OR: Vienna Blood

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

VIENNA BLOOD

Adrian Mathews

Vintage pb, 312pp, £6.99

It’s 2026 in Vienna and newspaper columnist Sharkey goes on a drunken spree with Leo, a man he meets by accident, or so it seems. Later, when Leo is killed, his pregnant wife Petra contacts Sharkey and asks him to look into the matter. Investigative journalism isn’t his forte, but as he fancies Petra something rotten Sharkey agrees to see what he can uncover. Almost the first thing he learns is that Leo was a skilled hacker, with fibre optic fingers in several high risk pies, and one of the last things he did was probe the workings of a powerful bio-tech company in an attempt to learn the circumstances of his own birth. As Sharkey follows in Leo’s footsteps he is drawn into a conspiracy involving right wing extremists who advocate a proactive stance on genetic cleansing.

This is Orson Welles’s The Third Man revamped for the new century, not least because of the Viennese setting so compellingly realised and put to use in the book’s pages. There’s a noirish feel to Mathews’s work. His prose is scalpel sharp and peppered with phrases of a Chandleresque mordancy so that you read on eager to see what he’ll come out with next. The characters are well done, convincingly amoral and complex. The science sounds chillingly plausible and the incidental invention works well. The plot holds the attention from first word to last and, if it’s a bit predictable in places, it manages to deliver a few genuine surprises, particularly at the end. A first rate techno-thriller from a writer who shows real promise.

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OR: Lord of Light

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #21:-

LORD OF LIGHT

Roger Zelazny

Millennium pb, 261pp, £6.99

On a distant planet the survivors of a star ship landing use their advanced technology to set themselves up as the gods of the Hindu pantheon – Braham, Krishna, Kali, Yama etc – demonising the native lifeforms and ruling over their own descendants with an iron hand. One of their number, the rebel Sam, decides to overthrow the rule of the Gods and give ordinary mortals the benefits of technology. To fight their tyranny he takes on the mantle of the Buddha.

Written in 1967, this novel is arguably Zelazny’s finest work. The basic premise, as far fetched as any in the genre, is executed with commendable thoroughness and audacity. The plot moves along at a cracking pace, rich in incident, with twist after twist. Zelazny’s writing is vivid and alive, crammed with potent imagery, effortlessly creating a whole world full of alien sights and sounds and smells, while the dialogue borders on the sublime, illuminating its subject matter with wit and perception. This is SF as it should be, daring, iconoclastic, exuberant and, most of all, supremely readable. One every fan of the genre will want to have on their shelves.

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OR: The Rediscovery of Man

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #21:-

THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN

Cordwainer Smith

Millennium pb, 377pp, £6.99

Paul Linebarger (1913 – 66), who wrote under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith, produced a small but influential body of work, the novel Norstrilia and several collections of short stories, the best of which are assembled here. Smith’s tales of the Instrumentality of Mankind form a future history spanning over 15,000 years and embracing countless worlds. While modern readers will find familiar concepts in his work, all the trappings of hard and not so hard SF, such as cloning, genetic engineering, AI, robots, FTL travel, telepathy and longevity, they are given a unique flavour all their own. At heart Smith was a fabulist, not so much concerned with the nuts and bolts of physics as the mythic and romantic possibilities they allow us to contemplate. To read one of his baroque fantasies is to step into a world that is lush and vibrant with potential, where far more is suggested than can ever be revealed, to meet with people who are truly remarkable. Who can resist stories with such evocative titles as ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ and The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’? Or characters with names like Helen America and Mr Grey-no-more, Lord Jestocost and Lady Arabella Underwood, Go-Captain Alvarez and Mother Hilton, the weapons mistress of Old North Australia? Stories that innocently drop such marvellous phrases as ‘I myself went into hospital and came out French’?

Millennium are to be commended for bringing the work of this little known writer back into print.

