Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 3

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

Strange Tales by Mark West.

Rainfall Books pb, 84pp, £7.99

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover and certainly that seems to be the case with Strange Tales, the tasteful image of an attractive young lady, the author’s wife, hinting the stories it contains will be svelte, elegant and sophisticated, but in reality the collection is much more in your face than the photograph would suggest. Of the eleven stories on offer many are short and bloody, contes cruel often in the most negative sense of that label, possibly the prompt for a cover blurb comparison with Clive Barker that, sadly, the contents don’t justify.

“Infantophobia” gets the collection off to a promising start, the tale of a serial killer who performs abortions on pregnant women. The dark psychology behind his actions, grounded in a childhood misunderstanding, is credible enough and the actual scenes in which he operates on his victims are appropriately gut churning, culminating in a truly savage and memorable final twist. Gut churning also describes most of the action in the longer and lesser “Having a Bad Day”, in which a woman comes home after a hard day at the office to find her husband has committed suicide and, for the most specious of reasons, instead of calling the police takes it upon herself to dispose of the body. Cue garishly described scenes in which the corpse is signed, sealed and delivered (euphemism). As black comedies on the theme of how to get rid of a dead body go, this isn’t especially funny, and the corny punch line only accentuates the daftness of it all. The irony is that, when dealing with the mental states of the protagonists before the gore kicks in, West hints at a more rewarding story to be told, one grounded in the insecurities and emotional crises of his characters, but sacrifices this opportunity for the far less interesting schlocker option.

“Empty Souls, Drowning” is the best of what’s on offer, a sign of what West is capable of when he stops wanting to show that Richard Laymon a thing or two and instead deals with the material on its own terms, with two lost souls interacting in a rundown seaside town at the fag end of the season, a story full of subtle emotional nuances and a genuine feel for the suffering of the characters, all made that more effective by a strong evocation of place. The bleak landscape, so chillingly described, seems to mirror the inner turmoil of the people who loiter in the seafront arcades and cheap B&Bs trying to make sense of the traumatic events in their past. And then we’re back in the land of a thousand knives with “Dead Skin” and Rebecca, whose one aim in life is to get it on with a dead guy and she won’t rest until her dreams come true, only the stiff won’t get stiff if you know what I mean. There’s an attempt here to get under the skin of the character and explore what makes necrophiliacs tick, and that’s a commendable aim, but it’s overshadowed by the macabre elements of the story so that ultimately all we have is just another shock set piece. “Speckles” is one of the better stories, a tale of obsession slightly reminiscent of Poe on a bad day, no mean feat as Poe’s bad days were better than most writers’ good ones. The protagonist’s zeal to stay clean drives him to ridiculous and ultimately horrific lengths. The foundations of his condition are laid out with authority and some insight into such aberrant mental states, while the chilling final line of dialogue is perhaps the most effective pay off in the book, or would have been if the author had let it go at that instead of making what happens concrete with an unnecessary last paragraph. “Up for Anything” also has a truly nasty twist in the tail, as our heroine, an S&M devotee who thinks safe words are for wimps, takes her preference for ‘head’ to a logical conclusion. Not so much a story as a grotesque show and tell.

So far true invention has been at a premium and now it seems to excuse itself completely. “Together Forever” has one of the oldest clichés in the book, any book, the dead lover who won’t let go, and does nothing interesting with it. Most Horror fans will know exactly what to expect after the first page or so, and those who don’t are probably too young to be reading this stuff anyway. Ditto for “The Darkest Hour”, in which a man and woman link up at a nightclub and the only real question in the reader’s mind is which one of them is going to turn out to be the homicidal maniac. Full of heavy handed hints, this story is nothing more than a tiresome going through the motions.

After this sudden rash of banality it’s a treat to stumble upon “The City in the Rain”, which has the most original premise in the collection, as the metropolis itself falls victim to some fatal malaise and tries to heal itself by preying on the unruly bipeds who stalk its streets. It’s an intriguing concept and one that might usefully have been developed at greater length, perhaps even provide the seed for a novel, and in its current form provides a striking and dramatic image to fester in the mind. For the last two stories we’re back to business as usual, with “Dreaming of a Black Christmas” a simple cuckolded husband takes bloody revenge piece, recommended only to those who find divorce an unacceptable alternative, and “Beaches” which falls back on the familiar concept of the man who haunts himself. To damn with faint praise, these are competently written but that’s all that can usefully be said of them.

Rounding out the collection are some notes in which West explains how these stories came into being, which are interesting not only in their own right but for the picture they give us, which I personally found thoroughly endearing, of a young writer devoted to his craft and in love with the Horror genre. And that perhaps is the key fact about this collection; West has had a fair number of stories published in the Small Press but he is still relatively young and feeling his way. He shows real potential in the four better stories, but the remainder are at best unremarkable. If his talent is to truly grow then he needs to develop his plots more instead of always taking the easy option and rein in the tendency to end every other story with the most graphic and bloody scene his imagination can conjure up. There are times when the gore works (e.g. “Infantophobia”) and enhances the impact of the story, and there are other times when it seems to be an end in itself, a way of papering over the fact that the author has nothing interesting to tell us.

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