Monday, 24 June 2013

The Unspoken.

Cancer plays a big part in my life given that I work in a pathology laboratory where the principal work is in the diagnosis of this horrible disease. I must have read mountains of literature about it, and spend most of my day looking down a microscope trying to identify it so was intrigued to see this new collection of short stories edited by William Meikle which is subtitled An Anthology for Cancer Relief. It contains seventeen stories and all profits will be going to the Beatson Cancer Research Institute, a laudable aim, and - given the quality of the writing on display here - will hopefully be hugely successful.
Many of the stories within The Unspoken use the theme of cancer as their basis, either overtly or indirectly whilst others have no link to it at all (or are so tenuous that I missed them completely). Notable amongst these is Harbinger by Stephen Laws, an enigmatic, ambiguous tale that I loved precisely for those reasons. It was great to see something new from Stephen (although I'm not sure when the story was written) who was - is - a bit of a hero of mine, having written some brilliant novels set in his - and my -home region, and who probably didn't get the recognition he really deserved.
The theme of the desperation of being diagnosed with cancer leading to Faustian deals is explored in ascending order of success by Stephen James Price's Pages of Promises, Anna Taborska's Underbelly and, in my opinion the best of the three Stevens Savile and Lockley's The Last Gift.
There are contributions too from the editor- The Unfinished Basement - which I'd encountered previously in his wonderful Dark Melodies and the publisher, Johnny Mains with another story I'd read before in his collection Frightfully Cosy and Mild Stories for Nervous Types, with The Cure - a truly disturbing story that was the highlight of that collection for me and which still has the power to shock even on second reading.
David A Riley provides a blood-soaked slice of fantasy in A Girl, A Toad and a Flask whilst John Shirley gives us the board meeting from Hell (aren't they all..?) in Where the Market's Hottest.
The two stand-out stories for me were ones where the theme of cancer was used most tangentially, Gary McMahon's Bitter Soup highlights the decay and necrosis associated with the disease in a harrowing tale full of disturbing imagery and Simon Kurt Unsworth's Photograph's of Boden, a psychological horror that plays on the theme of the inexorable spread of a life-changing, life-threatening process.
The Unspoken is an excellent collection of stories covering a wide range of styles. Given that cancer is derived from the Greek word for crab, it's only fitting that Guy N Smith has a story in here too. You can buy it here and here and I thoroughly recommend that you do.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Let's Drink to the Dead.

In much the same way as The Sisters of Mercy spawned The Mission and err... Ghost Dance, so Simon Bestwick's novel The Faceless has given rise to this collection of three short stories  set in the town of Kempforth and featuring some of the characters from the book which was my choice as best novel of 2012.
There's a twist in the tales though as they're all set in the eighties, long before the contemporary events described in the novel. It's a ploy that works extremely well, not only establishing the history - the dark history - of the town but adding insight to the characters themselves, describing events that moulded and formed them, adding depth.
This is most effective in the opening story, The Sight, a story that's about as dark as it can get telling of the childhood horrors experienced by Alan and Vera, a tale of abuse and the abused which is unremittingly disturbing. It reminded me a lot of Joe Lansdale's Night They Missed the Horror Show, a story in which a dead dog being tied to the back of a car is the least horrible thing to happen in it. It's the strongest of the three stories and a powerful start to the collection.
The second story Gideon is the least effective of the three, using the trope of Hitch-hiker Given Sanctuary By Creepy Stranger to allow an exposition-heavy account of the history of Ash Fell in the post war years. It covers a lot of ground already explored in the novel but despite this is a nicely constructed, creepy story with some disturbing imagery.
How Briefly Dead Children Dream is the final story, the longest of the three, and tells of a battle between "The Shrike" - a wonderful creation, fusing human and supernatural evil - and two elderly residents of Kempforth over the souls (and bodies...) of two children. It's a thrilling end to the collection and even manages some moments of poignancy amidst the mayhem and horror.
It's not vital to have read The Faceless to appreciate these stories but I would recommend that you should read the novel before delving into them. (I'd recommend it anyway because it's a brilliant book). I'm not sure if they were written prior to, during or after the novel but they're a wonderful companion piece to it.
Disturbing and horrifying, Let's Drink to the Dead is another brilliant piece of writing from Simon Bestwick. Buy it you should, and you can do that here.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Whitstable.

Whitstable, written by Stephen Volk, is the third novella in the Spectral Visions series published by the consistently wonderful Spectral Press. As with the previous novellas, it's a beautifully produced product, the limited edition hardback a real collector's item.
The story is set in 1971 and is a fictionalised account of an episode in the life of Peter Cushing following the death of his beloved wife Helen. It begins with Cushing a broken man, overwhelmed by grief and the writing in these opening pages is so, so powerful, capturing perfectly the conflicting emotions of a man who has lost the love of his life, his raison d'etre,  unwilling - unable even - to move on with his life. It's beautifully written but heart-breaking, made all the more poignant by the fact that this is the description of a man everyone who reads this book knows, or at least knows of. Everyone will have their own impressions of Peter Cushing and it's a fairly safe bet that the majority will hold him in great esteem, a true gentleman who brought gravitas, dignity even to every part he played. Even at a young age I was aware of this, often using it as a counter-argument to my parents whenever they expressed concerns at the type of film I was watching and so obviously enjoying. "But Peter Cushing's in it," I would reply, "he's a proper actor..."
A chance encounter with a young boy on the beach (Carl Drinkwater, a name with resonances to Carl Bridgewater, another young boy with a tragic childhood in the seventies) provides the catalyst to pull the actor from the decline into which he's fallen. Making the assumption that Cushing is in face Van Helsing in real life, the boy asks him to deal with the "vampire"- his mother's new boyfriend - who "visits at night-time" and "takes his blood" - a na├»ve interpretation of events that both Cushing and the reader know refers to something much more disturbing.
At one point, Carl says "I can't move. I'm heavy and I've got no life and I don't want to have life anymore." It's almost a perfect summation of how Peter Cushing is himself feeling - and may be the impetus for his decision to help the boy but Stephen Volk skilfully "hides" the words in the middle of a section of dialogue, subtly adding it in without drawing attention to it. It's a masterful piece of writing.
The narrative of the novella then describes the newly galvanised actor's investigation of, and ultimate confrontation with the boy's tormentor, that confrontation occurring first at a market (where Cushing claims the man's sole) and then in a cinema in a cleverly written dialogue set against descriptions of the film playing on screen, Cushing's own The Vampire Lovers.
Whitstable was a joy to read, it's a perfectly pitched character study and Stephen Volk's admiration for the actor shines out from the pages. The period detail is lovingly created and rendered and references to the actor's body of work are plentiful without being a distraction. At times it's unbearably sad - a reference to the Morecambe and Wise show of all things brought a lump to my throat - but ultimately it's an uplifting experience and a fitting tribute to the great man.
As an actor, Peter Cushing battles countless on-screen monsters. This battle with an all too human monster, and his own personal demons, makes Whitstable an instant classic.