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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

THE RAGE OF CTHULHU: chapter 1 sample

Chapter 1

“Hey, Christine, I think I can see a way in.”

        George and his wife had walked from Whitby on the Cleveland Way, a public footpath leading along England’s northeast coastline. After passing the town’s famous abbey and a holiday park located on the lip of a splendid bay, they’d spotted two buildings: a towering lighthouse and, about a hundred yards farther on, a property whose roof bore a giant foghorn at least five yards long.

As the lighthouse appeared to be private, and manned by staff, they’d moved on to the second building, which looked anything but operational. It was one-storey high and bore off-colour walls. Weeds grew in wild profusion around its sealed doorway and all the windows were boarded up…except for one. This was what George had just identified.

        “Be careful,” Christine said, the way she’d done lately, as if he was some sort of cripple. “If you fall, we won’t get help out here quickly.”

        If she meant an ambulance, why didn’t she say so? George experienced a flare of temper but decided not to be difficult. This, the first leg of their holiday around the world, was supposed to be pleasant. They’d visited the area as youngsters – just after marrying, forty years ago, before they’d had any money – and had always vowed to return. George wished it was in better circumstances but that was how life went; no use being maudlin about it.

        After all, there was still fun to be had. Huddling low against the chill – it was a blustery February weekday, dampness heavy in the air, as if rain or worse was due – he moved closer to that one unboarded window, eliciting another comment from his wife.

        “Don’t go in there, George,” she said, anxiety from recent events etched into her voice. “It’s private property. The men from the lighthouse might come over.”

And do what? George wanted to know, as if needing to take on the world and all its infuriating rules. In his current situation, what were the consequences of misbehaving?

        “I want to look inside, Christine,” he replied, puffing as he shuffled forwards, limbs aching with the effort. For a moment, he went dizzy, but closing his eyes and eliminating the world for several seconds helped to stabilise him. Finally he was ready to enter.

        By the time his wife approached, holding the new iPhone with which she’d filmed the remarkable landscape these last few days, he’d swung a leg over the sill and levered himself inside the building. Refusing to offer Christine another opportunity to cause a fuss, he cut through the room ahead. This resembled some sort of sleeping quarters, possibly once occupied by whoever had maintained the foghorn when the place had been in service.

The board-free window failed to let in much afternoon daylight. All the same, George soon chanced upon a door with a big brass handle at hip-height. He turned it, releasing the door with a sticky sound of gunge separating around its frame, and then paced forwards.

A more insistent source of light lay up ahead. He figured out that he stood in a corridor leading to other rooms. The building had appeared to be just yards from the cliff’s edge, a considerable drop to a rocky beach and the unforgiving sea. But as he moved on, the ground here felt solid, even though some of his dizziness had returned.

The light at the end of the passageway appeared to come from a room whose door was missing. The front of the property must have suffered structural damage, with stone broken in inaccessible places. This was probably why the authorities hadn’t sealed off those parts.

He entered the room, marvelling at its contents. Was this where the foghorn had been operated and maintained? A bulky engine was attached to the wall, clearly having not been used for years. Alongside it stood a beguiling arrangement of valves, cocks and pressure dials, each rusted or draped with cobwebs.

George loved places like this. They reminded him of his childhood back in Leeds, of visiting railway stations with his parents, exploring great steam carriages. Perhaps this was why he’d broken into such an out-of-the-way property. He’d heard that during traumatic periods people tended to revisit the past, an attempt to contextualise life from a distant perspective. Hadn’t a famous philosopher once said similar, someone he’d studied as an undergraduate before his career in academia?

Maybe that was true, but it wasn’t important now. This was George’s new attitude. It wasn’t that his medical diagnosis had led him to abandon insights into the human condition, rather that he had fresh experiences to enjoy, away from the ivory tower comfort of textbooks. With only limited time left, he wanted to throw himself into as much of life as possible.

He advanced into the next room, through a doorway at the rear of the foghorn’s control centre. Wondering what sound the foghorn on top of the building had once made, he examined the new area, given over to water tanks and batteries, which had surely once compressed air to provide the noise. It was here that an exterior wall covered in a thick skin of plaster had collapsed, letting in light from outside.

