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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:

http://www.curious-tales.com/news

You can read the story by buying the journal here:

http://www.bookdepository.com/Shadows-Tall.../9780981317724

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

MUTATOR
a new cosmic horror novella by
Gary Fry


James Parry thought he moved into his dream home in the country to enjoy his retirement from a stressful life of academia. But he soon finds out the house and its former owner share a peculiar history

There's the mysterious underground room James finds tunneled into his basement, where he discovers an otherworldly machine adorned with strange levers and flashing lights, various handwritten notebooks containing pioneering scientific theories, and crudely drawn pictures of a being that appears anything but human

And then there's the curious silver ball that falls from the sky into his front yard, forcing him to question everything he's ever believed about the nature of the universe. 

Mutator -- it's come so far to dine...

BUY NOW FROM




ONLY £2 / $3.70


"Mutator is a great read ... there's plenty plot to be getting on with, and enough gore and gloopiness to satisfy hardened fans of "wet work" ... Mutator is another trademark blend of horror and philosophy -- archetypal Fry -- and further evidence of an author making his mark in the world of weird fiction. I recommend it highly."

-- Dark Musings review

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THINK YOURSELF LUCKY by Ramsey Campbell -- a review


THINK YOURSELF LUCKY by Ramsey Campbell

Review by Gary Fry

 

Many more years ago than I care to remember, I was interviewed about my thoughts concerning the horror genre and its relevance to the world in which we live today. I can’t remember the exact words I used in my response, but it went something like this:

We live in an increasingly complex world, and I think it’s at least one of horror’s jobs to reflect that. Let’s consider, say, Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson was writing at a time when social restrictions were becoming crucial to the functioning of the modern state, and people, newly subject to internal monitoring of behaviour, had begun to feel repressed. It’s little surprise, therefore, that this novella found its energy and appeal in such a period of history.

I believe that more recently this duality of identity has been replaced by a multiplicity of selfhood, embedded in a social world in which our personalities can easily transcend their previously limited locations. The Internet, for instance, allows for greater and wider engagement with a vast number of people right across the world. The potential for personal expansion, but also fragmentation, has never been more prevalent, and I guess it’s horror’s role to explore the darker reaches of these new possibilities.

Step forward Ramsey Campbell, and more particularly, his latest novel Think Yourself Lucky. Campbell has, especially in the last ten years or so, been exploring the “way we live now” in a series of novels, novellas and short stories which elucidate the vicissitudes and complications of a society shot through with (among many other issues) political correctness, bastardised language, regular verbal misunderstandings, illiterate thuggery, social-role strain, dogmatic certainty, and – perhaps most importantly here – sublimated personalities.

It’s Campbell’s sternly held conviction that the Internet offers identity options to those who’d otherwise remain on the margins of contemporary life, both voiceless and needful. Now, this may indeed be a positive thing for many hitherto silenced groups, but for those excluded from conventional society for an uncomplicatedly honourable reason – they’re little more than disrespectful, intolerant shits – it leaves them grinning in the dark.

And so here we have Think Yourself Lucky which, on the surface at least, appears to occupy exactly this territory. There’s a killer loose in Liverpool, one who narrates his crimes in the form of a gloating blog available to any and all. However, the twist is that all the victims appear to be linked to another person, the aptly named David Botham (both am – geddit?), who grows increasingly concerned and then desperate as more and more people with whom he engages during his complex everyday life (holding down a job; trying to ensure that his girlfriend does well at hers) come a cropper at the hands of some savage entity.

The nature of this “thing” – who gradually assumes the name Lucky Newless – is brilliantly depicted by Campbell. The first-person prose in the many sections taking the form of blog entries are incredibly unsettling, completely leftfield in terms of their word-choices and descriptive passages (for example, the way a man falling from a roof is described as a bag of litter dropping and its contents breaking the way his skull obviously has; there’s also a vicious section near the end in which a driver is hit along a fast road – the last snatch of dialogue from our killer is almost painfully poetic), and also hilariously funny.

