Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris

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I like novella-length horror, and this release from Spectral Press is a beautifully written tale. That sublime cover is the perfect reflection of what awaits, and as well as shivers, “Albion Fay” provides a very human descent of loss, guilt and desperation.

Albion FayOur narrator is Frank, a middle-aged, single man attending a family funeral. After drifting home in his grief, he peruses a faded photograph album and begins a journey into memories of the past he shared with his parents and twin sister, Angie. Many years ago, something bad happened to Angie on a childhood holiday at an isolated house named Albion Fay. Frank can pinpoint it to the moment she wandered into a network of deep caves behind the creaking building, and whatever happened left her damaged and lost in life.

“Albion Fay” begins with a great sense of intrigue. It snares us with Frank’s grief, and absolutely nails the crippling, spaced-out unreality of funerals before taking us back to his childhood. The non-linear storytelling works well as Frank pieces together how it all went wrong, and kudos to the author for the seamless seguing between past and present without a jot of confusion.

We learn that the caves are regarded with the same kind of nervous fear and reluctance that Dracula castle’s receives from pub locals in Hammer films. Legend has it they are home to the “Fay”: wicked fairies that bite and don’t like it when you look at them. The aura of malevolence emanating from the caves swells as the story progresses, none more so than when Angie is drawn inside, causing a great sense of helplessness on the part of the reader.

Frank is a solid narrator and investable, along with his sister. This makes Angie’s transformation – the breaking of a confident and vivacious child we’ve come to like – both convincing and tragic, especially as she harbours a sinister sense of knowing within her frightened soul. Frank’s parents also play strong roles, and while his mother provides warmth and stability, his father is a bitter and short-tempered bully. He becomes increasingly nasty the more we see, and the author does a sobering job of conveying the consequences of abuse within a family. This brings a palpable reality that bleeds through into the potentially supernatural elements of the book, making both equally intense.

I would actually have liked to learn more about the parents and their own formative journeys. They’re so well realised that their contrasts make me curious as to what drives them, but then I suppose this may have eroded the slick pace of the tale.

“Albion Fay” has a haunting sense of time and place, and although an old house and some caves inhabited by toothsome folklore may not sound desperately original, it just brings a pleasing familiarity. The story itself has plenty of muscle and the setting also provides a canvas for the pervading sense of Britishness. This is summed up in Adam Nevill’s excellent and thorough introduction, although I was glad that I saved reading this until the end.

And what an end that was, bringing a few sharp shocks before the curtain elegantly falls. We see humanity at both its most tender and acrid – but always utterly fragile – and as much heartbreak is born from the domestic exploits of Frank’s family as from the lurking Fay. The author deftly tackles loss in all its forms, combining the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood with chills and incredible style. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review – “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine” by John Llewellyn Probert

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Nothing perks my horror soul up more than classic Hammer films and John Llewellyn Probert fiction, so throw the two together and all is very much well with the world.

The Hammer of Dr. ValentineThis novella from Spectral Press is a direct sequel to “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine”, which was a tribute to Vincent Price. In that first story, we saw Dr. Edward Valentine out for Phibes-esque revenge on those he blamed for the death of his daughter. Naturally, this leaves the Bristol police baffled when he starts offing doctors in the methods of the actor’s more gruesome films, but even when they pick up the scent, the obsessed killer is always one step ahead. Full of twists, dry dialogue, and gleefully complicated death scenes, it was a delightful homage and one of my favourite reads of 2012.

In “The Hammer of Dr Valentine”, two years have passed since our favourite brilliant and deranged surgeon completed his assault on the medical community and escaped with an ostentatious flourish. Now he’s back, and more than a little disgruntled by the way certain journalists reported his rampage. As a man of integrity and refinement, he hates the vulgar tactics and sensationalist lies of the gutter press, so emerges from retirement to embark on another spree of meticulously flamboyant murders. And hurrah for that!

