Further to Wednesday’s post, two more reviews and the second part of the feature on The Alchemy Press that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-
THE ALCHEMY PRESS (continued)
Mike Chinn it appears needs no introduction. His collection GIVE ME THESE MOMENTS BACK (Alchemy Press pb, 266pp, £9.99) opens with ‘Welcome to the Hotel Marianas’ in which a submersible with idle rich passengers voyages to a hotel built in the depths of the Mariana Trench, only to find that something monstrous is waiting. It’s a story that’s written with a feel of momentous events taking place and increasing unease as they unfold, the characters well drawn and the idea of the ultimate in adventure holidays coming across strongly, all of which can’t obscure the fact that ultimately it is just a gotcha story, one in which everything, all the careful preparation, leads up to the moment when the big bad jumps out.
There’s a genuinely creepy feel to ‘Facades’, with a couple on holiday in Venice getting on the city’s bad side, though you suspect that the fault lies as much in their natures as in that of the city. The atmosphere of menace builds gradually and surely, with Chinn showing a fine sense of place and grasp of his characters’ motivations. The scientist protagonist of ‘A Matter of Degree’ tries to prove the worth of the suction cups he’s developed by scaling an unfinished bridge building project. In a weird dislocation of reality his attempt at exposure backfires, though he does achieve immortality of a kind in a twist ending, the story entertaining with its gonzo ideas and the portrait of ambition warped badly out of true. In ‘All Under Hatches Stow’d’ a group of foresters become stuck on a boat in the middle of a lake when their work unleashes a plague. Again, the sense of place is strong, with Chinn meticulously filling in the background picture, but the perils of the plague are overshadowed by the warped personalities of the people on board the boat, monsters in human form whose ire is directed at the only woman in their party. There’s a sense here of something else going on, something that hovers just out of the reader’s view, possibly related to Prospero’s Books, a film one man watches obsessively, and comparisons with Shakespeare’s The Tempest are there to be made.
Resurrected musicians play to adoring crowds in ‘Be Grateful When You’re Dead’, but the reality of their condition repels people when the music ends. Underlying all this is a subtext about how the dead hand of the past can be an end to future and present creativity, the suspicion that all our idols have feet of clay and only their untimely deaths prevents us from realising this. Japanese whalers are lured into strange waters and attacked by a terrible beast in ‘Kami Ga Kikoemasu’, a story that has about it something of the weirdness of Hodgson’s nautical tales, while at the same time raising vital questions about our lack of respect for the environment and nature.
An advertising executive with a novel idea on how to promote a beauty product finds herself on the receiving end of the attentions of an otherworldly entity in ‘All Beauty Must Die’. The story explores our obsession with beauty and the things we might be willing to do to preserve it, while also casting a jaundiced eye over the advertising industry, all of which contributes to the ultimate horror of what is taking place. Set in Victorian times, ‘Parlour Games’ has a guest at a dinner party whose host is renowned for his unusual entertainments finding that he is to be the subject of tonight’s diversion, the story engaging and with a nasty sting in the tail. ‘Cold Rain’ is perhaps the most oblique story here, with Adam wandering through a watered down landscape, one in which it’s never really clear if he is a ghost or haunted by others, the surreal feel of it all unsettling, but at the same vaguely dissatisfying, more mood piece than story.
In ‘Once Upon an Easter’ treasure seekers in Mexico fall out among themselves, with gunplay and treachery all in a day’s work, the story an exciting read that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but I suspect won’t be remembered long after the reading is done either. A brother and sister on vacation together have an unusual encounter in ‘The Appalachian Collection’, a story which is beautifully written but for my money is a tale where the payoff simply doesn’t justify the trip there. With its strange museum and overly obliging moteliers it reeks of the outré and weird, but on this occasion better to travel than arrive, as it feels like an assemblage of effects rather than a story. ‘Just the Fare Back Home’ gives us the tale of a scam, with a man masquerading as a police officer and his partner a hooker in all but name. It was fun to read, with some decent characterisation and a fine comeuppance for the two deserving victims, though from the point of view of Molly for all practical purposes she is prostituting herself, so I’m not sure what purpose the scam served and I couldn’t really see any point to the betrayal by her partner in crime.
