Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Recommendation: The Doom That Came To Whitby Town by Gary Fry

Whitby, 2019
The Doom That Came To Whitby Town is the swan song from the much respected publisher, Gray Friar Press, owned by Gary Fry. This parting gift is a novella from Fry himself, in which something ancient and monstrous is uncovered after a cliff fall on the coast near Whitby. The 'something' is spirited away and hidden by the town's authorities, but that doesn't stop its malign influence from spreading...

As might be gathered, this novella is firmly rooted in Lovecraftian tropes, although here they are not treated with the unnecessary, cloying reverence of most modern mythos fiction. Indeed, one gets the sense that Fry was having a blast writing this one, gleefully destroying both his own home town and his protagonist's settled bachorlohood as the story progresses. Whereas much of Fry's work (of which I'm a big admirer) uses horror to explore serious contemporary concerns, Doom is faster paced, lighter on its feet. Most importantly, in places it is genuinely creepy and unsettling.

In part the book works so well because of its use of setting - I was lucky enough to visit Whitby earlier in the year (and to meet Fry himself) and instantly recognised Doom's depiction of narrow streets and narrower alleys, steep hills, deserted pubs, sea frets and maurading Herring Gulls. Much of the story is set in the off season when all the tourists have left, making it easier to visualise in the mind's eye the things Fry only hints at: mishappen beings shambling the misty streets late at night, the locals begining to hide themselves away from prying eyes. There are mysterious deaths, strange pentagrams, visions of the cosmic on the beach (a shout out to Fry's own Emergence, perhaps), and an unhealthy number of things centred around the number five. Even the bastard seagulls are not untainted by what is happening in Whitby town...

A fine piece of work, compelling and entertainng in equal measure.

The Doom That Came To Whitby Town (UK | US)

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Writers On Writing Volume 1-4 Omnibus

The omnibus of the first four editions of Crystal Lake's Writers On Writing series is out this weekend and available to preorder now, with a host of special offers and competitions.

I've for two essays in the book. The first, Embrace Your Inner Shitness, is about the freedom in letting yourself go and writing a bad first draft, whilst the second, Fictional Emotions; Emotional Fictions,  tackles that hoary old cliche that good writing should evoke an emotional response - but what exactly does that mean in practice?

Plus there's a whole bunch of essays from great authors like Kevin Lucia, Mercedes M. Yardley, Lynda E. Rucker, Jack Ketchum, Stephanie M. Wytovich, Brian Hodge and many many more. It's a book that contains a multitude of clashing, complimenting, and contradicting views on how to write well, and is all the stronger for it. A book that makes you think about how you write, rather than being told how you should. Come join the conversation.

Writers On Writing Omnibus is out in both ebook and paperback editions - you can win a copy of the latter over at the Crystal Lake webpage too.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Fox Pockets #10: Reflections out now...

The Fox Pockets series of anthologies are a beautifully designed set of books from award winning press Fox Spirit. I'm pleased to say that the latest volume, Reflections, features my story 'Premonition', as well as tales from such fine folk as Alasdair Stuart, Andrew Reid, G Clark Hellery, and Chloe Yates.

'Premonition' is a rather nasty little tale about our hopes for the future, our excuses for the present, and strange things hiding at the bottom of ponds.

Fox Pockets #10: Reflections is available now (UK | US)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Recommendation: Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

Horror is perhaps the most subjective literary genre to judge, because in the end it comes down to how the book emotionally affected you. Did it scare me? Did it creep me out; did its shadow linger after I closed the pages? I think most readers of the horrific, the weird, and the strange would admit that those books & stories which most scared them did so in part due to qualities outside the book. Because the books that really stay with us are those that play on our existing phobias, bugbears, and neuroses.

So it was with me and Adam Nevill's Lost Girl.

Lost Girl takes place in a near-future England, slowly collapsing as climate-change wreaks havoc across the globe and millions of displaced people move northward. Within this grim setting, Nevill tells the story of a character known only as 'the father' on a quest to find his missing daughter, who was snatched two years earlier. In the future depicted here, a single missing child is small-beans to the overworked authorities, and the father must employ his own methods to track down those who abducted his child: methods which increase in violence even as his quest appears more and more hopeless.

Part of the reason this novel had such a powerful effect on me is surely because I'm a relatively new father myself; the parts of the book describing the daughter's abduction, the father's descent into grief, pain and despair, triggered no end of 'what if' scenarios in my head. (And given how vivid & starkly the father's plight is described, I'm sure this was the case for the author too.) Indeed, this is a subject matter that, even before was a father, could induce a sickly panic in me as a reader; I remember similarly feelings of panic reading Ian McEwan's The Child In Time.

But more than that, I've always been fascinated and appalled by climate change. I remember studying it at university, twenty years ago now, and while it was a horrifying concept then it seemed far away enough that we would do something about it. Obviously. Why wouldn't we? But now it's decades later, we've done comparatively little, and it really is the last chance saloon. The idea of runaway global warming has a different emotion intensity now, and not just because it's that much closer. It's because it no longer feels like something the previous generation has done to me, but something I've colluded in doing to my daughter's generation. Nevill's central plot, about a father trying and failing to protect his child, is of course the perfect metaphor for his wider theme.

The book's depiction of the England of tomorrow is frightening in its plausibility. It's a society still clinging to its old ways, its old shape; the police, politicians, inner cities, countryside, class division, motorways and other familiar features of British life all still present. But it's an England far hotter, overrun by criminal gangs, struggling with mass immigration, infectious diseases and the fear of imminent collapse. It's a place being reshaped not by a single apocalyptic event but by the slow accumulation of entropy and disaster. (The fate of other countries, the book suggests, has not been so kind.) It's a grimly realistic view of what life in the face of slow-motion environmental collapse will actually be like. And of course, like all depictions of the future, it's also a depiction of how we live now. Although it was released over a year ago, it's hard not to see in the world of Lost Girl a distorted and magnified version of our current Brexit small-minded idiocy.

