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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Filler content with fabulous beasts

A feature on the work of Priya Sharma that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-

BLOOD ON THE PAGE: PRIYA SHARMA

Priya Sharma’s first story was published in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2012 that readers of TTA Press publications were treated to ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ in Black Static #28, a story Ellen Datlow subsequently picked up for The Best Horror of the Year 5. Since then Sharma has become a frequent contributor to TTA Press publications (it’s like being a “frequent flyer” but more prestigious), with four stories in Interzone and five in Black Static. Sharma’s first collection ALL THE FABULOUS BEASTS (Undertow Publications hc/pb, 288pp, £19.99?£11.99) contains sixteen short stories, including four that first appeared in Black Static and two that are previously unpublished.

Sharma’s world is a strange one, a milieu that will feel familiar to readers of genre fiction, veering from pure horror to alternate history, taking in such themes and motifs as the vastness of the sea, transformation, animal-human hybrids, troubled family relationships, and men called Thomas/Tom. But this is not formulaic writing; like all masters of the short form the author brings to each piece a touch of originality and uniqueness that is all her own, making it special, a concoction that could only have come from the imagination of Priya Sharma.

The tone is set with the opening story, the wonderfully subtle ‘The Crow Palace’ in which the death of her father brings estranged Julie back to the family home and her twin sister Pippa, who suffers from cerebral palsy, but it’s only the first step in discovering the true circumstances of her birth and heritage. It’s a story in which little is openly stated, but the text is ripe with hints that gradually reveal Julie’s ancestry and her “true” family. Sharma doesn’t put a foot wrong in bringing this scenario to life, making us believe absolutely in her heroine, managing the enviable trick of making Julie seem both standoffish and sympathetic at the same time as the revelations hit with the brutal force of conviction. On one hand it reads like an update of the changeling trope and on the other could just as easily pass muster as Rosemary’s Baby given a shocking and non-Satanic twist.

Next story ‘Rag and Bone’ is set in an alternate Liverpool, a place where the families of the plutocracy rule the roost and the poor live and die at their whim. Tom, the story’s protagonist, tries to protect a woman he loves, but has his own secrets to conceal. This is a beautifully told story, the backdrop realised in vivid detail and with a wealth of invention, one that has the story almost falling into the steampunk genre, though in the nature of this dystopia and the ways in which even the bodies of the poor are nothing more than a resource for the privileged few you can find echoes of the present day divide between the 1% and the rest of us. Characterisation is deftly done and the plot is a finely tuned vehicle which maintains both the ability to surprise and a sense of fatality about what takes place until the very last word. ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’ is one of the stories that comes closest to generic horror, with a man who is hopelessly obsessed with hands, a compulsion that leads him well off the beaten path as he seeks to create his perfect woman, in a creepy little tale that is reminiscent of the work of Roald Dahl and Poe’s ‘Berenice’.

‘Egg’ is another strange story, with a wealthy woman making a deal with a witch so that she can have a baby, only to find the resultant child is not quite what she had in mind (euphemism). There are some grotesque details in this aberrant fairy story, with sparkling dialogue between mother and hag, who has about her more than a little touch of Baba Yaga. Underlying all this there’s the sense that for a woman to want to have a child on her own terms is to invite punishment, though Sharma ends on an upbeat note, one that celebrates maternal love and the spirit of the protagonist. For the never named protagonist motherhood turns out to be a rite of passage, one that ultimately leads her to become a better human being. Difficult mother/daughter relationships also feature in the next story. Pip has a child to bond Jack to her, but he dies leaving her alone with Emma, and the dark flowing emotions that churn in their lives lead to the evocation of something monstrous, ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’, as a rural idyll is transformed into a scene of horror. At bottom this is a tale of a revenant, something that has come back from the grave, but at the end it is also significant for what it tells us of a mother’s love for her child, with the underlying theme of the need to let go of the past, not allow it to become a dead weight dragging you down.

‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ is set in Ireland at a time when the wave of prosperity embodied in the phrase “Celtic Tiger” has receded into the far distance. It conflates an affair gone wrong, the death of children, an abandoned housing project, a local legend, and a woman who may be going insane to telling effect. Underlying all of this is a feeling of fate, that what is happening is only the working out of an inevitable tragedy, and while individual decisions may have been responsible for what happens, in the end nothing could have transpired differently, with the metaphysical backdrop and moral compass of the story reflecting the economic downturn, as bust follows boom in both society and the protagonist’s personal life. Another story that sails close to the shore of the great continent of horror, ‘The Show’ is a Most Haunted wannabe, with the focus on fake medium Martha. Superficially this is a common or garden schlocker, but what makes it work is the back story of Martha, the one who cannot “see” in a family of mediums, and how things are finally turned round for her in an ending that plays out like a Certificate 18 version of Ghostwatch made by Eli Roth on a bad day or one of the more “challenging” episodes of TV show Medium.

‘Pearls’ puts a feminist spin on the story of Medusa and brings it forward into the present day. It’s an almost light hearted piece, despite the underlying sadness and bloody deeds lurking in the backstory, with the love affair of Medusa and Poseidon spanning the centuries, and showing the hero Perseus in a different light, along the way giving us food for thought on the nature of deity and faith, and the ways in which ordinary people are marginalised when the great and the good and the godly play their games of glory. Thomas the protagonist of ‘The Absent Shade’ is a professional assassin, but his inability to empathise with others, the coldness and alienation that are his defining characteristics, all date back to his relationship with “au pair” Umbra in childhood. This is a long and complicated story, one that weaves together several strands, the supernatural vying with real world horrors, and human nature shown at its worst in the spiteful actions of a young boy, so that the unhappiness between a child and its parents is the thing that drives the plot forward.

The wonderful ‘Small Town Stories’ is about the ghosts of the past and how they continue to haunt us in the present. The protagonist of the story is stuck in a terrible limbo, unable to carry on with her life, to let go of the past, and as we slowly learn what ails her, Sharma laying out the details like a poker player who always keeps her cards close to her chest, we come to care deeply for this victim of tragedy, an innocent caught in the crossfires of life, with a powerful feeling of despair underlying so much of the text. It offers a fatalistic retelling of the “I see dead people” theme, combining it with small town tragedy to show that not all the dead have let go the reins of life, instead embracing sadness and a peculiar form of alienation. Heartfelt and moving, this was one of the best stories in the collection, where the supernatural elements are almost tangential, but incalculably enrich the narrative. We’re back in a fantasy world of sorts for ‘Fish Skins’ in which a crippled fisherman has married a mermaid changeling, but relations between them have grown strained over the years. It’s a beautifully rendered piece, written with a rich eye for detail and an enviable emotional acuity, at bottom the common or garden theme of a relationship gone wrong, the ship of marriage floundering on the rocks of indifference and jealousy, but here given a novel twist.