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OR: The Book of Shadows

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

THE BOOK OF SHADOWS

Namita Gokhale

Little, Brown hb, 217pp, £16.99

Bitya, a young university lecturer from Delhi, is scarred in an acid attack by the sister of her lover, who killed himself when she was unfaithful. She goes to an isolated house owned by her family where, thanks to the influence of the house and local community, she comes to terms with her disfigurement. Intercut with this are a lengthy extract from the journal of William James Cockerell, the Victorian missionary who built the house on a sacred spot to combat native superstition, and a rambling account by a spirit, perhaps the genius loci of the house itself, of the building’s long history of black magic, murder and lust.

There’s a lot on offer here, all packaged in a very fine prose style, vivid and assured, but ultimately the pieces of the puzzle don’t make up the picture on the box, or any coherent design at all really. The sense of India and its alien quality is strongly evoked, of strangers in a strange land, and with her western education Bitya seems ideally suited to act as a focus for this cultural clash, but all she does is name drop western bands and writers. The supernatural asides add little to the story, are simply a distraction, and Bitya’s recovery seems superficial; after endlessly dwelling on her tragic loss of beauty one morning she decides to brush her hair a different way and discovers that, ho hum, it doesn’t really look that bad after all. I had no feeling of a denouement reached, of any direction to the narrative. Of course life isn’t that structured, a point touched on by Gokhale herself in the story, as if to defuse inveitable criticism, but the impression left in the mind is of a runaway stockpiling of arbitrary effects in a portentous attempt to produce an Indian version of Allende’s House of the Spirits, leaving a novel that falls well short of its ambitions.

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OR: Dr. Black and the Guerrillia, Miss Homicide Plays the Flute & Jottings From a Far Away Place

Three reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 26th of September last year:-

DR. BLACK AND THE GUERRILLIA (Grafitisk hc, 88pp) is the oldest of the Brendan Connell titles in my TBR pile, having been published in a limited edition of 300 copies back in 2005. From the biographical details on the dust jacket sleeve it may well have been Connell’s first book, as only short story credits are listed. I can’t remember much about the circumstances in which I received it (though well after 2005, as even I’m not that tardy); it turned up in the post one day, though who sent it to me or if there was a cover letter I don’t recall. It might not have been intended for review at all, but I’ll give it a shout out for the sake of completeness.

Dr. Black, a polymath in San Corrados researching his book ‘A Key to All Gods’, wants to establish contact with the isolated Yaroa tribe and study their deity Apozitz. After various misadventures he falls in with the Yaroa and spends some time with them, studying their ways and undergoing drug enhanced rituals to speak with their god. One day, while walking in the jungle, he is kidnapped by freedom fighters of the Flaming Light movement. Befriended by General Pineda, Black eventually helps forward their plan to overthrow President Trujillo, but not everything is copacetic under the new regime, with nature intervening to unravel the plans of men and Black pursuing a vision he had.

This short book, perhaps novella length if that, is a curious confection. The conceptual grounding of the book is intriguing, with some of the visions of the Yaroa religion and ideas regarding revolution that are both fascinating and eloquently expressed, the former especially seeming to offer up much food for thought and potential for future fiction. The writing and imagery are exquisite, with line drawings by John Connell that perfectly complement the text. On the other hand the story does seem to ramble, with no clear idea of what it wants to accomplish and where it needs to go, while the conclusion all feels rather up in the air, as if the author got tired or ran out of steam and decided to simply bring the curtain down. If it were a firework, then it would be a Catherine wheel, with plenty of pyrotechnical bang for our buck, but ultimately going only in circles. I enjoyed it, certainly, but it felt incomplete, as if it was an episode in some larger story cycle (a suspicion confirmed by later developments, the release of The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black in 2014 – and yes, that book is also in my TBR pile, though if/when I’ll get to read it is anybody’s guess).

