Monday, 18 September 2017

Shrapnel Apartments.

Shrapnel Apartments is the new novel from Chris Kelso and is published by Crowded QuarantinePublications. It’s a follow-up to Unger House Radicals which I reviewed here and which was one of my favourite reads of last year.
Unger House Radicals dealt with the creation of a new art-form, Ultra-Realism, by film student Vincent Bittaker and serial killer Brandon Swarthy – whose relationship I likened to that of Rimbaud and Verlane. In possibly the most contrived pun I’ve ever managed (which is saying something) if UHR is Rimbaud: First Blood, (there’s certainly plenty of the red stuff spilled in its pages), then Shrapnel Apartments can surely be regarded as Rimbaud: First Blood Part II.
There’s a marked slump in quality between the two films but not, I’m very pleased to say, between the books. Whereas John Rambo appears in both films, undergoing an amazing transformation from traumatised, disillusioned veteran to some kind of invincible superhero, Bittaker and Swarthy barely get a look in – although they are referenced occasionally – Shrapnel Apartments is set in a post-Ultra-Realism world, a world in which the radical has become part of the establishment.
As with Unger House Radicals, the book is written in a scattershot style, from the perspectives of multiple characters. There’s perhaps more of a narrative thrust to this one though (or perhaps thrusts – there’s more than one story to be told here) and even a hint of (possibly) cosmic horror with the introduction of a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of the mysterious entity known as Blackcap and his assistant King Misery – first alluded to in an opening sequence set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s suggestions throughout the book that Blackcap is guiding events, toying with humanity to achieve his own, nefarious ends.
The storylines running throughout Shrapnel Apartments include those of child-killer Beau Carson and his investigation by corrupt cop Bobby Reilly, a spat between critics Gottleib and Mancuso (primarily about Ultra-Realism) and the eternal suffering of Florence Coffey. The individual stories are told in a variety of narrative voices, mainly first person testimonies (although it’s often not clear exactly who it is who’s speaking…) interspersed with third person sections, police records, random soliloquys and – significantly – autopsy reports. It’s a dazzling display of technique, the seemingly random sections bombarding the reader with images and ideas yet undergoing some kind of synergy to create a whole far greater than the sum of its parts which will leave you breathless in its audacity.
Whilst Unger House Radicals was all about art, it’s a bit more difficult to pin down a single theme for Shrapnel Apartments although I’ll stick my neck out and boldly suggest it might be about the nature of evil itself. The titular apartments are (actually, may or may not be) the location of a reality TV show – a la Big Brother – so there’s evidence of evil right there and, given the references to Jazz music (which everyone knows is the work of the devil) which appear in the book I’m relatively confident in this assumption.

Not that it matters. What any reader takes from any book is absolutely an individual experience. What I took from Shrapnel Apartments was an admiration for a writer willing to try new things, be experimental and doing so brilliantly. This is yet another assault on the senses from Chris Kelso and I thank him for it. There’s great skill on display creating the distinct and individual voices of the characters but also in corralling all the disparate elements into a thought-provoking, dazzling and thoroughly satisfying whole.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence

Given the current political climate, there’s a very strong possibility that the whole sub-genre of Post-Apocalyptic fiction could be lost to use, re-packaged as contemporary drama so it’s probably a good idea to make the most of it while it’s still here.
Such an opportunity is provided with a new novella in the Hersham Horror line (which launched very successfully last year with these titles) from Richard Farren Barber – Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence (a title which may, or may not, reference a James Lovegrove story – but which I kinda hope does because of the context).
The apocalypse in this book is not the result of handing the nuclear codes to a man with the reasoning capacity and awareness of a spoilt toddler - this is a work of fiction - but of an infection, a plague, which wipes out the majority of the world’s population, leaving only scattered communities of survivors. A familiar trope for sure, but those anticipating the arrival of hordes of zombies will be disappointed for in this scenario the “infected” are still very much alive, a threat simply because of the risk of infection they (literally) carry. Once dead, they remain dead – a situation which brings with it many practical implications for the survivors…
It’s the disposal of the corpses which is the job of Hannah, the protagonist – and narrator – of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. Along with her team, she retrieves the fallen bodies of those who have made it as far as the outskirts of the village in which she and the other survivors now reside, in order to remove them and with them the risk of further contamination.
It’s the epitome of “it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” and there’s much grimness to be had in the descriptions of what the team have to do. There’s much opportunity for character development too, with the personalities of the team emerging from the ways in which they approach their grim task.
The community is led by the charismatic Dr Andrew Hickman who has shaped the rules and policies by which the village is kept safe behind its walls and quarantine zones and it’s these which provide the subtext to the novella. The political allegory of Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is writ large, the paranoia and exclusion of the survivors towards the infected (and – crucially – the “possibly” infected) holds a mirror up to the current political climate here in the UK and other countries which, frankly, should know better.
In this context, Perfect darkness, Perfect Silence is incredibly powerful. The last act (the final solution) performed by Hannah and her crew is to tip the dead into huge funeral pyres – scenes which cannot fail to evoke images of much darker times, and a salutary reminder of the real cost of extreme ideologies.
I was mightily impressed by this novella and regard it as the best that Richard has written thus far. Despite the “heavy” politics it still works as an exciting read with fully drawn characters and a great deal of imagination on display. It’s a cleverly constructed world Richard has created here and his use of Hannah as a protagonist gradually discovering – or uncovering – exactly what is happening is something he handles expertly.

