Filler content with friends and family – Part 3

Continuing on from Tuesday’s post, four more reviews that appeared as part of a feature in Black Static #42:-

FRIENDS & FAMILY (continued from Tuesday’s post)

Stephen Volk has been writing his column for Black Static since the very first issue, so in terms of word count of the writers getting reviewed here he is almost certainly the one whose work we’ve published the most of, though his only appearance with a work of fiction was back in #9 with ‘Fear’. That story along with fourteen others, two of them previously unpublished, appears in Volk’s second collection, MONSTERS IN THE HEART (Gray Friar Press paperback, 248pp, £8.99).

The collection opens with what I personally regard as Volk’s finest story and one of the best to appear in print in recent years, King Kong inspired ‘After the Ape’, in which a bereft Ann Darrow sojourns in a New York hotel while her lover lies rotting on the streets below. Beautifully told and keenly felt, this story captures a moment in time with pinpoint accuracy, touching on the loss of nobility and, by association, in the character of the bell boy foretelling the rise of fascism. In ‘Who Dies Best’ the latest development in the motion picture industry sees people with terminal illnesses taking part in films and dying onscreen, the idea examined through the eyes of a young man who is endlessly fascinated by the death of his mother. Poignant and heartfelt, this is a story that almost makes the unacceptable seem like a positive thing, raising questions about practicality, but then giving it all a very human dimension.

‘Monster Boy’ is the story of a young boy who, when bullied, receives help from the movie monsters that so enthral him, using their strength to pass his ordeal by fire, the narrative hinting at how some of us can find inspiration and solace in the things that might repulse many people. ‘Notre Dame’ has a polemical element to it, set in a future Britain ruled by religious fundamentalists and in which help conceiving a baby is strictly regulated so that God’s “mistakes” are wired into the system. It’s a story that packs a powerful punch, dramatizing the moral dilemma at the narrative’s heart, though I felt Volk perhaps weighted it a little too much in favour of the conclusion he appears to want the reader to reach, not just in the person of the hateful spokesperson for religious views with his dogmatism but also in the extremity of the unborn child’s handicaps.

In ‘A Paper Tissue’ an unhappily married couple find that their relationship is revitalised by a chance encounter with somebody from the past while on a foreign holiday, the story hinting that sometimes it is good to be unambitious, to find a job you enjoy rather than push to go as high as you can, and that those who do follow the latter course are not necessarily nice people, all of this conveyed by a certain and assured subtlety so the tissue itself, despite its portentous message, is simply a McGuffin for the real thrust of the narrative.

When a baby comes into the world with a ‘Swell Head’, for his older brother it is the beginning of a lifetime as a carer, initial resentment turning to an almost parasitic dependence on the invalid whose existence validates his own, the whole thing destined to end in tragedy.

There are vicious undercurrents to ‘In the Colosseum’ in which a TV producer’s idea of reality TV leads a young man to an unpleasant discovery about himself, the story examining our role as voyeurs, the way in which we can be corrupted by the openness of technology, or rather how it panders to our worst traits, producing the modern equivalent of gladiatorial games. ‘Hounded’ is a Sherlock Holmes story, but with Watson as the lead man, revealing the true story behind The Hound of the Baskervilles and with a séance at which the phantom hound is unleashed on London. It is an entertaining piece, rich in period atmosphere and presenting a direct challenge to the rational world view espoused by Holmes. There’s a magic realist feel to ‘Air Baby’, with two women taking in a baby thrown up by the sea, its presence causing tension between them as one doesn’t accept the need to return the child back to the water from which it came. This was a little too out there for my liking, beautifully written and characterised, but not really going anywhere much I felt, though it could simply be a matter of context given that the other stories are so strong.

