Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-
THREE FROM TELOS
We’ll kick off this issue’s Case Notes with a feature on Telos Publishing, one of the mainstays of the UK indie genre scene since its establishment back in 2000.
Better known for his collaborations with Steve Lockley, Paul Lewis flies solo for the novella SMALL GHOSTS (Telos Publishing pb, 108pp, £9.99). Still grieving after the death of his wife, Tom returns home to support his mother who is dealing with the impending death of her father. Tom never got on with his police officer grandfather, who always seemed a little too stern and emotionless, and was particularly put off by the way in which he dealt with the death of his beloved grandmother, hardly reacting at all. Nonetheless he ends up staying in his grandfather’s house while the old man is dying in hospital, and finds evidence that the former copper was haunted by the one case he never solved, the mystery of a serial killer preying on young boys. Guided by the spirits of the victims Tom starts to pry into past events, but not everything is what it at first seems to be.
This is pretty much a by the numbers story of spectral intervention to solve a crime, with the one twist and original element having to do with the motivation of those “small ghosts” and the way in which their need for closure was denied. That being said, Lewis does a good job of putting the story across, with some subtle touches of both atmosphere and characterisation. As well as dealing with actual ghosts we can see that Tom is putting to rest the ghosts from his own past, his antipathy towards his grandfather and feelings about his deceased wife, adding yet another frisson to the mix and allowing the supernatural element of the tale to in part serve as a metaphor for very real human concerns, the need for closure. And while I might characterise it as the one original element, that being said the twist is a good one and caught me by surprise. The only objection I have to this book, and it’s one that I mention with tongue firmly in cheek, is that as a Frasier fan I so wish Lewis hadn’t named a major character Martyn Crane (and in one episode of the sitcom, isn’t former police officer Martin obsessed with a case he couldn’t crack?). It had me shaking my head and thinking uncharitable thoughts every time the name was mentioned.
Back in Black Static #53, when reviewing Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands I noted the demise of this fine anthology series with the closure of publisher Gray Friar Press. But, in the best traditions of the horror genre, series editor Paul Finch has found a new home for his baby with Telos and the series has risen from the grave with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL (Telos Publishing pb, 284pp, £12.99). As usual, Finch gives us a smattering of local legend and mythology intercut between the region based horror stories, fascinating material that is both rewarding in its own right and helps create a sense of verisimilitude with regard to the spectral pedigree of Cornwall.
In opening story, ‘We Who Sing Beneath the Ground’ by Mark Morris, a teacher makes a home visit to one of her pupils at a remote farm, only to discover that he has helped unearth something monstrous. Morris sets up the situation with finesse, using a show and tell day at school to whet reader curiosity and then presenting an eerie landscape and foreboding farmhouse, with echoes of ‘The Colour Out of Space’ in the scenario, before bringing down the hammer. It is a masterly exercise in slow burn horror roaring to a crescendo, with a neat, if not entirely unexpected, end twist. Ray Cluley takes advantage of the artistic reputation of Cornwall for ‘In the Light of St Ives’ with older sister Emily coming to the rescue of painter Claire, who has burned the house she is renting to get rid of an infestation of colour. Right up to the end Cluley allows room for ambiguity regarding Claire’s mental state and shows us an unspoken tension in the relationship between the two sisters, added to which there is an outré feel to the house itself and the sinister colour scheme that so upsets Claire, all these factors combining to create a sense of the unearthly.
The story by Reggie Oliver I have reviewed before, and so, to repeat myself – “we have ‘Trouble At Botathan’ with a student on an academic retreat learning about the inglorious past of the house at which he is staying and its former owner through the means of lost documents and visions of a drowned girl. At the heart of the story is past attitudes to mental illness and the shame that families felt when one of its members went astray, this in turn leading to a kind of abuse and much worse. Intercut with all this, as in so many of these stories, is a sense that there is far more to reality than we know or dream of, that though these things manifest in a minatory manner they also prove the potential for the miraculous and other dimensions to our existence.” A patriotic Cornishman finds himself on the wrong end of a curse in ‘“Mebyon versus Suna”’ by John Whitbourn, a clever and amusing exercise in hoisting a mildly unpleasant person with his own petard. Paul Edwards in ‘The Unseen’ uses the increasingly familiar trope of a “cursed” film, but veers the idea off into less charted territory, giving us moments of unbridled lunacy and terror as he chronicles the undoing of protagonist Lee in his pursuit of an “unhealthy” obsession. While not approving of Lee’s search and his way of dealing with his family, the characterisation is credible enough that we can understand his need for something of his own, even if it’s only to view a rare horror film in its entirety, and the final scenes of the story elevate this material to a level almost akin to cosmic horror.
In ‘Dragon Path’ by Jacqueline Simpson three friends out on Bodmin Moor learn to their cost that it is unwise to mock a fourth who has druidic powers, but he also learns that it is wrong to misuse that power. It is one of the weaker stories in the collection, with neither characters nor the setting coming truly alive on the page, though the plot is sound. Editor Finch’s ‘The Old Traditions Are Best’ concerns the fate of the loutish Scott, a young offender on a rehabilitation holiday in Cornwall, who falls foul of the local legends he mocks. The plot moves effortlessly along finely aligned grooves to its expected resolution, complete with a final end twist, along the way giving us credible characterisation, atmosphere, and little touches of historical detail that add conviction to the whole. It’s eminently agreeable and passes the time nicely, but all the same it feels rather like something that’s written by the numbers, with nothing to defy or challenge the reader’s expectations, no sense of the writer flexing his creative muscles.
