Review – “Albion Fay” by Mark Morris

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I like novella-length horror, and this release from Spectral Press is a beautifully written tale. That sublime cover is the perfect reflection of what awaits, and as well as shivers, “Albion Fay” provides a very human descent of loss, guilt and desperation.

Albion FayOur narrator is Frank, a middle-aged, single man attending a family funeral. After drifting home in his grief, he peruses a faded photograph album and begins a journey into memories of the past he shared with his parents and twin sister, Angie. Many years ago, something bad happened to Angie on a childhood holiday at an isolated house named Albion Fay. Frank can pinpoint it to the moment she wandered into a network of deep caves behind the creaking building, and whatever happened left her damaged and lost in life.

“Albion Fay” begins with a great sense of intrigue. It snares us with Frank’s grief, and absolutely nails the crippling, spaced-out unreality of funerals before taking us back to his childhood. The non-linear storytelling works well as Frank pieces together how it all went wrong, and kudos to the author for the seamless seguing between past and present without a jot of confusion.

We learn that the caves are regarded with the same kind of nervous fear and reluctance that Dracula castle’s receives from pub locals in Hammer films. Legend has it they are home to the “Fay”: wicked fairies that bite and don’t like it when you look at them. The aura of malevolence emanating from the caves swells as the story progresses, none more so than when Angie is drawn inside, causing a great sense of helplessness on the part of the reader.

Frank is a solid narrator and investable, along with his sister. This makes Angie’s transformation – the breaking of a confident and vivacious child we’ve come to like – both convincing and tragic, especially as she harbours a sinister sense of knowing within her frightened soul. Frank’s parents also play strong roles, and while his mother provides warmth and stability, his father is a bitter and short-tempered bully. He becomes increasingly nasty the more we see, and the author does a sobering job of conveying the consequences of abuse within a family. This brings a palpable reality that bleeds through into the potentially supernatural elements of the book, making both equally intense.

I would actually have liked to learn more about the parents and their own formative journeys. They’re so well realised that their contrasts make me curious as to what drives them, but then I suppose this may have eroded the slick pace of the tale.

“Albion Fay” has a haunting sense of time and place, and although an old house and some caves inhabited by toothsome folklore may not sound desperately original, it just brings a pleasing familiarity. The story itself has plenty of muscle and the setting also provides a canvas for the pervading sense of Britishness. This is summed up in Adam Nevill’s excellent and thorough introduction, although I was glad that I saved reading this until the end.

And what an end that was, bringing a few sharp shocks before the curtain elegantly falls. We see humanity at both its most tender and acrid – but always utterly fragile – and as much heartbreak is born from the domestic exploits of Frank’s family as from the lurking Fay. The author deftly tackles loss in all its forms, combining the bittersweet nostalgia of childhood with chills and incredible style. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones

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I got the impression that this new horror novella from Dark Minds Press was a tribute to the shock cinema and pulp novels of the 1970s and 1980s. I wondered if it would be a re-tread of that era – warts and all – or a contemporary update, and it’s actually a bit of both. Lurking beneath that splendid cover is an exciting story that squeezes out the lesser elements of its source inspiration, and concentrates on the ride.

Slaughter BeachThe story is appropriately simple and familiar. It’s the late 1970s-ish in a non-specific tropical harbour town where we meet Don Curtis: a jaded Vietnam veteran who scrapes together a living with his boat. But Don’s humdrum life changes one day when his boat is chartered by a glamour photographer, Marshall, to take him and his entourage to a remote island for a photoshoot and an excuse for a party. But guess what? The island is already home to a blood-thirsty killer, so it’s not long before gouts of arterial spray and severed heads are ruining the postcard scenery.

While a pseudo-homage requires the cast to be of a certain expected stock, the characters here are 3-dimensional enough to avoid being dull. Don Curtis steps us as the tough, investable hero who can play the killer at his own game, and Marshall assumes the role of coke-snorting rich bellend. The assorted assistants, glamour models and local crew hired for the trip provide plenty of knife fodder for our murderer, but one cliché they don’t observe is the bad dialogue of the old-school shocker. The plentiful conversation is natural rather than absurd which keeps both the story and our interest alive.

This is what I like about “Slaughter Beach”. Given the very nature of its inspiration, there’s little originality, but the author has tweaked it for the contemporary reader. As well as the polished lines, he opts for intelligent and resourceful female characters instead of squealing damsels in distress. In fact, Tammy – the photographer’s personal assistant and potential love interest for Curtis – always looks like being one of the few characters who might make it through by her own steel. While the author sprinkles in pleasing grindhouse tropes, these cause a fond smile rather than a groan and I didn’t experience a single “Oh, please…” moment. It’s a fine line, but Benedict J Jones has gauged it well and also ensured his tweaks don’t kill the gorgeous retro vibe.

For a novella-length thriller, “Slaughter Beach” pretty much ticks all the boxes. It’s well written and the atmosphere of isolation is bang on from the sticky heat of day to the unnerving shadows of night. Once it gathers momentum, the story is a blast as the rapidly-depleting group are hunted down and exterminated in graphic and grisly ways. The menacing aura of the hunt is relentless, death often catching you unaware, and although some of the characters are rather likeable, that doesn’t stop their brutal executions from being enormously macabre fun.

As the story peaks, there are a couple of surprises in wait and I really enjoyed the finale. It wasn’t expected, and rounds off the tale on a suitably gruesome and impending note.

“Slaughter Beach” is the first novella from Dark Minds Press and I hope there are plenty more to follow. This gripping but subtly modernised nod to the lurid, bloody fun of the 70s and 80s is a fine way to spend a couple of hours.

Review – “The Silence” by Tim Lebbon

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“In the darkness of a vast cave system, cut off from the world for millennia, blind creatures hunt by sound. Then there is light, there are voices, and they feed… Swarming from their prison, they multiply and thrive. To scream, even to whisper, is to summon death.

Deaf for many years, Ally knows how to live in silence. Now, it is her family’s only chance of survival. To leave their home, to shun others, to find a remote haven where they can sit out the plague. But will it ever end? And what kind of world will be left?”

