Black Plague for Everyone! — Paul Finch’s King Death

UK author Paul Finch has quietly built a solid body of work over the last decade, including three novels, seven collections, two British Fantasy awards and an International Horror Guild award, to say nothing of his work for the silver screen, which includes several optioned screenplays, and the recently released The Devil’s Rock (which I can attest is a fun flick). For his latest work, Finch has joined forces with chapbook publisher Spectral Publications to produce King Death, a picture-perfect period piece of historical horror set during the time of Europe’s Black Plague.

The story opens with an arresting scene, gazing upon a cavalcade of cadavers, a literal death-march carried on by the horses despite the condition of their riders and carriage-goers:

“…he had witnessed many horrors over the last year, yet there was something especially odious about this. The combination, perhaps, of rich awning, elaborate fashion, opulent garb – with the caked blood and seeping pus of a thousand plague sores, with the drone of feeding bluebottles.

How long had these dead folk been on the move, he wondered? Hours? Days? Where were they travelling from, and where to? No-one would ever know now. The stench was hideous – the stomach-turning fetor that hung over everything in these unhappy days, yet swam in waves from this grisly spectacle, this mobile feast for crows.”

There are only two characters in Finch’s tale: Rodric, a thief masquerading in a dead knight’s armor, who’s proven immune to the Plague and is now looting his way across a ravaged countryside; and the young boy he encounters in the wastelands, who has been orphaned by the death of his entire family and everyone else employed by his former Lord, and who is now gone in search of Death. When the boy comes upon Rodric, the petty criminal pompously announces that he is “King Death” — a proclamation that he will ultimately regret. To say much more would entail a spoiler, so I’ll refrain.

Even though King Death is only 14 pages in length, Finch manages to render a detailed, immersive venue, partially due to his liberal use of historically-accurate language and terminology, which serves to imbue the proceedings with a sense of verity. The only drawback is that the meaning of many of the words were unknown to me (and would be to most readers), and I was forced to infer or guess their meaning. Upon finishing the story, I discovered a handy glossary at the back of the chapbook, a reference which would have been better placed before the story, I believe.

Regardless, King Death is both atmospheric and authentic, a rewarding exercise in medieval madness.

SoCal Creatures — A review of Lisa Morton’s Monsters of L.A.

As I commented in my previous reviews of The Lucid Dreaming and The Castle of Los Angeles, Lisa Morton’s fiction output has recently increased significantly. In the last couple of years, she’s published not only that novel and novella, but also the novella The Samhanach and the collection Monsters of L.A., the latter of which I’ll be taking a closer look at here.

Published by Bad Moon Books, Monsters of L.A. is Morton’s first collection and includes 20 stories, all published here for the first time. Each story is named for and focuses on a classic trope — such as Dracula, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and the Hunchback — but each bears a twist that makes it a distinctively L.A. story. Take, for example, the aforementioned “The Mummy,” in which a vain trophy wife in search of the latest in skin treatments finds more than she bargained for behind the doors of a new spa with Egyptian influences. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” features a doctor specializing in gender reassignment whose zeal for greater efficacy leads her to try an experimental drug on herself, resulting in…well, you can imagine, given the title. In “The Invisible Woman,” a nondescript and oft-ignored woman begins to take advantage of her inconspicuous status. A unique perspective — that of the house itself, wanting to be rid of the crew of a Ghost Hunters-style TV series — distinguishes “The Haunted House.” And “Cat People” stands out due to its effective use of the Latin American legend of “La Japonesa” legend, transplanted to Southern California by the workers who migrated there.

Many of the tales are less horrific and more focused on other emotions, such as the poignant “Quasimodo,” wherein a gay high school student tries to finish the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that he’s creating while fending off abuse from fellow students. Or the darkly comedic “Dracula,” which concerns an aging film star who finds there’s more to fear than just a young upstart actor hastening the decline of his career. Or “The Creature,” which has an attention-grabbing beginning — an amphibious creature crawls from the La Brea tar pits, while onlookers assume it be a publicity stunt — but is too short and ends a little too abruptly, with a little too much of a tongue-in-cheek tone, to be successful. The issues of brevity and “winking” tone are ones that are evident at several points in the collection, and unfortunately detract a bit from the book’s overall impact.

At 55 pages, “The Urban Legend” is drastically longer than any other story in the book and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the best story in the book, featuring the Professor and Teaching Assistant from “Cat People” and focusing on legends of a series of hidden tunnels stretching beneath LA. It’s worth noting that this is not the only story to re-use elements from elsewhere — a handful of other stories are loosely-connected to one another and one features a reference to Morton’s novel The Castle of Los Angeles. These are neat little touches that serve to unify the shared milieu, creating more of a cohesive whole, and I would’ve liked to have seen Morton do more of this. Story notes close out the collection nicely, with Morton describing the inspiration for each of the tales.

Writing twenty original stories for a collection is admirable but challenging, and Morton is not up to the task with every story, but she succeeds more often than not, resulting in an unpredictable and entertaining collection.

