Review – “Hell’s Ditch” by Simon Bestwick

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2015 was bang on for apocalyptic fiction – my favourite kind of horror – and this novel from Snowbooks was the last I read. With a pitch-perfect dystopia, plenty of violent action, and a raft of absorbing characters, it was one of my top reads of the year and ensured it finished on a thoughtful and explosive high.

Hell's DitchThe setting of “Hell’s Ditch” is the north of England, 20 years after some kind of holocaust. Civilisation has grown from the ashes but poverty is rife, life expectancy is low, and the country is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. Using a highly trained militia known as the Reapers, they favour public executions for insubordination, genetic experimentation, and use firepower and fear to control.

Naturally, not everyone does as they’re told. There are warrior tribes out in the wastelands who answer to nobody, and also pockets of urban resistance operating in the cities, sick of the Reapers living well as everybody else suffers in a misery of disease and violence. These rebels are grievously short on numbers, weapons and opportunity, but when a presumed-dead heroic figure of the rebellion called Helen Damnation reappears, she brings fresh hope. Especially as she might be able to enlist the help of the hardest man on the planet.

Gevaudan Shoal is a Grendelwolf, and the last of his kind. A huge and modified human being, he was created to be a machine of war with immunity to pain, extraordinary self-healing powers, and an alarming capacity for killing. Helen wants to use both old grudges and morality to entice him from the hermit’s life he’s embraced and help fight the Reapers.

I just fell into this perfectly-paced and very well written book. Only a few pages in, we find Helen Damnation with a young rookie called Danny being pursued through the shanties and grim city streets. This is high-octane writing that Simon Bestwick does so well, and it’s testimony to his subtle skills of characterisation that I invested so immediately.

In fact, it’s the characters that really hold this great story together. From the main players to the bit parts, they’re complicated and realistic with their individual hopes, beefs and baggage. Helen Damnation is deeply damaged after losing her family and being buried in a mass grave, driven by her goals at the expense of rationality. Danny is a cocky but likeable young lad thrown in at the deep end, in possession of both courage yet a sensitive heart. Unlike some of the older characters, he doesn’t mourn for the old world as he knows nothing else. Other resistance characters include Helen’s experienced mentor Darrow, who brings a jaded wisdom, and Alannah, an emotionally-scarred woman who was tortured by the Reapers and for whom Danny begins to develop feelings.

But the real jewel in the resistance’s crown – and indeed the whole book, for me – is Gevaudan Shoal. Living alone in a derelict district named Deadsbury, the only survivor of his synthetic species is a glorious character. He’s seen pure hell and slaughtered countless people because of what he is, but he has principles, a nobility and stoical dignity. Hilariously droll at times, he’s also fond of manners that seem quaint in such a gritty world and is capable of touching humanity. It’s impossible not to root for him, and his character also paves the way for some satisfying righteous violence when he tunes into “the fury”. This resembles the rampage setting on a video game in which his already devastating killing powers are cranked up to nitro-boost levels. What I also love about Shoal is that despite having the most reasons to be insane, he’s actually one of more level headed and pragmatic of the bunch. Brilliant.

But it’s not all one sided, and we get to know the enemies of the resistance too. We follow Mordake, a chain-smoking scientist who works for the Reapers to create some kind of techno-paranormal super weapon. Named Project Tindalos and shrouded in ominous, Lovecraftian mystery, it’s linked to “ghostlighting” – a phenomenon in which people are visited by members of their dead friends or family. A stressed and desperate man, Mordake’s cosmic experiment is driven by the desire to bring his wife back from the dead, rather than any actual financial reward or allegiance to the Reapers. He’s an intense character who plays with our sympathies, keeps us on our toes, and is also the canvas for a scene of memorably macabre horror.

We also meet Jarrett, a brutal and dedicated Reaper officer determined to bring her nemesis, Helen Damnation, to justice. This is partly due to the threat that Helen and her comrades pose, but Jarrett is also fearful of the repercussions from her boss if she fails. Yes, it wouldn’t be a proper ruling militia without somebody chilling at the helm, and this role is more than filled by Commander Tereus Winterborn.

“His face was smooth and pale, with a red Cupid’s-bow mouth. On another man, it would’ve been called effeminate; on a girl, beautiful. On Winterborn it was neither.”

He’ll stop at nothing for absolute power and Project Tindalos might be his chance to achieve it. I’m not going to say anything else about the man who never blinks, because you’ll have more fun meeting him and his bottled fury yourself. I’ll just leave with you this.

“Winterborn sounded amused, even flirty. He was, Mordake knew, never more dangerous.”

