Category Archives: year of reading weird

#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: Frozen

frozen mckoenI found a reference to this film quite by chance, while I was looking for something else – isn’t that what always happens on the internet? And no, I’m not talking about Elsa and Anna and ‘Let it Go’, nor the by-the-numbers 2010 trapped-on-a-ski-lift-with-wolves-beneath horror movie either. This is something quite different – and it’s exquisite. It is also, so far as I can tell, almost completely unknown.

Kath works in a fish factory in the town of Fleetwood, on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Following the unexplained disappearance of her sister Annie two years before, Kath falls into depression and attempts suicide.  She is referred to a counsellor, a local parish priest, who helps her begin to talk through her feelings of abandonment. Kath is not prepared to give up on her sister, however. She pays a visit to the police, demanding to see the video clip taken from a security camera that shows the last recorded sighting of Annie down by the docks. Kath watches the film obsessively, searching for any tiny detail that the police may have missed. When she retraces her sister’s last known movements in an attempt to draw closer to the truth, she experiences something extraordinary. What she sees convinces her that Annie – wherever she is – is trying to get a message to her. Desperate to be believed, she turns to Father Noyen, landing them both in a situation that neither has foreseen.

This is a slow-burn, quietly effective ghost story with an immaculately realised sense of place and a genuine frisson of terror at its heart. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly like this makes it seem all the more magical somehow, like being made party to a secret. Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth are outstanding in the lead roles, but everyone involved with this movie has done a marvellous job. The stark simplicity of the screenplay is a joy. The writer and director, Juliet McKoen, made this film in 2005 and so far as I can tell she’s made nothing else since. This seems a criminal shame to me and I sincerely hope we see more from her in the future. Fans of Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh, the English ghost story and especially The Loney should all seek out this gem as soon as possible. Watch out for the moment with the roller coaster. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – and that’s something you’ll never come close to getting from more commercial horror.

Superb little indie movie and most highly recommended.

#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.

#weird2016: Absentia

absentia.dvdI first came to hear of this film through an interesting list of rare and underrated horror movies compiled by Adam Nevill for The Quietus. Two of Adam’s choices were films I’d seen and ‘enjoyed’ already: the hideous masterpiece Snowtown and the really rather brilliant ghost story Lake Mungo, an ingenious and disturbing cross between Blair Witch and Black Pond. There was one I’d seen at FrightFest and hated: the Spanish movie Sleep Tight, which for me was just an inferior and exploitative update of Peeping Tom, the appalling punchline of which I saw bizarrely repeated recently in Joel Edgerton’s otherwise excellent thriller The Gift (stop using rape-of-an-unconscious-woman as an ingenious twist, boys, I mean seriously). No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Adam’s list, not least because it mainly consisted of films I’d never seen or even heard of – welcome refreshment, when most ‘Top 10 Horror’ lists don’t contain even a single surprise. I was eager to get watching, and ordered a couple of Adam’s choices straight away.

First out of the box was Mike Flanagan’s 2011 movie Absentia. The film opens as Callie (Catherine Parker) arrives in Los Angeles to stay at the home of her older sister Tricia (Courtney Bell). Callie has been on the road, trying to sort out her life following a drug-addicted adolescence. Tricia’s life has been in stasis ever since her husband Daniel disappeared inexplicably seven years before. As Tricia files the paperwork to have Daniel declared legally dead, Callie is determined to help her move on, to find a new place to live, to put the memories and questions behind her.

Only they don’t seem to be alone in the apartment, and when Callie encounters a terrified homeless man in a nearby underpass, things begin to get even weirder.

This movie was funded by Kickstarter, and I’m sure the film’s many backers billygoats.grufffelt they’d more than got their money’s worth. This is a great little film, mainly because the two essential ingredients for satisfying cinema – a good script and wonderful acting – are firmly in place here. The writing is thoughtful, understated and naturalistic, and Parker and Bell are truly compelling as the joint leads – the chemistry between them is wonderful, they seem like real sisters. In fact, every single person in the cast list plays their part beautifully. I loved the low key suburban setting, the off-kilter oddness of everything, the bleached out colours. There were even – and because I’ve watched so many horror movies this doesn’t often happen – a couple of moments where I felt genuinely unsettled by what was happening and had to look away.