The book’s opening scene is superb, describing a man being launched from a Welsh clifftop by catapult to be impaled – with military precision – on a golden crucifix positioned in the valley below. Showing just how much planning and effort Dr. Valentine puts into his executions, this sets the wry tone and leaves us hungry to see what’s coming next.

It soon becomes apparent that this time around, rather than Vincent Price, the entire Hammer films canon is our killer’s inspiration. Jeffrey Longdon is back, the wonderfully jaded and cantankerous old-school detective who pursued Dr. Valentine through the first book. Pulled from a cosy rural job to take on the case, he’s more weary and irritated than alarmed by the grisly shenanigans, and it’s a joy to see him back. I’d go for a pint with him.

Another major character is John Spalding, a horror film expert and author who’s also on Dr. Valentine’s list. But although the format of this book is similar to the first – switching between the outrageous and imaginative vignettes of murder and the efforts of Detective Longdon and his colleagues – there is a slightly different ambience. Many of the doctors killed in the first book elicited a degree of sympathy. Although flawed, they did not deserve such horrible fates, and their actual guilt of any professional wrongdoing was also debatable. But this time around, the journalists are a much more odious bunch. The author lines up a fine array of unpleasant tabloid hacks and manipulative liars for Dr. Valentine to despatch, and the story almost develops a voyeuristic feel as we eagerly anticipate their sadistic deaths. It’s also fun guessing what ghastly method or film reference might be up next – some are subtle, some in your face – so I won’t spoil your enjoyment by giving any of them away.

John Llewellyn ProbertThe author’s prose is erudite, rich and dripping with wit, and this complements the characters and action. You don’t just the enjoy the story but the very telling of it, and being regaled in this quintessentially British and elegant voice is quite powerful when people are being killed in such abominable ways. While there is plenty of macabre humour, this book isn’t just played for laughs, and the author gauges it with the tension and nastiness just right. Although the mystery is lighter than in the first tale – we now know the killer’s identity, past and true motives – it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment, and it’s one of those slick, sharp pieces that would only get bogged down by a complex plot.

I loved “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine”.  The sumptuous camp and gothic atmosphere of Hammer is seamlessly fused with an edgy, contemporary setting and it all ends on a perfectly over the top note. It takes an author with consuming passion for classic cinematic horror to write these beautifully crafted homages, and I genuinely can’t imagine a better man for the job than John Llewellyn Probert.

So go ahead and enjoy, and read “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine” first if you haven’t done so already. Let’s just hope that in the meantime, somebody other than doctors or journalists have managed to get on the wrong side of the fiendish Dr. Edward Valentine. I can’t wait to see where he turns to get his creativity flowing in the next instalment.

Highly recommended.

Review – “Home and Hearth” by Angela Slatter

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I hadn’t read any Angela Slatter before this, but I certainly will again. Volume XI in the reliable Spectral Press chapbook series, “Home and Hearth” is one of those short stories that sticks.

H&HWe meet Caroline, a single mother welcoming home her teenaged son Simon. He’s been in custody for the duration of a deeply unpleasant trial, and despite him not facing sentence, Caroline finds it difficult to put the tough times behind them. She wants to want him back and be a good mother, but the ghost of Simon’s actions – and indeed her own – will not be silenced.

Overall, I found this quite a wrenching piece. It’s exquisitely told, with keen attention to detail, especially regarding the sinister awkwardness of Simon’s return to “home and hearth”. The characters are convincing and Caroline’s sense of shame – amplified when forced out in public to buy groceries – also makes us squirm beneath the pity and curious distaste of others. We’re under the microscope with her, but at the same time, aren’t quite sure what dark secrets she might also harbour. These are deftly woven in through back story, and when presented alongside moments of familiar domesticity, it could be happening to any of us.

