Ginger Nuts of Horror
By George Daniel Lea
The title alone is enough to snare interest; a tacit promise: I am here to engage, to intrigue; to beguile and distress. For this reader, one that almost always seduces, but rarely satisfies. All too often, such superficial impressions fail to swell into anything more, once the cover is open, the pages have begun turning.
It's therefore a rare and radiant pleasure to report that Daugters of Apostasy, a collection of short stories and novellas by Damien Murphy, collects on its oaths and then some.
I have a penchant for work that doesn't particularly care if the audience knows what it's talking about; works of cyberpunk that throw ideas and images and concepts at the reader, befuddling and bemusing, but also bewitching through their sheer variety and abtruseness, surreal, Lovecraftian horror that reaches for the indescribable; concepts and images so bizarre and distressing that the human imagination isn't quite the equal of comprehending them.
Daughters of Apostasy has precisely that quality: from the first tale onwards, its stories beguile by befuddling, drawing the reader into realms of experience that are familiar and almost banal to the characters that inhabit them, but alien to the point of surreal for common or garden humanity.
Tales of occultism and bizarre metaphysics, of nostalgia that becomes a gateway to other and terrifying realms, of characters and creatures that inhabit entirely other states of being...the collection exercises that wonderful characteristic of throwing the audience headlong into situations that have little in the way of exposition, affording them credit in terms of their intelligence and imagination; that they will be intuitive enough to fill in the gaps themselves, and derive significance based not only on what they perceive, but what they project.
This is one of the rarest and most precious qualities in all fiction; stories that treat their audience with a modicum of respect.
I respond VERY well to this, and can forgive any number of stylistic or technical sins as a result. The stories collected herein -which range from short stories to small novellas- all exemplify it; they expect their audience to understand without being spoonfed; to intuit significance even when they are not familiar with the language, traditions and imagery unde discussion.
Occultism and ritual magic features widely throughout, The Scourge and the Sanctuary, for example, focussing upon characters who are clearly adept magicians and practitoners; who speak to one another (via the medium of written letters, the story recalling the journalistic styles of mid-to-late Victorian horror and science fiction) naturally and without deviation or explanation, lending the communciations an air of intrigue and mystery, especially since the topics under discussion are so esoteric and difficult to discern. Whilst the factor may prove alienating to some who wish for their horror fiction to be immediate and explicit, for this reader, the escalating sense of uncanny events occuring beyond immediate sight or experience; the accrual of implied back mythology and the innate mystery and poetry of the language utilised, lends this story -and others- a degree of depth and resonance that is rich, deep; almost decadent in its indulgence.
Writer Damian Murphy is a master at evoking esoterica and making it feel legitimate, as though the characters know what they are talking about, even if the reader doesn't. That air of quiet authority, of casual certainty, is what lends the otherwise esoteric and abstruse subjects verisimilitude; a certain resonance of the real, that doesn't require wider reading or explanation to justify itself.
That said, those familiar with occult and alchemical traditions, abstruse mythology and religious symbolism, will find plenty to occupy them here, as, even when the rites and subjects under discussion are totally contrived, they still reference enough of traditions that operate beyond the page to make themselves feel real and legitimate.
This is particularly apparent in stories such as Permutations of the Citadel (a personal favourite) in which images and settings that might otherwise appear banal intermingle with those that are perfectly bizarre and abstruse, the characters that occupy them seeming to regard neither one as any more unusual than the other, operating, as they do, in states of knowledge and experience that are far removed from the common or garden, but which are day to day for them. This does not have the effect of robbing the images of surreal, reality-warping horror of their impact; if anything, the manner in which they intermingle with the ostensibly commonplace has the effect of stealing the reader's breath, emphasised by contrast and the natural manner in which one sifts into the other.
