Latest news: my new book -- the novella MUTATOR -- is available now!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Skein and Bone by V H Leslie – a review

Skein and Bone by V H Leslie – a review by Gary Fry
Before picking up a copy of V H Leslie’s debut collection of short fiction, I’d read only one of her tales, the opener here, called ‘Namesake’, which first appeared – and deservedly so – in Best British Horror 2013. Its artful combination of solid storytelling – yes, Leslie does plots! – literary mechanisms, cool prose, and emotional material persuaded me to seek out what I hoped would be more of the same.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Skein and Bone is a uniformly excellent collection, addressing an impressive range of subject matters and offering some poetically striking imagery. Each tale feels very different, and yet all are bound together by the same confident vision, the same sharp writing, and the same dark vision. Let me take a number of the tales in turn and discuss what I admired about them.
The titular story ‘Skein and Bone’ has clear echoes of Aickman (‘The Trains’ springs most immediately to mind), as two young sisters take a railway journey into off-the-beaten-track France and chance upon a refuge packed with baroque and beautiful artefacts. There is sibling rivalry at work from the off, with a variety of symbolic episodes dramatizing the woman’s relative attitudes to selfhood, appearance, style. A dream sequence – a common technique used with strategic skill by Leslie – will heighten the Biblical flavour of the place, until its conclusion hardly pulls any macabre punches. It’s a memorably grim piece, but one which also finds beauty among its human horrors: the power of beauty and its capacity to become toxic when tempered.
‘Ghost’ feels like more of a black joke, with its grotesque final lines elevating this kind of creature-focused fiction to a cruel gravitas; it’s certainly one of the strangest ghost stories I’ve read, if indeed it can be described as such. ‘Family Tree’ feels like a similarly comic dark tale, with a boy’s unconventional family providing a scenario in which the common youthful problem of fitting in and making social connections is heightened considerably; the conclusion, expected and grim, feels cold and yet true.
In ‘The Blue Room’ – perhaps the most conventionally structured ghostly tale here – a woman’s colourless life is given shape and vigour by a brief stay in a hotel. The room in which she stays plays host to a sequence of supernatural events, all focused on the colour blue, and which eventually spread into the rest of the building, along with territory around the place. Leslie’s depiction of dispirited female experience is cloying and moving, allowing the spooky episodes to gain psychological resonance. The whole piece put me in mind of much classic supernatural fiction, particularly the occasional ghostly tales of Edith Wharton and other female writers.
‘Ulterior Design’ is similarly inspired by classic dark fiction, in this case surely Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. And yet here we have a male character placed in peril by such a routine decoration, as his masculine sense of control and order is jeopardise by his lover’s pregnancy, her modifications of his home, and all the responsibilities that simply must follow. The guy’s increasingly alarming visions of natural interference in his ruthlessly manmade life take on tangible form, with (at first) peripheral damage, and then far worse, and then…oh God, that last line is a real killer.
Other tales I admired in this collection included ‘The Cloud Cartographer’, which moves surreally to a cosmic finale; the developments – the way the backstory relates to latter-day events – feel right here, building to a final few paragraphs which move and stir. The plot of ‘Preservation’ rests upon a gimmicky notion, and in less artful hands than Leslie’s it could all have been a bit mediated; but again, the quality of characterisation, Leslie’s skill at getting behind her people’s surface relations and into their private lives, leads to a fantastic closing scene and a very appropriate last line. Similar tricks are at play in ‘The Quiet Room’, which puts more of those carefully located dream sequences to work with merciless force: the figure on the piano is vivid and scary, and its final transformation all the more convincing after this preparatory material. ‘Time Keeping’ revisits the logical world of men, with a strident image of a partner rendered mechanically predictable, under his quantifiable control.
There are other stories in the book – the short and chilly ‘Bleak Midwinter’, with its cast of unlikely stalkers; the weird ‘Wordsmith’, in which a man plants and grows words; and the exotic ‘Senbazuru’, with its war-haunted couple and their deceptively playful game – and, having discussed so many fine ones above, that’s just testament to the range of quality on display here. Indeed, I felt as if I gained something from every tale and genuinely enjoyed each for very different reasons. And that’s what I call a fine collection.  
Sometimes tender, often shocking, frequently moving, and commonly beautiful, Skein and Bone  is a remarkable book, the work of a writer in full command of her craft and with apparently quite enough preoccupations and curiosities, both domestic and global, to inform what I hope will be much more to come.
You can buy the book from Undertow Publications here: http://www.undertowbooks.com/issues/

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay – a review by Gary Fry

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay – a review by Gary Fry

I’d heard a lot of positive things about this novel and so couldn’t resist grabbing a copy. I didn’t want to miss out on what folk were suggesting was a great literary experience – who would?

