Trailer Trash – Nightmare Alley

The new film from Guillermo del Toro.

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NR: The Three Books

Published by Black Shuck Books in 2018 as part of their Signature Novellas range, The Three Books is the first time, at least as far as I can recall, that I have encountered the work of Paul StJohn Mackintosh.

The story is told from the perspective of Sophia Amory, a young woman in love with the written word and in particular infatuated with the work of poet Desmond Carvill, choosing him as the subject for her PhD dissertation. Carvill is an enigmatic and reclusive figure, someone who is never seen in public, can only be contacted through his agent. His first two sonnet cycles, Daphnia and Nyx, produced as original art books, were hailed as masterpieces, while his third work The Tower was rated as below par, a failure after the magnificence that proceeded it. The basis of Sophia’s thesis is that Carvill should not be regarded as a poet per se, but as a visual artist. She meets and interviews with people who knew Carvill before he became a recluse and then, out of the blue, she is given the chance to stay with Carvill at his isolated cabin in the woods and talk to him at her leisure, learning the secret of his creativity.

This novella offers us an evocation of New York in the early years of the twentieth century, the New York of artists and intellectuals, Mackintosh grounding his work and adding verisimilitude through sprinkling ‘celebrity’ names into the text. A world in microcosm, where for many the need to achieve something of lasting value is paramount. Along the way and mostly by inference, the book offers us insights into the world of art, the interface between media and message, while affirming the importance of art in our lives, qualities that are embodied in Sophia Amory. She is a character who, with her love of poetry and periodic bouts of depression and self-doubt, will strike a note of familiarity in the heart of many a reader. Someone we can identify with, whose concerns we can share, whose fervour for the thing she loves seems exemplary.

Desmond Carvill is another matter, and it’s hard to discuss him usefully without dropping a massive spoiler, and in fact one might do so simply through what is not said. I’ll take the risk, but consider yourselves warned. Long story short, Carvill does terrible things to achieve his poetic effects (but you’d probably already worked that out). In the abstract the book asks what we are prepared to allow for the sake of great art? Is Carvill’s behaviour acceptable because it results in great art, or are their lines that should not be crossed? The question of whether we can separate the art and the artist, a riddle that seems all the more apposite in present times with the prevalence of woke and cancel culture, is here posed in the most extreme of terms.

But while those questions are there to be asked, they are also an irrelevance to the actual story, a distraction even. The real focus of the book is on the relationship between Sophia and Carvill. Thanks to her depression Sophia values her own existence and work less than that of others, is too susceptible to others’ evaluations of her worth, something that Mackintosh puts over very well and mainly through suggestion. Carvill on the other hand is so sure of himself that he is willing to sacrifice others, to objectify even those he claims to love. Urbane, genial, eminently likeable on the surface, at heart he is an abuser and manipulator of great cunning, who persuades Sophia to see things his way, to act in accord with his wishes, assessing herself as worthless apart from what she can do for him, how she can sacrifice herself to forward his career. While great art may be involved, the couple are emblematic of all such tawdry and sickening relationships, where one partner takes advantage of the other by reducing their sense of themselves as autonomous, rendering them simply an adjunct to their monstrous ego, and finally nothing more than an object, a vessel through which their will is channelled. This is true horror.

The writing is beautiful and economical, without a wasted word. The plot, characters etc., all ring true. Paul StJohn Mackintosh, like the mad artist he brings to such vivid life on the page, has produced a story that is enjoyable as a word song and valuable for what it conveys about human nature.

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America

David Bowie sings America.

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My Favourite Simon and Garfunkel Songs

It’s time for another list, and as we’re playing S&G cover versions on the blog this month, what better than a list of my favourite songs by them.

A Top 10 then, in alphabetical order as I’d hate to arrange them by any other criteria (whittling the list down to ten was hard enough).

