Filler content with short story collections – Part 1

The first part of a feature on short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-

SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Ramsey Campbell has referred to Reggie Oliver as “quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales” and there is no doubt that, when it comes to tales of ghosts and related matters, Oliver is one of the masters of the form, with a distinctive and eminently readable prose voice, one that radiates elegance and affability in contrast to the terrors his work contains. A professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975, Oliver’s background is part of his appeal, adding the feel of authenticity to the tales rooted in theatrical life and underlying his vivid creations of time and place.

With a striking cover illustration courtesy of Santiago Caruso, THE SEA OF BLOOD (Dark Renaissance Books pb, 408pp, $27.95) is a retrospective collection of Oliver’s work containing twenty three stories ranging in time from 2001 through to 2015. It opens with a fascinating introduction by the author in which he details how he came to start writing and identifies his major concern as “the strangeness of existence and the unsettling interaction between the physical and the metaphysical”, a theme he returns to over and over again in the stories that follow.

Of the stories on offer, I’ve reviewed eleven of them on previous occasions – ‘Beside the Shrill Sea’, ‘The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini’, ‘The Blue Room’, ‘Bloody Bill’, ‘The Skins’, ‘The Time of Blood’, ‘The Constant Rake’, ‘Mrs. Midnight’, Flowers of the Sea’, ‘Come into My Parlour’, and ‘The Druid’s Rest’ – and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com for the convenience of those who missed them first time around.

The first ‘new to me’ story is the fifth in the ToC running, ‘Among the Tombs’ in which a group of ecclesiastics consider the argument for sainthood in the case of hospice worker Meriel Deane, one of them recounting his personal experiences of the woman and what became of her, raising the possibility of demonic possession. It’s an engrossing story, and in the matter of fact telling and the muted details of what took place it has the stamp of credibility and conviction. ‘Lapland Nights’ has a woman giving a holiday home/respite care to an elderly couple who turn out to be something other than what she bargained for. It’s a disturbing story in which details mount up, with unsettling and macabre moments, all hinting at some other form of life preying on human beings, but at the same time allowing that our heroine might have found her own solution to the problem of an invalid mother, and that is even more sinister.

A distinguished actor who calls his girlfriends ‘Puss-Cat’ ends up in trouble when his philandering results in the suicide of a young woman, and trouble takes the form of a monstrous black cat that haunts him. Once again the theatrical world, in this case the luvvy end of the spectrum, is created convincingly on the page, primarily as backdrop to a lively ghost story, one of spectral revenge. ‘Mr. Poo Poo’ is a sinister children’s entertainer and religious fanatic who exercises a malign influence over a young woman in this story told from the viewpoint of the couple who employed them both at one point and so get drawn into the attendant drama. There’s disturbing imagery here, and a subdued portrait of madness, an obsession that pulls everyone and everything else into its orbit.

The narrator’s writer aunt is drawn into the circle of a medium in ‘The Old Silence’, a powerhouse of a story in which so much is taking place, with a terrifying evocation of the numinous at its heart and playing counterpoint to that the presence of a sinister young woman who trades sexual favours for influence, the whole a dazzling and inventive concoction. In ‘A Donkey at the Mysteries’ a student travelling in Greece discovers rather more than he needs to know about the history of an isolated archaeological site. Oliver excels here in his creation of place, with the setting brought to compelling life on the page, and there is the trademark accumulation of details that slowly reveal something momentous and macabre lurking in the background of the narrative.

We learn of the rivalry between theatrical dwarves and midgets in ‘Baskerville’s Midgets’, a story of unsettling and larger than life characters, and the way in which they seem to suck the spirit and life out of a theatrical landlady. ‘Minos or Rhadamanthus’ are the names given to his canes by a head teacher with an unhealthy addiction to corporal punishment, and in this story one boy discovers his terrible secret. And underlying all this is a ghost story that has two men meeting as equals for the first time, and the one wreaking a kind of justice on the other.

In ‘Holiday from Hell’ a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county. In ‘Absalom’ a scholar uncovers the terrible truth behind the death of a debauched student back in the seventeenth century, the story almost a textbook example of how to tell a Jamesian ghost story, replete with accumulating details, old documents, and the hint that in some ways the evil may linger into the present day, with some things that only the reader can truly grasp.

Oddball characters inhabit a guest house where ‘The Rooms Are High’ and the story’s protagonist ends up finding out that not all is as it seems. With some wonderful touches of characterisation and an unhealthy sexuality underlying the narrative this is another superbly sinister outing from Oliver. Finally 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. This was a brilliant collection, one that will undoubtedly be cherished by every lover of traditional ghost stories told with a modern panache and sensibility.

Oliver provides the introduction to WRITTEN IN DARKNESS (Egaeus Press hc, 128pp, SOLD OUT) in which he lauds author Mark Samuels for his “passionate intensity and integrity”. The book was produced in a limited edition of 275 copies and is now SOLD OUT according to the publisher’s website, though you may still be able to find copies via dealers or online, and for those with a budget Chômu Press released a paperback edition in May of this year and followed up with an electronic version in July. Of the nine stories the book contains, four are previously published.