In 2013 Connell released the most conventional of the books I’ve read by him, the enticingly titled MISS HOMICIDE PLAYS THE FLUTE (Eibonvale Press pb, 175pp, £8.99). Flautist Serena Plievier subsidises her income by working as a freelance assassin. After completing one contract (euphemism) she undertakes another that requires her to travel to Italy, where she is to murder Pier so that his brother Glauco can inherit, but it must be done with finesse, so that there is no suspicion of illegality. Pier is a cross-dresser with a foot fetish, which somewhat complicates Serena’s plan of attack. Posing as a writer working on a history of antique musical instruments she worms her way into the affections of the Spallino family, whose residence houses a collection of such artefacts. More complications ensue as not only do both Pier and the grotesque Glauco become slightly infatuated with Serena, but so also does their mother Gemma, causing our heroine to have to engage in a delicate balancing act while she gets all the elements of her plan in place. There are also subplots involving the cousin who abused her as a child and a man who wants her to have his children.

This is the plot standard of the femme fatale come professional hit woman, but written as only Connell can, with alarums and excursions on every other page. While the main story arc can be effortlessly followed, we get by way of diversions numerous learned asides on musical instruments and dance, on the history of Italy and Greece, on art and culture. It is perhaps the kind of decadent story that the Marquis de Sade might have written had he lived in the modern day, not been so fascinated with violence, and had a better prose style. These things elevate the story, provide endlessly fascinating material for the reader to speculate on and enjoy, while at the same time feeding into the main narrative and broadening our engagement with the work. We get hints here of the kind of writer Connell could have become, commercially successful and widely read, if he hadn’t opted for something more ambitious – a genre of one, characterised by a pyrotechnical prose style and unbridled imagination, erudition and a disregard for convention. I loved it.

Which brings us to 2015 and JOTTINGS FROM A FAR AWAY PLACE (Snuggly Books pb, 156pp, £9.95). According to the back cover blurb this is “A book that is like a collection of bulletins from the world of dreams”, and certainly there is a dreamlike quality to this series of stories that is, at the time of reading, the most experimental work I’ve seen from Connell’s pen. There was a time when I and an artist friend clipped memorable phrases from newspapers and magazines – he to use as titles for his paintings and me to assemble into found poetry per the operating procedure of Tristan Tzara. I would like to believe that Connell used a similar methodology for his story titles – ‘Observations’, ‘Habitually Dancing’, ‘A Ramshackle Village’, and ‘Ghost Cave’, to name a few.

Sheltering under these umbrella headings we have numbered sub-sections that can consist of fantastical and absurdist short stories, lists, recipes, non-sequiturs, and Nietszschean style aphorisms, plus whatever else the author can come up with. Sometimes these “fictive moments” are related and on other occasions they standalone, though possibly the author is the only one who can be sure of such delineations. Sometimes the stories within the stories are self-contained and on other occasions they bleed into other sections, as if Connell is an artist who has problems with working within the lines, or rather renounces the idea of lines altogether.

To give you a taste of the stories – we learn of a castle that continually reproduces itself, much to the annoyance of its exclusivity loving owner; we hear of the rivalry between two holy men with differing ideas on the subject of helping a fallen woman cross a river in flood; we have the story of a man reincarnated as a spoon and that of a lecherous priest with designs on the virtue of a woman in his congregation. And so on and so forth. Each story is an exquisitely fashioned gem, with Connell producing delicate prose that delights the ear and the mind, juxtaposing the beauty of his language with the often sordid and vicious acts that are being portrayed. But if the stories are gems it is their setting within the greater collection of literary ephemera that give them their polish. Ultimately this is not a book that will appeal to those whose minds are receptive only to conventional fiction of the beginning, middle and end pedigree, but for those who like to dip their toes into stranger water then we have here a work that can be explored endlessly, with the certainty that you will stumble across some new idea or eminently quotable phrase on each new reading.

I wouldn’t dream of pinning a label on Connell’s oeuvre; it is ultimately too nebulous, too experimental for such reductions. Decadent would perhaps be the term that most usefully conveys something of the flavour of his writing. But however you choose to categorise his work, as these three titles and the two I reviewed on Wednesday prove, Connell is a writer intent on defying reader expectation, a writer who will pop up somewhere else just as soon as you think you know what he’s about, and all you can depend upon are that whatever he produces will be different and daring and worth reading.