America

The Boxer

Bridge Over Troubled Water

For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

I Am A Rock

Kathy’s Song

Old Friends

The Only Living Boy in New York

Scarborough Fair/Canticle

The Sound of Silence

Breaking it down by album, that’s three songs apiece from Bridge Over Troubled Water and Sounds of Silence, two apiece from Bookends and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and one from Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. And yes, that does come to eleven songs in total, but that’s because ‘The Sound of Silence’ appeared on both Wednesday Morning (acoustic version) and Sounds of Silence (remix).

I notice that I lean towards the songs that are sadder and more lyrically ambitious, though I still love the upbeat stuff like ‘Cecelia’ and ‘The 59th Bridge Street Song’.

Anyone else out there want to share some S&G favourites?

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NR: Only the Broken Remain

Published by Black Shuck Books last November, Only the Broken Remain is the debut collection from Dan Coxon. It opens with “Stanislav in Foxtown”, a story that originally appeared in Black Static #56 under the pseudonym Ian Steadman (or perhaps Steadman is the real name, and Coxon the pseudonym, or by way of a third alternative, neither is the real name – I digress). Stanislav is an east European migrant working at a fried food joint who forms an alliance of sorts with a tribe of urban foxes against the store’s bullying owner. It’s a suitably strange piece, capturing perfectly the feel of economic servitude and with hints of other gods than mammon, that alliances are to be made with creatures we can’t understand, while at back of this is a strong sense of the world as we know it winding down, of civilisation reverting back to nature.

In the ebullient “Roll Up, Roll Up” Robbie applies to join the circus and is taken on despite his obvious unfitness for any role, but as the story progresses he learns what his true purpose is and who is pulling the strings. It’s a lively and intriguing story, with the ever increasing level of absurdity sucking the reader in, and it has a valid point to make about the nature of certain forms of entertainment, while at the same time the final revelation adds another dimension to the story. Title story “Only the Broken Remain” is the tale of Alison, who has been dealing with mental health issues and is now living in a house that appears to be haunted, but the nature of the ghost is ambiguous. A strong story, it melds perfectly the psychic phenomena and the fragility of the narrator’s psyche, leaving room for debate as to what is actually happening here. The way in which it builds gradually and the open ended finale make the story work so well.

Brandon in “Feather and Twine” has a vision of a winged being which changes the course of his life leading to a moment of transformation. Again, ambiguity is important here, in that we don’t know if Brandon actually has encountered the numinous, only that he believes so and acts on that belief. It is in a way the embodiment of all such epiphanic moments, with mental illness as likely as genuine revelation, but the important thing is how we react at such times. The protagonist of “Miriam Is Not At Her Desk” runs away from her unhappy marriage and takes her employer’s money with her. Initially this made me think of the opening set up in Psycho, but Coxon takes it off in a different direction altogether, presenting us with a compelling portrait of an unhappy life and the guilt felt over bad decisions, all of it culminating in a loss of identity that is both physical and spiritual.

“Baddavine” is a creature that locals hear whispering in the woods and so they hunt it down, but not everything is as it seems. At the heart of this story is a subtext about how we destroy the things that we are afraid of, turn them into trivialities simply so that they can be shoehorned into a knowable reality, but the story’s end hints at something far more ominous and incomprehensible than Baddavine waiting in the wings. Gary is “Far From Home” and experiencing a sort of psychic untethering, with elements of the doppelgänger to the story. This was one of the few pieces in the collection that didn’t work for me, seeming like an assemblage of odd incidents that fell short of a cohesive whole and with nothing particularly useful or interesting to say about Gary’s life.

“Foreign Land” has a British family living the dream by purchasing a house in France, but gardener Martin is a rather minatory figure. This is psychological horror, done well with convincing characters, a sense of mounting dread, and a kick arse ending. Imagine Escape to the Château as horror fiction. There’s a similar sensibility to next story “Ones and Zeros”, whose protagonist moves into an isolated cottage with a strange history and before long is experiencing events that suggest something horribly awry. A haunted house variation, this was an unsettling and well told story, one that builds the unease with assurance and skill.

