Filler content with a classic car

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #32 (and fortunately the rumours of King’s retirement have proved to be premature):-

FROM A BUICK 8
Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton hb, 404pp, £17.99

King’s latest novel, and possibly his last, this brings to mind an earlier work, his novella ‘The Mist’, published in the collection Skeleton Crew, though with the polarity reversed. In ‘The Mist’ a peculiarly Lovecraftian form of chaos had engulfed the world and a group of human survivors, sheltered inside the walls of a supermarket; here the world remains unchanged while the chaos is contained and waiting to break out.

Ned Wilcox, son of the recently deceased officer Curt, works during vacation time at a Pennsylvania State Police barracks and becomes fascinated by the contents of Shed B, a vintage 1954 Buick 8 car, which has been in police custody for over twenty years. He is told the strange story of the car and his own father’s involvement by Sergeant Sandy Dearborn and the other men of Troop D, a story that takes in inexplicable light storms and the appearance of things never before seen in this world. No one truly knows what the car is or where it came from, but the suspicion is that it is a gateway to some other dimension or reality, and that to tamper with it may be disastrous. And yet the car seems to have an intelligence of its own and want to be tampered with, drawing Ned into its web of seduction so that it almost destroys him.

Like King’s best work this story takes a simple premise, that of an alien artefact intruding into our reality, and develops the idea about as far as it can go, but it lacks the sense of closure usually found in his stories. There is no climactic final showdown between good and evil, just the sense of the long and slow winding down of some terrible process, one that is not necessarily evil at all, simply alien. Hanging back of it all is the subtext that there are things in this life that just can’t be understood or explained, emotional as well as physical, that ultimately things just don’t make sense and we have to accept that and go on with our lives, otherwise we face madness and despair. This is the true message of the book, the lesson that has to be learned by young Ned Wilcox, who is coming to terms not only with the contents of Shed B but also trying to comprehend what lay behind his father’s life and senseless death.

The book is written in King’s amiable, just-us-folks-here style that brings the characters to compelling life and makes even the most ordinary, everyday details seem gripping. The outré elements are incorporated seamlessly into the plot, delivered with restraint and a chilling attention to detail that makes suspension of disbelief easy for the reader, the effects building gradually to suggest a wholly different order of reality, but for all of that these things are only a catalyst for the human story. Ultimately From a Buick 8 is about the camaraderie of the PSP, a group of men and women who are, in the broadest and also trust sense of the word, a family, who care for each other, tolerate each other’s mistakes and applaud when one of them does well. You can’t rely on the world of cause and effect, but just maybe King seems to be saying, you can trust each other.

If King has indeed given up writing then he could ask for no finer note than From a Buick 8 with which to bring down the curtain on a distinguished career, one where commercial success has all too often distracted from the very real quality of the writing.

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Trailer Trash – The Lost City of Z & Life

Again, this is two for the price of one Wednesday.

Both films should be out on the 24th.

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Filler content with resurrection

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-

THE RESURRECTIONISTS
Kim Wilkins
Orion pb, 503pp, £6.99

Maisie, a young cellist, fakes a wrist injury to put some distance between herself, a career she’s no longer sure she wants and a domineering mother. She travels from her native Australia to the tiny village of Solgreve in Yorkshire, home of her recently deceased maternal grandmother Sybill, the family’s black sheep. Her reception is unexpectedly frosty; the villagers feared Sybill as a witch and want nothing to do with her granddaughter. Thrown back on her own devices Maisie explores Sybill’s cottage and discovers the carefully hidden parts of a diary written by a young woman back in the 18th century. Georgette eloped from London to Solgreve with her poet lover, but her diary reveals a terrible secret about the village, an evil that could well have survived into the present day and cost Sybill her life, which it will take Maisie all of her recently discovered psychic powers to defeat.