George heard a wind thumping against the property’s exterior, the sea smashing against the cliff-side below. What with the building’s unusual acoustics – the walls were thick stone, the floors bereft of carpet or furniture – these sounds had impact on him, rendering him unsteady as he moved. His vision also felt challenged, especially when he reached a lengthy room at the front of the property, beyond which had once sailed the ships that the whole place had sought to safeguard.

It was now that he observed what he ought to have previously: none of the other rooms had windows. But that wasn’t true of this one, whose longest side bore four square glassless peepholes. Each was three feet tall and wide, and none had been boarded up. That might be because it would be difficult for anyone to move safely along the coastal lip and seal them. Whatever the truth was, George could now see way across a choppy North Sea.

But this wasn’t all that caught his interest.

In addition to how noises here – the restless howl of wind, an unfailing susurration of the sea – continued to unsettle him, he detected a curious scent, which was how he imagined magma expelled from an active volcano might smell, a pungently sulphurous aroma. More distortions in his visual field left his perspective strained, as if the room was a photograph that someone was tugging out of shape in every direction. After several seconds, he began to feel nauseated and was forced to look away.

Was he suffering another attack, like the ones that had first alerted him to his illness? That might be the case, but as he stabilised his vision by focusing beyond the wavering room, his attention went no farther than the windows, which had surely been damaged by some seismic event.

Sections of wall around the openings had buckled inwards, great stones tilted towards the interior, the inch-deep plaster torn from the sinew beneath. It looked as if something had rammed into the building from the outside, but what could be so large and powerful, let alone possess the height such an assault required? The building had to be two-hundred feet from the seabed; such a manoeuvre was impossible even for the most monstrous creature.

More sensory distortions sweeping over him, George turned to look for a way out, returning to his wife and her well-meaning support. Just then he spotted more damage affecting the rear wall, which faced those mangled windows. In four spots, corresponding with each of the glassless openings, more plaster had been smashed away, revealing the property’s flesh beneath.

Had something – no, at least four things – been thrust through the windows and struck this wall?

None of it made sense. George felt troubled and bewildered. He moved off, back along another stretch of corridor, seeking the room through which he’d entered, quite against Christine’s sensible advice. She was simply concerned, as the spouse of anyone diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour would be. For this reason, he’d try not to reveal what was happening in his head right now. Indeed, by the time he exited, he hoped it would have all settled down.
The novella is now available to preorder in hardcover and ebook formats:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough -- a review

BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

Review by Gary Fry

I came to this novel amid all the publicity concerning that "WTF" ending. I like to think that I'm a canny reader, knowing the tricks many authors try to pull on us. So I got started with Behind Her Eyes, soon becoming immersed in an intimate, often furtive tale of extra-marital shenanigans and offbeat characterisation. The novel excels in its depiction of three main characters, all of whom feel decidedly unreliable, especially the two female direct-to-camera narrators. Why is one befriending the other, and for what purpose? How can the other cope with guilt about what's she up to with her new friend's husband?

It's all very intriguing, to say the least. But what could be that twist? I'd say the twisty-turny plot keeps the pages turning, but the thought of how it ends -- whether one can guess its denouement -- renders it literally unputdownable. Pinborough skilfully -- I can't overestimate just how delicate a craft this is -- stage-manages all her plot components, offering hints and suggestions, dropping in red-herrings and additional characters to throw us off the scent [forgive mixed metaphors]. Indeed, she takes it almost to the wire, keeping the reader guessing even come the final pages, and then -- bang! The twist is revealed. It's a strong one, making sense of so much of what has come before. I was satisfied. A streetwise, cunning thriller with a punchy conclusion. Good work.

Ah, but then you realise something else. Pinborough isn't finished yet. It's at this point, practically on the final page, that the second twist strikes home. And if the first was satisfying, this one is downright disturbing, upending the whole story you've just read. Brilliant, insidious stuff. I was more than impressed by how cunningly I'd been outfoxed. It forced me to reflect hard on the whole experience.

