Tag: horror

John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Dennis Etchison, ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ (2011)

One sweltering day, Sherron sees her friend David cycle perilously close to his father’s truck… and finds him lying underneath the bicycle, apparently with no breath or heartbeat – yet, a short time later, he’s fine. Could this be some kind of survival mechanism, and what exactly could have brought it on? ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’ is a short piece that uses its brevity to great effect; an atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation builds up because we have so little time to grasp what’s going on. And Etchison’s closing sentences are simply beautiful.

Rating: ***½

Brian Hodge, ‘Roots and All’ (2011)

Cousins Dylan and Gina travel to the remote farmhouse of their recently-deceased Grandma Evvie, to sort through her effects; a long-term drug problem has caused the area to go to seed. Never far from Dylan’s mind are Evvie’s old tales of what she called the Woodwalker, and the mystery of his sister Shae’s disappearance eight years previously – a mystery which will be solved by tale’s end. Hodge brings the disparate elements of his story together in unexpected ways, and thre’s a grimly satisfying inevitability about the ending.

Rating: ***

Brian Hodge’s website

Angela Slatter, ‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ (2011)

Quieter in tone than the previous three, Angela Slatter‘s story concerns Hepsibah Ballantyne, a coffin-maker who arrives at the D’Aguillar household to deal with the recently-deceased father, and takes rather a shine to young Lucette D’Aguillar while she’s there. The coffin-maker’s trade is particularly important in this fictional world: get the rituals wrong, and the spirits of the dead will remain behind — as Hepsibah herself knows, because her own dead father, Hector, never leaves her side. The atmosphere of this story builds up quite nicely — Slatter evokes Hepsibah’s burgeoning attraction towards Lucette particularly well — and the  complexities of Heispibah’s character are revealed gradually and effectively.

Rating: ***½

Peter Crowther, ‘Ghosts with Teeth’ (2011)

Hugh and Angie Ritter return home to Tuboise, Maine (popn. 41), to find that something’s not right — people keep disappearing suddenly, or are in places they cannot possibly be. It’s Hallowe’en, and something is about to come trick-or-treating… Peter Crowther‘s story builds its atmosphere slowly, using commonplace things — a radio in the background, a phone call from a familiar voice — that turn abruptly sinister. The ending is also effective, making good use of the fact that, in a community as small as Tuboise, everyone knows each other — something that could have good consequences or bad.

Rating: ***½

Caitlín R. Kiernan, ‘Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint’ (2011)

A woman (spirit? Salamander in human form? Even she isn’t sure) who has an affinity for fire hitches a ride with Billy to a motel somewhere off the Interstate. All her talk is of fire, and Billy will see plenty of that when they reach their destination. Like King’s story, this starts with a conversation between two people and leads up to a supernatural denouement; Kiernan’s tale doesn’t quite get under the skin as much as King’s, but it has greater consistency between beginning and end, and rounds off with a neat little twist.

Rating: ***

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s website

Stephen King, ‘The Little Green God of Agony’ (2011)

Well, you can’t start a horror anthology with a bigger name than Stephen King, so it’s clear straight away that A Book of Horrors means business. King’s story, however, doesn’t blow me away. Andrew Newsome, the world’s sixth-richest man, is in chronic pain after surviving an air crash; unable to find answers in conventional medicine (though Newsome’s put-upon nurse, Kat MacDonald – ‘a piece of human furniture in this big house [p. 1]’ – is more of the opinion that he has unrealistic expectations, and won’t put in the effort to help his treatment along), he turns to one Reverend Rideout, who claims that he can exorcise the source of Newsome’s pain. Kat is sceptical; but this is a horror story…

When the monster (for of course there is one) makes its appearance, the story comes into its own and is properly creepy. However, I don’t find the lead-up to that point – the conversation between Newsome and Rideout, with a storm blowing outside – quite so effective; it seems to me too conventionally-handled to fully create the kind of atmosphere for which it’s aiming. On balance, though,‘The Little Green God of Agony’ is worth reading for the ending.

Rating: ***

Stephen Jones (ed.), A Book of Horrors (2011)

Launching a speculative fiction imprint with a lavish hardback horror anthology is a bold move, so good on Jo Fletcher Books for doing exactly that. Jo Fletcher is one of the most respected publishers in the sf field;, after many years at Gollancz, she has now joined Quercus to launch her own imprint. A Book of Horrors is the second book to be published under the Fletcher banner, a set of fifteen brand new stories, which I’ll be reviewing on here one at a time.

The book’s editor, Stephen Jones, sets out his stall in an introduction:

These days our bloodsuckers are more likely to show their romantic nature, werewolves work for covert government organisations, phantoms are private investigators and the walking dead can be found sipping tea amongst the polite society of a Jane Austen novel.

