Archive for the Book Reviews Category

Yet another review for Spectral Volume I…

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Here’s another great review from David Hebblethwaite, as posted on his Follow the Thread blog. Here’s what he had to say about What They Hear in the Dark and Spectral Press (this follows two short reviews of current Nightjar Press titles):

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Coincidentally, there’s a couple with a new house and a relationship under strain in Spectral Press’s first title,‘What They Hear in the Dark’ by Gary McMahon. Rob and Becky are renovating a house whilst still coming to terms with the death of their son Eddie, and find a strange room which, according to the plans, shouldn’t be there. They call it the Quiet Room, because it seems to absorb all sound.

There is, of course, something mysterious about the Quiet Room, but McMahon’s ultimate focus is less that than the characters of Rob  and Becky. What impresses me most about the story is what’s going on beneath the words and imagery, the way that the Quiet Room comes to embody the couple’s different responses to Eddie’s death — for Becky, the silence is comforting, as she feels it brings her closer to Eddie; for Rob, the Quiet Room is a place of fear, caused by his search for a deeper explanation for his son’s death than the one Becky has accepted. These conflicting views come to reflect the wider tensions in the couple’s relationship, making for a nice balance between character and atmosphere. McMahon’s story is a good start for Spectral Press; I’ll be keeping an eye on what they do in the future.

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I couldn’t have wished for a better start for the imprint – copies of this are going fast, so secure yours today!


Another Spectral Press review….

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , on December 23, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Another good review of What They Hear in the Dark, this time from Neal Hock at the Bookhound’s Den:

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I’d never read anything written by Gary McMahon; in fact, I hadn’t heard of him before I saw this chapbook. However, the cover blurb by Tim Lebbon immediately grabbed my attention since I’m familiar with his work. I can’t really say that I had much in the way of expectations going into this one, but I did hope for a decent read.

Rob and Becky are renovating an old house. Not a home, but a house. Though they live under the same roof, Rob and Becky are worlds apart. Since the loss of their son they seem to have gone their separate ways. During the renovations, they discover a hidden room—the Quiet Room. The room is aptly named, as there is no sound in the room—none at all. But there are other things in there. Things that may bring Rob and Becky back together…or to the brink of madness.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing this diminutive book. Weighing in at only 22 pages, it makes for a quick read. It was a good read—not necessarily a fun one—because the author does a tremendous job at capturing the overwhelming sense of loss and despair of Rob and Becky. I recommend What They Hear in the Dark if you want to be introduced to McMahon’s polished, atmospheric writing. Just be careful if you’re reading it on a dreary day, because that’s exactly the mood in this one.

This is the debut chapbook from Spectral Press, whose mission is to “be devoted to presenting single-story chapbooks, in the ghostly/supernatural vein, in a high-quality but very classic format. Each will be in strictly limited quantities of 100 only, signed and numbered by the author.” Based on this initial release, it looks like there are good things to come from them.

4 out of 5 stars.

Second Spectral Press review in…

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on December 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

The following review was written by Mark West, and can be found on Goodreads:

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The first chapbook from Spectral Press, Gary McMahon’s short story continues the writer’s ongoing fascination with the darkness of the human soul and the depths to which people are capable of falling. As with his superb “Different Skins” collection, he mines areas that we will willingly look in with him as our guide but where I doubt any of us would like to be left alone. This short is like a hammer blow, dealing with the family dynamic between bereaved parents – Rob and Becky – grieving the loss of their son Eddie. It becomes apparent that he didn’t die of natural causes (and when you find out what happened, it’s a sickening moment that McMahon pulls off with aplomb) and sets the tale up for its dreadful climax.

Emotionally devastating, told with your McMahon’s usual brisk style without an ounce of fat or excess, this is gripping and painful and beautiful and honest and bleak as all hell.

Highly recommended (and a terrific launch title for Spectral too)

BOOK REVIEW: Knuckle Supper by Drew Stepek

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

The vampire has survived as a potent figure haunting both fiction and our imaginations, I venture to say, because of its singular adaptability. As a metaphor or as just a plain nasty piece of work, the bloodsucker has appealed in all its various incarnations and reimaginings ever since Bram Stoker popularised the Count in 1897 in his novel Dracula (the vampire had appeared in popular media before then, but it wasn’t until after Stoker’s novel that things really took off). His character and motivations were amoral, and he considered mortals to be mere mobile blood-filled vessels from which it was his right to feed. The vampire was taken up with gusto by succeeding generations of writers, each adding new elements to the creature’s mythology and in the process creating solid foundations upon which the writers coming after them could add their own ideas. Ever since then we’ve had all manner of types of blood-hungry iterations of the basic model: lesbian vampires, Nazi vampires, medical vampires, even vampires as virus and parasite, right up to the current fad for soul-searching, angst-ridden vampires unwilling to hurt humans and capable of feeling emotion, courtesy of the anodyne Twilight novels and films.

