Filler content with Telos – Part 2

Continuing on from Monday’s post, three reviews comprising the second part of a feature on Telos Publishing that appeared in Black Static #43:-


Raven Dane’s collection ABSINTHE & ARSENIC (Telos pb, 244pp, £12.99) contains stories inspired by and written in homage to the Victorian ghost story tradition, though ghosts are far from being the only monster on offer.

Set in 1877 ‘The 10.15 to Lealholm’ is pitched as the journal entry of Edwin Hazeldine, telling of a zombie attack on a train that led to derailment and then of how he and his brother were besieged in a farmhouse, the tale ending with their need to go in search of food, and as far as it goes it’s a competent piece of storytelling, well written and vivid, needing only a stronger ending to fully satisfy, the story seeming to fizzle out rather than reach an ending. We move on to 1888 and a fogbound London for ‘Annie by Gaslight’ in which a young girl is threatened by Jack the Ripper and gets help from an unexpected source, the plight of the protagonist engaging, but the resolution something of a mixed blessing, on the one hand uplifting and on the other entirely predictable.

‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ is the story of mudlark Tom, a scavenger who scours the banks of the Thames in search of treasure trove. He confronts a vengeful spirit that lures young men to their death, the story touching in places with a genuine feel for the material, particularly the guilt felt by Tom’s mentor who never shared the old legends and so left the boy vulnerable. There’s more than a touch of humour to the satirical ‘An Inspector Falls’ in which a police detective manages to prove that a scullery maid found with ten knives in her back was the victim of an unfortunate accident. It wasn’t a laugh out loud story, but certainly worth a smirk or two as it gleefully sent up the intricacies and occasional absurdities of the detective genre.

‘Shadows in the Limelight’ is set in the world of vaudeville, with the ghost of a young dancer returning for vengeance on the showman who murdered her, the story told from the viewpoint of the singer who was her friend in life, entertaining enough in its way but all a little too obviously staged for my liking, with no real surprises, albeit there is a nice touch of emotion at the end. The ‘Breath of the Messenger’ is a killing fog that envelops London in a story that is billed as “A Lovecraftian Steampunk Tale”, a lively jaunt that put me in mind of James Blaylock’s work, but here told with tongue firmly in cheek as Dane’s insouciant psychic detective Cyrus Darian and his demonic sidekick Belial take on a Great Old One, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in a fun tale.

Set against the backdrop of the Irish Great Famine of the 1850s, ‘An Máthair Ghrámhar’ has an act of kindness by the daughter of an English landowner as the key that keeps the family safe from a vengeful spirit raised by the famine, the story competently told but not really getting under the skin of the reader, so that the harrowing plight of the starving isn’t as keenly felt as we might wish. A man who exposes fraudulent mediums is cursed by ‘The Chill’ and the only way to solve his problem is to find someone with a genuine mediumistic talent, the story deftly asking questions about whether it is right to rob people of the comfort of a belief in the afterlife, even if it is based on lies and deception.

‘Daniel and Lydia’ reminded me somewhat of the film Skeleton Key, as the innocent Lydia moves in with Aunt Anne, who she suspects of wishing to acquire her inheritance, but whose actual plans are far worse, and then there is the young man wandering the grounds at night in a story that is cleverly constructed and never less than entertaining. Last up is ‘Heart of Brass’ in which a clockmaker is driven mad by his attempts to understand a device left with him by a mysterious young man he comes to believe is the Devil, the story ending on a note that brings to mind del Toro’s Kronos.

These and six other stories make up a solid collection, one that if it seems unlikely to win any awards or have accolades heaped on it, is an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours on an afternoon when the fog mitigates against going out.

Simon Clark’s THE FALL (Telos pb, 398pp, £14.99) was originally published in 1998 and, as with Stone’s The Darkness Within, you could make a case for this novel straddling the dividing line between horror and science fiction.

As a teenager Sam Baker survives a lightning strike, though his two friends are killed. Fourteen years later Sam is a TV director sent to the UK to film a rock concert, but while he and personal assistant Zita are inspecting the site for the concert, a natural amphitheatre in Yorkshire known as Watchett Hole and dating back to Roman times, something unnatural occurs. The site and everyone on it, including a coach party of tourists, is sent back in time, and as the novel continues to unfold these shifts in time grow ever greater. People are free to leave the site, but when it jumps back again they are instantly transported back to the spot where they were standing or seated when the original shift took place. And as the landscape is changing so too is their corporeality, with some finding themselves joined with trees that weren’t growing in their present, and others finding that their flesh is amalgamated with that of birds or insects. Eventually the site comes to rest in Victorian times, and the travellers manage to make a home for themselves in the town of Casterton. But this isn’t the end of their travails. Casterton is to face a terrible threat and it may be that Sam and the others are the only ones who can save it and prevent reality itself unravelling.

