Category Archives: Review

Where by Kit Reed

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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

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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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Best British Horror 2015 edited by Johnny Mains

Best British Horror 2015Best British Horror 2015

Series editor Johnny Mains

Published by Salt, 2015

The modern horror anthology has seen a bit of a revival in recent years. The likes of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, Best Horror of the Year, Best New Horror etc, etc have all vied for our attention but anything with Johnny Mains in the editors chair is a guarantee of quality. The first volume of Best British Horror was published in 2014 and it instantly became a favourite. Now it’s time to dig into this years collection and see whats on offer.

This years anthology consists of twenty-two short stories covering, just about, every spectrum of the genre, from subtle ghosts to less than subtle dog murderers. Stylistically it’s a perfect example of how the horror genre can deal with the mundane, the exciting, the politically relevant and the totally bizarre and turn them all into entertaining reads.

With 22 stories on offer I’m not going to summarise them all but rest assured there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Of course, like any anthology, your preferences will vary dependant on author and style, your top choices may differ from mine but I defy anyone to read this collection and not come away with a list of winners.

For me the outstanding tales, as opposed to the mere great tales, included Learning The Language by John Llewellyn Probert with its references to Welsh paganism. The Third Time by Helen Grant which is a clear descendant of M.R. James’s subtle horror style. Alsitair by Mark Samuels manages to expand the qualities of the simple ghost story by inferring a much darker evil. On Ilkley Moor by Alison Littlewood brings to life the ancient Yorkshire landscape while Gary McMahon’s Only Bleeding is firmly rooted in the all too real tragedies of modern austerity.

For me though, The Rising Tide by Priya Sharma, was the outstanding story in this collection. It had everything, tragedy, suspense, intrigue and shocks. I should also point out the editors excellent tribute to Graham Joyce who sadly passed away in 2014. The inclusion of one of Joyce’s excellent short stories, Under The Pylon is a fitting tribute.

It’s the job of an anthology like this to showcase the value of the modern horror short story. The importance of the short as a format is as relevant today as ever. It’s often the perfect format for getting a message across but it requires a skillful author to create a plot and characters that can hold the reader’s attention in such a short piece of writing, luckily this collection showcases those talents to the maximum. It’s always a delight to find new authors among the more established ones and again this collection fulfills that requirement and even manages to squeeze in a couple of comedians to the mix (Sara Pascoe and Reece Shearsmith), both of whom produce excellent work.

With the name of Johnny Mains on the cover being a guarantee of quality, I didn’t expect to be disappointed but once again he has managed to produce an anthology which surprises, satisfies and scares, what more do you want.

Rating 4 out of 5

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The Curse of the Fleers by Basil Copper

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The Curse of the Fleers by Basil Copper
PS Publishing 2012

I recently picked up Basil Copper’s The Curse of the Fleers from PS Publishing for £5 in hardback, a bargain for a hardback book but especially a PS Publishing quality hardback.

This is a new version of the novel first published in 1976. The old edition was disowned by the author after the publisher ruined the story with extensive cuts and edits. This version has been painstakingly pieced together from the authors original notes and manuscripts. This version also includes a copy of the original story ideas and authors notes giving a fascinating insight into the writing process.

In The Curse of the Fleers, we are transported back to Victorian times to meet Captain Guy Harwood, who’s at a loose end having just got back from fighting in Afghanistan. A letter from his old friend, Cedric Fleer tells of mysterious happenings at the Fleer’s Dorset mansion.

What follows is an intriguing and thrilling adventure as our hero chases unknown intruders (including the marvellous Creeping Man) and the local ladies whilst trying to solve the mystery.

The atmosphere is spot on, the author himself referenced an aim to recreate a Hound of the Baskervilles feeling and that certainly comes through. The book also clearly reference’s classic hammer films.

It’s a well written and hugely enjoyable example of the gothic novel which lovers of Sherlock Holmes and Hammer will thoroughly enjoy, and for £5 it’s a steal.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Lord Huw And The Romance Of Stone by Dave Hutchinson

Lord Huw And The Romance Of Stone

by Dave Hutchinson

Published by Dave Hutchinson, 2012

Despite this site’s focus on all things dark and horrific, that’s not all I read. I am and always have been a fan of SF, Fantasy, Crime and Historical fiction but to date I have limited my reviews here to horror and dark Fiction books. That will remain the main focus of this blog but I thought it might be interesting to add some variety to spice things up so I intend to post reviews of things I have read outwith the horror genre.

One of my favourite SF books of recent years was Dave Hutchinson’s Push, it was intelligent, literate and a bloody fine read (I reviewed it for the BFS but can’t find a link to the review at the moment, trust me it was great, the book that is not the review, although that was probably pretty good as well!). So I was intrigued to see this short ebook from Dave on Amazon, intrigued because it seems to mark a new direction in his writing and it’s one that I thoroughly approve of.

This is a short book by anyone’s standard, Amazon lists it as equivalent to 16 pages so it’s more of a chapbook than a novella but those 16 pages held me spellbound so don’t let the diminished size put you off. Lord Huw is  a Knight Defender of the Western Marches in this fantasy story as recounted by Lineas the Scribe. We learn how Lord Huw lived a harsh existence, issuing harsh justice on the people of the Western marches, described as an “awful howling wildernesses of crags, fells, lochs and creeks” far from the King’s home in the South where “orchards and citrus groves scent the warm air”. Lord Huw resides in Castle Aran, a structure “entirely without architectural merit” a place in keeping with the rough landscape and life he leads. Soon, however his neighbour Lord Compaigne builds a castle for himself, Castle Carbury, “the most wondrous castle in the whole kingdom”.

And so we hear of Lord Huw’s increasing obsession with Carbury and the desperate lengths he goes to make it his own. This wonderful and magical story is narrated by the marvellously  sardonic Lineas who has borne “haemorrhoids, a persistent cough and a near unbearable cramp in my writing hand” whilst compiling the folk tales of the people of the land. But this tale is more than a simple fairy tale, the final section of the book reveals that this is a much more important tale and a metaphor for unrequited love.

With an intriguing medieval fantasy settings, spiced with magic, wonderful characters, even some horror, this story really hit the mark. The tone of the narrator was just right and the revelatory ending raises the whole thing to another level. Is it too short? Yes, but not in relation to value for money (it’s only a £1!), only because I want to spend more time in this land. Here’s hoping Dave Hutchinson revisits this world soon but in the meantime spend your pocket money on a fine story by an excellent storyteller.

Rating 4.5 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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