Review: “Corpsing” by Kayleigh Marie Edwards

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“From murderous children to nightmarish trips to an ill-fated zombie apocalypse, Corpsing will send you running for the light switch, but smiling as you do it.”

The blurb on this varied collection of eight stories from the Sinister Horror Company pretty much sums it up. I love a good meld of comedy and scares, and it soon became clear that as well as the writing ability, Kayleigh Marie Edwards has both the requisite glint in the eye and the passion for horror to make this work.

Starting things off is “Bitey Bachman” in which we meet an asylum security guard named Brian. When a patient accidentally receives a mystery injection, the scene is set for a zombie apocalypse, and Brian is ready. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about such eventualities, but unfortunately, it kicks off while he’s in the middle of taking a shower. This tale is a good showcase for the author’s humour. It’s full of sharp prose and neat references to zombies in popular culture, and the finale is a refreshing change from the usual path of outbreak stories.

“Bits and Bobs” tells of hospital worker Steven, hoping to secure a job at the Body Farm: a unique U.S. morgue where unclaimed corpses are used to train CSI teams. After failing the interview, Steven gets drunk and decides to sabotage one of their fake crime scenes with his own DNA and thus ruin the next training exercise. But during his inebriated vandalism, things take a horrific and bizarre turn. There’s shades of Jasper Bark here, and a double-whammy of gruesome extremity is written with such nonchalance – and followed up by playful humour – that I had to applaud.

“Siren” follows the plight of Lucy, eleven years old and moving to a quiet lakeside home with her mother. She hates the house, misses her dad, and wants to leave, but there’s a spooky little girl living in the lake with other ideas. Lucy’s perspective of all things adult is spot-on, as is the pathos, and although comedy takes a back seat to the creepy atmosphere this time around, it still has a pleasingly wry finale.

There’s no ceremony or build-up in “Now You See Them” in which we find a terrified boy tucked up in bed, trying to keep quiet and terrified of monsters in the dark. Excelling in evocation, this is a ghastly short.

“Skin” features fifteen year old Amy, full of insecurities and angst. Her life capsizes after she’s bitten by a spider and becomes horribly infected, and then discovers she’s pregnant. Dumped, short on friends and grounded by her furious and disappointed father, I was drawn into Amy’s miserable plight. Sporting a real aura of claustrophobia and helplessness, this story tackles attitudes of shame towards teen pregnancy, self-harm, and nails the emotional whirlwind of its protagonist. But it’s certainly an adult piece, trickling in physical horror elements and finishing on a sour twist.

After all that horror, “S-day” changes the mood. We are cordially introduced to a whining child named Bobby who, on this occasion, has decided that he wants some chicken soup. When refused by his exasperated mother, Bobby starts to pray. But such is his talent for irritation, he even annoys God who loses his rag with appropriate biblical theatricality and rains down a mighty plague-flood of meaty soup upon the world before anyone has even had time to build an ark. A mischievous fable, this balances the darker pieces in the collection.

In “Barry’s Last Day” we find a construction worker on the cusp of retirement. But rather than being happy about his imminent freedom, Barry is fed up at the prospect of having to spend more time with his wife and stoner son, neither of whom he particularly likes. On top of that, he’s also perpetually annoyed that a 20-something graduate called Todd – of all things – had recently stolen his promotion.

So Barry decides to get last day revenge on young Todd with a cunning plan involving some magic mushrooms and a flask of coffee, but naturally, things don’t go the way he planned. Barry’s an entertaining miserable git of a lead, and I was won over by twists, turns and a splendid conclusion. This would’ve sat proudly in a Pan Book of Horror, as indeed would a couple of the other pieces here.

Finally we have “’Twas the Night before Christmas” in which two young boys realise that their Christmas tree is not only possessed, but also a nocturnal killer. Obviously nobody believes them, and it’s to the author’s credit that we roll with the outrageous concept. This tale has a light style, which makes the grisly elements more amusing yet strangely darker.

I read Corpsing in one sitting, not just because it’s a svelte 150 pages, but because it’s so easy to digest. The author lures us in with intriguing ideas, forces us to invest through convincing characters and dialogue, then takes us on all kinds of horrific and uncomfortably comical descents in which we’re up to our necks with the hapless protagonists whether we like it or not.

This is character-driven horror, and the people we meet are flawed and real, their perspectives tight regardless of age or gender. It has both new ideas and twists on old tropes, and of course, plenty of macabre humour. This sometimes causes a smile, other times a visceral wince, but generally both at the same time. With such a well gauged tone in place, I found it impossible not to be charmed.

Review: “Fountain of Drowned Memories” by Erik Hofstatter

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Lorcan Carmody is scared. He can’t understand where he is or why he’s there. Strange people surround him… and a monster lurks in his room. Is the monster real or imagined?

Fountain of Drowned MemoriesThis tale from Frightful Horrors – a UK small press dedicated to our love of weird fiction chapbooks but presented in easy digital form – is quite a triumph given its length. It took less time to read than to write this review, but leaves quite a melancholy malaise upon putting it down.

We meet Lorcan Carmody, trapped in a strange bedroom and losing his memory. He becomes obsessed by the shifting stains on the ceiling and also the sink in the corner – which he knows as the fountain – as he struggles to recall words, the past, and even his own identity.

At first, the fountain seems to have healing properties and is the only thing to bring him peace in his confusion. But when it sprouts monstrous tentacles, Lorcan begins to wonder if the fountain is actually draining his precious memories. He’s occasionally visited by other people, but is suspicious that they’re colluding with the fountain and his insidious loss of recall.

This short story took me by surprise. It’s instantly engaging and easy to empathise with Lorcan’s fear and frustration. The prose is robust, evoking the rain, the trees and figures that he glimpses out of the window, and suffusing the whole account with loneliness. This elegiac tone is accentuated by glimpses of normality – such as memories of drinking in pubs and the smell of bacon – but nothing lasts, and even these brief snippets only bring him more misery as they become tainted and dissipate.

Any piece like this initially keeps the reader guessing as to his plight. Is Lorcan a prisoner? On drugs? A mentally ill patient with paranoid delusions? Suffering from dementia? Or perhaps he’s being menaced by actual supernatural horrors? It gauged my subconscious questions well, and everything falls neatly into place.

Fountain of Drowned Memories certainly leaves a mark, laying bare the fragility of mental health. Whether any of what Lorcan believes is actually true – the fountain’s tentacles, the conspiratorial visitors – almost becomes irrelevant. His claustrophobic existence is all, and this story presents how trapped someone can become by environment and more importantly, their own capsizing psyche.

I was lost to Lorcan’s descent as the tale progressed, and the last few pages are heart-breaking. It’s rare that a work of this length (only about 14 pages) can elicit such feeling and Erik Hoffstatter ensures that he has finished wringing you out before most poignant fiction of this kind would’ve even got into gear.

