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

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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.

The Moon King by Neil Williamson – book review

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So I’ve just read Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King. As quite often happens when I read great stuff I feel under-qualified to comment on it as he is (probably) cleverer than me and (definitely) a better writer than me. But that’s never stopped me before from spouting opinions so what the hell.

There is an island city ruled by immortal benevolent dictator The Lunane. When he founded the city he captured the moon and set it permanently above the city – a symbol of the city’s greatness and of his own power.

As a consequence, the moon is the dominant factor in the life of Glassholm (It’s essentially Glasgow and the Glassholmers are Glaswegians). At full moon, everybody is happy and Glassholm is one big party; as the moon wanes architecture crumbles, mechanical things fail and the mood of the populace sinks until at full dark all the lights go out and there is depression and violence.

This is how things have been for centuries, but suddenly things start to go awry: there is a murder at full; the luck monkeys deliver only bad luck; children made of water haunt the city, and the moon’s behaviour no longer correlates with the palace mathematicians’ calculations.

I won’t go into any more details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone intending to read the book. And everyone should read this book. It’s a rip-roaring adventure, a pacy crime thriller, an inventive alternate reality fantasy, and most of all a modern fable. The prose is sweet enough to be almost invisible and the characters all genuinely breathe.

All of that is enough to make it a worthwhile read, but where it gets really interesting, and where this reviewer starts to feel out of his depth, is in the subtext.

The city, in order to cope with the monthly cycle of decay and repair, is sturdy and solid, the people pragmatic and stoical, surviving the dark days with a mix of bleak humour and bloody-mindedness. They are exactly like Glaswegians, and perhaps because of that I kept feeling correlations, noticing the other ways it reflected the city that spawned me.

A major theme of the novel is the cyclical nature of life, though in The Moon King the only cycle that counts is the lunar one. His description of the full moon revels sound not much different from Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night: lots of loud drunk happy people, uninhibited and doing and saying things they’ll regret tomorrow. And the undercurrent of unease in this party atmosphere, the feeling that failing to join in might mark you as an outsider or a target, is portrayed perfectly in the novel. Glasgow on a Tuesday night is a very different place.

The cycle of decay and repair happens in Glasgow too, but over a year rather than a month. Our winters are harsh, but not so cold that the temperature stays below freezing for weeks at a time. Water seeps into cracks in walls or roads, freezes and widens them, again and again over the winter. Then the January storms come and roof tiles, trees and trampolines fly around causing more damage. With the spring sunshine come the workies repairing potholes and rebuilding architecture.

Another major theme is conservatism, linked with complacency and fear of change, even when the status quo is deeply flawed and a bit sinister. In a way it could be taken as a comment on the current Scottish independence debate, if he hadn’t told me he’d started writing it nine years ago.

And finally, perhaps its most blatantly fabulist theme is the danger of trying to interfere with nature. We might think we’re in charge but she will have her way in the end – even a thousand years of the illusion of control can crumble when nature retakes the reins.

Some of it is still spinning around in my head and I’ll quite possibly change my mind about everything I just wrote in the coming weeks.

Overall, this is a highly rewarding reading experience that works on as many levels as you want it to. He leaves a lot of the details vague, giving us room to fill in our own ideas, showing the reader some respect. Extra marks just for that Neil.

Starers, by Nathan Robinson – Book Review.

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I’ve read several of Nathan Robinson’s short stories, including his excellent collection Devil Let Me Go and I’ve generally enjoyed them, but Starers is the first substantial piece of his I’ve encountered.  And I was impressed.

 

He starts by introducing us to a normal family: a married couple, their teenage daughter and his drunken brother.  He doesn’t rush the first part of the book, but it doesn’t drag – we get involved and interested in the kind of problems that any family might encounter.  The relationships are handled sensitively and I got a feel very quickly for the family dynamic.

 

The first strange thing we see is an old man standing at a bus stop, then a neighbour standing naked in her garden just staring at the family’s house.  More people join the crowd and nobody does anything – they just stand there and stare.  And it’s the creepiest and most effective thing I’ve read this year.

 

The build of tension and the strain on the already fragile familial relationships are beautifully portrayed, and the implied, non-specific threat of the ever-growing horde of starers makes for a claustrophobic and volatile atmosphere, which inevitably escalates.

 

I’m reluctant to tell you more for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you read it, but a crowd of people standing watching a house is only the appetizer – much more stuff happens as the story progresses.

 

This is self-published, and there are a few small slips in grammar or style, but nothing that will stop you having a great time with this book.  I hope that one day soon Mr. Robinson can land a proper publishing deal and get a professional editor to work with to give his work that final polish.  As it stands though, it’s a more satisfying and certainly a scarier book than several things I’ve received from mainstream publishing houses in the last few months.

Frightfest Glasgow 2014

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Frightfest Glasgow 2014

 

First, the event itself is lots of fun.  There’s a good atmosphere, it’s well organised and everyone has a good time.  The GFT is the perfect venue with comfy seats, and it’s handy for lots of good fast food places.  It’s a place for people like me to go and for once not feel like the freaky pervert.  But here is a short review for each film.

 

 

PROXY.                      êêêê

 

A realistic and well-acted indie film which tackles lots of issues in a fairly subtle way.  I can’t tell you much detail without spoilers, but it starts with a heavily pregnant woman losing her baby after a violent attack.

 

There are four main characters, all of whom are psychologically abnormal in some way.  One appears to sociopathic; one is just an attention seeker; there’s a violent psychopath and a full-blown paranoid psychotic.  Importantly, they all have secrets and none of them communicate fully with each other or the outside world.

