Filler content with hungry ghosts

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #34:-

CHAPBOOKS

Paul Kane’s CREAKERS (Spectral Press chapbook, 29pp, £4) is the story of Ray Johnson, who makes a comfortable living by fixing up old houses and selling them at a profit, but in this case the house in question is his family home, inherited after the death of his mother, and the job comes with many unhappy memories. While staying at the house Ray is troubled by the sound of creaking, something that thwarts all his efforts to bring it to heel, and then there are the horrific visions that could be hallucinations, dreams or something worse, as the terrors of the past seep into the present.

This is well done, with some nice spectral effects to disturb the reader, such as the invasion of insects and the phantom lovemaking in Ray’s mother’s bedroom. The characters are competently drawn, with Ray’s troubled past put over effectively by suggestion, and his burgeoning romance with amiable neighbour Pam convincingly rendered. All the same, when you come right down to it, there is very little here that the seasoned genre reader won’t have seen done before. People haunted by their past, with the nasty twist that Kane here throws into the mix, is a plot scenario that is becoming a bit too common nowadays for my liking, and though well done this is just another example to add to the roll call, an assured story but with nothing to make it stand out from the crowd.

And, to possibly contradict myself, I loved THE FOX (This Is Horror chapbook, 23pp, £5.99) by Conrad Williams, even though it shares the same – haunted by the past – template. The difference is that on this evidence Williams is a far more subtle writer than Kane and the kind of prose stylist who can take even the most mundane of plot devices and make them sound like a hallelujah chorus. The difference is in the telling, not in what is told.

The unnamed protagonist of The Fox is on a camping holiday near the New Forest, with wife Kit, daughter Megan and baby Lucy, and they find themselves snowed in. Four chickens go missing from the coop of their farmer landlord, with only a spot of blood to suggest that a fox has taken them, unlikely as it seems. And then the next day they discover a dead fox lying in the snow, only it has disappeared by the time the farmer is brought to see the body. The protagonist is haunted by memories of an incident in childhood and the sense of guilt it engendered, with a not entirely unexpected but nonetheless chilling final twist.

This superb story is the perfect showcase for Conrad Williams’ ability as a writer of unsettling horror. The atmosphere builds gradually, with strange events set in a wintery, claustrophobic landscape and the hint of something equally claustrophobic in the main relationship. But it’s in the back story that things really hit home. Not only does karma bite, but it pays house calls. For the protagonist of The Fox the sins of his past demand blood sacrifice in the present, to appease the ‘hungry ghosts’ that haunt him. Author Conrad Williams once again demonstrates his mastery of the short form in this whiteout of a story, as disturbing as it is compelling, and written with an assured feel for the topography of both the natural landscape and the human psyche.

I’m going to assume that much of the interest in these chapbooks will come from collectors, and so a word or two about ‘peripherals’. Creakers is produced in a signed and numbered edition of 125 copies, and the book has an introduction by Sarah Pinborough. The Fox is released in a ‘Signature’ edition limited to 300 copies. I’ve reviewed both books from PDF format, so can’t speak as to their production values. Both publishers offer chapbook subscriptions – £16/4 in the case of Spectral and £20/4 for This Is Horror, who also offer some other goodies as part of the parcel, such as a ‘free’ e-chapbook, so that you can read the story without having to fret over the possibility of ‘soiling’ that might impact on the resale value. Check their respective websites for more information.

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