Caroline’s torn sense of right and wrong carries this tale, along with the sense of innocence lost. Of course any parent wants to protect their child, but what if such maternal instinct may have terrible consequences for others? Caroline has to reconcile loyalty, love, guilt and responsibility as the plot glides effortlessly to a gut-punch conclusion.

Many horror stories conclude with either triumph or a gleeful descent into bleak. But like many of my favourites, this doesn’t fit into either camp. It’s poignant, brutal and concrete – the way it needed to be – and I couldn’t help but be satisfied despite the heartache.

I enjoyed “Home and Hearth” enough to read it twice, and found that it rewarded the extra time with a new experience of grim hindsight. This chapbook certainly does the Spectral brand and chapbook series proud, delivering the kind of quality that makes me renew a subscription without hesitation.

Review – “Soul Masque” by Terry Grimwood

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This is a slightly unusual offering from Spectral Press in their chapbook series of mostly spooky and haunting tales. “Soul Masque” is a stark nightmare of drugs, macabre sexuality and demons, but despite the deviation in both style and content, it still packs a punch.

soul-masqueThe story paints a grim picture of London as a battleground between heaven and hell. The main players are a morphine addicted reverend who wields the celestial power of “the Glory”, a powerful dominatrix, a woman who has a divine deal to keep her cancer at bay, and a guilt addled loser trapped by the will of his nefarious masters. They’re tied together by “The Singer”, an angel no less, but one with more of an unholy personality than one would traditionally expect.

The author’s prose is full of frank description that sometimes could be regarded as telling rather than showing, which I found troubling at first, but it works well on the whole. It fosters a traditional feel that collides nicely with the sado-masochism, profanity and blood, and there’s plenty of chilling turns of phrase that galvanise the aura of menace and make things much darker than they seem at face value.

The tale begins unconventionally with an intense epilogue that describes a demonic invasion of a nightclub. I rather enjoyed this, and was urged to venture on and see how that came to be. And what an adventure that is. The London of the story – its warehouses, streets, and grubby bedsits – has tremendous sense of place, and the whole tale seems tainted by the sleazy malevolence.

This is a fast moving story which means that although it’s never dull, it can be disorientating. The plentiful cast of characters meant that sometimes I had to check back to see who was whom, but there’s still empathy to be found which is impressive in a piece of this length and style. The demons are beautifully painted; nasty, spindly creations presented in just the right amount of detail to let your imagination fill out the rest.

Despite its shortcomings, “Soul Masque” is a solid piece. It kept me along for the ride and concludes with a prologue – bookending the bleak epilogue at the outset – that neatly ties it all together. There’s little fun to be had, the vibe being more one of hopelessness, and the overall experience is made memorable not by specific characters or events, but by the supernatural darkness and more importantly the fear. It leaks from the pages, defining many of the characters, settings, and lurking behind every phrase.

Credit goes to Spectral’s editor Simon Marshall-Jones for not being afraid to wander from the beaten path. While perhaps not to everybody’s taste, I enjoyed this sojourn into Terry Grimwood’s urban, shadow-strung hell on earth. And never has the word Glory been so pleasingly deceptive in its application.

Review: Spectral Press Chapbooks – Volumes VIII & IX

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The delivery of a Spectral chapbook is always one of life’s little ups: a pearl on the doormat amid the bills and other straight-to-shredder offal. The single-story issues are generally of creepy tone rather than visceral, and the most recent two volumes continue that tradition by merging melancholy, loss and memory with exactly what makes reading horror so much goose-bump inducing fun.

David-TallermanVolume VIII sees David Tallerman’s “The Way of the Leaves” narrated by a broken man. He succinctly whisks us back to his childhood to meet Charlotte – a friend and fellow misfit – as the two of them climb a hill one summer afternoon in search of a place to relax and read. I was immediately struck by the evocation, almost blinking against the sun and prickled by gorse scratches on my legs. And things soon turn beautifully menacing when they discover the entrance to a barrow.

“The shadows behind were too black, too deep.”