Characters have a penchant for treating the bizarre and abstruse phenomena and situations they encounter with a degree of casuistry and familiarity (though not universally so), which in turn lends them a particular intrigue: what have these characters been through, what do they know, who and what are they?; A certain world-weary sardonism that is endearing and serves to inform the implied mythologies they are part of: much of what makes these stories work is what happens off the page; back mythology is rarely explicitly detailed. Instead, readers must discern and infer what they can from character experience and interaction: the characters and their backgrounds therefore become as much the reader's creations as the writer's; the former obliged to imagine beyond the bounds of what the latter provides in order to get the most out of them.
This is the principle strength of Daughter's of Apostasy as a whole; it is a collection that understands the nature of audience engagement in a way that very, very few do; it does not go out of its way to spoonfeed the reader every detail, such that the stories sometimes have the intense and bewildering qualities of hallucinations or fever dreams. This is also likely to be a factor that alienates certain audiences, as it requires a degree of engagement and energy that they may not be willing to provide.
For those that do, they will find something strange and rare and beautiful, here; stories that are consumed by particular ideas and images, that maintain a strange and distressing allure, in which personal mythologies and internal landscapes bleed out into reality, or reality exposes itself as being not entirely solid or certain; the very notion a nonsense, as apt to fray or break, shift or transform as wet clay or paint, beneath the right pressures.
Place and setting are all important, here; every story in the collection exhibiting an extremely strong and vivid sense of environment, many of them described in intimate and precise detail (perhaps over-described in some instances, which can clash with the elegance and suggestive nature of the rest of the prose, though there are often reasons why settings and environments are paid such specific attention), which has the effect of lending the stories a painterly quality, certain scenes and compositions extremely vivid in terms of their architectural detail and colour, especially in stories such as the aforementioned Permutations of the Citadel, in which place and mythology intermingle, one becoming an expression of the other.
Other stories in the collection, such as the languidly beautiful Book of Alabaster, explore ideas of bizarre metaphysics invading or erupting from an otherwise banal existence; nostalgia here becoming a gateway to something far more sinister; an isolated, ordered and controlled life breaking down through obsession over the past and its mysteries, of the unknown blossoming form what was presumed intimately familiar.
The story is also notable for its subject matter; peculiarly post-modern, in that it makes references to old video games in the manner that more traditional tales might cursed books or musical compositions; even films and TV shows. That intermingling of the subjectively post modern and the mythologically ancient and eldritch works beautifully, in that it suggests a far deeper and more distressing horror than any immediate threat: this is something intimate, something that knows the reader as it knows the protagonist, and will use that intimacy to inveigle them, to seduce and ensnare, then to break them down. That the events occuring may not be physically occuring at all is something left up to the reader; the story as much one of a mind in dissolution, of sanity fraying apart, as it is one of something vast and unseen insinuating itself into an unwitting life.
In terms of its individual stories, there is enough variety in tone and structure, concept and style to consistently intrigue throughout, yet a simultaneous sense of thematic coherence that lends the collection flow and rhythm.
That it plays with such esoteric and abstract notions and does so in a manner that is not overt and immediate but subtle and suggestive, may alienate some readers, but for those of us that find ourselves glutted with the familiar, that starve for something genuinely bizarre and removed from the common herd, Daughters of Apostasy is sure to satisfy.
Apollo Unbound is a 34 page comic book presented on sepia/light cream paper, with the interior art in greyscale, written by Chris Kelso, and illustrated by Jim Agpalza. FULL DISCLOSURE: Agpalza once provided an illustration for a short story of mine, which appeared in Splatterpunk Zine #5. This is my first encounter with Kelso’s work.
Also, while I do read comics, I have a woefully limited vocabulary when it comes to describing visual art, a subject about which I am almost entirely ignorant. So apologies in advance to both you and Mr. Agpalza - I’ll do my best.
Apollo Unbound is set in Ayrshire, and tells the story of Apollo Galloway, a Hollywood A-lister and philanthropist/campaigner, who unexpectedly finds himself alone in a squalid flat in a run down neighbourhood of this scottish town, with no memory of how he got there. We then follow him as he meets various local characters and tries to make sense of his surroundings.
