Category Archives: dark

Where by Kit Reed

23168835Where

by Kit Reed

Published by Tor, 2015.

By the time I had finished Kit Reed’s novel Where, I was convinced they had the title wrong. Where was the least of my concerns reading this book, How was a more pressing issue, Why kept crossing my mind but the overriding question that arose while reading this book wasn’t Where, it was What, specifically WTF just happened?

We start on Kraven Island on the South Carolina Coast. Immediately the island has a strange, ominous feel and the presence of a military base nearby doesn’t help. We meet David Ribault and his girlfriend Merrill, characters who are in a relationship but a somewhat rocky one. The relationship is further tested when smooth talking property developer, Rawson Steele appears on the scene. David suspects Rawson is making a move on Merrill and so is intrigued when Rawson invites him to a meeting. Only problem is Rawson doesn’t turn up and when David tries to return home he finds the island is in lockdown, the reason? Everyone has disappeared.

The story is told from a number of character’s viewpoints, so we see David’s confusion at what’s just happened but then and this is when the WTF thing kicks in, we also see events from the standpoint of Merrill and her brother Ned. So we actually find out what has happened to them after the disappearance. In a lesser writers hands that could make things a bit boring but Kit Reed has simply ramped up the strangeness by creating a mysterious white-walled desert based location to dump them in, with no clues as to where, why or how.

The characters are brilliantly flawed. The action throws in a number of inter personal conflicts not least that of Ned and Merrill and their abusive father. This all happens in that strange otherwold though and here people’s characters have also been changed as they are tested and challenged by an unseen force.

There is a conclusion to the story which satisfies but doesn’t explain, I think this works wonderfully. For me the book had a similar feel to King’s Under The Dome but benefitted from brevity. Also where King ended his story with a bizarre and to my mind completely failed attempt to explain what had happened, Kit Reed takes the much braver and more successful option of simply showing us what happens and letting us decide what the explanation is.

This is a novel about obsession and loss, as the author states in the short story Military Secrets (included here as it is closely related to the novel) “missing is still out there”. She references everything from ancient mysterious disappearances such as The Mary Celeste or the Roanoke colony to modern mysteries such as Flight 370 to highlight that missing is not dead, so what exactly happened to those people, where are they?

I raced through this book, the combination of character driven plot, mystery, weirdness and pathos were hugely compelling and it was all underpinned by a feeling of otherness. That strange emotion that nothing is quite as it seems, that all our lives are underpinned with mystery that every now and then rises to the surface in the form of some inexplicable tragedy or event. Highly recommended.

Rating 4 out of 5

 

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The Hunt by Tim Lebbon

51W9TFVew-L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The Hunt

By Tim Lebbon

Published by Avon, 2015.

I’ve been a huge fan of Tim Lebbon’s ever since a fellow blogger recommended his brilliant novella White (published in 1999). His ability to create believable, flawed characters and set them in dark and often unexplained scenarios was clear from that novella. Since then he has created magnificent horror (e.g. The Nature of Balance, The Reach of Children, Coldbrook etc.) incredible fantasy (The Island, Fallen, Echo City) but this is the first time he has turned thriller writer and it’s a great success.

Chris Sheen returns home from his daily run to find his family have disappeared. He soon finds out they have been kidnapped and it’s his job to save them. All he has to do is participate in a hunt by the mysterious Trail organisation. The target of The Hunt is Chris, if he dies, his family survives. Assisted by the mysterious Rose, who has her own reasons for trying to beat the Trail, Chris sets out on a deadly journey through the Welsh mountains, fighting not only those hunting him but the wild landscape around him.

The book alternates viewpoints between Chris, his family and Rose, all face their own struggles as we thunder towards a deadly conclusion. It’s a fast paced and deeply thrilling ride made even more resonant by the authors knowledge of the landscapes he is writing about. We feel every jagged rock and every slippery cliff-face as we follow the characters trials. But while the landscape is a magnificently drawn character the real power of the book lies in the unseen faces and motivations of those doing the hunting. The reader is left aghast at the sheer brutality of people who could hunt humans for sport, couldn’t possibly exist right? But the way Lebbon plays out the scenario it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. It’s only a narrow step beyond those grinning idiots standing over the corpse of some magnificent animal to imagine the ultra rich paying to hunt humans.

