Review – “Water For Drowning” by Ray Cluley

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I was looking forward to this novella from This Is Horror, having enjoyed a short story of Ray Cluley’s in the “Dark Minds” anthology a couple of years ago. It stuck in the memory for merging a wild concept with heart, and I was pleased to discover that “Water For Drowning” takes this to the next level.

Water for DrowningIt’s narrated by Josh, a young lad in a rock band who lives with his mates near the Isle of Wight. Playing mainly cover songs in pubs and clubs, they enjoy just enough success to pay the bills and Josh cares for little else but gigs, booze and groupies.

But when Genna – a wistful girl with a fascination for mermaids – repeatedly turns up to watch them play, Josh finds himself attracted. She loves it when he puts his own material into the set, particularly those songs about the sea, and Josh is drawn by the mystery as well as his own ego and lust. But as he gets to know her, Josh realises all is not well. Damaged by her past, Genna’s mermaid obsession doesn’t stop at her seaweed tattoos and interest in folklore. She also drinks seawater, self harms and genuinely believes that she can become one.

This is a beautifully written piece. From noisy nightclubs to the cold ocean, this story is haunting in both its evocation of place and also the sheer longing that Genna projects. It drew me in straight away, intrigued as to how this young hedonist was going to deal with someone so fragile, dangerous and unpredictable.

Josh is a convincing character and a great voice for the tale. He and his friends are not the best of folk – brash, crass and in it for the girls – but this gives him plenty of room to evolve. His amusing observations and crude wit also balance the tone, preventing it from becoming too intense.

Despite his laddish attitude, Josh realises that the troubled Genna has massive potential for self-destruction. This forces him to actually think about consequence and their relationship evolves naturally from here. We know he cares about her and desperately don’t want him to mess it up for both their sakes, but even the moments of warmth are tinged with sadness. We want Genna to be okay, to achieve the peace she yearns, but we can’t shake the feeling that this is an inevitable slow spiral into increasingly dark waters.

With regards to the folklore, this novella had me guessing if there were actual supernatural forces at work or if it was purely the portrayal of an unravelling mind. The plot teased both possibilities, though it becomes almost incidental to the emotional resonance as it builds to a powerful conclusion.

And that’s the essence of “Water For Drowning”. A poignant meld of fairy tale and contemporary drama that washes over you like a swell. Ray Cluley is a thoughtful and sublime storyteller and I was surprised at how much I cared. One of those rare tales that left me in a reflective, melancholy mood.

Recommended.

Note: This story also comes with an author introduction about the genesis of “Water for Drowning” and a bonus short story “Shark! Shark!”. Concerning the shooting of a B-movie, this clever and darkly humorous horror whodunit won a British Fantasy Award in 2013. It made me grin and ties up this little package nicely.

Review: “Alien: Sea of Sorrows” by James A. Moore

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This is the second in a new trilogy of Alien novels from Titan Books, and manages to meet the bar set pleasingly high by the first instalment of “Out Of The Shadows” (My full review of Tim Lebbon’s story here).

sea of sorrowsThis time, we travel to New Galveston – LV-178 – an outer rim planet already terraformed and boasting three cities. But plans for a fourth have been slowed by the “Sea of Sorrows”. This is a vast area of noxious and unstable black sand, threaded with strange silicon nodes, in which nothing will grow. Working on the site we find Alan Decker, a toughened safety commissioner with strong empathic abilities who also happens to be a descendent of our favourite alien-slaying icon, Ellen Ripley.

Of course, Weyland-Yutani (aka The Company) aren’t far away. When an old mining excavation and alien ship is discovered, talk of xenomorphs abound. After Decker is injured on the Sea of Sorrows and seems to have forged some kind of nightmarish link with the alien consciousness, The Company blackmail him. He has to join a crew of heavily-armed, hired mercenaries on an expedition into the mine and bring back a live specimen.

I had a great time reading this book. As you would hope, Weyland-Yutani present the epitome of corporate ruthlessness. Their knack for being one step ahead of the game and playing everyone as pawns is perfectly realised in the form of Andrea Rollins, their ice-cold and sociopathic spokesperson. The Ripley link is a nice idea, and it’s Rollins who uses this family tie to force Decker into compliance. This is with a bit of good old-fashioned extortion, naturally, making him pay for Ripley’s trademark talent for blowing up expensive Company installations.

