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.

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Book Review: Midway by Nathan Robinson

Midway cover

Sam Berlitz is a team member in an international swimming race across the Atlantic. He feels as though he’s been swimming for longer than his one-hour allocation and realises the boat with his teammates on it is gone.

Alone, afloat in the unforgiving ocean a thousand miles from land his mind starts to create monsters. Or maybe they’re not all in his mind.

Midway is part mystery thriller and part survival horror with a good dose of Lovecraftian weird thrown in. I won’t tell you how it all pans out but the stuff that actually happens is secondary to Sam’s emotional journey. It’s the loneliness, the lack of stimulus, his fear of the dark, sleep deprivation and the tricks his mind plays on him that make this a riveting read. The tension doesn’t let up from about three pages in till the very end. I was furious when I had to stop reading and go back to work.

As well as the anxiety over his almost certain impending death, he starts to dwell on his life and his relationships. He has a fiancée but is having sex with a teammate on the boat. He compares them with each other, with his parents and friends, and with his dog, trying to decide whom he’ll miss, and what he’ll do if he miraculously survives. It’s a touching moment when he realises that dying means he’ll never walk the dog again.

I had some quibbles with Robinson’s prose at the very beginning: there is some extraneous description that could be cut. But I honestly don’t know if it got better or if I was just too engrossed in the story to notice. The prose became invisible and only served the story – a sure sign of quality writing.

Get past the slightly over-written beginning and you’re in for a rare treat. highly recommended.

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.

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.

Children in Horror Films or They only LOOK human.

Ju-on boyThe spooky child has been an archetype in horror cinema for a long time, but there was a period a year or two ago when I saw a dozen films in a row that used children.  The more mainstream ones included:

Citadel

Paranormal Activity 4

Silent Hill Revelation

Insidious

Sinister

Woman in Black

There are many more, and if you look through the whole history of horror movies the list gets huge and includes some of the scariest and most successful films in the genre.  It got me thinking, and here are my conclusions.

People interact with each other every day, and generally we know what’s going on.  We speak to each other, but also read subtle changes in posture, facial expression or tone of voice.  This works because adult human beings tend to be similar in fundamental ways.  We don’t have identical problems, but we understand and, most importantly, empathise with others, and assume the empathy is mutual.

Some of our major horror tropes rely on a breakdown of this mutual understanding – something that looks human but lacks that connection with the rest of humanity is a monster.  I’m talking werewolves, vampires, psychopaths, zombies etc.

A more extreme version is the alien thing, a creature so radically different from us as to be beyond understanding, so that we can only see each other as enemy, or prey.  Movies like Alien, Terminator, Final Destination and all the big bug movies work on this principle.  Look into the eyes of Giger’s creature, or those of a giant spider, and you know that it doesn’t care about you.  It doesn’t care if you suffer or die, because there is no room for empathy.

Now keep that in mind and think of a child of six or seven.  The face, the hair, the general layout, are all human – it looks just like you only cuter.  But look in the eyes and what you won’t see is that empathy that makes true human connection possible.  It doesn’t understand you and it doesn’t care, and you have no idea what’s happening in that tiny skull.  Parents think they know their children, but that’s an illusion.  Kids cling to us for protection, comfort, warmth, or food, but only in the same way as cats do.  And our overwhelming instinct to protect and nurture skews our perception of what they’re really like.

Human brains tend to anthropomorphise: we attribute human characteristics to animals, machines, even forces of nature.  We might understand on an intellectual level that the rain hasn’t chosen to start right now and ruin our day because Auntie Weather thinks it’s funny, but we can’t help thinking it. We do the same with children – we might call this phenomenon adultomorphism.  We see faces that look like ours and we think they’re human, but we can no more understand those small and utterly selfish creatures we can a cockroach, or a moonbeam.

Deep down, we know all this.  We fear children in a profound way, partly because of the lack of true understanding, partly because we know we are looking at our replacements.   Yet we are tied to them by an inescapable emotional reaction that makes it almost impossible to run away and abandon them to their fate.  Possibly the worst thing is that if they do turn out to be monsters it will be our fault.

So when the spooky child is used effectively (The best example off the top of my head is Ju-on) two things happen at once.  We see a monster and want to run, but when the monster is a distressed child, instincts evolved over millennia draw us to it to offer comfort.  These conflicting emotional reactions twist together in our gut like a bayonet.  And that’s why creators of horror like to use children.