Trailer Trash – The Green Knight & Jungle Cruise

Two for the price of one today, with films that look very different in tone.

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OR: White & Other Tales of Ruin

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-

WHITE & OTHER TALES OF RUIN

Tim Lebbon

Night Shade Books pb, 342pp, $15

This new collection brings together six novellas by Lebbon, a writer who cut his teeth in the UK independent press, complete with an introduction by Jack Ketchum and story notes by the author himself, explaining how these grim fables came into being.

British Fantasy Award winning ‘White’ is probably the best known of the fictions on offer and arguably the most accomplished. It takes us forward to a time when Britain freezes in the grip of a new Ice Age and a party of friends are stranded in Cornwall in an isolated manor house, totally cut off from whatever is left of civilisation, the story painstakingly dissecting the group’s disintegration as they are hunted down by the whites of the title, a ruthless new life form able to manipulate human desire to its own ends. Conceptually there is little that is new here, but Lebbon’s grasp of the material is assured, capturing perfectly the bleakness of both the external landscape and the inner emotional topography of the characters while deftly creating an atmosphere of dread anticipation.

‘From Bad Flesh’ has a similar dystopian setting, a world where the political and social order has broken down and its protagonist, Gabe, travels to a remote Greek island in search of the man String and a cure for the illness that is slowly stealing his life. While the story certainly doesn’t lack for invention or incident, and Lebbon gives us just enough detail about the evocatively named Ruin to intrigue and make this scenario convincing, at its core is the interaction of the people, Gabe’s attraction to two very different women acting as a catalyst for much of what takes place, culminating in a powerful reaffirmation of belief.

Newly published in this collection, ‘Hell’ is not so successful. Laura, the narrator’s daughter, runs off to join a cult and distraught he ends up on a coach trip through Hell, the rationale for this never satisfactorily explained or even seriously questioned. Looking out of the coach window he sees Laura impaled on barbed wire and abandons ship to rescue her, after which we get an almost interminable series of fires and frying pans before the hero and his daughter get back to reality. There’s an attempt to justify all this frantic activity as demonstrating that no matter how bad things get there are always others worse off than you, but any sense is swept away in the relentless action so that wonder on the part of the reader is replaced with a plaintive cry of ‘Now what?’ ‘Hell’ is a story that would have benefited from more reflection and less action. Far better is ‘The First Law’, like ‘From Bad Flesh’ previously published in the Razor Blade Press volume Faith in the Flesh. This reads somewhat like Solaris written by William Hope Hodgson, as the survivors of a ship sunk in wartime are stranded on a desert island where Nature has been twisted into strange shapes. The interaction between the finely drawn characters and the understated perils of the island is powerfully conveyed, with interesting ideas about the nature of faith and evolution dropped into the text, though not explored to any significant degree.

The shortest story here, ‘The Origin of Truth’, is another disappointment. Nanos are consuming the world and a family journey to northern Scotland to escape, though of course there is no escape, only delay of the inevitable. As they wait patiently for the end their little girl is gifted with an influx of knowledge, as if she has tapped into some form of collective consciousness. The story is excellent at depicting human beings confronting the end of life as we know it, with scenes of graphic violence offset by the quite moving affection of the family members for each other, but there seemed to be little point to it all and the fuzzy mysticism of the end undercut much of Lebbon’s good work in preparing us for some awesome revelation. Lastly we have another new story, ‘Mannequin Man and the Plastic Bitch’, which brings to mind Data and Dr Soong from Star Trek, set in world where Spielberg’s A. I. has been given an S&M twist. Tom is an artificial who has been programmed by his creator, a scientist known simply as The Baker, with the ability to love. Unfortunately the emotion kicks in when he’s in bed with Honey, an android hooker, and the two have to go on the run from her pimp. Lebbon provides a lot in the way of incidental detail, with plenty of high tech action and moments of eroticism, but engaging as these things are they tend to distract from the story’s heart, the emotional changes Tom is undergoing, and he doesn’t seem rigorous enough in revealing the implications of what is taking place, while the backdrop is a bit thinly sketched, with convenience all too often winning out over consistency and credibility.

It is too early to make any definitive pronouncements on the significance of Lebbon’s expanding oeuvre. There is little in this volume that is conceptually new and at times he seems a bit too beguiled by shoot ’em up strategies rather than more directly addressing the serious concerns that his fictions touch on, but when he gets the balance right, in stories such as ‘White’ and ‘From Bad Flesh’, this collection presents compelling evidence that a substantial new talent just may have taken up residence in the horror genre.

