Category Archives: writers

Nail, head.

TheCrossing.Miller“I had believed in fiction as a uniquely powerful way of speaking the truth about experience. I had believed that it was, like art in general, necessary, and that a society with no interest in reading serious fiction (serious meaning done with care, with love) was in some way damaged or on its way to being so. None of that, I realised, had really changed. What I had believed at 17 I still, by and large, thought true. But now there was something else going on, a chilly countercurrent, a hard-to-pin-down sense of frustration that seemed to organise itself around the idea that fiction – in novels, in films, on television – had become more competent than interesting, more decorative than urgent, more conventional than otherwise. I picked up novels and put them down again. They were not badly written, not at all, but after a page or two I felt I knew them, knew what, at the deeper level, they were up to. I slid off their surfaces. I struggled to care. I had precisely the same difficulty with my own work. Projects started; projects abandoned. Was this writer’s block? Or was it a hazy recognition that there might be some problem with “traditional narrative”? A set of assumptions that had become almost invisible but that shaped what we wrote?”

In a fascinating piece in The Guardian, novelist Andrew Miller writes about the problem of fiction in a way that is striking a particularly resonant chord with me right now. Is the manufactured, anodyne quality of so much of today’s fiction in some way a mirror to the political situation in which we now find ourselves? The literature of disengagement ultimately signalling a crisis-of-everything? These are some of the questions I’m thinking about – along with are we now reaching the end of the current political era?  I will certainly be reading Andrew Miller’s latest novel, The Crossing, which sounds pretty special and if it gets a good review from Kate Clanchy – who never pulls her punches – then that’s good enough for me.

#weird2016: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

ana kai tangata s.nalligators – an effective little story, even if it isn’t particularly original. Russell is haunted by a recurring dream in which he sees his father falling, headless, into a quarry pit. The pit exists – his father used to take him and his brother Tommy on hikes there when he was a kid – but his father’s death was prosaic by comparison – cancer – and no one ever fell into the pit so far as Russell knew, those were just rumours. When an ex-girlfriend sends him a Fortean magazine with an article about the pit, citing its supposed connections to Satanic ritual, Russell decides to lay his ghosts once and for all. Pity he decides to take his two young daughters with him…

The sexual politics of this story are pretty dodgy – poor Russell’s had to ‘settle for’ his wife Wendy, who spends too much time being a mathematician and who also isn’t Navajo enough for his taste (having been adopted and not grown up on the Rez, presumably). He spends his idle moments lusting after Cassandra Manygoats, who was raised on the Rez and is also ‘single and hot as hell at 26. And oh, those legs. Not to mention that ass!’. Also. Russell’s mom is so racist she’s a walking cliché. It would help if Russell’s petty self-centredness were tied in more firmly with his eventual fate, but the connection isn’t made clear enough for us to be certain it’s what the author intended. More subtle characterisation would have been a plus all round. Never mind, though – the story is compelling, drawing you inexorably onward towards the inevitable denouement. This is where Nicolay’s writing is at its best, with his genuinely atmospheric descriptions of the ‘Satan pit’ showcasing some first rate use of language:

Across the pit he could see the phrase from the Weird NJ photo. The ‘T’ in ‘MEAT’ had faded some, and now resembled an ‘L’. The quarry walls were mostly pinkish, but nearer the top, rainwater had darkened long streaks to a muddy rose. Stretches stained by the black surface soil had the look of deep crusted burns or wounds. Faded boreholes marked the exposed rock surface at intervals. Nearer the water these scars were fresher and closer together. In some places, they looked very fresh. 

Good opener.

The Bad Outer Space – a short piece told from a child’s point of view. Child plays in park with (possibly imaginary) friend Sari, who teaches him how to see the ‘bad outer space’. Kid’s mom is messing around with bad men. Kid’s other (real) friend Vincent disappears suddenly. A deftly written short, but predictable and not really in a good way. More embedded misogyny. I don’t tend to like the child’s PoV trick unless it’s genuinely original (see Scott Bradfield’s brilliant first novel The History of Luminous Motion). ‘The Bad Outer Space’ reads like any number of similar magazine stories – nothing really wrong with it, but it didn’t do much for me.

Ana Kai Tangata – After a bad experience in New Mexico, spelunking enthusiast and archaeologist Max heads to Easter Island, tagging along as part of an expedition dedicated to researching the invertebrate life of the island’s cave systems. As with any small and isolated group, tensions between the various parties soon begin to escalate. Max feels himself very much the unpopular outsider. He is also still haunted by what happened to him – or more specifically what happened to his friend Brant – during his previous expedition, and finally confides in Cassie, whom he has the hots for:

He looked at Cassie across the table. Gray-green eyes, golden brown hair that curved into the base of her neck, lean, hard body below. Tits small, but high and hard. Yeah, he could tell her everything, anything. Fuck it.

Because of course the size and relative firmness of your tits is bound to be directly indicative of how good a confidante you are. Anyway, Easter Island seems to be having a weird effect on Max generally. Max’s friend and caving mentor Altazor has a theory about that:

“There is something very strange about this island, something no one has touched on, at least not in print. It changes everything: people, animals, even plants. What grows here tastes different from crops on other islands… I think there was something here before, something older than the Polynesians… This is something not human, something down in the substrate, in the very bedrock, down below the halocline where the salt water meets the fresh.”

There is a very nice sequence about almost getting lost inside a cave, and the fugue state that overcomes Max in the immediate aftermath of that experience is superbly rendered. On the whole though I found this story unsatisfying. Easter Island is made to feel like a convenient backdrop, an almost incidental exotic location for a pretty run-of-the-mill Elder Gods-type narrative. If there had been more focus on the invertebrate study – something to give any kind of genuine perspective on the island – this weakness might have been ameliorated. More women problems, and Max never really becomes interesting enough for us to give a damn about him being chased down by a giant trans-dimensional woodlouse at the end.

On the level of craft and readability the story is fine – I enjoyed it plenty. I think at least some of my adverse criticism is coming from the fact that this collection has been over-hyped, and I was expecting something vastly original as a result. At this stage, I’m finding Nicolay to be a solidly competent and highly readable writer with a good feel for language – but there’s nothing ground-breaking here in terms of subject matter or formal approach, at least not so far.

Eyes Exchange Bank – This is a weird one. After being dumped by his girlfriend Lisa, Ray journeys to the town of Lansdale to see his old mate Danny – he reckons they’ll have a few beers, talk about old times, set the world to rights. When he arrives though, things seem far from well. First he has a near-accident and damages his car. Then Danny – and Danny’s apartment – don’t seem at all as he remembered them. The town itself is horrible – a dead zone, depopulated and shot to shit. They head off to the mall for a pizza and (hopefully) a bit of action. Ray gets plenty of action, all right – but he sure ain’t coming back for more. Of anything.

For much of its length this story reads like an anxiety dream, and the gradual accumulation of sinister details and small things going wrong reminded me of Ramsey Campbell’s stories. Ramsey always nails a mean ending though, and in this case at least that is one thing Nicolay doesn’t do, relying on zombies ex machina to deal the killer blow. The ending fits the atmosphere, in a way, but there’s so much disjuncture here, and not in a good way. All the stuff about Poe feels like stage dressing, with the ‘premature burial’ tacked on opportunistically without having been earned. Is Danny a zombie too now? He tells Ray he has a ‘whole new way of seeing things’ – courtesy of his visits to the eponymous Eyes Exchange Bank, no doubt, but once again the idea feels half-baked.