The Silence - Tim LebbonAs a general fan of the world ending in some spectacularly macabre fashion, this blurb really piqued my interest. Tim Lebbon is a proven scribe for horror thrillers, and I discovered that “The Silence” manages to avoid re-treading beaten apocalyptic paths to present a tight and exciting read.

Here, armageddon is born from a network of ancient Moldovan caves. An undiscovered species is accidentally unleashed – a carnivorous swarm of bat-like horrors named “vesps” – which multiply with insectile efficiency and spread through Eastern Europe, leaving carnage in their wake.

The main characters are Ally, a sensible 14-year-old deaf girl, and her father Huw. They live a normal existence in Monmouthshire, England, with the rest of their family and it’s through them that we follow the plague. Being interested in science, the initial televised event catches Ally’s eye, but the tone soon shifts from excited anticipation to terror.

I love the pre-apocalypse sections of novels such as this – the good old rollercoaster chain-lift – and Tim Lebbon has created a delightfully ominous climb. The atmosphere of impending doom is superb, beginning as minor news to the English media, far overseas and surely nothing to worry about. But Ally is perturbed right from the start and her father also displays an intuitive acknowledgement of the threat. As readers, we already know hell is en route. So when Huw, away on business, drops everything and heads back to his family, it puts him firmly in our camp.

There are some chilling moments just before chaos descends, such as one memorable scene in which Huw stops at a service station whilst travelling home. A stark contrast is drawn between the bustling commuters and bickering families going about their evening, and those who have realised just how serious this problem is. They stare at their smartphones, stricken in realisation that these faraway, unbelievable events are rapidly hitting closer to home. It’s beautifully written and cinematic, subtly perched right on that awful cusp of normality and catastrophe.

Even as the panic escalates, there are still those who don’t quite understand – or refuse to acknowledge – what’s coming, such as opportunistic shopkeepers who triple their prices as people stockpile. The story nods to our greed and instinct for selfish survival – both commercial and violent – but tinges this with sadness. I like it that the author neither excuses nor condemns the varying reactions born of fear.

People soon realise that because they evolved underground, vesps are blind, so they only way to survive is complete silence. With them coming inexorably closer, Ally and family abandon their heavily-populated town and embark towards an old holiday home in rural Scotland. This build-up comprises a healthy portion of the book, and while some might be impatient for the “kick-off”, I found the menace so expertly cranked that it didn’t outstay its welcome for a moment. When the vesps do finally arrive in a blaze of leathery wings and teeth, the novel also delivers on its promise of horror and exhilaration.

Ally’s brother, mum and gran provide solid supporting roles, as does her pet dog, but the focus is on father and daughter. Huw is a flawed and stubborn chap, but a good dad and a strong believer in the sanctity of life. Ally is a likeable kid: pragmatic and perceptive for her age. She’s an astute observer of human expressions and intent, partly due to her condition, and well equipped for a silent world.

The family have an advantage by being able to use sign language, but this is unfortunately something that makes Ally a valuable asset to certain people. Yes, it’s not just the vesps that we need to worry about and at times, they become secondary to the criminal and unhinged elements drifting through the apocalypse. I like the way the characters evolve, learning to live in the vesp-infested world so that it almost becomes normal, and then moving on to worrying about other things.

There are plenty of moving moments and horrific sacrifices to be made, but the gore is not excessive. It’s a strong emotional core that holds the book together and although a thriller to some degree, it’s not of the white-knuckle variety and focuses more on humanity.

Silence is a great, simple hook for survival. The government announcement that “pets must be silenced” – a nice euphemism for killed – gave me a chill, and this also affects people’s willingness to help strangers. What if they don’t keep quiet, or can’t due to injury or distress? What would you do with a screaming baby as the vesps closed in?

Less usual for an apocalyptic tale, social media becomes the chief means of communication for much of the book. I liked this contemporary element, and the author doesn’t miss a trick. As Ally is very tech-savvy, she becomes the information gatherer for her family, and the internet is an essential but grim place. As well as advice and survival tips, it’s awash with cell-phone clips of burning cities, tweets by people trapped and slowly dying in vesp-smothered cars, youtube suicides…

As time progresses, the world starts falling to the Grey: the time when power and communications wink out. This compounds the isolation of survivors, and there’s a brutal sense of finality about the power going off. It’s never coming back on. The digital world that filled our lives is dead. Adapt or die.

Overall, I had a great time with “The Silence” and it’s one of those novels that doesn’t let go between reading sessions. I had to nip to the local shop in the dark, and was conscious of rustling shadows, not to mention the excessive noise of my own footsteps. I did manage not to shush anybody though.

The story never gets bleak – there’s always hope – and it maintains pace without falling back on easy clichés. Throw in a splendid accumulation of peril, monsters both bestial and human, and this is a must for any connoisseur of the apocalypse.

Recommended.

Review – “Darkest Minds” edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson

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The third in a solid anthology series from Dark Minds Press, this book presents a dozen horror tales, eleven of which have not been published before. This time the theme is crossing a border, either literal or figurative, and the authors have provided some great riffs on the concept. Our protagonists struggle with mental and physical transitions, find themselves uprooted regarding location or tackling paranormal experience, and even cross time itself. In addition to the theme, I found that all the stories are thick with an askew atmosphere of darkness waiting to pounce, and this provides an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

darkest mindsThe fun starts with “Vacation” by Glen Krisch, the only reprint of the anthology. It’s narrated by Mr Callahan, a financial big hitter out of sync with life, who hands over a fortune to a strange facility for some kind of vacation. This is built up in a shroud of mystery, beginning with his immersion in a warm, gelatinous pool sunk into a lightless chamber, and I loved Mr Callahan’s reflective train of thought as his “journey” commences. The wild concept perfectly suits the theme, at one point nimbly changing from past to present tense with great effect. The conclusion rounds it off nicely and it’s one of those tales with a pleasing penny-drop moment that puts a smile on your face.