The obvious book to compare Lost Girl to is Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece The Road; it's a testament to Nevill's skill as a novelist that Lost Girl comes out well from that comparison. Taut, brutal, violent, scary (but with only the merest hint of the supernatural), thought-provoking, emotionally-wrenching and possibly prophetic, it's a remarkable piece of work. It's a novel that, even after a single reading, I know will stay with me, haunting me with the fear that my daughter will grow up into the world it depicts. With the fear that if she does, it will be because I (and all of us) failed her and allowed her to become lost.

Lost Girl (UK | US)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Recommendation: Through A Mirror, Darkly by Kevin Lucia

Through A Mirror, Darkly is a dark and accomplished collection of interrelated novellas from Kevin Lucia, all set in the small American town of Clifton Heights. The stories are bookended by a framing narrative, the tales purporting to be read by the owner of the Arcane Delights bookstore after a manuscript mysteriously turns up in his store.

Readers will notice the legacy of the great Charles L. Grant in this setup, and it's a tribute to Lucia's skills as a writer that his stories hold up against Grant's. The influence of King and especially Bradbury are also clear in the small-town setting and the readable yet evocative prose. Less integrated, perhaps, is the more overt references to the mythos of Chambers and Lovecraft that pop up. This may be personal taste, but I felt Lucia too accomplished a writer to need to lean so heavily on the work of others. Clifton Heights is such a well-imagined setting that it deserves its own mythos.

The individual stories in the volume are nicely balanced and sequenced, with each shedding more light on Clifton Heights and a wider narrative, but still feeling distinctive in their own right. Opener Suffer The Children is an intriguing take on the Christian faith and personal loss, whilst Admit One tackles that evergreen horror theme of the dangers of getting what one wishes for. And I Watered It, With Tears has perhaps the most straight-forward horror plot here, as a group of strangers are trapped inside a civic centre and are gradually picked off one by one by something nightmarish inside. Despite a certain contrivance to the setup, once the piece hits its stride its a grimly effective piece of horror.

Yellow Cab was my favourite piece, telling the story of a young taxi driver who picks up some very unusual fares in and around Clifton Heights. The driver's aimless life is nicely contrasted with the definite but nebulous destination his passengers ask him to head for... This story displayed all of Lucia's strengths, most prominently an expertly controlled sense of mounting, creeping dread.

Overall, a great read. You can purchase Through A Mirror, Darkly here.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Recommendation: You'll Know When You Get There

I've been a fan of Lynda E. Rucker's fiction since reading her debut The Moon Will Look Strange, a fantastic collection of strange and haunting fiction. Her second collection, You'll Know When You Get There, is if anything even better.

The first story, The Receiver Of Tales, is the perfect opener, introducing the reader to many reoccurring themes in the collection as a whole. Rucker's central character is isolated, both physically and emotionally, leaving her vulnerable to the events that follow. The Receiver Of Tales is a story about stories and how they might shape us: a idea represented here by the fact the titular tales are physically scrawled into the protagonist's body. Stories might be things we literally can't escape from.

Many of the finest tales in this book are about the intersection between fiction and reality and the darkness to be found there. Rucker's knowledge of the writers who have come before her is clear, but never deployed in an obvious, derivative or cheap way. There are nods to M.R. James, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Robert W. Chambers and Shirley Jackson, but Rucker's work stands proudly apart from any of her influences. Indeed, a story like Who Is This Who Is Coming?, a narrative set firmly in M.R. James country, might be considered a warning about the dangers of identifying too closely with such past masters of horror, lest what we see in their works turns out to be all too true. It's quite simply a masterpiece.

What also comes across is how damn good Rucker is at evoking a sense of place, both the physical character of a landscape and how it might affect the people within it. The stories take us from the Irish countryside of Widdershins (one of the scariest stories here), via the American lakes in This Time of Day, This Time Of Year, to a strange and decaying forest which doesn't appear on any map in The Wife's Lament. Into these places stumble Rucker's characters, unsure of the rules that govern these landscapes until it might be too late.

One of the finest pieces here, quietly devastating, is Where The Summer Dwells. A nostalgic, elegaic piece about the American South and the way we might be haunted by our memories, it's a horror story which aspires to more than mere scares. It is, in the most heartbreaking sense of the word, beautiful.

And then, there's not one but two stunningly original takes on the haunted house story. The House on Cobb Street is a twisted masterpiece: the titular house may or may not be real, and its unclear if those haunted were real either. Also in doubt is the reality of the abode in The Haunting House; does it exist outside the confused narrator's dreams of it? Regardless, she leaves her life behind to try and find it (and maybe find the mysterious being she has dreamt might be inside it) as if it were calling to her. "Journeys end in lovers meeting", indeed.

It's a brilliant end to what is, quite simply, one of the short story collections of the year. You'll Know When You'll Get There is available in a beautiful hardback edition from Swan River Press. You can order it here.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The REAL Paupers' Graves

To celebrate the release of my novella Paupers' Graves at Fantasycon last weekend, I thought I'd share some photographs of the real-life inspiration behind the setting–Rock Cemetery in Nottingham. 

I changed a number of aspects of the cemetery to make the story work, but many of the details in Paupers' Graves are still directly taken from reality. (Paupers' Graves is available now as both as an ebook and paperback.)

View of the paupers' graves from above in the main cemetery.

Some of the slabs for the paupers' graves.

Single white headstone erected by the War Graves Commission amongst the paupers' graves

Another shot of the slabs, with the arches in the background.

Tumbled graves.

The main cemetery, with the church in the background.