Anyway, I got started at once and soon found myself in the grip of an interesting narrative involving a woman’s childhood experiences, particularly an event concerning her sister, who was supposed as a child to have been possessed by a demon and became the subject of a reality TV show which affected the whole family to a disconcerting degree.

So that’s the plot, really. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, latter-day retrospective blog entries about the TV show, and a few dialogue-based scenes in which the narrator discusses events with a journalist who plans to write up the whole story.

This is a tricksy book, with many sleight-of-hand techniques on display right from the off. That blog first alerts us to possible subterfuges being practiced, while also serving as a reflexive critique of horror fiction’s grab-box, a range of techniques from which effective dark tales are commonly constructed. But then the first-person backstory starts to slink and slide, too, with an admission from the narrator’s sister revealing further underhandedness.

This is all very cunning material, and the novel starts to take the form of an impossible portrait, something Escher might have conjured in an impish frame of mind. We the readers start to question who (if anyone) is telling us the truth, and  -- more importantly, perhaps – who can be trusted? Gradually, all the characters begin to appear untrustworthy, with the poor beleaguered narrator subject to sibling deception, parental manipulation, media invasion, and even interference from the moral police. The whole book eventually becomes quite a damning depiction of modern American attitudes to such issues as the patriarchal family, religion, mental illness, popular entertainment, and more.

So, as you can surmise, this novel is considerably more than a ghost story. Indeed, the narrative, which intermittently achieves an eerie kind of resonance – the strangling scene set in the doll’s house is insidiously troubling; the early sequences showing the sister’s aberrant behaviours starkly upsetting – constantly undermines itself, with those blog posts serving as a kind of rational debunking, a voice of reason deconstructing such in-yer-face horrors.

And all this would render the book a clever satire on all such matters…if it didn’t darken considerably in its final act. Now we’re in the realms of genuine horror. I can’t reveal much without lapsing into significant spoilers, but let me just say that the event with which the backstory ends is far more disturbing than anything which might have occurred in a more supernatural-oriented narrative.

And that’s the lot: just one more chapter to go to wrap things up. That’s how these fictions work, after all. But oh Lord, in a subtly worded final section, Tremblay pulls off yet another twist, and one which forces us the readers to re-evaluate everything we’ve just read. It’s a fitting conclusion to such an elusive novel, one in which the truth remains frustratingly out of grasp, but which will remain long in memory until, like a tongue returning to a ragged-edged tooth, we’ll read it all again, with a view to spotting those moments when the misdirection occurred.

We won’t get fooled again, no sir. The devil isn’t that clever…is (s)he?   

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ALBION FAY by Mark Morris -- a review

Albion Fay by Mark Morris – a review by Gary Fry      

I’ve been a fan of Mark Morris’s work since the 1980s and have always admired his delicately balanced combination of clean, evocative writing, headlong storytelling, and realistic characterisation. More than anything else, Morris’s fiction is hugely readable, the prose possessing a hypnotic power which allows the author to achieve genuinely gripping scenes and even moments of high terror.

Morris has written some long books – his debut Toady was a monster – but I’ve always been drawn to his less frequent shorter work, especially the rare story collection Close to the Bone, which was one of my favourites as a youngster. Anyway, when I heard he’d written a new novella I grew excited. The novella is my favourite horror form, and if Morris could deliver here, well, it could be a great experience.

And it was. Albion Fay is a narratively complex, highly suggestive work, with a dark mystery at its core which belies the familiar social mores Morris depicts so well. The story of a family’s holiday and its long-term aftereffects, the novella is narrated by Frank, son of two warring parents and twin brother of Angie, a girl who’ll end up dealing with these domestic tensions in a much more strident way than her sibling (though perhaps with no less psychological devastation).

Our intrigue is aroused from the off, with adult Frank attending a funeral at which he clearly feels uncomfortable. Then the backstory, told from his possibly imperfect point of view, begins to unravel, with many a traditional creepy plot device – spooky old house, caves nearby – which never develop in the way the conditioned horror reader might expect.

And that’s all to the good. Indeed, as Frank – both his younger incarnation and his older fretful persona – relates dreams and impressions, the nature of the Fay – age-old fairies, but not the kind cherished in the collective public consciousness – is slowly revealed, acquiring sinister characteristics and disconcerting motives.

