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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Filler content from Telos

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

THREE FROM TELOS

We’ll kick off this issue’s Case Notes with a feature on Telos Publishing, one of the mainstays of the UK indie genre scene since its establishment back in 2000.

Better known for his collaborations with Steve Lockley, Paul Lewis flies solo for the novella SMALL GHOSTS (Telos Publishing pb, 108pp, £9.99). Still grieving after the death of his wife, Tom returns home to support his mother who is dealing with the impending death of her father. Tom never got on with his police officer grandfather, who always seemed a little too stern and emotionless, and was particularly put off by the way in which he dealt with the death of his beloved grandmother, hardly reacting at all. Nonetheless he ends up staying in his grandfather’s house while the old man is dying in hospital, and finds evidence that the former copper was haunted by the one case he never solved, the mystery of a serial killer preying on young boys. Guided by the spirits of the victims Tom starts to pry into past events, but not everything is what it at first seems to be.

This is pretty much a by the numbers story of spectral intervention to solve a crime, with the one twist and original element having to do with the motivation of those “small ghosts” and the way in which their need for closure was denied. That being said, Lewis does a good job of putting the story across, with some subtle touches of both atmosphere and characterisation. As well as dealing with actual ghosts we can see that Tom is putting to rest the ghosts from his own past, his antipathy towards his grandfather and feelings about his deceased wife, adding yet another frisson to the mix and allowing the supernatural element of the tale to in part serve as a metaphor for very real human concerns, the need for closure. And while I might characterise it as the one original element, that being said the twist is a good one and caught me by surprise. The only objection I have to this book, and it’s one that I mention with tongue firmly in cheek, is that as a Frasier fan I so wish Lewis hadn’t named a major character Martyn Crane (and in one episode of the sitcom, isn’t former police officer Martin obsessed with a case he couldn’t crack?). It had me shaking my head and thinking uncharitable thoughts every time the name was mentioned.

Back in Black Static #53, when reviewing Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands I noted the demise of this fine anthology series with the closure of publisher Gray Friar Press. But, in the best traditions of the horror genre, series editor Paul Finch has found a new home for his baby with Telos and the series has risen from the grave with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL (Telos Publishing pb, 284pp, £12.99). As usual, Finch gives us a smattering of local legend and mythology intercut between the region based horror stories, fascinating material that is both rewarding in its own right and helps create a sense of verisimilitude with regard to the spectral pedigree of Cornwall.

In opening story, ‘We Who Sing Beneath the Ground’ by Mark Morris, a teacher makes a home visit to one of her pupils at a remote farm, only to discover that he has helped unearth something monstrous. Morris sets up the situation with finesse, using a show and tell day at school to whet reader curiosity and then presenting an eerie landscape and foreboding farmhouse, with echoes of ‘The Colour Out of Space’ in the scenario, before bringing down the hammer. It is a masterly exercise in slow burn horror roaring to a crescendo, with a neat, if not entirely unexpected, end twist. Ray Cluley takes advantage of the artistic reputation of Cornwall for ‘In the Light of St Ives’ with older sister Emily coming to the rescue of painter Claire, who has burned the house she is renting to get rid of an infestation of colour. Right up to the end Cluley allows room for ambiguity regarding Claire’s mental state and shows us an unspoken tension in the relationship between the two sisters, added to which there is an outré feel to the house itself and the sinister colour scheme that so upsets Claire, all these factors combining to create a sense of the unearthly.

The story by Reggie Oliver I have reviewed before, and so, to repeat myself – “we have ‘Trouble At Botathan’ with a student on an academic retreat learning about the inglorious past of the house at which he is staying and its former owner through the means of lost documents and visions of a drowned girl. At the heart of the story is past attitudes to mental illness and the shame that families felt when one of its members went astray, this in turn leading to a kind of abuse and much worse. Intercut with all this, as in so many of these stories, is a sense that there is far more to reality than we know or dream of, that though these things manifest in a minatory manner they also prove the potential for the miraculous and other dimensions to our existence.” A patriotic Cornishman finds himself on the wrong end of a curse in ‘“Mebyon versus Suna”’ by John Whitbourn, a clever and amusing exercise in hoisting a mildly unpleasant person with his own petard. Paul Edwards in ‘The Unseen’ uses the increasingly familiar trope of a “cursed” film, but veers the idea off into less charted territory, giving us moments of unbridled lunacy and terror as he chronicles the undoing of protagonist Lee in his pursuit of an “unhealthy” obsession. While not approving of Lee’s search and his way of dealing with his family, the characterisation is credible enough that we can understand his need for something of his own, even if it’s only to view a rare horror film in its entirety, and the final scenes of the story elevate this material to a level almost akin to cosmic horror.

