Filler content with novellas

Five reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #44:-

FIVE NOVELLAS

It seems appropriate to open this section with a review of CONDUITS (DarkFuse eBook/limited edition hc, 54pp, $3.49/$32.50) by Jennifer Loring, given that it’s blurbed by Tim Waggoner and he is our featured author in the section above (tenuous connections R’Us). The protagonist of the novella is Japanese-American Mara, whose personality has been partly formed by her Japanese past, and in particular the tales that her grandfather used to tell her of the country’s folklore and cultural heritage. In addition to this, there is a personal tragedy in her back story, something that causes her pain she can only deal with by cutting. The death of her musician boyfriend and a visit to a supposedly haunted house in the depths of a forest, a place of which she has dreamed, brings matters to a head, and Mara must contend with the idea that the dead are trying to communicate with her and she may not like what some of them have to say.

While there is a supernatural element to the story, with too much going on that can’t be rationalised away, at heart this is a psychological horror story. The way in which Mara’s psyche unravels, with Loring drip feeding us revelations so that the full picture only gradually emerges, and touching on a variation of the scapegoat concept, is beautifully done with the tormented personality of her protagonist well drawn and soliciting reader sympathy. The cutting that Mara engages in is the outward manifestation of her need to be punished, and the chilling visions of mutilation woven into the narrative hint at a path to redemption. Where Loring perhaps over eggs the pudding slightly, is in the fractured nature of the story’s reality, so that we never really know if boyfriend Jason exists or not, or appreciate the full significance of the tattoo of a bloody rose that Mara has done. I’m in two minds as to whether stuff like this is effective ambiguity or a case of the lines becoming blurred at times almost to the point of distraction. That consideration aside, what we have here is a powerful and compelling portrait of a soul chained to a terrible event and trapped in torment, but through suffering eventually attaining to some form of release.

Gary Fry’s MUTATOR (DarkFuse eBook, 75pp, $3.49) engages with the philosophical and ethical considerations that are a staple of his work. Academic James Parry moves into his new cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, but there are signs not everything is as idyllic as he would like – a cryptic remark by his neighbour, his dog Damian unsettled. And then James discovers an underground room whose existence was previously unknown to him. It contains a number of occult tomes and a series of journals belonging to the previous owner, plus a mysterious silver globe. Coincident with this discovery, his neighbour’s pet rabbit is slaughtered, the first of several atrocities that hint at some terrible beast on the loose.

There’s a definite Lovecraftian feel to this work (the faded letters NECRO are written on the spine of a tome that James finds in his cellar, which to those in the know is highly suggestive), with echoes in particular of ‘The Colour Out of Space’, as an alien biology is let loose on our world, and also in the creature’s rampage through the countryside of Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm. Fry follows the established narrative framework for this type of story, with all the usual foreshadowing of the menace deftly laid out, and some scenes of mayhem and bloodletting, but rings enough changes on the familiar template to reward the most jaded reader. Where he differs significantly from Lovecraft in Old One mode is that his creature is not malevolent, not even by way of omission, but simply a being doing whatever it must to survive, and no more culpable than any animal going about its life in a natural way. The aspects of its physiology that most differentiate it from the inhabitants of our biosphere is the intellectual grist to Fry’s mill, offering a fascinating concept, one that might merit exploring in greater depth than here.

With his Gray Friar Press hat on, Fry is part responsible for the delivery into the world of DIFFERENTLY THERE (Gray Friar Press pb, 112pp, £7.99) by John Llewellyn Probert. Paul Webster is in hospital for an operation to remove a cancerous tumour. A medical man himself, Paul is well aware of the dangers attendant on the procedure, but on the night before he is due to go under the knife there is a much greater danger waiting in the wings. He has a series of very vivid dreams in which he revisits past events – an encounter with a dog as a child, an affair with a married woman, a meal with the woman who is to be his wife and the great love of his life. Except each of these memories turns dark, is infected by a minatory presence. Finally manifesting, the entity responsible for this threat offers Paul a deal – if he agrees to give up these memories it will increase his chances of surviving the operation.

This brief novella, which was inspired by true events including the author’s own visit to hospital for an operation, is perhaps the best thing that I have seen from the pen of John Llewellyn Probert. It’s a story in which he does everything just right, from the opening scene in which inanimate objects appear to have reason as a way of introducing and foreshadowing the main character, capturing our attention through the novelty of this approach, straight through to the final end note of ambiguity, with its deft sidestepping of the expected happy ever after. The almost laidback writing gets under the skin, with matter of fact accounts of cancer deeply unsettling, in part because they are so restrained and pitched in a way that we can all identify with, the archetypal horror of the visit to hospital with all its implications. Each of the memories is vividly realised on the page and there are echoes, in the way in which each is consumed by darkness, of fantasy classic The Never Ending Story.