This is pretty much a by the numbers supernatural thriller with all the usual Gothic trappings thrown in gratis – old buildings, haunted graveyards, sinister country folk, evil clergymen, hidden documents, and a whole percussion section of things that go bump in the night. Wilkins stage manages it all with an adroit touch and some nicely understated supernatural effects, never letting slip the reins of credibility, but by and large the pleasures to be found between the covers of The Resurrectionists are those of a familiar story told well rather than any shock of the new. Where it does offer a little extra frisson of novelty is in the character of Maisie, the tension between the carefully regulated life from which she wishes to escape and the madness in which she finds herself, in more senses than one. It’s a spot on study of the romantic impulse, and Wilkins caps it all with a nasty twist at the end, one that is not entirely unexpected but still comes as a bit of a jolt with its abruptness.

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2017 Graphic Miscellany #2

Three more gaphic novels that I’ve read recently.

Batman – Arkham Unhinged

By Diverse Hands

This is based on the video game Batman: Arkham City, which I guess was based on ideas found in the Batman/Detective comic books, so think of a snake swallowing its own tale. With the mayor and the rest of the political establishment in his pocket, Hugo Strange has turned an area of Gotham into a self-contained state in which all the city’s major criminals are imprisoned. While his elite enforcers try to capture the remaining criminals, such as Catwoman and Two Face, Strange is focused on Batman, who manages to stay just ahead of him. In a second story we learn the back history between the Joker and the Penguin, and how it opened up into a feud between the two crimelords. There are some interesting ideas here, but within the context of the book the idea of Arkham City and the influence exercised by Strange is just not made convincing, which introduces an element of artificiality to all the rest, so that while individual stories are entertaining enough the overall arc that contains them seems to have feet of clay. What makes the book special is the artwork, which is simply sumptuous, with vibrant imagery and use of colour throughout. It’s not compulsive reading, but it most definitely is compulsive viewing. From the sexy rendition of Catwoman in the opening sequence, right through to the pictures of circus sideshow freaks turned mob enforcers with which we close, this book was a treat for the eyes.

Supernatural – Rising Son

Written by Peter Johnson & Rebecca Dessertine, illustrated by Diego Olmos

This is a prequel to the popular TV series, set in the early days of the Winchester brothers, when they were just children being cared for by their dad John, for whom raising children, holding down a job, and dealing with various supernatural threats is all proving a bit much. With demons on the one hand and Hunters who believe that Sam and Dean pose a threat on the other, John has his hands full, but the biggest menace of all is a female demon who wants to raise Sam as her son. With some striking artwork and a plot that keeps throwing up surprises, this was a decent piece of work. It gives us larger than life villains, a healthy dose of treachery, and a credible background to the story’s supernatural elements, in as far as that is possible. And it adds some depth to the TV series’ back story, giving us details on how Sam and Dean were raised by their single father to become the Hunters they are, while the hints of a great darkness contained within Sam add an element of moral choice, with John having to decide if he should kill his son in the name of some greater good. There’s a bonus story that I found wholly risible and thought detracted from the tone of the enterprise, but it was only four pages and easy to flip past. I haven’t watched Supernatural for a while, and this book left me wanting to get reacquainted with it, though I probably won’t follow through on the feeling.

Secrets

Written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Ryan Bodenheim

Now this is something nicely different, a twisty little thriller in which various clandestine groups tackle each other in the quest to get away with the motherlode of all slush funds. It has about it the feel of authenticity, with bad people doing bad things to each other, and heroes who get the job simply by virtue of not being as corrupt as the other guys. The characters are all well-drawn, with enough back story to make them believable, childhood incidents that show how and why they turned out as they did, and the overarching plotline takes in the Cold War and security protocols, with plenty of background information on cyber security. Presented in short, pithy chapters, it’s a book that keeps you guessing while at the same time building up a ferocious head of steam. The muted colour scheme used throughout is very effective, with some vicious imagery and superb work on the body poses and facial expressions of all the characters. Overall it was a lot of fun, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Mission Impossible film, albeit one in which the good guys are more than a tad tarnished. I liked it a lot, and of these three books it was my favourite, the only one I might consider reading again.

