2018 in fiction

[A rather belated literary review of the year that was supposed to come out in December 2018…]

2018 was the year in which horror was officially back. In previous years, there have been gloomy predictions of its demise, even premature obituaries, tedious talk of ‘post-horror’ and so on. But last year proved these rumours to be exaggerated, with genre films getting Oscar recognition (Shape of Water winning the award for best film, while the far-superior-in-my-view Get Out won best screenplay), and ambitious, polarising and much-trumpeted horror releases Hereditary and the revamp of Suspiria. If horror was dead, it was only so in the same way that Dracula was at the end of each Hammer picture, only to be brought back to life in the next one by a spatter of crimson Kensington Gore all over his ashen remains.

This horror revival is also taking place in the world of fiction, artistically at least, even if we’re not seeing a repeat of the ‘horror boom’ in the commercial sense. Here’s Nina Allan’s excellent analysis of this resurgence.

Novels

I certainly agree with Nina about Catriona Ward, whose Little Eve was for me the novel of 2018. Building on the neo-gothic mode popularised by Sarah Waters and continued in Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People and The Crow Garden, Ward’s work in this book, like her debut Rawblood, takes it to a whole new level. Little Eve has also been likened to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but I feel Ward’s novel surpasses Hurley’s with its own harsh, brutal intensity. It may not have her 2015 work’s dizzying display of multiple narrative forms and voices, yet this relative formal simplicity seems only to add to its concentrated power. Its tale of a reclusive religious community holed up in a castle on Altnaharra seems aimed at anyone who’s ever watched The Wicker Man and thought ‘Hmm, joining a pagan death cult on a remote Scottish island looks like it might be kind of fun’. Reading about Wane, the Trying, the Duty and the other practices under the rule of the strangely distant and quietly despotic ‘Uncle’ would soon cure them of such notions…

With its epistolary plot twist, as intricately crafted as the work of a Swiss watchmaker, it puts the power of story-telling at the heart of its mystery, with a detective who’s more Inspector Goole than Sergeant Howie, pursuing its unforgettable eponymous anti-heroine, one of a predominantly female cast of vividly painted characters. She tells the story through language of stunning hallucinatory beauty, which may seem at odds with the raw grimness of the events on Altnaharra, except that it conveys the distorted viewpoint of someone who’s off their head on semi-starvation and other privations. The inhabitants of the island may be cut off from the mainland in more than the purely geographical sense, as outcasts from mainstream society, there are certain similarities between the situations of the women on both sides of the tidal causeway that links them. Evelyn and Sarah in particular are mirror images of each other, pariahs and tough survivors, similarly punished and shunned for their transgressions against stifling, unforgiving and arbitrary rules. One scene that sticks in my mind as an example of how humanity and kindness can endure in the harshest surroundings is the scene where Jamie MacRaith visits Sarah Buchanan with gifts to help her get by.

Another instance of the human spirit surviving in perhaps even more impossible circumstances is Simon Bestwick’s tale of armed resistance to fascist repression in a Britain devastated by a nuclear attack the Black Road quadrilogy, the penultimate instalment of which, Wolf’s Hill, Snow Books published in 2018, another novel worthy of an honourable mention as one of last year’s finest. After a recap allowing those who haven’t read them to pick up where they left off, reintroduces the wonderfully-named rebel leader Helen Damnation, something of a female version of Blake in Blake’s Seven, and there’s more than a hint of Terry Nation’s dystopian epic in the story, with the tyrannical Reapers putting a price on her head as the lightning rod and figurehead for insurrection, though the story’s earthbound rather than space operatic. Yet while the tone is bleak and gritty, there’s earthy humour here, and elements of wild dark fantasy and weird fiction, with characters like Tereus Winterborn, and bio-engineered monsters like the Grendelwolves and the Catchman developed under the auspices of the mysterious Project Tindalos.