In “No One’s Child” a young girl finds a monster in the cellar and unleashes it against the tyrannical mistress of the house. The story does well in depicting the horribleness of those with power when confronted by the powerless in the figure of Mrs Hardcastle, while the shadowy figure of the monster is disturbing, and the manner of Mrs H getting her just desserts eminently satisfying. The WW2 background adds yet another frisson to the story. Cedric (not his real name), the put upon protagonist of “Rut”, is saved from a savage attack by an encounter with something unnatural in the woods. Again this is a story that develops well, with the contrast between bullies and their victim coming across strongly and preparing us for what happens at the story’s end, though the denouement is not as complete as you’d expect, Cedric having been damaged by what happens to him, even though he survives.

“After the Reservoir” has young Martin running away from home and his abusive father, only to have an encounter with an alien entity in the dark of the woods, one that changes him. Keenly felt, it’s a story that touches on themes of bullying and Martin’s final zombie like state might be a comment on the effect of such behaviour, with the subtext that Martin’s father is every bit as alien as the creature in the woods. Co-written with Dan Carpenter, “Static Ritual” is the story of Eliot who over the years receives a number of strange videocassettes. I wanted to like this given the novelty of what takes place, and in the abstract there is much about it to fascinate, but finally it all seemed a bit random, the videotape neither as horrific or compulsive viewing as Eliot seems to find it and I am at a loss as to his failure to query it with other people at certain points in the story.

Finally we have “All the Letters In His Van”, which has a touch of Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman about it. A couple on a walking holiday find themselves stranded in an isolated village where the postman seems to exercise an unhealthy influence over everyone else. It’s an effective scenario, the events seeming to fit in a logical pattern that remains obscure to both reader and the protagonists, and this is part of the horror, that we cannot see the sense to what is happening but to the inhabitants of the village what takes place all seems perfectly rational. Who is mad and who is sane? What lies behind the madness? It poses such questions while essentially remaining weird and unknowable, offering us an excellent ending to a strong collection.

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Trailer Trash – Scream

Remake of a classic. Let’s see if they can bring anything new (and worthwhile) to the table.

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NR: Closer Still

Published by Black Shuck Books, Closer Still is the fourth novella by Richard Farren Barber that I have read and reviewed (and you can locate those other reviews via the Book Review Index). It’s a length that seems to agree with this writer. While two of his other novellas dealt with collapse on a societal scale this one, like The Power of Nothing, is more personal, minimalist.

Teenager Rachel is being haunted by the ghost of Katie, her former best friend. But the other members of the school clique they used to belong to, led by Sarah, have turned against Rachel. They call her Kooky and look for ways to make her feel bad about herself. Talking to Katie’s ghost, who nobody else can see, just contributes to making her even more the outsider. As the bullying escalates, Katie decides to take matters into her own hands, with dire consequences for all, not least Rachel herself who ultimately has to confront the circumstances of Katie’s death.

Characterisation is a big part of what makes this story work so well, with the four girls – victim Rachel, bully-in-chief Sarah, hangers on Francine and Joanna – each fully drawn and given distinguishing characteristics. Sarah is the It girl of the clique, the one others defer to, a natural leader thanks to her good looks and intelligence, and a lack of self doubt and attitude that won’t take no for an answer, though Barber is too canny to make her just a stereotypical bully, giving us clues that Sarah can be a good friend. Francine and Joanna are planets that orbit round her star, with hints that they’re not really comfortable about what is happening but lacking the power of will to act as anything other than henchgirls, and so their individuality is expressed through darker channels, trying to impress Sarah by being nastier than thou.

The events chronicled, from humiliation in public places to online undermining all seem horribly plausible, and for horror readers the kind of thing familiar since before Carrie White dropped out of high school. It’s horror and cruelty of a kind that is in its way far more scary than anything supernatural, and perhaps because to so many it’s part and parcel of the way things are for those growing up it’s even harder to deal with. Rachel is unable to seek the help she needs from the adults – her parents and teachers – who should be there for her, simply because a part of her accepts the verdict of her peers, deep down believes that what is happening to her is in some way deserved and if she seeks help things will only get worse. Rachel embodies the figure of the victim, the outsider, not really sure what has happened to put her in this bad place, why her former friends have turned against her, unable to stand up for herself, but in part wondering if it is her own fault.

