Filler content with chapbooks

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-

GHOSTS AND MERMAIDS

Angela Slatter’s chapbook HOME AND HEARTH (Spectral Press chapbook, 25pp, £4.50), the latest offering from Spectral Press, is grounded in the modern world rather than one of the fantasy settings where much, if not most, of her work is set. Caroline’s son Simon has just returned home, after being on trial for the murder of another young boy, the son of a Traveller. But though found innocent, largely owing to his mother providing an alibi, Simon’s presence unsettles her, feelings that are crystallised by a visit to the Traveller site and a meeting with the dead boy’s mother.

Home and Hearth is a beautifully rendered tale, with little touches of incidental detail, such as the sensation of cold sweat on the palms and the feeling that people are always watching, aware of what has happened and accusing. Also strongly conveyed is Caroline’s growing fear as she realises that her son is a stranger and the sense of alienation from other people that she feels. At the heart of the tale is a moral dilemma, the conflict between a mother’s desire to protect her child, an instinct that most would argue is hardwired into the species, and awareness of the menace to others that he represents, and as far as that goes there are echoes of Jack Ketchum’s story ‘The Rifle’, though Slatter’s take on the theme has a more societal dimension to it. On the down side, Spectral chapbooks concentrate “on the ghostly/supernatural end of the literary spectrum”, and while there is a ghost in this story, that of the murdered child, it felt very much like an unnecessary intrusion or plot convenience, an element latterly grafted on to a tale of purely human evil to fit the publisher’s brief. That quibble aside, this is an excellent story. As always with Slatter the writing is powerful and evocative, and the understated ending was just right.

The first person narrator of THE ELVIS ROOM (This Is Horror chapbook, 32pp, £5.99) by Stephen Graham Jones is a discredited experimental psychologist who is given a second chance when he discovers the secret of the Elvis Room, the room in hotels that is always kept empty, ostensibly just in case a major celebrity should turn up, though the real reason is somewhat more off the wall. He also discovers that when the room is occupied by a paying guest, someone always dies in the hotel, but this revelation leads to his undoing.

Fascinating ideas are woven into the text of this story and it contains an interesting variation on the theories of ghostly existence. There is an oriental feel to the supernatural phenomena in the story, the implication that ghosts are just part and parcel of our natural world even if not acknowledged as such. Driving the story is the egotism of the narrator, his desire to be vindicated and the tone of voice that author Stephen Graham Jones maintains throughout, switching back and forth from self-justification to apologetic, all while trying to project a veneer of scientific detachment. He is somebody who, while not exactly evil, is led into evil by his perception of and obedience to the diktats of science, so that inevitably what he does causes more problems than it solves. There’s an element of ambiguity present, so that we wonder if in fact it is the narrator who is haunted, by guilt over his first failure. The cumulative effect of all this good stuff is a story that is never less than gripping, one that delights with its twists and turns of fortune, and the concepts that provide its solid foundation.

Ray Cluley is the writer with the most Black Static credits under his belt, a grand total of eleven published stories last time I checked, and another one in this issue. One of those stories, ‘Shark! Shark!’ from #29, won a British Fantasy Award, and if that’s the good news then the even better news is that if you missed it then you can read it now, as it features as the bonus story in WATER FOR DROWNING (This Is Horror chapbook, 91pp, £5.99). It’s a bright and witty account of the making of a horror film with killer sharks, metafictional in a way that put me in mind of John Langan’s work, especially ‘The Revel’, with the writer directly addressing the reader and chiding us for the wrong conclusions he has led us to make before pulling the rug out from under our feet one last time with a revelation of the true nature of the beast. It was great stuff and thoroughly deserving of all the praise heaped on it and award given.

Having got ‘Shark! Shark!’ reeled in, let’s move on to consideration of the headline act that is ‘Water For Drowning’. Josh doesn’t think much of the other members of Break N’ Wave, the band he plays with and writes the occasional song for, but it does get him a lot of girls, so that’s okay then. One such girl is Genna, who he decides to fuck even though everyone else tells him she is seriously screwed up. Sadly for them both he gets drawn into her obsession, a fascination with mermaids undercut by the belief that her parents have gone back to the sea and she will follow them, just as soon as she finds the right way to transform herself. Josh tells her a ‘comforting lie’ that only reinforces this belief and eventually leads to tragedy.

There’s a lot of mermaid stuff going on here by way of backdrop, with folklore and fiction all used to reinforce Genna’s obsession (and her attraction to Josh is initially based on some marine themed songs he’s written), Cluley presenting a powerful picture of mental illness and variation on the changeling story template. For mixed-up Genna the mermaid represents a chance to achieve the happiness she feels is missing from her life. Against that we have the not so nice character of Josh, with Cluley creating a vivid picture of selfish and self-centred musicians, the love hate relationship between the various members of the band, their rivalry and at the same time almost parasitic need for each other. While he has an agenda of his own, Josh is coming to see Genna as an alternative to the band. Her madness speaks to something in his own nature, so that he can’t just fuck and run, is instead drawn into her world, the idea that she is in some way special playing counterpoint to similar feelings he has about himself. Love is of course impossible between these two, no matter how often they say or think the word, but there is a form of symbiosis going on, so that after the encore has been played and the audience all gone home, Josh realises that he has lost something of value, flawed though it may have been, and that forever after he will be haunted by memories of the mistakes he made. Cluley’s great achievement here is to make us believe in someone as unlikely as Genna and see the good in a prick like Josh, his narrative moving effortlessly from a strident account of a cynical male exploiter to something that borders on the poignant and compassionate. I loved every harsh, bitter word of it.

All three chapbooks are produced in limited editions, and the publishers have various special offers available, such as four issue subscriptions and electronic alternatives, so check out their websites for the full story.

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