Ginger Nuts of Horror
Tribesmen is a jet black shot of espresso straight to the heart - a visceral, bloody, intense novella with lightning pacing, deft characterisation, and brutal violence.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going in. I’m a fan of Cesare’s work to date, but having read the synopsis of the book, I guess it’s fair to say I had some concerns. When a story talks about a film crew in a remote location, and implies bloody violence, and with that title.. Well, let me put it this way - the ‘30’s King Kong is a hell of a movie, but the racial politics sucks. And I went in with concerns. Without providing any spoilers, for my money Cesare dealt with those concerns admirably, providing a neat twist on what I’d been expecting, as well as a wry commentary on what has gone before in the genre.
And with my liberal guilt assuaged, I was freed up to just enjoy the ride.
And what a ride.
The characters are superb - just the right side of larger than life, appropriately inflated egos with equally appropriate inverse proportions of the talents involved. Cesare has a deep rooted love of genre and filmmaking that shines out through all his work, but perhaps never brighter than here, as he plays with the boundaries of found footage horror and exploitation cinema. It’s knowing, fiercely intelligent writing, but never pretentious or overwritten - he wears his knowledge lightly, and deploys it carefully, adding authenticity without ever taking the focus away from where it should be - the characters and the story.
The story itself is a belter - the relatively quick running time meaning there’s not an ounce of fat. The pacing is relentless, as events quickly spiral totally out of control. There’s references to Cannibal Holocaust, Lord Of The Flies, and no doubt others I missed, but this is no mere pastiche. Cesare has his own tale to tell here, and tell it he does, with skill and an admirably iron stomach. The reveal of the central conceit was very well handled, and the subsequent twists and turns kept me guessing right up to the finale - no mean feat, given the kind of tropes in play.
Tribesmen is a real beast - fierce, passionate, bloody, smart. It is emphatically not for the weak stomached. But if you like your horror rare, there’s a lot to recommend here. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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I wasn't going to do one of these as I didn't think I'd read enough this year, but then I was thinking of novels for some reason, and it occurred to me that I could make a top five about anything. So I'm going to quickly make mention of the five things - in no particular order other than as they occur to me as a write - that have affected/impressed me in particular this year. As always, your mileage may vary, but I tend to have pretty decent taste (oh, yes I do) so might well be worth checking out my recommendations...
(click on the images to purchase these rather fine picks)
1. One of the few novels actually published in 2015 that I read was The Last Outpost by Rich Hawkins, and published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. I make no bones about the fact that Rich is a good friend - as are most people in horror and the small presses; that's how it works - but I also maintain my objectivity in regards to his work. This book, the first sequel to his debut and BFS nominated novel, The Last Plague, is near perfect. Leaner, more confident than its predecessor, and one of the most consistent depictions of the bleakness of humanity and horror I've ever read, it's a near-literary post-apocalyptic masterpiece (yes, I used 'masterpiece', a word I hate; bite me). I think Rich is an astonishingly gifted writer, someone who knows how to draw detailed images with the minimal of words, and he is not afraid to push his writing every time he creates. He's also very, very humble, and doesn't promote himself nearly as much as he should; he deserves to be much better known than he currently is, but I have no doubts he'll get there. The Last Plague may not have won the BFS award for best novel this year, but The Last Outpost could be a very serious contender in 2016.
Hell on Earth
Apart from developing a deep and abiding passion for all things speculative in my mid teens, another thing that I developed a deep interest in was History. To me, it wasn’t just about past events but all the different layers, intricacies and dynamics that went into influencing and shaping those events. Whether that was from a social, economic, political and cultural or a personal perspective, History just sparked my interest in whole range of different topics and subjects. As much as I enjoyed reading about history when it came to reading historical fiction my interest fizzled out. It just felt superfluous to read about fictitious characters and events set against the backdrop of history when there was already a surfeit of richly detailed and interesting stories waiting to be told.
Take for example Camp Sumter, or as it became known, “Andersonville”, a Confederate prisoner camp located in Georgia during the American Civil War.
Overcrowded with squalid and unsanitary conditions disease, brutality, starvation and death were constant companions for the tens of thousands of Union soldiers imprisoned there throughout 1864 -1865. If ever there was a distillation of how monstrous humanity can be in times of war, it was this place. A forerunner of things to come in the early twentieth century, Camp Sumter was the true definition of horror. To create a novel that weaves elements of demonology, religion, sorcery and Old World horrors into the fabric of reality without demeaning it takes a rare set of skills. And that is precisely what is on display with Edward M. Erdelac in his novel Andersonville.
