2017: My Review of the Year in Books and Stories

I’ve had quite a few stories published this year, in publications you can see on the relevant page. Here I want to talk not about what I’ve written, but about exceptional stories I’ve read this year. To enable me to limit the numbers to those I can discuss in depth, I’m limiting them to those published this year. It includes some short stories published in anthologies that also published my work, by authors I might not otherwise have discovered had I not received contributor copies.

So let’s start with short stories, some of which fall into this category…

 

SHORT STORIES

When reading my contributor copy of Horror Library vol. 6 (Cutting Block Press), I was particularly struck by Marc E. Fitch’s ‘The Starry Crown‘, an eerie exploration of a Deep American South still infested both with kudzu and the terrible legacy of slavery. The title comes from an old song that may be familiar to readers from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? It has similar preoccupations to that film, though its conclusions are somewhat more pessimistic. Definitely a horror story for our times…

The same anthology ended on a particularly high note with Carole Johnstone’s mountaineering epic ‘Better You Believe‘. To echo the climber’s joke it opens with, typical of the author’s dry sense of humour, things go downhill from the word go, but not in the quality of the fiction, which is as sharp and glacial as its subject matter.

Moving to Cold Iron (Iron Press), an anthology of twenty first century ghost stories to which I contributed a story,  I’d first like to mention Tracy Fahey, a writer whose work I’ve had the pleasure of discovering this year. Her ‘Playing in Their Own Time‘ in this anthology is an excellent contribution to the ‘TV paranormal investigation’ trope. The lesson is, don’t take your daughter to the ‘most haunted’ Irish castle where you’re working. (While I’m on the subject of Fahey, I’d also like to mention ‘The Woman Next Door’, a fiendishly brilliant tale with a devastating ending, though strictly speaking it’s outside the remit of this review, as it comes from her BFA-nominated collection, which came out in 2016, but what the Hell!)

Cold Iron also boasts ‘The Lengthsman‘, a deliciously creepy contribution from Charles Wilkinson. Its power derives from evoking class tensions in a small Welsh village, echoing Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, but with a bleak denouement all its own, built on upper middle class parental heartlessness. Its post-war British feel is perhaps too old-school for an anthology so keen to boast its millennial credentials, but its themes are nonetheless contemporary in a country where inequality is rising scandalously, moving us back to the pinched, class-bound era this tale evokes.

The last of the contributor copies I received this year was also from Cutting Block Press: Single Slices — an anthology of longer short fiction, getting into the novelette range. From this I’d like to single out firstly Felice Picano’s ‘After Sunset, in the Second Drawing Room Garden‘. A high-flying TV script-writing power couple move into a Beverley Hills mansion. Pregnant Ashleigh is particularly attached to the room of the title, whose supernatural whispers from Hollywood’s bitchy Golden Age result in success for the couple in the short term, but tragedy in the long term. It’s a pitch-perfect traditional ghost story with a very modern feel for the era of HBO and Netflix. Another stand-out from Single Slices is Brian Lillie’s ‘The Shiro‘, which comes across like The Thing meets Heart of Darkness with shady mycologists and mercenaries in the South American jungle, and a hell of a lot of evisceration…

As in his ‘The Salter Collection’, from Mark Morris’s excellent anthology New Fears (Titan Books), Lillie confounds our expectations by locating the source of the horror in primal forces within the character you’d least anticipate. I thought I’d bring in this book to prove I haven’t just been reading my contributor copies! But from ‘The Morris Collection’, my favourites were Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Shepherds’ Business‘ and ‘Dollies‘ by Katherine Ptacek. Gallagher’s a veteran script-writer and author of such horror classics as Valley of Lights and ‘The Horn’, while Katherine Ptacek’s a writer new to me. Both achieve gut-punch twist endings with these tales, not cheap punchlines, yet grounded in grim, abusive human relationships.

Let me also mention two stories from single author collections published in 2017, something I’ve been remiss about reading. Firstly ‘The Early Signs of Blight‘ from Kristine Ong Muslim’s Eibonvale Press mini-collection The Drone Inside: this takes the trope of the child’s monster in the cupboard fears in a new and horrifying direction. Then there’s Mark West’s collection from Dark Minds Press, Things We Leave Behind, in which I particularly enjoyed ‘What Gets Left Behind‘. Strictly speaking it’s an oldie that came out as a chapbook some years ago, but it’s a goodie, and this is the first chance I and probably many others have had to read it. Its title is almost the same as the collection, and it seems like Mark’s signature story and theme: a middle-aged man looking back on a traumatic incident, in this case two boys playing somewhere they shouldn’t, discovering something that changes everything.

