Filler content with history – Part 3

Following on from last Sunday’s post, here is the third and final part of the feature on historical horror fiction that originally appeared in Black Static #25:-

HORROR DOWN THE YEARS (continued from Sunday’s post)

You could make a similar case for THE COMPANY MAN (Orbit pb, 460pp. £7.99) by Robert Jackson Bennett having steampunk/alternative history trappings. It’s set in a 1919 that bears very little resemblance to the facts Google pulls up for that year, a world where huge air ships power through the skies and the Great War never took place. Responsibility for much of this state of affairs lies with the globe straddling McNaughton Corporation, a company that, thanks to the rustic genius Kulahee and his peculiar inventions, has come to dominate the international stage. But not everyone is happy with the new world order, and even as McNaughton aims for the stars in its California heartland of Evesden, the so called ‘city of the future’, union factions plot against it (yep, it’s those damned socialists again, with their intolerable demands for workers’ rights and fair pay). Matters reach a head when eleven union members turn up dead in a trolley car, with absolutely no explanation as to how they could have been killed. With the exception of detective Garvey the police are happy to write it off as gang warfare, but McNaughton themselves are somewhat more concerned and set their best man on the case. Cyril Hayes has a special talent, the ability to read the thoughts and emotions of those who get close to him for any length of time, but he’s a rogue talent, and so McNaughton appoint up and comer Samantha Fairbanks to keep Hayes focused on the investigation. But as Hayes probes ever deeper, he makes some startling discoveries, both about McNaughton’s role in world affairs and the true origins of the company, and about his own status, how somebody like him came into being.

This is a complex book with some labyrinthine plotting, but for all of that the great reveal at its denouement is something of an anti-climax, a revelation any canny reader will have intuited the minute we’re told that Kulahee’s inventions didn’t seem to be designed for human hands. But while the strip might be just as expected, the tease we are given is all of a remarkably high quality, with the author confident enough to not spell everything out on the page, leaving room for the reader to speculate and reach their own conclusions about each separate element.

The main strength of the book is in the characterisation. Garvey is the quintessential honest cop, somebody who would probably find life a whole lot easier if he just took the bribes like everybody else and toed the official line, but driven to seek the truth even as it hurts him, an old fashioned policeman doing old fashioned police things, like catching the bad guys. Hayes, with his colourful past and telepathic ability, is the wild card, and we can never guess which way he’ll jump. Like Garvey, with whom he’s friends of a sort, Hayes leans towards the honest, but not if holding stuff back will give him an edge. At bottom he is a survivor, feared by those who wish to use his ability, and like the protagonist of Silverberg’s Dying Inside suffering the pain of having the whole world crash in on his consciousness at times, with the author’s ability to show how this would play out a particular delight of the book Samantha is the bridge between these two, falling in love with one of them, and resentful of the other but coming to respect him as she realises how little of what she has been told about the world is the truth.

So pervasive is its influence, that the city of Evesden should be considered a character in its own right, not just the stage on which the drama is played out. It is a place of contrasts, with the elegant sections where the rich live and play rubbing against the poorer quarters, and on every side the remains of building projects that fell victim to budgets cuts and circumstances, the signifiers of an ambition that exceeded its reach. It’s a stage set that hints at something utopian while revealing how far we have fallen in the attempt. Hayes and the others venture into the dark places, the abandoned tunnels and secret factories where McNaughton is hatching a future that is already stillborn, and over everything there is the pall of corruption and the sense of an inevitable dissolution which, depending on whether you read The Financial Times or not, gives the book a contemporary feel.

It’s not exactly horror, but in the grim atmosphere of doom and gloom, the shambling monstrosities, human and otherwise, that lurk in corners of this world, and in the prevailing sense of tragic inevitability that hangs over every page like a funeral shroud, it contains much that horror genre readers will recognise and welcome as their own.

While McNaughton might have saved the world from all out war in The Company Man, it’s business as usual in Lee Thomas’ THE GERMAN (Lethe Press pb, 290pp, $18). The book is set in 1944 in the Texas community of Barnard, where a young man turns up dead, the first of several to be abducted and brutally slaughtered by a serial killer. Suspicion falls on the German members of the community, with the social divisions that have always been present in Barnard but papered over, now coming very much to the fore and past good behaviour of no account. Eventually the hunt for a scapegoat settles on Ernst Lang, who has the ‘bad judgement’ not only to be German but also homosexual and unashamedly so, and when the local law enforcement won’t take action for lack of evidence then vigilante justice becomes the order of the day, with the stage set for a very human tragedy, one rooted in our prejudices and unwarranted assumptions.

