Review – “Stuck On You” by Jasper Bark

2

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

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

And that’s when it goes horribly wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck on you 2

 

Review – “Darker Minds”

2

Just like Dark Minds – its predecessor from last year – this book is simply subtitled “An Anthology of Dark Fiction”. A solid, tactile paperback, it impressed me from the off with its cyberesque cover and decorated author and contents pages. There’s no editorial credit or introduction, the proceedings simply presented by Dark Minds Press, which whether deliberate or not, makes it a pleasingly mysterious entity. And that entity has gathered together an impressive collection of 15 disturbing stories.

The theme is simply the power of the mind. There’s grim tales of abduction, mental illness and domestic paranoia. There’s wry tales of possession and graverobbery, and plenty of askew and threatening realities. It’s a book where nothing ever seems quite right, but is that really the case, or just the delusions of an unravelling mind?

So onto those stories that particularly stood out. First is “Reflections from a Broken Lamp” by John Travis, a violent murder mystery explained from varying points of view. But although it begins with an air of whimsy, the author gradually turns down the lights and establishes an appropriately dark tone. John Travis’s fiction has real personality, and this colourful creepshow makes a great curtain raiser.

Equally memorable is “Slip Inside this House” by Daniel Kaysen in which we meet Clive. He believes he’s being persecuted by some kind of note-scribbling “double” that’s causing havoc in his marriage. An intriguing piece cemented by convincing characters, it has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

Stuart Young’s “Houses in Motion” is a well-written story narrated by a man who bumps into his former nemesis of a boss. But he soon realises that the old bully is now withered by dementia, setting the stage  for a poignant and sobering reflection upon reality and the consequences of detachment.

“The Way of the World” by Gary Fry introduces Oliver, a young student on holiday with his new girlfriend and her parents. The author doesn’t miss the opportunity for some awkward dialogue and sexually-charged scenes, which all serve to maintain the unease in this sharp and well realised story.

For me, two neighbouring pieces form the anthology’s peak. First is “The Man Who Remembered” by Stephen Bacon. Lisa is waiting for her boyfriend in a café and speaks to an old gentleman who claims to know the details of his own immiment death. This perfectly evoked tale is all about life, the intricacies and effects of existence, and concludes a thoughtful concept with a bang.

Second, I also loved “Waste Disposal” by Ray Cluley. This concerns Walter, a gentle widower, who is caught short walking his dog in the park and runs into some menacing youths. It begins with a melancholy yet stoical flavour, but soon descends into unease, and then sickly fear. Natural empathy, pathos and a masterful ratcheting up of the threat make this a very immersive experience, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the wild and grossly imaginative – or is that imaginatively gross – finale.

While we’re reeling from that, Robert Mammone takes us on a very uncomfortable journey with “Seeing Things”. This features a pair of lovers on a trip to winery, but our narrator is troubled by sinister shapes lurking in his peripheral vision, and a guilty accident ensues. Despite a couple of formatting and spelling errors, this is a heady and intoxicating experience that saves a grisly punch for the pay off.

The finale is a masterpiece of bleak cinematography. Gary McMahon leaves us with “Cinder Images”, a brutal short centred around the screening of a war film. It has all the author’s trademarks – satire, anger, vicious elegance – and also an intrusive conclusion that perfectly rounds off both this story, and the book as a whole.

I enjoyed this anthology. With a no nonsense attitude, it allows the fiction to speak for itself. There’s the occasional guessable twist, and a couple of the stories were slightly less conclusive than my tastes would’ve preferred, but there certainly aren’t any hangers-on. All 15 authors have worked the theme hard, and spoil us with crumbling sanities, nightmares and cruel consequences galore.

Darker Minds is recommended for those who like to find substance lurking in the darkness. Order here.

Review – “Soul Screams” by Sara Jayne Townsend

1

Soul Screams is a new collection from Stumar Press: thirteen tales from horror and crime novelist Sara Jayne Townsend. The book description claims, amongst other things, that these stories are about “that inner scream that no one can hear but you”. Which sounded like routine blurb-speak to me, but actually turned out to be a pretty accurate description. 

With that stark cover setting the tone, first up is the grisly “Thirteenth Floor”. Our narrator is Paul, a man visiting his friend’s new flat in a grim, McMahonian tower block. He gets distracted by a pretty girl who entices him up to the 13th floor and things soon start to spiral out of control. The growing sense of unease is tremendous, doubled by both character investment and ghoulish curiosity, but the ending did seem abrupt and left me wanting.

“Jimi Hendrix’s Eyes” is next, a strong account in which a man sleeps with his friend’s wife: a classic double betrayal. The musical trappings (including the Hendrix poster of the title) add a humanity to the characters, cementing a poignant story of terrible consequence.

“Trio” is a perfect, elegiac mood-piece. The title refers to a trio of once-inseparable friends, one of whom has died, and the tale finds the survivors mourning at her graveside. This is a snapshot of life that creates huge feeling in few words, and the raw, poetic conclusion surprised me with its power.

“To Dream of a Angel” introduces a member of a writing critique group who has visions of demons and knives that she can’t possibly dismiss. I usually sink when stories report fictional characters’ dreams, but they’re reasonably well woven here, and I liked the desperation of the final few paragraphs.

“Kay’s Blues” changes to third person for the frst time in this collection, which works just as well. We meet the eponymous heroine irritated with her current boyfriend, hormones and life. Her frustration is perfectly evoked, and this intriguing horror story taunts our expectations with a wicked sense of humour.

“The Wedding Hat” begins with a playful trope. It introduces Alex, a jaded twenty-something, who purchases a hat from a dusty, anachronistic shop staffed by a spooky old lady. She soon discovers that through the hat, she can hear thoughts and see unhappy futures and deaths. The concept was overexplained several times, which felt rather patronising, and the themes surrounding inevitability weren’t subtle. But it’s an enjoyable, contemporary dark fairytale with some rewarding scenes.

“Morgan’s Father” is the only present tense tale, which works alongside a basic prose style to create a cold and lucid atmosphere. After a woman gets mugged, her father swears to protect her, and what follows is practiced if somewhat predictable. I was also less keen on how “The Train to Maladomini” panned out. Here a man wakes up after a heavy night’s partying, expecting to be in bed with a girl, and finds himself on a grimy train with an old man named Baal. Although well written, it all just seemed a bit obvious.

But after a bit of a lag, Soul Screams hooked me right back in. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is narrated by a woman who falls for an achingly attractive young stranger, and soon develops an obsession. A believable voice pulls out all the stops in this heady descent of desire.

In pleasing contrast to that is “Just Don’t Scream”, a short and lurid tale about a magician and his guillotine. I found it slightly overlong – it would’ve worked as a pure flash piece – but it’s nasty fun and certainly made me smile.

“Cigarette Burns” maintains the grisly bar. Kelly is a woman abused by her rancid old drunk of a father, and when her boyfriend promises to do something about it, things don’t quite go plan. Another evocative slice of horror, this delivers a suckerpunch to remember.

I loved the multi-layered menace of “The Guitar”. Certainly one of my favourites, this story concerns a woman named Jocelyn who after being stood up in a bar, turns her attentions to a young musician. But when he brings his guitar back to her bedsit, the usual routines of seduction take a sinister turn. This one is a real guesser with an underlying aura of sour malevolence and the events all fall neatly into place.

Finally, “Someone to Watch Over You” is a reflection from the afterlife: the elegant story of a dead woman protecting her sister from harm. It’s very satisfying, but the emotive conclusion loses some of its edge by being slightly too drawn out. Nevertheless, it rounds off the collection on an appropriate note.

I enjoyed Soul Screams. Sara Jayne Townsend creates real characters, both male and female, and the promised angst is convincing and delivered in droves. There’s madness in the form of desire, betrayal, obsession and loss, but also elements of warmth and a sharp sense of humour that prevent everything from becoming depressing.

Some of these tales have vicious twists, others conclude with cold realisation, some just fade on a haunting scene. This holds the interest throughout, buoyed by the author’s unintrusive style (and a particularly strong 1st person voice) that allows the dark motivation and passion of its protagonists tell the stories.

That inner scream that no one can hear but you? Yes, I’ll take thirteen of those, please.

—–

Packaged with a couple of succinct introductions and pleasant author story notes, Soul Screams is available in print from Stumar Press, and in the usual e-formats from Smashwords, Amazon and the like.

Review: Dark Highways – Five Road Trips into Terror

0

Being a small island, we don’t really have proper road trips here in the UK. Certainly not with the same sense of adventure and freedom available in the US, or indeed the humbling vastness of the terrain. But it’s one of my favourite types of Americana, and should it be in the form of a horror tale, then all the better: the interstate highway is a canvas ripe for helpless peril.

So of course this matter-of-fact title and stark cover caught my eye. And I was soon pleased to discover that the line-up of mostly familiar names have ensured we get exactly what it says on the tin.

The journey begins well with Michael A. Arnzen’s “Damned Potholes”. Told first person, it’s the immediately engaging account of a man driving late at night through the Colorado mountains who spots what seems to be a drunk in a suit staggering along the road. Things get strange pretty quickly in this quirky opener that sports a wry smile and an entertainingly outrageous concept.

Next is the rich and lurid “Black ’47” by Lorelei Shannon. Here we meet Serpentina, a carnival worker showing off her haunted, murderous “death-car” hearse to some unsuspecting punters. Although a couple of pace changes seemed rather intrusive and there was one element of blood spatter that didn’t quite add up, this is intriguing and colourful storytelling with a very memorable cast.

John A. Burks, Jr. provides my favourite of the bunch with “Black Trailer”. Joshua is a divorced trucker who accepts the job of delivering a sinister trailer across the US without asking questions or having a crafty peek. I found it slightly over-described at times, but the lead character and back story hooked me in, and the gore and sheer menace of the truck (my favourite since Duel) make for a ghoulish highway adventure with a pleasing pay-off.

In “Companion” by David Bain we follow Hardesty, a troubled teacher driving a lonely stretch of road who gets stuck behind a lingering pick-up. The occupants – an aggressive  male and young boy – start to unnerve him, and a lapse of concentration results in a truly monstrous encounter. I particularly liked the way the bigger picture was layered in via italicized snippets rather than infodumping: a carefully crafted and old-school piece of horror.

Finally, a man nipping for pizza ends up stuck on a barren and silent highway in “5:53” by C. Dennis Moore. This is a suitably spooky finale and a nice take on those “lost between the cracks” kind of stories. With a Twilight Zone-esque wink, it concludes the book on a good note.

This is a decent little anthology for a couple of quid. There’s often a hushed cinematic tone, and the fun and chilling moments sit comfortably together. Admirably, Dark Highways also manages to avoid déjà vu, despite the specific theme.

If you like your scary stories played out beneath huge dusty skies, with something murderous in your rear view mirror, then you’ll enjoy the ride.

Available in both print and ebook from Amazon, Smashwords and the like.

Review – “Hell Train” by Christopher Fowler

1

This new novel from Solaris charmed me before I’d even bought it. Firstly because it was championed as the greatest supernatural chiller that Hammer never made. Secondly, it combines hell and trains, both of which are personal favourite canvasses for a yarn. And lastly, it sports a deliciously loud and cinematic cover by Graham Humphries.

Behold.

Like many horror fans, I’m deeply fond of Hammer, and I hoped that this would turn out to be a worthy homage. “Hell Train” certainly is, and also keeps a few surprises up its sleeve.

The tale begins with Shane Carter, a recently dismissed Hollywood scriptwriter, who arrives in England hoping to find work. He visits the home of Hammer Studios – an oak-beamed 17th century mansion – for an interview with the boss. After a rather jovial and tea-infused chat, he is given just a few days to write a script with one polite requirement. “We rather liked the idea of a train.”

This forms a wraparound for the novel, and having being introduced to the existence of an old board game by the name of Hell Train, the internal story begins.

War is spreading across 1916 Eastern Europe, and two lively couples find themselves out of their depth in the sinister village of Chelmsk in the Carpathian region. And where else? Thomas is a stuffy vicar, whose holiday with his wife Miranda has gone somewhat awry and Nicholas is an awol lothario with designs on a local village girl, Isabella. The English protagonists struggle with the aggression and ill manners of these farming peasants, to some amusing effect, and are soon forced to escape. But the only way out is a mysterious train, of which locals will only speak in suitably hushed and nervous tones, which arrives at the dark village station at midnight.

They inevitably board, and meet plenty of other rum folks as the train begins its journey into the rural night. The supporting cast includes a beautiful Hungarian Countess with a pack of tarot, a dead aristocrat in a coffin, and the grim and authoritative conductor. The protagonists begin to be tested in some way, but do they have a chance at redemption? And where exactly is the train’s destination, strangely blotted out on all the maps? As if we didn’t know. Hehe.

The author’s prose is sharp and clear, bringing to life a strong bunch of characters. They are understandably motivated despite their varied backgrounds, and perfectly resemble the cast of a classic Hammer outing while still being investable individuals. It’s also a nice touch that we are gently nudged into envisioning the train’s conductor as the “terribly tall and grave” Christopher Lee.

The thundering train itself is also perfectly evoked as it cuts through the ravines and wolves of the landscape, indeed a character itself. And while this is never a desperately scary novel, the pace never lags, and there are some tense and cruel scenes to balance the lurid fun. The wraparound story supplies much fond nostalgia and humour, and shovels in plenty of wry references to the film industry, censorship, Hammer’s rivalry with Amicus, and the familiar actors we know and love. And it isn’t afraid to play with stereotypical 60s Englishness: the essence of the studio.

I struggled to find fault. There are a couple of typos, and one of the main character’s tests aboard the train wasn’t quite as interesting as the others, but I’m being picky. This has all the satanic ritual and heaving cleavage you could hope for, along with clever stalemates, breathless action and generous spurts of modern gore. The cinematic tone is well evoked throughout, lending theatre to the peril, and merging with the classic novel stylings. And although it embraces many genre tropes in homage, this book avoids the pitfalls of a cliched finale. Does good triumph over evil, or is there some kind of diabolical punchline? Is it happy or bleak? Relax. Christopher Fowler’s got you.

If you’re familiar, “Hell Train” is a glorious tribute to the 60s horror cinema of Hammer. If you’re not, it’s still a gruesome and delightful ride that completely blows the budget.

Review – “Room Service”, “Bernie’s Bargain” and “A Little Knowledge…” by H.K. Hillman

1

While sifting through Smashwords for some new gruesome fiction, I’d quickly bailed on a couple of amateurish pieces before stumbling across H.K. Hillman. I wasn’t familiar with this author, but as they were free, I downloaded the three short stories on offer and found some literate, vivid and rather entertaining old-school horror.

Room Service begins with tongue-in-cheek licence notes, warning readers that the events of the story probably won’t happen to them. This sets an appropriately wry tone before we meet Bob – a jaded cemetery nightwatchman – and his colleague, trudging through their nocturnal routine. But in this necropolis, the coffins are fitted with emergency buzzers should anybody be accidentally buried alive, and one of them starts to go off. One that’s been buried for several weeks. Grisly goings on ensue of course, and it turns out to be an engaging ride that could’ve been an old episode of Tales from the Crypt. The dialogue is strong, despite being interrupted occasionally by excess description, and the tale has a likeable lead and a grim pay-off.

It’s Halloween in Bernie’s Bargain, a shorter tale, and we’re introduced to an elderly gentlemen angered by a late night trick or treater. A skeletal figure wearing a black robe and wielding a scythe, no less. But the old fella isn’t the least bit impressed, and a genuinely amusing comversation ensues. This piece has an eye for detail and a clever biblical take on the legend of the grim reaper. It’s probably the lightest of these 3 tales with shades of Pratchett, and the conclusion delivers a wicked tweak.

 A Little Knowledge…  tells of Jimmy and Javier, two hardworking brothers who run a farm. But when Javier, the brains of the pair, introduces his brawny, poorly educated brother to the library and the joys of reading, we discover just how dangerous misunderstood or partial knowledge can be. Although I was jarred by a couple of clunky informative paragraphs, it rolls along nicely and becomes a solid meld of whimsy and hellfire.

Overall, H.K. Hillman’s fiction breathes with a sense of devilish fun and the dialogue gives it life. The characters are well realised, so there’s empathy to be had, though I noticed that the cast of these stories is exclusively male.

The author has a tendency to over-explain situations, and also to describe what has been inferred. But these tales are well paced with a sting in the tail, and none of the twists are predictable, nor those annoying stories that rely solely on their punchline.

Click the links above for the Smashwords freebies, and if you like, visit the author’s site here. He has a novel and a couple of collections for sale, and I’m rather tempted.

Review – “Ill At Ease” by Stephen Bacon, Mark West & Neil Williams

1

Penman Press present this eBook collection of three short horror stories from a talented trio of British horror writers. The title sums it up. These tales ooze with an askew feeling, where even the most ordinary of situations becomes alien and sinister: the essence of any good macabre fiction.

First to follow that vertigo-inducing cover is Stephen Bacon, and “Waiting for Josh” is one of his triumphs. Narrated by a man named Pete Richards, he revisits his hometown to see a dying childhood friend and discovers that there’s more to his lonely alcoholism than meets the eye. This author excels at first-person storytelling, and it works very well here, drawing us into the character’s mood and nostalgia as though it were our own. This also makes the chills more effective, and I defy anybody not to be moved by his haunting journey of guilt, loss and confronting horrible truths. This is poignant and mature writing, and I insist on a collection. Immediately.

Mark West maintains the standard with “Come See My House in the Pretty Town”. Here we meet David Willis, another man reconnecting with his past when he visits an old college friend who now lives the dream in a quaint country village. But as Mark West is writing this story, there’s to be no pleasure in the sunny, picture-postcard surroundings. Everything has a sinister edge, and he notches up the tension in small intriguing reveals about the character histories. When the real descent comes during a visit to the local fair, it’s a grim, breathless ride with a brilliant pay-off. Mark also scores extra for creating some truly scary clowns, whether they normally freak you out or not, and their first appearance is a simple but powerfully charged scene of lurking violence.

Although I wasn’t familiar with Neil Williams, he’s now a name I’ll remember.  With “Closer than you Think” we meet Dave, an ordinary family man. When he spots a perfectly good car seat being abandoned at a rubbish tip by a strange, dull-eyed woman, he decides to take it home. But when he starts to use it for his young daughter, a series of strange and disturbing occurrences ensue. As the supernatural increases, the story becomes a tense family drama with some tight dialogue and oily, nightmarish scenes. Although it has less depth and more formula than the others, it’s a real one-sitting read that grips from the off and doesn’t let go. For me, the supernatural has to be really good to give me a chill – Gary McMahon and Paul Finch spring to mind – and I was happy to discover that Neil Williams also has the knack.

It might be a relatively short book, but “Ill at Ease” rises way above the mire. The theme of horror in the mundane is perfectly realised, mouldering constantly beneath the text and infusing it with a sour sensation of impending doom. It’s modern horror that understands subtlety, full of real characters and plenty of shivers. These three authors clearly take pride in their work, all writing with lucid, thoughtful prose, and the time and effort shows. As reader, there’s no jarring, no creases – just an effortless, entertaining read. With interesting author notes, it’s a great package and well worth a couple of quid. Highly recommended.