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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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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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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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The Satyr’s Head by David A. Sutton

The Satyr’s Head : Tales Of Terror

Selected by David A. Sutton

Published by Shadow Publishing, 2012.

There’s a bit of a 70’s revival going on at that moment so look out your glam gear, platform shoes and Abba LP’s and let’s head back to the early 1970’s when David A. Sutton was busy putting together the Third volume of New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural, unfortunately the original publishers dropped the series but it was eventually published in 1975 by Corgi books and then promptly went out of print. This will be the first chance many of us have had to read some of these stories and indeed some of these authors so let’s dive in.

James Wade is one of the more interesting authors on display here, settling in Korea after the war his writing ranged from articles on music and war stories to Cthulhu Mythos tales. The Nightingale Floors is a strong start to the collection exploring the “delusions of sound and sight” on a museum night-watchman. It’s a quiet, ambiguous and very enjoyable read.

Ramsey Campbell has gone on to be revered for his atmospheric horror tales and while some of that talent is on display in The Previous Tenant, there are also signs of an author learning his craft. The dense, at times almost poetic prose, often feels overwritten, with maybe one too many metaphors thrown into the mix, but it’s still a memorable tale of obsession.

Martin I. Ricketts gives us The Night Fisherman. I’ve not come across this author before but this is an enjoyable, short and pointed story. Sugar And Spice And All Things Nice by David A. Sutton is an excellent and moving tale of a man who, faced with a monotonous job, enjoys watching the world go by his window right up until a mysterious girl shows up.

Provisioning by David Campton is a tongue in cheek tale about two god fearing hillbilly brothers, Keziah and Adam and their quest for food, its all gory good fun. Another gory tale is Perfect Lady by Robin Smyth which although interesting was one of the books weaker stories.

The Business About Fred by Joseph Payne Brennan, in contrast to the previous two stories, was rich and moving, full of pathos and sadness, as a lonely figure in a bar considers his effect on the world. Brian Lumley’s Aunt Hester takes a long time to reach its conclusion but the ending redeems any faults in the earlier pacing.

Finally we have two occult horrors starting with A Pentagram For Cenaide by Eddy C. Bertin. A prolific SF, horror and children’s author Bertin’s tale is one of the best in this collection. Another slow starter but one which certainly repays the readers persistence with a rich and involved tale of a painters obsession with the wife of a friend. Finally we have The Satyr’s Head by David A. Riley which reads like a lovechild of M. R. James and Dennis Wheatly as the occult powers of an ancient artifact are unwittingly found by Henry Lamson.  It’s an enjoyable tale but as, perhaps, the most “seventies” tale here it hasn’t dated as well as some of the others.

So turns out that as well as being great for spacehoppers and polyester the 1970’s was also producing some excellent horror fiction and this anthology give you the opportunity to revisit some of it.

Rating 4 out of 5

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Kronos by Guy Adams

Kronos

by Guy Adams

Published by Arrow Books, 2011.

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, was a Hammer film from 1974 containing everything Hammer was good at, action, blood, tongue in cheek humour and Caroline Munro. Unfortunately for Hammer the likes of The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were all released around the same time and had all pushed the genre in new and interesting ways. It left Hammer looking old fashioned and outdated continuing a decline it never (at least not yet) recovered from. What was originally planned as a series of movies or TV shows starring Kronos, ended up as a relatively obscure movie remembered with affection by many, including me. That’s why this novelisation at the hands of Guy Adams and under the Hammer imprint (recently introduced by Arrow books) had me excited, but let’s see if it met my expectations.

Captain Kronos is a fairly obscure, blonde locked, foreign accented, ex-soldier who along with trusty sidekick Professor Grost, wander the countryside seeking out and dealing with vampires. It’s during one of these adventures that they meet the feisty Carla who joins them as they seek the cause of premature ageing in a small village. Cue, scheming villagers, rich and mysterious landowners and several hired mercenaries who are set to stop Kronos and his gang.

As a novelisation it sticks, as you would expect, pretty closely to the film storyline  and that’s no bad thing. Brian Clemens, the original creator (and who contributes a foreword to this book) had invented an interesting take on the vampire mythos. Here were vampires who had different strains of the “disease” meaning some could venture out in daylight, others couldn’t be killed by staking, others didn’t mind garlic..you get the idea. That coupled with the mystery surrounding Kronos and Grost’s history and the strong female character of Carla, contributed to an interesting plot which has been retained in all it’s glory here. We do get some added backstory which illuminates several characters and fills in some of the many blanks from the film which were presumably to be filled in with the sequels.