And then here comes Drew Stepek, author of Godless, with yet another re-envisioning of the vampire. He can claim some pedigree when it comes to dealing with these undead creatures, as he once worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But these vampires are as far away as you can imagine from either Joss Whedon or Stephenie Meyer’s creations – these guys are truly nasty.

The story takes place in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, where RJ is the leader of the Knucklers, one of the many brutal vampire gangs currently parcelling up various parts of the city’s territory. While out hitting on one of the many pimps within his stomping ground, he and his accomplice Dez come across a 12-year-old prostitute called Bait who, in time, causes RJ to question things and injects some humanity into his life. Other members of the Knucklers think he’s gone soft and that Bait is not only a liability but also should have been disposed of a lot earlier. And when RJ comes into possession of a bag of heroin, then things just start to unravel, causing one of the biggest and most powerful gangs in the city to want to know where their drugs are. And don’t even mention The Cloth, a super-secret Catholic organisation dedicated to wiping out the vampires – they’re just trouble, on more than one level.

These vampires, however, aren’t the classic bite-the-neck-suck-the-blood-and-turn-‘em variety – these are vampires in name only, as they aren’t immortal, don’t bite their victims, can’t make those victims into vampires, and can walk about during the daytime; they are vicious sons of bitches, however. They’re drug-addicts, using the blood of ruptured, living victims as a means of getting their highs in a particularly nasty manner. This is gut-churning stuff, certainly not for the faint of heart or those possessed of delicate sensibilities. The violence here is sadistically raw, the drug use rampant and central to the whole thesis, plus if you like your sex at least partly romantic then you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s an uncompromising look at street life, at the endless cycle of the predator versus prey, of dog eat dog, and at the destruction and wasted lives left behind; it’s also an equally uncompromising look at unbridled drug-dependency, child abuse, the blatant hypocrisy lying at the heart of both people and religious organisations, and wanton brutality as a way of life and expression.

Stepek does two things here: first, he successfully updates the vampire genre, by bringing it into the sphere of a modern Babylon, a city given over to superficiality and excess in all things. Secondly, rather than honing in on the degradation and filth implicit in our notions of what inner city life is like (fostered by a lurid media in order to sell newspapers and garner ratings) and thereby damning all the lowlifes, it turns everything on its head by pointing a finger at the very institutions that we are told we should trust, ie., parents, adults, law-enforcement authorities and the church. No punches are pulled here, and nor should they be.

This is a genre book, certainly, but it also carries with it a high-level of uncomfortable realism. The language may be street and the urban ecosystem depicted in it an accurate description of the rotten, decaying concrete jungle prevalent in all modern metropolises, unintelligible to all but those who inhabit its environs, but the central themes in this book speak to us all. We may go out of our way to sweep the human detritus and malcontents under the carpet and out of sight, but those elements still thrive in the darkness and continue to fester. Knuckle Supper may not harbour any pretentions as to its value as a searing indictment of a failed social system, yet there is undeniably a conscience contained within its hip, bloody narrative, one that isn’t afraid to confront us with unpalatable truths. It may not be to everyone’s taste, certainly, but to those who do like their vampires nasty, violent and amoral, then this is definitely the book for you. And, unlike a great deal of similar books, this one has considerable meat on its bones.

(It also has a heart as well – 10% of the profits from this book will be donated to a charity called Children of the Night, an organisation whose aim is to rescue young teenage girls from ending up on the streets and falling into prostitution, and give them a home, an education and the best thing of all – hope.)

This review appeared at Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Alphar Publishing

Publication date: November 2010

ISBN: 978-0-9786024-5-1



First Spectral Press review…

Posted in Book Reviews, News with tags , , , , on December 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This came in last night courtesy of Neil Leckman and posted on his Virtual Cubicle blog – short and sweet, and most definitely very sharp!

