Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Recommendation: Through A Mirror, Darkly by Kevin Lucia

Through A Mirror, Darkly is a dark and accomplished collection of interrelated novellas from Kevin Lucia, all set in the small American town of Clifton Heights. The stories are bookended by a framing narrative, the tales purporting to be read by the owner of the Arcane Delights bookstore after a manuscript mysteriously turns up in his store.

Readers will notice the legacy of the great Charles L. Grant in this setup, and it's a tribute to Lucia's skills as a writer that his stories hold up against Grant's. The influence of King and especially Bradbury are also clear in the small-town setting and the readable yet evocative prose. Less integrated, perhaps, is the more overt references to the mythos of Chambers and Lovecraft that pop up. This may be personal taste, but I felt Lucia too accomplished a writer to need to lean so heavily on the work of others. Clifton Heights is such a well-imagined setting that it deserves its own mythos.

The individual stories in the volume are nicely balanced and sequenced, with each shedding more light on Clifton Heights and a wider narrative, but still feeling distinctive in their own right. Opener Suffer The Children is an intriguing take on the Christian faith and personal loss, whilst Admit One tackles that evergreen horror theme of the dangers of getting what one wishes for. And I Watered It, With Tears has perhaps the most straight-forward horror plot here, as a group of strangers are trapped inside a civic centre and are gradually picked off one by one by something nightmarish inside. Despite a certain contrivance to the setup, once the piece hits its stride its a grimly effective piece of horror.

Yellow Cab was my favourite piece, telling the story of a young taxi driver who picks up some very unusual fares in and around Clifton Heights. The driver's aimless life is nicely contrasted with the definite but nebulous destination his passengers ask him to head for... This story displayed all of Lucia's strengths, most prominently an expertly controlled sense of mounting, creeping dread.

Overall, a great read. You can purchase Through A Mirror, Darkly here.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Recommendation: You'll Know When You Get There

I've been a fan of Lynda E. Rucker's fiction since reading her debut The Moon Will Look Strange, a fantastic collection of strange and haunting fiction. Her second collection, You'll Know When You Get There, is if anything even better.

The first story, The Receiver Of Tales, is the perfect opener, introducing the reader to many reoccurring themes in the collection as a whole. Rucker's central character is isolated, both physically and emotionally, leaving her vulnerable to the events that follow. The Receiver Of Tales is a story about stories and how they might shape us: a idea represented here by the fact the titular tales are physically scrawled into the protagonist's body. Stories might be things we literally can't escape from.

Many of the finest tales in this book are about the intersection between fiction and reality and the darkness to be found there. Rucker's knowledge of the writers who have come before her is clear, but never deployed in an obvious, derivative or cheap way. There are nods to M.R. James, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Robert W. Chambers and Shirley Jackson, but Rucker's work stands proudly apart from any of her influences. Indeed, a story like Who Is This Who Is Coming?, a narrative set firmly in M.R. James country, might be considered a warning about the dangers of identifying too closely with such past masters of horror, lest what we see in their works turns out to be all too true. It's quite simply a masterpiece.

What also comes across is how damn good Rucker is at evoking a sense of place, both the physical character of a landscape and how it might affect the people within it. The stories take us from the Irish countryside of Widdershins (one of the scariest stories here), via the American lakes in This Time of Day, This Time Of Year, to a strange and decaying forest which doesn't appear on any map in The Wife's Lament. Into these places stumble Rucker's characters, unsure of the rules that govern these landscapes until it might be too late.

One of the finest pieces here, quietly devastating, is Where The Summer Dwells. A nostalgic, elegaic piece about the American South and the way we might be haunted by our memories, it's a horror story which aspires to more than mere scares. It is, in the most heartbreaking sense of the word, beautiful.

And then, there's not one but two stunningly original takes on the haunted house story. The House on Cobb Street is a twisted masterpiece: the titular house may or may not be real, and its unclear if those haunted were real either. Also in doubt is the reality of the abode in The Haunting House; does it exist outside the confused narrator's dreams of it? Regardless, she leaves her life behind to try and find it (and maybe find the mysterious being she has dreamt might be inside it) as if it were calling to her. "Journeys end in lovers meeting", indeed.

It's a brilliant end to what is, quite simply, one of the short story collections of the year. You'll Know When You'll Get There is available in a beautiful hardback edition from Swan River Press. You can order it here.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The REAL Paupers' Graves

To celebrate the release of my novella Paupers' Graves at Fantasycon last weekend, I thought I'd share some photographs of the real-life inspiration behind the setting–Rock Cemetery in Nottingham. 

I changed a number of aspects of the cemetery to make the story work, but many of the details in Paupers' Graves are still directly taken from reality. (Paupers' Graves is available now as both as an ebook and paperback.)

