Wednesday, 15 April 2020

No despair yet; top books coming your way

Well, these are difficult times indeed, and even if it was appropriate to strike my usual cheery note, I think, being honest, that I’d struggle to do it convincingly. Like most of you, I imagine, I’m currently confined to my house. I mean, I’m a self-employed writer anyway, so working from home is hardly onerous, but having only limited access to the great outdoors, especially as the nice weather is now starting to show itself, is a new and bewildering experience.

Of course, things are much worse for some people in that they’re ill or bereaved (or both); this is certainly a crisis the like of which we haven’t faced in a hundred years. But I’m not going to dwell too much on that at present. The rest of us have a duty, I think, to try and keep things going if we can.

Hence today’s blog, in which, for reasons I’ll shortly be outlining, I’ll be discussing horror anthologies (two in particular: AFTER SUNDOWN, edited by Mark Morris, and more imminently, published tomorrow in fact, the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2, edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards. In that same vein, I’ll offering a detailed review of the original ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS, again as edited by Coleborn and Edwards. You’ll find that review in the usual place at the lower end of today’s blogpost (with my normal bit of fantasy film-making tagged on at the end of it).

Before that though, here’s some relevant information …

Cancellations

For all that I’m trying to be positive, today’s blog, perhaps inevitably, is a kind of damage limitation exercise. Because as recently as early last January, I was boasting about the exciting programme of events that lay ahead in 2020 … and yet now, as you can probably guess, it’s been totally decimated.

Three major events that I was looking forward to – CRIMEFEST in Bristol, STOKERCON in Scarborough, and the THEAKSTON CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL in Harrogate – have all been either cancelled or postponed (more info about what will ultimately happen with these, if there is any, when I get it), and it’s difficult imagining that other events will not go the same way soon, certainly those scheduled to occur in the next two or three months.

CRIMEFEST and HARROGATE were primarily fun things from my perspective, opportunities to hook up with lots of friends and fellow thriller writers, air my views on a couple of panels and basically have a riotous time. But STOKERCON had more of the working day about it in that, as one of the guests, I was due to participate in the launches of two new horror anthologies that I am fortunate enough to have stories included in.

Of course, a whole array of wonderful new novels, anthologies and collections would have been published during that great event on the Yorkshire coast, each at their own special launch party, which would have been attended by hundreds of horror fans who now, sadly, are watching the year go by through their front windows. But on a more positive note, many if not most of those titles will still be launched, only now online.

New titles

Among them are the two books I’m so honoured to feature in – the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2 and AFTER SUNDOWN.

Today therefore, I’m pleased to present the artwork and back-cover blurb for the first of these two new anthologies, and the full (and very mouthwatering) tables of contents for both of them. Seriously guys, check out some of the authors who’ve here been recruited:

ed. by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards

Published by Alchemy Press. Available from this Thursday (April 16).

Strange stories and weird tales and all of the creeping horrors in between. 

Horrors 2 features seventeen fabulous writers, including Sarah Ash, Paul Finch, John Grant, Nancy Kilpatrick, Garry Kilworth, Samantha Lee … to lead you on a spine-tingling tour from seaside towns to grimy cities, to the lonely and secret places, from the fourteenth precinct to Namibia … and so many places in between.

Table of Contents

Henrietta Street – Gail-Nina Anderson
I Left My Fair Homeland – Sarah Ash
I Remember Everything – Debbie Bennett
Digging in the Dirt – Mike Chinn
What Did You See? – Paul Finch
Every Bad Thing – Sharon Gosling
The Loneliest Place – John Grant
The Primordial Light – John Howard
Black Nore – Tim Jeffreys
Footprints in the Snow – Eyglo Karlsdottir
Promises – Nancy Kilpatrick
Lirpaloof Island – Garry Kilworth
The Secret Place – Samantha Lee
Beneath Namibian Sands – Pauline Morgan
The Hate Whisperer – Thana Niveau
Hydrophobia – John Llewellyn Probert
We Do Like to Be Beside – Peter Sutton


ed. by Mark Morris

Published by Flame Tree Press. Published in October but available for pre-order now