A slick combination of Lovecraft and McMahon, it’s available for free on kindle/pdf download here.

Review: “Aliens: Bug Hunt” edited by Jonathan Maberry

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“Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?”

If you recognise this quote – spoken by Private Hudson in James Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens – then Bug Hunt might be a book for you. If like me, you heard it in Bill Paxton’s disdainful voice, pictured the scene below and smiled fondly, then it definitely is.

Set in the military and corporate milieu of the films, this collection from Titan Books peeks into the lives of colonial marines and other space-folk sent to remote corners of the universe where all manner of toothsome threats lurk. Some tie directly into the films – mainly Aliens – while others choose to run with an original take on the concept.

It’s not a spotless collection, suffering editorial oversights and the odd plot point that doesn’t add up, but I very much enjoyed it overall. And even if you’re not a disciple of the franchise, there’s enough imagination and chills to entertain anyone who likes their protagonists in a pickle and their looming jaws dripping with slime.

First up is “Chance Encounter” by Paul Kupperberg in which a compulsive gambler gets more than he bargained for on a discovery expedition to a low-gravity planet. The local alien wildlife has adapted – making them both enormous and good in the air – and there are some excellent gob-smacked perspectives from those new to such a species. Apart from one bizarre reference to an alien egg as being “oblong” (I know queens are hard, but even she isn’t popping something out with corners on it) this is a satisfying start, thick with scares and evocation.

In “Reaper” by Dan Abnett (of Alien: Isolation fame) we join a squad of marines visiting a stormy planet used for bulk crop production. They’re investigating a colossal harvesting unit – an interesting creation itself – after contact has been lost, but upon arrival, they discover that the crew have sealed themselves inside. While many of the stories in this collection feature the oil-black, chitinous aliens we love from the films and comics, or something in a similar vein, this is one of the few that has a different menace lying in wait. A well written piece, it succeeds with a taut hill-climb and an urgent finale.

One of my favourites follows with “Broken” by Rachel Caine, the title referring to Bishop: the benevolent artificial person from Aliens. It’s a captivating story, commencing with his “birth” and his feelings of being different to the other synthetics from the moment he’s booted up.

The main thread presents a terrorist hostage situation – a nice change from alien action – and injects some breathless excitement into an escapade already glowing with its android point of view. Bishop’s thoughts and morals are flawlessly portrayed, and a couple of other brief cameos bring fond nostalgia in addition to tying it neatly into the canon. “Broken” engaged me completely, and I didn’t want it to finish.

A darker tone is presented in “Reclamation” by Yvonne Navarro (author of the splendid Aliens: Music of the Spears). This features a pre-Aliens Dwayne Hicks and his wife, a fellow hard-ass colonial marine, in a tale of anger, grief and loss. The characterisation is solid – essential in such reflective storytelling – but my problem is that Hicks’ behaviour in Aliens would’ve been very different had these events preceded it. Michael Biehn’s character clearly had no history with the aliens – certainly not such a personally traumatic one – so it doesn’t quite fit. However, if you are willing to ignore that, there’s a powerful emotional resonance that the other efforts in this collection don’t manage. Hicks is a bit of a mythos legend, and the author does his character justice. The violence is truly tense, and when you hear an alien’s shriek perfectly described as “a monstrous combination of a hyena’s scream and an elephant’s roar” you know this is going to be quite the evocative ride.

Next are two more stories with a direct link to Cameron’s film. This time it’s through Cynthia “We got a live one!” Dietrich, the stalwart medic, and it’s nice to see a minor character getting some development. You could possibly argue that the marines of Aliens were not quite as familiar with extra-terrestrial bugs as these two Dietrich stories would have us believe, but I’m happy to let that go.

“Blowback” by Christopher Golden (author of Alien: River of Pain) sees her – along with Hudson, Apone, Vazquez et al. – on another Company-sponsored bug hunt. As this takes place on a planet with a propane atmosphere and airborne, inflammable wildlife, readers should prepare for some crazy pyrotechnics and noise. Naturally, the Company – lovingly referred to as “Weyland-fucking-Yutani” – have royally shafted everybody, and it’s great seeing the gang back together again in combat. The irreverent dialogue to which we became accustomed in Aliens is back with a flourish – “I hear your voice in my sleep, Sarge” – and although I felt it ended rather abruptly, this is an entertaining read.

The second Dietrich adventure is “Exterminators” by Matt Forbeck. This time she’s with Private Ricco “Arcturian poontang” Frost, getting drunk in a backstreet dive at a remote refuelling station that is attacked by parasites. It concludes on a jokey punchline that seemed somewhat forced, but apart from that, this is a pretty tight siege thriller. I enjoyed the seedy vibe of shadowy figures necking tequila in a ramshackle bar, and it also scores points for subtly referencing the scene in Aliens when Frost complains that he’s got a bad feeling about this and Crowe responds “You always say that.” Well, apparently he does, because he says it here too. Nice touch.

There’s a dark comic book feel to “No Good Deed” by Ray Garton. We’re back on LV-426 and Hadley’s Hope (the colony in Aliens) following a bounty hunter on the trail of two escaped convicts: a crime lord and his lab-enhanced sidekick.

Upon arriving at the storm-lashed colony, they discover that the lights are still on but all is quiet. Of course we know what eventually became of the colonists, but here, the infestation isn’t quite complete. This is a slick all-rounder for place, characters and chills, weaves itself seamlessly into the background of the film, and saves a wild surprise for the showdown.

“Zero to Hero” by Weston Ochse introduces a corporal in charge of a small marine contingent on the remote moon of LV-666. He’s not a gentleman who thrives on action – quite content playing video games and enjoying the peace – so is most disgruntled when an SOS signal comes from the moon’s network of mines. This story wriggles free of tropes by having its menace in the form of a very creepy infection, presents some unsettling moments of horror, and boasts a strong character journey for its protagonist.

Any fan of Aliens will recall the scene when clammy, corporate snake Carter Burke betrays Ripley, scarpers alone, and is last seen whimpering as an alien strikes. “Dark Mother” by David Farland sees him being taken away and cocooned: a fate that was originally filmed but dropped as it didn’t quite gel with the xenomorph life cycle. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting gap to fill, and we watch Burke trapped in the nest and trying to escape while Ripley charges about with her flamethrower, adding another layer to the film. I also love the way Burke – true to form – immediately tries to negotiate with the alien that takes him. A Company man through and through, it made me chuckle that he’d even take a punt at bribing such a creature. The author also trickles in backstory of Burke’s privileged but dysfunctional upbringing, helping to explain the man he is and also the kind of people who work for Weyland-Yutani.

