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.

Review – “Probably Monsters” by Ray Cluley

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This new collection from ChiZine Publications promises monsters of all kinds, and certainly delivers. There’s the taloned and grotesque, malevolent ghosts, myths, and of course plenty of the human variety tormented by personal demons. But this imaginative book is not just about the scares. Ray Cluley infuses his writing with a raw humanity that provides melancholy and deeply touching moments, not only balancing out the horror, but enhancing it enormously.

First off, “All Change” introduces Robert, an ageing monster hunter. We find him covertly patrolling a railway station to protect us from the horrors that travel the country disguised as human passengers, but maybe the reality is not quite as simple as that. A slick tale that embraces the genre we love, it gives us a smile before one of the more sobering pieces of the collection.

Probably Monsters Ray CluleyOne of my favourites, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” is the account of a journalist at a poor fishing community in Nicaragua. He hopes to write an article highlighting the dangers of decompression sickness – the bends – faced by hardworking locals who dive for lobsters to earn a crust. Locals who also believe that water demons are to blame. Told in the first person and present tense to great effect, Cluley really showcases his talent for evocation of place, and the characters become people we feel we’ve met. Combining folklore, grief and a powerful narrative voice, this is a frightening but strangely tender story and presents a social conscience that erodes none of its power to enthral.

Snaring us in a very different way, “The Festering” has a fitting title given the way it leaves a dirty taste after reading. We meet Ruby, a schoolgirl who lives with her hard-drinking mother. She has a secret drawer that’s home to a repugnant, shapeless creature to which she confides all her secrets, but the truly ugly element comes from Mr Browning. He’s a predatory teacher who babysits for Ruby when her mother goes to the bingo, and this thread really gets under the skin. Ruby’s point of view is flawless, and the plot combines icky fun with depressing reflections on humanity to keep us guessing until the end.

More bleakness follows in “At Night, When the Demons Come” and as a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction, this quickly became another favourite. Superbly narrated by Charlie, we visit a crumbling world of decay and paranoia where the scavenging survivors live in terror of shark-toothed, winged demons. As these creatures are female, women become the enemy of religious crackpots and misogynists everywhere, and the whole thing presents a fresh angle on the usual gender politics of post-apocalypse fiction. Exciting, thought-provoking and horrible, this is a faultless short horror story.

“Night Fishing” finds Terrence – a San Francisco fisherman – struggling with the loss of his love, Bobby, to suicide. An elegiac and tragic piece in which sexuality plays a strong role, we follow Terrence as he experiences visions and the ghosts of other lost souls beneath the suicide hotspot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The emotion bites deep and this story works in its simplicity.

“Knock-Knock” follows J-J, a young boy who lives with his mother. They’ve recently escaped an abusive relationship, but J-J’s nights are disturbed by an ominous knocking at his bedroom door that suggests the past is on its way back to torment him. Considered and tense, it teases us with the possible presence of the supernatural, and the author creates a convincing point of view for the young lad.

I certainly won’t forget “The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina” in a hurry. A woman who lost her family – and most of her face – in a car crash is reborn through a warped crusade to please the gods of the road by deliberately causing accidents. It has the graphic and visceral impact of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” – the sexual fervour exchanged for a religious kind – and plays deftly with common fears. Ghoulish curiosity drew me right into Rita’s descent and the ensuing voyeuristic guilt makes for an edgy, uncomfortable experience. A polished piece of macabre storytelling.

In “The Man Who Was”, our narrator – an eloquent gentleman who works as an event planner – meets a veteran Gulf War hero and the two embark on a secretive and complicated relationship. Tackling the consequences of war and masculinity, this is another emotive journey with a powerfully distressing reveal.

“Shark! Shark!” brings a complete shift of tone with a humorous whodunit that concerns the filming of a B-movie. It nails all the clichés, delivers plenty of droll dialogue and sports a pleasingly gruesome conclusion, but it’s the narrator’s wry comic voice that really carries it. A refreshing interlude between the heavier tales either side.

A strikingly dark and original story, “Bloodcloth” introduces Tanya, an adolescent who lives with her parents in a poor industrial village of no specific time or place. Their sparse existence also requires that blood sacrifices be made, and the author weaves lore and vampire overtones together with a feminine emphasis. Although I confess to getting a bit lost towards the end, there’s a great sense of otherworldliness and Tanya is a solid lead.

