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.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Sacculina

I have to admit to being a sucker for a good old creature feature. There’s nothing quite like a story of man against monster, whether those monsters are of the supernatural or natural kind. Shark movies seem to be making a bit of a resurgence lately but none will ever top the magnificence which is Jaws. Perhaps it’s the combination of the isolation of being out on the open sea and the threat of the creature itself which makes maritime monsters especially terrifying. Cast adrift on open water, it’s feasible that any creature can be made scary – certainly the case with sharks, giant squid and killer whales. Even as benign a creature as a whale can be rendered terrifying – especially if it’s white.
Such is the setting for the new novella from Philip Fracassi, Sacculina which is published by Journalstone. The monsters faced here are a mutated species, a surprising choice on the face of it perhaps but, as it turns out, an inspired one, the scenes at the book’s conclusion deftly handled by a writer with abundant skill and technique, creating real tension amidst the more visceral elements.
Brothers Jim and Jack charter a boat to go on a fishing trip with friend Chris and their father Henry, a chance to re-forge old ties and bond following the release of Jack from prison. There’s a little bit of foreshadowing before the boat even leaves port with the captain trying to warn them off because of bad weather, only to accede to their wishes but taking them to a different, safer(!), location…
It’s all lovely, traditional stuff and it’s the familiarity of the set-up which creates a warm glow of recognition in the reader, a sense of anticipation at what is still to come once our heroes are out in the middle of nowhere.
Given the environment the men find themselves in, the opportunities are there for much discourse and recollection with back stories floating to the surface, revealing much about the characters, revealing hidden depths. Tensions – familial and otherwise – are exposed, nicely adding to that of the overall narrative; the journey out to sea mirrored by that into the souls of the protagonists themselves. These sections are nicely done, allowing insight without slowing the pace or being a distraction. There’s even space for a little profundity, musings on life and the nature of existence – again without holding up the narrative which slowly ramps up the tension and feelings of dread until the real horror arrives.
And it is real horror. The attack of the creatures is handled with as much skill as the character development which has preceded it. Trust me, this is intense stuff with some sequences definitely not for the faint-hearted. The pacing here is superb, exciting and frantic, a lovely counterpoint to the slow build of tension which has gone before.
I loved Sacculina; pulpy enough so as not to betray its creature-feature origins but elevated by very skilful writing so that while you still may not care for some of the characters, at least you’re interested in them. Having already released a collection which is a contender for year’s best, Philip has here provided a novella with an equally strong claim to that title.

Sacculina is released on May 12th and you can buy it here.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Ascent

Ascent is the new novel from Luke Walker and is published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Beginning with the imminent threat of nuclear bomb detonating outside RAF Lakenheath, it’s a novel which hits the ground running.
Actually, that’s exactly how the narrative begins, with one of the book’s main characters, Kelly, crashing into the reception area of Greenham Place, the high-rise building which serves as the location for the rest of the novel, a safe haven from the blast which turns out to be anything but.
Once inside, she encounters others who have found themselves inside the building at the moment of detonation; her sister Alex, Rod, Dao and Simon – but no one else… At least no one human.
So begins a dazzlingly inventive, fast paced and disorientating tale in which reality is blurred as much for the reader as the protagonists themselves. They find themselves haunted, somehow their own individual fears manifest as apparitions and inexplicable encounters. Unable to escape from the building, they become captives, hunted as well as haunted by the ghosts of their memories and fears.
There’s a wonderful sense of unease and disorientation created in Ascent. The protagonists have no idea of what is happening, or why – and those puzzles are shared by the reader. Has the bomb gone off and they are all dead? Has time somehow frozen and trapped them in a kind of limbo? It’s a massive strength of the book that it raises these questions in the reader’s mind, carrying them along with the narrative which cracks along at a fair old pace, offering hints and suggestions along the way.
Hinted at all through the book, is the presence of some elemental force guiding the action, a suggestion that the building itself is a manifestation of that force, a nexus of evil as it were, tormenting the protagonists, exploiting their fears.
It’s the individual confrontations with their personal horrors which provide some cracking set-pieces, many of which are not for the faint-hearted. Even amidst the fast-paced action, each character arc is given time to develop as the group of five find their own ways to resolution and, given that the commonality in all their stories is an overwhelming sense of guilt, even redemption.
I loved Ascent, it’s a high concept story which is evidence of a great imagination at work. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, but Luke handles all the narrative threads and ideas perfectly and has created a book which works on a whole range of levels. Exciting, scary and thought-provoking. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Ascent is officially released on June 3rd but you can pre-order here.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Little Gift