The fiction begins with ‘A Call to Greatness’ in which Egremont has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who gives him some papers detailing the exploits of Baron Maximilian, who tried to turn back the tide of communism after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the story underlain by a time slip element or projection of madness, you choose. Maximilian acts rather like the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now transposed to a more northern setting; there is the same sense of ruthlessness about him in the pursuit of his goals, a fanaticism fuelled by religious conviction and absolute self-belief. It is an intriguing tale, touching on the moral and spiritual decay of the west, though Samuels doesn’t really make the case for this and his Baron’s solution seemed very much like a poisoned chalice, which may in part be the point of the story. Egremont is little more than sounding board, a latte sipping Brexiteer (probably) who is vaguely dissatisfied with the way things are but doesn’t really have any solutions to offer. ‘The Other Tenant’ is the story of Zachary, who embraces a whole shitload of high ideals (among them atheistical communism), but nevertheless is alienated from people by his lack of any compassion, with their suffering and joys simply parts of a social justice equation to him. Eventually he falls victim to the void in his own soul in a text that seems to want to be a ghost story but is held back by political point scoring, though at the same time Samuels’ apparent view that some people care more for the party line than each other carries weight. Drax in ‘An Hourglass of the Soul’ is sent to Mongolia charged with jump starting the super computer that has been built by the company he has worked for the last three days. There are concepts here that are reminiscent of the work of Ligotti, but Samuels is his own man and ultimately the story hints at the vacuity of life, that all is just endless repetition in the forlorn hope of achieving something spectacular, but with no reason at all for even that.

In the dystopian future of ‘The Ruins of Reality’ the only hope seems to be offered by the N Factory, but in fact the story’s protagonist comes to believe that this building is the source of all the world’s ills, the nightmare factory (another Ligotti concept), the text offering up a picture of mankind’s self-empowered fall from grace. ‘Alistair’ gives us a variation on the changeling theme in a story that is packed with genre tropes such as the old house next to the cemetery, the strange grandparents, and a child with tastes that are not within the usual parameters, but Samuels deftly turns it all on its head to produce something that is both striking and sinister. ‘My World Has No Memories’ starts with a man alone on a ship and no idea how he got there, then segues into a tale of transformation and the end of the world, culminating in a vision of what’s to come that is both uplifting and undermining at the same time.

There are echoes of J-Horror film Kairo in ‘Outside Interference’, with the remaining staff at an abandoned office building trapped and finding out that reality is nothing at all like they previously thought. The story works well as an account of human beings in extremis, fighting to survive against an inexplicable foe, and underlying all of that is an effective subtext about the dehumanising aspects of our IT powered society and its redefining of the world of work. The protagonist of ‘My Heretical Existence’ wanders far from the familiar parts of the city in search of a woman he is attracted to, but finds far more than he bargained for in a story of transformation and peeling back the veil to see reality as it actually is. ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’ tells of a man whose spirit communes with that of the previous tenant of his rooms, an occultist in search of the Holy Grail. A sombre piece, it seems vaguely minatory, before culminating in a moment of epiphanic release and transformation.

My feeling is that Samuels is, in most of these stories, critiquing modern life and finding it bereft of spirituality and the belief that gives meaning to existence. I suspect reader response will be mediated by how much in tune you are with the belief systems that the author appears to be espousing. While they certainly can be appreciated without taking on board his perspective in full the end result is something of a mixed blessing, one where effects perhaps outweigh the philosophy behind them, though that in and of itself is not undeserving of consideration. At least that’s how it played out for me, with the most successful stories those, such as ‘Alistair’, with the least ideological baggage.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

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Filler content with ghosts and haunted worlds

Reviews of two collections by Jeffrey Thomas that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

ANCIENT & MODERN: JEFFREY THOMAS

Like many past practitioners in the weird tradition, including most obviously Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft himself, American writer Jeffrey Thomas has a foot in both the science fiction camp and the territory occupied by the spectral tale.

By way of illustrating the point, we have his 2013 collection GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN (Dark Regions Press pb, 254pp, $17.95), which was popular enough to merit a second printing in 2016. Arguably Thomas’ most famous creation, Punktown is a city built by human colonists on the Choom inhabited planet of Oasis. It has become famous for both the diversity of life forms that dwell there – not just creatures from other planets, but those from other dimensions – and the high level of crime. It is the milieu in which Thomas has set this collection of nine science fiction tales, all with a strong horror element.

After a far ranging introduction in which the author discusses the nature of ghosts, Punktown’s history, gives us some of his thoughts on each story, and provides a guide to Punktown eateries (just in case you ever visit), we get into things proper with ‘In His Sights’ a story featuring recurring character Jeremy Stake (I reviewed the novella Red Cells in #41), who is a chameleon like individual, able to alter his appearance to look like somebody else. Unfortunately here he has become trapped with the appearance of an alien member of a race mankind is at war with, and thus the target for an assassin who thinks he really is what he appears to be. It’s a strange, off kilter story, one in which the past and present overlap, as do matters of personal identity, with not even Stake knowing clearly who he is. But while the philosophical concerns add depth to the story, Thomas knows to give us the requisite bang for our buck, with some heavy armaments drill to liven up the chain of events. Fallen out of love, Cynthia returns to the Punktown of her childhood days in ‘Relics’, only to become embroiled in the competition between two collectors of alien artefacts and the computer that serviced all her wishes when she lived there before. It’s an intriguing, multi-layered story, one that contrasts religious statuary with mechanical life forms, and shows that both cling to a tenuous existence courtesy of the humans they serve and who serve them.

There’s murder in a museum in ‘A Semblance of Life’ and it’s up to LeBlanc, a clone and former super soldier, to figure out where his loyalties lie. Superficially this is a very simple piece, one in which there is a mystery to be solved and a bigot gets his just desserts, but underneath all that there are serious questions being asked about the nature of humanity, of what it is and how we can recognise it. Short enough to be classified as flash fiction, ‘Bitter Brains’ is a slight but well told account of an alien festival and the humiliating tradition that impinges on it, the story not really going anywhere, but scorching with the self-loathing of the protagonist.

Roy, the protagonist of ‘Disfigured’, is a surgeon specialising in horrific body modifications for the rich and attention seekers, but he refuses to operate on a beautiful young woman in a moment of principle. Again the story delights with the wealth of invention, the various ways in which people can hurt themselves and others, but at its heart is a debate as to what is acceptable in the realm of cosmetic surgery, with both sides of the argument given a fair hearing. It is a story that has more than a tad of bearing on our modern world and the things that can be done to enhance and alter appearance. In ‘Imp’ a man who delves into the darkest corners of the internet finds himself haunted by an image that even he finds disturbing. This is perhaps the most extreme of these stories, credibly so given the subject matter, touching on our addiction to pornography and need for ever more “potent” material. It brings home to us exactly what this means by giving a very human face to the suffering, making of the objectified victim an albatross for the consumer’s neck.