I highly recommend Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence. It will be launched, alongside the other new novellas in the series, at FantasyCon in September.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Cottingley

Cottingley is the new novella by Alison Littlewood and is the second in a new series of four being published by NewCon Press. The book uses as its backdrop the events of 1917-1920 in which photographs purporting to be of real fairies were taken by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, which gained a deal of notoriety when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used them in an article for the Strand Magazine, regarding them as genuine and proof of the existence of the creatures.
The novella is set in 1921, when interest in the photographs was beginning to wane and is written in epistolary style, consisting of a series of letters from Lawrence Fairclough, an elderly widower who lives in the village of Cottingley and who, if he is to believed, has uncovered new – physical – evidence of the fairies.
Other than the first letter which is addressed to Conan Doyle himself, the remainder are written to Edward L Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society and another true believer in the veracity of the photographs. Fairclough has discovered the body of a fairy, and has his own photographs…
The fairies Fairclough describes are far from benign, indeed, physical harm is done to both his daughter Charlotte and granddaughter Harriet by the creatures. These are the fairies of ancient folklore, malevolent and dangerous.
As the novella progresses, the letters document a change in Fairclough as his obsession with the fairies grows. The replies he receives are not shown but the writing here is so skilful that they don’t have to be – the distancing of Gardner from Fairclough is all too apparent from the increasingly frustrated tone of the letters the widower constantly sends.
The use of letters as the narrative voice in Cottingley is an inspired one, providing insights into the character and personality of their author. Fairclough’s initial excitement at his discovery gradually turns to frustration and hubris, his own vanity leading to anger and arrogance. It’s all beautifully done, the changes introduced subtly and carefully. This character study is the real heart of the book, the fairies and the truth or not of their existence merely the canvas upon which the portrait is being painted.
This deterioration of course leads to Fairclough becoming the most unreliable of narrators. There’s much to suggest that his evidence for the fairies is as genuine as the photographs taken by the girls (who finally admitted they were fakes in 1983). Reading the letters through this filter casts a much darker hue on the story, provides a disturbing viewpoint for some of the incidents he records in his correspondence.

I enjoyed Cottingley very much indeed, cleverly constructed and written with exactly the right amount of ambiguity to keep you thinking about it long after you finish it. You can, and should, buy it here.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Shadow Moths.

Shadow Moths is the first release from Frightful Horrors, a small UK publisher whose mission statement is to recreate the chapbook format of yesteryear in ebook form, via their “quick reads” – short stories from authors designed to act as a showcase for their talent.
Cate Gardner supplies two stories for this debut publication: We Make Our Own Monsters Here and Blood-Moth Kiss. Anyone familiar with Cate’s writing will find much to enjoy here whilst it will act as a perfect introduction to her slightly surreal and whimsical style of writing to those yet to experience it.
It has to be said that these stories are definitely in the weird fiction camp, being neither particularly frightful nor horrific, but beneath the surface of the strangeness dark currents flow.
The opening story concerns puppeteer Check Harding and his stay in the Palmerston Hotel prior to a job interview. There’s much surreal humour to be had here, with receptionists hiding behind desks and ankle-deep shag pile carpets. The humour is gradually replaced by a slowly creeping sense of dread when Check makes the trip to his interview wherein a bizarre, transformative experience occurs in which puppeteer becomes puppet, a bargain somehow made which will change his life forever.
The darkness at the conclusion of We Make… is made more profound by the humour which precedes it. There’s less of that on display in Blood-Moth Kiss, which is set in an air-force base during the onset of a nuclear war.
Maybe.
Sections of the story are titled with the date and time which, if read carefully, offer some hint as to what this complex and puzzling story may really be about. I loved the imagery in this one, anyone who had accidentally crushed a moth will be aware of the ash-like substance which remains and this metaphor is use dis to very good effect in this – and I use the word deliberately – haunting tale.
These are, as stated from the outset, quick reads – easily devoured in a single sitting. As with much of Cate’s work, a second reading is always something I’d recommend. First time round, just lose yourself in the poetic weirdness, second time try and discern the hidden meanings – and the brevity of these two tales certainly allows for this.