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OR: Lives of Notorious Cooks & The Galaxy Club

Two reviews that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 23rd of September last year:-

I probably have more books by Brendan Connell in my TBR pile than by any other author, which is a comment both on his profligacy and his publishers’ optimism in sending me review copies. I may or may not get to the five or six that are still unread, but here in two easily digestible blog posts are the five volumes that I have consumed.

First up the two books he published with Chômu Press, back in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

At times it feels like cookery is the new rock and roll, with the list of culinary programming in our television schedules ever expanding and the Garys and Jamies, Johns and Delias given superstar status. In LIVES OF NOTORIOUS COOKS (Chômu Press pb, 180pp, £11.50) Connell does for cooks what Vasari did for artists; at the same time the collection bears more than a passing resemblance to the writer’s earlier Metrophilias, with its emphasis on short and thematically linked stories (cities as the common denominator in that case, cooks in this one). The book contains fifty one potted biographies of famous cooks, ranging in time from the ancient world to that of the nineteenth century, and in space from China through to the American states. With the author’s lavish prose (every bit as much a feast for the senses as the recipes and dishes he describes) and dry humour, with its Rabelaisian overtones, this volume serves as a marvellous antidote to all the media adulation of the sous chef. Connell has a rare ability to work in the miniature and make his subjects endlessly fascinating, incorporating elements of the supernatural and the spiritual into his text.

If I have a complaint, it’s that after a while it all gets to feel a bit much of a muchness, but that may very well be my own fault for reading the book through from beginning to end instead of dipping in at leisure and over a longer period of time (if you stuff your face with rich food to excess, don’t blame the chef if you later feel queasy). I think what I would like to see is an actual cook review this work, with comments on how the various flavours in the recipes would interact. Do the fictional repasts Connell throws at the page have any validity in the world of haute cuisine or are they simply part of the joke?

There are two main strands to THE GALAXY CLUB (Chômu Press pb, 200pp, £11.50), a patchwork novel set in New Mexico in the 1970s. One plotline has the drifter Cleopatra hitch up in a small rural village where he becomes enlisted in a search for fabled hidden treasure. In the second strand the precocious Blue Boy Montana, who kills dragons with his magical stick, becomes a person of interest to various extra-natural entities, including the Galaxy Club (these don’t take much part in the action, so the title is something of a misnomer). The two strands intersect when Blue Boy helps Cleopatra find the treasure.

As far as the plot goes this book isn’t all that interesting, with the real pleasure coming from how the two strands rub together – on one hand a noir storyline complete with femme fatale and corrupt lawmen, and on the other something that verges on the mythological with its animistic undertones – and the way in which it is told, Connell using every trick in his literary kit to move the action along. Nearly everything is told in the first person, but related not just by the principles, but by the dead as well as the living, and by inanimate objects, such as a statue of the Virgin Mary and the shovel Cleopatra uses to dig for treasure. In the case of the town’s sheriff we get differing accounts, one of what actually happens and the other having to do with his idealised version of events in which he is the hero. Cleopatra is little more than a reactive agent, simply responding to events, hardly ever initiating action himself, and haunted by images of ancient Egypt and memories of military service in some foreign land (probably Vietnam). The non-human characters are drawn with panache, coming across rather more as comic cut outs than divine creatures, with grandiose names and put upon attitudes to underline the joke.

With passages written in a faux stream of consciousness style and the story constantly backtracking to fill in details or relate events from a different perspective, this is a bravura performance from Connell, one in which his invention never flags, though at the same time raising the spectre of nullity, the fear that all this style that he flings in the reader’s face is simply a distraction from the lack of substance. No, that’s wrong, the book has loads of substance, but it doesn’t present an especially cohesive story, aside from aesthetic concerns, which makes it mirror real life rather more than you might expect from a story of this fabulist nature. I liked it a lot.

