Category Archives: Book Reviews
Blackbirds was when Chuck Wendig began to shine. In fact, he describes his previous novels as “garbage and should not be spoke of lest they hear us talking about them”. Not so, Blackbirds. This book pops and fizzes with talent.
It tells the story of Miriam Black, a twenty-two year-old loner on the road, making her way from hotel to hotel, bumming rides, chain-smoking and, well, seeing death. All she needs is to brush her skin against yours and, in that instant, whether she likes it or not, she sees the exact date, time, and manner of your death. This can be downright depressing at the best of times, but imagine what happens when she tries to make her way through a crowd. Needless to say, she finds it tough to give much of a damn about anyone when she knows exactly when and how they’ll begin to assume room temperature, especially when she knows she can do nothing to stop it. Indeed, every time she tries to save someone, she simply ends up bringing about the doom she’s foreseen. Miriam is the unwilling instrument of fate.
And she’s drifting along, resigned to this, until she meets Louis, a truck-driver she actually begins to care about. Problem is, the death she foresees for Louis is soon, and involves him calling her name.
What’s a gal to do?
Wendig takes us on a road trip that breaks the speed limit at every chance, and does so with a muscular prose-style, grim humor, and some of the most inventive profanity you’ll ever read. In just one example, Miriam, in a desperate hurry behind the wheel, thinks of the gridlock she’s faced with as “… traffic locked up tighter than a handful of tampons crammed up a nun’s asshole.” You tell ‘em, Chuck.
Oh, and by the way, we’re in luck. Miriam Black holds an exalted enough seat in Wendig’s imagination to have deserved two follow-ups so far—Mockingbird, and The Cormorant. He’s also begun another superb series with The Blue Blazes, reviewed here.
Genre, whether in books, or television and film, are constantly evolving. They encompass a range of stories, and as a part of the genre expands through popularity and trends in the industry, new sub-genres are created. One of the greatest examples of this is the horror genre.
We move through different trends, even within a single genre, and horror is no exception. From psychological thrillers to the popularly labelled ‘torture porn’, over the years each subset of the genre gets periods of popularity before dipping again, and each subset of the genre can be broken up into how an author or screenwriter wants to handle the subject.
I don’t know about you, but I am pretty squeamish when it comes to horror and I tend to stay away from horror movies which focus on the gory aspects. However, even though the blood and violence often makes me feel physically sick, I really enjoy the stories behind them. The Saw saga is a perfect example of this. I was fascinated by the plot, but the gore became too much, so instead I had to read the plotlines instead of watching the movies.
Books are very similar, sometimes worse for those like me, as you’re not past a gory scene in a minute or two, but you spend an hour reading graphically written scenes of violence. This is even before you take into account that we often become far more attached to characters in a novel than we do in a movie due to the time spent with them.
However, just because we might be squeamish, it doesn’t mean that we can’t write horror, or add horror into the genre we like to write.
Personally, I write Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but these stories often take a darker turn, and horror is one of those aspects that I had to learn how to write effectively. So, here are five tips to write some effective horror scenes for the squeamish.
1. The Necessary Narrative
Choose the narrative style necessary for the scene, though obviously, this must be consistent with the rest of your novel. If your entire novel is in the third person, you can’t suddenly switch to the first without a valid reason. While first will give a frightening insight into the panicked mind of your character, this can also be accomplished with a great third person limited.
Personally, I much prefer a limited person narrative, especially in instances of horror and thrilling scenes. Not knowing what your murderer/monster/etc is doing or thinking can really keep your audience on their toes. You can also limit how much your reader sees of your victims thoughts, which can also amp up the fear.
2. The Sex Scene Screen
Like horror, sex and erotica can be split into a number of different levels, from those who like to describe every movement and moment of pleasure in detail, to those who prefer to, to use a film phrase, fade to black. There is no ‘best’ way to do it, only what is best for you.