View of the paupers' graves from above in the main cemetery.

Some of the slabs for the paupers' graves.

Single white headstone erected by the War Graves Commission amongst the paupers' graves

Another shot of the slabs, with the arches in the background.

Tumbled graves.

The main cemetery, with the church in the background.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Fantasycon 2016.

The view from the bar on Day 1: Sunny Scarborough
Fantasycon this year took place in sunny Scarborough (and it really was sunny) amidst the faded, peeling glamour of the Grand and Royal hotels. As ever it was a long and intense weekend, so I'm just going to mention some of the highlights here...

John Gilbert; Sue Moorcroft; Neil Williams; me; Priya Sharma; Phil Sloman; Mark West; Lisa Childs; Ross Warren; Wayne Parkin; Cate Gardner

On the Saturday, I featured on the 'Bright Lights' panel, which was about awards and new talent coming through in genre fiction. I wasn't quite sure how it would go, but it was really well moderated by Penny Reeve, with interesting contributions from my good friend Kit Power, Donna Scott and Liz de Jager. When the questions from the audience came there was the inevitable one about the rabid/sad puppies in America and in our own different ways both Kit and I made our thoughts quite clear...

I may have said "dickheads".

My favourite panel that I saw was 'Is Reality The New Horror' - it featured Paul Finch, Mark West, Tracy Fahey, Victoria Leslie, Helen Marshall, and Ramsey Campbell. With that calibre of talent it couldn't fail to be interesting - I'd have quite happily watched them talk for longer.

Great British Horror Launch:
Steve Shaw was launching both This Twisted Earth (edited by Dion Winton-Pollock) and Great British Horror #1:Green & Pleasant Land, a collection of horror stories with a stunning lineup of authors. Present at the launch were Victoria Leslie, Laura Mauro, Adam Millard, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Ray Cluley, Jasper Bark and Alexandra Benedict. I think all of them felt as thrilled as I did when Steve presented us with our contributor copies - wrapped & with a scroll of the artwork for each of our stories. Laura and Jasper read from their stories; Dion gave a very personal introduction to This Twisted Earth (complete with heckling gulls); Victoria gave a brief chat about the influence of Virginia Woolf on her (wonderful) novel Bodies Of Water, and then it was onto the signing. And we seemed to sign a lot of books. It was one of the most wonderful launches I've done and I left on a real high.

Best contributor
copy ever?
GBH Launch:
Laura Mauro,
Ray Cluley, me,
Simon Kurt Unsworth

Adam Nevill Launch:
I bought *cough* a few books over the weekend, but none were so handsome as Adam Nevill's latest,  Some Will Not Sleep. It's Adam's first collection of short stories and people were literally queuing out the doors for it. I for one can't wait to read it.

Hersham Horror Launch:
The launch for my novella Paupers' Graves, as well as novellas from good friends Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon and Mark West, and a collection from Marie O'Regan. It had all been organised by head honcho Peter Mark May and I had an absolute blast. Lots of people seemed really interested in buying books and getting them signed, and it was a real pleasure to be launching alongside some of the first friends I made when I started attending conventions. The fact they're all fine writers helped too, of course.

Hersham Horror launch: Phil Sloman, Stephen Bacon, Mark West, me

D.P. Watt Launch:
An intersting one, this. I didn't really know anything about this book other than the fact Undertow published it - which was good enough for me, as I love what they put out. It was a very interesting reading: some of it delivered in the normal way, some via a preprepared recording. It made me instantly think of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. And the story itself seemed brilliant - needless to say I picked up a copy of Watt's collection, Almost Insentient, Almost Divine.

The People:
As well as the folks mentioned above, the following all helped make my weekend a brilliant three days: Conrad Williams (a nice prologue to the con on the train); Wayne Parkin; Andrew Hook & Sophie Essex; Jim McLeod (sorry I lost the t-shirt!); Ross Warren; Lisa Childs; Sue Moorcroft; Chris Barnes; Charlotte Courtney-Bond; Steve Shaw; Chris Teague; Jay Eales & Selina Lock; Neil Williams; Priya Sharma (congratulations on the award!); Cate Gardner; Simon Bestwick (telling rude jokes, natch); Richard Farren Barber; Laura Mauro (still no idea about that wrestling thing, sorry!); Gary Couzens; Ren Warron (told you we would have a proper chat this time), Victoria Leslie and Tracy Fahey (great cow stories!), Ben Jones (Whitby? Whitby??); CC Adams; Dion Winton-Pollock; Ray Cluley and his partner Jess; Kit Power, Helen Marshall; Des Lewis; Neil Snowden; Georgina Bruce; Steve Byrne; Amanda Rutter; Graeme Reynolds; Jasper Bark; John Travis; Terry Grimwood; Lynda E. Rucker; Gary Fry (thanks for the book!); Tim Power, and Tim Jarvis (a nice epilogue to the con in a cafe)