In “The Tilt”, two gay friends – Luke and Nicky – visit the picturesque French town of Carcassonne. It’s rather pleasant at first with a beautifully scribed locale and lots of natural banter between the two characters, but of course ghostly dreams and shenanigans involving the fortified town’s castle aren’t far away. I found this to be as much about history, friendship and sexual identity as anything else and it all falls neatly into place as one.

“Bones of Crow” takes us to a more gritty urban setting. Maggie, a lonely woman with health problems of her own, lives with her disabled father in a city block of flats. One day, she discovers some huge eggs on the roof and spies an enormous, winged creature lurking in the park nearby. Lush with metaphor, this is a fragile and moving piece with an appropriately opaque pay-off.

I particularly enjoyed the unsavoury “Pins and Needles”. James has an anti-social needle fetish, and having anonymously wounded a woman on the bus with a needle planted in the seat, he strikes up conversation and they begin a relationship. Creepy and compelling, this story has a great sense of inevitable doom. It also rocks a lurid punchline that I initially thought lessened the overall aura of darkness, but thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it just deepens it.

“Gator Moon” begins with two rednecks burying a body in a Louisiana cane field. Broaching racism without fear, this short drama is handsomely evoked, and I saw a supernatural element but – as explained in the afterword – it can be taken either way.

“Where the Salmon Run” is another moody location piece. We meet Ana, possibly pregnant and returning home to Kamchatka: a hardy Russian fishing territory where poaching is rife and salmon have worked their way into local religion and myth. This is an achingly human story that lets you decide what’s real or otherwise, and consumes you with the biting cold and rugged environment while you try to make up your mind.

It’s to the Wild West for “Indian Giver”, introducing Grady and Tom drinking liquor on a porch at dusk. Tom tells of his experience helping with the forced relocation of some “injuns” that goes awry and results in murder, and the telling is just as important as the tale itself. Grady’s jaded wisdom, as he listens to Tom’s account, adds a neat frame to the plot as it builds to a spooky finale.

“A Mother’s Blood” is a sharp short about an exhausted mother cracking beneath the trials of parenthood. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be grim or amusing, or perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it works.

This sour vignette segues neatly into the next as we meet Matt – also fed up with the drudgery of life – in “The Travellers Stay”. On the road with his wife and her teenage son, with tempers suitably fraying, they stay at a faded boondock motel that’s infested with roaches. A familiar scenario initially, the domestic unbliss soon becomes an insectoid nightmare in this apparently Kafka inspired and surreal creature-feature.

“No More West” is a weird flash piece concerning a weary cowboy’s encounter on the barren plains. It baffled me completely on first reading, but ladles on the atmosphere and sets us up ready for the finale piece.

Collections tend to save a belter until last, and I think “Beachcombing” qualifies as the crowning glory of this book. It’s a grey, damp morning as we find Tommy, a young boy collecting discarded items on the beach. He has an empathic gift that allows him to feel the past of an object by touch, to see snippets of the lives of the people who last owned or handled it. Tommy’s point of view is perfectly realised, especially his confusion at the adult feelings he encounters such as the nervous excitement emanating from a condom wrapper. But he also feels the sadness and negativity of the items he finds, and becomes curious about a man he keeps seeing staring out to sea. This story is completely enthralling from the off, and we soon realise that although Tommy’s gift tells him much, he’s limited by a lack of life experience. As readers, we are not so encumbered, and Tommy’s innocent perspective on darker events is used to heart-breaking effect.

A poignant and sublime piece, “Beachcombing” is not the finale I would perhaps have expected from this book, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Superb.

I had a splendid time reading “Probably Monsters”. Ray Cluley has a refined and seamless storytelling style, and his evocation of place is immaculate. He knows whether to finish on a concrete or inconclusive note, when to deliver a twist, and can turn his hand to sinister suggestion, wrenching sadness or grisly fun with equal finesse. But it’s the characters that really drive these imaginative stories, brought to life by nuances of human behaviour and interaction as well as their tangible hopes, fears and demons.

Thoughtful themes trickle through the pages, and it also seemed to me that the stories are carefully ordered with this in mind. Rounded off with some interesting story notes at the end – I always enjoy these – this is culturally rich horror that takes us to some fascinating nooks of the world and a fine book in which to lose yourself. Whether you enjoy the kind of fiends that lurk under the bed or those that grow in your heart, “Probably Monsters” is waiting for you.

