Filler content with small packages – Part 1

The first part of a feature on novellas that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-

IN SMALL PACKAGES

As we move away from the festive season with its attendant over indulgence, perhaps it’s time to think about downsizing in our fictional appetites as well as our actual appetites. So step away from the latest King Big Mac and the most recent Koontz turkey, and come over here to this table in the corner that’s groaning under the weight of lighter delicacies provided by purveyors of fictional fare who may be no less talented, if not as well known. Pick up a plate and help yourself to whatever takes your fancy.

Smorga’s bored, but I guarantee you won’t be.

And that sad attempt at Scandinavian wordplay leads us to CAPE WRATH (Telos Publishing pb, 216pp, £12.99) by Paul Finch which was first published in 2002 and a contender for a British Fantasy Award. Now thanks to the good people at Telos we have this brand spanking new edition to consume. Professor Mercy leads a group of students on an expedition to the island of Craeghatir, described as “nothing more than a tiny spot off the tip of Cape Wrath, mainland Britain’s northern-most point”. Their task is to excavate a barrow thought to be the last resting place of Ivar the Boneless, a fierce and brutal Viking warlord who inexplicably disappeared when at the height of his power. There’s plenty of tension within the group – between Alan and former girlfriend Linda; between Alan and Barry, her new boyfriend; and general resentment at David, who is only present because of his father’s influence. Within a day of arriving one member of the party is dead, thought to have been killed in a tragic climbing accident, though there are circumstances that don’t quite make sense. One by one they are picked off, each sacrificed in horrific and bloody rites that are taken from the most bloodstained pages of Viking history. At first suspicion falls on the other members of their party, but far more deadly forces are at play. Something was released when they opened the barrow, a malevolent entity that intends to resurrect Ivar through sacrificing to Odin, and it’s up to those who are left to fight to survive until help arrives from the mainland.

Okay, in the abstract this is pretty much your bog standard horror plot about the dangers of disturbing ancient burial sites, but here executed with a commendable gusto, Finch making all the right moves to produce a compelling and in your face work of horror fiction. Central to the story is Ivar, and I’ve no idea if he is a historical figure Finch is using for his story or forged from whole cloth, while to check seems rather not in the spirit of the thing, tempting as it is. What I can say with certainty is that Finch provides a wealth of detail touching on Viking history and their culture, particularly with regard to war and berserker rage, more than enough to make the backdrop convincing, and provide the solid ground on which his story stands. Also contributing to the verisimilitude of the narrative is his evocation of the island of Craeghatir, a remote and windswept spot where man clings on at subsistence level if at all. The hostility of the location, combined with unsettling stories about past events on the island, help to create an atmosphere of bleakness, one in which just about anything seems possible, with the exception of happiness.

In addition Finch is superb at drawing his characters, giving each distinguishing traits, adding spite and jealousy, anger and resentment to an already boiling pot, one that bubbles over in violence. Even lust comes into the equation, with scenes of two characters fucking intercut with the opening of the barrow, as if something is being borne through the ferocious act of sex. And the nature of the violence that permeates the narrative means that this is not a story for the faint hearted, with Viking sacrificial rites such as that of The Blood Eagle and The Walk described in all their horrific, stomach churning detail, Finch sparing us nothing. It is not perhaps a subtle work of fiction, but it is a powerful and compelling one, a story that is crying out to be made into a film.

By way of a makeweight we have bonus story ‘The Hellion’, with two couples visiting a former Viking site and encountering rather more than they bargained for. It has all the virtues of its predecessor – historical background that feels thoroughly researched, well-drawn characters and tension in the group, a minatory atmosphere – but falls at the last hurdle, with a monster that seemed rather fanciful to me in the context of the story, though perhaps that’s simply down to Cape Wrath having delivered so much that whatever followed was bound to feel anticlimactic.

Nina Allan’s THE HARLEQUIN (Sandstone Press pb, 128pp, £7.99) won the 2015 Novella Award. It’s the story of Dennis Beaumont, a conscientious objector who served in WWI as an ambulance driver, and deals with his return to civilian life, with attempts to pick up his studies at Oxford and rekindle feelings for his fiancée Lucy. To the reader, with one exception, Beaumont’s life seems to be dominated by dead men – his father who died while he was away and his old school teacher Ferguson, disfigured in the war and committing suicide on return; his friend Ambrose who died in the fighting, and his old mentor and university professor Martingale, who suffered a heart attack. Perhaps the most significant of them all is the soldier Stephen Lovell who died of his wounds while in Beaumont’s care. As well as dead men, there are live women – Beaumont’s sister Doris, who has been making ends meet and tending to the home fires in his absence, and his fiancée Lucy, who has changed during his time away, aspiring to own a dress shop and willing to share Beaumont’s bed. There is Rose Thorpe, the girlfriend of Stephen Lovell, for whom Beaumont conceives a wholly unrealistic attraction. And there is Billie, the barmaid with whom he conducts a lust driven affair, and it is on her mantelpiece that he first sees the harlequin statue that provides a lynch-pin for the novella’s action. Deadened by his experiences, Beaumont tries to make sense of what has happened to him by writing about the war, and it is in reading these accounts that we get the true story of what transpired with Stephen Lovell and of Beaumont’s encounter with the mysterious Vladek, a harlequin figure dressed in motley who may well have been the devil, with his foreknowledge and unique interpretation of war.