Horror writers are scary, serious people
Lisa Childs, Mark West, Laura Mauro (hidden), Ross Warren, Phil Sloman, Gary Couzens, Peter Mark May, me, Richard Farren Barber, Stephen Bacon

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Paupers' Grave: First Reviews & Fantasycon Launch

My new novella, Paupers' Graves is being launched this Saturday at Fantasycon 2016 as part of the Hersham Horror launch event, which also includes great looking books by Marie O'Regan, Mark West, Phil Sloman and Stephen Bacon. (You can also preorder it here.)

It's had some pre-releases reviews already, and yet again I'm humbled by what what people have said about my work:

" incredibly powerful and scary story that actually has something to say - and something genuinely nuanced and uncomfortable, at that. Very highly recommended." Kit Power at Gingernuts Of Horror.

"As might be expected from the author of the amazing Quarantined City, this is a story which operates on multiple levels. It’s a story about stories; it’s about society. It’s ghosts and hauntings and is very effective in dealing out the thrills and chills. It’s a corker – scary and profound." Anthony Watson at Dark Musings.

My Fantasycon schedule is as below:

Saturday 12.00pm: Bright Lights panel, with Penny Reeve (Chair), Liz De Jager, Donna Scott, Kit Power & me.... (Royal Ballroom, Royal Hotel)

Saturday 1:00pm: Book Launch for Great British Horror #1: Green & Pleasent Land (Harbour Lights, Grand Hotel)

Saturday7:00 pm: Hersham Horror launch, including Paupers' Graves (Cocktail Bar, Grand Hotel)

Otherwise, I'll be hanging around enjoying myself. Hope to see as many as possible there!

Monday, 19 September 2016

Recommendation: The Race by Nina Allan

A few words of recommendation about this excellent book from Nina Allan. I'll say upfront: this book is almost impossible to talk about without spoilers. You have been warned.

The Race is a complex, experimental novel of multiple narratives, each of which seems to ripple out from the previous one. It eases you in gradually, with a first section that seems, initially, to be a well-written but relatively simple science-fiction story. It tells the story of Jenna, living in a place called Sapphire, a town in an alternative version of England, after some disaster. Sapphire is a place with little going on apart from the racing of genetically modified 'smart-dogs', a sport which Jenna and most of the other characters are involved with, one way or another. This includes her brother Del, a shady character - the plot hinges around Del's schemes finally catching up with him, affecting his family and Jenna herself. Sapphire, whilst an interesting setting, is something of a backwater, and the reader might confidently predict that Allan will expand the scope later in the novel, zooming out to explain more about this world and how it came to be... that's how these kind of stories work, right? Well, Allan certainly does zoom out, but not in a way anyone is likely to predict.

(If you ignored the spoiler warning above, they really are coming now.)

The second part of the novel immediately pulls the rug from under us–it is set in our real world, and focuses on a character called Christy. Christy is an author, and she writes stories which are set in the town of Sapphire... Christy, like Jenna, has a brother whose violent actions destroy the relationships of those around him. The reader is given to understand that the fictional events of the first part of The Race are, at least in part, a reflection of this second 'non-fictional' section. But is Christy writing to explore her own experiences, or to hide from the implications of them?

And so The Race continues, with each part raising questions about the last (and the whole). There's a further section set in our world, in which Christy features but as a secondary character, which sheds new light on her brother and those caught up in his wake. And there are sections set back in the science-fiction world we encountered originally, although far away from the initial town of Sapphire. It's never spelt out exactly when in her story Christy wrote each of these sections–what did she know about the dramatic events of her own life at the time of writing each fiction? How much do the stories Christy writes reflect her experiences and how much pre-figure them? The relationship between fact and fiction in The Race seems as much a feedback loop as anything linear.

As you might expect from Allan, the book is exceptionally well written. The menacing, bordering on surreal ending of Section 2, where the unreality of fiction seems to bleed into the real world, is a particularly highlight. Even better is a stunning set-piece later in the book in which a ship at sea is menaced by a gigantic whale; it's a genuinely terrifying and awe-inspiring scene, as the passengers fear their ship will be capsized in the black oceans. The idea of such a threat, emerging from nowhere to engulf everything, seems an apt metaphor for the acts of violence, small and large, that are scattered throughout the worlds of The Race.

