Reviews of three books by John Llewellyn Probert that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-
THREE OF THE BEST: JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
So, you wait and you wait for a review of a book by John Llewellyn Probert, and you wait some more and then three come along all at once. With a novella, a novel, and a short story collection, we have three of the four main fiction groups covered (if Probert has edited an anthology, nobody has sent a copy for me to review).
We start with novella DEAD SHIFT (Horrific Tales Publishing hc, 150pp, £12.99), which according to Amazon copy for the Kindle edition is “Lovecraftian Horror Comedy”. It begins with the discovery of an unconscious tramp in an abandoned housing estate. He is brought to Northcote Hospital, but there is something odd about the man, not least his reluctance to release a strange book held on his person. Dr Richard Dearden senses that things are seriously amiss, an impression that is confirmed when the patient goes missing. In an occult ceremony Arthur Lipscomb succeeds in breaking down the walls between realities and summoning something other. Northcote Hospital becomes hell on earth, with Richard and his colleagues Dev and Sandra fighting to survive at first and then to undo the damage inflicted by the madness of Lipscomb.
This short novella packs a lot into the space. Given Probert’s own medical background, one must assume that the details about hospital procedure and related matters are on point, and as far as that goes it provides a fascinating insight into medical practice, with the camaraderie and banter of the three doctors adding another dimension to the overall package. Lipscomb’s motivations and madness are convincingly evoked, and the way in he goes about his conjuring is brought to the page with a gritty realism and mood of bleakness bordering on despair, with effects that unsettle the reader. All of this is a prelude to the main event, an apocalypse of sorts with Lovecraftian overtones, Probert throwing a plethora of special effects at the page with all the gleeful abandon of the literary world’s equivalent of Industrial Light & Magic. His unflagging invention is what makes the story special and enables him to paper over the cracks (though not those between worlds), distracting from the fact that the stem story here is pretty much a horror staple – something gets unleashed and somebody has to put things right, or die trying. Dead Shift isn’t groundbreaking horror by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it really intended to be or presented as such, but it is a great way to pass a few hours in horror mode. Probert is a safe pair of hands and what he lays out for us is a zestful and never less than entertaining slice of fright.
Probert’s latest novel appears to be drawing inspiration from the same well of ideas. According to the dustjacket blurb, THE LOVECRAFT SQUAD: ALL HALLOWS HORROR (Pegasus Books hc, 378pp, £18.99) is “The first novel in a new series following the exploits of a secret organization dedicated to battling the eldritch monstrosities given form in H. P. Lovecraft’s fevered imagination”. And while Probert might have written the book, the mastermind at back of it all is horror maestro Stephen Jones, with The Lovecraft Squad series tying in to a previous series of linked books published under the general heading Zombie Apocalypse. Probert launched the series, but a second volume penned by diverse hands and titled Waiting was released last November, while third entry Dreaming will hit bookshop shelves just in time for Christmas.
Our main protagonist is Professor Bob Chambers of the Human Protection League, called to London to investigate the discovery of an ancient manuscript, and before you can say Necronomicon three times in front of a mirror at midnight, we are mired in some very strange shit. Playing counterpoint to Chambers is investigative journalist Karen Shepworth, who latches on to Bob in search of a story and finds that she has bitten off rather more than her sceptic sensibilities will allow her to chew. In a nod that put me slightly in mind of Ghostwatch, a tabloid newspaper holds a competition for two of its readers to spend a night or longer in All Hallows Church, with Bob and Karen along for the ride, plus a paranormal investigator, an academic versed in ancient texts, and a priest with motives and a mission of his own, all of them cannon fodder for whatever lurks in the dark corners of the abandoned building and provides the substance for its evil reputation. Think The Haunting or The Legend of Hell House, only with a church in lieu of a house and a budget on a scale that only an author’s imagination can allow, as the dramatis personae are plunged into the crypts beneath All Hallows and an epic journey through the Nine Circles of Hell.
In Chambers and Shepworth there are echoes of Probert’s characters Massene Henderson and Samantha Jephcott, two paranormal investigators par excellence whose exploits were chronicled in Against Darkness and The House That Death Built, but without the humour of that couple (All Hallows Horror is a much more serious endeavour), and with the sense of a greater depth to their relationship, in that there are antipathies to be worked through. The other characters are equally well drawn, with touches of individuality and character traits that brand them into the reader’s mind and bring them to life on the page, while treachery is always on the cards and the only certainty is that nobody can be trusted.
All of that however is eclipsed by the epic nature of what takes place, with a bog standard horror device (the discovery of a cursed document) as Probert’s launching pad for a journey into the stratosphere of the horror genre, where the bizarre and grotesque are indistinguishable from the sublime and underlying it all is a fearsome engine of metaphysics. At times, as they journey through the nine circles, it feels as if the characters are trapped in some nightmarish version of The Crystal Maze or The Krypton Factor, or that the movie Saw has been reinvented as cosmic horror, with puzzles to be solved and fates worse than death avoided. It is a bravura performance, a tour de force that dazzles with the wealth of invention and the sheer spectacle committed to the page, with characters and reader never given a moment to catch their breath before Probert plunges them from one more frying pan into a fire even hotter than the last one. The author’s vision of Hell may be a terrible place, but it is never boring or bleak, reading rather like Dante filtered through theme park sensibilities. And underlying all this is, perhaps, just the smidgen of awareness of how crass it could all become, the miraculous reduced to the levels of a tabloid press show and tell. I loved every minute of this book, which certainly got the new series off to a flying start, and along the way picked up on some of the hints as to how it will all tie in to Jones’ Zombie Apocalypse predecessor. With Probert as his trailblazer, the editor is forging his own mythos with Lovecraftian building blocks as the raw material.
