OR: Dark Terrors 4

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #23:-

DARK TERRORS 4

Edited by Stephen Jones & David Sutton

Millennium pb, 349pp, £6.99

Dark Terrors continues to build on its reputation as the UK’s leading (only?) horror anthology series, this latest volume weighing in with a tasty nineteen prime cuts by some of the best storytellers in the genre.

There’s good writing here by the coffin-load. Highlights include ‘A Place to Stay’ in which Michael Marshall Smith gives an unstuck in time twist to the familiar New Orleans vampire riff and Roberta Lannes’s ‘Mr Guidry’s Head’, a finely observed piece on a child’s fears lingering into adulthood. My favourite story, Jay Russell’s ‘Sullivan’s Travails’, is a witty and engaging Hollywood ghost story, much lighter in mood than any of the other pieces (think Topper for the 90s). At the other end of the spectrum there’s ‘The Incredible True Facts in the Case’ by David J Schow which seamlessly merges fiction and bloody fact to give us an alternate version of the Jack the Ripper murders. Poppy Z Brite offers a similar slice of docufiction with ‘Entertaining Mr Orton’, playwright Joe’s death acting as the prelude to an erotic encounter. Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Never to be Heard’ is a creepy piece in the Jamesian manner, with the world premier of a forbidden symphony, while ‘Inside the Cackle Factory’ by Dennis Etchison runs a cyncical eye over the cutthroat world of television sitcoms.

Not everything appeals. ‘The Great Fall’ by Richard Christian Matheson is a cleverly done character study, but too slight to make any real impact. From Donald R Burleson we get ‘Tumbleweeds’, an almost risible slice of bucolic horror. ‘Suburban Blight’ by Terry Lamsley, the longest story in the book and a tale with an eco message, lacks the subtle effects of his best work, perhaps because this time around the author gives us a rationale of sorts for what is taking place. On balance though there’s much more here to like than not, and even the most demanding horror fan should find enough adrenaline kicks to jump-start his heart.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Desperado

You’re a target just by living.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OR: All About Evil

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-

ALL ABOUT EVIL

Philip Davenport

Apple Pie pb, 176pp, £7.99

This is that old genre standby, the collection of short stories arbitrarily linked by a framing device (think The Illustrated Man, Nightmare Chronicles, Books of Blood etc), though the author is more rigorous in its use than some of his predecessors.

Due to an administrative error The Storyteller ends up in Hell, and the only way she can get out is by telling The Beast a story that horrifies him. There’s something almost cartoonish to this scenario, with Davenport producing some new and ever more outrageous slice of grand guignol on each page (think nipples leaking tar, pissing nuns, maggots in place of tongues etc), a quality that carries over into most of the stories.

It’s Horror and so, naturally enough, there are thirteen of them. Tabloid terrors and monsters from the media feature heavily on the bill of fare, with paedophile priests, snuff movies, genetic experiments, bent coppers and celebrity chefs all doing a turn in the firing line. There are also modern takes on the fairy story, with Tom Thumb accounted for by radioactivity and a woman who puts on a fur coat turning into a wolf, diversions that empower the publisher to name drop Angela ‘Bloody Chamber’ Carter on the back cover, a comparison that really doesn’t do Davenport any favours. Most of the stories fall between two stools. On the one hand they aren’t realistic enough to work as straight Horror, but on the other they come with emotional baggage that prevents a wholehearted embrace of the absurd and comedic. Too often they run out of steam before the end is reached, and the impression that lingers in the mind is of garish imagery and witty one-liners used to paper over a lack of anything original or interesting to say.

The two best stories concern children. In ‘Giant Killer’ a young boy sets out to avenge the murder of his prostitute mother, while ‘Apple Pie’ has two orphans pursued by a paedophile priest. Davenport has sense enough to approach these with a degree of seriousness lacking elsewhere, and the stories are all the better for that, portraying pain that seems genuine rather than a special effect and enlisting reader sympathy for the victims. They are, however, the gems in a collection that is otherwise pass-the-time material rather than required reading for the Horror devotee.