Moving onto another top-notch anthology, Great British Horror Two: Dark Satanic Mills (Black Shuck Books), the ones that really stood out for me were Gary Fry’s ‘Satin Road‘ and John Probert’s ‘The Church With the Bleeding Windows‘. (I almost missed out the ‘n’ there, which would have made an even weirder image than the mis-spelling that begins Fry’s story) With these stories, yes, the authors do make their stories black jokes ramping up to sick punchlines. But they carry them off with such wicked glee that they remind us that horror can be fun! Probert’s story opens with the bald statement: “There was blood everywhere”. It ends with an equally simple but cruelly effective last line: the kind Robert Bloch would have killed for. In Fry’s, the accent isn’t so much on humour, though it reminds me of Ramsey Campbell’s work and his interest in writing E.C. Comics-style short tales with all the graveyard humour that implies. At first I thought the opening musings on the road-sign defaced to mis-spell ‘Satan’ were a bit of a digression, but they link to the main story and the actually rather serious theme at the heart of this story and of its succession of surreal and grisly closing images: the twisting and misunderstanding of words, and the inability of closed minds to imagine things beyond their comprehension.

This isn’t to do down some of the more straight-faced offerings within these Dark Satanic pages, which have many highlights, such as Cate Gardner’s surreal, dystopian and lyrical ‘Fragments of a Broken Doll’, Gary McMahon’s fusion of martial arts and cosmic terror in an urban wasteland ‘The Night Moves’ and Marie O’ Regan’s revelation of the horrifying meaning of ‘Sleeping Black’. Not to mention a cracking Glasgow police procedural horror novella by Carole Johnstone…

That name again! We really aren’t related, in case anyone’s wondering…

Which brings me to:

 

NOVELLAS

Before I mention Carole Johnstone again (this is getting embarrassing!), let me turn first to Laura Mauro’s debut novella Naming the Bones (Dark Minds Press). On the face of it, an old-fashioned tale of monsters in the Underground that will have fans of Quatermass and the Pit and Deathline salivating with anticipation, it’s actually more of a character piece, focusing on the traumatised reaction of Alessa Spiteri, a survivor of a terrorist attack. She thinks the monsters she saw down there are imaginary, but others have seen them too. What makes this book so compelling is the interplay between the three main female characters, the tough but vulnerable Alessa, her supportive, grounded sister Shannon and the disturbed, manipulative Casey, with wry, funny dialogue, sharper than the claws of one of its subterranean monsters, the Shades. It’s also a novella with a lot of heart, and I don’t just mean one that’s splattered all over a tube station platform.

Carole Johnstone’s Skyshine (or Death by Scotland), which appeared in Black Static #50 (TTA Press), shares many of these qualities too, but with different subject matter and a rather more free-wheeling range of UK settings and narrative styles, as fractured as its central character’s mind. Starting with the fragment of a retrospective non-fiction book about some kind of apocalyptic event referring to an unnamed ‘patient zero’, moving onto an apparently unrelated catastrophe in a news cutting, there then follows a scene of Whitehall farce worthy of The Thick of It, before we meet the mental patient whose progress we follow southwards, a young woman armed only with some patois words of wisdom from a West Indian who works on her ward and some dodgy wonder drug the government wants to test on her, as she’s sent out into a hostile, indifferent world. I hope this gives you some idea of the fierce, angry, mind-bending imagination and invention of this story.

Finally, another novella that blew me away, also from TTA Press, was Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method, whose funereal premise has singer songwriter Krisztina Ligetti overcoming her writer’s block only when she begins to ‘hear’ the ‘songs’ of the dying. To add to her troubles she’d pursued by a mysterious stranger wearing a macabre porcelain mask. Those who enjoyed Avery’s music-based stories in Black Static, ‘Sunflower Junction’ and ‘Going Back to the World’, will find this melancholy tale music to their ears — particularly as the latter story features as an extra in the novella edition.

