April, then. A month I shall remember as too much shit and too few shovels, if I can be bothered to remember it at all that is.
Here are some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #32:-
THIN MEN WITH YELLOW FACES (This Is Horror chapbook, 24pp, £5.99) by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick is the second release from the This Is Horror stable. It’s the story of Gabrielle Holmes, a worker with Child Protection Services who sets out to save a young girl she believes to be at risk, only Gabrielle has made some bad choices in the past and nobody is quite sure that she is right this time. Unfortunately the menace to Heather Mayhew is even worse than Gabrielle suspects, and the teacher who reported a problem and others associated with the case start to die in horrific circumstances. Heather herself is terrified of monsters characterised as Thin Men with Yellow Faces, and in the system of tunnels beneath London Gabrielle discovers the horrific fate that awaits Heather and other children.
This is a story with a strong political subtext, initially a conventional horror plot containing all the expected traps and devices, but then evolving into something more ambitious. Gabrielle is convincingly portrayed, an idealistic young woman who wants to do the right thing no matter what, prepared to sacrifice her career and even her life to prevent a young girl getting hurt, though always with the hint of ambiguity, so that we can’t really be sure how much of what she reveals is delusional self-aggrandisement. In the figures of the Thin Men the story has a genuinely creepy nemesis, but the real horror lies in the justification of atrocity and all the things done in the name of the status quo, the idea that the pain of one will somehow ameliorate the suffering of the many. There is a moral standoff in the opposed viewpoints of Gabrielle and the Thin Men, and while the authors seem clear on where they stand, for the reader the situation may not be quite so clear cut.
McMahon and Bestwick have produced a work that is genuinely disturbing, not least for the trenchant criticism it provides of a system in which the expendable few are sacrificed for the supposed good of the many, holding a mirror up to the society we have colluded with our masters in creating and allowing us to see what stares back.
Nightjar Press bring us SMALL ANIMALS (Nightjar chapbook, 14pp, £3.50), their second release from Alison Moore, whose novel The Lighthouse was in contention for the latest Man Booker Award.
Heather is taken by her friend Marilyn to visit Kath, who lives with her child in an isolated house, far from civilisation. She suspects that Marilyn is setting her up on a blind date, but in reality she’s concerned about daughter Nina and wants Heather, who is a child psychologist, to take a look at the child. But on arrival Kath is acting strange and the new man in her life arrives, manifesting immediate hostility to the women.
Moore writes a pitch perfect tale of gathering unease, the situation moving from strange to distinctly disturbing, with the final revelation hinting at something truly awful about to occur. Unknowing Heather works wonderfully well as the viewpoint character, afraid that she is being used and thanks to her ignorance the ideal foil for the story’s surprise ending. And that ending is pulled off with remarkable aplomb, striking a true note of horror, one that is all the more effective for being so totally unexpected, these two career women who think that they are safe in their lives suddenly discovering that they are not, that life holds untold possibility for destruction and that they are now set firmly in the monster’s sights. This quiet tale of creeping unease and reality shift is a superb example of what the short form is capable of.
I wasn’t quite so convinced by Nightjar’s other offering, PUCK (Nightjar chapbook, 12pp, £3.50) by David Rose, though it’s a story that definitely benefits from a second reading. Written in the first person, it’s told from the perspective of a painter at an isolated cottage with his daughter Philomena. Inserted into the text is information about the painter’s ex-wife, and then the myth of the goatsucker, reputed to be the souls of unbaptized children. And you can probably guess what happens next.
On the surface it’s a very obvious piece, written in matter of fact terms and with an ambiguous note at the end, and not particularly gratifying. But scratch the surface and something else appears to be going on, with the goatsucker as a possible metaphor for the relationship between the painter and his wife (he describes her as draining him and there is the possibility he may be suffering from glaucoma: blindness is caused in herd animals by the goatsucker’s efforts), and another strand of the story concerns the painter’s obsession with art to the extent that he neglects or becomes oblivious to others (another form of blindness).
My initial thought was that this was a story of contrivances and coincidences, the whole no greater than the sum of the parts and slightly unsatisfactory, but with hindsight it feels better than that. It’s well written and thought provoking, and if there is a problem then it’s perhaps that it tries to do too many things in too little space, and so doesn’t quite succeed as well as you hope with any of them.
More standard fare with WHAT GETS LEFT BEHIND (Spectral Press chapbook, 26pp, £4) by Mark West, in which a business trip brings Mike back to his hometown of Gaffney, a place he has avoided for many years, and he takes the opportunity to make peace with the spirit of his old friend Geoff. As twelve year olds they ran from a gang of older children, taking refuge in an abandoned factory that was being used by The Rainy Day Abductor to store his female victims, a diversion that was to result in tragedy. As memories overlap with incidents in the present day, Mike’s visit to the factory turns into a nightmare. He replays the events of the past in his mind, only the sense of guilt he feels gives rise to an entirely different outcome.
I got slightly annoyed by the usage of an apostrophe in front of “phone” when the word stands perfectly well on its own as a contraction of “telephone”, but overall it’s a competently handled piece, with some evocative if not particularly inspirational prose and a nicely realised atmosphere of urban decay, the suggestion that life hasn’t gone well for any of us, outward appearances to the contrary. The back story with its media fever dream of a hunt for a serial killer is well realised, as is the antipathy of the older boys, the various strands building into a picture of an idyllic summer past transformed into a nightmare. In some ways it put me in mind of Deadgirl, or at least how that film might have played out if the girl had been alive and discovered by children instead of teen rapists. Nearly everything about the story is to the good, and yet although I enjoyed it at the same time I can’t really work up much in the way of enthusiasm, mostly because the elements of the plot all seem so familiar – bullying boys, a serial killer, a guilt driven victim returning to the scene of the crime. I was hoping for something more original.
More original is what we get from THE WAY OF THE LEAVES (Spectral Press chapbook, 28pp, £4) by David Tallerman. The story opens with the protagonist bemoaning the loss of his wife, and then in flashback we get the story of how, as children, he and Charlotte visited the barrow hidden by vegetation atop a hill on the outskirts of their village. She went missing inside the earth, believed kidnapped by the Folk and he rescued her. Their married life though has been difficult, the two of them drifting apart as she constantly reflects on what has gone and what might have been. Then Charlotte’s father arrives to reveal some more of the truth about what happened in the past.
This is the first thing I’ve read by Tallerman and initially I’d expected a variation of some sort on Scott Smith’s The Ruins but the introduction of the Folk take things off in a different direction giving us an evocative and moody piece, filled with longing for love lost crossed with a realisation of the impossibility of what has taken place. The atmosphere of the isolated barrow, a place fenced off from the world, is created vividly on the page, with a growing sense of unease on the part of the protagonist playing counterpoint to Charlotte’s fearless curiosity, and what we learn of the back story fleshes out the role of the drunken father, allowing an explanation for his behaviour and possibly foreshadowing the fate of the protagonist. Not really a horror story, this is rather a work of weird fiction, one in which the ancient legends are brought to compelling life, with a sense of the numinous lurking aback of the words, and I loved every page of it.