There seems to be a theme developing here: some nice writing, a good sense of place, but with a hollowness at the centre that leaves you feeling cheated.

Phragmites – Austin Becenti is an archaeologist and a caver. His holy grail is the mysterious Cave 34, tucked away in the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico state line and inaccessible as fuck. An archaeologist named Earl Morris discovered it in the 1920s, but he never wrote up his report and so far as anyone knows he never went back. All researchers have to go on are the seven human skulls Morris brought back with him, each of them displaying the marks of what looks like trepanning but can’t be – no one was into trepanning, not there, not then. When Austin receives a phone call from his cousin Dennison, telling him he’s found the cave and is willing to lead Austin to it, our intrepid explorer thinks the offer may be too good to be true. There’s bad blood between him and Dennison, who holds him in contempt for abandoning his Navajo heritage. Plus there was some trouble over a woman. Cave 34, though – how can Austin resist? And when he pulls up in the parking lot of the McDonald’s out by Shiprock, his cousin seems friendly enough. It’s a nice day, too. Everything’s looking good, and Austin’s almost prepared to let bygones be bygones. Trouble is, Dennison isn’t…

Well, this is a cracker. The sense of place in this story is scintillating, not to say resplendent. Here at last is the wealth of specialist detail relating to geology, landscape, even caving equipment that I would have welcomed more of in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’. Even the lead-in episode in the dodgy motel is brilliantly effective, and once we get into the endgame there is some solidly breathtaking writing on display:

The high pines gave way to open space, several broad ponds of lingering snowmelt sprawled across a shallow depression, every pool way more full than normal this late in the year. Dennison chose a route between the ponds and Austin followed. The entire basin must’ve been flooded in the spring since the ground was crazed with mud cracks, the thin interlocking crusts crumbling to dust beneath their steps. Jagged bands of leached alkali spread out around each pond. Approaching one he saw dead brown weed choking the wide lens of stagnant water, ranks of fuzzy fronds straining to reach the surface yet failing, the still pool fixed as a vast decrepit moss agate, dismal exercise in vegetal futility.

There’s loads of stuff like this, all of it directly relevant to the story, anchored to it with the strongest kind of caving rope, and Nicolay works tirelessly to make every detail count. Admirable, brilliant stuff. Austin and Dennison’s final miracle-nightmare traverse of the sheer rock face that is the only means of accessing the cave left me breathless with vertigo. When a writer pulls off a stunt like this it’s wonderful to see. Of course, we can make a solid guess at the ending as soon as we learn – pretty early on – that the Navajo name for Cave 34 is ‘the spider’s cave’ or something like it. But so what if we can see the monster coming? I enjoyed this story way too much have it spoiled for me by an ending that would be exceptionally difficult to navigate perfectly, in any case.

I started off thinking it was a miscalculation, to have two long stories about caves in a single volume, but ended up feeling just the opposite, that this kind of fixation is actually a selling point, rooting the drama in the writer’s own personal obsessions and areas of expertise. I loved it that there was a continuing character – a walk-on part for Altazor, whom we last saw hanging out in a bar and spinning yarns in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’, and who here, we learn, was also Austin’s adviser at UNM. ‘Too bad Altazor’s gone,’ Austin reflects. ‘He left UNM ’cause of some kind of scandal. Never found out what it was. He was just gone one day and no one would talk about it.’

It would be nice – it would be very nice – if Nicolay were to consider including even a single female character who didn’t slot into his ill-conceived archetypes of whore, bitch or eye-candy (frequently all three simultaneously) but that depressing caveat aside, ‘Phragmites’ is a great piece of writing.

The Soft Frogs – Jaycee used to be a bug nerd. Now he’s a fake punk with severely diminished college prospects, a rank day job and an insatiable sexual appetite. His favourite hangout is the Melody, a club with legendary music credentials and an ever-circulating supply of willing female company as an added bonus. Here he meets Eileen – a potentially interesting woman character at last from Nicolay, but no, wait, she turns out to be a monster. Literally.

Environmental pollution meets body horror meets boring male entitlement. Trite, slight and obvious. Honestly, Jason, you were far more interesting when you were a bug nerd. Ah well, too late now. Those damn frogs…

Geschaefte – Once again, we encounter almost (Ramsey) Campbellian twists of fate and truncated futures as we follow Cal into a hell of his own making. Or is it? Calvin is a college student, obsessed with setting up a poetry magazine to honour and emulate his hero, Jack Spicer, the poet of unknowing. Like other Nicolay ‘heroes’, Cal is a rampant misogynist and a bit of a scumbag. His odiousness finally catches up with him when his girlfriend Risa dies on Thanksgiving, in her parents’ garage, in circumstances that are more than just a little bit Cal-related. Consumed by guilt and self-pity, rejected by his family and unable to continue at college, Cal finds himself couch-surfing his way around the western United States, eventually ending up in the San Francisco apartment of a reluctant comrade, Jerrod. How did Cal first meet Jerrod? He can’t quite remember, and there’s weird shit going on in the apartment across the hall. As Cal’s perceptions become more twisted, so does the version of reality that envelops him. The stench of decay and bottled piss (read it and see) is tangible. We sense that things will not end well for Calvin, and they don’t.

The odd overwrought metaphor notwithstanding, this is one hell of a well written story. The Spicer connections – the unknowable nature of poetry, voices from the beyond (check out the link) – make ‘Geschaefte’ all the more fascinating and add an extra layer of meaning. As a study of mental breakdown, as a horror story, the piece is equally riveting. Of course, we have to put up with copious amounts of stuff like this along the way:

Whatever it is that clicks had clicked for him. Despite horn-rimmed glasses she wore as if actually shooting for the mousy look, her wide, bright eyes and her long, dark hair were anything but plain, and her worn grey sweater swelled with its high hard brace of tight bound breasts.

But then just a few paragraphs later we have this little snatch of brilliance, and plenty more besides:

Cal’s consciousness drifted fitfully down into REM with the rhythms of some flat hulk of marine debris seesawing into the depths. Soon he found himself as usual, in a sterile simulacrum of his current setting, dreaming he was laid out on the futon, dreaming he was dreaming. But then his vision inverted, so that rather than a lifeless replica of Jerrod’s apartment, he occupied a gray lit void in the shape of his own form. Within it he was become a diminished thing, size of a small bird or large insect, suspended somewhere in his own hollow and heartless torso. The lost moth of his soul blatted about the emptiness inside him, at first more disoriented than panicked, though a feeling of entrapment took hold of him almost at once.

I get it – or at least I think I get it: Cal is an appalling man-child and gets what he deserves. But I can’t help thinking – and I have to say I’m thinking it all the time as I read this collection – that the stories would work even better, would be more satisfying, more devastating, more intellectually rigorous, more artistically powerful, if Nicolay could bring himself to feel even a passing interest in the idea of women entering the narrative as characters rather than sex-toys. There’s a truly great, timeless story here in ‘Geschaefte’ just waiting to happen.  and it wouldn’t take much tweaking. As it is, we feel too easily justified in giving Cal the finger and moving on. Which is a shame – again – when so much of the writing here is so good.