‘The Room’ tells of the strange relationship and love affair of sorts that arises between syndicate fixer Quick Billy and the genius student Candy, whose studies go terribly wrong. It is perhaps the least convincing of these pieces in the details, the cogs and cranks of storytelling, but with a mood of poignancy and sense of loss that makes me forgive and overlook anything else. Swift in ‘Into My Arms’ is adopted by one of the Bliss, an alien race that thrives on suffering and seeks out humans to inflict pain. From Swift the Bliss wants the nanomites that help recreate his memories of Talane, the woman he loved and lost. Underlying the surface of this story is a meditation on the nature of pain, both physical, mental, and emotional, the ways in which it operates in our lives, the purpose if any, and in contrast to that an examination of the way in which memory works, all of it wrapped up in an engrossing story that put me very much in mind of the early SF of George R. R. Martin (‘A Song for Lya’ etc.).

The longest story in the book, ‘Life Work’ begins with the android Hanako befriending an elderly lady in the building where they live, while gangland enforcer and assassin Huck is falling out of favour with his employer. It ends with them both engaged in a life or death firefight with the teen gangs that have turned a nearby park into a no go area. This is the story in which Thomas lets rip, piling action on top of action, with a Die Hard vibe running throughout, and yet another strand of the story arising from the presence of a sentient plant that imitates the form of others. I loved every second of it, and it was a powerful and effective end to a dashing collection of science fiction horror stories.

With a 1 August release date, hot off the presses collection HAUNTED WORLDS (Hippocampus Press pb, 248pp, S20) is a fusion of traditionally slanted and futuristic fiction, showcasing Thomas’s talent. The book has a superb cover and evocative interior illustration by Kim Bo Yung. It opens with an introduction by Ian Rogers, after which we get to the fiction, conveniently divided into two sections titled ‘Our World’ and ‘Other Worlds’, which is I hope self-explanatory.

In ‘Carrion’ fifty five year old Lambert, having been abandoned by his younger wife, takes up residence in the country, becoming fascinated by a piece of roadkill he sees every day on his drive to work. The roadkill and the process it is going through become emblematic of mortality and the certainty of death in a story that builds its effects with real skill, detailing the development of Lambert’s obsession with the idea of death and the growing feeling that for him everything is over, in all but name. In a way it feels like a horror rendition of the male menopause. The narrator of ‘Spider Gates’ is an adult relating an adventure from her teenage years, when she and a group of friends became momentarily fascinated with the legendary cemetery in the woods of the title, and subsequent events concerning a missing girl and her autistic brother’s visions. It’s an unsettling piece, moody and atmospheric in its evocation of the landscape, at the same time capturing perfectly the feel of teenage angst and then injecting elements of the weird and macabre, with the truth behind the myth even more disturbing, for what it reveals of mortality.

Kent, the protagonist of ‘Feeding Oblivion’, has a mother in a retirement home whose roommate is suffering from visions of centipedes crawling out of the walls, but coincidental with this is the overturning of his own comfortable life and signs that the rot has set in to the world itself. Again, this is a story where, like ‘Carrion’, insects becomes emblematic of decay and signifiers of mortality, but it is made all the more powerful by the subtle and understated way in which Thomas conveys such truths, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and trusting that our imaginations will provide more in the way of chills than his text ever could. A rather sinister figure, ‘Mr. Faun’ is a living exhibit at an art gallery, one who becomes the focus of attention for an artist whose work has been denigrated by the gallery’s curator. It offers a compelling storyline, one that explores the foibles of the art world, while at the same time incorporating themes of morality and aesthetic indifference to human plight, all ending with a deliciously cheeky punchline.

Like Lambert in ‘Carrion’, the protagonist of ‘The Left-Hand Pool’ drives down country backroads to work every day and is fixated on a female co-worker, but at the same time he is immersed in memories of the past and his failed relationship with his father. The story builds a mood of anticipation, and then delivers its wonderfully understated and subtle payoff, with once again the reader left to anticipate what will eventually happen, the nature of the tragedy for which the foundations have been so assuredly laid. I loved it. In ‘riaH gnoL’ the attendant at an amusement arcade tells strange, obliquely slanted stories to the customers, the effects mounting until we can no longer be sure of what is happening. There is a lovely sense of ambiguity to this tale, with the reader left to wonder if there is a ghost in the machine or something more sinister going on with Nanette, the narrative continually wrong footing us on its journey to the unsettling end reveal. Nate in ‘The Toll’ is contacted by an entity that sets him a terrible choice, Thomas bringing this simple piece to an elegant conclusion, one that hints at the redemptive power latent in the human condition, while at the same time asking if there really is any point to it all.

Lan’s decision to give a Christmas present to a street person in ‘Saigon Dep Lam’ has unforeseen consequences of the “no good deed goes unpunished” type. Thomas does a splendid job of bringing his Vietnam setting to vibrant life on the page, showing how the days of the war still haunt that country, while Lan herself is brilliantly realised, a victim of wartime injuries who is determined not to let her disfigurement rule her life, the story finally culminating in a revelation that touches on the true nature of this reality. There’s a zombie feel to ‘The Green Hands’ as Zetter is pursued through the world by people with green hands, whose touch made his wife disappear. It’s a story in which paranoia takes centre stage, as the protagonist begins to suspect everyone of being in league with those who are hunting him, finally culminating in his being overrun by the “monsters”, but along the way we have clues that hint at an unhappy relationship in Zetter’s marriage and suggestions that what is happening is simply an externalisation of some inner conflict.

