One of the great songs.
One of the great songs.
Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on novellas (mostly) that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
IN SMALL PACKAGES (continued)
Literature, not film, is central to THE BOOKING (Dark Regions Press pb, 90pp, $15.95) by Ramsey Campbell. Desperate for gainful employment and locked out of girlfriend Cynthia’s flat while she is away looking after her aged parents, Kiefer accepts an offer of work and temporary lodging with bookseller Alfred Brookes. Brookes wants Kiefer to give his Books Are Life shop a web presence, but at the same time he seems highly distrustful of modern technology, adhering to various tin foil hat theories and not allowing Kiefer to use his laptop camera while on the premises. Those are just the tip of the iceberg where eccentricities are concerned, with Brookes seeming very reluctant to part with any of his stock, and books that Kiefer sells in his absence mysteriously reappearing on the shelves. The upstairs of the bookshop is a vast space, much more than the premises would seem to allow, with seemingly endless corridors all filled with books, a place that Kiefer finds claustrophobic and minatory, almost as if the books are closing ranks behind him. But with the arrival of the police at the end of the narrative we are gifted an entirely different interpretation of what takes place, one that raises questions about the reliability of our narrator.
This is a fascinating study of mental decay, showing how somebody can become displaced and disconnected in our modern world. While Kiefer might be the viewpoint character, the real subject of the novella is Brookes, whose whole life revolves around books, and in dealing with the idea that they may be marginalised in our present times he has to take drastic steps to cope. The reader will probably not guess what those steps are, but with the benefit of hindsight they seem entirely obvious. The journey to the final moment of revelation is road signed by innumerable tiny details, such as Brookes’ distrust of technology and the magnum opus that he claims to be writing, which is simply an account of all the books that he has read. It’s also seen in his financial dealings and reluctance to let go of loved volumes. Brookes is a person at odds with the modern world. His premises are a sort of palace of memory, one in which Kiefer becomes lost, his whole being eclipsed by the weight of all those assembled volumes and words. One could argue that literature here becomes a form of tyranny, an overshadowing of human existence, and the final reveal underlines this point. At first an eccentric and arbitrary taskmaster, ultimately Brookes is shown as a sympathetic figure, someone we can relate to even while considering him deranged.
From film and literature we move to art with THE DAMAGE MUSEUM (Short, Scary Tales Publications hc, 86pp, £21.95). Vincent Sammy’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static and Interzone, and this volume showcases some of his finest paintings and drawings. Something Wicked publisher Joe Vaz, described by the artist himself as “the person who gave me my first big break into freelance illustration” (and for that we all owe Vaz a debt of gratitude), supplies an introduction, but really what follows needs no introduction at all; the work speaks for itself. The book is divided into two sections, titled ‘Trichromatika’ and ‘Achromatika’, or to you and me, Colour and Black & White. Each work of art is presented as a double page spread, sometimes with the main illustration stretching over both pages, but usually with the artwork on the right hand side and contextual details on the left, occasionally accompanied by a smaller preliminary sketch. For example, the piece titled STRIGOI comes with this information in white print on a black background – “Interior story illustration, Interzone magazine, issue 246, Story: “The Core” by Lavie Tidhar, Published by TTA Press – 2013”.
Women feature in the majority of the paintings, though they are assuredly not the exaggeratedly pneumatic and improbably costumed warrior ladies of a Chris Achilleos or Frazetta, but rather working women with an extra layer of badass, women whose clothes and faces bear the testimony of all they have lived through, with dirt in the fabric and blood garlanding the skin. These are not women you want to cross, and they are emphatically not there to provide fantasy fodder for the male gaze, or at least not that sort of fantasy. Men and monsters also feature, caught in moments that have a revealing snapshot quality to them, with twisted limbs and contorted facial expressions, the shadow of a rictus grin to each and every one of them, flesh and non-organic material melding in unholy fusion. Sammy works with a vibrant palette, with most of his coloured work focused on variations of the single shade, and vivid dashes of brighter paint for contrast, like splashes of blood on porcelain skin.