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Song for a Saturday – Tusk

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The Holiday Horrors

You know how it is. You go on holiday to get away from it all and just chill, and no sooner have you made yourself comfortable than some damned vampire nicks your sun lounger, a serial killer kicks sand in your face, and the foreign food has you trotting to the toilet like a zombie in a Danny Boyle movie.

Better to stay home and watch DVDs depicting other people’s holiday nightmares, which is what I did.

The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively is Nancy who, after the death of her mother, has dropped out of medical school and gone off to Mexico in search of a dream beach her mother told her about (stuff we learn about mostly through Nancy’s phone conversations with her family). Having found the isolated and nearly deserted beach, she sets about surfing and chilling, only to get attacked by a great white shark when she stays for one last surf after everyone else has gone home. Wounded and stranded on the floating corpse of a whale the shark has killed, she must find the determination and will to survive. There’s not a lot to this tale. It’s a simple idea that puts its finger on every possibility of the framing scenario and expertly wracks up the tension. Nancy digs deep inside herself and comes up with various plans to get her closer to the shore, moving from whale corpse to rocky outcrop to buoy, but the last swim is beyond her ability to outdistance the shark and high tide is her enemy, with every attempt to get help from others ending in disaster for them. Of course she eventually figures out a way to take out the great white (I hope that doesn’t count as a plot spoiler). Lively emotes well, and you can believe in her emotional turmoil and the way in which she eventually faces up to danger, and the shark doesn’t look ridiculous, which is always a good thing in these sort of movies. I have reservations about the deserted nature of the beach (somewhere this beautiful would have been turned into a tourist destination long before Nancy arrived) and I’m not sure how Nancy intended to get back from her seaside sojourn, having hitched there. Those quibbles aside, this was a neat little movie, ingenious and with enough excitement to justify time spent watching it, a solid entry in the (wo)man versus nature subgenre, though I won’t be in any hurry to see it again.

Black Rock (2012)

Sarah guilt trips her old friends Abby and Lou to join her on a camping expedition to a wooded island that was the playground of their youth. There is tension between Abby and Lou owing to boyfriend problems in the past, and Sarah is hoping to bring them all together again. They discover that there are three men on the island, one of whom they knew back in the old days. Ex-soldiers returned from Iraq, the three are hunting and happy to party, but when flirting goes too far Abby accidentally kills Henry, and the three women end up being hunted by the remaining two men, from which point on we have a struggle to survive, informed by a kill or be killed mentality. Again it’s a very simple scenario, the writers trying to inject a bit more human interest and make their characters more fully rounded via the tensions between the three women, who have to work out the problems of their past if they are to survive in the present, and by giving the men a back story which saw them dishonourably discharged, with the hint of wartime atrocities committed, something about which they feel very resentful. Interesting also that they avoided the tropical island option, but disappointing that having denied themselves the prospect of our three heroines running round in bikinis they then inserted some gratuitous nudity (we have to get out of these wet clothes and run round the forest at night in the nuddy). I loved the end play, with the women turned into shrieking, primal, bloodstained maenads, and the closing shot of their grim faces and thousand yard stares brings home something of the horror of what they have been through. It was a good film, a taut thriller whose ambition never outstretched its reach, and I liked it a lot.