The ‘Other Worlds’ section of the book opens with another story titled ‘The Green Hands’, this time written with a surreal vibe, as Zetter wanders through an alien landscape and bears witness to various wonders, but at the same time never escapes the feeling that he is the fox being hunted by the hounds, making it a mirror image come dream state rendition of the previous tale. It’s a story that oozes a sense of the unreal, but at the same time is grounded very much in our own reality with a final revelation that suggests what is really going on with Zetter, though Thomas is too canny to do more than hint and the story all the more effective for it.

There’s a similar sense of the nightmarish in ‘Good Will toward Men’, with its opening depiction of the torments of the Damned in Hell, made even worse by a visit by a deputation of Angels who inflict the “joys” of Christmas on a chosen few, including protagonist Andrew. In a way the story serves as a metaphor for the state of affairs in our own world, with punishment in lieu of justice and unfairness at the heart, the consolations we receive simply whatever crumbs drop from the high table. Beneath the surface of the narrative, Thomas along with Andrew appears to be raging at the injustice of it all, the hypocrisy of do-gooders who stick plasters on wounds instead of addressing the real causes of suffering, with a side swipe at the two-faced nature of the Christian religion and its concept of “forgiveness”. Despite the back drop that is almost cartoonish in nature, this is arguably the most serious minded and polemical of these stories, with the protagonist (and possibly the author – certainly this reader) finding hope only in the form of those who fight against this system, the rebels determined to bring down both Heaven and Hell.

‘The Temple of Ugghiutu’ reads like something Dunsany might have penned, though with sharper edges, chronicling a shepherd boy’s encounter with the worship place of an alien deity, and what he learned of the terrible truth behind the legends. It’s a comparatively mild piece, a tall tale told to the credulous around the campfire on a night when the wind howls and there are wolves off in the darkness. We’re back in Thomas’ home away from home of Punktown for ‘Drawing No. 8’ in which an artist is hired to replicate a destroyed work of alien art, and finds himself involved in a plot to summon the alien deity Ugghiutu. It’s a fascinating story, told with real verve, capturing the joy of artistic creation and at the same time conveying something of the sinister nature of black magic, a dark tale in which dreams and reality overlap and where a good man is suborned by his ego into serving a bad cause. Echoing back of the very real bloodshed is something of the cosmic, a monstrous being who is inimical to life as we know it.

When ruthless developers move in on an area of Punktown, street urchin Posy gets to ride the ‘Redemption Express’ in a heartfelt story at whose centre is the idea that community is not a place but the shared bonds of the people who live there. It is undershot with a subtext disapproving of the exploitation of the urban landscape, what we in our world refer to as “gentrification”, albeit in Punktown imposed along far harsher lines, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them, even if it’s tainted with the realisation that there are always going to be more bad guys. What you take away from the story though, is the caring personality of Posy, the way in which she stands by her friends, even those who have passed away, Thomas showing us that there is more of compassion and concern and dignity in her person than all the mercenary scum and corporate punks in cheap suits. It’s a great end to a strong collection, albeit it’s not quite the end because Thomas gives us some lengthy story notes, revealing the origin of each piece and some of the things that went into these stories. These are two collections that deserve a place on the shelves of any lover of good fiction.

 

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Filler content written on the land itself

A feature on the work of Daniel Mills that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

WRITTEN ON THE LAND ITSELF: DANIEL MILLS

Though his writing is set firmly in the weird tradition, Daniel Mills’ body of work has a more specific focus and distinctive identity than that of his wider ranging peers. His oeuvre is pinned very firmly to a certain place and time: the great nation of the United States in its formative years, and more specifically to the forests and towns of his native New England. One could make a case for Mills being a writer of historical fiction, every bit as much as he is a practitioner of the weird. And yet the history that he gives us, like the Puritan America of Miller’s The Crucible and Robert Eggers’ film of The Witch, is one in which the boundaries between superstition and faith, fact and theory are blurred, with evil as likely to arise from the human heart as it does from some outside, cthonian cause.

Mills’ 2016 novella THE ACCOUNT OF DAVID STONEHOUSE, EXILE (Dim Shores pb, 114pp, $11) was produced in a limited edition of 150 and is already sold out according to the publisher’s website, but you may be able to pick up a copy from a dealer or second-hand. I’ve only seen a PDF, but with a stunning wraparound full colour cover and striking interior illustrations by artist Steve Santiago, it certainly looks the part of a collectable and thing of beauty.

This story is told in the form of a journal kept by David Stonehouse, recording his life in an isolated house in the woods, alone with the dog Judah, but there are entries in the journal by another (female) hand, on which Stonehouse passes no comment. His back story is slowly filled in, how as a baby he was abandoned by his mother at the gate of a religious community known only as the Village. His life in this community, waiting for God’s gift to be bestowed and forming a relationship with the girl Jerusha, whose dreams he is charged with interpreting, and with whom he is forced into exile, eventually ending up at that house in the woods and besieged by the revenant of its previous owner.

To foreshadow the conclusion of this review, Mills has produced a powerful and beautifully wrought work of fiction, one that addresses the failures of belief even as it underlines the tragic power of love. Given the author, one assumes the story is set in the forests of New England and references to the “Era of Manifestations” and “days of Mother’s Work” (terms relating to the Shaker religious movement, according to Wiki) pin it down to the middle of the nineteenth century. And yet there is a sense of timelessness about the situation, so that you could just as easily assume the story was set in some post-Apocalyptic world.

Mills’ descriptions of a community based on faith, one in which policy is dictated by revelation, are convincingly detailed, capturing something of their idea that they are special, God’s chosen, with all the privileges and harsh responsibilities such a role entails. For Elder Job, who is David’s mentor in many ways, the events that lead to Stonehouse’s exile, are a crisis of faith, bringing back to him the trial by fire of his own early days, and in the younger man’s fall he sees something of what might have happened to him. This “mirroring” is a device that Mills uses throughout the book. The events of David’s genesis mirror that of his own child’s fate, and in a similar way the fate of Jerusha and her child are echoes of what happened to the wife and child of August Fitch, the previous owner of the house in the woods.

