Ginger Nuts of Horror
The crime and horror genre shares a lot of common ground and a lot of cross over in terms of thematics and tropes. It also shares a lot of problems, for example just how many stories have read that involve a damaged cop, a detective on the brink, or most common of then all a detective permanently on the drink? It can get rather tiresome when faced with a constant barrage of broken boys and girls in blue, however, despite this overuse, when this trope is done correctly it is easy to overlook this easy plot device.
In Dallas Mullican's A Coin for Charon Marlowe Gentry is the division's best detective, damaged to point of being almost beyond repair after witnessing the brutal murder of his wife. He barely clings on to life and reality, it is only his compulsion to catch the bad guys and the love of his daughter that keeps him going. So when a new serial killer dubbed The Seraphim Kiler enters the scene Gentry gets a new lease of life, as he focuses all of his rage into bringing this killer to justice.
Summer, 1995 at a church revival service in North Devon, England. An angry and confused young man attends the service with only one question on his mind: Is God real?
The man walks up to the stage at the preacher’s request. The preacher sees it as his chance to convert the man, to turn him into a believer. The young man sees it as his last chance to find the answers he seeks. In what he hopes will force God to speak to him or a member of the congregation, he straps a bomb to his chest and lets the churchgoers know that if God doesn’t speak, he will kill everyone in the building.
One of the things that has always held me back from appreciating Lovecraft’s writing--you know, besides the racism peppered throughout--is ... well, Lovecraft’s writing.
His mythos was mesmerizing, and it’s easy to see how readers and writers have held onto it and nurtured it over the decades, but with each of those passing decades Lovecraft’s writing becomes even more impenetrable for me. By today’s standards it comes off as almost Vaudevillian in its presentation. Thank goodness for writers like Anonymous-9 who can drag that mythos in the 21st century.
Published by Double Life Press, Death Thing is the story of Gilbert, a retiree who is sick and tired of thugs and “hooligans” breaking into his car and stealing his stuff. Instead of calling the police, which has been reduced down to almost nothing thanks to budget cuts, Gilbert decides to take matters into his own hands. He turns his car into a death trap and the death trap works remarkably well.
Imagine what you would do in a world where air pollution is so bad, it causes lung cancer in you and those you love. Would you do anything to save your child’s life? Would you trade your life for theirs?
That’s exactly what Chase deals with. Set in the future, Chase watches his daughter dying of lung cancer every day, and it isn’t long before he contracts the disease himself. Ignoring his own illness, he wants nothing more than to be able to afford medication to prolong his young daughter’s life.
Adam Nevill is one if the finest writers of our generation, in the space of just seven novels he has grown, developed his craft, and pushed the boundaries of what many consider to be horror. His novels are never a comfortable read, they force the reader into dark corners of their own minds where the unease that they feel comes not just from the supernatural horrors that are inflicted on his characters, but from the dark depths of human depravity. They force us to look at ourselves and wonder "what would we do in that situation?" Would we be as passive and as unresponsive as Stephanie is initially acts in No One Gets Out Alive, would we blindly continue on our obsessive path as Kyle does in Last Days, or would we throw everything away in our frantic search for a lost child as the protagonist in Lost Girl...
However Benedict Jones has distilled the essence of these books and films into one thrilling and highly enjoyable read that basks in its love for the grindhouse films and books that are clearly an inspiration for this book.
Slaughter Beach is in essence a novella filled with basic stock characters, we have the square jawed rugged hero, more pretty damsels in distress than you can shake a katana at, a good few sleaze bags, and a photographer who likes to get high more than he likes to take pictures of scantily clad girls. These characters in terms of development and depth are barely more than ciphers, but that is not the point of this book. They exist with one purpose in mind, to be hunted and killed in various over the top gruesome ways.
You want decapitations, hands getting sliced off, emergency flares rammed into eyeballs, then you have got this and loads more, as Jones puts his cast of characters through page after page of glorious sweat drenched jungle hell.
it is clear from reading this exhilarating novella that Ben Jones has a great love for the source materials. He has captured the essence of what made these films so great, but with a modern sentimentality, that removes as much of the sexism and obtuseness of the films, but he still manages to throw in a few wry nods to the stupidity of them. In particular there is a scene near the end of the book where one of the models decides to take a bath in a pool while still being chased by the killer. Too many who read this book it seems like a preposterous thing to do, when in reality it is so true to the genre tat it becomes marvelously meta
And when you have an epilogue that is pure horror movie heaven you have what despite is rather thin plot and characterisation a novella that will thrill and entertain you for every page of its grimy grindhouse pages.
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namely, the achievement of a new life will justify whatever means she needs to employ to get there. After escaping from the factory where her father works, she spots a chance to steal the boarding passes of a mother and child. She uses her father’s words, “all will be forgiven”, to justify this sin. But Rosanna’s subsequent boat trip is plagued by worries about how to maintain the lie she used to get on board. Then, when it seems she has solved her dilemma and all ahead might be plain sailing, the ship reaches its destination – but not the one the passengers expected.