Clark has crafted a clever and appealing story, one in which the science fictional elements power the narrative, but still leave plenty of room for the moments of horror that are his trademark. People suffer terribly in the pages of this book, are murdered or horrendously changed, and in the figure of the bluebeards, who have embraced what has happened to them and become more feral, Clark gives us monsters aplenty, albeit he is careful to also give us characters who are transformed but retain their humanity, showing that it is not simply a matter of appearance. The central concepts of the book, time travel and the idea of invading armies moving through time, waves of exiles whose arrival will swamp the indigenous inhabitants of any particular era, are realised in terms that should give UKIP supporters heart palpitations.

The past eras that Sam and the others visit, are vividly depicted on the page, with a wealth of incidental detail that convince us of the verisimilitude of each time period. There are wry comments and observations that touch on how much the world has changed, even in a short period of time, never mind the larger jumps back to WW2 and the Victorian age, allowing the reader to giggle at our own fashion faux pas of past decades and ponder how strange the world was before we personally came on the scene. The book’s greatest strength lies in its characters, from the decent Sam and Jud, who provide a moral compass of sorts, to the villainous Carswell, who is arrogant but not without his good qualities, suggesting that sometimes you need a bad guy to defeat some greater threat. I was particularly taken with the four young tour guides, each with their own distinct personality traits; initially, in their Laurel and Hardy getups, they provide a form of comic relief but they grow in stature as the book progresses, attaining something akin to nobility. And while the main threat comes from the bluebeard horde, an army of monsters with a predisposition to pillage and plunder, there’s plenty of other stuff going on, with tensions and murder in the group, accidents and fights, rivalry and romance, alarums and excursions of all stripes. Clark doesn’t give us a dull moment in a book that’s absorbing and full of incident, and at the end the reader is left wanting more.

THE IMMORTALISTS (Telos pb, 326pp, £12.99) is the first book in a series featuring Andrew Hook’s policeman turned private investigator Mordent. In it he is hired by Mrs Davenport to locate her son Patrick, who disappeared from a river ferry two years ago. The police believe he drowned, but all the same Mordent agrees to look into the matter, planning to do the necessary and collect a fee. He talks to informants, both on the police force and off. He talks to Patrick’s tutor and friends. He sleeps with Marina, who claims to be psychic and having visions relevant to the case. Then muscle for hire Derby Boy warns Mordent away from one source and somebody takes a shot at him. The bodies start to turn up, including that of Patrick who has aged badly. Somehow Mordent has stumbled into a search for the secret of immortality and a deadly rivalry between gangsters Kirby Muxloe and Bataille.

Hook first introduced us to Mordent in the story ‘Alsiso’, which is incorporated in this novel along with several other standalone stories, a couple of which help to round out the character and where he is coming from, and one that seems like a distraction, padding even. There are elements of the plot, such as the interest in immortality by two criminals that seem a little far-fetched, but not to the point where I’m willing to say that it couldn’t have happened, and for all that the central conceit is rather pleasing in the way it plays out, with a nice touch of irony in the mix.

Avoiding the slipstream vibe that has dominated his past work, Hook here plays it straight with a twisty plot and prose style that could have come straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. The joy of the book is in the writing and the characterisation. Central to this is Mordent, an honest man with a patina of sleaze, so that he pretty much sleeps with any woman who asks and takes time out with prostitutes who tie him up in bubble wrap, and kudos to Hook for presenting someone who is into the BDSM scene in such a sympathetic and non-judgemental manner, making this just an aspect of his character and not the whole thing. At bottom, Mordent is compassionate, caring for the people whose money he takes and wanting to do right by them, though conversely he has no sympathy for those who have crossed the line, happy to deal with informants, using violence and blackmail when it suits him – he is very much an end justifies the means kind of guy. The interplay between him and the other characters, all of whom are convincingly drawn, is a delight to read, as is the prose throughout with its hard boiled sensibilities, short sentences that cut like diamond on glass and metaphors as apposite as they are off kilter. Hopefully Mordent will have many more adventures. On this evidence I’m looking forward to them.

Telos titles are available as eBooks from selected online retailers.

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