With a man crucified on their lawn, the couple in ‘Easter’ adopt a very phlegmatic and matter of fact approach, one that seems quintessentially English, the story unfolding in a manner that roughly approximates something P. G. Wodehouse would have produced had he dabbled in surrealism or scripted for Monty Python. Set in the post-Soviet world, ‘White Butterflies’ is a grim and bitter story of people doing whatever it takes to survive, with all their hopes and aspirations running aground on the cupidity of others, and the children who comes to harvest the metal rockets that fall from the sky themselves becoming a source of income for other opportunists. ‘Pied-a-terre’ is a haunted house story, as a woman going to view a property has a spectral encounter that empowers her to overcome the troubles in her own life, the story one informed by a genuine feel of the outré and prevailing mood of sadness, but finding light among the darkness and ending on a redemptive note of hope.

‘The Hair’ is a story of voodoo and revenge, with a woman who suspects her man of cheating casting a spell that will turn her into the object of his desires, the narrative capped with a Dahlesque sting in the tail. I have mixed feelings about all this, in that I liked the setup and characterisation, and I didn’t expect the end twist, but at the same time it felt like a lot of effort for very little reward, a flash fiction played out at story length. A policeman who has an encounter with the numinous is the lead character in ‘Appeal for Witnesses’, the story very similar in tone to the work of Joel Lane in Where Furnaces Burn, pitched as a police interview and presenting nothing but the facts, Volk’s words effortlessly drawing the reader in until only one of two conclusions is possible: either monsters walk among us or the narrator is insane. Rounding out this excellent collection by one of the UK’s leading exponents of the short form, are some story notes that give the background and thinking behind the various narratives.

Lynda E. Rucker has only been writing her Blood Pudding column since #34, but her fiction has appeared in the magazine on three occasions. All three of those stories plus three stories that were originally published in The Third Alternative and five others, three of them appearing in print for the first time, are gathered together in Rucker’s first collection, THE MOON WILL LOOK STRANGE (Karōshi Books paperback, 216pp, £9.99).

After an introduction by Steve Rasnic Tem and a note by the author, we get right into things with ‘The Burned House’, a ghost story of sorts as aging biology teacher Agnes Swithin is lured into the house she feared as a child and becomes one with the children who died in the flames, the story deftly conflating past and present, imagination and reality, and at its heart the idea of a wasted life, of opportunities lost as surely as if they had gone up in flames. Backpacker Paul in ‘No More A-Roving’ washes up at the Seagull Hostel, but there are things about the place that unsettle him and as the story progresses we begin to wonder if Paul is in fact dead and this is some sort of halfway house between our world and the next, or simply emblematic of all the things in life he has missed out on because of his reticent nature. ‘The Chance Walker’ is the story of Kathleen, an American in the Czech city of Boleslav, who is haunted by her past and slowly getting sucked into the spectral landscape of her new home, the story one of mental disintegration and loneliness, displacement in space and time, packed with understated effects.

One of the best stories in the collection, there’s an almost stream of consciousness feel to title piece ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’, with grief stricken Colin left rudderless by the death of his six and a half year old daughter, wandering the world in search of a miracle to bring her back, and instead ending up exploited by black magician Yarrow, the words on the page reeking of death and desolation, of a despair beyond all hope of repair, and bringing to mind the oeuvre of Clive Barker. Mentally disturbed Grace has another personality in the story ‘In Death’s Other Kingdom’, one that she regards as a demon who has taken command of her life. The story moves deftly from one of an unhappy marriage made on the rebound, with back trips into a disturbed childhood thanks to religious fanatic parents, Rucker retaining a note of uncertainty throughout so that we cannot be sure how much of this is inside the character’s mind and how much is external.

‘Ash-Mouth’ is a creature who comes to take the dead in a story told by Ivy’s grandmother, but in searching for him as a child her sister Holly disappeared, the story cleverly overlapping events in the past and present, so that by the end we are not really sure what is happening, with Ivy’s need to believe in a scientific and rational universe undermined along with that of the reader. Flash fiction ‘These Foolish Things’ is a bittersweet tale of unrequited love, of a man who sees his estranged wife in the face of every woman he meets. ‘Beneath the Drops’ is the story of a relationship breaking up set against the background of continual rain, with mould and the constant sound of falling rain symbolic of what is going on between Evan and Gwen, his sense of displacement and growing awareness that they no longer fit, if they ever did.