In ‘Dragon Path’ by Jacqueline Simpson three friends out on Bodmin Moor learn to their cost that it is unwise to mock a fourth who has druidic powers, but he also learns that it is wrong to misuse that power. It is one of the weaker stories in the collection, with neither characters nor the setting coming truly alive on the page, though the plot is sound. Editor Finch’s ‘The Old Traditions Are Best’ concerns the fate of the loutish Scott, a young offender on a rehabilitation holiday in Cornwall, who falls foul of the local legends he mocks. The plot moves effortlessly along finely aligned grooves to its expected resolution, complete with a final end twist, along the way giving us credible characterisation, atmosphere, and little touches of historical detail that add conviction to the whole. It’s eminently agreeable and passes the time nicely, but all the same it feels rather like something that’s written by the numbers, with nothing to defy or challenge the reader’s expectations, no sense of the writer flexing his creative muscles.

In ‘The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things’ by Mark Valentine a museum curator and an artist working on a new Tarot design have an encounter with the numinous. At the heart of the story is the idea that Cornwall is a place where barriers between this world and other realities are particularly thin, but what makes it work is the depth of characterisation and the snippets of incidental invention that bring this enchanted landscape to life. Kate Farrell’s ‘His Anger Was Kindled’ tells of a minister’s last stand in defending his largely abandoned church from those who wish to turn it into luxury housing. It’s a story that holds faith with the old ways, pitting spirituality against commercialism, even if the Reverend Prideaux is barking mad and his methods doomed to fail ultimately. ‘Four Windows and a Door’ by D P Watt is a haunted house story of sorts, with a family undone by the mysterious disappearance of their daughter after a Cornish holiday and the sighting of an unusual house. It is an eerie story, one that seems to hint at unspeakable possibilities in the natural landscape of this most westerly county and builds to its unsettling denouement with assuredness.

Steve Jordan’s ‘Claws’ is set in a rundown amusement arcade haunted by Piskies, with the plot driven by the animosity between an unscrupulous employer and his young, rebellious staff. It holds the interest all the way, with some lovely touches that add to the unsettling atmosphere and an out of left field end twist. All the same, I couldn’t help thinking of Gremlins when the Piskies went on the rampage, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. ‘A Beast By Any Other Name’ by Adrian Cole is an intriguing murder mystery, with an investigative journalist finding out what really happened in the case of a mine owner allegedly killed by the beast of Bodmin Moor. Hugely entertaining, it’s a larger than life story, one that revels in the conventions of the cosy detective story only to turn them on their head with the intrusion of a supernatural element to balance the books. ‘Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning’ by Mark Samuels is set in the world of theatre, with more than a touch of ‘The King in Yellow’ latent in its depiction of a play being constantly performed. Deftly written and with a sobering subtext about the nature of ritual and the link between theatrical performances and the holy, this astute and restrained essay in terror was one of the more unsettling pieces in the anthology.

Sarah Singleton’s ‘The Memory of Stone’ is the story of Michael, whose life is undone when he becomes obsessed with a young woman to the point of sexual harassment charges being laid, and takes on board the devastation of his family. Alone in a rundown Cornish cottage Michael’s suicidal impulses are given form in the shape of nightly visits by white children. A wonderful story with beautiful characterisation and themes that make it painfully relevant in our post #MeToo society, it succeeds in merging something wholly modern and yet timeless, with a feel of the past and the numinous given tangible expression. ‘Shelter from the Storm’ by Ian Hunter has three youths out hiking on the moors seeking refuge in the ruins of an abandoned church, much to their cost. Hunter is excellent at capturing the distinct personalities of his three leads through their dialogue and using this to drive the story, which at heart is almost formulaic, a variation of the “and then a monster got them” cliché, but here never less than entertaining if hardly original. Finally we have ‘Losing Its Identity’ by Thana Niveau, which is set in a climate change dictated future and a largely sunken Cornwall, with elderly Miranda falling victim to a last wave. It’s a fitting end to this anthology, a tale that is poignant and sad, ripe with a feel of all the things lost to the sea and the memories that help to make us who we are, drowning used in part as a metaphor for senile dementia.

Judging from this book, the Terror Tales anthology series remains safe in editor Finch’s capable hands and has found a fine new home with Telos. Hopefully there will be many more volumes to come.