As well as illustrations from TTA publications there is artwork from other venues and several previously unpublished pieces, and every single one of them is beautiful, though you may need to expand your definition of that term to accommodate Sammy’s visionary work. I haven’t seen the actual book, only a PDF for review purposes, but my guess is that it’s a thing of beauty also, a fitting showcase for one of our most talented artists.
In his introduction to WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS (Dark Minds Press pb, 154pp, £6.97) author Gary Fry explains that this novella is the text of a document found on the hard drive of a computer at the University of Leeds where he works. It details the relationship between academic Matt Cole and his student supervisee Chloe Linton. Chloe has decided to do her thesis on the psychological impact of a local legend concerning an entity known as Donald Deere. Legends dating back to the 16th century have it that Deere was a black magician who lives on in Pasturn woods, assuming a part plant form, a sticklike figure that preys on local girls with the help of his irresistible love potion, and served by a brood of deformed children. Chloe backs up her research with interviews, statistical analyses, screen captures from the blog of a young woman who claims Deere impregnated her, and has even discovered a photograph reputed to be of Deere. Matt is concerned that she is ignoring psychological impact and going down the academically dead end route of trying to discover the reality behind the legend, but as their relationship continues he starts to discover signs that there is actually more to Deere than he suspected. And there is also the suspicion that Chloe’s motives may not be simply academic in nature.
This is the best thing I have seen from Gary Fry, at least at novella length. It is a multi-layered story that engrosses the reader and can be interpreted in several ways. Matt recognises in his own behaviour with regard to his attractive young student aspects of the sexual predator, a resemblance to the methods of Deere himself, leading to the book’s final moment of self-awareness. On another level it is possible that everything he experiences, all the unsettling moments that culminate in his maddened flight through Pasturn woods, with odd creatures seeming to loom from every corner, are simply hallucinogenic, the result of some concoction he has unknowingly imbibed, or perhaps symptomatic of some mental breakdown on the part of our narrator. Finally, and most likely in my opinion, there is the possibility that this is all real, that Deere exists and is pursuing some mad agenda of his own, in which Chloe is either his ally or cat’s paw. And in the figure of Deere Fry creates an intriguing monster, a creature who superficially embodies many of the negative qualities associated with masculinity (a sexual predator and, as one elderly interviewee wryly observes, he doesn’t do his share of the housework), but is at the same time uniquely monstrous, with his sylvan pedigree, the warped nature of his very being, the hideous progeny that attend him and his unsettling method of getting around. All of which is executed with an admirable and convincing subtlety.
Another standout aspect of the novella is the depth of characterisation especially with regard to Matt Cole, who by his own admission is comfortably middle class. There is obviously dissatisfaction in his marriage to romantic novelist wife Rose, particularly given her desire for children rather late in the day, but though the passion has gone out of their relationship what we see is a convincing picture of a couple who have grown used to each other, who are comfortable with who they are, and this in turn leads to some gratifying moments at the end of the novella. As an aside there are also some fascinating aspects to Chloe’s research, with the various and cunningly crafted info dumps disguised as academic documents inserted into the text helping to enhance the credibility of the work, and the theory that Deere, whether real or not, might simply be a get out of gaol free card for local lasses who have found themselves pregnant. Overall What They Find in the Woods is a marvellous novella, reading like Candy Man as written by Machen and Blackwood, with a dash of Wheatleyesque Satanism added to flavour, but all of it uniquely Gary Fry. Great stuff.
TO BE CONTINUED
This summer’s big shark movie.
