BOOK REVIEW: THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, by GEORGINA BRUCE

Wounds

 

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS by Georgina Bruce.

I’ve not been reviewing books recently; rather I’ve been enjoying the freedom to read whatever I like without making notes or analysing subtext or trying to think of things to say. But when I got a message from the consistently excellent Undertow Press asking if I would like a free copy of Georgina Bruce’s first collection I couldn’t resist.

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the cover: it’s one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen, and printed on good quality, lightly textured card that almost feels alive. It’s a sensual delight and a joy to touch, to hold, to open. It’s a promising start and warms me to the book before I’ve read a word.

Upon starting the first story, I realise how perfect the cover is. THE LADY OF SITUATIONS begins with an act of shocking violence, as if the image has leaked into the prose with images of blood, flowers, internal organs. It becomes an expressionist portrait of abuse, misogyny and escape, told in beautiful dreamlike prose. It’s an arresting start.

The themes established in the opening tale are continued, expanded and embellished throughout. Ms. Bruce is not one for linear narrative or an easy distinction between reality, dreams, analogy, art, intoxication and self-deceit. In many ways the whole book is an exploration how we distance ourselves from reality, and from ourselves.

RED QUEENING channels themes from Lewis Carroll through the distorted lenses of Harlan Ellison, Ramsay Campbell, and Clive Barker. Again it’s a surreal nightmare with a glimpse of hope at the end. HER BONES THE TREES lulls us into a false sense of security with dialogue between characters and something like a narrative, but the very internal pov and extreme sensuality keep everything distant. It’s about sex and death and transformation, but you can only see tiny fragments of anything and have to create the story for yourself.

In a dystopian future in which the only industry still thriving is child prostitution, the young victims survive by chewing travel gum, which transports them to the virtual CAT WORLD.  Several of the stories feature abusive men exploiting powerless girls – misogyny is a recurring theme, including in THE BOOK OF DREEMS. More like a traditional horror revenge tale, in which an abusive husband goes too far and gets a comeuppance, except that our narrator is so broken that we have no idea whether anything that happens is real or her damaged psyche trying to make sense of a terrible reality.

SHADOW MEN is a dark folk tale in which men, awed and envious of the power of women, take out their frustration in acts of petty violence, and justify it to themselves in convoluted ways. It sounds like real life except for the ancient Queen of the Forest, and the men who give up their shadows for power over women.

KUEBIKO starts like a situation from the real world but don’t be fooled. It’s a guided tour of a woman’s life: her history, her regrets, fears and ultimately her despair. If it sounds depressing, perhaps it is, but it’s also gorgeous. It too mirrors the cover art – an eviscerated woman can be a beautiful thing. But is the woman suffering purely for our voyeuristic entertainment?

Several of the stories make me slightly ashamed to be male, but when Ms. Bruce moves into the second person when talking about the husband in DOGS I felt accused, as if I am every bad man that has ever been. A relationship goes terribly wrong and it seems she only ever loved his dog.

In WAKE UP, PHIL, the Coke vs Pepsi war has grown to Orwellian proportions, but the products are indistinguishable, and confusing them has terrible consequences. This might be the only story in the collection that I felt I fully understood, but that probably means I’m missing something.

Two consecutive tales CROW VOODOO and THE QUEEN OF KNIVES travel the same road in different directions: both deal with young women claiming their heritage; both demonstrate the beauty inherent in violence and both stretch the reader in different ways. The former in particular abandons the idea that we should take some parts of a story literally and other parts as analogy – a thing can be both.

In THE ART OF FLYING, a woman who has survived cancer and an abusive husband finds solace in her own doom, and LITTLE HEART confirms the theme of the book: that memory, dreams, art and reality are all stirred together in the melting pot of our minds, and what we call truth is an amalgam of those experiences.

THE ART LOVERS surprised me by having a sympathetic male protagonist, though he is exploited by other men, but it becomes a sinister and increasingly violent meditation on how little the sexes understand each other. There is a genuinely sympathetic male character in WHITE RABBIT, about an elderly widower losing his way as dementia robs him of himself. This is paired with THE SEAS OF THE MOON, about a woman losing herself to post-natal depression. Life’s beginnings and endings will both destroy us.

