Tag: horror

Book notes: Smith, Finch, Lipska

Helen Smith, Alison Wonderland (1999)

Now this, I think it’s fair to say, is a bit of an oddity. Alison Temple first came across the all-female-staffed Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation when she hired them to find out whether her husband was cheating on her (which he was); now divorced, Alison works for Fitzgerald’s, her latest assignment being to investigate a sinister pharmaceutical company. Alongside this, her friend Taron is requesting information that will help her steal an abandoned baby; and Jeff, Alison’s neighbour and sort-of lover, writes poems for her and works on inventions like the formula for a single advertisement that could advertise any product.

I won’t pretend to have puzzled out everything that Alison Wonderland was trying to achieve, with all its digressions, and hints at extraordinary phenomena that might or might not be real; but I do appreciate the way that Helen Smith juxtaposes the bizarre and the mundane: however strange events become, the emotional issues that Alison deals with remain grounded in everyday reality; and some of the best-written passages deal with the more ordinary subjects.

Alison Wonderland might also be seen as an unusual take on the conspiracy story, in that the main conspiracies which the characters imagine to exist actually don’t; whilst the real secrets go unsuspected. Smith’s novel brought to mind the work of Sarah Salway and Aliya Whiteley in its sideways approach to everyday life – but it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever read.

Reviews elsewhere: For Books’ Sake; Lucy Popescu.

Paul Finch, King Death (2011)

After three contemporary tales, the fourth chapbook from Spectral Press takes us back to 1348. In an England ravaged by the Black Death, a mercenary named Rodric is strangely immune to the plague; styling himself ‘King Death’, he travels the land, making the most of his fortunate circumstances. A chance meeting with a page from a fallen manor-house apparently presents a new opportunity for Rodric – or it could be his downfall instead.

This is one story I’d love to hear read aloud; there’s something about Paul Finch’s prose which suggests to me the rhythms of oral storytelling. There are points where King Death gets a little too clotted with detail (such as the description of Rodric’s costume, which feels as though it’s trying to namecheck as many pieces of armour as possible); but there are also striking moments like the opening scene of a parade of coaches, their occupants all dead. For the most part, the story rumbles on inexorably towards its wry conclusion.

Reviews elsewhere: The Eloquent Page; Bookhound’s Den.

Anya Lipska, Where the Devil Can’t Go (2011)

Anya Lipska’s debut novel is set amongst the Polish diaspora of East London, where fixer-for-hire Janusz Kiszka is engaged to find a missing young woman. Meanwhile, the body another woman is found washed up out of the Thames – and DC Natalie Kershaw’s investigations soon lead her to Janusz, who will find himself travelling back to Poland in a bid to unravel what is going on.

Where the Devil Can’t Go is a fine crime story, but it’s also strong thematically. The main theme could be described as pragmatism in the face of reality: Janusz was once on track to become a physicist, but gave up his studies to join the protests against the Communist regime; now, he has a wife and son back in Poland, but circumstances brought him to London, where he does what he can to make a living. Janusz has a deep-rooted sense of dignity and propriety, but will not hesitate to use violence to get a job done; a similar sense of doing what one feels must be done in the situation goes right to the heart of the mystery. And it’s not just the Polish characters who have to make such choices: Natalie Kershaw also has to decide how far she wants to fit into the man’s world of the Metropolitan Police.

The novel’s main weakness, I think, is a technical one: the tendency to switch between character viewpoints without a scene break. This is annoying but tolerable when the characters are in different places; but, when Janusz and Kershaw are together, the dramatic irony of how they view each other loses some of its impact from how the shifts are handled. But, otherwise, Where the Devil Can’t Go is a solid piece of work which is well worth reading.

Although the novel is being published in Germany by Random House next year, it hasn’t been picked up by a UK publisher; so the English-language version is a self-published ebook. I’d love to see Lipska’s book get a full UK publication, though, as it really does deserve one.

Reviews elsewhere: Winstonsdad’s Blog; It’s a Crime!

Bacon, West and Williams, Ill at Ease (2011)

Ill at Ease is a chapbook anthology of three horror stories, and the first title from Penman Press. The volume opens with ‘Waiting for Josh’ by Stephen Bacon, whose journalist narrator travels from London back to his home town of Scarborough when he hears that his childhood friend Dale is dying – and he wonders how the bright boy he knew became the burnt-out alcoholic that Dale is now. Though he’s increasingly frail, Dale has enough energy to point his friend in the direction of the old Landsmoor house; there, the protagonist finds that, though the building has gone to ruin, the father of the house still waits for his missing son Josh, and has done for 33 years – and so secrets start to be uncovered, and questions answered.

This is a very quiet piece, as befits a story about lives in stasis (not just those of Dale and Mr Landsmoor – seeing what has happened to them makes the narrator question whether he’s done the best for himself in life); perhaps it’s a little too quiet at times, as the atmosphere doesn’t always come through from Bacon’s prose as strongly as it might. But, the more I think about ‘Waiting for Josh’, the more I find to appreciate in it – such as the neat inversion of the haunted house motif, which sees Mr Landsmoor as the living ‘ghost’ haunting his own home (and, of course, haunted himself by the missing Josh).