‘The Rising Tide’ I reviewed when it originally appeared in 2014’s Terror Tales of Wales edited by Paul Finch, and I see no reason not to reprise my comments here. It “captures very well the pressures felt by a young doctor, telling how a mistake resulted in the death of a young girl and this in turn leads to her own supernaturally slanted demise. The complementary elements of depression and supernatural incursion play well off of each other, leaving the reader room to manoeuvre in between the margins of the conflicting narratives.”

Krishna Sharma is ‘The Englishman’, returned to the land of his birth after twenty five years of trying to fit in in the UK, a widower who has lost the only thing he really cared about, that he thought worth the sacrifice of his heritage. The setting is evocative, with Krishna’s sense of confusion regarding who he really is coming over strongly, his feeling of being lost and adrift ultimately given physical form in a powerful climax to a strong and suggestive story.

Vivian Avery, the sexually awakened heroine of ‘The Nature of Bees’, is lured into the clutches of a family specialising in the production of honey, but they are far more than they seem from the outside, and have plans for their guest. It’s another strange story, one where the appeal of the outré is almost overwhelming for the square peg in round hole protagonist, while the evocation of this nest of bees is stunningly rendered making us doubt the reality of the actual world and think that things might actually be as Sharma describes them, at least as regards the production of honey. At risk of going a bit off-piste, I could address this story as a more subtle and thoroughly modern iteration of Mandeville’s The Grumbling Hive. Thomas, the protagonist of ‘A Son of the Sea’, returns home after the death of his father, only to discover his true heritage. Again this is a lengthy and complicated story, one with layers to unwrap and a vivid and distinctive backdrop, almost as if Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ had been rewritten as a utopian exercise, and it climaxes in an ending that is as horrific as it is triumphant. Thomas’ sense of alienation, of not fitting in, and the estrangement of child and parent, are common recurring themes in this collection, offering a human dimension to play off the numinous one.

Finally we have title story ‘Fabulous Beasts’, also the longest in the collection, in which the otherworldly truth of a criminal family is revealed. The story is a triumph, Sharma capturing perfectly the feel of down on their uppers criminal nobility, with scenes and dialogue that have the vividness and immediacy of a soap opera. And yet from the very off we know that there is more to it than that, a dimension beyond the human, hinted at and lurking in the background of the story, slowly and surely moving to take up centre stage. The characterisation is handled with real skill; each plot development occurs naturally and overall the piece is beautifully paced, and the final revelations when they come are as unsettling as they are welcome, the trap Sharma has set for reader and characters snapping shut like a steel jaw. It’s the perfect end to a first class collection of stories, one in which the range of subject matter is epic in scope, and with each piece powered by genuine depth of emotion. It’s taken us twelve years to get to this point. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next collection from the pen of Priya Sharma.

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Filler content with magnificent insignificants

A feature on the work of Anna Tambour that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-

MAGNIFICENT INSIGNIFICANTS WITH ANNA TAMBOUR

Anna Tambour is a writer who is not widely known, even in genre circles. She’s had critical acclaim, but not the audiences her standing would seem to merit, a situation with which Tambour herself seems rather bemused; the blurb on the cover of her novel Smoke Paper Mirrors reads “from the totally not bestselling author of Crandolin shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award”.

She is, in many ways, a “difficult” writer. Yes, her stories have recognisable plot trajectories, getting the reader from A to B with aplomb, but along the way she sometimes takes detours off to Y and Z, Alpha and Omega, and other letters that are not found in any of our earthly languages. Tambour seems to abhor the straight line; the more circuitous her route the happier she appears to be, with learned asides and educated guesses par for the course, the author’s wit and erudition and love of language shining through on every page, her personal obsessions and politics underlying each tale. And, to use a cliché that I’m fonder of than most reviewers, she is a writer whose work rewards a second, third, even a fourth reading. There are stories here that I’ve reviewed before and not entirely favourably, but coming to these stories in their natural context of the Tambourian universe rather than as part of a book about zombies or a Robert W. Chambers themed anthology is to see them with new eyes and to appreciate them more.

I think what impresses me most about Anna Tambour though is the exuberance to be found in her work, the warmth and compassion filtered through a use of prose pyrotechnics that takes your breath away.

And so we come to THE FINEST ASS IN THE UNIVERSE (Ticonderoga Publications hc/pb, 372pp, £23.99/£14.99), a collection containing twenty six stories, five of them previously unpublished, with the earliest dating from 2005. After an introduction from Jeffrey Ford, we get straight into things with ‘The Oyster and Alice O’, and from the off it’s obvious that Tambour is a writer who doesn’t conform to reader expectations, or more succinctly this is strange shit even by the standards of the weird fiction genre. In part it reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll and the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear; there is the same playfulness in the language used, a subtle and assured lyricism that renders irrelevant such things as plausibility in the tale of a relationship between an oyster and a woman, along the way taking in matters to do with misogyny and the ways in which people use each other. It is the perfect introduction to what follows, setting a tone of the fantastic, but almost whimsical in its execution, even as serious matters are addressed.

The exuberant ‘Lab Dancer’ gives us a Swiftian account of the shits that in turn leads to a career in medical science, with the codicil that even a Nobel Prize can’t stop women being demeaned and belittled by men. There’s joy here though, a delight in discovery and ultimately the refusal to accept the judgements and negativity of others, an embracing of one’s shortcomings, a finger raised to the world. In ‘Strange Incidents in Foreign Parts’ we get even stranger, with two boys in different countries who are denied the pleasures of Halloween connected by reincarnation and an eggplant. There’s a whiff of the Bradbury of Something Wicked about this story, with a condemnation of the literal minded and joyless wrapped up in a sugar coating of words. Next story ‘Marks and Coconuts’ takes as its departure point a variation on the Python’s Dead Parrot sketch but then segues into a deal with the Devil formulation, and from there whizzes off in all directions, with the reader delighted, bemused, and baffled by Tambour’s ceaseless invention.

