Monthly Archives: April 2011

Wine and Rank Poison by Allyson Bird

Wine and Rank Poison

by Allyson Bird

Published by Dark Regions Press, 2010.

 

Allyson Bird’s previous collection, Bull Running For Girls won the British Fantasy Society Award for best collection in 2009. Wine And Rank Poison is a collection of ten weird tales focussing on revenge. It is also a curious mix of modern society, ancient myth and folk tales from across the world. As Joe R. Lansdale says in his glowing introduction Allyson Bird has been able to take “simple ideas and turn them into unique stories that defied classification”.

The Black Swan and The Twelfth Chair are linked stories from Odessa in the Ukraine which really failed to engage me. They both seem more concerned with the Eastern European setting than the plot itself which runs like a very thin thread through the tales. Vulkodlak manages to mix the genocide in Srebrenica with werwolves. A more succefull story given the weight of horror emanating from Serbia and the ongoing cultural divisions in the region, but the real horror and darkness here lies in the actual atrocities rather than the authors inventions.

Atalanta and Beauty And The Beast are both heavily infused with ancient mythology. Of the two, the first is the more succesfull tale, a rich and inventive story of an oppressed wife’s quest for escape. The Convent at Bazzano is one of the few stories in the book to allow the supernatural in. Unfortunately, I felt the threat was diluted by the authors need to recount a travelogue of holiday locations and the supernatural threat was never fully explored or explained.

The Legacy was one of the better stories here with some great imagery and a thrilling plot, but unfortunately, I found the last paragraph which attempts to link the previous action with some kind of religious apocalypse somewhat contrived and unnecessary. The Last Supper works well as it explores relationships in a dysfunctional family unit. Finally, Coney Island Green and For You Faustine, are another pair of linked tales where modern society meet ancient folk tale. They are both good stories but marred by rather stilted dialogue and fairly insubstantial plots.

I found Wine and Rank Poison a strange experience. The book never really drew me in, and that may be as much about my preference for a more supernatural threat as it is about the writing. I did feel that many of these tales missed the mark though. Full of rich, inventive and intelligent ideas but often not executed in a way which engages the reader. Stylistically Allyson Bird is working in the same territory here as Reggie Oliver but he seems to be able to connect the ancient past with modern myth in a much more realistic and hence more engaging fashion. The connections here seemed too forced to be real and consequently the stories did not have the depth of emotion I felt they needed or that they were aiming for.

Rating 3 out of 5

 

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David A. Riley – The Inquisition

 

David A. Riley – The Inquisition

David A. Riley has been a stalwart of the British horror scene since his first short story was published in the Pan Book Of Horror No 11in 1970. As well as writing his own stories he is also the current editor of the British Fantasy Society newsletter Prism.


1 – Which book has been most influential in your career?

There isn’t just one book. When I was a teenager I was a voracious reader, mainly science fiction, fantasy and horror, and, though I have mainly written horror, that was the least of my favourite genres then. There have been far too many books for me to say which was the most influential, though I suppose Dracula was an early one, even if I have never been tempted to write a story in the form of journals, diaries and letters! And many of the writers I read I first began to write I’ve not read since: Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, or Sax Rohmer. The book I remember most clearly as sparking off my interest in writing was an anthology edited by Roger Vadim, The Vampire, which contained some of the very best stories of that type ever written. Curiously, I have never written a vampire story – or, perhaps I should add, one that was obviously about a vampire.

2 – Which writer has most influenced your style?