The main problem with “Dark Mother” is editorial, summed up by a slab of editor’s notes that somehow made it into the text. The issue with the alien life cycle still remains, and the accidentally-included notes only draw more attention to this. There are other confusing errors such as a pursuing alien on Ripley’s tail being described as being on “Ridley’s tale” which wrenched me out of the moment as I paused to work it out.  The final page also has the air of being unfinished, but the earlier mistakes make it difficult to be sure. Yet despite all this, David Farland presents some brittle and stark scenes, and does very well with presenting a protagonist that everybody hates. Or loves to hate.

“Episode 22” by Larry Correia is certainly the most quirky read of the collection. Rather than standard prose, this is a journalistic article about the history of the M-41A pulse rifle. While that might sound bland, it’s a neat piece of writing. There are quotes from marines, discussions regarding weapon development, and the timeless problem of corporations making budget shortcuts while the frontline are simply trying not to die. The humour is well gauged, and this line from a lance corporal regarding the nickname of “pulse rifle” is among many that made me grin.

“The problem with calling the M41 that is always some dumb boot hears we get issued pulse rifles and gets all excited thinking it’s going to be shooting laser beams or something. What do they think this is? Sci-fi?”

In “Deep Background” by Keith R.A. DeCandido, the corporate ruthlessness hinted at in “Episode 22” is taken to expert levels. We find a journalist conducting an investigation of Weyland-Yutani by tagging along with a unit of marines called into action. It’s punchy, tackles cover-ups from an interesting perspective, and delivers a sting in the tail.

Mood piece meets psychological drama with Brian Keene’s “Empty Nest” as we join a lance corporal who discovers a surviving woman in a xenomorph nest.

But something’s not quite right, neither with her nor the nightmarish surroundings. The author skilfully plants a sense of unease in the reader, and this plays out in an off-kilter, intriguing story that lets you guess some of it along the way, but still saves an emotional and visceral sucker punch or two. This is quality writing with a truly haunting tone.

We’re treated to a comic-book style yarn with “Darkness Falls” by Heather Graham, concerning an ex-marine captain retired to a pleasant terraformed planet. But after people are attacked in a local mine, she’s lured back into action by a solemn but wise local police officer. The whole thing has a pleasing monster-movie feel, helped by the particular species with which the xenomorphs have birthed (Aliens “DNA-fix” and take on some of their host’s physical characteristics) and I won’t spoil that outrageous surprise. There’s a couple of editing hiccups, but it’s a cinematic ride with memorable characters that manages to be a blast without losing the darkness integral to the films.

Nothing is more hellish than a scuttling facehugger intent on ramming its ovipositor down the nearest throat, and “Hugs To Die For” by Mike Resnick and Marina J. Lostetter certainly nails the horror.

Set in a time when alien organics are used in construction and engineering, it involves an unfinished egg vault facility containing hundreds of facehuggers that inevitably escape. And hurrah for that! Unfortunately, the manner of the breakout was too easy for me. Surely the tanks would be appropriately designed given the extreme danger, but the beasts manage to melt and bash their way out. I suppose human idiocy and complacency are all part of the point, as is the nature of the alien as one of chaos that refuses to be contained, but it could’ve been more convincing. That niggle aside however, a hugger swarm is quite the blood-curdling spectacle, and I love it that they are capable of strategizing en masse. Combining biological and behavioural science with violence, this is a thrilling short.

Jonathan Maberry’s “Deep Black” revisits Fiorina “Fury” 161 – the bleak ex-industrial penal colony – with a refreshing change in film. Despite it being long abandoned after the events of Alien 3, somebody has suddenly turned on the power. Nicely utilising a first-person perspective, we join Harper and his small but tough squad of soldiers on a mission to make sure that none of Weyland-Yutani’s competitors are sniffing around for alien leftovers.

Described as a “pimple on the devil’s taint” by one of the squad, this story deftly evokes the grim atmosphere of that isolated and malignant place. It has frightening scenes, an authentic military feel through Harper’s voice, and there’s plenty of reference to Ellen Ripley and her legacy. It also begs the question “When will Weyland-Yutani ever learn?” Hopefully never!

“Perkins was looking right at Callaghan when her head exploded inside the hard shelter of her environment helmet.”

Thus begins “Distressed” by James A. Moore (author of Alien: Sea of Sorrows) dropping the reader into battle with no regard for ceremony. We meet Callaghan, part of a marine squad investigating a supply ship which has fallen to a bizarre mech-alien attack that is consuming everything, including the ship itself. This is sumptuously written, a good example being the description of blood, body parts and debris floating around in zero-gravity as “It was like being inside a madman’s snow-globe.” There’s a palpable mythos feel even though it doesn’t feature traditional aliens, and another wry nod to the Company’s methods of employee “incentive”.

When beginning this collection, I really hoped someone would write from a xenomorph’s point of view, despite how difficult it could be to make this work. I was delighted to discover that Scott Sigler has succeeded mightily with “Dangerous Prey”.

Told in the present tense and immaculate in tone, it follows an injured alien – the protector – during an attack on a human installation. The sheer otherness of thought – its intelligence and the machinations of the hive mind – are superbly conveyed. The text brims with detail, such as the protector viewing marine armour as their “mottled green carapace” and the human installation as an “alien hive”. Naturally, xenomorphs don’t really understand technology and guns, so I loved the distinction our protagonist makes between its unarmed enemies and those with the “loud stingers” which ties into the title.

“The protector launches itself high into the air just as more flashes from the loud-sting tear into the others behind it. The dangerous prey angles the loud-stinger up, but it is too late…”

Yep, armed human beings are the dangerous prey to which it refers. We’re the aliens here, and not only did I find myself gripped by the chaos of war from such an exquisitely foreign perspective, but also cheering the protector on. You know how when you’re watching a nature documentary, you’ll empathise with whichever survival story is being told, regardless of whether that’s the lion or the wildebeest? Rather wonderfully, I found that the same happened here, despite my own kind being the “enemy”. Nudging me into species-based treason – in a matter of seconds – is quite an authorial achievement.

“Dangerous Prey” triumphs because we learn about the insectile society and chilling physiology of aliens without ever feeling lectured. The instinctive awakening of eggs is beautifully done, as is the reign of the queen, the author using imaginative science without ever dulling the excitement. Quite the contrary, it only serves to deepen our understanding of these most fascinating of monsters and improve the reading experience. From the protector’s frustrations to its use of sound and pheromone communication, I absolutely loved these few precious minutes inside an alien’s terrible, elongated head. My favourite piece of the collection, and one to read again.

That just leaves “Spite” by Tim Lebbon (fresh from Alien: Out of the Shadows and the superlative Alien vs. Predator Rage War trilogy). It made sense to save a writer with such niche experience for the finale, and in “Spite”, he brings back old favourite Major Akoko Halley from the Rage War. Along with her elite squad of Devil Dogs, she lands on an artificial habitat to discover that everything’s burned and melted, and while this might seem familiar at first, the damage is the work of a much more explosive species. Abundant firestorms await, and some world-beating treachery that would make Carter Burke raise an eyebrow. While I might’ve preferred old-school aliens for the collection’s incendiary showdown, this is robust storytelling and concludes the book on a high.