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Us and Them

From The Dark Side of the Moon.

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Trailer Trash – Old

Latest from M. Night Shyamalan.

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OR: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #14

A review that probably appeared in The Third Alternative #37 (my records aren’t entirely clear):-

THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 14: STEPHEN JONES, EDITOR

Robinson pb, 590pp, £7.99

Twenty stories make the cut in this latest annual volume from the prolific Jones, a pleasing mixture of old names and new faces.

‘October in the Chair’ by Neil Gaiman is a moody and effective fable, with delightful touches of humour, in which the twelve months (each one of them a singularly cranky individual) sit around and regale each other with ghost stories. In contrast the superbly creepy ‘Details’ by China Mieville is an oblique story of a young girl’s relationship with an old woman, excellent in its use of suggestion and leaving the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks. Don Tumason’s ‘The Wretched Thicket of Thorns’ is more standard Horror fare, with a married couple travelling out to a remote Greek island and falling foul of the local monster, again relying heavily on suggestion and creating a compelling mood of dread. ‘The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe’en Horror Nights’ by David J. Schow is a tongue in cheek piece set in a rather special theme park where the locals grow restless and teach some interlopers a hard lesson, a story that is great fun to read but not believable for a single minute. ‘Standard Gauge’ is typical Nicholas Royle if there is such a thing, with the narrator encountering a madman and unwittingly assisting him in making his plans real, an intriguing study of aberrant psychology. ‘Little Dead Girl Singing’ by Stephen Gallagher is an elegiac piece taking a hard look at the competitiveness of adults and childhood lost, while Brian Hodge’s ‘Nesting Instincts’ has an X-Files feel to it as a boy sees his mother fall under the spell of a man who transforms her life, and not for the better, the mundane slowly and convincingly giving way to the outré and macabre. Glen Hirshberg’s ‘The Two Sams’ is a curious mixture of grimness and hope, as a man is haunted by the ghosts of his stillborn children, one of the finest and most moving stories in the collection. ‘Hides’ by Jay Russell puts Robert Louis Stevenson down in the middle of the Old West and brings him into contact with a cannibal, a spellbinding slice of historical recreation that holds the attention from first word to last. Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Unbeheld’ is the story of a man’s life unravelling, as unsettling and dramatic as watching a road traffic accident unfold in slow motion, touching on such contemporary themes as our fear of paedophiles, while Basil Copper’s ‘Ill Met by Daylight’ is as near as it gets to a Jamesian ghost story, with an incident of Cathedral history uncovered to the detriment of all, a cleverly crafted story from a master of the form.

Kelly Link’s ‘Catskin’ is arguably the best thing here, a beautifully written and fabulist account of what happens when a witch dies and her son must take revenge, remarkable for Link’s endless invention and prose contortions, the metafictional asides that permeate the text like strands of gold in solid bedrock. At the opposite end of the spectrum and just as fine is ‘20th Century Ghost’ by Joe Hill, the moving story of a young woman who haunts an old cinema, appearing only to special customers, chilling in its build- up and marred only slightly by an overly sentimental ending. Kim Newman’s ‘Egyptian Avenue’ is a wonderfully wry and cheeky story of mad publishing magnates and ghostly servants while in the gripping ‘The Boy Behind the Gate’ James van Pelt gives us the moving account of two fathers separated by decades in time but with similar problems, both forced to confront the unthinkable and make terrible choices, a dilemma with which many will identify. In ‘Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan a haunted house serves as the focus for the anxieties of two women in a gay relationship back in the 1950s, the dynamics of their relationship explored with understated prose and a feel for the subtler shades of emotion, that which is never put into words. Graham Joyce’s vivid and moving tale ‘The Coventry Boy’ has a young girl with psychic powers helping others during the bombing of Coventry in WWII, including a ghost move on, and contains a powerful evocation of the perils of wartime and the fortitude of the human spirit. ‘The Prospect Cards’, the second story by Don Tumason, is a wonderfully oblique piece, with a set of postcards used to tell the story, the pictures and snippets of narrative they contain suggesting something almost too terrible for words. ‘The Cage’ is set in Jeff Vandermeer’s fantastical realm of Ambergris, with a collector of antiques and curios acquiring a bird cage that contains a creature he cannot perceive, so that as fantastical details are piled one atop another a cumulative sense of dread drives the narrative on. Finally Paul McAuley’s ‘Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple’ has loads of fun with the story of a ghost catcher in the employ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel tackling an evil magician.