I was initially a big SF fan, mainly Asimov and Clarke. On the horror side, though, my earliest models would have been Robert Bloch and H. P. Lovecraft. I was particularly keen on Bloch, especially his short stories, which emphasised strong, shock endings, sometimes written in italics. Lovecraft had a powerful, but not necessarily good influence on my writing, and it took quite a few years to wean myself off attempting to mimic his style. I still love Lovecraft’s stories but have long since realised that only he could write in the style he used effectively. Ramsey Campbell’s second collection from Arkham House, Demons by Daylight, was a revelation, and he was certainly an influence on me at the time, though that may be hard for others to see. Nowadays I tend to read more crime fiction than horror, and I admire a great many writers in that genre, whose approach I know does influence me now, people like Ian Rankin especially. I also have a fascination for historical fiction, especially anything set during the Roman Empire, from writers like Simon Scarrow and Ben Kane.

3 – What’s the future for the horror genre?

With the state of the publishing industry and the aversion it has for horror anthologies, it looks as if more writers will be confined to the small press. Which is a great pity, as so many will lose out on the chance of becoming better known to the wider public. On the other hand, horror has always been a minority interest. It may just have to become even more of one in the future. There are some brilliant writers out there, but the short horror story will probably have to survive in anthologies of just a few hundred copies, which only those who have a real interest in will search out. There may be hope for a revival if Pan Books take the chance on rebooting their Pan Horror series, but publishers these days tend to want large print runs and significantly large sales. On the other hand, the small presses are very healthy and have some brilliant guys behind them. Comparing most of what they produce with what’s brought out by the big publishing companies, the quality is more than comparable, with outstanding covers and top quality printing standards. POD also seems the way forward, with the added advantage that many collections, anthologies and novels can remain in print for years. The future is definitely in the hands of the small press, I think. And very capable hands too.

4 – Which book do you wish you had written?

Crime and Punishment. It’s one of my favourite novels. And one I’m overdue to reread. The story, the characters, the descriptions of nineteenth century Russia are gripping, and I am sure have influenced many writers since.

5 – What writing equipment could you not live without?

My handwriting is awful and, after years of getting used to using a computer, I couldn’t go back to writing by hand or even using a traditional typewriter. So it’s definitely a computer. It’s probably the best tool a writer has ever been given.

6 – Do you plan in detail before starting a new piece of writing?

No, I always start with either one or two characters that interest me. If I can’t get into the characters I’m writing about, then I struggle to go on. I usually have a vague idea of where the story’s going, but ideas tend to come to me during the writing and it’s not unusual for the story to veer in a different direction than what I originally intended, not always but sometimes. Planning in detail would bore me.

7 – Ebooks or Paper Books?

I have a couple of ebooks out there, a fantasy novel called Goblin Mire published by Renaissance eBooks and an old fashioned horror novel called Sendings which is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook, but I have never read an ebook myself and doubt I will ever get round to buying one. They just don’t interest me. I like paper, definitely.

8 – Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?

I write all of them, plus the occasional SF, fantasy and, lately, crime. I have no predisposition for any, though most of what I have already written would definitely come under the horror banner.

9 – Who should I read next?

Reggie Oliver springs to mind. His stuff is phenomenal. His Dracula trilogy, of which only the first part has so far appeared, is brilliant and shows clearly enough that he can handle the novel format just as capably as he has already mastered the short story and novelette. It just shows the state of the publishing industry that this has been published in the small press. It also shows just how essential and valuable the small press is!

10 – What was your last book and what is your next book?

Apart from the ebooks, (http://davidandrewriley.blogspot.com/p/kindle-books.html) the last full length piece I completed was a Lovecraftian horror set in the North of England, The Return. Not a very imaginative title perhaps, but it does fit the novel in several ways and I’ve not been able to think up anything that fits it better. It’s a very dark story involving a gangland hitman who is on the run and returns to his roots in a sinister Lancashire town I’ve written about a few times before, Edgebottom. It also involves a local police sergeant – and some very unpleasant cults. This is being considered by a publisher at the moment.  I have a couple of other novels nearing completion, a crime story and an urban fantasy set in the present day. Other than that I still do the occasional short story, mainly for Charlie Black’s Black Books of Horror, and Johnny Mains, who is including one in a collection due out shortly called Bite-Sized Horror. One of my older stories, After Nightfall, is being reprinted this year in a mass market paperback in the States, The Zombie Archives. And I have a collection of my older stuff, mainly stories published in the 70s and 80s, The Lurkers in the Abyss and Other Tales, due sometime in the near future from Midnight House, though that seems to have been in a sort of limbo for the past year or so. I’m also hoping to put together a collection of some of my later stories.