As a reader, we fall on the side of the resistance, but it’s not a simple matter of good versus evil. Everybody’s flawed and afraid of something, and there are moments when sympathies wander and boundaries blur, touching on the importance of perspective, guilt and obedience in any war.

As tensions between the factions escalate and the threat of Project Tindalos gathers steam, the second half of the book takes us on a breathless subterranean adventure. There are some savage and immersive battle scenes as it throws the wastelanders, rebels, Reapers and other surprise elements I won’t spoil into the mix together. We see loyalties and feelings torn, and plenty of adrenaline. In fact, one particularly taut pursuit and fight made me shudder in relief when it was over. The showdown of the novel itself certainly delivers as the whole thing explodes into an epic sf/monster horror, but it never loses its maturity and message.

I applaud Simon’s vision. It’s a menacing and bleak world, made tangible by flourishes and attention to detail. For example, regional language has evolved convincingly through the circumstances of the apocalypse, and the use of old weaponry and cobbled-together technology gives it all a pleasing cyberpunk garnish.

I enjoyed watching the characters evolve, particularly Danny, and we cheer him every step of his journey. Gevaudan Shoal brings fragility despite his immense powers, and point of view is used to great effect in dialogue. Don’t get too comfortable, however, because there are poignant deaths and some incredible sacrifices to be made.

But despite all the heartbreak and bloodshed, there is always hope in both the spirit of the resistance and in people’s capacity to care. The elements of love, humour and friendship make us believe that some things are worth fighting for. And in this book, those fights are exhilarating.

“Hell’s Ditch” is the first in a series called “The Black Road”. It stands alone as a novel, so don’t worry that it might only be a chapter without any resolution: you don’t need to invest in the series. But I bloody well am, and I think you will too. And if you should desire a cliffhanger, there’s the prologue for Book 2 at the end which is a teaser of the best kind.

I highly recommend Simon Bestwick’s energetic, hellish vision of the future. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion with tangible folk, rumbles galore, and is very easy to invest. Like Adam Nevill’s apocalyptic “Lost Girl” released a few months ago, it can be read as a gruesome thriller but also enjoyed for its thoughtful layers and complex moral core, and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Review – “Lost Girl” by Adam Nevill

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With last year’s magnificent “No One Gets Out Alive” still a raw wound in my brain, I couldn’t wait to read Adam Nevill’s latest from Pan. My anticipation was also stoked by the semi-apocalyptic setting – a personal favourite – and I found that the author has thrown everything into this violent, dystopian journey of love and obsession.

Lost Girl by Adam NevillThe world is frying on the brink of an environmental catastrophe that’s been building for years. Starvation and militia violence consumes the third world, and here in the UK, organised crime has flourished as the death toll spirals beneath soaring temperatures. People are forced to grow their own food, public services are stretched to breaking and on top of this, the country reels beneath an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Amid all this, we meet “the father” – only ever referred to by this title – whose young daughter was snatched from his garden two years ago. It’s a scene replayed on a crushing loop in his head, and the story finds him stalking the sweltering streets to gather information from paedophiles who’ve slipped through the net due to cuts in social services.

He’s helped by an anonymous telephone contact whom he assumes is some kind of frustrated child welfare officer, and his nocturnal strikes become increasingly challenging. This singular vocation in life is breaking the father’s mind, of which he’s aware, but he owes it to his daughter to never stop searching.

Despite his bitter rage and what he is forced to do, the father doesn’t initially consider himself a killer or a bad man, but his search soon leads him to clash with “King Death”. This is an enormous network of chaos-worshipping gangsters who have their fingers in everything including street crime, politics, and of course, human trafficking. They thrive on drugs, corruption, the infiltration of governments and police forces, and possess a fondness for rusty-machete beheadings.

King Death is a genuinely terrifying presence in the book. You truly get that it’s impossible to hide from them, and what awaits can only be the stuff of nightmares and snuff movies. And as they worship death, it also makes it difficult for the father to gather information. Tell a King Death child abductor that you’ll shoot him in the face if he doesn’t spill his guts, and he’ll smile, spout some morbid spirituality, and then cajole you into pulling the trigger. More extreme measures are required to crack these nuts, which is a real test of the father’s limits.

Indeed, one of the triumphs of this book is that as the father is drawn deeper into this hellish world, we wonder how far will he go. If killing becomes the norm, he risks losing not only the shreds of humanity holding him together, but also the few others he holds dear. Messing with King Death means torture and execution for him, but also for anybody else on his radar. This includes his similarly devastated wife, who stays at home during his lengthy missions, and his benevolent faceless contacts. We know he means to do whatever it takes to find his daughter, but will he, can he do it, or will compassion or hesitation be his downfall?

