Monthly Archives: May 2011

Willy by Robert Dunbar

Willy

by Robert Dunbar

Published by Uninvited Books, 2011.

Robert Dunbar’s previous novels The Pines and The Shore were enjoyable reads but it was his 2009 collection Martyr’s and Monsters which really showed what he was capable of. Intense emotion, fascinating characters and original ideas sprang from that book like water from a burst pipe. Now he has his own publishing company, Uninvited Books and a brand new novel, Willy.

The book takes the form of a first person narrative, being written as a form of therapy (“good practice for reality”) by a “crazy” adolescent. The unnamed boy is in a state of despair, dark, suicidal and unable to communicate, he has been shipped to a special school, a “dumping ground” for difficult boys. For the first fifty or so pages we are confronted with bleak visions of the school and it’s uncaring or worse, sadistic members of staff. Salvation comes in the form of Willy, our narrators roommate. Willy is an even more mysterious boy who seems to float into and through the story, his fellow pupils see him as a messianic hero figure, his teachers are wary, even afraid of him. The novel then unfolds as the boy’s relationship grows. Several adventures with hints of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest crossed with Stand by Me gradually reveal more details and also more mysteries building into a stunning and emotionally intense finale.

Throughout the book new questions are asked but very few are answered. This is an extremely effective device which not only keeps the narration realistic but which allows us to empathise with the narrator. Frequently we are as confused, nervous, tense and excited as he is which forms a deep connection between the reader and the main character. It also allows the book’s sense of mystery to grow, where lesser authors may have revealed more details of Willy’s past history, conflicts with teachers etc Dunbar reveals very little. Only enough to tease the reader and set the foundations, we are left to build our own back-story.

The characters are never less than fascinating. Thankfully the author has avoided the usual aggressive teenager stereotypes and instead concentrated on developing a group of boys who have somehow become disconnected from society and in some cases reality. Blame is not apportioned, details are not revealed but societies inability to deal with these boys and its solution of removing them to a place, well away from “normal” society, is brutally revealed. Of course it’s not just the pupils who are the main characters, the teachers too are revealed as vulnerable, troubled and often just as dysfunctional.

With Willy, Robert Dunbar has taken the plotting and pacing of his earlier novels and added the emotional maturity of his later stories to produce a compulsive, deeply moving piece of work. His best work to date it succeeds on every level to create a challenging yet accessible novel. This isn’t your average horror story, in fact this isn’t a horror story at all. There is no supernatural threat and the only monsters are human ones but it does have the sensibilities of a horror story. It builds on a darkness within us all but is not constrained by genre, in this way it’s comparable to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, bleak, desolate and literate. Highly Recommended.

5 out of 5

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Sparrowhawk by Paul Finch

Sparrowhawk

by Paul Finch

Published by Pendragon Press 2010.

Paul Finch has been quite prolific of late with horror books, Dr Who books and even a movie, The Devil’s Rock all gaining well deserved notices. For me, his work is always strongest when delving into the dark past with his fantastic historical horrors, Sparrowhawk is a fine example of that genre.

We meet the fascinating John Sparrowhawk in the less than salubrious surroundings of Fleet prison. A hero of the Afghan war, circumstances have left him in debt (hence the prison) and very alone. A visit from the mysterious Miss Evangeline comes with an offer of release with certain conditions. He is offered the job of guarding a house in London over Christmas, sounds simple? Not in Paul Finch’s hands. Thats about as much of the plot as I can reveal without  spoilers but rest assured this short novella is packed with adventure both supernatural and otherwise.

Finch’s strength in this sub-genre is his obvious detailed knowledge of the periods he writes about. This is not portrayed through any great protracted exposition but via the everyday lives of the characters. Sparrowhawk’s revelations about the tragedy of the original Afghanistan war resonate into modern times but it is the wars effect on the returning soldiers that is most powerful. Here are war hero’s sent by their lords and masters to do their bidding in the most dreadful circumstances only to find on their return they are discarded by society, sound familiar?

This emotional resonance is portrayed with a light touch but is only part of the story. The details of the surroundings and everyday life in Victorian London really bring the book alive, you can almost smell the filthy backstreets and grimy bodies. But this is first and foremost a ghost story and it succeeds by never revealing too much of the threat, although many readers will probably guess the ending fairly soon into the book, that doesn’t in any way spoil the journey.

