Continuing on from yesterday’s blog entry, three more reviews and the second part of a feature on the work of Australian writers and editors that originally appeared in Black Static #39:-
AUSTRALIA, MON HORREUR (continued)
Of all these writers, Jason Fischer is the one who, to my outsider sensibility at least, feels the most Australian, with stories that simply couldn’t happen anywhere other than a land down under. Many of the fourteen stories in EVERYTHING IS A GRAVEYARD (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 254pp, £11.99) embrace various renditions of an outback apocalypse, with the requisite zombies as part of the mix, but also taking in giant kangaroos, man eating camels and ferocious drop-bears.
Fischer also does science fiction, as with opening story ‘L’Hombre’ telling of a secret society of adepts that exists within the arcologies in which the remnants of mankind survive, their members playing a game that enables them to feed off the life energy of the losers and live forever, but the last winner has grown tired of his immortality. Fischer juxtaposes a gripping and intense game, with larger than life characters, and questions about the purpose of immortality, whether there actually is any point to life after a certain time, the story echoing much work found within the vampire subgenre but uniquely the author’s own.
Two of the other stories, ‘The House of Nameless’ and ‘When The Cheerful Misogynist Came To True Town’, seem to be set in a passable substitute for Farmer’s World of Tiers but infused with the stylistic exuberance and madcap invention of a Cordwainer Smith, as various mythological entities including the Minotaur Raoul and Yahweh battle for supremacy, while a giant ocean liner cruises in and out of the stories. It’s crazy stuff, but with a relentless energy and feel of narrative joy, the writer having such a good time with this madness that the reader can’t help but get dragged in.
More sombre and downbeat are the two stories featuring Lanyard Everett, ‘For Want of a Jesusman’ and ‘Gunning for a Tinkerman’. Set in a post-apocalypse world that may not actually be ours, they have our hero dealing with dimension shifting witches, religious prejudice, cannibals and a giant snake, but at the heart of each story is the amoral, conflicted personality of Lanyard himself. Hated by all and hating himself, he’s a man with a past, make no mistake about it.
Horror is the meat of this collection though, and horror is what we get in spades. In the bleak ‘The School Bus’ the members of a walled community have to choose whether to rescue the people on a bus from the pursuing zombie horde, and for the young protagonist who makes this decision unilaterally there’s the discovery of exactly where the meat comes from in their community and why men visit a female amputee, the story a bitter one with a disturbing subtext about what we do to survive playing counterpoint to an action packed tale of zombie warfare. ‘Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh’ has about it the feel of a tall tale, a joke where you wait for the punch line but there isn’t one, as a police man and two robbers interact in a town threatened by zombie camels, the idea preposterous and yet gloriously entertaining, perhaps because it is so preposterous.
Zombies that kill with kindness come up against a serial killer in the unsettling ‘Pigroot Flat’*, a story about abuse and the victim becoming the predator that disturbs with its scenes of torture, while Fischer’s zombie variation is audacious and one that I can’t recall encountering before. ‘Hunting Rufus’ is pretty much Tremors with giant carnivorous kangaroos in lieu of worms, and every bit as much fun as that description suggests, except for the downbeat ending with the information that this is the start of the end for homo sapiens.
Entities wipe out the human race in ‘Busking’ apart from a few street performers who are allowed to carry on for as long as they can keep performing, with one female juggler discovering how to fight back. Again this is a story that could have been silly, but Fischer compensates with audacity and invention, making his characters come alive on the page so that we can identify with and believe in their plight, the central conceit grabbing the imagination. Flash fiction ‘Goggy’ is perhaps the most disturbing piece in the book, told from the viewpoint of a child abandoned in the middle of a deserted road, no rhyme or reason to what takes place, just unrelenting horror that we are as helpless to comprehend and disbelieving in the face of as the infant protagonist of the story.