One of my favourite things in the world is to read a story and then, once it’s finished, find myself still thinking about it, reassessing and re-evaluating what I’ve read, gaining fresh insights, revealing subtleties which registered only subconsciously on first exposure to the words.
Such was very much the case with the new novella from Stephen Volk, The Little Gift which is published by PS Publishing.
It’s a slim, but beautifully produced (and illustrated), volume and I rattled through it in a single sitting in less than an hour. Its brevity belies its content however as what we’re given here is a tale of massive depth, the words and story undergoing some magical synergy to create a piece of work which stealthily infiltrates your mind, a first person narrative which makes you believe the story is heading in one direction before craftily heading off somewhere completely different.
The first person narrative is absolutely essential to the story. Yes, the narrator is unreliable – but aren’t they all? Narrators (not to say readers) will always superimpose their own interpretations on stories but his unreliability isn’t the most important thing anyway. What the narrative provides here is a beautifully crafted exploration of character. And not a very nice character at that.
It’s difficult to say too much about the Little Gift without giving away key plot developments. Bad things happen, some very bad things happen – both directly and indirectly involving the narrator and it’s his attitudes towards these events which provide the deepest insights into his character.
I chose Stephen’s story The Peter Lorre Fan Club as my favourite of last year because of the skill with which he slowly unfolded the story by means of dialogue alone and there’s as much skill on display here this time using a monologue. Some may find metaphors for society in general in the attitudes of the narrator, but even as “just” a description of a fairly – actually deeply – unpleasant individual, The Little Gift is an outstanding piece of writing.

A week after reading it, I’m still mulling over The Little Gift. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing and I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Behold the Void.

One of the many highlights of 2016 for me was “discovering” the writing of Philip Fracassi, with two novelettes, Mother and Altar and a novella Fragile Dreams. Much joy then, at the prospect of starting 2017 (kinda) with a collection from him, Behold the Void, which is published by Journalstone.
The two aforementioned novelettes make up part of the collection and my reviews for them can be found here and here. It’s with much joy again that I can report that I found the rest of the stories in Behold the Void to be of as impressively high standard.
Soft Construction of a Sunset opens the collection, a gloriously constructed tale in which the horror gradually reveals itself, a slow build-up of tension from the almost poetic opening lines to its twisted conclusion. Told in present tense, the narrative immerses the reader in protagonist Tom’s response to friend Marcus’ plea for help, a technique that pays of supremely when the reader realises the final horror just before Tom himself does.
Family dynamics have a big role to play in two of the stories, Coffin and Surfer Girl. Both are incredibly dark tales, with subject matter not for the faint-hearted and teenagers as their protagonists. The former delves into folk mythology with hints at a Green Man type character – although with a less than benign nature than would be traditional whilst the latter charts young Adolf’s trip to Acapulco with his mother and her new boyfriend Steve. It’s a marvellous character study of a disturbed psyche and has an opening line which is destined to feature in any number of “best ever” lists.
The Baby Farmer provides a potent cocktail of priestly indiscretion, child murder and apocalyptic prophesy in a story which switches between present day narrative and the historical diaries of a woman incarcerated for the kidnap and murder of children. It’s another cleverly constructed story, jumping between the two narratives and the voice employed for the diaries is impressively convincing.
Big decisions are required in Fail-Safe, a monster movie wrapped up in a psychological drama. At its heart is a moral dilemma, a classic head and heart conflict. It’s an almost Schrochingeresque scenario facing the son of two loving parents, one of whom definitely is, and the other who might be, a ravenous, blood-thirsty monster. Open the door and let them out? You decide…
The Horse Thief is one of my favourite stories in the book. There are hints of the surreal in this tale of the titular villain and his services to provide horses to clientele with very specific, and very strange requirements. The story’s strange nature, and darkness, put me in mind of the writing of Ralph Robert Moore – which is praise indeed. Tales of redemption are always winners for me and the route this story takes towards that end point (whether or not it’s achieved is open to discussion) is a hugely entertaining – if slightly disturbing – one. It’s strange and weird and I loved every moment of it.
The final story in the collection is Mandala and is probably my favourite of all of them. It’s also the story which most effectively encapsulates the theme suggested by the book’s title as it’s an exploration of the forces which dictate our destinies. Are our actions truly our own or are they guided by forces way beyond our imagining? It’s another impeccably constructed story – the major themes are introduced early on with descriptions of celestial bodies and tides – with a succession of inter-related events ultimately leading to tragedy. There’s a certain inevitability about what happens in the story – which, I guess, is the whole point of it - and the writing is so good that the reader cannot help but be drawn into the action which unfolds. There’s a long scene, on a beach, which is one of the most terrifying and tense I’ve read in a long time. It’s a story which is, well… cosmic. It’s also got scary ghosts in it.

Behold the Void is a stunning collection and one which I enjoyed immensely. I anticipate seeing it mentioned in many year’s best lists to come. I thoroughly recommend you check it out for yourself.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Fungoid.