The first part of a feature on novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
IN SMALL PACKAGES
As we move away from the festive season with its attendant over indulgence, perhaps it’s time to think about downsizing in our fictional appetites as well as our actual appetites. So step away from the latest King Big Mac and the most recent Koontz turkey, and come over here to this table in the corner that’s groaning under the weight of lighter delicacies provided by purveyors of fictional fare who may be no less talented, if not as well known. Pick up a plate and help yourself to whatever takes your fancy.
Smorga’s bored, but I guarantee you won’t be.
And that sad attempt at Scandinavian wordplay leads us to CAPE WRATH (Telos Publishing pb, 216pp, £12.99) by Paul Finch which was first published in 2002 and a contender for a British Fantasy Award. Now thanks to the good people at Telos we have this brand spanking new edition to consume. Professor Mercy leads a group of students on an expedition to the island of Craeghatir, described as “nothing more than a tiny spot off the tip of Cape Wrath, mainland Britain’s northern-most point”. Their task is to excavate a barrow thought to be the last resting place of Ivar the Boneless, a fierce and brutal Viking warlord who inexplicably disappeared when at the height of his power. There’s plenty of tension within the group – between Alan and former girlfriend Linda; between Alan and Barry, her new boyfriend; and general resentment at David, who is only present because of his father’s influence. Within a day of arriving one member of the party is dead, thought to have been killed in a tragic climbing accident, though there are circumstances that don’t quite make sense. One by one they are picked off, each sacrificed in horrific and bloody rites that are taken from the most bloodstained pages of Viking history. At first suspicion falls on the other members of their party, but far more deadly forces are at play. Something was released when they opened the barrow, a malevolent entity that intends to resurrect Ivar through sacrificing to Odin, and it’s up to those who are left to fight to survive until help arrives from the mainland.
Okay, in the abstract this is pretty much your bog standard horror plot about the dangers of disturbing ancient burial sites, but here executed with a commendable gusto, Finch making all the right moves to produce a compelling and in your face work of horror fiction. Central to the story is Ivar, and I’ve no idea if he is a historical figure Finch is using for his story or forged from whole cloth, while to check seems rather not in the spirit of the thing, tempting as it is. What I can say with certainty is that Finch provides a wealth of detail touching on Viking history and their culture, particularly with regard to war and berserker rage, more than enough to make the backdrop convincing, and provide the solid ground on which his story stands. Also contributing to the verisimilitude of the narrative is his evocation of the island of Craeghatir, a remote and windswept spot where man clings on at subsistence level if at all. The hostility of the location, combined with unsettling stories about past events on the island, help to create an atmosphere of bleakness, one in which just about anything seems possible, with the exception of happiness.
In addition Finch is superb at drawing his characters, giving each distinguishing traits, adding spite and jealousy, anger and resentment to an already boiling pot, one that bubbles over in violence. Even lust comes into the equation, with scenes of two characters fucking intercut with the opening of the barrow, as if something is being borne through the ferocious act of sex. And the nature of the violence that permeates the narrative means that this is not a story for the faint hearted, with Viking sacrificial rites such as that of The Blood Eagle and The Walk described in all their horrific, stomach churning detail, Finch sparing us nothing. It is not perhaps a subtle work of fiction, but it is a powerful and compelling one, a story that is crying out to be made into a film.
By way of a makeweight we have bonus story ‘The Hellion’, with two couples visiting a former Viking site and encountering rather more than they bargained for. It has all the virtues of its predecessor – historical background that feels thoroughly researched, well-drawn characters and tension in the group, a minatory atmosphere – but falls at the last hurdle, with a monster that seemed rather fanciful to me in the context of the story, though perhaps that’s simply down to Cape Wrath having delivered so much that whatever followed was bound to feel anticlimactic.
