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Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood -- a review


The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood
Review by Gary Fry
 
There seems to have been a small revival of fictions dealing with “hidden people” lately. I’m thinking of Ramsey Campbell’s exquisitely weird novel The Kind Folk and the recent (modestly effective) film The Hallows. Perhaps there’s something about the true nature of fairies which appeals to us all during these dark days of global strife overlaid by media-enforced bogusly sentimental discourse.
Anyway, here is Alison Littlewood’s latest novel, also focusing on the hidden people of yore. It’s narrated by a young Victorian rationalist (Albie), in the thrall of social and industrial revolution in 19th Century Britain. He’s committed to scientific enlightenment, and yet when he meets his young cousin, the pure Lizzie, he experiences some ineffably magical connection with her which haunts him for years to come.
Then, some time later, she dies. Having gone their separate ways, Albie to the city, Lizzie to the wilds of Yorkshire, our narrator must now venture to the countryside, with all its backward-thinking residents and strangely ancient lore. Here he will investigate just what led to his fair cousin’s premature death.
The early sections of this book will feel very familiar to wide readers, and that’s no bad thing. There’s almost a cosy, Victorian-novel feel to the opening events, each scene delineated by Littlewood in a highly convincing pastiche of the great storytelling masters’ prose (Eliot, et al). Indeed, it’s the quality of the writing which makes these introductory passages soar, with landscapes populated by flora and the villagers’ closed community depicted with all its questionable traditions.
The plot when it gets going takes the form of an investigative mystery, with many a sinister set-piece – visits to mystical seers, troubling dreams, and grave-digging – and off-the-page spookiness. Littlewood is adroit at relating her story without ever giving away to the reader just what kind of book this is: straight horror story, historical drama, dark crime?
This clever evasion of categorisation keeps us guessing right to the end, and the conclusion, once it comes, is highly satisfying. It’s hard for me to discuss this part of the book without giving away key moments, though I will say that its borderline ghostly nature and focus on familial events in the near-past put me most closely in mind of Barbara Vine’s macabre mystery novels.
In short, this is a compelling book, but not one which readers of hardcore dark fiction are necessarily going to relish. Its references to the titular hidden people remain allusive throughout, and if such quiet, suggestive horror is your preference, you’re in for a good time here.
The characterisation is solid throughout, and although even I, a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire-man, struggled a bit with the vernacular dialogue at times, I found the book a particular joy to read. Littlewood is excellent at capturing locations, while her understanding of human psychology is – essential here – never less than convincing.
Did I have any issues with the novel? Well, I did think Littlewood used the “it was only a dream” motif once too often to start a chapter, but that’s a minor issue and, in fairness, these passages did crank up the accumulating tension. The plot, as I’ve suggested, is, in the early stages, rather traditional, but whether you consider that a fault or a pleasure is your business. For me, the latter held sway; I’ve always been a big fan of the 19th Century melodramatic novel.
I particularly relished the final chapter, which, following a sequence of events that assert the narrator’s hardnosed rationalism, challenge this simplistic assumption with some mystical reflections and transformative perceptions. Just as Albie appeared to fall in love quickly at the book’s beginning, he’s learnt, by its end, that not everything in life, especially us “wild” people, work as mechanically as all the clocks and devices he’s observed at the Great Exhibition in the opening chapter.
This is a compelling, weird and knowing conclusion to a deeply satisfying book. I have no hesitation in recommending it to both genre and non-genre readers.
 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Fisherman by John Langan -- a review