From that moment on – and the ensuing claustrophobic adventure into the barrow – the tale oozes menace from every angle. I won’t spoil what unfolds, but the author is a sound judge of how much to show and how much to leave steeped in malevolent mystery, keeping our imaginations on their toes.

I completely empathised with the protagonist and his actions as a youth, and his poignant, troubled relationship with Charlotte could’ve been expanded into a novella, perhaps even a novel. But that’s not to say “The Way of the Leaves” is rushed. This is perfectly paced storytelling with some splendid turns of phrase, and I’ll keep my eye out for David’s work in future.

CreakersVolume IX brings “Creakers” by Paul Kane. Here we meet property developer Ray, alone and unsettled in the middle of the night after landing the task of renovating his old family home. He soon realises that it’s a creaker: a property prone to late-night, nerve-jangling groans regardless of the building’s age or construction. But this seems to have meaning, and may be connected to his recently deceased mother and the childhood upon which he’s deliberately turned his back.

From its spine-chilling opening in the house, this muscular tale holds the interest throughout with crisp prose and chills, and I enjoyed Ray’s developing friendship with an attractive, lonely neighbour. As well as character development, this element also served to balance the haunting moments with some cold light of day.

I found the overall concept familiar, but the piece still builds to an assured – if not breathtaking – finale. As with the previous chapbook, the author keeps us guessing as to whether events are concrete, psychological or supernatural, or even a combination of them all. And tip-toeing around a scary house at midnight by torchlight is always a blast in safe hands like Paul Kane’s.

If you like thoughtful horror with heart and darkness in equal measure, then visit Spectral Press. With each volume signed and limited to 100 prints, these superbly edited chapbooks sell out fast, and should please collector and reader alike. I’ll certainly be renewing my subscription ad infinitum.

Spectral Press Chapbook Series – Alison Littlewood

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“The Eyes of Water” is the 6th chapbook in the ongoing series from Spectral Press. The quality has been consistently high, and kudos to Simon Marshall-Jones for carefully selecting the authors. These polished single stories often have a quintessentially British feel, and all the requisite elegance and chills one would expect from the best. Alison Littlewood’s tale is no exception, but this time transports us to Mexico and the cenotés: a system of flooded caverns in the Yucatan peninsula. 

It begins with Alex, our likeable narrator, meeting his old friend Rick for an adventure into these beautiful yet dangerous caves. But later in the trip, a faceless corpse is discovered in the water, and it appears that Rick has fallen to the eyes of the water: a local term to describe the effect of fresh water merging with the seawater of the ocean. The official word is that Rick was trapped and battered by a whirlpool that empties through the complex systems and into the sea, but Alex isn’t quite convinced.

Along with Rick’s sister Kath, he decides to visit the place of his friend’s death: a network of deep, submerged caves with a terrible history of Mayan sacrifice. Certainly not the sort of place you venture alone. Or in the middle of the night.

I wasn’t hugely familiar with this author, but I loved her 1st person voice. The prose is literate but unintrusive, with wonderful attention to detail, and there isn’t a word of overexplanation. This kind of writing makes me very happy, and the perfect editing scores extra points.

What also struck me was her power of evocation. The sense of place is incredible, and there are pictures in my head from this story that are crystal clear as footage. This is also used to great effect to create some breathlessly claustrophobic and frightening moments that balance the quieter moments of atmospheric brooding.

But this certainly isn’t content to be a mood piece. The main three characters are equally real, delivering plenty of empathy and pathos, understandable motives, and their subtle relationships add yet more depth. The story tackles bitterness, redemption, fear and the human need for resolution, and reflects upon life itself with a very satisfying finale. Combine this with a great concept and some spooky, spine-tingling adventure, and you’ve got a winner.

Sadly “The Eyes of Water” is sold out, but click here to visit Spectral Press for information on future publications and chapbook subscription details. You won’t regret it.