I am one of those writers who likes to keep a steady medium in this aspect, much like those scenes in movies where you see fingers grasping a thigh, hiking the leg higher around someone’s hips. You don’t need to explain every detail for readers to get a very accurate image of what is happening.
The same can be used with horror to great effect. Don’t want to describe those guts falling out of the body in great detail? You don’t need to. Audiences are smart, they will stay with you if you use the right minimalist descriptions.
3. Timing for Terror
Suspense is one of the most effective ways to keep an audience on the edge of their seat when it comes to horror. If the monster jumps right out to grab them, the jig is up, but if you keep the character guessing for a while, your audience will be guessing too. Preferably, your audience should figure out what is about to happen just before it happens. They should know who the killer is right before the moment your character figures it out. Keep the audience guessing too long and they’ll not only be confused when you make your reveal, but you run the risk of them getting bored. Timing is everything when it comes to suspense.
4. Love your Length and Language
The length of a sentence can draw a reader in. Longer sentences often give a relaxed and flowing narrative, where shorter sentences increase pace and are great for action and horror. The more panicked you become, the shorter your attention span.
This is especially great for first person narrative. As suspense and panic grows within your character, shorten the sentences, have their train of thought jumping around. You don’t need gore and violence to truly panic a person, and if you amp up your character’s reactions and questions about what is happening, your readers will follow right along.
Also, if you don’t want to describe gore in detail, a well used simile or metaphor can be extremely effective. Just always be careful not to overuse them.
5. Continually Consistent
However you use the four tips above, remember to be consistent throughout. Surprising your readers is a good thing, as long as the surprises come through the story, not by the sudden change in writing. Your audience should be comfortable so that when you scare them witless it will be much further to jump out of their seats.
I hope that these have been helpful to you, especially if you’re like me, and generally choose to shy away from horror because you feel you can’t write it. Push yourself. When you have those surprising results, you’ll be glad you did.
In 2008, with his debut novel, MEAT, Joseph D’Lacey sprayed the scene with blood. Even Stephen King said its author ‘rocks’. Garbage Man came next, after which we heard little from D’Lacey until earlier this year when Angry Robot published Black Feathers (reviewed here). During this interval, his first novels fell out of print. But we’re in for a treat this Halloween, as both MEAT and Garbage Man will be re-released, or as D’Lacey calls it here, reconstituted and recycled.
MEAT twists around the mechanized workings of the industrial slaughterhouse as only a grim and uncompromising horror novel can. Set in a future devastated by an unspecified apocalypse, one small settlement holds out, surviving on meat. Sacred meat. I don’t think it will come as a huge surprise where this meat comes from, because that particular twist isn’t the point. The point of this novel is the exploration of what participation in such a soulless and mechanized form of taking life does to the psyche, which then leads the reader to consider the nature of human cruelty in general, how we’re able to hollow ourselves out of our own humanity and become less than the beasts we slaughter. Can we save ourselves from such a spiritual death? I don’t know. Read the novel and find your own conclusions. I won’t go so far as to say this novel changed my life in the way the research and writing of it changed D’Lacey’s (he’s now a vegetarian), but it certainly got me to thinking more about the food I eat. The same could happen to you, especially if you follow his advice in the post-script, where he suggests you go online and look at some slaughterhouse footage. Do it after reading the novel. Go on. Read the novel. Look at the footage. Then think about it next time you’re faced with a plate of veal. I dare you.
I had a chance to ask D’Lacey a few questions about the novel and its imminent reconstitution. I first asked him to talk a bit about MEAT’s gestation.
RK: Talk a bit about how MEAT came into being.
JDL: MEAT evolved from a collision of ideas and circumstances: my desire to write something truly gruesome, a long-standing fascination with the ‘ethics’ of killing for food and the proximity of my home to a real slaughterhouse. At the time, a story about humans farming humans for meat seemed full of possibility and MEAT was the result.
RK: That novel earned some wide acclaim. Stephen King read it and proclaimed that you ‘rock’. You won the BFS award for Best Newcomer. But after your second novel, you didn’t publish any more novels until this year. What happened?
