Filler content with novellas

Below are reviews of four novellas published by Spectral Press that originally appeared in Black Static #48.

NB: Subsequent to problems at Spectral Press at the start of the year, three of these novellas are now published by Snowbooks.


You can’t keep a good monster down, or so they say, and as if to prove the point John Llewellyn Probert’s arch-villain is back for second helpings of a dish best served cold in THE HAMMER OF DR VALENTINE (Spectral Press hc, 99pp, £21). With the author’s British Fantasy Award winning formula improved by adding a touch of thwarted thespian Edward Lionheart to the mix, this time around our evil genius du jour is murdering the journalists who trashed him in the press, and trawling the back catalogue of Hammer Films for his templates.

We open with a man hurled from a catapult and impaled on a cross, continue with deaths by having the ceiling fall on top of you, hanging, acid and other equally inventive methods of terminating a life. While DI Longdon and his team struggle to keep up, Valentine and his mysterious female assistant always remain one step ahead, until the erstwhile detective gets with the programme and uses his knowledge of Hammer lore to get the jump on his nemesis (well, somebody else’s knowledge – the DI isn’t as culturally astute as he could be). But of course nothing turns out quite how you expect it.

Though some of the novelty has undoubtedly worn off, this is still, just like its predecessor The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine, a hugely entertaining read, with echoes of its inspiration in the career of the inimitable Dr. Phibes, so much so that you can almost hear that sepulchral organ music playing as you read. There’s an exciting story, dashes of humour and, believe it or not, some serious points being made about the nature of tabloid journalism along the way, so that like Longdon and his fellows you can almost sympathise with Valentine. And, of course, there are all the film references to pick up on, adding an extra dimension to the story, one that will be enjoyed by the cognoscenti without detracting from the fun for those who have reached an appropriate reading age without ever having experienced the crimson stained delights of a Hammer film. I loved it and hope that there will be another book in the series. (And if you thought I was going to say anything negative about this novella, then you’re obviously not familiar with the plot of Theatre of Blood.)

Told from the viewpoint of Frank, a teacher currently suspended while an accusation of assaulting a student is resolved, Mark Morris’ novella ALBION FAY (Spectral Press hc, 129pp, £21) opens with a funeral. As we read on we learn that it is the funeral of his brother in law and two children, apparently murdered by Frank’s twin sister Angie, who has disappeared. But the underlying reasons for this tragedy, if any, are rooted in the distant past. A childhood holiday spent at the isolated house known as Albion Fay, and the caves behind the house to which are attached local legends of the Fay and changelings, all of which fascinated Angie, who claimed that she could see “night people” inside them and then inexplicably disappeared, returning a day later with no explanation as to where she had been and, to Frank at least, seeming changed. And then there is the family’s troubled history, the tale of an unhappy marriage and an abusive relationship that ended horribly, actions which perhaps the younger generation are fated to repeat.

What we have here is a beautifully written novella, one that engages the attention with a compelling plot and fully realised characters. The backdrop of Albion Fay and the surrounding countryside is strongly rendered, with the landscape itself seeming imbued with mystery and magic, in many ways reminding me of the work of Machen and Blackwood, while the local legends recounted by the children the twins meet add a fascinating new dimension to the story. Frank, a somewhat distant and timidly aloof character, and Angie, outgoing and self-confident at first, but then transformed into someone damaged by an experience of which she can never speak, are both convincingly portrayed, while the picture of a broken marriage and the effect it can have on children is powerfully conveyed, with scenes that tear at the heart strings. And ditto for the picture of Frank’s mother, in her later years beset with dementia and remembering everything through a fog. While the supernatural elements seem to be in the very forefront of the story, Morris leaves open the possibility that they are simply the projections of a damaged psyche, an excuse or justification of sorts for the terrible thing that Angie does. It’s a clever gambit and one that he pulls off with aplomb. I loved everything about this story and hope that it does well for the author.