The whole comic is also framed as a play. As the beginning, we are given a cast list, and throughout, the story is commented on by a narrator (represented by an an image of a sliced open haggis). It’s an unusual framing device that I’ll confess left me floundering, but it’s certainly unusual, and led to an act 3 twist (the comic is divided into 4 acts) that I found startling and unsettling.
Agplaza’s art I found superb throughout - he’s got a distinctive style that I find instantly recognizable, and the character work was rock solid, each cast member having their own distinct look and expression range. There’s a lovely single frame where Apollo smiles, for instance, and his face really lights up - it’s a gorgeous piece of art that marks a very poignant moment in the narrative, and the book has many such moments throughout. There’s also some lovely landscape work, emphasising the bleak environment Apollo finds himself in.
This is, at heart, a story about narrative, and asks some uncomfortable questions about the role of the creator of narrative, and their impact on their creations. In that sense, the story really isn’t about what it first appears to be, and the unexpected turn gave me a bit of narrative whiplash on first reading. On a re-read, however, it made sense of many of the questions I found myself asking first time through. In that sense, I think it’s clever piece of work, and I certainly found a second read richly rewarding.
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating piece of work, with an apparently simple opening (if apparently oddly framed) revealing layers of unexpected complexity and uncomfortable questions. It’s light years away from what one might expect from a tights-and-capes comic book, or even a more traditional horror comic - indeed, I’m not sure this could be really classified as horror at all, though it has some strong imagery and is undeniably disturbing. I’m out of touch with the current indie comic scene, but I found it to be more in line with works like Jar Of Fools, in terms of social realism - though, again, with an aggressively metanarrative overlay that takes it into widely different areas, more reminiscent of underground experimentalism.
If that appeals to you, I’d recommend checking this out - it’s an impressive, layered piece of work.
Matthew Weber writes with a simple and straight-forward style that reminds us of the best story tellers. I've always had a weakness for those who tell it like they were sitting across from you on the porch on an Autumn evening, sipping tea and spinning yarns. Weber's work is a lot like that but man, the yarns he spins...
With this collection he delivers a dozen slices of rural life, stained with trashy noir, monsters and abhorrent behaviors. The opener, "Suburban Facebreaker" is a tale of feuding neighbors that goes very dark and very brutal, this one made me cringe. Followed up with "Silly Rabbits" where a pair of hunters set out to find a rare but dangerous prey.
"Of All Nights" is a story of a small village, one with old customs and strict rules and about the pair of hoods who chose a bad night to do bad things. "Burt's Top Secret Spice Mix" involves the beloved proprietor of a strip mall sandwich shop and the means by which he handles a local boss trying to put the squeeze on him. "Waist Deep" is a gory backwoods romp of treachery and gators. "Louise, Your Shed's On Fire" gives us an alien invasion like none other. "Slice Of Heaven" and this might be my favorite of the collection, is a sadly sweet tale of a lonely nerd and the pizza delivery girl he has a crush on and that oft forgotten ideal of chivalry. I loved this one hard.
The second half kicks off with "Cookies" where a little girl discovers a unique pet and its loyalty can be most beneficial. "Gas Pedal" is road rage in the first person, but when the rage was already present before one gets behind the wheel. This one reeks of petrol and leaves rubber patches on your brain. "The Red Card" is a trippy tale that tells of a woman who finds mysterious cards in her apartment, each stipulating the day and time of her death. Deeply creepy and strange. "The Neighbor At The Curb" takes the nosey neighbor shtick to new and dizzyingly violent heights while the final tale, "Jacob Mosely's Raw Deal" involves a peculiar man and the authorities that he runs in with and toads.
All of these stories are fast-paced and wonderful. Weber has a knack for delivering just enough of the red stuff as is needed without overdoing it. His premises often start out a little hackneyed but at a point he always veers into a solely unique side road that more than makes up for it. Check him out if you like the early splatterpunks, you'll not be disappointed.