These are not the iconic figures of fear and wonder that we grew up with. These are not the Creatures of the Night that have scared multiple generations over the centuries and forced countless small children to hide under the bedclothes reading their books and comics by torchlight.


With A Book of Horrors we hope that we have lived up to that title and all that it implies.

Well, let’s find out. Here are the stories Jones has selected:

Certainly there are some excellent writers on that list; I look forward to seeing what chills they supply in this book.

China Miéville, Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005)

“‘It lives in the details,’ she said. ‘It travels in that…in that perception. It moves through those chance meetings of lines. Maybe you glimpse it sometimes when you stare at clouds, and then maybe it might catch a glimpse of you, too.'”

He may be best known as a novelist, but China Miéville’s short fiction is worthy of attention, too. Reading the stories collected in Looking for Jake, I feel as though I’ve gained a fresh understanding of his concerns as a writer. Miéville has often used the term “weird fiction” in conjunction with his work, and a good number of the tales here exhibit what is for me one of the key characteristics of that type of fiction – namely, the paranoid sense that the skin of reality is as thin as a soap bubble and that, if you’re not careful, you’ll discover what’s hiding beyond.

Take, for example, the story ‘Details’ (from which the quote at the head of this review is taken). As a boy, its narrator would go once a week to Mrs Miller’s house to take her the bowl of blancmange specially prepared by his mother. It turns out that Mrs Miller eats that for breakfast because it’s entirely smooth; she has seen something in the apparently-innocent everyday patterns of lines around the house, and that something looked back at her. Even memories or daydreams with patterns are not safe (“the thing’s waiting in the texture of my dress, or in the crumbs of my birthday cake”). Of course, it’s always possible that she’s delusional…isn’t it?

The paranoid uncertainty over the nature of reality is even more palpable in ‘Go Between’, where one Morley finds mysterious packages hidden in the items he buys from the supermarket, with instructions to send them on. What’s in these packages, what or whom they’re for, who sent them – and how they could know what he’d choose to buy – are all mysteries to Morley. One day, he comes across what will seemingly be the last of these packages, and starts to have doubts (did he make a mistake at some point? Might his actions even have inadvertently caused disaster or suffering?) and decides not to forward the parcel as instructed. Miéville brilliantly increases the tension of Morley’s conflicting thoughts as the protagonist watches terrible events unfold on the news – is this what happened because he didn’t send on the parcel, or just coincidence? – until the story ends in just the right place.

Though I wasn’t previously familiar with much of Miéville’s short fiction, I had read the story ‘An End To Hunger’ in a couple of anthologies; it’s interesting to read it again now in light of the other tales collected with it. Probably the least fantastical of all the stories in the book, ‘An End To Hunger’ is set in 1997, when its narrator meets Aykan, a “virtuoso of programming” who already views the internet as yesterday’s news. In time, Aykan becomes incensed by a click-to-donate website named An End To Hunger, whose methods he regards as corrupt; Aykan institutes a series of attacks against the site, until… Even though we’re not talking about somethings on the other side of reality in this case, the sense of secret forces at work in the world still prevails, and is brought into sharper relief by the context of publication.

As well as a writer of weird fiction, Miéville is, and always has been, a writer of the city; this latter is displayed in almost every piece in the book. ‘Reports of Certain Events in London’ is presented as a series of documents sent erroneously to the author; these describe a secret society’s investigations of ‘wild streets’, unpredictable thoroughfares which cannot be trusted to remain in the same place. Miéville’s approach to the story is effective in gradually unfurling the ramifications of its central idea, and the tale has the requisite frisson of uncertainty over whether what’s happening is real or all in the characters’ minds. The title story of Looking for Jake is another of the most strongly ‘urban’ pieces, this time describing a London which has been overrun by entropy, many of whose inhabitants have disappeared; this is one of those stories where it’s not so easy to pick out individual turns of phrase which are key in creating the atmosphere, but there’s nevertheless an accumulating sense of a washed-out, threateningly empty city.

Rounding out the collection are stories that show the variety of colours in Miéville’s palette. These range from ‘Familiar’, the tale of a monster grown from a gobbet of flesh, which has the kind of squelchily descriptive prose familiar from many of the author’s novels; to ‘The Ball Room’ (co-written with Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer), which lends a menacing aspect to a children’s play area with considerable economy. ‘Jack’, set in the same world as Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, is the story of a semi-legendary freedom fighter/terrorist in the city of New Crobuzon – but, in typically tricksy fashion, we never see the man himself directly; and ‘‘Tis the Season’, in which Christmas itself has become licensed, showcases Miéville’s sharp sense of humour.

If you’ve never read China Miéville before, Looking for Jake represents a fine introduction to his work. If you only know him from his novels, this collection will show another side to this singular writer.