Nina Allan’s THE HARLEQUIN (Sandstone Press pb, 128pp, £7.99) won the 2015 Novella Award. It’s the story of Dennis Beaumont, a conscientious objector who served in WWI as an ambulance driver, and deals with his return to civilian life, with attempts to pick up his studies at Oxford and rekindle feelings for his fiancée Lucy. To the reader, with one exception, Beaumont’s life seems to be dominated by dead men – his father who died while he was away and his old school teacher Ferguson, disfigured in the war and committing suicide on return; his friend Ambrose who died in the fighting, and his old mentor and university professor Martingale, who suffered a heart attack. Perhaps the most significant of them all is the soldier Stephen Lovell who died of his wounds while in Beaumont’s care. As well as dead men, there are live women – Beaumont’s sister Doris, who has been making ends meet and tending to the home fires in his absence, and his fiancée Lucy, who has changed during his time away, aspiring to own a dress shop and willing to share Beaumont’s bed. There is Rose Thorpe, the girlfriend of Stephen Lovell, for whom Beaumont conceives a wholly unrealistic attraction. And there is Billie, the barmaid with whom he conducts a lust driven affair, and it is on her mantelpiece that he first sees the harlequin statue that provides a lynch-pin for the novella’s action. Deadened by his experiences, Beaumont tries to make sense of what has happened to him by writing about the war, and it is in reading these accounts that we get the true story of what transpired with Stephen Lovell and of Beaumont’s encounter with the mysterious Vladek, a harlequin figure dressed in motley who may well have been the devil, with his foreknowledge and unique interpretation of war.
Beautifully written and keenly observed, The Harlequin offers a stunning account of a personality clinging on to sanity in quiet desperation. While he may have avoided direct participation in the bloodshed, Beaumont has not managed to stay detached from it all, as Vladek’s theories argue, and ultimately he is not above taking life when his own security is threatened. There is the possibility that Vladek is simply a figment of Beaumont’s imagination, and that he himself disposed of Lovell’s body, or even left the man to die so that he could save his own skin. Taken at face value though, Vladek represents not so much the devil, but a personification of all that is bad in human existence, a creature who observes our suffering and pain, the beneficiary of those conditions, while at the same time accepting no responsibility for the way in which we act. He is the detached observer, a commentator on human actions, the same role taken on by the journalist and soldier Lovell, and finally by Beaumont himself, but unlike them he can remain aloof and dispassionate. War corrupts seems to be the underlying message here, or rather that we are all part and parcel of that corruption, guilty regardless of what actions we take, performers in the freak show that is life, so that finally Vladek/the harlequin is a question posed for us all. This is an intelligent and engrossing novella, an exploration of the human condition and what we are capable of when in extremis, containing elements that are both an examination and condemnation of warfare, and a book that will reward multiple readings with new things and interpretations at each attempt.
THE LOST FILM (Pendragon Press pb, 303pp, £10) contains two novellas based on the world of cinema, and the first feature in this double bill comes courtesy of Black Static irregular Stephen Bacon. “Lantern Rock” is a small island set off the Cornish coast and only accessible via a narrow causeway (think Woman in Black). It is the home to Lionel Rutherford, a film director who quit over forty years ago, while at the height of his fame, and retired to this remote spot with his wife after the tragic drowning of their son. Paul Madigan accepts an invitation to interview the director, but he is accompanied to the island by the woman Ellie, who claims to be interested in the local birdlife but has another agenda entirely. Everything revolves round the fate of the occultist Theodore Zafon, a sinister figure who owned the house before Rutherford and was an influential figure in the film world of Rutherford’s heyday, and who may still be active in the present, many years after he should have died.
