Filler content with the condemned

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

TWO BY SIMON BESTWICK

Gray Friar Press continue their commitment to the novella form with THE CONDEMNED (Gray Friar Press pb, 248pp, £8.99), containing six of his best by up and coming author and Black Static contributor Simon Bestwick, and four of them appear to be original to this collection.

Opening story ‘Dark Earth’ revisits Bestwick’s obsession with the First World War, as seen in his novel The Faceless and various short stories. A soldier fighting in the trenches makes a terrible discovery, one that leads him to leave the ranks and join forces with a multi-national group taking refuge in no-man’s land. Pitched as the confession of a deserter sentenced to death, the story posits the idea of wormlike parasites that thrive in the conditions on the Western Front and so possess people in authority to ensure that the conflict continues, though Bestwick adds an extra frisson to suggest human culpability. It is a powerful tale, one that operates on several levels, giving us an exciting story along similar lines to work such as Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, but with the conditions of trench warfare convincingly rendered and serious points to be made, undercutting it all a savage indictment of the circumstances that led to this unnecessary and terrible loss of life.

Second offering ‘The Narrows’ is basically the film The Descent given a post-apocalypse makeover, as three teachers and the pupils in their charge take to underground passages in the wake of a nuclear attack, the story grimly claustrophobic and unsettling, with the suggestion of something terrible taking place in the background. It was previously published in the Gary McMahon edited anthology We Fade to Grey and selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year. I originally reviewed it in Black Static #8, and said pretty much the same thing as here, only at greater length.

A bank robbery goes wrong in ‘A Kiss of Old Thorns’ and the criminals hide with an old man in an isolated seaside dwelling, but they don’t realise what they are doing and why he garlands his house in wreaths of thorns. Tensions among the group, with the young Andrew mocked by the others, cause their downfall as they unleash a powerful evil through ignorance. It’s a routine story, taking a bizarre idea and running with it, but Bestwick elevates the material through his characterisation of the robbers and the way in which the psycho-drama plays out between them, with young hopelessly besotted with Nick, and the camaraderie between the two older criminals giving them extra depth, so that they become more than simply brutish thugs, are multi-faceted individuals. Think Reservoir Dogs given a supernatural spin.

Ella is ‘The Model’, supplementing her student grant by going to a deserted building late at night and posing naked for artist Ken, who always remains in shadow and about whom there is the suggestion of something inhuman. These sessions always leave her feeling exhausted, and she appears to be aging unnaturally, but Ella needs the money and it doesn’t seem as if Ken will let her go. Perhaps the most traditional of what The Condemned has to offer, this variation on Wilde’s Dorian Gray builds gradually and with skill, Bestwick embroidering his stem narrative with elegant grace notes and touches of detail that flesh it out marvellously, unexpected twists and turns to enhance the macabre feel of the piece, finally delivering an ending that, while it might initially seem uplifting, is undercut with the bittersweet taste of too little, too late; an escape but not a victory.

My personal favourite, and the other story to have been previously published, ‘The School House’ is set in a mental hospital, where one of the patients and one of the orderlies have shared memories of their time spent at a private school and the bullying that went on there. Bestwick cannily blurs the lines, so that you don’t really know where the story is coming from, but the final revelations and the way in which he brings this house of cards crashing down on the protagonist’s head is compellingly done, the true nature of the ghosts shown, adding a human dimension to these aspects of outré evil in a story that takes a bunch of old clichés and familiar ingredients – the madhouse where the lunatics have taken over the asylum, confused memories, the evil building – and runs with them to deliver something that feels fresh.

Bringing down the curtain is the earliest of these novellas and, to my mind, the weakest. ‘Sleep Now in the Fire’ is the story of uptight David, visiting the infamous Blackheath Estate in search of his missing brother and finding it overrun by the evil Blueboys, compelling him to complete his brother’s work in destroying these monsters. It’s a plot driven story with plenty of action along the way, but one where the subtext looms so large it threatens to overshadow the narrative – just in case you don’t pick up on the significance of the name Blueboys, the monsters make their stronghold in the local Conservative Club and are vanquished by the light from red star weapons. Right wing protagonist David sees the error of his ways, discovering that the estate’s people are decent enough, needing only a little help to get out from under, but I doubt if the rest of The Daily Mail reading demographic will be as easily swayed by the polemic in a story as risible as it was fun, while the rest of us can only grind our teeth and complain that in real life the Blueboys can’t be seen off quite so easily.

LET’S DRINK TO THE DEAD (Solaris Kindle eBook, 93pp, 0.77) contains three stories set in the same world as Bestwick’s novel The Faceless, and intended to throw extra light on the events of that book, though I don’t think you need to have read the novel to appreciate these.

Opening piece ‘The Sight’ tells, in comic book parlance, the ‘origin’ story of medium Alan and his sister Vera, and how they managed to escape the child sex ring that preyed on the children of the town of Kempforth, at the same time laying the foundations for Alan’s guilt and the way in which the spirits of those left behind, to suffer and die, were able to haunt him. The story is painful to read at times, showing the terrible things that monsters do, and at the same time shot through with compassion for the sins and omissions of their victims, allowing redemption of a kind to the one who stayed behind, and the threat of something awful for the one who ran away. While there is little or nothing here that readers of The Faceless won’t already have encountered, the skill and empathy for the characters which Bestwick brings to the work and uses to put flesh on these bones is as inspirational as it is harrowing.

In ‘Gideon’ Bestwick takes a common trope of the horror genre, that of the designated victim who escapes from one danger only to stumble into something far worse. A young woman who catches a lift with the wrong driver seeks sanctuary in the environs of abandoned mental hospital Ash Fell where a madman with an agenda is waiting for her. It’s a lively enough piece, one that rises above the clichés inherent in the material to both entertain and tell us something more of the motives of the Dace family from The Faceless and how their stewardship of Ash Fell got so out of hand.

Finally in ‘How Briefly Dead Children Dream’ psychic Myfanwy and her one time lover, two old people near the end of their days, must visit the grounds of Ash Fell to confront the Shrike and save the lives of two children, the story compellingly interweaving both the personal and larger concerns, while in the figure of the Shrike it provides us with a memorable monster, one who seems like the apotheosis of paedophiles, a thing that hardly bears thinking about. It’s a fitting end to a strong collection of stories, all of which, to repeat myself, work perfectly well as standalone stories but at the same time add to our understanding of the events Bestwick wrote about in The Faceless and serve as the perfect taster for that longer, more ambitious work.

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