This review was first published in the September 2011 issue of The Short Review, which also carries an interview with China Miéville.

Read ‘An End To Hunger’
Niall Harrison reviews Looking for Jake
China Miéville websites: publisher’s site; author’s blog.

Book notes: Grimwood, Trigell, Gardner

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Fallen Blade (2011)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood made his name as a science fiction novelist; now, for his eleventh book (and first in five years), he’s turned to fantasy, beginning his ‘Assassini’ sequence. The 15th-century Venice of The Fallen Blade is ruled by a dynasty founded by Marco Polo, with a certain rivalry between the Regent Alonzo and his sister-in-law Alexa, mother of the imbecilic Duke Marco IV. As the novel begins, a mysterious silver-haired boy is found captive aboard a Mamluk ship; given the name Tycho, he has no memory of how he came to be there, but hungers for blood and possesses preternatural reflexes, which latter catch the eye of Venice’s chief assassin, Atilo, who has it in mind to train the boy to become his heir. Elsewhere, the planned strategic marriage of the Duke’s cousin, Lady Giulietta, is derailed when the Mamluks kidnap her in revenge for the attack on their ship – and the intrigues only continue…

Grimwood brings his Venice to life well, in both its atmosphere (squalid and smelly) and the complexity of its political and social codes (for example, a soldier’s instinctive action to save a noble’s life may be tantamount to choosing factions). The action sequences are involving, and Grimwood also evokes the conflicting senses of reluctance and desire felt by both Tycho as he discovers more of who (or what) he is, and Giulietta as she becomes attracted to him. The deployment of the supernatural is strikingly low-key: the word ‘vampire’ is not in the novel’s vocabulary (nor does Tycho quite fit that mould); and, on the occasions when characters do use magic, there’s nothing flashy about it – it comes across as just another tool to be used.

At the same time, it can be difficult to fully engage with The Fallen Blade. Many of the characters commit violent and abhorrent acts (as befits their society and their positions within it), and don’t always have enough charisma in the reader’s eyes to balance that out, even in the case of Tycho, the book’s de facto ‘hero’. Nor is the novel always sufficiently clear on the status of its various political intrigues. Still, The Fallen Blade is a good start to its series, and carries the promise of revelations and complex plots aplenty to come.

This review was first published on Fiction Uncovered.

Jonathan Trigell, Genus (2011)

Jonathan Trigell is best known for Boy A, his debut about a young offender trying to reintegrate into society after spending most of his life in prison. For his third novel, however, Trigell has turned his hand to science fiction. In a future London stifled by a series of wars and unchanging government, advances in genetic technology mean that perfection is available to anyone who can afford it. Those who can’t, the ‘Unimproved’, end up somewhere like The Kross (King’s Cross as was). Genus follows a number of characters living in and around The Kross, mostly notably Holman, the disfigured son of the last natural beauty queen; and Günther Bonnet, the cop with ‘the best set of genes on the force’, who has a series of murders to investigate.

The actual plot of Genus, the mystery around those deaths, is relatively straightforward, and not the novel’s main point of interest. Where the book rerally succeeds is the way Trigell depicts his future, world; our perspective is firmly rooted on the inside, to an almost suffocating degree. We barely see anything of life outside The Kross, never mind outside of London; and it’s difficult to get a real handle on how this world developed and how it operates – we understand to an extent, yes, but a full picture of the world is as distant from us as it is from the inhabitants of The Kross; they just have to get on as best they can, and that’s what Trigell makes his readers do. There’s also some nicely effective prose in Genus; I wasn’t too keen on the use of alliteration, but the jerky, rapid-fire sentences of Günther’s scenes do much to convey his character, and Trigell frequently juxtaposes different senses of the same word or phrase to great effect. I’ll certainly be reading more of Trigell’s work after this.

Cate Gardner, ‘Nowhere Hall’ (2011)

The latest chapbook from Spectral Press is the story of Ron Spence, a man who’s had all the hope and colour wrung out of him, and contemplates stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. But instead of actually doing so, Ron goes into a nearby hotel, which may be opulent, or derelict, or both at once. He wanders through its rooms, where nothing quite makes sense, but there’s a vaguely familiar mannequin that seems strangely alive.

A story like this really stands or falls on the atmosphere it creates, and ‘Nowhere Hall’ does well on that score. Cate Gardner uses recurring images, such as dust and umbrellas, to build up the sense of a web tightening around her protagonist; and Ron’s sense of the hotel’s rooms having a distorted familiarity further increases the tension. I don’t think I grasped everything that was going on in ‘Nowhere Hall’, but what I particularly appreciate is the way Gardner suggests that the world outside the hotel is just as strange as the one inside it – so maybe there’s not much of an escape for Ron after all.

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