Teeth Marks is available from Pint Bottle Press
Born in Blood by photographer Nick Hardy and author George Daniel Lea can be described in the simplest of terms as a large format glossy photographic portfolio linked together by a series of short stories from George Daniel Lea. However, the simplest of terms is never nearly enough to describe anything that George Daniel Lea is involved with, for George is a writer who forces you as a reader to push the boundaries of what you are comfortable with.
Born in Blood is a challenging and at times bewildering collection of short stories, some of which can be described as screams of consciousness. In this collection, George never goes for the mundane or the safe ground. His rich, elegant prose and his refusal to shy away from some dark and disturbing imagery and themes will push the reader into the dark and primal regions of their psyche as they make their way through this bloodsoaked collection of stories.
While the stories themselves are not linked they all seem to share a common thread of mental anguish, facing the fears and confronting the past to find in some cases a minute fragment of redemption or at least peace the protagonists within.
Another Nightmare is an excellent example of Lea's use of a scream of consciousness, where the protagonists are trapped within a hellish nightmare, every time he falls asleep, a nightmare that has now started to exist in the waking world. Lea's description of this nightmare and in particular the feelings of the protagonist are utterly captivating; the nightmarish existence is brought to the page with a filthy and gritty realism that will leave the reader feeling genuinely disturbed.
A Feast for the Eyes is perhaps the most complete story in the collection with regards to a having a standard narrative structure. This tale of a man confronting the past, his relationship with his father, and the revelation of the monster that his father was, is an excellent and disturbing take on the sins of the father motif. A compelling tale that deals with the impact of one's parents on the psychological well being of a child, it is rich with darkly beautiful prose. The claustrophobic descriptions of the childhood home are an excellent metaphor for the sense of entrapment of your past
Elsewhere in this collection George touches on religious guilt and fervour with Be Well, and with Cains Gospel, a dark Barkeresque tale of a woman fighting against the confines of a mental torture chamber of her own making Lea's graphically gothic portrayal of a dark and dank mental prison are something to behold.
Born in Blood, as mentioned earlier, is not an easy read, the reader is always kept second guessing as to what is really going on, is this real life or is this fantasy? We are never really party to what is going on, but this never detracts from the power of these stories. The strong themes of entrapment and the confines of suffering from mental health issues are handled with a grotesque, yet sympathetic manner.
The twisted and malformed beauty of Lea's prose shines brightly throughout this collection, with nods to Barker and Z Bright, Born in Blood is a powerhouse of metaphor-filled prose, it will challenge, you, sicken you, and bash your soul its descriptions of mental anguish, but is ultimately a deeply rewarding and accomplished collection.
Sitting side by side with these stories is a series of stunning portraits from the talented photographer Nick Hardy. These disturbing, highly detailed photographs work withe stories to complement each other. Hardy's excellent use of lighting contrast, low and high key images and wonderful deep texture in each picture could only be achieved by a photographer who is at one with his art.
Born in Blood is an excellent example of a mixed media collection where all the elements of the book work together to create something truly magical. I highly recommend purchasing a copy, and doing so will help to raise money for some very worthy causes.
With this collection, Amber Fallon proves she is a worthy new voice to be keeping an eye on. If you read her novella, The Terminal, last year then you know she can deliver the pulpy horror goods. And with this years novella, The Warblers, she showed off her skills at coming-of-age-with-a-slight-bizarro chops. Now she's dropped a short collection in our laps and it's a damn good one.
TV Dinners From Hell offers seventeen courses in its nifty foil tray so I hope you've got a healthy appetite. The book opens with an introduction written by Mary SanGiovanni, a fantastic writer whom you should be reading. After this we peel back the foil, let the steam roll away and prepare to dig in.
