Review: “Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares: A Biography Of Herbert Van Thal” by Johnny Mains

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An unusual non-fiction review for the Hellforge, this book from Screaming Dreams gave me a shiver of nostalgic anticipation. A matte hardback with a terrific portrait by Les Edwards, it took myself – and I’m sure many others – right back to the playground.

For me, it was the late 80s, and we were lucky enough to attend a school that had several of the Pan Book of Horror anthologies on the shelves in the English room. It was always long-serving editor Herbert Van Thal’s name on the cover, and they were devoured with glee, even proving to be the humiliation of an indignantly self-righteous teacher who confiscated them as lurid contraband before discovering they were actually school property.

“Bertie” was a lifelong lover of books, and did much other work in the field as well as the Pan anthologies. Here, Johnny Mains has put together a succinct and highly readable biography, and is the only one to tell the story of this publishing niche legend. This book has fostered me with a great mental image of Bertie’s office, him perched over a tome at his desk like a vulture, flanked by creaking overflowing shelves. We are given a pacy summary of his life and publishing career, from his nights as an AR warden during the war, being on the jury for the infamous John Christie serial murderer case, and facing a legal wrangle of his own when his then employer was accused of publishing obscene material.

Johnny Mains has done some thorough research, contacting the subject’s family and old colleagues, and his reporting feels satisfyingly factual. There is the occasional supposition if the truth isn’t known, but this is always clearly explained as such, along with the reasoning. It’s nice to read something unsensational, and the author also offers some detective work regarding prose styles, attempting to deduce the identity of a mysterious pseudonym.

Certainly an odd-looking man, Bertie emerges as passionate and friendly to work with, although certainly no angel. Perhaps his contributors could’ve seen more reward, especially with repeated print runs, and there was also the shady business of reselling their work. There’s a selection of contributor  interviews that provide some pleasing anecdotes, and also a great section of photocopied correspondence in which Bertie compliments, cajoles and gently scolds the authors. His personality and humour really come across in these short but wry letters.

There is the odd typo, and I had to reread a sentence occasionally due to a lack of punctuation. But overall, the simple informative style works well and lets the subject matter speak for itself.  With the Pan books the star of the show, it was fun to revisit these tales, a couple of my favourites from years ago being George Fielding Eliot’s dark milestone “The Copper Bowl” and Myc Harrison’s ghastly “The Spider and the Fly”. The book also discusses the possible reasons for the series’ decline, including Bertie’s ailing health and issues with colleagues.

Johnny Mains is certainly the right guide. His knowledge and passion is clear, and his debut fiction collection “In Deepest Sympathy” also has a delicious Pan-esque flavour to the proceedings. He’s been instrumental in resurrecting much genre interest in these books, being the project editor for the re-release of the 1st edition last year, and also publishing “Back from the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories” which included a shorter version of this biography.

“Lest You Suffer Nightmares” is a slim volume, but therefore uncluttered, the author admirably restricting discussion to the notable highs and lows. Too much detail would’ve become turgid, and I avoid doorstop biographies like the plague. Bertie wasn’t some revolutionary or rock star, he was an interesting but normal man who led an interesting but normal life, and this book is gauged appropriately. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and while the appeal of course lies mainly with those who have a fond history, this is an attractive addition to any bookshelf.

Order direct from here

Johnny Mains

Screaming Dreams

Review – “Fearful Festivities” by Gary Fry

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It was a chilled but sunny December morning when I opened a parcel to discover this beautiful jacketless hardcover from Screaming Dreams.

I tend to dislike jackets anyway – they just snag and look tatty – and even after being read, dropped on the floor and pounced on by the cat, this sturdy book still looks pristine, festooned with its fantastic artwork from Steve Upham. And it turned out to be a great distraction from the pre-Christmas chores that I should’ve been doing. Having enjoyed several of Gary Fry’s short stories, I was pleased to discover that Fearful Festivities is a thoughtful and well paced horror novel, brimming with the season of ill-will.

It begins on a strangely warm December 22nd in the gentle Yorkshire village of Hitherton, when several of the residents receive a dragon-stamped invitation in the mail.

“Christmas is a time for miracles. Tell us what you want.”

Delivered by an elusive but nightmarish postman, could these tempting requests possibly be the answer to their woes? There’s Tom, a cash-strapped family man with a failing bookshop, and Graham, his unemployed academic brother. We also meet a lonely and obese woman, a wannabe internet tycoon, and a boy who misses his soldier father who’s away fighting in Afghanistan… and all of them have a deep longing for something that traditional gifts can’t provide.

Along with some other desperate folk, they’re lured into making wishes against their rational judgement. The miracles start to take form, yet things seem increasingly askew and sinister. Before long, it’s clear dark forces are at work and all kinds of devilish trickery ensue, which I don’t want to spoil.

Initially, I wasn’t bowled over by this book. The prologue concerns the 8-year old boy, Kevin, who misses his dad and is frightened of the closet monster. It delivers the requisite horrors and excitement for a curtain raiser, but seems slightly over-described and didn’t quite hook me as it should. Regarding this character, there are plenty of nice moments when we, as readers, realise certain things that have eluded his 8 year old perspective. But I also thought there were a couple of times when his ruminations were expressed in a form that seems far too adult.

I became much more engaged when we start to meet the other residents going about their daily routines, and the oft-familiar problems of their lives in which the grass is always greener. This is one of several deft themes, and we don’t have long to wait before it all starts to kick off.