The story is told by means of three intertwined narratives. Sheriff Tom Rabbit is a man’s man, someone who has to be informed by the local doctor of exactly what homosexuality involves, and still can’t quite take it on board, though to his credit he will not allow an innocent man to be railroaded regardless of how he feels about Lang’s sexual preferences. Playing counterpoint to Rabbit’s third person narrative is the first person account of young Tim Randall, Lang’s neighbour and the man of the house while his father is away at war. Tim is an innocent, friendly to Lang at first, but turning against him and instrumental in the German’s persecution when he witnesses an act of sodomy. Tim is too young to put what he sees into any real context, accepting the judgement of his peers, and in Lang’s ‘perversion’ identifying a similar deviance to the evil that has taken his father away from the bosom of his family. He is not an evil person, but he is unthinking and impressionable, and so the end result is pretty much the same, although Tim does get a chance at redemption. And finally there is Lang himself, his story told by means of journal entries. A former high ranking Nazi, he left Germany in 1934 and, while not denying his past, is somewhat scornful of his former associates (and in the figure of Lang we get the book’s one supernatural element, with the suggestion that he has somehow risen from the dead). Lang is a man who rejects the concept of shame, both about what he has been and who he still is, refusing to deny his sexuality when questioned by Rabbit, a course that in 1944 is almost certain to lead him into trouble.

Thomas is deft at delineating what makes a community, showing that Barnard is not just a matter of bricks and mortar but in essence consists of the various relationships between its human constituencies, the various families and communities that make up the gestalt that is the whole. That social cohesion, already under stress in time of war, is undone completely when the killer strikes, with friends and neighbours looking askance at each other, and yet more terrible things waiting in the wings. The story devolves into a familiar template, that of the pitchfork wielding villagers braving the monster in its lair, only on this occasion the monster is simply someone who is different from the majority of us, and for that he must be held accountable, as the ideal of the norm enshrined in small town psyche will tolerate no variation from its tenets. Thomas takes the risk of making Lang an essentially unsympathetic character by virtue of his Nazi past, so that for the reader the challenge is to reject bigotry and prejudice even when the person on its receiving end is somebody towards whom we feel little but antipathy. It’s a daring strategy, but one that works very well, reinforcing the idea that in matters of principle we don’t get to pick and choose who we treat humanely and when we turn a blind eye, with the gut wrenching scenes of torture that are central to the plot underlining the message and showing the real monsters of the piece in all their rancid evil. And yet, for all of that, we are left to wonder if even the bully Hugo and his cohorts are evil, or guilty of nothing more than being poorly informed and adhering unthinkingly to the prejudices of their elders.

Thomas’ book is an important novel, one that uses the tropes of horror fiction to address matters that are still vitally relevant today, more than sixty years after the time in which it is set. It seems that we always need the scapegoats, and if there isn’t an obvious monster as a target for our self-righteous indignation then we’ll make one to fit the bill.

And so we come to the present day and O MY DAYS (Triskaideka Books pb, 348pp), a novel by David Mathew, who used to be a member of the editorial team on our sister magazine Interzone, but when he turns on a word processor to write Mathew produces material that would be more at home in Black Static.

It’s the story of Billy Alfreth, an inmate at Dellacotte Young Offenders Institute, somewhere in the north of England. Billy has memories of being attacked by three men, but CCTV footage doesn’t bear out his account and so he is banged up for stabbing one man. It’s but the first in a series of reality slips that dominate this book, as Billy’s world overlaps with that of Ronald Dott, a serial rapist incarcerated in the so called Puppydog Wing, who claims to know Billy from way back when he was a child, only that’s impossible. And then there’s Kate Thistle, ostensibly at Dellacotte to study prison slang, but inordinately interested in both Dott and Billy. As strange events occur and his reality begins to unravel Billy learns of the Oasis, and the prison ship where Dott was a captive until Billy rescued him, and of the town of Hospital where time works in mysterious ways (e.g. for some people body parts age at different speeds, and in Dott’s case he is getting younger). Dott tells Billy that he was a king, and grown to serve him, which makes no sense but holds a terrible implication for Billy. Dott wants his help in ending his own existence.

Mathew takes a huge gamble with this novel, writing much of it in prisoner argot, a ploy similar to Burgess’ use of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. Initially it makes the book a challenge to get into, but as we become familiar with the slang this is of less importance and instead the narrative is enriched by the sense of verisimilitude brought into play, with the different lives of the inmates thrown into sharp focus when they interact with outsiders, those who do not speak the same language as them, or have the same concerns.

