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Friday, July 15, 2016

The Grieving Stones by Gary McMahon -- a review

THE GRIEVING STONES by Gary McMahon

Review by Gary Fry


I had the privilege of reading this novella in manuscript form, cos the author and I are old pals and often take a look at each other's stuff before flinging it out at the world. Anyway, let's not suggest that this will make me less objective here. If I can tell him what I think of his floppy new fringe, I can tell him about his fiction, too.

But I find myself with nothing but good things to say here. At the time of reading, I recall telling the old bastard that it was one of the best things he'd written. And so it is.

The novella begins in typical McMahon territory, with a woman (Alice) healing from previous duress and seeking a new direction in life. She joins a counselling group which retreats to what at first appears to be a standard Bad Place, chockfull of weird property shenanigans (sterling use of a dummy, in particular) and all its ancient, legend-infused surrounding environment (the wonderfully named Staple Sisters and their witchy status).

McMahon builds his atmosphere gradually, hinting at dark histories enacted in the area, and then unfolding events in the latter-day period so that they chime with those in days of yore. So far, so formulaic. I certainly don't mean this is a pejorative sense; hell, The Shining is unsurprising in its approach. It's what authors do with these standard structural components which truly marks out the authentics from the wannabes.

Indeed, this is when McMahon comes into his own, bringing to his elegantly paced and carefully constructed novella a real sense of psychological complexity and offbeat developments. That is to say, Alice's descent into some kind of dark condition, both physical and mental, is a genuine head trip, a powerfully written account of a frightening state of being, and one which summons recollections of classics of our genre -- e.g. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' -- as well as modern candidates for similar future status (Adam Nevill's The House of Small Shadows very much among them).

All in all, it's another strong, memorable piece of fiction from our grim and mordant Mackem. And it's one he can be properly proud of. This is without question superior horror.


You can grab a copy of the limited hardcover here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grieving-Stones-Gary-McMahon/dp/1910283134/ref=as_sl_pc_qf_sp_asin_til?tag=strangetales-21&linkCode=w00&linkId=&creativeASIN=1910283134

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Booking by Ramsey Campbell -- a review


The Booking by Ramsey Campbell

A review by Gary Fry

 

Ramsey Campbell’s latest novella – his third in recent years, making four in his career – is certainly an elusive work. I’ve read it three times and am still wrestling with its suggestive multiplicity, its layers of meaning and themes.

It begins with a seemingly youngish guy called Kiefer seeking new work in a depleted jobs market. He finds a post at a bookstore owned by a seemingly older chap called Brookes. After losing a key to his girlfriend’s home, Kiefer ends up living in a room above the shop and soon begins his duties alongside the rather eccentric proprietor.

Kiefer is tasked with cataloguing the shop’s books online, with a view to making e-sales. However, Brookes is suspicious of the Internet and refuses to let Kiefer switch on his laptop’s webcam (which problematizes Kiefer’s Skype-like communication with his girlfriend, who is away looking after her parents).

Brookes constantly speculates about a chip which can be planted in people’s heads to give them immediate access to documented material (internalised books, if you like), but he fears what else might be put there.

Customers come and go to buy stock, which Brookes is reluctant to part with. This is just part of the mystery that Kiefer has to unravel. What is at the root of Brookes’ suspicions about surveillance? Why does Brookes belief that insects in the shop harbour observational equipment? Why, when stock is sold, do the same books reappear in the store soon afterwards?

This is far from a conventional thriller. Its suspense arises from enigmatic hints about the true nature of the job which Kiefer has taken on, and interpretation of events is very much up for grabs. I guess I can only detail what I made of its labyrinthine episodes, but these are apt to change with further reflection and maybe even a fourth or fifth rereading (some minor spoilers may follow).

The author withholds the full names of his two characters, but when they’re revealed, the regular Campbell reader will notice an anagrammatic similarity there. Are Kiefer Abloose and Alfie Brookes the same character? If so, what is the nature of their separation?

It’s traditional Campbell territory to explore the intra-psychic realm, how inner-self and social-self interact, and to dramatise the fractures which commonly occur here. And so I’m left wondering whether Kiefer is the virtual self of an older man bewildered by the modern world and all its technologies, a man clinging to what he knows, a realm of knowledge documented in physical books (Brookes regularly suggests that listing his stock online is like potentially losing parts of his mind).