The semi-rural village’s sense of place is neatly evoked and the inhabitants themselves are mostly likeable and flawed. They’re painted in some detail so that after a while, the reader knows them intimately enough to allow slightly odd changes in behaviour to become noticeable. This complements the feeling of unease and  makes this homage to small-town old-school horror work so well.

The book is full of clever turns of phrase, and some startling visions that unsettle in a single sentence. This author also has the knack of wry one-line teasers at the end of a chapter, which makes for some theatre. The plot threads are nicely linked and I liked the way that the characters’ individual wishes are not all immediately revealed. They’re teased in as the tension mounts, letting us wonder what manner of hellish trouble they might have accidentally invoked.

Although entertaining, the loud, showcase finale was not quite to my taste, and includes a paragraph of explanatory narration that I found intrusive and unecessary. But I certainly wasn’t disappointed, and the monstrous conclusion provides plenty of surprises and ties up some good concepts with a flourish.

Fearful Festivities is a layered, strongly-themed novel, and manages to dissect the envy and hope that come at this time of year without getting bogged down or losing the sense of grisly fun. It makes for compulsive reading with investable characters, shocks, and that classic feel of lurking menace that should be the essence of any horror tale.

Switch off that Christmas repeat on the telly and read this instead. You’ll never look at a child’s misspelling of Santa Claws the same way again.

Available from Screaming Dreams here

Review – “Different Skins” by Gary McMahon

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You know that moment when you hear a new band, read a book or watch a film that strikes a deep chord, and you realise with excitement that you’ve just discovered somebody seriously worth following? It happened to me almost a year ago when I first read a story by Gary McMahon.

We fade to greyThat story was “Heads” in We Fade to Grey, an anthology of horror British horror novelettes of which he was also the editor. A supernatural descent of a tale, I was immediately struck by two things.

Firstly, it was the flavour of the prose, conjuring place and atmosphere through tiny details, but never at the expense of story. The second thing was the strength of the characters. So real and genuine, they felt more like people I’d actually met, at once involving me in their plight, however unpleasant this might be.

Dirty prayersHungry for more, I purchased “Dirty Prayers” (Gray Friar Press) and “How to Make Monsters” (Morrigan Books) and demolished them with glee. These are wildly imaginative collections, infused with horror in the purest sense of the word, but also tremendous humanity. We meet broken people, shrouded in guilt, love, anger, rejection and loss, and we feel their fear and pain. As Tim Lebbon has pointed out, Gary’s writing has soul.

 

The monsters in his stories take all forms. Sometimes, they are small-scale; psychopaths, ghosts and the potential for madness. Other times they’re the vast, metaphorical beasts of cities, societies and governments. This is horror for you: the normal person living a normal life surrounded by the lurking shadows and frustrations of the 21st century that affect your existence, perhaps without recognition.

MonstersWe live in a world populated by the damaged, and much of Gary McMahon’s world seethes with anger. He is a writer whose patience with ignorance or stupidity has run dry, and his craft has no time for the beaten path. You would think that this would be depressing reading, but the stories have such colour and vibrant life, despite the subject matter and the terrible trials that weigh down our long-suffering protagonists, that the end result almost seems hopeful. But only almost. The author has a refreshing aversion to happy endings.

But anyway, on to Different Skins, his latest release from Screaming Dreams: a short book of two novellas that sports delicious artwork from Vincent Chong.

SkinsIn “Even the Dead Die”, London is a seething hive of threat, and an early metaphor sums up the metropolis: “overcrowded streets filled with vacant, directionless zombies who see nothing past the bubble that surrounds them”.

We meet the city through Mike, a man boiling with frustration, who begins to encounter old faces (or are they ghosts?) on the city streets, drawing him down into the nightmares of his past. He meets a young tattooist by the name of Sheena, who initially appears to be a pleasant antidote to his lonely madness, but actually has terrible baggage and secrets of her own and will serve him as a guide rather than a distraction.

This excellent story has a sobering concept of the afterlife, and ponders that what may seem like poetic justice in this life could all be rendered cruelly irrelevant. There’s also Lovecraftian vibe, the feeling that reality is just a fragile skin over something infinitely more ghastly.

I thought the second novella “In the Skin” would struggle to scale the bar set by the opener, but I needn’t have worried. This is a stunning piece of writing.

A man returns to his troubled wife and young son after a business trip to New York to discover that things have changed; his world is suddenly askew and sinister, his son is slipping away and morphing into something horribly other.

We all know that feeling of awaking from a nightmare, when the terrifying experience is still fresh and overwhelming. Few writers can capture this helpless, unpleasant place to be on the page. Well, Gary McMahon can. And he can do it very well.

There are similar themes to the first story. His New York is cleaner yet more dishonest than his London, and no less grim, and the claustrophobia is maintained even when the city is forsaken for the English countryside. “In the Skin” also has a poignant family aspect, used in this instance to chilling effect. The tale gathers weight, increasingly intriguing and uncomfortable in equal measures, until we collide with the mindblowing conclusion: absolute horror at its bleakest and most raw.

Different Skins is a succinct summary of a talented writer at the height of his powers, and one that I would use as front-line ammunition against any detractor of our beloved genre who reckons that horror is tired, shallow and contrived.

So what are you waiting for?

Gary McMahon

Screaming Dreams

(If you can find a copy, I would also recommend “Rain Dogs” from the sadly defunct Humdrumming press, and be sure to bag a copy of the imminent “Hungry Hearts” from Abaddon books, Gary’s first and very well deserved mass market novel release)

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.