The Ruins (2008)

Scott Smith’s novel was one of my favourite horror outings in recent years, so I had high hopes for the film and I’m happy to state that I wasn’t disappointed. Four young Americans on a trip to Mexico go with a German into the jungle to visit the newly discovered ruins of a Mayan temple. However once they reach the site the locals turn up in force and won’t allow them to leave, killing anyone who attempts to step away from the vegetation overrun ruins. With one of their party injured in a fall and the others facing a shortage of water and food, the Americans begin to think they might die here. It’s only the start of their troubles however, as it turns out that the plant which has covered most of the site is in fact cannibalistic and intelligent, its spores infecting their bodies. The locals act as they do to keep it quarantined. There’s a fascinating concept here, with the introduction of another form of intelligence, one that is inimical to mankind, or at the worst sees us simply as a means to propagation. The underlying mood of the film is one of bleakness, as the tourists’ situation deteriorates, with the hoped for help not arriving, and acts of bodily mutilation forced upon them, while internal tensions run high. By way of reservation, I have to wonder why the locals didn’t simply kill them when they first stepped on the site, instead of allowing them to die slowly with the chance that they might escape, and I also wonder why nobody has tried to burn the plant. Such matters are a side issue though. If you accept the framing scenario then what follows is a masterful study in horror, with a bad situation steadily growing worse and a sense of hopelessness taking root in both the characters and the viewers. It is a film that is remorseless and bleak, at least until the final chapter when it varies significantly from the book (there were other changes, but mostly in the identity of the victims and of no real consequence), when we get the sort of upbeat ending that cinema audiences are supposed to need, which was a pity and against the run of play. Overall though I thoroughly enjoyed this film, albeit ‘enjoyed’ might not be the right word. It’s easily the best of this bunch, rising above its shortcomings to provide a startling and original horror story, one that will reward further viewing.

Uninhabited (2010)

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef contains over six hundred coral islands. Marine biology student Beth and boyfriend Harry are to spend ten days on one of them, but no sooner have they arrived than they get indications that they are not alone – footsteps in the sand, sounds in the night. Searching the island they find a hut in the middle of the forest, containing strange drawings and a journal that tells of a woman raped by seven men and how her vengeful spirit haunts the island, killing men. Beth believes, while Harry prefers a more prosaic explanation, but either way someone or something is out to get them. This film blindsides the viewer with the words ‘Based on Actual Events’ emblazoned on the cover of the DVD box, the actual events in question consisting of the fact that there was an island with a hut and a journal, at least according to the director, but nothing more than that. This misdirection means that we can’t entirely be sure where the film is going, if the menace our couple faces is supernatural or human in nature, and I have to admit that it worked rather well, though at the same time I didn’t feel the film’s makers were playing entirely fair. No matter as I rather liked it, without being blown away. The scenery is breathtaking and the hut in the woods thing introduces a Blair Witch note of uncertainty and menace into the proceedings. The actors seemed a bit stilted at the start, but grew into their roles, with Beth as the cautious one and Harry the hothead. I have to admit I didn’t entirely like their characters – a small thing, but when they first arrived and toddled off leaving their ferryman to unload all of their stuff from his boat, I thought they were arseholes – but then, that’s not necessary to believe in them, or feel concern at what happens to them. There’s a feminist subtext of sorts, with male abuse of women one of the foundation stones of the plot, both in the past and present. The ending is bleak and ambiguous, which I liked. Overall it was a small, unambitious film that was very good at what it did, without being an outstanding film of its type.

Donkey Punch (2008)

Tammi has been done the dirty on by her boyfriend, so gal pals Lisa and Kim whisk her off to Spain for a weekend of fun and sun. They meet up with four young men who are crewing on a luxury yacht, and while the owner is away the crew will party. Out at sea, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, an orgy ensues, with good girl Tammi abstaining. But one of the girls gets killed, courtesy of the eponymous donkey punch, and then when the guys want to cover up what happened to save their skin, the girls find themselves in danger and have to fight to survive. So basically then it’s Black Rock relocated to a luxury yacht, with a lot more nudity and character complications. There is definitely an element of exploitation here, with the sexual element confirming all our worst fears and highest hopes about young Brits abroad, the sort of antics the tabloids and reality TV shows revel in exposing. Allow for that though, and what you get is a very tense thriller, with a claustrophobic, almost hallucinatory feel to the setting and plenty of twists and turns in the plot, as the advantage swings first one way and then the other, with everybody’s motives and madness coming into play. The characters are well drawn, especially the four guys (the girls are not quite as well rounded), with particular kudos to Tom Burke as the embodiment of Essex Boy that is Bluey, and Julian Morris as Josh, a conniving little shit, who is clever and manipulative, but at the same time a tad naïve. There isn’t anything really new or striking here, just the same old given an ‘adults only’ makeover, but it has characters you can believe in, even as you disapprove of what they do, and on occasion root for. And it keeps you continually off balance, even though the ending has a certain sense of inevitability about it. Interestingly it was part funded by the National Lottery (so that’s where all my money went to), making me wonder if there was a Daily Mule inspired public outcry at the time regarding the use of Lottery funds to finance pornography. I do hope so, as that alone would have made the whole project all the more worthwhile.