KAT OF GREEN TENTACLES (Telos Publishing pb, 176pp, £12.99) is the fourth book from the pen of author Sam Stone chronicling the adventures of Kat Lightfoot and her companions, ex-soldier George Pepper and inventor Martin, and this time around our intrepid heroine goes undercover as a teacher at a school for young ladies that seems to be experiencing difficulty keeping track of the young ladies. Kat soon finds plenty of evidence that not everything is okay, with suspicious behaviour on every side, most especially in the pupils’ devotion to choir practice, centred on an unearthly music like nothing she has ever heard before. There are tunnels in the walls and beneath the school, and on venturing into them Kat finds far more than she bargained for. Somebody is using the school as a focus for occult ceremonies, and their intentions are not good.

While the title is obviously referencing Anne of Green Gables, with other details in the text including some I probably didn’t pick up on, not having read the original, in setting this book reminded me somewhat of Argento’s film Suspiria. The novelty of the Kat books is wearing off for me, but what’s left once you get past that novelty is something substantial, something that is agreeably entertaining and with a light hearted manner. The three lead characters continue to impress, most especially Miss Lightfoot herself, who is now tapping into other powers subsequent to the events of a previous novella, which included getting bit by a vampire. The plot is nicely twisty, with some variations on the Lovecraft mythos pitched into the blender of Stone’s imagination, plus more than a smidgen of steampunk cool for spice, and the inclusion of the Fae adding yet another plot string to the author’s bow. Overall, it was good fun from start to finish, doing the job of entertaining the reader and not outstaying its welcome. Easy going would be the phrase I’d use to describe the book, if I had to capture its essence in only two words. Oh, and I rather liked the attitude adopted towards cats, but you’ll have to find out about that for yourself.

I should mention that a fifth volume is available, Kat and the Pendulum, and I should also mention that all these books are available in e-format.

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Filler content with added JLP

Reviews of three books by John Llewellyn Probert that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-

THREE OF THE BEST: JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

So, you wait and you wait for a review of a book by John Llewellyn Probert, and you wait some more and then three come along all at once. With a novella, a novel, and a short story collection, we have three of the four main fiction groups covered (if Probert has edited an anthology, nobody has sent a copy for me to review).

We start with novella DEAD SHIFT (Horrific Tales Publishing hc, 150pp, £12.99), which according to Amazon copy for the Kindle edition is “Lovecraftian Horror Comedy”. It begins with the discovery of an unconscious tramp in an abandoned housing estate. He is brought to Northcote Hospital, but there is something odd about the man, not least his reluctance to release a strange book held on his person. Dr Richard Dearden senses that things are seriously amiss, an impression that is confirmed when the patient goes missing. In an occult ceremony Arthur Lipscomb succeeds in breaking down the walls between realities and summoning something other. Northcote Hospital becomes hell on earth, with Richard and his colleagues Dev and Sandra fighting to survive at first and then to undo the damage inflicted by the madness of Lipscomb.

This short novella packs a lot into the space. Given Probert’s own medical background, one must assume that the details about hospital procedure and related matters are on point, and as far as that goes it provides a fascinating insight into medical practice, with the camaraderie and banter of the three doctors adding another dimension to the overall package. Lipscomb’s motivations and madness are convincingly evoked, and the way in he goes about his conjuring is brought to the page with a gritty realism and mood of bleakness bordering on despair, with effects that unsettle the reader. All of this is a prelude to the main event, an apocalypse of sorts with Lovecraftian overtones, Probert throwing a plethora of special effects at the page with all the gleeful abandon of the literary world’s equivalent of Industrial Light & Magic. His unflagging invention is what makes the story special and enables him to paper over the cracks (though not those between worlds), distracting from the fact that the stem story here is pretty much a horror staple – something gets unleashed and somebody has to put things right, or die trying. Dead Shift isn’t groundbreaking horror by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it really intended to be or presented as such, but it is a great way to pass a few hours in horror mode. Probert is a safe pair of hands and what he lays out for us is a zestful and never less than entertaining slice of fright.

Probert’s latest novel appears to be drawing inspiration from the same well of ideas. According to the dustjacket blurb, THE LOVECRAFT SQUAD: ALL HALLOWS HORROR (Pegasus Books hc, 378pp, £18.99) is “The first novel in a new series following the exploits of a secret organization dedicated to battling the eldritch monstrosities given form in H. P. Lovecraft’s fevered imagination”. And while Probert might have written the book, the mastermind at back of it all is horror maestro Stephen Jones, with The Lovecraft Squad series tying in to a previous series of linked books published under the general heading Zombie Apocalypse. Probert launched the series, but a second volume penned by diverse hands and titled Waiting was released last November, while third entry Dreaming will hit bookshop shelves just in time for Christmas.