The Fisherman by John Langan
Review by Gary Fry
 
I came to this book after hearing from peers how great it was, and that’s always a dangerous thing for an author. Can s/he ever live up to whatever hype a new title has garnered? I’d loved Langan’s earlier work – his inventive short stories and novellas – and so I was highly hopeful that this new novel would cut considerably more than the mustard.
The plot focuses on a guy who’s lost his wife who meets another guy who’s lost his wife and family and who together go fishing. That’s it. That’s the plot. Hollywood is not salivating. But that’s no bad thing. Because as we literature lovers know, it’s what authors do with such material that truly matters.
And here Langan gets off to a strong start. His pen-portrait of a man experiencing grief – the disjointed narrative, the ruptured habits, and transformed perceptual experience – has a pungent air of authenticity, the whole elucidated in a lyrical, laidback, breezy style that put me firmly in mind – even down to turns of phrase (e.g. “…when you get right down to it…”) – of Stephen King.
The narrative itself is riskily ambitious. After our central character meets his new fishing buddy, they go out on the road and hit a diner where some fella reveals the backstory of the place to which they’re headed. This section constitutes half the book. It’s a Machen-like “tale of terror” full of suggestive imagery and tell-and-not-show documentary realism.
Such stories within a story give the book a “modernist” feel, with a focus on communicable history and the agents upon which it relies. This strategy lends the book both verisimilitude and factual tension, as this frankly “unlikely” tale of a mysterious visitor and all the occult-ish events in which his arrival-in-town prompted may or may not have consequences for our fishermen’s imminent outing.
And so it goes. By the time the pair arrive at their destination, the suspense has been cranked up to such a degree that the landscape thrums with threat. Langan is excellent at bringing life to locations, at capturing the minutiae of everyday existence. This gives his fiction a sense of vibrancy, and if some readers might tire of what occasionally feel like over-descriptive passages or unnecessary longueurs while documenting a character’s thoughts, then they’re wrong, simple as that. Patience is required here. The prose has a density which is all grist to Langan’s mill. He’s creating a lived world, and all material is essential. The reader needs to believe in both the characters’ psychology and the location’s organic power.
As for the book’s “scary bits”, well, what can I say? These events are simultaneously familiar – a corpse walking across town whose movement isn’t right, whose misaligned bones clank together – to the strikingly new and audacious. The image of some great beast tethered to a coastline is particularly vivid, as is the presence of water forming tunnels in woodland, along which intruders must venture. All this feels mythic, packed with brain-tingling depths and fodder-for-reflection.
These sections, inescapably there as a result of more of that verbose prose, lend the end of the book much more weight, including a startling closing image (in the final paragraphs) which will, I imagine, haunt you forevermore. It’s a fine ending to a strange, intense, fussy narrative which feels both lean (it’s only 100,000 words) and packed with material (those 100,000 words essentially focus on a single day out fishing).
In short, I really enjoyed this book. Its thematic ambition and aesthetic textures greatly impressed me. But did I think it had any shortcomings? Well, I’m not sure this is a fault per se, or even whether it’s just my personal reading, but at times – hell, a lot of the time – the prose did feel very much like Stephen King. As I’ve said, even some of King’s pet phrases turn up here, but there are other things – the way Langan’s characters reflected and communicated – which felt similar. Late in the book a homeowner takes a tray of sweet comestibles around to a newly arrived neighbour (folk are always doing that kind of thing in King’s novels). This is just a petty example, but it illustrates how very Kingian this narrative felt. It’s for this reason that occasionally the book felt, to me, slightly derivative. Even the execution of the mythic material felt like the King of Lisey’s Story or Rose Madder. Maybe I’m being harsh or am in error. But I also want to be honest about my response to the book.
Another minor quibble I had involved the lengths to which the central character went to explain how he’d remembered all the details of the backstory after hearing it only once in spoken form. There’s no way he’d have recalled it in such detail, and his attempts to account for having done so felt unconvincing to me. He might have been better admitting that his recollection would be imperfect and based perhaps on familiarity with the speaker. It’s possible that he was deluding himself in this claim, and also causing the reader to question his trustworthiness (later in the book, he does wonder whether material he recalls was actually mentioned by the storyteller), but even so, this short section felt a little awkward to me.
However, let me not suggest that these issues were a hindrance to my enjoyment of such a finely pitched, rigorously structured, and genuinely unsettling piece. The best of it is uniquely Langan, the stuff he’s done so well in earlier work and synthesised here to a remarkably dense degree. It’s a memorable novel which is apt to gain only in power as time advances and all its implications fail to leave you alone.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins -- a review


Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins

Review by Gary Fry

 

I think I like Lovecraftian horror fiction better than any other kind, but here’s the sting: when it’s done badly, it’s probably my least favourite. Too many “Mythos-inspired” writers, I find, don’t know HPL’s work very well at all, tending to over-reveal their cosmic entities and essentially miss the point of the best of that particular author: that his invasive forces represent the sheer alienating power of the universe at large, its cold indifferent vastness, any part of which would murder us if we happened to leave the comfort of our earthly cradle.

And so here’s another scribe trying to raise his star in a firmament currently packed with them: Rich Hawkins, a relative newcomer who’s published a handful of books and is developing quite a desirable reputation. I’m sorry to say that until now I hadn’t read him, but on the strength of this novella, I reckon I’ll be returning for more.

Black Star, Black Sun is essentially the tale of a guy returning to his native village following the disappearance of his wife. Ben is a taciturn chap, given to robust reflection and critical self-analysis. His relationship with his father, reignited after years of separation, is convincing in all its “us against them” textures, the pair mutually bereft of their cherished lovers.

Hawkins is particularly good at expressing states of mind through his character’s perceptual orientation to the world. His prose is gaudy, choppy, jam-packed with lyrical turns of phrase. This put me in mind of early Ramsey Campbell, where people seem almost enmeshed with their environments, as if the world around them is staining their psyches. It’s all good gear, possessing a rhythmic impact, an accumulation of rich detail and acerbic observations, each of which contributes inexorably to a mounting pungent atmosphere.

The plot is slight, but that’s not a criticism. Hawkins appears to be more interested in evocation of place and character than in telling a headlong tale. Ben’s meetings with various village folk resonate with tensions, to such a degree that when the guy finally starts seeing things from the corners of his eyes, such outrĂ© elements, possibly not there at all, have a creeping force, a hint of horrors to come.

Ben’s meeting with a local artist with a similarly troubling backstory brings into play a physical aspect of all these suggestive elements: some kind of creature, decidedly unearthly, along with much delusionary talk of realms beyond our world.

In short, everything is grist to Hawkins’s mill – the atmosphere, the characters, the increasingly tangible events. We’re building towards something horrible, the Lovecraftian reveal, but the question here for me was, could Hawkins pull it off?

He did, and he didn’t, I think. In one sense – SPOILER – the very end of the novella is an anti-climax, the super-horror the author has threatened occurring off-stage, beyond the final page. However – and this is a big however – he’s already done something equally terrible. Indeed, the final village scene in the book is so awful that the traditional HPL-infused narrative is completely usurped, as a very human terror becomes as thunderously dreadful as anything lurking on the fringes of a void.

It’s a frightening, resonant conclusion to a very well-written piece. Hawkins controls his narrative, seems to know exactly what he’s hoping to achieve, and the whole thing reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia: a very human drama pitched in the form of an otherworldly violation. It’s a real head trip, and one I was grateful for. Splendid work.

 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Becoming David by Phil Sloman -- a review


Becoming David by Phil Sloman

Review by Gary Fry

 

This was the first thing I’d read from Sloman, though I’m confident it won’t be the last. I really had no idea what to expect from the novella, and, I find, that kind of tabula rasa approach can often be the best experience of all.

The book starts with a bad guy, Richard, someone we’re clearly expected to dislike. I mean, the stuff he does in his cellar, the way he treats his cleaner, and just his general attitude to life… Ugh.

Fear not, however, because once our introduction to this vile fella is out of the way, we’ll surely meet his nemesis, the good guy, the novella’s emotional centre of gravity.