Mills is similarly excellent at bringing to life on the page the forest setting that is the base for much of his story, with the woodlands assuming a stance of both wonder and terror. His imagery is ripe with menace, the trees taking on almost demonic and unearthly qualities, and the wolves howling at night in the lonesome forest. Both people and secrets are buried in this landscape. While at heart this is a tale of spiritual devastation, in David’s fight against the Fitch revenant and his life post the Village, Mills gives us plenty of action, and accompanying much of this a plethora of disturbing and gory imagery, so that aficionados of more conventional horror needn’t feel short changed.

Ultimately the story evolves into a ghost tale, but the vital question is exactly who is haunting who, and in a way all of the characters are haunted by the events of their past. It is an astonishing and highly accomplished work of fiction, one that will undoubtedly throw up new meanings on each subsequent reading.

Mills’ second novel, following on from 2011’s Revenants, MORIAH (ChiZine Publications pb, 320pp, $17.99) addresses similar themes. The central character is Silas Flood, a former minister who lost his faith after witnessing the terrors of the American Civil War, and who now works as a journalist for a New York paper. He travels to Moriah in Vermont and the Yellow House, where Thaddeus Lynch and his younger brother Ambrose, assisted by sister Sally, work as spirit mediums. Flood’s job is to write an article for the paper opining as to whether they are genuine or fake.

At the Yellow House Flood meets an assorted cast of characters, including Mrs Ambler and the Bauers, clients of the Lynch brothers who are desperate for some proof of the afterlife, hoping to make contact with those they have lost and gain some form of absolution for past sins of omission. Thaddeus Lynch is desperate to hold onto the family house and farm, while Ambrose is mentally ill and Sally so eager to leave that she attempts to seduce Flood, while hovering at the back of it all is cousin John Turner, who has his own designs on both Sally and the Yellow House. There are suggestions of something terrible in the past of the family, a bullying father and his untimely end, while for Flood himself there is the spectre of his dead wife and child, who passed away while he was off at War, having refused his young wife’s pleas to remain. It is a recipe for tragedy and tragedy is what we get in the final act, though the seeds are planted well before then.

The book’s structure consists of dated chapters, mostly told from the viewpoint of Silas Flood, but sometimes related from the perspective of Thaddeus and Ambrose. Intercut with these are journal entries made by Rebecca, the dead Lynch sister whose fate is central to the story. Heading up the book is a dramatis personae with Mills’ cast listed under the subheadings the Living, the Dead, and the Spirits.

The title Moriah has more than the one meaning; as well as being the name of the town in the book it was also the mountain where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed to God as a test of his faith, and the obvious intention on Mills’ part is to show that similar tests have been imposed on the characters here, most obviously on Silas, whose decision to fight led to his wife’s death and subsequent loss of faith.

Mills writes with a short, almost terse style, one that is marvellously effective at both propelling his story forward and evoking the feelings and visions that he wants the reader to experience. He is superb at capturing the feel of the time, an era when the Civil War was starting to dim but the pain of that conflict lived on – everyone here suffered loss, everyone is carrying their own wounds. The abiding sense is that of a nation that badly needs to heal, and which is open to the kind of spiritual panacea the Lynch brothers are peddling.

Again Mills is excellent at capturing the feel of their séances, the ways in which such mediums go about their business, and leaving the reader to guess how much is false and what is genuine, before the final reveal. There is a strong sense of the supernatural whispering behind the surface of the narrative, a feeling that stands regardless of whether there is any truth to the actions of the Lynch brothers. The presence of spirits is debatable, but there is a sense of immanence present in the landscape through which Flood wanders, where the legends of the past are woven into the trees and the ground, a genius loci of sorts that makes belief in native spirits feel not only reasonable but incontrovertible.

Mills’ touch when it comes to the various personalities involved is equally assured, with each member of the cast given distinguishing characteristics and a back story, each of them nursing tragedy, holding it close and almost revelling in the pain that it provides. As with David Stonehouse, ultimately what we have here is a ghost story of sorts, with the past coming back to haunt them all in a finale that costs the members of the Lynch family dear, ripples spreading out to effect the others in their circle, not least Silas Flood, who is left with hard decisions of his own to make. Flood’s last words to Sally are ‘Forgive me. For everything’, and the final image of the book is of weeds growing to cover everything, a sombre note with which to end.

In both these books Mills comes across as a writer with no easy answers to offer, but he eloquently poses the question of how we can reconcile belief in God and the spiritual with the pain and suffering that is so evident in the world, and he does so without flinching or compromising, showing a skill and sensitivity that won’t leave curmudgeonly old atheists like myself spluttering with indication and feeling preached at. Preaching is the last thing Mills is about. He is, perhaps more than most, a writer using weird fiction to work through issues of faith and philosophy, and while you may not always agree with his conclusions, or lack thereof, the way in which his fiction frames these things is enthralling and beguiling. I loved these two books and heartily recommend them to those who are looking for something more from their fiction than just another reason to be scared. And while you’re about it you should also seek out his previous novel Revenants and short story collection The Lord Came at Twilight. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by anything from his pen.

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Filler content with escapology

A review of a collection by David Sakmyster that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

David Sakmyster’s 2014 collection ESCAPE PLANS (WordFire Press pb, 248pp, $14.99) contains nineteen “dark tales of fantasy and suspense”, all of them previously published, and each accompanied by a cheery note from the author detailing its genesis and addressing the themes that concern him. There are echoes of the early Ballard’s crowded cityscapes in opening piece ‘Ladders’ with its search for free space, the story told from the viewpoint of a man who has made a career out of retrieving those who exist on ladders. It is a bittersweet dystopian tale, the backdrop not at all convincing (but then it’s not meant to be) and with the real thrust of the drama having to do with the need to find a niche in the world, no matter how hopeless or simply awful that world feels.

