Continuing on from Sunday’s post, four more reviews that appeared as part of a feature in Black Static #42:-
FRIENDS & FAMILY (continued from Sunday’s post)
Gary Fry has made only the one appearance in Black Static, and that was way back in #8 with ‘Taking on Life’. I interviewed him in #38 and, with five titles covered that issue and another two in this, he’s on course to be our “most reviewed” author of 2014. In the main this landslide is down to American publisher DarkFuse, who seem to be pumping out new volumes like horror is going out of fashion.
Case in point, the novel SEVERED (DarkFuse eBook, 203pp, $6.99) in which London suffers an attack by an unknown virus, named Agent Descartes by the boffins as it appears to cause a separation of mind and body in the victims. With the city quarantined and the government retired to their bunker, zombie like individuals roam the streets, attacking and infecting anyone they encounter, while in a halo overhead their minds have found a kind of satori. In this hour of need, the authorities call on maverick genius Stephen Hobbs who has just been dismissed from his academic post for becoming too friendly with one of his students. Hobbs agrees to have his own mind and body separated, so that he can persuade those in the halo to return to their flesh envelopes, but of course it isn’t going to be that straightforward.
This is the closest I’ve seen Fry come to the school of splatterpunk, side-lining though not abandoning his familiar intellectual concerns in favour of arterial spray and shredded flesh, with a plethora of violent set pieces woven into the plot, including an investment banker going crazy and putting the markets into a nose dive (nothing new there then) and an unemployed man blowing up Parliament (sadly, not while the government were in residence), while a roving TV crew stay just ahead of the zombies to give front line reports from the war zone. There are plenty of familiar tropes and imagery, as with the military man who seems intent on shooting now and not asking questions later, and the scientists experimenting on one of the zombies, while the halo effect put me very much in mind of the blood uprush in Life Force. These scenes are all well executed and, graphic as they are, never seem gratuitous, while Fry is excellent at stage managing his large and varied cast of characters, drawing each one of them with a fine pencil.
Central to the story is the contrary Hobbs, essentially a good man but at the same time somebody who can’t stop himself from tweaking the nose of those in positions of authority and joshing the occasional innocent bystander. He is the proverbial loose cannon, and before he can deliver the desired end Hobbs has to confront the problems of his past, the failure of his marriage to Helen and an incident in his childhood that has shaped the course of his life ever since, these personal elements strengthening the story arc and adding another dimension to the tale for the reader. The concept underlying the novel, of the mind/body separation (actually it’s not that simple – Fry fleshes it out somewhat using Hobbs as spokesperson) is an intriguing variation on the whole zombie archetype, with some fascinating philosophical theorising incorporated into the narrative, so that the end result of all this good work is an entertaining novel in the extreme horror mode that also gives the reader plenty to think about.
Novella SAVAGE (DarkFuse eBook, 66pp, $3.49) is the story of cognitive scientist Daryl who takes a wrong turn when driving home from an academic conference and ends up well off the beaten track in a small village where the distant locals are concerned with “the undisciplined”. He is asked to help cure a man they suspect of murdering several residents, but Daryl sees only an innocent drunk until something akin to consensus reality causes him to witness the man’s transformation into a protean creature. The villagers begin to wonder if Daryl too is “undisciplined”, and this sets the stage for an encounter with the killer.
As so often with Gary Fry the story is a framework within which he investigates psychological concerns. Daryl is a man with a strong sense of self-control, to the point that his girlfriend Frederique feels he needs to act a bit wilder. This aspect of his personality is taken to an extreme in the people of the never named village, whose conformity transforms them into something akin to an insect hive mind, and opposed to this is the killer who takes life in the most violent and shocking manner, without restraint. The two are polar extremes, with the suggestion that a healthy existence lies somewhere between, a synthesis of the disciplined and undisciplined. There are aspects of the book, such as the Brigadoon like village, that imply much of what is taking place is some sort of psycho-drama playing out inside Daryl’s head, with a final resolution that eludes him. In addition we get horror grace notes, such as a pub that reminded me of The Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf and a first appearance by the killer that brought to mind Leatherface’s introduction in TCM, that seem to intimate Fry is consciously working within a familiar tradition but adapting the tropes of genre to address his own intellectual concerns.
