Thursday, 25 June 2015

Recommendation: The Strangers & Other Writings by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman’s The Strangers And Other Writings is the first ‘new’ collection by Robert Aickman since the posthumous publication ofNight Voices in 1985. The Strangers contains seven unpublished stories, a selection of non-fiction, and two poems. It also comes with a DVD documentary about the writer (which I haven’t had chance to watch yet). Aickman was undoubtedly one of the finest writers of the supernatural and uncanny of the last century, but if you are a reader new to him then this collection isn’t the place to start (try Cold Hand In Mine or The Wine Dark Sea, both recently reissued by Faber). Instead, this handsomely produced but pricey volume is a book for those who are already Robert Aickman aficionados and want to learn more about his growth and development as a writer. The stories are arranged chronologically in the order they were written, and it must be said they get much better as the book progresses.

The earliest piece (from 1936) is called The Case of Wallingford's Tigerand is a story about a pet tiger kept by an Englishman which promptly goes missing. The slight, predictable plot and reliance on dated colonial tropes mean this is the weakest story in the volume; an inauspicious start. Yet, even at this young age, Aickman’s prose shows flashes of his mature style: precise, cool, knowing. The Whistler is a darker tale, which starts to introduce the uncanny and Aickman’s famed ambiguity. But here the ambiguity is, more properly speaking, just frustration. This isn’t the mature Aickman, showing us a picture full-on thus tempting us to think we can decipher it, it’s a young Aickman showing us half a picture knowing full well it isn’t enough.

A Disciple Of Plato seems to suggest a route not taken for Aickman’s fiction, reading more like Henry James than anything else (and I mean the James of The Bostonians say, not The Turn Of The Screw). It’s about a famous historical figure posing as a ‘philosopher’ in 18thCentury Rome, meeting a woman on her way to live in a convent. It’s a decent story, if not spectacular, with Aickman’s prose now fully up to the task of telling it. But there’s a spark, a flair, missing; it’s perhaps for this reason Aickman never wrote more in this vein.

With The Coffin House, things improve dramatically. A short but perfectly formed supernatural tale, it starts with two women on a walk who seek shelter in a strange dwelling… Aickman fans will of course recognise this set up from The Trains, but The Coffin House is very much its own beast, and the steady accumulation of strange, unnerving details is masterfully done. The ending is unexpected, both in terms of the story itself and in the context of Aickman; the twist seems to owe as much to the pulps as Aickman’s more literary influences. But its no less chilling and effective for that.

The Flying Anglo-Dutchman reads almost like a pastiche of Aickman’s more well-known tales: two people encounter ‘the strange’ but are left almost blithely unaffected, more concerned with such mundanely English details like tea and the times of the next trains. There’s something almost wistful about the tone, and it would no doubt be annoying if it were any longer. As it is, it serves as the perfect palate cleanser for the next story…

The Strangers – so here it is. The title story. The mother lode. What we all hoped we’d find in this book but were secretly afraid we wouldn’t – a long (50+ pages), never before published Robert Aickman ‘strange story’ masterpiece.  So it feels on first reading anyway. Certainly no one else but Aickman could have written this, with its conventional, staid narrator dragged into events he (and we) scarcely understand, its disturbing yet intriguing visual imagery, its dream-like surrealism rendered even stranger by Aickman’s matter of fact telling. Quite why he never saw fit to include this story in any of the volumes published during his lifetime is a mystery, for it is superb.

The Fully-Conducted Tour is an anomaly, a story written to be read aloud on BBC Radio 4, about the mysterious events that befall a group on a tourist visit to a stately home. It’s an effective piece, with the introduction blurring the lines between Aickman himself and the narrator, giving you the initial impression that Aickman is in fact telling you of something that actually occurred to him. Until events become so strange that you conclude that’s not the case; at least one hopes not.