There’s a deal with the devil feel to ‘Five Star Review’, with its depiction of an unusual and sinister eating establishment, where people can possibly be cured of cancer, but dependent on what they are prepared to offer in exchange. Kendricks’ feeling of helplessness at the plight of his wife is well realised, and the atmosphere prevalent in the aptly named Stage Four restaurant is deliriously unsettling, with hints of something terrible taking place in the background. An unhappy marriage and a somewhat intrusive GPS device that seems to know more than it should are the main elements of ‘Roadside Assistance’, with the suggestion that all that is taking place is simply a guilt driven hallucination inside the mind of cuckolded Monty, the story deftly interweaving the personal and the technological, slowly revealing the true state of affairs. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Wrong Basement’ has a couple finding their basement displaced by another, one that contains a mint collection of highly valuable comics. I loved the comic collector backdrop and the interplay between husband and wife, as they are torn between profiting from the find and doing the right thing. Although there is an element of sadness in how it all pans out, the end revelation brought a smile to my face.

‘The Red Envelope’ picks up on a Taiwanese custom and has a westerner married to a ghost, but his failure to provide her with children has dire consequences. It’s a silly idea when looked at in the abstract, but Sakmyster’s amiable prose makes it work, the story leading in to a rueful end. ‘Bait’ which previously appeared in Black Static #7, concerns a killer disposing of bodies at sea, only they are transformed into zombies. It is one of the weaker tales, not explaining why Mr. White acts as he does to any satisfaction, but still engaging for the account of diving, the imagery, and the casual camaraderie between boat bums Jack and Trent. I liked it without being blown away, and so damn with faint praise. There’s a frantic energy to ‘Past Tense’, a tale of quantum physics in which reality changes in every paragraph, the joy of the story residing in its madcap execution and the probabilities that Sakmyster throws at the page. Along similar lines, ‘Guardians’ is told from the galactic equivalent of search and rescue workers who come to wonder if in fact the catastrophes whose damage they work to mitigate are a tool of evolution. The idea is interesting, but as played out here failed to convince, with everything on a scale that seemed both too fast and too small. Overall then, a good idea but with poor execution.

‘Plastromancer’ is a tale of divination, with Xian Li telling the future from reading the plastrons of an ancient sea turtle. Despite the author’s best efforts to meld personal and political, the story doesn’t really go anywhere and there is little to appeal beyond the novelty of the method of divination used. The ‘Blackout Man’ has the power to erase people simply by crossing out documents in which they are mentioned. In this story he meets a woman who still has memories of her husband and wishes to be erased so that she can join him in whatever place the Blackout Man sent him to. There’s an almost X-Files feel to this one, with the government having the power to alter reality in what could very well be the ultimate conspiracy theory, but Sakmyster gives it a very human dimension, making us care about his characters and empathise with their very different plights. ‘Combers’ take a look at the motivations of volunteers engaged in the search for the body of a missing boy. It’s a piece that is mainly driven by dialogue, with a sense that the real action is taking place just out of sight, in what is left unspoken rather than what is actually said, with well-drawn characters and a desperately sad and physically dreary backdrop to the action.

A psychiatric doctor becomes infected with his patient’s belief that aliens are freezing time and altering reality in ‘Time Frame’, the story engaging but with little new to offer on a familiar theme, a vein of speculative ore that Philip K. Dick, for one, virtually mined out. Flash fiction ‘Hotline’ has somebody who mans a helpline finding her life endangered by a caller who has cast a spell to have her life totally erased. It’s a clever piece, one that grabs the interest, albeit the eventual payoff becomes predictable before we reach the end. We’re back with the theme of divination in ‘Internal Affairs’ as a soldier who believes he can tell his future through examining entrails is caught gutting victims on the battlefield. There’s an interesting clash here between the character’s avowed intentions and the methods that he uses, with attendant questions of end justifying means, the story carrying the reader along to the inevitable tongue in cheek ending with its wreak of poetic justice. ‘Turning Time’ deals with the Madagascan rite of turning the dead, the idea a fascinating one, although the twist in the tail doesn’t seem entirely plausible, gratifying as it was.

In ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ we get a ghost story of sorts, as the officer charged with delivering news of a service man’s death comes to realise that it is he himself who has been killed, the story eloquently setting out the plight of the protagonist, but with little new to offer in the telling, and most canny readers will guess what is happening long before the end. There’s a lovely black humour permeating the words of ‘For Sale’, ostensibly an estate agent’s description of a haunted house, the story just perfect in delivery and with delightful touches of detail along the way. Perhaps the most emotive story in the collection, ‘Restoration’ takes us to a world where death has been conquered and people are coerced into accepting immortality regardless of their personal wishes. Only there is a fly in the ointment – reincarnation is a fact, and with nobody dying or being born, the system becomes clogged up with terrible consequences. Played out over thousands of years through the relationship of administrators Martin and Camilla, it’s a story that is both heart-warming and sad, asking the truly important questions about the nature of life in the cosmos, what the purpose of pain, suffering and death is. Of course it only works if you accept reincarnation, and if you don’t then the picture is one of an idyllic society that eventually fails under the burden of its own senescence.

Finally we have ‘The Smithsonian Objective’, which comes as something of an anti-climax as an Indiana Jones wannabe with the ability to see into the future helps a lady archaeologist discover something about the origins of life on Earth that other parties wish to remain a secret. Again, as with one or two other tales, I couldn’t quite believe in what I was reading, with scenes rushing by too fast for credibility and no real sense that what was taking place was necessary given Xavier’s foreknowledge. It was a mildly entertaining skit at best, possibly because it ties into a series of novels by the author dealing with the same themes and characters, and so really isn’t anything more than an adjunct to that longer work.