 

Thanks David.

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The Ritual by Adam Nevill

 

The Ritual

by Adam Neville

Published by Pan Books, 2011

Adam Nevill’s previous two books Banquet For The Damned and Apartment 16 have been excellent ghost stories, mixing the best traditional elements with modern settings to revamp the genre for the modern age. Now, with The Ritual, he takes us deep into nature and pagan rituals in a Scandinavian forest with another powerful supernatural tale.

We follow the misadventures of former university colleagues, Luke, Phil, Dom and Hutch as they make the biggest mistake of their lives. What is planned as a reunion trip to a “completely untampered with virgin forest”, soon turns into chaos as a short cut takes them into an increasingly dangerous part of the woods. The group find evidence of strange rituals and pagan practices, but are completely lost and it’s not long before they realise there are even greater threats in this wild forest.

This is a book of two halves, the first very much connected with the unseen threat of the supernatural and it’s strong connections to the nature of the landscape. In the second half, the threat becomes visible bringing a different pace and very different feel to the story. At the heart of the book are the main characters who have drifted apart following university, the different cultures and lifestyles they have adopted are contentious issues within the group. Couple this with the supernatural threat and we watch as a group of ‘normal’ individuals are driven to the brink of madness and beyond.

Nevill evokes the atmosphere of the ancient forest wilderness brilliantly and the gradual revelation of the threat is nicely handled as the reader only knows as much as the main characters. The forest is adorned with pagan symbols and signs, “dark and sunken” buildings and increasing doom as the men find themselves unable to escape. Owing much to Blackwood’s The Wendigo and The Willows but with modern nods to the likes of the Blair Witch Project this was the more succesfull half of the book for me.

The second section is much more about revelation on a rather limited stage as opposed to the vast wilderness of the first section. Here the story moves in a much more direct fashion introducing several new themes while expanding on the previous pagan threat. It’s well written but for me lacks the atmosphere of the first section, it’s much more modern in tone. It also feels slightly drawn out after the tight pacing of the first half.

It might not have been the intention to create a novel with such distinctive atmosphere in it’s two parts, indeed it almost feels as if the two parts could have been written at different times, but overall this does not detract from what is an excellent horror novel. Once again, Adam Nevill has reached into the past for inspiration but has successfully created a thoroughly modern supernatural horror story. He respects the traditions of the genre without being constrained by them. His best book so far it combines the atmospheric qualities of Banquet For The Damned with the character driven drama of Apartment 16 to create a thoroughly enjoyable and delightfully creepy horror story.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

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The Obverse Book Of Ghosts edited by Cavan Scott

 

The Obverse Book Of Ghosts

Edited by Cavan Scott

Published by Obverse Books, 2010

The thirteen stories in the Obverse Book of Ghosts have been put together by editor Cavan Scott to, “follow in the phantasmagorical footsteps of those classic supernatural anthologies of the past.” Among this selection we have stories from new and established authors covering a wide range of styles, but all with their foundations in the supernatural ghost story.

Among the standouts here are The Windmill by Rebecca Levene which opens the collection with a powerful exploration of the criminal world and some great imagery. Down To The Last Drop by Guy Adams adds a couple of nice twists to a more traditional ghost story. Just A Fox by Mark Wright and Have To by Stuart Douglas are both emotionally strong pieces.

For me though, the two standouts here are Platform Alteration by Scott Handcock which is a well written weird tale full of strong nightmarish imagery and The Cull by George Mann which is an excellent story of a woman’s quest to gain freedom from her guardian angel and is the highlight in a strong collection, the writing in both these tales is powerful and engaging.