My suspicions were raised during my second reading of the novella, when a plot twist – involving the identity of Kiefer’s girlfriend – alters the nature of an ongoing interaction. Indeed, I feel that the threat which all Brookes’ books present to Kiefer offer further support to this reading. Kiefer has, during the novella, defended the virtual world of e-texts and Internet-stored information.

Is this novella therefore a dramatization of the tensions between two generations, the pliable modern zone of the cyber-world with all its invasive technologies, versus the solid realm of tradition and its immutably printed text?

Towards the end of the book, the non-spatial nature of the Internet appears to have invaded the physical space of the shop. The store has expanded impossibly, occupying more room than is realistically permitted even by neighbouring properties. It is this blurring of real and virtual worlds which makes the novella so elusively disturbing, with each plot development contributing further to the Boolean nature of its two principal characters: either Kiefer is Brookes or Brookes is Kiefer.

By the end of the novella, I feel that this uncertainty is resolved when the police visit the shop and make enquiries about certain events which have occurred earlier: for a brief moment, we get a reflected glimpse of the one remaining character, and it’s not what we’ve been led to believe. Again, this seems to be in favour of my interpretation, but that’s not to say that others won’t pull out something different from this book. That’s the nature of a complex work of art, of course, and there’s no doubt that this delicately and beautifully judged piece of fiction can be described in that way.

Campbell’s technique – the tone of his prose, the ambiguity of his dialogue, the resonance of his imagery – is immaculate throughout, and the carefully selected language only gains in resonance as the book unfolds. For instance, the fractured Skype-like communications between Kiefer and his girlfriend (thematically relevant in themselves, as they illustrate the difficulties involved in engaging in an IT-oriented era) are reduced to fraught dialogue and terse inter-speech descriptions. The woman’s face onscreen breaks apart like horror-show distortions, rendering the ambiguous nature of this relationship appropriately fragile.

This is a pared-down approach which characterises Campbell’s later work, and it’s all the more refined for it. I know that some people miss the “muddiness” of the author’s earlier material, but for me his fiction has never been more elegant and restrained.

So what we have here is a novella super-saturated by interpretative possibilities. I’ve offered my reading above, but I’d be interested to learn what others make of it. The novella’s richness and artfulness make it both a joy and a terror to consume. It’ll get inside you, gnaw at your mind like an implanted chip, and make you wonder whether the book you hold in your hands is real or something other than that, an intangible bundle of text which has the capacity to haunt you forever more.

At any rate, grab a copy now. It’s much more than a single tome. You’ll read it twice or more, on each occasion with a different sensation, a different takeaway conclusion, and a renewed appreciation of Campbell’s great mastery of English prose and multi-layered fiction. I loved every word of it.

 

Available to preorder at Dark Regions, July 12th 2016: http://www.darkregions.com/news/black-labyrinth-book-iii-the-booking-by-ramsey-campbell-review-copies-distribution-happening-now

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Trying to be so Quiet by James Everington -- a review


Trying to be so Quiet by James Everington

Review by Gary Fry

This novelette opens with a man reflecting on a recent loss, with hints at ghostliness as early as the first page. It sets the tone for an acerbic rumination on the grieving process, how the death of a loved one can bleach life of all its structure and meaning.

Everington is very good at depicting such an emptied world, his language suitably lyrical and laden with apt metaphor. His central character, an everyman whose world has been savagely inverted, re-experiences varying aspects of his existence during a post-traumatic period.

His working life is full of irritations – the pointlessness of that urgent client report, all the treading-on-eggshells colleagues, and the new woman in the office reduced to her sexual characteristics. This jaundiced view of life is set against wistful reminiscences, of heady academic days when two young people met and just kind of drifted into a relationship, the ways these things tend to occur.

Indeed, it’s the tone of the whole work, a non-melodramatic stacking of lived detail, which renders it so hauntingly potent. The ghostly intruder takes its time to arrive, but by the time it does, it’s all the more potent for such a steady escalation of mood and atmosphere. Everington orchestrates his prose extremely well, and the piece’s conclusion is both touching and sour, a fitting summation of his character’s existential journey.  