It’s the humanity that makes the book, Chris’s desperate fight for survival to save his family. Rose’s own motivation, often at odds with Chris’s. His families own struggles and even the hunters themselves, all motivated to survive and all faced with much bigger opposition in the face of the wild landscape.

Although this is nominally a thriller, it doesn’t lose any of the horror that Tim Lebbon has excelled at in the past. There may be less supernatural scares but when the horror is man’s inhumanity to man, it is even more powerful. There are plenty of scenes in this book that are not for the squeamish.

There’s a good chance that the book will see a wider audience for Tim Lebbon’s work and it justly deserves it. Hopefully new readers will go on to sample the delights of his back catalogue and give him the further success he thoroughly deserves. A word of warning though, don’t start this book if you have any important appointments coming up, you will end up missing them to find out what happens next.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

Silent Voices

by Gary McMahon

Published by Solaris, 2012.

The Concrete Grove, the first book in the Concrete Grove trilogy, delivered and promised so much. It delivered a fantastic piece of urban horror, laced with dark fantasy that led me to describe Gary McMahon as “the outstanding British horror writer of our times” (review here). It promised so much as it gave us, what I thought were ” tantalising glimpses of a much deeper mythology” and left the way clear for the author to fully dive into his dark mythos in the subsequent books. Now we have Silent Voices, the second book in the trilogy and at last we can see if the author has kept his promise.

While the first book largely crept around the edges of the mythology of the Concrete Grove, a deprived urban area in Northumberland, this book gets to the heart of the matter. Here we meet Brendan, Simon and Marty who as young boys ventured in to The Needle, a derelict tower block at the physical and metaphysical centre of the Concrete Grove, where something happened that still reverberates through their lives today. That something haunts the boys, now men and has shaped their lives in different but always difficult ways. Brendan is the only one with a “normal” family life but is stricken by terrible, debilitating acne, Simon is a millionaire businessman but one who has troubled relationships and Marty has turned to violence competing in bare knuckle boxing after the tragic loss of his girlfriend. Simon decides to buy The Needle and get the boys back together to finally face their demons.

The first part of the book explores these troubled characters and the lives of those around them, giving real depth to both them and the area. We meet the boys as youngsters and join them as they first enter The Needle and the horrific events that subsequently haunted them are gradually revealed. But it’s the desperate state of their current lives which leads them to return to the Grove and McMahon’s powerful dark prose is perfect at describing these tragic lives and the desperation to find out what happened.

As more revelations are gained so the darkness at the heart of the Concrete Grove becomes even blacker. The boys are haunted by Captain Clickety, “the damned and damning song of their childhood nightmares” a marvellous concoction of plague doctor (see here for some fine Plague Doctor creepiness) and child catcher who along with the even more terrifying Underthing awaits the boys at The Needle.

And so everything is set for a spectacular finale as the boys re-enter The Needle and face the dark mysteries of the Concrete Grove. Once again, as in the first book, McMahon saves the best for last as he ramps up the nightmare imagery and dark fantasy to new heights. Many of the mysteries of the first book and the revelations in this book are connected as things race to a dark conclusion, only there is no conclusion, instead McMahon introduces further twists to leave this reader desperate for the final book in the trilogy.

With less of a pitch black tone than much of his previous work this book majors instead on rich and engrossing characters. Although I doubt if Gary McMahon is ever going to write a knock about comedy the tone here seems less pervasively dark (although there are certainly some very dark moments) giving the book a wonderful balance. The protagonists are well constructed yet flawed characters but it’s the antagonists who really shine here, Captain Clickety is a character to rival Stephen King’s Pennywise and he isn’t even the worst of the bad guys. So we leave The Concrete Grove again, emotions and senses suitably pummelled, and apocalyptic imagery left seared onto our eyelids and we await the final book and still we know only a few of the dark secrets, only a few of the terrible realities and even more terrible unrealities hiding there.

In conclusion Gary McMahon has kept good on the promises he made the reader in the first book and has successfully delivered another marvellous slice of urban horror while at the same time he has promised us even more to come in the final book (Beyond Here Lies Nothing), bring it on.

Rating 5 out of 5

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The Watcher by Charles Maclean

The Watcher

by Charles Maclean

Published by Penguin Books, 2012.

Originally published in 1982 this is a book I have been meaning to read for a while. It certainly gets some good reviews and was listed among Charlie Higson’s top 10 horror books here so I was delighted to find a copy of the  reissue on the shelves of my local Waterstones.

