Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 9

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.

Horror Express #4

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Sadly such a category doesn’t exist in the British Fantasy Society Awards, but if it did The Horror Express would definitely be a contender for the title of “Best Looking UK Genre Magazine Not Published by TTA Press”. The art is not as fully integrated with the text as with the TTA titles, but the use of full page illustrations throughout provides a showcase for the work of talented artists like Dion Hamill, Alex McVey and Sean Stoker, while the eye catching cover by Russell Dickerson is just the icing on a very substantial cake, all combining to demonstrate that for editor Marc Shemmans the visual identity of his magazine is every bit as important as its written content.

The magazine’s page count has reduced since its 2004 debut, but the use of smaller print means that, though not as easy on the eyes as before, it probably carries more content, while the clean layout, with two or three columns of text to the page, makes for a generally agreeable reading experience. And, though they haven’t been eliminated altogether, the number of typos is minimal (typos will outlast the printed word, just as cockroaches will outlive mankind).

In short, this is a classy production, and the nearest I can give you by way of visual comparison is the old and much missed Dementia 13, edited by Pam Creais.

But what about the written content?

Well for starters any magazine that manages to shake loose one of Dean Koontz’s rare short stories is entitled to paste a smug grin across its face, even if said story is a reprint from 1984. Graveyard Highway is the tale of the conflicted Mason, an artist who gave up any hope of the glittering prizes and instead devoted himself to raising political awareness and campaigning for a better world. And then one day Mason is driving into work and notices a huge graveyard running alongside the freeway. It’s the start of a personal rite of passage that leaves him with a better understanding of the world and his role in it. The story is atypical Koontz, with assured characterisation, rooted in genuine understanding of why people act as they do, and some disturbing imagery, as the macabre gives way to an even more unpalatable species of human brutality. Like much of this writer’s work it perhaps wears its heart on its sleeve, is very much a story with a message, and one wrapped up in a certain sentimentality at that, but for all the obviousness still a fine story and one that will stay with me for a time.

Koontz is not the only ‘big name’ writer in this issue. As the cover declares, THE#4 is a Tim Lebbon Special, and I’ve a sneaking admiration for the work of this writer from Wales, albeit stopping short of THE editor Marc Shemmans’ declaration that he’s ‘the best author to come out of the UK since Graham Masterton’, which posits the existence of a reality in which there is, for one, no Clive Barker.

By way of Lebbon themed non-fiction we get an interview which, while interesting, doesn’t really tell us anything new about the writer or provide any startling insight into his work. He comes over as an ordinary, rather likable guy, and as a firm believer that the best Horror fiction is produced by tormented souls I have to confess disappointment at Tim’s apparent lack of angst. There’s also an article come bibliography, in which Kevin Etheridge discusses Lebbon’s status as regards collectors. Leery as I am of people who buy books simply as a sideline to their investment portfolio, I couldn’t help cackling a little on learning how valuable some of my old magazines and books have become. Time to take another look at the household insurance.

We get two examples of Lebbon’s fiction. Casting Longer Shadows is the tale of a man haunted by the ghosts of his past who returns to his home village in search of reconciliation and redemption of some kind. The blighted landscape, wrapped in shadows and populated by eccentric characters will be familiar to those who know Lebbon’s oeuvre, but the story itself is slightly disappointing. There’s some striking imagery and evocative writing here, but in the end I didn’t have the feeling that it was anything more than a piling up of effects, something Lebbon is consummately good at, with no sense that I was connecting emotionally with the protagonist, the whole topped with a rather banal conceptual breakthrough as to his own corporeality. The other piece, a self-contained excerpt from Lebbon’s forthcoming novel Berserk (Necessary Evil Press–www.necessaryevilpress.com), was somewhat more accessible, portraying the plight of a father seeking to learn the truth about his son, supposedly killed in a military accident, with Lebbon skilfully manipulating the material to make us identify with the character, share his sense of loss and need for closure, while at the same time drawing out the tension until he’s ready to pull the rug out from under our feet with a left field final twist, making this a near perfect teaser for the novel.

Elsewhere we have Douglas E. Wright’s Crimson Hearts, a piece in which the mood is everything, beautifully written and informed by a strong sense of anticipation, with hints of some terrible tragedy lurking in the background, as a young woman waits for her lover to arrive, but ultimately all too vague and insubstantial to satisfy. Edgwise by Tony Campbell is a story it’s impossible to judge, being nothing more than the filling in a sandwich to which Graham Masterton brings the bread, the central part of an erstwhile collaboration. What can be said is that Campbell’s writing is competent and his plotting more so, deftly setting the scene for the confrontation that will follow in part three, as ancient spirits are evoked and the menace of the Windigo threatens, and certainly left me hungry for the resolution.

Joanne Shemmans’ Inquisition is a confident piece of work, one that sells the reader a dummy by ensnaring him in the web of a man whose wife is filled with suspicion and jealousy, but this chillingly credible evocation of a dysfunctional marriage is only a distraction from what’s really going on, with Shemmans plunging us into outré territory at the tale’s conclusion. A story with a firm grasp of the psychology of its characters and a willingness to go beyond that.

With the possible exception of the Koontz, The Anatomy of Seahorses by John Dodds is the finest story THE has to offer, the tale of professional tough guy and contract killer Wilbur, who is in the Far East to retrieve a valuable package for his employer. Dodds does everything right here, succeeding in the difficult task of creating a credible killer and then making him sympathetic by invoking terrors even more fundamental to the human condition. His evocation of the foreign setting is perfect too, with the spirit life woven seamlessly into the physical world, and the people given attitudes and traits convincingly at odds with our own Western world view. And Dodds’ writing grips from the very start, bringing an intriguing plot to life, providing the essential colour and sound and fury, with phrases that ring in the mind, such as the simply wonderful, ‘The corpse looked like four gallons of snot spread on a log,’ which I so wish I’d come up with myself.

Kevin Etheridge’s Randy and the Rockets has an intriguing premise, that of a band who reform in their golden years for one last, career defining gig, and Etheridge gets the sense of nostalgia just right. Overall though, the story suffers from being too long and would have worked much better at half the length. Points are hammered home through repetition, while the supernatural element becomes clear early on, and once the identity of this band becomes apparent any hope of credence is lost, as the reader stops taking Etheridge’s characterisation at face value and instead starts identifying how it falls short of his own preconceptions of what certain famous people are like.

Lastly we have Dust by Amy Grech, an example of ‘quiet’ horror, a ghost story with an unusual slant, as memories bleed into the present day and a woman’s life is transfigured by sorrow; a subtle encapsulation of grief and loss which provides a poignant note for the magazine’s fiction content to end on.

Several poems, an interview with artist Alex McVey and a smattering of reviews, including one of Steven Pirie’s Digging Up Donald, add ballast to a generally rewarding package, one which editor Marc Shemmans and his team have every right to feel proud of.

The Horror Express, edited by Marc Shemmans and published by THE HORROR EXPRESS. A4, 56pp, £4 or £12/One Year.

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