JDL: Despite the attention the novel attracted, the success it brought was short-lived. Beautiful Books turned down the third novel I wrote for them and went out of business soon after. It took me a couple of years to get back in the game.
MEAT and Garbage Man were withdrawn from sale when Beautiful Books went under but Oak Tree Press were keen to rerelease them. Both books have had full makeovers inside and out and the new editions give me hope that they’ll be around for a long time.
JDL: Both novels have been re-edited and re-proofed. There were minor adjustments necessary on MEAT and the original Garbage Man was pocked with typos and other errors, all of which have now been addressed. MEAT has a new preface and Garbage Man a new afterword. Both acknowledgements sections have been rewritten and updated to reflect interim events and, of course, as you mentioned, they have brand new covers.
RK: I’m aware that the researching and writing of MEAT affected you deeply. How has that played out in your subsequent writing?
JDL: Ecological themes continue in some but not all of my work. After writing two adolescent protagonists for The Black Dawn series, I’m hoping to further explore rites of passage in future tales.
Both MEAT and Garbage Man are published by Oak Tree Press on the 28th of October.
I remember being about seven and standing up in Mrs Mullen’s 1st-grade classroom at Logan School and squinting at the blackboard. Mrs Mullen snapped at me. “Ricky”—as they called me back then—“you need glasses!” So right away I became four-eyes. Six years later, I traded the specs for contacts (and became covert four-eyes, I guess). This was the 70s, practically the contact lens Stone Age, and these rock hard convex discs of plastic that allowed no oxygen to pass may as well have been actual stones. But I learned to stick the things into my eyes. Day after day after day I stuck them in. My eyes practically grew calluses they became so impervious to pain. Until I was 17, when, at basketball practice one afternoon, a kid named Mark Lovdahl tried to steal the ball from me and instead gouged my eye. His finger broke my rock-hard plastic lens, which stayed in my eye. It took half an hour to get me to the eye doctor so he could take it out. During that time, each blink sent the jagged broken lens across the surface of my eye like the blades of a thousand skaters over ice. I could almost hear the scrape. Any idea how many times you blink in half an hour? The next day I missed practice. I was wearing an eye patch. But, soon enough, I was back to sticking those rocks into my eyes.
All of this is to give you some idea as to the lack of squeamishness I feel about objects touching my eyes. Sometimes, to freak people out, I’ll just poke myself in the eye in front of them and watch them squeal.
“I pushed the needle into the woman’s eye. She squirmed.”
“‘It’s going exactly as it should go,’ I said, pressing down on the syringe’s plunger.”
“If I stopped now … the liquid would just settle at the bottom of the vitreous humour, rather than filling it.”
Get the idea?
Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. This isn’t body horror, though some pretty awful things happen to eyeballs in this novella, and to the owners of those eyeballs. But this is also a clever, imaginative and fast-paced near-future sf thriller with its fair share of amusement. I thought at times of Philip K Dick. I thought of William Gibson. And I kept thinking, I really want to see this on the big screen.
Without giving away too much, John MacFarlane, POV’s narrator, works as an optometrist specializing in the new technology dubbed IDRoPS (Internal Display Retina Operating Systems). IDRoPS, once installed via that ball-popping syringe of the opening passage, allow you to control your visual environment so that, for instance, if you want your wife to look like Angelina Jolie or your husband to look like Ryan Gosling, it’s merely a matter of a few mental adjustments and voila, your every fantasy fulfilled. IDRoPS have a lot of other uses, too, that I won’t go into here, but their popularity leads to problems for MacFarlane. Someone really likes his work. So much so, that the corpses of his former clients begin to turn up sans eyes. What is it about MacFarlane’s work in particular that would prompt someone to collect such gruesome harvest?