I enjoyed my time in the weird world of the Shadow Moths and strongly recommend you try it for yourself. You can buy the book here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Anatomy of Monsters

The Anatomy of Monsters is a new anthology from Stitched Smile Publications and is edited by Robert Teun. Monsters are, of course, a staple of horror and many people’s – myself included – introduction to the genre. The theme behind this anthology was an interesting one: new takes on old legends, stories which would provide new interpretations on classic monsters, perhaps provide new insights into their lives (or undeaths as the case may be).
The book is a mixture of original stories and reprints with eighteen tales covering a wide range of subjects. Vampires are the subject of the opening story, Gary McMahon’s I know I Promised You a Story, a tale which adopts an approach similar to George A Romero’s Martin, creating a compact little tale which actually serves very well as an introduction to the book, ending on a nice use of the “inviting in” trope to set up the rest of the stories in the anthology.
Origins stories abound here, with authors presenting their own takes on why and how monsters came into being. This is done in straightforward fashion with Alex Laybourne’s The Birth of Djinn and Jess Landry’s Gorgons using narrative styles in keeping with the historical periods under scrutiny whilst a more adventurous style is employed with Greg Chapman’s Conjoined and Carl Jennings’ Losing Visibility which provide alternative explanations for Jekyll and Hyde and The Invisible Man respectively. Perhaps the best of the early insights into… stories is Steven Chapman’s Le Mort Vivant which uses the setting of the tunnels beneath the Paris opera House to great effect in this engaging tale of the Phantom’s early years.
It’s the later years of Frankenstein’s Monster which are the subject of Brian Hodge’s A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, a story which cleverly uses the paradoxical combination of sensitivity and destructive potential of the creature to chilling effect.
I have a particular fondness for werewolves so found myself a little disappointed at their appearance here in Nicholas Vince’s Family Tree. It’s a story in which the tone seems a little inconsistent and which lays its cards (and plot) out at the very beginning. What follows is that plot playing itself out (therefore without any surprise elements to it) amidst some clunky exposition/info dumps. Even more disappointing was Whitechapel, 1888 by Alisha Jordan. The subject matter is obvious from the title but the story gives away its “secret” – the identity of the Ripper - at the outset and then proceeds to be little more than a lurid description of the murders themselves, details which will be known to anyone with even a passing interest in the case but presented here a little too gratuitously.
Also slightly disappointing, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else of his I’ve read, is Josh Malerman’s Basic Shade. Set in prehistoric times, it tells of the creation of the first ever ghost – a clever concept but one I felt wasn’t quite realised in the final story.
Laura Mauro appropriates an REM song title for Nightswimming in which the real monster of the piece isn’t the one you might be expecting whilst Simon Bestwick shows a romantic side to his talents (albeit interspersed with graphic horror and monsters lurking in caves) with To Walk in Midnight’s Realm.
The Darkness in Our dreams is a high-concept piece from Phil Sloman told almost as a fable which describes the birth of nightmares. It’s cleverly done, and has some suitably disturbing imagery to back up the narrative. I liked it a lot but I think my favourite story in the collection is Daniel I Russell’s Rational Creatures, a story which best fits the book’s title, a historical horror which combines the dissection table with high art.