The short scenes, with sub-chapter headings indicating the locations and times ‘attack plus twenty one years’, the nuclear hit having wiped out previous time measurement and creating a Year Zero, add to the brisk tense pace. These scenes intercut between rebel-held makeshift headquarters and those of the Reapers in the ruins of what was once Manchester, swiftly introducing a rich variety of characters and showing how they respond to the grim realities of life in this state of post-nuclear civil war, some having reverted to tribalism, others wanting to impose brutal order on the dazed population. The second novel, Devil’s Highway, showed Helen’s early life, neighbours trying to rebuild society co-operatively in the days following the blast, an attempt crushed as the first Reaper patrols descended on them and subdued them with acts of terror. In the opening pages of Wolf’s Hill, we meet a Reaper who’s gone over to the rebels’ cause and seems to want to redeem herself. We see her through the eyes of a burnt out medic treating everything from fallout-induced cancer to battle wounds in a succession of patients, then Helen and Alannah exchanging suspicious looks about the newcomer, and wonder if she’s genuinely reformed or will prove a traitor in the end. A line about how her parents handed her to the Reapers when she was a child reminds us of the lost generation of which she’s part, denied a childhood, something also explored through the character of Tereus Winterborn in Devil’s Highway

It’s as though Bestwick has swallowed post-war British TV science fiction wholesale, especially Nigel Kneale and Terry Nation (Blake’s Seven, Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks, Survivors) and of course Threads and The War Game, with more than a touch of folk horror thrown into the melting pot, also the British post-apocalyptic and dystopian literary tradition from George Orwell to James Herbert by way of V for Vendetta, to end up with a fantastically entertaining brew that also evokes something of grimdark fantasy, but in a real-world setting that’s very, uncomfortably now. I also wonder, based on this and his earlier book The Feast of All Souls (Solaris, 2016), if somebody called Kellett must have seriously pissed Bestwick off at some point in his life, but I don’t want to get into the biological fallacy here. Maybe it’s just a good name for a thoroughly despicable character, so good he used it twice!

Two novels from last year, which also deserve honourable mentions are The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Titan Books) and The House of Frozen Screams by Thana Niveau (Horrific Tales Publishing, not to be confused with Sere Prince Halverston’s 2015 novel The House of Frozen Dreams, though its title may well be a mischievous parody of that romance…) Both take well-worn tropes (holiday home under siege for Tremblay and couple buy cursed and haunted house in the Niveau book) and take them in new and startling, even shocking directions. Their protagonists are unusual too. None of your traditional nuclear families here: the first about a gay male couple who have adopted a little girl from China, and the second a portrayal of a woman who definitely doesn’t want to have babies at all. These atypical protagonists aren’t there just to prove the writers’ right-on credentials with their ability to create non-stereotypical characters, though there’s plenty of commentary of commentary on homophobia in the Tremblay and on the judgemental attitudes towards childless women in the Niveau, but these issues aren’t just window dressing: they’re central to the tragedies that afflict the central characters, but not in ways that suggest the characters’ homosexuality or non-maternal womanhood is to blame for their horrific misfortunes.

The House of Frozen Screams is Niveau’s first novel, and to start with I was worried it might lack the brooding intensity that marks her short fiction, seeming oddly disjointed and unfocused. As I read on, it grew on me as I realised this worked really well with the disintegration of the central character. I also like the way, rather like the Bestwick novel I mentioned The Feast of All Souls, it starts as an apparently cosy haunted house story about a troubled person or persons buying a fixer-upper with a tragic past, but takes it a much more bizarre and extreme direction, involving in both cases a particularly nasty supernatural manifestation of the Victorian patriarchy. And if I had any doubts about the brooding intensity coming in, it’s back with a vengeance before the end, believe me.

Single Author Collections

Now to some short story collections, and there were some good ones last year. Collections are a good way to revisit work you’ve already read in a magazine or anthology, and also discover gems by the same author you’ve missed in publications you haven’t managed to access or their previously unpublished stories.

One that’s destined to be a classic and for my money the collection of the year is Priya Sharma’s All the Fabulous Beasts (Undertow Press). It contains stories with which I’m already quite familiar, such as the British Fantasy Award-winning ‘Fabulous Beasts’, which effortlessly combines almost soap operatic gangland drama with magical transformation fantasy, ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’, an unforgettably disturbing horror story about psychosexual dysfunction and obsession, a theme echoed in ‘The Absent Shade’. Then there’s ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’, a traumatic slice of folk horror alternating between two time periods: the rise of Ireland’s housing bubble and after it burst in the wake of the global financial crisis. Its central character and narrator, an author who’s acquired a cruel nickname, ‘The Boomtown Bitch’, after a traumatic event that prefigures the collapse of her life, which mirrors that of the Irish economy, is one that’s hard to like, but by the end we’re rooting for her, despite the tragic mistakes she’s made.