The father is a solid lead, and much of the enjoyment comes from watching him evolve. He’s relentlessly serious from the off, naturally, and leads a joyless existence in which he harbours guilt over his daughter’s abduction. At the time, he was busy sending an inappropriate email to a female colleague rather than watching his child play in the garden, but he regrets and acknowledges his flaws and the consequences. I like his hesitation and reflection, and his humanity, which is one of few beacons of hope that stop this whole reading experience from becoming too bleak. The recollections of his daughter’s abduction are shattering to read, which helps ensure our investment despite his slowly capsizing psyche. And while he may be becoming unstitched, which is perfectly understandable, will he become a monster himself?

“I will reduce them to ash.” The last sentence seemed to emerge from a recently discovered pit inside himself, and it was as if his conscious mind could not catch such utterances from this pit before they left his mouth.

Superb stuff, and it’s paragraphs like this that make us forget it’s just a very ordinary bloke saying and doing all of this, or certainly someone who was normal – and just one of us – a couple of years ago.

I love the world Adam Nevill has created for this ugliest of quests. The state of the country actually helps the father, and his early vigilante-esque encounters are barely investigated by the strained authorities. The heat and fear also conspire to keep people indoors and loathe to intervene. It’s a convincing global meltdown, and I actually think it lightens the tone of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but as the main storyline is so grim, it may have been too harrowing with a standard contemporary setting. It might even have eclipsed the pitch blackness of “No One Gets Out Alive”. The apocalypse dilutes the nastiness with an sf tone that takes all this piled-on horror just far enough away from our own lives so that we can enjoy it. And it’s an outstanding story that deserves to be enjoyed, not just endured.

The pace is punchy with truly breathless moments, and it deftly hops from one important scene to another without any cumbersome bridges or links. For me, it only lagged once during a lengthy religious rant by a King Death acolyte. I got that it was all part of conveying the deranged lore of the cult, and the father’s frustration with it, but I was relieved when that particular drug-addled psychopath finally put a sock in it. Apart from that, I found it a refreshingly seamless read.

Like any abduction tale, “Lost Girl” harbours the question of whether the search will meet success. With a transient population, refugee saturation, kidnapping and trafficking on vast international levels, the needle in a haystack metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover it. Not to mention how to shake off King Death when (or if) the father is done. Surely such an average man shouldn’t get anywhere near his goal? Of course I’m not going to give any clues either way, but I found the finale very satisfying with a few pleasing surprises along the way.

This novel is faultless with regard to writing and evocation, and while Adam Nevill understands the power of explicit violence, he’s also master of the unseen shudder. For example, he cajoles the horror reader’s imagination into creating a snapshot of hell that might be the abducted girl’s existence, leaving us to chill ourselves without giving any actual details. Along with the father’s transformation, this element also shows how quality horror writing doesn’t devalue life, as its decriers would have us believe, but quite the opposite.

I couldn’t put “Lost Girl” down. There’s something for anyone who likes their books to grab them by the lapels, and plenty of layers to keep your subconscious busy. It’s a thriller if you want to take it that way, and also a mirror for our times with the pandemics, global warming and refugee crisis. But deep down, it’s an intense and extraordinary tale of human endeavour with a moral core that never completely loses its sense of hope, no matter how low the lights are turned down.

Hell’s waiting for you. Enjoy.

Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris

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I like novella-length horror, and this release from Spectral Press is a beautifully written tale. That sublime cover is the perfect reflection of what awaits, and as well as shivers, “Albion Fay” provides a very human descent of loss, guilt and desperation.

Albion FayOur narrator is Frank, a middle-aged, single man attending a family funeral. After drifting home in his grief, he peruses a faded photograph album and begins a journey into memories of the past he shared with his parents and twin sister, Angie. Many years ago, something bad happened to Angie on a childhood holiday at an isolated house named Albion Fay. Frank can pinpoint it to the moment she wandered into a network of deep caves behind the creaking building, and whatever happened left her damaged and lost in life.

“Albion Fay” begins with a great sense of intrigue. It snares us with Frank’s grief, and absolutely nails the crippling, spaced-out unreality of funerals before taking us back to his childhood. The non-linear storytelling works well as Frank pieces together how it all went wrong, and kudos to the author for the seamless seguing between past and present without a jot of confusion.