Tarl Genin and his fellows live in the Belows, surviving on whatever scraps fall from the world above, but in the story ‘Harbour Lights’ their numbers are being thinned by an unknown killer. Chinn excels here in the creation of a blighted world, one in which human beings are little different from the vermin with which they co-exist, and he wraps it up in an exciting and gripping story, one that revels in madness and bleak characterisation, but ends on a solitary note of hope. ‘Like a Bird’ is the story of photographer Connor, taking publicity and promotional shots in the Azores, guilt ridden over the death of his wife, finding sexual consolation with two very different women who work at his hotel. It’s an erotically charged story, but one with something far more sinister going on in the background as the original inhabitants of the islands return to fill it with their progeny. At the heart of the story is the concept of taking responsibility for our actions, and what the failure to contain lust may result in.
A chance encounter with a woman from his past, results in a catastrophe for the protagonist of ‘Give Me These Moments Back’, the story intriguing but ultimately a little too off the wall for my liking, the feeling that we’re only being given clues which don’t quite add up. There’s a noir feel to ‘Brindley’s Place’, with a man taking a stripper to a gangster’s crib, but the real slant of the story is in the background details and the picture that finally emerges of our protagonist, a man who made one mistake and has been paying for it ever since. As if to underline the point, Chinn offers no happy ending, no way out from under, with our hero having to settle for the occasional gesture and sparks of verbal defiance that mock his fate. Written in the form of daily diary entries, ‘Holding It In’ tells of a retired TV personality who works as Father Christmas at a local garden centre, his big secret that there is a kidnapped girl kept prisoner in his basement. The thrust of the story lies in the disconnect between the man’s rambling, self-indulgent memoir and the reality of what he is doing, with occasional lapses into reality where his real motives come to the fore and the reader is appalled by what is seen through the bars of the narrative. Ending the collection is the fantasy romp ‘Saving Prince Romero’, a gloriously entertaining melange of wizards and flying boats, swordplay and double dealing, with larger than life characters and some surprising twists in the plot. It’s an exuberant and fun note on which to end this assemblage of work by a writer who wears his influences lightly and seems to find inspiration in every corner of the genre and its culture.
Paul Kane’s MONSTERS (Alchemy Press pb, 318pp, £10.99) has the distinction of a cover by no lesser talent than Clive Barker. After an introduction by Nicholas Vince extolling the virtues and abiding appeal of monsters, we get ‘The Ugly’, a pithy little poem that further examines our attitude to such creatures, showing how over time they are transformed from something monstrous into sideshow freaks.
The collection proper kicks off with ‘Nightlife’, the story of quiet librarian Neil, who is looking forward to a night out with his mates, only said mates are a pack of werewolves. It’s a story that sells the reader a dummy, making us sympathise with Neil, the dullness of his life and the background from which he came, so that we understand all too well his desire to let rip on occasion, and then having so deftly wrong-footed us reveals what “let rip” means in this context. Gus, the protagonist of ‘The Disease’, is afflicted by an illness that seems beyond the scope of science, but he is the first of many, the prelude to a quantum shift in mankind’s existence. Harrowing in its detailed description of the onset of the illness and its symptoms, the story subtly intrudes a subtext about the human condition and the true nature of the disease inflicting the world. Lightweight, but well written, the next story takes the form of a letter sent to Kane by an academic with details of an obscure tome that contains a full description of the witches ‘Sabbat’. It’s intriguing, as the narrator rightly concludes, but doesn’t really go anywhere; is the background to a story, rather than the story itself.