Tuckahoe – What is it with weird fiction and cops wandering into stuff they don’t understand?

Not our luckless Sergeant Howie this time, but Detective Donny Cortu. Like our favourite Scottish policeman before him, Donny has happened upon something strange and is determined to get some answers. Had he known what kind of answers he was going to get, he may never have started his investigation in the first place…

Donny Cortu is a police detective. Following a shady incident involving witness protection, he’s been seconded to the backwoods of South Jersey, where instead of solving complicated murders, he spends his days picking up the pieces (literally) at the site of road traffic accidents near the nothing town of Tuckahoe (also a Native name for a species of edible underground fungus – this will become relevant later). Donny desperately wants out of there. He wants to regain the trust of his wife Martina. He wants job satisfaction. When a mysterious extra appendage (stick with me here) is brought in as part of the carnage from Tuckahoe’s latest highway fatality, Donny seizes the chance to investigate. His search leads him first to Carlsen, a cop from another squad room who has a bizarre story to tell, and then out to the broken down homestead of the inbred Storch family, which Donny comes to believe may harbour something more than ornery locals with a personal hygiene problem.

Guess what? He’s right.

Nicolay may well have stuck to his personal dogme in the strictest sense by not mentioning Cthulhu or Innsmouth or any other Mythos stuff by name, but Tuckahoe is pure Lovecraft, of course, with ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as its incestuous cousin. Not that this matters. ‘Tuckahoe’ is as engrossing and entertaining as it is predictable, with the partial use of the ‘club story’ format working perfectly to its advantage. Whilst I might quibble with the use of ‘ick’ and ‘glop’ as nouns outside of dialogue, this is a small gripe. The writing here is as polished and compelling as elsewhere in this collection, and how many words for repulsively oozing substrate are there anyway?

I was also extra-excited by this story, as I thought for a moment we might have an actual woman with an actual speaking part. Alyssa Campion may only be the pathologist’s assistant, but she’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to handling body parts. We might infer from this that she would have no problem telling a leering womaniser like Donny Cortu where to sling his hook, but what’s this?

“May I ask you a question, Detective?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Are you a faggot, Detective? Are you gay, or is there something else wrong with you?”

Donny spluttered at the receiver – “Hey! Waitta – ” – but she plowed ahead.

“You don’t act gay, but I don’t know, maybe it’s different for cops. But if you’re straight, maybe you can tell me why I waited the whole damn morning for you to put the moves on me and that creepy old man does it instead… Was that some kind of stunt you two worked out together? Because if it was I didn’t think it was very funny.’ 

Oh Christ, tell me this is not going to be some kind of sexual harassment suit. For once he’d controlled himself. He hadn’t even hit on her – that was all Bilo. “No! No. Nothing like that. It’s just -.”

“Yeah sure. Whatever. So now you’re going to make a girl do all the heavy lifting? I guess it really is true that chivalry is dead.”

Oh dear. This is wrong, not to say vastly embarrassing, on so many levels. And of course Alyssa turns out to know a hell of a lot more about the Storch place than she initially lets on.

This is the longest story in the book – it’s almost a short novel – and although it could easily be argued that it’s too long – altogether too many people telling other people what they heard once from someone else – I wouldn’t agree. I always enjoy stories like this, wheels within wheels, and this one rolled along for me without ever dragging.

Even so, though, ‘Tuckahoe’ could have been so much better – like all the other stories in the book – if Nicolay had refrained from piling on the dudebro attitude. It’s so repetitive, so dull. I know horror is supposed to be transgressive – but unfettered misogyny isn’t transgressive, it’s just tedious.

Am I beginning to see an attempt at a weird kind of inverse feminism at work in Ana Kai Tangata? All Nicolay’s protags are sexist arseholes, all end up devoured by forces from the beyond. In ‘Tuckahoe’ there’s even a (wholly unconvincing and uncharacteristically clunky – did someone persuade Nicolay to put this in, thinking it might help to ‘explain’ the general dudebroness?) monologue by Alyssa, talking about how it’s impossible to be a woman and survive around these parts without turning misogynist.

There are better ways around the problem. Such as writing women into the story properly and actually giving a damn about them being there.

*

Ana Kai Tangata is a good collection. All the stories, to varying extents, are intense and highly readable – it was never a hardship to return to this book and I frequently found myself mentally taking my hat off to the author for one ingenious reversal or another. The writing is of a consistently high standard and veers close to brilliance on many occasions. There are enough hallmarks of genuine originality – the caving, the arid, imposing landscape of New Mexico – to persuade me that Nicolay is deadly serious about his craft, enough for me to genuinely look forward to seeing what he writes next. (Psst – I hope it’s a novel. Nicolay’s story arcs lend themselves naturally and instinctively to the longer length, and I seriously think that this writer could pull off that rare thing: a full-length horror story that sticks the distance without dissolving into cliche.)

The one major downside – and excuse me for sounding like a broken record here – is Nicolay’s seeming inability to write about women. I wouldn’t mind so much if he simply admitted to himself that this was a weakness and stuck to writing bro-on-bro standoffs instead. (It’s no coincidence that in the most all-round effective story in this volume, the superb ‘Phragmites’, Nicolay is sensible enough to leave the women out of it.) Thinking about this issue, and judging by the all-round quality of the stories otherwise, I THINK what Nicolay is trying to do is offer some kind of commentary on the toxic nature of macho masculinity. You could say he succeeds – there’s certainly enough of it on show here. But to be a commentary, rather than simply a roll-call, we need more: more indication of intent on the part of the author, more subtext, more counterpoint. There is literally no counterpoint, and for me at least Ana Kai Tangata suffers for the lack of it. For the most part, I was able to set my grievances to one side – I was enjoying myself too much not to, and on the up side there ARE giant transdimensional man-eating woodlice on hand to dispose of some of these scumbags – but I would understand completely if other readers felt too pissed off by the general arseholeism of Nicolay’s characters to want to continue.

Would I recommend Ana Kai Tangata as a collection? Yes definitely, but with those caveats. And in the hope that Nicolay will work on these problem areas to produce an even better book next time out.

#weird2016: ‘The Devil is in the Coincidence’: two American horror stories

TL;DR: Buy these books. Read them now.

AHFOG.TremblayThe first indication that anything is wrong in the lives of the two sisters in Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts is when the older girl, Marjorie, begins telling scary stories. Meredith, known to everyone as Merry, is used to playing story-games with her beloved big sister, but she’s never heard anything like this before. Instead of adapting fairy tales in her usual manner, Marjorie tells Merry all about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. When Merry, horrified, asks her if the story is something she found on the internet, Marjorie insists the details of the disaster were lodged inside her all along:

‘I don’t know. I woke up yesterday and just sort of knew the story, like it was something that’s always been there in my head. Stories are like that sometimes, I think. Even real ones. And I know this one was a horrible, terrible, no-good story, but I – I can’t stop thinking about it, you know? I wonder what it was like to be there, what it was like to be Maria, to see and smell and hear and feel what she felt right that second before the wave got her. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well, but I just wanted to tell you, Merry. I wanted to share it with you. Okay?’

