Monday, 16 October 2017

Made for the Dark

Made for the Dark is the new collection from John Llewellyn Probert and is published by Black Shuck Books. There are eighteen stories within the book, all of which act as a marvellous showcase for one of the most distinctive voices in horror today.
Previous collections from John (The Catacombs of Fear, The Faculty of Terror) were presented as portmanteaus – with the stories linked by a bridging device and that concept has been taken a step further with this collection, containing as it does an introduction to each story from the author a la Twilight Zone. It’s a clever technique, pulled off admirably – aided greatly by the front cover picture of the great man himself seated behind a desk, waiting to show you his special somethings…
I’m still waiting to hear from the OED for official recognition but many moons ago I coined the term “proberty” (as defined here) and it’s a word I’m more than happy to apply to this collection which I would be so bold as to describe as quintessential. It’s a difficult art, combining horror and humour and can, in the hands of a less skilled practitioner go horribly wrong but that’s certainly not the case with John’s writing. Much of what he describes is truly awful and I’m sure I’m not alone in imagining – whenever something gruesome and outlandish happens to a character – the author waiting for a reaction, a slight arch to one of his eyebrows and a tilt to his head, “are you really going to laugh at that..?”
Actually, I might be alone in that.
The humour, of course, helps to leaven the impact of the horror but it’s still extremely effective and some of the stories in this collection are worthy of Barker at his best. (By which I mean Clive and Ronnie).
If Made for the Dark is the quintessential JLP collection then I would suggest The Anatomy Lesson is the quintessential story, containing as it does just about everything you might wish to find in a proberty tale, Grand Guignol horror, an element of performance and… doctors. John is of course a doctor himself so it’s no surprise to see that particular profession cropping up in many of the stories in the book, including pulpy crime story The Girl with no Face, Victorian apocalypse Out of Fashion and The Secondary Host – possibly my favourite story in the book. Telling the story in first person necessitates a change from John’s familiar narrative voice and I think that – and the lack of the trademark comedy flourishes - make this an extremely effective chiller with a marvellous premise and mythology to back it up.
The Girl in the Glass also has a doctor as its protagonist but is also a cleverly constructed ghost story (using a very effective image as a reveal) and ghosts also crop up in Six of the Best – a glorious attack on TV ghost-hunter programmes with a nasty twist to it, not to say some very mucky bits.
There’s a touch of cynicism in that tale, a feature of some of the other stories; The Life Inspector and How the Other Half Dies gently rip apart their protagonists’ characters but the harshest treatment is given to charities in It Begins at Home – in which art imitates life – but not in a good way. (Interestingly, the story preceding this, the WW2 set The Death House with its heady mix of Nazis and Lovecraftian horror could be a case of life imitating art). A similar theme to that of It Begins at Home is to be found in The Lucky Ones, a title dripping in irony if ever there was one.
Humour is one of John’s trademarks for sure, but – as he displayed emphatically in his novella Differently There – he’s equally as capable of melancholy and pathos. This is admirably demonstrated in A Life on the Stage – a theatre-set swansong to bring the house down and The Man Who Loved Grief – a fairytale-esque (albeit a rather grim one) meditation on love and – well, grief.
There’s plenty more to enjoy besides these, tales of reincarnation, ancient rituals and the perils of reviewing online. There’s even – much to my delight - a weird western, Blood and Dust complete with an invisible monster a la Forbidden Planet (the film – not the shop) which is the final story in the book. With its fish out of water protagonist English professor John Summerskill, it’s closer in tone to The Sherriff of Fractured Jaw than Unforgiven but I enjoyed it immensely and it’s a fine end to a very impressive collection.
I enjoyed every moment I spent between the covers of Made for the Dark. For those already familiar with John’s writing it will be like settling down for a natter with an old friend (preferably in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of brandy) whilst for those yet to encounter his work it’s the perfect introduction.