Highly recommended.

Kitler & Monsters

Favourite 20 Horror Books

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Thanks to David Wilbanks for publishing my Top 20 Horror list on his blog a couple of months ago. They aren’t what I necessarily consider the best of the genre, just my personal favourites, so I thought I’d briefly explain why each book made the list.

The MonkMatthew Lewis – The Monk (1796)

This powerful gothic took me by surprise. It has all the brooding struggle and mood I’d expect from an 18th century piece, but also shoehorns in as much devilry, depravity, treachery and torture as I could possibly have hoped for. Hooray!

The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allen Poe (1827- 1849)

I was fascinated by the macabre as a young child, and understandably not allowed the extreme stuff. But Poe was apparently okay, it being with the literary classics and not in the forbidden horror section, so I devoured it. The likes of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew me away, and have never lost that intensity.

Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)

Ill-advisedly picturing Christopher Lee in a spooky Carpathian castle when I first picked it up, I was unsettled by the atmosphere of grim pestilence, and just how tragic it is. A quintessential vampire novel, and pleasingly, it couldn’t be less sparkly.

I Am LegendRichard Matheson – I Am Legend (1954)

Vampires again, but I enjoy it more as a survivalist apocalypse tale. The infected next-door neighbour trying to cajole the protagonist into leaving his barricaded house gives me a chill just thinking about it.

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

A faultless haunted house story that absolutely nails the difference between horror and terror. Pure dread and anticipation all the way.

Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle (1970)

It’s not a genre book, but this novel about childhood bullying disturbed me as much as the finest horror can, slowly wringing all hope from my soul. This is razor-sharp writing and the first of only two books on this list that I have never read twice. And never will. Once was more than enough.

Stephen King – The Shining (1977)

There are plenty of reasons to adore this King classic, but it also stands out for me in that it’s the only story I’ve ever read that made me physically jump in my seat. A reaction normally reserved for films, I still don’t know how the hell he managed it. Extremely well played, sir.

Different SeasonsStephen King – Different Seasons (1982)

This is more drama than horror – unusual for early King – and it’s a gorgeous collection. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” are superb, and “Apt Pupil” is my single favourite story of all time. It’s the ultimate account of a deteriorating mental state and the Nazi butcher element gives it a palpable, historical reality that frosts the bones. I only have to pick it up and start the first paragraph to end up reading the whole thing again.

James Herbert – Domain (1983)

I was delighted when Jim concluded his giant rats trilogy by throwing in a nuclear holocaust. As well as some gripping and grim adventures in the main story thread, I’ll never forget the claustrophobic vignettes of subterranean survivors about to die. A very formative novel for me.

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984)

Another that isn’t necessarily a genre book, but has all the right elements. And it also parades my favourite opening line of all time, a beautifully wry and ominous teaser that sums up the creepy, dysfunctional ride we’re about to take:

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

Books bloodClive Barker – Books of Blood (1984/1985)

“The Yattering and Jack”, “In the Hills, In the Cities”, “Son of Celluloid”… there are far too many favourites in this six volume masterpiece to individually name. I’d just end up listing the entire contents. Artful storytelling that’s always head-shakingly imaginative, Barker gets right under the skin where so many others try but fail. He’s never topped them for me. And come to think of it, has anyone else?

Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian (1985)

I love McCarthy, and this brutal western suits his unconventional style perfectly. An onslaught of desert dust, sweat, horrific violence and amorality with one of the finest villains ever created. Nobody forgets the Judge.

Clive Barker – Weaveworld (1987)

Another imaginative tour-de-force from Barker, he really lets the fantasy shine here. Nowhere near as disturbing as his Books of Blood, it still pulls out the trademark darkness when required and deftly avoids whimsy. Certainly his most colourful and fun work.

The Girl Next DoorJack Ketchum – The Girl Next Door (1989)

Abuse at its most harrowing. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever put a book down and took a deep breath, wanting it to stop, wishing I could somehow intervene. Then braced myself, picked it up and immediately had to stop again. As with “I’m the King of the Castle”, once was enough.