Ideally it’s a book that should be read on a snowy Christmas eve, preferably by candlelight and with the local urchins singing Christmas carols outside but even in a blazing hot April it still managed to impart that atmosphere and Christmas spirit. I am delighted that Paul Finch is achieving a degree of success outwith the horror genre but I am equally delighted that he is still writing powerful, fascinating and fun horror stories like this one.

 

Rating 4 out of 5

 

 

 

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Richard Gavin – The Inquisition

The Inquisition – Richard Gavin

 

When I read the fiction of writers like Matt Cardin or Gary McMahon or Richard Gavin (and a small handful of others) I find myself brimming with the sort of jealousy any writer would feel when confronted by a master of the form.” These were the words of Simon Strantzas when he was the subject of the inquisition a few weeks back. Indeed it’s amazing how often Richard Gavin’s name comes up when talk turns to current genre masters, even more amazing when you consider Mr Gavin’s fairly short bibliography (Charnel WineOmens, and The Darkly Splendid Realm). Clearly it’s a case of quality over quantity, it’s a pleasure to welcome Richard Gavin to The Black Abyss.

 

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

 

Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin by Richard Davenport-Hines because it reaffirms my belief that a resonance with the macabre is an ancient trait of at least a segment of the human race. I draw a great deal of inspiration from those real-world aesthetes who erected artificial ruins and dead trees on their properties in order to immerse themselves in perennial gloom.

 

2 – Which writer has most influenced your style?

 

Ramsey Campbell. He’s been an inspiration to me since I was an adolescent and he continues to exemplify just how much can be done with horror fiction. Like him, I am proud to be labelled a horror writer and I also strive to create a wide variety of stories in this genre. Ramsey never rests on his laurels. He’s forever honing his craft, trying his hand at new ways of telling stories, wringing fear from the most unconventional sources. I wish I had half of Ramsey’s energy and even a smidgen of his talent.

 

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

 

Horror, its literary branch at least, will likely sustain itself in the same basic fashion that it always has: appealing to a relatively small but devoted cabal. True, there have always been blockbuster authors in the field, but only a handful in any given era. And yes, there will be occasional one-off hits or fluke trends that give horror brief mainstream appeal, but ultimately I think this has always been the outsider’s genre. It is sustained and perpetuated by a margin of fanatical connoisseurs, which sits just fine with me.

 

4 – Which book do you wish you had written?

 

Perhaps H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont.

 

5 – What writing equipment could you not live without?

 

None whatsoever. I write because I enjoy the struggle of trying to fashion something that might be a worthy addition to the field I love. Take away my writing tools and I’d simply resort to some other vehicle of expression. Blood and ochre smeared on a cave wall worked once, it could work again.

 

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

 

I don’t really have any hard and fast rules. By the time I actually begin to write something, that story could have been in my head (in various stages of development) for hours, weeks, or even years. Some tales begin as just a title jotted down, or a dream journal entry. The whole process is holistic and is really one of assimilation. I pull in images, unusual words, snippets of real world encounters, themes I wish to address, until I have enough raw materials that can be worked into an engaging story. Unused bits from one story might trickle over into another, as-yet-unwritten. So the beast just keeps lumbering forward without reins. Attempting to describe the process is a bit like trying to pinpoint where a circle begins.

 

7 – Ebooks or Paper Books?

 

There is room for both. Frankly, I do not, nor will I ever, regard an eBook as anything more than a half-finished product, an embryonic book. eBooks are merely billboards for a product (a physical book) but they are not a product themselves in my eyes. eBooks are a very nice adjunct to traditional publishing, but I don’t believe that an electronic file offers the complete aesthetic experience that a well-written, beautifully bound book does. But I would imagine there is some convenience to an eBook and they do serve as excellent samplers of books that can be purchased if a reader likes what they see.

 

8 – Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?