“I just read Gary McMahon’s What They Hear in the Dark, a signed and numbered chapbook from Spectral Press, coming out January 2011. Gary has proven that not all silence is golden, and not all rooms are equal. He has a grip on the range of emotion that comes with loss, and how sometimes what you don’t say hurts more than what you can. Be prepared to have him take hold of you, by the throat, and not let go until your vision blurs, and your knees become weak.”

spectralpress.wordpress.com

BOOK REVIEW: Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on December 2, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s very difficult not to be enthusiastic about this book – not just about the writer and her stories but also about the physical book itself. And, it has to be said that, from this particular bibliophile’s point of view, what Tartarus Press have put together here is nothing short of superb and fully justifies the asking price. Sourdough and Other Stories is a lushly-produced hardback, with clear printing and a silk ribbon marker, and includes a full-colour frontispiece and decorated boards and spine – just the perfect thing to display on a shelf. It’s the sort of thing to stroke and make a complete fetish of.

But it wouldn’t be a complete package without the quality of literature within – otherwise it would be nothing more than mere distraction. Luckily, there are gems hidden between those beautifully-gilded covers. I’ve reviewed Angela Slatter before for Beyond Fiction (The Girl with No Hands – Ticonderoga Publications) and I came away highly impressed, both with the way in which she tells her stories but also by her erudition. The sixteen stories contained within this collection attests to both Slatter’s storytelling and her consistency in creating entertaining tales with deep, almost primeval, resonances. And she does this time after time.

The traditional fairytale is her starting point or, rather, what we have come to think of as fairytales. As I observed in my previous review, many of the most famous tales that have been handed down to us, transmitted by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, were corrupted and sanitised by a Christian, Victorian and patriarchal-oriented agenda, where women were often portrayed as not only being fallen but the begetter of evil deeds. The dangers were still there, but they were meant to show the child their rightful place,  as well as to educate and prepare them for their roles in adult life, through moral instruction.

Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan. All her female characters display strength of one kind or another, whether it be a refusal to bow down to the dictates of the patriarchal stage on which these tales are played out (Gallowberries, for instance), or the willingness of a young girl to sacrifice herself to atone for a wrong or in a time of need (The NavigatorA Porcelain Soul), or the power of a woman to transform and renew (The Angel Wood,Little Radish). Conversely, the men in Slatter’s fictional locale of Lodellan are often portrayed as the epitome of stupidity: greedy (the Robber Bridegroom in The Story of Ink), cruel and warlike (the Duke and Dante Velatt in A Porcelain Soul), weak (the king inSister, Sister) and ultimately afraid of the innate power of women, hence their need to subjugate them (the town council and judge in Gallowberries).

Before you imagine otherwise, not all the women are saintly, however – there’s Gwenllian, the rich mistress who asked Blodwen to heal her horrific burns, giving her young child away as payment for her services. Through Blodwen, we learn of the consequences of going against nature, of denying the bond every woman should have with her child and that doing so without thought can sometimes have dire consequences. Then we meet the cruel, spoilt little rich girl fiancée in Sourdough, who, through her arts with potions, causes her husband-to-be Peregrine’s true love to lose their child. That dead child then turns up in a later tale, Lavender & Lychgates, a wonderful story of the scheming ghost of the spoilt girl to bring him back to life, in order to exact revenge against Emmeline (his mother and the girl who did go on to marry Peregrine) and her daughter. Slatter’s women are also more than capable of a darker magic, too, as is evidenced in the bloody The Bones Remember Everything, a decidedly hallucinatory tale. Additionally, they can also be viciously poisonous, like Polly using malign whispers to usurp her sister Theodora’s place as the king’s wife in Sister, Sister.

Ultimately, however, the wrongs that are perpetrated by these bad apples are corrected by other, stronger (in the moral sense) females. Women are portrayed as the real runners of the show, the glue holding society together and the life-givers (and life-takers in dire need, too). They may be downtrodden, vilified, rejected and outcast, but each possesses an inner strength, an inner conviction to go on and do what’s absolutely necessary. Just like the fairy-tales we grew up with, the ones given to us by our Victorian forefathers, these stories deal in archetypes; however, the difference here is that Slatter’s characters are not the stiff, cardboard cut-outs created to make a moralistic point – they are eminently believable and well rounded, thus enabling us much more easily to identify with them and their plight(s).

On top of this, Slatter is also a master world-builder, but a very subtle one with it. The central conceit is that each of the stories is connected in some way to the story(ies) that have gone before – characters, places and events turn up or are reused in some way. The connections are fluid, however: several names turn up in different stories, for instance, but sometimes their link to the first instance is tenuous and yet the connection is most definitely there nonetheless. This fluidity creates a subtly strong weave that helps us build a picture of the world where the characters live their lives and have their being in. The language used to delineate and map it out it isn’t extraneous or richly detailed – it’s precise and economical, yet is highly effective for all that.