A Taste of England — Charlotte Bond’s Hunter’s Moon and Paul Kane’s Pain Cages

UK writer Charlotte Bond has shown promise with some of her short stories, in markets such as Dark Horizons and Spinetinglers. Hunter’s Moon, a 114-page novella from Screaming Dreams, is her first longer work and it unfortunately does not build on the promise shown in her short fiction. Hunter’s Moon focuses on four twentysomethings, two male and two female, who were friends in college, have since stayed in touch, and are now embarking on a vacation to a remote rental cottage in the French countryside. Faster than you can say “that sounds like a standard set-up for a horror movie,” unsettling warning signs begin to emerge, including strange sounds from the attic, vivid shared dreams, and waking “hallucinations.”

The nearby ruins of a castle, once owned by the cruel torturer Lord Moreau, who “worked his serfs to the grave and commanded them with fear,” seems to be the nexus, although only Jenny and Reece, two members of the group who possess some varying degrees of psychic abilities, seem to realize the connection — and the very mortal danger that threatens the foursome. Speaking of said group… it’s their characterizations and annoyingly repetitive interactions that largely serve to detract from the story’s strengths. The aforementioned Jenny and Reece are nominally the heroes, and their unspoken attraction to one another initially simmers just beneath the surface before eventually turning lukewarm and then stone cold (from the standpoint of the reader’s interest). The other two members are Eleanor, notable both for her self-centered, manipulative ways in general and in particular for her desire to get Reece’s attentions and affection; and Steve, whose desire to bed anything that moves is matched only by his frequent and inane attempts at humor. Not that Steve has a license on ill-timed and awkward humor…late in the story, a stripped and bound Reece says to Jenny:

“I always hoped you [sic] see me n-naked, but n-never like this,” he joked.
“We’ve no time for idiotic remarks, Reece.”

Indeed.

There is some real tension built in the latter stages of the story, as Moreau seeks to fully return from beyond the grave, but the deadline for his would-be re-emergence seems strangely contrived, and the dialog in the climactic scene is painfully melodramatic. All in all, Hunter’s Moon is occluded by some rather unfortunate clouds.

*  *  *

Like some other authors I’ve reviewed recently, Paul Kane has proven impressively prolific during his career, with 16 titles produced in the last 10 years, to say nothing of a couple non-fiction titles and several anthologies he’s edited. His name is not as well known to US readers as some of the other fecund folks I’ve covered — such as Tim Lebbon, Michael McBride, and Ronald Malfi — no doubt largely due to the fact he’s British and many of his titles have appeared only from UK-based publishers.

Kane’s new collection, Pain Cages, is an exception to that, appearing courtesy of US publisher Books of the Dead Press. Pain Cages focuses on longer works, gathering four novellas, two of which are original to this collection. In his Introduction, Stephen Volk says that after reading this book “…you’ll realize ultimately that though the rough path through Paul Kane’s world involves a lot of pain and anguish, the pain isn’t what the journeys are about. Not really.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Volk says, because although the path through Kane’s work is indeed sometimes rough (in terms of both the characters’ journeys and, occasionally, the writing), and certainly describes no small amount of pain, the stories are fundamentally far more than mere exercises in sadism or vicarious shivers.

Take, for example, the eponymous title story, which appears here for the first time and leads off the collection. The protagonist, Chris, awakes in darkness, trapped in a cage with no memory of how he got there, nor the other unfortunate souls in adjacent cages, one of whom is being tortured and killed. As time slowly passes in his small prison, Chris finds out precious little about his captors or how he arrived in these circumstances, and his fellow captives are similarly clueless, but the reader gradually learns of Chris’s backstory via interspersed flashbacks. When Chris finally escapes his cage, the sights that await him as he seeks a way out of the facility initially seem a little over-the top metaphysically, but the denouement is unexpected yet perfectly appropriate

The other original novella, “Halflife,” is not nearly as accomplished, chronicling the fates of a former pack of teen werewolves, who’re reuniting due to the realization that someone may now, all these years later, be stalking them one by one. Reprint “Signs of Life” is sort of the dark literary equivalent of the mosaic approach that has proven so popular in films of the last decade or so, including the likes of Magnolia, Crash, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and oh-so-many more. In Kane’s take on the approach, the perspective switches between several strangers on a train, each with a distinct and interesting backstory, and the focus is naturally on how their destinies ultimately intertwine and collide. It’s a well-done story, but I found the numerous astrological interludes, clearly intended to be a key aspect, to be distracting and failing to add anything to the work.

The collection closes with a very strong reprint, “The Lazarus Condition,” which begins with something of a “Monkey’s Paw” feel to it, as Matthew Daley suddenly shows up on his mother’s doorstep, despite the fact he’s been dead for seven years. Mrs. Daley and the police refuse to believe the interloper is truly Matthew, and his “ex-widow” joins that camp as well, leaving Matthew friendless and alone until he finally convinces a a nurse, who has first-hand knowledge of his case, to help him. Along the way Matthew’s story becomes even stranger, as he displays first a supernatural knowledge of others’ backgrounds (and, especially, sources of guilt) and later further extraordinary abilities, leading up to a confrontation with the man who killed him. It’s an engaging tale, and despite the presence of reanimated corpses, it’s about as far from a traditional zombie story as one can get.

There’s an impressive array of laudatory quotations fronting Pain Cages, from the likes of Clive Barker, Christopher Golden, Graham Joyce, and Sarah Langan, and while I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the most adulatory of those remarks, I can certainly concur that Kane’s insights into the human condition shine through the often cruel and harsh world that he depicts.