 

Horror. That word has always held a certain magic for me. It is a broad spectrum that provides me with everything from comfort food to unnerving philosophical grist to a straightforward frisson (There’s nothing wrong with scare-for-the-sake-of-scare). If I’m feeling particularly nitpicky I might specify my own work as “nightmarish,” “gothic,” or “weird horror” because those are the elements I value most. I want nothing to do with some of the tripe that passes for horror fiction, but I will always celebrate the genre’s diversity.

 

I believe that fear is profound. It hurls us into a state of heightened awareness, wrenches us out of the white noise stupor we adopt in order to move about the world as decent civilians. I think people who seek out the horror experience are actually hungering for something that might pierce the artificial armour of their personas and stir up the ghost inside them, so to speak. When we are afraid we are more willing to face images (even if they’re presented ludicrously) that relate to our own mortality, to our place in the cosmos, to what it means to be human. Horror, if done intelligently and skilfully, actually allows people to come to terms with many facets of life that would otherwise be unspeakable or beyond comprehension. And it does this in a way that is entertaining. Peter Atkins once called supernatural horror “metaphysics for the masses,” which I quite like.

 

I also like the “horror” moniker for my work because the reader doesn’t really know exactly what kind of story they’re going to get with me, which would be the case if I called myself a “ghost story writer” or what have you. I labour to make my work literate and engaging, but when you open the cover all bets are off in terms of where I may lead you. I don’t want my stories to be stamped with some cosy euphemism for horror because that word makes some readers feel uneasy. Uneasiness is the very point! There is too much “safe” entertainment in the world.

 

9 – Who should I read next?

 

The work of Matt Cardin, Simon Strantzas, Gemma Files, Mark Samuels, and Laird Barron invariably leave me awestruck and inspired. I could easily list four dozen other writers, past and present.

 

 

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

 

2010 saw a reissue of my first collection, entitled Charnel Wine: Memento Mori Edition. Prior to that, my collection The Darkly Splendid Realm was released in 2009. Both books are available via Dark Regions Press (www.darkregions.com)

 

I have finished a new novella which may be out later this year, though nothing’s set in stone just yet. I write every day, but exactly when I’ll have seventy- or eighty-thousand words of writing that I feel is not only as good but in fact better than what I’ve done previously is anyone’s guess. I will not slap readers in the face by just tossing out anything solely to get some fresh ink. Just because a writer isn’t online boasting about how many words they wrote that particular morning doesn’t mean they aren’t working. I would rather be off the publishing radar, for a year or two if needs be, so that I can finesse a work I’ll fully stand behind. Writing is a lifelong vocation and the fruits of that vocation outlive the author, so why approach it like a 100-metre dash?

 

 

Thanks Richard

 

 

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Conrad Williams – The Inquisition


Conrad Williams – The Inquisition

 

Conrad Williams is the author of the novels Head Injuries, London Revenant, The Unblemished, One, Decay Inevitable and Blonde on a Stick; the novellas Nearly PeopleGameThe Scalding Rooms and Rain and a collection of short fiction, Use Once then Destroy. Although there are many quality writers currently working in the horror genre Conrad William’s is, for me, one of the best, so it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome him to the Black Abyss.

 

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

There have been a few. ‘Run For Your Life‘ by David Line was my favourite book as a child. Teenage years, probably ‘The Shining‘ by Stephen King. Now I would say ‘The Road‘ by Cormac McCarthy.

 

2 – Which writer has most influenced your style?

Again, there are a number. Graham Greene. Ramsey Campbell. M John Harrison.

 

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

Death. And reanimation. And then death again. Et cetera…

 

4 – Which book do you wish you had written?

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

 

5 – What writing equipment could you not live without?

My Moleskine notebook and my Fisher Space pen. And Scrivener.

 

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

More so these days, yes.

 

7 – Ebooks or Paper Books?

Paper.

 

8 – Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?

Horror. Let’s get rid of all the fig leaves.

 

9 – Who should I read next?

Patrick McGrath.

 

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

My last book was Loss of Separation (find it here) which was based on a horrible true story. My next book is a secret, but I’ve started writing it. It too has a connection to a horrible true story.

 

Thanks Conrad.

 

 

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Dark Minds edited by Ross Warren

Dark Minds

Edited by Ross Warren

Published by Dark Minds Press, 2011

 

It’s always heartening to see a new publisher enter the horror arena. Dark Minds is the first publication from Dark Minds Press and if this is a sign of future quality then we should expect great things from this publisher in the future.