The Starry Wisdom – A Tribute to HP Lovecraft (1995)

An indie press publication from the early 90s, it’s one of those eclectic adults-only anthologies that leaves splinters in the brain. Full of original, twisted ideas, it captures that Lovecraftian otherworld atmosphere to a tee. I’ve re-read it several times.

Stephen Laws – Daemonic (1996)

A monster-thriller set in an insane film director’s urban fortress? Sorted. The concept is right up my street, and it’s delivered to the absolute max. A blast.

Poppy Z Brite – Exquisite Corpse (1996)

This hellish serial-killer romance is beautifully told, and as emotional as it is shocking. It made me feel sad and strangely violated for days.

Ramsey Campbell – House on Nazareth Hill (1997)

A superb contemporary haunted house novel, my mouth fell open at the unforgettable finale. Whenever I hear the word Hepzibah, a song starts to jangle in my head and causes a shiver. Even on sunny days. And just now.

Dangerous RedMehitobel Wilson – Dangerous Red (2003)

I never get bored of picking up this slick, punky collection and randomly reading a story or two. I love the dystopian feel, and there’s a texture to the writing that has almost become a comfort blanket. Quite an abrasive one, obviously.

Stephen Volk – Whitstable (2013)

An ominous challenge for an author, this fictional tribute to the wonderful Peter Cushing in his darkest hour couldn’t have been better. It was everything I’d hoped for and more, and I hung off every word.

And that’s your lot. As with all lists, this is subject to change on a whim. Thanks for reading, folks.

Review – “Slowly We Rot” by Bryan Smith

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I love an apocalypse road-trip, but even some of the ones I’ve enjoyed can be rather derivative. Every now and then one breaks the surface to actually deliver an experience rather than just a story, and “Slowly We Rot” is very much one of those.

Slowly We RotIt’s more than 6 years since a zombie infection destroyed the world and we meet Noah, a young man who lives alone in a mountain cabin. Self-sufficient, he spends his days hunting, reading, smoking weed, yet always battling against the loneliness of his existence. It’s an age since he’s seen another human, and even the occasional zombies that drag themselves up to his cabin have rotted away so much that they pose little physical threat. Isolation is his real enemy. With so much time for introspection, fantasy and guilty memories, his thoughts weigh heavy with suggestions of suicide.

But his hermit existence is interrupted when his presumed-dead sister Aubrey turns up with Nick, an ex-military hardcase. Uprooted from his mountain sanctuary, Noah decides to try and find Lisa, a woman with whom he had an intense and troubled relationship at college. With nothing but an old California address to go on, several states away from his current location, Noah is aware that the chance of a happy reunion is microscopic. But deciding he has nothing to lose and glad of a purpose in a world gone to hell, he embarks on his sprawling mission.

“Slowly We Rot” has an immediately engaging voice that ensured I was absorbed from page 1, and builds on this with convincing characters. Noah is the perfect guide for this kind of tale. He’s flawed, full of guilt, regret and bitterness, but has just enough stoicism and survival instinct to stop him from ever pulling that suicidal trigger. And even at the times when we get frustrated or annoyed with him, he’s all we’ve got, and it’s impossible to leave his corner. This lack of choice creates the right vibe for a tour of this sparse and deadly world.

Noah’s sister Aubrey and her companion Nick are also investable, the big man being a foil of common sense to her emotional impulsiveness. The author manages to keep their actions unpredictable but still believable, which is no mean feat.

I also like Bryan Smith’s vision of the apocalypse. The format and consequences of the plague are fairly standard, but the time lapse makes it interesting. There are very few survivors left, and the original zombies have decomposed to the point where you’re more in danger of being bitten by an unseen rotten head in a footwell than a shambling humanoid. Other survivors are also a threat and Noah is naturally suspicious of those he meets, especially as the years of numbing solitude have left him socially inept. While people are few and far between, Noah covers some serious miles on his journey and meets thrill-killers, slavers, and other damaged souls of all kinds.

He also has a problem with alcoholism and with no-one to talk him out of it – and plenty of liquor to be scavenged from derelict shops and homes – he hits it hard. As he makes his way across the country, Noah loses himself to fantasy. The back story is filled in perfectly and we slowly learn why he’s obsessed with Lisa, the problems they had, and other memories that have made him the man he is today. There are subtle links to what has gone before, and plenty of wise insight into the human condition.

