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The Curse of the Fleers by Basil Copper

basilcoppercurseofthefleers

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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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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