At the centre of the story is Barclay Lourdes, a free black man on a secret mission to investigate alleged war crimes being committed by Confederate soldiers in the aforementioned camp under the leadership of the enigmatic and mysterious Colonel Wirz. As Lourdes discovers, the mistreatment of prisoners of war is but a piece of a far more disturbing and intricate puzzle that will have repercussions far beyond the perimeter of the camp. From the word go, the overriding atmosphere is tense, grim and uneasy. This is no small part due to Erdelac’s skill at painting a vivid picture of the brutal and squalid reality faced by the thousands of prisoners crammed into the confines of the stockade. Where having something as simple as boots can be the difference between life and death, compassion is an illusion and violence is king. Andersonville is a seething, primal and raw existence for the inmates and the personification of man’s evil
A sense of perpetual menace and a brooding and tense atmosphere permeates the first two thirds of the book as Lourdes infiltrates the camp and its hierarchy in an attempt to understand just what in the hell is going on. The overwhelming brutality, casual racism and violence of the place dominates proceedings as Lourdes encounters a variety of compelling characters in his quest to discover why the death rate is so high within camp. The focus on the brutal reality of the camp diverts your attention away from the fact that there is something far more insidious and sinister at play. Erdelac subtly weaves in clues that the real evil is lurking just out of reach and over the course of the novel layers these dark elements until they erupt into a maelstrom of sorcery and old world horror that makes reality look tame by comparison.
So should you have a read? Well if history, intrigue, espionage, voodoo, sorcery, religion, demons and magic don’t float your boat then this is probably not going to tickle your fancy. If however those words have got you mildly interested then what you have in Andersonville is a richly detailed, atmospheric and grim slice of alternate history storytelling. As the saying goes, the devil really is in the details…
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THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FICTION REVIEWS
I seem to have stumbled into a tradition here - around this time last year, I read and subsequently reviewed Mr. Millard’s rather good ‘Vinyl Destination’. Here we are, one year later, and ‘Larry’ has finally made it to the top of my TBR pile, after I picked up the paperback at Edge Lit.
Bloody hell, that was fun.
I think most of all, what I’d forgotten is just how ludicrously readable Millard is. His prose just zings, that’s all - conversational, broad, and bloody funny. I found myself tearing through the pages at an incredible rate. And he is funny - often giggle-out-loud funny, and occasionally put-the-book-down-for-a-second-until-I’m-breathing-properly-again funny. The tone and style is conversational - not a million miles away from the sly editorialising of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, actually - yet also infused with a genre awareness. It’s clear that Millard loves horror, knows it inside out - and is also aware of its flaws and absurdities. With ‘Larry’, we have what amounts to a damn near surgical dissection of the inherent flaws of the slasher movie. With jokes. Many, many jokes.
And I just adored it. Millard does occasionally break character and talk directly to the audience (though rarely, and somehow without annoying me, even though that’s normally a ‘fling-the-book-across-the-room’ offence for me) but for the most part here the commentary is provided within the story itself, either from the characters or by their circumstances. There are, of course, lots of in-jokes - the names of the unlucky teenagers holidaying at ‘Diamond Creek’ campsite will raise smiles of recognition for any child of 80’s horror - but the book does not rely on these, and indeed I think this book would be accessible and amusing to anyone with even the most passing of familiarity with slasher movies.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s plenty of big, broad humor here, and it’s about as far from pretentious as it’s possible to be. But I also think this book is actually a fair bit smarter than the surface may suggest. It’s certainly funny on a number of levels, fantastically paced, and left me in a far better mood than I had been when I picked it up.
I don’t think you can fairly ask for more than that, to be honest. Lovely work.
Between 1975 and 1978, Larry 'Pigface' Travers terrorised Camp Diamond Creek, killing more than a hundred horny, stoned teens, hacking them to death with his axe (the machete was already taken by some hockey guy over in New Jersey), and making a general nuisance of himself. Life couldn't have been better for a psycho slasher. But in '78, after being outwitted by that year's 'final girl', Pigface found himself trapped (and a little bit on fire). Presumed dead, Larry Travers disappeared, but his legend lived on. It's 2014. Now living in the woods with his overbearing - and slightly antique - mother, Larry's old enough to play bingo and enjoy jigsaw puzzles without feeling guilty. But the urge to kill has returned, and Larry thinks he still has what it takes to be a homicidal lunatic. Pigface is back. Trouble is, he's not as young as he used to be...
