And following on from Tuesday’s blog entry, here’s another five reviews and the second part of the feature on DarkFuse novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-
DARKFUSE NOVELLAS (continued)
From Castell Community College, with its shadowy corridors and unwanted guests, we neatly segue into reviewing a haunted house story or three.
In SHATTERED (DarkFuse eBook, 95pp, $2.99) by C. S. Kane, Stacey Sheldon and her fiancé Liam move into a flat in an old building on Claremont Street, the only place where they can afford the rent. From the very start she senses that something is wrong. Claremont Street has a reputation for housing sex offenders and junior arsonists, there’s fungus clinging to the walls in the bathroom and the central heating doesn’t work. Things escalate, with Stacey having nightmares and hallucinating, all of which causes problems with an at first sympathetic Liam, and those problems will continue until, with the help of a convenient infodump from an elderly neighbour, Stacey can get to the bottom of what went on in the flat many years before.
So far, so ordinary. This has all the usual trappings of the ghost story form, bringing nothing new to the table. It’s done well, with the best part being how author C. S. Kane brings Stacey and Liam, along with the other characters, to life on the page. Their relationship, with its ups and downs, has the feel of something genuine about it, as do Stacey’s interactions with other people, particularly at the local shop where she finds employment, As far as the supernatural aspects of the tale go, it really doesn’t cut the mustard, with a barrage of familiar effects and jump moments of the sort you can find in any low budget horror movie and a clichéd prime mover courtesy of Nasty Spooks R’Us. I enjoyed it in a pass the time sort of way, but didn’t feel that my time couldn’t have been better spent. The author has talent, but needs better material.
I was similarly underwhelmed by Lisa von Biela’s ASH AND BONE (DarkFuse eBook, 64pp, $3.49), in which career criminal Eileen Maroni purchases the rundown Harbor Hotel in the town of Cromwell Bay and sets about becoming an honest woman, but there’s something odd about the place, especially room #8 which creeps out even her dog Beau and guests report that the room is “wrong”. Eileen discovers that the hotel has been built on the site of a sawmill that burnt down with considerable loss of life. Then second rate reporter Frank Foster spends a night in #8 and has vivid dreams of the fire, ones that seem so real he feels compelled to get to the bottom of what is going on.
You can probably guess the rest.
Once again this is pretty much your bog standard haunted house story, with all the familiar tropes brought into play; the kind of thing that might pass muster as a filler episode of Poltergeist: The Legacy or something similar. It all feels slightly contrived and has about it a going through the motions quality. Author Lisa von Biela has little to offer in the way of originality and, while there’s nothing here to give a reader pause, there’s nothing that will cause clammy hands or heart palpitations either (exaggeration for dramatic effect). It’s a simple story, simply told, and that’s all there is to it I’m afraid. If you want something special in the spectral stakes, then you need to look elsewhere.
Third time lucky perhaps, with ELDERWOOD MANOR (DarkFuse eBook, 46pp, $2.99) by the writing team of Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes. Down on his luck, Bruce returns with son Cody to the family home to visit one last time with his dying mother, at her behest. But his mother has already passed on and there are hints it was not a natural death. Father and son are trapped by the snow in isolated Elderwood Manor, of which Bruce has unhappy memories and always found a little strange. The building is as off kilter and minatory as ever. Built by the founder of a fertility cult, the ground soaked with the blood of women and their children, Elderwood is now home to a vegetable entity that wants to feast on Cody’s lifeblood, something Bruce must prevent at all cost.
This is an example of that estimable subgenre of a subgenre, the haunted (stately) house story, with all the usual tropes you’d expect – a vast, rundown house with a chequered history, a child in peril, snow as a means to cut the characters off from civilisation, grace notes at the end which doff their cap in the direction of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. At times it feels as if the authors had a shopping list of the usual ingredients with which to prepare their feast, but despite all this Hawkes and Fulbright just about manage to pull it off, thanks in the main to some striking touches of originality, such as the tree entity and the ceremony in the sub-sub-basement, and the imagery of dead women is put to effective use. It engendered a shudder or two, and I enjoyed it rather more than not, even while noting the formulaic elements.
We’re still stuck out in the wild for DEAD FIVE’S PASS (DarkFuse eBook, 106pp, $3.99) by Colin F. Barnes. The trouble begins with a badly injured girl who is talking gibberish in a sick room and scrawling arcane symbols on the wall in shit and blood. Her boyfriend is missing up the side of a mountain, and a gang of four other teenagers are about to get in a whole mess of trouble as they search for a newly discovered cave. It sounds like a job for mountain rescue, but Carise and Marcel have a history and issues that need addressing (her alcoholism; his relationship with another woman; the dead person in their shared past), and it takes the intrusion of Cthulhu’s little brother to bring them together again.
This is a pretty straightforward action piece that owes more to the monster mayhem end of the horror spectrum than the creepy side, potential sfx extravaganzas served up in lieu of atmosphere. It’s entertaining enough with well-drawn characters and an intriguing scenario. Initially a bit like Michael McBride’s 2012 DarkFuse novella Snowblind with the plight of the four climbers, it segues off into something far more ambitious, with the revelation of a cult at work and its attempts to summon an Old One through blood sacrifice. And from that point on, it’s a matter of destroying the monster by any means possible and preventing the people who conjured it up from doing any more harm, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if and how Marcel and Carise take care of business. There’s a fair bit of variety in the nature of the menace, with plenty of scenes of schlock horror, suggesting the book was written with one eye on cinema options, and yes, I think it would make a good film, or perhaps even a TV series along the lines of Supernatural in light of hints that Barnes may wish to develop the scenario some more.
I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like, but from what I have seen I think of Brian Hodge as a writer who produces stories that involve hard choices, both for his characters and for the reader by inference. That’s certainly true of his brilliant novella WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY (DarkFuse eBook, 76pp, $2.99), which has deservedly been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award.
The aptly named Damien has horrific memories of events in his childhood, things so terrible that he isn’t entirely sure they actually took place. Then his brother Cameron turns up with news that their abusive mother is dead of pancreatic cancer, and asks him to go with him to visit a warehouse where he is keeping a secret, but Damien finds something terrible waiting for him. He sets out to learn what he can of the past, his mother’s time as a nun, her involvement with the Fifth Way and The Starry Road, and comes to an understanding of what she was trying to accomplish through her actions, a discovery that has serious implications for both Damien himself and the entire human race.
Lovecraftian in emphasis, but with an X-Files impetus in the idea of crossing human and alien DNA, this is a story that teases our sense of wonder and yet has more than enough wet work to satisfy the most jaded horror fan. It is a truly dazzling feat of invention, with Hodge cleverly seguing from atrocity show to a feeling of cosmic of awe. Damien’s work as a scientist and his affair with exotic dancer Ashleigh, make him an engaging and genuinely likable character, while the horror story of his life plays out on the page in the most shocking manner, with one revelation coming hard on the heels of another as he pieces together the back story of his mother. The sublime collides here with the overtly horrific, and each is reinforced by the other to the betterment of the work as a whole. Hodge is a writer who uses horror to a greater end, and this is a striking example of his craft.