Ginger Nuts of Horror
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.
by John Boden
A young woman is making her way across the desert, navigating the back roads and asphalt veins of this beast of a country, when she is picked up by a man. An older fellow with yellow teeth and a darker soul than she could ever imagine. He abducts Celia and spirits her away to a ramshackle church in the literal middle of nowhere. There she is held prisoner with other women, of varying ages, all with numbers carved into their foreheads. After the man makes her number 14, he leaves in his big black car and she and the others are watched by his large dog.
Casey is in a hospital; she can't really communicate what her problem is, she sings an old spiritual and tries to make sense of the visions she sees of herself in a dark and dusty place, of others like her but older. With the help of an orderly with a special skill, like hers, she's about to embark on a quest to save this girl from her visions and possibly herself in the process.
We then walk a tightrope between our world, where Casey and Javier race against time to solve a puzzle with pieces missing and that "other" world, that exists between the fabric of them both, where an old man can build an empire of pain and viciousness and still be home in time for dinner.
This book was brilliant. I wish I could delve deeper into the plot but, I feel I would usurp some of its power by giving too much away. Suffice it to say, that Those Who Follow is the first long-form work I've read from Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason AKA The Sisters Of Slaughter, and it is indeed a monstrous slab (in short novella-ish form) of science fiction and unabashed horror. The brutality shown by the villain in this piece is staggering. This one is definitely among the best books I've read so far this year.
Those Who Follow is available from Bloodshot Books and on Amazon.
By Tony Jones
“Ronald Malfi is on top form in this scarily varied twenty story anthology
Ronald Malfi follows one of the standout horror novels of 2017 “Bone White” with a wildly eclectic collection of short stories which effortlessly blend supernatural horror, dark humour, madness, psycho killers, dark fiction with the downright weird. “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” features twenty stories penned between 2002 and 2015 and although I loved the majority of the entries, a couple left me scratching my head, generally though the breadth was remarkable. As I chose to read the twenty in page sequence I really had no way of predicting what was to come next such was the unpredictability of this box of treats. Malfi’s stories do not follow any particular short story rules, ghost story traditions or any recognisable formulae, so if you’re looking to pigeonhole this guy, don’t bother, he really does his own thing. But if you want an anthology to widen your eyes, keep you guessing, or provide a nasty chuckle then dive straight in. I’ve never read his short fiction before, but this collection clearly shows he is much more than a superb novelist of dark fiction, much of which I have read.
Reviewing all twenty will take forever so I’m going to focus on several of my personal favourites… “The Dinner Party” had an ending that was so horrible that I had to read it several times just in case I got it wrong. Actually, it still bothers me a bit. It had a twist ending so nasty the king of the surprise ending Roald Dahl would have been proud of it. A young and very neurotic mum gets stressed preparing a dinner for her husband and his business bosses, simultaneously she is paranoid she is being stalked, combined the tension is ratcheted up as she fusses over both dinner and the baby. You’re going to love it, even if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll never forget the ending.
Some of the most powerful stories, including “The Dinner Party” did not feature any supernatural occurrences and “Painstation” was a real sleazy little crackerjack which really did not need it. Loser Keanan is obsessed with a work colleague, Casey Magigan, who he benignly stalks eventually into a club with a rather foul purpose he does not expect. Initially you think he has stumbled into some kind of sadomasochism den only for things to take a much darker turn for the worse. Although it was pretty horrible, it was also sickly funny as Keanan’s obsession hits full throttle as his desire increases. “Under the Tutelage of Mr. Trueheart” also lacked the supernatural, playing on the loneliness of a little boy manipulated by a rather unpleasant old man who has own dark agenda. These three were short stories of the highest quality which in many ways dealt with the weakness of the human condition through dark fiction.
“The Glad Street Angel” was another fine entry which also lacked any supernatural context, however you may read the story another way. A troubled young man is recovering after a stint in rehab after an unspecified loss left his entire family devastated. He tells everyone he is okay, but we the reader know this is far from the case in this terrifying study of loss and guilt.
