Thursday, 10 October 2019

Galleries of darkness, for October - Week 2


Welcome to Week 2 of my OCTOBER GALLERIES OF DARKNESS. Yet again, I’ll be looking at 20 artists – painters, book illustrators, game designers etc – who’ve hit us over the years with some truly terrifying visuals. 

In addition, because the focus yet again this week is on horror, I’ll be offering another of my detailed reviews and discussions, today concerning Christopher Golden’s tale of mountain-top terror ARARAT. If you like ancient mysteries brought into the modern age, if you like the occult, if you like horn-headed demonic nightmares, then this one could definitely be for you.

If you’re only here for the ARARAT discussion, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just zoom on down and check it out. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, there are a couple of other things you might be interested in first. Not just our latest Gallery of Darkness, which you’ll find below, but this too …



I’ve been promoting the hell out of this book for quite a while; the last six or seven months by my reckoning. But now, at last, I can happily announce that it’s available for acquisition both as ebook and paperback. Just follow the link and delve deep into the urban and rural mythology of Northwest England. That means Lancashire boggarts, Manchester monstrosities and general-purpose madness, mayhem and menace from the backstreets of Liverpool and the deceptively quiet country lanes of leafy Cheshire.

Treat yourself to some cracking horror fiction from the likes of Stephen Gallagher, Ramsey Campbell, Cate Gardner, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Sam Stone, and even my good self. Yes, though I’m always a bit pink-cheeked when it comes to self-promotion, I must admit that we close off this collection with my previously unpublished novella, The Upper Tier, which was written for and performed live at a special Ghost Story Night at Haigh Hall in Wigan, back in 2011. And yes, it’s all about that infamous haunted mansion that still sits in its own green and overgrown hinterland in the heart of a borough once notorious for its smoke and industry, and which is rightly regarded as ‘the Borley Rectory of the North’.

And now, onto the visual chills …

GALLERIES OF DARKNESS - Week Two

I won’t waste your time with a big preamble this week. Suffice to say that those who were around at the beginning of the month will remember my announcement that throughout October I’ll be treating you each Thursday to a gallery of work produced by 20 artists who have dabbled in the darkness (taking us all the way through to Halloween, and that even then, with 100 of them in total, I’d only be scratching the surface).

The painting at the top of today’s blog hails from distant antiquity, Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens (1618), though for the most part in this series I’ll be concentrating on more contemporary works, mainly because that should guarantee there’ll be a few that you’re not yet aware of.

I won’t be talking about these individual artists in any details, mostly because I’m not qualified to, but also because I haven’t got the space or time to do them justice. On this occasion, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. But follow the links and, wherever possible, it will divert you through to the artists’ own web-pages, their online shops, etc.

Quick warning: there is nothing here that is simply disgusting; quite often it’s horror of the more sophisticated sort. But even so, these masters and mistresses of the macabre do NOT hold back.

Enjoy …

1. ADAM BURKE






















































12. FRANCISCO GOYA (specifically, the Black Paintings)






































19. BOM.K









THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

ARARAT 
by Christopher Golden (2017)

Life-partners and professional adventurers, Meryam Karga and Adam Holzer, think they may have stumbled on the find of a lifetime when an avalanche at the top of Turkey’s Mount Ararat exposes a cave in which an ancient timber craft is lodged. Ararat, of course, is one of the most famous mountains on Earth for reasons that date back almost to the dawn of human history – long has it been rumoured that this was the last resting place of Noah’s Ark.

Determined to claim this incredible prize for their own, Meryam and Adam make the arduous trek to the upper slopes of the wintry mountain in company with a handpicked team of assistants. But inevitably, they aren’t going to have things all their own way.

Of their two guides, Feyiz is fine, but the older one, Hakan, is an awkward, aggressive bully who openly dislikes Meryam because he considers her to be a lapsed Moslem. Then we have the rest of the team, a hotchpotch of scholars, archaeologists and student film-makers, and these don’t make for easy bedfellows either. Catholic priest and ancient languages expert, Father Hughes, does not get on with Professor Olivieri; it’s mainly a case of professional rivalry, but it still threatens the work. The Turkish authorities are present too, and though on the whole cooperative, they are suspicious of Father Hughes, who they worry will try to turn this into a ‘Christian achievement’.

A quieter presence is the mission’s action-man, Ben Walker. He arrives in company with UN observer, Kim Seong, and though he ostensibly represents the US National Science Foundation, in fact he is an American defence operative whose main role is to establish if there is anything on top of Mount Ararat that might be useful to his government. Walker is experienced at this sort of thing (very experienced, it soon transpires), but he knows when to play it low-key; at first, he is all things to all men, but it isn’t long before he too has identified weaknesses in the chain of command which he might be able to exploit.

As if all these vying interests don’t cause enough problems, the weather up there in the high peaks is extremely hazardous, bitterly cold wind and intense snowstorms sweeping the desolate ridges. But initially, the find makes all the hardships and complexities of reaching it worthwhile. The Ark, for that is what it appears to be, has all but burrowed its way into the mountain, its interior accessible only by a relatively small opening. But once you get inside there, it’s a wondrous structure, a vast ocean-going vessel of a sort that no-one thought the pre-Biblical world was capable of producing. It also dates correctly and is a virtual treasure trove in terms of the human bones, pottery and ancient writings adorning its lower decks.