I really enjoyed this short, condensed novelette, which is packed full of bitterness and yearning, defeatism and aspiration. It’s what loss actually feels like, that wish to return to the past and to resent the future. The writing is pitch-perfect, and the overall impact resonant. Everington achieves an unusual ghost story here, and certainly a successful one. It’s a fine piece of work.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dead Letters – edited by Conrad Williams: a review


Dead Letters – edited by Conrad Williams

Review by Gary Fry

 

This book comes with good pedigree – editor Conrad Williams knows a thing or two about writing himself – and its hook is certainly appealing, a collection of tales focusing mainly on misdirected items of mail. I read the whole thing in linear fashion, presumably as planned, and here’s what I made of it.

Many of the stories share a similar notion, that of a letter or package arriving at a house it wasn’t intended to be sent to. While this leads to some repetition across all the entries, it’s certainly interesting to see how different authors develop the plot point in varied directions.

I have to say that my favourite story here was Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Wrong Game’. It’s the author at the heights of his powers as a prose stylist, with an extended sequence set in a hotel which displays every trick and literary technique he’s developed over such a long career. By the time we reach the menacing figure lurking at the heart of the piece, so much atmosphere has been evoked that its appearance works wonderfully. That’s one of the secrets of Campbell’s work at its best: accumulation of detail. This is truly a tour de force.

Other tales I admired included Lisa Tuttle’s wonderfully sour love story ‘The Hungry Hotel’, which builds with all the author’s typical mastery and ends with a claustrophobic set-piece that fully resonates with the tale’s theme. Adam Nevill’s ‘The Day of our Lives’ involves quite a different kind of relationship, a much more parasitical one, but has no less unsettling imagery to inflict; some of the hinted-at descriptions of violence which occur linger in the mind, and the piece has all the grubby qualities of an old English movie, set in rundown towns among the mentally unsettled.

Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Over To You’ is one of the author’s suggestively weird pieces, its reflexive central character growing increasingly bewildered by subtle role inversions. Those well-versed in the genre all know about this first-person narrator – it’s one to which MMS returns again and again – but that’s no bad thing: if you have such a great voice, use it that way.

In Joanne Harris’s ‘In Memoriam’, memories acquire a concrete presence in the form of pesky moths, a telling metaphor in a tale packed full of the past’s capacity to haunt. The last few lines elevate this pungent piece, making it one of the punchiest ghost stories I’ve read in a long while. Nicholas Royle’s ‘L0ND0N’ documents what was undoubtedly a tragic recent event in the independent literary community, all wedded to fiction as multi-layered and enigmatic as anything the author has achieved in the past. Its psycho-geographies and displaced imagery build to a genuinely weird conclusion, one which will reward a reread or even several.

Another firm favourite was Nina Allan’s wonderfully elusive ‘Astray’, a story about missing siblings and those who are left behind. It’s a delicate piece, with parallel cases explored in pitch-perfect, non-chronological order, all of which makes the closing passages the more resonant. This is more excellent work from one of the finest newer writers in our field.

Steven Hall’s ‘The Green Letter’ attempted something different in terms of its telling – successfully so, I think – while Alison Moore’s deceptively brief ‘Ausland’ details the adventures of a particular voyager with more impact than its weight might lead you to expect. I also enjoyed both Claire Dean’s delicate ‘Is-And’ – so quiet that you have to listen very carefully – and Muriel Gray’s more robust ‘Gone Away’, with its similar interloping source of menace.

A few tales in the book didn’t strike me as effective (although I sincerely didn’t dislike any). A sucker for Mythos fiction, I think I’d hoped for a little more punch from Andrew Lane’s cleanly written ‘Buyer’s Remorse’, while Christopher Fowler’s invasion tale (‘Wonders to Come’) was quite heavy on technical detail and shoptalk (punchy ending, though).

In total, this is a very strong anthology with an interesting hook, and the editor has brought together a varied collection of fiction concerned with such themes as loss, communication, the past, other people, and history. I can hardly resist calling a book about the mail first class. But at its best, that’s just what it is, and I heartily recommend it.

