Filler content with angels

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #50 as part of a feature on the work of Simon Bestwick:-

FUTURE UNCERTAIN: SIMON BESTWICK

Originally appearing as a chapbook from Pendragon Press in 2011, Simon Bestwick’s story ANGELS OF THE SILENCES (Omnium Gatherum pb/eBook, 115pp, $7.99/$2.99) gets a brand new cover and US release this January courtesy of Omnium Gatherum Media.

The story is told from the viewpoint of seventeen year old Emily, who with her best mate Biff is murdered by psychopath Adam. It turns out the afterlife has a lot more variety to it than they’d previously suspected, and the two find themselves embodied and able to return to their old life. However, they don’t feel pain, have super strength, and the power to project a demonic façade. With these abilities in place they set themselves up as guardians for their old friends, the mates they regard as their posse, protecting them from bullies, drunks and sleazebags who are out to exploit them. And yet, back of it all, is the realisation that they can’t protect their mates from everything in life, and that sooner or later the posse will break up, as the others move on with their lives, go off to university or find jobs. Things come to a head when Adam reappears and takes a young girl off to his lair. Emily and Biff are determined to save her from the monster, and settle scores of their own, but there are dire consequences for both their corporeal existence and their friendship, with the realisation that they too must move on.

This is without doubt one of Bestwick’s finest stories, with totally believable characters and a compelling plot. His vision of an afterlife in which the dead become, for want of a better term, super heroes is both intriguing and an original take. The rules, such as they are, that shape and curtail the girls’ activities are sketched in and applied with consistency. There’s the satisfaction of seeing a bad guy get what is coming to him, and the protector role which the two friends take on is well defined, with the realisation that by giving in to anger they could so easily become monsters. What drives the narrative though is the personality of the two leads, different enough to be interesting, but at the same time with enough in common to be representative of their age group. They have the usual concerns of seventeen year old girls – interest in boys and sex, alcohol and partying, being out with their mates and the fear of what the future may bring – with some eminently believable and engaging dialogue to bring it all to life on the page.

Undercutting all this is the fact that they are dead, which gives a seriousness to their lives, or perhaps I should say existence, an awareness of possibilities to which their friends are oblivious, as well as exposure to the worst in human nature. And this in turn makes the story a sad one, a tale in which we know that heart break is definitely on the cards, inevitable even, and that the only hope for Emily and Biff is that they can make some sense out of what has happened to them, find meaning and a reason for their continued existence, and then move on with their lives. In many ways it is a rite of passage story, one in which the combatants just happen to be dead. I loved it.

And I also loved Bestwick’s most recent release, the novel HELL’S DITCH (Snowbooks hc/pb, 446pp, £25/£8.99). The first book in a series that goes by the general title of The Black Road, this story is set in a grim future Britain, nineteen years after the apocalypse has been and gone, and where the survivors grub out what they can by way of an existence in the bleak landscape that is North-West England. While a pale shadow of former urban glory lives on in conurbations such as Manchester, hordes of deformed mutants inhabit the wastelands where radiation lingers. Top dog in what passes for the New World Order is Tereus Winterborn, who rules his territory from his base in the ruins of Manchester, using his Reaper army and the elite Jennywren units to keep the populace cowed and suppress any and all resistance.

A new phenomenon is the condition known as ghostlighting, with those who suffer from it able to see and communicate with the dead. Main heroine Helen Damnation is doing just that when we meet her, conversing with her dead partner and child, though the dialogue seems far from amicable. They want her to kill Winterborn, who they hold responsible for their own demise and threaten dire consequences if she doesn’t do as they wish. Living on borrowed time, Helen sets off to Manchester and reconnects with the few surviving cells of the resistance, which is the cue for further mayhem on a grand scale, with old enemies popping out of the woodwork along with old friends. But there is an even worse threat than Winterborn waiting in the wings. At the isolated research facility known as Hobsdyke the scientist Mordake is working on Project Tindalos; Winterborn thinks he is developing a weapon that will give him the edge in dealing with the other Reaper commanders, but in reality Mordake is looking to raise ancient and powerful entities known as Night Wolves, who he believes will heal the world and restore his dead wife to him. Of course these ancient creatures have an agenda of their own, and the whole of humanity faces extinction unless Helen and her allies can somehow thwart Mordake.

