Doing Time with Simon Bestwick’s The Condemned

cat_condemnedI’ve long been a fan of the novella format.  Much longer than a short story, appreciably shorter than a novel, it’s the perfect length for many plots.  (If you subscribe to the notion of novelettes being an additional category — 7,500 to 17,500 words, by most definitions — that’s a nice size, too… but I digress.)  The Gray Friar collection, The Condemned, gathers six novellas by Simon Bestwick, a UK author whose first title, A Hazy Shade of Winter, appeared in 2004 and who’s been coming on like gangbusters lately.  The Condemned is a consistently impressive collection that serves to continue that streak.

Perhaps the most striking thing about these novellas is the variety of voices used and themes covered. There are few commonalities to be found here, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Take, for example, “Dark Earth,” in which a World War I soldier who’s been imprisoned for being a deserter, tells his interrogator the true story what happened to him out there in the trenches.  Suffice to say that it involves a new type of creature that burrows in the battlefield mud and seems capable of using humans as hosts.  And, incidentally, the creatures’ ability to occupy and direct their hosts is referenced (in a darkly satirical way) as a possible explanation for some of the incompetence shown by commanding officers.

“The Narrows” is a fast-forward to the near future, where a teacher helps guide a group of schoolchildren in search of a safe haven after a nuclear attack.  But their quest for a less-dangerous location leads them into a maze of underground canals that had once been used for coal transport. There, they find mystery and terror, to say nothing of a loss of their humanity:

Oh, God. All the things happening to me that I can’t bear. Is this the price of survival? How much of myself will I have to give up to stay alive, of what I was?

In “A Kiss of Old Thorns,” a group of bank robbers who’ve bungled the job and become murderers are in need of a place to hide out for a while but they make an unfortunate choice when they invade the small coastal home of the elderly Hobbes.  The old man has been performing an important ritual there, using his painfully hand-made wreaths of thorns to keep an unseen something at bay, and the violent interlopers disrupt his routine sufficiently to unleash the previously interred threat. The ending features a twist that’s not entirely unexpected but nonetheless seem perfectly appropriate.

Set in 1981, “The Model” tells the tale of Ella, a cash-strapped student who responds to an ad for a portrait model, ventures to a decrepit, seemingly abandoned building, and finds the painter to be a huge, bulky shape bathed in shadowy darkness. On her way out from the unsettling appointment, she discovers even more strangeness:

Coming down the staircase, I wasn’t alone. The dimness was a tunnel. Shapes swam up towards me. Thin, etiolated shapes with hands like wilted flowers, faces that were vastnesses of eyes and yearning mouths and not much else besides. Dried, colourless hair wafting like weeds in ocean depths. Hands reaching out to pluck at me.

Despite her misgivings, Ella is unable to say no to repeat engagements, drawn back by her financial situation and…perhaps something more. As time goes on, it soon becomes apparent that the sessions are having a withering effect on her, sort of like Dorian Gray in reverse. And though she manages to escape her situation before it becomes fatal, her victory is a somewhat hollow one:

Some things can never be undone. We’re all still lost, still sundered from the best part of [our]selves. The living and the  dead and the ones in between. Weeping in the dark for a loss that can never be made good, praying for a way home we’ll never find.

“The School House” is an impressively unpredictable piece set in a psychiatric home, where low-level worker Danny is enlisted to assist with a patient who happens to be an old acquaintance of his, committed for burning down their former school. As Danny is drawn deeper into the case, he begins to experience nightmares, and to recall more of the memories that he’d blocked regarding his time in school. The ending is a true shocker, yet not, in retrospect, too outlandish.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that the final story, “Sleep Now in the Fire” (which also happens to be the one written earliest in Bestwick’s career) is the weakest, layering a slightly heavy-handed political message onto a story about werewolves (more or less) in lower-income London.

Despite ending a note that’s less than its best, The Condemned is a consistently strong collection, and a real bargain at a price of $16. No less an authority than Ramsey Campbell has referred to Bestwick as, “among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.”  Based on my limited sample, I’d have to agree.

Creatures of a Different Sort in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters

lakemonsterscover1Nathan Ballingrud is an author who I’ve been reading about for a long time — largely via reviews of his stories in various anthologies — but who I had not, up until now, actually read.  Small Beer Press has helped to correct that oversight by publishing the Ballingrud collection, North American Lake Monsters (ebook $9.95; trade paperback $16; hardcover $24).

The book gathers nine stories, one of which appears for the first time here. There are a wide variety of themes and styles represented, but every tale is smart and stylish, and the stories are often more about the wider repercussions of a supernatural situation — like the ripples emanating from a rock dropped in water — than directly dealing with an attack or an encounter.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is the first story in the book and it’s one helluva leadoff hitter, starting as a somewhat folksy tale about Toni, a waitress and single mother, who winds up taking home an offbeat customer named Alex. The story takes a turn for the strange when Alex confesses that he’s driving a stolen car, and insists on showing Toni what he’s found in the trunk, which is some surreal cargo indeed. Convinced that he’s being pursued, Alex soon moves on, but his impact on Toni continues to resonate, leading to a devastatingly sad ending.