In ‘The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things’ by Mark Valentine a museum curator and an artist working on a new Tarot design have an encounter with the numinous. At the heart of the story is the idea that Cornwall is a place where barriers between this world and other realities are particularly thin, but what makes it work is the depth of characterisation and the snippets of incidental invention that bring this enchanted landscape to life. Kate Farrell’s ‘His Anger Was Kindled’ tells of a minister’s last stand in defending his largely abandoned church from those who wish to turn it into luxury housing. It’s a story that holds faith with the old ways, pitting spirituality against commercialism, even if the Reverend Prideaux is barking mad and his methods doomed to fail ultimately. ‘Four Windows and a Door’ by D P Watt is a haunted house story of sorts, with a family undone by the mysterious disappearance of their daughter after a Cornish holiday and the sighting of an unusual house. It is an eerie story, one that seems to hint at unspeakable possibilities in the natural landscape of this most westerly county and builds to its unsettling denouement with assuredness.
Steve Jordan’s ‘Claws’ is set in a rundown amusement arcade haunted by Piskies, with the plot driven by the animosity between an unscrupulous employer and his young, rebellious staff. It holds the interest all the way, with some lovely touches that add to the unsettling atmosphere and an out of left field end twist. All the same, I couldn’t help thinking of Gremlins when the Piskies went on the rampage, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. ‘A Beast By Any Other Name’ by Adrian Cole is an intriguing murder mystery, with an investigative journalist finding out what really happened in the case of a mine owner allegedly killed by the beast of Bodmin Moor. Hugely entertaining, it’s a larger than life story, one that revels in the conventions of the cosy detective story only to turn them on their head with the intrusion of a supernatural element to balance the books. ‘Moon Blood-Red, Tide Turning’ by Mark Samuels is set in the world of theatre, with more than a touch of ‘The King in Yellow’ latent in its depiction of a play being constantly performed. Deftly written and with a sobering subtext about the nature of ritual and the link between theatrical performances and the holy, this astute and restrained essay in terror was one of the more unsettling pieces in the anthology.
Sarah Singleton’s ‘The Memory of Stone’ is the story of Michael, whose life is undone when he becomes obsessed with a young woman to the point of sexual harassment charges being laid, and takes on board the devastation of his family. Alone in a rundown Cornish cottage Michael’s suicidal impulses are given form in the shape of nightly visits by white children. A wonderful story with beautiful characterisation and themes that make it painfully relevant in our post #MeToo society, it succeeds in merging something wholly modern and yet timeless, with a feel of the past and the numinous given tangible expression. ‘Shelter from the Storm’ by Ian Hunter has three youths out hiking on the moors seeking refuge in the ruins of an abandoned church, much to their cost. Hunter is excellent at capturing the distinct personalities of his three leads through their dialogue and using this to drive the story, which at heart is almost formulaic, a variation of the “and then a monster got them” cliché, but here never less than entertaining if hardly original. Finally we have ‘Losing Its Identity’ by Thana Niveau, which is set in a climate change dictated future and a largely sunken Cornwall, with elderly Miranda falling victim to a last wave. It’s a fitting end to this anthology, a tale that is poignant and sad, ripe with a feel of all the things lost to the sea and the memories that help to make us who we are, drowning used in part as a metaphor for senile dementia.
Judging from this book, the Terror Tales anthology series remains safe in editor Finch’s capable hands and has found a fine new home with Telos. Hopefully there will be many more volumes to come.
KAT OF GREEN TENTACLES (Telos Publishing pb, 176pp, £12.99) is the fourth book from the pen of author Sam Stone chronicling the adventures of Kat Lightfoot and her companions, ex-soldier George Pepper and inventor Martin, and this time around our intrepid heroine goes undercover as a teacher at a school for young ladies that seems to be experiencing difficulty keeping track of the young ladies. Kat soon finds plenty of evidence that not everything is okay, with suspicious behaviour on every side, most especially in the pupils’ devotion to choir practice, centred on an unearthly music like nothing she has ever heard before. There are tunnels in the walls and beneath the school, and on venturing into them Kat finds far more than she bargained for. Somebody is using the school as a focus for occult ceremonies, and their intentions are not good.
While the title is obviously referencing Anne of Green Gables, with other details in the text including some I probably didn’t pick up on, not having read the original, in setting this book reminded me somewhat of Argento’s film Suspiria. The novelty of the Kat books is wearing off for me, but what’s left once you get past that novelty is something substantial, something that is agreeably entertaining and with a light hearted manner. The three lead characters continue to impress, most especially Miss Lightfoot herself, who is now tapping into other powers subsequent to the events of a previous novella, which included getting bit by a vampire. The plot is nicely twisty, with some variations on the Lovecraft mythos pitched into the blender of Stone’s imagination, plus more than a smidgen of steampunk cool for spice, and the inclusion of the Fae adding yet another plot string to the author’s bow. Overall, it was good fun from start to finish, doing the job of entertaining the reader and not outstaying its welcome. Easy going would be the phrase I’d use to describe the book, if I had to capture its essence in only two words. Oh, and I rather liked the attitude adopted towards cats, but you’ll have to find out about that for yourself.
I should mention that a fifth volume is available, Kat and the Pendulum, and I should also mention that all these books are available in e-format.