Our main protagonist is Professor Bob Chambers of the Human Protection League, called to London to investigate the discovery of an ancient manuscript, and before you can say Necronomicon three times in front of a mirror at midnight, we are mired in some very strange shit. Playing counterpoint to Chambers is investigative journalist Karen Shepworth, who latches on to Bob in search of a story and finds that she has bitten off rather more than her sceptic sensibilities will allow her to chew. In a nod that put me slightly in mind of Ghostwatch, a tabloid newspaper holds a competition for two of its readers to spend a night or longer in All Hallows Church, with Bob and Karen along for the ride, plus a paranormal investigator, an academic versed in ancient texts, and a priest with motives and a mission of his own, all of them cannon fodder for whatever lurks in the dark corners of the abandoned building and provides the substance for its evil reputation. Think The Haunting or The Legend of Hell House, only with a church in lieu of a house and a budget on a scale that only an author’s imagination can allow, as the dramatis personae are plunged into the crypts beneath All Hallows and an epic journey through the Nine Circles of Hell.

In Chambers and Shepworth there are echoes of Probert’s characters Massene Henderson and Samantha Jephcott, two paranormal investigators par excellence whose exploits were chronicled in Against Darkness and The House That Death Built, but without the humour of that couple (All Hallows Horror is a much more serious endeavour), and with the sense of a greater depth to their relationship, in that there are antipathies to be worked through. The other characters are equally well drawn, with touches of individuality and character traits that brand them into the reader’s mind and bring them to life on the page, while treachery is always on the cards and the only certainty is that nobody can be trusted.

All of that however is eclipsed by the epic nature of what takes place, with a bog standard horror device (the discovery of a cursed document) as Probert’s launching pad for a journey into the stratosphere of the horror genre, where the bizarre and grotesque are indistinguishable from the sublime and underlying it all is a fearsome engine of metaphysics. At times, as they journey through the nine circles, it feels as if the characters are trapped in some nightmarish version of The Crystal Maze or The Krypton Factor, or that the movie Saw has been reinvented as cosmic horror, with puzzles to be solved and fates worse than death avoided. It is a bravura performance, a tour de force that dazzles with the wealth of invention and the sheer spectacle committed to the page, with characters and reader never given a moment to catch their breath before Probert plunges them from one more frying pan into a fire even hotter than the last one. The author’s vision of Hell may be a terrible place, but it is never boring or bleak, reading rather like Dante filtered through theme park sensibilities. And underlying all this is, perhaps, just the smidgen of awareness of how crass it could all become, the miraculous reduced to the levels of a tabloid press show and tell. I loved every minute of this book, which certainly got the new series off to a flying start, and along the way picked up on some of the hints as to how it will all tie in to Jones’ Zombie Apocalypse predecessor. With Probert as his trailblazer, the editor is forging his own mythos with Lovecraftian building blocks as the raw material.

Finally we come to Probert’s latest collection, MADE FOR THE DARK (Black Shuck Books hc, 292pp, £20), published in a numbered edition of only 50 copies, each one signed by the author. The book contains eighteen stories, two of them previously unpublished. Five of the stories – ‘The Girl in the Glass’, ‘The Life Inspector’, ‘The Best Christmas Ever’, ‘The Lucky Ones’, and ‘Six of the Best’ – I’ve reviewed on previous occasions, and so as per standard operating procedure I won’t repeat myself here but will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the benefit of Probert completists, which leaves a suggestive thirteen stories to discuss.

After an introduction by the author in which he reflects on his lifelong obsession with horror, the collection proper kicks off with ‘Scattered Ashes’ in which a private detective is hired by a group of wealthy men to investigate the case of a cremation urn that is in spirit contact with a widower, the story escalating into a horrific tale of atrocities committed and revenge from beyond the grave. It’s a compelling piece with an intriguing variation on a standard theme, some excellent characterisation, and gratifyingly gory set pieces, as assorted bastards get their deserved comeuppance, plus an innocent or two to show that revenants don’t care. Evil has a familiar face in ‘The Death House’ with a British officer charged with investigating a Nazi facility where terrible atrocities are being committed. There’s a Lovecraftian reference at the heart of this story, which has an engaging plot and a subtext about how art can be turned to foulness, and underlying that the realisation that while some are born evil not all are equal in their malice.

