Filler content with history – Part 1

Five reviews that originally appeared as part of a feature on historical horror (in this case a catch all use of the term, I’ll admit) back in Black Static #25:-

HORROR DOWN THE YEARS

While horror fiction as a genre come marketing niche might be a relatively modern invention, the stories themselves and the emotional response they evoke have always been part of our cultural baggage. And, as if in recognition of that, modern authors have often found the past to be a rich seam to mine. For this issue I thought I’d take a look at some recent fictions that are set in years gone by.

Leon Jenner’s BRICKS (Coronet hb, 136pp, £12.99) was originally released online as an audio book, then picked up by Coronet after more than quarter of a million downloads, and given some very nice packaging. Author Jenner is a builder and the viewpoint character here is a bricklayer, only in this reality bricks seem to be the most important thing in the world and the character is possessed by an eternal spirit, one who has helped shape human history. Our ‘hero’ revisits his previous life as a druid in pre-Roman Britain, helping to repel Caesar’s invasion, and these scenes are interesting and offer an engaging read, while in the present time he appears to have used his powers against some thugs, with the suggestion that perhaps he is somewhat unbalanced (read ‘barking mad’).

Intriguing as it sounds, this plot is simply window dressing, with the bulk of the text taken up by the druid expounding his philosophy, stressing the importance of nature and Britain in the great scheme of things, giving us the benefit of his wisdom about sex and political correctness, all of which is made somewhat less than palatable by the underlying tone of menace (the druids have culled mankind before, and they may well do so again if we don’t mend our ways). You can’t get past the idea, reinforced by thirty pages of supporting material in two appendices, that this isn’t so much a novel as a fictional pulpit from which the author can preach. To be fair, there is something of interest to the philosophy contained in the book with its conflict between idealism and materialism, but the delivery leaves much to be desired and seems slanted to alienate rather than convert, while the character’s interpretation of history is somewhat biased, seeing everything through the lens of his own obsession. The overall effect is like having to listen to a pub bore drone on about whatever takes his fancy, but a pub bore who, in this case, feels smugly superior to his audience, regarding them as an inferior species.

There’s the potential here for an offbeat and interesting book, one that examines an off kilter psyche, that of somebody who believes himself to be a druid in a previous life, but it’s sacrificed in favour of self-indulgently lecturing the reader, and doing so badly. The message gets in the way of the story, with the end result that this is probably the worst book  I’ve read all year, if not all century.

Skip forward a hundred and twenty years or so, and we come to the age of ROMAN HELL (Amber Quill Press pb, 179pp, $13.50). Author Mark Mellon’s protagonist is the poet and man about the forum Martial, who supplements his income by spying for Titus. The poet learns of a plot by Titus’ ambitious younger sibling Domitian to assassinate his brother and assume the purple with the aid of the witches Canidia and Sagana, but is unable to save his employer. Martial does however manage to ingratiate himself with the new ruler of Rome by helping Domitian renege on his arrangement with the witches. Before she dies Canidia roundly curses them all, and the second half of the book shows how that curse plays out through the agency of two children grown to adulthood and an emperor drunk on power.

Reading this made me think of Dennis Wheatley in a toga, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There are, in the acts of witchcraft and especially the raising of Hecate, in the slightly unctuous figure of Martial and the refined lifestyle of his associates, and of course in the hints of more prurient material being held back, echoes of the Duke de Richleau and his cronies, with their old style black magic. And, inevitably given the Flavian dynasty setting, there are also strong intimations of Lindsey Davis and her Falco novels whispering on the wind. Mellon shares with Davis a ‘love’ of such signs of the times as collapsed tenement buildings and urine used in laundry, denoting a similar attitude to research and the inclusion of the details of everyday life that are necessary to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader.

But where Davis appears to find the Flavian period liberating, for Mellon the facts and nothing but the facts are somewhat more constrictive. The big sticking point for me is the curse on Domitian which, because you can only take so many liberties with established historical fact, doesn’t kick in for over fifteen years, leaving him absolute ruler of much of the world for that time (the longest reigning emperor since Tiberius). I’m sorry, but I can’t really take seriously such a long-winded and anti-climactic curse. Any real sense of menace is defused simply because we know that nothing dramatic is going to happen for a very long time to come. And, in prose terms, Mellon has more in common with Wheatley than Davis, a competent writer rather than a prose stylist, his writing often coming across as somewhat detached, stilted even at times, with no elegance or real life to it, none of which makes for a gripping read.

Only at times though. Mellon is at his best, and the book works very well indeed, when events are at their most perilous. At such times the Martial voice fades into the background and instead we’re left in the capable hands of a narrator who excels in describing scenes of battle, be they in the streets of Rome or in the gladiatorial arena, against supernatural foes or human adversaries, and in his depictions of magic and its results. A particular delight are the early descriptions of Canidia and her sow like sister Sagana, who powerfully embody evil, while the ceremony at which Hecate is evoked is an almost pitch perfect portrayal of the macabre and sinister. In the second half of the book when the younger generation take charge, things are somewhat diluted to my way of thinking, the evil given an ersatz glamour that detracted from its minatory aspect. Characterisation is another strength, particularly in the case of Martial who, as I observed earlier, is somewhat unctuous, but appropriately and convincingly so. In his person we see the poet as careerist, small minded at times but also capable of bravery and generosity, the picture of a man forced to compromise his principles simply to survive. Domitian is his opposite, a man with ideals given absolute power and demonstrating the truth of the old adage about power corrupting. He isn’t a bad person as such; it’s simply that in his sandals it’s very hard to be good. And ultimately this contradiction is the undoing of the emperor, with the last pages giving us the picture of somebody who has lost the plot, a man whose every whim becomes law and who falls prey to petty spite, becoming an object of fear simply because everyone is afraid of him (that made sense when I wrote it).

Roman Hell is far from being a bad book. I’d quantify it as an intriguing diversion into familiar backwaters of history, not entirely successful in what it aims to achieve, but entertaining enough and with much to commend it.

Set in 976 AD, VIKING DEAD (Abaddon Books pb, 352pp, £7.99) by Toby Venables is the latest entry in Abaddon’s ongoing Tomes of the Dead series, and for those who’ve wondered what would happen if you crossed Vikings with zombies (a question that torments me all the time), this book has the answer.

Venables cleverly divides the narrative between seasoned Viking warrior chief Bjolf Erlingsson and the boy Atli, who has run away from his village to join the marauders on their rounds and finds that he may be in for a tad more action than he bargained for. As well as providing a character for any YA readers to identify with, through the introduction of Atli, Venables has given himself a convenient (and not too obviously infodump shaped) way to inform us about aspects of Viking life, as the boy is brought up to speed by his new shipmates.

Fleeing an adversary, Bjolf and the crew of The Hrafn stumble across an isolated community under threat from the zombies that periodically wander out of the surrounding forest. This threat however pales into insignificance compared to that represented by Skalla and his men, who take tribute from the villagers and back up their demands with the use of zombie berserkers. Being an honourable man, despite all the rape and pillage stuff, Bjolf is horrified by what is going on and agrees to help these benighted people (who are ruled over by a rather hot looking warrior woman type, not that such considerations were a part of his thinking). Vikings and villagers set off on a perilous trek through the zombie infested forest, culminating in an attack on Skalla’s island stronghold, where an even greater menace and revelation awaits them.

There are echoes here of the opening scenes of the film Beowulf, albeit with zombies in lieu of a whopping great dragon. Overall it’s pretty much an action packed, plot driven affair, with our Viking heroes given an admirable dimension in spite of their marauding ways by virtue of having to fight something far worse. As far as all that goes, Venables doesn’t miss a trick, pitching his dramatis personae from one frying pan into another fire with commendable zeal, and throwing a vividly realised assortment of threats at the page – zombies, Vikings, berserkers, traitors, flesh eating insects, a darkly brooding forest, and then something even worse than all of that, but some things you’ll have to find out for yourself.

While it never feels like a history lesson, there’s plenty of incidental detail about the shipboard life of a Viking marauder, and perhaps one of the most surprising things for the modern reader is the cosmopolitan nature of The Hrafn’s past voyaging and crew, with references to the far flung corners of Europe and religious differences thrown into the mix, showing how small the world was even before the internet, and the varied crew working together and in harmony towards a common end. Each character is well drawn, with signifiers that help to make him real to the reader and give us reasons to care when the shit hits the fan, as it inevitably does. There are rare moments when an anachronism creeps in (I cringed at a Viking warrior coming out with the phrase “I’m just saying” with all the blasé insouciance of a character in an American sitcom), but overall it seems convincing and works well.

Skalla was perhaps the most interesting character (the bad guys are always the most interesting- it’s a contractual thing), not just the comic book blacker than black evil mastermind, but somebody who has a reason for what he does, a motive grounded in past abuse, and at the book’s resolution he acts with more insight than one usually gets from such characters. In other hands he could quite easily have been the anti-hero of the piece, and kudos to Venables for giving us such a fully rounded nemesis for his heroes.