Guess I must be harder to please than The Beast. Now that’s a sobering thought.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OR: Psychotrope #9

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #2:-

PSYCHOTROPE #9

‘Issue 9 and final’ is what it says on the cover, editor Mark Beech having decided, after several years spent ploughing his own idiosyncratic course through the world of magazine publishing, to do something else with his life. Also on the cover is a reproduction of ‘The Toilet of Lampito’ by Aubrey Beardsley, a naked cupid applying a powder puff to a woman’s posterior with one hand while getting ready to apply his own personal moisturiser with the other (euphemism). Because she’s worth it?

Psychotrope has always been a bit rough and ready, with emphasis on content rather than production values, and that remains true to the end. If anything there seems to be slightly more typos than in the past (Hugh Cook we read has ‘appeared expensively elsewhere’) and in my copy two pages of the Allen Ashley story appear to be printed out of order. Fiction-wise Psychotrope has always been infuriating, on the one hand publishing stories that should never have left the sanctity of the confessional and on the other giving us work that leaves the reader gobsmacked, the kind of crude but breathtaking originality you won’t really find anywhere else. This hit and miss quality is a necessary consequence of the magazine’s risk taking agenda, and most of the time I wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘The Broom Cupboard of Crossed Destinies’, a collaboration between Rhys Hughes and D F Lewis, starts as a witty pastiche of Italo Calvino but detours into a cul de sac of smugly clever conceit. Hugh Cook’s ‘Gap Music’ has some good ideas and nice moments of satire, but goes on a little too long for its own good, while ‘A Conversation in Modern Myth’ by H M Reynolds, despite the promising title, is the old ‘I met a homicidal maniac escaped from the loony bin and lived to tell the tale’ schtick given another outing (Psychotrope had one of these in #1, so there’s a nice bookend feel to it if little else). Martin Taulbut’s ‘Winter on the Island’ has some striking imagery and moments of arch weirdness, but you never get past the idea that the narrative exists simply as a framing device for them. All of these stories have something to commend them, if not satisfying as a whole.

More consistent material is on offer however. Newcomer Heidi Williamson in ‘Virus Alert’ has a lot of fun with the concept of fiction itself as a form of infection. Kay Fletcher’s ‘The Good Quality Coat’ is a clever and finely observed piece in which a man’s emotional state is reflected in the condition of his clothing. Best of all there’s a story by Allen Ashley, a writer who on a good day can produce work that makes any magazine worth buying. I know the timing isn’t right, but I’d like to believe ‘Siberia’ was conceived on the day Archer got sent down (they don’t come much better than that). In matter of fact tones it tells the story of an expedition to a remote part of the globe in search of what may be the tomb of God. Where most writers would find this alone sufficient, Ashley intercuts it with a girlfriend’s post-mortem commentary on her doomed relationship with the main protagonist, so that realms of spiritual quest and emotional vacuity overlap to telling effect, culminating in an existential response to the universal defining quality of hopelessness. Or, in plain English, bugger me but this is good!

Stories of varying degrees of obscurity by Dawn Andrews, Donna Taylor Burgess, N J Elliott and Jonathan Jones help bring down the curtain on a magazine with a distinguished track record, one that has always had a clear idea of where it wants to go, but often remained vague about the details of how to get there.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trailer Trash: Saint Maud

Now this looks interesting.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OR: 999

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #25:-

999

edited by Al Sarrontonio

NEL pb, 828pp, £7.99

Like Douglas Winter’s Millennium project, 999 is another one of those big, chunky books intended to celebrate the state of the art in horror fiction as we pass from one arbitrary chronological landmark to another (curious that other genres don’t seem to feel this need). In his introduction editor Al Sarrontonio names as inspiration Ellison’s mould breaking SF anthology Dangerous Visions and hopes that 999 will have a similar iconoclastic impact on horror fiction, but admits that he’ll settle for simply demonstrating the genre’s literary worth.