Once a little time had passed, and the "reel" the book caused had settled a little, I was able to appreciate how Pinborough achieved all this. She never fully reveals which genre she's working in -- thriller, crime, supernatural -- and that keeps the reader on edge about potential developments. The plot twist/s, while lacking originality (the central conceit is actually a commonly used one), forms the core of this genre ambiguity, the event which switches the book from one field to another. I guess some folk, dyed-in the-wool devotees of specific forms of genre fiction, won't care for such blending, but I found it irresistible, inducing a genuine sense of dislocation. It's a sterling performance. And for the story's execution, along with its double-punch finale, I give Behind Her Eyes top marks.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nightmare’s Realm, edited by S T Joshi -- a review

Nightmare’s Realm (Dark Regions) – edited by S T Joshi


Review by Gary Fry


In his introduction, S T Joshi shows how dreams have played a major role in the history of weird fiction, with many major practitioners writing tales influenced by or incorporating this most mysterious of human characteristics. The editor’s mission statement here is to continue in the latter-day this long tradition, and so let’s see how well the modern writers he chose fared.


The Dreamed by Ramsey Campbell

This is one of Campbell’s tales set in a foreign location, with all the sense of dislocation his characters experience heightened. A guy checks into a hotel but is soon confused for another, and as the plot unfolds this convergence of identity becomes more and more apparent, until… Well, I won’t spoil it; all I’ll say is that the tale demonstrates Campbell’s uneasy dark humour and suggestive powers to the full. A great opener.


A Predicament by Darrell Schweitzer

This brief tale involves a trial in some olde worlde locale, its documentary prose leading up to an excellent final line. Almost like a prose poem.


Kafkaesque by Jason V Brock

More dark comedy is at work in this lively piece, which has a guy encountering Kafka in a dream and, via progress through hell, discovering a new piece of fiction written by the great Czech. It’s a very inventive and wry story, which I really enjoyed.


Beneath the Veil by David Barker

Another brief piece, this tale has a satisfying symmetry as two versions of the same key life event – a wedding – are presented, one ostensibly the reality and another a garish dream. But which is which? The author leaves it pleasingly ambiguous and all the more powerful for that.


Dreams Downstream by John Shirley

A longer tale detailing a modern landscape invaded by tech-induced dream hallucinations. I rather enjoyed it, being reminded of J G Ballard all the way through.


Death-Dreaming by Nancy Kilpatrick

This one wasn’t quite for me – that’s always going to happen, in all anthologies – but that’s not to say I perceived any specific faults here. I certainly found the prose evocative.


Cast Lots by Richard Gavin

Gavin’s tale captures convincing shifts of perspective as dreams fuses with everyday life, ending with a great image of some malevolent thing. It’s nicely paced and neatly written.


The Wake by Steve Rasnic Tem

A surreal tale involving the death of the central character’s father, with dreamlike events during the wake adding to the piece’s poignancy. A clever and heartfelt story.


Dead Letter Office by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Again, this is not my kind of thing, but I actually enjoyed the story a lot, with its colourful evocation of a future era and location, along with a killer last few lines. Even Radiohead are referred to, so yeah, big tick from me.


The Art of Memory by Donald Tyson

This was one of my favourite tales here, its protagonist experiencing an unusual haunting involving memory and violated dreamscapes. While the central idea put me in mind of one in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, the wry conclusion made me smile in that laconic way we searchers after horror always relish.


What You Do Not Bring Forth by John Langan

Another very short story, ostensibly a crime caper but with a quirky and effective conclusion. Langan continues to play successfully with form and that’s certainly apparent here.


The Barrier Between by W. H. Pugmire

Again, not really my thing. I’ve enjoyed Pugmire’s work elsewhere, but I’m not the best reader to comment on such material here. Sorry!


Sleep Hygiene by Gemma Files

Another of my favourites, Files’s tale is wonderfully evocative, streetwise, pungent and sinister. I really enjoyed the way she evoked (invoked?) the invader of dreams. Her prose, although choppy, has a vibrancy and life which seriously impressed me, and I’ll be reading more from Files.