Fungoid is the new novel from William Meikle and is published by DarkFuse. It’s an apocalyptic tale from an author who, over the course of his writing career, has wiped out huge swathes of the world’s population by means of alien invasion, cosmic seaweed and giant crabs (to name but a few) this time choosing to bring about the end of the world with a fungal infestation.
It’s an original take on the apocalypse and, it has to be said, an entirely plausible one. Just Google “largest organism on earth” if you need proof. The fact that any organic material can provide a home for the organism means that the world itself is infected – not just the people living on it and, throw in the fact that the fungal spores are dispersed by wind and rain and you have a truly terrifying scenario.
By concentrating on a handful of characters, Willie manages to corral what could have been a sprawling epic of book into a tightly constructed, fast-paced narrative – a cracking read that homages the pulp novels and B-Movies which must surely be its inspiration. Whilst greatly enhancing the pace of the book, this approach can have some drawbacks – most notably when world events are touched upon, outbreaks of wars and civil unrest relegated to a few lines or a paragraph almost making them seem like an afterthought. There are some scenes of environments overgrown with fungal hyphae which were very effective but again, a few more of these set-pieces may have enhanced the book.
It could be argued that this is the quintessential William Meikle book, combining as it does so many of the tropes and themes which have been a feature of his writing thus far. The fungal threat will be familiar to those who read his highly entertaining Professor Challenger collection The Kew Growths – which allows for a little in-joke within the narrative – but another recurring theme, the power of music also crops up here, most overtly in a reference to being “lost to the dance”, a literary motif used to great effect in the author’s collection Dark Melodies.
There’s science too – some real, to add verisimilitude and some made up, to add entertainment value. This is no ordinary fungus, it’s an escapee from a lab – situated in the same country that made Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps (i.e. not America).
I regard Fungoid as the literary equivalent of North by Northwest – a screenplay that was written for Hitchcock which contained as many Hitchcockian themes and set-pieces as it was possible to cram into one film. The director was in effect making a homage to his own work and there’s maybe something of the same going on here. Whatever, the end result is a deeply entertaining piece of writing which takes a number of well-established tropes and characters and moulds (yes – that was deliberate) them into something new.
From its small beginnings in a traffic accident on Watson Drive (there was always going to be trouble on a street with that name…) to its stirring conclusion on the Newfoundland coast I loved every moment I spent in the world of Fungoid. The end of the world is probably on a lot more people’s minds right now so it was nice to enjoy a fictional interpretation of that scenario.

You can, and should, buy Fungoid here.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Under a Watchful Eye.

Under a Watchful Eye is the new novel from Adam Nevill and is published by Pan Macmillan. It’s an early release date for the book and follows closely on the heels of Adam’s self-published collection of short stories, Some Will Not Sleep.

Anyone who has read that collection – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – will experience a frisson of recognition at the title of the first of three parts into which the novel is divided, Yellow Teeth, as it shares it with one of the stories in the SWNS. The short story took as its subject matter the “lodger from (perhaps literally) Hell” and that narrative is reproduced here, in a much-expanded form as author Seb begins to catch glimpses of old acquaintance Ewan, a friend from his student days, a mentor even for his burgeoning writing career before the friendship broke down acrimoniously.
A ghost from his past then – a phrase given a possible literal interpretation from the descriptions given of these opening encounters. Much creepiness and unease is generated in these opening passages with Ewan mysteriously appearing and disappearing, sometimes in seemingly impossible locations…
The ambiguity ends when Ewan finally turns up as a creature of flesh and blood and Seb reluctantly take him in as a guest. The horror then shifts from the supernatural to a combination of gross-out verging on body horror (although I felt this was more effectively done in the short story) as Ewan’s disregard for anything even resembling personal hygiene impacts upon Seb, but also the horror of the loss of control and order as the entropy of his unwanted lodger’s lifestyle and beliefs comes into conflict with Seb’s neatly ordered existence.
With Ewan comes much exposition and the introduction of the one of the book’s central themes – astral projection. Such was the technique used by Ewan in his early appearances and such is his obsession, in particular the life and work of M L Hazard, author and researcher into the esoteric and the subject of Ewan’s magnum opus. Despite himself, Seb finds he is drawn into the dark web his guest is weaving around him…
Under a Watchful Eye is a slight departure in style from Adam’s other novels (although perhaps not so much as the more overtly thriller aspects of Lost Girl), relying more on psychological and supernatural terrors than the more visceral fears engendered by the Blood Friends or the denizens of shadowy houses and Scandinavian forests. The tone is possibly most similar to his debut novel Banquet for the Damned and it’s probably no coincidence that a terrifying dream described in this book features a golf course… There are subtle references to Adam’s other novels, a technique I’m glad to see he continues to use, most notable Last Days.
There’s still room for some trademark Nevill horrors though, with fiendish entities scuttling across the pages. These are most effective in two sequences, one aboard a train and the other in the darkness of the abandoned house used by Hazard as his research headquarters. The book also introduces us to Thin Len, an archetypal Nevill creation and destined to fuel nightmares for years to come.
I have a feeling Adam had a blast writing this novel. The old adage of “write what you know” has been well used here I believe as it’s hard to imagine that Seb – at least in terms of his writing career – isn’t based on the author’s own experiences. It is, I have to say, an extremely cleverly constructed book and one of the biggest revelations within it comes very – and I mean very – unexpectedly. The chapters are named, something I like to see, but there’s some puzzlement as to what the titles mean as many bear little relation to the events described following them. Finding out the reasoning behind them is one of the many joys of reading Under a Watchful Eye, a novel in which the metaphysical becomes the metafictional. It’s a book which is as much about the process of writing as the horrors contained within its twisting and surprising narrative.

I loved it and can’t think of a better recommendation to begin 2017’s horror reading experience.