I used the word ‘effortlessly’, possibly inaccurately. I mean Sharma’s work seems effortless, because she exercises such control over it. And I sense that this isn’t easy. Rather it takes a lot of hard work and hard choices. This is not to say she doesn’t take risks, for her subject matter and her treatment of it is always bold, startling and original. So her collection was a great opportunity to experience to me previously unread tales, such as her breathtaking alternative historical Merseyside Dystopia ‘Rag and Bone’, a vision of a society where bodies are commodities and the NHS never happened. That one passed me by when it first appeared on Tor.com five years ago so it’s a pleasure to come across it now. Another wonderful new discovery is ‘The Show’, a consummate tale of Most Haunted-style paranormal broadcasting, with a great line in grisly graveyard humour, evinced in this TV producer’s response to the show’s resident psychic going into too much detail about her vision of a pregnant woman’s evisceration:

“Greg frowned at her nasty embellishments. After all, it was a family show.”

‘The Show’

All this from a writer who once said in an interview she can’t do funny. On the contrary, its that very quality in her writing, as well as her musical prose and fascination with myth and folklore, that reminds me of Angela Carter’s grim fairy tales. But the world Sharma’s characters move in is more contemporary and easier to relate to than Carter’s. Finally, as it’s from Undertow, the book itself is naturally a thing of great beauty, whether you pay full wack for the hardback with its striking serpentine design, or the paperback with Vince Haig’s more florid evocation of art nouveau sensuality.

Honourable mentions from last year’s crop of collections include Rosanne Rabinowitz’s Resonance and Revolt (Eibonvale Press), with its visionary connections between radical politics and quantum physics. Interesting to compare her story ‘Pieces of Ourselves’, which first appeared in the anti-austerity anthology I co-edited with the late Joel Lane, Horror Uncut (Gray Friar Press, 2013), with Sharma’s ‘Fabulous Beasts’, as both use the image of shedding skin to great and, yes, resonant effect. The cover’s another design classic, thanks to the one-man cottage-industry David Rix of Eibonvale Press.

Another collection from 2018 to look out for is Colleen Anderson’s eclectic and daring A Body of Work from Black Shuck Books. As her biog tells us, she is something of a Renaissance woman, and in keeping with this, her range of subject matter is so varied, the collection reads like The Twilight Zone with more sex and violence. All the stories are reprints, but the only one I’d encountered before was ‘Sins of the Father’, a dark slice of urban fantasy that opens with a novel approach to the serial killer sub-genre. Most stories in this vein are either obsessed with the murderer’s psyche or empathise more with the victims, quite rightly as a counterweight to the morbid tendency of popular culture to glamorise psychopaths. Anderson takes a totally different tack: what if the killer is a family man? What are the consequences for his nearest and dearest? That, along with Vancouver’s damp problem, is the focus of this memorable story.

However, the highlight of the book is undoubtedly ‘Exegesis of the Insecta Apocrypha’, which pulls off the tricky conceit of fiction pretending to be non-fiction, complete with footnotes referencing other fictional sources. But the story isn’t just a technical achievement. It’s a disquieting psychological study of a very disturbed individual named Libby and of the cult-like global phenomenon inspired by her chilling behaviour. Going on to call the very basis of Libby’s worldwide following into question, this eerie and complex piece of fiction manages to comment on the nature of reality in the internet age, part of a whole sequence of stories in the collection around the life cycle, and most particularly the horrible yet fascinating role of decomposition therein. This is a theme she handles with a wonderful sense of the tactile, almost sensual aspects of decay. Here’s an example from ‘Exegesis’, describing how Libby’s obsession takes root after she sees fly larvae breeding in the corpse of a mouse at the age of four, drawing comparisons between these remorseless processes of nature and those at work in her young mind:

“There was something about the mindless infestation of life feeding voraciously on the dead. A need was deposited in her, a small egg incubating, maturing the more attention she gave it until it could eat its way out of her.”

‘Exegesis of the Insecta Apocrypha’

Another fine story, this time with a central character as compassionate and humane as Libby isn’t, is ‘The Healer’s Touch’, about Dr Petrovna who can literally lay healing hands on patients with nanobots in her fingertips, proving that Anderson is equally at home with science fiction as horror, though this tale’s subject matter, involving the good doctor treating refugee survivors and experiencing the traumas they’ve survived via the empathic aspects of her abilities, has some very harrowing moments.

