Review – “Drive” by Mark West

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I’ve been enjoying Mark West’s fiction for several years now, and his brand of atmospheric, uneasy horror always has me coming back for more. He is one of those authors that brings such investable humanity and resonance to his fiction that genre is rendered almost irrelevant. I was therefore delighted to discover that with this new novella from Pendragon Press, he wanders outside his usual discomfort zone into white-knuckle territory, but still manages to deliver his most terrifying piece to date.

DriveDavid Moore is a finance manager, away from his wife and home on a work-related course. Attempting to assuage the lonely boredom of an evening in the hotel, he grudgingly attends a house party held by a local course-mate. Here he meets Nat, a friendly divorcee, and as the night grows late, he offers her a lift home. But a black Audi full of drug-fuelled hoodies is terrorising the local population, and when David and Nat become their target on the lamp-lit, unfamiliar streets, things are all set for a breath-taking game of cat and mouse.

David is the perfect lead character for this story. It needed an unlikely hero, and as he is sensible, pleasant and tends towards gentlemanliness, we instantly invest. The same goes for Nat, who brings fire and intelligence to her classic role as “damsel in distress”. David’s courage is also amplified by his understandable fear and initial hesitation to act, so by the time the story has really got into gear, I was firmly in their corner.

In true Mark West style, he initially engages the reader through deft evocation of normal scenarios with which we can identify, then injects teasers of menace to draw us further in. And in this story, the menace is immense. The men in the black Audi are thoroughly nasty and dangerous, indiscriminate with their sadistic cruelty, and this threat is cranked up page by page. A particularly pleasing device is that their arrival is always heralded by pounding bass music from the car – the familiar epitome of anti-social aggression – which is used to great effect. It conjures an ominous and cinematic dread in the same way clanking chains precede the arrival of the cenobites in the Hellraiser films, or the slow, ground-shaking footfalls of an approaching T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

“Drive” is a simple chase story with a classic set-up. But it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts through superb writing and – once it kicks off – an adrenaline-soaked pace that doesn’t take its foot off the pedal for a second. The tension and fear are so palpable that there is nothing to take you out of the moment, right up until the intense finale. There are no clues as to how it will all pan out, or as to why David and Nat have been singled out as prey, forcing you to find out for yourself. And I wouldn’t dream of giving anything away.

Another element I loved is that despite the urban sprawl, David and Nat have nowhere to turn. This isn’t the traditional rural or isolated setting for such a tale – they are in the heart of civilisation – but the dark streets, petrol stations, and even the police offer no sanctuary as it becomes a matter of life and death. They are on their own, and this is skilfully achieved without any suspension of disbelief.

The moments of violence are stark and sometimes shocking. And these aren’t “fun” shocks either, like the gleeful scares of ghosts, deranged serial killers or monsters in the closet. This is bitter-tasting street violence of the kind that may well be lurking in an alleyway outside your house with a flick-knife and an erection.

If you can handle the darker stuff, I would recommend “Drive” regardless of your usual genre preference. Just be sure you have no plans for an hour or two, because you aren’t putting this rollercoaster of a novella down for anything. Except perhaps the arrival of a black Audi with pounding bass…

Highly recommended.

Review – “Deep Like The River” by Tim Waggoner

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My previous experience of reading Tim Waggoner was the slick hardboiled-horror series “Nekropolis”. This new novella from Dark Regions Press couldn’t be more different, showing that in addition to wise-cracking action, this author can deliver an intense and wrenching allegory in true style.

Deep Like The RiverIt’s a beautiful day on the Little Clearwater river as we meet Alie and her sister, Carin, on a canoe trip through the tranquil, American countryside. As well as a day out for the two sisters to relax and catch up, it’s also an opportunity for Alie to deal with a terrible anniversary that involved the loss of her child.

When they find an apparently abandoned baby on a sandbank, Alie is determined to see the defenceless child to safety downstream. But something seems to be lurking in the trees alongside the gentle river, and bitter memories from her past seem to be out to get her.

I became snared by this superbly-written piece from the first page, and this is partly thanks to the rich evocation. I was immediately there in the canoe, soaked in the sights, sounds and warmth of the idling waters.

But it’s Alie that really drives it. This is her story, and we slowly get to know her through seamless dialogue, introspection, and flashbacks of an abusive childhood. These are just as gripping as what’s happening on the river, and Alie brings an incredible sense of humanity: its life-affirming strengths as well the terrible fragilities.  I love how the author fleshes his character out in such an intriguing, slow-burning fashion.