Thirteen tales of ghostly goings on from an excellent selection of writers, there isn’t a bad story among them just degrees of good. There is also a lot of originality on display here and for once it’s a collection that doesn’t take itself too seriously with several tales showing that  humour can be used successfully in a horror story without lessening its impact. An enjoyable and wide ranging collection with something for every palette.

Rating 4 out of 5

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John Connolly – The Inquisition

Although often described as a crime writer, John Connolly’s unique blend of mystery with more than a hint of the supernatural, puts him firmly in my top ten horror authors (anyone still disputing this should pick up a copy of John’s Nocturnes collection). His bestselling Charlie Parker series has gone from strength to strength but John has also produced Gaimanesque adult fantasy in The Book Of Lost Things and humerous young adult horror with The Gates and the forthcoming Hell’s Bells. It is an absolute pleasure to welcome John Connolly to The Black Abyss.

 

1 – Which book has been most influential in your career?

Blimey. Well, the first book I ever read was one of Enid Blyton’s SECRET SEVEN novels, so you might say that set me on the path to writing the books I now write, along with Ed McBain’s LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN, which was the first adult crime novel I ever read. In the end, though, I don’t think there’s any one book that’s been so influential as to stand out utterly from the rest. Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke were probably the biggest influences in terms of style, and at a push I might pick THE CHILL by the former, and DIXIE CITY JAM by the latter. But what about the ghost stories of M R James, or Dickens’s BLEAK HOUSE? Sorry, that one is just too hard.

 

2 – Which writer has most influenced your style?

Macdonald in terms of my approach to subject matter, Burke in terms of literary style, I think.

 

3 – What’s the future for the horror genre?

More hybridization, with writers from other genres recognizing its potential and importing elements of it to their own areas. I’d like to see mystery writers be more open to such influences too, but there remains a hard core of rationalist conservatives who deeply distrust and dislike other genres influencing mystery writers.

 

4 – Which book do you wish you had written?

None, just because the books that I love would be worse if I had written them.

 

5 – What writing equipment could you not live without?

I’d find it very hard to return to writing long-hand, I think. I can touch-type, so I type faster than I write. I imagine that I’d become very frustrated if I had to slow down. Then again, my writing might improve if I was forced to take longer over that first draft.

 

6 – Do you plan in detail before starting a new piece of writing?

No, never. I’ll usually know how the book begins, and maybe one or two incidents along the way, but part of the pleasure for me lies in discovering the book as I write it.

 

7 – Ebooks or Paper Books?

I prefer paper. I love the artifact of the book, and I like being surrounded by books. I think they’re an outward manifestation of something deeply personal within each of us. You can’t do that with a Kindle. Then again, the e-book is now with us, and is not going to go away, but I think that e-books and paper will co-exist more comfortably together than, say, CDs and MP3s simply because books are still good technology, and people have affection for the physical object of the book.

 

8 – Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?

Er, I’m not sure what any of that means. I prefer not to use the term ‘horror’, as I think it’s off-putting to some readers. Its the only genre named after a visceral response to a stimulus, and not necessarily a pleasant one either. It’s also very limiting. For the same reason, I prefer ‘mystery’ to ‘crime’ as a name for the genre in which I mainly work.

 

9 – Who should I read next?

Ross Macdonald if you haven’t already. Likewise M R James.

 

10 – What was your last book and what is your next book?

My last book was called THE WHISPERERS, and this year I’ll publish two new books: HELL’S BELLS in May (known as THE INFERNALS in the US) and THE BURNING SOUL in September. The former is a kids’ humorous fantasy novel, and the latter is a mystery.

 

Thanks John.

 

 

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Outpost by Adam Baker

Outpost

by Adam Baker

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2011

 

Does the world need yet another post-apocalyptic zombie thriller? Adam Baker thinks so and has delivered one with Outpost, his first novel.

