Review – “Drive” by Mark West

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I’ve been enjoying Mark West’s fiction for several years now, and his brand of atmospheric, uneasy horror always has me coming back for more. He is one of those authors that brings such investable humanity and resonance to his fiction that genre is rendered almost irrelevant. I was therefore delighted to discover that with this new novella from Pendragon Press, he wanders outside his usual discomfort zone into white-knuckle territory, but still manages to deliver his most terrifying piece to date.

DriveDavid Moore is a finance manager, away from his wife and home on a work-related course. Attempting to assuage the lonely boredom of an evening in the hotel, he grudgingly attends a house party held by a local course-mate. Here he meets Nat, a friendly divorcee, and as the night grows late, he offers her a lift home. But a black Audi full of drug-fuelled hoodies is terrorising the local population, and when David and Nat become their target on the lamp-lit, unfamiliar streets, things are all set for a breath-taking game of cat and mouse.

David is the perfect lead character for this story. It needed an unlikely hero, and as he is sensible, pleasant and tends towards gentlemanliness, we instantly invest. The same goes for Nat, who brings fire and intelligence to her classic role as “damsel in distress”. David’s courage is also amplified by his understandable fear and initial hesitation to act, so by the time the story has really got into gear, I was firmly in their corner.

In true Mark West style, he initially engages the reader through deft evocation of normal scenarios with which we can identify, then injects teasers of menace to draw us further in. And in this story, the menace is immense. The men in the black Audi are thoroughly nasty and dangerous, indiscriminate with their sadistic cruelty, and this threat is cranked up page by page. A particularly pleasing device is that their arrival is always heralded by pounding bass music from the car – the familiar epitome of anti-social aggression – which is used to great effect. It conjures an ominous and cinematic dread in the same way clanking chains precede the arrival of the cenobites in the Hellraiser films, or the slow, ground-shaking footfalls of an approaching T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

“Drive” is a simple chase story with a classic set-up. But it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts through superb writing and – once it kicks off – an adrenaline-soaked pace that doesn’t take its foot off the pedal for a second. The tension and fear are so palpable that there is nothing to take you out of the moment, right up until the intense finale. There are no clues as to how it will all pan out, or as to why David and Nat have been singled out as prey, forcing you to find out for yourself. And I wouldn’t dream of giving anything away.

Another element I loved is that despite the urban sprawl, David and Nat have nowhere to turn. This isn’t the traditional rural or isolated setting for such a tale – they are in the heart of civilisation – but the dark streets, petrol stations, and even the police offer no sanctuary as it becomes a matter of life and death. They are on their own, and this is skilfully achieved without any suspension of disbelief.

The moments of violence are stark and sometimes shocking. And these aren’t “fun” shocks either, like the gleeful scares of ghosts, deranged serial killers or monsters in the closet. This is bitter-tasting street violence of the kind that may well be lurking in an alleyway outside your house with a flick-knife and an erection.

If you can handle the darker stuff, I would recommend “Drive” regardless of your usual genre preference. Just be sure you have no plans for an hour or two, because you aren’t putting this rollercoaster of a novella down for anything. Except perhaps the arrival of a black Audi with pounding bass…

Highly recommended.

Review: “Anatomy of Death” edited by Mark West

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Bacon, Mains, Probert, Volk and West. Now there’s five names I’m always happy to see and here they are, lured together to form this ghastly anthology of short stories from Hersham Horror. The binding theme is sleaze, which sounded splendid to me, and is born of editor Mark West’s fondness for the lurid films and gruesome paperbacks that exploded onto the scene during the early 70s.

AODWriting for such a theme unshackles an author from any pesky constraints of morality and reality, so prudes and gentle souls bolt for the exits now. The gents don’t hold back and the pages bleed with sex, violence and all manner of unnatural monstrosities. And hurrah for that! But Anatomy of Death (In Five Sleazy Pieces) has much more to offer, and provides plenty of humour and substance along with the base thrills.

First up is “Pseudonym” by Stephen Bacon. One of the quieter tales, as expected, this concerns a childhood fan of a horror novelist, now grown up, who finally gets the chance to interview his old hero. The visit to the writer’s gothic mansion is a joy – straight out of Hammer – and there’s plenty of mood and a sobering shock. This tale reflects on how the past infiltrates the present, and also the evolution of horror; old school versus the new. Effortless to read, the author’s genre passion shines through, and perhaps we were all terribly wrong in thinking that those books we used to love were just intended to be a bit of fun…

A complete contrast follows, and Johnny Mains – editor, writer and general sage of this niche of horror – delivers with the gloriously titled “The Cannibal Whores of Effingham”. This about sums it up, concerning a brothel where men disappear, staffed as it is by beautiful carnivores. But they might’ve bitten off more than they can chew when somebody visits who’s even better at the art of murder. Shamelessly rude and gory but tongue-in-cheek with it, this tale has little characterisation, but that’s not the point and it’s carried instead by the possibilities of the premise. And although the shock value dwindles as the story progresses, the curiosity of how it will pan out just keeps growing. A cartoon nasty with a twist, the author also has a treat in store for readers familiar with his previous works.