Central to Probert’s text is the concept of memory, the idea that our memories are essentially who we are, and to change any one is to alter ourselves irrevocably also. He doesn’t use the word soul, but implicit in everything here is the idea that human beings are more than mere bodies, and contingent on that is the related concept that our fantasies are a part of that uber-identity (Paul has visions of a young woman he encountered in a work of fiction as a child, and this creature of the imagination is able to help him resist the tempter).

Equally impressive is the understated nature of the evil in the story. While essentially this is a deal with the devil type scenario, with memories in lieu of a soul, when the nemesis manifests it is outwardly mundane, identifying itself as nothing more than the cause of all the things that go wrong in a life, the personification of bad luck if you wish to think of it in such terms, and unable to do anything more than offer Paul better odds (it is not omnipotent).

On this evidence, and his earlier British Fantasy Award winning The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, the novella seems to be a form that agrees with Probert very much.

Aliya Whiteley’s THE BEAUTY (Unsung Stories eBook/pb, 104pp, £3.55/£9.99) is set in a world where all the women died six years ago and the men live on in isolated communities, trying to find a reason to continue with their existence. Viewpoint character Nathan is the storyteller of one such community, keeping alive memories of women and the past through the tales he tells by the campfire at night. But there are signs of something new in the world, that a fungoid life form has merged with the bones of dead women to create a reasonable facsimile of the female form, a creature with whom the men can have sex and in whose arms they can find some comfort. Nathan is the one who makes this acceptable to the community, but even he cannot make palatable some of the changes that take place, with many of the men ready to die (or kill) rather than live on as the neutered partners of humanoid mushrooms

This is an action packed story with many layers. It asks questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be a man, and it takes a hard look at the nature of power, what it involves and how it is used. Nathan, William, Ted and the other characters have all been unmanned by the absence of the women against whom they used to define themselves. And now, forced to bear children and reduced to menials by the stronger Beauty, they find themselves in a traditionally female role. Some adapt to this with ease, as with Thomas the cook who gives in to his penchant for female clothes, while others find it much harder to shake off the shackles of gender, even though failure to do so might result in the extinction of the human race. Implicit in all this are considerations of how much cultural baggage we can abandon and still retain our essential humanity, and in the Beauty Whiteley offers a sounding board for these ideas, an alternative to the rigidity of our gender roles. And she wraps it all up in a compelling story of power struggles, with scenes of violence and political machinations that will grip the reader. It is a beautifully written work with characters that come alive on the page, and a world that is both recognisably our own and incomprehensibly strange.

Bernard, with his two helpers Wilson and Toggle, lives on a small island centred round a graveyard in PRISONER 489 (Dark Regions Press eBook/pb, 97pp, $3.99/$14.95) by the indefatigable Joe R. Lansdale. Across the sea gap is a larger island containing a prison that holds the worst criminals known to mankind, people who are beyond the merely human evil. When they are executed their bodies are brought to Bernard’s island by boatman Kettle for burial. The latest prisoner sentenced to death takes three shots of electricity to be killed, and his body is tied in chains and put inside a metal coffin before internment. Kettle tells horrible tales of the man’s capture, the crimes he committed and the virtually unstoppable nature of his rampage, stories that defy believe. And yet, no sooner has Kettle departed than the wily Toggle is torn apart, and Bernard and Wilson find themselves in a life or death struggle against a mindless monster that knows nothing except how to kill, one that will require all of their ingenuity to survive.

Lansdale packs a lot into this short but thrilling novella with a narrative strand that is crying out to be made into a film at some point. He does a superb job of describing his main characters and the actions that have led them to this place, cleverly juxtaposing this with tales of the dead prisoner so we are already primed to accept what happens before Bernard has even realised what they are dealing with. The move and counter move of the struggle is breathtakingly recounted, with Bernard’s knowledge of the landscape and their use of heavy machinery giving the two humans their only chance, and yet for all of that things seem balanced on a seesaw, one that could teeter either way, so that you never really take the human victory as a given. And then there is the backdrop, with the suspicion from the tantalising glimpses given that the prison is meant to hold those who are not entirely human, the vampires and werewolves, other assorted monsters of legend, a ploy that might mean Lansdale intends to use this milieu again at some point. Regardless of whether he does or not, this is a brilliant story, one that reaffirms the author’s reputation as one of the leading purveyors of tall tales, and thoroughly entertains the reader.

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