Although Bug Hunt is reasonably strong overall, there are a few glitches. Having completed it, some of the numerous firefights we’ve enjoyed blur into one, and a couple of the tales – while decent enough – don’t really feel like Aliens stories. As dedicated fans, we bristle at anything that doesn’t seem to share our passion and we want the mythos to be at the very heart of the fiction, not just a garnish. Some of them also don’t slot into the timeline well enough to be regarded as canon. While this is mentioned in the introduction, and the lack of authorial constraint has resulted in some interesting off-piste wanderings, that doesn’t always stop it from jarring.

The main problem is editorial issues, which is something I’ve never experienced with Titan Books before. Perhaps it was rushed for the release of Alien: Covenant, but typos and text errors pop up throughout, and it’s occasionally clear a line has been cut without smoothing over the rough edges. There is also the absolute whopper of the printed editorial notes I mentioned earlier. Although it wasn’t enough to spoil my reading, it’s unacceptable in a mass-market release, and sadly loses marks for that.

But gripes aside, this is a compulsive tome with something for casual sf horror readers and alien aficionados alike. Even the flawed stories bring something to this most gruesome of parties, and the true winners – such as “Broken” and “Dangerous Prey” – are genuine 10 out of 10s. It’s value for money at 400 pages, and the vision of the talented contributors keeps it sufficiently varied. It might also please those who have wearied of Ridley Scott’s philosophical creationism in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant by concentrating on the gunfights and horde attacks of yore. There’s action, mood, pathos, horror and corruption aplenty, and while die-hards might get annoyed by the lack of purist effort made here and there, they’ll also find plenty to devour.

Over the last couple of years, Titan Books have done a grand job of keeping us infused with acid blood and death by face-jawing. Aliens: Bug Hunt shows a reassuring dedication to the cause. Long may they continue, and all involved in this mission should get extra cornbread with their rations and be allowed to play on the power loader.

Enjoy, and stay frosty.

(Screencaps taken from Aliens (1986) and Alien 3 (1992) – 20th Century Fox)

Review: “Devil’s Highway” by Simon Bestwick (The Black Road: Book 2)

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Simon Bestwick’s “Hell’s Ditch” – a convincing and exciting vision of post-nuclear Britain – was one of my favourite reads of last year.

I wondered where he would go from there, especially as this is not only the ‘difficult sequel’ but only the second of a four-part series from Snowbooks. It turns out that for this instalment of the Black Road Quartet, he’s decided to whiten everyone’s knuckles with an extraordinary and relentless blast that throws post-apocalypse, violent military thriller and supernatural sf/horror into the cauldron and leaves it all to boil over.

devils-highway-coverOne of the remarkable things about this novel is that it seems to work as a standalone. It’s almost a year since I read the first book, and wondered if I should dip in and refresh, but there was no need. Of course my memory was jogged by the familiar characters and milieu, but Simon Bestwick ensures that things fall neatly into place on their own. That said, I’d still advise reading “Hell’s Ditch” first because it too is an excellent book (my full review here) and also because it will ensure maximum enjoyment from this. Both you and the author deserve that.

But, anyway. Dust has almost settled on the rebel uprising and showdown of the first book. The Reapers, a brutal militia led by Commander Tereus Winterborn, still rule with an iron fist over a beleaguered population, but the rebels have made gains over the harsh winter. Winterborn is attempting to locate their central base – an old fort built into a cliff-side above a system of caves out in the sprawling wasteland -and it’s not just their stronghold he wants. He’s obsessed with bringing the resistance’s poster-girl Helen Damnation to a ghastly end. But at the same time, something is stirring from the ruins at an abandoned base that saw terrifying cosmic experiments, and it becomes clear that guns and knives won’t stop what is being unleashed.

Right from the start of “Devil’s Highway”, we know it’s all about kick off. Like a Mad Max version of the build up to the battle of Helm’s Deep, the author masterfully raises the tension, so it’s a genuinely difficult book to put down before it has even really got going.

After a bloody rebel attack on a Reaper convoy, Winterborn and the psychopathic Colonel Jarrett start closing in on their base. With the help of Dr Kellett, they use a creature of his laboratory tinkering called the Catchman. Sporting glass eyes, claws and a vast, toothsome grin, the Catchman is part mechanical and part flesh: a custom-built hound on the scent. It’s a glorious concept and flawlessly described as the fury of the flesh combines with mechanical calm – the “machine” vs “red brain” – and a far more interesting way to instigate a stalk than an actual hound or simple manhunt. There’s also great attention to detail out in the windswept wastes of the post-nuclear midlands, and I enjoyed the glimpses of rustic life such as the boat people who live in the marshes, unaware of what terrors are moving in their midst.

This hill-climb is made all the more ominous by the Genetic Renewal Division, or “Jennywrens” for short; Winterborn’s merciless extermination squads. They’re chilling enough as individuals or patrols, and readers of “Hell’s Ditch” will be familiar with their barbaric antics, so when a veritable army of them hoves into view on the shattered horizon, the threat is quite exquisite.

After some good old fashioned skulduggery, the tipping point arrives, and from then on the pace and intensity of this novel rarely ebbs until its deeply satisfying conclusion. We are treated to page after page of exploding brickwork, pounding blood, screaming engines, tinkling shells and the rending of flesh, and the action is so clear and succinct – with just the right level of military and technical detail – that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. In fact, it’s never less than addictive. “Hell’s Ditch” was the early stages of the uprising. “Devil’s Highway” is all-out war.

The noise is tempered in the second half of the novel with some very pleasing flashbacks to fill in back story of several characters. These episodes of relative calm allow the reader to catch their breath and gather, but also bring energy of a different kind as humanity, romance, friendship, betrayal and all manner of internal struggles balance the hellish battle that hammers on in the main thread.

Characterisation was a strong point of the first instalment, as it is of any Simon Bestwick tale, and the characters I’d grown to love have all evolved after the long winter since we last met them.

Helen Damnation, the biggest thorn in both Winterborn and Jarret’s sides, is still haunted by her dead family via the phenomenon known as “ghost-lighting”. We learn about her as a teenager during the early days of the Jennywren cleansing and just how vicious they can be. But then so can she. It’s great to read of her formative years and how she ended up with the rebels, and also explains exactly why she’s such a force of nature.

“The things she’s seen and done and felt are old shrapnel: lodged deep, imperfectly healed around, locked where they can’t cause pain except when the wind blows cold”

The last surviving Grendelwolf, Gevaudan Shoal, is back with a flourish. Born of Dr Kellett’s nasty science, almost indestructible and designed to kill, his dry wit, love of music, weary amiability and massive heart are always a pleasure. As are his furious episodes of slaughter on the battlefield. He’s become very close to Helen, which just makes his polar nature more interesting; he’s a ruthless killer and yet such a sweetheart. This is epitomised by a nice moment when he averts his gaze because Helen is changing her clothes while the stains of his last Reaper bloodbath have barely dried on his claws. He’s a very sage man, and although we get a few snippets of his back story, plenty of mystery is maintained. Which is just the way the privately dignified Gevaudan would like it.