Later that same day, there is a disturbing scene at the dinner table when Marjorie and her mother Sarah start talking about an ‘appointment’ that Merry knows nothing about. The girls’ father, David, insists they say grace – something else that has never happened before. We learn that David has recently lost his job, that the whole family has been under stress as a result. But it soon becomes obvious that more sinister forces are at work here, something to do with Marjorie, and that the adults are increasingly in conflict over what to do about it. Sarah feels sure that her daughter is suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that the conventional methods – medical treatment and psychiatric counselling – are the best way forward. David, with time on his hands and resentment brewing, has come to believe that his daughter’s sickness is the devil’s work, that a demon is living inside her and that the only way to dislodge it is through God’s intercession. He begins consulting a priest, Father Wanderley, who offers the Barratts a way forward, an opportunity to remove the demon and rid themselves of their financial worries at the same time. Against her better judgement, Sarah agrees. As the atmosphere inside the house darkens, and the truth about what is going on becomes ever more confused, Marjorie herself seems desperate to communicate her predicament to the only person she still trusts – her sister Merry:

‘I’m not well, Merry. I don’t mean to frighten you, I’m sorry… You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are – there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say “okay”.’

Marjorie’s terrifying experiences are brilliantly conveyed at one remove. Because Merry is only a child, she finds it difficult to tell where fantasy begins and reality leaves off. Eight-year-old Merry barely understands how bad the situation really is – but her older self knows, and as Tremblay has skilfully interwoven the first-hand observations of child-Merry with the insights of Merry-grown-up, we as readers are better able to appreciate the ambiguity of what actually occurred. These narrative sections are intercut with two extended interjections from a horror blogger, detailing and analysing the TV series based around the events at the Barratt home. That Tremblay’s fictional horror fan carries the same name as a real blogger and is liberally based – with her full consent – around her online personality is a further breaking of the fourth wall in a novel that is continually inventive and surprising, playing with our expectations and then subverting them again. There is no doubt that Tremblay is fully in command of his genre materials. He is also a very good writer. A Head Full of Ghosts has everything one could wish for in a horror novel, keeping faith with the tenets of the genre whilst remaining fully aware of itself as a literary entity:

I wondered what [this Father Wanderley] looked like. Was he young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat? Then I focussed on more particular and peculiar details, like what if he had big knuckles on his hands, or what if one leg was shorter than the other. Could he touch the tip of his nose with his tongue like my friend Cara could? Did he like pickles on his cheeseburgers? Did his smile crinkle up the skin around his eyes? Would he yawn if he watched me yawn? What did his voice sound like that Dad would like him so much?

It is this intricate level of characterisation that is missing from so many generic horror novels, much to their detriment. And it is largely due to writing like this – vivid, imaginative, grounded as hell – that Tremblay’s novel remains genuinely frightening right the way to the end. We’re scared because we care, because Tremblay’s skill as a writer has allowed us to entirely suspend our disbelief. That he keeps us guessing about the truth even beyond the final page is the icing on the cake.

It is impossible to read this novel and not think of The Exorcist, but Tremblay utilises his references so cogently, so knowingly, that they are definitively a feature and not a bug. As Catriona Ward’s recent debut Rawblood makes use of classic gothic tropes to create a novel that is simultaneously traditional and thoroughly modern in its affect and scope, so A Head Full of Ghosts turns its spotlight upon the works, themes and imagery of the 1970s/80s horror boom to reveal a multilayered metafiction that is also wholly satisfying as story. Those readers who are unreasonably devoted to the current North American horror scene will no doubt enjoy checking off the personages Tremblay has chosen to name-check – Stephen Graham Jones and Ian Rogers turn up in unexpected places, as does a certain Dr Navidson, whilst Tremblay also nods to himself in the mirror in passing – but for those with healthier reading habits, these self-referential games will neither impede nor intrude upon the action. It is more important to note the subtler reference, through Tremblay’s protagonist Merry, to Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another story of two troubled sisters in which a certain Merricat Blackwood proves to be a similarly unreliable narrator.

This book is a keeper, one to own in hardback if you can. And the good newsDADR.Tremblay is that Tremblay’s new novel is hardly less impressive. Another moving portrait of family life, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock deals with the aftermath of the sudden and unexplained disappearance of fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson from a patch of local wilderness known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy was a good kid, popular with his friends and loved by his family. He was doing well at school, had no known problems with drugs or alcohol, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. The friends who were with him on the night he went missing initially have no explanation for what has happened, and it is down to Tommy’s mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate, both still in shock, to delve deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s recent private life. As pages from Tommy’s journal make increasingly disturbing reference to an older boy named Arnold, so Kate in particular becomes convinced that Tommy’s friends, Luis and Josh, must know far more about Tommy’s whereabouts than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth investigates what she believes may be a physical manifestation of Tommy’s ghost. When the truth of what happened that night finally comes out, it is more tragic and more horrifying than anyone involved in the search has hitherto suspected.

This is a sad and often harrowing story, eloquently told. As the boys’ fascination with and dependency on Arnold increases, I found myself more and more reminded of a recent and tragic case in Britain in which a gifted and well-loved teenager was groomed online and finally murdered by a psychopathic youth, now serving a life sentence for the crime. Whether Tremblay knew of or was inspired by this case is finally irrelevant. What is most striking here is his intricately chilling depiction of what is essentially a seduction of the innocent by the corrupt.

When he first met Arnold, Josh had thought the whole seer shtick was exactly that, and Josh had pretended otherwise because it was fun and it was what their summer had become… Now he wasn’t so sure that there wasn’t something off or unsettling about Arnold, the repetition and sameness of their meeting place and discussions and beer drinking felt purposeful, like they were being worked on or worn down.

That Tremblay is able to give an unshrinking depiction of the monstrousness of Arnold’s deeds without simply dismissing their broken and previously abused perpetrator as a monster himself is entirely to the novel’s advantage. Tremblay’s writing shines throughout, giving a depth of characterisation and sense of place that raises Disappearance at Devil’s Rock far above the ordinary tensions of the missing-child thriller:

Allison pulls into Elizabeth’s driveway, as far up as she can go, and parks next to Janice’s car. The headlights flood her backyard. Busy moths and gnats float in the electric light above the tall and sagging grass. She shuts the car off, the spotlight disappears, and the secret nocturnal life of the backyard retreats into darkness again.

I also appreciate the fact that – as with A Head Full of Ghosts – Tremblay leaves room for Disappearance At Devil’s Rock to still be a novel of supernatural horror, if that’s the book the reader wants to be reading, thus proving once again that having literary values doesn’t mean selling out to the literary mainstream. Just because there’s a lot of schlock horror out there does not mean that horror is, by its nature, schlock.