Gary McMahon’s work has appeared in the magazine a total of five times and I interviewed him back in #14. Like Gary Fry, McMahon has found a home with DarkFuse.
In novella REAPING THE DARK (DarkFuse eBooks, 74pp, $3.49) viewpoint character Clarke is Driver Z, the man who gets you safely away from whatever shitty business you’re involved in, but when a planned raid on a drug deal goes badly wrong he has to put his own safety first. The stash which he ends up with will be enough to finance a new life for himself, girlfriend Martha and their unborn child. But bad people are on his trail, not just the psychotic McKenzie who takes Martha hostage, but the cult members he robbed, who have raised a demonic entity to track Clarke down. Except not everything is quite as it seems, with the end game playing out in the ruins of a burnt out traveller encampment and Clarke flooded with memories of a forgotten past.
I loved this story. McMahon is superb at delineating the mind set of his protagonist, the amoral Clarke who manages to distance himself from the true nature of what he does by telling lies to himself, an element of self-deception that appears to run much deeper than we originally believe. The move and counter move game that he plays with McKenzie is riveting, with some vicious wet work going on, while the backdrop of the cult and their breeding programme hints that McMahon may not yet be done with these characters. His monster reminded me very much of the creature in Jeepers Creepers and is a powerful presence. Likewise McKenzie convinces totally as the deranged killer doing what he considers necessary to survive and prosper. Clarke dominates the story though, a man who is deceived and betrayed, by himself and others, even the woman he loves and who, in her own way, loves him, but is devoted to some higher cause. The ability to produce an exciting story combined with engagingly offbeat characters, men and women who are perhaps a little too centred on themselves but never without a redeeming quality of empathy or love for a dear one, is one of McMahon’s strengths as a writer and here he delivers in spades.
McMahon’s latest collection, WHERE YOU LIVE (Crystal Lake Publishing paperback, 266pp, £8.13), began life in 2012 as a limited edition hardcover from Gray Friar Press with the title It Knows Where You Live. For this new edition the author removed three of the original stories and added seven new ones, five of them previously unpublished, making nineteen stories in total plus a little something extra hidden in the author’s introduction.
There’s a meta-fictional feel to opening tale ‘Just Another Horror Story’, as a couple in a motel room round out their copulation with a gruesome urban myth, the woman eventually finding a book that contains the story in which they feature, the narrative cleverly stripping down the tropes of a sub subgenre and creating a frisson of unease that touches on the voyeuristic side of horror fiction by placing a reader surrogate inside the story. ‘Barcode’ presents a compelling and emotionally charged picture of a man who is faced with losing his business and his house in the uncertain economic climate, and has a vision that concretises the spirit of the time in the figure of a remorseless woman with barcodes for eyes, but it is a moment of catharsis and epiphany for him, leading to the conclusion that a better way can be found, a better world built out of the ashes of the old one. As so often in these stories the resolution we are offered is not so much that provided by a neatly sewn up plot, but an emotional one, the characters finding a truth or state of mind that works for them, albeit rarely one as upbeat as in this story.
In ‘The Row’ a surveyor becomes haunted by a street of long abandoned houses that he helps demolish, a malaise of the spirit that infects his life and causes the unnatural loss of his wife, drawn into those liminal places that the houses hid from the world and in which he vainly searches for her, the story one that gets under the skin. ‘When One Door Closes’ sees an old adage dramatized in the person of an unpublished writer and unemployed man who finds that he cannot open doors, his whole world closing in on him as opportunities are lost forever, the story powerful and effecting, not least in the way in which others appear to blame Nick Handy for things that are beyond his control. Young Ben sees ‘The Chair’ at night on the street outside his house, and it becomes an avatar of disaster in a story infused with a terrible sense of loss, of things taken away and never to return. Cal, the protagonist of ‘Truth Hurts’ suffers physical pain when he tells the truth, but others suffer terribly when he lies, and so he is confronted with harsh moral choices until he meets a woman who wishes to drain him of truth, the story a parable on the nature of our social and romantic interactions, externalising the cost of the lies we tell to ourselves and each other.