I really liked this refusal on the part of Morris to spoon-feed the reader any interpretations. The whole novella is a kind of Aickmanian enigma, left for us to figure out, with more than enough hinted-at materials to spook and unsettle. The main event turns on what sister Angie experienced one day while exploring those caves alone, but Morris holds his secrets at a tantalising distance, a trick which – among many other things – allows for a creeping, shadow-packed conclusion.

Thus far, all good. However, I did have a slight issue with the book. As I’ve said earlier, one of Morris’s gifts lies in his ability to conjure to the page convincing characters. His people are just like you and me, recognisably embedded in daily life and speaking in the turns of phrases which characterise specific eras (the 70s, 80s and 90s are Morris’s particular speciality). Albion Fay is no exception:  the kids speak like kids, the adults like adults.

But…well, it’s the father, you see. He’s just kind of unfailingly meanspirited. Now, I’m not suggesting that blokes like this don’t exist – Lord knows, having grown up in a similar social bracket to this family, I’ve seen quite enough of his sort – but I do feel as if Morris needed to explore in more detail the reasons for his dishonourable marital and paternal behaviour.

I mean, why did the mother marry him in the first place, let alone bear his children, if he was such an obvious shit? Okay, so maybe he wasn’t always this way, but that doesn’t help us understand what has changed since. Does he really do what he does because – as implied by the text – he doesn’t get much action in the bedroom? Maybe so, but it would have been useful to understand why the wife had grown reticent in that regard.

All in all, this is just a minor strand of the book, but in light of how it ends, I found it an important one. As it stands, this character comes across as a bit of a stereotype and I think the novella deserves more than that.

But don’t let me suggest that this mars the impact of what is a powerfully insidious book. The complex narrative structure is handled with seamless aplomb; the prose is as delicate and evocative as a watercolour painting; and the events stack up with bewildering implications. It’s a sterling performance from one of horror’s most consistent practitioners of spooky, well-written, scary gear. So, required reading, I’d have thought.

The book can be ordered from Spectral Press: https://spectralpress.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/albion-fay-by-mark-morris/

Monday, September 28, 2015

13 DAYS BY SUNSET BEACH by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

13 DAYS BY SUNSET BEACH by Ramsey Campbell – a review by Gary Fry


For a long time I’ve felt that a collection of Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction set in countries other than in the UK would make a great book. Remember such tales as ‘The Same in any Language’, ‘All for Sale’, and (more tangentially, perhaps) ‘Seeing the World’? I personally loved every one, and I strongly believe that stories taking place amid alternative cultures and geographical landscapes offer horror an additional layer of unease, of potential alienation. And so it seems unusual that – with the exception of a few chapters in the likes of The Claw and The Count of Eleven – none of Campbell’s novels has been set abroad.

Until now, of course. All the events of his latest, 13 Days by Sunset Beach, take place on a fictional Greek island. The plot is relatively straightforward. Focusing exclusively on the perceptions of an older chap, the aptly named (in light of ensuing dark events) Ray, a family comes together for a fortnight of relaxation, exploring, and general recreation. There’s Sandra, Ray’s wife, and their adult children Natalie and Doug, along with their partners (including the militant Julian) and several grandchildren.

This is a family like many others, amiable enough on the surface but full of carefully managed tensions and conflicting views, especially concerning childrearing. It generally operates according to democratic principles – e.g. everyone gets a choice of a day out, even the youngsters – but when events begin to escalate, including some creepily suggestive observations and experiences, a low-key battle develops over their interpretation, with protection of the innocent – the children are constantly present – uppermost among the adults’ minds.

It’s hard for me to review this book without using a certain horror word, but in doing so I feel as if I’d be giving away one of the subtly emergent facts you acquire from the escalating detail of this book. You see, there’s something characteristic about many of the island’s residents, and it’s they who gradually prey on the family, with many a delicate sortie. Put it this way, you’ll all be familiar with the nature of these assailants, but, outside of maybe Algernon Blackwood at his very best, you’ll have never seen them depicted so artfully, so restrainedly, as they are here.

