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.

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.

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.