Alie’s experiences – her upbringing and recent grief – have left her damaged and vulnerable, but also full of spirit. I quickly empathised, and a couple of moments made me proud of her. But all this is soon tempered by some genuine chills as the gaps are filled in.

Tim Waggoner has nailed that askew, helpless feeling of when dreams teeter on the brink of nightmare. The canoe is attacked by a water serpent, sections of the shallow river become impossibly deep, and these episodes of fearful unreality crank up the menace. The occasional moments of relief – such as when Alie and Carin bump into a couple of other people basking in inflatable rings on the river – are also soured. Everything feels sinister, and the author cleverly makes us experience this as reader without necessarily requiring the conscious input of our protagonist.

The literal river journey is a mirror of Alie’s subconscious, and her desperation to save the baby is heartbreaking. Carried by the frustrated pain of her grief, I became scared of where it was leading. Not only with regard to what might befall the sisters further down the river, but also the slow reveals of Alie’s past. This is one of those stories that made me want to stop because I was afraid of what I might find out, but was too engrossed to even think about it.

I really enjoyed “Deep Like The River” and won’t forget the experience – the battle of desolation and hope – in a hurry. Tim Waggoner’s voice is beautifully invisible, letting the plot and characters unfold without intrusion. This is as much a thoughtful exploration of guilt, grief and a damaged psyche as it is a rural adventure, and while the finale rounds it off with appropriate flair, it’s the journey that’s important. And what a rewarding one that is.

Recommended.

Snippet of fiction news

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Bete Noire 15My new flash story “Gene Puddle” is now available in the latest issue of Bête Noire Magazine.

A speculative piece, it concerns the subtle but sinister fate of graduates in a world where the state knows more about us than we do.

With its pleasingly creepy cover, issue 15 is available in print and e-book from the publisher, and also Amazon and the like.

Cheers.

Review – “Stuck On You” by Jasper Bark

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“Warning! Do not buy this book, gentle reader” begins the blurb of this novella from Crystal Lake Publishing. It continues in a similar vein, shooing potential buyers away with cautions of plumbed depths but without actually offering any details about the contents. So how could I resist? But whether that purchase was the result of rash curiosity or clever marketing is irrelevent. “Stuck On You” is both the best and the most gleefully unpleasant thing I’ve read this year.

Stuck on youThe tale concerns Ricardo, an American on a trip into Mexico to acquire some cheap artisan crafts for his wife to sell back home. As he’s a bit of a lothario with form for cheating, these trips are as much a test of his fidelity as a business venture. So when he bumps into young Consuela – an alluring drug mule who wants passage across the border – we’re not surprised when he agrees to give her a lift. Ricardo becomes increasingly horny throughout the journey, and while waiting on a deserted country lane for Consuela’s dealer to make contact, he gets the reward he was really after.

And that’s when it goes horribly wrong.

Terrifying-urban-legend meets worst-possible-nightmare wrong.

This is going to be an unusual and restrained review from me. Although that’s the basic set-up of the story, I’m not going to spill any specifics of what happens to Ricardo. This isn’t because of spoilers, as chapter one begins after his nightmare is already underway and has it all laid out within the first few pages. No, I’m holding back because I read it blind with no idea what was coming, and loved it that way. So I’ll just let Jasper Bark tell you what happens instead. Because you are going to read this.

Why? Heady erotica and extreme body-horror collide with a bang, sending us and Ricardo on a horrific downward spiral that gets nastier and… dare I say it… more amusing with every turn of the page. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. And then again. And again.

The helpless descent is structured like a black comedy, and borders on gross-out slapstick at times, but never loses its agonisingly sharp edges. It made me writhe, recoil and smile, sometimes all at the same time, which is probably the most joyfully offensive thing about it. I almost felt dirty for allowing myself to become so charmed.

“Stuck on You” ticks every box with regard to pace, character and evocation. Just leave your concern for all that is good and wholesome at the door. The conclusion is glorious – a chilling suckerpunch that cleverly ties up this gruesome package – and my mouth might actually have fallen open for a moment. Then I exhaled and shook my head slowly as I put the book down, partly sickened by the assault, but mostly in sheer admiration of it.

If you can stomach the hard stuff, then you’ll devour this gripping piece in one sitting. I love it when extreme fiction is so superbly written, and I will definitely be buying Jasper Bark’s collection when it comes out in a month or two.

Never has an author’s evil eye twinkled so bright. Highly recommended.

Stuck on you 2

 

Review – “Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich” by David Agranoff

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I really hoped that this release from Deadite Press would be good.  Punk/skinhead subculture and werewolves are both right up my street, so I was pleased to discover that David Agranoff has written an engrossing homage to both. With characters worth rooting for and plenty of gore, this is as much a coming of age tale as it is a ghastly slab of Nazi horror.