Young Danny Morwyn has morphed from nervous newbie to hardened soldier, and Allanah Vale – the resistance veteran who was tortured by Jarrow – is no less damaged, but muscled rather than shrinking, and consumed with the fire of vengeance.

Darrow, Wakefield, Flaps, and the other minor characters are fully fleshed, and we feel for them after only the briefest introduction, such is the author’s talent for investment. Scopes – a near-silent and skinny sharpshooter – is one such character I fell for, despite her lack of speech and relatively short screen time. There’s a poignancy about the younger fighters, all feisty, innocent and afraid. But it’s a different and darker kind of fear for the veterans, because they know the true nature of what’s coming for them.

I really like Zaq, a straight talking and fierce gunsmith who lurks by furnace-light in the fort’s armoury. She scares pretty much everybody, which leads to some splendid and wry dialogue with Gevaudan. The women in this world are just as physically strong and frontline as the men, not because of politics or authorial agenda, but simply because this post-apocalyptic wasteland and its denizens has no concern for gender.

And then there’s the Reapers, of course. Tereus Winterborn – a man who manages to be consumed with rage and utterly calm at the same time – is as vicious, petulant and elegant as ever: all the things an ultra-creepy fascist dictator should be. He still elicits a degree of sympathy, thanks to more fascinating history reveals, and it makes us wonder if he could ever have been anything else? I was riveted by his metamorphosis from child into the monster we see before us now, and we learn why he’s so full of obsessive rage towards Helen. Many of the characters have a nemesis, some of whom are unaware of that fact, and this is put to good use. It’s all about those key moments in life, those forks in the road where people can go either way and be derailed by the subtlest nudge. A strong theme in this book, it shows the enormous influence we have on others whether we realise it or not, and whether we even want – or accept – that responsibility.

Things are never quite black and white with Simon Bestwick, and although there is an undisguised contempt for the Reapers and their vile regime – and rightly so – he doesn’t blame the trapped youths sucked into their ranks to be spat out as cannon fodder. We see the point of view of angry and terrified teenagers such as a young Jennywren called Walters, thrown in at the deep end and under fire of Normandy beach landing proportions. As they cower beneath the onslaught, you really get the miserable horror of being sent to die by the machine. There is also one death scene that I expected to be a satiating revenge kill, which instead turned out to be strangely elegiac. But then, just as the lines between good and evil start to blur, the Jennywrens will beat some children to death with iron bars, and give us a stark reminder of what we were about to pity. I love this toying, and Simon Bestwick is very good at it. Even the amphetamine-popping Jarrow – Allanah’s old torturer –  who is some kind of heinous combination of Josef Mengele and Pinhead when it comes to inventive and ice-cold distribution of pain, has her demons and frailties, and worries about coming apart as she’s tormented by her ghost-lighting family.

Nevertheless, we root for the rebels and their inspiring solidarity in battle, so of course there’s heartbreak and heroism, but I found it refreshing that there’s never a moment of dumb gung-ho. The cruelty of war is laid bare, and the ever-wise Gevaudan Shoal sums it up best as he surveys the scene of a massacred Jennywren patrol:

“Next to a battle lost,” he muttered, “the saddest sight is a battle won.”

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a strong Mad Max feel about this book which was absent from “Hell’s Ditch”. Rather than an urban setting, this is the barren wastelands. It’s centred around a heavily armed stronghold, and fills spare moments with high-octane driving and convoy assaults. I loved the action sequences where engine oil joins the arterial spray as pimped-up cruisers flip and shatter in flame, and there’s also a splendid vehicle called the Battletruck that made this Fury Road devotee grin like a War Boy.

The military angle is convincing and much research has clearly been done regarding weaponry and mechanics, aiding the realism and also presenting some raw sniper warfare scenes. With regards to strategy, I like the way it tackles the responsibility of leadership and command, summed up by this powerful thought from someone with a conscience returning to the front line.

“So used to barking orders for others to run and shoot he’d nearly forgotten how it was. Half-scared. Half-glad. At least in that kind of fighting it was simpler; just his life lost if he fucked up.”

The structure is in the form of short chapters, each with a military-esque designation of place, sector, date and time. This is appropriately cinematic, suits the tone of the story to a tee, and is also a neat way of letting us keep track of so many locales and characters as it jumps around.

There’s some exhilarating stalk and kill scenes, and the story gets very tense as it careers into a muscular finale that finally lets the fireworks fizzle out before braining you with pathos. There’s genuine poignancy in this novel, and the intimate relationships that form are brittle. It actually made me tear up, twice towards the end, and not with annoying schmaltz but simple and honest human feelings.

But overall, what an incredible ride this is. The dystopian fire that “Hell’s Ditch” stoked explodes with “Devil’s Highway” using a cast of fully-forged characters to drag us into an epic and imaginative action sequel where nobody touches the brakes, but still makes time to give your heart a good squeeze amid the blood and thunder. It might have been my imagination, but I’m sure my ears were whistling by the end.

The potent conclusion perfectly winds up this part of the story, setting up Book 3 with just the right measure of resolution and anticipation. With the Black Road Quartet now half complete, the bar is set impressively high, but Simon Bestwick gives us no reason to think that the rest of this tour-de-force in progress will be anything less than superb.

Highly recommended.

*Visit the Black Road website here for information on the series, background, character profiles and more.

Review – “The Final Cut” by Jasper Bark

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There are two kinds of horror stories guaranteed to worm their way under my skin: those about snuff movies, and those written by Jasper Bark. Given his track record of elegant nastiness and a sense of humour that would make Satan’s concubines blush, I was delighted when he decided to run with the concept.

‘The Final Cut’ from Crystal Lake Publishing begins promisingly in a sinister lock-up. Here we meet Jimmy and Sam, two indie film-makers, who find themselves lashed to chairs by a dangerous loan-shark named Ashkan. Keen to settle a drug debt, Ashkan is forcing the young men to watch a snuff film as a taster of what their future holds if they don’t pay up sharpish.

fcWhile our two helpless protagonists are mesmerised by the sickening torture, the lock-up is invaded by unseen attackers who slaughter Ashkan and his entourage then vanish without a word. Left shocked and drenched in blood, Jimmy and Sam flee with the snuff film, and soon hatch a terribly ill-advised plan. They decide to use the illegal footage as the centrepiece for a new horror film of their own.

But during auditions for the wraparound segments of their project, they meet Melissa: an intriguing woman who bears an exact likeness to a victim in the snuff film. Jimmy and Sam soon find that ancient myths are alive in the city, and as curiosity and desire hook them in, they become entwined with a grim and erotic fantastique that seems to promise nothing but suffering for anyone concerned.

There’s a bit of everything in this superb book: philosophy, mythology, quiet horror, and of course plenty of gore and sex. Immediately after the horrific opening scene in the lock-up, there’s a taxi journey that features a fascinating discussion about ancient concepts infiltrating urban life, reminding us that there is always depth with Mr Bark. The extremes are not just to shock. They are sometimes used as a bludgeon to cripple us into joining Jimmy and Sam on their journey to hell, but also woven into the heart of the story and its themes.

I did wonder upon starting this novel if there would be a sense of humour. Jasper Bark’s 2014 novella ‘Stuck On You’ is one of the most darkly comical stories I’ve ever read (with his short story ‘Taking The Piss’ not far behind it). I soon discovered that ‘The Final Cut’ treads a far more sobering path, but that said, it’s not completely desolate. We get the familiar camaraderie and wit with character and dialogue, and there’s a magical alleyway segment that put me in mind of Harry Potter. We also get the occasional sick glint in the eye, such as this splendid hanging line at the end of a chapter:

“Please don’t let me come, not now.”

But the subject matter isn’t really designed for larks of even the blackest kind, and any momentary whimsy only serves to accentuate the darkness that will loom again so soon.

Due to their vile nature, snuff films are a great device for leaking sourness into the atmosphere, so I knew it would be carnival time for this author. I’ll say I was almost braced for the outrageously gruesome scenes that play out in high-definition, nerve-tenderising detail, but not quite, and I suspect there will be raised eyebrows from other seasoned readers too. The erotic threads are also an essential part of the narrative, and these become obsessive and tainted, with all boundaries of good taste hoofed aside in glee. One chapter in which a character has masturbated himself quite literally raw to the murder footage is an arresting image that I won’t forget in a hurry. But such displays are also there to be a triumph of mood, capturing a wonderful spiral of decline and abuse. Never has desire been so self-destructive and bleak.

The characters are all flawed, and while this is realistic (well-adjusted people tend not to end up involved with drugs and snuff films) it doesn’t always then make it easy for readers to care. But this author is no stranger to presenting selfish and irresponsible protagonists with wobbly moral cores, and knows how to keep them just the right side of the line. He explains their failings to reduce judgement, and introduce pathos and sympathy, and we soon realise that the tale isn’t so much about them anyway, but humanity as a whole and powers bigger than us all.

We’re treated to some terrifying antagonists. The gangsters are connected and palpably vicious, immediately recognisable as people you do not fuck with under any circumstance. The tone of this criminal underworld is immaculate, and also utilised to magnify the threat of the larger supernatural forces at work. When we learn that a chilling crime boss – a man casual with torture and execution – is genuinely afraid of these powers, it creates the menace without description and therefore also serves to maintain the mystery. The mythical elements are sufficiently tactile to suspend disbelief, and although I usually regard the paranormal as a bit of fun, it certainly doesn’t bring any fun to this party.

The back story is nicely built as the plot thickens, and it didn’t go in directions I expected. It’s one of those tales where details forever catch your attention, only to be neatly explained when you’d almost forgotten about them later on. This creates a very pleasing reading experience. It is also one in which you know you can relax, safe in the knowledge that the author has got you. Well, okay, don’t ever relax with a Jasper Bark novel – that way, insanity lies – but you know what I mean.

Reflections on horror as entertainment are worked into the dialogue: why we love it, the catharsis of creation, the functionalism and psychology behind it all. It discusses stories about stories, and the essence of storytelling itself, from ancient oral traditions through to digital media. In fact, it takes this thread to a level I haven’t seen before, and a very dark one at that. And do stories ever end?

There’s also some great material on celluloid fame, neatly concluding that: “Fame was all they had to show for their efforts, so they clung to it, like the stiffening fingers of a corpse clinging to the poisoned chalice that took its life.”

This book also nails the idea that you can’t unsee something, as any witness to atrocity – on video or otherwise – will wholeheartedly agree. In fact, ‘The Final Cut’ probably qualifies as a meta-documentary with its tantalising thoughts regarding horror, so it can be enjoyed on this level if you want. But such philosophy is added with the lightest of brush strokes, and never weighs it down as it builds to a satisfying showdown and a whole new layer of sick chills.

Some of Jasper Bark’s finales are twists or curveballs that leave you stunned and/or guiltily amused. Some are slow burners that take a while to sink in, and leave a strange feeling of violation. This is a bit of both, and actually rather epic overall as mere humans clash with horrors so grand. I also reread several earlier chapters upon finishing, and I love a piece that offers the opportunity to enjoy past scenes through a new filter when certain knowledge is in place. This time around, I also noticed some subconscious things the author had planted, which is a nice glimpse into the machinations of the writing art.

Jasper Bark has incredible storytelling skills, showcased in the way he can segue between splatterpunk, erotica, magical realism and gritty crime without glitch. Whether you’re familiar with this author or not, brace yourself, because you’ll be fouled either way. Like poor Sam who can’t stop abusing himself to snuff until his sanity is in tatters, you’ll just keep coming back for more.

I’m glad that there is something a bit wrong with Jasper Bark, and maybe the often-misused phrase “guilty pleasure” actually applies here. His talent would’ve been wasted on the wholesome and mainstream. Few people write to extremes with such craft and insight, and I’m eternally grateful that his imagination is irretrievably lost to the dark side. The world of horror would be a much nicer place without his stories, and that wouldn’t do at all.

 

Review – “Dead Shift” by John Llewellyn Probert

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The last tale I read by this author was in one of the Black Books of Horror, and it seemed as though he’d toned down his trademark dry humour and aimed further under the skin. I was therefore keen to read his new novella from Horrific Tales. Touted as a nocturnal battle for survival in a hospital beset by trans-dimensional monstrosities, I was pleased to discover that it contains everything that’s great about a classic John Llewellyn Probert story: characters we can root for, muscular dialogue, wit, a pervading sense of Britishness, and – of course – an onslaught of outrageous and grisly horror.

Dead shiftFirst we meet Arthur Lipscomb – a man addled by cancer – who has assumed ownership of an occult book. After being discovered halfway through a bloodletting ritual in a derelict block of flats, he’s rushed to Northcote Hospital still clinging to his tome, but the awakened forces refuse to be dissuaded by medical intervention.

As the night shift begins, we meet Dr Richard Dearden – a consultant diligently staying late after his shift in the Accident and Emergency Department –  and his friend Dev Choudry: a wisecracking pathologist who’s similarly snowed under with work. But when Arthur Lipscomb’s blood test results show that he’s actually clinically dead and a body rises in the mortuary to attack them, the two colleagues realise that the stuff of nightmares has been unleashed. Toothsome tentacles start to burst from operating theatre walls, staff are ferociously slaughtered, and virulent spores infest the patients and wards. Something cosmic is trying to change the very fabric of the hospital, and those who survive the bloody violence may well be in for a fate worse than being disassembled and strewn about the corridors. Teaming up with Sandra Harris – a resourceful orthopaedic registrar – our staunch but slightly reluctant heroes must tool up and fight for their own lives, perhaps even for the future of the world.

The book opens with an evocative scene of urban decay. I think starting off with several pages of traditional description can be a brave move, but I’d happily listen to this author describe my garden shed with his wry observation and the way he exposes potential story layers in everything. “Like a whipped puppy fearful of yet another beating, light shied away from Northcote Park housing estate.” I think it works as an introduction, and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the characters step up to drive the rest of the tale.

And while making an example of the dreaded simile – a terrible tool in the hands of the amateur or over-enthusiastic writer – I must point out that Mr Probert saves them for when they really count. This can be to amuse as well as to unsettle, and lines such as “A sound, not unlike a large balloon being slowly deflated between two slices of wet liver, suddenly came from cubicle one” betrays a scatological irreverence that frankly, I find rather life-affirming.

Richard is a pleasant lead and naturally inclined towards common sense which allows him to cope. He makes logical decisions based on what his eyes tell him, and thus avoids being stuck in a spiral of increasing disbelief and terror at the hellish shenanigans. He’s actually quite brave, and this stems from his pragmatism rather than any desire for gung-ho heroics. Dev the pathologist is somewhat subversive and weird, like anyone who works with dead bodies for a living should be, and takes gallows humour to expert levels while keeping his heart in the right place. He’s a solid foil for Richard, especially when they’re shoulder to shoulder in battle, but even their camaraderie can’t lighten everything that Northcote Hospital has in store.

I also liked Sandra Harris, the surgeon. She’s pleasingly hard but compassionate, and her snappy impatience when it all kicks off is endearing. Like the author, I work in critical care, and can vouch that these character types are exactly the kind that populate the corridors of hospitals at night, so if you’re in the business, you might get a few extra smiles from the fond familiarity. The remaining cast of support workers, nurses and porters are also fully rounded and shine through their interaction. And their horrendous deaths.

At times, this story is pure, ghastly fun. One scene involves Richard and Dev attempting to keep the occult book away from a reanimated corpse, and they throw it between themselves as the creature lurches back and forth, holding it up out of reach as though teasing a grasping child.

But while plenty of chuckles are provided by the droll prose, there are visceral shocks. Some of the most cinematic images in this story involve gallons of blood, and there are magnificently ominous moments too. I do like the “tipping point” in fiction such as this, in which after a gradual build-up of menace, hell finally boils over. Here, it occurs while Richard is on the phone to Sandra who is in the middle of an operation. Their conversation is interrupted with background crashes, screams, and Sandra’s panicked pleas for help, and it’s so well written that we could almost be there with Richard, the phone helplessly glued to our ear.

Another foreboding scene I particularly enjoyed was when the trio manage to contact a professor of occult studies via the internet. Having explained their exact predicament of rituals and releasing such terrors, they ask him what they can do. The expert’s reply is succinct and perfectly portentous.

“Nothing.”

All great stuff, but it’s the characters themselves that really power this piece, made relatable by being convincing and ordinary. Their professional knowledge of anatomy is put to imaginative and darkly comedic use, and social interaction grounds everything firmly as the reality wanders. There’s a nice moment when a mildly embarrassing gaffe (Richard shakes Dev’s hand when he was holding it out for another reason) consumes Richard with shame, despite the doom facing him and possibly the rest of the world. What it is to be human.

The plentiful dialogue is natural and often warm, comforting us through the extreme moments. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the hope, humour and compassion that is part of the human soul even when trapped in a world that makes it all seem pointless. And on the subject of metaphors, a clever one is revealed later on which brings a structure to the cosmic madness and keeps it all on track. This neatly ties into the conclusion which in addition to providing some gruesome spectacle, also brings refreshing pathos to counter the carnage and japes.

As I’ve said in reviews before, John Llewellyn Probert is a master of blending the classic and modern. He presents contemporary characters and sensibilities, but stirs in ancient horrors and an erudite prose style to ensure we get the best of both worlds. And while there are no huge surprises here for fans of this author – or indeed horror fiction overall – there’s certainly no shortage of imagination or pace.

With “Dead Shift”, our genre’s treasured mischief-maker has served up a macabre and humorous treat. Whether you prefer the supernatural menace of Wheatley or Lovecraft, or the gleeful noise of zombies, monsters and siege-style action thrillers, there’s plenty in this novella to give your inner ghoul a smile.

Review – “The Hyde Hotel” Proprietors: James Everington & Dan Howarth

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Everybody has stayed at the Hyde Hotel. You too. Remember?

It was that nondescript, faded building that seemed to blend with the concrete surroundings. You almost walked right past. It was the one with the magnolia walls and laminated fire-drill posters. The window didn’t open properly, your view was a brick-walled alleyway, and a previous guest had left something disconcerting in a drawer.

HydeSuch is the setting of this themed anthology from Black Shuck Books. Proprietors James Everington and Dan Howarth welcome a selection of unfortunate guests to the Hyde: a plain but serviceable budget hotel geared towards the single traveller, just the same as any other. At least that’s how it appears at first. But whether the new guests are on personal jaunts, business, or up to no good, they’ll soon discover that it’s the last place you want to prop your toothbrush for the night.

This book succeeds on both premise and delivery. It plays on the fact that inner-city hotels are a functional if soulless segment of many people’s lives, and uses this familiarity as a canvas for horror. Anything could be hiding in all those empty rooms or behind the gaze of that waitress or obsequious manager. These kind of hotels are places where nobody feels at home, somehow faceless and entombed, sealed away from the hubbub of whatever city they inhabit. And as the anthology guidelines were clearly grounded in the urban mundane, there’s no picturesque castle retreats, breath-taking architecture or honeymooning couples to be found. Rather, we visit a range of Hyde Hotels that may be different buildings in varying locales, but all have interchangeable rooms with dreary views in which people drink alone with too much time to think.

But on to the individual stories. The first (and last) piece is by James Everington, bookending our stay with perfect use of 2nd person. “Checking In” is exactly that, using superb attention to detail to convey the accustomed banality, but also a playfully ominous tone that prepares us for what’s to come.

Next is “The View from the Basement” by Alison Littlewood. We meet Leslie, visiting his particular Hyde on a city break without his wife for reasons that are initially mysterious. But she seems to have followed him in spirit, and when suggestions of her start to materialise in situation and dialogue, the stage is set for an elegiac finale. The author is magnificent at this kind of haunting mood, commanding succinct observational skills and a keen eye for the subtly macabre.

Next, Iain Rowan introduces us to Wilson in “Night Porters”. He’s an unadventurous man working away for a week to meet clients, and this tale instantly nails the life of the travelling businessman. Wilson repeatedly props up the hotel bar with the night porter, but something isn’t quite right about the fellow. Or the manager, for the matter, whose lingering grin makes Wilson feel uneasy. This is a well-written, Twilight-Zone-esque short with some spine-tingling flourishes in the prose that really stick.

Things take a noir turn in “Tick Box” by Dan Howarth. Here we find Edwards, a hitman getting back into the game and checking in as part of a job. His return to work is meticulously planned, but things unravel when he gets drunk in the bar and starts a scene. The crime vibe makes for a nice change after the creepy horror thus far, and it’s a pleasingly gruesome story that concludes with a deft teaser.

“The Edifice of Dust” by Amelia Mangan stars Phaedra: an architect hiding from the world after a building she designed collapsed. While staying at the Hyde, the dust in the old building takes her on a historical journey, and the architectural theme ties in cleverly with the story’s structure. The ethereal dust becomes as much a character as Phaedra, and although the pace lagged slightly for me towards the end, there’s a beauty to this enjoyably brooding cosmic tale.

S.P. Miskowski presents the journal of an American tourist in “Lost and Found”. We learn that the author of the journal is a huge fan of Muriel Watson: a now-deceased writer who found limited success during her troubled life. The author plans to visit the school where Muriel taught, her beloved bookshop, and is sure to request the very same rooms at the hotel where Muriel did much of her writing. But these plans are interrupted by an unexplained exhaustion, and some kind of haunting essence in the building itself. Tackling the ephemeral nature of art, lost talent, and the repetition of history, this is an elegant and powerful piece cemented together with chills.

A scene of grim death has already occurred when we join “Housekeeping” by Ray Cluley. Debbie, a member of hotel staff, is cleaning rooms when she discovers a bloody suicide in a shower cubicle. But she’s lured by her ghoulish curiosity (Hurrah!) and instead of running for management, she decides to explore the grisly scene herself. A razor sharp short – the shortest in the book I think – it has more going on than meets the eye and begs to be re-read, which is easily done given the crisp length. It boasts a splendid double-reveal of a finale and is one of my two favourite stories in this collection.

A layered tale follows with “Something Like Blood” by Alex Davis. We find Michael – an apparently successful man – on the run for reasons which are saved until later. After checking in and deciding that the Hyde’s deep red and black colour scheme isn’t the warmest of welcomes, he’s also perturbed by the deserted bar and restaurant, not to mention the staff themselves. A young waitress starts to remind him of the woman he left behind, and blood becomes an uncomfortable reoccurring theme in his stay. This author has great voice and the metaphorical threads are particularly well-observed. I found that it got bogged down slightly towards the end, but concludes with a satisfying and nightmarish finale.

“Arthur Charles Manfred Edwards, resting against the hotel room door, handle poking into his back and fire emergency poster affixing itself to his bald patch, clutched the bomb to his chest.”

Thus begins “The Coyote Corporation’s Misplaced Song” by Cate Gardner, a very colourful experience about a suicide bomber who is irrationally terrified of children. Which is a big problem for him, because his bomb happens to be a six year old boy. Despite that pitch-perfect opener, I didn’t warm to this story at first. I think it was because I found it so unexpectedly surreal, it caught me off-guard. So I cleared my brain of any preconceptions, started again, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Well-crafted and intriguing, it’s a wild ride that keeps us guessing until the end.

The Hyde Hotels of this anthology attract plenty of ne’er-do-wells, and that is certainly the case with Simon Bestwick’s “Wrath of the Deep”. Here we meet Kellett – another hitman – who is lying low and dodging the police. He’s been promised a healthy retirement package from his boss, on one condition. He must carry out one last execution: a professor who has stolen an ancient amulet, and who happens to be the only other guest of the hotel. This is smooth and instantly enjoyable storytelling. Kellett is quite investable for a murderer and the plot has plenty of tricks, starting off as crime before turning outrageously weird when the amulet comes into play. So much so, that I found it alarmingly comical at first and this is quite effective, whether it was the intention of the author or not. There’s a Lovecraftian tinge as it teases with the inevitable kick-off, and well-scribed action builds to a spectacular finale. Full of nuance and muscular dialogue, this is a fine fantastique that tackles allegiance and the nature of the monster.

Bang on theme is “The Sealed Window” by Mark West which concerns a chap named Hoffman. He loathes the oppressive heat and crowds of the city, and his journey begins with him already hot and bothered as he travels to the Hyde. Once there, the weird corridor design messes with his head, his room is too stuffy, and the window won’t open. When his peace is wrecked by a couple noisily abusing the headboard next door, his irritation and claustrophobia boils over. Tackling how an environment can truly disorientate, this piece stands out in evocation. It’s littered with great dialogue and sidesteps any expectations of cliché before finishing with a cracking punchline.

The other of my two overall favourites is “The Blue Room” by V.H. Leslie. A spooky and lush tale, it tells of Gwen, away from home without her husband for reasons of which we aren’t yet aware. Keen to settle in, she discovers that her room – and everything single thing in it – is a beautiful shade of blue. But while this provides a relaxing ambience at first, focussing on a Picasso painting on the wall, it soon turns sour. Strangers stare at her at breakfast, the waiter makes cryptic references to hell, and Gwen sees a ghostly woman flit past the door whilst drifting in the bath. She’s a likeable, fully realised character and I wondered if she was becoming ill, or if the hotel or painting itself was the cause. The prose brings an exquisite melancholy through the blueness, weaved into the very fabric of the story, and a sobering and very clever pay-off puts everything in place. I also love the way it works in Picasso’s wonderful “blue period” and this story is a favourite of mine partly for the sublime, art-infused mood. But it’s also for the conclusion, which is the finest the anthology has to offer and makes it a faultless choice for the last regular piece.

After that, we just have James Everington’s “Checking Out” to neatly complete the whole experience. His unnerving voice guides us  back out into the world following our time as a guest of the Hyde, alive but irretrievably altered, and a wry final paragraph ensures that we put the book down with a mischievous smile.

The Hyde Hotel is a solid mix of character-driven horror that captures the lot of the lone traveller. It’s one of the few situations in which we formally share breakfast with complete strangers – something that several of the stories here evoke with aplomb – and we’re often left skulking in our rooms, restless and out of sorts, yet simultaneously bestowed with a sense of freedom from domestic routine. But although a bland city hotel allows this liberation, it also forces reflection through the lack of much else to do. I think that’s the perfect time for something hellish to burst into anyone’s life.

I’ve seen themed compilations like this suffer from heavy overlap, but the fiction here is sufficiently varied. Even when there is repetition, this familiarity is part of the very concept so it doesn’t become a negative. In fact, it actually adds an overall insidious tone. The contributors create plenty of malevolence, sadness and terror through their thoughtful stories, and there’s something in this book for everyone.

So fill up your tiny kettle, open a complimentary sachet of instant coffee, and enjoy. Just don’t bother hanging the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.