Like any quality apocalypse fiction, this novel is not actually about zombies, which is where so many fall into mundanity. This is a character drama that just happens to have a brutal and grisly setting, and what we’re actually carried by is a man’s struggle for survival against his own capsizing mental health. And boy does he capsize. Noah starts to lose track of fantasy and reality, and things get very strange in the second half. His booze-addled, deteriorating brain layers fiction and memory over the tangible reality, and we end up just as lost as he is, truly joining him on his journey. There’s a superb sense of displacement as he unravels, though he never loses sight of his mission to find Lisa. The moments of numbing drudgery and loneliness are just as powerful as when he actually encounters other survivors or gets attacked, and when a zombie does show up, its rarity just adds to the alien atmosphere.

There are plenty of violent shocks and shivers, but I found that the truly standout scenes were of the quiet variety. One night at the cabin when Noah hears laughter out in the pitch-black woods gave me a genuine chill, and I’ll never forget a vignette in which he dances with a weak and snapping zombie. The two of them pirouetting in the middle of a deserted town is the most haunting and darkly beautiful thing I’ve read for a while.

Overall, this book is much less sick than Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” style stories, focusing more on Noah’s internal destruction to keep us turning the pages. But it still packs a punch when it needs to, and there’s enough gruesome violence to give the extreme fans their kicks.

I spent much of the story wondering if Noah would complete his almost-impossible quest to find Lisa alive, and even if so, how would that pan out? A happy ending would surely be unconvincing, but at the same time, a complete fail would be disappointing. How would the author avoid presenting either a contrived or frustrating finale with a plot such as this? Of course I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that I found the conclusion muscular and very satisfying. So just relax. Bryan Smith’s got you.

An engrossing adventure through both a zombie holocaust and a man’s disintegrating psyche “Slowly We Rot” is pleasingly grim and familiar, yet injects some real substance and humanity to keep it all fresh. Recommended.

Review – “Monster” by Matt Shaw and Michael Bray

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I’m a sucker for books with ominous warnings of offensiveness on the cover, and they’re usually there for a reason. But while it means that some extreme horror is on the way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s any good.

MonsterOn this occasion, I needn’t have worried. One of Matt Shaw’s infamous “black cover” series, this joint effort with Michael Bray is a bleak yet entertaining short novel and quite difficult to put down.

We meet Ryan, a young office-worker, who wakes to find himself chained up in a grimy chamber of cold concrete and rusting pipes with no idea as to how or why he got there. It turns out that just prior to this, he’d discovered his short-term girlfriend was pregnant. Rather than head home to deal with the issue, he instead went to the pub with a friend to blow off steam, and this is the last thing he remembers.

Also introduced is Christina, a young mother working in a petrol station who entertains herself during the dull shifts by making up macabre stories about the customers being psychotic serial killers. One day however, she is somewhat too close to the truth and also finds herself imprisoned in the same dilapidated building.

Kicking off with a somewhat cinematic start that put me in the mind of “Saw”, I liked the immediately engaging character situations presented by “Monster”. These are normal people in whom we can invest, and there’s a tight air of mystery along with the anticipation of nastiness that surely awaits them. Because as well as Ryan and Christina’s initially-hidden captors, the building also seems to be home to an enormous mentally-ill man loping around the filthy corridors.

The book is pacy and well crafted, filling in the back story by switching between the 1st and 3rd person. The aura of menace cranks up slowly, and both Ryan and Christina’s reactions under the mounting terror are convincing. They have moments of sheer panic followed by stoical resolve and then back again, sometimes the desperation leading them to hope that all this is just one big extreme prank. One scene in which Ryan is fed morphine to stop him passing out from pain could have been darkly amusing in a different setting, such is his garbled, comical speech, but here, it’s used to true chilling effect.

As the book progresses, we meet the faces behind all this and learn their horrible plans. Their histories are just as dark as the current scenario, and they’re anything but one-dimensional monsters. These kidnappers are broken by being the victims and/or perpetrators of genuinely upsetting physical and psychological abuse, and the book riffs on some classic questions. Who’s the monster? Is there even one? Can somebody so damaged be evil? But the answers are not black and white, and the story didn’t pan out the way I thought, playing with my sympathies all the way.