Witness, for instance, the killer’s tendency to name everybody according to some negative characteristic: Mr Bladderblob, Eegore, Blushpuss, et al. This writing grows increasingly threatening and suggestive as the book progresses, until this narrator is rendered almost unbearably disturbing – for example, his / its capacity to commit crimes without being detected by security cameras, passing through immovable barriers like walls and doors, etc. Campbell keeps us guessing about the nature of this thing, throwing in at least one cunning red-herring along the way, and eventually leaves us with no choice but to charge on to the final chapters to discover its actual origin.

Indeed, I can’t think of a Campbell novel with a greater narrative drive. It’s a fast-moving thriller, but far from lacking in depth and nuance. Everything a good novel should have is tautly incorporated: the cast of characters with their oh-so-true idiosyncrasies; un-preachy social commentary concerning the impoverishment of culture (one character seriously claims that grammar is an elite conspiracy to hold back the masses from personal expression; another chap joyfully reveals the plot of his latest novel, failing to realise it’s lifted from a rather more famous source [which was itself lifted from a previous one!] ); the latter-day inadequacy of language as a way of accurately reflecting inner life, becoming instead little more than a consumerist plaything intended to sell more products.

This is real virtuoso stuff, and although Campbell, as always, draws upon a range of strategies and tricks he’s acquired from other dark masters – there’s a lovely M R Jamesian moment when a security guard thinks two people enter a store, but only one has: all runes cast gracefully – he offers quite enough his own, perhaps setting out a stall of techniques which future horror practitioners may well want to “borrow”, just as Campbell has borrowed from his predecessors.

One example is a linguistic trick relating to dialogue, which Campbell first developed (I think) in The Grin of the Dark. This involves having a character speak using conventional punctuation (speech-marks), but then snatching back the comment and stating that it never happened that way at all. Only then does Campbell tell us what was actually said. This tricksy method has the effect of destabilising readers’ grasp of events, of what’s inside or outside the central character’s mind at any one time. Indeed, that’s Campbell’s milieu, his stalker’s territory: the overlapping arenas of both inner and outer life; the aching gaps not only between thought and language, but also between speaker and listener; and the inherent ambiguity of perception.

Which brings me back to the point with which I opened this review: where Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, focused on a horizontal split in the psyche, an irascible id seeking selfish expression in a respectable, superego-governed social realm, Campbell’s conception of duality lays in other areas – quite specifically, in the person’s social interactions in an increasingly un-negotiable world. The “monster” here is not an asocial force, a limbic creature seeking gratification (as in Stevenson’s Freudian conception of the beast within); it’s actually a censored aspect of consciousness pressed into retreat on the basis of newly established cultural codes.

Let’s be precise here: Campbell is not writing about a world which has always been difficult to navigate (and yes, it has; hell, getting up and going to work are heroic enough); he’s writing about our modern world, which is even more difficult to deal with, with all its Frugo-decreed mores and lawyer-imposed rules. And this is why I believe that Campbell’s novel is such an important and worthy contribution to the horror genre, ably demonstrating (and then some) its capacity to address new forms of life and offer readers a firmer grasp on them.

The book’s flyleaf reads: “Think Yourself Lucky finds new demons online. But perhaps they are ourselves…” That’s true, for sure, but Campbell does himself a disservice here. Without the careful and ruthless depiction of a society corroded by recently developed dehumanising norms, his monster wouldn’t have the power it has; indeed, it wouldn’t exist in any original sense. It would be just another rendition of Stevenson’s animal Mr Hyde, and in the early Twentieth First Century, who needs that? As it stands, however, Campbell’s creature may well become the first archetypal entity of its kind, one talked about in the future, when reflecting on e-culture, the way we now discuss honourably Victorian Henry and his considerably darker brother Edward.