Bringing the book to a close is title novella ‘Everything Is a Graveyard’, which reads rather like Romero’s Land of the Dead only with prehistoric drop-bears in place of zombies. Scavenger Gretel makes a living driving her beloved Torana out of Port Stanvac, but things are not going her way and she leaves town just before the drop-bears overwhelm its defences, only to be pursued by the vengeful Foreman and his cronies. It’s an action packed romp of a story with a larger than life heroine, and Fischer keeps the pace so fast that you never really stop to think about the logistics of what is happening or how drop-bears got to be such a menace. It is a unique version of the apocalypse, and a fitting end to an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable collection showcasing a strong new voice with a distinctive vision.
Edited by Amanda Pillar, BLOODSTONES (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 297pp, £11.99) contains seventeen stories by Australian writers, each written with the aim of exploring the not so common monsters of horror fiction, giving us new creatures to be scared of.
Leading off is one of the strongest stories, Dirk Flinthart’s ‘The Bull in Winter’*, which has mythological creatures attempting to survive in the modern world and not having it easy, particularly the Minotaur who finds that his natural endowments are his biggest selling point. There’s some scathing humour here, with a pointed attack on the bankers, but in the main it is a very bleak story, one in which the true monsters aren’t necessarily the ones who aren’t human, and the prevailing mood is one of sadness at the loss of so much beauty and grace, the fantasy subdued to crass commercial motives. ‘Euryale’ by Nicole Murphy has the gorgon attempting to keep her progeny in line, to convince them that preying on humans is not acceptable, the story addressing the theme of the monsters that lurk under the radar of society, in some ways similar to recent developments in vampire mythology, written with some excellent characterisation and a convincing creature as its protagonist.
There’s another superb turn with ‘A Small Bad Thing’* by Penelope Love, as expats in Kuala Lumpur fall victim to a mischievous spirit called a Toyol, but the real thrust of the story lies in the deteriorating relationship between the two leads, with a stillborn child hovering in the background and the grief caused by that loss, the ending of the story particularly cruel for the Toyol, who is only obeying its nature. A jilted woman falls prey to spirits from another dimension in Jenny Blackford’s ‘A Moveable Feast’*, with feelings of resentment and a child’s credulity leading into the kind of quantum shift in reality that was a speciality of Philip K. Dick, though perhaps a word like glamour would be more appropriate to capture the feel of this piece in which faery invades our world with a mission to provide a changeling.
‘Dead Inside’ by Pete Kempshall has a man trying to claim welfare payments for his deceased son and an alien creature reviving the child, the story convoluted and with some unpleasant moments of the creature feeding and going about its work, but in the end the human protagonist is revealed as the true monster, seeking to turn a profit from his loss. Fran in ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ by M. L. D. Curelas learns that her girlfriend is a banshee, who will draw energy to survive in the moment of her death, the story deftly exploring the idea that to function in the modern world a banshee must create believers, with a subtext about love and trust. In ‘A Mother’s Love’ by Richard Harland the protagonist Sean learns that his life was saved by voodoo magic years ago in Cuba, but his mother is afraid of him and the final reveal of the story shows that she has every reason to feel so, the matter of fact narration shattered by what Sean keeps in his cupboard.
Christine Morgan’s story ‘Ferreau’s Curse’ is one of the weaker offerings, a rather weak and unconvincing piece in which a gangster’s granddaughter brings an Egyptian prince back to life with a view to taking over the organisation, all of which left me rather cold, and the writing didn’t exactly bring the story alive either. Next up ‘Surviving Film’ by Thoraiya Dyer, in which an actress infected with HIV tries to transform herself into a ghost through the use of a special camera, one that will steal her soul, the story both sad and tragic for what it tells us about life and love. ‘And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible’ by Kat Otis is set in Highgate Cemetery, with a possessed woman conducting tours among the angry spirits, the story offering a refreshingly novel picture of the afterlife and the pecking order among dead souls, with a brave investigative reporter exposing what is going on at the risk of his own life.
One of the best stories in the anthology, Dan Rabarts’ bloody outing ‘The Bone Plate’ combines mysticism and the concept of a super soldier in a tale where a man tries to cling onto his humanity, but in doing so becomes a monster, one beyond redemption, the story driven by a manic energy and barely restrained machismo. In ‘Cephalopoda Obsessia’ Alan Baxter has a member of the British aristocracy going crazy over a psychic squid, the unsettling final scenes undercut by the inevitable comedy of the overall scenario, so that in the end it doesn’t quite work as intended. A selkie kills the sons of the three men who stole its ‘Skin’ in Vivian Caethe’s story, with bloodshed and revenge powering this tale of transformation, the alien creature putting things right after a long hiatus among human beings, seeking to recover what was stolen and assert its own identity, and with echoes of French film One Deadly Summer in the plot.