Very proberty indeed.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Great British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills

Dark Satanic Mills is the subtitle given to the second volume of Great British Horror published by Black Shuck Books. I reviewed the first volume here with its stories set in rural environments, the location having changed for the second book with a move to the urban sprawl.
First up is Tools of the Trade by Paul Finch, a story which throws more light on the Jack the Ripper story, with a journalist offered the story of a lifetime revealing the true identity of the serial killer following the discovery of new evidence. A little surprisingly, the story isn’t set in London but Tunbridge – the location of Jack’s escape from the capital. It’s a strong start to the collection, thoroughly researched and provides a believable (albeit fictional) identity for Jack.
It’s also quite long. The ending, when it finally arrives, is very effective but it does take a long time to get there and, after all that’s gone before, feels a little rushed. I’d have really liked a little bit more time spent on the final scenes in an abandoned hotel – possibly the best location ever invented for a horror story.
Cate Gardner provides the second tale, Fragments of a Broken Doll, another trademark story in which the real darkness lies beneath the slightly surreal surface. The mysterious Trill lives with Harry in a house which backs onto a prison. An escaped prisoner finds himself in the house in which the true character of Trill is revealed. And it’s not pleasant. For anyone. It’s – as might be expected – an odd little tale that creates an almost palpable tension as the scene plays out. Strange and disturbing.
Andrew Freudenberg’s The Cardiac Ordeal is a high concept piece dealing with moral dilemmas. Shane and Linda’s daughter Emma goes missing – the victim, it turns out of a kidnapping. Things get darker when Shane is approached by the kidnapper and promised his daughter’s return if he agrees to carry out a series of tasks.
I guess the story is about how far a parent would go to protect their child – the tasks Shane must perform involve breaking the law – and escalate in seriousness as the story progresses. The final task, of course, is the most difficult to perform – the hardest test of his love for his daughter. There’s a twist thrown in for good measure but, much like the opening story, I felt the conclusion was a little rushed, that the decisions made were done so a little quickly. That said, it’s an effective ending to a tale very much in the Tales of the Unexpected/Twilight Zone school of storytelling.
The Lies We Tell are the basis for Charlotte Bond’s story. Its protagonist is Cathy, an estate agent with a well-developed selfish streak allied with a sense of self-importance second to none. Not a nice person then, and one who’s parenting skills could do with a little work.
When notes bearing handwritten numbers start getting posted through the letterbox and she starts hearing a strange clicking noise that no-one else can, things start to get a bit weird. To be fair, you’ll probably work out what the strange sounds and notes mean long before Cathy does – but that’s because she’s too self-absorbed to understand anything outside her sphere of existence. But that doesn’t matter, it merely makes the ride towards the story’s dark conclusion (with a hint of a very grim fairy tale about it) all the more enjoyable.
The guest international author for this volume is Angela Slatter who provides the book’s first urban myth story in Our Lady of Wicker Bridge. The myth tells of a pale woman who will approach those who were suffering and offer them a deal. The story is old in present tense, lending it an air of immediacy and revolves around social worker Tricia, taking over the “beat” of her mentor Hermione who has gone missing, leaving behind the burnt out remains of her car.
It’s a deeply atmospheric story that vividly creates the desolation of the housing estate in which most of the action takes place. Throw in a deeply scary little girl and the scene is set for a wonderful modern ghost story which is one of the highlights of the collection.
There’s much gory delight to be had in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Church With Bleeding Windows (the bleeding referring to the red stuff rather than being a mild profanity). It involves a demonic entity doing incredibly nasty things to people and is a rollicking good yarn for the whole of its relatively short running time. The reasons for the monsters actions are actually very clever and the story conjures up some startling images, giving a whole new meaning to the concept of body horror.