 

 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS: chapter 1 sample


WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS

 Gary Fry

 

Chapter 1
 

Chloe arrived for our meeting half-an-hour late.

          Following all that happened afterwards, this unpredictable element was hardly surprising, but at the time I knew nothing much about her. Of course I’d taught her during her first two years on the psychology degree, along with a few hundred other undergraduates half my age. And yes, I was aware of the brighter students – Chloe had maintained an average A-minus coming into her final academic term and was well-positioned to gain first-class honours – but as I wasn’t her personal tutor, other contact had been minimal.

          This was why I was surprised when she’d put in a request for me to supervise her dissertation. As far as I was aware, having checked out her latest module choices, she was interested in psychodynamic aspects of our subject – Freud and his devout followers – while I specialised more in the social realms of experience. But I realised that other issues were important when youngsters chose who they’d like to support them through this critical aspect of their courses, and that perceived compatibility was often uppermost among them.

          When she entered my office that day, she looked a bit nervous, but, despite her good looks – long blonde hair, slender figure, fresh face which needed no makeup; in her early twenties, she’d surely never lacked others’ attention – I didn’t attach much significance to that. Indeed, I could remember my own first meeting with my supervisor twenty years earlier as an undergraduate. I realised this could sometimes become an intimate relationship, but, when conducted professionally, it remained only an intellectual engagement, a coming together of jaded old master and bright young thing. I’d been doing this kind of work for over a decade now – nearly as long as my solid marriage – and had never felt a need to tackle it in any other way.

          At my invitation, Chloe sat in a chair opposite my own, a few yards from my paper-stacked desk under the only window in the room, which looked right across the city. At the heart of this informal meeting area was a small table bearing drink-making facilities – powdered milk, a bag of sugar, assorted herbal teabags my wife had bought in an attempt to wean me off my beloved brain-stimulating coke – but I rarely used them. Nevertheless, they’d always offered me an effective way of putting newcomers at their ease, using a little self-disparagement to lighten the tone.

          “I’d make you a drink,” I said, lifting one of several cups from the table whose interior bore many brown stains. Then, smiling as warmly as I could, I showed this to my visitor. “But as you can see, hygiene isn’t exactly my forte.”

          The young woman – as pretty as some flower yet to fully blossom, as if she’d grown up in the shade – eventually smiled back, raising one hand from a notebook, which, after sitting, she’d removed from a pocket of her serviceably smart dress.

“That’s okay. I’m not thirsty anyway,” she said, her first words to me tender and strained, the way I imagined someone easily hurt might communicate. But other than my experiences of growing up in a very different era, what did I know about youths? I had no children of my own, despite recent activity at home on my wife’s part to alter that crucial fact.

Distracted only briefly by non-work-related issues, I soon got down to business with Chloe, asking her about her research interests and whether she’d settled yet on a topic for her dissertation. During all my years as a lecturer, I’d always found this the best way to get to know a supervisee: simply stick to the reason she or he was here. If things clicked and it looked like the relationship was likely to work, everything else – private issues concerning personal lives – would be addressed if they needed to be. Sometimes they did, other times they didn’t. As far as I was concerned, I was happy to maintain respectful boundaries but also cool if students wanted to get a little closer.

Following a brief preamble about Chloe’s academic interests – despite finding his work difficult to read, she was a fan of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – she started outlining a potential project, simultaneously consulting notes she’d clearly made before today’s first session. I was impressed – ordinarily students rolled up with a sheepish shrug but little else – and yet also surprised by her choice of subject matter.

“I live in a small village called Pasturn, just north of Leeds,” she explained, her former reticence lifting and her voice becoming enthusiastic – almost passionate. “My mum and I moved there about four years ago, after…well, after my parents’ messy divorce. Anyway, the point is that on one side of this place is some dense woodland, which appears to have attracted what we might call a…rural legend.”

I was intrigued, but not necessarily in my role as a tutor seeking to keep a student’s dissertation plans focused and realistic. There’s just something about such material – folklore, myths, and the like – that instantly grabs our attention, isn’t there? With no lectures to deliver that morning and extra time to spare, I leaned back in my chair and asked Chloe to continue.