Best Horror is what it says on the cover and best Horror is what we get. Though some readers will disagree about individual selections, there are no bad stories here, simply some which are better than others, and taken as a whole they provide indisputable proof of the Horror genre’s wide range and continued good state of health. Book ending the fiction are Jones’ usual state of the genre address, as comprehensive as ever, and a Necrology (compiled with Kim Newman) naming those who passed away during the course of the year, and the litany of familiar names and deaths from cancer, car accidents, drug overdoses, complications after an operation etc, add a chilling counterpoint to the fiction, a reminder that whatever we can imagine nature has thought of something yet more terrible, and that if Horror fiction has any redemptive value it lies in its ability to help us make sense of such things.

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Comfortably Numb

Have to include this one in any Floyd retrospective.

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Trailer Trash – The Forever Purge

Once the genie is out of the bottle…

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OR: Foursight

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #24:-

FOURSIGHT

Edited by Peter Crowther

Victor Gollancz hb, 216pp, £16.99

Falling in that no man’s land between the short story and the novel, novellas are, by reputation, notoriously difficult to find a market. Editor Peter Crowther has hit on the neat trick of packaging four of the wee, cowering, timorous beasties in one volume.

Graham Joyce opens the proceedings with ‘Leningrad Nights’, which reads like Ballard’s Empire of the Sun condensed , given a harder edge and relocated to the Russian front. While the starving people of a city under siege struggle to survive, the child Leo embraces madness and crime in a beautifully written tale that plumbs the depths of despair and transmutes it into a work of art. ‘How the Other Half Lives’ by James Lovegrove offers us a disturbing picture of an amoral billionaire who prospers only as long as a clone remains locked and suffering in the basement of his mansion, but while the story is well written and entertaining it has a slightly superficial feel, with the moral dilemma implicit in the scenario left largely undeveloped.

‘Andy Warhol’s Dracula’ by Kim Newman, set in the same world as his Anno Dracula, is the prize of the collection, lacking the emotional charge of the Joyce but a pure delight to read, a witty, revisionist text that offers a tour de force of invention as a vampire comes to New York and infiltrates its art scene, selling his own blood as the ultimate designer drug. The story is punctuated with quotes from academic works that explore Warhol’s obsession with vampires, cleverly satirising the fads and follies of modern art, and riddled with enough characters from fiction and history to inflict the thrill of recognition on ingenue and genre anorak alike. Finally there’s ‘The Vaccinators’ by Michael Marshall Smith, the story of a man who negotiates with aliens to prevent them abducting human beings. The idea is novel and it’s well written, with some nice touches of humour, but slightly let down by the lack of a convincing rationale for what is taking place.

A further volume is planned, this time with an SF bias. Let’s hope the project is a success.

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One of These Days

Another track from Meddle, and I have a feeling I saw this rendition when I went to see Floyd in concert at Wembley back in the day.

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2021: The Story So Far – Second Quarter

Back in April I did a list of my favourite books of the year so far, and as it’s now July time for another update.

For the months April through June, I read a total of thirty one books, making seventy two in total for the first half of the year.

So, in the order I preferred them when I wrote the list ten minutes ago (and, of course, it may be subject to change), here are my top twenty books for 2021 so far, with new entries shown in bold:-

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward

Fallen Angel – Chris Brookmyre

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

The Nesting – C. J. Cooke

Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror – Stephen Volk

The Hunger – Alma Katsu

The Upstairs Room – Kate Murray-Browne

Paperboy – Christopher Fowler

The Haunted Shore – Neil Spring

Mistletoe – Alison Littlewood

The Ghost Hunters – Neil Spring

The Taking of Annie Thorne – C. J. Tudor

The Unnamed Country – Jeffrey Thomas

In One Person – John Irving

Little Eve – Catriona Ward

The Quickening – Rhiannon Ward

Pine – Francine Toon

Cobra Trap – Peter O’Donnell

Film Freak – Christopher Fowler

It breaks down as fifteen novels, two collections, and three works of non-fiction/biography. Christopher Fowler, Neil Spring, and Catriona Ward are the only writers to appear twice on the list.

I believe only one of these books was first published in 2021 (“Last House on Needless Street”), though I lack the commitment to go back and check (happy to be corrected though, if anyone knows better), and so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading in 2021’ rather than ‘Pete’s best of the year’ (a not too subtle distinction). And, of course, the whole process is highly subjective – at any other time my ratings might be entirely different.

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