On this showing, Sakmyster is an ideas man and always an interesting writer, better than most when he hits the nail on the head. Overall though this is a collection that, while it entertains also feels uneven, perhaps because it gathers so many disparate genres and themes under the same umbrella, and where the workmanlike writing, plotting, and characterisation in some of the stories don’t quite measure up to the quality of the concepts they contain. Ultimately there’s more to enjoy than not and it will reward the reader, but with a bit more consistency this could have been an outstanding collection.

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Filler content with dream operator

A review of a collection by Mike O’Driscoll that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

Welsh writer Mike O’Driscoll has a long history with TTA Press, having been a regular in the pages of The Third Alternative and put in an appearance with both Crimewave and Interzone (the pre-TTA IZ, admittedly). His Eyepennies was TTA Novella #4. As regards Black Static itself, O’Driscoll has had stories appear in #16 and #57, and for a while wrote the Night’s Plutonian Shore TV review column for the magazine.

THE DREAM OPERATOR (Undertow Press hc/pb, 318pp, $35/$25) is O’Driscoll’s second short story collection, following in the footsteps of 2006’s Unbecoming from Elastic Press. It contains eleven stories, three of which are previously unpublished. I reviewed the opening story, ‘And Zero At The Bone’, when it originally appeared in the Subtle Edens anthology and see no reason to revise my opinion of the story – “Connor works for the Bureau of Reification, his work as far as I can tell to smooth out those wrinkles in reality that might give his political masters cause for concern, a spin doctor on some social or even metaphysical level. As the story progresses we suspect that Connor’s missing wife and child, whose absence is never really explained, might have been one of those very wrinkles and that, possibly, the suspect employee of the Bureau whom Connor is investigating could be himself. It is marvellously subtle and clever stuff, with O’Driscoll building up the picture one step at a time and merging influences from all over the literary and genre shop, so that you think of work like Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and the film V for Vendetta, can see those influences at play, but appreciate that O’Driscoll has delivered something uniquely his own.”

‘The Entire City’ was similarly elusive, but not as aesthetically satisfying. With more than a touch of noir about the action, it’s set in the city of Provenance where various hitmen and underworld characters with names such as Hector and Thingstable, Snow and Firstnighter, circle round each other and the prostitute Darla like sharks waiting to make the kill. O’Driscoll’s writing is assured and there are some recurring images with an almost emblematic quality to them that tantalise, but all the same I couldn’t help feeling like one of the characters in the story – “He tried to think, to piece things together, but the details were like smoke, drifting, ungraspable.” One to enjoy more for the ride than the destination, I feel.

One of the most remarkable stories in the book, ‘Beasts of Season’ has a lost boys’ vibe going on, with Cai and his sister Meghan drawn into the games played by a group of outsiders led by the enigmatic and controlling Troy. Underlying the surface narrative is a rich back story about the fairy folk and the disappearance of Cai and Meghan’s father, with strands of menace woven into the text. O’Driscoll is superb in his evocation of the landscape, the potential for both terror and wonder that is implicit in nature, and also in his understanding of the dynamics of the childhood group, the way in which power shifts back and forth, while behind all that there is something that is quintessentially mysterious and unknowable, with the reader left to interpret what takes places as he or she will.

There’s a Bradbury feel to ‘The Spaceman’ in which Freddie and his friends Mouse and Jenna meet the ethereal Captain Paul, who was in charge of a moon launch unknown to the history of the manned space exploration, and who somehow needs their help to set things right. Again childhood rivalries are at the heart of the story, but underlying this is recognition of the need to accept the marvellous into our lives, that sometimes we simply have to believe even though what we see defies all logic. After the death of his older brother, Ceri returns home from Australia to settle family affairs and is drawn into ‘One Last Wild Waltz’ (previously published in Black Static #16) with Alison, the woman he loved and lost to the abusive Frank. On the surface of the narrative, O’Driscoll gives us an eerie and atmospheric ghost story, one riddled with the feeling of ambiguity (everything could easily be taking place inside Ceri’s head, a train of circumstances prompted by his return to the scene of past unhappiness), but there are strands here of abuse and bullying that reaches out from the grave, with the spectre of love twisted into an unnatural shape and a battery of unsettling images and effects that underline the feeling of something numinous in play.

In a deft piece of metafictional sleight of hand, ‘The Facts In The Case of Mr. P-’ gives us the story of Poe’s M. Valdemar, but then makes the story all about EAP himself, offering a different slant on the final days of his life. Told from the perspective of a doctor friend of the author, and written with a Borgesian slant, it’s a clever and hugely enjoyable story that gleefully subverts its subject material while still offering us something in the way of the anticipated chill. ‘Lost Highway’ is a ghost story of sorts, but also a paean to country music, with Burney, a man who has done terrible things in the name of love, meeting one of the greats of the genre. It’s a subtle piece, filled with raw emotion that reflects the material in which it is rooted, with the feeling of sadness and loss overshadowing everything else, so that we feel for Burney even as we deplore the things he may or may not have done.

Last but not least we have title story ‘The Dream Operator’, which appears to be set in the same (under)world as ‘The Entire City’ but with a more comprehensible plotline (at least to me). The dream operator of the title, Moon was once able to infiltrate the dreams of others with help from the drug Reverie, but is now burned out. He puts his safety at risk by defying his former business associates. It is a story rich in detail, with larger than life characters and sense of the grim and bleak lives they lead. Underlying all that there are themes of addiction, abuse, and redemption, as Moon tries to make up for the failures of his past by saving someone in the present, and at the same time it shows how dreams of a different kind can dictate our actions, with much of Moon’s behaviour rooted in the noir films he watches with an obsessive zeal, so that the role of anti-hero out to save the girl in one last fling of the dice comes almost as second nature to him. It is a fitting end to a strong collection from one of the finest writers in the field.

