Black Static #37 is now at the printers, so I’m now happy to post book reviews from #34 to this blog, and that issue we led off with this feature:-
MARK MORRIS: FEAR IN ITS VARIOUS FORMS
Mark Morris is one of the survivors of genre fiction. He first came to my attention back in 1989 with the release of Toady, a tale of small town horror in the King doorstop tradition that was produced while the author was part of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, and since then he’s stayed in the game as a professional author, no mean achievement in these interesting times, a writer who has adapted and seems equally at home producing novels of his own devising and diving into the franchised worlds of others, bringing his imagination, skill and mastery of the craft of writing to whatever project he’s working on.
Although it’s an area in which he is an accomplished practitioner, short stories from Morris’ pen are a comparatively rare occurrence, with until recently only the 1995 collection Close to the Bone out in the wild, which is why 2011’s LONG SHADOWS, NIGHTMARE LIGHT (PS Publishing hb, 297pp, £7.99) is most welcome, with fifteen stories between its covers, the earliest from 1993 and the latest original to the collection. In subject matter they range from variations on the traditional themes and methods of horror fiction, through to more keenly felt and novel material that is strikingly Morris’ own.
Opening story ‘Eternity Ltd’ is more science fiction than horror, the title referencing a firm who offer resurrection to the newly dead, but implicit in this premise is the assumption that the living wish to keep their loved ones with them always. Morris reminds us that this may not be the case, bringing a convincingly matter of fact manner to the business of handling the dead, seeding the narrative with intriguing ideas and some insight into human nature, all of which primes us for the gratifyingly schlock denouement. One of two stories that originally appeared in The Third Alternative (the predecessor to Black Static), ‘Holes’ is the beautifully rendered account of a love affair, set against the backdrop of giant holes appearing all round the world. Photographer Jez must deal with the fact that his beloved Eve has some dark mystery in her past, but nothing can quite prepare either him or the reader for the rabbit Morris pulls out of his magician’s top hat in this audacious work. What we get by way of an explanation for all that is taking place is well and truly out there, but the real thrust of the story and its emotional underpinning lie in the tale of a hopeless love and the secrets that two people keep from each other, the mundane and all too real aspects of the story conferring plausibility on the endeavour as a whole. Next up is an unusual twist on the Wicker Man trope as three horror film fans who delight in ropy movies travel to an isolated village for a festival in ‘The All-Nighter’, the story perhaps a tad predictable but still fun and with some gripping interplay between the main characters, each of whom are well drawn, and of course we always suspected that one day this horror stuff would turn round and bite us.
‘Coming Home’ is perhaps the weakest of what’s on offer, but still a fine story with a pregnant woman gifted a premonition of her husband’s death in the period before Christmas, a mood piece that does what it says on the tin. I couldn’t help thinking of X-Files villain Eugene Victor Tooms while reading ‘Immortal’, the tale of a shape shifter who has to renew himself every so many decades by sacrificing others. Morris takes the concept and shakes it by the scruff of the neck, putting his own spin on the material, so that alongside the overtly horrific actions are the feelings of the killer about what he has become and how he can live with that knowledge, so that it has a moral dimension that confers a redemptive gravitas on the story and almost allows us to sympathise with the monster doing these terrible things. Objects from her past keep materialising in Anna’s life in the story ‘Lost and Found’, reminding her of a tragedy in the past. She thinks that her dead brother is reaching out to her, but when Anna and sister Terri return to the family home something far more awful awaits them, in a well-constructed story with some engaging characterisation and a series of revelations that hold the reader’s attention right to the end, even if that end does feel a trifle formulaic.