The crew of the Kasker Rampart refinery platform are stuck in the arctic ocean waiting for supplies when they fear that things may not be going well back home. It becomes apparent that there has been an event (a global pandemic) and although all they can hear is “panic and rumour” it’s also clear they are on their own.

The characters set about planning a possible escape by exploring the surrounding snowy wastes and contacting other ships and platforms in the area. Soon, however, they meet some survivors and it’s clear they have more to worry about than they initially thought as what started as a fight for survival becomes all out war.

Okay, this isn’t technically a zombie novel but the ‘creatures’ (who have been subject to some kind of infection with sees them sprouting metal), are effectively zombies in every other sense so lets not be pedantic. It is a post apocalyptic novel, but the true nature of the event is never revealed. The oil platform and ensuing sense of confusion was reminiscent of the start of Conrad William’s One.

It’s a pretty good stab at doing something new with a frankly tired sub-genre. While ramping up the tension and confusion, Adam Baker also ramps up the action and despite the limited canvas of the snowy Arctic waste, manages to devise an impressive variety of situations for the characters to be placed in. The characters themselves are perhaps the strongest feature of the book, from Jane the faithless, suicidal vicar, to Punch the laid back and heroic chef there’s a nice range of conflicting personalities.

There are also some interesting themes lurking in the background. Jane’s loss of faith, the contrast between the castle like oil refinery and the sweeping panorama of the Arctic landscape as well as an ever present ecological undercurrent. These are all kept fairly low key allowing the pace to be maintained and it is a pacy book, with plenty of short, snappy action scenes to keep things moving.

So the world probably doesn’t need another post apocalyptic zombie novel but if we are going to get one then at least Outpost manages to satisfy with it’s entertaining mix of well drawn characters and action.

 

Rating 3.5 out of 5

 

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The Devils Labyrinth by John Saul

The Devils Labyrinth

by John Saul

Format: Paperback, 332 pages

Publisher: Pan, 2008

Thirty novels in as many years, is productivity not to be sniffed at and John Saul has created his own niche in the horror genre since the publication of “Suffer The Children” in 1977. You can read more details of his most recent novel “Faces Of Fear” at his official website.

What we have here is John Sauls previous novel, one which treads the murky path of religion where nothing is quite as it seems. This is the story of Ryan McIntyre, a schoolboy who is bullied by his classmates but manages to get a place at the much nicer St Isaac’s Catholic School, well much nicer for the first couple of minutes. It soon becomes apparent that St Isaac’s harbours an undercurrent of evil and a secret labyrinth underground is the place where it hangs out.

A couple of interesting twists keep the plot flowing but there are some uneasy plot devices at work here. Ryan frequently gets visions of his father who was killed in active service in Iraq. Later on we meet some bad Moslem’s, so is the whole thing some kind of anti-Muslim diatribe (the good guy an American soldier’s son, the evil guys radical Islamic terrorists), well it certainly seems that this must have been, at least partly in the back of John Saul’s mind. The muslims get us away from the same old story of Catholic church child abuse which it looks like we are heading for but it does take us into some weird and quite forced plot territory which I am not sure works that well.

Indeed it almost seems like John Saul has changed his original plot to suit the political climate and it doesn’t really come off, the basic structure is fine it is purely the pointless introduction of the Islamic terrorists and the fallen American hero, neither of which are vital, which serves to unsettle things and leaves the reader with quite a few unanswered questions. The writing, however, is in Saul’s usual tight style and the moments of horror action, well described and edge of the seat stuff. The characters, horror scenes and descriptive parts are all interesting and the book is an easy and entertaining read.

So not a bad book just a strange one, there’s nothing wrong with writers being political but when it appears to be squeezed into a plot just to make some kind of statement I don’t think it does the writer or the reader any favours.

 

Rating 3 out of 5

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