Thursday, 16 July 2015

Recommendation: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

I’ve been wanting to read more by Scott Nicolay since I came across Eyes Exchange Bank, his story of lost friendships in a winter-gripped American town in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction (which I reviewed for This Is Horror). Given the quality of that anthology, it’s a testament to how good Nicolay’s piece was that it stood out; indeed I included it on my 2014 Short Story list. Recently I finally got round to reading his debut collection Ana Kai Tangata, from which Eyes Exchange Bank was taken. The book contains eight stories, the majority of which are longer than average, with the concluding Tuckahoe being a complete novella. (A limited edition of the collection contained an ninth story, Do You Like To Look At Monsters, which is now available as a standalone ebook. I haven’t read that one as yet, but given the quality of Ana Kai Tangata I will be doing so soon.)

The reasons that Eyes Exchange Bank impressed me so–a strong use of location, a skilfully escalating atmosphere of dread and a subtle ambiguity–are all present to a greater or lesser extent in the other stories here. The horror starts off being built up from small details that prey on the your mind–a liquefying arm, the vanishing of a room-mate’s room, the movements of insects on a cave wall– but typically proceed to moment of sudden, visceral horror.

A couple of tales, Phragmites and the title story especially, did seem too long, with the sense of unity creaking slightly, the tension suffering unfortunate lulls. But even these weaker stories are compelling reads, always stylistically and thematically interesting. As I said, Nicolay is very good at using setting to his advantage; not just the brute effect of the landscape but also the cultures and sub-cultures living there. Ana Kai Tangata itself is set on (and underneath) Easter Island whereas Phragmites involves the search for a cave sacred to the Navajo. Caves and confined places in general feature in a number of stories here, although what’s lurking in them varies. In the superb Geschäfte, this space is the confined shaft behind the walls of an apartment bathroom, a supposedly mundane space that is in fact both shifting and unstable. As, perhaps, is the narrator's psyche, in this tale that recalls Polanski and Lynch.

To my mind, the standout stories in the book were the previous mentioned Eyes Exchange Bank, plus The Bad Outer Space; The Soft Frogs and TuckahoeThe Bad Outer Space  use the same technique as Arthur Machen’s The White People, in which a child narrates a story of witchcraft and cosmic horror whose significance they barely understand. The use of childish analogies and shifts in timeframe is pitch-perfect, and the weird element is tantalisingly out of the corner of our eye throughout. There have been a number of attempts at updating The White People over the years, but few so successful as this.

The Soft Frogs is more conventional story, but it succeeds in discomforting the reader due to its use of an original (and genuinely hideous) monster and a good dose of body-horror. Tuckahoe, meanwhile, combines noir and police procedural elements to tell a tale of backwoods weirdness. Tuckahoe uses its longer length to deliver the twists and turns of a thriller-esque plot, punctuated with several set pieces of unbridled terror. (It makes you hope Nicolay will write a novel one day.) There’s a pleasing unity to the piece as well, despite its length, with its final scene circling back to where we came in: a morgue where an autopsy is taking place. Seeming to take influences not just from Lovecraft but TED Klein and even True Detective (given the timings, probably a coincidence) it’s masterfully done.

Overall, a fine debut collection, and one well worthy of your time.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Edge-lit 4

Edge-lit 4 took place on Saturday, and as usual I went across to Derby for the day. I remember when I first went to the first Edge-lit (my first ever convention) I was pretty nervous as I didn't know anyone. Okay, very nervous. And yet somehow, in the intervening three years, I've met so many in the horror community that this post is mainly just a list of people I spoke to. I include as many people as I remember not to name drop, but to sincerely thank them all for being such a friendly and inclusive bunch. (And if I've forgotten to mention you, sorry - it was a hectic day!)

Things started well when Phil Sloman and I continued our habit of arriving in cities within 60 seconds of each other – despite having been travelling for hours, he was loitering outside the station when I arrived, so we headed up to the venue, talking about The Quarantined City, dodgy cafes and publisher foibles. Once at the venue we quickly bumped into Dion Winton-Polack and Lily Childs – the first of a number of Facebook friends I met for the first time in the flesh that day.

In the bar I went for drinks, spying Graeme Reynolds in the queue, and then in quick succession spoke to (deep breath) Paul Holmes, Neil Snowden, Adele Wearing, Mark Morris, Kit Power, Vicky Hooper, Ross Warren, Lisa Childs, Steve Byrne, Alison Littlewood, Stephen Bacon, Richard Farren Barber, John Travis and Terry Grimwood. I made a valiant attempt to actually get upstairs to the venue itself, but then bumped into Dan Howarth and his partner Jenny so we had a chat in the lobby. I must have been back to the bar and decided the sun was past the yardarm at this point too, for I definitely had a pint of Pedigree in my hand.

I tried to get upstairs again but ended up talking to Andrew David Barker (author of the fantastic The Electric) instead. Moving closer, right at the foot of the stairs, I bumped into Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner and Rosanne Rabinowitz – Cate and I have been saying we’ll meet up at a con since 2012 but the fates have always been against us before, so it was fantastic to finally do so.

Shortly  before my first aborted attempt to leave the Quad bar.
And then it was lunch time, and I’d not even made it to any panels or events. A group of us went to a café which served lovely ‘artisan sandwiches’, although quite how they took so long to prepare I’ll never know. After lunch, Mark West lead a contingent to a local second hand market stall, but I figured I’d better go back to The Quad and actually try and make it upstairs – which I did, sort of. I stopped to chat to Theresa Derwin of Knightwatch Press about a 'Top Secret Project' (TM) myself, Dan Howarth and her have been working on… After that, I saw Hic Dragones had a stall so I went over to talk to head honcho Hannah Kate and posed with a copy of Hauntings. Then back downstairs, and I bumped into Ross Warren again who was talking to Ray Cluley who I’d pre-order a copy of Probably Monsters from. Ray signed it for me and with a cry ‘pick any card’ he flourished some old school horror postcards which he’d wrote mini one-off stories on the back. What a guy.


Pimping Hauntings
Finally at that point I went up to an actual to goodness Edge-lit event, a panel on Monsters – along the way bumping into Tim Major, who came and sat with myself and Ross. The panel was hosted by Adam Nevill and featured Sarah Pinborough, Mark Morris and Alison Littlewood. Then it was straight over to the Spectral Press launch event, where books by Stephen Volk, Mark Morris and Cate Gardner were being launched. I've already had the pleasure of reading Stephen's Leytonstone to review for This Is Horror, and was chuffed to see a quote from my review appears in the front of the book. Cate and Mark's books sounded great too.

In the audience I spoke to Paul Feeney (later on buying a copy of his debut novella The Last Bus), met Dean M Drinkal and Tony Cowin for the first time, before catching up with Dan again, passing on the info from Theresa about the Top Secret Project' (TM), which as it turns out wasn't to remain fully top secret for much longer...

Book (and CD) haul for the day.
Next up was the Knightwatch Press event, which was truly one of the most entertaining launches I've been to. Dion was there to launch Sunny With A Chance Of Zombies, and his daughter was dressed up for the part as a brain eating zombie (with an actual brain to scoff in her hands). She was brilliant and never broke character once. The readings for Sunny... and Chip Shop of Horrors were all funny as hell (deliberately so) and Phil knocked his reading out the park, especially when he did a mini song and dance in the middle. Then there was brain-cake, some free wine, and Theresa letting slip to the audience about the 'Top Secret Project' (TM) I mentioned above. So I guess I'll be mentioning it on here too soon...! All in all, a fantastic launch.

Then a group of us now including Fiona Ní Éalaighthe heading out for the traditional convention curry - after a walk in the rain we ended up in the same restaurant as last year. Because of course we did. Lovely (if very spicy!) food though and some great conversation about just what made conventions such fun. Which in short, was the people. (And the shit loads of books, too).


Handsome people eating a curry. If you're wondering where Fiona is, like a gentlemen I'm blocking all sight of her save ear.
We headed back for the raffle, which was a bit of a blow-out as far as our group was concerned - I did win a signed copy of some fantasy book so I suppose I shouldn't grumble... plus with Sarah Pinborough and John Connolly presenting it was full of laughs (many of them filthy ones). And then, too soon, the day was done (and hay-fever had about killed any chance I had of saying anything coherent anymore) so I headed back to the station. It felt especially bittersweet on the train back this time - I met great people some of whom I count as genuine friends, but I only get to see them a few hectic days a year like this one. But still, it was a great event, maybe the best Edge-lit to date and I for one can't wait for the next one.

(One of those good friends is Mark West, who has written his own take on the day here. I have also shamelessly nicked a few photos from him...)

Friday, 10 July 2015

Guest Post: Alex Davis on The Dark Side Of Cinema

So, I was meant to post this yesterday as part of a blog swap with Alex Davis, but life got in the way. So a day late, here's Alex's wonderful guest post. And over on his blog, you can find me talking about a key influence on The Quarantined City and one of my favourite ever shows, Twin Peaks.

Take it away, Alex:

The Dark Side of Cinema

One of the things I've always really loved to have in my working life is a bit of variety. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to explore lots of interesting things with a kind of freedom you don't often have in a regular working environment. And when, at the very start of this year, I noticed Ginger Nuts of Horror – a fantastic website if you've never been by – were looking for reviewers and writers, I decided to throw my hat in the ring with a pitch for a series looking at the most extreme of cinema. And so, Film Gutter was born.