As the warning would suggest, there are some harrowing scenes. I was pleased to discover that they aren’t gratuitous – there really is nothing more boring in horror – but essential to the questions that “Monster” presents. I’ve read stories that are more extreme than this, but finished them with a shrug and a whatever. Here, the horror is gauged just right to get under your skin. It’s not just the actual violence that disturbs, but also our potential for it, and the numbing consequences of systematic, accumulative abuse. There’s no humour, and some sections of the book are both deeply touching and depressing.

Being picky, I have two small gripes. The prose is generally slick and unintrusive, but there were a couple of times when the character POV changed mid-scene without warning and took me out of the moment. There is also a scene in which one character is forced into a terrible act, and it just seemed to happen a little too easily for me. But they’re my only complaints.

The finale is appropriately painful and sobering, but there’s also a nice little epilogue that raised a smile. It’s a classic vignette with a tone of ominous fun, and the only time that this very dark novel has a wry twinkle in its eye.

So there you have it. An eloquent introduction from both Matt Shaw and Michael Bray explains the nature of extreme horror, pushing the boundaries, and the fine line such authors tread. It’s refreshing to see such thoughtful reasoning in the subgenre, and that the shocks are intended to be a means to an end and not simply the end itself.

Happily, “Monster” is just the right side of the line. It succeeds by luring your ghoulish curiosity, working in some solid character investment to stop you getting away, then drags you off to hell. The themes of survival and the nature/nurture argument are tackled intelligently without playing killjoy to the grisly shenanigans, and I liked the lack of distinction between good and evil. And it certainly gets its hooks in. I read it during a work day, and snatched every single second of coffee break or bus journey to get back to that grim place of blood-stained concrete and death. I’ve already downloaded another of the black cover books by Matt Shaw, and I suspect it won’t be the last.

Review – “The Bones Of You” by Gary McMahon

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It had been a while since I last read a Gary McMahon tale, but this new ebook novel from DarkFuse reacquainted me with a raw-knuckled punch. “The Bones Of You” takes his trademark urban bleak to an angry, psychological high.

Gary McMahon The Bones Of YouAdam Morris is recently divorced and hoping to make a new start. A troubled, tightly-wound man, he rents a cheap house and focuses on his daughter Jessica – who visits him occasionally at weekends – to try and rebuild his life.

But as Halloween approaches, the mood switches from rough-edged suburbia to haunted house territory: strange voices are heard, objects move, nightmares invade his sleep. Adam learns that the empty house next door was home to a dead killer called Katherine “Little Miss” Moffat, who murdered children in her cellar.

Before long, Adam realises that the supernatural menace – clearly linked to the house next door’s horrific past – is an actual, tangible threat. Not just to himself, but also to his other acquaintances and most importantly, his daughter.

This short novel is told in the first person, and it’s the narrator that carries it. Gary McMahon presents a perfectly realistic and listenable voice with Adam. The prose is muscular, sometimes chirpy, but always honest and addictive. This makes it very easy to pick up and fall into his world.

Adam himself is an obsessive and generally intense man, fond of pressure-outlet hobbies such as karate and running. He is also driven by a consuming love and concern for his child, so you can’t fault his efforts and focus. Whilst he might be cold in some ways, he pours himself into the emotions he does feel and his flawed humanity put me very much in his corner. I think this book has a degree of semi-autobiography, and it’s clearly a very personal piece of work.

Adam’s ex-wife and her shambolic new partner are addicts, so Adam is naturally concerned for young Jessica’s welfare. And when any element of jeopardy – supernatural or otherwise – threatens his daughter, he becomes a man you would not want to fuck with. The reader is also teased for a while with the fact that Adam harbours a very dark secret, and with Mr McMahon at the helm, you know that the reveal will be a good one.

Adam doesn’t have a busy social life, due to circumstance as much as character, but he strikes up a natural friendship with Pru. She’s a goth girl he discovers one night staring at the abandoned murder house next door, and I found it endearing that he tackles this somewhat stand-offish but vulnerable child of the night with frankness yet warmth. There’s also a romantic interest at the factory where he works in the form of Carole, and she unwittingly provides another way for the malevolent forces to get their hooks into him. But ultimately, his daughter Jessica is his all. And the evil forces know that too…

“The Bones Of You” is a superb tale and ticks all the boxes for a horror fan. There are some wonderfully spine-tingling moments – especially in Adam’s cellar and an underpass near his house – a couple of breath-taking shocks, and the finale is appropriate and pleasingly grisly.