Much more grounded in bleak reality is “Refugees” by Robert Mammone. We find Grace, a woman who works at a refugee detention centre in Australia, dealing with the application of a Pakistani woman and her grandfather. The impeccable social realism soon gives way to creeps as we realise that something’s askew and some kind of dark magic is at play. A couple of things left me slightly confused, but this is an evocative, human tale that keeps the reader guessing.

Beginning in a grey, rain-lashed flat, “The Great Divide” by Clayton Stealback is told by Edd, a lone man left adrift after his wife has left him. A short mood piece with a twist, it’s a tight and emotional ride with a chilling conclusion.

Next up is one of the finest short stories I’ve read this year. In “The 18” by Ralph Robert Moore we are introduced to Nate, a gentleman who loses his wife Holly of many years. Having lived and worked together for so long, he is crushed by grief and tempers this with alcohol and alienating himself from life. But then he starts to glimpse Holly in different places – on television, around the neighbourhood – and although his rationality tries to explain it away, he can’t shake the feeling that something deeper is going on.

Nate is completely investable in his grief and we’re treated to plenty of truly touching moments. Not a single word is wasted in this story and I was wrapped around the author’s finger by page two. The eventual explanation for Holly’s repeated sightings is both brilliant and brave, and the finale beautifully rounds off this triumph of concept and heart.

“Time Waits” by Mark West is a slick, Twilight Zone-esque short in which Martyn – an ordinary married man going about his day – realises that time always seems short, sparse, and increasingly so. On his way to work, his perception of time and space really starts misfiring and it’s to the author’s credit that I got an eerie Langoliers vibe from the rewritten time-rules and the atmosphere of unspoken but impending doom.

In “The Catalyst” by Gary Fry we meet Emma, an ageing lady who lives with her chain-smoking grump of a husband. One day while digging in the garden of their new home, she finds a buried tin that turns out to be the grave of a pet mouse and although she’s spooked, the discovery prompts a change in outlook. With strong characters and place, this sobering tale crosses the thematic border with a bang.

Particularly memorable for its voice and storytelling is “Under Occupation” by Tom Johnstone. It’s narrated by Kev: one of two council workers retrieving the corpse of a desperate widow who committed suicide. But the boundaries between the two men’s personal and professional lives soon blur, especially as Kev’s guilt-troubled colleague had once goaded the deceased when previously meeting her as a bailiff. One particular element of this story baffled me towards the end, but it has humanity, a thorough social conscience and a convincing slippery slope feel as the anxiety ferments.

Benedict J. Jones presents one of his trademark dark Westerns in “Going South to Meet the Devil”. A modern day tale, we meet Whitey and Ignacio, two cowboys who venture out to hunt down a pack of wild dogs that have slaughtered some steers. They trail the pack into a canyon with grisly results, and plenty of great dialogue cements a tense read.

“When I wake I remember that I used to be. Someone.”

Thus begins “Bothersome” by Andrew Hook, a very immersive experience that initially seems rather surreal as we try to work out the whos, whys and wherefores. But the dreamlike confusion is actually a very concrete perspective and things fall cleverly into place as old memories jostle and collide. I know this is somewhat vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything and you should read it blind as I did. This is multi-layered writing that requires concentration and perhaps patience, but savour the reading and your time will be rewarded.

Another visit to Twilight Zone territory occurs in “The Sea in Darkness Calls” by David Surface. Here we find divorcee Jack, spending time at his brother’s seaside home and remembering the happier times he had there with his kids. Things quickly get strange when he notices a window across the road through which he can somehow see the ocean, even at night. An emotional tale, I like the way it fills in back story whilst simultaneously adding more mystery. There’s a great tone of displacement and the slow burning unease doesn’t relent until the powerful finale.

“Walking the Borderlines” by Tracy Fahey begins with a woman recalling a trip to Paris as a youth. Here she met a fellow “borderliner” –  those who can see and hear the paranormal – with whom she also shares a general interest in the darker, spiritual side of life. They end up in a haunted flat together, and the result is a spooky but modern piece, well placed between the more intense stories either side.

The final story – another of my favourites – is the longest in the anthology so stick the kettle on and settle in because you’re in for a treat. Stephen Bacon never fails to impress me and with “It Came from the Ground” he manages it with the opening line.

“We’d been in Rwanda for only a few days when we saw the child with the machete.”

This is a splendid teaser, and what follows doesn’t let it down. The story is narrated by a Pulitzer-dreaming photographer named Jason, recalling the story of his travels to militia-torn Rwanda. Accompanied by his partner, another colleague and a local guide, he was looking to snatch some shots of the aforementioned child, said to be a terrible warlord despite only being 12 years old. But while staying overnight at a convent before trekking to the warlord’s rural compound, talk of devilry, jinns, and superstition abounds.

The author keeps you wondering as to where the menace is going to manifest. There are many possibilities – his own group with its relationship troubles, the warlord child, or perhaps it is something else malevolent out there in the unfamiliar and dangerous African countryside. The account is perfectly paced – definitely the “page-turner” of the anthology – and boasts an immense sense of place and an appropriate sense of grim reality.

Although there are stark moments of fear and ghastly action, it’s the subtle touches that really notched it up for me. Sometimes a simple and deftly timed paragraph delivers an ominous chill, catching the reader with their guard down. One example is this line, which suddenly cranks the threat after Jason has posed for a casual group photograph at the convent:

“Just last week I was looking at the photo in my apartment, realising that it captured the final time we were all together before death swept in.”

We know it’s coming, and soon, but what is it? The author whisked me through Jason’s grim, exciting journey with some superb turns of phrase towards a monstrous showdown that I never saw coming, and it concludes the anthology on a very satisfying note.

I enjoyed Darker Minds. Ross Warren and Anthony Watson have created a colourful anthology, rich with imagination, and all the stories presented are well written. The numerous 1st person tales work well, testimony to the editors’ ability to spot an accomplished voice, and there’s plenty of social commentary and conscience to bring depth to the thrills and chills.

If you’re familiar with the contributors – a fine array of indie horror writers – then you’ll know what to expect. If not, this is a sound opportunity to add some new genre talents to your list.