The question as to whether this vast object could actually be Noah’s Ark is the key. No one on the mission believes the Noah story word-for-word, but there is a general acceptance that some tribal elder, possibly named Noah, took his family and some livestock and embarked on a hastily-built craft to ride out a sudden flood. But what kind of cataclysm might have left the boat high and dry at the top of a 16,000-foot mountain?

And then an even bigger and much more unsettling question arises.

Whose is the mummified cadaver the team discover in an eerie, glyph-covered coffin deep in the heart of the fossilised craft?

And why does it apparently have horns on its head?

A gawing fear grips the intrepid band. No one seriously wants to contemplate that this might be the relic of an ancient demon, but then stories of the Great Flood concern a race of evil beings who, in Genesis, were spawned on the Earth by fallen angels, and who in due course became the targets of God’s wrath, hence the fast-rising water.

Could there be a kernel of truth in that myth? Could this be the desiccated remnant of one such creature, which somehow sneaked aboard?

Only when the killings start, individual members of the team butchered with climbing tools, and/or thrown down the mountainside to freeze, does this fear morph into utter terror.

Debates rage on as to the nature of the thing in the sarcophagus. Is it what they suspect? Could it be wielding a malign influence? Or do they simply have a madman in their midst?

The obvious solution is to get the hell out of there, abandon the Ark and the sarcophagus, and stumble back down the mountainside to civilisation. But the weather is getting worse. The worn-out archaeologists are now trapped in this hellish place, and a very real malevolence is spreading among them … 

All kinds of influences are visible in this fascinating and intense chiller from US author, Chris Golden, quite a few of them filmic. There is certainly a bit of The Thing in there, hints of The Exorcist, and more than a dollop of Raiders of the Lost Ark (a different Ark this time, of course). But there is nothing unusual in this in the modern age.

Certain book genres seem to have blended together in recent times, to give us a whole new range of thriller/horror/adventure novels, invariably set in exotic locations and underwritten by mysteries from the ancient religious world.

It often makes for an intriguing mix, but I’m particularly impressed on this occasion that Golden has taken it all a step further by upgrading the fear factor to an extreme degree.

We readers are left in no doubt that the Ark discovered here is an amazing thing, venerable and mystifying beyond imagining, and very possibly an indicator that cosmic powers have controlled the events on Earth from time immemorial, and that good and evil once held sentient forms, and maybe still do. But while these huge metaphysical issues pervade Ararat, the author doesn’t forget to entertain us as well.

From the moment, the terrible husk is discovered inside the dank, fire-lit interior of this long-forgotten hulk, the atmosphere changes. Everything that once seemed miraculous now seems deeply ominous. What formerly felt like a hidden door which, should our heroes open it, would shed light upon a distant, semi-mythical past, is a door they must at all costs keep closed for fear of what it might admit.

The author channels these big concepts through his characters, amplifying them in the process without hitting us over the head with them.

Meryam and Adam’s team are robust sorts, outdoor types who’ve managed to make it to the top of the world despite inconceivable obstacles. For the most part, they are scientists and cultured intellectuals, who don’t believe in angels and demons, but not long after you get into this novel, lack of spiritual belief starts to feel like a weakness rather than a strength. If you’re purely a rationalist, how can you cope mentally with supernatural revelations like these?

And it’s not as if all is hunky dory in the group anyway. For various reasons, Adam and Meryam have found themselves drawing apart during this expedition. For one thing, Adam resents that Meryam often confides in the handsome young guide, Feyiz, while he himself is drawn to the beautiful camera-girl, Calliope Shaw. Then there are the religious differences; Golden handles these particularly well, not overdoing the issues that arise when Jews, Moslems and Christians are required to work together, but not pretending that basic mistrust doesn’t exist – and of course allowing it to become a major problem when the horror in the casket is found.

How do you tackle such a being? Whose religious explanation do you believe? Whose religious weaponry do you invoke?

There is a political dimension too. The Turks are paranoid about the American, Ben Walker’s presence, which you can hardly blame them for as he’s so secretive about his real purpose here, while Hakan the hardliner – and he’s not the only one! – increasingly feels that all foreigners, particularly irreligious modernists like these, should be barred from what is clearly a sacred site.

In short, everything that could be going wrong is soon going wrong, and at a time when this small microcosm of humanity is pitted against what is potentially the deadliest foe mankind has faced in millennia – and this time, it’s safe to say, God won’t be intervening to save everyone with a cataclysmic flood.

Ararat is a rousing 21st century thriller, an intense action-horror both claustrophobic in tone and epic in scale. At the same time, it’s disconcertingly grown-up in terms of the questions it raises … mainly because there are no easy answers (if any). A thoroughly compelling read.

And now, I’ll embarrass myself again by attempting to cast Ararat should Hollywood or HBO come knocking at Chris Golden’s door. It’s often drawn to my attention that in playing this game with each review, I sometimes overlook the fact that adaptations are already in the works. Apologies if that is the case here – in truth, I’d be disappointed and surprised if it wasn’t – but I’m still having a go. Remember, the big difference between my casting sessions and those of the big studios is that in my case money is no object (heh heh heh).

Ben Walker – Adrien Brody
Meryam Karga – Ahu Turkpence
Adam Holzer – David Schwimmer
Kim Seong – Dianne Doan
Feyiz – Cansel Elkin
Hakan – Serhan Yavas
Fr. Cornelius Hughes – Michael Gambon
Prof. Armando Olivieri – Giancarlo Giannini
Calliope Shaw – Hayley Atwell

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