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THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FICTION REVIEWS
To some of us the 1980's feel as though they were just last week. It was a strange and exciting to be a teenager in the UK. It was a grim period of time, with strikes, riots, terrible jumpers and some terrible music. However, it was also an exciting time for horror fans as it saw the birth of home video. Those of you of a certain age will still remember the day you got your first VHS or Betamax video player, suddenly the world of film and TV was ripped open. We were no longer restricted to watching films at the cinema or waiting and waiting for them to appear on terrestrial television, and remember there was a time where we only had three TV channels. The home video market, for a time meant that we could watch basically whatever we wanted to, there was no such thing as film ratings for video cassettes. It was a glorious time to be a kid until the Video Nasties legislation came in and cut off our supply.
Dead Leaves by Andrew David Barker is a one man love letter to that period, set in 1983 in the Midlands of England it tells the story of three friends and their quest to get their hands on an illegal copy of The Evil Dead. A quest that will no matter what the outcome will have their lives changed in one way or another.
In August, 1999, scientist Richard Draven heads into the Congo Basin of Africa in search of an elusive species of monkey that reportedly has special regenerative powers. Draven gets the chance to see the healing properties first hand when he witnesses members of a tribe healing before his eyes. He, with the help of a guide, capture a monkey and Draven takes it back to the U.S. to perform his experiments. He wants to be the first to develop a regenerative serum for humans.
Fast forward six years and Draven’s research has been adapted by the government and human trials have begun on U.S. soldiers. The intent was to create better, faster and stronger soldiers, but things go horribly wrong. The soldiers who have undergone the serum injections are becoming more and more aggressive and as time passes, the modified soldiers begin banding together. Small armies of enhanced soldiers take up positions all over the world. Led by their leader, Joshua, the first solder to undergo the injections, the group begins trying to rid itself of humanity that Joshua says is greedy and dishonest. His perfect world is one filled with enhanced humans and he knows if anyone can make that dream a reality, it’s him and his soldiers. There seems to be no stopping the Project Apex soldiers. Their plan of world extermination quickly takes shape and the world starts falling apart.
Wild Things, is the first anthology from Black Shuck Books, edited by BSB's owner, Steve Shaw - who also provides the intro (and I think this is also Steve's first gig as editor, though I'm sure he'll correct me otherwise). The theme of the anthology is shapeshifters, various and varied stories of humans changing into some kind of animal, and as it's a slim volume - only thirteen stories housed within a lovely cover and solid book design - I'm going to give a rundown of each one.
In life as well as fiction there are no absolutes, there is no black and white, yes or no, and when it comes to war there isn’t even any real heroes or villains, all you have, are the differing viewpoints of those fighting the war, with each side adamant that they are righteous and the good guys. It all comes down to whose viewpoint is correct. War like life is just a shade of grey.
It’s one of the many themes that Simon Bestwick’s excellent return to novel writing explores. Hell’s Ditch is a brutal and unrelenting post-apocalyptic dystopian adventure novel that manages to entertain and enlighten in equal measures.
The United Kingdom is in ruins, in the aftermath of a nuclear war the country is in devastated. Those who survived face a hard life, food is scarce, shelter is at best barren and dirty, and their every move is being scrutinized and policed by a fascist military power and their shock Troops The Reapers. Fighting the good fight is an underground resistance movement, but they are ragged, battle-weary and deeply undermanned and under equipped.
However when a fabled warrior “returns from the dead” their hopes at victory are raised is the tide turning for the resistance or will Helen Damnation ( you have got to love that name) lead them to her namesake or will she lead them to redemption?
I picked up this book at Edge Lit in July of this year, but due to a TBR pile that is beginning to exert its own gravitational pull, I didn’t get around to reading it until recently, and indeed was about halfway through the novel when it won the Best Horror Novel award at The British Fantasy Society's annual awards do in October.
So I guess the crude question is, does the novel live up to the hype? And the crude answer is, fuck yes, it does.
For starters, this is a horror novel that explores some of the darkest themes of the human condition. Though it is strongly and unapologetically supernatural, the roots run deep into recognisable real-world horrors - poverty, precarious employment, the de facto loss of basic legal resources such circumstances put you under, and the all-too-real life monsters that predate on such vulnerability.
Stephanie Booth is an achingly realised character - her situation frighteningly plausible. Nevill manages to avoid the horror cliches of either the hopelessly naive and clueless victim or the archetypal Last Girl, full of piss and vinegar. Steph is smart and resourceful, but also afraid and penned in by circumstances. As her situation in the house deteriorates, I found myself increasingly frantic with anxiety for her, but never once did I feel she was acting implausibly or passively.
Having read almost 80 books so far this year, coming up with a top 5 list is – well – difficult at best. I’m constantly discovering new authors and checking out the latest releases from my favourites. After careful consideration and a lot of backspacing whilst putting this list together, here are my top 5 horror reads of 2015.