Ginger Nuts of Horror
'There is a power in stories, a power to root themselves into a nation's subconscious and an ability to take on a life of their own. James Brogden's The Hollow Tree uses one such story as the basis for his latest novel from Titan Books. Based on the true story of infamous Bella in the Wych Elm, The Hollow Tree uses this fascinating legend as the foundation for a chilling folk horror ghost story about the compelling nature of story and belief.
When Rachel Cooper suffers a horrific accident that results in one of her hands being amputated her idyllic married life is thrown into turmoil. Haunted by nightmares of a woman trapped in a hollow tree, her marriage and her sanity are soon threatened by a world beyond ours as the mystery surrounding Bella begins to unfold and the real power of myths is unleashed on our reality.
The Hollow Tree while not a direct sequel to last years excellent Hekla's Children, can be view as a companion novel. Both of them deal with the notion that there are worlds beyond ours, shielded from ours by the thinnest of veils that can't always keep our worlds separate. Where Hekla's Children was a more full-on folk horror novel, The Hollow Tree is slightly more restrained work, but nevertheless, it is still a highly enjoyable ghost story with enough thrills and chills to keep the reader wanting more.
Brogden carefully keeps the supernatural elements of the story to a bare minimum during the initial phase of the novel. Instead, he focuses on the stress and strains of Racheal's relationship to her husband Tom as a result of the accident. It's a clever move as it serves to ground the story and the dynamics between the pair of them in a sensitive and believable manner, allowing for you to become invested in their relationship, as the story unfolds.
When the focus of the story moves away from the domestic drama, and the supernatural element kicks in full force Brogden takes on an ingenious trip to The Umbra. The Umbra is a wild place, filled with dark magic, a place where the dispossessed dead exists, clinging onto the boundary spaces between the two worlds that have special meaning to them. But The Umbra is so much more; it's a place where our myths, legends, and stories go, a place the power of belief can be harnessed by those in the stories to cement their power and their existence in the Umbra. It's a bewitching premise which allows for some excellent twists and turns as the story unfolds. Forgive me for being a vague here, but trust me the less you know about certain aspects of the narrative, the more enjoyment you will get as the story unfolds.
Without giving too much away, Brogden has created a unique and utterly compelling supernatural threat. As he says we all have our death, but we might not be able to choose it. He utilises the urban legend of Bella to great effect, drawing on the foremost myths and theories behind who Bella was a Nazi spy, a gypsy witch or a prostitute. Brogden even manages to use the much-maligned dream sequence method of storytelling to great effect as a means to introducing us to the three different facets of who Bella is.
Sometimes the ending of a story is the hardest thing to get right, many stories fizzle out, or feel unresolved, or god forbid end too quickly. The Hollow Tree has one of the best endings I have had the pleasure of reading in many a long year, Rachel's fate is is perfect and filling and will have you running the full spectrum of emotions as her fate is revealed.
The Hollow Tree is a gripping supernatural thriller, filled with great ideas, a fresh take on the tried and trusted ghost story, and a genuinely unique Big Bad Monster. A sympathetic and fitting extension to the myths surrounding Bella in the Wych Elm.
GUEST POST THE HOLLOW TREE BY JAMES BROGDEN
By George Illet Anderson
Belly of the Beast
One of the best things about reviewing is when you come across those books that weave their reading magic on you, lulling you into this weird state of oblivion. Where you find yourself sitting down to have a taste of what’s on offer only to find yourself roused from your insatiable appetite for more by the fading light. Sam Gafford’s debut novel from Dark Regions Press, “The House of Nodens” definitely falls into this category.
I’d previously bought Gafford’s collection from Hippocampus Press, “The Dreamer in Fire and Other Tales” and found myself immersed in these beautifully crafted worlds full of imagination and assured writing. So when this popped up in my recommendations and I glanced at that brooding and ominous cover, I just knew that I had to part with my money and dive headlong in. I must admit that as much as the cover swayed me, my initial impression upon reading the blurb was that it sounded somewhat akin to a Stephen King, Dan Simmons or Robert McCammon styled take on childhood but that illusion was dispelled very, very quickly. This is an altogether far more brutal and primal look at innocence lost than the aforementioned have conjured up. “The House of Nodens” is a nightmare of broken lives, ritualistic sacrifice and slaughter that feels like David Fincher directing a cosmic/ folk horror themed detective film.
The central protagonist is Bill Simmons, who as a young child befriends a group of school outsiders who dub themselves “The Cemetery League” and meet in a clubhouse they construct in the woods of New Milford, Connecticut. However something ancient and malevolent resides there and insidiously works its way into their psyches with horrific consequences for Bill, his friends and the world at large. The immediate thought on reading this description would be to think that this sounds somewhat akin to King’s “IT.” However, whereas that monster of a novel can be considered a loose template of sorts, “The House of Nodens” is a very different breed of beast; lean and mean with a voracious hunger for meat and mayhem.
Much like King’s novel, the narrative jumps back and forth between Bill’s childhood and his adult life. Gafford’s deft writing is great at conveying both the joy of friendship and the cruel deceptions that lurk beneath childhood relationships. A duality that extends into the present as Bill contends with the harsh realities of adulthood. Troubled by vague memories and terrifying visions, his world is irrevocably altered when he’s brought in to aid police with a murder investigation involving one of his childhood friends. From hereon out, Bill’s life spirals further out of control as he finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past and hounded by the ominous presence that is Nodens.