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OR: The Midnight Side

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

THE MIDNIGHT SIDE

Nastasha Mostert

Hodder & Stoughton hb, 263pp, £16.99

Isa is woken in the middle of the night by a garbled phone call from her cousin Alette, but then in the morning she is notified by a lawyer that Alette died two days ago. Alette’s sole heir, Isa flies to London from her home in South Africa to sort out her cousin’s affairs, but then she becomes ensnared in Alette’s posthumous plan to destroy genetics entrepreneur Justin Temple, her ex-husband and the man Alette held responsible for ruining her life. But unbeknown to Isa, Alette’s death was no accident and now she has placed her own life in danger.

This is a murder mystery with paranormal trimmings, though in themselves these add little to the story other than novelty value. The plot develops at a credible pace, if a little too predictably; the red herrings could never be mistaken for a fish of any other colour. The characterisation is handled well, particularly the relationship between the two cousins, with the emotionally dependent Isa vulnerable to the more self-assured Alette’s manipulation. The author has obviously done her research in matters psychic, financial and genetic, so that those elements ring true. Yet for all of that the book is a little flat, a competent piece of writing rather than something that grabs hold of the imagination and won’t let go. To be damned with faint praise rather than applauded with both hands.

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OR: Alexander at the World’s End

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #22:-

ALEXANDER AT THE WORLD’S END

Tom Holt

Little Brown hb, 434pp, £16.99

While Alexander’s name is on the cover and he dominates the  book, the story is about Euxenus, an impoverished citizen of Athens and apprentice of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who is sent on a diplomatic mission to Macedon and becomes tutor to the future world conqueror. When King Philip wants to off-load some mercenaries, Euxenus is sent to establish a colony at Antolbia, where he rules for many years, resolving internal disputes and those with their Scythian neighbours. Finally, Euxenus returns to Athens, only to be snatched away again at the whim of Alexander, who requires his help in establishing the ideal city, an ambition planted in his head by a chance remark Euxenus made many years before.

As you’d expect, given comic fantasist Holt’s pedigree, humour is never far away in this book, and as a chronicle of the ancient world it has more in common with Lindsay Davis’s Falco novels than the work of people like Mary Renault and Allan Massie. And it’s humour which is the book’s saving grace, turning what could have been a rather pedestrian account of marginal events into an engaging story. Euxenus’s first person narrative is a witty and acerbic account of life in classical Greece, full of marvellous characters sketches of the philosopher super-stars and orators of the day, all delivered in a delightfully dry and self-mocking tone of voice. It only falls off in the last quarter when a different narrative voice intervenes, that of Euxenus’s soldier brother Eudaemon, a necessary device if we are to have a first hand account of Alexander’s military career, but introducing a broader note of farce after the refinement of what went before, and setting the stage for an ending that seems abrupt and anticlimactic.

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OR: I Am Behind You

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 23rd of January this year:-

Having started the week with a review of a short story collection by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist we’ll carry on the good work with some love for his 2014 novel I AM BEHIND YOU (riverrun hc, 4066pp, £18.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy and first published in the UK in 2017 by an imprint of Quercus Editions.

There are four caravans and four couples, two with children (a boy and a girl) and two with pets (a cat and a dog). These people wake in the middle of the night to find that they have been taken from their campsite and put down somewhere else, a flat and featureless landscape that they cannot escape no matter how far they drive. There are the inevitable personality clashes, with tensions running high and plans formulated to survive, each using whatever resources they have at their disposal. But as the nightmare continues they come to suspect, as does the reader, that they are where they are because of actions taken in the past, and the longer they remain the more minatory and surreal events become, with fiery visions witnessed and bizarre acts taking place.