We learn that the caves are regarded with the same kind of nervous fear and reluctance that Dracula castle’s receives from pub locals in Hammer films. Legend has it they are home to the “Fay”: wicked fairies that bite and don’t like it when you look at them. The aura of malevolence emanating from the caves swells as the story progresses, none more so than when Angie is drawn inside, causing a great sense of helplessness on the part of the reader.

Frank is a solid narrator and investable, along with his sister. This makes Angie’s transformation – the breaking of a confident and vivacious child we’ve come to like – both convincing and tragic, especially as she harbours a sinister sense of knowing within her frightened soul. Frank’s parents also play strong roles, and while his mother provides warmth and stability, his father is a bitter and short-tempered bully. He becomes increasingly nasty the more we see, and the author does a sobering job of conveying the consequences of abuse within a family. This brings a palpable reality that bleeds through into the potentially supernatural elements of the book, making both equally intense.

I would actually have liked to learn more about the parents and their own formative journeys. They’re so well realised that their contrasts make me curious as to what drives them, but then I suppose this may have eroded the slick pace of the tale.

“Albion Fay” has a haunting sense of time and place, and although an old house and some caves inhabited by toothsome folklore may not sound desperately original, it just brings a pleasing familiarity. The story itself has plenty of muscle and the setting also provides a canvas for the pervading sense of Britishness. This is summed up in Adam Nevill’s excellent and thorough introduction, although I was glad that I saved reading this until the end.

And what an end that was, bringing a few sharp shocks before the curtain elegantly falls. We see humanity at both its most tender and acrid – but always utterly fragile – and as much heartbreak is born from the domestic exploits of Frank’s family as from the lurking Fay. The author deftly tackles loss in all its forms, combining the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood with chills and incredible style. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones

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I got the impression that this new horror novella from Dark Minds Press was a tribute to the shock cinema and pulp novels of the 1970s and 1980s. I wondered if it would be a re-tread of that era – warts and all – or a contemporary update, and it’s actually a bit of both. Lurking beneath that splendid cover is an exciting story that squeezes out the lesser elements of its source inspiration, and concentrates on the ride.

Slaughter BeachThe story is appropriately simple and familiar. It’s the late 1970s-ish in a non-specific tropical harbour town where we meet Don Curtis: a jaded Vietnam veteran who scrapes together a living with his boat. But Don’s humdrum life changes one day when his boat is chartered by a glamour photographer, Marshall, to take him and his entourage to a remote island for a photoshoot and an excuse for a party. But guess what? The island is already home to a blood-thirsty killer, so it’s not long before gouts of arterial spray and severed heads are ruining the postcard scenery.

While a pseudo-homage requires the cast to be of a certain expected stock, the characters here are 3-dimensional enough to avoid being dull. Don Curtis steps us as the tough, investable hero who can play the killer at his own game, and Marshall assumes the role of coke-snorting rich bellend. The assorted assistants, glamour models and local crew hired for the trip provide plenty of knife fodder for our murderer, but one cliché they don’t observe is the bad dialogue of the old-school shocker. The plentiful conversation is natural rather than absurd which keeps both the story and our interest alive.

This is what I like about “Slaughter Beach”. Given the very nature of its inspiration, there’s little originality, but the author has tweaked it for the contemporary reader. As well as the polished lines, he opts for intelligent and resourceful female characters instead of squealing damsels in distress. In fact, Tammy – the photographer’s personal assistant and potential love interest for Curtis – always looks like being one of the few characters who might make it through by her own steel. While the author sprinkles in pleasing grindhouse tropes, these cause a fond smile rather than a groan and I didn’t experience a single “Oh, please…” moment. It’s a fine line, but Benedict J Jones has gauged it well and also ensured his tweaks don’t kill the gorgeous retro vibe.

For a novella-length thriller, “Slaughter Beach” pretty much ticks all the boxes. It’s well written and the atmosphere of isolation is bang on from the sticky heat of day to the unnerving shadows of night. Once it gathers momentum, the story is a blast as the rapidly-depleting group are hunted down and exterminated in graphic and grisly ways. The menacing aura of the hunt is relentless, death often catching you unaware, and although some of the characters are rather likeable, that doesn’t stop their brutal executions from being enormously macabre fun.

As the story peaks, there are a couple of surprises in wait and I really enjoyed the finale. It wasn’t expected, and rounds off the tale on a suitably gruesome and impending note.

“Slaughter Beach” is the first novella from Dark Minds Press and I hope there are plenty more to follow. This gripping but subtly modernised nod to the lurid, bloody fun of the 70s and 80s is a fine way to spend a couple of hours.