‘These Things We Have Always Known’ is about the town of Cold Rest, where unusual events take place as a matter of course, and a family has to deal with the conflict between its inheritance and the appeal of the outside world, Rucker hinting at far more than is revealed in a strange, elusive story, one with the marvellous woven seamlessly into every page. Jolie returns to her childhood home in ‘Different Angels’, but the visit only brings to mind unpleasant memories of the past and hallucinations brought on by mental health issues and the religious upbringing to which she was subjected, the story a powerful evocation of a disturbed individual and the things that made her that way.

Finally we have something akin to traditional supernatural fare in ‘The Last Reel’. Sophie inherits the isolated house of her black sheep Aunt Rose, who is rumoured to have been a witch, but the visit to the desres doesn’t go according to plan. The story is told from the perspective of film critic husband Kevin who is unnerved by the changes his wife is going through, with a wealth of tiny details that only make sense as the narrative unfolds in this beautifully constructed tale with a Jamesian cast. It was one of my favourite stories in the collection and the perfect note on which to end.

I interviewed Conrad Williams in #4 and that issue of Black Static contained his only story to appear in the magazine. That story, ‘Zombie’, opens his latest collection BORN WITH TEETH (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 282pp, £19.99/£39.99). It’s about a man who has gone through his life believing that he knows the moment of his own death, but in doing so condemns himself to a life in death that is like the zombie state, the story evocatively written and offering an elegy for wasted opportunities. There’s something of the police procedural to the opening stages of ‘The Cold’ but it soon veers off into terra incognito with our detective chasing a serial killer who turns out to be an inhuman monster in a story that is intriguing and repellent at the same time, the pitch perfect prose playing counterpoint to the atrocities being described, and with the detective protagonist falling victim to his own nature at the end. The story of Malpas, ‘The Fold’ tells of a fallen angel who lives on Earth as a taxidermist, a being of great power who has forgotten who he is, the revelations hitting hard and fast as Williams unveils the truth of his condition and shows how he ultimately prefers to retain his fake humanity, even if it means dying for it.

One of two contenders for best story in the book, the chilling ‘Haifisch’ opens with a young man helping somebody in a wheelchair only to discover that he has become the target of a former U-Boat sailor with terrible secrets to reveal and an agenda that involves murder, the story deftly unfolding and digging its fingers into the reader’s subconscious, with an ending that put me in mind of the film Seven. A night guard tries to make contact with his female counterpart on another floor of the museum where they both work in ‘Perhaps the Last’, but what he discovers about her identity shocks the man to the core, the story a little too oblique for my liking, with an end twist that seems to reference del Toro’s Kronos.

MacCreadle agrees to hunt for a missing man in ‘The Carbon Heart’, the story unfolding against the backdrop of the Icelandic volcano eruption of a few years back with the world through which he moves coated in white ash. Ultimately MacCreadle is led to an unsettling revelation, the story playing an elegant twist on the usual ghost story plot, and with undertones that bring home to the reader a deep sense of loss, that we are haunted by an absence, of someone or something from our lives. ‘Once Seen’ is the story of a crime scene photographer who is drawn into a series of suicides by men who put out their own eyes, and his discovery of what they saw that led them to do such a thing is at the heart of the story, with the suggestion of something far more terrible than what is revealed on the page.

‘The Return’ takes David from Williams’ debut novel Head Injuries back to Morecambe and the friend he left behind in a coma, the trip stirring unpleasant memories of the past and ending with a strong hint that either David is a serial killer or that he is being followed by something that is, the whole thing a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, the subjective and objective, haunting with the implications that are coded into the text. In ‘Tight Wrappers’ the book collector and dealer Mantle’s pursuit of a rare first edition leads him to a discovery about his own nature and a reconciliation of sorts with his monstrous father, Williams seeding the narrative with his thoughts about literary merit, writing for posterity, and the dangers inherent in letting a hobby become an obsession.

A sequel of sorts to London Revenant, ‘O Caritas’ is set in the under city of Beneothan with Monck searching for a woman, in a strange, surreal story that seemed a little too convoluted and abstruse for my liking, so that I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to care about what was happening. Callaghan finds himself stalked by a woman who leaves notes in his library books in ‘Late Returns’, this strange affair leading to an encounter with the numinous and the protagonist’s punishment for all the wasted romantic opportunities in his past, the text hinting that literature should never be a substitute for lived experience.