In short, this is a spiky, scary, sexy body of work that left me startled, unsettled, amused and even somewhat aroused. Because there are a lot of ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, as they put it on Sky, in Anderson’s work. Not all of them are what you’d call ‘erotic’. as she’s not shy of confronting the darker, more oppressive side of sexuality. Almost every range of human sexual experience is here vividly depicted, from the joyously bawdy, through the fucked up, to the plain wrong and downright abusive. And you don’t get much more fucked up than Libby in ‘Exegesis’ donning a strappy red dress and hitting the nightclubs so she can seduce multiple men and harvest their sperm to fertilise the insect eggs she’s inserted under her skin, or much more abusive than the relationship between the modern-day Hansel and Gretel in ‘Gingerbread People’.

Black Shuck Books have also produced other collections of note this year, including Terry Grimwood’s Is There a Way to Live Forever, which boasts a very grim tale of the sex industry that will leave you feeling very unnerved indeed, particularly if you have a horror of suffocatingly confined spaces, and with a feeling of grime in your very pores. Also highly recommended is Simon Bestwick’s musically-themed mini-collection, Singing Back the Dark, which includes two Manly Wade Wellmanesque tales of an itinerant African American bluesman who encounters outre phenomena on his travels, and a story featuring his recurring amateur occult detective Paul Hearn, who discovers the sinister truth behind why his dad’s rock’n’roll career never went anywhere. That one’s called ‘Effigies of Glass’, and if the title sounds like something Joel Lane might have written, that’s intentional, as
Hearn’s in the tradition of Lane’s ‘weird crime’ cycle of stories and the story’s a fitting tribute to the late author.

Short Stories

Finally a word or two about individual stories in magazines and anthologies that have captivated me during last year’s voracious reading: almost everything I’ve read by Ralph Robert Moore, whether it’s ‘Peelers’ in The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors or ‘China’ and ‘Do Not Pet’ in recent Black Statics, shows him to be a unique voice who always knocks the ball out of the park both in stylistic terms and with his ability to generate shock and awe with his narrative devices and his grasp of characters whose quirks and traits and hang-ups are sometimes as bizarre as the weird events they encounter.

Another writer with a voice so distinctive you could probably identify him if you were blind-reading one of his stories is Robert Shearman, whose ‘Thumbsucker’ was one of the many highlights of the second (and unfortunately probably final) New Fears anthology edited by Mark Morris for Titan Books. But where Moore’s world is often one of American blue-collar masculinity, frequently the toxic sort, making the reader on edge from the first line, then taking you gently by the hand into a world of heartache, terror and pain, Shearman tends to lull you into a false sense of security with an apparent air of chatty, middle class English whimsy, before dropping you into a world of utter insanity. ‘Thumbsucker’ is no exception, introducing the reader to a subculture like no other. It’s one of the highlights of an anthology that has many. When the first New Fears came out in 2017, I found it easy to pick out my favourites. This time, there are too many to choose from: ‘Letters from Elodie’, Laura Mauro’s tale of obsession and class resentment, ‘The Airport Gorilla’, Stephen Volk’s startling riff on ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, and Kit Power’s terrifying and visceral Bram Stoker long-listed revelation of the ‘Fish Hooks’ manipulating the world, are just three outstanding examples of the varied high quality horrors on display here, while I’ve mentioned the lingering delights of V.H. Leslie’s sun-soaked vision of evil ‘Almost Aureate’ elsewhere, a masterpiece of oblique, insidious, low-key horror and a beautiful example of short fiction regardless of genre. It’s a perfect story, my favourite of the anthology and of last year.

Unfortunately, despite the awards and plaudits for the first two volumes and a forthcoming TV anthology adaptation of one of the stories published in the first one, Titan Books hasn’t seen fit to take the series further, a rather perverse decision I think. What will it take to convince a major publishing house to back a continuing horror anthology series? A Disney blockbuster movie maybe? To help persuade Titan to think again, buy a copy of the second volume from here.