Review – Black Static #47

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I rarely review magazines/journals at the Hellforge but this fine UK publication from TTA Press is so consistently solid that it deserves a trumpet. If you’re not familiar, the digest-sized mixture of articles, interviews, art, new short fiction and genre reviews will please the horror fan who likes things fresh and off the beaten path. Rather than formulaic creeps, Black Static favours scares of the shadowy and intangible, boasting a level of writing that is always superb throughout.

Black StaticIssue 47 kicks off with two thoughtful and eloquent commentaries. “Coffinmaker’s Blues” by Stephen Volk discusses Hitchcock’s Frenzy and its cultural and historical context with regard to London serial killers. “Notes from the Borderland” by Lynda E. Rucker ponders fear in horror entertainment. She discusses that fear-fans often fall into two camps: those who demand to be jolted out of their seats, and those who regard this as less important to a destabilising, unsettling chill. While immediately less shocking, the latter lasts much longer, and is the essence of what Black Static is all about.

Next up is the fiction, commencing with a spooky road trip in “On the Road with the American Dead” by James Van Pelt. We meet Jeremy – a travelling photocopier salesman – who spends a lot of time alone on the dusty Kansas highway. But just as he is relaxing into this particular journey, he’s blindsided by the sudden appearance of a girl beside him in his car. After the shock, he converses with her and realises she appears to be a ghost from the past, and certainly isn’t his last encounter of the journey. This reflective opener is extremely evocative – I was right there in the car with Jeremy from the first paragraph – and combines moments of dry humour along with the melancholy vibe to great effect.

“All The Day You’ll Have Good Luck” by Kate Jonez takes us to Oklahoma to meet a schoolgirl who – along with her mother and sisters – work together as thieves. But during a tried and tested pick-pocketing at a local carnival, a familiar face from a previous scam causes things to unravel. Told in the 1st person, our young narrator talks of family life, boys and normal worries, which seats us in her corner despite her unusual and unsavoury designation in life. Presenting a muscular voice, this tale is rich in place and full of dark surprises.

I loved the wonderfully titled “Razorshins” by John Connolly. The narrator tells the story of his grandfather, Tendell, a hard man who worked the illegal liquor trade in Prohibition-era Maine. After he is under suspicion of theft from his boss, an ice cold assassin is sent along on a snowy cross-country delivery to keep a sinister eye on the proceedings. They end up being forced to take refuge in a rural farmhouse to escape the freezing weather, and here begins talk of Razorshins: a bootlegger’s myth involving a terrible creature that lurks in the woods and has to be appeased with offerings of booze. The story initially keeps us guessing as to whether it is merely folklore or an actual supernatural threat, and the narrator’s voice rolls off the page. The characters are frighteningly realistic and as the story progresses, there’s a shift from crime thriller to horror. A riveting tale, it genuinely made me shiver at one point with an exquisite paragraph that could have been straight out of M.R. James: a rare occurrence for which I have to pay special respect to the author.

“A monster lived in Cocoa’s bathroom.”

Thus begins “The Devil’s Hands” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Cocoa lives a Bohemian existence with a flatmate she dislikes, and this story finds her on her 24th birthday, going about her day and visiting her hippyish parents. She has unresolved relationship and life issues, and of course the possibility of a monster in her flat. Beautifully off-kilter, this gently-paced piece wanders effortlessly from warmth to chills and proves to be as engaging on a human level as the previous stories.

Things take a darker turn for “When the Devil’s Driving” by the excellent Ray Cluley. Lucy, a misanthropic teen, likes to spend time alone at a stagnant pond named the Devil’s Basin and is more than a little disgruntled when a younger girl turns up and starts trying to hang out with her. Although starting out harmlessly with the vibe of a disaffected kid, coming-of-age type story, it suddenly brings a brutal clout of pure darkness. It’s a mysterious and strangely malevolent piece with a powerful emotional resonance and another that bothers your conscience long after the event. This is exactly the kind of slow-burning unease that Lynda E. Rucker spoke of in her comment and the kind that Black Static‘s editor Andy Cox is so good at finding.

“Yesterday, I saw Jamie Goodwin burst into flame.”

Best opening line of the issue goes to “A Case Study in Natural Selection” by Eric J Guignard. I love a good speculative, semi-apocalyptic story and this is a fine example. Here, runaway global warming has escalated to the point where not only is water difficult to find but people are “fireballing”: a spectacular form of spontaneous human combustion. We follow a small and generally pleasant community in California through the eyes of Kenny, a regular lad with girls, friendships and the future on his mind. But as most people have migrated north looking for cooler, damper climates, his thoughts turn to survival. A haunting take on a collapsing world, it still manages to be a refreshing and somehow uplifting tale despite the inevitable violence. I loved the ending, which brings the curtain down on the fiction section of this issue with an appropriate flourish.

The “Case Notes” review section by Peter Tennant rounds up the fiction of contributor Ray Cluley, and follows this with a revealing author interview regarding his craft. There’s also thoughtful reviews of the Terror Tales series by Gray Friar Press and a stack of other interesting horror releases. Finally, “Blood Spectrum” by Tony Lee tackles a raft of DVD/Blu Ray releases with his crisp and honest style.

Overall, Black Static has the confident air of a publication that’s found its niche just outside the box, and I love it for that. I read this issue a few weeks ago and the abrasions the stories caused in my head have yet to heal. The sumptuous artwork and slick layout mean it’s always a treat: a magazine for which to put aside a couple of hours, run a bath, have a drink, or whatever’s your down-time garnish. So if you wish to trouble yourself with askew horrors and flawed humanity of all kinds, visit the website here.

Some magazines are polished. Black Static is brushed with steel.

Review – “Probably Monsters” by Ray Cluley

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This new collection from ChiZine Publications promises monsters of all kinds, and certainly delivers. There’s the taloned and grotesque, malevolent ghosts, myths, and of course plenty of the human variety tormented by personal demons. But this imaginative book is not just about the scares. Ray Cluley infuses his writing with a raw humanity that provides melancholy and deeply touching moments, not only balancing out the horror, but enhancing it enormously.