There are 29 contributors, with many of the great and the good in the field stepping up to bat, plus a few names you don’t automatically associate with this genre (eg Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers), but a noticeable absence of anyone who might answer to the label new talent. The fictions are of varying lengths, novellas and novelettes as well as short stories, with a mini novel by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty headlining. Most are worth reading, and the cream of the crop represent the genre at its very best.

Blatty’s ‘Elsewhere’ is one of the few disappointments, a run of the mill ghost story that owes too many debts to The Haunting (the Wise original, not 1999’s sfx fest) and has an ending that you see coming a hundred pages off, but the prose is slick enough and reading it won’t be a painful experience. In contrast Thomas Disch’s ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ is almost too painful, a superb and chilling piece of misdirection, and to say any more would be to let the cat out of the bag. Stephen King steps in with a thoroughly modern version of The Mezzotint, an artfully plotted and carefully paced story that answers to the name of ‘The Road Virus Heads North’, and has to be the best short work I’ve seen from him in ages. From Neil Gaiman we get a powerful and spare account of love and loyalty, revenge and power politics in ‘Keepsakes and Treausres: A Love Story’, while in ‘The Book of Irrational Numbers’ fellow Brit Michael Marshall Smith offers an innovative and convincing portrait of madness. ‘The Ruins of Contracoeur’ by Joyce Carol Oates is a vivid, evocative account of life in a haunted house, while Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Entertainment’ takes a subtle look at the terrors of old age and loss, strongly reminiscent of Aickman’s ‘The Hospice’. From Ligotti we get an atypical* story, ‘The Shadow, The Darkness’, in which an artist discovers the terrible truth about the universe. Rich in colour and gripping detail, Joe Lansdale’s ‘Mad Dog Summer’ is the story of a hunt for a serial killer in a 1930s racist community. And on it goes.

I’m not convinced there’s anything revolutionary about this volume (most of what’s on offer is conventional enough, both as regards narrative structure and themes), and as for demonstrating horror’s worth as literature, I suspect Sarrontonio will be preaching to the converted. What can’t be argued is that, no matter how you cut it, this is a substantial volume with a rich and varied fare of first rate fiction. A must have for all horror fans.

*There was a time in my life when I thought ‘atypical’ was simply a contraction of ‘a typical’, and at this remove I can’t really say if the Ligotti story was ‘atypical’ or ‘a typical’, but from the context I suspect the latter. I’ll let the review stand as it appeared in print, warts and all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

School’s Out

The first time I heard Alice it was on Top of the Pops and he was singing this:-

I was a schoolboy at the time and loved the sentiment.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OR: Laura Blundy

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-

LAURA BLUNDY

Julie Myerson

Fourth Estate pb, 260pp, £6.99

Laura murders her husband Ewart, the surgeon who amputated her gangrenous leg and committed the fatal error of falling in love with his patient. Her young lover Billy helps her dispose of the body, but their plans go awry in the manner of the best black comedy. And as Laura fills in her back story we realise that not everything here is entirely what it seems.

Ostensibly a ghost tale set in Victorian London, with its fast paced and first person narration by the eponymous heroine, the feel of the book is entirely modern. Laura’s brooding presence dominates the proceedings, on the surface always merry and bright, but so distinctive is the voice Myerson gives her you never doubt the madness that is just a whisper away. Victorian London is brought to vivid and compelling life, like something out of the darker passages of Dickens, a world of poverty and squalor, of barbaric medical practises and fetid prisons. a world in which women are chattels of their husbands and, on the whole, count themselves lucky to be so. And at the book’s heart is a doomed love affair, one that flies in the face of all convention but makes you long for it to somehow be possible. Only at the end does a note of disaffection creep in, with a revelation that surprises but at the same time intrudes an ‘oh, but it was all a dream’ quality, enabling Myerson to neatly sidestep the onerous and perhaps impossible task of tying up all the loose ends. Otherwise I’d rate this one of the best books about Victorian England and obsession that I’ve read since Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OR: Cemetery Dance #37

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #4:-

CEMETERY DANCE #37

Now in its thirteenth year of publication, this American magazine has built up an enviable reputation, albeit this particular issue doesn’t seem too inspiring on first sight. The cover, a close up of somebody screaming by Caniglia, an orthodontist’s worst nightmare, is rather humdrum, and the interior illustrations, by Matt Eames and Keith Minnion, are few and far between, with little to catch the eye, though there are plenty of book covers and film posters. However this is definitely a case that demonstrates the wisdom of that old saw about not judging a book by its cover or, indeed, the cheap paper on which it’s printed.