If I had one problem with any aspect of the book, it was the ostensible source of the thing called Lucky Newless. I can’t say much more without giving away an important plot detail, but I did feel that Stephens King and Volk had, in other high profile work, done something similar. Now, that’s not a fault as such, but in terms of Campbell’s often beguiling inventiveness, it just felt a little short of the achievements of the rest of the novel. As I suggest, this is a relatively minor matter, but I feel, having praised this book so highly and with absolutely sincerity, it would be disingenuous of me not to mention it.

In short, I loved Think Yourself Lucky, believing it to be Campbell’s most artful statement to date on the perils of the Internet and one I found as compelling to read as anything I’ve ever read by the man: terse, punchy, true, essential, and genuinely nasty. And that mood-shifting last chapter drives the points bone-deep. You’ll wish it was satire, but dear God, it’s not.

Finally, on a more peripheral matter, I have to say that the book’s artwork is magnificent. Unlike almost every other cover he’s ever had in such a long, distinguished career, I now realise that – with a little help from Peter Von Sholly – Campbell’s responsible for that, too. Check it out below, and then buy the book. Just don’t stop at any blogs on your way over there; you never know what secret wish you might discover, let alone realise you ever had.

Friday, September 19, 2014

MUTATOR (DarkFuse, Sept 23rd, 2014): chapter 1 sample


1

James had just finished mowing his new lawn when he met his neighbor for the first time. It was a fine autumn evening, the sky full of strange cloud. A cool breeze swept across the Yorkshire Dales, bringing with it a scent of moist vegetation and pungent tree bark. For the first time in many years—maybe even decades—James felt relaxed, no longer harried by student grading deadlines or research project responsibilities. And he’d been considering a proposal he’d received from a Central American university—a visiting professorship, six months in Costa Rica—when a voice summoned him from behind…a rather stilted voice at that.

            “I say, we’ve yet to be introduced. I’m Barnes, the fellow who lives in the next house along.”

            At that moment, Damian, James’s aging beagle, who had a tendency to follow him everywhere, started barking at the newcomer, and as James turned quickly to look, he realized why. The man appeared to be defying conventional rules of physics. He was levitating above the fence separating James’s garden from all the rich countryside flanking his detached new home. But then, as a sound of bestial breathing accompanied the man’s presence—a nasally pant from deep lungs—James realized what was afoot. The man was on horseback and his steed was just out of view behind the fence.

            “Be quiet, Damian,” James snapped at the dog, relinquishing the handles of his lawnmower, which was now switched off. Perhaps its raucous sound earlier had drawn his neighbor’s attention. Then for a few awkward seconds he observed the man, whose smile was thin and half concealed by a thin scribble of moustache. As he appeared to want to keep their engagement formal by using only surnames, James replied, “Hi, I’m Parry. Just moved in.”

            “Ah yes, the wife thought she’d spotted activity at the old place. Nice to see it occupied again after…well, you know.”

            James turned to observe his property, a fine country cottage in a magnificent setting. He’d loved visiting the Yorkshire Dales as a child, on the few occasions each year when his undereducated parents had decided to do anything other than watch TV or frequent pubs. But he was over all that, thirty years a professor and now at emeritus status. Only a fool clung to regrets.

            “Thanks. I’m slowly making it my own.”

            Even though James had continued to ham up his working-class accent for anarchic effect, the posh guy went on with communal grace. “You must visit us soon—that is, the family and our menagerie. We have two children, an Angora rabbit, my fine horse, and a couple of house-loving cats.”

            Damian disapproved of either this announcement or the man’s pride, barking loudly again as he spoke. James, privately amused, found it difficult not to reflect on the man’s description of one of the family’s pets: an Angora rabbit. Clearly the common breed James had owned as a child—he vividly recalled mucking out its hutch in his cramped backyard—wasn’t good enough for the Barnes clan.