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Filler content with tiger scars

A feature on the work of Damien Angelica Walters that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE: DAMIEN ANGELICA WALTERS

Widely published, American writer Damien Angelica Walters will be familiar to readers of Black Static from the stories that appeared in #46 and #52, and for those who wish to get better acquainted with the full range of her talents in the short form, assuming you haven’t already done so, then there’s an ideal opportunity to be taken in the form of 2015 collection SING ME YOUR SCARS (Apex Book Company pb, 200pp, $15.95). It contains twenty stories presented in three sections.

With the title ‘HERE’, the first part of the collection opens with Stoker nominated title story ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ which in some ways reminded me strongly of Clive Barker’s classic ‘The Body Politic’ though Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a very obvious influence. A mad doctor works to assemble the perfect woman by stitching together assorted body parts, but the women whose flesh he uses retain a localised kind of consciousness and form a gestalt entity to oppose their tormentor. It’s a fascinating idea and vividly realised, with Walters bringing each separate body part to compelling life and showing how they unite in a common cause, while fully exploring the possibilities of this scenario, raising questions about the nature of our humanity and those who are willing to abuse others for their own ends. The misogyny underlying it all is self-evident, with the scientist wishing to shape a woman to his desires and blaming his victims when things don’t go according to plan, seeing women as nothing more than subjects for his experiments and indifferent to any wishes, hopes, and dreams they themselves might have.

Meg, the protagonist of ‘All the Pieces We Leave Behind’, is an idealist who believes the best of people and tries to help them when she can, but here she is infected with a kind of societal fear and finds herself acting in ways that are entirely opposed to her caring nature. Underlying the main narrative is a powerful subtext about the nature of identity, of who we essentially are and how mutable that is, with a kind of despair and indifference arising in society and spreading to others. In ‘Girl, With Coin’ the young woman Olivia doesn’t experience pain and makes her living as a performance artist, cutting herself in trendy art galleries and creating tableau vivant, but at the bottom of it all is Olivia’s failed relationship with her estranged mother, the one person who she wishes to affect. While physical pain is beyond her, Olivia is prone to emotional aches, and in this her mother is the complete opposite, apparently indifferent, unaffected by anything her daughter does. The story takes a long, hard look at the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others, and how society itself contributes to the atrocity exhibition, challenging the idea that female masochism/self-sacrifice can be a form of virtue’.

Previously published in our sister magazine Interzone, ‘Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion)’ is set in a Lithuania where magic is forbidden and soldiers steal away practitioners, and while terror reigns outside in a small apartment a man grieves for his missing wife and performs illusions to charm his dying daughter. It is a beautifully written piece, one that brings home the nature of terror, of political oppression, and at the same time shows us that there is hope of a kind to be found in even the most dreadful situations, with the keenness of the emotions penetrating deep into the reader’s psyche. ‘Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods’ gives us the scenario of human beings as the playthings of alien entities, who replace their parts with clockwork and strip them of their basic humanity, but at the end there is hope again, with Naomi finding her identity and revolting against the oppressor. At least that’s what this story feels to be about, with a touch of Cthulhu and his ilk in characters Big and Little Big, but fascinating as the concept and execution were, it didn’t entirely work for me, felt a little too oblique for my liking, with too much that the reader is left to infer regarding what is actually taking place.