First off, “All Change” introduces Robert, an ageing monster hunter. We find him covertly patrolling a railway station to protect us from the horrors that travel the country disguised as human passengers, but maybe the reality is not quite as simple as that. A slick tale that embraces the genre we love, it gives us a smile before one of the more sobering pieces of the collection.

Probably Monsters Ray CluleyOne of my favourites, “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” is the account of a journalist at a poor fishing community in Nicaragua. He hopes to write an article highlighting the dangers of decompression sickness – the bends – faced by hardworking locals who dive for lobsters to earn a crust. Locals who also believe that water demons are to blame. Told in the first person and present tense to great effect, Cluley really showcases his talent for evocation of place, and the characters become people we feel we’ve met. Combining folklore, grief and a powerful narrative voice, this is a frightening but strangely tender story and presents a social conscience that erodes none of its power to enthral.

Snaring us in a very different way, “The Festering” has a fitting title given the way it leaves a dirty taste after reading. We meet Ruby, a schoolgirl who lives with her hard-drinking mother. She has a secret drawer that’s home to a repugnant, shapeless creature to which she confides all her secrets, but the truly ugly element comes from Mr Browning. He’s a predatory teacher who babysits for Ruby when her mother goes to the bingo, and this thread really gets under the skin. Ruby’s point of view is flawless, and the plot combines icky fun with depressing reflections on humanity to keep us guessing until the end.

More bleakness follows in “At Night, When the Demons Come” and as a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction, this quickly became another favourite. Superbly narrated by Charlie, we visit a crumbling world of decay and paranoia where the scavenging survivors live in terror of shark-toothed, winged demons. As these creatures are female, women become the enemy of religious crackpots and misogynists everywhere, and the whole thing presents a fresh angle on the usual gender politics of post-apocalypse fiction. Exciting, thought-provoking and horrible, this is a faultless short horror story.

“Night Fishing” finds Terrence – a San Francisco fisherman – struggling with the loss of his love, Bobby, to suicide. An elegiac and tragic piece in which sexuality plays a strong role, we follow Terrence as he experiences visions and the ghosts of other lost souls beneath the suicide hotspot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The emotion bites deep and this story works in its simplicity.

“Knock-Knock” follows J-J, a young boy who lives with his mother. They’ve recently escaped an abusive relationship, but J-J’s nights are disturbed by an ominous knocking at his bedroom door that suggests the past is on its way back to torment him. Considered and tense, it teases us with the possible presence of the supernatural, and the author creates a convincing point of view for the young lad.

I certainly won’t forget “The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina” in a hurry. A woman who lost her family – and most of her face – in a car crash is reborn through a warped crusade to please the gods of the road by deliberately causing accidents. It has the graphic and visceral impact of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” – the sexual fervour exchanged for a religious kind – and plays deftly with common fears. Ghoulish curiosity drew me right into Rita’s descent and the ensuing voyeuristic guilt makes for an edgy, uncomfortable experience. A polished piece of macabre storytelling.

In “The Man Who Was”, our narrator – an eloquent gentleman who works as an event planner – meets a veteran Gulf War hero and the two embark on a secretive and complicated relationship. Tackling the consequences of war and masculinity, this is another emotive journey with a powerfully distressing reveal.

“Shark! Shark!” brings a complete shift of tone with a humorous whodunit that concerns the filming of a B-movie. It nails all the clichés, delivers plenty of droll dialogue and sports a pleasingly gruesome conclusion, but it’s the narrator’s wry comic voice that really carries it. A refreshing interlude between the heavier tales either side.

A strikingly dark and original story, “Bloodcloth” introduces Tanya, an adolescent who lives with her parents in a poor industrial village of no specific time or place. Their sparse existence also requires that blood sacrifices be made, and the author weaves lore and vampire overtones together with a feminine emphasis. Although I confess to getting a bit lost towards the end, there’s a great sense of otherworldliness and Tanya is a solid lead.

In “The Tilt”, two gay friends – Luke and Nicky – visit the picturesque French town of Carcassonne. It’s rather pleasant at first with a beautifully scribed locale and lots of natural banter between the two characters, but of course ghostly dreams and shenanigans involving the fortified town’s castle aren’t far away. I found this to be as much about history, friendship and sexual identity as anything else and it all falls neatly into place as one.

“Bones of Crow” takes us to a more gritty urban setting. Maggie, a lonely woman with health problems of her own, lives with her disabled father in a city block of flats. One day, she discovers some huge eggs on the roof and spies an enormous, winged creature lurking in the park nearby. Lush with metaphor, this is a fragile and moving piece with an appropriately opaque pay-off.

I particularly enjoyed the unsavoury “Pins and Needles”. James has an anti-social needle fetish, and having anonymously wounded a woman on the bus with a needle planted in the seat, he strikes up conversation and they begin a relationship. Creepy and compelling, this story has a great sense of inevitable doom. It also rocks a lurid punchline that I initially thought lessened the overall aura of darkness, but thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it just deepens it.

“Gator Moon” begins with two rednecks burying a body in a Louisiana cane field. Broaching racism without fear, this short drama is handsomely evoked, and I saw a supernatural element but – as explained in the afterword – it can be taken either way.

“Where the Salmon Run” is another moody location piece. We meet Ana, possibly pregnant and returning home to Kamchatka: a hardy Russian fishing territory where poaching is rife and salmon have worked their way into local religion and myth. This is an achingly human story that lets you decide what’s real or otherwise, and consumes you with the biting cold and rugged environment while you try to make up your mind.

It’s to the Wild West for “Indian Giver”, introducing Grady and Tom drinking liquor on a porch at dusk. Tom tells of his experience helping with the forced relocation of some “injuns” that goes awry and results in murder, and the telling is just as important as the tale itself. Grady’s jaded wisdom, as he listens to Tom’s account, adds a neat frame to the plot as it builds to a spooky finale.