“Out of Fashion” by the inimitable John Llewellyn Probert presents yet another change in tone. A shorter piece, it concerns a Victorian doctor who invents medical devices and is worried about current trends towards aesthetic plastic surgery. One night, he is called upon to perform a terrible operation, and the repercussions of the menace he discovers daren’t even be breathed. I had high hopes for this story and John ticks all the boxes with elegant surroundings, intrigue and monstrous horrors from the depths. His warm, educated style is perfectly suited to the content, and as Mark said in his introduction, it’s impossible not to imagine Peter Cushing as the lead.

Next up is my favourite. I can’t even write this without grinning and shaking my head at the gleefully offensive wedge of unpleasantness that is “The Arse-Licker” by Stephen Volk. It’s narrated by an underwhelming businessman who relies on shallow ingratiation rather than effort to succeed, but one day finds that a new staff member is threatening his carefully crafted web of bullshit. Immediately engaging and cleverly told, the author manipulates our sympathies back and forth to a drawn-out climax of cringe-inducing black comedy. This story is far better than it has any right to be. The ingredients are wrong – a protagonist lacking in investable traits, a plot that relies on its outrageously vulgar showdown – but the author refines it into a very impressive piece of fiction. And I still can’t get the taste out of my mouth. Cracking stuff.

Finally, Mark West neatly rounds of the book with a trip back to the long hot summer of 1976. In “The Glamour Girl Murders”, a London photographer is hunting the right model for a shoot with Penthouse magazine, but accidentally stumbles across a kidnapping that involves some kind of beast. The story opens bravely with a girl being chased, and manages to snare the reader despite not having yet had the opportunity for characterisation. The cast is strong, the dialogue and storytelling tight, and I loved the aura of sleaze that clings to the pages like the sweltering temperature; heat waves can be used to great effect to induce sticky claustrophobia in the reader, and Mark succeeds admirably. To me, it resembles a British version of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam”: the sweat, the paranoia, the cultural attention to detail. To quote the beast: “Lovely…”

I really enjoyed Anatomy of Death; in fact I demolished it in one sitting. “Just one more, then I’ll get up and do stuff…” was the repeated cry, but this slim, well-ordered volume had other plans. It’s deftly edited, the genre tropes are handled with affection, and there’s plenty of variation despite the specific theme. The stories shine with the quirks and particular strengths of each author, and if you’re not familiar, you could do worse than getting acquainted here.

This is a professional anthology for readers who like their horror sleaze delivered with a wry, self-aware wink.

Recommended.

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

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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.

Review – “Conjure” by Mark West

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The cover of this recent offering from Rainfall Books didn’t lure me. While perfectly appropriate for the novel’s setting, and fair play for spurning cliché, it seemed rather bland. But within a couple of pages, I’d immediately warmed to Mark West’s literary world.

Conjure features Beth Hammond and her boyfriend Rob, a newly pregnant and cash-strapped couple from London who win a short break in the cheap, British seaside resort of Heyton. We meet Beth on her way home through the bustle of a London rush hour, and discover that she has a gift. She can see dead people.

The other characters are gradually introduced, their reassuringly average lives drizzled into the mix, which makes a pleasant change from books that bellow from the first paragraph, terrified that you might lose interest. But Mark has the cool confidence of a storyteller who doesn’t have to resort to tricks to snare a reader.

Once Beth and Rob travel to the coast, we soon learn that there is more to Heyton than the pier, the rides and the fish and chips. The town has a chilling history that quite literally won’t stay buried.

Despite the initial lack of action, Conjure fosters suspense from the outset and nudges it up as the novel  progresses. The back story of the malevolent spirit – a wronged and murdered woman – who threatens our pregnant protagonist  is presented in neat, almost teasing little doses, often in the form of visions that come alive from the page.

Mark excels at dialogue and characterisation – real people we come to know – and these unconnected folk slowly merge, at first barely brushing past each other in the plot until they are entwined. The setting is perfect, and reminded me of several faded resorts: old fashioned and hard-up, but soldiering on with a stiff but weary upper lip. I particularly enjoyed the gothic cinema. It’s a wonderful place that I would love to visit, and now actually feel as though I have.

Mark also has the knack of making relatively trivial things seem important – the way they are in real life – such as when a man driving a JCB accidentally damages an iconic war memorial in the centre of town. By making us care about lesser troubles, the moments of brutal horror that lurk around the corner have infinitely more impact.

Conjure flaunts some genuinely spooky moments. A scene in which Beth is trapped inside a toilet cubicle made me writhe and I could barely wait for her chance to escape. When a spontaneous holiday snapshot captures the ghost on film, it was descibed in such a way that it raised goose-pimples down my arms. The ghost uses mind control and amnesia, and the confusion of its unfortunate puppet – a tough, local family man – is expertly portrayed. It becomes difficult for the reader to judge the perpetrator, despite the depths of his crime. Overall, the supernatural element works so well because the author merges it with fears we understand such as abduction and infanticide.

This is a strong short novel written in sharp prose. The plot is somewhat generic, but it is well executed and avoids cheap twists. The tale builds up to a finale that manages to feel classic yet original at the same time and concludes with a tasty uppercut, just in case you’d forgotten who was in charge.

At only 140 pages, it’s possible to finish in one sitting, which is a good job. Just one more chapter, then it’s time to get some sleep, I kept saying to myself as the night advanced. But Conjure had other ideas.

Mark West

Rainfall Books