“Well, it’s about a man who once lived in the woods and had all these weird children,” she went on, clearly now in her element. “He got them by seducing passersby – young women, I mean – and then snatching their infants once they’d given birth. He was supposed to have lived – oh, centuries ago, I think, but I’m not sure; I need to look into that yet. But what’s significant is the way he did it: brewed special potions and got the victims to drink them, which always made him look, instead of just a strange old man, like some kind of handsome prince.

“And the most important thing is,” Chloe said, with an air of finality, of driving home her points, “some residents think he still lives there, in those woods, along with all his ill-gotten offspring. The children’s spirits, I guess they mean. Their ghosts.”

“Okay, hold on a moment,” I said, raising a forefinger to mark the pause. Then, once I had her attention – she looked at me with large blue eyes, sheens of fragile moisture occupying both – I added, “While I admit that all this sounds interesting, I guess I’m struggling to see how it might lend itself to a project drawing upon psychological theory and methods.”

She hesitated, looking at her notes, or maybe even through the pad on her lap. I didn’t get the impression that she was seeking further assistance from earlier thoughts, rather that she was trying to evade my gaze altogether. But then, after a brief twitch of her head like some kind of nervous affliction, she spoke again.

“I suppose I’m interested in why the community has chosen this particular person as its bogeyman. I mean, what is it about the village that makes that specific issue…” – she paused again, as if needing to draw in a breath, but only for as long as it took to take one – “…what is it that makes young women being exploited like this such a concern that it needs codifying in the form of a legend?”

I nodded slowly, now seeing how a project might emerge from this issue, but also realising how fraught with ethical considerations it could be. Chloe was possibly proposing a survey or even a series of interviews with Pasturn’s residents about this rural legend and how it played out in their daily lives. It could certainly be interesting, if tending towards the sociological side of academia.

But in truth just then, I was more intrigued by the reason for Chloe’s interest in this topic. In my experience, enthusiastic students, the ones who exhibited an engagement with their work similar to what she’d just demonstrated, usually had some personal reason for investigating particular topics. And I wondered what hers was here.

I didn’t ask her directly, however; it was much too soon for that, and perhaps always would be. We were tutor and undergraduate, and not therapist and patient, let alone father and daughter. Instead, I simply continued playing Devil’s advocate, putting up barriers for her to knock down. The brightest, most eager students always managed to do so.

“Okay, let’s say for a moment that you chose to carry out your crucial final-year project on the psychology of communal legends.” I looked at her fixedly, refusing to let her gaze stray from mine. “What sources of data would you plan to draw upon?”

Now Chloe seemed to be on firmer ground. “I’ve already spoken to several people in my street,” she said, the smile I’d spotted earlier resurfacing. “It seems that lots of folk living in the village are aware of this man, who’s called…uh, I mean, who was called Donald Deere.”

Something about the man’s moniker – those solemnly alliterative D-sounds, that ostensibly inappropriate term-of-endearment surname – made me feel uncomfortable for a moment, despite early autumn sunlight cutting in through my window. Perhaps it was the way my new supervisee now held my gaze, as if the power relation between us – if indeed this had been the basis of her previous reserve – had just been subtly inverted.

“Okay, so you have evidence from a number of neighbours,” I said, trying to regain control of the episode by using a lecture-toughened voice. “But you’ll need much more than a few anecdotal accounts to inform a solid study.”

“That’s only true of statistical survey-based work, isn’t it?” She looked at me some more, clearly knowing exactly what she was talking about, which was knowledge I’d been fishing for anyway. “With interview and documentary type research, don’t we go for depth rather than quantity?”

This was all good enough for me; having admirably defended her methodological approach – she clearly planned to conduct interviews with people carefully selected for inclusion in the project, as well as performing a review of associated materials – I decided that her idea might actually result in an original project. Indeed, allowing her to pursue what she was obviously enthused about would be a positive move. In the past, scorers of high grades under my tutelage had been those not only with ability but also with some stake in their research, a private agenda that made the work so much more enjoyable and compulsive for them – for me, too, if I’m being honest.

“Right, you’ve sold me,” I said, now dropping the interrogatory routine and becoming something like a normal human again. Toying with intellectually insecure youngsters was always quite wicked, but I was also here to nurture them. “It’s early days yet. Why don’t you go away and see what else you can find out about this topic, maybe pull together a few documents for us to review at our next meetings. Then we can think about how we might proceed.”