"Night Music" is a unique tale about a strange epidemic with even odder symptoms. I really like this one and can't say more without spoiling its impact. "The Donor" is a story of choices and consequences only forced through a ghastly surreal filter. "Pretty Pretty Shiny" is a story about a quarrel of over a shiny object and squirrels.
"Behind The Smile" is one of the most effective stories in the book, touching on that early Stephen King vibe and I'm not just saying that because it features a scary clown. "78154" is a zombie story. A damn cool zombie story and the fact it's set primarily in the loo wins bonus points. "The Glen" teaches us that not all pretty and dainty things are good. Sometimes they can be most dangerous. "Something Bit Me" is a flash piece that will leave you squirming. While "Tequila Sunrise" is a surreal trek through desert heat. While "Dawn Of The Death Beetles" is the effective origin story to accompany her novella The Terminal--I mean it has barbarians and giant bugs so what's not to love?!
"The Shark That Ate Everything" is about, well a giant shark that eats a lot of things. "Demolition Derby" is about the titular sport but with a few ghastly twists and turns. "Blind" is a tale of a blind girl trapped in her apartment while something terrible seems to be happening to the world. "Tell Me How You Die" is the old movie Badlands, Kit Carruthers was psychic. "Clickers In Space" concerns those malevolent monsters from the Williams/Keene/Gonzalez world set in anew atmosphere...or lack there of. "Odessa" involves a lonely man and what happens when he tries to reconnect with a lost loved one. "The Dick-Measuring Contest At The End Of The Universe" is a darkly satirical exercise in the art of one-upsmanship. The final tale and it suits this time of year, "Ornamentation" is a somber short about a lonely man, I'm just going to leave it at that.
Fallon writes with a sure style and assured voice. She knows what she's doing and what she wants the story to convey. If you 're looking for a new voice in the genre. Give her a go.
TV Dinners From Hell is available from Fresh Pulp Press.
By Tony Jones
“Where’s the love? The hippy dream becomes a nightmare in North California
Randomly stumbling upon a novel that completely bowls you over gives the reader an experience which is very hard to beat, Matthew V Brockmeyer’s hypnotising exploration of the hippy dream gone sour does exactly that. “Kind Nepenthe” cleverly walks the plank between horror and thriller, with supernatural elements so subtlety interwoven into this story of industrial growing of marijuana you’ll be intoxicated by the fumes. If you have a bong lurking under your sofa this book will have you quitting once and for all.
Set in a remote part of North California, Humboldt County, Rebecca Hawthorne takes her five years old daughter Megan to a drug farm where she and her loser boyfriend Calendula are being paid to tend, grow and harvest a huge indoor marijuana crop. Rebecca is really gullible, following a misplaced hippy dream, believing the job will help her and her daughter live off the fat of the land and reconvene with nature. But she finds out the reality to be the opposite and the whole operation is industrialised, chemicalised and their remote farm is choked with smoke fumes from the machinery and is completely soul destroying. There is also the stress of trying to keep the equipment working, effectively living on the edge 24/7. Hating it and wanting to leave, her druggy boyfriend convinces her to stay, hoping they can make good money and build a financial stake for other things, whatever that may be.
The book is filled with a mix of very well drawn loser, pathetic and dangerous characters and in many ways Rebecca is an outsider in this world but she can see no way out. Many of the most powerful scenes revolve around this mother daughter relationship. Since arriving her five years old child has started wetting the bed, she also claims to see a ghost boy and has a similar sort of ability to Danny Torrance in King’s “The Shining”. For the sake of her daughter, does Rebecca leave the farm which the locals call Homicide Hill? No, she doesn’t. The fragments of her former life, and brief correspondences with her mother, which are told through flashbacks really help flesh out this very naïve and ultimately tragic woman.