But here’s the rub: there is no good guy.

Just the bad.

And so the novella goes, as Sloman depicts Richard’s loathsome life, his empty and impulse-governed existence.

It’s a brave move, focusing such a lengthy piece of fiction on someone obviously unsympathetic. Nevertheless, as the piece develops, we the readers are invited to at least empathise with him, and even, once his predatory orientation to others begins to be savagely inverted, feel a little anxious about his survival.

With a series of surreal ghostly episodes, Sloman turns the book into a kind of “will he get away with it?” caper, with some memorable passages, especially towards the end, as Hitchockian cops and befuddled oldsters unwittingly hinder and help his progress.

It’s a highly unusual performance from Sloman, boasting a jet-black sense of humour and some genuine tension. The nature of the figure which soon haunts Richard slips and slides, as he attempts to gain some control of his burdensome proclivities. The book possesses, in this sense, psychological gravitas; certainly it has much more to offer than your standard serial killer outing.

Sloman’s prose throughout is packed with quirky touches. A dripping tap dramatizes the mental anguish experienced during a visit from the police. The narrative’s shifting viewpoint keeps the reader both inside and outside of Richard’s head, problematizing our allegiances. This is all good stuff, full of confidence and tricksy ability.

Any faults here? I guess the hallucination scenes were “explained away” a bit glibly – comedic allusions to Dickens’s Scrooge and his undigested food aside, I thought the way Richard dismissed his full-on vision of one of his victims a tad convenient, even factoring in his fragile mental condition.

But this is a churlish quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this odd, exciting and morally ambiguous story, and will surely be back for more from its fiendishly readable author.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Laudanum Nights by Stephen Bacon -- a review


Laudanum Nights by Stephen Bacon

Review by Gary Fry

 

Bacon’s latest work might be best described as a love letter to fictions which gave him pleasure as a youngster, when he first explored the new territories of genre fiction. Set in a fictionalised steampunk-ish city in the past, it involves the disappearance of a child and one man’s quest to discover what has become of her.

I haven’t read much in this particular field, and so have few benchmarks against which to compare the novella. However, I will say that I very much enjoyed the central character’s investigative journey. Bacon is great at scene-setting – maybe his most noteworthy skill – and the territory through which his hero passes drips with atmosphere, is populated by colourful folk, and possesses an attention to detail which enhances verisimilitude.

I liked also the author’s reticent dealings with a private issue which preoccupies the central character. Bacon tackles this particular aspect with suitably tangential hints, never spelling anything out for the reader, but nonetheless demonstrating how the issue motivates the man to overcome obstacle after obstacle in his pursuit of truth. It feels as if he has some score to settle, and that, in doing so, he’ll realise something significant about himself and how he engages with others. All this is nicely done, and lends the narrative a nice layered dimension.

In front of stage, however, the novella is essentially a daring adventure tale, involving dark practitioners of the occult, creepy dolls, and nefarious ambitions. There’s an uncharacteristically explicit bit of exposition when our hero meets the book’s villain, but it’s relatively short-lived and doesn’t hold up matters too long.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this strikingly written, affectionately pitched, and satisfyingly concluded work. Readers looking for some of the thrills offered by traditionally styled, alternative-world tales will do well to grab a copy and read it as autumn advances and the evenings grow dark and chill. There’s even an illuminating afterword, as well as a bonus short story which shares similar themes to the main event (and may even have provided the source for this novella’s extended exploration). Overall, a great little package.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Factory by Mark West -- a review


The Factory by Mark West

 

Review by Gary Fry

 

 

The last thing of substance I read from West was his chapbook ‘What Gets Left Behind’. I liked that work a great deal, but said in my review that Mark’s prose might benefit from a few tweaks, particular his reliance on stock phrasing, which, I believe, good writers need to constantly reinvent.