            “Perhaps once I’m properly settled in, I may take you up on that offer,” he replied, glancing beyond the man perched on his horse, at a much larger property in the middle distance, all brick chimneypots and sash windows. James’s own property had cost nearly a quarter of a million, but Lord knew what the market value of this place might be—a full million? More, perhaps? “Maybe a glass of the fine stuff and a chat about our relative occupations would be nice.”

            “That sounds grand, sir,” said Barnes, responding more enthusiastically to James’s crisper accent on this occasion. Or maybe he was eager to explain how he’d made his obvious fortune. Whatever the truth was, his expression took on a less bullish look and his cocksure voice wavered slightly as he added, “And of course we’ll all look forward to meeting your—”

            “I live alone.” James had already second-guessed the man’s comment but wasn’t about to elaborate on why he had no wife or other relatives living with him. Let the Barnes clan speculate at their leisure; if he ever showed up at their home with a bottle of single malt, it would show James what kind of people they were. But for now, it was good to keep them guessing: Widowed? Divorced? Bachelor? Gay?

            “Ah, I see,” Barnes replied, keeping his tone as neutral as possible. James imagined the man putting such a poker face to good service in a profession that involved bluffing and blagging, the insurance game maybe, or possibly market investment. But James was determined not to be difficult; he’d just moved in and the last thing he wanted to do was sour relations with his new neighbors.

            “Well, I’ll say good-bye,” James announced, keen to put his gardening equipment back in the shed so that he could settle down for the evening with minimum fuss. “I’ll see you soon, I hope.”

            “The feeling’s mutual,” the man replied, and with that was on his way, bouncing up the lane that ran alongside James’s new home and then along a pathway leading to Barnes’s larger property. His horse appeared to be a fine, dark-haired breed with supple musculature and a strong stride. But that was when James glanced away, summoning Damian to his heels.

            “You didn’t like the toffy-nosed bugger from next door, did you, you mangy mutt?” he said, stooping on his aging legs to tickle the dog behind his floppy ears. But after standing again, James was surprised to observe his beloved pet continuing to bark on the lawn. The dog seemed restless in a way that suggested more than relocation from an upper-storey campus apartment to a house out in the remote sticks. Maybe the beagle was troubled by some aspect of the garden James had finally tidied, following the previous owner’s neglect. James looked around, at weedy borders and overgrown hedges, but saw nothing of particular import—certainly nothing that might arouse his pet to such irascible insistence.

            “What’s the matter with you, old boy?” he asked, his words ringing in all the silence that had settled around them. The countryside muttered back, a calming combination of whistling wind and rattling leaves. Trees shook at a distance and the faded engine of a solitary car could be heard, resounding in an unseen valley.

            With some force, James was revisited by his new neighbor’s words: Nice to see the old place occupied again after…well, you know. At the time, he thought Barnes had meant that the property had been vacant for a long time. But now, as Damian continued barking and whirling maniacally on the alopecic grass, James wondered whether that was true.

            After putting away his gear in the shed at the foot of his garden, he turned, crossed the lawn, and then reentered his property, eager only for the sedating influence of tea imported from far corners of the world.

Monday, September 1, 2014

MUTATOR -- prepare for impact

My new novella MUTATOR (DarkFuse) is hurtling through cyberspace as we speak. Expected time of arrival: early September. Prepare for impact...

"At some point during the night, a thunderstorm filled the sky with light and noise, painting g...audy colours into the corners of James’ room, each filtered by the temporary curtains he’d hung at his tall, north-facing window. But all this irascible cosmic activity failed to wake either dog or master, who snoozed on following all their exertions the previous day. Indeed, not even a tremendous thud out on the lawn, like a heavy hand dropping hard upon a tiny insect, did anything more than stir them from their private dreams."
 
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Spooky music by John Stones

A very old friend of mine -- a composer called John Stones -- recently read my novel CONJURE HOUSE and felt inspired enough to write a short, moody piece of music based on it. I've used this as the basis of an equally moody promo film for the book. We'd both be pleased if you'd take a look.