“A Mother’s Blood” is a sharp short about an exhausted mother cracking beneath the trials of parenthood. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be grim or amusing, or perhaps a bit of both. Either way, it works.

This sour vignette segues neatly into the next as we meet Matt – also fed up with the drudgery of life – in “The Travellers Stay”. On the road with his wife and her teenage son, with tempers suitably fraying, they stay at a faded boondock motel that’s infested with roaches. A familiar scenario initially, the domestic unbliss soon becomes an insectoid nightmare in this apparently Kafka inspired and surreal creature-feature.

“No More West” is a weird flash piece concerning a weary cowboy’s encounter on the barren plains. It baffled me completely on first reading, but ladles on the atmosphere and sets us up ready for the finale piece.

Collections tend to save a belter until last, and I think “Beachcombing” qualifies as the crowning glory of this book. It’s a grey, damp morning as we find Tommy, a young boy collecting discarded items on the beach. He has an empathic gift that allows him to feel the past of an object by touch, to see snippets of the lives of the people who last owned or handled it. Tommy’s point of view is perfectly realised, especially his confusion at the adult feelings he encounters such as the nervous excitement emanating from a condom wrapper. But he also feels the sadness and negativity of the items he finds, and becomes curious about a man he keeps seeing staring out to sea. This story is completely enthralling from the off, and we soon realise that although Tommy’s gift tells him much, he’s limited by a lack of life experience. As readers, we are not so encumbered, and Tommy’s innocent perspective on darker events is used to heart-breaking effect.

A poignant and sublime piece, “Beachcombing” is not the finale I would perhaps have expected from this book, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Superb.

I had a splendid time reading “Probably Monsters”. Ray Cluley has a refined and seamless storytelling style, and his evocation of place is immaculate. He knows whether to finish on a concrete or inconclusive note, when to deliver a twist, and can turn his hand to sinister suggestion, wrenching sadness or grisly fun with equal finesse. But it’s the characters that really drive these imaginative stories, brought to life by nuances of human behaviour and interaction as well as their tangible hopes, fears and demons.

Thoughtful themes trickle through the pages, and it also seemed to me that the stories are carefully ordered with this in mind. Rounded off with some interesting story notes at the end – I always enjoy these – this is culturally rich horror that takes us to some fascinating nooks of the world and a fine book in which to lose yourself. Whether you enjoy the kind of fiends that lurk under the bed or those that grow in your heart, “Probably Monsters” is waiting for you.

Highly recommended.

Kitler & Monsters

Review – “Slowly We Rot” by Bryan Smith

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I love an apocalypse road-trip, but even some of the ones I’ve enjoyed can be rather derivative. Every now and then one breaks the surface to actually deliver an experience rather than just a story, and “Slowly We Rot” is very much one of those.

Slowly We RotIt’s more than 6 years since a zombie infection destroyed the world and we meet Noah, a young man who lives alone in a mountain cabin. Self-sufficient, he spends his days hunting, reading, smoking weed, yet always battling against the loneliness of his existence. It’s an age since he’s seen another human, and even the occasional zombies that drag themselves up to his cabin have rotted away so much that they pose little physical threat. Isolation is his real enemy. With so much time for introspection, fantasy and guilty memories, his thoughts weigh heavy with suggestions of suicide.

But his hermit existence is interrupted when his presumed-dead sister Aubrey turns up with Nick, an ex-military hardcase. Uprooted from his mountain sanctuary, Noah decides to try and find Lisa, a woman with whom he had an intense and troubled relationship at college. With nothing but an old California address to go on, several states away from his current location, Noah is aware that the chance of a happy reunion is microscopic. But deciding he has nothing to lose and glad of a purpose in a world gone to hell, he embarks on his sprawling mission.

“Slowly We Rot” has an immediately engaging voice that ensured I was absorbed from page 1, and builds on this with convincing characters. Noah is the perfect guide for this kind of tale. He’s flawed, full of guilt, regret and bitterness, but has just enough stoicism and survival instinct to stop him from ever pulling that suicidal trigger. And even at the times when we get frustrated or annoyed with him, he’s all we’ve got, and it’s impossible to leave his corner. This lack of choice creates the right vibe for a tour of this sparse and deadly world.

Noah’s sister Aubrey and her companion Nick are also investable, the big man being a foil of common sense to her emotional impulsiveness. The author manages to keep their actions unpredictable but still believable, which is no mean feat.

I also like Bryan Smith’s vision of the apocalypse. The format and consequences of the plague are fairly standard, but the time lapse makes it interesting. There are very few survivors left, and the original zombies have decomposed to the point where you’re more in danger of being bitten by an unseen rotten head in a footwell than a shambling humanoid. Other survivors are also a threat and Noah is naturally suspicious of those he meets, especially as the years of numbing solitude have left him socially inept. While people are few and far between, Noah covers some serious miles on his journey and meets thrill-killers, slavers, and other damaged souls of all kinds.

He also has a problem with alcoholism and with no-one to talk him out of it – and plenty of liquor to be scavenged from derelict shops and homes – he hits it hard. As he makes his way across the country, Noah loses himself to fantasy. The back story is filled in perfectly and we slowly learn why he’s obsessed with Lisa, the problems they had, and other memories that have made him the man he is today. There are subtle links to what has gone before, and plenty of wise insight into the human condition.

Like any quality apocalypse fiction, this novel is not actually about zombies, which is where so many fall into mundanity. This is a character drama that just happens to have a brutal and grisly setting, and what we’re actually carried by is a man’s struggle for survival against his own capsizing mental health. And boy does he capsize. Noah starts to lose track of fantasy and reality, and things get very strange in the second half. His booze-addled, deteriorating brain layers fiction and memory over the tangible reality, and we end up just as lost as he is, truly joining him on his journey. There’s a superb sense of displacement as he unravels, though he never loses sight of his mission to find Lisa. The moments of numbing drudgery and loneliness are just as powerful as when he actually encounters other survivors or gets attacked, and when a zombie does show up, its rarity just adds to the alien atmosphere.