 

An intriguing film, with some nice touches and genuine surprises, but it rather lacked pace.  It dragged a bit in the middle and I found my interest flagging.

 

 

WOLFCREEK 2.       êê

 

I haven’t seen Wolf Creek 1 – I don’t like the whole torture porn thing so I never fancied it.  So I wasn’t looking forward to this.

 

It starts with the anti-hero being wrongly stopped by two policemen.  Five minutes later the cops are dead, but he seemed not to want to kill them and he only did it because they were being unreasonable.  He also seems to have a sense of humour so the audience warms to him.  However, as the movie progresses, we realise just how evil he is, and we are invited to laugh along with him as he rapes, tortures and murders his way through the film.  And the big reveal is that he does it all to purify Australia – he only kills tourists unless he really as to kill somebody else.  So he’s racist too.

 

It has some things going for it: some of the humour was good and I liked that first victims were a young German couple. We automatically liked them better than we would any English speakers.

 

My depravity filter is set quite high, but there has to be a reason for it –  here the plot was repetitive and derivative, and there wasn’t enough fun to make up for the general yuckiness of it.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody really.

 

 

SACRAMENT            êêê

 

A retelling of the Jonestown massacre story, in found footage form.  This is a classy and serious piece of work that stays fairly true to the source material, despite updating to the present.  An excellent set-up and some fine performances from the leads but I felt it never really engaged with the issues raised, and I found it a little po-faced for my taste.

 

 

AFFLICTED               êêêê

 

The phrase found footage vampire movie would make most horror fans groan and go to the bar, but this proves that with a bit of imagination it’s still possible to make a great movie despite the clichés.

 

Two young American guys go on a world travel adventure because one of them has a terminal illness.  In Paris, the sick guy is bitten by a woman at a party then he gradually develops symptoms – bad skin, aversion to sunlight, nausea.  So far so familiar, right?

 

But the characterisation is utterly convincing, the protagonist sympathetic even as he turns into a monster, and the relationship between the two actors is perfectly conveyed.  Also, the make up and special effects are spectacular for this kind of low-budget horror, and it’s not at all romantic.  Even the ending, which almost turns into a superhero movie, is logical and in keeping with the mood of the film.

 

Recommended.

 

 

VIDEO NASTIES: DRACONIAN DAYS      êêê

 

A documentary about The Ferman Era – the period from 1084-1989 when James Ferman was in charge of the BBFC.  It’s the sequel to Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, directed by the same guy.

 

It was quite interesting, but it didn’t tell me much I didn’t know already.  It was fun to hear people reminisce about what they had to go through to acquire uncensored horror and erotic videos, and the whole underground distribution network that existed.  It’s unimaginable now that anyone could be arrested for owning a copy of Zombie Flesh Eaters or Deep Throat.

 

I also also that it showed Fernman fairly without demonizing him.  He was a product of his time and class, doing a high-pressure job under a difficult legislative regime and trying to balance liberal values with deeply ingrained moral conservatism.

 

At Frightfest it was followed by a Q&A with the director, some of the contributors and the current head of the BBFC, which is currently implementing new guidelines that came into force in February.

 

Fun and quite interesting, but probably only for horror enthusiasts.

 

 

THE SCRIBBLER                   êêê

 

Very much in the comic book style – visually striking with some excellent special effects.  It morphs half way through from a crime thriller to a superhero story, set in a halfway house where mentally ill people prepare for their reintegration into society.

 

The characters have an entertaining variety of disorders, and the protagonist suffers from multiple personality disorder, but it didn’t come across as exploitative – there was no making fun of the mentally ill.

 

The tone and the fantastic visuals imply some great philosophical profundity, but really it’s all gloss.  It’s a bit of fun, and I liked it.

 

 

TORMENT                 ê

 

I think the Frightfest organisers let me down this time.  I go to festivals because I expect the films to have been vetted and the dross eliminated.  They must have been drunk when they agreed to this

 

A clichéd home invasion movie, copied almost shot for shot from a dozen better films – it’s most reminiscent of last year’s You’re Next, which I enjoyed more than most people.  A few moments of tension and jumps, but no logic, no explanations, no reason to care.  No reason to watch.

 

 

MINDSCAPE               êêêê

 

This one is not a horror movie at all, but a complex psychological thriller, somewhat in the style of Inception.  The setup is a multi-layered reality, in which memory detectives can enter people’s memories to discover evidence for police or other interested parties.

 

When one such detective is assigned a disturbed teenage genius the fun begins.

 

Memories are unreliable, so we never know if what we’re seeing is actually real, or similar to what happened.  Very good indeed, brilliantly acted and a twist I didn’t see coming.

 

 

ALMOST HUMAN    êê

 

Low budget and a bit trashy, this is in the style of 1980s sci-fi horrors like XTRO.  There is obviously an affection for the genre and it gets extra points from me for having been made by enthusiasts with their own money.

 

However, the writing, acting, effects and dialogue were all pretty ropey, and it never really got scary, but it was a harmless enough way to pass 80 minutes.

 

 

KILLERS                    êêêê

 

Three main characters, all murderers.  One is a despotic politician, one a confused psychopath, and the third a fan of the psychopath’s video channel.

 

At first viewing it seems to be about voyeurism and sadism, and the things that happen are as nasty as anything you’ll see, even from Japan.  But behind all the blood is a sympathetic exploration of two damaged characters (The politician is just evil) and their struggle to find a place in modern society.

 

A dark but highly intelligent thriller, recommended for strong stomachs.