There’s something of Leiber about ‘The Places They Hide’, those stories in which he showed the intelligence and malignity behind supposedly inanimate things like oil and electricity. In Morris’ variation we have the familiar trope of a madwoman who claims to have discovered something dreadful about the way the world works, conspiracy theory elevated to a metaphysical level, and drags in the nurse who takes an interest in her rambling, the story neatly turning and twisting en route to its inevitable surprise ending, which wasn’t that much of a surprise after all, but the details of the journey adequately compensate for the predictable destination. ‘What Nature Abhors’ is a surreally slanted tale of spectral revenge, Meacher finding himself alone on a train and then in a deserted town centre, menaced by shop store mannequins and hunted by gangs of ne’er-do-wells, the effects building steadily to create an atmosphere of arch-weirdness, and then Morris pulls the rug out from under our feet, revealing why all this is happening to the character, with the suggestion of some guilt driven psycho-drama being played out. Naylor is horrified by the state of the world and believes that he is the apostle of the aliens who create corn circles, their message to the world a scream of ‘Enough’, the story cleverly conflating psychology and the outré, macrocosm and microcosm, as one man’s head becomes a conduit to alien forces.
Death is returned to in ‘Nothing Prepares You’, which cleverly sells the reader a dummy with a first section dealing with Martha’s grief at the loss of her husband, then revealing the sombre truth of the matter and underlining the inevitability of death. What message the story contains, is best summarised by the title, with a subtext about how we need to value life on its own terms rather than feel misery that it won’t last forever. A common or garden device employed in horror fiction, is to have the narrator write down their story and then stop mid-flow when the monster arrives. In Morris’ variation on this, ‘The Story of April and Her Colours’, mentally challenged Michael is an innocent who doesn’t realise how he is being exploited to open a gateway to another world or dimension, the story fascinating and developing at a leisurely pace, the unreliability of the narrator giving the screw another turn, with the reader never quite clear as to what is going on, whether what we are actually witnessing is simply some form of abuse or something far worse. ‘Losing It’ is another story with a surreal feel and moments of black humour, as Steve’s abandonment by his girlfriend Rachel cuts the last link with his humanity, setting him on the path to a transformation into something monstrous in appearance, as if his selfishness has been a catalyst for change, the outward Steve mirroring his inner being.
Another offering from The Third Alternative in its heyday, ‘Copying Cannibals’ was my favourite story in the collection, a panegyric for childhood and lost innocence, as a boy attempts to emulate the sympathetic magic of cannibal tribes with fatal consequences. Reminiscent of work like Lord of the Flies in its depiction of the savagery lurking in young boys, Morris’ story brings his characters to compelling life on the page and makes real the fascination with the macabre that leads them into such trouble. A man is called to account for a mistake made in childhood in the story ‘Salad Days’, a competently told revenge piece which addresses the rights and wrongs of the situation, holding the man guilty for what the child did, and then ends with a powerful denouement, one that is truly macabre and has echoes of Lovecraft. Monstrous entities take the place of ‘The Dogs’ in a woman’s household, the story told many years after from the point of view of niece Alice, who is thought to be responsible for her aunt’s death, the story building well but with a rather routine twist at the end. Regardless, it’s a fine curtain call to an excellent collection, one that combines reliable crowd pleasers with stories that venture that little bit further, that take risks and shine a light on the unsavoury aspects of human nature and illuminate the darkness in places we really don’t want to go.
Another string to Morris’ bow is his work on various franchises, such as Doctor Who and adaptations/novelisations based on work that debuted in other media, as with the computer game inspired novel Dead Island that I reviewed last year. Given his horror genre pedigree Morris is an obvious writer for Hammer to enlist in their publishing venture, and sure enough he has turned his hand to a treatment of the 1972 film VAMPIRE CIRCUS (Arrow/Hammer pb, 344pp, £6.99).
The action has been transplanted from nineteenth century Austria to twenty first century England, which causes a few problems with the logistics of the thing (e.g. something more than a plague is called for to isolate the endangered village), but overall you don’t see the joins, at least as far as I can tell, and it has been a long time since I last viewed the source material.
In the book’s prologue, the vampire Karl Mitterhaus is staked through the heart and his lair Mitre House burnt to the ground, but before he dies the vampire vows vengeance on his enemies and swears that their children will help him return to life. Ten years later the community of Shettle is disturbed by the arrival of the Circus of Nights, with everyone enthralled by their premier performance except for the few who participated in the vampire’s destruction – doctor John, teacher Nick, private detective Chris and journalist Andrew. These few realise that they and their children must take on the creatures of the night, with Shettle cut off from the outside world by a sickness barrier.