Purging Mom by Jonathan Thomas

More superb prose. Thomas’s clever tale is full of striking phrases and vividly conjured scenes. Its English locale coupled with an American traveller make for many fun, creepy sequences. Great entertainment.


The Fifth Stone by Simon Strantzas

From spiky, colourful writing to something much more controlled and sombre – but Strantzas’s tale, given its material, is all the better for that. A life-spanning tale of a character holding back something unthinkable with object-focused faith, its final images are potent in their clinical evocation, their matter-of-fact horror. The author excels in depicting the character’s obsession and vulnerability. Fine piece.


In the City of Sharp Edges by Stephen Woodworth

Perhaps the most traditionally structured story here, Woodworth’s clever exploration of a blind-man’s trouble-with-dreams ends with an unpleasant image of something monstrous…but something which the character, as for us readers, cannot see. A neat conceit executed well.


An Actor’s Nightmare by Reggie Oliver

And here we have perhaps the book’s most striking piece. Oliver’s depiction of the cattish world of theatre is highly convincing (as you’d expect from a former actor), but it’s the concluding dream sequence which blows the mind. Despite his restrained English style, Oliver can occasionally be completely bonkers, and his descriptions here of an ill-at-ease character’s subconscious at play is magnificent. ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ comes to mind. And the final lines, although perhaps anticipated, nail down the whole mad tale. Perhaps I even dreamt it.


As you can see from my comments, I found this an impressive anthology, with several standout tales and many which were also extremely good. The book’s theme is a promising one, and Joshi and his accomplices have fulfilled it admirably. A really good, varied collection. It’s even top and tailed by a bit of Messrs Poe and Lovecraft. Sleep easy, all.

Monday, October 24, 2016




Review by Gary Fry


The thing about “best of” collections is that, although they’re commonly chosen by only one editor, readers are not going to love everything selected. These books are often varied, celebrating the wide range of fiction published each year in a specific field. That is why, as I review this book, I’m going to pull out the pieces which spoke particularly to me (although I can’t say I disliked any story here).


Let’s zero in immediately on the book’s big coup, a previously unpublished story by Robert Aickman. ‘The Strangers’ is as good as I could have hoped, one of the author’s queasy explorations of male sexuality. I’ve no idea why Aickman never included it in one of his collections, but wonder whether he felt it was too similar to certain of his other masterpieces. Whatever the truth is, this is a wonderfully suggestive and typically perverse story involving all the usual Aickman tricks: high culture, low morals, vampish femmes, and callow young men. It also contains a new candidate for his most M R Jamesian line (the existing champ being one about rags in a treetop at the end of ‘The Fetch’). This one involves bones in a suit. But I’ll say no more than that. Other than it chills deep down. Wonderful tale.


Almost up there with the Aickman is Robert Shearman’s ‘Blood’, a near-repulsive elucidation of a sordid trip to Paris taken by a teacher and his underage pupil. The suggestiveness is Aickmanesque, with a scene in a manky restaurant involving a hideous dining experience, and then a conclusion as enigmatically weird as anything Shearman has done previously. A really unpleasant tale. By which I mean, superb, of course.


In Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Fetched’, a man undergoes some kind of Kafka-esque transformation in an offbeat location full of blackly comic character-clashes and spatially impossible imagery. In Reggie Oliver’s ‘The Rooms are High’, an amiable narrator gets caught up in a seedy sequence of events as he visits a peculiar hotel in the place where he grew up. Full marks for one of the most loathsome characters I’ve read in years. Both stories are archly surreal and highly effective.


I really enjoyed Nadia Bulkin’s reworking of Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’. In ‘Violet is the Color of your Energy’, Bulkin reinterprets the classic tale from the mother’s point of view (or maybe, a mother’s), focusing on the violating cosmic force through the dynamics of her male family. It’s a striking and intertextually impressive piece. In D P Watt’s ‘Honey Moon’, a recently married couple – he initially eager, she prudish – undergo a modification of sexual roles, as a landscape and its history tease out the limbic forces in both, drawing them inexorably into animalistic passion. The tale’s deceptively simple, cleanly written surface only enhances the power of its truly wild conclusion.