The invitation to an interview feels like an obviously contrived point of entry into the main story, and I could have done with some explanation for Rutherford’s wealth (he owns a house on an island, and employs a manservant, but appears to have no visible means of support, unless royalties and residuals are much more than I thought). Those minor quibbles aside, once we get into the main thread of the plot the narrative carries the reader along effortlessly. And part of that is down to Bacon providing a wealth of detail about the film crowd of which Rutherford was supposed to be a part, hinting at the malign influence of Zafon at the back of it all, giving a new twist to certain tragedies of the time, making us wonder if things like the death of Michael Reeves were really the accidents it is claimed. Characterisation is perfectly done throughout, with a hint of romance in the relationship between Paul and Ellie, while her knowledge of Zafon gives the plot an extra drive. Rutherford himself is a genial figure, and ultimately a sympathetic one despite whatever deals with the devil he made in the past, agreements for which he has more than paid the price. And yes, at heart this is a deal with the devil story and an attempt to renege on that deal, while the film aspects add a novel twist to the proceedings, Bacon incorporating the concept of a kind of life played out on celluloid, and then using this to kindle the fiery conclusion of his story. Overall ‘Lantern Rock’ was an accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable story, enhanced by an awareness of film history and a genuine affection for the horror genre.
The main feature is scripted by Mark West and relates the adventures of Gabriel Bird, a private eye who has had some rather unusual experiences in his time. Bird is hired by his former business partner to locate film-maker Roger Sinclair, who he last had contact with in the 1970s. Having exhausted the usual avenues of enquiry, Bird decides to dig into the world of exploitation cinema, checking out people Sinclair worked with and academics specialising in the field, getting his ex-girlfriend Carrie’s son Ryan to use his computer expertise to research the subject online. He even manages to locate Sinclair’s old diary, and what emerges is a tangled web of madness and illusion, all centred on Sinclair’s last film, ‘The Lost Film’ of the title, his self-declared magnum opus, Terrafly. Having caused considerable disturbance at a BBFC viewing, the controversial work went missing and has become something of a film world legend. Tied in to Sinclair’s theory of monochromatics, it hints at a terrible truth lurking at the edges of reality. Bird and others who watch a small clip online suffer from headaches and other symptoms, the film’s imagery infecting their reality, while some take the drastic step of blinding themselves, and as he moves closer to his quarry Bird senses that some terrible truth is waiting for him to discover it.
Again I have the one quibble, in that I felt the motives of Bird’s client for wanting Sinclair found were never satisfactorily explained, but it’s a minor point and doesn’t seriously detract from enjoyment of the work as a whole. ‘The Lost Film’ is a compelling and fascinating story, one that makes for an absorbing read. Like Bacon before him, West loads the story down with a wealth of detail about the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, which adds weight and verisimilitude to his main plot line, as we read about characters and events we recognise. He also solidly establishes the character of Gabriel Bird, with his various relationships, especially that with Carrie, giving the private eye a solid grounding in the real world. He might talk the talk, but Bird is not the lone wolf of much detective fiction; he is a man who has laid down roots, even as he on occasion tugs against them, and part of the horror of what happens to him is the realisation that he may well have endangered others through his actions, people about whom he cares deeply. As the end game plays out in a rundown seaside town that is based on Great Yarmouth (my own stamping ground, and I recognised nearly every detail West gives us of that place), the tension mounts to tipping point, with the revelations of the closing pages asking us to completely re-evaluate human existence. Art is supposed to tell us truths, but some truths should perhaps be kept hidden. There are echoes here of Angel Heart, and in Sinclair’s theory of monochromatics we see reflections of the megapolisomancy underlying Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, but at heart West’s story is that of the cursed object, the one that will infect the whole world if it is given free rein. He gives us a new and thoroughly contemporary variation on the theme, one that is more than worth the ticket price for this midnight screaming.
TO BE CONTINUED
I love them all, but this one especially.
And following on from Monday’s blog post, the second and final part of a feature that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
Stephen King knows a thing or two about ghost stories and related fictional matters. To celebrate the release of short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams King’s publishers Hodder decided to hold a short story contest, with the great man himself deciding the winner after other hands and eyes had whittled down the slush pile. SIX SCARY STORIES (Cemetery Dance Publications hc/pb, 128pp, $24.95/$14.95) is the end result of that exercise, containing the winning story and five worthy runners up, and complete with an introduction by King in which he sets out the circumstances of the competition and how the quality of the entries exceeded his expectations.