This section ends with a story that could have been amusing in less skilled hands, but here uses the comedic situation to more serious ends. ‘Sugar, Sin, and Nonsuch Henry’ tells of an exotic dancer called Sugarsin who is obsessed with the Tudors and at a yard sale acquires a robot built to look like Henry VIII, but it turns out that he has feelings and is attracted to her. It’s a delightful story, with some deliciously witty dialogue and a Ray Bradbury vibe going on, but along the way it deals with real concerns regarding the nature of physical and emotional attachment, asks questions about the things which are missing from our lives and how much we are prepared to do to get them.

We move on to ‘PART II: AND THE NOW’, which opens with ‘Running Empty in a Land of Decay’. The story’s unnamed protagonist is running as displacement activity, a way to avoid thinking of the zombie plague that has wiped out the rest of humanity and how she had to shoot her partner when he became infected, but you can only avoid the obvious for so long, and through the activity of running she finds the way to a kind of inner peace, in this short, elegiac narrative, a swansong of sorts for the human race, with running as a metaphor for the way we dodge those essential, life threatening questions. In ‘Scarred’ Violet remembers her past, when she caused the deaths of other people by carving their names into her flesh, and is haunted by guilt but also tempted to use this ability again when a man abuses his wife and child. The story operates on several levels, giving us the option to believe that Violet is mistaken about what happens, that she is suffering from a mental condition, but at the same time it can be taken at face value, with the question of what right she has to play judge, jury and executioner at the centre of the story, and then there is the end twist when her attempt to kill herself goes horribly wrong, with consequences that are as unexpected as they are completely logical with hindsight. The story’s central conceit enables Walters to examine matters of personal morality and responsibility.

‘The Taste of Tears in a Raindrop’ is the story of Alec, a divorced man who wants to spend more time with his daughter but is denied by his ex-wife, and the woman who comes and cries in his garden each night, the story touching on mythic themes and the ways in which we refuse to take responsibility for our mistakes, how we can only move on once we own them for what they are. We get a different perspective on the story of the Gorgon Medusa in ‘Always, They Whisper’, with Medi portrayed as a rape victim who was then held responsible for what was done to her and cursed. The story offers a detailed study of victim blaming, and ends with the triumphalism of a woman who has been pushed so far that she decides to take control of her own story instead of continuing to accept the judgements of others, with the serpent imagery used throughout and the suggestion that they give voice to Medi’s guilt adding to its psychological acuity.

Set in a world where singing can be used to build things, ‘Dysphonia in D Minor’ tells of the love between two women and how it came to be tainted and soured, the central conceit here quite dazzling, but the miraculous undermined by jealousy and despair. Walters poses questions of what is right and what is wrong, but she offers no easy answers, only the lingering scent of fake regrets. A woman is haunted by photographs of the man she loved and couldn’t let go when he was struck down by a fatal illness in ‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’ It’s a ghost story of sorts, albeit one with a highly unusual method of delivery, but beyond that it touches on the inability to let go, to allow things that have gone on for too long to die a natural death. It’s a ghost story in which the living compel the dead. ‘Immolation: A Love Story’ does exactly what it says in the title, chronicling the unhealthy obsession a shoe shop employee with pyromaniac tendencies has for one of his female customers. There’s a thread of suppressed eroticism to the story, a passion that is too strong to be denied, and underlying that a fetishistic intensity that leads to the final reversal of fortunes at the story’s end.