I've always enjoyed things that are from the edge, alternative, a bit outre. And the same very much goes for films – I've rarely been one for a blockbuster, much preferring independent and world cinema. What first set me off thinking about Film Gutter was a quick trawl through Youtube at people's lists of 'disturbing films' or 'disgusting films' or 'controversial movies' and it struck me how many I had already seen and not been that affected by. And that started me wondering – is there a line I won't let a film cross? Is there a point where I would press the stop button and give up because something had disturbed me so much? If those things that really shook other people up had produced so little effect in me, was there something out there that would make me feel that perturbed?

So the rationale was effectively something akin to masochism, a movie-based Man vs Food – bring it on and see if you can break me. Six months in, I've taken in some absolutely horrendous movies, but it's been fascinating to explore what is out there and what people are doing in extreme horror. There are a lot of films I don't know if I would have checked out or not if I wasn't writing the column. 

So here are a few highlights of the first six months of Film Gutter:

Best Film: Flowers, all day long. An astounding piece by director Phil Stevens, without a single word of dialogue in the whole piece. The visuals and the atmosphere are simply incredible, and the wordless performance from the six female leads are also wonderful. This one is on its way soon from Unearthed Films, and I can't suggest checking it out enough.

Worst Film: Yet to type up my review for this one, and I may yet not bother, because Chaos was so awful. Lazy characters, cliché violence and dialogue put into the mouths of teenage characters but clearly written by somebody many years out of touch. Just lousy from beginning to end, some kind of attempt at an informational film but not even achieving that.

Most Harrowing Film: Megan is Missing. A relatively simple found footage movie, but well played by all the teenage actors and having one of the most horrific, impactful finales you are ever likely to see. The last twenty minutes of this one left me absolutely shellshocked.

Most Reprehensible Film: Snuff 102. It's rare to find a film was so few redeeming features as this Argentinian piece. Flat out horrible and simply designed to upset from the get go, with graphic and realistically presented snuff violence and scenes that send me a bit queasy even to think of.

Hardest Film to Watch: Thanatomorphose. My hand lingered over the stop button so many times during this movie it's untrue. I made this stomach-churning body horror even worse by watching it while I ate dinner – very bad move indeed. The last few minutes of this one had me covering my ears with my hands and asking the screen 'Is it over?'

There are still plenty more disturbing films out there to watch, and I'm looking forwards – perhaps a little strangely – to maybe finding the film that can break me...

You can read the full set of Film Gutter reviews so far athttp://www.gingernutsofhorror.com/film-gutter.html. And, if you fancied something a bit gentler, you can check out my novel The Last War at http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00YQICMHQ

Monday, 6 July 2015

Available Now: The Quarantined City #4: A Lack Of Demons

The fourth part of The Quarantined City, entitled A Lack Of Demons, is available now. Thanks as ever to Spectral Press and Simon Marshall Jones. Blurb and links below:

Fellows has finally tracked down the quarantined city’s most mysterious resident, the reclusive writer known as Boursier. A man so utterly meek and placid it seems impossible he can have written the stories Fellows has found so affecting. The stories he is convinced don’t just reflect reality but are actually changing it… 

The alterations in the quarantined city, and in his own life, are getting more dramatic, but how much is that really due to Boursier and how much just caused by Fellows’s own meddling?

A Lack Of Demons is the fourth episode of the six part monthly serial The Quarantined City from James Everington and Spectral Press. (UK | US)


And of course, episodes 1, 2 and 3 are also still available. Here's what critic and blogger Damien G Walter had this to say about the first episode: "...there is an edge of Murakami here, we are in a world just slightly skewed from our own but all the more foreign for that. Everington has a crystal clear prose style, reminiscent of J G Ballard but, like China Mieville, twisted toward the gothic..." 

Buy Episode 1: The Smell Of Paprika here (UK) and here (US).
Buy Episode 2: Into The Rain here (UK) and here (US).
Buy Episode 3: Spot The Difference here (UK) and here (US).

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

'A Lack Of Demons' - Cover

There's been a bit of an unintended pause before the release of the next episode of The Quarantined City, but things are moving again and Spectral Press have revealed the wonderful cover art for episode #4, A Lack Of Demons.



Episodes 1, 2 and 3 are available now. Here's what The Geekiary site had to say about the first two: "There is a wonderfully surreal quality to this story so far... the writing skill here and the narrative hooks are enough to keep readers coming back to see how it will all play out."

Buy The Smell Of Paprika here (UK) and here (US).
Buy Into The Rain here (UK) and here (US).
Buy Spot The Difference here (UK) and here (US).

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.