The rather wonderful “Knocking” is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a traditional ghost story in the collection. I don’t know if Malfi has ever lived in London, but he seems to be aware of the poor level of housing in my fine city! A young couple rent a draughty house in London and the wife is certain she hears knocks and thumps from the closet, it begins to annoy her more and more to the extent she even suspects her husband of deliberately teasing her. By a certain point the husband really wishes he listened to her… Like many of the tales it has a superb ending with ambiguity of what is to come next.
“The House on Cottage Lane” is another unsettling tale of a Halloween dare that backfires. A young boy is forced to play with a succession of local foster kids by his well-meaning father and after being forced to take a kid he really doesn’t like trick or treating things go horribly wrong. “The Housewarming Party” finds Malfi in very playful mood when a couple new to the area throw a party which gets a bit out of hand and really looks like it will never end. Filled with mad imagery and the slow dread of something amiss this story is pretty irresistible as the party from hell, continues and continues and continues…. “Closing In” was another freaky addition which would have made a great “Twilight Zone” episode, and is a superb example of how to build a very vivid story around what sounds at first glance to be a pretty dumb idea. But when a hitman ends up staying in a hotel-room which begins to shrink all bets are off. Lovely entertaining stuff told over ten expertly crafted pages.
The above were my personal favourites, but there were many other very fine examples, including “Learned Children” an unsettling tale of a new teacher in a primary school where the kids had no respect for him, or learning in general, and what exactly did happen to his predecessor? “The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island” was another twister which has an unpredictable ending, a married couple are on holiday, the wife flirts with a dancer who doubles up as a tourist guide who invites the couple shark-watching the next morning. Is the husband threatened or does he have his own agenda? It is told very drolly until the unpleasant ending kicks in.
“Pembroke Page” resembled the sort of old fashioned retro horror story popular in the 1970s and 1980s which Ramsey Campbell might have written, a collector of rare books stumbles upon a tome which appears to have supernatural power, but soon someone else comes looking for it and such is the power of obsession there is no way he is going to part with it. A father and his two children lament the disappearance of his wife (their mother) in “The Good Father”, but where did she go? And Malfi takes crazy right up to eleven in “All the Pretty Girls” in the unsavoury tale of a car which men develop an unhealthy obsession for, and even kill for.
So there really is a lot on offer in this all-encompassing collection, you’re going to enjoy taking a huge leap into the deep waters of dark fiction with a master storyteller leading you by the hand. I’m sure other readers many well pinpoint different stories as their favourites such is the overall quality which has a top notch balance of supernatural and non-supernatural tales. Not many horror novelists will have a strong enough back-catalogue of short fiction kicking around to produce a collection of stories to rival “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” but for Malfi it’s a walk in the park. Highly recommended, as is his 2017 novel “Bone White” which is one of the best novels published this year. I’ll be surprised if it does not appear on many ‘best of’ horror lists at the end of the year.
By George Ilett Anderson
Cuts like a Razor
After reading Karen Runge’s “Seeing Double”, the immediate thought that springs to mind is that psychological horror often leaves the best scars. This, her startling debut novel from Grey Matters Press, is the kind of reading experience that left me feeling rather battered and bruised by story’s end.
Set in Asia, the book is about the trio of Ada, Daniel and Neven who form a fragile predatory relationship with one another and the world at large that increasingly turn parasitic until it threatens to consume them from within. Driven on by their voracious lust for inflicting pain, control and suffering, the trio prey on unsuspecting travellers subjecting them to sexual abuse and torture before disposing of what remains. To call “Seeing Double” uncomfortable and harrowing would be an understatement. It is a novel that takes an unflinching look at the effects and consequences of abuse and is probably one of the most deeply unsettling and disturbing books that I’ve read this year.
There are moments in this novel that are just toe curling to read. That leaves you with the distinct impression that you are witnessing three extremely damaged people who have gone far beyond the point of all return. Yet despite an overwhelming sense of revulsion at the three, Runge manages to elicit a modicum of compassion towards her human monsters. These are people who have endured pasts that haunt them on a daily basis. A point reinforced by the ghosts that seem to be shadowing their every move as their relationship starts to increasingly sour and deteriorate.
I don’t think I can quite begin to state how good the writing on display here is. It takes a rare skill to create empathy for people bereft of anything remotely resembling humanity but Runge’s writing is sharp and precise like a scalpel; progressively peeling back the layers to expose what makes the lead characters tick. It’s a feeling made more pronounced by the warped and twisted love story that forms the backbone of the novel as Daniel, Ada and Neven struggle with their feelings towards each other and their own inner demons.