The story is told from shifting viewpoints, with every character given a turn behind the mic and even the cat and dog allowed a voice. As characters go, these are very different people, their solid grounding in reality and the discord between them a great part of what makes the book work so well. There is ex-footballer Peter, model come trophy wife Isabelle, and their daughter Molly, who seems to know rather more than the others about what is going on, and is creepy enough to make Wednesday Addams seem positively affable by comparison. There are farmers Olof and Lennart, two lifelong friends on holiday together after being abandoned by their wives. There is shopkeeper Stefan and his wife Carina, their son Emil, who is only too easily dominated by the weird Molly. There’s the loutish Donald and his wife Majvor, who has visions of James Stewart. We get to know these people intimately, learn of the things that scare them and the dreams to which they aspire, visit the past enshrined in their memories and see all their dirty little secrets, the things that possibly brought them to this pass. And, like the reader, the dog and cat look on, providing a neutral perspective on what the humans get up to, keeping whatever they know to themselves.

This is, apparently, the first book in a trilogy, which possibly explains the lack of any real closure at the end, but even if that were not the case, if this was all that Lindqvist has to offer us, it would be enough. As a book of conjoined character studies alone it would be a compelling work, one that holds the attention from first word to last, with Lindqvist’s quiet, confident prose drawing the reader on and into the world of his story, setting us up for the moments when the mask is ripped away and we stare at stark, unreasoning terror. And there are many such moments here, in both past and present, scenes to make the reader sit up and pay attention, moments of gore and moments that defy belief, for reader as well as whichever character is experiencing these things at the time. There are aspects of the surreal and psychodrama in the book, each informing the other and driving the story along, and perhaps an element of the metafictional, at least in the opening and closing sections, though that may simply be sleight of hand style misdirection on the part of the author. Hints of vampires and zombies too, and the sense that there is some grand, overarching design, one that the reader can sense but not quite put a finger on, though perhaps there is a clue in the title. What is behind you? The past, and it appears to be past events that shape the formless future of these people, but perhaps fragments of Lindqvist’s earlier books also, as if this is the confluence, the place where all stories blend together.

I am of course waffling. I don’t really know what ultimately this book is about, but I do know that I was thoroughly immersed in its world, that I want to get my hands on the next instalments of this putative trilogy and read them all. There is a certain feeling of authenticity about I Am Behind You, a suspicion engendered in the reader that the creator is putting more of himself into the work than is normally the case, that something greater than a story is being laid out on the page. On this evidence, Lindqvist is one of the most original and assured writers currently at work in the fields of the weird, and whatever he does next will be worth seeking out.

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OR: Let the Old Dreams Die and Other Stories

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 20th of January this year:-

A new year and a new me, who feels that it might be time to climb back on the Late Review horse and see how long I can remain in the saddle this go round before other demands on my time bring it all to a shuddering halt.

We’ll start the 2020 campaign with LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES (Quercus hc, 456pp, £16.99) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a writer who’s been labelled the Swedish Stephen King by some. I haven’t as yet read the book which made his reputation, vampire novel Let the Right One In, though I have seen and adored the film version (the Swedish original, not the US remake), but for my thoughts on a couple of his other novels see the links in the index. Released by Quercus in 2012, Let the Old Dreams Die is a reissue of a collection that was originally published in Swedish in 2006 as Pappersväggar (Paper Walls), with the addition of the title story. Marlaine Delargy does the translation honours.

Tina, the protagonist of ‘Border’ (also made into a film, which I recommend seeking out) was disfigured by a lightning strike as a child, but by way of compensation she has an almost supernatural ability to sniff out smugglers, making her role as a border guard at a customs post work superbly well. With the arrival of the man Vore, who has a secret she cannot uncover, Tina is set on a path that leads her not only to question what she is doing with her life but to discover the secrets of her past. This novella length story is a superb opener to a very strong collection. Characterisation is pitched perfectly, both as regards Tina’s “outsider”psychology and that of those around her, especially her ailing father and often absent partner Roland who do good service as sounding boards for reader and protagonist alike. Tina is the epitome of the outsider, an alien in her own skin. Having given us such an intriguing scenario Lindqvist goes even further, offering a variation on the archetypal story of the changeling, presenting a world that is very different from the one we think we live in, understand and control. The monsters presented here are, in their way, far more human and deserving than those we regard as our own kind. I loved it.