Time is central. For the inmates of Dellacotte, spending time is the thing that matters most, getting through another day when everything is the same as the day before and the day before that, when all they can do is wish away the minutes and hours and days until release. And so, inevitably, for Billy the town of Hospital, a macabre and unusual invention that could so easily have sprung fully formed from the mind of Clive Barker, is a place where time operates differently, where most people are its victims but there are also those for whom it becomes a servant. Dott is a time vampire, taking time away from the other prisoners, hoarding it for himself and then using it to unleash the acts of violence that help to stay his personal aging process.

This could, of course, all be Billy’s fantasy. At the end of the book very little about his situation has changed, but contrarily his understanding of his situation and the strategies he will use to deal with it have undergone a quantum shift, seen in the letters he writes to his mother, father and the estranged mother of his child, in the acceptance that he is, at least in part, to blame for the predicament in which he finds himself.

O My Days is a remarkable book, one that, like the best of Barker’s oeuvre, finds nobility and wonder of a kind in the monstrous and downtrodden, a certain beauty in the grotesque, but the prose is all David Mathew’s own, a distinctive voice that is crying out for an audience to listen.

Back to the future with THE ZOMBIE AUTOPSIES (Grand Central Publishing hardback, 198pp, $19), whose publishers seems keen on you knowing that author Steve C. Schlozman is a doctor, with the letters MD prominently displayed on the cover after his name, and they are right to do so, given that medical expertise is a vital part of what’s on offer with this title. Subtitled ‘Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse’, Autopsies is yet another entry in the zombie verity school of fiction made famous by the likes of Max Brooks, who is happy to endorse it.

It’s 2012 and two thirds of the world’s population have succumbed to a plague (ANSD) that induces zombie like symptoms, and despite the use of nuclear bombs all efforts at prevention or cure have failed. Dr Stanley Blum journeyed to the isolated research centre known as ‘the Crypt’ and there performed a series of autopsies, recording the results in his notebooks, which form the bulk of the text of The Zombie Autopsies.

The end result is a fascinating and convincingly detailed account of medical men working in impossible conditions and the desperation that engenders. Part of the problem is that some of the people Blum dissects were known to him personally, and there is also the nagging idea that they are still alive (even if no longer classified as such by the WHO). My medical knowledge begins and ends with ‘the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone’, but certainly this all sounded convincing, while Schlozman injected enough human drama into the situation to make me care about the characters and invest emotionally in what was going down. Complete with line drawings, it is a compelling slice of documentation, bracketed by supporting text from Blum’s superiors (the good doctor having disappeared, presumably infected), that tell of the plague’s spread and how the UN reached an accord on the non-living ‘even though still ambulatory’ classification of victims, with other notes that show a very human and unscientific side to Blum and some of the other members of the cast. I didn’t expect to like this very much. It had about it the feel of something thrown together to cash in on a trend. In the event, I was (un)pleasantly surprised.

Fortunately by 2019 the world seems to have recovered from its zombie problems just in time for TTA PR man Roy Gray to introduce us all to THE JOY OF TECHNOLOGY (Pendragon Press chapbook, 35pp, £3), and those who are easily shocked should take note that this is a sexually explicit work, very much so in fact.

Young Dennis’ estranged father is doing some bonding by taking his son to see their team play in Dusseldorf, and as a special treat before the match he takes him to ‘prap’ club The Joy of Technology. ‘Prap’ club, you say. What’s one of those? Well basically it’s a Virtual Reality brothel, where men place their cocks inside contraptions that are linked to dildo shaped probes being used by the young ladies on the stage, so that sensations are relayed from the dildo to the encased penis. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what use is being made of the dildo.

It’s an intriguing idea, and probably something that isn’t too far away in terms of affordable technology (I believe there are already body suits with sensors adapted to a similar purpose), though whether we’ll be pursuing such pursuits in public venues rather than, via the internet, the privacy of our own homes is another matter. Gray doesn’t stint on showing how this kind of ‘adult’ entertainment could play out in the real world, but there’s a serious side to the story. The owner of The Joy of Technology has engaged an ‘expert’ to spice up the pleasures that they offer, and his ideas on the matter are not entirely wholesome, even by sex club standards. Dennis is treated to an experience that he isn’t mature enough to place in any proper context, and the boy’s attitude to the opposite sex is completely changed by what he undergoes (with the suggestion that a misogynistic agenda was the intention all along), and this is where I have reservations about the work. There is certainly a dialogue to be had on ways in which the sex industry is demeaning to women and the possible effects of sexually explicit material on impressionable minds, but in this particular scenario the change was simply too abrupt and dramatic to be convincing. Regardless, while I feel Gray overstates the case, there is no denying that he does so eloquently and with a powerful message about the ways in which technology is alienating us from each other, offering computer interfaces in lieu of human interaction, and the dangers that could lie in wait.

And, as a side issue, some parents really need to buck up their ideas on how to relate to their kids. All I ever got from my father was a sodding train set.

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