Boot Boys final coverA chilling prologue introduces Klaus Schroeder, SS gruppenfuhrer at Auschwitz. He’s as cold, efficient and dangerously hateful as you would expect, and whilst on the trail of escaped prisoners, he discovers an ancient cult who use the hide of an Egyptian wolf-god to achieve lycanthropy.

We are then transported to Chicago, 1989, to meet Paul: a young mixed-race skinhead new to town. He’s quite a likeable lad, and we’re along for the ride as he settles into his new life, sees his first street fight, and finds both love and brotherhood with the local scene of punks and skins.

Similarly we meet tough guy Sonny, who used to be one of this crowd but has since fallen in with neo-Nazis. He now works at an auto store run by an ex-KKK wizard and although more intelligent than the other thugs in the gang, he finds asserting himself more difficult in such an ultra-aggressive environment. Not to mention them getting a beating, twice, at the hands of new kid Paul and his anti-racist crew.

But our old friend Klaus is also new to the area, fresh from evading Mossad overseas. He’s looking to resurrect Hitler’s Reich by starting an Aryan werewolf army, tuned for hunting and unstoppable savagery. What better place to start recruiting than a store full of white power boot boys out for revenge?

I enjoyed this book. The street menace of the first half is palpable, with one tense scene using a dead-end alleyway to superb effect. I suspect that some of this is semi-autobiographical, which lends credibility to the action. And once the lycanthropy has kicked off, there are scenes of stalking and violence that really get the pulse racing. Some of these characters are dangerous enough as people, but as werewolves?

The protagonists are strong, which is essential in such a character-driven piece. Paul’s coming-of-age rings true, and Sonny brings ambivalence. Despite him being on the wrong side, he has potential, and toys with our loyalties. It also leaves us guessing as to whether the bestial nature of the wolf will be his redemption or downfall.

While the racist slurs used in dialogue are startling, they stamp a chilling authenticity on the neo-Nazis. Overall, the politics and the whys-and-wherefores are tackled intelligently without eroding any of the fun of the story. It is also through this that comes some of the more uplifting moments. When Paul is locked up in a cell with a rival gang member, there’s a deft moment of camaraderie that brings humanity and hope.

There are plenty of shocks and nasty moments, but this is tempered by humour in the comradeship, and also through the narration. For example, the neat throwaway line “They had to eat the Hammer Skins because they wouldn’t calm down” made me laugh out loud.

As I was hoping, “Boot Boys of the Wolf Reich” is rounded off by an exciting showdown of violence and gore. As the first half lets us get to know the crew, this is monstrous carnage we can invest in, and certainly makes the most of the concept with some well-written cinematic flourishes.

A nice touch for the music fans, as well as the in-story references, is that each chapter starts with an appropriate lyric. Some of these are from my favourite Oi! bands, such as The Business and Cock Sparrer, and its great to see a nod to these often-unsung heroes of punk. And it’s also pleasing that there’s a firm differentiation between traditional skinheads and the sieg-heiling supremacists.

David Agranoff is largely an invisible storyteller and pleasingly succinct. He paints a vivid picture, whether in a concentration camp, ska gig or back street, and transports us there through sharp characterisation and drama. And if you’re not familiar with – or dislike – the music, then don’t worry. The subcultural garnish brings only colour and life, and you’ve still got a well-paced story and homicidal Nazi werewolves bent on world domination to entertain you.

Oi! Oi!

Review – “The Black Land” by MJ Wesolowski

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After a few days of June sunshine spent in pub beer gardens, it was a grey and rainy afternoon, so I thought some old-school terror would be the perfect way to while away a couple of hours. This downloaded novella from Blood Bound Books proved to be just the thing with its baleful castle, ghosts in wolfskins and a splendid descent into madness for all those unfortunate enough to be involved.

Black LandWe meet Martin Walker, an American self-made tycoon who owns the exclusive Gateway Resorts. He arrives in North-East England with his wife and two young children in tow, intent on acquiring the remote island of Blamenholme to add to his luxurious list of locations. But the bleak slab of rock is also home to a forbidding and long-abandoned castle that was once garrisoned by invading Norsemen. And it appears that these “Children of Odin” – psychotic wolfskin-wearing warriors high on hallucinogens and bloodlust – are still very much there in spirit.

The tale begins with a brilliant Hammeresque feel as the family visit the storm-lashed rock. I was completely drawn into the malevolent atmosphere as they enter the twisted keep of the castle, a building apparently designed to keep something in as well as out. Not to mention a vast, diabolical trap looming in the shadowed hall that chills the family – and us – right from the start. And that’s before we even know what’s lurking in the castle’s dungeon, about which their English guide Saul is terribly grave but teasingly vague.