In ‘Village on the hill’ Joel notices something odd about the apartment block in which he lives. Lindqvist gives us plenty of hints and suggestions of something seriously awry, the story a perfect example of quiet horror in its early stages, these simply lulling both Joel and the reader into a false sense of insecurity before the shattering and bloody developments that herald the story’s denouement. ‘Equinox’ is the tale of a woman who becomes obsessed with a corpse she finds in an empty house, only to find that her interest is resented by the deceased. Lindqvist does so much right here, capturing perfectly the psychology of his crossword compiling protagonist and her love of word games, the boredom that drives her on, and counterpointing this with the mystery of the dead man who isn’t, putting a chill in our hearts at the unnaturalness of it all, only to then deliver an ending that calls everything into question.

A desperate paparazzi falls prey to a creature that lures him in with hallucinations in ‘Can’t see it! It doesn’t exist!’, the story building well and unpacking its surprises with real aplomb, the character of the photog drawn in subtle brush strokes. The ‘Substitute’ is a teacher, recalled many years later by a former pupil who has spent time in mental health institutions, and who believes that she was a lot more (and less) than she seemed. There is a Dickian feel to this story, a suggestion of existential crisis and that the reality we think we know is a sham, that other things are seeping through and taking over our dimension. It is a story that lays down its propositions with enviable panache, gradually constructing a case for the outré that is hard to refute. Anna and Josef have the perfect relationship, but they wish for ‘Eternal/Love’, and after a near death experience at sea Josef thinks that he may have found a way to conquer Death. This was a fascinating story on the theme of be careful what you wish for, with the relationship between the two leads drawn in convincing depth and the steps that lead to immortality portrayed in a way that makes it all seem horribly plausible, with obsession taking root as the rot at the heart of a previously idyllic existence. As ever when such bargains are made with fate and mortality there are consequences that are unlooked for and unwelcome.

A sequel to Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, ‘Let the old dreams die’ is told from the viewpoint of a friend of a couple, one of whom was a police officer investigating the original case. It is a perfect picture of love and domesticity, interwoven with a mystery that defies the laws of science, and with a resolution that offers equal parts hope and despair. Written in an amiable, easygoing style it effortlessly holds the attention from first word to last. Presented in the form of one side of a dialogue, ‘To hold you while the music plays’ is the shortest and least successful of what’s on offer here, a bit too oblique for my taste. I’d guess that it’s the ‘monologue’ of a man wishing to be crucified, but I’m far from sure, and regardless of whether I’m right or wrong it doesn’t really work all that well.

One of the highlights of this collection, and gratifyingly upbeat, ‘Majken’ is like a Fight Club for the older woman, with a gang of women organising elaborate robberies as a front for their real aims. It’s an engrossing, fascinating story, one with engaging characters and a marvellous plot, plus a subtext with which many readers will find themselves in sympathy. ‘Paper walls’ tells of a boy who goes camping in a cardboard box and the unknown creature that came to him in the night. It’s well written but didn’t really go anywhere to my mind, the situation set up with finesse but not much delivered in the way of a payoff.

Finally we have another novella ‘The final processing’, which is a companion piece to Lindqvist’s zombie novel Handling the Undead. Kalle gets work as a delivery boy to the Heath where the bodies of the undead are being held and experimented on by a mad scientist of sorts. He falls in with a group who wish to reunite the undead with their souls and save them from the proverbial fate worse than death. This is another winner, a lengthy story with larger than life characters, such as fading rock star Roland and hippie chick Flora, while in the enigmatic Visitor it has a monster of truly memorable potency. Underlying it all is a strand of spirituality and metaphysics that helps to raise the story above the schlock fare often served up under the zombie label.

Rounding it all out are some words by Lindqvist detailing a few of his own obsessions/concerns and explaining how the stories came to be written, and also giving us his thoughts on the end to the film of Let the Right One In and how it was not what he had envisaged for the characters. It offers a fascinating codicil to an exceptional collection of short stories from a writer with an intriguingly different take on the stuff of horror, one that at its finest addresses philosophical themes but doesn’t shy away from the wet work when necessary either.

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