It’s always risky to make generalisations, but if British horror fiction can be characterised as the literature of the outcast seeking its kind, it is interesting to see how we might think about American horror fiction as its polar opposite: the literature of the normal under siege. A quintessentially British horror narrative will typically feature a solitary, sometimes persecuted protagonist, seeking refuge from the world in an out-of-the-way and often creepy place, usually with uncanny results – think of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, Alison Littlewood’s A Cold Season, Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood and almost anything by Joel Lane or Robert Aickman. British horror films adhere strongly to the same template – have a look at Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (based on a story by Robert Graves) or Philip Ridley’s Heartless for examples. What we find in American horror fiction, time and time again, is the story of an ordinary family living a contented life, whose equilibrium and wellbeing is suddenly thrown off kilter by an intrusion – often a supernatural intrusion – from outside. This model is particularly prevalent in American horror cinema – we think at once of now classic movies such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, the first season of the TV drama American Horror Story and yes, The Exorcist. Reams and reams of criticism have been written about American horror cinema as a reflection of social anxiety, of post-Vietnam angst and Cold War (now post-9/11) paranoia. Much of this is interesting – see Adam Simon’s 2002 documentary The American Nightmare as an example – but whilst Paul Tremblay’s two novels do fit very snugly into the American canon of ‘bad things happening to good people’ stories, I would argue that A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock give us much more to think about than the oversimplified ‘middle classes in peril’ narratives presented by other, inferior works of horror literature and film, mainly because Tremblay writes about families and in particular teenagers from a position of deep empathy. The boys in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are captured at a moment of traumatic change, not just in their outward circumstances but in their inner being. Flaunting the behaviour of adults, they are still nonetheless just children, and thus all the more vulnerable to adult duplicity:

On the video, Josh seems like an impostor, usually so at ease and charming around adults, he is barely audible, speaks carefully in small complete sentences, at times sounding dull-witted, and is asked to repeat an answer more than once. Luis was normally such a lovable wiseass, always willing to play that teen vs adult obfuscation game, you can ask but you won’t get anything out of me, but still make you smile and shake your head at the same time. In his interview, Luis is painfully polite and (unlike Josh) eloquent, expansive and detailed in his responses.

In both novels, we see the middle class family in crisis: gathering in the living room to watch a TV news bulletin, scanning the internet for clues, sending out for Chinese food because no one can summon the energy to cook, deferring instinctively to the police in all matters. Teenagers put in their headphones, blocking out stress and unwelcome instructions with the sound of music. Above all, each person migrates to their own room, staking out a defined piece of private territory as a means of survival. This is crisis behaviour we all recognise, practised by people who feel disempowered, in thrall to an often ineffectual authority, bludgeoned by information yet unable to extract anything of use or significance from it, reduced to being onlookers in their own lives. We do not scorn or laugh at these people, because we are these people. Tremblay makes it easy for us to feel their distress, because what he has in fact painted is a pretty convincing picture of our own worst nightmares. When something bad happens, what is there left for us to do but retreat online and wait?

#weird2016: Slade House by David Mitchell

slade house.mitchellThe events of this short novel begin in 1979, when Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita arrive at the eponymous Slade House in response to an invitation from its châtelaine, Lady Norah Grayer. Rita is there to play the piano at one of Lady Norah’s soirées. Nathan, a complicated, lonely boy, is shown the grounds by Norah’s son Jonah, who suggests they play a game of tag called Fox and Hounds. Slade House is hard to find – Nathan and Rita pass by the gate twice without seeing it – and the place seems frozen in time somehow, a faerie landscape too perfect to be true. In the manner of all decent fairy tales, this turns out to be the case. Norah and Jonah have an ulterior motive in inviting the Bishops into their domain. That neither of them get to leave would seem par for the course.

I’m nonplussed by Slade House, in pretty much the same way I was nonplussed by The Bone Clocks. You don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to make sense of this book, although how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you enjoyed – or would enjoy – the earlier novel. We’re back in the land of soul vampires, of the eternally warring clans of Anchorites and Horologists. As in The Bone Clocks, the fantasy tropes Mitchell employs are of the most predictable kind, the most basic of base metals. That Mitchell chooses to essentially repeat his basic plot – an Engifted individual arrives at the house, finds their most earnest desires fulfilled, and then gets their soul sucked through a straw (kind of literally, actually) by devious semi-immortal twins – through the first four of these five interlinked short stories could be read as either daring or desperate, depending on your point of view. Oh, and then Marinus turns up. Whether this pleases you or pisses you off will, once again, be down to how deeply you’re in love with David Mitchell’s concept of the mega-novel and the characters that recur within its endlessly expanding galleries and corridors.

It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Would we even be talking about this book if it weren’t by David Mitchell? In terms of its invention and originality it is fairly weak beer. Mitchell has to employ vast tonnages of exposition to make sense of everything, and had this been the first manuscript Mitchell ever turned in I don’t think he’d have got all that far with it. But Mitchell is a part of our literary landscape now, and – as is inevitably the case when an author becomes enshrined in this way – everything he writes is considered to be interesting at some level.

Which Slade House  – undoubtedly and against all greater logic – still is. What makes me draw back from giving this book an emphatic thumbs down is – as with The Bone Clocks – its glorious readability. There are slips and slides even here: Mitchell seems to have fallen into the habit of making everyone talk in Noughties Estuary, even when it’s not appropriate to the character in question (I don’t think the seriously posh Chloe Chetwynd would naturally talk about ‘legging it’, for example). Nathan Bishop is an engaging character and I enjoyed the chauvinistic cop Gordon Edmonds as I tend to enjoy all Mitchell’s bad guys. But elsewhere the characterisation tends towards the broad-brush – see the students in ‘Oink Oink’ in particular. It would be pedantic and boring of me to mention the ‘how can these narratives be possible when the narrator ends up dead???’ thing, though not mentioning it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. But Mitchell’s command of the English language is so effortless, so welcoming. Mitchell is a natural storyteller – you can’t help but follow where he wants to take you.

As a writer I have always felt a great affinity with Mitchell’s shopworn, 1970s-housing-estate Britain – I am deeply attached to Black Swan Green in particular – and there’s plenty of that on display here.  I have serious criticisms of this book. It is difficult to understand how Mitchell’s cartoonish use of fantasy archetypes might be taken seriously – I think I’d be more sympathetic to the enterprise if the whole thing were a send-up, but I don’t think it is. There’s too much (cough) soul-searching for that, too much clunky tying-in of this story’s somewhat black-and-white morality with realworld politics. It’s all a bit of a junkyard. Some nice stuff here but what to make of it?

And yet (as with The Bone Clocks) I can’t help but admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slade House. How do you explain that, except by saying that by worming his way so deeply and so fatally into our subconscious, Mitchell is – like his Anchorites – still capable of genuine magic. Not sure whether to recommend this book or not. But I guess if you’re a Mitchell fan you’ll own a copy already.

#weird2016: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

furnace.llSomewhere in the real world, the merchant bolts the second choice to her flesh, using living metals that flicker as they vibrate between one dimension and the next. The pain lightning-strikes its way up her torso, and the roots of the metal object follow like rivers of mercury, burrowing into her brain. He is welding her to a darker universe. When he is finished, he says, her body will be a pipeline to hell. 