 

So I was intrigued to discover along what lines he’d developed these last few years. It didn’t take me long to discover. I hope West will take this in the complimentary way it’s intended when I say that The Factory is like reading the work of a very different writer.

 

Here the narrative is confident, cool, and inventive, and the prose as sharp as you’d wish. The story centres around a bunch of characters who, during their yoofs, were members of an exploring club focusing on urban sites with decidedly shady histories. Their unelected leader, Tom, opens the book with a solo venture inside a particular property with a dubious reputation. I’m giving little away when I say that he dies and that it’s up to the others – two guys and two women – to take a visit to the same place.

 

West’s depiction of these remaining characters’ relative motivations stretches and strains a little in the introductory passages, but once he’s got the group back in the place’s vicinity, he’s masterful at developing their respective identities during an extended sequence over a restaurant meal. Here, his folk behave like real people, their personal lives barely restrained, adding depth and tension to what we all know will follow. Then, once West puts the people inside this spooky building, the stage is set for each to succumb to the dark terrors he conjures therein.

 

The novella is remarkably reticent when it comes to the ‘things’ which seek to do their worst to characters we’ve just grown to know and even like. West spends a great deal of time hinting at revelations, threatening to bring on the monsters. Oh, but no, he’s not ready yet; he must push back the ‘reveals’ till later, once he’s tenderised the victims some more.

 

At first, I felt as if West was being a bit indulgent – the novella comes in at 34,000 words – but upon reflection, after finishing the book, I applauded his skilful, gradual escalation of detail, a suggestiveness reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell. I don’t think West has Campbell’s bewildering stylistic abilities, but I got a similar vibe from ‘The Factory’ as I did from Campbell’s The Overnight. And anyone who knows me will realise that this is extremely high praise.

 

Indeed, West’s teasing approach – surely infuriating to many, but delicious to me – ends with a cracking sequence of endgames, with each character falling foul of history re-enacted. OK, so the nature of this backstory is a tad prosaic, a little “on the nose”, but when it’s depicted with so much elusive aplomb, that didn’t bother me much.

 

Overall, this is a remarkable advance on West’s earlier work and, I sincerely hope (cos the guy is a genuinely nice fella), a hint of more delicious terrors to come.

 

 

 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

UNCERTAINTIES VOLUME 2 edited by Brian Showers -- a review


UNCERTAINTIES VOLUME 2

Edited by Brian Showers

Review by Gary Fry

 

I have both volumes of this anthology, but in typically perverse fashion I read the second volume first and now plan to share my thoughts about it. (I’ll get to the first volume soonest.)

In his introduction, the editor sets out his mission statement: to publish fiction which tends towards the uncanny side of dark material, the eerie, enigmatic and suggestively spooky. It’s an ambitious goal, involving reference to such authors as Aickman, Blackwood and Machen. This is perhaps the most elusive of models, the things which make it work almost impossible to assimilate. And so how have this headline-grabbing range of authors fared here? Well, let’s have a look.

The book opens with Peter Bell’s ‘The Swing’, a short and punchy tale of centuries-old horror effectively combined with a very modern social landscape. It’s a strong tale, with memorable imagery, and one which hints at time changing but the times remaining very much the same.

R. B. Russell’s ‘The Mighty Mr Godbolt’ revives that staple form of transportation in classic English horror fiction: the railway train. His sensitive narrator, finding herself aboard a non-scheduled journey, confronts a group of men lamenting the passing of their colleague, and the events which unfold certainly hint at some spooky resolution. And come the end, Russell doesn’t disappoint.

‘Then and Now’ by John Howard is perhaps the most Aickman-like tale here, with its narrator prowling the streets of Berlin after the passing of a former lover. Photography – another familiar component of the ghostly tale – is used effectively to hint at issues outside the scope of such an intimately personal portrait, and the whole builds to a creepily enigmatic conclusion. One of the best stories in the book.