There are plenty of violent shocks and shivers, but I found that the truly standout scenes were of the quiet variety. One night at the cabin when Noah hears laughter out in the pitch-black woods gave me a genuine chill, and I’ll never forget a vignette in which he dances with a weak and snapping zombie. The two of them pirouetting in the middle of a deserted town is the most haunting and darkly beautiful thing I’ve read for a while.

Overall, this book is much less sick than Bryan Smith’s “Depraved” style stories, focusing more on Noah’s internal destruction to keep us turning the pages. But it still packs a punch when it needs to, and there’s enough gruesome violence to give the extreme fans their kicks.

I spent much of the story wondering if Noah would complete his almost-impossible quest to find Lisa alive, and even if so, how would that pan out? A happy ending would surely be unconvincing, but at the same time, a complete fail would be disappointing. How would the author avoid presenting either a contrived or frustrating finale with a plot such as this? Of course I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that I found the conclusion muscular and very satisfying. So just relax. Bryan Smith’s got you.

An engrossing adventure through both a zombie holocaust and a man’s disintegrating psyche “Slowly We Rot” is pleasingly grim and familiar, yet injects some real substance and humanity to keep it all fresh. Recommended.

Review – “Monster” by Matt Shaw and Michael Bray

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I’m a sucker for books with ominous warnings of offensiveness on the cover, and they’re usually there for a reason. But while it means that some extreme horror is on the way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s any good.

MonsterOn this occasion, I needn’t have worried. One of Matt Shaw’s infamous “black cover” series, this joint effort with Michael Bray is a bleak yet entertaining short novel.

We meet Ryan, a young office-worker, who wakes to find himself chained up in a grimy chamber of cold concrete and rusting pipes with no idea as to how or why he got there. It turns out that just prior to this, he’d discovered his short-term girlfriend was pregnant. Rather than head home to deal with the issue, he instead went to the pub with a friend to blow off steam, and this is the last thing he remembers.

Also introduced is Christina, a young mother working in a petrol station who entertains herself during the dull shifts by making up macabre stories about the customers being psychotic serial killers. One day however, she is somewhat too close to the truth and also finds herself imprisoned in the same dilapidated building.

Kicking off with a somewhat cinematic start that put me in the mind of “Saw”, I liked the immediately engaging character situations presented by “Monster”. These are normal people in whom we can invest, and there’s a tight air of mystery along with the anticipation of nastiness that surely awaits them. Because as well as Ryan and Christina’s initially-hidden captors, the building also seems to be home to an enormous mentally-ill man loping around the filthy corridors.

The book is pacy and well crafted, filling in the back story by switching between the 1st and 3rd person. The aura of menace cranks up slowly, and both Ryan and Christina’s reactions under the mounting terror are convincing. They have moments of sheer panic followed by stoical resolve and then back again, sometimes the desperation leading them to hope that all this is just one big extreme prank. One scene in which Ryan is fed morphine to stop him passing out from pain could have been darkly amusing in a different setting, such is his garbled, comical speech, but here, it’s used to true chilling effect.

As the book progresses, we meet the faces behind all this and learn their horrible plans. Their histories are just as dark as the current scenario, and they’re anything but one-dimensional monsters. These kidnappers are broken by being the victims and/or perpetrators of genuinely upsetting physical and psychological abuse, and the book riffs on some classic questions. Who’s the monster? Is there even one? Can somebody so damaged be evil? But the answers are not black and white, and the story didn’t pan out the way I thought, playing with my sympathies all the way.

As the warning would suggest, there are some harrowing scenes. I was pleased to discover that they aren’t gratuitous – there really is nothing more boring in horror – but essential to the questions that “Monster” presents. I’ve read stories that are more extreme than this, but finished them with a shrug and a whatever. Here, the horror is gauged just right to get under your skin. It’s not just the actual violence that disturbs, but also our potential for it, and the numbing consequences of systematic, accumulative abuse. There’s no humour, and some sections of the book are both deeply touching and depressing.

Being picky, I have two small gripes. The prose is generally slick and unintrusive, but there were a couple of times when the character POV changed mid-scene without warning and took me out of the moment. There is also a scene in which one character is forced into a terrible act, and it just seemed to happen a little too easily for me. But they’re my only complaints.

The finale is appropriately painful and sobering, but there’s also a nice little epilogue that raised a smile. It’s a classic vignette with a tone of ominous fun, and the only time that this very dark novel has a wry twinkle in its eye.

So there you have it. An eloquent introduction from both Matt Shaw and Michael Bray explains the nature of extreme horror, pushing the boundaries, and the fine line such authors tread. It’s refreshing to see such thoughtful reasoning in the subgenre, and that the shocks are intended to be a means to an end and not simply the end itself.

Happily, “Monster” is just the right side of the line. It succeeds by luring your ghoulish curiosity, working in some solid character investment to stop you getting away, then drags you off to hell. The themes of survival and the nature/nurture argument are tackled intelligently without playing killjoy to the grisly shenanigans, and I liked the lack of distinction between good and evil. And it certainly gets its hooks in. I read it during a work day, and snatched every coffee break or bus journey to get back to that grim place of blood-stained concrete and death. I’ve already downloaded another of the black cover books by Matt Shaw, and I suspect it won’t be the last.

Review – “The Bones Of You” by Gary McMahon

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It had been a while since I last read a Gary McMahon tale, but this new ebook novel from DarkFuse reacquainted me with a raw-knuckled punch. “The Bones Of You” takes his trademark urban bleak to an angry, psychological high.

Gary McMahon The Bones Of YouAdam Morris is recently divorced and hoping to make a new start. A troubled, tightly-wound man, he rents a cheap house and focuses on his daughter Jessica – who visits him occasionally at weekends – to try and rebuild his life.

But as Halloween approaches, the mood switches from rough-edged suburbia to haunted house territory: strange voices are heard, objects move, nightmares invade his sleep. Adam learns that the empty house next door was home to a dead killer called Katherine “Little Miss” Moffat, who murdered children in her cellar.