I loved this book. The best way to read it is just to roll with it: a story may have more than one narrative strand and there’s no point trying to separate what is actually happening from the warped internal world of our damaged protagonists, or from Ms. Bruce’s unique way of mixing story with ideas and metaphor, giving each equal weight.

You could read it in little snippets, like a collection of beautiful but disturbing little poems, and it’s best to leave space between each tale, try to digest it. I know I didn’t understand everything, but I enjoyed mulling over each piece, my thoughts and emotions crawling in circles and looking for points of resonance in my own life, questioning my beliefs and assumptions, sometimes finding ways to blame myself for all the evils of the world. It takes a special book to do that.

You can open the book at random, read a paragraph or two and find a perfectly composed little epigram, capturing an idea or an emotion in a handful of words. Reading it too quickly or not giving it your full attention means you’ll miss some snippets of extraordinary beauty.

It’s not always an easy read – it takes effort and concentration, but the rewards for your commitment are worth it. A truly astonishing achievement.

You can read the author’s blog here, visit the publisher’s website here, and buy the book on Amazon UK. Other book retailers do exist, or buy direct from the publisher.

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Horror Limericks

The horror genre lends itself to the setup-punchline structure of the limerick, so I wrote a few.

 

A young looking fellow from Leith
Had very sharp, shiny white teeth
You might get a fright
If you met him at night
And never again will you breathe.
A ragged wee laddie called Fed
Grew lesions that started to spread
His brain liquified
And poor Freddie died
So dead Fred’s head’s spread on Fred’s bed.
The ancient Old One called Cthulhu
Had slept for an eon or two
He woke up last year
Filled men’s hearts with fear
And caused quite a hullabaloo.
A sweet little girl from Dunoon
Grew fur and teeth every full moon
She woke up at dawn
Her family gone
Though bits of them round her were strewn.
A thin, starving flesh-eating ghoul
Picked up his wee brother from school
Then he started nibbling
His unfortunate sibling
Until he was happily full.

Publications.

Much to my surprise I have won the James White Award for science fiction writing in Scotland, so look out for my story The Morrigan in a future issue of Interzone.

http://www.jameswhiteaward.com/archives/3800

I have nice gay-themed sonnet The Goblin in this month’s British Fantasy Award Journal too, but only members get to read that. Give me a shout if you want to read it.

Short Horror Film, what I did last summer.

Hi folks.

Last summer I wrote and directed a short horror film with some splendidly talented folks round my home town in Ayrshire. We had no budget but I’m jolly pleased with how it turned out. People have variously described it as freaky, creepy and twisted as fuck. One chap commented My girlfriend nearly shit herself.

Please have a watch. And let me know if you like it. I might like to do something similar again – it was frightfully good fun.

Book Review. Shadows and Tall Trees 6 edited by Michael Kelly

satt cover

 

I love short horror fiction. I read lots of it: magazines, ezines, collections, anthologies and single stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one.

 

Editor Michael Kelly obviously likes a certain kind of horror: contemporary, literary, subtle and undefined. There are no zombies, no vampires, no chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Instead there are expertly drawn characters dealing with terrible things.

 

There are two main things that make this book special, compared to other anthologies I’ve read lately.

 

  1. I’ve mentioned the lack of traditional monsters, but it seemed that all the characters here are all dealing with their own ghosts, either unresolved episodes from their past or some inner demon that becomes apparent in the story. Even when there is some outside agency it’s the characters’ action or flaws that attract them. It’s almost Shakespearian.

 

  1. None of the stories resolve in a satisfactory way. I don’t mean that as a flaw, quite the opposite. Every story here leaves you guessing, either about what actually happened or how we should feel about it. This apparently simple technique means that we keep thinking about the stories after we’ve finished them. I imagine Michael Kelly writing back to some contributors saying See that bit at the end when the monster appears and explains everything – cut that and we’ve got a deal.