He’s not opening a gate, Wasp thinks as she grimaces and howls. He’s just widening the road. (‘Wasp and Snake’)

This short extract from ‘Wasp and Snake’ exemplifies everything that is both excellent and disappointing in Llewellyn’s second collection, all the ways in which it has proved – for this reader at least – inferior to her first. ‘Wasp and Snake’ opens brilliantly. A woman strikes a devil’s bargain with some kind of hellish engineer of body and soul – shades of Clive Barker’s Cenobites – and sallies forth on an equally devilish mercenary mission: to assassinate a named target and claim her reward. The language involved in telling this story is as gorgeously rich and decadent as anything we previously encountered in Llewellyn’s debut, Engines of Desire. The story, though, proves a bit of a let-down: the denouement too simple and too pat for its elaborate and compelling set-up. We find ourselves wishing it had been more complicated, that the characters had been given a broader stage to act upon. Our disappointment is especially acute given our suspicion that, had ‘Wasp and Snake’ belonged to the era of Engines of Desire, they would have been.

I unequivocally loved Engines of Desire. I admired Llewellyn’s considerable ability with language, her obvious love for the horror genre, her willingness to take risks in bending it to her will. I found ‘Horses’ to be one of the most genuinely upsetting pieces of short fiction I’d ever read, Her Deepness to be a profound reordering of Lovecraftian tropes into a feminist Mythos, stories like ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Omphalos’ brilliant in their perplexing ambiguities.

Llewellyn is a gift to horror, a writer of seriously exceptional abilities. As such, her second collection Furnace was one of my most-anticipated books of 2016. How sad I was to discover that, in spite of some glorious writing at the sentence level, Furnace is a collection defined above all by a quality of sameness, of reiteration, by stories that feel less driven by the unpredictable internal impulses of the writer and more produced in response to the external demands of a horror market hungry for a repetition of earlier success.

There comes a point in the career of every promising new horror writer when they begin to receive more anthology invites than they can possibly fulfil. The thrill of having editors ask you for work is undeniable, but the truth is you have to learn to say no, at least sometimes. If you do not say no, then you will see more personal projects placed on the back burner as you find yourself subject to a forever advancing accumulation of story deadlines, your subject matter and direction increasingly moulded by the arbitrary dictates of themed anthologies. Rather than pushing yourself to try new things, you’ll be desperately seeking out yet another variation on the Lovecraft story, the zombie story, the alien invasion story.

It is a treadmill I suspect few on the consuming end of such anthologies ever guess at. But it exists. Thus the collections that eventually appear formed from stories produced primarily for themed anthologies have the rag-bag feel of compilations rather than studio albums. If you’re a Spotify kind of person this might not matter to you. If you are someone who regularly buys CDs and listens to albums in track order, it matters a great deal.

The quality of the writing in Furnace is unerringly consistent and usually very high. And – don’t get me wrong – the collection does contain some standout stories. The action of ‘Cinereous’, for example, takes place in Paris in the year 1799, and tells the story of one Olympe Leon, a young woman who, through her assistance at the site of some brutal and bizarre experiments, hopes to secure her fame as a pioneer in the field of human biology. It’s a brilliant conceit, so disturbing one is forced to look away at certain points (surely the highest compliment for a horror writer) and one would never guess at its origins in an anthology of zombie stories. Similarly ‘Yours is the Right to Begin’ might be described as an ardent love poem to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whilst at the same time augmenting and even transcending its source material. Both ‘Allocthon’ and ‘Furnace’ showcase themes of corrupted, static, male-dominated societies and women’s discontent and horror at their position within them. ‘Allocthon’ in particular reads like a horrific car crash between Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The Ligottian claustrophobia of ‘Furnace’ highlights the tensions between mother and daughter, a theme enlarged upon in ‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’, although this latter is a less original story, too clear a reiteration perhaps of Llewellyn’s earlier story ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’. As a portrait of suburbia gone to the devil, ‘It Feels Better Biting Down’ is more surreal and more original.

But while I loved ‘Panopticon’ for the glimpse it afforded of Llewellyn’s Lovecraftian megalopolis Obsidia, I found ‘Lord of the Hunt’ and ‘In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982’ – Llewellyn’s language aside – to be pretty run of the mill Mythos variants. ‘Wasp and Snake’, as mentioned previously, is ended before it’s properly begun. whilst ‘The Unattainable’, although it does bring a feminist twist to the traditionally male-dominated cowboy story, is otherwise a fairly pointless piece of mild erotica. Least successful of all is ‘Stabilimentum’ – a tale of urban alienation that takes so little account of actual spider behaviour that it was never going to win many brownie points with me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories, and anyone coming to Livia Llewellyn – or indeed horror literature – for the first time will no doubt find plenty to entertain and freak them out. Speaking for myself though, I missed the longer, more obviously personal stories that so brilliantly characterised Llewellyn’s first collection, and while her writing is clearly in rude – in every sense of the word – health, I for one am hoping that her next outing will provide a deeper and more complex statement of her future intent.

#weird2016: the terrifying weirdness of Philip Ridley

reflecting skin.ridleyOver the weekend I finally managed to catch up with, via the recently reissued DVD of the film, Philip Ridley’s first feature The Reflecting Skin (1990).

On the face of it, this is a simple coming-of-age story. Our eight-year-old hero Seth is growing up in rural Idaho in the early 1950s. WW2 is still a recent memory. Seth’s parents, Luke and Ruth, cope with the absence of their elder son Cameron, who is with the US armed forces in the Pacific, largely by ignoring each other, scraping by on the proceeds from their one-pump gas station. When one of Seth’s young friends turns up murdered, the local sheriff seems determined to point the finger at Luke, who was once cautioned for ‘indecent behaviour’ with a seventeen-year-old youth. Seth has other ideas. A near-neighbour, Dolphin Blue, harbours fantasies of violence and keeps mementoes of her deceased husband Adam – dead from suicide – in a locked box. Having been told about vampires by his father, himself an avid reader of pulp magazines, Seth believes the seductive Dolphin to be the true face of evil at the heart of their tiny community. As the recently returned Cameron falls ever more deeply in love with Dolphin, Seth becomes increasingly desperate to warn his brother of the danger he faces.

In the naivete of its child protagonist and its unintended tragic consequences, we might draw strong comparisons with such movies as Losey and Pinter’s 1972 classic The Go-Between and Joe Wright’s more recent Atonement and we would be right to do so. In their portrayal of misplaced jealousy, burgeoning sexuality, terror and envy of the adult world and the febrile intensity of the juvenile imagination, these films form a natural trilogy almost. That they all take place under the heat of ‘that last summer’, a span of time that seems destined to forever change the lives and futures of those who pass through it, draws such comparisons still tighter.

Interestingly though, Ridley’s film stands alone here in taking place in ‘real time’ rather than through the clarifying lens of hindsight. We can only guess at how the adult Seth might be affected in future – not just by what has happened, but by his own particular part in it. This is a dark tale, richly informed by Dick Pope’s superb cinematography, Nick Bicat’s ravishing score (fun fact: Bicat also wrote the music for the 2002 TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’) and Ridley’s own inimitably concise and emotive screenwriting. The imagery on display here – Dolphin’s memory box, Cameron’s photos, the mummified foetus, the nuclear sunsets, the teddyboy ‘vamps’ in their black Cadillac – is of a high and potent order. The only word that seems to fit this film is ‘Ridleyesque’.

I first encountered the work of Philip Ridley when I saw, completely by chance, his 1995 feature The Passion of Darkly Noon on late-night TV. Always on the lookout for interesting and out-of-the-way horror cinema, I was blown away by it. I also could not understand why so few people seemed to have seen this film or even heard of it. The themes were serious and deep, the vision complex, the writing and acting superb. The fact that this unique film has still never had a UK DVD release is a source of abiding mystery to me.