Before long, Adam realises that the supernatural menace – clearly linked to the house next door’s horrific past – is an actual, tangible threat. Not just to himself, but also to his other acquaintances and most importantly, his daughter.

This short novel is told in the first person, and it’s the narrator that carries it. Gary McMahon presents a perfectly realistic and listenable voice with Adam. The prose is muscular, sometimes chirpy, but always honest and addictive. This makes it very easy to pick up and fall into his world.

Adam himself is an obsessive and generally intense man, fond of pressure-outlet hobbies such as karate and running. He is also driven by a consuming love and concern for his child, so you can’t fault his efforts and focus. Whilst he might be cold in some ways, he pours himself into the emotions he does feel and his flawed humanity put me very much in his corner. I think this book has a degree of semi-autobiography, and it’s clearly a very personal piece of work.

Adam’s ex-wife and her shambolic new partner are addicts, so Adam is naturally concerned for young Jessica’s welfare. And when any element of jeopardy – supernatural or otherwise – threatens his daughter, he becomes a man you would not want to fuck with. The reader is also teased for a while with the fact that Adam harbours a very dark secret, and with Mr McMahon at the helm, you know that the reveal will be a good one.

Adam doesn’t have a busy social life, due to circumstance as much as character, but he strikes up a natural friendship with Pru. She’s a goth girl he discovers one night staring at the abandoned murder house next door, and I found it endearing that he tackles this somewhat stand-offish but vulnerable child of the night with frankness yet warmth. There’s also a romantic interest at the factory where he works in the form of Carole, and she unwittingly provides another way for the malevolent forces to get their hooks into him. But ultimately, his daughter Jessica is his all. And the evil forces know that too…

“The Bones Of You” is a superb tale and ticks all the boxes for a horror fan. There are some wonderfully spine-tingling moments – especially in Adam’s cellar and an underpass near his house – a couple of breath-taking shocks, and the finale is appropriate and pleasingly grisly.

But while the atmosphere of lurking threat is thick throughout, it isn’t just a yarn of serial killers and ghostly terror. This is a story of determination, of a personal struggle against circumstance whilst dealing with consequence, of responsibility, rage and love. I don’t know how the author does it, but there’s a real visceral energy bottled in these pages, and the result is a rare treat.

Highly recommended.

Review – “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine” by John Llewellyn Probert

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Nothing perks my horror soul up more than classic Hammer films and John Llewellyn Probert fiction, so throw the two together and all is very much well with the world.

The Hammer of Dr. ValentineThis novella from Spectral Press is a direct sequel to “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine”, which was a tribute to Vincent Price. In that first story, we saw Dr. Edward Valentine out for Phibes-esque revenge on those he blamed for the death of his daughter. Naturally, this leaves the Bristol police baffled when he starts offing doctors in the methods of the actor’s more gruesome films, but even when they pick up the scent, the obsessed killer is always one step ahead. Full of twists, dry dialogue, and gleefully complicated death scenes, it was a delightful homage and one of my favourite reads of 2012.

In “The Hammer of Dr Valentine”, two years have passed since our favourite brilliant and deranged surgeon completed his assault on the medical community and escaped with an ostentatious flourish. Now he’s back, and more than a little disgruntled by the way certain journalists reported his rampage. As a man of integrity and refinement, he hates the vulgar tactics and sensationalist lies of the gutter press, so emerges from retirement to embark on another spree of meticulously flamboyant murders. And hurrah for that!

The book’s opening scene is superb, describing a man being launched from a Welsh clifftop by catapult to be impaled – with military precision – on a golden crucifix positioned in the valley below. Showing just how much planning and effort Dr. Valentine puts into his executions, this sets the wry tone and leaves us hungry to see what’s coming next.

It soon becomes apparent that this time around, rather than Vincent Price, the entire Hammer films canon is our killer’s inspiration. Jeffrey Longdon is back, the wonderfully jaded and cantankerous old-school detective who pursued Dr. Valentine through the first book. Pulled from a cosy rural job to take on the case, he’s more weary and irritated than alarmed by the grisly shenanigans, and it’s a joy to see him back. I’d go for a pint with him.

Another major character is John Spalding, a horror film expert and author who’s also on Dr. Valentine’s list. But although the format of this book is similar to the first – switching between the outrageous and imaginative vignettes of murder and the efforts of Detective Longdon and his colleagues – there is a slightly different ambience. Many of the doctors killed in the first book elicited a degree of sympathy. Although flawed, they did not deserve such horrible fates, and their actual guilt of any professional wrongdoing was also debatable. But this time around, the journalists are a much more odious bunch. The author lines up a fine array of unpleasant tabloid hacks and manipulative liars for Dr. Valentine to despatch, and the story almost develops a voyeuristic feel as we eagerly anticipate their sadistic deaths. It’s also fun guessing what ghastly method or film reference might be up next – some are subtle, some in your face – so I won’t spoil your enjoyment by giving any of them away.

John Llewellyn ProbertThe author’s prose is erudite, rich and dripping with wit, and this complements the characters and action. You don’t just the enjoy the story but the very telling of it, and being regaled in this quintessentially British and elegant voice is quite powerful when people are being killed in such abominable ways. While there is plenty of macabre humour, this book isn’t just played for laughs, and the author gauges it with the tension and nastiness just right. Although the mystery is lighter than in the first tale – we now know the killer’s identity, past and true motives – it didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment, and it’s one of those slick, sharp pieces that would only get bogged down by a complex plot.

I loved “The Hammer of Dr. Valentine”.  The sumptuous camp and gothic atmosphere of Hammer is seamlessly fused with an edgy, contemporary setting and it all ends on a perfectly over the top note. It takes an author with consuming passion for classic cinematic horror to write these beautifully crafted homages, and I genuinely can’t imagine a better man for the job than John Llewellyn Probert.

So go ahead and enjoy, and read “The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine” first if you haven’t done so already. Let’s just hope that in the meantime, somebody other than doctors or journalists have managed to get on the wrong side of the fiendish Dr. Edward Valentine. I can’t wait to see where he turns to get his creativity flowing in the next instalment.

Highly recommended.