Indeed, the book’s power – in addition to its complex, carefully choreographed family dynamics – lies in the strength of its prose. The entire island setting is depicted in intricate and telling detail, every hissing cave, every bustling market, every lively restaurant conveyed with colour and light, shadow and sound, and many artfully drawn minor characters. Here’s just a brief example of the masterful prose you’ll typically find in this exquisitely written book:

The shape had once been much more human, but now it seemed to sum up age and decay. It looked as withered and contorted as the husk of a spider’s victim. The man’s head was thrown back as if it had been paralysed in the act of uttering a final cry, which had shrunk the lips back from the teeth in a tortured grimace. The hands might have been lifted to fend off or deny his fate, unless a convulsion had raised them. Although Ray had no means of judging how long the corpse had been in the water, perhaps the immersion went some way towards explaining its state, because the flesh that dangled from its bones resembled perished rubber. He was staring at it in helpless dismay—he felt unable to move the light until he or Julian managed to deduce what had happened to the man—when the corpse winked at him.

He saw it take a breath as well. No, the reflections of the ripples that were wagging its hands and nodding its withered head were at play among the shadows of its ribs, enlivening the collapsed bare chest as the beam shook in Ray’s hand. But the drooping eyelid had certainly stirred, although only because a crab had emerged, bearing off a prize.

The darker set-pieces – one in a cave (from which the macabre passage above is lifted), the next in a graveyard, and another in an abandoned monastery – are beautifully staged, the writing continuing to stack up imagery and latent ambiguities until Ray, the novel’s central focus, begins to put pieces together, much to the chagrin of his arguably more fearful adult children and their partners.

Indeed, it’s the thirty-somethings who, despite rational words and actions to the contrary, seem most vulnerable here, as if those in older age and innocent youth have their own methods of protection from darkly true experience. The tensions arising from such rival perspectives make for an unforgettable conclusion, where Ray must decide whether to stick or twist, to expose his family to what perhaps only he believes or protect them from the burden of its horror. 

I’ve felt that Campbell’s more recent works have become tenderer in terms of their characterisation, the way his central characters try so hard to keep their loved ones free from many disturbing insights. And that’s never truer than here. If books like Midnight Sun and The House on Nazareth Hill explore issues arising in parenthood, perhaps 13 Days’ examines those involved in being a grandparent, that simultaneous impulse to protect one’s brood while also fearing overstepping the authoritative mark. The constant friction between Ray and his son-in-law Julian certainly demonstrates these anxieties to a telling degree.

All of this makes for a beautifully delicate piece of work, its people rendered so sensitively that I genuinely cared for them. I don’t think this is a necessary aspect of horror fiction, that terror cannot be derived from anything other than a threat to sympathetic characters, but it certainly enhances the power of this book’s source of menace.

And that menace is built across 90,000 words packed with the usual Campbellian linguistic pyrotechnics: memorable descriptions, misunderstood language (especially the patchy English of the island’s natives), the unconventional perceptions of children, redeployment of otherwise innocuous words (I’ll never think again of “soggy” in the same way), archaic written material, half-glimpsed figures, and unsettling locations. Indeed, the finale is as deliciously creepy as anything I’ve ever read from Campbell, rivalling similar subterranean conclusions in Thieving Fear and Creatures of the Pool.

In short, this is one of Campbell’s most elegantly composed novels, with a great cast of characters, a fantastic setting, and scenes which will live long in the imagination. I give it absolutely top marks. 

The novel will be available from PS Publishing in late October and can be pre-ordered now:



Sunday, September 13, 2015

THE LAST BUS by Paul M Feeney – a review

THE LAST BUS by Paul M Feeney – a review by Gary Fry


Just read Paul Feeney’s solidly entertaining novella THE LAST BUS. If action-jammed alien invasion tales are your thing, I’m sure you’ll take a great deal from this compact, well-written, nicely characterised work.

I needn’t outline the plot – it’s straightforward enough. But I would like to focus on a few things I thought Paul did particularly well. The most obvious was the smart way he introduced his characters, especially when one female passenger describes others according to characteristics she’s assigned to them during previous bus rides. This was a nice touch, and if it was a theme which invited more development – the gap between perception and reality – perhaps Paul will explore that further in future work.

I liked the novella’s pacing, too, with the main narrative broken up by episodic interludes very much in the style of good old James Herbert. In fact, quite a lot of this book reminded me of Herbert’s work – its literate, pacey prose; its light-touch yet far from negligible psychology; its intermittent scenes of vividly described gore. There is a lot to admire here from a storytelling, popular fiction point of view.

There were a few minor issues I had with the novella: very occasionally Paul used a limp stock-phrase during a set-piece. For instance, in the first description of one of his creatures attacking, he suggests that the pain a character experiences lasts “for all eternity”. Such phrasing just kind of lies there in the page, awaiting a further draft. There are a few other occasions when Paul’s otherwise lively prose suffers similar – there’s a “for all the world” and a “seemed to take forever” in there, too – but as I say, this is a minor point, and one easily addressed.