It’s easy to see that everyone involved with this film felt fully committed to it, and good on them. Personally I would have left out the fleeting glimpses of the ‘underneathers’ entirely because in horror less really is more – so far as I’m concerned, the first rule of horror cinema should be never show the monster! But that’s a minor gripe and a mistake easily forgiven when everything else about this movie is so right.

On an interesting side note, there is a lot in Absentia that reminds me uncannily of themes I’ve been working with in The Rift, right down to one of the character’s names…

Coincidences like that are ones I enjoy!

(And if you want to know what the hell all this has to do with The Three Billy Goats Gruff, go and watch the movie.)

ADDENDUM: I’ve now seen one more of Adam’s choices, The Pact, which is pact.2012equally worth watching. In terms of its themes of repressed grief and hidden memories, run-down suburban settings, bleached-out cinematography, and effective understatement, this film has plenty in common with Absentia and in an entirely good way. This is a movie where you start out thinking you know what you’re getting and end up (un)pleasnatly surprised. For fans of horror off the beaten track? Recommended.

#weird 2016: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus,cvwatkins“I’ll fix it, I will. We’ll get the birth certificate, a clean ID. I’ll take care of everything.” That was what he’d been telling Ig, that he was going to get his shit together, that he’d be on top of every damn thing from here on out. Also how quickly one’s beliefs and values and principles and philosophies – all the biggies – could be reduced to a matter of paperwork. (p 60)

I began reading Gold Fame Citrus in the midst of a monster gale, Storm Imogen. We’re high up where we are, and the winds were strong enough to snap the arm off a nearby wind turbine. I wonder now if it was this – the sense of a landscape under assault, the sense that the weather could fly off into new normals, any time it wanted – that made me begin to change my attitude towards Watkins’s first novel.

I started out hating it – an ex-model named Luz trying on a mink coat in the blistering California heat while her ex-soldier boyfriend goes about the serious business of finding water – and wondering what on Earth Watkins could have been thinking, wanting to create a character like that – so lax, so ineffectual, so preoccupied with men’s desires – when she could have written Luz any way she chose.

Now I think I get it. She wrote Luz and Ray and their adopted daughter Ig because these are the people – the totally random people – her attention happened to fall upon. They could have been anyone – a grandmother with a career in the military behind her, a discredited scientist, a teenage runaway, a businessman run amok – but they’re Ray and Luz and Ig. We’re travelling with them because we just are.

The first thing I found myself loving was Luz’s dream-list about moving to Seattle, couched in language she probably wouldn’t have used (who would?) Too beautiful. Too writerly. But why not? Watkins is trying to convey something here, something that reaches past how characters ‘should’ be or how they should behave. Watkins doesn’t give a stuff about what she ‘should’ be writing. She writes as she writes, and I am drawn steadily deeper and deeper until I am caught.

“What the fuck?” said Ray. He pressed his foot to the felling thing and where he pressed the trunk collapsed, papery. Ig laughed like a hiccup. They investigated the broken stump and found it completely hollow, save for some dry, twiny marrow inside. 

Luz pushed carefully on the trunk of another towering yucca and it too crumpled to the ground, setting Ig agiggle.

“They’re dead,” Luz said. “All of them.” Dead, without moisture enough to rot.

“The groundwater’s gone,” said Ray, though he promised he wouldn’t. (p 87)

Devastating and terrifying. One of the most astute novelistic commentaries on climate change I’ve read and an essential addition to this particular canon of speculative literature. I feel enraged at Luz for leaving the top off the gasoline, for being so careless. That Watkins picks up on this kind of detail is something I noted with pleasure even as I felt horrified by it. Luz is sorry, like she always is. She meant no harm. The difference in my impatience with Luz now from the impatience I felt with her at the start of the novel is that now I like her. I envy her compassion, her unselfishness, appreciate how vulnerable she is. I think I even understand her, at least a little.