I quite enjoyed Steve Duffy’s icy tale of demonic horror ‘The Ice Beneath Us’. The visitor’s backstory was suitably evocative, and the tale’s mythic undercurrents work well. I also liked the final line, which hints at things beginning to stir. Solid work.

In ‘Closing Time’ by Emma Darwin, the ghosts of figures bound up in British history are evoked, and with some effective aplomb. The prose is memorable for its turn of phrase – a light going on has the room rather fittingly wrapping itself around her character – and the final images are both poignant and spooky.

Rosalie Parker’s ‘Homecraft’ is a subtly suggestive piece about two youngsters occupying a house together without anyone else’s awareness. Its allusions to dark acts are kept to an effective minimal, and the piece steadily advances to a quiet end…maybe even a bit too quiet for my tastes.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s tale of imminent death contains some good descriptions of that inevitable state, the feelings of violation and even paranoia. This felt like a personal piece, like listening in on somebody’s terminal ruminations. A necessary experience, I guess.

Mat Joiner’s ‘Imago’ is more like the kind of headlong storytelling I prefer, and its evocation of nasty things lurking in both a secret place and the past ends with a memorable image of cosmic forces conjoining with the earthly. This is a powerful story, with more going on beneath it than it directly shown.

Similarly, Helen Grant’s ‘The Edge of the World’ involves a depiction of forces just beyond the quotidian realm, seeking to violate all our small, private lives. Its final sequence, with the central character succumbing to…well, to something, is brilliantly written. I loved this tale (though reckon it needed moving away from the Joiner).

In ‘The Court of Midnight’, Mark Samuels summons the spirits of Poe and Kafka with an arch and bitter narrative about the fate of artists in a kingdom bereft of aesthetic values. It’s a caustic piece, and clinically written. We need more from Samuels, and this is a good reason why.

So far, so suggestive, and so here’s Gary McMahon to add a dose of unflinching horror. ‘What’s Out There?’ opens with a guy grieving, his quite life simmering with a barely contained despair which is mirrored by strange occurrences outside his home at night. These hints gradually accumulate and lead to a truly nasty vision which leaves the reader with a skirmish in the gut. It’s a strong tale, and a nice contrast to other, more restrained pieces here.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Adam Golaski’s ‘Ruby’. Its descriptions of drugs and music and the states they can invoke were slightly lost on me, but that is probably an issue that I should address rather than the author. Sorry!

In V. H. Leslie’s ‘The Murky’ the Finnish landscape is evoked, with its quiet lakes and steaming saunas and towering trees. I was in Jyvaskyla a few years back, and can confirm that Leslie wonderfully captures such places’ chilly majesty, their otherworldly beauty. The tale itself has an effective development – a woman emerging from the woodland is vividly manifested – but I couldn’t help feeling as if it ended a bit early.  Almost a wonderful piece, then.

Finally, we have Reggie Oliver’s ‘Love at Second Sight’. Now, this kind of fiction – folk going back to periods in the past in which wistful events occurred – is often my favourite, and Oliver does a wonderful job here of capturing that sense of passion rediscovered, the way we can reignite feelings we’d imagined were long ago stamped out. All the same, although Oliver includes a nicely Aickmanian image of a figure at a distance (I’m thinking of a similar onlooker in ‘The Same Dog’), I don’t think his story quite gets past its familiar trick, one known to all ghost story readers. It’s a brave attempt to do something new with this formula, but for me it only nearly worked. But full marks for those passages about love lost and refound!

So that’s the lot. As you can probably gather, I did enjoy this volume. Its highlights – I’m thinking of maybe the Howard, the Joiner and the Grant – are truly excellent, and a good handful of the other tales are extremely good, too. The few tales which didn’t quite work so well for me are not without merit, and either didn’t click with my own experiential preferences or involved aspects I couldn’t quite grasp. Probably my fault. So it goes. All in all, though, this second volume of the anthology is a great read, and I’ll be back for more. Just watch this space.