Marie O’Regan provides a fairly traditional haunted house story in Sleeping Black – in which Seth and Trudy inherit a house form his Grandmother, the family home of long-established chimney sweeping business. The appearance of small, black handprints herald a series of strange phenomena and ghostly encounters in a tale which provides little in the way of surprises and which treads a pretty well-worn path. It’s well written, and nicely paced but the use of so many familiar tropes render it a little predictable.
Gary Fry begins his contribution with the line: Every city, town or village has one: Station Road. It’s a statement I can verify, given that I live on one myself. The location provides the title for his story, albeit slightly tampered with to give us Satin Road. The removal of the letters features in the tale itself, a schoolboy prank against Dean, ostracised as a weirdo because of his penchant for horror and heavy metal (mind you…), who lives on the aforementioned road in a joke only those who lack the ability to spell could truly appreciate.
The dislike of Dean extends to his headmaster, Mr Rhodes, the only real friend he has being the narrator of the story who has a shared interest in horror. Sympathy for the devil can have its drawbacks though, as our narrator finds to his cost after Dean moves away from the area leaving a series of inexplicable events in his wake.
It’s another thought-provoking piece from Mr Fry, with a degree of ambiguity in the story’s conclusion regarding what has actually happened – and how, and why…
Non Standard Construction by Penny Jones provides the tale of a tenant James in the big city finding cheap accommodation to rent and then discovering the reasons why it was such a bargain. The reason in this case being the term which provides the story’s title, referring to the concrete – rather than brick – used to build them.
Except of course, in this story it means something else too. Building and tenant seem somehow connected in a story where the notion of taking possession is neatly flipped on its head.
Gary McMahon brings us The Night Moves, a story which channels his own experience in martial arts to tell of Miles, who sneaks into an abandoned warehouse to perform a kata – a sequence of martial arts moves designed to show skill and technique. Of course, Miles performs alone, there is no one there to judge him, the ritual is a solitary endeavour. And ritual’s the key word, as revealed in a back story, Miles has learned the kata from the mysterious Hoodoo, a homeless man with a mysterious past. The night moves he performs hold a dark secret – in essence it’s a black kata.
I really enjoyed this story and it’s probably my favourite of the book. There’s some nice references to The Concrete Grove books and in particular the mysterious Loculus with The Night Moves adding to that pre-existing mythology marvellously.
The final story in the collection is /’dƷɅst/ (my nearest approximation to it…) by Carole Johnstone. It’s the second story of Carole’s I’ve read featuring Glaswegian police – the first being Wet Work which appeared in Black Static. Like that story, this one features her trademark use of dialect in her characters’ dialogue. I have to confess, generally this is a pet hate of mine, whatever the dialogue is I’m always put in mind of Dick van Dyke’s uncanny portrayal of a cockney in Mary Poppins, and – as a northerner myself – I’m always frustrated by writers who think we pronounce “u” as “oo”. We don’t. Nobody does. Grumpiness and intolerance aside, I have to say that Carole always does a very good job of it although it does sometimes take you out of the story a little bit when you have to re-read a sentence to work out what’s being said.
Ironically, pronunciation lies at the heart of this story (and is reflected in the title) with a serial killer leaving notes at the scenes of their crimes written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system designed to elucidate the correct pronunciation of words but, tellingly, pretty much requiring a PhD to understand.
It’s a cracking story, and a thrilling end to the book but, if I can return to my aforementioned grumpiness, it’s more of a police procedural thriller than horror.