I’m in two minds about the ending, which while it made a certain sense also somewhat undercut what had gone before, providing a scientific explanation rather than a supernatural one, and giving the heroes a new lease of life, as they pitch up in an alternative to Valhalla. It seemed against the run of play, but I’m probably being pernickety. In any event, it was too little and too late to spoil this good, old fashioned romp of a saga.

“You are what you pretend to be, so better be careful what you pretend to be,” Vonnegut opined in the introduction to Mother Night, or words to that effect, and it’s advice the protagonist of Paul Finch’s latest chapbook should have taken to heart. Rodric is pretending to be KING DEATH (Spectral Press chapbook, 24pp, £3.50), roaming a countryside that has been despoiled by the Black Death and taking whatever he wishes, and if anybody should be tempted to object then his assumed identity is enough to discourage any thought of resistance. That is until he runs across somebody with a bone to pick with Death itself, at which point things get a little sticky for our freebooting hero.

Finch is a writer who seems equally at home writing work set in the past as he does with the present, and this chapbook is a good example of him at the top of his game. Finch gives us details of such things as armour and the historical backdrop that add depth to the story and show he has done his research, so that you never doubt the veracity of the story. The setting is central, with the protagonist wandering through a plague ridden landscape, with desuetude and decay perfectly evoked on the page, from the opening image of a caravan of corpses through to the final revelation of death. There are echoes here of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, with Rodric receiving a similar comeuppance to Prince Prospero, even though his act of hubris is entirely different.

There’s nothing here that’s strikingly original, and no subtext of any great weight, but King Death  is a well told tale, engendering the necessary shudders for the reader and with an ending you don’t quite see coming but which, in retrospect, seems entirely appropriate and to have much of poetic justice about it. Vonnegut would have approved.

Subtitled ‘A Dream of New England’, REVENANTS (Chômu Press paperback, 294pp, £11) by Daniel Mills comes with an acknowledgement to the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and though it’s been a while since I read House of the Seven Gables I can see the resemblance, but with its picture of a community torn apart there’s also a nod in the direction of the Salem witch trials and Miller’s The Crucible.

The year is 1689 and two young women have disappeared from the village of Cold Marsh, a Puritan community on the northern boundary of the Massachusetts Bay colony, one of them turning up dead in the river. When Ruth Eliot, daughter of James and betrothed of minister in waiting Edwin, joins their number, Edwin’s father William leads the men into the surrounding woods on a search that most of them feel will be futile, with the aged reverend Bellringer fulminating about witchcraft. In the woods the men are prey to the terrors of imagination, conjured up by the pent up guilt some of them feel over a massacre of the local Indian tribe that took place fourteen years ago, this feeling externalised in the mysterious figure that stalks them through the wild landscape. But this is only the prelude to a denouement in which the sins of the past come home to roost and superstition has its way with the people of Cold Marsh.

Mills writes in a simple  but highly effective style, minimalist but razor sharp, with the viewpoint shifting from character to character so that we get an overview of the whole situation, one that brings to vivid life the times he is describing and the beliefs that dominated the lives of these people. The narrative seems set on a cusp, with on the one hand superstition and a god given right to act as the character’s wish, and on the other an understanding of the natural world and man’s place in it, with the attendant sense of responsibility for one’s actions. Bellringer and William Brewer represent these opposing views, and the battle is fought for the soul of Edwin, William’s son but also rather too enamoured with the preacher man for his own good. The wild woods in which so much of the action takes place, are both an emblem of nature and its mysteries and also a reflection of human nature itself, something we try to tame and fence in, but inevitably in vain. As with the original Eden, there is a snake in the garden and, predictably, women get the blame, luring men into sexual relationships, and then suffering the consequences when the male guilt syndrome kicks in and a scapegoat is necessary.

As the title suggests, wafting in and out of the narrative are the ghosts of the past, and also of the future. Some of the seekers in the forest are granted a disturbing vision of the Cold Marsh that is to come, while the Indians are a constant factor, their absence dictating the emotional climate of the novel, and in the figure of Bellringer’s wife we have a more traditional ghost, one who wishes for her story to be told and justice done. Ultimately there is no explanation for what happened to Ruth Eliot or the other missing women, but in many ways they are irrelevant, simply a catalyst for other events. The real heart of the story is in its compelling depiction of a community tearing itself apart with grief and guilt in equal measure, of men whose sense of fairness is abandoned in favour of a sterile sanctimony.

This is a powerful and compelling novel of colonial America, one which has about it the feel of the genuinely weird and mysterious, but with its subtext of xenophobia and prejudice is a thoroughly modern and relevant work. On this evidence, Daniel Mills is a writer to watch.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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One Response to Filler content with history – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Filler content with history – Part 2 | Trumpetville

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