Review – “The Silence” by Tim Lebbon

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“In the darkness of a vast cave system, cut off from the world for millennia, blind creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, there are voices, and they feed… Swarming from their prison, they multiply and thrive. To scream, even to whisper, is to summon death.

Deaf for many years, Ally knows how to live in silence. Now, it is her family’s only chance of survival. To leave their home, to shun others, to find a remote haven where they can sit out the plague. But will it ever end? And what kind of world will be left?”

The Silence - Tim LebbonAs a general fan of the world ending in some spectacularly macabre fashion, this blurb really piqued my interest. Tim Lebbon is a proven scribe for horror thrillers, and I discovered that “The Silence” manages to avoid re-treading beaten apocalyptic paths to present a tight and exciting read.

Here, armageddon is born from a network of ancient Moldovan caves. An undiscovered species is accidentally unleashed – a carnivorous swarm of bat-like horrors named “vesps” – which multiply with insectile efficiency and spread through Eastern Europe, leaving carnage in their wake.

The main characters are Ally, a sensible 14-year-old deaf girl, and her father Huw. They live a normal existence in Monmouthshire, England, with the rest of their family and it’s through them that we follow the plague. Being interested in science, the initial televised event catches Ally’s eye, but the tone soon shifts from excited anticipation to terror.

I love the pre-apocalypse sections of novels such as this – the good old rollercoaster chain-lift – and Tim Lebbon has created a delightfully ominous climb. The atmosphere of impending doom is superb, beginning as minor news to the English media, far overseas and surely nothing to worry about. But Ally is perturbed right from the start and her father also displays an intuitive acknowledgement of the threat. As readers, we already know hell is en route. So when Huw, away on business, drops everything and heads back to his family, it puts him firmly in our camp.

There are some chilling moments just before chaos descends, such as one memorable scene in which Huw stops at a service station whilst travelling home. A stark contrast is drawn between the bustling commuters and bickering families going about their evening, and those who have realised just how serious this problem is. They stare at their smartphones, stricken in realisation that these faraway, unbelievable events are rapidly hitting closer to home. It’s beautifully written and cinematic, subtly perched right on that awful cusp of normality and catastrophe.

Even as the panic escalates, there are still those who don’t quite understand – or refuse to acknowledge – what’s coming, such as opportunistic shopkeepers who triple their prices as people stockpile. The story nods to our greed and instinct for selfish survival – both commercial and violent – but tinges this with sadness. I like it that the author neither excuses nor condemns the varying reactions born of fear.

People soon realise that because they evolved underground, vesps are blind, so they only way to survive is complete silence. With them coming inexorably closer, Ally and family abandon their heavily-populated town and embark towards an old holiday home in rural Scotland. This build-up comprises a healthy portion of the book, and while some might be impatient for the “kick-off”, I found the menace so expertly cranked that it didn’t outstay its welcome for a moment. When the vesps do finally arrive in a blaze of leathery wings and teeth, the novel also delivers on its promise of horror and exhilaration.

Ally’s brother, mum and gran provide solid supporting roles, as does her pet dog, but the focus is on father and daughter. Huw is a flawed and stubborn chap, but a good dad and a strong believer in the sanctity of life. Ally is a likeable kid: pragmatic and perceptive for her age. She’s an astute observer of human expressions and intent, partly due to her condition, and well equipped for a silent world.

The family have an advantage by being able to use sign language, but this is unfortunately something that makes Ally a valuable asset to certain people. Yes, it’s not just the vesps that we need to worry about and at times, they become secondary to the criminal and unhinged elements drifting through the apocalypse. I like the way the characters evolve, learning to live in the vesp-infested world so that it almost becomes normal, and then moving on to worrying about other things.

There are plenty of moving moments and horrific sacrifices to be made, but the gore is not excessive. It’s a strong emotional core that holds the book together and although a thriller to some degree, it’s not of the white-knuckle variety and focuses more on humanity.

Silence is a great, simple hook for survival. The government announcement that “pets must be silenced” – a nice euphemism for killed – gave me a chill, and this also affects people’s willingness to help strangers. What if they don’t keep quiet, or can’t due to injury or distress? What would you do with a screaming baby as the vesps closed in?

Less usual for an apocalyptic tale, social media becomes the chief means of communication for much of the book. I liked this contemporary element, and the author doesn’t miss a trick. As Ally is very tech-savvy, she becomes the information gatherer for her family, and the internet is an essential but grim place. As well as advice and survival tips, it’s awash with cell-phone clips of burning cities, tweets by people trapped and slowly dying in vesp-smothered cars, youtube suicides…

As time progresses, the world starts falling to the Grey: the time when power and communications wink out. This compounds the isolation of survivors, and there’s a brutal sense of finality about the power going off. It’s never coming back on. The digital world that filled our lives is dead. Adapt or die.