Last story, Stephanie Gunn’s ‘The Skin of the World’ explores the familiar idea of a woman in a madhouse who knows far more about the true nature of the world than her keepers, in this case that there is a war being fought by races of shape shifters, the story well written and engaging but not really offering anything new on the theme. It was a somewhat lacklustre end to a strong anthology, one that does indeed deliver new monsters to chill and horrify readers in search of something that bit different.
Juliet Marillier’s collection PRICKLE MOON (Ticonderoga Publications paperback, 242pp, £8.45) probably has the lowest horror quota of all the titles under consideration, but enough to be a book of interest.
Title story ‘Prickle Moon’ is set in a Scotland where superstition and folk magic reign, with the elderly wise woman required to sacrifice a tribe of hedgehogs to save the life of the laird’s son, and finding a cunning way to cheat this grisly fate. Beautifully written and with a keen sensitivity, it brings to life the beliefs of these people and makes them real, no matter how senseless they seem to modern readers, with an antipathy between female magic and male addiction to reason, the latter turning into bloodshed when abandoned. In ‘Otherling’ when twins are born, one becomes the bard who guides the clan through troubled times and the second is sacrificed, living as the otherling of the title and gifting visions, but one bard tries to cheat fate with disastrous consequences. Again it makes an impossible situation all too plausible, showing a world of natural relationships and how important sacrifice is. ‘Let Down Your Hair’ puts a comedic gloss on the story of Rapunzel, with its wry depiction of aging heroes and canny heroines, who are only too willing to be saved, so much so that they effect the rescue themselves.
The fairy tale feel continues with ‘Poppy Seeds’, as a miller sends his three sons off on a quest to prove which of them is most deserving of inheriting his business, and the youngest of the three finding a sorceress and true love, the tale delighting with its casual but assured inventiveness, and delivering a delightful twist at the end. The longest story in the collection, ‘’Twixt Firelight and Water (A Tale of Sevenwaters)’ is set in the Ireland of heroes, and concerns the two sons of a witch, one of them cursed to live as a raven when he rescues the other from their mother, and how the love of an adventurous woman saved him. It is a work steeped in magic and sadness, a story that embraces what it means to be both human and monstrous, and a tale that is beautifully told with Marillier taking not one wrong step.
Unfortunately we then get hit with a selection of very short stories, none of them more than ten pages, that I felt were very slight and on occasion a tad too sentimental, the kind of thing puzzle magazines would use for filler. There’s a ghost doing right, misplaced love, grieving widows, a teenager learning the rules of the afterlife, and a writer with cancer, and while none of them are bad, they don’t offer much for the reader to chew on either, and in some cases I’m wondering what they’re doing in a book with the “Fantasy/Horror” label on the back. Brief mention in passing for the science fiction story ‘Tough Love 3001’, in which a class of wannabe writers from various planets and races all become addicted to the work of Neil Gaiman, or something like that, the story having little reason to exist beyond pouring praise on the head of Neil himself and delivering a slightly forced final twist, though in fairness there was some nice descriptive writing when it came to the aliens.
The collection closes strongly though. ‘The Angel of Death’ is the story that best fits a horror label, with a volunteer at an RSPCA run shutdown of a puppy factory seeing a spirit dog and persuaded to adopt some of the victims as pets, the story veering to sentimentality, but with some truly horrific descriptions of what goes on at puppy factories, so that you can’t help but feel angry as you read, angry and disgusted at what human beings are capable of. And finally, the myth of Baba Yaga is dusted off for ‘By Bone-Light’, one of the best stories in the collection, as an abused child finds succour with the strange concierge at the block of flats where she has been taken by her stepmother, the story written with a delicate touch and a feel for the magical, even as it never loses sight of the mundane world in which such cruelty takes place. I loved it.
(TO BE CONTINUED)