Ridley clearly likes to take time over his work, and it was more than a decade after Darkly Noon before he returned to the screen with the brilliant Heartless. Ridley’s third movie presents an equally disturbing journey into the heart and mind of an isolated young protagonist, with a destination no less terrifying than the end-point of his first. Particular shout-outs here should go to Eddie Marsan – the price of the DVD (easily obtainable this time, thankfully) is worth it for his Weapons Man alone – and to Clemence Poesy, who you will no doubt remember for being brilliant in In Bruges.  Again, this film has been more or less overlooked by the horror community, yet for me, Ridley’s movies are as equally deserving of attention as Ben Wheatley’s. What’s going on?

Could it be that Ridley’s themes – his preoccupation with religious belief, faith, sin and self-destruction – are seen by some as contentious and unfashionable, maybe off-putting to viewers? If so, then that’s just Ridley doing his job! He does not simply recycle old tropes – vampires, demons, ghosts – to sanitized formulas as so many more commercial directors are wont to do. He takes the tropes apart, examines them for substance, shows us what might happen when dangerous ideas are followed through to their logical conclusion. If you’re seeking comparison, think Guillermo del Toro before he went Hollywood – the del Toro of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Philip Ridley is as good as that, perhaps better. He is a master of the weird, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see his next masterpiece.

#weird2016: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

BlackTom-cover“So I sought out others, entirely unlike myself, and when they spoke of secret wisdom, I listened. What men like myself would dismiss as superstition or worse, pure evil, I learned to cherish. The more I read, the more I listened, the more sure I became that a great and secret show had been playing throughout my life, throughout all our lives, but the mass of us were too ignorant, or too frightened, to raise our eyes and watch. Because to watch would be to understand the play isn’t being staged for us. To learn we simply do not matter to the players at all.”

And so Robert Suydam – the rich and evil genius of the piece – goes on to speak to Tommy Tester – the black Tom of the title – of a King who sleeps at the bottom of the ocean:

“The return of the Sleeping King would mean the end of your people’s wretchedness. The end of all the wreck and squalor of a billion lives. When he rises, he wipes away the follies of mankind. And he is only one of many. They are the Great Old Ones. Their footfalls cause mountains to topple. One gaze strikes ten million bodies dead. But imagine the fortunes of those of us who were allowed to survive!”

Has Robert Suydam not seen Remembrance of the Daleks?? Certainly Tommy is not convinced they should be messing in with all this:

Tommy remained on the porch long after Robert Suydam shut the door. A bright morning in Flatbush, that’s what Tommy saw, but he had a tough time walking down the steps, down the treelined path, and out to the sidewalk. He kept expecting he’d set one foot off the porch and right into an ocean where the Sleeping King waited. And why couldn’t this happen? That’s what paralysed him. If all the rest could be true, then why not so much else? 

But with $200 in his pocket, and the promise of $200 more if he returns to Suydam’s mansion the following evening, Tommy finds himself wondering if a second visit might not be in order after all. ‘The old man had been right,’ he acknowledges. ‘Tommy Tester did enjoy a good reward’. And when Tommy returns home to discover that his beloved father has been murdered by the odious detective, ‘Mr Howard’, he begins to see Suynam’s prophecy through new eyes:

What was indifference compared to malice?

“Indifference would be such a relief,” Tommy said.

*

We are in New York in 1924. Tommy Tester is a small-time hustler and musician, getting by the best he can in a world that is predisposed, when it notices him at all, to find him inferior. Tommy knows how to duck and dive though, and with loyal friends and a close relationship with his father, he’s getting by OK. Until the three vectors of his fate – his meeting with Suydam, the death of his father, his theft of a certain piece of notorious arcana – intersect, that is, and Tom realises the world he has been making do with is no longer enough for him.

The events and personages of The Ballad of Black Tom are closely modelled upon those of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1925 story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, and LaValle’s novella is in essence, an impassioned response to that tale, and the seething, furious racism it contains. In Lovecraft’s New York, the eldritch horrors of Parker Place are laid directly at the door of its mainly immigrant population. His story, which is nine-tenths exposition, is an expression of fear and loathing, a certain proof, for any who still need one, of Lovecraft’s bigotry and dis-ease concerning ethnic minorities. LaValle returns Harlem and Red Hook to the people who live there. He makes the protagonist of his story a black man – and if Black Tom ends up a monster, we as readers are left in no doubt as to who has made him one.

In Lovecraft’s story, the detective Malone, like so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, prefers to look away from what he thinks he has seen. LaValle’s Malone is not given that choice.

There is powerful material here. Tommy’s initial journey out to the mainly white suburb of Flatbush, where his very presence on the train exposes him to personal danger, is a powerful reminder of the violence and opposition faced by African Americans during Lovecraft’s time simply in living their lives. The circumstances surrounding the death of Tommy’s father are particularly devastating when viewed in the knowledge that similarly monstrous injustices are still being perpetrated on a more or less daily basis. Aside from its social and political commentary though, The Ballad of Black Tom should be applauded for making of ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ an actual story. It is a gripping yarn, featuring real characters with real motivations – a claim that can not safely be made for the original tale. That HPL and Sonia make their own cameo appearance is a nice touch also.

What LaValle’s story does not have though is Lovecraft’s language. For all its fomenting lunacy, there is no escaping the fact that HPL’s way with a sentence was something special:

Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side, and there are already rumours of new canals running underground to certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things. 

LaValle’s prose, grounded and sound in both mind and body, seems pedestrian by comparison.

*

(Do check out this great interview with Victor LaValle at Electric Literature here, and also this one at SF Signal here.)

#weird2016: The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud

ballingrud,filthEric wouldn’t let go of the guy’s neck. He hit him again a few more times, and when the bottle came around once more he took it on the cheek. Blood sprayed onto the floor, the pool table, across his own face. Eric made a high-pitched noised that seemed to signal a transition into another state of being, that seemed to carve this moment from the rational world and hold it separate. It seemed that another presence had entered the room, something invisible, some blood-streaked thing crawling into the light.

Will is a bartender at Rosie’s, an all-night venue in one of the New Orleans’s less fashionable districts. Working the late shift he sees all kinds of things, not all of them pleasant, but Will doesn’t mind. He’s used to breaking up fights, clearing up the mess afterwards. His job means he can hang loose, live easy. There are always plenty of women around, and he has his best mate, Alicia, to share the ups and downs. Everything’s cool. Except it’s not. The cockroaches seem to be multiplying in Rosie’s Bar – Will imagines them swirling up from their nests in the pit of hell – and when the latest late-night fight gets out of hand, one piece of debris Will takes home with him does not prove so easy to get rid of as he first imagined. Suddenly, Will has bigger problems on his mind than how to decide between his current girlfriend Carrie and his not-so-platonic friend Alicia.