Despite the fact that it’s all set in a fairy-tale world, there is that about Slatter’s writing that ultimately connects it to the world we live in. These are real people, the kind of people we know ourselves: they’re just dressed up in the finery (or rags) of a world that’s just beyond this one. It just as surely reflects our reality as the original fairy-tales mirrored the times when Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collated the ones that have come down the years since. Slatter, then, isn’t so much reinventing these tales asrealigning them, rearranging them in effect to better fit the 21st century and the collective sensibilities we hold today. The world has moved on considerably since the triumphalist days of Queen Victoria’s Glorious Empire (of which Slatter’s native Australia was a part), but those Victorian retellings haven’t: Slatter is merely fitting them around today’s values. Another Angela (Angela Carter), as Jeff VanDermeer points out in his afterword, started that whole process of updating, re-envisioning and restoring the fairy-tale to its rightful place in our richly-embroidered cultural tapestry, and with something of its original earthy power. Slatter has confidently taken up that gentle torch and illuminated her own path through what, in lesser hands, may be considered something of a minefield – and, in this reviewer’s opinion, long may she continue to do so.

This review originally appeared at Beyond Fiction.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Tartarus Press

Publication date: 12th August 2010

ISBN: 978-1-905784-25-7 (HB)

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – 50th anniversary edition by Alan Garner

Posted in Book Reviews on November 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It never fails to amaze me how some scenes from a book stay with you. The one thing that has always remained in my head, from when I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen all those many years ago, is the episode where Colin and Susan, along with Fenodyree and Durathror the dwarfs, are compelled to escape their enemies through the twisting and flooded subterranean tunnels and the narrow, claustrophobic crawlspaces leading from the West Mine to Earldelving, under the hills of Cheshire. With just ‘mere’ words, Alan Garner brought home to me the full terror of being squeezed tightly between the crushing weight of millions of tons of rock above and trillions more beneath. However, in truth I can’t credit this children’s classic (this year celebrating its 50thanniversary) from instilling in me a fear of enclosed spaces or discouraged me from taking up potholing as a pursuit, but it certainly didn’t help either. (I have a healthy dislike of both, in point of fact)

Even now, three and a half decades on, that particular chapter (Chapter 14, The Earldelving) still has the power to send ice-cold shivers of fear through me. It isn’t any wonder, then, that this book, first published in 1960, has continued to be in print from that time to this. Neither is it any wonder to see why it has become such a classic of children’s literature, beloved of both young and old alike.

Colin and Susan are sent to stay with Gowther and Bess Mossock in Highmost Redmanhey (near Alderley Edge) by their parents, who have moved abroad for six months as part of the children’s father’s job. Hardly have they settled in when they’re drawn into the action and suddenly they’re being hunted by creatures of myth and local legend, who are all interested in an heirloom that Susan’s mother passed on to her. The wizard Cadellin Silverbrow, another figure emerging out of the folklore of the Edge and the guardian of Fundindelve (the refuge of fabled knights beneath the hills), is also interested, but for entirely different, and considerably less malign, reasons. From the moment the true nature of Susan’s heirloom is revealed, the fate of not only the children and the Edge, but of the world itself, hangs delicately in the balance.

There’s no doubting why it’s become an enduring classic, although I venture that it’s had to live under the shadow of Tolkien’s better known Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, even so. Certainly the latter two set the tone and also laid down the template for future fantasy literature, and here Garner successfully utilises both tone and template to bring us a rollicking adventure, peopled with unforgettable characters, like the aforementioned Durathror (the dwarven warrior with courage many times his size), Gowther and Bess (the plain-speaking, no-nonsense farmer and his wife, whose family have lived in the Edge for generations), the darkly brooding figures of Grimnir, the Morrigan and Nastrond (the erstwhile adversaries), and the hulking troll-wives the Mara. Interestingly, however, I found the children’s characters (and Cadellin’s as well, to a certain extent) to be fairly bland and unremarkable, presumably because this helps the readership at which the book is aimed strongly identify with them, maybe.

