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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

THEY SAY A GIRL DIED HERE ONCE by Sarah Pinborough
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.
http://www.earthlingpub.com/sp_theysay.htm

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood -- a review


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

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Fisherman by John Langan -- a review


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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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


Black Star, Black Sun by Rich Hawkins

Review by Gary Fry

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Becoming David by Phil Sloman -- a review


Becoming David by Phil Sloman

Review by Gary Fry

 

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

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

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

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

Just the bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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