To answer that question, POV takes its readers through more twists than a helter-skelter. And here’s the real sucker-punch, for any writers out there who may sometimes fall victim to a bit of the ol’ writer’s block. This novella was a prize winner. Fair enough, you may say. Except when you find out what the contest was. Everyone who entered this one had to write a novella in 30 (weeks? days? nope) hours. That’s right. Chris Brosnahan wrote this dizzying sf techno-thriller in just 30 HOURS! (Yes, that’s what it looks like when I shout.) It unnerves me to ponder what his imagination might produce with a full-on novel over a period of, like, a year or so. I guess that will come in the near-future.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll just go poke myself in the eye.
(POV is available now as an e-book on Amazon for 99p.)
Six weeks ago I’d never heard of Chuck Wendig. Then someone suggested I follow him on Twitter for his writing advice. Who was this un-heard-of person dispensing writing advice via Twitter that I should be so interested? (This, of course, from the ego-center of my own puny universe.) But I went ahead, and right-away saw that he was published by Angry Robot. Pretty good creds, so I decided to test him out. I didn’t want to start from the beginning, though. I wanted to see who, writer-wise, Chuck Wendig is now. So, thanks to an advance copy of his forthcoming novel, The Blue Blazes (thanks, Angry Robot), I was able to find out. Suffice it to say that Chuck Wendig has moved from one of the many Un-Heard-Of-So-Don’t-Care seats in the back of my brain to occupying a spot in the far less populated Important-Writers section up front.
He’s imaginative, funny, profound, tough, and poetic all at once.
So, The Blue Blazes is essentially a crime story—or, shall we say, an underworld story. An underworld journey. Dante meets The Sopranos. In Wendig’s New York City, the criminal underworld is aligned to the spiritual underworld, if you can call slobbering goblins (street slang gobbos) who use their tongues to lay eggs under your skin spiritual, that is. The conceit is, all those creatures you’ve ever imagined living underground actually do live underground, and sometimes above ground; it’s just that blinkered folks like you and I can’t see through their disguises. However, if we could get our hands on some of the blue powder that gives the novel its name and rub it into our temples, we, too, could see through the veil and behold the monstrosities that walk among us.
That’s where the crime bosses come in. Blue, Cerulean, The Blue Blazes (some of its many names) is rare, hard to get, and addictive. It’s mined from down below, and the bosses control the flow. The protagonist, Mookie Pearl, works as muscle for the most powerful boss in the city. But simply calling Mookie muscle is like calling The Hulk kinda strong. Wendig describes him as “a brick shithouse made of a hundred smaller brick shithouses”. He’s “a man whose bones are wreathed in fat and gristle and muscle and sealed tight in a final layer of scar-tissue skin.” I picture him being unable to fit through my front door, even if he ducked and turned sideways. (He’d probably just bust through the wall.)
Mookie knows the underworld, both above and below. He can fight off the hoards of gobbos and knows where to procure the Blue. But problems arise when the boss’s health begins to fail and the anticipated power-vacuum gives every gang in New York the idea of making a move. Mookie gets caught up in the violence of the political power-play in ways he’d never have anticipated (even his own daughter guns for him), and must journey to parts of the underworld rarely, if ever, seen by man, in search of substances of colors other than blue, which may or may not exist and which may or may not grant powers such as resurrecting the dead and berserker rage.
Yes, this is all imaginative as, well, hell. And, yes, Mookie is an entertaining character to follow—brutal, yet surprisingly tender; both hero and schmuck. (At one point, all we want is for him to be able to eat the food he keeps comically getting taken away from. He’s practically got a gourmet’s palette when it comes to charcuterie.) But what makes this novel special is Wendig’s style. This is punchy crime-writer prose with figurative detours that suggest Raymond Chandler is actually a shambling zombie holed up in Wendig’s office whispering dark and sickening tales of the otherworld in his ear. Just a few examples:
“… the years chewing at his joints like rats eating wires.”
“Voice like dry leaves in a closing fist.”
“The kid hurries up to the front like a couple mop handles falling out of a hallway closet.”