I consider Lynda Rucker’s ‘The Seventh Wave’ one of the most effective ghost stories I’ve read in a long time, the frisson achieved through a combination of modern narrative techniques and traditional nautical legend. Tim Lebbon’s ‘Strange Currents’ is similarly haunting, with an adventure-style main section leading to a genuinely creepy closing image. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is the most potent, and that’s rarely more true than here. 


‘Julie’ by L S Johnson is a compellingly written piece of alternative literary history, with feral transformations standing in lieu of shameful human behaviour. I’ve always considered Rousseau rather overrated anyway, so it was nice to see him getting a good hatchet job here. Johnson’s prose is a delight and the story memorable. As for Sadie Bruce’s dark fable about the generationally inescapable adoption of exhibitionist female desires, well, it’s dark and grotesque, as it should be. ‘Little Girls in a Bone Museum’ is required reading for all.


These were the tales I enjoyed most in the book, though I should add how impressed I was by Matthew Bartlett’s juicy, rhythmic prose. Marion Womack’s ‘Orange Dogs’ was filled with evocative passages, and Christopher Slatsky’s tale finished with a killer last line. I’ve reviewed the Brian Evenson story elsewhere, and consider it a fine one.


All in all, then, I greatly enjoyed this broad-ranging collection of the best new weird of 2015. Strantzas has read widely, choosing his tales with an eye for variation and style. I did wonder why two tales involving the sea – the Rucker and Lebbon – were placed side by side, but that’s a relatively minor matter when both were among my favourites here. I was also struck by the large number of female authors represented – heartening stuff.