It’s the kind of storytelling that really gets under your skin, making your flesh crawl at the thought of feeling sympathy for the devil. A stark and disturbing journey into some of the deeper and darker recesses of the human condition, “Seeing Double” will leave an indelible stain on your psyche.
Reading an S.P. Miskowski story is a lot like being in one. While engaged in a seemingly mundane, everyday act, you gradually feel an increasing unease creeping up your spine. It’s subtle enough that you think you can shake it, but you can’t, and soon enough that unease gives birth to dizzying paranoia. By the time you’ve wised up enough to what’s going on to recognize that said paranoia is not unwarranted, you’re all too aware that the darkness you thought was intruding on your life was in fact already there. In truth, it has always been there. It is a part of you. What’s more, you are a part of it.
Bringing together ten stories previously published elsewhere along with three all-new tales, Miskowski’s new collection, Strange is the Night, is full of damaged souls, the sort that beg you to reach out and give them a hand even while a voice in the back of your mind screams at you to run away.
To wit, “This Many” introduces us to Lorrie, a well-meaning but ultimately self-absorbed mother more interested in giving her daughter the childhood she herself never had than the one the young girl actually wants. Her misplaced priorities are brought into sharp focus when a mysterious woman shows up to the child’s birthday party, splattered with blood stains and reeking of rot.
Elsewhere, in the vaguely Kafkaesque “Stag in Flight,” Benny, an antisocial agoraphobe searches for a reason to live while under a pall of suicidal depression, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rejecting society’s fixation on manufactured happiness in favor of transformative misanthropy, Benny finds unexpected companionship in the form of a hungry, skittering insect.
Such an emphasis on broken and jaded people results in Mikowski’s fiction frequently coming across more as quietly tragic than outwardly horrific. Though irregularly tinged with surprising hints of dry humor, Strange is the Night is built atop a foundation of sadness and regret far more haunting than any skull-faced specter or furniture-flinging poltergeist. Miskowski doesn’t shy away from more overt genre archetypes, your monsters and murderers and what-have-you, but she isn’t afraid to peel back the smooth skin of normality to expose a more familiar foulness either. The hulking, razor-taloned beast that prowls the namesake domicile of “Animal House” is scary, but the buried traumas and careless cruelties concealed by its cash-strapped collegiate victims prove even scarier.
What draws you in to these tales is the depth of Miskowski’s characterizations and the seemingly effortless quality of her prose. It’s not just the confident, conversational smoothness that propels you through them at a rocket-powered pace, nor is it simply the skillful use of detail through which Miskowski evokes a concrete sense of place without ever bogging things down in descriptive excess. It’s the conviction, the harsh, heartbreaking earnestness which all but erases the line between audience and text. It makes you feel less like you’re reading words on a page and more like you’re experiencing real events as they actually happen, even at the height of their uncanny strangeness.
Some of these stories are so simple as to be brilliant, such as “A.G.A.,” which is told entirely through the dialogue of a pair of drinking buddies, one of whom observes a peculiar coincidence: anyone and everyone who’s ever wronged him meets a grisly accidental end, almost as if he’s got a particularly vengeful guardian angel watching over him. Still other tales resist explication, pulling raw emotional power out of mystery and murk; in “Death and Disbursement” a life insurance agent endures increasingly abusive phone calls from an apparently senile client. Is he descending into dementia, though, or is there something else afoot, something unseen and unheard lurking on the other end of the line, terrorizing an old man? How? Why? Miskowski keeps the answers just out of reach.
Horror, it must be said, is often at its best when it defies understanding. After all, understanding requires order, and order puts people at ease. When horror has a scapegoat, a creature or killer you can point to and say “That’s the Other,” then even the most outlandish situation is, if nothing else, comprehensible. It may be dangerous but at least it has parameters, boundaries which limit it to a decidedly human sphere. But if mankind were to brush up against something truly Other, is it not more likely that it would not come in some recognizable form, that we would not manage more than an incomplete glimpse of the whole picture, and that we would not be afforded satisfactory explanation?