“… a chill runs over his hide like a tide of spiders.”
You get the picture.
There’s so much more. I like the way Wendig ties his underworld in not only with the expected hell, but every other underworld the human race has ever imagined, from Gimkodan and Hades to Naraka and Tartarus, thus setting his story into the context of world mythology and comparative religion. And we get a kind of Marco Polo account of its largely unexplored depths through ongoing glimpses of chapter-heading diary entries by one John Atticus Oakes, Cartographer of the Great Below, who may or may not have existed and whose journal may or may not be real (though we suspect it is).
And after all this, I feel like I’ve only peeked beneath the upper-crust of this novel. We will see more of Mookie Pearl, the Get Em Girls, the wandering shades of Daisypusher and the Hungry Gods. This story is far from over. Lucky us. While I wait for the next in the series, I’ll go back and check out his Miriam Black series. Watch for their reviews here.
Oh, and you can follow Chuck Wendig on Twitter. He really does dispense some useful advice for writers, now that you’ve heard of him.
The Blue Blazes publishes on 28th of May by Angry Robot.
I know I’m way behind on this one, but for a couple of years I avoided reading Sarah Pinborough’s A Matter of Blood, book one of The Dog-Faced Gods trilogy. I was afraid that, in comparison to the author’s BFS Award-winning novella, The Language of Dying, (which dredged up the classic fairy-tale image of a unicorn from the depths of the collective unconscious and shoved it onto the page in all its raw and wild glory) a crime-thriller with supernatural overtones might seem shallow. Then I opened it. I read the first paragraph. The first page. By the end of the first chapter my imagination was hungry for the next. It went on like that for the rest of the book. I would read it when I should have been writing. When I should have been talking to my family at the dinner table. I’d wake up at two in the morning and, instead of trying to go back to sleep, I’d use the excuse of ‘insomnia’ to guiltily read for another hour or so. Just one more chapter. Just one more chapter.
Then it ended.
Luckily, it’s the first of a trilogy.
Set in a near-future London where the all-too-familiar financial crisis and austerity have nearly wiped out any pretence at civilized society, the story follows Cass Jones, a troubled London DI on the hunt for a serial killer who has rather a fixation with flies. Especially their eggs. (Eeew. I mean, really—just eeew.) What Cass doesn’t know is that he’s connected to this killer in ways he can’t imagine, and when this case dovetails into another, involving what appears to be an accidental shooting of two young boys, he begins to suspect nothing is as it seems.
Now, little is unique in a tortured cop pursuing a sick serial killer on a case that gets personal. What is unique is Pinborough’s skill at racing this story along, all the while drip-feeding more and more eeriness into each chapter, until at last we’re left wondering whether not just the serial killer but Cass himself is even human. Why, for instance, can he see the occasional flash of gold in people’s eyes? There’s a suggestion here that we humans are a failed bloodline, walking around half-asleep, unaware of who our real masters are, so that what started as a manhunt widens out into what seems a global conspiracy involving beings that could be angels, could be demons, but are more likely some weird mixture of the two. Are these the Dog-Faced Gods of the trilogy’s title? Dunno. They have human enough faces. (And we actually find out what the Dog-Faced Gods are at one point, or at least one possible explanation for them, but I’m not giving that part away.)
Little of course gets answered in this first book other than some of the superficial details of the two cases Cass works on, which leaves a whole world of strangeness left to unfold over the next two novels. Keep an eye out for their reviews coming up. Also be watchful for reviews of Pinborough’s latest two, Mayhem and Poison, both of which have published in the last couple of weeks. (While I wish her well, I do hope she can’t keep this pace up. A novel a week? Sheesh! How’s a reviewer to cope?)
