A feature on Earthling Publications that originally appeared in Black Static #44:-
The year has just turned and here I am reviewing the latest Halloween release from Earthling Publications, which is par for the course as far as timeliness goes here at Case Notes. Co-written by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, THE HALLOWEEN CHILDREN (Earthling Publications hc, 200pp, $40) is a more than adequate way to mark the favourite holiday of Earthling head honcho Paul Miller and bound to be appreciated by the legions of horror aficionados with similar priorities.
Strange things are going on at the Stillbrook Apartments complex, where handyman Harrison Naylor lives with his wife Lynn, along with their children Amber and Mattie. There are tensions in the family unit, with differing views of how to be a good parent in conflict, and the sense that their children are doing something more than simply acting out when the parents are not watching. In his role as handyman Harris has to deal with reports from the other tenants of strange smells and noises in the walls, and he may or may not have discovered a dead body. Yes, strange things are going on at the Stillbrook Apartments complex, and with the manager’s decision to ban any Halloween celebrations things get stranger still, culminating in bloody mayhem.
This is an unsettling and complex work of fiction. Mostly the narrative is carried by the competing first person accounts of Harris and Lynn, each with their own distinctive voice and version of events, and for the reader the growing conviction that each is unreliable. Complementing these is a series of snippets taken from an interview with a victim and the text of various emails from a tenant who appears to be losing her mind. All of which leads into the grand finale with revelation piled atop revelation and the reader left to decide who is mad and who is sane, whether a human agency is behind the slaughter or if we are bearing witness to the creation of a new urban myth, that of the Halloween Children.
The book doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, with deeply disturbing descriptions of what is done to the various victims, and yet still manages to hint that there are much more terrible things taking place off the page, that however hard it may be to credit the writers are actually showing restraint. The depiction of Harris and Lynn, the interaction between them and the ways in which they compete for the love of their children, drives the action forward and helps foster a mood of uncertainty inside the reader’s head, all of which preps us for the book’s end game, with various options laid out before us. In an elaborate game of bluff and counter bluff assorted schemata are suggested into which the actions that take place can be slotted, but with none of them a neat fit, finally leaving us staring into the cold, unreasoning face of the unknown.
The Halloween Children is a superb celebration of the season, and also offers up a timely reminder not to be a spoilsport or grouch at this time of the year, a reminder pitched in a refreshingly different and entertaining manner.
Also from Earthling we have EVERYTHING YOU NEED (Earthling Publications hc, 300pp, $45) containing seventeen stories by Michael Marshall Smith, one of the leading exponents of the short form. It begins, appropriately enough, with ‘This Is Now’, a story in which three grown men remember the time as teenagers that they took a terrible risk and were lucky to escape with their lives. Ostensibly concerning alien creatures held behind an electrified fence in the forest, really the story is a eulogy of sorts for growing older and no longer being able to delude yourself about lost opportunities, sensitively told and all the more effective for the nebulous nature of the threat that the three confront.
‘Unbelief’ concerns a professional assassin with a very unusual contract (and to reveal the identity of his target would spoil the story). He attempts to make the hit, dealing with some issues of his own in the process, the story offering us insight into the nature of bitterness and the sense of betrayal we can sometimes feel when life doesn’t live up to the dreams we were sold as a child. ‘Walking Wounded’ is a ghost story of sorts, Richard experiencing a form of stigmata, the story carefully delineating a kind of machismo and the consequences it brings in the shape of self-harm, even if we ourselves do not inflict the wounds. Delightfully tongue in cheek, ‘The Seventeenth Kind’ is the sort of story William Tenn might have produced in his prime, with first contact between an alien species and a presenter on a shopping channel who is, unbeknown to himself, flogging an alien artefact, the tale both wonderfully amusing and yet offering us a unique perspective on the human animal, one that doesn’t find us wholly admirable and yet at the same time has compassion for all our shortcomings. I bet the author had a whale of time writing this one.
In the short ‘A Place for Everything’ a man’s obsession with Feng shui leads to his own annihilation as he becomes simply an abstract object in some greater pattern, the story slight and rolling out pretty much as expected, one of the low points of the collection. More effective is ‘The Last Barbecue’, which is set in a world overrun by zombies and with a man trying to hook up with his brother one final time, and all of it recorded on camera in honour of the age of the selfie and fifteen minutes for all. It’s a work that is part docudrama and all horror story, catching the interest and holding it right through to the final twist, like a zomcom rendition of The Road. A father’s love for his son is put to the test in ‘The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads’, the story constantly wrong footing the reader as what appears to be a case of an imaginary friend who is the school bully turns into something much darker. It’s beautifully written, with passages that are almost heartbreakingly familiar in what they reveal of the central relationship, and the ambiguous nature of the ending adds to the story’s compelling power.
Though it’s well told, ‘Unnoticed’ deals with a familiar plot, that of the man who is cursed with a glimpse of how reality actually works and whose life comes undone as a result, Tony finding himself unable to simply let things go. In spite of this lack of originality it is a piece that is never less than absorbing, like PKD in a tongue in cheek moment, with the final twist just the icing on the cake. Driven by guilt, a son tries to retrace the last journey taken by his deceased father in ‘The Good Listener’, the story touching on the need for closure and a willingness to celebrate our differences, but also telling us to be wary because the moment to say all the things that matter may soon be past and never come round again.
The shape of our lives is dictated by the choices we make and in ‘Different Now’ after an argument with his girlfriend Chris is flipped into another reality, one in which he made different choices, the story demonstrating how a wrong decision, the wrong word at the wrong time, can cause everything to unravel as if it had never been. The interface between fiction and reality is explored in ‘Author of the Death’, with a character from a Michael Marshall Smith story, this story in fact, actually meeting the writer in a metafiction that is wonderfully clever and witty, even giving him a meeting with a character from another work, and gently poking fun at authorial idiosyncrasies. It even touched on a pet peeve of mine regarding the reproduction of dialogue.
Two of Smith’s best stories follow, and I’ll touch on them only briefly as I’ve reviewed both before. In a ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ a lonely man tries to fill the void in his life with a kind of alien entity, but things don’t quite go to plan in a story that is beautifully understated and minatory. The award winning ‘What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night’ has the world uncreated and the family unit clinging tightly on to each other in the resulting dark, as if to say that the only thing we have to keep the bleakness at bay is our link to each other, this alone is real and valuable, with the rest just a form of consensus reality.
There are echoes of I Am Legend in ‘The Things He Said’, with one solitary man surviving on his own in a world taken over by zombies. The story is much darker in tone however, addressing what needs to be done to maintain life in such extreme circumstances, with the phlegmatic and matter of fact telling only serving to enhance the horror, Smith bringing down the curtain with a final, chilling line. In ‘Substitutions’ a man’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s healthy eating options leads him to become curious about another woman. However her dietary choices prove to be even less tempting in an old school horror story, one where the end twist is deftly built up to and effectively pulls the feet out from under character and reader alike.
‘The Woodcutter’ is the story of Spike, one of the fae marooned in our world and making his living as a bargain basement Derren Brown. But then the desire to show off leads him down a dangerous path in a story that is shot through with magic and where a strong sense of the ineffable plays counterpoint to wide boy language and attitudes. Last but not least, we have title story ‘Everything You Need’, another tale of closure, with Sheila coming to terms with the loss of her husband John, realising that she will be able to cope without him, the surreal aspect of the story throwing everything else into the spotlight. It’s a great end to a first rate collection, and by way of a coda Michael Marshall Smith gives us some ‘Story Notes’, setting out some of the inspiration and thinking behind each of the stories, a valuable perk for the many readers who cherish such insights into the creative process.