I enjoyed Dark Satanic Mills a lot, and it’s a strong follow up to Green and Pleasant Land. It’s a wonder as to which of the lyrics of Jerusalem will be chosen for Volume 3 – an anthology of chariot stories perhaps, or will mountains be the subject? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the urban theme was pretty much incidental to most of the stories in here with perhaps only the Johnstone and Slatter stories using the city as a character but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of them. Whatever the theme, I look forward to next year’s release, this really is shaping up to be a great British series of books.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Hasty for the Dark.

Hasty for the Dark is the new collection from Adam Nevill and is the follow up volume to last year’s Some Will Not Sleep which has deservedly just won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Like that book, Hasty… has been published by Adam’s own Ritual Limited and – also like the previous volume – is a beautifully produced hardback, this time featuring illustrations from Adam’s brother Simon, evidence that talent really does run in the family with the pictures perfectly envisioning the dark imagination of the author.
The book features nine stories, written between 2009 and 2015 - the period of time which began with the publication of Apartment 16 and ending with Lost Girl – and it’s a bonus, amongst many of the pleasures to be enjoyed within these pages, to see the subtle references to those works – and the novels which were published between them – in the stories collected here.
The opening story is On All London Underground Lines, which tells of the journey from Hell on the titular transport network. Or possibly the journey through Hell… Told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator, it effectively channels the frustrations and sense of dislocation and powerlessness experienced by many a traveller on the underground system, the feeling of being part of a herd, endlessly being shifted here, there and everywhere at the whim of the Gods of Transportation.
Of course, there are other horrors to be endured, the crowds through which the narrator struggles to find a way through are somehow different, there’s a hint of decay about them, something monstrous. So self-absorbed is our narrator, however, that – although he sees the horrors around him, his own personal needs render the monsters little more than annoying obstructions to his progress, placed there simply to get in his way. The imagery, whilst ignored by the narrator, is startling and a joy to read.
Next up is The Angels of London, which shifts the emphasis from travel in the capital city to life within it – more precisely that in rented accommodation. Tenant Frank comes into conflict with landlord Granby over a rise in rent and faces threats of retribution from the “family” who lease the property. Anyone who has read Adam’s novel No One Gets Out Alive will find echoes of that book’s loathsome landlord Knacker McGuire in the character of Granby who presents himself here as little more than a messenger boy for the “family” – a servant of sorts – conjuring similarities to Renfield, in thrall to a terrifying and monstrous master. Whilst the landlords might be described as blood-suckers with regards their rent demands, it turns out they’re far worse than mere vampires – and those demands go far beyond money…
Always in Our Hearts takes the reader on a very strange journey indeed, with taxi driver Ray hired to carry out a relay of journeys, dropping passengers off and picking up the next fare at the same house. All the passengers carry large bags which seem to contain something living although what this is remains a mystery throughout all the journeys, Ray’s curiosity increasing along with the reader’s as to exactly what all this is about. All is revealed at the final drop-off, neatly resolving the mysteries developed along the way and culminating in a bizarre climax. A strange offering indeed.
I had already read many of the stories in this collection but none so recently as Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) which I’d only just encountered in the New Fears anthology. Scholars of Greek Mythology will have an idea of what this story will be about just from its title and will probably smile at the names Jason and Electra – the protagonists of this tale of a first date going horribly wrong. This tale was written as a homage to Robert Aickman and hits the mark perfectly, presenting a series of strange, unexplained events and ending on a note of ambiguity, leaving the reader unsettled and disturbed. Along the way, it conjures up some deliciously creepy imagery by way of an inspired location – an abandoned zoo in which all of the animals (possibly) have gone.
The Days of Our Lives is one of my favourites in the collection, telling of a marriage made in Hell and featuring some classic Nevill imagery (to say nothing of some nice cross-pollination with his novels). The story borders on the surreal in some of its descriptions of the bizarre relationship between the story’s narrator and wife Lois and goes onto some very dark territory. Whilst the previous story unsettled the reader in a subtle way, the discomfort brought about by this tale is a lot more overt. It’s a genuinely disturbing piece of writing which forms the dark heart of the collection.
Hippocampus is up next and is my favourite story within Hasty for the Dark. I was blown away by it when I first read it in Terror Tales of the Ocean and am no less impressed on revisiting it here. It’s an extremely cleverly constructed story, and one which features no characters. It’s perhaps the literary equivalent of a found footage film, the narrative taking the form of a journey through an abandoned ship, describing what is present in each of the rooms encountered. This is no benign mystery like the Marie Celeste, the evidence uncovered reveals something terrible, and incredibly violent has happened to the crew. The real skill of the narrative is to engage the reader’s imagination, presenting them with the evidence and getting them to work out what has happened. There’s horror aplenty here but perhaps the greatest of them all is that this is not just the description of an aftermath but also a prelude.
Call the Name is the second of the four tribute stories in the collection, this time the author in question being HP Lovecraft. It’s the longest story in the book and is set in the same world as Adam’s novel Lost Girl. The environmental disaster described in that book provides the backdrop to this story and – a la Lovecraft – much scientific evidence is provided to explain just how things got as bad as they did, all impressive stuff, thoroughly researched and presented in a frighteningly believable way. Huge themes of revenge against mankind, the despoilers of the planet feature here and it’s an interesting proposition that it might not be the stars being right that herald the return of the Old Ones so much as the earth being wrong.
White Light, White Heat is the third tribute story, this time channelling the style and tropes of mark Samuels – a writer who, to my shame, I have yet to encounter. I have read Ligotti however, and found much to compare with that particular author in this unremittingly grim take on corporate life, a soul-destroying existence that grinds down its workers until the only possible source of hope is resistance. Interestingly, and possibly significantly, the industry under examination here is publishing.
The final story in the collection is also a tribute with Ramsey Campbell the recipient of the honour in Little Black Lamb. Again, it’s a masterful job of recreating the honoured author’s style and technique, the story injecting a heavy dose of sinister into a domestic setting, with a tale of a couple receiving memories which are not their own, images and thoughts which drive them towards a disturbing, and again deeply unsettling, course of action.
Hasty for the Dark is a superb collection of stories, and a worthy successor to Some Will Not Sleep. In comparison to the earlier book, its horrors are perhaps more subtle, less overt but are no less effective for that. The grotesqueries of that first volume have been replaced by suggestion and more ambiguous terror but the stories here still do a grand job of horrifying the reader.
There are links to Adam’s other books for sure, but also connections between the stories themselves. A recurring image will make sure you never look at a seahorse in the same way again and there are tantalising hints of the mysterious “Movement” which will hopefully bear much fruit in forthcoming works.

This is a stunning book in every regard, a wonderful retrospective of one of the most gifted purveyors of horror fiction currently plying their trade. It’s t be hoped that this yearly ritual of short story releases continues into the future, I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.