Mark West’s ‘Come See My House in the Pretty Town’ also begins with its protagonist travelling from London to visit an old friend, but there the similarities end. The setting is not the rugged Yorkshire coast, but a picturesque hamlet in the south-west of England; David Willis has travelled there at the invitation of Simon Roberts, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. Along with Simon’s wife and son, Kim and Billy, they visit a fair in the village; it gradually becomes clear, though, that not all is rosy, and that David and Kim may have had more of a past than Simon realises.

There’s a nicely unsettling feeling about this story, which comes from the contrast between the beauty of the village and the sinister aspects of the fair (such as its threatening clowns made up to look as though they have Chelsea smiles). Much of the weight of the story seems placed on the twist-in-the-tale ending, but West handles it well, and it’s amusing in a drily macabre way.

All three stories in Ill at Ease weave horror into the fabric of contemporary British life, but it’s perhaps the third – ‘Closer Than You Think’ by Neil Williams – which deals with the most everyday of circumstances. It starts at a rubbish tip, where Dave takes the opportunity to bring home the bright pink child’s car seat which the woman in the next vehicle was about to throw away – but Dave’s partner Debs is not impressed, and their daughter Katie is none too keen on the seat, either. It’s Dave, though, who starts to feel that there’s something menacing about the object.

Where Mark West’s story drew on the contrast between village and fair, Williams’ piece uses the ordinariness of its details – visiting the supermarket; rummaging around in the loft – as a counterpoint to its horror. Dave’s experiences start off as unsettling but small, easily explicable as tricks of the light or whatever; but become less easy to explain away as they escalate. That progression of the story is effectively built, and leads to an ending that has the cold sting of inevitability.

Richard Christian Matheson, ‘Last Words’ (2011)

The anthology closes with this short (four-page) piece whose narrator reflects on the value of preparing some god last words for oneself (‘All books have an important final line. All movies have one. So should a life,’ p. 425) – but, though the sentiment may be reasonable, the nature of and reasons for the narrator’s interest in the matter are more disturbing. As a piece of fiction, I’m not sure that ‘Last Words’ achieves a great-enough density of language to balance poetry and gruesomeness.

Rating: ***

Richard Christian Matheson’s website

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ (2011)

High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains lives Miller, who barely knows what to do with himself since his wife and child left; he spends his Saturday afternoons driving around, exploring the local side roads. What he finds on this particular exploration may be just what Miller needs to snap him out of his inertia.

Smith’s story has some of the best writing I’ve yet come across in this anthology: a dry, sparse prose style that perfectly complements both the setting and Miller’s state of mind. And some great turns of phrase, such as this wonderfully creepy image of Miller with too much time on his hands:

Time crawled in an endless parade of minutes from between those cracks, arriving like an army of little black ants, crawling up over his skin, up his face, and into his mouth, ears and eyes. (pp. 340-1)

The true horror of this tale is the horror of emptiness, of an empty existence above all. Smith conveys that horror very well indeed.

Rating: ****

Michael Marshall Smith’s website

Reggie Oliver, ‘A Child’s Problem’ (2011)

Oliver takes as his inspiration for this story Richard Dadd’s painting, The Child’s Problem; he imagines a possible origin for that artwork in the childhood of Sir George St Maur, a social reformer who (says the tale’s preface) visited Dadd in Broadmoor throughout the 1850s (I’ve been unable to find any reference to St Maur online, so am unsure whether he’s a genuine historical figure, or Oliver’s creation).

Nine-year-old George goes to live in his uncle Augustus’s country house, to be tutored until he is ready for Eton. Augustus is a strange figure, forever with a problem set up on his chessboard, but unwilling to actually have a game; he sets challenges for George, but gets angry when the boy completes them – and strange figures can be glimpsed through the windows of the house.

Stylistically, Oliver’s story is closer to the classic supernatural tale than is generally my taste, but the logic underlying what happens is handed very effectively: revealed enough to allow one to formulate an understanding, but also hidden enough that it remains mysterious and creepy.

Rating: ***½

Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

Lisa Tuttle, ‘The Man in the Ditch’ (2011)

Linzi and J.D. are driving to their new house in the Norfolk countryside when Linzi thinks she sees a dead body in a ditch at the side of the road. As the couple renovate the property, thoughts of the dead man continue to play on LInzi’s mind, though J.D. is convinced that she’s mistaken. The initial shock seeing the corpse is very well-handled, as Tuttle lulls the reader into a false sense of security with the neutral tone of her description; and she brings the tale around to a satisfying, grimly circular ending.