Rosanna now finds herself more of a prisoner than ever, shipwrecked on a quarantine island which no one ever leaves alive. The existing inhabitants are lost and desolate, but Rosanna becomes aware of something even more terrifying on the island: within the walls live creatures less than human and more terrifying than any nightmare. They stalk the corridors after dark, ready to leap upon anyone foolish enough to be wander around at that time.
For a horror story, I found the beginning very weak and without any real sense of pervading threat. The men in the factory chasing Rosanna made me tense, but only briefly. The sailors in the tavern were dangerous louts, but none of them threatened Rosanna. Most chillingly, there was the silent yet seemingly omniscient captain of the boat. Yet all of these threats are transient and come to nothing. It’s not even as if they are problems set up for the protagonist to overcome to show her strengths; they just happen around her, intending to create atmosphere, but only really creating frustration when they fizzle out.
Blake Snyder believes that stories need a “save the cat” moment: towards the beginning, the main protagonist performs an act that not only defines them but also makes the audience root for them – such as saving a cat. Rosanna’s first independent act is to steal boat tickets from a mother and daughter and through that act she lost my sympathy. Yes, she was in pitiable circumstances but she relied only on her father’s mantra of “all will be forgiven” to justify her actions and showed no remorse. I kind of felt at that point that she deserved everything that surely must be coming to her. The irony at the end of the novel that her act of theft ultimately saved the mother and daughter from a terrible fate came too late for my sympathies.
After an uncertain start, Rosanna’s boat journey really drew me into the story. I admired the fact that the writer took time to have Rosanna go through the strengths and weaknesses of her hasty plan to “invent” a baby; it’s always satisfying to see a character deal with the flaws of a plan. And Mike Jones managed to capture brilliantly the tense atmosphere on the boat, one that is charged with both hope and despair at the thought of what the destination might hold.
But it is when Rosanna finally reaches the island that the book starts to pick up. I was a little disappointed that while the reader is told what the island is, no on ever seemed to tell the characters – they just knew. The reason this disappointed me was that I would have loved to see how the passengers reacted to the news of where they had landed. Such reactions would no doubt have been varied and interesting. And as a result of this omission, the immediate suicide of one of the passengers held little poignancy for me. However, credit to the writer for making the scene where a child’s death is uncovered a true tear-jerking moment.
I enjoyed following Rosanna’s journey of terrifying discovery around the island. By now, Jones had found his groove so that the atmosphere, the scenery and the character tensions were worthy of a great horror novel. I found Rosanna’s relationship with one of the guards particularly fascinating, and I was both surprised and pleasantly unnerved when it didn’t go along the predictable route I thought it was heading.
The idea of unseen creatures in the walls was truly chilling. Like most horror stories, the fear ebbed a little when the creatures were finally revealed, as the true form is never as frightening as the one in your own imagination. But credit to Jones for managing to recapture that terror of things unseen even after they were revealed. I’m not ashamed to say that I gave my dark staircase a wide berth when I went to bed after reading this part of the book.
I don’t like to give major spoilers in my reviews, and it would be difficult to describe in detail the end of the book without doing so. Suffice to say that Rosanna is told a way of overcoming and defeating the creatures in the walls, but she doesn’t understand it. This is where my sympathy with the character began to ebb again, because personally I could see what the resolution was a mile off, as I’m sure many other readers could. When this happens, the conclusion of the book goes one of two ways: either you turn the pages faster, eager to see how the protagonist uncovers the answer, or you end up yelling in your head at them to figure out what you already know. I’m afraid I went with the latter. When Rosanna finally figures the riddle out, her “defeat” of the creatures is well-written, but what follows after feels a little predictable.
I felt the title was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, “the mothers” do play a key role in the book, but it’s not a large role and isn’t clear what it is until two thirds of the way through. My guess is that Jones intended Rosanna’s character to go from an insular, self-serving one who steals from a mother and daughter, to one who protects the children she discovers, which would add another layer of meaning to the title. Yet even at the climax, when the writer beautifully describes the forlorn, frightened children in the rain, looking to Rosanna for guidance, she runs off to uncover a lost item. In the circumstances, we might all have run off to find the said item, but you will not find a true mother who wouldn’t take the children with her, or at the very least offer them some words of comfort before she takes off. While Rosanna might have been changed by her experience, she still fell short and that disappointed me. I felt that either she should have been self-serving to the end and at least retained her integrity, or she should have been fully redeemed; halfway is nothing at all. And yet, up until that point, I had believed her redeemed and had been rooting for her.
As I said at the beginning, this book was mixed. The ending was too predictable to make me want to read it again, but I would certainly put a bookmark at the start of the middle section. If you want something that makes you glance anxiously at all those dark corners in your house, or makes you start awake at unfamiliar noises in the night, then reading about Rosanna’s time on the island will certainly do that.