With Blood and Feathers, Lou Morgan has delivered a witty debut novel that not only entertains but manages deftly to explore the nature of good and evil along the way. It follows Alice, who comes home one day to find herself unexpectedly mixed up with a bunch of angels—that’s right, the guys with wings who fight Lucifer and his band of fallen, most vividly portrayed, methinks, by Gustave Doré. But, unlike Doré’s classic representations, these angels don’t wear white flowing robes and blow long thin trumpets. They wear hoodies (some of them, anyway; some wear suits and ties, others jeans), drink from hip-flasks, and wield guns. Kind of like Milton meets The Matrix, with a bit of Dante thrown in for good measure.
Alice is related to this angelic host in ways she never imagined, and spends much of her time in hiding being slowly drip-fed information about who her long-lost mother was, who she herself is, and what powers she has. (I won’t say anything about those powers other than that, even though they’re basic, they’re pretty damn cool.) Not much happens otherwise in the first half of the book, except for a few close escapes from Lucifer’s soldiers, so it can feel at times like the story isn’t going anywhere too quickly. But the info Alice gets is info we as readers want (and it’s mesmerizing stuff, to boot), so the pages rarely feel heavy. They turn rapidly enough to keep you going, especially since Morgan has given her main character such a healthy dose of smart-ass that the dialogue fizzles with wit.
The last half of the novel is where the real action takes place. I wish Doré were alive today, because I’d love to see his depictions of the battle of angels Morgan has crafted. (Perhaps a graphic novel might be forthcoming?) Here, also, is where our loyalties begin to waver. What’s going on, and who does Alice side with? As I said earlier, Morgan manages to explore the fine line between the bad good guy and the good bad guy, and we’re not left with any easy answers at the novel’s conclusion. I’d want neither Lucifer nor the Archangel Michael as my manager, so to speak. And I don’t think Alice would, either. Problem is, she’s stuck with these guys.
If I had any reservation, it was that, in a novel that demands we accept angels and Lucifer as real, no attempt is made to show how that reality relates to the likes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Norse mythology, or any other religion or myth cycle outside Christianity. For a while, it seemed there was some suggestion of a connection with Ancient Greece, in that an entity named Charon inhabits Hell. But I was left confused by this minor character, as all the other names, such as Xaphan and A’lbiel, refer to the standard Judeo-Christian angels. Since Morgan does such a skilled job of having all her characters dance the line between good and evil, I’m convinced she could have handled placing this paradigm in the context of World Religion as a whole also.
But this is a minor point, one that probably bothers me only, and which does nothing to detract from a story containing humor, excitement, action and wonder. I see that the sequel, Rebellion, is out in July. I look forward to it. Watch for its review on this site.
Is Dracula real horror? Vampires in general? Maybe the Frankenstein monster, then? Hammer films became a by-word for horror in the 50s and 60s. Do the classic monster images Hammer films brought us in its heyday fill us with the kind of revulsion and fear we would feel in the presence of real horror? Not really. These images are thrilling. For fans of the genre, they’re certainly fun. But real horror doesn’t reside in genre, no matter how talented the writer/director/actor. So what is real horror?
Volk’s intelligent mix of biography and fiction suggests many plausible answers. Ever seen a screeching gull tear into a hunk of rotten fish? Ever had a slab of your heart torn out by the death of a loved one and as a result had to face decades of grief and longing for death? Have you ever been the child victim of sexual abuse?
Real horror like that is almost impossible to face. We instinctively shun it, turn away, pretend not to hear or see — or, if we’re forced to experience it, we then pretend it didn’t happen. So we have the horror genre to act as a kind of filter. The unending stream of painful memories and the grieving heart’s refusal to accept the absence of a lost loved one becomes the ghost story. The abusive parent in your dark bedroom at night becomes the vampire story. And anyone who helps you overcome such horror becomes a real-life Van Helsing.