Decker himself is a solid lead, investable and made real by his flaws, and the seasoned roughneck mercs do their job. Some of the characters are a little bit stock, and several of them don’t get enough airtime to become distinguishable from the others, but they serve a purpose even if it all feels a little familiar.

That’s one of two problems I have with this book. It’s initially rather samey with regard to setting and devices: The Company wanting to capture live specimens, a consultant thrown in at the deep end with a squad of protective hard-cases, a crashed alien vessel, being stalked in old mine shafts. We’ve seen all of these in the films and previous novels, several tropes of which feature in this book’s direct predecessor “Out of the Shadows”. I suppose I was hoping for some fresh ideas, the kind of which featured in some of the Dark Horse tales of the 90s. We had the infestation of earth in “Earth Hive”, a dangerous musician wanting to record an alien’s scream in “Music of the Spears” and the intrigue and mystery of an xeno-detective’s life in “No Exit”. As a result, “Sea of Sorrows” was never going to stand out too far above the crowd. But I was pleased to discover that the author makes the most of the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere for some superb tension and excitement.

My main problem however, lies with the concept of the aliens being out for revenge. They somehow know that Decker is a descendent of Ripley, whom they regard as “The Destroyer”. While I’m all for introducing new developments to the species, I think portraying them as vengeful thinkers makes them somehow less frightening than the instinct-driven killing machines that care for nothing but queen and nest.

That said, the rage and consuming hatred felt by the aliens is used to good effect, especially in a visually stunning encounter with a queen. There are also plenty of dream-like snippets in which Decker’s subconscious connects with the xenomorphs, and we see and feel their point of view. Conveying something so… well, alien, is no easy task but the author gives us a ghastly peek into what it might be like to actually be one.

Overall, there’s plenty to please fans of the mythos and also the casual horror/sf reader. The vicious attacks are cinematic and very easy to follow, despite the subterranean chaos, and the breakneck action is straight out of “Aliens”. One fight in a steep, narrow tunnel lingers in the memory as a horrible bottleneck of screaming, gunfire, corpses and acid blood.

I also like it that the story utilises the fact that readers are familiar with the xenomorphs, but the protagonists are not. For example, the mercenaries find a corpse they assume died by stray gunfire, though it’s clear to us that she was the victim of a chestburster. This fosters a wry but uncomfortable feeling. I also loved their gob-smacked reactions to seeing the black, chitinous creatures for the first time, and the author does well not to unnecessarily overdescribe.

There’s also a couple of pure horror moments for those who like their spines thoroughly chilled. A couple of attacks out on the malevolent sands of the Sea of Sorrows produce shivers and a good old-fashioned jump in the seat. While much of this book is in the vein of “Aliens”, these silent stalk-and-kill scenes evoke the anticipatory dread of Ridley Scott’s film.

Of course no story can survive without pathos, and there’s tragedy and humanity here too. One memorable scene sees two close friends cocooned beside each other in the alien’s nest. After realising they’re impregnated and awaiting a horrible death, the ensuing dialogue is refreshingly moving.

Despite my reservations of familiarity, the second half of the book is a blast with a couple of tricks up its sleeve, and of course not everybody is what they seem. I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, and after all that adrenaline, the conclusion is appropriately dark.

“Sea of Sorrows” is very well written. Some of the older Dark Horse mythos books were poorly scribed, to the point where I even bailed on one, but at least with this trilogy Titan have given the job to those who are up to the job. James A. Moore has delivered a robust novel of atmospheric action, treachery and dripping teeth. They can definitely keep them coming for me.

Much anticipated Jasper Bark release and download offer

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On 30th September, Jasper Bark’s “Stuck On You and Other Prime Cuts” is released from Crystal Lake Publishing. I’m very excited about this, as my review of the superb title story explains.

But it gets better. Order now, and you might get your mitts on a free download of one of the stories – “Taking The Piss” – read by Chris Barnes (For the first 100 purchases only). It’s a brilliant horror short with authentic voice, ugly violence and a concept as pitch black as the humour. Go here to the Facebook release page for details…

“The Black Land: Matty Dunn’s Story” by MJ Wesolowski

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As much as a review, this is a bit of information regarding “The Black Land”: a novella of coastal terror by MJ Wesolowski (My review here). The author has written a short story, available to read on his website, telling the story of one of its minor characters.