In ‘PART III: AND AWAY’ we have the terrible sadness of ‘Melancholia in Bloom’ with its depiction of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and her belief in a kind of magic that her daughter rejects. Memory is at the centre of this story, the ways in which we preserve the past, and how in losing that past we also lose something essential to who we are. The protagonist of ‘Iron and Wood, Nail and Bone’ is nailed to a cross in some sort of ritual of empowerment, coming to an awareness of her own strength through suffering. Reminiscent in some ways of Orson Scott Card’s early work, it’s a powerful word picture of a soul in torment, somebody who needs to be punished before they can accept who they really are. An archetypal female figure wanders through the pages of ‘And All the World Says Hush’, a palimpsest on which the desires of others are painted, and in this way she becomes somehow symbolic of all females, or rather of all who are given validity by the imaginings of other people.

In a land where magic is forbidden except to those who swear to serve its king and whose abilities are warped to evil ends, a young woman learns the truth that ‘They Make of You a Monster’. Again there are echoes here of Card’s early fiction, both in the fantastical setting and in the way that a good cause can only be forwarded through an act that many would regard as evil. Walters bestows a certain grace and nobility on her protagonist, but only through sullying such things can she achieve a better future for everyone. ‘Paper Thin Roses of Maybe’ has a one-dimensional reality encroaching on our own world, causing a falling out between Joshua and Maddie, who cannot wait for the flatness to reach and engulf them, instead runs to meet her fate. The central conceit here is a striking one, and with the transformation of the characters into paper you could draw comparisons with the literary situation, while underlying it all is a message about lack of faith and what that can lead to.

One of the most powerful stories, ‘Grey in the Gauge of His Storm’ presents us with the portrait of an abusive relationship, with love used as justification for both enduring and inflicting pain on others, but Walters makes it especially memorable by having her characters made out of material that unravels. A harrowing account of male violence, it’s made all the more painful through the way in which the female character consents in what is happening to her, is willing to take the blame despite her obvious innocence, hides the marks of violence from others. It’s a fantastical scenario, but at the same time one that feels all too real, a story that, like the very best of speculative fiction, uses the bizarre elements to illuminate genuine problems, and it’s a trait that is common to many of these fictions.

Finally we have ‘Like Origami in Water’, the tale of Johnny whose body is gradually disappearing and his companion who makes origami animals as he vanishes, using them to externalise the hurt they are both feeling. Again, the conceit is striking, and made even more so by the way in which it is used to tell us something of human nature, with Walters injecting a strong dose of poignancy into her story.

I loved this collection, with something striking and original to be found in every story, and insights into the human condition that dazzle with their unerring accuracy at hitting the targets the author has set for herself.

Similar qualities are to be found in PAPER TIGERS (Dark House Press pb, 284pp, $14.97), Walters second outing at novel length. It opens with the words “Please don’t look at the Monstergirl”, our introduction to one of the central themes of the book and its viewpoint character Alison. The survivor of a fire that took two fingers and one eye, left one side of her body hideously scarred and devoid of sensation, Monstergirl is how Alison characterises herself, an opinion that is predicated on how she feels other people react to her appearance. Physical beauty is only part of what she lost to the fire – she also lost her unborn child, the man who claimed to love her, and has subsequently abandoned any hope of a career in teaching. Now she lives alone, interacting only with her mother and physiotherapist, leaving the house only when she feels it is unlikely she will meet anyone on the street.

About the only thing that still engages Alison’s interest is her collection of old photograph albums, but her latest find, located in an antique shop that was open at an ungodly hour, is rather unusual. It has an inscription, only one line of which Alison can read – “A paper tiger to swallow you whole”. The pages are stuck together and Alison can’t separate them, no matter how hard she tries. The only photograph available to her is the first in the album, that of a rather impressive looking man she decides to name George. As she falls under the spell of the album, imagining a life for George, more pages are revealed, and Alison has the sensation that she is able to push her hand through the surface of the album, through into the world that it portrays in sepia tones. Research reveals that the house depicted in the pages of the album is Pennington House, built in the 1800s and burnt to the ground in an unexplained fire in 1992, and yes, the man of the house was called George. Now Alison finds herself drawn fully into Pennington House, like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. She is able to exist alongside George and his extended family, be part of their soirees, and in this world she is not scarred, not disfigured. Some of the “healing” carries back over into the real world, making the temptation to return to Pennington House all the stronger, even though Alison senses that George is not entirely what he seems and the house represents terrible danger for her. That danger is much greater than she suspects and ultimately will require a horrific sacrifice from this young woman who has already lost so much.