The two poems in the book, Pimlico and Thea have a similar feel to A Disciple Of Plato about them – slight but promising pieces that indicate a direction Aickman could have taken his writing in, but ultimately did not; which anyone who is a fan of his strange stories must be grateful for. The non-fiction covers a broad range of subjects: films, rivers and waterways, Oscar Wilde, Animal Farm and accounts of supposedly true supernatural occurrences. Naturally it is all well written and interesting, although I suspect the majority of readers will be reading these pieces for what light they shed on Aickman’s life and fiction than the subject matter itself. In this regard Introduction To A Proposed Ghost Story Anthology is most interesting, being a forerunner to Aickman’s fascinating ruminations on the supernatural in fiction that he developed in his introductions to the Fontana anthologies.

Overall then, Tartarus Press should be commended for this volume, which sheds so much light on Aickman’s development and missteps as a writer, as well as providing us with the fine stories The Coffin HouseThe Flying Anglo-Dutchman, and The Fully-Conducted Tour, along with the stellar, sublime, wonderful The Strangers.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Recommendation: Darkest Minds

Darkest Minds is the latest anthology from Dark Minds Press, and it collects together stories that are all based on the idea of crossing boundaries, whether real or metaphorical. Anyone who's read much of my work will known that's a theme that resonates very strongly with me - and indeed, it's proved fertile ground for the horror genre as a whole. As such, I had high hopes for this anthology and I wasn't disappointed.

There are twelve stories, and the editors (Ross Warren & Anthony Watson) have done a good job in making sure their selections aren't receptive - a common flaw of themed anthologies. So Darkest Minds includes stories ranging from 'traditional' horror such as Tracy Fahey's fine depiction of modern day travellers, Walking The Borderlines, to more experimental pieces like Andrew Hook's equally fine Bothersome. There's social commentary on the plight of refugees (Robert Mammone's tale of the same name) and people living under modern austerity in Tom Johnstone's Under Occupation, which proves an interesting companion piece to the Horror Uncut anthology that Johnstone edited.

There aren't any stinkers among these stories, and every reader is likely to have their favourites. A few of my top picks were by authors I was pretty sure beforehand weren't going to disappoint: Mark West's Time Waits... (a typical West everyman protagonist plunged into a very surreal situation indeed); Gary Fry's A Catalyst (an unusually low-key but affecting tale); and Stephen Bacon's It Came From The Ground (a compelling exploration of war-zone journalism, child soldiers, and big scary monsters).

But I was especially pleased that two stories that completely blew me away were by authors I've read very little of: Ralph Robert Moore's note-perfect The 18 - a story about doppelgangers and love and individualism - and David Surface's haunting The Sea In Darkness Calls which used the liminal space of the seashore to great effect. One thing I love about anthologies is when they give me new authors to seek out further stories by, and Darkest Minds certainly did that.

Overall, Darkest Minds presents twelve stories that are never less than interesting, and at their best provide so the best horror and dark fiction likely to be released this year. Dark Minds may not be as well known as some small presses, but on this evidence they deserve to be.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Recommendation: Emergence by Gary Fry

A quick post about Gary Fry's novella Emergence which I suspect readers of this blog will like as much as me. Emergence features two central characters, widower Jack and his grandson Paul, come to stay with him at the seaside. Jack's house is isolated from the nearby town, and the story is solely focused on the two of them and the relationship between them, which is deftly and subtly drawn. The central dynamic between Jack and Paul is nicely summed up in the opening scene, where Jack is reading a story to Paul... and trying to ignore doubts about his own failing faculties as he does so.

The theme of communication, and of its breakdown, is very much at the heart of the novella. The supernatural element comes when Paul and Jack encounter strange alien geometries sculpted from the sand on the beach. The shapes are washed away by the tide; if they are an attempt to communicate they are a failure. The things Paul and Jack find on the beach get progressively more sinister and disturbing, whilst still never losing that alien sense of otherness. Neither the characters or us fully comprehend just what they are dealing with, and whether the beings creating the shapes are actually malicious or just totally resistant to human comprehension. The threat posed by them is real either way, and the sense of dread mounts expertly as the novella progresses.