Overall, I had a great time with “The Silence” and it’s one of those novels that doesn’t let go between reading sessions. I had to nip to the local shop in the dark, and was conscious of rustling shadows, not to mention the excessive noise of my own footsteps. I did manage not to shush anybody though.

The story never gets bleak – there’s always hope – and it maintains pace without falling back on easy clichés. Throw in a splendid accumulation of peril, monsters both bestial and human, and this is a must for any connoisseur of the apocalypse.

Recommended.

Review – “Darkest Minds” edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson

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The third in a solid anthology series from Dark Minds Press, this book presents a dozen horror tales, eleven of which have not been published before. This time the theme is crossing a border, either literal or figurative, and the authors have provided some great riffs on the concept. Our protagonists struggle with mental and physical transitions, find themselves uprooted regarding location or tackling paranormal experience, and even cross time itself. In addition to the theme, I found that all the stories are thick with an askew atmosphere of darkness waiting to pounce, and this provides an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

darkest mindsThe fun starts with “Vacation” by Glen Krisch, the only reprint of the anthology. It’s narrated by Mr Callahan, a financial big hitter out of sync with life, who hands over a fortune to a strange facility for some kind of vacation. This is built up in a shroud of mystery, beginning with his immersion in a warm, gelatinous pool sunk into a lightless chamber, and I loved Mr Callahan’s reflective train of thought as his “journey” commences. The wild concept perfectly suits the theme, at one point nimbly changing from past to present tense with great effect. The conclusion rounds it off nicely and it’s one of those tales with a pleasing penny-drop moment that puts a smile on your face.

Much more grounded in bleak reality is “Refugees” by Robert Mammone. We find Grace, a woman who works at a refugee detention centre in Australia, dealing with the application of a Pakistani woman and her grandfather. The impeccable social realism soon gives way to creeps as we realise that something’s askew and some kind of dark magic is at play. A couple of things left me slightly confused, but this is an evocative, human tale that keeps the reader guessing.

Beginning in a grey, rain-lashed flat, “The Great Divide” by Clayton Stealback is told by Edd, a lone man left adrift after his wife has left him. A short mood piece with a twist, it’s a tight and emotional ride with a chilling conclusion.

Next up is one of the finest short stories I’ve read this year. In “The 18” by Ralph Robert Moore we are introduced to Nate, a gentleman who loses his wife Holly of many years. Having lived and worked together for so long, he is crushed by grief and tempers this with alcohol and alienating himself from life. But then he starts to glimpse Holly in different places – on television, around the neighbourhood – and although his rationality tries to explain it away, he can’t shake the feeling that something deeper is going on.

Nate is completely investable in his grief and we’re treated to plenty of truly touching moments. Not a single word is wasted in this story and I was wrapped around the author’s finger by page two. The eventual explanation for Holly’s repeated sightings is both brilliant and brave, and the finale beautifully rounds off this triumph of concept and heart.

“Time Waits” by Mark West is a slick, Twilight Zone-esque short in which Martyn – an ordinary married man going about his day – realises that time always seems short, sparse, and increasingly so. On his way to work, his perception of time and space really starts misfiring and it’s to the author’s credit that I got an eerie Langoliers vibe from the rewritten time-rules and the atmosphere of unspoken but impending doom.

In “The Catalyst” by Gary Fry we meet Emma, an ageing lady who lives with her chain-smoking grump of a husband. One day while digging in the garden of their new home, she finds a buried tin that turns out to be the grave of a pet mouse and although she’s spooked, the discovery prompts a change in outlook. With strong characters and place, this sobering tale crosses the thematic border with a bang.

Particularly memorable for its voice and storytelling is “Under Occupation” by Tom Johnstone. It’s narrated by Kev: one of two council workers retrieving the corpse of a desperate widow who committed suicide. But the boundaries between the two men’s personal and professional lives soon blur, especially as Kev’s guilt-troubled colleague had once goaded the deceased when previously meeting her as a bailiff. One particular element of this story baffled me towards the end, but it has humanity, a thorough social conscience and a convincing slippery slope feel as the anxiety ferments.

Benedict J. Jones presents one of his trademark dark Westerns in “Going South to Meet the Devil”. A modern day tale, we meet Whitey and Ignacio, two cowboys who venture out to hunt down a pack of wild dogs that have slaughtered some steers. They trail the pack into a canyon with grisly results, and plenty of great dialogue cements a tense read.