The farm is owned by Coyote, a hippy misfit who may also see ghosts, or at least the ghost of Spider who was the previous owner of the farm and most likely murdered. Although he grows great drugs, profit margins are down, he blows much of the profits on prostitutes, more drugs, and is on a downward spiral which impacts upon Rebecca and her boyfriend. The drug stuff is another powerful element of the book – if you didn’t know anything about how to grow pot before reading this book, you sure will be the time you have finished as it delivers a few techniques from the A-Z handbook. The farm, or perhaps compound is a more apt description, is a dangerous, imposing and filthy place which was little more than a death-trap, but which was utterly brilliantly described oozing with oppressive atmosphere. Charlie Manson himself would have enjoyed hanging out here and various other dropouts turn up who could have come straight out of his family.
The supernatural stuff really is understated and within the context of this short novel it works incredibly well. The plot deviates to ex-con Diesel Dan, his son DJ and pregnant girlfriend Katie, all of whom are meth addicts and whose family previously owned the farm and are still owed money by Coyote and harbour a long-term grudge against him. Of course, the two plots eventually weave together, and I particularly liked the way the author showed the reader how the local rednecks looked down their noses at the fake hippies who thought they were living an alternative lifestyle just because they listened to bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead.
The first half of the book takes its time, fleshes characters out, describing the compound so well the reader can smell the outdoor toilet the child refuses to use. The second half really takes the idea of the hippy dream gone bad to a new level as the otherworldly elements are heightened with some shocking violence and an ending that was both terrific and brutal. This was a highly accomplished debut novel from Matthew V Brockmeyer, published by Black Rose, which I thoroughly recommend.
by Tony Jones
“Outstanding haunted house debut novel”
Once-in-a-while we stumble upon a novel which defies all expectations and hits the nail slap bang in the centre of the head, “Kill Creek” by Scott Thomas did exactly that. At first glance there is nothing at all original about this highly entertaining debut novel which borrows many ideas from other books. However, it messes around the horror clichés so cleverly the result is an intoxicating read which I sped through in a few nights loving every minute.
I took the plunge on “Kill Creek” after Shane Keene recommended it: "A slow-burn, skin-crawling haunted house novel that had me on the edge of my seat until the last page. This debut establishes Scott Thomas as a force to be reckoned with on the horror scene. " If you don’t know who Shane is check out his website https://shotgunlogic.com/ as he is one of the very best horror and dark fiction reviewers in the business. Few know horror as well as this dude and he was right on the money with this book and he reviews regularly for various leading horror sites.
The publisher Inkshares operates with a crowdfunding model instead of agents and acquisition editors in deciding what to publish. Their community of readers can pre-order a book project on Inkshares.com, and if the project hits its funding limit, Inkshares brings the book to life by providing editorial services, design, production, national distribution, and marketing. If “Kill Creek” is a good example the quality of novel that comes out of Inkshares then I will be paying a very close interest to their future releases. They have a very good track record after recently releasing the excellent “A God in the Shed” a few months back.
What of the “Kill Creek” plot then? Like I said nothing new, except for a haunted house story cleverly manipulated into a time-spanning tale that pulls four suckered horror authors into a dark sinister web. The prologue reveals the house has a dark past, and when two spinster sisters Rachel and Rebecca Finch purchased it in 1975 it had already developed a dark reputation stretching back to the days of slavery. Some years into their residency Rachel invites Dr Adubel, a well-known paranormal expert to spend time in the house, he writes a book about his experiences and “Phantoms of the Prairie” becomes a bestseller. The book ensures the house’s reputation as one of the scariest places in America is truly cemented.
Flip forward some years into the main part of the story, a popular internet supernatural TV host, known only as Wainwright, invites four very well-known horror writers to spend a night in the house. In some ways this is the oldest cliché in the horror book; spending a night in a haunted house. However, the author really spices it up, as what follows is a slow burner which builds wonderfully over the duration of the novel. In actual-fact, very little of the novel takes place in the house, but it casts a long and dangerous shadow as the four authors find out.