Brutal and cynical by the author’s own admission, ‘It Begins at Home’ takes a look at the world of marketing and media manipulation, asking its photographer protagonist exactly how far he’ll go to complete a commission. This is, in some ways, a story with a message rooted in its powerful subtext about how the world is shaped by those in power to suit their own ends, and showing how others are persuaded to get with the programme, the ending predictable but no less shocking for all that we see it coming. Sharon has an encounter with the numinous when she finds a stone circle in ‘A Taste of Honey, A Horror of Stone’, the story thoroughly assured in its depiction of the characters and with those tiny touches of detail that add verisimilitude and convince the reader that we’re not in Kansas (or the Cotswolds) any more, before mounting to its horrific climax.

When a youth breaks into their “castle” a couple demonstrate ‘How the Other Half Dies’, the story delightfully tongue in cheek, even as it gouges said check and severs the tongue. Underlying the narrative is a subtext on how savagery becomes social etiquette and the hypocrisy of the self-righteous and those who cherish their “values”, with the revelation of the identity of the torturer in chief adding another frisson of joy and pitch black irony to this outing in the vein of Roald Dahl. In ‘The Secondary Host’ a doctor encounters a strange disease with overtones of religiosity, taking drastic steps to stop its spread. Once again it’s a story that builds well, with an intriguing premise and novel setting in Zanzibar, plus obligatory wet work, while at the same time hinting at more, that religion itself may be a disease, or at least certain cults that cause people to act “unwisely”.

We get another fine example of horror fiction as deserved comeuppance in ‘Girlfriend School’, where a man tries to mould his dates into suitable wife material, conforming to his own ideas of how they should act. Starting with the pettiness of the main character, seguing into something more horrific, and then gratifying with its payoff, this is a by the numbers story that doesn’t set a foot wrong in its gleeful execution. A femme fatale of sorts needing a change of appearance turns up on the wrong doorstep in ‘The Girl With No Face’. While rather too full of coincidences and stretched facts to convince, this is old style horror fodder that delights in its over the top qualities, and for the reader willing to suspend disbelief it is thoroughly entertaining. One of my favourite stories in the collection, there’s a fabulist style to the telling of ‘The Man Who Loved Grief’, in which a doctor is called on to treat the girl who is the recipient of all the grief of mankind. Probert wisely refrains from explaining too much, and the end result is a spellbinding and charming love story that reads like a conflation of Le Guin’s classic story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. It kicks against the presiding zeitgeist of the collection, and is all the more special for that reason.

We are in Victorian London for ‘Out of Fashion’, a slice of decadence in which the steampunk fashion accessory of choice, a corset, becomes the means of an alien invasion. It is another example of Probert with tongue firmly in cheek and gleefully entertaining, while perhaps offering us a comment on the lengths people go to in the name of fashion. ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ is pure schlock, with the practitioner of atrocities for entertainment encountering a magician who is bent on revenge, the story fitting into the school of deserved comeuppances but at the same time with an underlying amorality, and gripping from the very first word to the last. Along the way it lightly passes comment on our need for ever greater shocks to the system as entertainment. A crippled ballerina wishes to dance once again in ‘A Life on the Stage’, a sad story that couches its supernatural elements in very human terms, making us care for the character and will her to succeed, even though we fear that, as with every wish granted or bargain made, there may be consequences.

For last story ‘Blood and Dust’ a demonic force is unleashed in the Wild West, the tale filled with action and colour and spectacle, the supernatural vying with human treachery as we race to a rip roaring conclusion. Written with the gusto and chutzpah of Joe R. Lansdale, and six shooters blazing, it’s a great final curtain to this showcase collection. Only it’s not the end; having provided an introduction for each individual story, Probert extrapolates on his thoughts with some lengthy and enlightening ‘Story Notes’, to provide the perfect close to a collection that was entertaining and urbane, even as it pulled out some character’s intestines. I loved it.

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Filler content with human pieces

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-

THE DIFFICULT THIRD COLLECTION: JAMES COOPER

It’s part of music industry folklore that artists will find their third album to be the “tricky” one, but fortunately that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the case of literature. And by way of proof I give you HUMAN PIECES (PS Publishing hc, 342pp, £20), the third story collection by Black Static irregular James Cooper. It contains twelve stories, but in the absence of any publishing history in the PDF I read I can’t say if any are original, but I did recognise four from the pages of Black Static and another that appeared in Crimewave. Cooper is a writer who wears his horror genre influences lightly, with Stephen King a particular inspiration, while themes of parental abuse and dysfunctional families populate nearly every story.