In ‘Dig (This)’, a story with a strong E. C. Comics vibe going on, three teenagers decide to dig up a corpse in an isolated graveyard, with dire consequences. It’s pure horror, a tale in which setting, characters and gore effects are all well done and guaranteed to entertain the reader of a certain predisposition. As the title might suggest, there’s a rich streak of black comedy running through festive tale ‘A Chaos Demon Is For Life…’, with Kane going engagingly over the top and having a grand old time referencing numerous monster movies in a romp of a story that is pure pleasure to read. A man seeks ‘St August’s Flame’ and the visions of the future that it provides, but after an intriguing setup the story doesn’t really deliver on its early promise, instead giving us a get into the coffin free card.
Harry is one of the last survivors, a ‘Keeper of the Light’ in a world of universal darkness, and with ravenous creatures lurking in the dark, the story offering us a novel vision of the apocalypse, one reminiscent of Hodgson’s epic The Night Land. Kane works on a more intimate scale though, with the upsetting of this existential apple cart mostly the backdrop in a story detailing one man’s sense of loss and defiance in the face of hopeless odds, so that we can identify with what is taking place on the page. ‘Dracula in Love’ seeks the help of a psychiatrist to deal with his condition, but the course of true blood does not run smooth in this delightful, tongue in cheek tale that engagingly satirises celebrity and the psychiatric profession. In ‘Half-Life’, the second in a trilogy of connected stories, we revisit werewolf Neil, who is now married and detached from his old gang, but the arrival of a hunter in their lives forces him back into “the life”. It’s a story that grabs the attention instantly, dealing with themes of growing up and reconciliation to who you really are, what you really want, and how the desire for revenge can undo us, but despite these reflective aspects it never stints on the action, with murder and mayhem committed to the page.
‘Guilty Pleasures’ details some episodes in the professional life of the Guilt Demon, a being that preys on the feelings of others, and who possibly might have misgivings of its own, or perhaps not. It’s a fun story, surprisingly so given the subject matter, but Kane offers us the balm of seeing the guilty pay for their flaws. James starts ‘Speaking in Tongues’, which mostly consists of swearing at everyone he encounters, but this is only setting the stage for a minimalist take on Barker’s ‘The Body Politic’, with the real appeal of the story in the payoff. An African expedition meets a fate worse than death when they discover the ‘Star-Pool’, the story building effectively and then delivering its twist ending, one with implications for all of mankind. ‘Rag and Bone’ is the story of a philanderer getting his well-deserved comeuppance, a piece with plenty of wet work thrown into the mix, but underlying that a conception of the rag and bone industry that gives it an almost mythic status and offers a unique and original monster for the reader’s entertainment. I’d like to see Kane do something more with this creation.
A man on an isolated country road stops to help ‘The Weeping Woman’, the story a simple gotcha tale, but satisfying despite its lack of any real substance. ‘Pay the Piper’ gives us an alternative version of the Hamelin story, with zombies instead of rats as the menace that the piper can dispel, but there is somewhat more to this piper than meets the eye, Kane filling in his back story to reveal a surprise twist, an ending that I saw coming but which wasn’t any the less satisfying. Eric, the protagonist of ‘It’s All Over…’, is a horror writer haunted by guilt over the breakup of his marriage and the ghost of his dead wife, who comes to the door every night begging to be let in. The story is another fine exercise in the school of just desserts genre writing combined with a gotcha end note. Of particular note is Kane’s depiction of a self-absorbed and obsessed man with an ego the size of a small planet and no sense of what is truly of value in his life until it’s much too late.
And finally, after twenty five years away, Neil returns to his old town in ‘Lifetime’, helping save a group of young werewolves from both the hunters and their own natural desires to rend flesh, becoming a mentor of sorts to pack leader Troy. It’s an absorbing tale, one that touches on issues of personal responsibility and respect for others, but doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of preaching at the reader. And it’s a great way to drop the curtain on a collection that is never less than entertaining and on occasion offers us that bit more.
(TO BE CONTINUED)