 

 

Horror fiction can work on many levels. I think of them as

  • Jump/ yuck,
  • suspense,
  • creepy (glancing behind you while reading),
  • making you re-examine how you live your life.

 

Several of these stories work on that last level, the rarest and most effective of all.

 

 

It begins by deliberately unsettling the reader with Eric Schaller’s To Assume the Writer’s Crown: Notes on the Craft. This could be read several ways: as a genuine essay with a good dose of the author’s dark humour thrown in, or as a story told by someone who actually has a girl chained up in his basement just so he can write a good story about it, or a meditation on a writer’s relationship with his characters. I think the ambiguity is entirely deliberate and it makes uncomfortable reading for those of us who regularly use ink as a murder weapon.

 

And the book continues in that vein. The other pieces are more obviously stories, but that feeling of never knowing what’s going on remains throughout. I enjoyed every story in this book. Seriously, there wasn’t a single piece that I would have cut, but here I’ll only specifically mention my favourites.

 

Onanon by Michael Wehunt. This might be based on a genuine Scandinavian folk tale I haven’t heard, or it’s just so well told it seems real. Three strands of unpleasantness converge into something disturbing.

 

Death’s Door Cafe by Kaaron Warren. Taking a cliché and making it literal lets us explore morbidity in a story that seems upbeat but undercuts it and needles the reader.

 

H. Leslie’s The Quiet Room is about your past coming to get you. A house likes silence, so you can better hear the hollowness of your life.

 

Shaddertown by Conrad Williams is an apparently simple story that somehow encapsulates everything that modern western adults are afraid of in real life.

 

Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley collaborated to produce The Space Between, in which a man finds he can spy on his neighbours and it becomes a compulsion that ruins his life. I read this as a parable about Facebook and the like but even without that resonant layer it’s a chilling story.

 

 

 

Shadows and Tall Trees is a truly brilliant book, showcasing the most subtle horror fiction currently being written. Go buy it.

Ketchup on Everything by Nathan Robinson. Book review.

ketchupIt’s dusk. A motor home pulls into the car park of a provincial diner somewhere in England. Inside are Elliot Tather and an urn containing his wife’s ashes. He is scouring the country for Evan, the son who went missing twenty years before.

 

In the course of the novella we hear about the day the boy disappeared, Elliot’s subsequent journey, and the events in the diner that night.

 

The heart of the story is the character of Elliot, a likeable chap who reminds me of every parent I’ve ever met. When he loses his son all the certainties in his life collapse; things he thought important fade to insignificance and the tracking down of his missing son becomes a life-long obsession.

 

This is not a novel for teenage gore-hounds. It deals with adult themes, and I don’t mean adult as a euphemism for sexual content. I mean that you’ll get more from this if you’re a parent and ever suffered that moment of panic when your child goes missing, or your child has had a serious illness. A parent will always feel the urge to do something, to sort it out, ride to the rescue, make everything better.

 

When your best efforts are ineffectual and irrelevant, you can doubt the whole point of your existence. If you can’t do that one simple thing, protect your child, you are worthless.

 

I don’t think any book I’ve ever read conveys this lonely helplessness better. Elliot’s horror is compounded by his responsibility to his wife, friends, relatives, and the need to show appreciation of their well meant efforts at consolation.

 

But Robinson tightens the emotional thumbscrews further. Often when reading a book with a tortured central character we think we would help ­if only we were there. We would offer support and ease the loneliness that so often afflicts great dramatic characters. In this case we know that we would be as useless as his well meaning friends, unless we could return his son to him. This reinforcement of Elliot’s isolation by forcing us to share his impotence is a masterstroke by Robinson, effectively amplifying his pain by resonating it with our own.

 

There is another distorted reflection of Elliot’s decimated family in the final scene in the diner, but I don’t want to even hint at what happens there, but I can tell you the story ends with hope, sadness and catharsis.

 

Ketchup on Everything is a short horror novel about the things that really scare adults in contemporary Britain, and one that will put you through the emotional wringer.

 

Highly recommended.