Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Recommendation: Case Of The Bedevilled Poet by Simon Clark

Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is the first in a new line of horror novellas from NewCon Press. It tells the story of Jack Cofton, a poet in London during the Blitz who, in a compelling opening scene, narrowly escapes death from a Nazi bomb.

But after this escape, Crofton's life becomes decidedly strange: an off-duty soldier insults and attacks him, and complete strangers all start repeating the same words to him: "And suffer you shall before you die." London suddenly seems filled with a sense of threat and violence which, while ambiguous, is directed towards Crofton. Seeking shelter in a pub, he encounters two old men who, preposterously, claim to be the real Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Crofton doesn't believe them of course, but he's in no position to turn down their aid...

As the above makes clear, there's a lot of plates set spinning in this story, and if the author was less talented all we'd have would be a load of smashed crockery. Fortunately, Simon Clark is too accomplished for that to happen, in part because the setting of London under siege by the Luftwaffe is so convincingly realised, both in terms of the concrete details and the depiction of the British public under fire. The characters of 'Holmes' and 'Watson' are also well done; a potentially absurd scenario actually becomes the source of pathos as the story progresses.

On one level, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is a fast-paced, plot-driven tale, racing along with the same narrative verve as the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves. But at the same time there's weighty thematic concerns raised, in particular the idea that the 'death drive' (based on Freud's theories of a universal urge towards self-destruction) is behind both the violence directed towards Crofton and the world-wide conflagration of WW2 as a whole.

Overall, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is an exhilerating read, and a fine start this range of NewCon Press novellas. (UK | US)

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Five Things #3

Another round up of five things that have caught my eye recently...

1. Unmanageable Spirits: a Look at Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Wish You Were Here' by S.P. Miskowski
On The Conqueror Weird (a site new to me, but looks a goodie), author S.P. Miskowski writes about Nadia Bulkin's fine story, 'Wish You Were Here' (which you can read, uh, here).

2. 'The Average Man Is Not Hard To Mystify' by Chloe N. Clark
Another Chloe N. Clark story and another accomplished tale, one that rewards several rereads. Despite it's short length, this one is bottomless.

3. 'Quiet Horror, Unquiet Horror, Disquieting Horror' by Paul St. John Mackintosh
A wide-ranging piece on the Ginger Nuts of Horror site about what is, and isn't, 'quiet horror'. Takes in Robert Aickman, Joyce Carol Oates and many others. I may not agree with everything the author says here, but it's still well worth reading and engaging with.

4. Electric Lit Interview: Victor LaValle
Fascinating interview with Victor LaValle, author of one of the best neo-Lovecraftian books around, The Ballad Of Black Tom. Here he talks about Lovecraft, the mutability of genres, and "imaginative illiteracy" and a whole load more.

5. 'Good Bones' by Maggie Smith
A poem that has been on my mind a lot since the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester & London, and the surge in voter turnout among the young denying the Tories a majority. You could make this place beautiful.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A hearty thank you to Des Lewis, for writing one of his inimitable 'gestalt real-time reviews' for my Hersham Horror novella, Paupers' Graves. Always a pleasure - you can read his thoughts here.

(Paupers' Graves ebook and paperback.)

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.