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I became aware of a new generation of writers who wrote these really cool horror stories that had grit, swagger and style in abundance and were just a total breath of fresh air. These writers, dubbed “Splatterpunks” were categorized as being prone to extremes of violence and gore which, in all honesty, was not how I remembered them. Sure, there were moments of really visceral and gut wrenching horror but the emphasis was always more on the punk aspect than the splatter. To an impressionable young teen like me, the stories I started to read had this vibrant pulse about them with ideas and content that pushed at and often broke through the boundaries of convention. I just wasn’t used to reading stories brimming with so much electricity and excitement that left me feeling pumped up by the end of the story. The writers that really made an impact on me were John Skipp and Craig Spector. Their writing collaborations were just phenomenal.
I first encountered them when I bought a book called “The Scream” about a band with the literal intention of raining hell. It was just an epic horror story that was bloody, exciting and chock full of these little sideswipes at culture, religion, morality and censorship, amongst other things. The book had a profound impact on me and I had to read more of their work. And so I did. Over the course of their writing partnership they banged out a set of books that were just blinding in their attitude and style. Books like “The Light at the End”, “The Cleanup” and “Dead Lines” to name but a few, were just brimming with jet black humour, sharp characters and even sharper dialogue interspersed with these jolts of bone crunching horror and this wicked flowing style.
But no sooner had they arrived on the horror fiction scene alongside writers like David J. Schow, they parted company and horror began to once again lose its luster for me. I suppose that old adage about “the fire that burns twice as bright lasts half as long” was right. That, however, was over twenty years ago. Fast forward to now and here I sit with a new collection of short stories from John Skipp called “The Art of Horrible People” wondering if that fire is still there. And, boy is it! That same jet black humour, electrifying writing style and turn of phrase is here but tempered with moments of heart and soul that feel very personal. That said, the eight stories and two appendices buzz with an energy, panache and wit that make me yearn for more which is my only gripe about this collection. It is just too short.
So, what delights are on offer? Well, following the introduction by John Mallerman, first up is a lovingly tongue in cheek tale skewering the world of performance art in the “Art is the Devil”. This story takes the notion of how splatterpunk was perceived as a movement of excess designed to shock and finds similarities in the world of performance artists who try to shock and appall by pummeling your senses with their object d’art and statements. One such artiste has pretensions of quite literally raising hell for a receptive audience but finds that the object of his intentions can be the biggest critic. It is the sort of story that typifies to me what splatterpunk is: loud, in your face with a sardonic wit and commentary about it. It is also a damn good read.
That quality is continued with “Depresso the Clown” though with a title like that if you suffer from Coulrophobia your fears are not going to be assuaged from reading this, unsurprisingly, is a grim look at the suffering that can be inflicted on a random stranger by someone with very specific fears. It is a really dark story but there is almost a beauty in the dark observations of people and how they deal with their own demons. Much like the opening story, “Rosie goes Shopping” is another tongue in cheek look at life in LA. This time the scenario is shopping for food during the zombie apocalypse where the actions of the titular character makes you question what you would define as the real danger, zombies or people.
Following on from it is the delightfully weird and bizarre “Worm Central Tonite” about what goes on beneath the surface of a burial ground and why worms love to dine out on the freshly interred. It is just a really surprising story take from a worm’s perspective on what makes corpses their preferred food. So far so splatterpunk but Skipp infuses it with this great perspective on mortality and existence that elevates into something beyond its’ taste challenging premise. What follows after this tasty little tale is the standout “Skipp’s Hollywood Alphabet Soup of Horror” which is a delicious collection of flash fiction pieces and short vignettes about Tinseltown and the movie business. Only in this case the streets are more likely to be paved with copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears than gold and glamour.
“Zygote Notes on the imminent birth of a feature as yet unknown” has an almost autobiographical slant to its narrative as a person visits a small town to visit his ailing dad. It has this trippy and psychedelic feel to the way it is narrated and described like some old 60s or 70s cult film. A sidestep away from horror, this has a poignant and emotional undertow to it that feels very intimate and personal. It is a feeling replicated in the offbeat “In the Waiting Room Trading Stories of Death” with its’ ruminations on the random cycle of life and death and ably demonstrates Skipp’s ability to shift between moods and styles of writing. The final story in this collection is the epic “Food Fight.” This story of delusion and grandeur set in a female psychiatric ward is a furious pummeling of the senses as it jumps between multiple perspectives. Each character has a very distinct personality and Skipp constantly shifts the perspective in such a way that you start to feel the madness of the place and the tension start to rise to fever pitch. It is just a cracking story. Oh, and then there are the appendices which are just as good as what has preceded them. The first, “Chronicling 1000 or so names”, is basically the best thank you will ever read. This is then followed by the poignant and heartfelt “Requiem for a Dog” which, unless you have a heart of stone, will have you in tears.
And this ably demonstrates why I love John Skipp’s writing. He can shock and revolt you one moment, make you laugh and think the next and then just as quickly make you sit there and shed a tear. It makes me wonder what I have been missing in the intervening years and it is something I am going to change right quick. The Art of Horrible People reminds me of the beauty that can be had from the ugly side of life. A highly recommended read.
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