Sunday, 14 May 2017

Recommendation: The Secret Of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett

The Secret Of Ventriloquism is the debut collection from Jon Padgett - and what a debut it is. I'd seen a lot of praise for this book before reading it, so much so that I wondered if it could actually live up to the hype. Now I find myself adding to that praise unreservedly: The Secret Of Ventriloquism is utterly, fantastically, indubitably brilliant.

The stories within cover a range of styles and influences: 'The Indoor Swamp' for example is a largely plotless, Ligotti-esque mood piece, whereas 'The Infusorium' is a longer work, full of vivid characters, plot reversals and the influence of noir. Padgett also gives us jet-black humour in 'Murmurs Of A Voice Foreknown', a one act play, and a story written in the style of a ventriloquism manual.

But despite this impressive variation, these stories all seem to take place in the same fictional geography, with images, events and motifs criss-crossing between them. Padgett-land is a place of thick smogs, mysterious plan-crashes, dream-logic, and the mysteries of 'greater ventriloquism'.

As such, The Secret Of Ventriloquism is not just a collection of good stories, but a good collection of stories, structured and arranged to hint at wider horrors that we never see. If the key to good horror writing is atmosphere (as I keep repeating) then Padgett proves himself a master of it here. Each story builds tension individually, but also contributes to the overall, escalating feeling of unease, of a malaise physical and mental. It's magnificently done and demands to be read by all aficionados of the genre.

The Secret Of Ventriloquism (UK | US)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Five Things #2

Second in a semi-regular series of posts linking to things I've found interesting, valuable or amusing recently. Without further ado:

1. 'Wishing For Alison' by Steve Mosby
Crime writer Steve Mosby has only written a few short stories, but each one I've read has been dark, lyrical, and deftly written. 'Wishing For Alison', published on the author's blog, is no exception.

2. 'Old Water, New Waves' by V.H. Leslie
On the Thresholds site, V.H. Leslie writes about the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, specifically the story 'Old Water'. Gilman is of course best know for her classic 'The Yellow Wallpaper', but Leslie's piece really makes me want to seek out 'Old Water' too.

3. CVLT Nation Interview with Matthew M. Bartlett
Fascinating interview with Matthew M. Bartlett, author of Creeping Waves and Gateways To Abomination.

4. 'Gold Lift' by Martin Carr
New musical goodness from Martin Carr, which despite being catchy as sin is also a lament/polemic about the Brexit/Trump/Le Pen/Tory wet dream world in which we live. Buy here.

5. Writers On The Short Story Parts 1-4
The Reading The Short Story site has done a four-parter of quotes from various writers about the short story form, including gems from Chekov, Donald Barthelme, Katherine Mansfield, and Julio Cortazar.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Recommendation: Asian Monsters (ed. Margret Helgadottir)

Asian Monsters is the third anthology in the 'Monsters' series from Fox Spirit Press, following on from European Monsters and African Monsters. It's a beautifully designed book, with evokative, sepia-tinted cover art from Daniele Serra and interior art from a range of artists. Two of the stories are in the form of comic-strips too.

The fourteen stories here (edited by Margret Helgadottir) take creatures from various strands of Asian folklore and give them new twists. If, like me, you're as boringly British as they come, you'll be sure to find beasts and creatures new to you in these pages. As such, it's an anthology that feels more original than many. I assume that most of these tales are based on old myths and folktales, but the the stories in Asian Monsters all feel like fresh retellings, the authors using their stories to investigate contemporary and human concerns.

Every story here is worth reading; here are a few words on my personal favourites:

'Good Hunting' by Ken Liu exemplifies the combination of the traditional and the modern I mentioned above; indeed it's about the journey from one to another. This story starts with a familiar setup–a demon-hunter seeking out his quarry–but ends up somewhere completely different, as the magic of spells and tradition is replaced by that of industry and modernity. It's a spectacularly well written story about how both the demon and the hunter adapt and thrive; in its scope its the equivalent of that jump-cut from 2001.

One of the most disturbing monsters in the anthology is to be found in 'Datsue-Ba' by Eliza Chan. Here, the traditional and the modern appear to be in conflict. The central characters are as modern as they come: two unmarried lovers enjoying a break at a Tokyo onsen; but they are unaware of the spirit-like creature there with them, one who sits in judgement over their actions and characters. But while it is a story about judgement, it's unclear whether justice has been delivered, or whether just the stale diktats of dead tradition enacted.

Aliette de Boddard's 'Golden Lillies' also sees the values of the traditional past being forced upon latter generations, although in this case the monster (a deceased ancestor) is actively sought out, by a young woman about to marry. The story is based around the horrific practice of foot-binding, and the reader might wonder if the 'help' the spirit offers is really aid at all, or merely pointless pain and torment.

EeLeen Lee's 'Let Her In' tells of the relationship between mother and daughter, the latter returning from the dead after being forced into an absuive marriage. A wonderfully poignant piece about revenge, cross-generational relationships, loss and love.

Perhaps the best story of all, and certainly the scariest, is 'Blood Women' by Usman T. Malik. Set in a contemporary Pakistan, young children already facing the horrors of bombs and drone-strikes realise that something even more monstrous is out there. It's a vividly conveyed setting, and it's testament to Malik's skills as a writer that the monstrous element still has the ability to shock and scare against this all too human backdrop.