Table of Contents

Butterfly Island – CJ Tudor
Research – Tim Lebbon
Swanskin – Alison Littlewood
That’s the Spirit – Sarah Lotz
Gave – Michael Bailey
Wherever You Look – Ramsey Campbell
Same Time Next Year – Angela Slatter
Mine Seven – Elana Gomel
It Doesn’t Feel Right – Michael Marshall Smith
Creeping Ivy – Laura Purcell
Last Rites for the Fourth World – Rick Cross
We All Come Home – Simon Bestwick
The Importance of Oral Hygiene – Robert Shearman
Bokeh – Thana Niveau
Murder Board – Grady Hendrix
Alice’s Rebellion – John Langan
The Mirror House – Jonathan Robbins Leon
The Naughty Step – Stephen Volk
A Hotel in Germany – Catriona Ward
Branch Line – Paul Finch

So, there you are, short story and horror buffs. There’s no reason to despair yet.

The year 2020 won’t exactly be business as usual, but a lot of industry people are still hard at it, despite being isolated at home, and doing their damnedest to keep bringing you the very best in dark and thrilling fiction.

So, keep reading. And if you’re a writer, keep writing. But more important than any of this, do all those sensible things and stay safe.


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.

ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS ed. by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards (2018)

A glowing example of the sort of horror anthology we can hopefully expect to see more of in the future. Alchemy are part of the independent press, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of this latest eye-catching product.

With the major publishing houses seemingly completely uninterested now in putting out collections of short horror fiction, many names from the small press have stepped into the gap. But most of them, Alchemy evidently included, are now well aware that the old-fashioned method of producing ragmag lookalikes in blotchy ink, stapled together unevenly and filled with text that hasn’t even been checked for spelling or literals will simply not do anymore. Hence this very, very fine opening installment in what is intended to be a brand-new annual series.

But Alchemy haven’t stopped simply at creating a beautiful-looking book; they’ve also exercised intense quality control re. its contents because there are some expertly crafted stories in here, from voices both old and new, and each one of them original to this publication.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll initially let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which drops strong hints about the shocks and shivers to come. And then we’ll discuss them in a little more depth.

Twenty-five tales of horror and the weird, stories that encapsulate the dark, the desolate and the downright creepy. Stories that will send that quiver of anticipation and dread down your spine and stay with you long after the lights have gone out.

Who is Len Binn, a comedian or something worse? What secrets are locked away in Le Trénébreuse? The deadline for what? Who are the little people, the garbage men, the peelers?

What lies behind the masks? And what horrors are found down along the backroads?

With stories by Ramsey Campbell, Storm Constantine, Stephen Laws, Samantha Lee, Stan Nicholls, Tony Richards and many, many others ...

The independent press, both in the UK and the US, has long been the secret hope of horror anthology fans, with fewer and fewer of these types of books coming from mainstream publishing houses. But whereas in the past, the small press was often a byword for low production standards, these days nothing could be further from the truth.

That said, Alchemy, a UK-based outfit run by the editors of this particular tome, Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards, have been trading for some time on the understanding that they only ever bring books out with a high-spec finish. So, I’m absolutely delighted to see that their long-awaited horror anthology series is now at last rolling.

And on a first reading, the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors has been well worth the wait, both looking and feeling amazing. In appearance alone, with a stunning cover by Coleborn himself, it would grace any shelf of classic collections. The big question, though – the only question to many – is how does it read?

Well, like all bunches of stories, there will be some that appeal and some to pass over, and of course it’s all subjective, so for every reader it will be different. However, I personally was very enthused by this anthology as a whole.