Many of the most entertaining sequences derived from spotting traits, or at least guessing, which writers Scott Thomas might have based his four bestselling authors upon? Maybe it was nobody at all, but I have a feeling there are bits and pieces of Stephen King, RL Stine and a good few others. These central four characters are very well-defined with Sam McGarver probably the main protagonist who suffers from writer’s block and currently teaches literature at college whilst his agent hounds him for his fourth unwritten novel. We also have Sebastian Cole, seen as the grandfather of modern horror fiction, a very cool female author TC Moore who writes violent and sexually explicit material and Daniel Slaughter a prolific teen writer whose novels usually have a strong Christian message. Sam and TC are the biggest characters, but the plot is revealed from all four points of view and their interactions with each other are a real strength of the book.
Although “Kill Creek” does borrow from classics such as “The Haunting of Hill House” I really liked the way the author avoided other stereotypical haunted stuff; there are no creaking staircases or branches clicking against tree windows, instead there is intense paranoia and a complex haunting story which is a thrilling read. You’ll be rooting for Sam and TC in no time at all, right up to the terrific ending. Many of us must have thought the haunted house novel was as played out as the zombie story, but Scott Thomas shows there is still life in the old haunted house yarn. An author to watch out for.
By John Boden
My first experience with the work of Scott Cole was with his lovely and ridiculously brilliant novelette, Superghost a few years ago. I have crossed paths with him many times, count him a friend and one of the most knowledgeable folks I know when it comes to obscure horror film, anyway--I always ask when he's going to have a new book out. This past summer, I got my answer.
Slices is a collection of wildly weird and brutally bizarre stories, some very short. Written in Cole's wry style where it's completely normal for these surreal shenanigans to be happening. There are over thirty tales of twisted terror and odd behaviors in here. I loved them all.
Opening with "The Regenerates" in which a man pulls his tongue free from his mouth and it blossoms into a progeny of clones. "Violins For Sale" takes the idea of mishearing something to a severely twisted and brutal conclusion. In "Cat Tree Summer" a guy on a writing retreat discovers a tree that give cat-shaped fruit. "Horns Up" is primo heavy metal mayhem with lightning and demons. "The Bigot" delivers a stark and scarring lesson in comeuppance, when a bigoted man awakens in a strange setting with little memory and a reflection that challenges him.
"Slices Of Me" is what a strange one, where a man decides he is delicious and peddles himself to the masses. "Smoke Detector" exposes an alien menace that is right under our noses. "God" concerns an amusement park-type place that is built from the remains of God, after he's found dead. "Rough Night" takes the common Fellow-wakes-with-no-memory-of-the-previous-night scenario and boils it down to its barest ingredients for an effective flash piece.
All of these stories are entertaining and all of them are absurdly weird. Some more so than others. But with Cole's style nothing seems to be weird just for weird's sake. That just how shit goes down in his head, man. Give it a go. But wear an apron and some gloves, there's a lot of goo in here.
Slices is available from Black T-Shirt Books and Amazon.
If it weren’t for the 2017 copyright date stamped at the beginning of John Linwood Grant’s A Persistence of Geraniums, one could be forgiven for assuming Grant was a contemporary of Edwardian authors M.R. James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Each of the stories in this collection are utterly steeped in that bygone era, both in terms of setting and style.
It’s one thing to believably transport readers through space and time to immerse them in a vividly realized historical environment. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to be able to meaningfully evoke the tone and language of the writers from that period, all while still retaining a viably modern sensibility and enough of a unique voice to rise above mere facsimile. Through seven tales of mystery, murder, madness, and mysticism (plus a couple conversational interludes), Grant does exactly that.
Several of the stories here focus on “The Deptford Assassin,” Edwin Dry. A recurring character of Grant’s (one of several appearing in this collection), Dry is the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. He’s not some mustache-twirling villain, slavering psycho, or misunderstood antihero, though. He’s more like a perfectionist, bowler derby-clad version of “The Ice Man,” Richard Kuklinski (a real-life sociopath killer-for-hire notorious for his apparent wholesale lack of emotion and decidedly businesslike, matter-of-fact approach to life and death).
