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.

My view on the current (silly) Scottish Independence debate.

I have a problem with politicians, and it’s the same problem I have with deeply religious people or those with any long-standing beliefs.

 

Anyone who has been absolutely certain of anything for a long time cannot be trusted. If you can believe in anything unwaveringly for decades, whether it’s a political party, your god of choice, that women should (or shouldn’t) wear burkas, or that homosexuality is (or isn’t) evil, your opinion is irrelevant. The most useless people in any debate are the hardliners on both sides.

 

Put another way, the more strongly you believe that you are right, the less I believe you.

 

Politicians cherry pick information that supports their existing cause, and ignore or try to discredit anything that might give credence to an opponent. We know this, but we listen to them anyway hoping for a convincing, balanced and well thought out argument that might persuade us. It never appears.

 

I don’t have a telly, and my radio is not used for current affairs, so my main exposure to the debate is Facebook posts. They tend to be rigidly polarised, most often one side pointing out some error the other side has made and poking fun. I have yet to see either side show any respect or give any credit to the other. I hate that.

 

They keep telling us it’s the most important decision in Scotland’s recent history. It’s not. No matter what happens next month, in ten years time most Scots will be living where they would have been, doing the same job for the same salary and paying a similar level of tax for a similar level of public service. And complaining about it no doubt.

 

The Yes campaign keeps bringing up the failings of the Westminster government: dishonesty, corruption and unpopular policies. These are spurious arguments if we examine them singly.

 

  • The dishonesty I’ve already covered: any member or strong supporter of a political party or cause is inherently untrustworthy. Scottish politicians are no better.

 

  • The corruption thing is nothing to do with Westminster. Abuse of power happens everywhere, from Putin’s Russia to Troon Community Council. We need stringent laws and good policing but it’s probably impossible to eradicate from a democratic system.

 

  • Unpopular policies are once again part of the nature of democracy. Our elected representatives will make decisions you don’t like, or I don’t like. If those decisions displease the majority of the electorate, said representatives don’t survive the next election. The scale of government is not important. The current coalition government in the UK is not what I voted for and I have disagreed with some of their policies: others I have fully supported. The same will be true of a Scottish government, and no matter how local the government becomes it will still be true. If three friends have a vote on which pub to go to on a Friday, chances are one of them will be disappointed. The other options are for one person to make decisions on everyone’s behalf, or for each friend to go alone to their own choice of pub.

 

In the short term, independence will impact negatively on all our pockets – it’s probably cost us already. International investors hate uncertainty and almost certainly there have been board meetings in which overseas companies have chosen not to base their new European operation in Scotland, because anything could happen in the next year or two.

 

In the long term I think the difference to the Scots people will be negligible.

 

The Yes campaign’s other main argument is purely jingoistic, and I despise them for that more than anything.

 

Don’t you dare tell me that I’m any less Scottish than you, or that I love my country less than you, or that I care less about children and potential grandchildren that you do. My feelings about those things are my own business, but nationalism is dangerous because of the implied exclusivity of the word. The thing is, I care equally about friends and family in England, and Wales, and Ireland. I also care about the rest of Europe, and about people in trouble all round the world. Quite a lot of the trouble they’re in is down to petty parochial arguments about what city the taxes should be administered in, or what religion the administrators should be. It’s all shite and I hate it.

 

I have more to say, but this could turn into a rant and take me all night.

 

AND I HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO. There are books to read, songs to sing, beauty to be photographed, art to be appreciated. You know, those things that make us human. Please give me peace from all this independence nonsense.

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.

HORROR HAIKUS

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Just a silly idea I had, because people are posting drabbles and two sentence horror stories.  So why not haikus?  Here are my first few attempts.

You think you’re safe here

In the crowd, the crush of flesh.

I’m right behind you.

 

Rose’s are red now

They were lighter before I

Made the incision

 

You smile when I say

I’m going to let you go now.

I’m such a liar.

 

Please be a monster

Sent from Hell to eat children

Not Daddy again.

 

Keep the curtains closed

So that we know the monster

Isn’t really there.

 

Time to reminisce

Might as well while punctured lungs

Slowly fill with blood.

 

Walking through the woods

You spot me in the shadows

Should have got the bus

 

Phone beeps. Text. You read

“Your hair looks nice.” You look round

Your eyes are nice too.

 

Come to Aunt Lucy

I know a place we can play

I’ll teach you the game.

 

Piles of little bones

Each topped with a child-sized skull

Lovingly polished.

 

Footsteps, heavy breathing.

Faster, catching up.  You turn.

Snick, squelch, drip.  Too late.

 

Curtains twitch, peek out.

Empty street. Relax.  But I’m

Already inside.

 

Say that again please.

No, not you Doctor. I meant

The voice in my head.

Doctor Sleep review

ImageWe all know that bad things happen to children, not just in Stephen King books, and childhood trauma can have life-long psychological effects on the adults they become.  Danny Torrance was six during the events of The Shining, so it’s hardly surprising that he is as emotionally damaged as anyone who has survived violence or child abuse.  By the time this sequel really gets going he’s in his thirties, alcoholic, prone to violent fits of temper and tortured by guilt over the things he’s done in his life.