The pages where Luz and Ray are running out of gas are arid, desolate, hopeless. Brilliant. I find am loving every page of this book by this point.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert’s primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California’s Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins, Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification’s encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had long separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America. (p 118)

The red centre of the novel, the dune sea, like Hokusai’s wave, in a great arch, overreaching everything. Luz and Ray are separated: Luz to be rescued by Levi Zabriskie and his ‘family’, Ray, we find out later, to wander and to be beaten senseless (who by? You’ll find out), to be incarcerated for months in the underground Sangatte of the Limbo talc mine. There are strange legends – mole men, nuclear storage dumps, generations of unregistered Mojavs being born underground. Levi tells Luz the US government plans to nuke the whole area. What else are they to do with it? Luz thinks Ray is dead. She thinks Levi is a prophet. The language, in places, mimics the blurred, hallucinatory flow, the skewed ever-present tense of drug addiction. You came here for predictive science fiction? Fuck that bitch.

When Ray visited later that day, he visited a dingy solar-powered school bus in a madman’s colony, an outpost in the cruel tradition of outposts, peopled by prostitutes and loners and rejects and criminals and and liars, their sheriff a con and a thief and surely worse. (p 312.)

And so everything, in the end, comes back to the Spahn ranch, the lies, the seductions, the isolation. Was any of it even real?

Luz chooses for herself, finally, as she goes under. Ray soldiers on.

*

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book was called Batteborn, a collection of stories exploring the brutal and unforgiving landscape of her native Nevada, together with the story that lurks in the background of her own family, the dark legend of Charles Manson and his groupies, the deadly fantasy world he constructed for them out at the Spahn movie ranch, a fantasy they finally, brutally inflicted on the people they killed. I loved that book, I thought it was exceptional. When I heard that Watkins was writing a near-future science fiction novel set in the same kind of landscape, I was extremely excited.

If I imagined anything going in, I suppose I was expecting something a little like Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gold Fame Citrus is not like that novel, not in the least, though as speculative novels go I can see how they’re related through the importance they both ascribe to the role of language. But while Newman’s language serves her speculative conceit, Watkins’s undermines it. Constantly, determinedly. Ice Cream Star is a science fiction novel. Gold Fame Citrus exploits science fiction, but – searing commentary on environmental abuses and government cover-ups aside – it doesn’t give a damn about it.

Gold Fame Citrus is a novel affected by sunstroke. A hallucination. If it is about anything it is about the falsehoods and entrapments of communal folly, both in the private sphere and the political. About how one might wrestle free of such mental enslavement and what residual damage might exist, how it might still have the power to wreck lives and futures and thought processes long after it’s over.

I love the form this book takes: the wilful digressions, the embedded pamphlet, the theatrical interludes. I disagree totally with those reviewers who have suggested that this approach has sapped the energy of the central narrative. The central narrative is a tragedy, a predetermined sorrow. The accompanying threads of story are its Greek chorus. They’re also brilliantly compelling in their own right.

As a second work of fiction to follow Battleborn, I’d judge Gold Fame Citrus a step up in reach and ambition. Watkins has negotiated the leap to longer-length work with originality, dexterity, and equal intensity of focus. As story, the novel is scourging rather than satisfying because its sadness leaves us empty rather than full. As an exercise in the novel form, I would say it succeeds admirably, and with great inventiveness.

Where Watkins will go from here, it is impossible to guess.

(You can read an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins at Electric Literature here.)

#weird2016: Run the GAMUT!

There’s a wonderful project up at Kickstarter at the moment and I’m personally urging anyone with an interest in horror and weird fiction to consider backing it, or just to spread the word if you possibly can. GAMUT looks like being the most interesting new magazine venture to have surfaced in years. It’s the brainchild of Richard Thomas, writer and editor. Richard has made literary quality a defining feature of all the projects he’s been involved with, and if you glance down the tables of contents of the anthologies he’s edited – The New Black, Burnt Tongues (which was a Stoker finalist) and The Lineup – you’ll see just what an innovative and ambitious approach to weird fiction he has.

Don’t listen to me – let Richard tell you more about Gamut himself:

Gamut will be accepting solicited submissions only for a time, but Richard fully intends to open the magazine up to new writers in due course. There will be non-fiction and commentary too.

I believe that Gamut is exactly the kind of webzine the genre landscape needs right now. Independent-spirited, innovative and just more willing to take risks than other venues. I hope to see it becoming a kind of meeting point, a hub for weird writers and readers of all persuasions. With the right support and enthusiasm, Gamut really could help to increase the profile of quality speculative fiction generally.

Please back Gamut now!