In summary, this is an excellent book, structurally sophisticated yet gloriously readable. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dancing With Shadows: The Charles L. Grant Blogathon

I'm delighted today to be writing about one of my favourite writers, Charles L. Grant, and the impact reading his work for the first time had on me. This post is part of the Dancing With Shadows blogathon organised by Neil Snowdon, in order to celebrate Grant's work. There's many, many writers and fans of Grant posting this week; do check out Neil's site which has links to them all.

Grant's work has much that is exceptional about it, but something that has always stood out for me is his scene-setting. Before bringing onto stage his characters or the terrors they might face, Grant nearly always takes the time to describe the place, the season, and the weather, rooting his stories somewhere specific in time & space.

So, in telling my story of reading Grant for the first time, let's set the scene:

Not Oxrun, but Oxford. Headington, to be exact, where the city's other university sits on a hill and scowls with reverse-snobbery at its more renowned neighbour.

An evening during that dead time at the end of November, when it's already dark and wintery but no one feels festive yet. A room in student Halls, with posters from Select magazine - Pulp Fiction & Modern Life Is Rubbish - on the wall. One shelf crammed with C90s and CDs, another with books. There's a mixture of university set texts and horror paperbacks: Stephen King, Hamlet, Kafka, The Hauting Of Hill House, Virgina Woolf, Ramsey Campbell, The Trial. Nearly all second-hand, creased and faded.

Next to them, as yet uncreased, two new books.

These books had been a present from, uh, someone. When this person had given me a gift, before they left for Christmas, it had been an awkward moment. Because I’d not bought a present for them,  thinking we were well past the present buying stage. I didn’t even want to take the books, but this person insisted. They left, but the awkward, guilty feeling remained. Both books had dreadful covers that made me immediately assume the worst. One had a pretty generic mid-90s horror title: The Something by someone forgotten. The other was Nightmare Seasons by Charles L. Grant.

I was eighteen; a few years earlier my dad had introduced me to Stephen King, and I’d read and loved much of his work, as well as books by Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker. But I’d also read plenty of shit horror too. There was a lot of that around, at the fag-end of the horror boom. Lots of books all called The Something.

I could have had an ephiphany that evening, but still feeling awkward and guilty at the encounter, I placed the books with the ugly covers on my shelves, underneath others which I intended to read first.

It was almost like I wanted to dislike them; when I did decide to read one of them it was The Something I read first. It was as shit as I thought it was going to be.

It was the next winter, in a different room with even more books crammed into it, Pulp Fiction replaced with Trainspotting on the wall, before I finally, reluctantly, started to read Nightmare Seasons.

And instantly realised what a fool I’d been to wait so long.

If you’ve read Grant you’ll understand; it only takes a few sentences and you realise just how damned well he can write. This is the start of the opening prologue of Nightmare Seasons, the first words by Grant I ever read:

"Winter... and rain.
During the blade-sharp days of a January cold snap, during the hours when snow immobilizes and breath turns to short-lived fog, there are the dreams of summer, of green, of walking with no particular purpose except to savor across the playing fields of the park beneath hickory and ash and white birch of such luxuriantly thick foliage that even the stilled air seems hazed with mint.  In part it is a steeled defiance of a numbing temperature that reduces animals to hibernation and man to bitter complaint; and in part it is a hypnotic gesture to the pleading of one's senses for an earnest reassurance that this sort of weather will not last, that there will indeed be a time when warmth beyond the hearth is a reality in spite of the past that it seems now like nothing more, and nothing less, than an attic memory.
But there are worse times than the cold."

Of course this isn’t just pretty language; I believe horror fiction is defined by its atmosphere over any other element, and Grant exemplifies this more than any writer I can think of. His plots, if sumamrised, might seem trite and cliched. But by god, the way he writes them! His tales build and build, the pressure increasing, until the lightning strike of his endings. This, surely, is why he was so good when writing novellas. They give him enough of a run up to really make you uneasy, but allow him to get out quickly once the storm has broken.

I had more free time, back then, and I read Nightmare Seasons in a single day. And it felt like an affirmation.

An affirmation of the genre and that there was space for serious artists working within it. I've read much more of the man's work, both as writer and editor, since that delayed revelation two decades ago, in a city I've long moved away from. But that first time always stays with me. I think, for every writer who's had even a modicum of success, there are certain books you remember because they quite literally changed your life: they helped you chart your course to become you kind of writer you are. Without wanting to suggest I've even a fraction of Grant's huge talent, Nightmare Seasons  was one of those books for me. The next beacon of light after King, Campbell, Jackson and Kafka.

His work is endlessly rereadable, too, and that's what I'll be doing tonight. I hope, after reading this post and all the others in the Blogathon, that you'll be tempted to join me.