Martin Gregory is a computer programmer who seemingly lives a happy, normal life with his wife and their two dogs. So far so mundane and to be honest for the first 20 pages I was wondering what all the fuss was about..then “it” happens. For no apparent reason Martin carries out a vicious and brutal act, which author Maclean insists on telling with quite uncomfortable detail and description. Perhaps what makes the act so shocking is the aftermath as Martin carries on quite normally. It’s this schizophrenia that becomes the focus of the book as Martin receives psychoanalytical treatment which reveals a whole slew of past lives each with their own story.

So the plot weaves in and out of past lives as we experience the world through Martin and his psychologist’s eyes and things get ever more complex, demanding that the reader pays attention. There is little more horror, the book becomes a tense psychological thriller as the reader is left to ponder the reality of Martin’s paranoia or if things are simply the result of some deep-seated psychosis. There are a couple of extremely tense scenes towards the end which are very enjoyable but the plot conclusion is somewhat disappointing.

This is a deeply strange book which offers the reader little solace and no solutions. Martin is not a particularly likeable protagonist indeed his initial actions also make him a formidable antagonist so viewing the story through his eyes is a difficult journey for the reader. It’s a sign of the authors skill then that, despite his previous brutality, Martin actually begins to be a character the reader  can relate to, maybe the reader is confronted with some uncomfortable truths about the latent violence in us all.

So this is not an easy book to like, difficult to relate to characters, complex plot, disappointing ending and a stilted prose style which seems much older than it’s 1982 vintage. It’s a measure of the authors skill then that this book does succeed. Perhaps it’s that initial shock that certainly resonates throughout the book, perhaps it’s the complex experimental plot which keeps the readers attention or perhaps it’s simply because this books is “different” but whatever the reason the end result is an enjoyable piece of dark fiction. It certainly wouldn’t make my top ten horror books but it might well make the top 100.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Glory and Splendour by Alex Miles

Glory and Splendour

by Alex Miles

Published by Karoshi Books, 2012.

The story of how Robert Johnson, one night, took himself down to the crossroads at midnight and promptly sold his soul to the devil in return for a remarkable talent might seem like a fairly obscure start to a book review. All I would say is go and buy a copy of this collection and then consider how an author is able to arrive on the scene as fully formed, as dazzlingly talented as Alex Miles then tell me he hasn’t had been out for a walk one evening.

Simply reading the eponymous first story will give you some idea of the remarkable talent of this writer. It’s a mind-blowing tale of a biblical scale plague (boils anyone?) which reduces the land to a wasteland worthy of Hieronymus Bosch but the inhabitants of a stately home are protected from the viciousness outside by a special paint which makes everything appear beautiful (rose-tinted spectacles anyone?). A couple of lines can’t really tell you nearly enough about the quality of this story. Layer after layer of fantastic imagery is drawn over a plot which, whilst apparently simple, reeks of metaphorical intrigue. In short it’s fantastic.

Follow that with a dystopian/steampunk/cyberpunk riff on the value of machinery over human judgement  in The Judge or the morally probing Deep Stitches with its imaginative look at the possible future of cosmetic surgery and you have three stories of real quality but Alex Miles doesn’t stop there, just when you are getting used to his blend of dystopian SF/horror we get a comedy story. Hitting Targets is a highly humorous tale involving estate agents and MMORPG gamers which is rich in satire but most of all sheer good fun.

The Life Beggar is perhaps the most complex of the stories on display here but it remains accessible and readable even if it might leave the reader scratching their head. Finally The Lotus Device is pure Twilight Zone material. Richly inventive, simple, yet complex at the same time it’s a mind-blowing story of a man who receives a device which allows him to selectively erase his memories, beautifully constructed and the end does not let you down.

Only six stories but six stories brimming with excellent writing, but it’s the maturity of the writing which impresses here. Sure some of the stories could be slightly shorter, sure some of the metaphors might be a tad clunky but this is a first collection and yet reads like something from an established author. Weird fiction has been dominated recently by the likes of Thomas Ligotti, Mark Samuels and Simon Strantzas but this collection contains stories worthy of all three and with the opener, Glory and Splendour automatically gives Alex Miles a place alongside them. So buy this book and watch out for Alex Miles in the future, I predict big things from both him and Karoshi Books. Now I’m off out for a walk…to the crossroads.