THE BUREAU OF THEM (Spectral Press eBook, 60pp, £1.99) by Cate Gardner is the story of Katy who is grieving for her dead boyfriend Glynn, but even thirteen months after he was killed the pain is no less. Her friends are concerned about her mental health. But then she sees his ghost in the shell of a derelict building, one of a horde of the dead. It is the start of a blurring of the lines between everyday reality and the world of the dead, one of condemned buildings and people with ashen pallor, who can remember little of their past lives but whose bitterness and anger at the living knows no bounds. It is a world dominated by the trickster figure of Yarker Ryland and the shaman Amos who appears to Katy as a tramp. Her ally is Peter, the man who walks with the dead, with a tattoo on his arm that reads “Property of the Bureau of Them, Us and You”. Katy is warned that she will never escape, but her overriding thought is to rescue Glynn from the arms of the dead, or to be reunited with him through her own death at their hands.

There are echoes here of Japanese film Kairo, but done as if the character of Betelgeuse has been intruded into the plot courtesy of the acerbic Yarker Ryland. Initially passive, Katy is transformed by her ordeal, her inability to let go carried over into another world, where she becomes the monster. From the perspective of the dead it is the living who are ghosts, needing only to be set free from the prison of flesh. Their anger at being forgotten, at seeing the living come to terms with their grief and move on, is a catalyst for destruction. They want to infect the whole world with their anger. This novel approach with its attendant reversal of usual values, thrusting the desires of the dead into the foreground of the plot, is what makes Gardner’s work so effective, a surreal variation on the traditional ghost story that is powerful and affecting for the way in which it places emotions under the microscope, dealing with the commonplace of loss in a strikingly original manner, showing the steps that lead to the creation of a vengeful spirit.

Like Stephen Volk’s previous Spectral novella LEYTONSTONE (Spectral Press hc, 117pp, £21) offers a different slant on the life of a film world luminary, in this case the director Alfred Hitchcock, though hardly as generous to its subject as Whitstable was with Peter Cushing. It expands on an earlier story, ‘Little H’, and takes as its starting point a supposedly true incident from the childhood of the master of suspense in which the boy is taken by his father and delivered into the hands of the local police officer, who lets him spend a night in the cells to toughen the boy up. The policeman takes a gleeful delight in tormenting his young charge, giving Fred new things to worry about, such as not getting fed and the rats nibbling at his toes. So far, so good, with what could almost be a master class in crafting the escalating tension and sense of menace for which Hitchcock was known. In the aftermath of the incident, feelings of guilt inspired by religion, a burgeoning sexuality and the sensation prone magazines that the boy reads, all come into play, and the lesson that Hitchcock takes from the experience is not the one his father intended. He starts playing tricks on other children, culminating in the imprisonment of a young girl in a room in an abandoned house. But there are consequences.

This is an engrossing story, one which chronicles the birth of a fantastic imagination and the events that shaped Hitchcock to his role as purveyor of terror. Volk deftly slots each incident into the plot, each reinforcing all the others, so that we never doubt the portrait of a tortured and tormenting genius that emerges from the morass. Fred isn’t really evil as such, but his moral standards are pushed more to the amoral side of the scale by the lessons he learns, and it is the resulting streak of creative ruthlessness, the willingness to go that extra step and make his lies believable, that provides the bedrock for Hitchcock’s later success on a world stage. He has discovered that the world is not fair and that good is not rewarded and evil not punished, at least not automatically. He acted badly and got away scot free, while his victim was punished even though entirely blameless. It simply came down to which of them could produce the most credible account of what took place, with young Fred’s lies more convincing than the truth. Conversely his father, in attempting to toughen up his son, is punished by the subsequent demands made by the policeman, and it is his wife, the boy’s mother, who pays the price for Fred’s sins. Nobody here is left unsullied, except perhaps Olga, who has all the sense of virtue punished that we could expect from a heroine in the novels of De Sade. It is a disturbing book, both for the details of the story that it tells, all of which are unsettling, but also for the subtext which tells us that genius, the artistic creations which we admire so much, may all be mired in blood and shit. Actions have consequences, but they are not always the ones you expect, and the mind of the auteur seeks to bend them to his benefit with little regard for the effect on others.

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