I felt the whole terrorist angle – all the characters drawing a similar conclusion in response to the invasion – was hackneyed but nicely done, and yet when Ran’ reveals his suspicions that the events are otherworldly, the narrative seems to take a leap of logic, from a rational explanation to this one. I felt as if Paul had missed a beat here, as if he needed to prepare his characters a bit more to accept the unnatural account to make it feel convincing. Again, a small point, but I think this kind of fiction thrives on such realistic embeddedness in everyday life.

I thought the plot was full of gripping action and effective imagery, but it never did much new with this kind of material, seeming content to remain in the perfectly respectable realm of “solid pulp tale well told”. Don’t misunderstand me: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such an aspiration, particularly when it’s executed as well as it is here, but for me, top marks go to those pieces which seek to explore fresh ideas.

In summation I’d describe THE LAST BUS as an entirely enjoyable read, with some classy writing, wryly casual insights (I like the way the central character Jonathan sums up his impromptu tryst with Hanna thus: “ [t]here was something deeply ironic about having to go through a near end of the world scenario simply to find the courage to speak to a person you found attractive”), entertaining story developments, and a suitably sour conclusion. All in all, I was very impressed by the novella and would certainly read more at length from Paul.

Monday, November 24, 2014

BURNT BLACK SUNS by Simon Strantzas – review by Gary Fry


I came to this book with a reasonable (if far from completest) knowledge of Strantzas’s fiction. What I’d read, I’d liked a great deal, even though his approach to horror was commonly more oblique than my own. Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading this latest collection of his weird tales and finding it so hard-hitting, often graphic, and written in a constantly energetic, rhythmic prose.

I’ll offer comments on each of the tales, before rounding up with some thoughts on his overall approach. I don’t plan to reveal plots – if you want that, read the book – but will rather comment on the things which struck me about each of them. Spoilers will be noted in CAPITALS.


- On Ice

A solid opener, with a mounting sense of unease as researchers come a cropper one by one in an icy climate. I find tales, particularly relatively short ones, in which lots of characters are present from the opening sometimes hard to get into, but by focusing closely on one guy, this story just about got around that structural difficulty. There were some nice time-honoured methods used here – footprints outside camps, body-parts found in disturbing isolation from their owners, etc – and the conclusion was satisfying, even if [SPOILERS FROM HERE] the monster was presented (to my tastes) a little too explicitly. I’d have preferred a little blur and confusion during the beast’s description, maybe a snowstorm distorting perception of it – something maybe to render it more elusive. But the Lovecraftian “reveal” is always a hard trick to pull off, and Strantzas does a nice enough job here, so don’t let me be churlish. Good opener.

- Dwelling on the Past

A solidly handled story, with – not the final time Strantzas will use this device in the book – a tragic backstory, from which all the narrated events gain resonance. The guy’s [SPOILER] descent into the pit towards the end was effective, as was the fur thing creeping upon him. I liked this layered story a good deal.

- Strong as a Rock

One of my favourites of the shorter pieces, this tale of two halves – first a climbing trip involving an accident, and then a rush for medical support – simply darkens and darkens, with its protracted, subterranean conclusion building to a great last scene, fully playing on psychologies established earlier. I particularly enjoyed the feel of the old hospital, with all its decay and ineradicable stains. Aickman is all over this piece, but so is Lovecraft, and that’s a fine combination in anyone’s book.

- By Invisible Hands

This was one of the two tales with which I didn’t get on very well. I suspect that’s because I’m not steeped in, nor drawn to, the kind of fictional landscape it seeks to explore – Ligottian, I’m guessing. I’m not the best person to judge, so I’ll remain relatively quiet about this puppet-based story.

- One Last Bloom

As the most overtly Lovecraftian piece in a Mythos-infused book, this story, the first of two novellas, is most remarkable for its characterisation, with the lead guy a particularly unsympathetic (though not uninteresting) person: self-regarding, privately ambitious, romantically fickle. This sour human backdrop forms a suitable framework for a journal-based side-story, involving a second narrator detailing the events of an ocean-based research trip. And what comes back from there is not pleasant at all – in fact, it’s genuinely mysterious, insidious and gruesome. I loved this tale, which includes a genuinely frightening scene (hint: it involves a visit to a flat) – one of those moments of terror that hold us all in the genre, reading story after story until someone does the same business again. Strantzas certainly manages that here. Fantastic tale.