Finally we come to Probert’s latest collection, MADE FOR THE DARK (Black Shuck Books hc, 292pp, £20), published in a numbered edition of only 50 copies, each one signed by the author. The book contains eighteen stories, two of them previously unpublished. Five of the stories – ‘The Girl in the Glass’, ‘The Life Inspector’, ‘The Best Christmas Ever’, ‘The Lucky Ones’, and ‘Six of the Best’ – I’ve reviewed on previous occasions, and so as per standard operating procedure I won’t repeat myself here but will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the benefit of Probert completists, which leaves a suggestive thirteen stories to discuss.
After an introduction by the author in which he reflects on his lifelong obsession with horror, the collection proper kicks off with ‘Scattered Ashes’ in which a private detective is hired by a group of wealthy men to investigate the case of a cremation urn that is in spirit contact with a widower, the story escalating into a horrific tale of atrocities committed and revenge from beyond the grave. It’s a compelling piece with an intriguing variation on a standard theme, some excellent characterisation, and gratifyingly gory set pieces, as assorted bastards get their deserved comeuppance, plus an innocent or two to show that revenants don’t care. Evil has a familiar face in ‘The Death House’ with a British officer charged with investigating a Nazi facility where terrible atrocities are being committed. There’s a Lovecraftian reference at the heart of this story, which has an engaging plot and a subtext about how art can be turned to foulness, and underlying that the realisation that while some are born evil not all are equal in their malice.
Brutal and cynical by the author’s own admission, ‘It Begins at Home’ takes a look at the world of marketing and media manipulation, asking its photographer protagonist exactly how far he’ll go to complete a commission. This is, in some ways, a story with a message rooted in its powerful subtext about how the world is shaped by those in power to suit their own ends, and showing how others are persuaded to get with the programme, the ending predictable but no less shocking for all that we see it coming. Sharon has an encounter with the numinous when she finds a stone circle in ‘A Taste of Honey, A Horror of Stone’, the story thoroughly assured in its depiction of the characters and with those tiny touches of detail that add verisimilitude and convince the reader that we’re not in Kansas (or the Cotswolds) any more, before mounting to its horrific climax.
When a youth breaks into their “castle” a couple demonstrate ‘How the Other Half Dies’, the story delightfully tongue in cheek, even as it gouges said check and severs the tongue. Underlying the narrative is a subtext on how savagery becomes social etiquette and the hypocrisy of the self-righteous and those who cherish their “values”, with the revelation of the identity of the torturer in chief adding another frisson of joy and pitch black irony to this outing in the vein of Roald Dahl. In ‘The Secondary Host’ a doctor encounters a strange disease with overtones of religiosity, taking drastic steps to stop its spread. Once again it’s a story that builds well, with an intriguing premise and novel setting in Zanzibar, plus obligatory wet work, while at the same time hinting at more, that religion itself may be a disease, or at least certain cults that cause people to act “unwisely”.
We get another fine example of horror fiction as deserved comeuppance in ‘Girlfriend School’, where a man tries to mould his dates into suitable wife material, conforming to his own ideas of how they should act. Starting with the pettiness of the main character, seguing into something more horrific, and then gratifying with its payoff, this is a by the numbers story that doesn’t set a foot wrong in its gleeful execution. A femme fatale of sorts needing a change of appearance turns up on the wrong doorstep in ‘The Girl With No Face’. While rather too full of coincidences and stretched facts to convince, this is old style horror fodder that delights in its over the top qualities, and for the reader willing to suspend disbelief it is thoroughly entertaining. One of my favourite stories in the collection, there’s a fabulist style to the telling of ‘The Man Who Loved Grief’, in which a doctor is called on to treat the girl who is the recipient of all the grief of mankind. Probert wisely refrains from explaining too much, and the end result is a spellbinding and charming love story that reads like a conflation of Le Guin’s classic story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. It kicks against the presiding zeitgeist of the collection, and is all the more special for that reason.
We are in Victorian London for ‘Out of Fashion’, a slice of decadence in which the steampunk fashion accessory of choice, a corset, becomes the means of an alien invasion. It is another example of Probert with tongue firmly in cheek and gleefully entertaining, while perhaps offering us a comment on the lengths people go to in the name of fashion. ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ is pure schlock, with the practitioner of atrocities for entertainment encountering a magician who is bent on revenge, the story fitting into the school of deserved comeuppances but at the same time with an underlying amorality, and gripping from the very first word to the last. Along the way it lightly passes comment on our need for ever greater shocks to the system as entertainment. A crippled ballerina wishes to dance once again in ‘A Life on the Stage’, a sad story that couches its supernatural elements in very human terms, making us care for the character and will her to succeed, even though we fear that, as with every wish granted or bargain made, there may be consequences.
For last story ‘Blood and Dust’ a demonic force is unleashed in the Wild West, the tale filled with action and colour and spectacle, the supernatural vying with human treachery as we race to a rip roaring conclusion. Written with the gusto and chutzpah of Joe R. Lansdale, and six shooters blazing, it’s a great final curtain to this showcase collection. Only it’s not the end; having provided an introduction for each individual story, Probert extrapolates on his thoughts with some lengthy and enlightening ‘Story Notes’, to provide the perfect close to a collection that was entertaining and urbane, even as it pulled out some character’s intestines. I loved it.