I mentioned The Alchemy Press Book of Horrors, in which ‘Peelers’ appeared. Like New Fears 2, this is a very strong example of that rare thing these days: a non-themed horror anthology, though the accent is very much on the weird and the strange rather than pure horror, but that’s no bad thing. There are some gems here too, one quite literally being Suzanne Barbieri’s ‘In the Rough’, about a woman who weeps diamonds. Another one’s Phil Sloman’s tale of a disturbed youth obsessed with ‘The Girl with Three Eyes’. It starts at a cracking pace with a fantastic opening paragraph, full of manic energy, commenting on contemporary mores at the same time as it sucks you into its unreliable narrator’s world. Another very sharply insightful horror story is ‘The Garbage Men’ by Tony Richards, about creatures who prey on the poor, both the monsters of the title and the writer-protagonist. Madhvi Ramani’s ‘Teufelsberg’ is a lovely slice of Euro-folk horror, while Ramsey Campbell and Gary McMahon never disappoint, the former showing how being mistaken for a light entertainer is anything but ‘Some Kind of a Laugh’, the latter poignantly examining bereavement in ‘Guising’ and introducing an apparition that turns bubble-wrap into a source of terror. The book also features an eerie, psychedelic cover by Peter Coleborn and each tale is headed by an individual illustration by Jim Pitts.

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The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden book launch event, 13/03/19

My debut novella has just come out from Omnium Gatherum Books. Entitled The Monsters are Due in Madison Square Garden, it’s been described as ‘a noir narrative rich with history and atmosphere, steeped in cinema and the dark genres’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz. Come and join me downstairs at Bom Banes for a drink and some readings to celebrate its publication. There’ll be copies of the novella and other publications for sale. See you there! https://www.facebook.com/events/687296801668313/

If you can’t make it, here’s a link to the publisher: http://www.omniumgatherumedia.com/tom-johnstone

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Brexlit

On the Today programme on New Year’s Eve, Ian McEwan suggested Brexit wasn’t a suitable subject for fiction, saying “You can’t have a scene where people discuss friction-less trade over the breakfast table”. Apart from the fact that such scenes do happen in real life (believe me!), the idea implicit in this that the only way you can deal with this issue that affects everyone’s lives is by the realistic quasi-eavesdropping on the home-life of the Guardian-reading classes struck me as a failure of imagination.

To be fair to McEwan, he went on to talk about his new novel, which examines the idea of leaving the EU (or rather the EEC as was) through the prism of alt-history. The scenario he outlined, of Thatcher losing the Falklands war and Benn winning the subsequent election, taking Britain out of the ‘Common Market’, does seem to smack of the recent vogue for blaming the left for what is after all a right-wing project deriving from a right-wing obsession. But it does suggest the best way of treating the subject in fiction is by means of fantastic or science fictional devices.

Sometimes stories can take on this resonance retrospectively. I recently re-read Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, and couldn’t help thinking the City of Earth made an excellent metaphor for Britain’s relationship with Europe at the moment, the contrast between how those in power here see it and how those just over the water may see us.

The only story I’ve read that explicitly deals with referendum and its repercussions head-on is Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘All That Is Solid’. As its title suggests, its principle theme is the uncertainty created by Brexit, particularly if you happen to be a European citizen living in the UK, or any other immigrant for that matter. This isn’t about the chattering classes discussing economic abstractions over their croissants, it’s about the very real fallout of the referendum that’s happening now, not after some apocalyptic March deadline: neighbour turning on neighbour, bus passengers turning on people with funny accents who have the temerity to speak to each other language, managers suddenly deciding to terminate your long-term employment because they want to employ ‘British’ people, people who’ve lived legitimately here for most of their lives facing the real prospect of arbitrary deportation.

Rosanne Rabinowitz uses complex and powerful metaphors to address these issues. The title’s from a line in The Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air”, referring to the inherent instability and tendency to crisis of capitalism, and the story’s Polish-born protagonist Gosia meditates on the disconnect between the apparent solidity of matter and its state of flux at the sub-atomic level, what quantum physicists would call ‘the uncertainty principle’, which mirrors the social forces turning her life upside down. To cope with this, she turns first to self-help books, then to art therapy, but as this story appeared in a Dorian Gray-themed anthology, it doesn’t go well for her, culminating in one of Rabinowitz’s bleaker endings.

Unfortunately the anthology, originally published by Swan River Press, is now out of print. However, if you want to read more of Rosanne’s fiction, with its free-wheeling, happy-go-lucky approach to sometimes dark and difficult themes, why not get a copy of her debut short story collection Resonance and Revolt, where you can discover the connection between austerity and body horror, what mediaeval heretics have to do with quantum entanglement, what an ancient vampire did in the German revolution and what happens when someone involved in the storming of Millbank tower discovers a mysterious face mask, among others… https://www.eibonvalepress.co.uk/books/books_resonance.htm

Eibonvale Press - Resonance and Revolt by Rosanne Rabinowitz

Finally, a little bit of self-promotion for my own piece of ‘Brexlit’, a folk horror take on the subject exploring the origins of the figure of the Green Man as misinterpreted by a right-wing Tory, available elsewhere for free on this site. When I first posted ‘Mask of the Silvatici’ on here after the resignation of David Davis from his post as Brexit Secretary, I never dreamed the story would become even more relevant as time went on and the government set the bar lower and lower for clusterfuckery, but I was wrong, so here it is again: https://tomjohnstone.wordpress.com/free-horror-story-mask-of-the-silvatici/

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Shock Against Racism

On the 25th November, I participated in an event that was one of the launching points for a new initiative in the world of horror literature: Shock Against Racism. The recent surge in racism and fascism, whose most obvious global manifestation is the emergence of Donald Trump as US president, has long been a source of anxiety to many of us in the horror community, as in other sectors of society.  Some of us have started a group called Shock Against Racism, as a kind of cultural arm of the fight against this phenomenon, because after all the Far Right fights in this arena: the so-called ‘culture wars’.

The group has already held two evenings of dark fiction, with readings from some of the finest talents in the genre. The first was at Write Blend in Liverpool on November 23rd, with Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner, Priya Sharma and Ramsey Campbell, in aid of Hope Not Hate. The second took place at the Cowley Club in Brighton, where I was joined by Rosanne Rabinowitz and V.H. Leslie on a night that marked the fifth anniversary of the untimely death of Joel Lane (1963-2013). As well as being a post and author of prodigious talent himself, he was a tireless supporter of others’ work, co-editing two anthologies whose themes reflected his socialist political outlook. One of these, on which he was working with me at the time of his sudden death, was the anti-austerity Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease. The other, Never Again (co-edited with Allyson Bird), was an anthology of weird fiction against racism and fascism. 

Image result for never again anthology

Therefore it was only fitting that Rosanne Rabinowitz, one of the contributors to Never Again, rounded off the evening with an excerpt from ‘Survivor’s Guilt’, something of a twenty first century anti-fascist horror classic that appeared in this anthology, narrated by an undying monster who has witnessed and participated in many of the upheavals that shook the Continent during the last century, including the German revolution of 1918 and the rise of fascism in the Thirties. Before her reading, she paid tribute to Joel Lane’s thoroughness as an editor, spotting a missing umlaut that had eluded her.

Earlier on, Rosanne also read her Brexit-related weird tale ‘All That is Solid’, about a Polish woman under siege both from harassment by racists emboldened by the European Referendum result and from the macabre artwork she has created in her flat as therapy. The story appeared in the Swan River Press anthology The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian (Gray, that is, in case you were wondering), edited by Mark Valentine. Sadly this and Never Again are both out of print, but you can still read ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ in her recent collection Resonance and Revolt from Eibonvale Press. https://www.eibonvalepress.co.uk/books/books_resonance.htm

Eibonvale Press - Resonance and Revolt by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I started my report at the end of the evening, but here’s how it began. I said a few words to the small but attentive audience about how horror fiction can contribute to the fight against fascism, generally raising awareness and the psychological study of minds under pressure and how that feeds into Far Right political thinking. A good example is Horridge in Ramsey Campbell’s The Face That Must Die, but as she was there and planning to read it, I mentioned ‘Almost Aureate’ by V.H. Leslie. I followed this brief preamble with a short story of my own, ‘Guardian of the Gateway’, about a council tenant who finds out the reason for her unfriendly neighbour’s surliness.

After the first part of Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘All That is Solid’, Victoria H. Leslie treated us to ‘Almost Aureate’, a study of male obsession that reminded me the first stories I read by her: ‘Ulterior Design’ and ‘Time Keeping’. Its denouement is less extreme then those two, and yet in its way it’s equally terrifying, a short story as sleek and ruthlessly perfect as the ‘bronze man’ it depicts so vividly down to the tanned skin like ‘vellum’ above the waist band of his swimming trunks. With this image and the central character’s use of a hotel swimming pool as a refuge from his paternal responsibilities, it echoed the brilliant film (adapted from a John Cheever short story) The Swimmer.

While Victoria mentioned the tale’s inspiration in a visit to a hotel and apartment complex in Spain that had become a white English enclave, where the inhabitants conveniently defined themselves as ‘ex-pats’ rather than ‘immigrants’, ‘Almost Aureate’ had perhaps the most oblique relationship to the Far Right. After all, the protagonist and his wife are modern liberal types, not beer-bellied Sun readers, only defining themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than ‘tourists’, only succumbing to the lure of a more consumerist package holiday because of the pressures of rearing twin toddlers. After all, the hotel complex has a creche…

Yet the protagonist’s infatuation with the ‘bronze man’ on his lofty perch seems to me to represent his deep-seated sense of entitlement to escape into a world where male solitude (and exemption from hands-on childcare) is respected once more. Despite his ‘right-on’ (but it turns out rather grudging) commitment to egalitarian co-parenting, he envies and craves the approval of this god-like figure with his golden aura and his apparent immunity both to the threat of skin cancer and to the strictures governing the other hotel guests. 

But I’ve said enough about this story, except to say that although it might seem like a non-political piece, to me it works as a subtle critique of the anti-feminist Right. Read it yourself. It appears in the first-class new horror anthology from Titan Books, New Fears 2https://titanbooks.com/9212-new-fears-2-brand-new-horror-stories-by-masters-of-the-macabre/ edited by Mark Morris. It’s interesting to compare it with the story that follows it in that book, Rio Youers’ ‘The Typewriter’, which also concerns a seemingly devoted family man’s chilling descent into obsession.

After a short break, a speaker from Brighton Antifascists said a few words about who they are and what they do, commenting that the readings so far had converted him to an appreciation of horror fiction. So that’s good then! Later we discussed the ‘culture wars’, the parallels between ‘Gamergate’ and the ‘sad puppies’ phenomenon in the SF/F/H world.

Before Rosanne’s reading of ‘Survivor’s Guilt’, I sung an acapella rendition of part of ‘Abiezer Coppe’, a song about the legendary English Civil War Ranter by Leon Rosselson, originally sung by the late Roy Bailey. This served as an introduction to an excerpt from my unpublished story ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’, set in two time periods, the time of radical ferment in 1649, and three hundred and fifty years later, when General Pinochet is awaiting extradition in Surrey while ‘The Land is Ours’ squatters commemorate the anniversary of Winstanley’s Digger Commune with an eco-village on St. George’s Hill. 

Image result for world turned upside down

Hopefully, this was the first of many such events, but next time I will make sure there is a mike stand, to spare the readers the horrors of juggling holding a microphone alongside turning the pages of their books…

Here’s Brighton Antifascists’ facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BrightonAntifascists/

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Making Monsters TOC

Table of Contents:

• Introduction – Emma Bridges
• Danae – Megan Arkenberg
• The Last Siren Sings – George Lockett
• Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement – L. Chan
• Calling Homer’s Sirens (essay) – Hannah Silverblank
• Aeaea on the Seas – Hester J. Rook
• To the Gargoyle Army (poem) – H.A. Eilander
• Water – Danie Ware
• Monsters of the World (essay) – Margrét Helgatdóttir
• A Song of Sorrow – Neil James Hudson
• Helen of War (poem) – Margaret McLeod
• The Vigil of Talos – Hûw Steer
• The Monster in Your Pocket (essay) – Valeria Vitale
A Heart of Stone – Tom Johnstone
• The Banshee – Alexandra Grunberg
• The Giulia Effect – Barbara Davies
• Caught in Medusa’s Gaze (essay) – Liz Gloyn
• The Eyes Beyond the Hearth – Catherine Baker
• Eclipse – Misha Penton
• The Origin of the Different (essay) – Maria Anastasiadou
• Justice Is a Noose – Valentine Wheeler
• Siren Song (poem) – Barbara E. Hunt
• The Tengu’s Tongue – Rachel Bender
• Ecological Angst and Encounters with Scary Flesh (essay) – Annegret Märten
• When Soldiers Come – Hunter Liguore

• Afterword – Mathilde Skoie

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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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