- Thistle’s Find

I really enjoyed this snappy, pungent story of a rather alluring creature plucked from an alternative realm. It had the cosy framework of an old-fashioned crazy-scientist tale, but with a risqué sequence of events. I liked the narrator’s “street” voice, as well as the manic scramble for safety at the end. A solid tale.  

- Beyond the Banks of the River Seine

Another tale that didn’t really push my buttons, but I enjoyed it more than the puppet story above, maybe because I’m interested in all that “old music”. An enjoyable, lyrical story.

- Emotional Dues

Along with “Solid as a Rock”, this was my favourite of the shorter pieces, with its slightly surreal events clearly functioning as a metaphor for artistic expression and what this demands and then takes from the artist. The ending is brilliantly orchestrated, and [SPOILER] the image of that thing entering the room still burns in me now, days after completion. As in “One Last Bloom”, Strantzas is excellent at stage-managing visually vivid horrors, to such a degree that frantic characterisation and firm, rhythmic, precise use of language conspire to drive the scenes home powerfully. Great tale.

- Burnt Black Suns

For a book that starts in ice, where else to end but in baking sunshine? This novella, along with “One Last Bloom” is the collection’s most outstanding work, a brilliantly brooding, painful study of familial obsession and divided loyalties. Whereas I sometimes thought “On Ice” might have benefitted from a more laboured depiction of the icy landscape, there are no problems here (possibly because of the extra space available): far-flung Mexico is depicted in all its perspiring, poverty-ridden, semi-neglected, fly-blighted dereliction, with the central character’s childless desperation perfectly represented by such a carefully wrought sense of place. (Strantzas must have visited somewhere similar, surely.) Anyway, the plot is quite straightforward, involving the search for a decamped wife and son, but the horrors it involves, including strange dreams, dark suns, untrustworthy clergy, etc, builds to a brilliantly intense conclusion, one worthy of the rise of a Great Old One. This is latter-day Lovecraftian fiction at its finest, all rendered in a Graham Greene-ish, Sergio Leone-esque manner. The characterisation reminded me of Patricia Highsmith and the prose of Emile Zola. But maybe that’s just me. Whatever the facts are, this was, in my opinion, the best story in the book.


Okay, having commented on all the fiction, mainly in terms of how it affected me, I have to say that the two novellas are among the finest horror I’ve read in years, while the shorter works have their moments, too. I think Strantzas works well on a larger canvas, and I look forward to more novellas and – who knows – maybe a novel from him soon. I think his storytelling approach is rich in detail and needs space to manoeuvre, as does his striking sense of place. The cosmic visions he presents require an accumulative orchestration of effect, and if the longer pieces here are hints of what’s to come, I genuinely look forward to sampling more.

I think Strantzas’s prose is strong. It rarely demonstrates pyrotechnics, but possesses an inner-energy, a quality arising from poetically consistent vocabularies and variations in rhythm. Sometimes – only very occasionally – he lapses into a minor bugbear of mine: the use of stock phrases. For example, in one tale, a character pledges to “play his cards close to his chest”. I just feel that every line is an opportunity for good writers to shine with invention, and using overfamiliar phrases robs them of this opportunity to do so. As I say, not a serious issue, and hardly a frequent one. But – if my opinion counts for anything – I think Strantzas would be as well striking out the few, and coming up with his own more-than-able alternatives.  

As I’ve said, characterisation is another strong point, and Strantzas seems to thrive on privately manipulative, irrepressibly intense, and sometimes narcissistic young men. These rich portraits, with all their realistic reasoning processes and psychologically accurate quirks, lend the dark world Strantzas depicts a chilly, sour atmosphere, and that’s all to the good. I’ve often felt that the best dark writers have some acid to dispense, and there’s plenty of it here, seeping out. It’s a real virtue.

To conclude, let me say that I greatly enjoyed this book, was genuinely surprised by it (I’d expected more of Strantzas’s previous quietness and allusions), and – most importantly of all – I was, in at least three significant passages, really rattled by it. Hey, some writers don’t do that even once in a career. So, do it to me again, man – I challenge you.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How flattering...

Man-Booker prize nominee Alison Moore was asked recently to name five ghost stories she particularly admired and, after tales by some geezers called M R James ("Oh, Whistle..."), Robert Aickman ("Ringing the Changes"), and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Tell-Tale Heart"), she chose my very own 'umble story "New Wave" (first published in Shadows & Tall Trees 5). I'm rather chuffed by that. Read the article here:


You can read the story by buying the journal here: