The collection opens with weird western ‘Milk Ranch Point’, in which a stranger to town is advised to avoid taking a certain route because of the ghosts that lie in wait. It’s a rather mundane scenario if taken at face value, but made memorable by the nature of the town and its spectres, with an elegant twist in the tale regarding the identity of the rider and his purpose, the whole entertaining and slightly unsettling. In ‘Snow’ a couple driving on an isolated stretch of road are attacked by snowmen, with the woman’s past providing a justification of sorts for what takes place. Matter of fact and with a killer ending, it’s a story that turns the ordinary and ostensibly enjoyable into a source of menace. At the ‘Children’s Hospital’ patients mysteriously recover, with one exception, the story convincing in its depiction of childhood terrors and turning things around at the end as the bully is shown as the true victim of this horrific situation.

In a post-apocalyptic world a ‘Palm Reader’ spreads hope by lying to her clients, the story deftly told and with some nice touches of detail and suggestion, while underlying that is a subtext about the obligation to be truthful. There’s a ‘Word Processor of the Gods’ vibe going on with ‘Slam Dance’ as an unpopular schoolgirl discovers she can alter reality by writing in a “slam book”, the story lively and entertaining with its depiction of the underdog coming top for once, even as it poses questions regarding the morality of what takes place. ‘Last Rodeo on the Circuit’ is one of the most unsettling stories in the collection, thanks in part to the very randomness of what takes place, as a couple find themselves reduced to the roles of mounts in a dwarf rodeo. Randomness and the total acceptance by everyone of what is taking place, except the victims, make the story stand out, along with the vicious descriptions of what is inflicted on them.

Timmy’s fear of ‘The Car Wash’, an abandoned building with an unhealthy aura, is initially down to its being haunted, but then other possibilities present themselves, the story continually wrong footing the reader and raising the odds, culminating in an ending that was reminiscent of Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. ‘The Feeb’ is responsible for a curse on the crops of local farmers, the nature of the plague depicted in gruesome terms and calling down vengeance from “normal” society, with a killer last line. The ghost of Glen’s abusive father tries to lure him away from his mother against the backdrop of ‘The Mall’, an abandoned and rundown megaplex. Despite all of the ghostly effects, the real crux of the story lies in a child’s confused attitudes to a father he wants to love but who isn’t/wasn’t worthy of that devotion, and in the unearthing of family secrets.

‘Hunting’ is the tale of the bond between father and son and the tragedy that unfolds when the family is endangered. It depicts the breakup of a marriage through the eyes of a child, sensitive and yet at the same time with a judgemental attitude so that the reader cannot really know what is justified, and it ends on an ambiguous note, leaving us to wonder if the father has left or committed suicide. A paranormal detective of sorts helps clear the name of a friend locked up for murder he committed while possessed in ‘The Piano Player has no Fingers’. The story clips along at a terrific pace, with a borderline hard boiled sensitivity to the lead character, but what makes it different is the novel depiction of a demon, one who doesn’t at all conform to the archetype. In ‘The Man Who Watched Cartoons’ a mother fears her daughter is being corrupted by an elderly neighbour. The story plays on our fear of paedophiles and the like, but then twists things around in an unsettling and disturbing manner that calls into question our ideas of innocence and guilt.

The stories are arranged chronologically and ‘Apt Punishment’, dating from 2016, is the first of the recent stories (original?) in the collection, consisting of just a couple of sentences, their absurdity and literalness kicking the reader in the gut. The feeding frenzy that is ‘Black Friday’ at the sales has people transformed into ghosts, constantly chasing after bargains they can never have, the story written with a couple of bracketing sections that give the official view of events, while the crux concerns the plight of a father who wishes to see his lost daughter one more time. Overall it’s a novel idea, one that pulls the rug out from under the concept of unbridled consumerism. My favourite story in the book, ‘MoNA Retrospective, Los Angeles’ is simply the depiction of three controversial works of art and their critical reception. Written with tongue firmly in cheek, it is a delicious confection that is never less than inventive in its shocks to the system, while at the same time satirising trends in modern art, such as the feelings of outrage cultivated by the likes of the Chapman brothers and others.