I enjoyed my time uncovering The Anatomy of Monsters. It’s an entertaining mix of stories and styles and (on the whole) well written throughout. The balance between old and new both in terms of reprints and originals and the monsters themselves is just about right. This is Volume 1 in a proposed series and I look forward to seeing what future editions will bring.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Creeping Stick

Creeping Stick is a novella by Liam Ronan and is published by Pendragon Press. It’s a debut by Liam and, I have to say, a mightily impressive one, written with great style and confidence and marking the author out as someone to keep an eye on in the future.
Set in the Welsh village of Hafoc in the early years of the twentieth century, it tells of the arrival – via shipwreck – of the sinister figure of Raziel Menalaus Spindle, a disfigured and deformed character, his physical appearance giving rise to his nickname – Creeping Stick. Accepted by, and slowly becoming an influential figure in the Hafoc’s society, Spindle unveils his plans to build a “Home for Progressive Youth”, an idea which is met with full approval until the details of what will actually take place within the home are discussed. The techniques he is to employ to “further” the children seem to be counter to religious teaching and it’s this which leads to a breakdown in the relationship between the village elders and Spindle.
Shunned by the villagers, Spindle becomes an outcast, reappearing on the day of the summer fayre with gifts of barrels of beer. The villagers drink freely, and fall into drug-induced slumber.
Then the children disappear…
It’s only when a girl escapes Spindle’s clutches to return to Hafoc that the true horror of what Spindle has been up to is uncovered. With his plans for his home dashed, he has instead constructed a building hidden out in the dunes which lie on the edge of the village: the House of Perpetual Lament.
The story is told as a first person narration, by Hafoc’s priest – witness to all of the events and a member of the group who set out for the House of Perpetual Lament in the story’s conclusion. It’s a distinctive voice, written in a style appropriate to the period of the book and it’s credit to the author that it’s maintained throughout the length of the novella. Presented as the confession of a dying man there’s obviously the risk of this being an unreliable narration but to be honest, this is of little consequence as the tale which unfolds is such a gripping one. What’s even more impressive is the amount of imagination on display here. The scenes set in the House of Perpetual Lament are a joy (if that’s the right word…) to read, as one horror after another is uncovered by the group of villagers. Vivid descriptive prose abounds here with some startling, not to say, disturbing imagery on display. The writing here is reminiscent of Books of Blood-era Clive Barker, that’s how good it is, and presents a potent mix of body horror, creeping tension and even a dash or two of steampunk imagery.
There’s a lot going on in Creeping Stick. Within the gloriously entertaining narrative there’s a commentary on small town narrow-mindedness, the use and abuse of power and it could even be read as an addition to the religion versus science debate or a musing on faith, or the lack of…
Creeping Stick is a wonderful piece of writing and an incredibly impressive debut. There’s a hugely entertaining epilogue too which at first seems completely remote from the novella itself but which gradually reveals its subtle links to the preceding narrative.

I loved it, and strongly recommend you check it out for yourself, which you can do here.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Beneath

Beneath is the debut novel from Kristi DeMeester and is published by Word Horde. Set in the 1980s, its protagonist is Cora, a journalist sent to rural Appalachia to research a story about an evangelical preacher who incorporates snake handling into his services.
What follows truly is a journey into the heart of darkness, in which buried secrets are unearthed – among them Cora’s own, a back-story revealed which adds context and nuance to the horrors she uncovers.
Beneath is not an easy read. Cora’s investigations take her to some very dark places, and there are scenes which are difficult to read – not because of the writing, which is immaculate throughout - but because of their subject matter. I’ve often expounded the theory that the mark of an effective horror story is that it unsettles and disturbs and that's very much the case with this novel. There’s nothing gratuitous or exploitative here though, the prose is calm, assured and understated – which makes the horrors being described all the more profound.
There are human monsters here for sure, but there’s also a supernatural element to the horror. The author has created a mythology in which to embed her story which works brilliantly, the dark forces she conjures providing a wonderful device with which to address the many issues the book raises. These supernatural elements are introduced gradually and very cleverly. Dreams and reality merge, wrong-footing and disorientating the reader before taking prominence in the book’s closing chapters. Confining the story to its remote location works extremely well here, with neither the protagonists nor readers exactly sure of what is happening and to how many.
Multiple themes run through the narrative, twisting around each other like snakes in a pit. There is much metaphor and allegory here (even the choice of Cora as a name has a significance) with the aforementioned serpents providing much of the real and suggested horror. A combination of snakes and religion usually leads to temptation and this is one of the stronger motifs on display here – a weakness in some, a weapon to others.

Beneath is a marvelous debut novel. Unafraid to tackle difficult issues, it provides a bleak and compelling examination of human nature whilst at the same time creating a believable, and terrifying mythology. It’s another fine addition to the steadily growing ranks of literary horror and a book I thoroughly recommend.