NB: There are three more excellent stories – ‘Summerhouse’, ‘The Rediscovery of Death’, and ’13 O’Clock’ – that I reviewed when they first appeared in print. Rather than discuss them again here, I will post my previous comments to the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com

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That’s All for Now

I was going to post the usual Song for a Saturday and then follow up with this on Sunday, but as Sunday is not only Easter but April the 1st I decided to not take the risk.

For a while now I haven’t had either the time or the will to post much here beyond copy and paste material, and for the foreseeable future that is going to get even worse, as real world demands (nothing bad, in fact mostly quite good, but hellishly time consuming)take precedent over such fripperies as blogging.

So for the next few months, apart from the occasional filler content post as Black Static reviews are freed up, I’m going to leave this site to its own devices.

I hope to return at some point and become a ‘proper’ blogger again, instead of a copy and paste substitute, but it probably won’t be until 2019.

Take care.

 

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2018 Graphic Miscellany #3

I read these books during Women in Horror month (February), so naturally I focused on graphic novels with female protagonists.

Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears – Baby Talk

Written by Dennis Hopeless, illustrated by Javier Rodriguez

Back in the day, the character of Spider-Woman was introduced to the Marvel Universe to prevent other companies using the name, and since then she has been through numerous reincarnations, of which I believe the stories collected in this volume are from either the fifth or sixth iteration (I have the entire first series, all fifty issues, bagged and boxed somewhere in the garage – collectors please send your bids in sealed envelopes). This time round Captain Marvel is her best friend, journalist Ben Urich is her partner in a detective agency, and the Porcupine, who used to be a bad guy in a silly suit is now a good guy in a silly suit who helps out with the superhero workload. Excelsior! Oh, and our heroine (real name Jessica Drew) is pregnant, which adds an interesting twist as she takes on Skrulls while visiting a hospital in deep space. Overall it’s a lot of fun, with some dazzling artwork, Rodriguez given a wealth of alien creatures to work with and succeeding admirably in bringing them to life on the page. Characterisation is done well, with people and situations you can believe in, and the whole thing with the baby is handled with panache, deftly categorising the perils and problems of having a young one to care for while struggling with the obligations of a superhero, at the same time quite clearly showing the benefits of said infant. It was something different, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears – Civil War II

Written by Dennis Hopeless, illustrated by Javier Rodriguez, Veronica Fish & Tigh Walker

More of the same in this follow up volume. There’s fisticuffs with Tiger Shark to start the book, a visit to Canada where a plague of wendigoes gets stomped on, and to round matters off we have Jessica and baby at the beach while Porcupine tackles the Sandman. All these though are just side orders to the main event, which has Jessica hired by Captain Marvel to investigate a psychic, this in turn leading to a falling out between the two fast friends as it becomes clear what Marvel intends to accomplish using the psychic’s gifts, a standoff that mirrors that between Iron Man and Captain America, Civil War style. To be honest, fun as they were, the side orders were all a bit lightweight and contrived, with the conflict between Jessica and Marvel the real meat of the book. Physically it’s a no-brainer, as Captain Marvel has Spider-Woman totally outgunned, but the emotional turmoil and ideological slant of each character give the narrative its focus. There is a choice too for the reader as to who we support – the one who wants to stop crime before it happens or the one who believes somebody is innocent until they act. There’s also an element of humour to the story, which adds a nice balance to the book as a whole, especially when Jessica, to all intents and purposes, flounces. Add to that some striking artwork, and you have an all-round entertaining book.

Ms Marvel: Crushed

Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Elmo Bondoc & Takeshi Miyazawa

I believe I also have the entire 25 issue first run of the Ms Marvel safe in the garage, though I could be wrong. Her real name was Carol Danvers and she went on to become the Captain Marvel mentioned above. This time round the identity is assumed by Kamala Khan, the first Muslim character to headline a Marvel comic book, and she owes her shape shifting powers to the effects of terrigen mist (also responsible for the Inhumans). The adventures collected together here bring her into conflict with Loki, a renegade sect of Inhumans who wish to supplant human rule, and a bacteria that turns her classmates into mush monsters (for the latter she has a little help from agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). It’s all good stuff, the super heroics complemented by exploration of what it feels like to be a teenage girl, a Muslim, and a super powered being, taking in the difficulties of dating, and of conforming to the cultural expectations of her family. These themes, all of them in their way just variations on the conceit of the outsider, are handled in a non-judgemental way with intelligence and style. The artwork I felt was a bit uneven, with some panels that really grab you and others where everything seems a little washed out and contorted, with odd angles and distortions of perspective that didn’t really agree with me.

Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympian

Written by Gail Simone, illustrated by Aaron Lopresti & Bernard Chang

There’s a lot going on in this book. Wonder Woman must fight the monstrous Genocide, a creation of Cheetah and her allies, whose power is enhanced by the absorption of WW’s lasso. While the Justice League and Green Lantern Corps are helpless, WW must watch Genocide attack all who she holds dear and fight to save them as best she can. Meanwhile Zeus has decided to release the Amazons from their peace keeping mission and replace them with a race of male warriors led by the Olympian, only these warriors think the path to peace requires them to disarm everybody else. Back of it all, with an agenda of his own, is the evil Ares, the two plot strands intertwining and culminating in a moment when Wonder Woman turns her back on the gods of the Amazons. It’s marvellous stuff, the bleakness of the action colliding head first with the beauty of the artwork, with a cast of larger than life characters and epic events that undermine and transform our understanding of Wonder Woman’s world and purpose. Ultimately it questions the role of the gods and argues that their time is past. While it doesn’t have the quite the same sense of cohesion, in many ways this story reminded me of the glory days of the Thor comic, with its epic falling outs between Loki and the God of Thunder, and Odin’s often miscalculated interventions. I loved it.

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