The real star of this book, however, is the landscape in which it is set. The places mentioned are all real locations, as far as I am aware. Garner himself (who provides an introduction to the story in the limited hardback edition – not reviewed here) still lives in Alderley Edge, and that familiarity with his home comes across strongly throughout the book. It’s a living, breathing and constantly-worked landscape, home to, and farmed for, countless generations, and, as described so poetically here, possesses a solid, ages-old familiarity about it. However, beneath the surface (both metaphorically and literally) lie noisome cankers and grimly unwholesome presences, whose only joy is to bring darkness and death to the world of light above. The underworld places are dark and oppressive, inhabited by things that would do us harm; the wide open spaces are too exposed, and ever under the watchful eye of creatures with malice on their minds. It is into this dangerous world that the children are plunged, and we are pulled headlong with them.

On top of that, it’s a cracker of a story, too – the pace, especially in the last two thirds, is often frantically heart-stopping and breathless. Unconsciously, you always find yourselves willing the party on ( Susan, Colin, Fenodyree, Durathror and Gowther), willing them to achieve their goal of the summit of the hill of Shuttlingslow. Their battles with both otherworldly creatures and eldritch weather are keenly felt and envisioned, and there were many times when my heart-rate quickened considerably, not knowing whether they were heading into danger or safety. The hook is there from the very beginning, and it reels us in inexorably and with assured certainty.

Just like Philip Pullman’s magisterial His Dark Materials trilogy, or the runaway success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has a primal power contained within it, a power that appeals to and resonates with some ancient part of us. Plus, there’s an utter timelessness that envelops it, despite the fact it was written fifty years ago and is ostensibly set in a world and time long gone now. However, for all the supposed sophistication of the 21st century, there still dwells within us an ancestral memory of the times when the world around us was full of unknown and inexplicable terrors. In later years those terrors were personified in the plethora of gods and monsters we invented to explain why things were as we saw them. Garner describes a world that is at once wholly outside our experience and yet we can still indentify intuitively with it, and it has the power to terrify us. And, more to the point, this book has been doing that for half a century – this reviewer sincerely hopes it’ll continue to do so for another fifty years.

This review originally appeared on Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: September 2nd 2010

ISBN:  978-0-00-735521-1

REVIEW ESSAY: With Deepest Sympathy by Johnny Mains

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cover image is © Johnny Mains - used with permission

(Note: I feel it only fair to point out that the book I am writing about in this review-essay [With Deepest Sympathy] I actually read and commented upon before publication. This is principally why I have chosen to post this here rather than anywhere else – it might [and will] be seen as a conflict of interest in some respects. However, in this case, I genuinely feel that Johnny Mains’ work should be talked about, on two levels – first, he deserves recognition for his gargantuan efforts to republish The Pan Books of Horror and also Mary Danby’s stories, and secondly, I want to talk about how his involvement with those older tales has influenced his work, and also brought about a revival, perhaps, of appreciation for them.)

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Now, I like a bit of gore in my stories as much as the next horror aficionado, but there are times when I think that certain stories disguise their lack of literary merit with bucketfuls of the red stuff, or that it’s nothing more than an excuse to either try and gross the reader out or just to see how inventive and sickening a writer can make the torture/murder scene. Some stories I’ve read concentrated solely on the visceral to the exclusion of just about any other consideration, leaving me slightly nauseous but ultimate dissatisfied and I walked away from it thinking “I’ve just wasted valuable time reading that…”

So, increasingly I find myself being drawn to the older horror/supernatural/ghostly stories, the kind that leave you to fill in the gaps and envision the action with something called your imagination. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t horror writers out there now who are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before. One such writer is Johnny Mains, a one-man champion of the crusade to bring back an older style of horror and ghost story. Within the past year or so he has published Back from the Dead, an anthology of new tales from some of the surviving writers whose work featured in the original Pan Horror books, along with a reprint or two. Then, he succeeded in persuading Pan-Macmillan to reissue the original 1959 first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories itself in facsimile (originally edited by Herbert Van Thal), along with a new introduction that charts the history of the series over the course of its more than thirty annual editions. Next year sees the publication of a collection of the stories of Mary Danby, who edited and contributed to more than a few volumes of both the Armada Book of Ghost Stories and the Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories.