All in all, Asian Monsters is thoroughly recommended (UK | US)

Monday, 24 April 2017

Announcement: Imposter Syndrome

Very pleased today to be able to annonce Imposter Syndrome, a forthcoming anthology edited by myself and Dan Howarth. The book will feature all original stories about doppelgängers, clones, changelings, Capgras-delusion and pod-people.

I'm immensely excited by the authors who are contributing stories:

Laura Mauro
Ralph Robert Moore
Gary McMahon
Tracy Fahey
Holly Ice
Timothy J. Jarvis
Neil Williamson
Stephen Bacon
Georgina Bruce
Phil Sloman

Imposter Syndrome will be released winter 2017 by the wonderful Dark Minds Press.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Five Things #1

I thought I'd start a new semi-regular feature where I link to various 'things' (stories, articles, reviews, whatever) that have interested me recently. It's the kind of stuff I normally tweet or post on Facebook, but that only gives people a fleeting opportunity to see them. So here's something more permanent.

1. And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine)
This is a simply superb story, a clever mingling of Agatha Christie style murder mystery and multiple reality sci-fi. It is set at a convention in which all the attendees are different versions of the same person... and then one of the Sarah Pinskers is killed. But which Sarah Pinsker is the killer?

2. This Michael Wehunt blog-post about the types of horror and weird fiction he does (& doesn't) write. It's always interesting to read a thoughtful writer discuss their passions, but fewer talk about the roads they've not taken.

3. The Rage Of Cthulhu by Gary Fry: Gingernuts Of Horror review
If there's any current writer who can do something new and orginal with the Cthulhu mythos, it's Gary Fry (see also his story in The Outsiders). The Gingernuts Of Horror site agrees with me.

4. Red Hood by Eric Schaller (Nightmare Magazine)
I read this story blurry eyed one morning, drinking coffee while my daughter watched Peppa Pig in the background. And yet it still both impressed and unnerved me.

5. 9 Things To Do As A Notts Newbie (Left Lion)
I've lived in or around Nottingham most of my life, but I've not done some of these. I've including it here because of the book related ones, natch: a nice shoutout for the Five Leaves independent bookshop, where I had a launch for Trying To Be So Quiet. Also listed are the charity shops in Sherwood (where I live), in which I've found many a second-hand book-shaped bargain, incuding the Fine Frights anthology edited by Ramsey Campbell.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Recommendation: The End Of Everything by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott's novel The End Of Everything is a book with a disapearence at its heart: that of 13 year old Evie Verver from her suburban American family home. It's narrated from the point of view of her best friend and next door neighbour, Lizzie. One of the first things you'll notice about this book is the impressive characterisation of Lizzie: at once appalled and fascinated by what might have happened to her friend. Lizzie is on the cusp of adulthood, and like many teenagers is both determined to appear grownup yet still subject to adolescent fantasy. Lizzie does not stay passive in the hunt for Evie, and the ramifcations of her intervention, for herself and others, form a key part of the story.

The narrative doesn't solely focus on the mystery of Evie's disapperence or the identity of her potential abducter, but also on the effects on those left behind. It's a book of secrets revealed - the secrets of the Ververs, of Lizzie, of the surburban world she lives in, and ultimately of vanished Evie herself, who Lizzie perhaps didn't know as well as she thought...

This is the first book by Abbott that I've read, but it's unlikely to be the last. It's wonderfully told, both in terms of the flowing, sinuous prose and the dexterious, clever storytelling. The characterisation is spot-on, and the plot's secrets are often revelled subtelly and obliquely. It's one of those stories whose voice seems to linger long after reading. Well worth reading.

The End Of Everything (UK | US)

Friday, 17 March 2017

Recommendation: Unger House Radicals by Chris Kelso

Unger House Radicals by Chris Kelso is a hell of a book: a hell of a book to read, and a hell of a book to even begin to describe. But here goes.

It starts simply enough: a wannabe avant-garde filmmaker and a serial killer team up, with the goal of filming the killer's crimes to start a new cinematic, artistic and philosophical movement: Ultra-Realism. But the story soon turns to people inspired or affected by this movement, and we see the ripples of Ultra Realism's creation spill out into wider society. The plot is told from multiple points of view, cutting across and contradicting each other (and each expertly caputed by Kelso). From these voices, Kelso weaves a whole damn tapestry of violence, nilhism, fractured psyches, blurred timelines. Except 'weave' isn't the right word; instead say Kelso pulls at one loose thread, until everything you think you knew is unravelled. It's like some unholy combination of J.G. Ballard, Fight Club, real-life accounts of serial killers, and a William Burroughs cut-up experiment.

In the hands of a lesser author Unger House Radicals might have been a huge mess. But it's tightly structured despite its sprawling feel, and Kelso's narrative skills hold everything together. There are brutal scenes here, but Kelso does not depict them gratuitiously or lingeringly. A bleak, playful, challenging yet hugely enjoyable work, Unger House Radicals will almost certainly reward rereading. As it is, after one read Unger House Radicals is one of the most memorable books I've read for a while, and one I can highly recommend.

Unger House Radicals (UK | US)