But while the atmosphere of lurking threat is thick throughout, it isn’t just a yarn of serial killers and ghostly terror. This is a story of determination, of a personal struggle against circumstance whilst dealing with consequence, of responsibility, rage and love. I don’t know how the author does it, but there’s a real visceral energy bottled in these pages, and the result is a rare treat.

Highly recommended.

Review – “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine” by John Llewellyn Probert

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Nothing perks my horror soul up more than classic Hammer films and John Llewellyn Probert fiction, so throw the two together and all is very much well with the world.

The Hammer of Dr. ValentineThis novella from Spectral Press is a direct sequel to “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine”, which was a tribute to Vincent Price. In that first story, we saw Dr. Edward Valentine out for Phibes-esque revenge on those he blamed for the death of his daughter. Naturally, this leaves the Bristol police baffled when he starts offing doctors in the methods of the actor’s more gruesome films, but even when they pick up the scent, the obsessed killer is always one step ahead. Full of twists, dry dialogue, and gleefully complicated death scenes, it was a delightful homage and one of my favourite reads of 2012.

In “The Hammer of Dr Valentine”, two years have passed since our favourite brilliant and deranged surgeon completed his assault on the medical community and escaped with an ostentatious flourish. Now he’s back, and more than a little disgruntled by the way certain journalists reported his rampage. As a man of integrity and refinement, he hates the vulgar tactics and sensationalist lies of the gutter press, so emerges from retirement to embark on another spree of meticulously flamboyant murders. And hurrah for that!

The book’s opening scene is superb, describing a man being launched from a Welsh clifftop by catapult to be impaled – with military precision – on a golden crucifix positioned in the valley below. Showing just how much planning and effort Dr. Valentine puts into his executions, this sets the wry tone and leaves us hungry to see what’s coming next.

It soon becomes apparent that this time around, rather than Vincent Price, the entire Hammer films canon is our killer’s inspiration. Jeffrey Longdon is back, the wonderfully jaded and cantankerous old-school detective who pursued Dr. Valentine through the first book. Pulled from a cosy rural job to take on the case, he’s more weary and irritated than alarmed by the grisly shenanigans, and it’s a joy to see him back. I’d go for a pint with him.

Another major character is John Spalding, a horror film expert and author who’s also on Dr. Valentine’s list. But although the format of this book is similar to the first – switching between the outrageous and imaginative vignettes of murder and the efforts of Detective Longdon and his colleagues – there is a slightly different ambience. Many of the doctors killed in the first book elicited a degree of sympathy. Although flawed, they did not deserve such horrible fates, and their actual guilt of any professional wrongdoing was also debatable. But this time around, the journalists are a much more odious bunch. The author lines up a fine array of unpleasant tabloid hacks and manipulative liars for Dr. Valentine to despatch, and the story almost develops a voyeuristic feel as we eagerly anticipate their sadistic deaths. It’s also fun guessing what ghastly method or film reference might be up next – some are subtle, some in your face – so I won’t spoil your enjoyment by giving any of them away.

John Llewellyn ProbertThe author’s prose is erudite, rich and dripping with wit, and this complements the characters and action. You don’t just the enjoy the story but the very telling of it, and being regaled in this quintessentially British and elegant voice is quite powerful when people are being killed in such abominable ways. While there is plenty of macabre humour, this book isn’t just played for laughs, and the author gauges it with the tension and nastiness just right. Although the mystery is lighter than in the first tale – we now know the killer’s identity, past and true motives – it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment, and it’s one of those slick, sharp pieces that would only get bogged down by a complex plot.

I loved “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine”.  The sumptuous camp and gothic atmosphere of Hammer is seamlessly fused with an edgy, contemporary setting and it all ends on a perfectly over the top note. It takes an author with consuming passion for classic cinematic horror to write these beautifully crafted homages, and I genuinely can’t imagine a better man for the job than John Llewellyn Probert.

So go ahead and enjoy, and read “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine” first if you haven’t done so already. Let’s just hope that in the meantime, somebody other than doctors or journalists have managed to get on the wrong side of the fiendish Dr. Edward Valentine. I can’t wait to see where he turns to get his creativity flowing in the next instalment.

Highly recommended.