Cue Peter Cushing, Whitstable’s protagonist. Struggling with the recent death of his wife, Helen, Cushing goes for a walk along the coast one afternoon and meets a boy named Carl Drinkwater. Carl is a fan of monster movies. Or maybe he seeks solace in the idea of being able to overcome monsters. Because for Carl to stay sane, monsters must be real; a mere human wouldn’t be capable of the atrocities visited upon him in his bedroom every night. That would take the likes of a vampire. So, Carl believes his mother’s new boyfriend, Les, is a vampire. This being so, then the man whom he has just met on the beach must be the real Van Helsing. After all, Carl has seen the films. He recognizes the hero. All that remains is to enlist his help.
Despite wanting to sink into his grief alone, Cushing finds himself compelled to help Carl. Reluctantly at first, but as he uncovers the truth, and his worst fears about Carl’s situation are realized, he grows into the role. We follow him through a painful encounter with Carl’s mother, and a diabolically tense scene that night at Cushing’s home, as Les tries to convince Cushing to let him come inside. But Cushing remembers, you have to invite the vampire in, which he won’t do, no matter how often, or how violently, Les asks him to. At one point Cushing even imagines Les has something other than the smell of alcohol on his breath. He imagines it smells of blood, decay and “something of death”. It’s almost as though, if Cushing can believe Les is indeed a vampire, then he, Cushing, can become Van Helsing.
This kind of clever manipulation of the boundaries between real and make-believe drives the rest of the piece. Such that only one place will serve as setting for the final showdown between vampire-hunter and vampire: an old cinema, with only the two of them inside, while the screen shows a Hammer Horror film starring Cushing himself.
A work such as Whitstable can only be undertaken by a true Hammer fan, and it’s clear that’s what Volk is. The story is filled with all kinds of detail about Cushing’s own life, Hammer film trivia, and speculations about the nature of the horror genre. But it’s the tenderness Volk gives to the characterization of Peter Cushing that makes this piece work. If I’m honest, I thought the narrative ran out of pace after the scene in the cinema; and even this climax was somewhat stunted by an overuse of film references. Also (mild spoiler alert) the monster dies offstage. But none of that matters. I’d happily read this tale again—and most likely will—despite its faults, simply because Volk immerses us so well in the mind, the heart, and the emotions of its central character. We find him in the worst stages of grief, so much so that it becomes hard to keep reading about so much pain; and we watch him find a way to move on from that living death, and save a young life in the process. So, you don’t have to be a Hammer aficionado for Whitstable to mean something to you. Only the most passing interest in the Hammer Horror phenomenon, or even film acting in general, will suffice for this story take you to a place where frail, grieving middle-aged men really can become the heroes who kill the monsters in our rooms at night.
Whitstable is published May 26th, 2013 by Spectral Press.
Prior to coming across Joe & Me, I had seen the name of David Moody around, but had read none of his work. (Yes, I know …) But, halfway through this story, the first in the This Is Horror Premium Chapbook Series, I was flipping to the About The Author section to see what else of his I could read. Then I jumped right in and started writing this review, then realized I ought to finish the story first. I was in the initial fluttery stages of an exciting discovery.
Though the process of reviewing the three volumes in this ongoing chapbook series was never meant to be a competition, I’ll have to say that, despite the strengths of The Fox and Thin Men with Yellow Faces, Joe & Me has to be my favorite. It’s a (mostly) gentle story about a family breaking apart for all the right reasons. It’s a story of sacrifice. It’s a story of the power of love. And it’s a story of choices that make Sophie’s look like one between chocolate or vanilla ice-cream. All of this against a back-drop of top-secret military projects that, depending on their use, can either save or destroy life on Earth.
The Me of the title is the father of eight-year-old Joe. He’s a stay-at-home dad who looks after his son while Mum is busy day and night working at an MoD-funded lab hidden in an innocuous-looking old building. Mum is canny and compassionate and puts in clandestine overtime working out a way to use the project—her project—in order to benefit populations rather than destroy them. Usually apocalyptic weapons-projects come off as rather cheesy, but Moody has imagined one that’s just plausible enough. Tensions arise when budgets and deadlines are tight, and MoD power-politics kick in, meaning Mum spends precious little time at home and when she is home she’s tired and grouchy. Is she justified in sacrificing her family in order to ‘save the world’, or should she put humanity’s future aside to care for her son?