In ‘The Walking-stick Forest’ Farquar, an artist who supplies unique canes to collectors, offends a wealthy man who is intent on revenge. This synopsis makes the story sound almost mundane, but Tambour’s execution is anything but as she delivers an astonishing tale of greed and misogyny and depravity, with a villain worthy of de Sade and a unique setting. Central to ‘The Jeweller of Second-hand Roe’ is an account of eating disorder pica taken to extremes, but in setting and style it reads somewhat as if the Thenardiers had gone into business with Mrs Lovett, and overall is strangely moving, presenting us with the grotesque given a human face. In ‘High Life’ an elderly couple discover that you can never go back again, but you can go forward. It is a marvellous story of good intentions and calculating children, of charity misplaced and wonder found in the ordinary, told in a cosy, affable tone of voice but tinged with sadness, and I defy anyone to read it and not want to dine at Tang’s restaurant.

‘Baad-hin’jan and the Chickpea’ concerns a power struggle at the court of the Caliph, the story rich with accounts of exotic foodstuffs and unbridled gluttony, while underlying this there is a subtext on betrayal and the all-consuming nature of tyranny. In ‘The Eye of Nostradamus Summit’ we are witness to a “United Notions” of deities from the various pantheons, joining forces to prevent the proliferation of a tincture that will render them irrelevant. Again this is an exuberant story, full of wit and bursting at the seams with invention, mocking both the idea of deities and the ways in which humans can trivialise and commercialise the miraculous. A similar “irreverence” to the divine informs ‘The Old Testacles’ in which Moses’ conversation with God is hijacked by a female deity, and lurking behind the barbed humour serious matters are being discussed about the role of patriarchy and the ways in which Mother goddesses have been eclipsed.

The protagonist of ‘Rocket Fantazyor’, whose life is shaped by the influence of dead women and an addiction to SF pulps, must choose between designing bras and a career as a rocket scientist. There’s humour here and a hint of horror, but mostly the story is a glorious affirmation of the life force. ‘Sincerely, Petrified’ proposes a novel cure for the blight of tourists stealing wood from a petrified forest, the story rich in characterisation and turning conventions of the horror genre on their head. At the end though it poses the question of whether the ends really do justify the means, and Tambour adds a real life codicil that puts events in shameful perspective. One of the most inventive stories in a collection where invention is a distinguishing characteristic, ‘The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard of Lovecraft’ has sections written as a play and movie script, with end credits, and reveals a great truth, that even tentacled thingies don’t care much for people who are hung up on HPL and write dreadful poetry as a result. It’s a wonderful piece, brimming with ideas and attitude, written in a lush, take no prisoners prose style.

‘Bufo of Oahu: Ukulele Ululatress’ contains what must be the most bizarre film pitch in the history of Hollywood, with a first person narration that gleefully pokes fun at the underbelly of tinsel town by reducing it to absurdity. In ‘How Galligaskins Sloughed the Scourge’ a man who argues for a profession becomes a victim of fashion when he moves to a new town, the story deftly ridiculing our love of the new and shallowness in wishing to conform to the expectations of others. A wizard is reduced to human dimensions by a boy and a cat in ‘There is no Rice Pudding in the Sea’, the story couched in fantastic terms but at its heart a eulogy for things lost and a lament at the depredations of old age seguing into senility.

There’s a surreal quality to ‘Dreadnought Neptune’, as if David Lynch had made a film of Bradbury story ‘Rocket Summer’, with a father and son boarding a rocket ship to be taken to somewhere better, only to have their hopes quashed. Everything here is slightly out of kilter, an episode of the fantastic inserted into ordinary life and standing out like the proverbial sore thumb, with the proviso that life goes on and we can only regret the opportunities denied to us, the roads not taken, while at the same time forging our own path to that better place. ‘The Shoe in SHOES’ Window’ is most definitely not for sale, but a man with only one leg wishes to purchase it. Witty and irreverent, written in an admirably restrained, almost bureaucratise tone, this story disses the dirt on both consumerism and socialism taken to extremes, with an end twist that embraces human gullibility. In ‘The Emperor’s Backscratcher’ the Chief Philosopher announces that history has ended, much to the emperor’s delight, but ensuing events give his pronouncement a chillingly different meaning. This was a delightful tale, weaving bloodshed and philosophy together, and using human nature’s shortcomings to drive the plot forward to its “exalted” ending.

Children left abandoned in the desert when their parents’ car crashes turn feral in ‘King Wolf’, the story like an economy size version of Walkabout given a spin through 180 degrees, the text filled with scintillating dialogue and a sense of the strangeness of life as a child, the unnatural fears and concern with minutiae. ‘Gladiolus Exposed’ ends with a quote from Poe, and indeed there is very much the feel of EAP about this tale of a soured relationship and obsession. It also contains some of the most memorable lines in the entire collection – e.g. “Katie does not appreciate comments from people who don’t know anything, unless they are in a focus group”. It’s a clever and informative piece, but ‘Adventures of Discovering the Ellemehnopee’ about the process of learning how to read didn’t really appeal to me despite the erudition on display; it felt like a lesson disguised as a story, but not that well disguised.

‘Pococurante’ concerns the perils and pleasures of running a business with someone you idolise, taking in the bitterness of the press, the follies of a name, and a dozen other things besides, all of it wrapped up in delightful prose and with enough twists and turns to tie a snake in knots. The next story is set in a dystopian future where corps members fight against monstrous creatures that come in from the sea and endlessly obsess about plant cultivation. ‘The Age of Fish, Post-flowers’ is disturbingly matter of fact in its account of a world in crisis, one in which life is cheap and hope at a premium, like a botanical version of Pacific Rim produced on a budget. Rambling and episodic it is nonetheless perhaps one of the most “genre conventional” of these stories. We’re back in Poe territory for ‘Tap’, with a tale of obsession that leads to nightmares and then veers off into the realm of body horror, an impressive piece of work that wouldn’t look out of place in a Barker tribute anthology. And finally there is ‘Bowfin Island’ in which a tourist looking for somewhere off the beaten track gets far less than he bargained for, the story capturing perfectly the bleakness of a windswept, isolated island, but at the same time asking questions about the choices we make in our lives and how they are often not respected by others. I liked it, but at the same time it felt like a weak note on which to end an otherwise impressively strong collection.

But it’s not the end. Tambour closes the book with ‘Cover Notes’, discussing some of the photographs that adorn the wraparound dust jacket and the plant that appears on the front, and given the wealth of detail and learned asides it could easily pass muster as another story. In fact I suspect it was another story, one Tambour tried to sneak in under the radar. She’s clever like that.