 

NOVELS

Well, actually novel, because I’ve only read two from this year, so I thought I’d better pick one out of the two, and it’s got to be The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books), who for me has really taken a quantum leap fiction-wise since she’s taken up the mantle of Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and other purveyors of neo-Victorian Gothic, and made it her own. I loved The Hidden People and this is even better, introducing us to a similarly prim, obsessive, unreliable male narrator with a penchant for micro-managing his significant other’s reading habits. If the prose can read somewhat stilted at times, that’s a reflection of the mind of its repressed and tormented narrator. It’s apt that the name for psychiatrists at the time was ‘mad-doctors’, because it’s a toss-up whether the most unhinged physician is the hapless Nathaniel himself, his employer Dr Shettle with his unhealthy interest in phrenology or the slimy mesmerist Dr Lumner our hero calls in to save his lady love Victoria from ECT. But the thing about the narrator is his contradictions. He’s appalled when Shettle gives her the water treatment, rightly seeing it as a form of torture to force her into submission to her husband, and yet he too can’t quite see past this goal himself or acknowledge his feelings for her. Victoria herself is no shrinking violet, full of dark complexity, possibly even echoing the same terrible myth as Richard Adams’s Girl in a Swing. Whether she’s villain or victim, femme fatale or proto-feminist, perhaps a bit of both, is for the reader to decide. But anyone who thinks they can see the twist coming is in for a shock.

 

So that’s my pick of the year’s reads, bearing in mind I haven’t read much of what’s come out this year, such as Priya Sharma’s collection from Undertow, which I’m sure must be excellent, and I’ve read some great stuff published in previous years., e.g. James Everington’s marvellously inventive blend of meta-fiction and retro-dystopia The Quarantined City, but I’m not going to mention anyone else because I want to watch The Detectorists marathon on BBC4, because that’s how I roll on New Year’s Eve…

 

 

 

 

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Happy Krampus Night

“I should show them the carving. But I can’t, for the same reason that I can’t take it back where it came from.

“I destroyed the evidence.

“I remember the the foul acrid stench — as if I was burning flesh rather than wood. That was nothing to the smell left in the bedroom after that first dream: as if a feral tom cat had marked its territory on our bedspread in the night, and imbued it with the entrails of decomposed birds and small mammals it had mauled, together with the reek of dead leaves long-immersed in putrid, stagnant water. You didn’t seem to notice, as you reclined in the afterglow of the kind of languorous, satiated bliss that I could never give you.”

Screenshot 2017-11-28 23.27.43

David Rix’s hypnotic minimalist cover design captures the eerie Alpine setting of Krampus folklore…

It’s that time of year, of course, when we turn on the twinkling fairy lights to keep the dark at bay. If the figure of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, has come to personify the bright gaudy spirit of Christmas, Krampus is his dark shadow, wielding a bundle of sticks to torment naughty children where Father Christmas rewards the good ones with the carrot of gifts, playing Old Nick to Saint Nick. To mark the season, Eibonvale Chapbooks are releasing my story ‘How I Learned The Truth About Krampus’, in which a post-graduate student visits Austria to research the mythology around this malevolent figure and comes across a sinister yet strangely compelling carving. I wrote this story,  a winter’s tale of madness, obsession and folk horror, for reading during the long, dark months to come, preferably in a snowbound isolated cottage…

***

“Behind her, in the windows, I could see my own face smiling back from the darkness where the snow fingers blindly groped at the panes, leaving melt prints. For a moment I thought I saw two points of light above the face, but they couldn’t have been stars on such a night.”

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The Sound of Horror

I’m on the Coastal Waters Review today, hosted by Caroline Waters, for a pre-Hallowe’en special at 4pm on Brighton and Hove Community Radio. Listen live at this link

www.bhcr.org.uk/bhcr

or wait for the upload on Mixcloud:

There’ll be a reading of my story ‘The Apotheosis of Jenny Swallow’, and I’ll be discussing the role of sound in horror, starting with radio horror, whether it’s the shows that used to crawl out through the static of your bakelite wireless set in the ‘Fifties or the use of radio stations as a setting and narrative device in films like The Fog. As an example of radio-based horror fiction, we’ll hear an extract from Thana Niveau’s terrifying short story ‘Two Five Seven’, about numbers stations. But sound is also crucial in the visual medium of the cinema, from the pounding on the bedroom door in The Haunting to the Foley-based frights of Berberian Sound Studio. Then there’s the role of music, not just as the soundtrack to horror movies but as subject matter, in gothic tales of mad composers, tormented concert pianists and devil-worshipping music promoters. We’ll be drawing connections between the treatment of this theme from The Phantom of the Opera to Simon Avery’s recent novella The Teardrop Method

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Cold Iron reviewed by Supernatural Tales blog.