“When I wake I remember that I used to be. Someone.”

Thus begins “Bothersome” by Andrew Hook, a very immersive experience that initially seems rather surreal as we try to work out the whos, whys and wherefores. But the dreamlike confusion is actually a very concrete perspective and things fall cleverly into place as old memories jostle and collide. I know this is somewhat vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything and you should read it blind as I did. This is multi-layered writing that requires concentration and perhaps patience, but savour the reading and your time will be rewarded.

Another visit to Twilight Zone territory occurs in “The Sea in Darkness Calls” by David Surface. Here we find divorcee Jack, spending time at his brother’s seaside home and remembering the happier times he had there with his kids. Things quickly get strange when he notices a window across the road through which he can somehow see the ocean, even at night. An emotional tale, I like the way it fills in back story whilst simultaneously adding more mystery. There’s a great tone of displacement and the slow burning unease doesn’t relent until the powerful finale.

“Walking the Borderlines” by Tracy Fahey begins with a woman recalling a trip to Paris as a youth. Here she met a fellow “borderliner” –  those who can see and hear the paranormal – with whom she also shares a general interest in the darker, spiritual side of life. They end up in a haunted flat together, and the result is a spooky but modern piece, well placed between the more intense stories either side.

The final story – another of my favourites – is the longest in the anthology so stick the kettle on and settle in because you’re in for a treat. Stephen Bacon never fails to impress me and with “It Came from the Ground” he manages it with the opening line.

“We’d been in Rwanda for only a few days when we saw the child with the machete.”

This is a splendid teaser, and what follows doesn’t let it down. The story is narrated by a Pulitzer-dreaming photographer named Jason, recalling the story of his travels to militia-torn Rwanda. Accompanied by his partner, another colleague and a local guide, he was looking to snatch some shots of the aforementioned child, said to be a terrible warlord despite only being 12 years old. But while staying overnight at a convent before trekking to the warlord’s rural compound, talk of devilry, jinns, and superstition abounds.

The author keeps you wondering as to where the menace is going to manifest. There are many possibilities – his own group with its relationship troubles, the warlord child, or perhaps it is something else malevolent out there in the unfamiliar and dangerous African countryside. The account is perfectly paced – definitely the “page-turner” of the anthology – and boasts an immense sense of place and an appropriate sense of grim reality.

Although there are stark moments of fear and ghastly action, it’s the subtle touches that really notched it up for me. Sometimes a simple and deftly timed paragraph delivers an ominous chill, catching the reader with their guard down. One example is this line, which suddenly cranks the threat after Jason has posed for a casual group photograph at the convent:

“Just last week I was looking at the photo in my apartment, realising that it captured the final time we were all together before death swept in.”

We know it’s coming, and soon, but what is it? The author whisked me through Jason’s grim, exciting journey with some superb turns of phrase towards a monstrous showdown that I never saw coming, and it concludes the anthology on a very satisfying note.

I enjoyed Darker Minds. Ross Warren and Anthony Watson have created a colourful anthology, rich with imagination, and all the stories presented are well written. The numerous 1st person tales work well, testimony to the editors’ ability to spot an accomplished voice, and there’s plenty of social commentary and conscience to bring depth to the thrills and chills.

If you’re familiar with the contributors – a fine array of indie horror writers – then you’ll know what to expect. If not, this is a sound opportunity to add some new genre talents to your list.

Review – Black Static #47

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I rarely review magazines/journals at the Hellforge but this fine UK publication from TTA Press is so consistently solid that it deserves a trumpet. If you’re not familiar, the digest-sized mixture of articles, interviews, art, new short fiction and genre reviews will please the horror fan who likes things fresh and off the beaten path. Rather than formulaic creeps, Black Static favours scares of the shadowy and intangible, boasting a level of writing that is always superb throughout.

Black StaticIssue 47 kicks off with two thoughtful and eloquent commentaries. “Coffinmaker’s Blues” by Stephen Volk discusses Hitchcock’s Frenzy and its cultural and historical context with regard to London serial killers. “Notes from the Borderland” by Lynda E. Rucker ponders fear in horror entertainment. She discusses that fear-fans often fall into two camps: those who demand to be jolted out of their seats, and those who regard this as less important to a destabilising, unsettling chill. While immediately less shocking, the latter lasts much longer, and is the essence of what Black Static is all about.

