Four chapbook reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #49:-
Will Hill’s novelette THE SAD TALE OF THE DEAKINS BOYS (Jurassic London chapbook, 64pp, sold out) is a weird western set in the town of Pandemonium, which is pretty much Deadwood renamed, with its very own arch nemesis in the figure of Rep Calhoun. One of the Deakins boys works for Calhoun, while the other two help their prospector father. In a cave they discover a parasitical worm, with nightmarish consequences.
And that is about all there is to the story, the joy being in the telling with a wealth of incidental detail about Pandemonium and its citizens. The characters are well drawn, with the interplay between the two sons and their drunken father a particular delight (you can see why Isaiah left), while the picture of Calhoun, an archetypal nouveau rich, with all the attendant airs and graces, none of which obscure his thug nature, is extremely well done. The nasty stuff is appropriately nasty, as the worms work their changes on human flesh, with the victims fighting desperately to get rid of the creatures, and the horror of onlookers giving way to a need for ruthless extermination. It’s a good story, one that I enjoyed reading, but one where what you see is what you get, with little in the way of subtext. As a make weight, we are given extracts from a bar tender’s guide used in a Pandemonium drinking establishment many years ago, so if you wish to mix a Grendel or a Hullaballoo this is the book for you.
THESE LAST EMBERS (Undertow chapbook, 17pp, soldout) by Simon Strantzas is the story of Samantha, and her return to the family home she thought she’d escaped. Things have changed. The house has been damaged in a fire and looks uninhabitable, but her parents are still there, though her mother’s mental state seems precarious. Her twin brother Lemule, who Samantha left behind because “he didn’t feel the need to escape the shrinking walls of the house” is missing. But opening the door to his fire wracked room leads Samantha to a tremendous discovery.
Samantha feels that her world is closing in, a claustrophobic atmosphere that grows as the story progresses, with Strantzas shutting down each avenue for his character, but at the end what we witness is a dramatic opening up and out, one in which all her expectations are reversed. The implication seems to be that we don’t need to leave home to escape, that there is a whole world of adventure waiting on our doorstep if we simply know how to find it, though at the same time from the perspective of the reader there is a minatory element to the story’s resolution. Beautifully written, this short piece has about it the feel of Narnia reinvented and given a fresh coat of stardust courtesy of the weird.
Gary McMahon’s latest work, THERE’S A BLUEBIRD IN MY HEART (White Noise Press chapbook, 24pp, $18), is a novelette set in a world torn apart by the attacks of monsters, though few people have actually seen them and lived to tell the tale, and many believe that the monsters are a lie created by those in charge to keep the populace docile. Bill is a typical McMahon protagonist – he’s lost his wife and child to the monsters, works on a building site, spends his money on booze and gets into fist fights, or has casual sex with landlady Tracy. Discovery of a dead body changes everything for Bill, as he sees a glowing bluebird emerge from the corpse. It’s a moment of epiphany and first step on a spiritual journey to self-knowledge.
McMahon does his usual excellent job of portraying a shop soiled anti-hero in the figure of Bill, someone broken by the circumstances of his life, with the memory of a good man that once might have been lurking in the corners of the narrative. We are saddened by what he has become, but understand all too well his reasons, the losses that are the sum of his being. The backdrop is the most interesting aspect of the story, a world in which the monsters are real, though at the same time creatures of urban legend, seen only by those they kill. McMahon cleverly reverses the usual polarity of this kind of story, with the revelation of the bluebirds offering proof that the monsters exist, and one assumes that the birds are meant to represent the human soul, the things which are best in us, which is why Bill’s own bluebird is so remote. At the same time, there is the possibility that Bill has finally gone mad, and what he sees is simply a deathbed fantasy of consolation. Two excellent full page black and white illustrations by artist Keith Minnion accompany the text.
Will, the protagonist of Nathan Ballingrud’s novella THE VISIBLE FILTH (This Is Horror chapbook, 70pp, £6.99), works at Rosie’s Bar in New Orleans and lives with student girlfriend Carrie, but thinks he should really be with best female friend Alicia. His life seems set in a (un)comfortable rut, but then the outré intrudes. There’s a fight at the bar, and in the aftermath Will discovers a phone left by one of a bunch of college kids. He starts to receive strange text messages that hint at somebody in trouble, and then horrific images are found in the phone’s memory. As events take an ever more unsettling course, Carrie is drawn into the affair and endangered.
This is a strange and disturbing work, with the outré elements original and extremely unnerving, though I did have some doubts as to their instant acceptance by the characters, rather than being dismissed as sfx, a possibility that isn’t even raised. And yet in a way these things are almost a side issue, with Will’s character as the real driving force behind the narrative. At first he’s presented as a nice guy, but as the story progresses his essential shallowness is revealed, his penchant for self-pity, until at the end he is an empty vessel waiting for something to fill it. As with most predators in horror fiction, it is the weakness/flaw in the victim’s own nature that makes them vulnerable to attack. Will’s acceptance of his fate, his readiness to be occupied by entities that wear bodies like suits, speaks to the self-defining nullity the man attains. Images of cockroaches open and close this novella, emblematic of insanitary conditions, but we see only the visible filth, while the real dirt is locked deep down inside of us, ready to explode in moments of horror. I loved this book, and it is among the best stories I have read so far this year.