With two boys called Jim and Will, ‘Forever Boys’ gives a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, only the threat to family isn’t an external one for Cooper’s protagonists, but rather the evil comes from within courtesy of an abusive father. Underlying all this is the need for freedom and belief in the miraculous, while for Jim there is a rite of passage in learning how to responsibly use whatever power he has been gifted. It is a fantastic tale, one that offers no easy solutions to the problems posed by its narrative steps. Emma in ‘The Pig Farm’ is the victim of a dysfunctional family, abused and bullied by her two brothers, punished by her father for looking like the mother who died, punishment that takes the form of placing her on the Scarecrow at night to be found by the Weeping Farmer, a tormented spirit continually searching for his missing daughter. Again Cooper paints a terrible picture of abuse, with an attempt to understand if not justify the motives of those involved, and a feeling that really the supernatural aspects of the tale, whether true or not, are perhaps the only light of hope in this tragedy waiting to happen.

‘S.K.’ is pitched in epistolary form, a man writing letters to Stephen King explaining how reading his books to his dying son helps them cope with impending loss. It’s a heartfelt and moving story that celebrates the redemptive aspects of horror fiction and the power of literature to move us and help make some sense out of the nastier aspects of our lives. A teenager suffering from Renfield Syndrome keeps a dog prisoner in a haunted house so that he can feed on its blood in ‘Stray Dogs’, but while overtly horrific the true thrust of the story is about feeling alienated and how making a friend can transform a life. It is a sad story, one that shows us how our finer feelings can both elevate and demoralise us.

‘Night Fishing’ put me in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ with its central premise of four friends whose fishing expedition is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body, but Cooper takes the story off in a different direction entirely, with the body simply a catalyst for tensions simmering away beneath the surface among the four men. You could make a case for it being the adult remix of King’s novella The Body, with the corpse finding them instead of the other way round, and the camaraderie they have shared since childhood disrupted by one of those “frozen moments when”, according to Burroughs, “everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. There’s a bit of contrivance to my mind, in that all the men have secrets that so neatly dovetail, giving an overview of toxic masculinity, but the narrative voice and Cooper’s portrayal of his characters makes it work, grabbing the reader right from the start and carrying us to the inevitable tragedy of the end, or poetic justice if you would prefer.

The actor ‘Cushing’ becomes the focus of an unhappy and tragedy haunted family’s woes, with scenes from various films neatly intercut with the unfolding drama, throwing light on what takes place. It is a subtle and unnerving piece, one in which art imitates life a little too close for comfort, almost like the Addams Family given a twenty first century coat of cultural paint. Released from gaol, Boyd finds a way to atone for the mistakes of his past in ‘The River Remembers’, the story one that conflates family drama and gangster work, but while never less than entertaining, with perfectly realised characters and setting, it is perhaps the least interesting and original of what is on offer. In another setting it might shine, but not here. There’s another abusive son and stepfather relationship in ‘Man’s Ruin’, but Tommy is gifted a magical tattoo by his Grampa that empowers him to strike back. Human anger drives the story, giving us characters we can believe in and sympathise with, while the outré element seems almost incidental, albeit the thing that turns the plot round, and the humour in the relationship between Tommy and Grampa adds yet another dimension to the narrative.

‘Two Houses Away’ is a subtle and beautifully written ghost story of sorts, one that shows the lengths grieving people will go to for release from their pain and the power of love, while at the same time emphasising that you shouldn’t go poking your nose into things that don’t concern you. In ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ another Tommy returns to the scene of the crime to tell Mrs. Guddici the true story of what happened to her son Jed. At heart the story is about how we are haunted by the past and the need to restore some sort of balance in a universe that feels uncaring and indifferent. It’s an emotive piece, one in which Cooper doesn’t set a foot wrong as he gives his characters a depth not usually found in such outings. Mostly dialogue, ‘Coffee. Black.’ is an enigmatic piece with a conversation between two men at a late night coffee shop that touches on matters of faith and belief, horror fiction and real life terror. It’s suggestive and all the more effective for being left so ambiguous, with the reader invited to create motives and backgrounds for these strangers from the hints Cooper has supplied.