The other contender for best story in the collection, ‘The Veteran’ managed the virtually impossible feat of interesting me in football, showing the camaraderie and zeitgeist of the men involved, and intercutting all this with a spectral tale of love and betrayal and revenge. It gives the noble game a very sinister twist, with an almost mafia like philosophy behind team spirit, but protagonist Deal’s confused memories are at the heart of what happens, with the reader left to discover the story behind the events unfolding on the page, what took place in Deal’s marriage to estrange him from his wife and child. Similarly in ‘The Pike’ fishing becomes emblematic of the human condition, with Lostock reminded of incidents in his own past, imtimations of his own mortality, by the capture of a sickening pike.

There are four more stories in the collection, and it ends with some notes by the author on the various texts.

Joel Lane’s British Fantasy Award winning story ‘My Stone Desire’ was published in the very first issue of Black Static and Joel was a regular contributor to the magazine thereafter, his work appearing seven times in all. I interviewed him in #13. WHERE FURNACES BURN (PS Publishing paperback, 210, £7.99) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2013, shortly before the author’s tragic death in November of that year. Originally published in limited edition hardcover, PS released a mass market paperback edition in January 2014 under the umbrella of their Drugstore Indian Press imprint.

The collection contains a total of twenty six stories, with the longest weighing in at thirteen pages and the shortest a mere four pages in length. Written over a span of thirteen years, the stories cover a period of twenty four years in the life and career of the never named protagonist, a police officer working in and around the Black Country. The book opens with ‘My Stone Desire’, with its account of a failed relationship, but intercut with this is a preoccupation with missing persons and it ends with a powerful image that brings to mind the work of Clive Barker, memorialising people’s need to feel they belong to something greater than themselves, whatever the cost. And the book ends with ‘Facing the Wall’ in which, after leaving the force to pursue a killer of seemingly supernatural ability, the protagonist assumes a mythic quality in a moment of apotheosis. In between these two poles we get cultists who prey on the homeless and alcoholics, a vessel that might be the Holy Grail, a man with the power to share the pain of others, an ancient beast dwelling beneath a cemetery and feasting on human flesh, intangible creatures that drain the blood of their victims, a predator who steals your last breath, a coin operated toilet box that plays host to a vengeful spirit, a man whose presence incites violence in others, a pack of spectral dogs, and a dozen or more other menaces to life and sanity.

And if my description makes these stories seem like traditional supernatural horror fare, then that’s simply not the case. Steeped in genre, Lane is a writer who knows how to use all the tropes and make them uniquely his own, producing stories that could not have been written by anyone else, informed by an underlying compassion and sympathy for the human animal in extremis. All the qualities and features you associate with Joel Lane are in evidence, from the political subtexts with their insightful commentary on the corruption of the affluent and uncaring, the perils of racism and social injustice, to the concern for the dispossessed and alienated, people who have nothing to look forward to other than whatever respite and comfort they can take from sex, drugs, and other placebos. Each story is beautifully written, with phrases that capture the quintessential nature of a character or landscape in a net of well-wrought words and make us see those things in new and different ways. And perhaps what stands out more than anything is the way in which events in the personal life of the protagonist – girl friends, marriage, fatherhood, affairs, financial worries – all play into the greater picture and, through their very ordinariness, reinforce the outré elements in each story. An argument could be made that, while each story stands perfectly well alone, what we have here is a gestalt novel.

In a tell-tale moment, the protagonist reveals that other officers refer to him as Mulder, and yes, there is very much an X-Files feel to this book, but as if those events had been transplanted to the Black Country and written by Derek Raymond in Factory novel mode. And at the same time, to reiterate an earlier point, however apposite the comparisons you make and influences you list, in the end Where Furnaces Burn is uniquely the work of Joel Lane, a book that deserves all the accolades heaped on it and which any lover of genre and fine writing will wish to sample. It is also an eloquent testimony to how much the genre lost when Joel Lane passed away.

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