Beautifully written and keenly observed, The Harlequin offers a stunning account of a personality clinging on to sanity in quiet desperation. While he may have avoided direct participation in the bloodshed, Beaumont has not managed to stay detached from it all, as Vladek’s theories argue, and ultimately he is not above taking life when his own security is threatened. There is the possibility that Vladek is simply a figment of Beaumont’s imagination, and that he himself disposed of Lovell’s body, or even left the man to die so that he could save his own skin. Taken at face value though, Vladek represents not so much the devil, but a personification of all that is bad in human existence, a creature who observes our suffering and pain, the beneficiary of those conditions, while at the same time accepting no responsibility for the way in which we act. He is the detached observer, a commentator on human actions, the same role taken on by the journalist and soldier Lovell, and finally by Beaumont himself, but unlike them he can remain aloof and dispassionate. War corrupts seems to be the underlying message here, or rather that we are all part and parcel of that corruption, guilty regardless of what actions we take, performers in the freak show that is life, so that finally Vladek/the harlequin is a question posed for us all. This is an intelligent and engrossing novella, an exploration of the human condition and what we are capable of when in extremis, containing elements that are both an examination and condemnation of warfare, and a book that will reward multiple readings with new things and interpretations at each attempt.

THE LOST FILM (Pendragon Press pb, 303pp, £10) contains two novellas based on the world of cinema, and the first feature in this double bill comes courtesy of Black Static irregular Stephen Bacon. “Lantern Rock” is a small island set off the Cornish coast and only accessible via a narrow causeway (think Woman in Black). It is the home to Lionel Rutherford, a film director who quit over forty years ago, while at the height of his fame, and retired to this remote spot with his wife after the tragic drowning of their son. Paul Madigan accepts an invitation to interview the director, but he is accompanied to the island by the woman Ellie, who claims to be interested in the local birdlife but has another agenda entirely. Everything revolves round the fate of the occultist Theodore Zafon, a sinister figure who owned the house before Rutherford and was an influential figure in the film world of Rutherford’s heyday, and who may still be active in the present, many years after he should have died.

The invitation to an interview feels like an obviously contrived point of entry into the main story, and I could have done with some explanation for Rutherford’s wealth (he owns a house on an island, and employs a manservant, but appears to have no visible means of support, unless royalties and residuals are much more than I thought). Those minor quibbles aside, once we get into the main thread of the plot the narrative carries the reader along effortlessly. And part of that is down to Bacon providing a wealth of detail about the film crowd of which Rutherford was supposed to be a part, hinting at the malign influence of Zafon at the back of it all, giving a new twist to certain tragedies of the time, making us wonder if things like the death of Michael Reeves were really the accidents it is claimed. Characterisation is perfectly done throughout, with a hint of romance in the relationship between Paul and Ellie, while her knowledge of Zafon gives the plot an extra drive. Rutherford himself is a genial figure, and ultimately a sympathetic one despite whatever deals with the devil he made in the past, agreements for which he has more than paid the price. And yes, at heart this is a deal with the devil story and an attempt to renege on that deal, while the film aspects add a novel twist to the proceedings, Bacon incorporating the concept of a kind of life played out on celluloid, and then using this to kindle the fiery conclusion of his story. Overall ‘Lantern Rock’ was an accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable story, enhanced by an awareness of film history and a genuine affection for the horror genre.

The main feature is scripted by Mark West and relates the adventures of Gabriel Bird, a private eye who has had some rather unusual experiences in his time. Bird is hired by his former business partner to locate film-maker Roger Sinclair, who he last had contact with in the 1970s. Having exhausted the usual avenues of enquiry, Bird decides to dig into the world of exploitation cinema, checking out people Sinclair worked with and academics specialising in the field, getting his ex-girlfriend Carrie’s son Ryan to use his computer expertise to research the subject online. He even manages to locate Sinclair’s old diary, and what emerges is a tangled web of madness and illusion, all centred on Sinclair’s last film, ‘The Lost Film’ of the title, his self-declared magnum opus, Terrafly. Having caused considerable disturbance at a BBFC viewing, the controversial work went missing and has become something of a film world legend. Tied in to Sinclair’s theory of monochromatics, it hints at a terrible truth lurking at the edges of reality. Bird and others who watch a small clip online suffer from headaches and other symptoms, the film’s imagery infecting their reality, while some take the drastic step of blinding themselves, and as he moves closer to his quarry Bird senses that some terrible truth is waiting for him to discover it.

Again I have the one quibble, in that I felt the motives of Bird’s client for wanting Sinclair found were never satisfactorily explained, but it’s a minor point and doesn’t seriously detract from enjoyment of the work as a whole. ‘The Lost Film’ is a compelling and fascinating story, one that makes for an absorbing read. Like Bacon before him, West loads the story down with a wealth of detail about the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, which adds weight and verisimilitude to his main plot line, as we read about characters and events we recognise. He also solidly establishes the character of Gabriel Bird, with his various relationships, especially that with Carrie, giving the private eye a solid grounding in the real world. He might talk the talk, but Bird is not the lone wolf of much detective fiction; he is a man who has laid down roots, even as he on occasion tugs against them, and part of the horror of what happens to him is the realisation that he may well have endangered others through his actions, people about whom he cares deeply. As the end game plays out in a rundown seaside town that is based on Great Yarmouth (my own stamping ground, and I recognised nearly every detail West gives us of that place), the tension mounts to tipping point, with the revelations of the closing pages asking us to completely re-evaluate human existence. Art is supposed to tell us truths, but some truths should perhaps be kept hidden. There are echoes here of Angel Heart, and in Sinclair’s theory of monochromatics we see reflections of the megapolisomancy underlying Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, but at heart West’s story is that of the cursed object, the one that will infect the whole world if it is given free rein. He gives us a new and thoroughly contemporary variation on the theme, one that is more than worth the ticket price for this midnight screaming.

TO BE CONTINUED

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