It was interesting reading this right after Scott Nicolay’s debut collection Ana Kai Tangata (review to follow soon). On the face of it, Will seems closely related to Nicolay’s protagonists: disaffected, shiftless, a total tool in his attitude to women. There are differences, though – Will does have glimmerings of self-awareness, but mainly it’s in the way Ballingrud is prepared to show, through his writing, that both Carrie and Alicia have their own agenda, their own agency, and that their biggest problem, actually, is Will. Fair dos to Will himself in finally realising this:

A terrible weight suspended between his lungs, threatening to upend him. He felt the heat of shame and grief gather in his face. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. He made his way to the bedroom and excavated a crumpled duffel bag from the recesses of the closet. He began to shove clothes into it, heedless of what he might actually need. Just random things. When he walked to the bathroom to get his toothbrush and his razor, he heard a stifled sob in the kitchen.

This was the world he’d built. This was his kingdom. 

The apotheosis of bad breakups for Will, then. And somehow I don’t think it’s going to matter all that much, what he puts in that duffel bag…

The story itself – a neat little twist on the contamination-by-video scenario firmly cemented in the horror genre by the first Ring movie – is compelling and doom-laden and finally horrific enough to keep you interested. No, scratch that – there’s no way you’re going to put this This is Horror chapbook down once you’ve started reading it. There’s a roughness around the edges, in parts – by the time Ballingrud’s writing has fully gathered momentum in the second half, the thing’s almost done. This story isn’t as finely wrought as Nicolay’s finest – Ballingrud’s language is very, very good in parts, but an overall consistency seems lacking. On the whole, I think ‘The Visible Filth’ would actually have benefited from being double the length, or even longer. I want to know more about the book Carrie was researching. I do definitely want to know more about whose phone that was. There’s so much more here that Ballingrud could have chosen to explore. I understand the argument for not revealing everything – but in this case it seems a damn shame not to have given this story its head, to have allowed it to become the novella it so clearly wanted to be.

Solid effort, though. Solid and enjoyable and menacing. That last page or two – why did you go there, Will? Why? (Yeah, he was a dork, but I did kind of feel sorry for him in the end.)

#weird2016: Red Shift by Alan Garner

red shift garnerThe motorway roared silently. Birds skittered the water in flight to more distant reeds, and the iron water lay again, flat light reflecting no sky. The caravans and the birches. Tom.

Sometimes you read a novel that generates such a personal response – that feels so profoundly, so intimately yours – it’s hard to articulate. It’s a feeling of blessed serendipity, like stumbling across something in the road, something half-buried in dirt, and discovering it’s that treasured thing you lost some years before and thought never to see again.

As a reader and as a writer, these are the moments you chase but can never predict.

All of this happened, in this case, because of something that did not happen. When I was asked if I’d like to be on a panel at Eastercon discussing the landscapes of Alan Garner’s fiction. I regretfully had to decline, stating that aside from stumbling upon and loving The Owl Service – both book and TV series – when I was twelve, I hadn’t read Garner since, and really didn’t know his work except in outline. Which of course immediately set me thinking: why didn’t I, when Garner’s oeuvre, with its emphasis on landscape and myth, lies so close to a vital seam of my own literary interests?

It seemed like a major oversight to me. And so later that day, I purchased the eBook of Garner’s Red Shift, widely thought to be the cornerstone of his work and of his thinking. We happened to be travelling to London the following day, which gave me four hours’ worth of train journey in which to read the novel more or less uninterrupted, which I think is how this extraordinary book should ideally be encountered.  At a little under 200 pages, it is not a long novel. So when you learn that it was six years in the making, you might feel surprised – until you begin to experience it, and realise how intact it is, how entire unto itself, how every word contracted into this interweaving, this rope-hard tapestry, has been personally chosen and considered, how this novel – deceptively simple on the page – truly is like that found thing in the road, that axe head: clodded with dirt yet pristine, hard, like the ages, like the granite fundament of the island that inspired it.

A cursory reading of Red Shift might leave you with the impression that in its modern sections especially it is dated. It is hard to imagine many older teenagers these days getting so hung up on what their parents think, or becoming mired in ideas of sex as being sordid or sinful. Yet read – persist – and you will find there is something so heartrending, so universal in what Jan and Tom experience that it still works, in spite of its awkwardness or even because of it. It is interesting, too, that the women in Garner’s story are as powerful as the men, if not more so. It is Jan, in the end, who is able to make the transition from child to adult, a transition Tom struggles with until the end.

I found the novel’s evocation of the 1970s particularly resonant.  The sequence where Tom and Jan first discover the road to Barthomley, walking out across the railway sidings at Crewe seemed, to me, like the summer of 1976 itself: instantaneously mythical, a hush in time, a touchstone memory:

They walked through undulating country, golden with light from the cold sun. 

“That’s where I’d like to try for, one day,” said Jan. “I see it from the train, and then I know you’re near. It looks like a lonely old man sitting up there.”

“We’ll go,” said Tom. “But I doubt it’ll be today, unless you feel like running.”

“Is it a castle?”

“A folly. Not real. It’s called Mow Cop.”

“I like mountains. Can we go, even if it is only a folly?”

“Sure, I said. But how about something closer for today?”

Across the fields a red sandstone church tower stood from a valley. The landscape was quiet, scattered farms of black timber, and the lane leading towards the church. 

It is their Grand Meulnes moment, instantly in decline, like radioactive half-life, from the second it is exposed to the light.

It says everything about Garner’s skill in imagining, that the novel’s strands from earlier timelines – one set in Roman Britain, one set during the English Civil War – often and increasingly appear to be running contemporaneously with the modern day section. As the novel nears its end, these time-jumps – seamless, unannounced and unaccounted-for – can occur several times in a single page. The passages describing the massacre at Barthomley, in their terrifying understatement, are a masterclass of literary economy.

What is most modern about this novel – what makes it a work of modernism – is that it offers no explanation for itself, no long-winded exposition of what is happening. We must run to catch up, to stay level. We must enter into the spirit of this thing, not caring too much if there are moments when we doubt our understanding of what is going on.

And even as Red Shift eschews objective realism in favour of a more subjective brand of expressionism, still it retains the rough-hewn, adze-sharpened, square-buttressed granite persistence of the mediaeval. Like the sinuously evolving ballads of British folklore, its abiding loyalty is to the land. We pass through it, before passing it on.

It is with eerie synchronicity that I came to Red Shift immediately after life writer constantinereading David Constantine’s acutely felt second novel The Life Writer, which shares a similar relationship with land not a million miles away from Barthomley church. It may even be that reading the Constantine, which feels intuitively closer to my own practice – Red Shift is mainly dialogue, which I don’t write much of; The Life Writer is mainly internalised reflection, which I do – actively prepared me in some way for reading the Garner.

However and whatever has happened, it feels significant for me as a writer in a way I did not anticipate.

*

Sadly, we didn’t arrive at Eastercon until gone 5.30 on the Friday, so it was too late for me to attend the Alan Garner panel even as a spectator. But what we were able to do instead, on our way back from Scotland – we spent a week in the Highlands immediately following Eastercon – was stop off at the places where the key action of Red Shift takes place. It had been raining for most of the morning, but as we drove into Cheshire the weather changed, flooding the countryside with evening sunshine. The landscape felt utterly unchanged from how it had appeared to me as I read about it in the novel. I was thrilled to the bone.

The White Lion, Barthomley

The White Lion, Barthomley

St Bertoline's Church, Barthomley

St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley

The Folly at Mow Cop

The Folly at Mow Cop

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.