Two reviews and the first part of a feature on The Alchemy Press that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-
THE ALCHEMY PRESS
The Alchemy Press have been a regular feature of the UK genre scene for a number of years and in 2014 received a British Fantasy Award as Best Small Press. And in 2015 Nick Nightingale Investigates* by Adrian Cole, which they co-published with Airgedlámh Publications, won the Award for Best Collection. Nick Nightingale Investigates* was sent in to Case Notes for review, but I never got round to reading it, and I guess on the back of that BritFA it doesn’t need my endorsement anyway. I did however read six other Alchemy single author collections.
LEINSTER GARDENS AND OTHER SUBTLETIES (Alchemy Press pb, 144pp, £6.99) is by long established writer and editor Jan Edwards, who is shown on the Alchemy website as co-publisher, along with Peter Coleborn. After an Introduction by David Sutton, this collection of old style ghost stories kicks off with ‘Concerning the Events in Leinster Gardens’ in which an actor on the make intrudes himself into a masquerade ball, only to find that nothing is quite what it seems and he is being called on to account for the sins of his past, the death of men under his command in the Great War. It is a story that convincingly recreates the period in which it is set and, in the character of on the make Archie, gives us a protagonist with whom we can identify to a degree while also aware that he thoroughly deserves everything that he gets.
In ‘The Waiting’ the ghost of Anna, attending on the return of her menfolk from war, becomes a feature in the ghostly entertainment of her descendant, this being a story in which everything depends on the ghost not knowing who or what she is, but with an interesting twist at the end. ‘Nanna Barrows’ is a witch come local wise woman, called in to help a young girl with an illness cross over to the other side, in a story that is both heartrendingly sad and a celebration of the true nature of life and the afterlife, with marvellous touches of incidental detail. In ‘April Love’ we have a wealthy young woman’s distress that her poor lover has not turned up to meet her, but we also see the story from the perspective of the ghost of her lover and from that of his socially acceptable rival, with everything of importance taking place in the gaps in the narrative and the reader left to decide exactly what has happened, how much blame to apportion and where.
‘The Ballad of Lucy Lightfoot’ concerns a local legend set on the Isle of Wight, with Lucy gifted immortality but tricked out of her true love and here trying to undo the bargain. It’s a fascinating story, one rich in background detail, though I felt that the ending was a bit too abrupt and not entirely justified by what had gone before. I also could have done with learning more about the mysterious Wite, the entity that is the villain of the piece. More modern spirits take centre stage for ‘Orbyting’, with a technician on a Most Haunted style programme finding proof on film of a spirit presence, and the real thrust of the story having to do with the identity of that spirit, in a clever variation on a familiar theme, one that ties it into the media world. In ‘R for Roberta’ a member of a wartime aircrew who was left behind when the others departed on a fatal mission, has a vision of his crewmates returning to take him into the afterlife many years later, the story keenly felt and hinting at an attraction between two men that can bridge the gap caused by death. ‘Redhill Residential’ deals with similar material, with people given a hint of spirit presences after a wartime mission goes wrong, the story subtle and moving.
We get another clever concept in ‘The Clinic’ with Sarah given the chance to end the suffering of her sister Emma, but at an unusual price, the story holding the interest all the way and then shocking with its offbeat end. It very clearly shows the pain of those who have to deal with a dying relative or loved one, somebody trapped on life support. We go back to the war with ‘Valkenswaard’ as not even death can stop a courier from delivering his message, the story almost wholly predictable but all the same heart-warming with its vision of love conquering all. There’s also a whiff of the familiar about ‘Wade’s Run’ with two female hikers encountering a spectral driver who imperils and then offers them help, but for the reader engaging as the story is it holds no real surprises, albeit we can still conjecture as to the fate of feisty Nathalie. Alcohol and a local legend lead two young men to a graveyard visit in ‘The Eve Watch’, the story hugely entertaining even as it runs along entirely familiar lines, at least until the final revelation, when we realise exactly what the ghost in question is and the implications for one of the young men watching. It’s a lively outing and great fun to read, from first word to last.
In ‘Otterburn’ a young man is lured to a meeting with the ghost of a murdered environmentalist, the story interesting but not really delivering on its promise, so that in the end we are left conjecturing as to the purpose of it all. Set in Elizabethan times, ‘The Black Hound of Newgate’ is a rather grizzly affair in which a relative of Dr John Dee escapes death in the infamous prison by transforming himself into the Black Shuck of legend. Again it’s a lively piece, with plenty of bloody murder and mayhem, and an end twist that takes the reader by surprise with the dubious corporeality of our protagonist. Edwards rounds out this entertaining collection with an Afterword in which she reveals the genesis of many of these stories, where they came from and what she hoped to accomplish.