Like the film on which it is based, this book is hardly a horror classic, but it is an engaging read with enough grace notes to stand alone. The characters are well drawn, each suffering because of what happened in the past and then finding that they have to fight the same battle all over again, with the loss of loved ones and their own lives placed in the balance. Morris spares us nothing, with children killed and heroes burnt to a cinder as the evil of the Circus spreads, culminating in the slaughter of their own helpers and a desperate struggle, one in which Nick’s wife Anna recovers something of her humanity. Where the story scores is in showing how easily a community can be undone and torn apart, simply through not understanding the threat that it faces, with so many innocents falling under the spell of the Circus. You can even find a political subtext of sorts in the way in which the community is distracted by smoke and mirrors, blithely indifferent as their freedoms are taken away from them, but that could just be me writing my own concerns into Morris’ narrative. Bottom line, this is a fast paced action story, one by which the reader is gripped, with echoes of other famous carnivals and circuses, such as that of Cougar and Dark. Morris takes our innocent fascination with such things and turns it against us in an entertaining novel.
Finally we come to a consideration of Morris’ most recent work, the short novel IT SUSTAINS (Earthling Publications hb, 150pp, $35), which I’d rate one of the three best books I’ve read so far in 2013.
When Adam was fifteen his mother, a pub landlady, was killed by yobs. Adam and his father moved to a new village, where he initially makes little effort to fit in, but is co-opted into the gang of Stanny, who has a fearsome brother, somebody who remains off screen throughout, but there is the suspicion that he may be Danny Thorpe, the Svengali responsible for the death of Adam’s mother. Adam knows that he should get away from the gang, something in which he is supported by Adele, who wishes to be his girlfriend, but instead finds himself getting drawn ever deeper.
There is the sense of something outré going on, Morris using every trick in his writerly repertoire to generate and reinforce an atmosphere of menace, with a strange figure seen in the mirror or out of the corner of an eye, somebody or something that is trailing Adam but which he cannot confront. Cryptic messages are left on his mobile phone, and when he is summoned to the school at night to meet his correspondent, Adam fears that he is being pulled yet further into a conspiracy orchestrated by the omnipresent Thorpe, one whose denouement will eclipse his very reality, bringing a moment of epiphany, with the reader left to wonder how much of what takes place is supernatural in nature and how much simply the processes of grief unfolding in a grim psycho-drama.
Repetition seems to be a leitmotif of this work, the subtext that if we don’t learn from our mistakes then we are doomed to repeat them. Except that’s not quite it. Rather let’s say that Adam is trapped in a cycle of remorse and grief, so that instead of embracing his new life he becomes haunted by the spectre of Danny Thorpe, the evil nemesis who spoils everything for him. The final sections of the book, with the other-worldly creatures appearing, offer a chilling concretisation of Adam’s internal fears, or they can be taken at face value, the outward manifestation of whatever is wrong with the village in which Adam and his father now live, with hints of a ritual akin to that of The Wicker Man, Adam’s vital fluids absorbed by the genius loci of the place, so that he belongs to it.
The real narrative thrust of this short novel though, is in the way it deals with grief, the most horrifying and chilling sections those in which we learn of what happened to Adam’s mother, the scene told in flashback so that we read it with a creeping dread of the inevitable. And playing counterpoint to all of that, there are the normal perils of teenage life, arguments with a parent and first sex, girlfriends and trying to fit in to a new community, the kind of stuff that confronts us all at some stage in our lives. Morris is excellent at getting inside the head of his character, making us understand what makes Adam tick through suggestion and oblique strategies, letting us discover him for ourselves instead of simply laying it all out on the page. And so we come to empathise with the character and want the best for him, even while wondering if he isn’t his own worst enemy at times.
Grief and paranoia and the supernatural collide in this tale of rural horror, and the end result is something unique and unsettling for the way in which we recognise the familiar beneath the outré trappings. To repeat myself, this exquisitely written and compassionately imagined small novel is one of the finest books I’ve read so far this year and I recommend it without reservation. It is a compelling demonstration of what Morris is capable of when at his best.