The Supernatural Tales blog is reviewing Cold Iron (Iron Press), story by story. So far, ‘The Last Checkout’, ‘Support You Ever More’ and ‘Intruder’ have come under the microscope. My own contribution, ‘The Follow Up’, as befits its title, will be following a good distance behind as its the penultimate story in the anthology. The latest tale to get the Longhorn treatment is ‘How to be Invisible’ by the excellent Chris Barnham…
Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories
You can buy Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories here:
(Nice to see a press you can order from directly, rather than going through the publishing vampire that is Amazon…)
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Hallowe’en Ghost Story at Brighton Open Market

Like bowls? Love ghost stories? I’ll be telling a tale of supernatural goings on at a bowling green this coming Saturday 29th October, 4.30pm after the Hallowe’en costume parade. Featuring free Day of the Dead cookies! Part of Hallowe’en at Brighton’s Open Market:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1293409477356931/

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A Review of Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eight

A review of Best Horror of the Year # 8!

priya sharma fiction

Thanks to Keith West at Adventures Fantastic for his review of Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year Volume 8.

Datlow is one of the most accomplished editors in the field.  I know that any project, whether The-Best-Horror-of-the-Year-Volume-Eight-Ellen-Datlowreprint or original, will have a top-notch selection of stories.  That’s the case here.  Not every story was to my taste, but then I don’t expect them to.  The only anthology that will be completely to my taste will be one I’ve edited, and maybe not even then…Datlow has a deep love and respect for Lovecraft, and it shows in her selections.  Several of them had Lovecraftian elements.  All of the stories are top-notch, though, whether they have anything to do with HPL.  In scanning back over them as I was writing the above paragraphs, I was struck by how many of the stories I really liked.  Narrowing my list was harder…

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Paying Tributes

This month sees stories of mine appear in two anthologies with something in common. I say ‘stories of mine’, but given the nature of these books, they weren’t entirely mine, being both posthumous collaborations. Firstly ‘Holywood’ was an update of ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, which appeared in the third volume of Sarob Press’s series of M.R. James sequels and prequels The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows.

Secondly, and perhaps even more intriguingly, Peter Coleborn and Pauline E. Dungate of Alchemy Press gave me the opportunity to complete a story from the late Joel Lane’s hand-written notes for their book Something Remains, a project occupying the borderland between tribute anthology and posthumous single author collection. The story I chose was ‘The Body Static’. See original notes below:

the-body-static

For some of the other authors involved, the task of completing a story or poem from Joel’s notes and fragments was particularly personal, as they’d been close friends with the author for years before his untimely passing almost three years ago. This wasn’t the case for me, but even our brief acquaintance in the early stages of co-editing the anti-austerity anthology Horror Uncut meant this was no ordinary tribute. Even this sadly curtailed collaboration pointed to shared social and political concerns, so that when I saw the notes’ reference to a fatal industrial accident I had the germ of an idea to expand the character of the woman in the story.

I’m not sure where Joel would have gone with it, or what he would have thought of where I took the idea I saw behind his creation myth, of gods taking the life force from the first people and putting it into dead matter. All I know is it sounded so close to Marx’s idea of Capital transforming living labour into accumulated dead labour, I had to run with it! Hopefully Joel wouldn’t have been entirely unhappy with this, and might have enjoyed my use of real Birmingham locations, though there was some confusion over the exact destinations and stopping points of a couple of local bus routes that I hope I’ve managed to iron out in the final version…

You can read more about the book here:

https://alchemypress.wordpress.com/alchemy-publications/2016-publications/something-remains/

Here’s the massive TOC:

  • Foreword by Peter Coleborn
  • Introduction by Pauline E. Dungate
  • Not Dispossessed:  A Few Words on Joel Lane’s Early Published Works by David A. Sutton (Essay)
  • Joel by Chris Morgan (Verse)
  • Everybody Hates a Tourist by Tim Lebbon
  • The Missing by John Llewellyn Probert
  • Charmed Life by Simon Avery
  • Antithesis by Alison Littlewood
  • Dark Furnaces by Chris Morgan
  • The Inner Ear by Marion Pitman (Verse)
  • Broken Eye by Gary Mcmahon
  • Stained Glass by John Grant
  • Threadbare by Jan Edwards
  • The Dark above the Fair by Terry Grimwood
  • Grey Children by David A. Sutton
  • The Twin by James Brogden
  • Lost by Pauline Morgan (Verse)
  • Through the Floor [1] by Gary Couzens
  • Through the Floor [2] by Stephen Bacon
  • Bad Faith by Thana Niveau
  • Window Shopping by David Mathew
  • Clan Festor by Liam Garriock
  • Sweet Sixteen by Adam Millard
  • Buried Stars by Simon Macculloch
  • And Ashes in Her Hair by Simon Bestwick
  • The Pleasure Garden by Rosanne Rabinowitz
  • Joel Lane, Poet by Chris Morgan (Essay)
  • The Reach of Children by Mike Chinn
  • The Men Cast by Shadows by Mat Joiner
  • The Winter Garden by Pauline E. Dungate
  • Natural History by Allen Ashley
  • The Second Death by Ian Hunter
  • The Bright Exit by Sarah Doyle (Verse)
  • Blanche by Andrew Hook
  • The Body Static by Tom Johnstone
  • You Give Me Fever by Paul Edwards
  • The Other Side by Lynda E. Rucker
  • Of Loss and of Life: Joel Lane’s Essays on the Fantastic by Mark Valentine (Essay)
  • Shadows by Joe X Young
  • I Need Somewhere to Hide by Steven Savile
  • Coming to Life by John Howard
  • The Enemy Within by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • Afterword: The Whole of Joel by Ramsey Campbell (Essay)

There is a launch for Something Remains on Saturday 24th September at this year’s Fantasy Con in Scarborough. The book is non-profit, and all proceeds go to Diabetes UK in Joel’s memory. The launch will take place between 12 noon and 1pm in the main ballroom of the Grand Hotel, along with The Private Life of Elder Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris MacDonald and Adam Gauntlett.

#

Following up an already much-reprinted and read M.R. James tale was a bit more straightforward, though I was careful above to call it an ‘update’ above. It’s possibly one of those sequels that’s almost a remake, or vice versa, though I’ve sought to turn the original’s supernatural modus operandi on its head in keeping with the notion of ‘World Turned Upside Down’ mentioned by Alice Austin in my story. She is the literal descendant of John Austin, who wrote the poem pictured above that concludes the James story. ‘Holywood’s Mark Sutton on the other hand is the literary and spiritual descendant of Archdeacon Haynes, the villain of ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’.

Having read and re-read James’s oeuvre over the years, I often find his portrayal of ‘the lower orders’ shot through with a kind of belittling condescension, betraying a less attractive side to the mischievous sense of humour that was one of his literary strengths. Maybe that’s unfair, but I enjoyed the opportunity to highlight an injustice from the original swept under the carpet along with a certain stair-rod. In this it echoes C.E. Ward’s opening contribution to the anthology. Though closer to its original both in style and setting, taking place as the title suggests ‘Twenty Years Afterwards’ from the events of ‘Lost Hearts’, Ward’s tale explores the butler Parkes’s enforced complicity with the grisly goings-on at Aswarby Hall.

I haven’t read far enough to discover the full extent of ‘what the butler saw’, but David Longhorn of the Supernatural Tales blog has, and is ‘real-time reviewing’ the anthology. This is another thing it has in common with Something Remains, which is the subject of one of D.F. Lewis’s legendary ‘real-time reviews’. I’m aware of an older meaning of ‘tribute’ as a kind of sacrifice, and I’m not sure if my stories will be the Katniss Everdeens of these books or the kinds of tributes that succumb to a salvo of bullets in the first few chapters of The Hunger Games.

At the time of writing, I’ve yet to read David’s verdict on ‘Holywood’, but D.F. Lewis’s review of ‘The Body Static’ used the phrase ‘ingenious work’, which I think is a good sign…

Here are links to both blogs:

http://suptales.blogspot.co.uk/

https://horroranthology.wordpress.com/something-remains/

The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows, Volume 3, is a limited edition hardback from Sarob Press, and has already sold out! Click here to find out what you missed:

http://sarobpress.blogspot.co.uk/

Here’s the TOC:

Stories:  C.E. Ward ~ “Twenty Years Afterwards”, John Howard ~ “A Gap in Society”, John Llewellyn Probert ~ “Tempus Edax Rerum”, Steve Rasnic Tem ~ “The Man in the Rose Bushes”, Peter Holman ~ “Another Episode of Cathedral History”, Tom Johnstone ~ “Holywood”, David A. Sutton ~ “Bone Matter”, Katherine Haynes ~ “The Second Crown”, John Ward ~ “The Brooch”, D.P. Watt ~ “We Don’t Want for Company”, Peter Bell ~ “Blackberry Time” & Mark Valentine ~ “The Mask of the Dead Mamilius”.  Edited & Introduced by Rosemary Pardoe.

 

 

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