Having introduced Edwards, David A. Sutton gets his own turn in the Alchemy spotlight with DEAD WATER AND OTHER WEIRD TALES (Alchemy Press pb, 252pp, £8.99). After an introduction by David A. Riley, the collection opens with ‘The Fisherman’ in which a young couple honeymooning in Wales become drawn into the fantasies of an old man who lost his wife to the waves, though some think that he may have killed her. But Stephanie sees things in the water that shouldn’t be there and nearly loses her life trying to find out what old Gilbert is really after, in a story with a strong atmosphere and sense of place, with the hint of much more going on beneath the surface of the text, that some other form of life is preying on human misfortune.
‘Midwinter’ is a tale of Merlin, or Myrddin as he is referred to here, a lonely shaman hiding in a cave after his plans have gone awry, and found by a woman whose husband died in the battle Myrddin’s king lost to Christian forces. It’s a touching story, written with an awareness of natural magic and the passing of an age, but also with a final twist that hints at more to come, that fate has other ends in store for us puppets of flesh and bone. A soldier is haunted by memories of an atrocity he was involved in, and perhaps by a more tangible presence as well, Sutton playing his cards close to his chest in ‘Zulu’s War’. It’s a tale that captures very well the horrors of combat and their aftermath, contrasting the civilians who believe that they know it all with those who must act out their ambitions and live with the consequences. A powerful and very effective tale, it’s easily one of the best in the collection.
Set on the Gold Coast in the colonial era, ‘The Transmigration’ has two young boys bewitched by Mama Bonada’s tale of a beautiful were-creature, so much so that in illness they become ensnared in the creature’s net, in a story that is evocatively written with undercurrents of a brutal eroticism, and which cleverly conflates superstition and fact. The last years and days of life on Earth are chronicled in ‘Under the Glamour’, with changes in human psychology wrought by the approach of a comet on collision course with our world. And finally there is the need for a scapegoat, somebody to receive the anger of the helpless masses, and who better than the scientist who discovered the comet and is dealing with his own psychoses. It’s a clever story, and underwritten with a keen understanding of human nature, of how indifference turns to despair and then to anger and frustration.
William tries to get rid of his interfering sister Ivy in ‘Corruption’, a story that has little to offer beyond its nasty payoff, but is entertaining and engagingly written, so much so that I can almost overlook the feel of implausibility that hangs over the narrative like a shroud. The best comparison I can make is to describe it as something Roald Dahl might have produced on an off day. A man who gets on the wrong side of a practitioner of black magic finds himself the target of ‘The Fetch’ in a story that runs along well-worn paths, and is entertaining mainly for the way in which it does what it says on the tin rather than for any surprises on offer. ‘Pot De Téte’ is a story of voodoo and revenge, set in a Santo Domingo plantation, with a brooding atmosphere and convincing backdrop, characters motivated by love and jealousy. Engaging though it may be, ‘Return to the Runes’ is simply the MRJ classic tale re-enacted with relatives of the previous story’s antagonists taking centre stage, and to my mind all rather pointless apart from whatever knowing smirks it may afford the cognoscenti. Far more fun is ‘Gifts’, a variation on the Santa Claus story, with a truly sinister rendition of St Nicholas and a delicious end twist.
Set in the last days of variety theatres, ‘A Night at the Hippo’ is a tale of true love and torrid murder, of ventriloquism and madness, with Sutton bringing the feel of the time to convincing life on the page and keeping the reader off balance as to what is really going on, with both homicide and horror presenting their possibilities. ‘Night Soil Man’ is a short but clever piece in which an itinerant worker thinks that he is being pursued round the country by Jack the Ripper, while the reader has the necessary clues and grasp of psychology to realise what is actually going on. Title story ‘Dead Water’ is an example of the nature red in tooth and claw line of storytelling, with rival birdwatchers going too far off the beaten track and falling foul of their environment, the story having little to offer beyond the characterisation and sense of place, a competent outing rather than a truly memorable one.
In ‘Waking’ a man keeps coming to in various nightmarish situations, with no idea which is reality, the story intriguing and drawing the reader in, but ultimately not really delivering on its early promise. Finally we have ‘Landfall on Elysium Planitia’ in which the crew of a mission to Mars have to deal with the news of Earth’s impending demise from asteroid hit, the story sensitively written and affective for the reader, who feels something of the character’s loss and the madness engendered in the personality of the narrator. Rounding out the collection are story notes, giving us information about the inspiration for each work (a feature in all of these Alchemy Press collections, and so I shan’t mention it any more).
*NB I’ve reproduced this as it appeared in the magazine, but actually the title of the Adrian Cole book was Nick Nightmare Investigates. Personally I prefer Nightingale 😉
(TO BE CONTINUED)