Well, Moody contrives a story where this choice gets about as complicated as possible. It’s patiently paced, but never once drags, so I had plenty of time to get to know father and son and grow to care about them and worry for their situation. So, when the peril really arrived, I was chewing the inside of my mouth as I read. I honestly did not know which way the choice ought to go, or what I would do if faced with the same situation (I think I do know now). And even though I think the choice that was made was the only human one possible, its consequences are suitably dire.
What makes this work so well is the normalcy, the near flatness, of the writing. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Moody’s style is far from dull. It’s merely unobtrusive. It gets out of the way. There’s no attempt here to dazzle you with fine sentences. Which means the story flows by you in Dad’s gentle first-person narration with you barely realizing you’re reading. That’s confident writing.
Moody’s one misstep, and it’s minor, is the story’s final line. No need for it. It says nothing that hasn’t already been thoroughly implied, and in fact, the story ends with more of a bite if that line isn’t there. It goes out of the first-person we’ve had all along, into some objective third-person that left me a little bewildered. The narrative ceased to flow. Thankfully, it was only one line, and considering how much else is so, so right about this piece, I’ll forgive him and rush out to buy something else of his to read.
I came late to the This Is Horror Chapbook Party, but am glad I’ve discovered it, because I love the novella/novelette form. It offers more potential for depth than the short story, but can still be read in one sitting. Perfect. D.H. Lawrence excelled at this form, and since the best of his short novels is The Fox, it’s only fitting that I start with the chapbook by the same name from Conrad Williams. It’s also the most recently published of the series.
I’ll start on a superficial level. The cover rocks—stark snowy white gashed by a crimson-rimmed eye with a yellow iris and a dark pupil. The eye of a chicken. A dead chicken. Yet with a coldly accusative gaze, as though it blames you for its untimely passing. Marvelous. Made me want to buy it. Kudos to Neil Williams, the cover artist. My guess is his design was inspired by this line, from the story:
I dream of russet flames flickering over white, and black slashes through amber.
Anyway, on with the story.
The narrator, his wife and two daughters are on an October glamping holiday on a farm in the New Forest. (The logism glamping is so neo it stumped every dictionary in my flat, including the 2007 two-volume Oxford. I finally had to go online to discover it’s a hybrid of glamorous and camping. I felt horribly out of touch.) They open their glamorous tent-flap one morning to a freak snowstorm, and from there events take an eerie turn. A fox has slaughtered the farm’s chickens, not to eat them, but—apparently—just to slaughter them. This disturbs the story’s narrator in ways that are not at first clear. The tension increases with the discovery of a fox-corpse that has no apparent cause of death.
I’ll say no more, other than that the final twist (and it really isn’t a twist per se as the ending has all the inevitability of the booming drums of doom) reveals a little known fact about foxes, and illustrates how, in the great Man v. Nature bout, Nature has all the power, and all the smarts. When Man strikes, Nature strikes back Chicago-style. But patiently. This snow, along with keeping the characters right where they are, suggests the ‘cold’ at which revenge is best served.
The Fox is a tense and atmospheric read. Williams writes prose that is both taut and flowing, sparse and evocative. How he does this, I think, is through his choice of verbs. For instance, the wind did not make the tent walls flap. It didn’t even snap them—no, the way Williams writes it, the wind “spanked against the canvas”. It’s an active force, with a preconceived agenda to punish. That’s just plain good writing. Two sentences in, when I read those words, I decided to relax and allow this prose to rule my imagination for a while. It was a good decision.
Keep an eye out over the coming days for reviews of the earlier chapbooks in the series, Thin Men With Yellow Faces by Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick, and joe & me by David Moody. I also noticed at the back of The Fox that, sometime this spring, Joseph D’Lacey will be publishing one of these called Roadkill.
Life just got a little better.