The genre’s in rude health, it would appear – both in terms of the authors writing such great new gear, and the editors sitting up to take notice. I very much look forward to next year’s entry. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell
Review by Gary Fry
Over 25 years ago Campbell wrote a book called MIDNIGHT SUN, which he now, with typical humility, describes as an “honourable failure”. Would that the rest of us could pen such failures! I know I’m not alone in considering that novel a very fine contribution to the field of cosmic horror, but perhaps we should be happy that the author is never satisfied with his stuff and always aims higher.
In interviews around that time, Campbell claims that “maybe in another 20 years” he’ll have “another go” at scaling the peaks ascended by Lovecraft and Blackwood. Well, he’s done so already in several works – THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2003) and “The Last Revelation of Gla’aki” (2013), both considerable successes – but when I heard that he’d chosen to write a trilogy of novels focusing exclusively on a Mythos theme, I grew more than a little excited.
And so here we have the first entry in what promises to be Campbell’s most ambitious project yet. I understand that these three books will focus on different stages of their narrator’s life, documenting the decades in which Campbell himself has lived and worked. This opening piece is set in the 1950s, in the author’s native Liverpool, and anyone who’s read a little about Campbell’s youth will realise that quite a bit of this (with significant exceptions; for instance, the narrator’s parents appear rather less fractious than Campbell’s own were) is autobiographical.
Campbell’s post-WWII Liverpool is packed with evocative details, from bomb-damaged downtown property to cinemas in the city centre, from adverts saturating high streets to daily life at a Catholic school. Scenes in which the narrator’s juvenile self attends classes, hangs out with friends, and negotiates an ever-perplexing adult world possess an air of fond nostalgia, something which feels quite new in Campbell’s work. Indeed, the tone of this book put me firmly in mind of King’s IT and other works of that stripe.
But it’s not only the minutiae of ’50s English city life under scrutiny here; Campbell also explores social developments of the era, with much reference to international conflicts, gender politics, the resilience of religion under attack by new sciences, Trade Unions, and much more. This novel, fundamentally the intimate tale of a boy entangled in the activities of his decidedly sinister schoolteacher, has a broader dimension which hints at all the cosmic material which will surely be explored in later volumes.
Such rich, detailed world-building lends the book intricacy and completeness. The narrator’s early life is depicted with merciless attention to the circumstances which mark his development from reticent child to teenage artist. It is here that I believe that Campbell’s autobiographical material becomes most prevalent, with memorably vivid passages concerning how it feels to start out as a writer: the nervousness when revealing new work, the transformative impact of latest literary enthusiasms, even the way writing fiction helps one to understand one’s own life and can even lend one courage (like Burt Lancaster, the star of the piece can never die).
I feel that this is perhaps the book’s most significant theme: the role of fiction, particularly from the 1950s and the ubiquity of cinema, in shaping the way people in the modern age think about themselves and their actions. Campbell’s young characters are constantly borrowing phrases from the films, structuring their lived experience with mimicked behaviours.
Indeed, the more fiction the narrator writes, the more he comes to think of himself and his friends as characters in a story – and so they are. His tales of an intrepid gang become entwined with the narrator’s retrospective account of his youth, to such a degree that the older incarnation inevitably wonders how much he’s recalling in accurate detail and how much he might be elaborating according to fictional conventions and how they patch up incomplete memory.
This is a deep (and yet unobtrusive) strand of the novel, but let me not suggest that the book welshes on its horror material. Campbell’s tale of a young boy becoming involved with the dark shenanigans of a guru-like adult has more than a hint of King’s REVIVAL about it, but while King focuses intertextually more on Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (despite his prefatory reference to “The Great God Pan”), Campbell’s novel feels more firmly rooted in the world of Machen’s seedy suburban adventure.
Something is amiss at an elderly friend’s house. When this lady suffers a breakdown as a consequence of some species of meddling by the insidious schoolmaster, the narrator’s boyhood self must figure out why and what caused it. This leads him into a sequence of events whose underlying pungency and escalating dread peak in images of hallucinogenic weirdness (a scene in a cinema’s bathroom is particularly fine) and a tantalising vision of imminent cosmic terror.
The narrator, looking back from a hitherto undisclosed future time period, repeatedly claims that the world is over now, but this first novel hints at only a third of the reason how. Its concluding scenes, one of them set under a creepy old church, provide both a fitting ending to this low-key exercise in mounting unease and a mouthwatering taste of what’s surely to come.
Well, that’s the traditional horror narrative, right there. But as I hope I’ve made clear, THE SEARCHING DEAD is about so much more than dark frights. Campbell’s parallel depiction of his narrator’s sensitive youth, particularly the social and existential forces which make him what he’ll become (a reflexive adult author), is tender, true and (in a great many places) painful. Indeed, prior to the unsettling finale, the narrator witnesses something equally disturbing in his personal life, and the way this prompts his literary aspirations, even reorients his religious affiliations, feels both right and real.
It’s a powerful ending to a novel which looks set to become one third of Campbell’s masterpiece: a trilogy about who he is as a man and what he’s always striven to achieve as an author. Bring on BORN TO THE DARK, I say. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relished every page of THE SEARCHING DEAD.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Greens by Andrew Hook -- a review

The Greens by Andrew Hook

Review by Gary Fry


I read a lot of Hook’s short fiction back in the day, during the good-natured rivalry between us hard horror types and his fey slipstream folk (joke). Hook’s fiction always struck me as inventive, cleanly written and often unsettling, so I was looking forward to what he was up to lately in this lengthy novella.

The tale begins with a prologue of sorts, detailing the emergence of a couple of unusual children in an olde English community. It’s an intriguing opening, and when the piece switches to the latter-day, with a woman going about her familiar domestic routines, the stage is set for some kind of ancestral connection, some merging of the presence with the past.

And so it goes. The central character’s husband is researching his and his wife’s genealogical trees, soon chancing upon a decidedly odd episode among her family’s distant relatives. But what have these strange children to do with this woman’s obsessive compulsive behaviours, the way she tries to keep her own offspring safe with torturous daily rituals? Well, that’s the basis of this novella.

Hook’s narrative, arrestingly written, takes us on a voyage from very normal everyday British family life to the horror of a snatched child, to a manic billionaire intent on discovering one of the world’s great secrets, to outlandish conspiracy theories and forbidden knowledge, and finally to a stirring conclusion set among agents eager to take more than their reticence threatens.

It’s a derring-do story, with traditional Wellsian strands and some nice speculative history concerning the likes of Hollow Earth. The narrative switching between characters works well, even though I felt that the piece’s big traumatic scene – a snatched child – was rather underplayed. I would have preferred to hear a bit more anguish from both parents in the immediate aftermath.