It's yet another example of Fry's clever retooling of Lovecraftian and Blackwoodian (yes that is a word) tropes for the modern world. This isn't just because Emergence is set in contemporary Yorkshire, but because the themes Fry explores in his work feel contemporary too: dementia, cross-generational relationships, even the internet and how it both connects and isolates.

Emergence is a quick and fast-paced work of horror, but also has enough intellectual meat to keep you mulling it over in your head long after you've finished it. Recommended.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The Outsiders

Very pleased to say The Outsiders, a shared world Lovecraftian anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing is out today. It features my story Impossible Colours as well as stories by Stephen Bacon, Gary Fry, V.H. Leslie and Rosanne Rabinowitz plus an introduction by Kevin Lucia. It's an absolute privilege to be published alongside such great authors and being in a book from the fantastic Crystal Lake Publishing is just the icing on the cake.

You can read the blurb below, as well as quotes from each author, including me, about their story.

The Outsiders is available in paperback (UK | US) and ebook (UK | US)

Inside Priory awaits a lot more than meets the eye. The people might seem friendly, but only because their enigmatic leader Charles Erich accepts nothing less.

The cottages within this gated community seem simple enough, and even though what lurks beneath them is more ancient than mankind itself, can anything be more evil than the people worshipping it?

If you dare follow this UK invasion of five prime authors as they each tell their own story of the people living behind Priory's steel gates and high walls, you'll quickly find yourself an outsider, as well.

Stephen Bacon – James Everington – Gary Fry –
V.H. Leslie – Rosanne Rabinowitz

The Priory. A community of one mind and purpose. A place of order, commitment, peace, and service. A perfect world, building on mind shattering secrets from beyond the pale. Enter…if you dare.

“As I wrote the story, I drew on my experience of returning to places where I grew up as an outsider, the 'home town' that was never home – an experience that many people share.” – Rosanne Rabinowitz

“I wanted to take this idea of digging deeper quite literally and write about not only the mysterious and potentially dangerous things the earth conceals, but the often beautiful things it relinquishes.” – V.H. Leslie

“Joe's (the editor's) notion of a gated community filled with various reclusive go-getters fired my imagination, coming as it did during a spell of unprecedentedly terrible activity during a perpetual interest of mine, the darker reaches of the UK economy, all its social strata and clench-palmed denizens. The secrecy and exclusivity of such an enclosed venue struck me as an able symbol for the nefarious activities of many folk involved in the national conspiracy of theft and concealment which characterised the credit crunch.” – Gary Fry

“Lovecraft’s racism (at least as it manifests itself in his fiction) has always seemed to me to be psychological as much as political or overtly fascist. The word ‘xenophobia’ (a rejected title for ‘Impossible Colours’) appropriately describes his unease towards all outsiders, not just those of different coloured skin. Indeed some of his best fiction is driven precisely by the horror of being overrun, of being subsumed by ‘the others.’” – James Everington

Thursday, 7 May 2015


Very pleased to say my story 'Porcelain' will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology Masks from Knightwatch Press. Edited by Dean M Drinkel, the book will be launched at Fantasycon 2015. Full lineup and the cover art from James Powell below. (Pleased to see my friend Phil Sloman in the lineup as well.)

Many Happy Returns - Kyle Rader
Trixie - Christopher L Beck
An Absent Host - F.A. Nosić
Variety Night - Russell Proctor
The Silencing Machine - Clockhouse Writers
After The End - Christine Morgan / Lucas Williams
The Face Collector - Stephanie Ellis
The Jar By The Door - Icy Sedgwick
Porcelain - James Everington
The Man Who Fed The Foxes - Phil Sloman
The House Of A Thousand Faces - Chris Stokes
Blood, Gingerbread and Life - David T Griffith
His Last Portrait - Adrian Cole

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A Lovely Blog Hop... with added Dinosaurs

I've been challenged by my friend and all round good egg Mark West to join in the Lovely Blog Hop to talk about some of the things that have shaped my life and my writing. The blog was started by romance writer Sue Moorcroft, and I particularly like the fact that via Mark she’s forced a whole load of horror writers to participate in something ‘lovely’. We’ll never live this one down…
At the end of this post, you’ll find links to some blogs and writers I like. The writers have all agreed to participate in and continue this Lovely Blog Hop.
First Memory
I’m not sure I trust ‘first memories’ as objective statements of fact; I suspect that what your subconscious choses to remember as your ‘first memory’ may say quite a lot about your personality. So with that in mind…
I remember a recurring dream I had when I was very young which I’ve never really got to the bottom of. I was in a garden; to one side was a brick wall and to the other climbing plants on a frame. Everything was hyper-real, the plants vividly green, the bricks bright orange in the sun. I walked forward and the wall and the plants seemed to close in on me, forming a corridor. It got narrower and narrower, so that I could feel the rough brick scratch against my face and smell the sap of the plants… (can you really feel and smell in dreams, or is this something my subconscious has added later?)
As I pressed forward through the corridor of plant and brick and the view suddenly opened up in front of me, and I could see the ocean. There was something about the enormity of the ocean in front of me after the confined space of the garden that seemed terrifying.
It was here where I’d wake up.
I can’t really remember not enjoying books and reading. Books about dinosaurs were an early passion (see below) and I also remember as a child reading Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and a science fiction series about a space warrior who had every bone in his body replaced with metal. I remember being slightly older and reading Agatha Christie books from my Grandma’s bookshelves–this obsession ended abruptly when I got to the end of Dead Man’s Folly and I realised the final pages, including the one which said who the murderer was, were missing. My wife bought me a copy twenty years later so I could finally find out.
I had a lot of time to read as a teenager because my group of mates at that point all lived in the next village along, and so to arrange to see them involved some planning and effort. So at weekends and during the holidays I had a lot of time on my own to read (and later to write–see below). Which sounds sad and lonely but it wasn’t for a kid like me. My Dad had bookshelves crammed full of paperbacks so I was never short of something to read, and it was during these days that I discovered writers like Mervyn Peak, Asimov, Stephen King, Stoker, Mary Shelly… anything I could get my hands on really. It’s an odd thought, but I sometimes wonder if that simple fact that my friends all lived in the next village along had as much impact on my becoming a writer as anything else.

I was constantly in the local library as a kid, especially in the summer holidays. Like many children I had a period when I was obsessed with dinosaurs and I was just leaving this obsession behind when I found a dinosaur book in the library that somehow I’d never seen before. When I took it to the desk it turned out it was an actual scientific book on palaeontology that had had been misfiled in the children’s section. I was so crestfallen that they said if my parents approved they’d give me an adult library card so I could take it out.
So from the age of twelve I had an adult library card. I was so proud. And as I moved into my teens, I found this offered other pleasures than merely dinosaur books…
As a student I always liked university libraries too (both that of my own university and the Bodelian Library), and the sense that they contained books about everything: toxicology, Peruvian harp music, dead languages, map making, Narnia, recipes, dinosaurs (obviously), nuclear war, magic swords… Like Borges’ infinite library, hidden in plan sight if we just know how to navigate the dusty aisles of books.

What’s Your Passion?
Books. My family. Books. My friends. Books. A fine curry. Books. Indian Pale Ales. Books. The Headington Shark. Books. The music of Bob Dylan. Books. Twin Peaks. Books. 
I secretly still like dinosaurs very much too.

I’ve always enjoyed learning–not necessarily learning stuff by rote, but learning new concepts and ideas. I studied Literature and Economics at university, and since then I’ve gone through phases of reading books about linguistics, game theory, cosmology, chess, the environment… 
And writing, of course, is a kind of learning. Which leads nicely into:
The first thing I can remember writing seriously was a piece of creative writing when I was in the final year of my GCSEs; I wrote a horror story after having recently discovered Stephen King. I can’t remember the plot of that first story, but I remember it had a sex scene in (and at sixteen I wasn’t following the ‘write what you know’ rule here…) because King’s books did. But I didn’t dare show it to my English teacher with that scene, so I wrote another story. This one I remember a bit more, although I wish I didn’t: a man had a transplant operation of some kind, which somehow caused the personality of whoever the organ had come from to inhabit his body. Don’t laugh, we all have to start somewhere. 
After GCSEs were over it was the summer holidays. As I said above, I had a lot of time to myself during school holidays. So somewhat bored one day I looked again at the first story I’d written and spotted a way to ‘improve’ it by rewriting it. So I did. 
And I’ve never really stopped since then, although there have been pauses. I studied Literature at university and I wrote a lot of different things as a student–some horror, but also realistic and experimental stories, some god-awful poetry, a kind of wannabe Martin Amis novel in the form of a self-help book. It took me awhile–by which I mean years–to understand that, whatever small talent I have for writing is more narrowly focussed than my reading tastes. But that’s fine. It was all useful, I think–all the failures, the dead-ends, the botch jobs–in learning how to be a writer. I recently recycled one line from that horrendously bad novel–one single line from 70k words that has always stuck with me–when I found its proper home seventeen years later in The Quarantined City, a serial that I’m writing for Spectral Press. The two pieces couldn’t be more different both in terms of genre and, hopefully, quality but as that sentence proves, they’re both me

The writers I have nominated, for their sins, to continue this blog hop are:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Recommendation: Dead Bad Things by Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon’s Dead Bad Things is the second of his Thomas Usher novels (I reviewed the first, Pretty Little Dead Things, here). Thomas Usher is a man who can see the dead, following an accident in which his family died. As such, he is known to the Leeds police force for his ability to help them, although Usher views his power as a curse rather than a blessing.

If the first novel welded McMahon’s distinctly nihilistic and downbeat style of horror to the police procedural genre, this second seems to be influenced more by things like David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, where the coppers have secret pasts and hidden loyalties of their own. Whilst Dead Bad Things does open with the discovery of a gruesome child murder by PC Sarah Doherty and her colleague Benson, the question of the identity of the killer is not really what drives the plot forward (although don’t worry, it is revealed). The bulk of the novel is about Doherty’s relationship with her dead father, a famous and well-liked policeman who in the privacy of his home used to rape his wife and cut his daughter with a razor blade. Sarah, who still lives in the family house, begins to investigate her father’s life and uncovers some dark secrets. And at the same time, she starts to see a strange figure in robes and a white cowl, haunting her.

Thomas Usher himself features less in this book than the first, although he is pivotal to how it progresses. He starts the narrative living in a very haunted house in London, trying to escape his past... but a man who sees ghosts should know more than anyone how impossible that is. He soon begins to hear voices and see strange visions calling him back to the North. As well as Doherty and Usher, there are two other viewpoints the action is conveyed from: one a character returning from Pretty Little Dead Things, and one from the viewpoint of…. well, something completely unexpected is all I’ll say here.

These multiple viewpoints and less conventional plot structure make the mechanics of Dead Bad Things occasionally seem a bit too exposed (in particular it seems to take an age to get Usher properly connected to the main plot) but it really doesn’t matter when a writer has such total command of suspense and atmosphere as McMahon displays. To call this book ‘dark’ would imply there’s some chance that your eyes might adjust to the lack of light here, but forget it: McMahon’s world is bleak and you’ll feel just as brutalised leaving it as you do coming in. But it’s a darkness that isn’t gratuitous (although there are some bravura ‘bad deaths’); it comes from looking at the world straight. And its uncompromising nature makes it as exhilarating rather than exhausting. McMahon’s prose and characterisation never falter and for all its heaviness Dead Bad Things is very readable, a genuine page-turner as it’s plot moves forward and its different strands start to connect.

The book ends with the faint suggestion of future hope for some of the characters; which is good for Thomas Usher but maybe bad news for those of us wanting a third book in this fantastic series.