Being so heavily immersed in such tales, it isn’t any wonder then that the flavour of all those old stories has thoroughly seeped into the ones included in his debut collection With Deepest Sympathy (published by Obverse Books). Fourteen tales are showcased here, many of which are based around his fictional town of Effingham-on-the-Stour: some of the stories work and others don’t. Mains has dutifully taken his cues from the time when stories suggested more than they actually described, and on that level they work considerably better than if he’d poured in some gratuitous gore just for the sake of it. The discomfort we feel from reading the title tale, With Deepest Sympathy, isn’t so much to do with what actually happens but arises from the sheer nastiness of Mrs. Primrose Hildebrand and the obvious pleasure she derives from upsetting and controlling people the way she does. The horror in The Bag Lady (the best story in the collection I think), isn’t just about a woman feeding children to a voracious sentient handbag, it’s the terror incipient in any parent’s heart when their child goes missing and also the horror when the woman in question appears to be going against natural instinct – women are meant to nurture and protect, not betray the trust of children. Life Through a Lens is also a terrific read: a prominent surgeon exacts his hideous revenge on a hospital photographer for not being professional enough when being presented with the aftermath of a car accident (which, ironically, happened to the surgeon himself). In this one, we really feel the building up of a subtle pressure, inevitably meaning something untoward is about to happen. And when it does, the reader really feels it.

It’s not all serious, however; Mains is also possessed of a blackly humorous streak as well. Losing the Plot, where an avid allotment holder has an encounter with a busybody council official which ends rather bloodily, is one example. Another instance is The Spoon, starring everyone’s favourite ‘psychic’ spoon-bender, Uri Geller – I have to admit that the ending had me wishing that it would happen in real life.

However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that not all the stories worked for me – the major one being The Family Business, which consists of nothing more than a description of how a funeral director/embalmer prepares a body, albeit the processes are being showed by the said embalmer to his young son who will one day inherit the business. Bloody Conventions has a nice idea at its core (author travels to convention, slowly losing his identity along the way) but it somehow missed the mark for me. The same can be said for Gun Money, a tale of a particularly nasty individual who not only contrives to leave hotels without paying but also steals money from the base of a memorial – the denouement, in one form or another, was obvious from the start. I also felt the end was rushed somewhat.

Overall, however, I can say that this collection is hugely enjoyable, atmospheric and delightfully spooky in places (check out Reconvened: The Judge’s House to see what I mean). Certainly for a first collection it shows potential and a lot of promise for the future. One other reviewer mentioned that Johnny shouldn’t rush to get to the end of his stories and to a certain extent whoever said that was right – some of the stories seemed to accelerate too quickly towards the end. However that may be, the fact remains that Mains is a writer at the start of his career and as such has the ability to take things in his own direction. In which case, I suggest you invest in a copy of With Deepest Sympathy right now and follow how Johnny Mains’ writing develops from here on in….

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Obverse Books

Publication date: October 2010

ISBN: 978-0-9565605-2-0

BOOK REVIEW: Tragic Life Stories by Steve Duffy

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on November 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

“It was an attritional season, the spring of slow destruction.”

And then we’re right in it. Just ten words in that first line, but what powerful words they are, plunging us straight into the heart of Steve Duffy’s world.

So, what does he write about? Just ordinary people, living ordinary lives but ending up, through a cruel twist of fate, being pitched head-first into bewilderingly extraordinary circumstances – this is what he writes about. Couples just taking the first tentative steps towards setting out on a life journey together, for instance, or a young woman breaking out from her hometown for the bright lights of the city, or a young man visiting the idyllic country home of the parents of his best friend’s girlfriend. Then again, we could be talking about the writer attempting to get himself out of a string of bad luck maybe, or the teenage boy experiencing the thrill of life and punk rock in the heady days of its first emergence, right in the heart of one of its most vibrant centres. These are the characters that Steve invites us to empathise with – and then, just as we get to know them, he pulls the rug right out from under their feet (and by metaphorical extension, ours too).

The thing is, we could easily be any of the people in the nine tales featured in this latest collection from the Manchester-born-but-currently-resident-somewhere-in-Wales writer. Even though a debt is paid to the likes of the classic stories of MR James (evidently a strong influence on Mr. Duffy’s writing), it’s a world we can identify with only too well. Whereas there’s a deliberate distance in James’ tales, of the milieu of the cloistered academic, for instance (and a part of life that has long gone, in part destroyed by the very forces that assailed it in James’ fiction), Duffy brings his landscapes of terror as close into us as he can, sitting them down next us practically. That closeness is brightly comforting and beguiling, lulling us into letting our guard down. It is then, and only, that the threat is revealed: in contrast to James’ world, where the threat was to an ordered but ultimately hermetic existence, Duffy lets us get comfortable, and then rips away the veil of reality, revealing the writhing, squirming putrescence and rottenness underneath that threatens the very stability of everyday existence, without us ever being aware of it.