This anthology features 12 stories from a variety of dark fiction authors some well known, some not. We start off in impressive style with Gary McMahon’s The Ghost Of Rain, a poignant and bleak tale which, as with much of McMahon’s work, focuses very much on emotion and character. It’s a strong start but perhaps not quite as powerful as some of Gary McMahon’s recent masterpieces.

Other highlights for me include editor Ross Warren’s own tale, The Rat Catchers Apprentice. This trip into Victorian London is brimming with nasty historical detail and thoroughly enjoyable. The Anchorite’s Daughter by Shaun Hammel defies classification but if you wish, file it under very good, it’s a fine, dark trip into the occult. There’s deep emotion in stories by Stephen Bacon, The House Of Constant Shadow and Last Laugh by Colin Hersh.

The two standouts for me were The World Shall Know by Jason Whittle which combines fantasy and dark horror in a thought provoking piece which examines religion and its power and Bury The Truth by Carole Johnstone which is a very dark, deeply emotional piece looking at death, suicide and what lies beyond.

An excellent first collection, there are a few typos and minor layout issues but all of these are irrelevant when placed against the powerful collection of stories. Gary McMahon’s name appears on the front, back and spine and this could possibly give the impression that the other stories are only making up the numbers but this is not the case. McMahon’s story is good but several others match and a couple also surpass it in my mind and that only demonstrates the quality of the writing on offer.

I look forward to seeing more from Dark Minds Press in the future and hope they can maintain the quality of this excellent collection.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Adam Nevill – The Inquisition

 


Adam Nevill – The Inquisition

Adam Nevill follows in the supernatural weird tale tradition of the likes of MR James, Blackwood and Machen. His novels have consistently explored the ghostly rather than the ghastly and his latest book, The Ritual is a brilliant exploration of Scandinavian wilderness, paganism and death metal. It’s a pleasure to welcome Adam Nevill to the Black Abyss.

 

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

 

There were two: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M R James, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young man by James Joyce.

 

2 – Which writer has most influenced your style?

 

M R James

 

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

 

That depends on mainstream publishers, book buyers in the trade, and readers.

 

4 – Which book do you wish you had written?

 

All of those that make me want to write. Chief amongst them Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

 

5 – What writing equipment could you not live without?

 

My imagination

 

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

 

Each of my four horror novels (inc the one under construction) have shambled up different paths to completion. Banquet came from a loose idea about a fictional counter-culture book, and then began to write itself around a few set-pieces during my first few weeks in St Andrews – it grew out of set-pieces at the very beginning of the story; Apartment 16 was a collection of fragments and dreams and ideas not written in chronology, trying to find a narrative synthesis over many years; The Ritual came from one image of finding a black goat, sitting upright in a child’s cradle in an abandoned house, twinned with memories of a disastrous camping trip I took part in. It then burned itself out after I wrote the first line – wrote itself really, each chapter suggesting new ideas as I went along. My only caveat and plan was that every page had to be a matter of life and death. Probably worth noting that all three of my novels to date were written for myself and my inner reader; I had no publisher, no deadline, no deal. And they each took between two to four years to complete. The new book is different; it’s the first one commissioned on an outline, and also the first that I have planned like a military operation. Though I’ve also been fortunate to have had every day for a year to work on it. I think for me, then, planning is enforced by a deadline.

 

7 – Ebooks or Paper Books?

 

Both, but with paper never playing second fiddle, and internet piracy obliterated.

 

8 – Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?

 

I like the first two. Supernatural Horror is best for me.

 

9 – Who should I read next?

 

Try Alden Bell, the American writer. I was very impressed by his debut, The Reapers are the Angels

 

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

 

The Ritual is my new book, out in May. A novel of psychic terror in the wilderness. My next book is remaining under wraps in any detail, but its big and ambitious, it spans swathes of time and it strides the globe. I have a title for it, but then another book came out recently with the same bloody title, so that could stand or change. And I better get back to it! The clock is ticking and the skeletal figure behind my chair, holding that clock, is beginning to cackle.

 

 

Thanks Adam.

 

 

 

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