Black Land picIt’s been several months, but the baleful atmosphere of “The Black Land” is still very much with me, and that doesn’t let up here.

Matty Dunn is the local fisherman who sails Martin, the troubled protagonist, to the grim island of Blamenholm. We find out about his upbringing, schooldays, and memories of his dying grandfather in his weatherbeaten bungalow. Not to mention the menace of the castle, almost personified in the form of a stone that young Matty stole from school.

“That stone; he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Miss McKay left it on the edge of her desk and it sat there, coiled and grotesquely ready, like a bony fist.”

“Matty’s Story” is a must for those who enjoyed “The Black Land” The change of POV adds authenticity through using local dialect, and the tale ties up neatly with the novella that inspired it. Apparently, this story came to be after a plot device involving a gun became too logistically difficult, and I’m glad. This is a far more elegant and chilling way to deal with it.

Read Matty’s story with authorial introduction here:

Part One

Part Two

Review – “The Sleeping Dead” by Richard Farren Barber

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Despite what the title and cover suggests, this novella from DarkFuse isn’t a zombie story. It has a similar anticipatory aura at the outset, but rather than delivering adrenaline and the undead, this tale brings a haunting and disturbed take on the apocalypse.

The Sleeping DeadJackson Smith has a job interview, but notices during his bus journey into the city that something is askew. People seem distracted or silently adrift, and upon a bridge that becomes the scene of a suicide, Jackson finds himself succumbing to the dreamlike haze, entranced by the dark river that claimed the body.

He makes it to his interview up on the 8th floor of an office building, but after a series of increasingly gruesome deaths – and a sinister and enticing voice that has begun in his head – he realises that the city is gripped by some kind of suicide plague.

Trying to ignore the suggestions of his subconscious, Jackson latches on to the vague hope of finding his girlfriend Donna and ventures out into the burning city to find her.

This novella is superbly written, snaring us immediately with the author’s vision of an ordinary day turned to hell. Richard Farren Barber never tells us anything but simply lets us realise, and it’s always nice to be seamlessly informed yet unpatronised by an author.

Jackson himself is a normal and generally decent fellow, perhaps even rather bland, but this only accentuates the horror that intrudes into the urban mundanity. His reactions to the unpleasant events are very human, as is the way he grasps at a tangible goal – his girlfriend waiting for him – to try and bring cohesion and focus to the madness.

I particularly liked the novella’s pervading sense of nightmare. It begins subtly with a rocking man on the bus whom Jackson believes to be mentally ill, cranks up the unease through the silent witnessing of the suicide, and then really puts us on edge during the interview when one of the panel starts rocking and angrily mumbling to himself. I actually enjoyed this rollercoaster hill-climb more than when the city finally capsized.

But that’s not to say the apocalypse is a disappointment. It’s beautifully painted, full of grim and heartbreaking images of the oddly gentle carnage. Some people kill themselves, others slip into catatonia where they sit, presumably lost to their own whispering psyches. Jackson is left to battle himself as he wanders the city with Susan, a woman whose suicide he managed to avert, and they’re a pleasingly awkward team. Bound by circumstance and clinging to rationality, their relationship is suitably strained and soporific as both struggle to stay afloat.

I did find the second half slightly overlong and a more fleshed-out conclusion or an extra plot device or two might have assuaged its length for me. But this might also have distracted from the mood, not to mention Jackson’s internal voice. This is the essence of the scourge, and the most effective of villains: inescapable, parasitic and very creepy.

There’s little action, so if the cover had you hoping for scrabbling hordes and white-knuckle bloodshed, then you’ll be disappointed. Nor is it for those who prefer neat concrete packages with all their questions answered. But I loved the lingering menace of “The Sleeping Dead” and was left restless and bothered without quite being able to say why. Which is exactly how Jackson Smith’s day began…

Review – “Mother’s Boys” by Daniel I Russell

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I hadn’t read a novel by Daniel I Russell before, and “Mother’s Boys” from Blood Bound Books was certainly a startling place to start. Full of high-octane horror with a heart, this is for those who like a bit of moral ambiguity to keep them on their toes.