In this novel, three stories happen in parallel: Danny is coping with assorted supernatural unpleasantness and battling his own shortcomings; we follow a little girl with a very powerful shine, and there is a group of people who prolong their lives, vampire-like, by ingesting the steam that comes from shining children as they’re murdered.  Needless to say, the stories converge and mayhem ensues.  As is often the case with King, we can see most of main plot events coming 100 pages in advance, but I’m still not going to tell you much more here.  You should read it yourself.

Although the ghost of The Shining dominates the book, I was more reminded of other early King works.  A lot of the second half is about a disparate group who are thrown together to battle the evil, in a similar way as Salem’s Lot; and the super-powered little girl is reminiscent of the protagonist in Firestarter.  It might also seem that he’s revisited the writing style of that era too, though I think it would be truer to say that King’s prose hasn’t really changed much in the last forty years.

Stephen King is an easy target for literary snobs.  He over-writes, tells us things twice and foreshadows more than is good for him.  He likes to make sure we get everything and his subtext isn’t usually very deeply buried.  Critics tend to compare him to great prose stylists like Peter Straub or Ramsey Campbell, and say that King is clumsy and overpointed by comparison, but really they’re all missing the point.

Stephen King is a storyteller, one of the best.  I read this novel quickly and enjoyed every moment.  It’s evocative, character-based, and highly readable, partly because of the repetition and overwriting.

For comparison, read this and then pick up one of Ramsey Campbell’s classics – maybe The Hungry Moon – I’m sure you all have that.  Campbell’s dense prose requires your full attention.  If you let your mind wander or your eye glide over a paragraph you’ve probably missed something important because there are no surplus words.  Any literary scholar will tell you that Campbell is the superior craftsman, but I don’t think it’s the case that King is less skilful than his more respectable peers – he’s doing a different job, and he’s damn good at it.

I’ve come up with half a dozen analogies to help me understand this myself, and my favourite so far is the food one.  Reading Campbell is like going to a Michelin starred restaurant and ordering the plat du jour.  You know it’s going to be brilliant, even if it’s not to your taste, and the flavours and textures will be expertly combined, though some of the touches will be subtle.  It’s as good as food gets.

But we can’t live on such rich fare every day – sometimes you want a cheeseburger, or a fish supper, or mince and tatties like your granny did it.  Perhaps Chez Campbell isn’t the best place for those treats.  That’s when we walk round the corner to King’s Diner and enjoy the meal just as much.

Don’t dis’ the King

Anti-smoking rant

I found this on my old Myspace page, from when I used to put blogs up there.  If I were to write it now my language may be less aggressive, but it’s fair to say that my attitude to smoking hasn’t softened in the intervening years.

 

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I heard a programme on the radio today – very intelligent and articulate people talking heatedly about the erosion of civil liberties in our “nanny state”, how the government takes a patronising and condescending view of the public and how we no longer trust the public to make their own decisions.

 

They pointed to emotive use of crying children by a graveside in a TV ad, horrific visual imagery of damaged body parts designed to shock, and the way the government talks down to us and tries to manipulate us.  All very laudable sentiments apparently promoting freedom of expression and individual responsibility, except that they were only talking about SMOKING!!

 

I think a few points need to be made here:

 

  1. Smoking is bad.  You already know this, because anyone who doesn’t is probably a deaf-mute hermit who doesn’t own a telly or radio, can’t read and hasn’t held a conversation with an intelligent human being since the 1940’s.

 

  1. Trying to persuade people not to smoke is one of the most valid uses of public money I can think of, and smokers are CRAP at giving up just because they know they should.  Apparently knowing it’s going to kill you, and that your last couple of decades will be much less fun, and that you’ll get much less sympathy when you get ill because frankly we’re all fed up with your deluded self-pitying whinging, is not enough.  You’re committing slow suicide and we would rather you didn’t.

 

  1. If images of orphaned children, slices of blackened lung, and bullying, haranguing and making you feel like a leper are effective in making you stop smoking, then they are justified.  WE ARE TALKING ABOUT SAVING LIVES HERE, so worrying about whether we are exploiting children or that we may shock some sensitive old dears is like complaining that ambulances are too noisy.

 

  1. There’s no point in feeling that we are patronising you when we try to persuade you not to smoke.  You can’t tell us you’re an intelligent adult capable of making your own life choices, because by smoking at all you prove that you are NOT.  At some point in the past you got up in the morning and thought, “Mmm, what shall I do today?  I know! I’ll take up smoking!”

 

This is about as sensible as “I know! I’ll saw off my left leg!” which in fact would probably be less painful in the long run. (Sorry…)  We have the right to talk down to you as if you were a small child or suffering from some mental condition, and to take any steps necessary to make you stop, just like we have a right and even a responsibility to stop a child in the street from repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a hammer.  We don’t need to justify our stance or prove that you need guidance, because we just watched you doing probably the STUPIDEST THING YOU CAN POSSIBLY DO.

 

  1. Smokers continually evade the question, and use arguments about civil liberties and freedom to mask the fact the fact that they are doing something truly, outrageously stupid.  The real question is, “Why do you smoke and why don’t you stop?”  The answer we most often get is, “It’s none of your business and you are infringing my personal freedom by even asking.”

 

 

GET A GRIP.

 

COME OUT OF DENIAL.

 

IF YOU HATE YOURSELF AND WANT TO DIE, THERE ARE QUICKER AND LESS PAINFUL WAYS.

 

IF YOU SMOKE IT’S BECAUSE YOU ARE STUPID.  ACCEPT IT, FIX IT AND MOVE ON.