‘Jorgensen’s Fence’ takes a poke at Ikea, with the idea that in Scandinavia they have a uniquely cost effective (and morally unacceptable) method of producing boards for fencing. It’s an absurd concept, or should be, but the matter of fact narration and the way in which the protagonist moves from shocked disbelief to fear and then a realisation that there are advantages for him in the concept, encourage suspension of disbelief and, like the best of these stories, show that the real strength of fiction lies in how people react to absurd situations. And underlying all this is a subtext warning of how easy it becomes to slip into a fascist mentality and accept the unacceptable with regard to those who are different from us. The paranormal investigator is back for ‘The Silence of Trees’, investigating the death of a friend for his daughter, and coming to the conclusion that maybe his friend and the daughter are not as clean as he thought, after uncovering a trail of criminal activity connected with the supernatural. With themes of racism and criminality touched on, it’s an engaging story, sharply written and keeping the reader off balance with its plot contortions and “lippy” characters. Gary finds a ‘Sticky Note’ that instructs him to “Kill her”, and the rest of the story is spent with him worrying about this until he eventually discovers what it means to him personally. The story is a slight one, but works as a depiction of how we can become obsessed with something that in itself is oblique or innocuous, how we give it the meaning and importance that works for us.

In longest story ‘The Smell of Overripe Loquats’ Little gives us a god for children, who answers requests but perhaps demands a price too high from its believers, and a man who ran away from this as a child returns when he needs divine intervention. The story is a long and rambling one, with a solid philosophical backdrop to the cult and some unsettling imagery, but Little doesn’t seem to know where to go with it and the second “adult” half felt a little forced to me, just another “and then I went crazy” riff. A bumptious man gets his comeuppance when he complains about ‘The Maid’, but Little leaves it open for us to wonder if his protagonist is actually insane or acting in a way calculated to pave the way for such a plea in court. In ‘Schoolgirls’ Cherie finds a way to win the respect of her peers, after getting pointers from a teacher with attitude on steroids. The story rides on a wave of absurdity, with the reversal of social mores and ways of acting, and the lines blurred beyond all recognition.

A man trying to dodge a tornado finds himself stranded in a town where humans are not the top dogs in ‘Under Midwest Skies’, another story that depends on absurdity, taking one totally over the top concept and then playing it to the hilt. For me the idea was perhaps a little too over the top, but the novel nature of the menace and the payoff when our “hero” escapes put a smile on my face, even if I couldn’t take it seriously for one single second. A mother finds ‘Pictures of Huxley’, her deceased son, changing to depict a reality more in tune with what she had hoped for from life, the story an upbeat one in which wishes can come true and reality is malleable. ‘My College Admission Essay’ has a candidate describe how she has overcome adversity in her life, including homicidal clowns and the murder of a baby sister who wouldn’t stop crying. It’s a story that starts quietly, sucks the reader in, and then leaves us adrift in a sea of uncertainty, not knowing what to believe and what to dismiss as the fabrication of a damaged mind.

A couple check into the wrong motel in ‘Pool, Air Conditioning, Free HBO’, the story unsettling, like a surreal version of the Twilight Zone rerun of Vacancy, with Hotel California playing in the background. The whole circus revolves round a well hung dwarf, with Little dropping hints along the way as to the metaphysical backdrop of his story. A father and son travel on ‘The Train’, only to find that it’s a lot more sinister than they expected, with the contrast between the attitudes of father and son, adult and child at the heart of the story, posing the question of whether the innocence of childhood expectation can be tainted by adult knowledge. Finally we have another ultra-short with ‘A Random Thought from God’s Day’, the deity pissed that a sportsman thinks he gives a shit, the story deftly lancing human hubris. It’s a neat way to bring down the curtain on a collection that has converted me into a Bentley Little fan. While many of the stories feel superficial, the spin he puts on things, his take no prisoners style and willingness to “go there” add gravitas and grace to these tales.

