Review – “The Eleventh Black Book of Horror” selected by Charles Black

2

The latest volume from Mortbury Press shows exactly why this series is still going strong, full of polished tales that rejuvenate the kind of classic and lurid horror we love. I only need to glimpse that familiar red font on some new Paul Mudie artwork before starting to resemble the harpies preparing for dinner on the cover, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Selected as ever by Charles Black, the eleventh book maintains the standard we’ve come to expect and brings sharp imagination to the tropes without losing any of the nasty fun.

BB11The curtain rises with “Two Five Seven” by Thana Niveau. A short piece that serves well as a taster, it’s narrated by a young girl visiting her grandfather’s rural cottage. She starts to hear the voice of another girl coming from inside his enormous old radio, and the menace swiftly mounts as her grandfather’s behaviour also takes a turn for the strange. Intriguing and effortless to read, it establishes the dark, dry tone that the series demands and treats us to an appropriately ghastly pay-off.

Next up, Edward Pearce takes us on a sinister visit to “East Wickenden”: a small, rural village with a secret history. We meet Paul, staying at the local pub and hoping to find out about heathen practices with the ultimate goal of getting his covetous hands on some ancient treasure. Although it doesn’t pack any huge surprises, it’s written with great style and brimming with unease.

One of the most raw experiences in this volume, and certainly the most memorable, is “Slaughtered Lamb” by Tom Johnstone. It’s related by a man named Robert in the form of an anecdote in a smoky gentleman’s club – a wraparound which is just as well painted as the main story itself – and concerns a travelling theatre company. Robert was a member as a teenager, and he tells of how they used to spice up a controversial political play about the Northern Irish bombings by using a real lamb carcass on stage. But things take a chilling turn when they arrive to perform in Belfast and Robert goes into a loyalist pub to try and source a carcass for the show. The tale is pitch perfect, and the grim political realism of that time makes it an unforgettably macabre – and ultimately terrifying – experience.

John Llewellyn Probert introduces us to Laura in “Forgive Us Not Our Trespasses”. A young woman discontented with life, she and her husband Alex embark on a retreat to the Somerset countryside. He desperately wants to conceive, but Laura doesn’t share his desire to start a family, and the supposedly romantic setting of the huge, isolated hotel doesn’t help. Her misery is soon compounded by the rain, an argument, and before long, nocturnal figures in the corridors and the discovery of a derelict church that bears the misquoted and baleful title of the piece. This is a well-crafted story, and very much driven by our protagonist. I particularly like how the palpable domestic situation grounds it so firmly in reality that when things get peculiar, we’re already strapped in for the ride and can’t escape before the bone-curdling showdown. One of John Llewellyn Probert’s less humorous and more viscerally disturbing works overall, it still has his trademark atmosphere, splendid prose and exuberance for all things gruesome.

“Without Facebook, it never would’ve happened.”

Thus begins the convincing and impeccably researched “Lord of the Sand” by Stephen Bacon: an immediately engaging account of an Iraq war veteran. He attends a Desert Storm reunion arranged through social media, and the intrigue thickens when we realise that the organiser – a nervous, restless chap nicknamed Beaky – has also invited Sergeant Hoggard. An alpha male who used to bully Beaky without mercy back in the day, we share our narrator’s unease when he turns up at the party, and also his suspicions. This author’s finest achievements are often of the quiet and haunting variety, but don’t let your guard down here. While it still has the Bacon mood and foreboding, this muscular piece of fiction wants to bite you in the face.

Kate Farrell takes us back in time for “Alma Mater”. We meet a group of four 12 year old girls: pupils at a strict boarding school run by nuns and full of the forbidden glee that comes so naturally to the young. They sneak off during breaks to regale each other with scary stories in the shadows of the pipe-threaded “Drying Room”, but it’s only a matter of time before malevolent forces come into play. I enjoyed the matter of fact style and realistic characters, and although the conclusion was a little straight forward, it succeeds as the old school chiller it set out to be and captures the delight of simple storytelling.

“Keeping The Romance Alive” by Stuart Young introduces us to Malcolm and Wendy. Having read 50 Shades of Grey, Wendy decides they need to spice up their sex lives, and Malcolm eventually confesses that his erotic fantasy would resemble a Hammer film including vampire costumes, sacrifice and special effects. Of course things don’t go as planned, but like a Final Destination film, it keeps us guessing about where death is lurking and what form it will take. Malcolm’s awkwardness and irritation at Wendy’s casual approach to his fantasy provides realism and humour, and it finishes with a punchline and a grisly picture for you to savour.

Turning the lights right down is “Teatime” by Anna Taborska, which bravely presents a negative protagonist in the form of Victor. He’s an intelligent, misogynistic, tea-drinking psychopath who soon progresses from tormenting rats in his university laboratory to killing women he meets in public. Razor keen and always one step ahead, the plot drags us helplessly along as Victor deftly stalks through life, charming his way into his future victim’s attentions. It nails the social niceties and manners we observe with strangers, even when they start being weird, and the tale is very well structured as a whole, especially regarding the use of perspective. Although it seemed to end a little quickly, the finale packs a wallop and left a sour taste in the mouth. As is the case with some of Anna Taborska’s past characters, Victor has decided to stay in my head, indifferent to whether I want him there or not.

“Lem” by David A. Riley is a deft, short piece about a couple of desperate ne’er-do-wells attempting an armed robbery on an elderly Jewish man. Although a fairly stock pay-off, it’s subtly monstrous in tone, and merges the unsavoury and satisfying elements of genre fiction to good effect.

Another shorter contribution, the excellent “Flies” by Tony Earnshaw could almost be the prologue of something much bigger. We meet Jim, a retired gentleman, walking his trusty dog Rufus down by a quiet cemetery and railway embankment. But he soon makes a grim discovery in the foliage, and the whole thing blossoms into a frenzied horror vignette as the title comes in to play. This is another that stayed with me, superb in evocation, and I loved the quiet, ominous teaser at the end.

Next up, David Williamson takes us to a good old-fashioned séance with “And The Dead Shall Speak”. Open-minded Tina is giving it a chance, unlike her sceptical boyfriend Craig, but the session ends when the medium – the pleasingly named Madam Orloff – scribbles something odd. It appears to be a furious message from a murder victim, and also seems genuine, so the scene is set for some detective work and naturally, another séance. This story only stalled for me when the angry spook apparently gave Tina an address and it took her forever to finally Google it, despite that being an immediately obvious thing to do. But apart from this, Tina is investable as an amateur paranormal sleuth and you’ll still get drawn in even if – like Craig – your opinion of psychic phenomenon is generally one of scorn. It concludes neatly with a riff in the vein of the Pan Books of Horror, and that couldn’t be more appropriate given the subject matter.

In “Every Picture Tells A Story” Marion Pitman tells the succinct tale of Wetherby: a professional artist who produces a cover for a zombie novel. To relieve his frustrations, he includes likenesses of people who’ve upset him as mutilated victims in the picture – his landlord, a council employee, his ex-wife – but then they start to die in similar ways to how his artwork depicted. Although a very familiar concept, it’s nicely set up, and this short piece leaves us guessing if the culprit is a crazed fan, some supernatural force or curse, or even Wetherby himself. Told in great voice, there’s some barbed lines to counter the gore, and at one point it made me laugh out loud.

I particularly savoured “The Weathervane” by Sam Dawson. We learn the plight of Thomas, a 15 year old staying at the ultra-traditional school of St. Abchurch, but only as a charity case rather than one of the gentry. Anxious to endear himself to his noble-blooded peers, he agrees to attempt a dangerous local dare that involves ascending the school’s chapel tower to spin the creepy, black weathervane at the peak. But it’s an escapade tainted with tragic history, and there’s also something the school’s headmaster knows. Not to mention the disabled gardener. This is a gripping journey of escalating doom, there are surprises that catch the reader as well as poor young Thomas, and the finale satisfies whilst leaving some mystery. This story also triumphs in both style and substance. It tackles the miserable cruelty of bullying and its consequences with powerful characterisation, but also injects plenty of exquisite spookiness that wouldn’t be out of place in an M.R. James book. I actually shivered in my chair during one climactic scene. Outstanding.

After that wander through the ivied quadrangles of the country’s elite, “Molli & Julli” by John Forth presents a very different journey, but one no less suffused with threat. In the swansong of the anthology, we meet Tom – a physically attractive but entitled and vain young man – setting off on a Friday night to drink heavily with his friends and meet girls. He meets two deeply unsettling women on the train into the city, and despite finding them ugly, he becomes strangely obsessed – and aroused – until their attentions twist the tone to manic horror. Although the ending wasn’t quite to my taste, I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I applaud the lingering attention to detail. The dizzying evocation of the heaving bars and noisy nightclubs as Tom’s world descends into helpless nightmare is immaculate, and I like it that it rounds off the book on a contemporary note.

The Eleventh Black Book of Horror is another colourful entry in an unflinching series that has carved its niche and knows exactly what we want. All the stories are thoughtfully written, character-driven, and whether they’re ice-cold, droll or have that traditional sting in the tail, they combine to form a distinct flavour of retro elegance and modern shocks. Sprinkle the whole thing with the darkest of humour and drape it in a stark cover by Paul Mudie, and you have the perfect tome for those who like to read with a wicked glint in their eye.

Review – “Hell’s Ditch” by Simon Bestwick

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – “Lost Girl” by Adam Nevill

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell’s waiting for you. Enjoy.

Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – “The Silence” by Tim Lebbon

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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