And the winner is… ‘Wild Swimming’ by Elodie Harper. Told in the form of emails to a friend back in London, it relates the story of wild swimming enthusiast Christine Miller, whose attempt to swim in an isolated lake somewhere in East Europe, despite the warnings of her landlady that this is not a good idea, goes horribly wrong. The setting, with our heroine a stranger in a strange land, is suitably atmospheric, Christine’s dismissive mockery of local legends slowly turning into a fearful belief, as she realises that the drowned village in the lake is the centre of an eerie and haunting entity, one that is determined to be avenged on the unwelcome trespasser in the water. It’s an entertaining piece, with an original idea used effectively, and a slow burn to the inevitable and horrific bad end for our protagonist. And yet, at the risk of being not only contrary but also sounding slightly churlish, of the six stories on offer I felt it was the least worthy.
Manuela Saragosa’s ‘Eau-de-Eric’ is centred on the relationship between a mother and her young daughter in the aftermath of the death of the husband/father. Ellie knows that Eric was a monster, an abuser, but to Kathy her father meant the world, and so when she acquires a new bear she names it after him and claims that it smells like him. This drives Ellie mad and her attempts to wash out the smell hammer a wedge between mother and daughter, also putting off the new man in her life. Eventually the obsession has near fatal consequences and the ghost of the absent Eric returns to claim what he regards as rightfully his. The characters are totally convincing, and as a study of loss, ways to grieve, and obsession bordering on madness it can’t be faulted, with the ambiguity of the ending adding yet another small frisson of fear. ‘The Spots’ by Paul Bassett Davies appears to be satirising the leadership of North Korea, with a functionary given the impossible task of counting a leopard’s spots by his beloved Leader. The matter of fact tone and the way in which the narrator continually praises the Leader, despite his obvious insanity, is totally beguiling and offers an examination of how the people of a totalitarian state are made to collaborate in forging their chains. The end twist, with the man’s problem solved in an unexpected manner, is the perfect antidote to the black humour that has gone before, but at the same time in the protagonist’s acceptance of what happens it underlines how thorough and effective the brainwashing has been.
Michael Button’s ‘The Unpicking’ is Toy Story given a macabre slant. The toys come to life and play games when their human owners are asleep, but one night they realise that they don’t have to go on living as daytime insentients, suffering every indignity the children wish to inflict. There’s a sinister side to this story, with the way in which the toys come to their road to Damascus moment, hanging on that idea of “unpicking”, both powerful and understated. It was a simple and effective story, for all that the end was entirely predictable. ‘La Mort De L’Amant’ by Stuart Johnstone is the most subtle story here. A young police officer stops to enquire about the intentions of a man parked at a famous suicide spot, one where many bodies have been recovered from the water. It is a delightful exchange, with nothing explicitly stated, but reading between the lines the reader is left concerned about what might actually be going on here. We wonder what the man’s intentions are, and if that’s really a dead deer wrapped in a tarpaulin in the back of his vehicle. Contrarily, Johnstone uses just about every cliché in the book to write his story, and makes them all work marvellously well.
Finally we have ‘The Bear Trap’ by Neil Hudson, which appears to be set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with black ash falling from the sky for six weeks. Left alone on the farm, Calvin talks to his stuffed bears, a trait that makes a raider think that he is simple and will be easy pickings, and that’s a mistake that costs him dearly. Again, it’s a predictable story, but executed with such joie de vivre that it doesn’t matter a jot. Hudson is excellent at creating the isolated setting and using suggestion to convey that something has gone seriously awry with the world, and his depiction of slightly simple Calvin is never less than convincing. The ending was a more than satisfactory case of just desserts.
Each of the stories is accompanied by an author bio and a note on their favourite King work. As a guide to future talent it’s a very worthwhile book, and I expect to see more of these writers in the days and years to come.