Mother's BoysWe meet Nat, a young woman with punk and goth tendencies who strives to be different from the crowd. Despite her subversive attitude, she lives an ordinary life, treading water in a dull restaurant job during which she looks forward to spending time with her boyfriend, Simon.

But one night outside a rough back-street pub, she witnesses some of Simon’s old friends attack a woman and starts to wonder about his past. She’s soon drawn into a battle between her boyfriend’s vicious ex-crew and a dangerous family that live in the sprawling sewer network beneath the streets. But choosing a side is far from easy, and Nat finds both her loyalties and her sense of right and wrong tested, not to mention learning the true nature of the outcast.

Nat is a solid character to drive this tale. She’s pleasant, sharp and generally sensible, but also harbours an impulsive naivety that lands her in trouble from time to time. Her familiar normality also helps to contrast the other main players, who are anything but.

Simon’s ex-gang are proper old-school bastards. Johan, the leader, is a creatively misogynistic psychopath who has issues with OCD and rage, and you know it’s never going to be boring when him and his croneys turn up. They put me in mind of Alex and his droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” : the charismatic evil leader and his 3 lesser but tempestuous charges.

And as for the family of sewer dwellers, they’re a great mixed bag of the monstrous and the humane. After an introduction in which they seem to be genre-conventional cannibalistic predators, we slowly realise that there’s depth to the family too, and become curious regarding the fraternal compassion and intelligence that keeps them alive down in the putrid darkness.

In fact, it’s the layers that make all the characters in this novel work. We learn more about them all through slick reveals, and this is how they play with our loyalties. Will Simon fall back into his shadowed ways of yore? How far will Nat and the sewer family go to protect themselves? Whether driven by revenge, survival or love, there’s a pleasing ambivalence all round and any character investment in “Mother’s Boys” is far from clear-cut. Once the boundaries have been blurred, it’s easy to spend much of this book bouncing around and wondering who the monsters really are.

With a knack for atmosphere, this author takes us right into the heart of the crumbling alleyways, bars and sewers of the city, but he also writes action very well. When you’ve got multiple characters fighting in dark, enclosed spaces, this kind of scenario can get confusing – not to mention dull – but I was with it all the way.

As well as plenty of seamless action, there are sick and nightmarish moments down in the sewers, and some shocking images that linger long after reading. A scene of appalling sexual torture from Johan in the opening chapters made me realise that Mr Russell isn’t scared to throw a screaming taboo in our faces, and ensured I kept my guard up for the rest of the book. This novel should appeal to fans of Richard Laymon and Bryan Smith, carrying a similar vibe in character, theme and the matter-of-fact prose, though perhaps without quite that heady level of violent lust.

There’s a degree of substance here too. The plight and the treatment of the homeless is touched upon, and also what it means to be truly different. Realistic dialogue and complex relationships between the characters – especially Nat and Simon – keep the human drama elements moving along nicely.

Being picky, I have a couple of buts regarding character motivation. Too often, Nat wandered around the menacing streets alone and got herself into terrible trouble. While I understand that she has a spontaneous and headstrong nature, it just didn’t quite add up for somebody generally in possession of common sense.

Another perplexing why? moment occurs when the sewer is being invaded. One of the more astute but physically vulnerable family members reveals himself to the gang for no apparent reason other than theatre, and pointlessly places himself in mortal peril. There’s also a strange lack of respect for the danger of firearms on more than one occassion.

But these are minor quibbles. “Mother’s Boys” is an entertaining read, and once it kicks off, is difficult to put down. Greyzone morality stops us from relaxing too much, and humanity comes from where one might not expect it. The breathless showdown is a whopping 80 pages without being too long and builds to an appropriate conclusion. And I’m not going to let on as to whether it’s happy, bleak or finishes on a wry punchline. I tried to guess and was wrong, so I suggest you have fun doing the same.

Although I wouldn’t classify this book as extreme, the moments of ugly sadism mean it’s not for everybody. I’ll certainly never look at a cheesegrater the same way again. But it’s a tightly crafted story and if you like a bit of internal conflict with your feast of subterranean violence, I think you’ll have a blast.

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.