That is why the stories in Strange is the Night are so effective. Miskowki understands that there is horror in not knowing. More importantly, she understand that, even in our daily lives, in our own hearts and minds, in the reflections we see in the mirror every morning, none of us really knows as much as we think we do.
Over cocktails an executive describes to a friend the disturbing history of a strangely potent guardian angel. A young mom tries to perfect and prolong her daughter’s childhood with obsessive parenting. A critic’s petty denouncement of an ingénue’s performance leads to a theatrical night of reckoning. A cult member makes nice for a parole board hearing years after committing an infamous crime.
A multiple Shirley Jackson Award nominee, S.P. Miskowski serves up an uncompromising collection of thirteen modern tales of desire and self-destruction. Strange is the Night offers further proof that Miskowski is—as Black Static book reviewer Peter Tennant notes—“one of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years.”
As you’ll probably have gathered from previous reviews, I’m pretty well a confirmed Jasper Bark fan at this point. As such, when Quiet Places crossed the Gingernuts review list, I couldn’t resist grabbing it, tottering to-do list be damned. I’d heard some strange murmurings about this one - ‘No sex! No violence! Literary horror!’ - and I was very curious to see how this would play out, especially as the early press also indicated the story formed part of the Heresy series story cycle, a mythology that’s been far from bloodless so far in the Bark catalogue.
Well, and okay, let’s address that first - yes, it’s fair to say this novella isn’t splatterpunk horror in the vein of, say, the gloriously deranged Stuck On You and other prime cuts collection. That said, there’s always been (a lot) more to Bark than a willingness to ‘go there’, and all the other qualities I’ve come to expect and enjoy are present and correct.
Example? Achingly real characterisation. A central thread of the story involves a love story between Sally, our lead, and David, the Laird of Dunballan. It’s a relationship that evokes some past Bark stories - Bed of Crimson Joy in particular - but it’s far from a simple retread. The two characters are fascinating portraits, and the way they interact has a ring of authenticity that is, quietly, rather brilliant.
Similarly, the setting of Dunballan is evoked with skill and care, the surface charms of an idyllic Scottish village subtlety underlaid with feelings of creeping claustrophobia and isolation. Similarly, there’s a lengthy story-within-a-story section in the grand tradition of Lovecraft, which traces in part the outline of the intriguing Heresy that has been a component of so much of Barks recent work, and it too is rich in a very different kind of atmosphere, evoking a past time and society with apparently effortless poise.
And then there is the horror.
I don’t want to give much away - ideally, really, not anything, the joy of discovery was big part of the pleasure of reading this tale, for me - but rest assured, while the lack of splatter is accurate, this one packs a punch as hard and as bleak as any of Bark’s past work, creating, by the end, an existential hellscape to rival that of the last chapter of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.
In conclusion, yes, Jasper Bark has done it again - delivered yet another slice of evocative, dark horror, peopled with flawed yet sympathetic, brilliantly realised characters, and with a black hearted mythology that feels set to grow and grow. And splatter fans, don’t let the lack of overt gore put you off picking this one up - it’s as chilling as anything Bark has so far produced.
The people of Dunballan, harbour a dark secret. A secret more terrible than the Beast that stalks the dense forests of Dunballan. A secret that holds David McCavendish, last in a long line of Lairds, in its unbreakable grip.
It’s down to Sally, David’s lover, to free David from the sinister clutches of the Beast. But, with the whole town against her, she must ally herself with an ancient woodland force and trace Dunballan’s secret back to its bitter origins. Those origins lie within the McCavendish family history, and a blasphemous heresy that stretches back to the beginning of time. Some truths are too terrible to face, and the darkest of these lie waiting for Sally, in the Quiet Places.
Quiet Places is folk horror at its most cosmic and terrifying. Blending folklore with psychological terror, it contains stories within stories, each one leading to revelations more unsettling than the last. Revelations that will change the way you view your place in the cosmos, and haunt you, relentlessly, long after you have put down this book.
Quiet Places is a novella in the Heresy Series story cycle and has been substantially rewritten and revised for this edition.
Well, this is a nasty little number.
From Comet Press comes Red Room, a brand new extreme horror and dark crime magazine.
While I only occasionally enjoy extreme fiction, the combination of hardcore horror and crime fiction promised by Red Room had me intrigued. Crime fiction makes me think of more “serious” work that contrasts with what I consider typical of the extreme horror genre, so I had high hopes for the stories and articles in this collection.