My biggest problem with the book is the chapter structure used. Each chapter is narrated by that chapters lead character a clever device which, not only provides the reader with multiple viewpoints but also lets us get into the minds of many of the characters. The only problem is the character development is not strong enough to make these narrators particularly distinctive. This just led to me frequently trying to remind myself which character was speaking, this was particularly noticeable with the minor characters where a lack of distinct voice was an issue.

For those who haven’t seen the film and have an interest in sword wielding heroes taking on vampires, then this is recommended. For fans of the film it fills in some useful backstory, but I hope this is just a prelude to further adventures from Kronos and the gang, where hopefully a writer with Guy Adam’s talent could spread his wings a bit more and really explore the mythos. Finally, Hammer seem determined to adorn these books with frankly soppy images more suited to the paranormal romance shelves than the beating heart of gothic filmmaking, but ignore the boy band wanabbee on the cover and enjoy the book for the fun adventure it is.

[rating:3.5]

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A Book Of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones

A Book Of Horrors

Edited by Stephen Jones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books, 2011.

In the introduction to this collection Stephen Jones makes an impassioned plea to reclaim the horror genre from the gathering hordes of vapid vampires and cliched zombies “for those who understand and appreciate the worth and impact of a scary story”, well dear reader, that sounds like me and you, lets explore further.

We start with a certain Mr Stephen King and a brand new story The Little Green God Of Agony which proves that he can still thrill the reader in less than thirty pages. It’s an excellent story about a rich businessman seeking release from pain and is a powerful start. Charcoal, Firesteel and Flint is the next story and Caitlin R. Kiernan is given the difficult task of following in the King’s rather large footsteps. Luckily she meets the task head on with another wonderful tale which in vivid prose explores the fascination and fear of fire. Imbued with history and mythology this is a powerful story.

Ghosts With Teeth almost manages to out King, King with it’s small town American setting and wonderful gory Halloween story. The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter is a timeless story as a daughter continues the family business with a little help from a ghostly presence. It’s emotional without being twee and the unanswered questions add to the richness.

Roots and All by Brian Hodge is a melancholic tale of a grandmother’s death and the revelations she was hiding. Emotional and engaging and rooted (ahem) in old folk tales this is a really engaging tale. Tell Me I’ll See You Again by Dennis Etchison has a similarly melancholic feel with more than a passing resemblance to a Ray Bradbury Green Town tale with it’s shimmering summer sunshine and pathos.

Getting It All Wrong taps into Ramsey Campbell’s love of movies in this tale of outsiders and film fanatics. It has Campbell’s usual commendable quality of unsettling reality as a misanthropic worker is asked to help a colleague. Alice Through The Plastic Sheet by Rob Shearman is in direct contrast to Campbell’s unsettling reality, this time the setting is a mixture of the mundane and the surreal. It’s equally effective though and injects a welcome dose of black humour to proceedings.

The Man In The Ditch by Lisa Tuttle has a  rich darkness throughout as it examines a couples strained relationship as they move into a remote cottage and strange visions begin to haunt them. Reggie Oliver’s A Child’s Problem is one of the longer story in here but doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. In typically classic style we are transported to a world of public schools, stately homes and dodgy relatives. Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith is an extremely dark and unsettling tale as a lonely man’s driving expeditions lead him to a terrible discovery.

Near Zennor by Elizabeth Hand is the longest story here. It’s another excellent tale of ancient history and folk myths set amid the ancient stones and gnarled oaks of Cornwall where old mysteries are hidden round every corner. Last Words by Richard Christian Matheson finishes off the collection with a strange little monologue.

Eagle eyed readers will have noticed I missed a story but I did it deliberately. For me The Music Of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist is the standout tale of this collection and among the many strong tales and writers on display that is no mean feat. This story is special though, it has everything, supernatural threat, gory murder, pathos, emotion and above all Lindqvist’s fantastic sense of “otherness”. The plot seems simple enough as a widower tries to connect with his teenage son through music only to find a darker force intervening. I must admit, with this and the recent review of Little Star I seem to be becoming an embarrassing fanboy but what the hell, with writing this good Lindqvist deserves all the praise he gets and it’s particularly gratifying to note that this is the author’s first story written with an English speaking market in mind. That doesn’t mean it loses any of the author’s telltale Scandinavian wildness though.

An outstanding tale from an outstanding collection. I said a while back when reviewing The Eighth Black Book Of Horror that if you only buy one horror collection this year buy that, well I was wrong. Yes you should still buy that but you should also raid the children’s piggy bank and buy this. Stephen Jones has put horror back on the bookshelves in fine style, buy this book and make sure it stays there.

[Rating:5]

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