I’ve always been a fan of Glen Hirshberg’s fiction, and that feeling is only strengthened by latest collection THE ONES WHO ARE WAVING (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 208pp, $40). Collectors please note this is a signed, dust jacketed hardcover, produced in a limited edition of 600 copies

Opening story ‘Freedom is Space for the Spirit’ begins with Thomas summoned back to Russia by old friend and fellow revolutionary Vasily, only to find that he has stumbled into a horrendous ritual. This story is beautifully written, with a real feel for the time and place in which it is set, the aftermath of communism’s fall and dissatisfaction at the betrayal of hopes and aspirations. The blend of shamanism and performance art at the story’s centre gives it a unique feel, but this in turn leads into the horror of what Vasily has done through his use of the “bear ritual”. Desperate ends require desperate means, but what has transpired here goes completely beyond the pale. It is ultimately a story that shouldn’t work, that should collapse under the weight of its own absurdity, but Hirshberg’s prose and powers to create atmosphere elevate it to another level. There’s a similar feel to ‘India Blue’, with a trust fund baby trying to introduce the American public to the joys of cricket, against a backdrop of gun toting gangsters and something monstrously numinous. There are echoes of Roth’s The Great American Novel here in the conflation of sport and divinity. With its larger than life characters and the contrast between sports inspired enthusiasm and the humdrum and everyday against which it is set, the story is never less than readable and draws the reader in to its vivid world. The final resolution comes a bit out of left field, and to me felt rather more like a tidy a way to wrap things up than a natural, organic offshoot of all that had gone before, but it’s a minor quibble and certainly doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

In ‘Shaken’ Harry is caught in a quake in Japan and the aftermath, but on returning to his life in America finds that he cannot stop shaking. Keenly felt and characterised, this story presents us with a powerful evocation of, not so much the fear of death itself but the realisation that our mortality is only temporary, along the way filled with little touches of detail that give the events a mythic and archetypal feel. A sequel to Hirshberg’s story ‘Mr Dark’s Carnival’, ‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’ has a group of academics introducing the newest of their group to the story of what happened to another of their number on Halloween many years ago. Almost oblique at times in the way it’s written, Hirshberg gives us a group of perfectly realised characters, each with traits that distinguish them from the crowd while at the same time reinforcing the group gestalt. A brooding sense of dread mounts as events unfold, and you sense that once again tragedy is fated to take place, with revelations coming hard on each other’s heels and a powerful atmosphere of nostalgia for Halloween past and lost innocence thick on the page.

The next three stories are billed as Normal and Nadine adventures, Normal being a collector who acquires rare items for his clients and Nadine his partner, bringing her own special talents to their quests. ‘Pride’ is set in the mundane environment of a grocery store, where young women are kept in bondage by a “well-meaning” spirit. It builds slowly and surely, with the reader sensing that something is wrong, but only gradually cottoning on to the exact nature of what has happened, the story holding the attention all the way to its powerful denouement. In ‘His Only Audience’ the search for a rare music recording leads to a very special radio station and its malign disc jockey, who just may be the devil. The peculiar joy and obsessive nature of the collector is brought home with power here, but what makes the story special is the underlying ideas about creativity and what people are willing to sacrifice in their bid to succeed. The last N&N story is ‘Hexenhaus’ in which our intrepid pair are unsure about their client, even as they pursue the perfect cookie to which he once became addicted. There is a wealth of strange ideas here, not least in the portrayal of an exotic bakery and its even more unusual owner, while playing counterpoint to this are questions about the morality of helping “evil” people; how culpable are they for what they have done and how complicit are we if we help them?

Finally, in a biographical aside Hirshberg tells us about The Rolling Darkness Revue, a travelling literary show that he and other writers take to the road, performing in out of the way theatres. And the Rolling Darkness is the backdrop to title story ‘The Ones Who Are Waving’, with Hirshberg and fellow scribe Pete Atkins as the characters. Packed with a wealth of fascinating detail about the show and their experiences, it is a story that ultimately asks questions about the nature of fiction, showing how it can transform lives, with the writers themselves becoming the ghosts of their own work. It’s a strong end to a collection that is gratifyingly offbeat, aptly fitting the bill as regards the book’s subtitle or tagline, “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous”.

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