Filler content with novellas

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #1:-

PLANTING FLAGS IN NO-MAN’S LAND

The novella seems to be enjoying more than its fair share of popularity in genre circles of late, and Steve Vernon’s Hard Roads (Gray Friar Press paperback, 150pp, £8) presents us with two for the price of one.

Hillman, the protagonist of Trolling Lures, is a man with issues, a former cop who made a bad decision, going off into the woods to die, something he hardly dares admit to himself. Instead, with a little help from the trickster god Coyote and some handy spirits, he saves a young boy from the Troll, a magical being stranded there by Odin, though as a prerequisite of this Hillman needs to come to terms with his own past. Simply put, this is a tall tale, one that conflates various mythologies, the Amerindian and Scandinavian, and would probably give the comparative mythology academics apoplexy, but Vernon’s touch is light enough to make you swallow the improbabilities and put credibility on hold. There are dashes of scabrous humour and moments of gore to flavour the pot, while Hillman’s quest to recover his memories injects the story with a personal dimension, the end result an enjoyable tale with rather more depth than the length and backdrop might allow.

At half the length Hammurabi Road is more of a mixed bag. Three men escort a fourth into the woods with the express purpose of killing him, payback for a crime of which he is accused, burning down a hotel, but along the way they have an encounter with a bear that puts an entirely different spin on the night’s events, as the three argue with each other and doubts are raised as to the fourth man’s guilt. There’s something of the Jacobean tragedy about this tale, with things fated to end badly and a veritable feast of recrimination and guilt, regarding all of which I have mixed feelings. Vernon has the voice of a born raconteur and his prose is never less than compelling, with a homespun slang feel to it that brings to mind the work of Joe Lansdale. Scatological humour informs the work and the characters of the men are all well drawn, but all the same the scenes in which one of them talks to the spirit of the bear and where they eat the flesh of their victim don’t quite ring true to character for these men as presented here, and thus doubts are raised about the validity of the whole, so what we’re left with is something that engages the reader but doesn’t quite convince, an entertaining story but with the outré elements slightly undermining the rest.

Conversely, in Rain by Conrad Williams (Gray Friar Press paperback, 100pp, £8) the supernatural thread that runs through the narrative remains ambivalent, a backdrop to the central tale of a disintegrating relationship. After a break-in at their UK residence, Ben and Grace move to an old farmhouse in France with their son Noah, but they seem just as incapable of papering over the cracks in their marriage as they are of renovating the building in which they live. The story is told from the perspective of Ben, whose self-image as husband and breadwinner has been undermined, while now even his role as father to Noah is built on shifting sand, giving Ben something else to feel guilty about. Williams weaves seamlessly into the narrative a panoply of special effects – strange sounds in the night, spectral visions, constant rain and hostile neighbours – so that the world itself seems to reflect and acerbate the troubled marriage, as if their unspoken conflict is being externalised. When Noah is hurt in an accident, it’s the catalyst that brings everything to a head.

Rain is a disturbing snapshot of a failing marriage, looking back at happier times and trying to figure out where it all went so badly wrong. The characterisation is spot on, and the outré elements enhance the growing sense of unease as the story progresses, the feeling that otherworldly forces are involved. The writing is moody, evocative, involving, packed with incidental detail and chillingly perfect metaphors, Williams equally adept at describing the almost sublime eroticism of happier times and the gut wrenching horror of the finale. If I have a complaint, it’s that I didn’t feel the ending was sufficiently foreshadowed, with the first hint of the true state of affairs appearing only four pages from the end, but it’s a quibble, and Williams’ skill at creating atmosphere, delineating damaged characters and simply shocking the reader to the core is as evident here as in any of his longer works.

Double Act (Nyx Books paperback, 91pp, $14.99) is old style supernatural horror from L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims, two masters of the form. Walter Coker, half of the vaudeville double act Cocker and Hass, has his life and career thrown into turmoil when his partner Charlie Hass dies suddenly of a heart attack. Charlie’s widow June, with whom Coker had a brief fling years before, finds evidence that somebody else may have been writing Charlie’s scripts for their act. June’s house and Coker’s rented room are broken into and ransacked, the cryptic message ‘Mine’ left behind on the wall, and then Coker’s agent suffers a stroke and dies. When Coker is contacted by Joanne, Charlie’s illegitimate daughter, he realises how very little he knew about his old partner, and a fatal chain of events is set in motion.

There’s little that is innovative here, just solid storytelling in the Jamesian tradition. Maynard and Sims have an assured grasp of the material, building the story one brick at a time and taking the reader with them, so that you can never quite pin down the moment when the natural order fell by the wayside. The atmosphere of vaudeville is captured perfectly, even though we never set foot in an actual theatre, a world of second rate boarding houses, grasping agents, headliners and also rans, with the dividing line ever so thin, and name dropping to add verisimilitude. At the heart of the story is the dichotomy of the funny man and the straight man, each dependent on but also resentful of the other, the old adage of a sad man inside the clown given a concrete form, only the creation here is not exactly sad, but an unsettling monster, its genesis rooted in an act of betrayal and its acts dictated by madness, unreasoning anger. And having brought us this far, Maynard and Sims pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet with a twist at the end as unexpected as it is shocking.

It’s a nicely produced book too, with a striking cover from Peter Mihaichuck, easy on the eye print and miniature posters/handbills from the age of vaudeville used for interior illustration, adding a nice touch.

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