They return to a rented mill in the coastal countryside, and things start to go wrong pretty quick. His wife Martha and the kids start to have dark thoughts as nasty ghosts rise from their past, and everything becomes drenched in the same unease that bled from the castle. The rooms plunge cold, things go missing, internal voices start to whisper. Their young son Chad claims to have seen wolves, and pawprints surround the sodden mud around Martha’s car, all of which cements the tone for a genuinely scary ride.

I really enjoyed this novella. The characters are well rounded, filled out deftly with back story as the tale progresses. Although the stubborn, success-driven businessman Martin is not always the most likeable character, we still invest, and soon realise his behaviour – and increasing rage – isn’t entirely in his hands.

While there’s a few familiar tropes, there are some ghastly flourishes of fresh imagination and attention to detail, and I was drawn into world of Blamenholme and the Walker family. I also enjoyed the author’s use of digital technology (such as smart phones) to bridge the gap between the archaic and the contemporary. This particular ancient evil sure can adapt with the times.

What’s also cleverly done is that the family seem trapped, somehow unable to pinpoint and discuss the creepy events with the expected rationality. This creates a slick aura of otherworldliness as the wicked powers do their thing, racheting up the fear.

Ah yes, the fear. What I loved most of all about “The Black Land” is the chills. MJ Wesolowski creates menace through suggestion and a superb malignant presence. This is “bump in the night” horror rather than graphic, and all the better for it. I was startled by the movement of one of our cats in the room, and the rain and wind blowing through the branches of a tree outside my window kept making me glance up uneasily from the page. Creating such edginess on the part of the reader is no mean feat, and is of course the essence of any quality horror story.

I also liked the author’s voice. There is no fixed POV, which is unusual nowadays, but used to good effect here. It gives the whole thing a classical feel and provides sinister narrated observations of which our protagonists are unaware. The prose is also very descriptive – which isn’t usually my thing – and although I found it slightly off-putting at first, I soon settled in. Stick with it, stalwart reader, because this style brings evocation and grim atmosphere by the bucketload.

The conclusion also delivers. The final few chapters tie up all the loose ends, some of which I’d forgotten about, and there are a few surprises as everything descends into nightmare. My anticipation was stoked throughout the first half, and rewarded by a noisy showdown of subterranean, primordial dread.

I will definitely be checking out more of MJ Wesolowski. “The Black Land” is great value for money at 111 pages – available in print and download – so if you fancy a seamless meld of classic and modern horror, give it a whirl. Just don’t read it alone on a rainy night. Actually, do read it like that. Because hey, we’re all a bit tweaked in the head and that’s exactly why we love this kind of thing.

Review – “Home and Hearth” by Angela Slatter

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I hadn’t read any Angela Slatter before this, but I certainly will again. Volume XI in the reliable Spectral Press chapbook series, “Home and Hearth” is one of those short stories that sticks.

H&HWe meet Caroline, a single mother welcoming home her teenaged son Simon. He’s been in custody for the duration of a deeply unpleasant trial, and despite him not facing sentence, Caroline finds it difficult to put the tough times behind them. She wants to want him back and be a good mother, but the ghost of Simon’s actions – and indeed her own – will not be silenced.

Overall, I found this quite a wrenching piece. It’s exquisitely told, with keen attention to detail, especially regarding the sinister awkwardness of Simon’s return to “home and hearth”. The characters are convincing and Caroline’s sense of shame – amplified when forced out in public to buy groceries – also makes us squirm beneath the pity and curious distaste of others. We’re under the microscope with her, but at the same time, aren’t quite sure what dark secrets she might also harbour. These are deftly woven in through back story, and when presented alongside moments of familiar domesticity, it could be happening to any of us.

Caroline’s torn sense of right and wrong carries this tale, along with the sense of innocence lost. Of course any parent wants to protect their child, but what if such maternal instinct may have terrible consequences for others? Caroline has to reconcile loyalty, love, guilt and responsibility as the plot glides effortlessly to a gut-punch conclusion.

Many horror stories conclude with either triumph or a gleeful descent into bleak. But like many of my favourites, this doesn’t fit into either camp. It’s poignant, brutal and concrete – the way it needed to be – and I couldn’t help but be satisfied despite the heartache.

I enjoyed “Home and Hearth” enough to read it twice, and found that it rewarded the extra time with a new experience of grim hindsight. This chapbook certainly does the Spectral brand and chapbook series proud, delivering the kind of quality that makes me renew a subscription without hesitation.