Relatively straightforward by comparison, but with a strong evocation of fear, ‘Down’ is the story of a group of schoolboys lost in a cave system, surrounded by the dark and the things in the dark, wondering if in fact their teacher led them to their deaths as a deliberate act, his own attempt to make a mark upon the world before death. Jules, the protagonist of ‘Sounds Weird’, discovers an MP3 player that has a soundtrack on it that opens up visions of another, better world, but he doesn’t take the chance to cross over when it is offered, and in doing so his life becomes immeasurably worse, in that he can no longer appreciate the pleasures of this world, the story seeming to imply that the prospect of something better can only damage what we already have. Ben, the protagonist of ‘The Chair’, is now an adult when into his life comes ‘The Table’ complete with a ghostly family, their presence putting into perspective his own problems and enabling him to find resolution of a kind, the nature of what happens not as important as its effect on the viewer.
Hiker Bill witnesses ‘The Sheep’ performing a terrible ritual of mutilation on one of their number, but it seems to hint at something even more terrible committed against his partner Hannah, the story underlining the small differences between them, the things that niggle and annoy, and then throwing those into horrific clarity against the love (and fear) they have for each other. In ‘Small Things’ a mother and her daughter are chased by a driver whose kind gesture she doesn’t acknowledge, the story touching on the ways in which we interact with each other, the damage that is done through thanklessness. A man’s dissatisfaction with his marriage is represented by a DVD in which a woman who looks like his wife is brutally murdered in ‘It Knows Where You Live’, with fiction overlapping into reality, a subtle blurring of the lines between the two. In the end it’s a chicken/egg situation – which came first, the desire to kill or the DVD showing the act?
A stalker finds the tables turned on him in ‘Trog Boy Ran’, the title a cryptic message that he first receives as spam and then infecting his whole life before concretising as a monstrous creature, the story told so well that we actually come to sympathise with Niles even though he is undeniably a creep. The protagonist of ‘I Live in the Gut’ finds a mermaid, or at least a reasonable approximation, washed up on the beach, and in protecting her from a sexual predator he is given a second chance of a kind, an act of common decency rewarded with the possibility of something miraculous. Written as a monologue, ‘It Won’t Be Long Now’ hints at some terrible act of mutilation or murder to be committed for the entertainment of a segment of the public, perhaps an episode in the ultimate reality TV show, the story all the more effective and unsettling for the matter of fact tone in which it is related, the victim trying to assure his designated executioner that everything will be okay.
The socially inept Trendle is haunted by the memory of a mugging in ‘You Haven’t Seen Me’, eventually becoming the victim of his own fear. Young Billy summons a terrible creature from ‘The Grotto’ to deal with his dysfunctional family and put an end to his life of constant misery, the Christmas season perverted to an unholy end. Stan thinks that he has found happiness with Ted, but what they have is a ‘Hungry Love’, one that is manifested as an ectoplasmic entity and feeds on its victims, the story a clever variation on the vampire theme. ‘Alice, Hanging Out in the Skate Park’ is a ghost story of sorts, only with the body of murdered Alice continually reappearing in the park despite the best efforts of the authorities to take her away, the story examining the effect this constant presence has on the life of a man who was having an affair with her, and who maybe killed her even though he has no memory of doing so, offering us a vivid picture of guilt. A selection of story notes round out this excellent collection from one of the genre’s bright new stars.
(TO BE CONTINUED)