My first impression was that it does what I expected in that it cleaves closely to the kitchen sink. I don’t mean that in any detrimental way; I mean that many of its tales concern ordinary people and occur in everyday situations common to working/middle class life. So, we’ve not got much here in the style of MR James’ Edwardian ghost epics or Pan Horror-type essays in extreme ghoulishness. All the contributions to the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors are a tad more surreal than that anyway (and by that I don’t mean experimental), but many also have a strong aura of work-a-day Britain, and could easily happen in your own town, maybe in the next street to yours.

For example, in Some Kind of a Laugh, the ever-reliable Ramsey Campbell introduces us to underpaid waiter, Bernard, who is permanently frustrated by the fact that people confuse him with Lancashire comic, Len Binn. Things get worse, though, when Binn literally dies on stage right in front of him, and Bernard now finds himself adopting more and more of the deceased comedian’s mannerisms. 

Then we have Keris McDonald’s Remember, in which blue-collar tough guy, Mike, is furious when dogs start going missing from the kennels where he works. It’s November 5, so the poor animals are in a state of terror anyway. But Mike opts to keep watch all night, and hopefully catch the thief. He’s unaware that, even though this is a crumby corner of a typical industrial town, he’s about to encounter an ancient and chilling mystery.

The mundane also clashes with the bizarre in Stephen Laws’ superb Get Worse Soon, much of which is set in a thrift store (more about this one shortly), and especially so in Cate Gardner’s The Fullness of Her Belly, in which we meet Ella, a mental outpatient who can only satisfy her constant craving to be pregnant by making cushion babies and stuffing them up her dress. Fellow patients consider this a harmless eccentricity until she one day tells them that the ‘babies’ she’s discarded have now taken over her house and killed her friend.

Not that editors, Coleborn and Edwards, have gone looking solely for glum situations set in Broken Britain. It would be untrue to say that there isn’t also a touch of the exotic in the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors.

For instance, Mike Chinn’s Her Favourite Place has an undersea location (more about that one soon), while Too Late by the recently deceased and already much-missed John Grant is set in central Spain (more about this one soon, as well). Peter Sutton’s Masks, meanwhile, takes us to one of the most far-away places of all, a desert island, where castaways reduced to the level of beasts survive by occasionally donning animal masks and reluctantly hunting one of their own, only for a kind of salvation to arrive in the form of another ship, also wrecked, its unsuspecting survivors swimming desperately for shore.

If that latter story hints at savagery, I would say again that we’re not dealing with Pan Horror-type bloodletting in this book. There is little to no sadism here for its own sake. It happens, but it’s mostly off the page. But then these are horror stories, and there is no shortage of stuff in the Alchemy Book of Horrors to be disturbed about.

For instance, in Phil Sloman’s The Girl with Three Eyes, a disturbed college student is gradually drawn to violence by her obsession with a fellow student whom she is convinced is using a hidden third eye to manipulate all those around her. In Ray Cluley’s extraordinary Bluey, which is set in an urban comprehensive school, there is extreme and graphic brutality, though it’s all done very differently from the norm; despite that, it’s a dark story, this one (again, more about it later).

Many modern horror authors tend by nature to eschew extreme gruesomeness and instead are students of what might be called ‘the strange’. And there is much of that on show here too. I should point out that strange horror stories are not always my favourite, especially if the only thing about them is their strangeness, but combine that with mystery, suspense and the macabre, and you’ll often have a winner. And once again, we find that in the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors.

In this vein, Storm Constantine’s La Trénébreuse takes us deep into rural France, where a young couple attend the palatial home of an old pal. They find it a sprawling country estate, dreamy and mysterious, but who is the female entity said nightly to roam the grounds on the back of a lion?

If that doesn’t sound strange and spooky enough for you, try out James Brogden’s The Trade Up, wherein Charlie, a worn out suburbanite, is heading home late after a conference only to be menaced on the motorway by an apparent doppleganger driving exactly the same make and model of car as his own.