I was not disappointed.
Red Room’s debut contains exciting, surprising features and tales that make me optimistic about the journal’s future. I must admit to being unfamiliar with many of the names contained within, but I was excited by the fact that Jack Ketchum had a story, and that David L Tamarin had interviewed a notorious cop-turned-fiction-writer who was once accused, and subsequently cleared, of taking part in grisly kidnappings.
Rather than describing each article and story, I will leave you to discover them yourself and just mention those that were, for me, Red Room #1’s highlights.
The magazine opens with Nick Manzolillo’s excellent and disturbing tale The Phantom Video Stream. This uneasy story is about a man who discovers a secret sub-section of Netflix which offers no explanation as to its contents, and which is not referenced anywhere online. The seedy and unsettling tone of this one had me wondering how far it was going to go, and its conclusion left me grimly satisfied.
Tom Barlow’s Selfie was the first of Red Room’s crime fiction tales, and I loved its rapid pace and lively style. After being conned out of his father’s life insurance policy, our protagonist Mike has no way to pay for his sister’s ongoing chemo treatment. However, lucky for Mike, he’s just learned that he has an identical twin brother who has no knowledge of Mike’s existence. His plan is ruthless and cunning – but not without its drawbacks.
Jack Ketchum’s Megan’s Law is a thoroughly distressing piece of work, and is told with the author’s customary eloquence and unflinching style. Brace yourself before reading this one.
The last I will mention is David L Tamarin’s aforementioned interview with Gil Valle, an ex-police officer who was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The main evidence used against him was his use of a dark fetish/fantasy website where he discussed graphic sexual scenarios involving kidnap and cannibalism. The interview offers a glimpse into Valle’s mind, as well as the shocking events that took place after he was acquitted of all charges. It is followed by an excerpt from Valle’s upcoming novel.
As well as other distasteful and thoroughly enjoyable stories, there is also an enjoyable feature on Video Nasties.
Red Room is a tasty treat for anyone who likes fiction and features that leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Recommended for fellow sick little monkeys.
BY GEORGE ILETT ANDERSON
There will be Blood
“Bleed” by Ed Kurtz is the second book of his that I’ve read. My first introduction to his writing was the wonderful “The Rib from which I Remake the World”; a dark novel that had this fantastically Bradbury tinged flavour running through it. By comparison, “Bleed” is an altogether different type of beast. Whereas the former felt like a dark fairytale about loss and redemption, “Bleed” is a brutal and bloody nightmare of madness, lust and obsession reminiscent of late 80s horror writing and, in particular, Clive Barker.
The novel is centred on Walt Blackmore and his fixation with a small red stain. Walt has recently relocated to the country and is determined to create his own little slice of rural bliss with his fiancée, Amanda. Unfortunately for Walt, the dilapidated property in his possession has a dark and troublesome history that will have far reaching consequences on the present, turning his heaven into hell. Initially resistant to Walt’s attempts to cleanse it, the stain’s true nature is exposed and Walt falls into a whirlpool of madness, betrayal and murder.
“Bleed” feels somewhat lean in places but the real meat of the novel is the dark and brutal tone of it. The book does feel like it is cut from the same cloth as horror books that I read in the late 80s, mainly those clubbed together under the sometimes erroneous “splatterpunk” moniker. I mentioned Barker earlier and his influence can be felt throughout but “Bleed” is an altogether harsher experience. This is a book that more than lives up to its title as Walt succumbs to the stain’s insatiable appetite and in doing so, sacrifices all connection to humanity. Bones are cracked, marrow is slurped and blood is copiously spattered across the page as Walt lures people into the clutches of the ravening beast within.
I have to admit that when I initially finished “Bleed” I was a bit ambivalent towards it. It’s definitely one of the more brutal novels that I’ve read recently but I felt that Walt felt somewhat sketched in and vaguely defined as a person. You are never really sure who he is and this is demonstrated when he inexplicably seems to change personality within the space of a few pages. It’s a very jarring moment that completely threw me but in retrospect the ambiguity surrounding him is kind of the point; Walt feels like a predator in disguise, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who wears his disposable humanity like a mask waiting to be shed. In “Bleed”, the sins of the past haunt the present and appearances can be very, very deceptive.