Let’s take The Fabric of Things as a particularly appropriate example. A young woman, desperate to get out of her native Bridgend, gets her wish when she starts a new job at an office in London. However, right from the start, it’s obvious that it’s nothing like she imagined: work is still ongoing at the building, which worryingly appears to need a constant stream of repairs done to it. This is a major inconvenience to the recently arrived young upwardly-mobile small-town girl, as the builders get in her way and constantly test her patience: but nothing is quite as simple as that. Unbeknownst to her, those very same builders, as annoying and boorish as they are, are doing a vital job: they are there to protect her from a very real threat, literally existing just below, and just on the other side of, the surface.

Then there’s Tantara, where the threat is implicit in the rural/urban and class divide – the country and its rituals are markedly different to the ways and rhythms of the city, and events are centred about one of the rites eternally incomprehensible to the visiting city-folk: the hunt. A young couple, anxious to cement their burgeoning relationship, rent a cottage somewhere in north Wales for a week. The surface of the rural idyll is entrancing and everything the couple wish for, but it hides a dark secret: a secret that, through no fault of their own, they inadvertently get caught up in. And it’s a terrifying mess they get themselves into, a terror that plays on the fears and differences engendered by the evident cultural chasm between country and city. Furthermore, it paints an uncomfortably unsettling picture of the decay behind the idyllic picture postcard stereotype, and is genuinely scary and unnerving.

Equally unsettling and unnerving is Only Passing Through Here, one of the best stories in the collection. Our main protagonist has unwillingly accompanied a friend on a trip to steal antiques from a house, situated deep in the heart of the countryside and the black of night. While waiting for their contact (a young lady), to signal them, an accident occurs, resulting in our unhappy accomplice being knocked over by a car. When he comes to, everything has shifted slightly and his friend has disappeared (inconveniently leaving him stranded), with the brooding house looming alarmingly out of the night. Alarms bells should have been sounding even before the hit and run: there’s that enigmatic house with its absentee owners and there’s no sign of the contact. More than that, when one of the men attempts to get through to the young lady via mobile phone, her voice is distant and distorted by a strange static. The silent bulk of the house is home to many secrets, that much is plain: where is their contact, for instance, or what was source of the light briefly seen in an upstairs window? Where are the house’s owners?  `

One more example, in what is already a substantially fine collection. Certain Death for a Known Person is probably the best story here, at least for me. A simple premise of a young man visiting the house of the parents of his best mate’s girlfriend, nestled in the heart of the Devonshire countryside. A fracturing of realities – the young man comes from a poor background and the house speaks of money, comfort and security. He already feels uncomfortable and out of place, and then comes a furthering fracturing of reality in the form of a visitor, a menace from outside the circles of familiarity. Questions of what is real and what isn’t come to the fore, and a snatching away of certainties and verities. Also, a challenge presented, completely unlooked for and unwanted, with a warning that words can be slippery things.

Most modern horror tends to the urgent and in some cases to the frenetic – here the stories take their time, building the atmosphere slowly, deliberately, and only dropping the occasional subtle hint here and there about the true nature of what’s going on. It’s very clear from the style and manner of storytelling the strength and depth of the influence his antecedent James has had on him. While they may indeed be reminiscent of an earlier style of writing, it has the effect of enhancing rather than detracting from their contemporary settings. There’s no reliance on blood and gore: instead, the underlying threads of unease worm their insidious ways into the mind as you’re reading, tickling the fear centres and priming them for the clincher’s revelations. Simultaneously, the everyman characters are real enough that we fall into step with them without thinking. This is understated, undemonstrative writing – but don’t for one minute think that it lacks power, because it has that in bucketloads (read the story The First Time for strong evidence of that… and that’s all I’m saying).

This is the third Ash-Tree Press collection I have read and I am quite simply astounded at the consistency of editorial quality displayed across all three. Without hesitation I can recommend as another essential purchase from this Canadian publisher. I have one or two more of their collections to review – if what I have encountered so far is anything to go by, then I am in for yet more treats!!

This review originally appeared on the Bookgeeks website.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Ash-Tree Press

Publication date: march 2010

ISBN: 978-1-55310-124-6

BOOK REVIEW: Last Exit for the Lost, by Tim Lebbon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on October 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Tim Lebbon is that rare writer, an author possessing a deceptively spare way with words yet painting images, themes and atmospheres of infinite detail, colour and nuance, stories that dig themselves beneath the skin and burrow into the bones. These are deeply-felt and envisioned stories, drawn out from the deepest of the pits of human experience. The horrors he assails us with are viscerally raw, the pain and fears screamingly primal, the regrets and losses his characters feel are empathised with completely, and the burden of sins perpetrated weigh heavily on our shoulders in concert.