Plopping a character like that into the Edwardian era, what with its residual Victorian propriety and undercurrents of bubbling social unrest, works wonders. Whether giving a rare interview to a doomed writer, devising an elaborate scheme to arrange some private time with an otherwise inaccessible target, or even pitting his own inner darkness against that of an exorcised demon (!), Dry proves consistently compelling despite never once exhibiting so much as a dash of genuine likeability. In Dry, Grant has created a character fascinatingly disturbing in both how alien he is and how human he is.
Aforementioned encounter with a literal devil aside, the stories starring Dry tend to hew closer to detective fiction than outright horror. To wit, one standout tale feels a lot like a Sherlock Holmes story, only inverted. Instead of a meticulous detective solving a crime, piece by piece, after it’s already happened, a just-as-meticulous murderer commits his crime, piece by piece, with the reader witnessing the process as it happens. And instead of the reader going into the story knowing that this is the point, here the realization only dawns as one falls deeper down the rabbit hole.
Elsewhere, however, the collection’s non-Dry tales embrace the supernatural without reservation, specifically that most classic form of English terror: the ghost story. Grant makes good use of the subgenre’s inherent versatility. First, he opens the collection with an old woman recounting to a pair of uppity, unwanted guests her youthful brush with the spirit world. It’s an exercise in tongue-in-cheek gallows humor that nevertheless hits home with pangs of genuine pathos despite its jokey cartoon ending.
Grant follows that with a tragic yarn about a lovelorn young man who finds a wood-carving of a heart on the beach and yearns to return it to the drowned maiden who visits him in his dreams. This one is just as poetic and heartbreaking as the traditional folktales from which it takes its inspiration.
The collection eventually closes with one last ghost story that, while similarly mournful, is its own beast entirely. For starters, it’s a Carnacki story, starring the famed occult detective originally created by early 20th century fantasist William Hope Hodgson. What’s more, it may very well be the best Carnacki story Hodgson himself never wrote. Contemplative, sobering, and downright deconstructionist, Grant’s take on the character defies convention with a narrative that is unassuming and (to be honest) uneventful, but ultimately profound. It’s a stark reminder that behind every swashbuckling pulp hero there is (or at least could be) a real person, complete with secrets, regrets, and an overwhelming awareness of their own mortality.
Accompanying Grant’s prose throughout are numerous illustrations by Paul Boswell which mirror the writing’s tone by channeling shades of James McBryde, Edward Gorey, and, at times, Stephen Gammell. Altogether, A Persistence of Geraniums may be a slim volume, but it is one that fully realizes a very specific, and very engaging, vision. Readers may be able to finish the whole thing in one sitting, but that just makes it all the more tempting to dive back in a second go. Or a third. Or a fourth. Or…
Elspeth Reeves’ comfortable London life has fallen apart: after losing her job, her boyfriend and her home she retreats to her parents’ house in Wilsby-Under Wychwood. However, the day she arrives a corpse is found in the wood, dressed as a character from the local folk tale of The Carrion King, and Elspeth gets involved in the investigation.
I have to confess a sense of disappointment when I realised I was reading a crime novel. I generally don’t enjoy crime fiction, and the initial setup here could have come from a how-to-structure-your-crime-novel manual.
While it’s structured as a traditional whodunit with a bunch of suspects, all of whom have secrets, it kept me gripped in a way that most mainstream crime doesn’t. The prose is consistently smooth and readable while the pace is expertly handled, starting with police standing around wondering what to do and escalating to a frantic race against time by the end. The mythology at the book’s heart is intriguing and even secondary characters are well realised.
I was reminded of the Michael Slade horror thrillers I used to enjoy in the eighties – Mann manages to spend time in the killer’s mind while maintaining the mystery until the end. Speculating is part of the fun of this kind of book.
A jolly, fast-moving and entertaining read, not shackled too much by genre clichés.