Okay, at heart this is a haunted house story, one of the oldest of genre tropes, and as far as that goes Walters hits it out of the ball park. The way in which Alison digs into the past of the building, the steps by which she discovers the grim history of Pennington House, none of which require any great of stretch on the part of the reader to confer credibility, are a master class in how to set up such scenarios. Similarly the things which Alison witnesses within the walls of Pennington House, the morbid and minatory atmosphere of the place, the slightly off kilter tone of the social gatherings, the fear of the children who hide in its secret places, all combine magnificently to create a compelling and believable atmosphere, a setting every bit as credible as Hill House or The Overlook Hotel. Ultimately it is the understated nature of what Alison experiences that works so well. There are no jump moments as such, no torrents of blood or white sheeted figures clanking chains. Instead all we have are odd smells, voices heard at a distance, things seen out of the corner of the eye or not all, a gradually mounting series of suggestions, none of them conclusive in themselves, but which powerfully and effectively combine to convey that there is something horribly wrong with this building.

One of the most striking aspects of this setup is the family gathered round George, the way in which at first they present an idyllic façade to the world, a setting in which Alison might feel at home, that she belongs, safe from the judgements of her own reality. But then as we, along with Alison, peer closer the cracks become apparent, the ways in which each of them is one of the weak and the wounded. George himself is a kind of psychic vampire, feeding on the pain and suffering of others, and in the figure of Alison he sees a veritable buffet to be consumed. Walters has another neat trick up her sleeve with the way in which she uses the photograph album as gateway drug to this other world. Alison doesn’t walk into the light; she falls forward into the Kodachrome. And, in parenthesis, the implication seems to be that photographs are in some manner interlinked with ghosts given the way in which they capture moments of the past, are snapshots of frozen time, often of things and people that have passed on. Anyone looking at an ancient photo album can say with conviction, “I see dead people”.

While it works splendidly as a haunted house story, what makes Paper Tigers even more special is Walters’ depiction of Alison and her Monstergirl persona. Although the back cover text gives a lot away, within the context of the narrative we only gradually discover how much she has lost to the fire. The physical disfigurement is out there from the start, and slowly we learn of her unborn child and the way in which her lover abandoned her after the blaze and its consequences. It seems churlish to say so, but although she deserves our sympathy in some ways Alison is not always a sympathetic character, which is entirely understandable given what has happened to her. Alison imagines herself as a victim, as somebody who will be laughed at and shunned by other people, and her actions are often dictated by that expectation, even though it is justified far less than she believes. The more acceptable template would be to make her a heroic figure, bravely soldiering on and fighting against the odds, not a Monstergirl but a poster girl for survivors of tragedy. Walters has the wisdom to avoid that easy option, and instead give us a real person, a woman who is all too human, warts and all, who can both cope with her problems and at times plunge into the pit of despair. Alison’s inner demons are given voice as what she calls the Muses of Disfigurement, with the emotions that dominate her life summed up as Yellow, Red, and Purple. And yet for all her suffering and surrender, Alison ultimately proves capable not just of redemption but of heroism, of sacrificing herself to save others, confronting the thing that she fears the most.

The ending to the book is so unexpected and harrowing that it nearly breaks your heart. But while it might not be the ending we were all hoping for, the bleak and uncomforting resolution that Walters gives us is the right ending, and kudos to her for having the courage to write that ending instead of something more palatable for the reader. This is a superb haunted house story, and at the same time it is so much more than that, has so much more to offer in showing us how people cope with their problems, the ways in which they rise above the obstacles that confront them. I loved Paper Tigers, and I am eager to see what this promising young writer can come up with next.

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