I think Hook tackled the issue of OCD quite sensitively, given that it’s a serious psychological disorder and shouldn’t necessarily be twisted to genre ends. I’m a sufferer myself and recognised the woman’s obsessive routines, her irrational and yet psychoLOGICAL belief in the power of her actions. The way this strand dovetails with the plot-proper also worked well, with a particularly strong conclusion tying up loose ends.

Overall I enjoyed this offbeat adventure a great deal. It’s very Andrew Hook, a reminder for me of that earlier work (some of which I enthusiastically published) and his capacity to take aspects of everyday life and make magic out of them. An intriguing, readable and satisfying piece.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

THEY SAY A GIRL DIED HERE ONCE by Sarah Pinborough -- a review

Review by Gary Fry
I read this short novel in a single sitting and I can’t remember the last time I managed that (maybe a reread of Jackson’s similarly concise ’Hill House a few years back). If “unputdownability” is the ultimate yardstick against which we judge popular fiction, then Pinborough’s latest has a helluva lot going for it.
The book opens with its central character, Anna, living with her all-female family: sister, mother and grandmother. Her grandmother is experiencing incipient dementia, and it soon becomes apparent that Anna suffers a similar memory-related problem, which isn’t spelled out for the reader until later in the narrative (but those sensitive enough to detect apposite clues will work it out in advance).
It’s a tense, intriguing opening, and as the plot unfolds to incorporate the family’s new home and location, these matters are driven deeper, as other residents become both friendly and threatening, with Anna’s secret lurking at the heart of why she refuses to engage with them too quickly. She has a low-key job in the area, but when folk get too close, she shuts them out, clearly experiencing psychological residue of her trauma.
It is this aspect of the story which appealed to me most. Pinborough, as she demonstrated in 13 Minutes, is excellent at depicting slightly pissed-off, fearful, resilient female youth. Anna’s relationship with her sister is particularly convincing in this sense, as Anna simultaneously resents her innocence and is scared of how the 10 year-old will soon lose that shine.
Anna’s difficult relationship with her grandmother is similarly real and touching. The older woman, formerly an unimpeachable churchgoing type, has been changed through her illness, becoming less restrained by the moral chains of her community and expressing both her independence and the true values of life (the smoking episodes are especially well done in that regard).
Indeed, while dementia and its effects on memory (the book’s central theme) have set the grandmother free, it is Anna’s experiences in this new residential location which must perform a similar trick on her. But it isn’t going to be easy.
Now that everything is nicely set up, the plot-proper takes wing. Anna continually finds her grandmother up late at night, standing near their house’s cellar and experiencing the kind of mental fugue which makes her mutter suggestively weird comments (including the novel’s evocative title). Anna soon discovers from elsewhere – the only person she lets into her life, a similarly acerbic young female outsider – that two girls died in the community and that their killer hasn’t been apprehended yet. Can these dead girls be speaking through Anna’s grandmother, using her illness as a supernatural conduit?
Without giving too much away, let me say that Anna’s investigations will land her in all kinds of trouble, including blackmail, erroneous suspicions, an act of cruelty on her part, and a revelation which comes right out of leftfield. By the end of the book, the novel’s previously suppressed spookiness takes an original twist, and the final chapter does something so unexpected that I had to go back to the start to absorb all its tricksy implications.
In short, I truly enjoyed this tense, intriguing and original short novel. If it had any faults, I’d cite that hard-to-avoid part of the conclusion where the villains vocally reveal the backstory while stalking the heroine. On a technical note, there were one or two repeated phrases in the same passages (e.g. Anna twice thinks something like “if grandmother was going to intervene, this would be a good time”) which hint at a need for a further polish.
But these are relatively minor matters. The book remains a clever, different, and psychologically convincing narrative, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those in the mood for something dark, gripping and (maybe its best feature) original in its payoff.
On this evidence, Pinborough is the go-to mistress of well-characterised, arrestingly written, and intriguing story. What else can we ask for?
You can buy a copy here, and also check out newcomer Polly Morris’s suitably pungent and sulphurous cover artwork.