Sally, the final girl from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is the protagonist of ‘Texas’, Cooper deftly delineating the aftermath of the atrocity, the way in which she still has to live with the horror of what happened and try to make sense of her own survival (more than an element of survivor guilt is present here). Scenes from the film, consultations with a psychiatrist, and a visit to the farmhouse (now a tourist attraction) combine to create a compelling and absorbing picture of what it means to be a survivor and the mechanisms that are needed to cope, adding a wonderful new dimension to the classic horror film. There’s more than a touch of King’s Secret Window about final story ‘End of Creation’ in which a writer who gambles away a story idea to a friend gets seriously bent out of shape when that friend makes a success of it. There are times when the story gets a little close to over the top, but Cooper just about manages to rein things in and give us a compelling and unsettling account of a personal descent into madness, while posing some interesting questions about the nature of creativity and originality along the way. It was a strong end to a collection that didn’t put a foot wrong, with some of the best stories in genre writing from an author who, while focused squarely on matters horrific, never loses sight of the human pieces.

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Filler content with thrillers

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-

THREE THRILLERS

With the dividing line between the genre of horror and thriller growing ever more blurred in the age of John Connolly, Sarah Pinborough, and Michael Marshall, let’s step outside our discomfort zone for a moment and take a look at three titles from the right side of the mean streets.

FIND ME (Head of Zeus pb, 400pp, £7.99) by J. S. Monroe is a clever, twisty story that plays as many games with the reader as it does the characters involved in the narrative.
Five years ago, distressed by the death of her father, Rosa walks to the end of Cromer pier and jumps into the sea. Her body is never found. Boyfriend Jar keeps imagining that he sees her, suffering from what his therapist describes as “post-bereavement hallucinations”, but a part of him doesn’t really believe that Rosa is dead. And then Rosa’s aunt Amy gives him an encrypted file she discovered on a family computer, one that contains Rosa’s diary, and Jar starts to read her account of the events that led up to her death, which hints at something far more ominous. Paranoia kicking in, Jar believes that people are following him and the police are displaying an interest in the diary. Something is very wrong, with mysterious emails and texts leading him to the truth.

J. S. Monroe is a pen name of author Jon Stock, who made his reputation writing spy novels, and although “psychological thriller” is a more accurate label, there is more than a hint of espionage to the back story of Find Me. What especially intrigued me about the book, was that several of its pivotal events were set in my native Norfolk, and I even had plans to read it while on a trip to the seaside town of Cromer, though that didn’t come off. I am however happy to confirm that the author’s local knowledge is spot on, with the places in which the story is set, at least as regards Norfolk, portrayed on the page with vividness and accuracy.

With alternating third person accounts of Jar’s activities and extracts from Rosa’s diary drip fed to the reader, the narrative sets up a ferocious pace, along the way giving us a comprehensive picture of what took place in the past, events that are relevant to what is taking place in the present. The account of Rosa and Jar’s meeting and their time together at university in Cambridge is splendidly evocative for its depiction of young love burgeoning, but at the same time carefully seeding the text with the clues Jar needs to make sense of Rosa’s absence. And at the same time, it’s easy to see how Jar develops such a sense of paranoia, believing even that his therapist is involved in some far reaching conspiracy. The book’s ultimate revelations, combining literary creation with the manipulation of human behaviour, are masterfully done, presenting us with a compelling portrait of evil, a true monster in human form, somebody quite detached from the morality of what he is doing.

I do have some serious reservations. There’s a red herring to do with the therapist that felt completely contrived and unnecessary, and I have issues of credibility to do with the actions of the police, though I can’t elaborate on that comment without going into spoiler territory. Similarly, given the intentions of the bad guys, the time scale of the book seems somewhat stretched, and whenever the trail appears to have gone cold, either a computer hacker and/or the dark web are conveniently on hand to dispense plot coupons and jump start things again.

Overall though, such reservations didn’t detract from my enjoyment of an ingenious story, written with verve and humour (most courtesy of Jar’s banter with friend and workmate Carl), and with some moments of genuine nastiness/horror including animal abuse to stop anyone thinking that it’s just an outing to the seaside. I liked it very much.

Sophie McKenzie made her reputation writing books for children and teenagers, before turning her hand to crime fiction in 2013 with Richard & Judy Book Club pick Close My Eyes. THE BLACK SHEEP (Simon & Schuster pb, 488pp, £7.99), her latest crime novel, is the story of Fran, who has always felt herself to be the odd one out in her family, the one who doesn’t subscribe to the evangelical beliefs that seem to drive many of their actions. Nonetheless when Caspian, her husband and the father of Ruby and Rufus, is stabbed to death in a seemingly random attack, it is Fran’s family who provide her with the support she needs. One year on and still grieving, at a memorial service for her husband Fran is approached by a man who claims to have met Caspian at a conference before his death and to have information that suggests somebody close to Fran might have been responsible for his murder. Almost against her will and with no idea who she can trust (perhaps least of all her informant Harry, who has his own agenda), Fran digs into the family past and follows a trail of clues that lead to the horrific truth about what happened to Caspian.