As for the supernatural element, well the possibility exists that Katie may just be a projection of Rachel’s psyche, the imaginary friend made tangible. At the heart of the novella and driving it forward is the interaction between Rachel and Katie, the way in which Rachel never really knows how her friend will jump, how finely tuned her emotions are. As the novella progresses, Katie changes from an almost comic figure, the dead friend who pops in to chat about this and that, what it feels like to be dead, to something akin to an avenging angel unleashed on those who have hurt Rachel, and these changes could simply be reflections and externalisations of the tremors in Rachel’s own psychology. Katie wreaks terrible violence on others, but ultimately the one who suffers most is Rachel herself as she confronts incidents in her past that she has been trying to shut out.

Alternatively the ghost could just be a ghost, a teen spirit with attitude. That works too. You decide. However you call it, Barber has produced another excellent novella, a work that is polished and assured, and does something different with the ghost story template. I loved it.

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The Boxer

And this month our Song for a Sunday will feature cover versions of Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Here’s Mumford & Sons with their version of possibly my favourite (lyrically speaking) S&G number.

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2021: The Story So Far – Fourth Quarter

Back in October I did a list of my favourite books of the year so far, and as it’s now January 2022 time for another update.

For the months October through December, I read a total of forty six books, making one hundred and fifty books in total for the year.

Breaking it down further, that 150 books consisted of 71 novels, 50 short story collections, 10 anthologies, 12 novellas, and 7 non-fiction. 57 of them were either written or edited by women.

And now, without further ado, in the order I preferred them when I wrote the list ten minutes ago here are my top twenty books for 2021, with new entries shown in bold:-

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward

Cut to the Bone – Roz Watkins

Fallen Angel – Chris Brookmyre

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

The Nesting – C. J. Cooke

Black Summer – M. W. Craven

The Night Visitor – Lucy Atkins

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

The Puppet Show – M. W. Craven

The Incarnations of Mariela Pena – Steven J. Dines

The Three Books – Paul StJohn Mackintosh

The Hunger – Alma Katsu

The Devil’s Dice – Roz Watkins

Murder Most Festive – Ada Moncrieff

Dead Man’s Daughter – Roz Watkins

The Silence of Ghosts – Jonathan Aycliffe

terrible things – David Surface

Werewolf – Matthew Pritchard

Three Mothers, One Father – Sean Hogan

I know a couple of these books were first published in 2021 (the Ward and the Dines), and there may be a few more with that pedigree, but I lack the commitment to go back and check (happy to be corrected though, if anyone knows better), and so it is a ‘best of Pete’s reading in 2021’ rather than ‘Pete’s best of the year’ (a not too subtle distinction).

My guiding principle was how much pleasure each book gave me, which is not necessarily the same as literary merit. I know John Banville is a literary heavyweight, but as far as country house murders go I had a lot more fun with Ada Moncrieff’s ‘Murder Most Festive’ than I did with Banville’s ‘Snow’.

And, of course, the whole process is highly subjective – at any other time my ratings might be entirely different, with only the first two titles on the list set in stone.

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NR: There Is A Way To Live Forever

Published by Black Shuck Books way back in 2017, There Is A Way To Live Forever contains thirteen stories by indie press stalwart Terry Grimwood. It opens with “Demons and Demons”, a traditional horror story that would make a great movie. Mike picks up hitch-hiker Sara, with the demon Ash, who claims to love her, in hot pursuit. Mike is dealing with issues of his own, which in part contribute to his willingness to help Sara, but it ain’t going to be easy. Grimwood gives us a fast paced, action packed story, with well drawn characters and some horrific scenes along the way to an open ended denouement.