Rating 5 out of 5 *

* So how can I give 5/5 and yet raise criticisms, surely that should lead to losing a point? Well possibly, but the quality of both Glory and Splendour and The Lotus Device redeem any possible failings. Those stories alone earn the book a 5.

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Wood by Robert Dunbar

Wood

By Robert Dunbar

Published by Uninvited Books, 2012

Robert Dunbar is easily one of the best dark fiction writers around and he just keeps getting better and better. From his fairly straight horror novels The Pines and The Shore, he moved up a gear with the fabulous Martyrs and Monsters. His last novel Willy was a tour de force of characterisation whose portrayal of disaffected youth was up there with the classics like Catcher In The Rye. Praise indeed and this presents something of a problem for Mr Dunbar, how on earth do you follow that…here is the answer.

Wood tells the tale of two characters out of place in society. Rosaria is institutionalised in a juvenile facility but manages to escape one evening on a desperate quest to find her Grandmother. Her search brings her into contact with the suicidal Dick Wood, a man who’s only friend is his apparently deranged elderly neighbour Queenie who often regales him with tales of monsters. But when Rosaria is chased by something and seeks refuge in Dick’s house he realises that maybe there is something nasty out there after all.

And what a something it is, a creature born of the night and the wild country “the terrain of all the darkest fairytales, the landscape of nightmares” a thing of pure evil has evolved to counter the selfishness of humanity. All of which makes it somewhat ironic that its first encounters are with Rosaria and Dick two people very much on the outskirts of humanity.

This short novella certainly packs a lot into 70 odd pages. The characters (as always from Robert Dunbar) are beautifully realised, strong and individual, there are no stereotypes here. The monster reeks of environmental concerns, the Gaia hypotheses written in blood and is reminiscent of Joseph D’lacey’s Garbage Man. There is also enough action, pathos and beautiful writing to fill most full sized novels. It’s not perfect, I have issues with anthropomorphic characters unless they happen to be Wile E. Coyote so the sequence where we see the world through the eyes of a cat didn’t quite work for me. The story is also unfinished and to be honest having built up an affinity with the characters I want to carry on that journey, so get writing Mr Dunbar!

Quibbles aside though this is another excellent work from Robert Dunbar, he is an extremely powerful writer who manages to extract fantastic depth from his characters giving his work an originality and freshness that is very welcome in the gore filled horror world.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Little Star

by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Published by Quercus, 2011

John Ajvide Lindqvist hit the ground running with the excellent Let The Right One In, which resurrected the tired vampire trope into a new, darker being, showing the paranormal romancers how it should be done. He somehow managed to maintain the pace with the “difficult” second and third novels, Handling The Undead and Harbour and now along comes Little Star and what do you know, he’s only gone and done it again.

The plot of Little Star is at once both beautifully simple and incredibly complex. The story is a simple tale of an abandoned child and the family who finds her but beneath that surface is an incredibly weird tale which I can’t outline here without spoiling, so I won’t. Suffice to say that singing babies, serial killing children and Abba feature heavily in what may well be the most bizarre, yet compelling tale I have read in a long time.

Perhaps it’s the Scandinavian darkness that pervades Lindqvist’s writing or maybe he is channelling the legacy of the Grimms but this tale, with it’s overtones of raw nature and evil adults has the qualities of a dark fairytale before spiralling into gory murder, American Psycho meets Snow White. Remember also, this is a translation and clearly I have no idea how closely it matches the original but whether by design or chance the book has an otherworldly feel, the phrasing, the timing everything is
imbued with an oddness which matches and compliments the mood of the book perfectly.

The complex themes explored here, nature versus nurture, the loss of childhood innocence, selfishness in the pursuit of fame, animal instincts are all beautifully woven into the plot without stifling the story. The book is also full of memorable scenes from the fairytale beginning to the Carrie like ending but all written in Lindqvist’s engaging prose so they retain that feeling of originality.

There are some who might criticise the book for what it doesn’t tell us. There are several huge conceits that the reader has to go along with, the true nature of the central character being the most significant, but for this reader that adds to the mystery. Life would be boring if every magician explained his tricks and I for one am glad that Lindqvist has retained the mystery and intrigue which is as important to this book as the revelations.

A wonderful storyteller and a wonderful story are a pretty powerful combination and as long as John Ajvide Lindqvist carries on telling stories this good and this well, I will be at the front of the queue to buy them.

[rating:5]

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