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 – “Angels of the Silences” by Simon Bestwick

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I’d been looking forward to some new Bestwickian horror, and beamed when I read of “Angels of the Silences” impending release, and then again – twice as wide – when the beautifully produced novella flopped onto my doormat. I acquired it as part of a generous bonus offer when purchasing another chapbook from Pendragon Press, but I would’ve happily paid the cover price.

AngelsThe tale concerns our narrator, Emily, and her best friend Biff. They’re likeable goth girls full of attitude and heart, and fairly normal other than the fact that nine months ago they were brutally murdered. They try to keep their other friends from harm, but it soon becomes clear that even undead guardians can’t control the darkness in the world.

Simon’s 1st person prose has always been realistic and Emily proves to be no exception. She’s endearing, intelligent if sometimes naive, loves her friends, and her story shines with that simplistic combination of angst and hope that comes so effortlessly to the young.

The novella reflects subtly on our tribal natures, both its positive and most horrible elements, and I suspect it was inspired by real life events. I also love this idea of the afterlife in which ghosts range from concrete through to mere lurking shadows. The story hints at the reasons, but leaves us to ponder and although I would like to see this concept expanded, there was no need for it here.

This author always stirs me. There’s sobering anger, dark satisfaction, and some incredibly fragile scenes. “Angel of the Silences” made me fill up, so suddenly that it took me by surprise, and I admire anybody who can inflict that merely with simple words on a page.

A one-sitting read, it has real warmth and humour as well as the horror, and should have broad appeal whatever your particular tastes. Put aside the time and savour it.

Simon Bestwick

Pendragon Press

Review – We Fade To Grey, edited by Gary McMahon

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This anthology of British supernatural horror novelettes from Pendragon Press proves there are some small press publications out there that can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of the genre. All 5 stories are beautifully written and slick as a fresh werewolf pelt, yet their shadows envelope you in different ways.

We fade to grey

Paul Finch kicks off the grim proceedings with “The Pumping Station”. This features a trio of young quad-bikers who experience a countryside accident leaving them at the mercy of an unspeakable menace. This story is so vividly evoked that you will feel the rain on your face, the cold mud and hot blood against your skin. The arrival of the aforementioned menace actually sent a shiver down my spine, something that hasn’t happened for some time, and I salute this tale of creeping doom.

While the Pumping Station was an exercise in escalating terror, the strength of Stuart Young’s “Bliss” begins with humour and camaraderie amongst its characters in an uncomfortable atmosphere. We find a young Iraq war veteran, back home and attending his murdered father’s funeral. After the locals start turning nasty, he is drawn deeper into trouble with his brother until the whole situation resembles an ultra-violent, X-rated episode of Doctor Who. Although I detected a Lovecraftian vibe at the end, this is probably the least “horror” of the bunch. But it’s also the most fun.

“Heads”, written by the anthology’s editor, proves Gary McMahon is a writer to watch. It’s back to the full blown horror as we meet the narrator, one half of a middle-aged couple, devastated by several miscarriages in their attempt to start a family. After they discover some creepy folklore artefacts buried in the garden, an unexpected pregnancy arrives and the tale accelerates into nightmare. McMahon’s prose is a rare treat. His attention to detail in human interaction creates characters you can see and feel, and the couple’s grief and fear is quite palpable.  This makes for a very intense descent.

“The Mill” by Mark West is next to rumble out of the darkness. A man who has lost his wife to cancer suffers strange dreams and discovers through a bereavement support group that he is being drawn towards something sinister. Something centred around an old abandoned mill. Dealing with grief, suicide and desperation, this one grabs your heart-strings and twists. Extra kudos to the author for being able to write dream sequences that aren’t dull.

The last tale by Simon Bestwick is a grim slab of post-apocalypse. “The Narrows” is told by a teacher attempting to save himself and a few surviving pupils and fellow staff from a nuclear fall-out. Their journey through a network of flooded subterranean tunnels is intolerably bleak and will remain in your head for good. Breath-squeezingly claustrophobic yet at the same time very poignant and moving, this isn’t one to read to your kids. Or to anyone afraid of the dark. Or scared of the supernatural. Or a nuclear holocaust. Well, anybody in fact. Other than the ne’er-do-wells who actually like  this kind of thing. Like me.

So there it is. We Fade To Grey sets the bar high from the off and doesn’t pause for breath. I normally only like the supernatural in small doses, but this imaginative collection packs such a wallop – both emotional and visceral – that I didn’t care one bit. All five authors weave genuine human pathos with blood and don’t then go and spoil everything with a happy ending. Brilliant. Grab one while you can.

Order here from Pendragon Press