Rating: ***½

Book and story notes: Gordon, Kenworthy, Pickin

Helen Gordon, Landfall (2011)

London-based arts critic Alice Robinson is thirty-four, unsure about her place in the world, and haunted by the disappearance of her sister Janey seventeen years previously, when her magazine ‘suspends operations’; taking advantage of her parents’ offer to house-sit for them, she moves back to the suburbs to take stock. Alice’s existence there is enlivened by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old American cousin Emily (who’s been sent over for an improving visit, though she’d rather not be there), and a large dog named Selkirk, whom Alice’s old flatmate Isabel has talked her into looking after (despite Alice’s dislike of dogs). Alice is mostly drifting through life in suburbia when her former editor holds out the possibility of an interview with one of her favourite artists, Karin Ericsson, a recluse who lives on the south coast – could this be the key to Alice’s getting her life back on track?

Helen Gordon’s debut novel is a nicely observed character study, ranging from pithy observations about minor characters (for example, Alice’s artist ex-boyfriend is described as “one of those men of a certain haircut who gravitated towards the east of the city” [pp. 8-9]) to more sustained portrayals of the main players. Alice’s neighbours’ boy, Danny, is a conflicted figure: saved from drowning as a young boy, that piece of great fortune has also made it hard for him to relate to other people (though one senses he ultimately means well), which in turn has led him to dabble in crime. Emily begins as something of a grotesque, obsessed with her body-image to an alarming degree, but, by novel’s end, she is moving towards a more positive view of life; she and Danny come together in a halting, and very real, fashion.

And Alice? She spends a lot of time thinking, but also falls back on instinct, reciting maxims from her Girl Guide and London days. Those recitations may feel forced when she’s at her parents’ house, but Alice’s practical instincts come into their own when she has travelled to the coast. She, like Emily and Danny, makes not so much peace with life, as a kind of messy truce.

Christopher Kenworthy, ‘Sullom Hill’ (2011)

Our narrator recalls his childhood in western Lancashire, in particular his period of friendship with John Stack (“You’d never see him in a group: it was John and one friend for a few weeks and then he’d move on” [p. 6]) and his ambivalent attitude towards learning-disabled Neil Kingsley. The protagonist admires John for his cheek and ability to stand up to his reprimanding teachers – but John’s bravado hides a violent home life, and now he’s picking on Neil.

This is one of the latest chapbooks to be published by Nightjar Press, who specialise in dark fiction at (or beyond) the edges of the supernatural. I make a point of mentioning this here because Kenworthy’s story takes a particularly striking approach to the subgenre. There’s nothing overtly (or even necessarily covertly) fantastical about ‘Sullom Hill’, but Kenworthy portrays John’s behaviour as being rooted in a bargain – maybe not one made with a supernatural agency, but a bargain of a similar kind. Neil’s response to John can be read in an analogous way. The effect of these is to imply a different way of looking at the world, and thereby to disturb the world’s equilibrium – creating a very subtle kind of horror.

Christopher Kenworthy’s website

G.A. Pickin, ‘Remains’ (2011)

The second new title from Nightjar Press takes us to a Scottish moor, where an ill-prepared walker (who is experienced enough that he shouldn’t be in his current predicament, and knows it) leaves behind an abandoned church and the remains of its surrounding settlement, and tries to find his way to the holiday cottage where he’s due to catch up with some friends from an old volunteering project – but the dark and the weather are closing in.

As a story, ‘Remains’ is very much focused on its landscape; Pickin effectively turns what is at first, if not exactly a friendly environment then at least one open to exploration, into somewhere more threatening. The ending is both nicely open and a neat closure.

Robert Shearman, ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ (2011)

Alan and Alice thought they knew their neighbours well enough, but discovered embarrassingly otherwise when they learned that Eric had been dead for months, and Barbara was moving out because she couldn’t cope with her feelings of loneliness. New neighbours duly moved in and, though the couple never saw them, they did hear the loud music coming from next door – and that was just the beginning. This unsettling piece features the matter-of-fact treatment of strangeness that Shearman does so well; Alan’s work life and relationship with Alice fray around the edges as the bizarre events proceed. The result is a story that really get’s under one’s skin.

Rating: ****

Robert Shearman’s website

Ramsey Campbell, ‘Getting it Wrong’ (2011)

Misanthropic film buff Eric Edgeworth is interrupted one evening by a phone call purporting to be from a radio gameshow; would he be the ‘expert friend’ of the current contestant, Mary Barton, a work colleague he barely knows. Edgeworth is convinced this a hoax being staged by some of his fellow-staff at the Frugoplex cinema; but, as the calls continue and Mary is absent from work, it becomes apparent that something more sinister is happening. This is a typically well-constructed story from Campbell, with a satisfying pay-off and a portrait of the crabby Edgeworth that’s grimly amusing. But there’s a sense of artificiality about the piece – perhaps from the fake brand names used, perhaps from those moments when the characterisation becomes a little too broad-brush – which stops it from being truly creepy.

Rating: ***

Ramsey Campbell’s website

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