The “Fracture” is a solar phenomenon that causes certain people to transform into flesh eating monsters. Richard is accused of being such a lyke and hunted by ‘normal’ people. This is a story that is moving and with layers, Grimwood using an approximation of the werewolf template to expose our prejudices and the ways in which we deal with those who are different. It’s a story that touches on racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry, while remaining uniquely its own thing. Title story “There is a Way to Live Forever” is about the tentative love affair between bereaved Rob and Miriam, which is violently opposed by his daughter Anna, except nothing is quite as it seems. The story cleverly misdirects the reader, having us sympathise with poor Rob as his child dictates the course of his life, and then horrified by what we suspect has taken place as more information is given, with Anna’s rage and jealousy taking on a new significance. Sometimes we do terrible things for what we regard as the best of reasons, but there’s always a price to be paid.

“Think Belsen” is a savage satire on the fashion industry and the quest for weight loss, with the protagonist willing to do almost anything to achieve her aims and coming up with self-justifications for her actions. As conveyed by the title, there is a Swiftian extremism to this piece, with gestures and actions all exaggerated to telling effect. “A Child is a Woman’s” is a haunted house tale, with estate agent Maria finding that she has placed her child Bethany in danger by her attempt to set matters right and lay the ghost. It builds well, with the unease mounting gradually, the characters beautifully realised and the spectral effects gratifyingly minimalist. “The Higgins Technique” is told from two perspectives, that of pornographer Geoff and writer Emma, who takes doing research to a new level. Grimwood is superb at outlining the attitudes and motivations of both, each the different side to the same coin, while the open ending hits just the right note of ambiguity.

When a mysterious woman ask harmonica player Martin to perform “Romance in D Flat” it’s the key to unlocking secrets of his past. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It’s a story that merges the love of music with childhood betrayal in an attempt at redemption with surreal overtones. It’s a heady brew, one which I think will require further reading to get all the marrow out of those bones, but the first reading suggests that it will more than reward the effort. In “Long Train Runnin’” estranged grandfather Ray tries to save the soul of terminally ill grandson Nathan, the story heartfelt and moving. The train set at its heart is emblematic of the journey to the other side of life, but here translated into terms that horrify. Kristen is enamoured of her new boyfriend Daniel, who is an “Incubus”, the story fixing on themes of abuse and addiction. It cleverly uses the supernatural to highlight very human flaws and failings, with Kristen’s inability to leave her abuser brought to unsettling life on the page.

In “Jar of Flies” a village is plagued by killings and with hints of witchcraft at the back of it all, a tale of revenge many years in the making, told from the viewpoint of Reverend Karen. A gripping story, it reads rather like Midsomer Murders as horror fiction, with clergy in lieu of Barnaby and Troy. As supernatural horror it works extremely well, but Grimwood goes that bit further, with commentary on the small-mindedness of village life and themes of prejudice, and hatred that rebounds on the oppressors. Illegal immigrant Khaled joins a gang involved in harvesting “The Devil’s Eggs”, but soon finds that his morals require him to take action to right the wrong that is taking place. A long, meandering story, this touches on many subjects, but central to it all is man’s inhumanity to man and the need for good men to do the right thing no matter the consequences. This is exemplified in the relationship between Khaled and drug addict Dawn, two flawed human beings who yet find the strength to rise above their circumstances. Oh, and there are monsters, aside from the humans that is.

John Chamberlain and others are coerced into joining aliens on a “Journey to the Engine of the Earth”, but the Visitor seems uncertain what exactly it is looking for, and as tensions mount in the group it may be that humans themselves and their emotions are the much sought after engine. This was a fascinating story, with the world shown in microcosm as the group cross through a hostile landscape and seem intent on making the wrong decisions, but at the same time I found it a little too oblique to succeed entirely, with the Visitor and its purpose not really adding anything much to the narrative. Finally we have “NM”, which stands for Non Mourners, those who exempt themselves from the national outpouring of grief when a much loved royal dies. This is another story that falls into the satire category, and reading between the lines it is hard not to think of Princess Diana’s death and the media induced frenzy of mourning that required everyone to demonstrate how much they were saddened by the tragedy. It is a story about emotional manipulation and the ways in which heart strings are so easily tugged upon, with those who stand apart condemned for being different, which is a theme of several of these stories. It’s the perfect end to a rich collection that straddles the boundary between horror and science fiction with ease, presenting us with stories that both entertain and require the reader to think about what is happening to us as a species.

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