Or how about Stan Nicholls’ Deadline, in which a young woman, April, struggles to balance single motherhood with her writing career, at which point, completely inexplicably, familiar fixtures in her disorderly life start, one by one, to disappear?

Ultimately, of course, the test of any horror anthology is whether or not it scares you, and this is the point where so many of the ones I’ve read over the years have come unstuck. I’ll be honest and admit that it’s now been a long while since I read any antho containing more than one or two stories that really gave me the heebie jeebies, but I’m glad to report that the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors does not let us down in this regard.

Again, I wouldn’t say that we’re looking at extreme terror here – you are unlikely to lose sleep – but this book contains some excellent stories, the mere concepts behind which, let alone the skilled execution of them, will easily be enough to give you the shudders.

In Gary McMahon’s very traditional Guising, a respectable widow is increasingly frightened, not just because she lives alone on a suburban housing estate that is dark and quiet at night, but because as Halloween approaches, she repeatedly sees a strange figure draped in bubble-wrap standing at the end of her street. That one’s a bone-chiller, though it’s run close by Adrian Cole’s Broken Billy, in which we meet Bran, who, out on his remote farm, uses Wiccan magic to animate his collection of scarecrows with a weird kind of half-life. He originally gathered them from other farms to fix them, but now they’ve become his friends … he thought. Because when Tracey enters his life, everything changes, one scarecrow in particular, Broken Billy, taking a strong dislike to the new situation.

For all that – and scarecrows are perennial figures of evil to me – possibly the scariest tale in the book is Gail Nina-Anderson’s An Eye for a Plastic Eyeball, which sees oddment collector, Scott, persuaded by the mysterious Miss Stonecraft to visit the house of an old teacher, now dying in a hospice but with a lifetime of scientific curiosities to her name. He finds the eerie house a treasure trove of the arcane, but there is something about it he doesn’t quite like, and with very good reason.

All round, the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors is an admirable way for one of the busiest independent presses in the game to kickstart what hopefully will be a long-running series of horror anthologies. I found it a fast and suitably unnerving read. Here’s hoping there are many more to come.

And now …

ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most cinematic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror). Or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet town (an English version of  Creepshow, anyone?), but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Bluey (by Ray Cluley): Struggling teacher, Shaun, attempts to teach his unruly class about inclusivity by cutting Bluey, the lifesize effigy of a human being, out of a piece of blue card and having them damage and insult it. Over the next few days, however, as Shaun progressively loses control, the tortured shape of Bluey becomes a haunting presence in his classroom …

Shaun – Russell Tovey

Her Favourite Place (by Mike Chinn): Married couple Clarrie and Lois have spent weeks on a deep-sea farm, monitoring a crop of genetically modified kelp. But all is not well. The women, whose relationship is abusive anyway, are slowly going stir-crazy. Outside the capsule meanwhile, an unusual swarm of white growths is starting to blight the crop …

Clarrie – Claire Foy
Lois – Samantha Bond

Get Worse Soon (by Stephen Laws): Misanthrope Colin buys everything from the local Quidstore, but when he one day acquires a set of ‘Get Worse Soon’ letters and jokingly sends them to people he dislikes, and those people die, the shop denies ever having stocked such an item. Colin is furious and opts to send a letter to the Quidstore manager to prove his point, but mix-ups happen …

Colin – Michael Sheen

Too Late (by John Grant): Griff and Heidi take a holiday in a villa in central Spain, hoping to repair their failing marriage. But it isn’t working. Lovely Heidi is cool and indifferent to Griff despite all his attempts at romance. Increasingly, however, Griff becomes fascinated by the villa across the valley and the woman who often sunbathes naked and who looks eerily like Heidi …

Griff – Richard Armitage
Heidi – Carice van Houten

2 comments:

  1. Paul, thanks for the excellent recommendations I look forward to reading your stories in the 2 anthologies when I can pick up the books.

    Cheers,

    MJS

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome, as always, Michael.

    ReplyDelete