The collection dates from 2015. Skip forward two years and we have Tambour’s third novel, SMOKE PAPER MIRRORS (infinity plus pb, 232pp, £9.99), which is subtitled “a short saga for our times”, and that’s a perfectly apt description. Looking back on the book I can’t help but think of the story of the Chinese philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly and then woke to wonder if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The novel begins with two butterflies mating, a Painted Lady and a Cabbage White, and it ends with a trip into the future with references to “the coral reef that was once Sydney’s skyscrapers” and the existence of a giant caterpillar that just keeps growing, unable to make the final transformation into a butterfly, but capable of reading and communicating with its human carers.

In between these lepidopteran moments we get the saga component of the story, taking up over half the page count of the book and spanning more than a hundred years in time. We begin with the maternal great-grandfather of present day protagonist Mr Zhang, an official at the court of Dowager Empress Cixi, who has to flee China after having committed the cardinal sin of giving good advice at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, travelling the world with his daughter. We continue with his various descendants and their adventures, including a return to China at the time of the Cultural Revolution and all that entails. And finally we arrive in the present day with Arthur Zhang, who comes to Australia hoping to make a life for himself, and has to contend with the indifference of his new homeland to all his academic accomplishments, his burning desire to contribute. We are presented with a moving picture of Arthur’s existence, the friends and alliances he forms, his first tentative forays into business and romance, the successful life he makes for himself despite all the odds stacked against him. And then we get back to the butterfly.

This is a book about which I have very mixed feelings. There’s so much that Tambour does right here. The writing is beautiful, with evocative prose and sparkling dialogue on just about every page. As a lesson in Chinese history and thought it is compelling, but not textbook dry, Tambour illustrating her points with stories that humanise the greater historical events, letting the little people have a voice, as with veterans of the Long March who are given unlimited train travel and assigned nurses to care for them. She is similarly excellent at portraying the plight of refugees in Australia, Arthur’s attempts to earn a living, to put his talents to good use, and in contrast to the indifference of officialdom the friendliness and affability of ordinary people. And at every turn she intrudes passages of poetry and flights of fancy, her thoughts on books and music and art, lessons in how to pick the best vegetables, sections that delight with their subtle humour. The supernatural elements, such as they are – a visit from a goddess, thoughts on the nature of ghosts, an attempt to acquire the virtues of another through sympathetic magic – all take place below the radar, woven seamlessly into the texture of the novel and the everyday life it portrays. All of this is wonderful.

And then there is the stuff with the butterfly and the caterpillar, equally wonderful in its way, but a different kind of wonderful, one that gives you pause and makes you ponder exactly what the author is getting at with this framing device and climax to her story. Above I’ve praised Tambour for her asides and detours, but this is different in that it feels central to the story she has to tell (there are butterfly references throughout the text), but I’ve little sense of how or why, and so from my perspective the final passages of the novel, despite the gleeful and almost delirious prose in which they are expressed, seem like one long, extended WTF moment. Is the caterpillar perhaps a metaphor for China itself, constantly growing and demanding resources, but never quite realising its true potential, fated to perish in the attempt? I don’t know, and am not really sure that it adds anything substantial to the book, only questions that possibly don’t have answers. Brighter minds will have to work that out for themselves.

So finally, is this a book about a mutated caterpillar containing a family saga or is it a family saga with a mutated caterpillar? Perhaps it’s both or neither. To repeat myself, I don’t know. But I do know that I am glad to have had this rich and rewarding experience, to have spent time in the company of a writer who surprises and delights with her constant invention and understated erudition. Illusionists are said to work with smoke and mirrors, but like all the true magicians Anna Tambour knows you need paper to make the illusion real.

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Filler content with two more short story collections

Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-

TWO SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS WITH A DIFFERENCE

As the title might imply, EXPLORING DARK SHORT FICTION #1: A PRIMER TO STEVE RASNIC TEM (Dark Moon Books pb, 214pp, $13.95) is the first volume in a series turning a spotlight on the work of some of the most accomplished practitioners in the field of dark short fiction, with books on Kaaron Warren scheduled for March 2018 and Nisi Shawl in summer 2018. Each title will follow the same format as this volume, with the same contributors (except for the author, of course).

EDSF#1 opens with an introduction by series editor Eric J. Guignard in which he details his own experience of Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction and response to the writer’s work, both emotional and intellectual. Following that we get a two page biography of the writer, and at the end of the book there is a comprehensive sixty seven page bibliography of Tem’s work, for the benefit of those who want to be Tem completists and need to know what they still have to track down. There is an essay on Tem’s importance to the genre by academic Michael Arnzen, PhD, who also provides critical commentary on each of the stories presented. From Tem himself, on the non-fiction side of things we have an interview conducted by editor Guignard and an essay evocatively titled ‘The Subject Matter of Horror’. All of this is fascinating and worthwhile, presenting an insightful look at the working methods and underlying concerns of one of the foremost exponents of the short story form (and I don’t mean just within the horror genre, though that is a given). Complementing the text are some striking black and white illustrations by artist Michelle Prebich, who captures perfectly the feel of Tem’s work, with its sense of both the particular and the archetypal, appealing to both intellect and the emotions.

Wonderful as all this ancillary material is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fiction’s the thing, wherein we catch the heart of the reader. There are six stories in all, each representing a different period/aspect of Tem’s career, and ranging in time from 1981’s ‘The Giveaway’ through to published for the first time ever ‘Whatever You Want’. We open with ‘Hungry’, the story of a child who can eat anything and the place he makes for himself in the world, Tem filling the text with hints and suggestions of how this came to be, but always too canny to provide any real explanation, forcing the reader to accept events on their own terms. Along the way in this touching story of what it feels like to be different, we have a subtext or two concerning prejudice and family dynamics, the narrative culminating in an end that reeks of the oedipal.

There’s an elegiac feel to ‘The Last Moments Before Bed’, which gives us the final waking thoughts of a widower, a man grieving the loss of his wife and pondering on the state of the world, with the suggestion that perhaps he too is about to pass away and the “bed” referenced in the title is the grave. It’s an impressionistic piece that seems to subtlely blur the line between reality and dream, existing in a heightened alpha state and effortlessly soliciting the reader’s identification with the emotions of the character. Bram Stoker Award winning story ‘In These Final Days of Sales’ reads like Miller’s Death of a Salesman given a modern spin and surreal twists, with the profession of salesman afforded many of the trappings of a cult. Underlying Emil’s comi-tragic account of events in his life is an abiding sense of the worthlessness and futility of all that he is doing, an awareness of time wasted in pursuit of totally unrealistic and unattainable goals, so that ultimately it is capitalism itself that sits firmly in the author’s sights, translated into a new mode of horror, one that borders on the existential. ‘The Giveaway’ has a feminist subtext, but for its launch pad takes the literal mindedness of a child. Six year old Marsha fears that she will be abandoned if she doesn’t do as her daddy wants, and this simple fear is used to identify some of the social control mechanisms inherent in the patriarchy. Stripped to the essentials and given its underlying themes, this barbed story could easily pass muster as a flash fiction treatment of The Stepford Wives.

The last two stories are the most overtly horrific, though still stamped with Tem’s defining quality of subtleness. The ‘Rat Catcher’ is an unnerving figure, with an agenda of his own that disturbs the children who fall within his reach, but the truth behind the man’s activities is even more bizarrely off kilter. Filled with unsettling imagery and a sense of the natural world gone wrong, this story is one of the highlights of the collection, but at the same time it is a story that chides us for the easy judgements we make, the conclusions we leap to. Finally we have festive tale ‘Whatever You Want’, which reads rather like the antithesis to first story ‘Hungry’, with a harassed mother getting her unspoken wish granted. Grim and unsettling, it’s a story rich in detail, portraying a rundown shopping mall and elaborating on the perils of consumer culture, while at the same time touching on archetypal and atavistic fears, the parent’s dread of losing a child. It’s a magnificent end to the fiction component of this impressive little volume, a publication that bodes well for the future of this series from Dark Moon Books.

While he may never receive the critical acclaim of a Tem or Warren, Scottish author William Meikle is a writer who knows how to spin a yarn and his work is never less than entertaining. Meikle’s latest collection THE GHOST CLUB (Crystal Lake Publishing pb, 189pp, £11.28) is subtitled “Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror”. The overarching conceit here is that Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle founded a literary dining club, with leading writers of the day invited to attend their evenings, the price of admission a story with a supernatural element. Thus empowered chameleon man Meikle can produce pastiches of some of the greatest writers of the Victorian era. While familiar with most of these venerable authors, and very familiar with one or two of them, especially H. Rider Haggard (local author, and my father got first editions of many of his books which I read as a child – wish I’d kept them, as would have made a marvellous pension fund), I don’t feel qualified to estimate how close to the mark Meikle’s writing is when it comes to matters of style, so shall restrict myself to saying how much fun the stories are.

The opening tale is credited to Robert Louis Stevenson who in ‘Wee Davie Makes a Friend’ tells of a sick child forming an unnatural attachment to a wooden soldier. It’s a sentimental piece that blurs the line between imagination and the supernatural, while celebrating their ability to take us out of ourselves and bring respite of a kind from suffering. ‘The High Bungalow’ by Rudyard Kipling is set in the Raj and tells of a British officer and Mason’s encounter with the numinous, Meikle bringing the milieu to vivid life on the page and injecting his narrative with a sense of something greater than the things of which we mere mortals are aware. In Leo Tolstoy’s story ‘The Immortal Memory’ a British sea captain attempts to curry favour with the Russian Empress by indulging her love of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Eminently readable, it is nonetheless rather predictable in the way that things play out, though no less engaging for that.

‘The House of the Dead’ by Bram Stoker is another tale that runs along predictable lines, as a man tries to rescue his grieving friend from the clutches of a spirit medium. It’s elevated and made a bit more interesting by some extra bits of invention, touching on the idea of places where the veil between the worlds grows thin and addressing the matter of those who die while with child. There’s a wry, joking quality to Mark Twain’s ‘Once a Jackass’ with its tale of riverboat gamblers and revenge from beyond the grave, the story holding the interest from first word to last and ending with a delicious twist. This was definitely one of the better tales in the collection, with some novel refinements to the haunting at its core. As you’d expect there is a scientific bent to the tale by Herbert George Wells, ‘Farside’, in which experiments with a magic lantern and colour lead to encroachments by an otherworldly entity. With echoes of Lovecraft, it builds slowly and assuredly to a climactic moment of confrontation with the unknown, the whole underwritten by a patina of scientific lingo.

Sentimentality is at the heart of ‘To the Manor Born’ by Margaret Oliphant in which a housemaid is able to provide some consolation to her master through her psychic ability. It is a gentle ghost story, one in which there is no real sense of threat, with peace sought by both the living and the dead. Conversely, there’s a delicious sense of comedy and strains of irony underlying Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Angry Ghost’ as young Tom is led by personal experience to dispute his Aunt Agatha’s assertion that there are no such things as ghosts. Almost Wodehousian in approach, the story is a delightful example of a know it all getting her much deserved comeuppance, with some choice moments of humour along the way to its finale. Henry Rider Haggard’s story is set in Africa, a tale of treasure hunters who find far more than they bargained for at ‘The Black Ziggurat’, the story capturing the Boy’s Own Adventure feel of Haggard’s work mixed with the mysticism latent in books such as She, the whole engaging and entertaining to the very end.

‘Born of Ether’ by Helena P. Blavatsky tells of Alexi’s search for spiritual enlightenment and freedom, and the unusual manner in which his fondest hopes find realisation. The story wasn’t entirely to my liking, perhaps because I’m not a big fan of the spiritual quest subgenre, and the whole had a feel of preaching to it, as if the writer was more interested in teaching us spiritual values than entertaining (which may, of course, be intentional and bang on target for Blavatsky). We have haunted chess pieces courtesy of Henry James’ ‘The Scrimshaw Set’, the story gripping in its development, with some nice touches of characterisation in the figure of a spirit medium, while the biggest surprise lies in the nature of the ghost as revealed at the end of the narrative. A railway functionary is snowbound ‘At the Molenzki Junction’ in Anton Checkov’s story, his life saved by an otherworldly spirit that commands the wolves.  The bleakness of winter and lure of alcoholism are both captured strongly in this carefully paced tale, one where setting and atmosphere transcend plot.

Jules Verne takes us ‘To the Moon and Beyond’, but at the centre of the story is the fear of what may have come back with the lunar explorers and their desire to put things right. While the science here feels playfully out of kilter, the underlying mood of excitement at exploration leading to a sense of despair instead of exhilaration is powerfully conveyed. Finally we have a contribution from Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Curious Affair on the Embankment’ in which Inspector Lestrade’s search for a missing woman leads him into a conflict with ancient evil, the story as clever as it is far-fetched, a variation on the deal with the devil trope, with some nice touches of characterisation and detail along the way to the “happy” ending. It rounds out a collection of stories that was thoroughly entertaining, presenting a series of clever and canny exercises in style and subject matter by an inventive and accomplished writer.

 

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Filler content with novels

Reviews of two novels that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-

TWO NOVELS

Teenager Aisling Selkirk, the protagonist of Verity Holloway’s PSEUDOTOOTH (Unsung Stories pb, 416pp, £9.99), is subject to fits and seizures, which the medical profession simply can’t explain, though some suggest that her experiences are psychosomatic. It’s decided that Aisling needs rest, and so her mother takes her to Suffolk and offloads her on great aunt Edythe, who lives in an isolated old house. Vicar’s daughter Edythe is a strict disciplinarian without a shred of sympathy for teenage girls throwing fits, though Aisling does strike up a loose friendship with the other inhabitant of the house, Edythe’s brother Robert, an invalid she treats like a naughty boy in need of discipline. Aisling takes refuge in her book of William Blake’s poetry and the journal in which she records her dreams of the boy Feodor, a pyromaniac and stray. Another strange boy calling himself Chase is met in the woods, while discoveries made in a priest’s hole dating back to Tudor times hint at a terrible history of the house. With Chase Aisling escapes to another reality, one in which she has an idyllic country existence with the woman Tor and her adopted children, while in a town far away the land is subjected to the dystopic rule of the tyrannical Our Friend.

This is a multi-layered novel, one that excels in its use of ideas and with realities like Russian nesting doll sets. We never know how much of what Aisling experiences is real, or if she is simply dreaming while in a coma, but that in itself is part of the appeal of the novel as events in one reality reflect and inform those in another, with links made between the various characters. Edythe is a tyrannical figure, but in the world of Our Friend we see her ideas sharpened and made all the more ferocious, so that a new form of government with the best of intentions soon descends into a terrible autocracy, a rule by government diktat, with nobody safe. Our Friend is the Big Brother of this novel, but in the underlying tale he is, in his way, just as much a victim as any of the others, despised and outcast, and in his fate we see a reflection of what could have happened to Aisling or Feodor, both of whom have suffered abuse and, each n their own way, survived the ordeal by flames.

In the figure of Aisling the author gives us a marvellous depiction of a teenage girl with problems, but who will not allow those problems to define her or circumscribe her life any more than necessary. She is an intelligent and caring individual, shaped by abuse but never a victim. Conversely Feodor is abused, but turns into a monster of sorts, giving free rein to his pyromania, but ultimately acceptance is enough to redeem him. Assuming of course he isn’t simply a projection of Aisling’s consciousness. This is a book that will reward further reading, a rich tapestry of truth and fiction, with a gratifying wealth of detail to supplement the main story and some excellent characterisation.

INTO THE DROWNING DEEP (Orbit Books, pb, 486pp, £8.99) by Mira Grant is the kind of book that cries out to be made into a blockbuster film by someone of the stature of Ridley Scott or James Cameron, and you find yourself assigning actors to the various roles as you read. Seven years ago the Atargatis set off to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, to film a mockumentary about mermaids. Contact was lost, and when the ship was found it was devoid of life, the only clue to what happened to the crew and passengers a Blair Witch style video showing them slaughtered by fearsome sea creatures, which many dismiss as a hoax. In the present day a second expedition is mounted, financed and rigidly controlled by Imagine Network, the entertainment company that was so discredited by the failure of the first voyage and now seeks to redeem itself in the eyes of the world through the Melusine. Aboard the ship is a coterie of the world’s leading marine biologists, some of them with personal vendettas to pursue and points to prove, and most of them think the tape was a hoax but are not going to pass up the chance to do valuable research on Imagine’s dime. Everyone is in for a nasty surprise as the truth behind the mermaid legend becomes too tangible for comfort and these intruders on the surface of the deep are translated into food for ruthless predators.

There’s a certain irony in reading this book a week or so before the UK release of The Shape of Water, as Grant’s work is the perfect antidote to that fishy love story, offering us a very different vision of aquatic beings. Her mermaids (the name is a misnomer) are savage creatures, strong and fierce, and driven by an insatiable appetite. Grant is superb at delineating the science behind them, coming up with convincing ways to make plausible the feats they perform – methods of communication, ability to survive out of water, etc. – and the reasons why they are regarded as creatures of myth and folklore. The fight for survival aboard a massive ocean going vessel is magnificently portrayed, brutal and bloody, with the creatures seeming to be always one step ahead of their human prey. Add to this various plot complications, such as the motives of Imagine Network, which are not as purely scientific as they would have us believe (and perhaps here laying the groundwork for a sequel to this book), and you have a fast paced and exciting story, one with enough wet work and action to delight the most jaded monster movie fans, but also with an intelligent backdrop that has been worked out in gratifying detail, and a nod of the hat in the direction of environmental concerns; humans are the architects of their own undoing, even if the mermaids are the agents of its execution.

What helps to make the book so special though is the varied and engaging dramatis personae Grant gives herself to work with. There is Tory, a young but talented marine biologist, whose sister was lost on the previous expedition and who has made revenge her life’s work. There is Olivia, the news presenter struggling to stay on top in a male dominated world and with a wealth of personal problems to overcome. There is the acerbic Dr Jillian Toth, the world’s leading expert on mermaids, seeking vindication for the years of ridicule, guilt driven and fully expecting to die. And there is her estranged husband Theodore Blackwell, once an environmental campaigner, but made bitter by injury and now a corporate shill, seeking to control everything, even as it all runs away from him. There are the twins Holly and Heather, accomplished scientists who must communicate with sign language through their older sister Hallie, and have to deal with the unconscious prejudice of the speech empowered. There is rich boy Luis, whose family wealth has secretly funded research for his friend Tory. And perhaps the most unnerving characters of all, even more alien than the mermaids in some ways, are white hunters Jacques and Michi, driven by their love of the chase and sexually aroused by the prospect of training their weapons on a creature previously unknown to science.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are the occasional missteps, such as when one character has to swim under the ship and seems to be holding her breath for an unbelievable period of time, or the way in which the white hunters are sometimes reduced to the level of caricatures, a straw man and woman for the perils of bloodlust. These are only quibbles though regarding a book that overall is an enthralling and magnificently entertaining read, and as I have already observed is one day going to make a marvellous film.

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Filler content with short story collections

Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-

TWO FROM TARTARUS

Rebecca Lloyd’s second collection from Tartarus contains SEVEN STRANGE STORIES (Tartarus hc, 245pp, £35), two of them previously published, and confirms the good impression made by its predecessor, Mercy and Other Stories. Leading off is the longest and, in my opinion, the best. Set in the early days of Georgian Britain, ‘The Monster Orgorp’ is the delightfully told tale of Caroline Wilson, who goes to work as a maid for Lady Mallet when she turns sixteen, but Lord Mallet is an inveterate rake and the corridors of Hogsmoor House at night are prowled by a Thing. There’s a feel of the classics about this, that it is a story that could have been written by Wilkie Collins or Horace Walpole, but at the same time it transcends the conventions and clichés that are intrinsic to its success. Lloyd is superb at drawing character, from the depredations and excesses of the nobility to the backbiting and camaraderie of those “below stairs”. She is excellent at conveying the sense of fear that the Thing engenders, mostly because it is unknown, and then giving the monster an almost sympathetic cast when its true nature is revealed. And the plot is a sublime piece of machinery, with Caroline Wilson learning to manipulate and cajole others, as they seek to do the same with her, only to then pull the rug out from under the readers’ feet with a sting in the tail worthy of Roald Dahl. Underlying this are subtexts about the abuse of power – gender based, economic, class – and the lengths to which women are driven to conform to some impossible ideal of feminine beauty, concerns that root the tale very much in the present day, despite its setting. It is a tour de force, and the best thing I have seen from Lloyd’s pen to date.

Haunted houses are very much a recurring theme in these stories. The protagonist of ‘Jack Werrett, the Flood Man’ is a female academic who rents an old house on the edge of a marsh from the Werrett sisters, only to find that she is not as alone as she might wish. It is a rather splendid ghost story, with a compelling evocation of place, unusual and engaging characters, an atmosphere and effects that build to a dazzling crescendo, with Lloyd deftly stage managing the material to delight and enthral the reader. The next story has a Southern Gothic sensibility about it. Yola lives in the Fort House with the feared Daddy Hinds and their four sons, but all her thoughts are focused on missing son Earl, who went away to be with his friend ‘Christy’. Character driven and with a consistent tone of voice, this is a story that touches on human woes, but with a hint of the supernatural, that in turn qualified by the fact that Yola is not necessarily a reliable narrator. With this ambiguity at its core, the story is really about the things that people will endure and why they do so.

We’re back in the Home Counties for ‘The Pantum Burden’, with a young boy tormented by a malevolent spirit, one that manifests in a rather unusual way. In the abstract it all feels slightly silly, but Lloyd’s command of dialogue and character make the scenario plausible, with an end twist that adds yet another frisson of fear to a masterful tale. There’s something of Blithe Spirit about ‘Again’, which is set at a wake, only there seems to be some confusion as to the status of the deceased on the part of the man of the house. A clever black comedy that blurs the lines between madness and the supernatural, humour and horror, culminating in another of the delightful end twists that seem to be a Lloyd speciality, this tale is a pure pleasure to read.

Set in Sicily, ‘Little Black Eyes and Tiny Hands’ catalogues the history of an abandoned villa known locally as the House of Ghosts, once the residence of a black magician, and the working out of a curse on a young man who doesn’t pay appropriate respect to the warnings of his elders. It is a beautifully written story, rich in historic detail and capturing perfectly both the beauty and eeriness of the setting, with characterisation driving much of the action and an original twist in the nature of the curse. Finally we have ‘Where’s the Harm?’ in which two brothers who have come to renovate their parents’ house before putting it on the market fall victim to a strange group of women living in the bordering wood. Lloyd cleverly plays her cards close to her chest, with the unearthliness of the women and their strange idea of marriage slowly revealed and all the more unsettling for the time she takes laying the stage, and at the centre of the story is sibling rivalry, pushing one brother to take that extra step, if only to place clear space between them.

This was a very strong collection, one that adds new ideas to the genre of the weird, while at the same time recognising the debt to all those who have gone before. Lloyd is shaping up to be a major talent, one with a unique vision and compelling style.

If Lloyd’s star is on the rise, then that of Reggie Oliver is already in the ascendant. HOLIDAYS FROM HELL (Tartarus hc, 310pp, £40) is his seventh collection and contains fourteen stories, all but one of which are previously published. After an insightful introduction by Rob Shearman, the collection kicks off with the titular ‘Holiday from Hell’ which I reviewed last issue when it appeared in Oliver retrospective volume The Sea of Blood. To quote myself – “a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county.” It’s a delicious curtain raiser for what follows, a tale in which the reader guesses more than the protagonist, told in a rich, elegant style.

The narrator of ‘The Silken Drum’ rents a cottage to a strange Japanese woman and her son, with the clues gradually building up and a resolution that mirrors the events in an obscure Japanese No drama. The story is a masterful exercise in creating tension and unease through the use of suggestion, with a powerful undercurrent of eroticism, a lust tainted by unnaturalness. In ‘The Green Hour’ Oliver shows an equal dexterity in the execution of tales of detection. An old friend calls on Poe’s creation Auguste Dupin to solicit his help in solving a series of gruesome murders that threaten the success of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, the case involving the composer Rossini and the drink absinthe. The story is an elaborate and clever construction, one that holds the reader’s attention all the way with one plot twist falling hard on the heels of another, and constantly delights with its rich invention and characterisation.

At a crime fiction convention ‘The Perfect Author’ is haunted by one of her characters, who insists on acting in ways she would never allow, the story a beguiling and clever exercise in metafiction, and raising questions about the nature of the interface between fiction and real life, the ways in which they inform each other. Along the way Oliver captures perfectly the feel of a convention and facets of the publishing industry while raising doubts about the culpability of the story’s narrator, an author further down the crime scale whose jealousy may be projecting in the form of the antagonistic Bertha Watkins. A statue of the god Pan at the heart of ‘The Maze at Huntsmere’ is the undoing of a thespian and producer who has been elevated to the status of national treasure, if only in his own mind, and the cause of a second chance at love for the owner of a stately home. The story is told with an almost Wodehousian relish, Oliver gleefully committing his larger than life characters to the page and adding one unsettling detail after another until the plot veers off into the realm of nightmare.

The shortest story in the collection and also the slightest, ‘A Day with the Delusionists’ is in essence a cosy murder mystery set in the world of academia, eminently readable and poking gentle fun at literary affectations, but not a story that is going to linger in the mind long after the final sentence. In ‘Rapture’ Alan is drawn into the circle of an evangelical couple who are making plans for the imminent End of Days. With events taking place at right angles to reality, it’s a strange piece that builds to its wrong footed ending with considerable aplomb, offering us insights into the zealot mind set.

I’ve reviewed the seven remaining stories – ‘Absalom’, ‘The Druid’s Rest’, ‘The Rooms are High’, ‘The Prince of Darkness’, ‘The Book and the Ring’, ‘Trouble at Botathan’, and ‘Love at Second Sight’ – on previous occasions (four of them last issue) and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the convenience of those who missed them first time around. Closing the collection we have an afterword by the author detailing the original appearances and genesis of the stories contained in the book, and Oliver also provides neat and evocative line drawings as illustrations at the start of each story, making this an all-round, very attractive package.