The prospect of further one-to-one supervision seemed to appeal to Chloe, whose face brightened as soon as I’d mentioned future sessions. During the first and second years of a degree, university was much like a school for adults, with many lectures and group discussions, but little personal tuition. This was why smart students tended to come on stronger in their last years: because they received the kind of individual attention from which every young person could benefit, if only they showed sufficient interest.

When Chloe rose to leave, she looked a lot happier than she had just after her arrival, as if I’d endorsed a furtive wish she harboured or maybe even shared one of her secrets. At any rate, that’s certainly my impression now, and you know, I even think it might have been back then, too. Within the space of twenty minutes, she’d moved from being guardedly glum and to being radiantly hopeful. Indeed, in light of what happened so soon afterwards, I’m sure her wide smile was based on more than what she added before exiting my office that day, leaving me alone with unusually disrupted thoughts.

“I’ve already made a start,” she said, snapping shut her notebook and clearly alluding to my previous comment about beginning to look into the case of the centuries-old philanderer Donald Deere. “In fact, I’m aware of somebody in the village who claims to have met him.”
 
 
*****
 
If you enjoyed this opening chapter, you can read more by grabbing the whole novella here:
 
 
 
 

Monday, March 7, 2016

MY NEW BOOK: BEWARE THE DEEP, DARK WOODS...

Today my new book, a 30,000-word novella called WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS, is officially released. If you're a fan of Blair Witch-style horror fiction, I hope you'll enjoy this. Its principal focus, a warlock named Donald Deere who lived in the 1500s, still possesses the power to menace the inquisitive in our own era. Whether he's real or otherwise, I'll leave for readers to judge.

All I can tell you is that I've faithfully presented the facts as they came to me, after discovering an undeleted manuscript on a former colleague's PC. I've tried to contact this fellow since, an effort to corroborate his account, but I've had no success. I needn't read anything sinister into this failure, need I?

Perhaps you might tell me. All you have to do is click on one of the options pasted below, whether your preference is for paperback or ebook, or you're in the UK or the USA.

This is the only way you'll find what others found recently in those deep, dark woods. Oh God.

 
 
 

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert – a review


Dead Shift by John Llewellyn Probert – a review by Gary Fry

We come to horror fiction for many reasons. To have our sensibilities affronted, our metaphysical assumptions challenged, and to experience Aristotelian catharsis. But sometimes, amid all the Ligotti grumps and Aickman enigmas, it’s good simply to hang loose, have a blast, and consume something unapologetically fun.

So it goes with Probert’s latest novella, a work whose tone and approach, if you’re a fan like me, you’ll recognise from the first page. It starts with a lyrical reflection, much like something Lovecraft might have penned, but we’re soon pitched into more earthly territory, as a guy seeks to conduct magic rites in a rundown part of town.

Near this area is a hospital, and it’s here to which the action soon shifts. Our centre of focus, a doctor on the wards, carries the tale forwards, with many a wry hint about things not being quite right, and then rather more than that as all hell breaks loose.

Probert’s depiction of an entity trying to break through this tattered part of the veil between worlds is full of dripping detail and vibrant colour, as a group of medics ward off a full frontal attack on their place of work. There’s a particularly effective scene staged in the autopsy room, which builds later to a nasty set-piece involving many a revived corpse.

Probert is having fun here, that’s sure enough. His characters are self-aware enough to realise that they’re capable of hacking out genre clich├ęs (to paraphrase, “it’s a Sumerian document with Aztec variations!”) with tongue firmly in cheek.

There’s really nothing to fault at all. Yes, the plot is simply a vehicle for gaudy imagery, the characters are broadly drawn, and the pay-off is consistent with plenty of other horror tales, but that’s all as it should be.

Probert’s depiction of Lovecraftian foes blundering through into our world, and the price which must be paid to prevent them, is never less than entertaining and a real pleasure. Solid work from our field’s mischievous jester.


You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Shift-John-Llewellyn-Probert-ebook/dp/B01BWU8DP0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456338324&sr=8-1&keywords=probert+dead+shift