“Bleed” is a novel that gets under your skin and wears its influences well. It does feel almost like an American Hellraiser at times but that’s not to denigrate the quality of Kurtz’s writing, far from it. “Bleed” is a stark, brutal and unpredictable slice of extreme horror where the demons that lurk within can be ravenous and all consuming.
When Walt Blackmore moves into an old Gablefront house on the outskirts of a small town, things are really looking up for him—he has an adoring girlfriend, a new job, and an altogether bright future. But Walt's destiny is irreparably changed when a dark red spot appears on the ceiling in the hallway. Bit by bit the spot grows, first into a dripping blood stain and eventually into a grotesque, muttering creature.
As the creature thrives, Walt finds himself more and more interested in fostering its well-being. At first he only feeds it stray animals, but this soon fails to satisfy the monster's ghastly needs. It is gradually becoming something more, and for that to happen it requires human blood and human flesh. And once Walt has crossed the line from curiosity to murder, there is no going back.
So, I consider myself very lucky to be able to call John Boden a friend. That said, my normal rules for a review apply - I only do this if I finish the book and want to write about it. I start more than I finish, and I finish more than I review. So by all means take a pinch of salt, to taste - but certainly no more than a pinch.
Also, I beta read this novella. The review you are about to read is based not on that beta read, but on the uncorrected proof supplied by the publisher, which did contain some changes, and should be pretty close to the form that ends up in general circulation.
Spungunion is a novella of depth, power, and dark poetry. Deke Larch, truck driver and protagonist, is a compelling character - broken with grief, yet still working, a portrait of a shattered man. The lonely trucker is a classic blue collar noir archetype, of course, but Boden imbues Deke with real humanity and character, not shying away from the broad strokes of the template, but within that using delicate touches to make him real, letting him breathe on the page. Boden manages to engage with many classic tropes without ever seeming remotely cliche, and Deke is a fine example of that.
Similarly Deke’s world - the world of Spungunion - seems to exist in a liminal space between working class poverty and grime, and a grand southern gothic legend. Boden manages the tension between the two forms not by some balancing act of give and take, but rather by committing to both with full blooded intensity. The result is an intense experience, taking in grand themes of classic tragedy alongside earthy, desperate real-world struggle.
The atmosphere of this novella is incredible, coiling around you like boa - and like that snake, once it has you in it’s grip, it starts to squeeze. Boden has an incredibly fluid prose style, a gift for language and metaphor that is poetic and profane all at once. The sparse dialogue rings with authenticity also, as do the people Deke meets on his quest.
At it’s core, this is a quest - one of the oldest stories there is, the quest for knowledge - and Boden pays respect to that great storytelling tradition, without once compromising on his characters, or the wider setting. As a reader, I was swept along on Deke’s journey, feeling often like a ghostly passenger sat beside him as he powered through the night in his big rig.
Powerfully evocative, casually mythic and pounding with urgency and desperation, Spunginion is a lucid, vivid fever dream of a journey with grief that takes us out of the blue and way into the black. It’s an incredible achievement, and, I think, a signifier of even greater things to come.
Spungunion: (pronounced: Spun-Gun-Yun) noun; 1.) a dish made from rotting road kill, usually a skunk or a opossum. The more fragrant or maggoty, the better. 2.) Something that's been on the road for a long and unfortunate time...
This is the story of Deke Larch, a widowed trucker who has lost everything and is struggling to find his place in a world and the person who took it from him. That journey puts him in touch with strange characters and bizarre places. Deke had always felt like he operated on the fringe of society, but he really had no idea...his journey will teach him that monsters are interpretive and sometimes what we think we want is not what we seek at all.
Spungunion is a story about grief and loss, about lonely roads and lost souls, about failure to let go and falling when you finally do. It's about livin' and dyin' and how sometimes the difference between is very slight.
“This trucker’s tale of bloody revenge and harrowing self-illumination takes place in the deepest, strangest veins of the Twilight Zone’s midnight highways. Boden rolls his supernatural mystery down the blacktop surface of the road to Hell, and you’re gonna love the journey into the fire.” – Philip Fracassi, author of Behold the Void, Fragile Dreams and Altar.