Both books are produced to the high standard we have come to expect from Tartarus, in limited editions of 300 and 500 copies each, and there are eBook editions available for those purchasing on a budget or who have limited shelf space.

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Filler content in translation – Part 3

Following on from last Thursday’s post, here’s the third and final part of the feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHOCKING ALL OVER THE WORLD (continued)

Japan now and Kazuki Sakuraba’s novel A SMALL CHARRED FACE (Haikasoru pb, 288pp, £10.99) which, at heart, with its depiction of a vampire society with functioning rules combined with human calumny, is arguably more paranormal romance than horror fiction, an oriental version of True Blood. There are three sections to the book, the first and longest of which is titled ‘A Small Charred Face’. In a town ruled by corruption the boy Kyo’s family is slaughtered by gangsters, but he himself is saved by one of the Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. He is raised by Mustah and Yoji, forced to pretend to be a girl so that the gangsters will not come after him again, but none of their precautions prevent Kyo getting involved with Marika, a renegade Bamboo who preys on humans, something that is strictly against their laws. But harbouring humans is even more taboo, and so the stage is set for tragedy. ‘I Came to Show You Real Flowers’ continues the story of Marika, now working with a young girl who is her lure for the humans she feeds on, but as she grows older Momo revolts against her protector’s practises. Finally in ‘You Will Go to the Land of the Future’ we are taken back into the past of the Bamboo, their origin in a remote mountainous region of China. Having lived in harmony with their human neighbours for so long, the Bamboo are taken by surprise when China’s Cultural Revolution pushes them beyond the pale. The tale is told from the perspective of a royal princess who, when the majority of the Bamboo head further inland to avoid persecution, joins a party heading to Japan in a boat, the Bamboo line that was to throw up Yoji and Mustah.

I’ve no idea if the Bamboo are rooted in legend or pure invention on Sakuraba’s part, but the book offers us an interesting variation on the vampire trope. While they share many habits with the occidental vampire – drinking blood, sleeping during the day, burning up in sunshine – the plant aspect gives these creatures a different slant, with their life coming to fruition when they bloom as a flower. Also different is their attitude to humans – mostly they want nothing to do with us and have laws to ensure this isolationism is observed. They can only drink a human’s blood if he or she is already dying, and so must restrict themselves to animal blood or, like Yoji and Mustah, purchase blood from the hospital where they work the graveyard shift (these are blue collar vampires, not aristocratic fops). Even the renegade Marika only attacks those she believes to be criminals, at least initially.

Sakuraba is excellent at working out the implications of the Bamboo’s existence and the ways in which they can interact with humans and each other, while her writing is razor sharp, particularly when it comes to capturing the rare moments of horror. And, as regards the latter, it is mostly the action of humans that cause these things, whether it be the slaughter of Kyo’s family, the general misery and hopelessness of people in the town in which he lives, or the fear of the other that sees the Chinese attack the Bamboo who were once their friends. In the abstract and in practice, the Bamboo treat humans better than we treat each other. For Mustah and Yoji, Kyo’s mortality is a precious thing, something that burns bright inside of him and which they can never share, can only envy, and so they will not convert him to one of their kind no matter how much he wishes it, because they see humans as the superior life form, the one with more potential. As far as vampire lore goes, that is radical, and it provides the perfect cap to this entertainingly different depiction of vampires.

Federico Axat is an Argentinian writer but KILL THE NEXT ONE (Text Publishing Company pb, 416pp, £10.99), his English language debut, is a novel set in America. Ted McKay has everything – a beautiful wife and two lovely daughters, a city house and another in the country, and the investment firm of which he is co-owner is going great guns. Ted McKay has an inoperable brain tumour, and one day when his family are away doing the Disney experience Ted decides to kill himself. Only then a young man turns up at his door to make an offer Ted can’t refuse – if he murders a criminal who deserves to die and then kills another man, somebody who like him wishes to commit suicide, then Ted will be added to a list and, in due course, he will himself be taken care of. Suicide by proxy is a scheme that appeals to Ted, not least because it will spare his family. But how did Lynch know that Ted was about to commit suicide and why did Ted write himself a note telling him to open the door? There are things here that don’t make sense, to either Ted or the reader. And then events start to replay, with some of the details changing and Ted’s reliability as narrator challenged, all of which leads to the book’s revelatory and shocking finale.

Initially I was absorbed by this book, but unsure how Axat would tie all the ends together. Usually I don’t like books of the “it was all a dream” or down to some psychotic interlude type, but Axat makes it work, giving us an intellectual jigsaw puzzle, one in which all the pieces fit together perfectly. The surreal quality of the early events and certain aspects of Ted’s stay at Lavender Memorial hospital, combined with the gruesome dreams that he experiences give the story an otherworldly, almost nightmarish quality. There are moments when it appears to be unconvincing, but in fact these are only clues to what is really taking place. The conflicts that tear Ted apart and have, in reality, alienated his wife, are entirely credible when we learn what has happened to him, and the idyllic fantasy world that he constructs will not endure the cold light of day. Ted himself is an engaging character, somebody who seems calm and in control on the surface, but is seething underneath, a man who has his faults and whom we cannot like unconditionally, but with an explanation that makes us see how he got to be the way he is. Adding extra depth to the character is his relationship with his estranged wife and children, the love shining through, and the passion for chess that he had as a child which is key to unravelling the things that happened so long ago in the formative years of his life. The events from his childhood add a chilling element to the story, with a pitch perfect portrayal of a serial killer going about his business.

The only reservation I have is in the depiction of Laura Hill, Ted’s doctor – I was taken with her desire to heal Ted, but at the same time found some of her methods, particularly with regard to soliciting favours from her superior at the hospital, to be uncomfortably manipulative. The relationship between Hill and supervisor Marcus doesn’t ring true for who they are, seems rather more like sitcom fodder than thriller. It’s a minor point though, and doesn’t spoil what has to be one of the cleverest and most absorbing thrillers I’ve read in recent years, with enough ghoulish grace notes to justify an interest for horror readers. And in the book’s epilogue Axat adds a final twist, one that invites us to question the veracity of everything that has gone before, a masterstroke that pushes the novel out of the psychological thriller category and into one having to do with the true nature of reality, so that some of the scenes in the mental hospital assume great significance. I loved it.

In closing a shout out to the translators of these books – in order they are Carlos Frías, Mike Mitchell, Imogen Taylor, Marlaine Delargy, Jocelyne Allen, and David Frye.

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