Up until this point, my familiarity with Nodens was principally based around the version that was presented in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, namely that of a benevolent deity opposed to the malevolent Old Ones. The version presented here however is a malignant representation of the ancient Celtic God of hunting and one that delights in entrapping and corrupting people for its own pleasure and plans.
Gafford excels at creating this menacing and oppressive sense of being stalked throughout the novel, a feeling that only intensifies once old wounds are opened and the past comes screaming back into the present. This is typified in the mirroring of Bill’s efforts to reconnect with the past with an ongoing FBI investigation into a serial killer who has eluded the law for decades. The plot strands weave in and out of each other, leading you down paths of misdirection and confusion until you are left wondering who is innocent or guilty and what constitutes fact or fiction. You feel like you are in this tense game of cat and mouse where the resolution is far from clear but you just intrinsically know that it is not going to end well for all involved.
Whilst the story does feel somewhat familiar, “The House of Nodens” wears its influences well and delivers a satisfyingly bleak slice of dark hued horror fiction that is worthy of investigation.
There are times when an author attempts to try something different with simple narrative structure if a story, and a lot of the time they end falling on their flat on their face, with a story that just ends up being confused, convoluted or even worse just annoying.
Anthony Watson's Witnesses is one such novel that tries to break away from the traditional narrative, with multiple timelines, multiple points of view and even various narrative tenses. It's a bold move, one that opens the story up to so many pitfalls and stumbling blocks. However, Witnesses stands proud grips them by the throat and delivers a challenging yet ultimately rewarding read.
Witnesses isn't an easy read for want of better words, the structure of the novel along with the lack of chapter breaks when the narrative shifts from one person to another, and the use of relatively small passages, at first makes this a daunting read. You need to get into the groove and rhythm of this book, and when you do get into the groove, you are rewarded with a fascinating story of an impending apocalypse filled with dread and horror.
Some books get described as being cinematic in tone, and most of the time they are confusing loads of action with an actual sense of cinematic scope. Witnesses, thanks to the absence of chapter headings, and the rapid cuts from one narrative thread to another lends this book a real cinematic feel. Watson has a real eye for knowing when to shift the perspective, to maximise the consistent feel of the book. He gives you just enough at each time to ensure that you continue reading to find out what happens next.
The novel also takes a refreshing approach to the "bad guys" by setting one of the threads during the First World War, making a refreshing change from usual Nazi angle that many authors take. Watson's writing is probably at its most potent during these passages; he captures the sense of place and maximises the sense of dread and impending doom for the rest of novel during these segments.
The sperate threads while having a distinctive enough voice all follow a similar development, with the characters all facing an initial state of confusion as to what is happening followed by understanding and then action. This is another clever move by the author as it lends the book a sense of entalgement, where the separate stories are distanced by space in time, and yet they still exist in the same universe as the main driving force of the story.
Watson keeps the level of gore and brutality to a minimum, allowing the story rather than the events to build the tension and drama of the novel. The restrained way in which Watson builds up the depictions of the violence as the story unfolds is handled with a keen eye for dramatic effect, allowing for the grand finale to shine through.
While this is, in essence, a novel of a coming apocalypse rather than going for the vast world encompassing an end of the world scenario, Watson keeps the finale in key with the rest of the novel's vision by staying slightly somewhat subdued. That's not to say that the novel ends with a damp squib, there is a clever well thought out, and original concept behind the finale and Watson's delivery is spot on for the book.
Witnesses is one of those books that will infuriate you at the start but once you become invested in it, and the brilliance of the novel clicks in you will be rewarded with a novel that dares to break away from the mundane methods of storytelling and stand out from the rest of the pack.
Kristopher Triana's Full Brutal is certainly an example of a book that lives up to its title.
Kim White is the cookie-cutter popular girl. She's hot and come from a well-off family, sort of, she has a rich father who is never around so she gets to play adult with no worries about money or repercussions. This leads to lots of time to think, and plot...She doesn't want or need much of anything and it's driving her crazy. This book lets you know that the drive wasn't all that far.
Bored and leaning towards suicide, Kim instead decides she's going to lose her virginity, but not one to go conventional, she decides to seduce and lose it to one of her teachers. Thinking that his ruination would be an added layer to her freaky fun cake. Then she finds that she is pregnant and that's when the bloody snowball really starts rolling. Deceptions and manipulations so sick and twisted that it's dizzying. Ripe with teenage-sex and violence. The final chapters are just insane.
Someone touted this novel as Mean Girls meets American Psycho, I'd agree with that. In an earlier draft of this review, I had claimed it was Mean Girls fisting Heathers. It's whatever teen movie you want it to be, pumped full of drugs and then directed by the horny ghost of Sam Peckinpah. Nobody writes bat-shit crazy like Triana. And I sill gladly line up for my slice, every time.
Full Brutal is available from Grindhouse Press.
By Tony Jones
“Experience the true American pioneer spirit by joining the wagon