While undeniably a thriller, with the prying around in old houses, the wealth of family scandals swept under the rug, and the sense of a powerful, clandestine organisation at work, the book has about it the feel of a mock-Gothic, an impression confirmed by the gleefully over the top ending. The dark side of Catholicism and evangelical religion is put under the spotlight, taking in such contemporary themes as those who are so opposed to abortion they believe violence against doctors is justified. But while such themes are touched on, they are done so only in passing and as a way to propel the plot and serve the reader with the red herrings, and I never really got the feel that McKenzie intended to critique fundamentalism or make any particular point about the morality of abortion. She writes well, generating a considerable pace and shifting between various viewpoint characters with ease, a device that allows her to impart vital information without destroying the mystery of the piece, though it does permit the canny reader to get a sense of who the real villain will turn out to be long before the final page and inevitable reveal.

As with the Monroe, I had some reservations, mostly to do with character motivation.
Fran seemed to accept the possibility of her family’s involvement a little too easily, and the absence of Caspian’s family from her life seemed strange, albeit the events of the book take place over a short period of time so that’s not completely implausible. Also I was a bit annoyed at her failure to check out Harry, and could have done without the romantic involvement between them. My biggest problem had to do with the killer’s reluctance to dispose of one member of the cast, which seemed both out of character and simply a plot convenience. Overall though this was a fast paced and engaging read, a pleasant and undemanding way to pass a few hours (ideal for a long bus journey, which was the circumstance in which I read it), but nothing that I am going to remember once the dust has settled.

We’re a lot closer to the horror heartlands with evocatively titled FINAL GIRLS (Ebury Press pb, 356pp, £7.99), the first novel published under the pseudonym Riley Sager (the author has form under another name), which has garnered praise from no lesser individual than Stephen King.

Years ago Quincy escaped from Pine Cottage, the only survivor of the kind of massacre that takes place in just about every third horror film you see, but very rarely in real life. With support from Coop, the police officer who saved her life, and lawyer husband Jeff, Quincy has gone on to make a life for herself, carving out a career as a cooking blogger, but she is still haunted by the events of the past, made all the more traumatic because she can’t actually recall all the details of what took place, something picked up on by the detectives who investigated the killings at the time. The media has labelled Quincy, and the survivors of two other spree killings – Lisa and Sam – the Final Girls. Lisa has achieved a certain notoriety by writing about what happened to her, while Sam has disappeared off the radar completely. Then Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam turns up on Quincy’s doorstep, claiming they are both in danger. Not knowing who to trust, Quincy finds herself adrift in a world of shifting uncertainties, and her only hope lies in unlocking her memory of the events that took place all those years ago.

This is a book that picks up on one of the archetypal figures of the horror genre, that of the Final Girl, and uses it as the kicking off point for a no-holds barred thriller, albeit one with plenty of horror grace notes along the way. Sager is superb at depicting Quincy’s life, especially the way in which cooking has become so important to her, and the mechanisms she has developed to cope with what happened to her. The other people in her life are equally well drawn, each with their individual traits – straitlaced Jeff, caring Coop, and the shifty and untrustworthy Sam. Sam’s arrival turns everything upside down in Quincy’s life and forces her to confront the things she has been repressing all these years, and at the same time it turns out to be a form of empowerment, as she joins with Sam in late night escapades in which the hunted become the hunters, making us wonder exactly what Quincy is really capable of and what she is blocking from the night of the slaughter.

In between the main narrative clicks, we get flashbacks to what happened at Pine Cottage, filling in the back story and making us realise Quincy had a lot of emotional issues going on at the time. The violence of the end game is as horrific and repellent as we might expect given what happened, but at the same time there’s an almost comforting familiarity to the events for horror aficionados, like course work for Slasher Films 101, the true originality and value of the book residing in the structure Sager erects around the slaughter, rather than in the wet work itself. The final resolution of the story is cleverly done, even if with hindsight it feels a bit contrived in the way that Sager doles out the information. Along the way there are plenty of red herrings, with nobody quite who they seem, least of all the killer lurking in the shadows. Beautifully paced and as twisty as a twisty thing covered in maple syrup, this was a book that was gripping and thoroughly entertaining from the get go, keeping the reader and characters in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, continually pulling the carpet out from under our feet. Along the way it has much to say about the effects of violence and how it can undo our lives. I loved it with no reservations.

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