Reduced to its basic components this is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic thriller, with supernatural trimmings, and on that basis alone it’s an exciting and rewarding book. Bestwick doesn’t stint on the action, with firefights aplenty and strong men and women doing what they do best, and then suffering the consequences. The author’s depiction of the grey, shattered world of abandoned buildings and forbidden places in which the main events of the story take place is never less than convincing. Though we don’t learn the exact nature of the catastrophe, the results are there on the page for all to see, with poor people struggling to survive, and the strong picking up a gun and putting on a uniform to affirm their status in the new society that is emerging. It’s a world of limited resources, and one in which life is cheap, with resistance to the iron will of the Reapers existing only in the cracks.

It’s also a world in which the barrier between realities appears to have worn thin, with ghostlighting the most obvious example of that, so that the dead communicate with the living, though whether that’s a consolation for them or not is dependent on circumstances, with the suspicion that it is the living who set the tone of any conversation, their needs shaping the revenants’ responses. There is also the possibility that the dead may simply be projections of the living, catalysts for whatever actions they need to take, in the same way that the ancient Greeks believed that they heard the voices of the gods. The supernatural element is also seen in Project Tindalos, with the Night Wolves that Mordake summons using their ability to warp reality to turn their victims into monstrous catspaws to carry out their will, and echoes of Lovecraft’s mythos resounding in our ears as we read. The final scenes, with the transformed Reapers battling Helen and her allies while a Night Wolf attempts to fully materialise on our plane, bring to mind similar scenes in the film Aliens. Bestwick grounds these aspects of his story in talk of archaeology and the North Sea Culture, in whose mythology the Night Wolves appear, but with the word “Tindalos” as our clue the creatures provenance can also be traced back via Frank Belknap Long (he first coined the name in a 1929 story ‘The Hounds of Tindalos’) to Lovecraft, who incorporated them into his own burgeoning mythology.

The greatest strength of the book lies in the characterisation. With their svelte uniforms and strict hierarchy the Reapers could have taken the Nazi SS as role models. Their commander Winterborn is unremittingly evil, a man driven by ambition and the lust for power, a monster who relishes his ability to scare others. Bestwick gives us more than just a one-dimensional and horrifying archetype though. There are members of the Reapers, such as Colonel Dowson and Major Jarrett, who have a more human face, potentially good people who serve an evil cause and genuinely believe that the terrible things they do are necessary for some greater good. They represent the apologists for fascism, those who have made a balanced decision to act in a certain way. Helen Damnation is the opposite. Once, during the years of the Civil War, she may have been idealistic, but time has soured her and now only revenge is left. She may pay lip service to the goals of the revolution, but in part it has become simply a pretext for carrying out more personal ends. In that she is every bit as much of an opportunist as Winterborn, the two of them opposite sides of the same coin. Helen is capable of redemption though, and a good part of the story concerns her personal rite of passage, the events that put her back in touch with her humanity, and the hard choices she has to make, learning that people are far more than pawns to be sacrificed in the pursuit of some higher goal. And yet there are still occasions when sacrifice is required, when there really is a greater good; for Helen and, indeed, for all of us, the trick is to recognise those moments when they occur.

Perhaps the most intriguing and memorable character in a book filled with memorable characters, is Gevaudan Shoal. He is the last of the Grendelwoves, a group of humans genetically altered to be super soldiers, possessed of great strength and superior speed, able to heal quickly and virtually indestructible (think Wolverine, with a bad attitude). When introduced Shoal just wants to be left alone and kills those who intrude on his privacy, but Helen and the young resistance fighter Danny intrigue the Grendelwolf, and eventually he manages to get in touch with what is left of his humanity and fight at their side. In the person of Shoal, Bestwick provides us with a fascinating and compelling insight into the psychology of somebody who is no longer human but hasn’t as yet managed to cast off his humanity, and there are moments when Shoal is the one who puts things into perspective for everybody else, his detachment enabling him to see things more clearly.

There are plenty of subplots too and a very human dimension to the drama, as with the hints of a possible attraction between Gevaudan Shoal and Helen, and also between Danny and an older resistance fighter. Bestwick inserts these moments of calm and romance in among all the murder and mayhem to remind us that these are real people, not simply stereotypical warriors fighting a war, that they have personal feelings and desires that on occasion take precedent over whatever political ideals they hold, that give them something worth fighting for. He also sets up themes and plot strands that I expect to be played out more fully in future volumes of this series, and as far as that goes I am looking forward very much to seeing how things develop. Hell’s Ditch is a magnificent achievement, the work of a writer who knows how to tell a story and make it hurt, but in a good way, and putting on my fortune-teller’s cap I suspect that the best is still to come.

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