Before anything else, however, mention should be made of the solidity and size of this volume – it’s a reassuringly massive tome indeed, 557 pages and 150,000 words, and wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric cover by Les Edwards. That solidity, that substantiality, however, merely reflects the quality and depth of the sixteen stories and two novellas contained herein. Beyond that is the physical quality of the book itself, an aspect that is rarely noted in reviews – kudos to the folks at Cemetery Dance for the care they’ve taken over this, and especial mention should be made here of the attention to details, like the paper quality, the clean clear printing of the text and the general layout.

Lebbon ranges widely here, dipping into and mixing genres with practised ease. The title story, Last Exit for the Lost (and yes, before you ask, Tim IS a big fan of Fields of the Nephilim), is a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are those of the dead. A mysterious set of related of paintings, ultimately creating a triptych, arrives at the door of a man who has let both himself and his family go. The ghosts of relationships, regrets and of what might have been, all conspire to provide the catalyst for transformation. Another ghost of the living, emerging from out of the past, also features in the next tale, The Cutting, when a young boy’s grandfather, a war veteran, is visited by someone from decades before to whom he made a promise and he’s here to collect. Even the passage of time is incapable of denuding honour and dignity.

There is also fantasy here, too, in the form of Forever, the tale of Nox, a Krote warrior, part of an island army that is always preparing for war (a war that never actually comes), who is seeking a means of escape from his perpetually frozen home. Steampunk of a kind makes itself known here in Old Light: a mysterious old man bequeathes an ancient torch to an ascendant of a character from a Jules Verne novel. The item holds the power to show people how they are going to die if the beam is played upon them. Then there’s a wonderfulhomage to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in the form of The Horror of the Many Faces (originally published in 2003’s Shadows over Baker Street), wherein Holmes’ intrepid assistant Watson is faced with the ultimate dilemma: is the great detective a murderer, or is there something deeper going on here? Lebbon artfully combines the classic detective story with elements of horror, to very satisfying ends.

However, it is the unalloyed horror story where Lebbon excels. From the Lovecraftian The Stuff of the Stars, Leaking, where a widower finds the rotting corpse of an unknown deep-sea creature on the beach near his home, the discovery of which is bound up with disturbing dreams of his drowning wife: to Black, the tale of a murderous soldier, whose encounter with a woman obsessed with witnessing a murder perpetrated during enigmatic blackouts leads her right to him. From Skins, where sometimes it is better that the deep, secret horrors of the world, lying just beneath its thin crust, remain where they are, out of the purview of mankind and the light; to the novella In Perpetuity, a powerful meditation on the strength of familial bonds and the lengths we will go to just to secure the safety and future of our offspring. Any parent will empathise with the father in this tale, the despair, the frustration and the desperation he experiences as he tries to find a way to save his son.

The best, and most powerful, tale in the book by far, in my estimation, is the last one, the novella Nothing Heavenly. It’s a deceptively complex story, on one level simply about a woman being kidnapped by an unseen agent and on another being confronted by truths about both herself and the greater forces that weave about the world, forces that have been forgotten by the human species. Her journey of self-discovery is set against the End of Times, and the great battles that ensue. Who or, more accurately, what is she? It’s a treatise, told in fiction, on the nature of belief and fate, and one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself, her legacy and ultimately, her role in shaping outcomes of the many. It’s a harrowing and emotional story, expertly told. The excruciating pain and cruelty, the atrocities and bloodshed, linger in the mind long after the last word has been read and the cover closed. Nothing Heavenly possesses an extraordinary cinematic quality, the imagery readily springing, fully formed, to the imagination and pitching us in the midst of unearthly battle.

As was pointed out in the opening paragraph, Lebbon writes in a very lean, spare style. For all that, however, along with the sparse description, the reader still comes away with vividly-realised tableaux playing in technicolour on the screen of the mind. There’s also an ease with which Lebbon’s writing worms its way into our emotional centres, pulling and teasing them at will. Above all, his stories manage to convey the essential bleakness of existence, that the hopes that we carry with us in life are, in the end, hollow, and that even when a resolution has been brought about there is still a trace of malignancy besmirching it. There are very few writers out there, I feel, who can achieve the same with such facility and power. For that reason, I very much look forward to reading more of this man’s work.

This review originally appeared at Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Publication date: May 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58767-170-8