CD‘s content is split roughly down the middle between fiction and non-fiction, with the latter giving a comprehensive overview of the horror scene stateside and marking CD out as the place to go to know what’s hot and what’s not. There is, as a previous reviewer noted, rather too much about the doings of one Stephen King. If King ever decides to publish his shopping list then this is the place where it will appear, no doubt complete with critical commentary on the semiotic significance of the Maine Man’s choice in hamburger relish. Reviews of the latest King book and film may be obligatory, but do we really need a round up of sound bites from dozens of different reviews? That was meant to be a rhetorical question, but if anyone answered in the affirmative could they please put on their anorak and leave the building.

Otherwise CD‘s coverage is pretty balanced, written by people who know what they’re talking about and are refreshingly enthusiastic and upbeat on the subject of horror. Michael Marano’s film column is witty and insightful, opinionated and feisty, a pleasure to read, even if you don’t always agree with him, while Ray Garton gets up close and personal with the film of Selby’s Requiem for a Dream. Book reviews follow roughly the same format, wide ranging and by many hands, while Paula Guran deals with select titles in greater detail. My only quibble is that when so many writers are described as exciting and original, it’s hard to know who’s left to be dull and derivative. We need some crap for critical context. Charles L. Grant chips in with ‘Ramblings From the Dark’, an entertaining insider’s view of the life of a horror writer who constantly challenges himself to do things differently. Also on offer are interviews with T M Wright and Al Sarrontonio (loved his comment that he writes five or ten pages a day ‘no matter how long it takes. It could take an hour and a half or longer’), plus an interview with an anonymous, naturally, spokesperson for new kid on the block publisher Stealth Press, masquerading as an overview of their innovative business plan.

CD would be worth getting for the non-fiction alone, but there are also stories and they are pretty good. The highlight is ‘Circularity’ by Wright, which manages to be both funny and melancholy at the same time. The interlocking monolgues of three characters, two of them ghosts and the third a hitman they have decided to ‘save’, this reads like a cross between Ghost and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. ‘Genetically Predisposed’, with its tattoo that comes to life, is not as rewarding, but author Elizabeth Engstrom compensates for the ‘ordinariness’ of her concept with careful pacing and thoroughly credible characterisation, her defeated housewife seeking a way out deftly enlisting reader sympathy for her plight.

‘A Door Opens and Closes’ by Conrad Williams gets off to an uneasy start and at first doesn’t seem to be sure where it’s going, but then settles to become a moody and atmospheric ghost story, one where the terrors of the past overwhelm those living in the present, culminating in an ending that’s powerful and genuinely disturbing, making it the only story to give the Wright a serious run for its money. ‘Chimaera’s’ by Robin Spriggs is merely competent, the old story of a meeting with death given a cheap and cheerful veneer of Gothismo, but with nothing new to say. Odds on that most readers will guess the ending before its more than two pages old. Michael Cadnum’s ‘Miami Supercops’, the tale of a man searching for the girlfriend he’s misplaced, suffers from an overly oblique prose style, but saves itself from the status of instantly forgettable by delivering a vivid and shocking denouement. Finally there’s ‘Cleaning Compulsion’ by Gary Raisor, a nicely understated look at a divorcee’s attempt to get her life together, which neatly sidesteps the obsessive compulsive disorder route suggested by the title in favour of something slightly more unusual and with a Dahlesque sting in the tail.

There’s room for improvement, and certainly it could do with a more consistent selection of fiction, but all round Cemetery Dance is a publication that’s worth the time of anyone who likes reading intelligent and literary horror.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trailer Trash: The Secret Garden

23rd of October for this one, according to imdb.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment