Review – “Bull Running For Girls” by Allyson Bird

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I’m a bit late to the party with this review.

Bull Running For GirlsI met Allyson (and acquired this collection) at a ghost story reading she organised just before Halloween last year, in a pub on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. I’d dipped into it a couple of times last winter, but then the book disappeared into one of the many teetering stacks that decorate this house and I only rediscovered it the other day. I’m glad I did.

The author has an honest love for the written word and the genre, and this passion certainly comes across in Bull Running for Girls. The writing is subtle, gentle; it doesn’t leap out and grab you like the prose of some of my favourite genre writers such as Gary McMahon or Poppy Z. Brite, but perhaps here lies its strength. The characters and moods carry the tales, and there’s a quiet, modest wisdom that kept me coming back for more.

“The Caul Bearer” opens the collection: a Lovecraftian tale of horror by the sea. The rich imagery and mournful atmosphere are never turgid – as Lovecraft himself could be – and the tale contains a genuine shock, affirming from the off that the author isn’t afraid to tell a story.

Another favourite is “Hunter’s Moon” in which a woman tormented by memories of a terrible housefire escapes to rural France, but discovers that the past – both her own and that of others – won’t leave her alone. This is the story that Allyson read on that misty night almost a year ago, and while she has a very pleasant reading voice, at the time I wasn’t overly impressed. I think the switching tense caused confusion in spoken-word form – perhaps it wasn’t the best choice – but on the page, it’s a powerful tale, and very real, despite the presence of the supernatural.

“Shadow upon Shadow” is a dark nightmare of a ghost story in which a troubled woman having an affair faces an occult evil. It has a brilliant climax, short and understated, as it lets the action speak for itself.

“The Bone Grinder” introduces a budget hotel worker who realises that some of her female colleagues – cheap labour from Eastern-Europe – seem to be disappearing in sinister circumstances. It’s compulsive reading, with a grim theme of how economically disposable human life can be regarded.

A change in tone comes with “The Shy Boy Bar and Eatery” in which we meet a couple of visitors to the establishment of the title; a pirate-themed restaurant on the North Carolina shores. I detected an uneasy atmosphere from the outset, and was prepared for a ghastly descent, but it turns out to be one of the more light-hearted and fun tales.

“The Critic” opens with a magic circle of vampires discussing undead cinema, but the humourous gambit soon makes way for real darkness as the protagonist – a man plagued with grisly visions – is drawn into their undead microcosm. “Wings of Night” immediately follows – another tale of predatory desire – in which a dissatisfied and promiscuous theatre usher searching for identity accidentally discovers a taste for murder.

I particularly enjoyed “In a Pig’s Ear”, a tale of science and evolution. A future scientist bears a son, the product of her own laboratory tinkering, with fascinating consequences. An adept piece of speculative fiction, this is one of those stories that makes you smile with the outrageous possibility of it all.

Also playing with some alternative rules of evolution is “Blood in Madness Ran”, although rather than the future, here we’re back in time and surrounded by Roman Gods and monsters. It’s fast-paced, brutal and full of colourful imagery – like any self-respecting mythology – and the climactic revelation is a joy.

Being a sucker for laughs in horror, “Silence is Golden” is a definite favourite. A widower, struggling to follow his dead wife’s instructions for her funeral, discovers that she will not lie down and rest. Dripping with gallows humour from both the characters and the author, this story has the feel of an old-fashioned farce.

The book is billed as “adventure-horror”, an interesting label that seems perfectly appropriate. In addition to an impressive timeline – this collection spans from ancient times to SF futures – there’s a real international flavour. We visit Hong Kong, France, Spain, China, Pompeii amongst others, and the evocation of these locations suggests that the author is well-travelled, a dedicated researcher or simply has a great imagination. Possibly all three. I was also pleased to discover that “Bull Running for Girls” doesn’t just refer to the title story, picked for its catchy hook, but a metaphor that is present throughout.

It’s not a perfect collection. There’s a couple of weaker stories and it perhaps needed a polish, but there’s a pleasing order to the tales – the triumphs and lows are carefully measured – making it work as a complete reading experience rather than just a coffee-table browser. Allyson Bird has a great eye for detail and understands the small touches that inject reality into a story. It’s a book with genuine heart and feeling – something that can be missing from contemporary horror – and I look forward to what her future craft will bring.

Allyson Bird

Screaming Dreams Press

-Edited to add that I’ve just heard this book won “Best Collection” last night at the British Fantasy Society’s awards ceremony at Fantasycon, 2009.

Review – “Pictures Of The Dark” by Simon Bestwick

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“There are dark places everywhere…” begins the back cover and if you want some inside your head, then this collection is a good place to start.

pictures of the darkI had read Mr Bestwick’s acclaimed apocalypse novella “The Narrows” last year, so my hopes were high, and I was more than happy. This a real mixed bag of atmospheric scenarios – historical, apocalyptic, urban, remote, supernatural – and something for everyone. Well, okay, not everyone.

The excellent opener “Love Amongst the Bones” is a tale about awakening sexuality and necrophilia, but the writing is so masterful and elegant that the subject matter, bizarrely, doesn’t seem offensive at all. The characters are strong, giving the impression that these are people we’ve actually met.

This is one of the most notable things about the author’s writing. He infuses his characters with such tremendous humanity that when coupled with a strong social awareness, the intrusion of nightmare becomes a personal experience to the reader. For example, “Going Under, Flying High” begins with a couple’s pleasantly bland domestic routine before the man receives a telephone call that seems to be from his long-dead wife. As the tale descends quickly into horror, we share his confusion, understand his torn loyalties. These are ordinary folks, living ordinary lives and it could almost be happening to us.

Some of the tales are very bleak, “Touch the Dark” being an exercise in social and personal misery. It features a troubled man who moves to a threadbare apartment block that is plagued by suicides and slowly starts to realise that there might be more to the deaths than simple deprivation. The depressing “Close my Eyes” is about dementia and the tragic decline of old-age and draws us into the heartbreaking plight of a man watching his father’s mind deteriorate before his eyes. It concludes with a genuine shock that sinks the mood yet another notch.

There are stories with an immense sense of place such as the haunting “From Those Dark Waters, Where the Lost Bones Lie”. Here, a divorced loner sunbathing beside a reservoir witnesses a troubling chain of events involving a stranger and his children. There’s a nightmarish quality to the experience, where the innocent seems sinister and wrong, even if we can’t quite pin down exactly what the problem might be.

Other stories worthy of particular mention include “Starky’s Town”, a cracking urban jaunt that actually breathes fresh life into the zombie genre – not an easy task – and can be read purely for the ride or analysed for social metaphor. These stories often have deeper layers, but they’re never rammed down your throat nor dampen the entertainment value, and I was grinning by the end. Another that made me smile is “Drop Dead Gorgeous”: an instantly engaging tale told from the point of view of a jaded barman in a singles club and the sad and predatory people he meets. There’s real substance shrouded in this short fix of supernatural entertainment.

The perfect antidote to such fun is “The Slashed Menagerie”, a definite favourite, although it seems wrong to use such a positive word. It’s a horrible story in which privelege breeds the abuse of power, and we encounter such vulgar, sociopathic cruelty that it leaves a lingering bitter taste. I won’t even tell you what it’s actually about because I wouldn’t want to spoil the horrific realisation. This exposes another of the author’s talents. You often don’t have any idea what lurks around the corner (you may believe you do, but you don’t) and it’s best kept that way. A scene is introduced – sometimes a genre staple that fosters a deceptively reassuring familiarity –  then bang. There’s even a couple of vampire tales, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you which ones lest I ruin the surprise.

Despite the dark flavour of much of this book, the author also has a sense of humour. “Welcome to Mengele’s”, a story about lust, greed and celebrity, opens with a blunt scenario of bestiality, necro-porn and surgically-enhanced corpses that was impossible to turn away from. At least I hope it was supposed to be funny, because if not, then it would appear that I need more help than the author. But when you can write like this man, you can get away with anything.

Another strong favourite is “To Walk in Midnight’s Realm”. Containing subtle shades of “The Narrows”, the mountainous Welsh countryside is the setting for a solidly plotted horror adventure that features love, loss, the walking dead and an intriguing take on the afterlife. A tale to savour for both its pathos and its gruesome action, and one that I will read again.

The last story “When the West Wind Blows” brings the proceedings to a close with aplomb. I love apocalypse fiction and enjoyed the downward spiral of civilsation into chaos as a man attempts to protect his wife’s grave from unnamed, hellish scavengers.

I highly recommend “Pictures of the Dark”. The prose is sharp and the author certainly isn’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects head on. This is a very adult book, but the horrors are intelligent, sewn into the fabric of the tales and drawing you deeper into the plight of the oft-unfortunate protagonists. There are tropes, but no cliché. There are startling twists, but none contrived. Simon Bestwick really knows how to finish a short story, and I never once felt cheated. Sometimes shocked or sad, sometimes amused, other times profoundly disturbed, but always satisfied.

Gray Friar Press

Simon Bestwick

More Story News

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A busy home, work and play schedule over the last few weeks has meant very little productivity on the writing and submitting front. It was therefore with a smile that I read an email acceptance from Necrotic Tissue for “The Bunker”, a macabre descent of a tale scheduled for publication in issue #10 next year.

My last sales have been humour and SF pieces, but it’s nice to be back in the pages of a good old horror magazine.

Review – Tales From The Smoking Room, edited by Benedict J Jones and VC Jones

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This anthology from Hand of Danjou press is exactly what the title suggests: a collection of macabre and startling stories from the brandy and cigar-smoke ambience of a Victorian-era gentlemen’s club.

SmokingIt contains 7 tales, most of which are 1st person and favour an appropriately traditional style of storytelling, often finding the narrator lounging in a leather armchair of the smoking room, the witching hour upon him…

The opening tale is Stephen Bacon’s “The Strangled Garden”. This features a country garden walled-off after the unexplained disappearance of a child, grown into an impenetrable tangle of vines and lurking darkness. The baleful atmosphere and period language are faultless – the work of a very meticulous writer – and the inevitable adventure into the garden builds to a classic finale.

“Room Three” by Matthew Crossman is a very dark, downbeat story of madness and a family curse, and also contains the single most creepy and disturbing line of dialogue in this anthology. I may have actually shuddered.

Matthew Harding uses a tried and tested trope with “Iron Ape”: the discovery of a scientific artefact that goes hideously awry. But it’s an intelligent story, evocatively told, and the mechanical monstrosity of the title has a palpable presence of violent power even before the threat is actually unleashed.

“The Decent Thing” by V.C. Jones is a single-page flash piece that leads nicely into “Parlour Games” by Mike Chinn. Here, a sinister Russian brings the after-dinner entertainment to a smoking room familiar with illusion and grand-guignol, but not quite expecting the terrors that will arrive when the clock chimes midnight.

The second flash piece is “Serendipity” by Trudi Topham, a gruesome but light-hearted Vault of Horror style story of graverobbery and reanimation. Finally, the proceedings are closed with”A Game of Billiards” by Craig Herbertson. This is an engaging and neat finale regarding a colonial-era love-squabble that concludes with brutal retribution.

While the quality of the stories is good, “Tales from the Smoking Room” is clearly published from a home printer and would’ve been improved by keener editing. There are several errors and the font is strangely peppered with gaps and too small for A4, but for £2 (Yes, that’s £2) it’s tremendous value for money. Light your cigar, have the butler pour you a large glass of port, and enjoy.

Review – “Phantasy Moste Grotesk” by Felicity Dowker

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Maybe it’s because I’m British, but recently so many great stories have fallen into my lap that I’ve had nothing to moan about, and I’ve kinda missed it.

groteskI thought the opportunity might come with this little chapbook from Corpulent Insanity Press, purchased on a whim simply because I liked the title and cover. But it wasn’t to be.

Phantasy Moste Grotesk is an exceptional novella, a colourful and emotive horror tale that rubs its hands gleefully whenever you pull a face in distaste.

It follows the tale of Josh, whose evening with a takeaway pizza and a book is upset by the arrival of a ghastly, black-eyed kid at his front door. Along with his troubled ex-girlfiriend, he visits a circus tent that has mysteriously sprung up in a nearby playing field: a sinister carnival that promises monsters moste grotesk and phantastique.

That we certainly get. The tale is a claustrophobic descent, just as notable for the emotional destruction that ensues as well as the twisted attractions within the big top’s yellow canvas walls. I think the carnival theme can be precarious ground for horror and dark fantasy writers. There’s a danger of unoriginality and cliché, and because the opportunity is there to really let the imagination go, there’s a risk of exposing oneself as not being able to pull the punches when the golden chance has presented itself.

Felicity Dowker’s story avoids these pitfalls with a sneer. There’s some vividly sick images that cling in the memory (the ferris wheel is stunning), but more important is the way some of the horrors entwine with the characters and the deeply personal anguish of their plight. This chapbook seems to give an actual taste of madness, not just somebody’s guess as to what it might be like.

I’ve no complaints. It begins with a wheel-spin, slows to let you get your breath back, then slowly accelerates, faster and faster until by the climax, you’re clinging to the pages, appalled and intrigued in equal measures.

If you’ve missed out, then keep your eye out for Felicity Dowker. I hope, actually I’m sure, that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her deliciously sour prose in the future.

Review – “The Golem” by Edward Lee

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I picked up this book hoping for some gory, supernatural fun, and that I certainly found, but a lot more besides.

It follows the story of Seth and Judy, a middle aged couple fresh out of rehab and escaping the darkness of their pasts by relocating to an old farmhouse on the quiet Maryland coast.

GolemBut their peace is short-lived thanks to corrupt cops, drug dealers, and a local Jewish history of occult slaughter that appears to involve the reanimation of corpses into terrifying, murderous rape-machines of lore known as Golems.

The book switches between the present and the 1880s, nicely filling in the history and origins of the troubled town as we go along. While the first half is more gently paced, with enough intrigue and interesting characters – both pleasant and vile – to keep the interest from waning, the second half suddenly explodes. After that, the novel doesn’t pause for breath as everybody is sucked down into gruesome nightmare, and the conclusion is unexpected and wonderfully dark.

The Golem has plenty of Lee trademarks. I expected bodies to be torn asunder, swathes of blood, skulls, imaginative violence and nasty behaviour, and wasn’t disappointed. This is Ed Lee after all.  But despite all the supernatural brutality, it was Judy’s achingly human story that kept me glued to the pages. Despite the horrors that surround her, she has to battle personal demons and is trapped in a descent that is convincing and tragically inevitable.

There’s a few typos on the editing side, but other than that, it’s a very accomplished novel from a master of no-holds-barred fiction. Genre fans will devour it.

Review – Black Static #10

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As ever, this excellent magazine from TTA press is the product of keen editorial eyes.

Static 10The selection of book/film reviews and genre articles are tight and informed. Amongst other things, Christopher Fowler talks about B-movies, Stephen Volk discusses Amicus films and the state of modern horror, and there’s a Q&A with Thomas Ligotti. Oh, and congratulations to Allyson Bird for a positive review of her brilliant collection “Bull Running For Girls”

The fiction selected for Black Static is always impressive. Christopher Fowler starts with a jazz-infused tale of voodoo set in post-katrina New Orleans. The traditional tropes of such a story are given such colour that they  intrude from the page in a blaze of seamless storytelling.

“The Chair” by Gary McMahon is a short, open-ended tale about a troubled young boy, his disturbed mother and missing father. It bears all the trademarks of the author’s work I have grown to love; a bleak atmosphere, pathos and prose to savour.

“Washer Woman” by Scott Lambridis is a vivid tale of war in which a miserable group of soldiers encounter a village peasant woman who appears to be some kind of assistant of death. The sense of place is impressive and ultimately rather depressing, but it rescued me from losing any sense of enjoyment by the traditional supernatural.

Maura McHugh’s “Vic” concerns a sickly young boy confined to his room and the nightmares that normalcy might conceal. The tragic humanity and immediate empathy makes the tale strong, something that most of Black Static’s stories achieve.

“Beacuse Your Blood Is Darker Than Mine” by James Cooper is a very dark ride, so vivid is the POV of a young girl we follow through a traumatic series of events populated by the chilling, almost carnivalesque members of her family.

The  last story, “Eastlick” by Shannon Page, finishes the fiction very nicely: an adolescent coming of age story with a sting in the tail.

The writing is slick and faultless throughout, and while the stories may be less concrete and conclusive than some tastes may prefer, they have sharp narrative voice, genuine feeling and a nightmarish quality that is seldom captured so well.

Recommended.