Next up is the fiction, commencing with a spooky road trip in “On the Road with the American Dead” by James Van Pelt. We meet Jeremy – a travelling photocopier salesman – who spends a lot of time alone on the dusty Kansas highway. But just as he is relaxing into this particular journey, he’s blindsided by the sudden appearance of a girl beside him in his car. After the shock, he converses with her and realises she appears to be a ghost from the past, and certainly isn’t his last encounter of the journey. This reflective opener is extremely evocative – I was right there in the car with Jeremy from the first paragraph – and combines moments of dry humour along with the melancholy vibe to great effect.

“All The Day You’ll Have Good Luck” by Kate Jonez takes us to Oklahoma to meet a schoolgirl who – along with her mother and sisters – work together as thieves. But during a tried and tested pick-pocketing at a local carnival, a familiar face from a previous scam causes things to unravel. Told in the 1st person, our young narrator talks of family life, boys and normal worries, which seats us in her corner despite her unusual and unsavoury designation in life. Presenting a muscular voice, this tale is rich in place and full of dark surprises.

I loved the wonderfully titled “Razorshins” by John Connolly. The narrator tells the story of his grandfather, Tendell, a hard man who worked the illegal liquor trade in Prohibition-era Maine. After he is under suspicion of theft from his boss, an ice cold assassin is sent along on a snowy cross-country delivery to keep a sinister eye on the proceedings. They end up being forced to take refuge in a rural farmhouse to escape the freezing weather, and here begins talk of Razorshins: a bootlegger’s myth involving a terrible creature that lurks in the woods and has to be appeased with offerings of booze. The story initially keeps us guessing as to whether it is merely folklore or an actual supernatural threat, and the narrator’s voice rolls off the page. The characters are frighteningly realistic and as the story progresses, there’s a shift from crime thriller to horror. A riveting tale, it genuinely made me shiver at one point with an exquisite paragraph that could have been straight out of M.R. James: a rare occurrence for which I have to pay special respect to the author.

“A monster lived in Cocoa’s bathroom.”

Thus begins “The Devil’s Hands” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Cocoa lives a Bohemian existence with a flatmate she dislikes, and this story finds her on her 24th birthday, going about her day and visiting her hippyish parents. She has unresolved relationship and life issues, and of course the possibility of a monster in her flat. Beautifully off-kilter, this gently-paced piece wanders effortlessly from warmth to chills and proves to be as engaging on a human level as the previous stories.

Things take a darker turn for “When the Devil’s Driving” by the excellent Ray Cluley. Lucy, a misanthropic teen, likes to spend time alone at a stagnant pond named the Devil’s Basin and is more than a little disgruntled when a younger girl turns up and starts trying to hang out with her. Although starting out harmlessly with the vibe of a disaffected kid, coming-of-age type story, it suddenly brings a brutal clout of pure darkness. It’s a mysterious and strangely malevolent piece with a powerful emotional resonance and another that bothers your conscience long after the event. This is exactly the kind of slow-burning unease that Lynda E. Rucker spoke of in her comment and the kind that Black Static‘s editor Andy Cox is so good at finding.

“Yesterday, I saw Jamie Goodwin burst into flame.”

Best opening line of the issue goes to “A Case Study in Natural Selection” by Eric J Guignard. I love a good speculative, semi-apocalyptic story and this is a fine example. Here, runaway global warming has escalated to the point where not only is water difficult to find but people are “fireballing”: a spectacular form of spontaneous human combustion. We follow a small and generally pleasant community in California through the eyes of Kenny, a regular lad with girls, friendships and the future on his mind. But as most people have migrated north looking for cooler, damper climates, his thoughts turn to survival. A haunting take on a collapsing world, it still manages to be a refreshing and somehow uplifting tale despite the inevitable violence. I loved the ending, which brings the curtain down on the fiction section of this issue with an appropriate flourish.

The “Case Notes” review section by Peter Tennant rounds up the fiction of contributor Ray Cluley, and follows this with a revealing author interview regarding his craft. There’s also thoughtful reviews of the Terror Tales series by Gray Friar Press and a stack of other interesting horror releases. Finally, “Blood Spectrum” by Tony Lee tackles a raft of DVD/Blu Ray releases with his crisp and honest style.

Overall, Black Static has the confident air of a publication that’s found its niche just outside the box, and I love it for that. I read this issue a few weeks ago and the abrasions the stories caused in my head have yet to heal. The sumptuous artwork and slick layout mean it’s always a treat: a magazine for which to put aside a couple of hours, run a bath, have a drink, or whatever’s your down-time garnish. So if you wish to trouble yourself with askew horrors and flawed humanity of all kinds, visit the website here.

Some magazines are polished. Black Static is brushed with steel.