In “Wild Acre” a construction site for spec homes, bordering on wilderness, is marked by repeated acts vandalism.  In response, the owner of the construction company, Jeremy, and a couple of his employees spend a (drunken) night at the site in order to guard it. The violent attack — from what may be a werewolf — that ensues leaves one of them dead, but it’s not so much the attack that is the the focal point of the story as it is the fallout from that night. Ravaged by the memories of his inaction on that fateful night, his company forced out of business, Jeremy is a haunted man, dreading even his wife’s holiday party:

“Jeremy supposed that a Christmas party full of elementary school professionals might be the worst place in the world. He would drift among them helplessly, like a grizzly bear in a roomful of children, expected not to eat anyone.”

Blue-collar protagonists are a staple of Ballingrud’s work, and in “S.S.” that role is filled by Nick, a high school dropout working as a restaurant dishwasher. Stumbling towards acceptance in a white supremacist gang, Nick’s dismal existence is complicated by the bizarre yearnings of his elderly, infirm mother. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this particular tale, but it’s dark and disturbing nonetheless.

“The Crevasse,” co-written with Dale Bailey, expertly utilizes its Antarctic setting, as a scientific expedition stumbles upon something vast and Lovecraftian beneath the ice, although some members of the group are unwilling to admit what they’ve seen.  In “The Monsters of Heaven,” the sudden appearance of strange creatures that are referred to as angels — and of one such creature in particular — helps to fill the gap left in one couple’s life by the disappearance of their son. But this is no feel-good story — the specifics of just how the “angel” fills that gap are…disturbing (there’s that word again).

Ballingrud turns his eyes to vampires in “Sunbleached,” and, fortunately, it’s a refreshingly offbeat take.  Joshua lives in a hurricane-damaged house with his mother and younger brother…and, lately, with a sunburnt vampire hiding in the crawlspace beneath the house. Joshua tries to manipulate the weakened vampire into doing his wishes, but he soon finds he has underestimated the danger lurking below.

A hurricane also figures in “The Way Station,” wherein progatonist Beltrane is aging, homeless, and more lost than ever after Hurricane Katrina. This story is something of a departure from the other tales here, a surreal saga of a haunting, by the ghost of New Orleans itself.

“The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.”

“The Good Husband” is a heart-wrenching story of a husband who, weary of his wife’s suicide attempts and convinced that she will never know happiness, chooses to let her succeed with her latest attempt.  But his decision comes back to haunt him when she comes back from the dead, although it’s a temporary return, as she is slowly, inexorably pulled toward the soft whisper of the grave.

North American Lake Monsters is a diverse, highly-engaging collection from a grossly under-appreciated author.  Hopefully this collection is the first step towards rectifying that.

Digging up skeletons in the basement with Gary McMahon’s The Bones of You

thebonesofyou_lgGary McMahon is a UK author whose career I’ve watched progress with interest over the last few years. (I earlier reviewed the chapbook Thin Men With Yellow Faces, which he co-authored with Simon Bestwick.)  McMahon here offers the latest installment in Earthling Publications’ series of annual Halloween books, the short novel The Bones of You (500 signed, numbered hardcovers; $45).

Adam Morris is a recently divorced forklift driver who’s just moved into a house that he hopes will be a warm and welcoming home for his daughter Jess when he has custody of her. At his core, Adam is a good, decent man, but life’s rough edges and  hard knocks have left him with a cynical, world-weary perspective:

“Didn’t I deserve a normal life; one like other people enjoyed? Wasn’t I good enough for that? …Life was hard, people were often harsh, and everybody had their own problems. These problems were mine — I had created them. Nobody had forced me to take up with an addict and have a child with her. I had made my own decisions, followed the paths I had chosen…”

Adam’s jaded yet still occasionally hopeful outlook, backed by McMahon’s trenchant observations and adroit phrasing, make for some memorable passages, several of which I’ll be quoting here.

Not long after moving into his new rental, Adam discovers that the house next door has a decidedly sordid history, being the former residence of Katherine Moffat, a serial killer of children who committed her crimes in the basement of that now-abandoned house. Boarded up and cloaked in darkness, the house lurks on the periphery like a shadowy character:

“I glanced again at the house next door, wondering what might be hiding in its dark interior. Could badness be stored, like preserves in glass jars? Perhaps if I went in there, I’d find row upon row of containers, each one containing a small sin.”

Adam’s focus is on giving Jess as normal and happy a childhood as he can, but various complications enter his life, such as the goth girl who he finds one night loitering around the old Moffat house, or his coworker Carole, with who he become intimate, against his better judgment.

It’s also worth noting that, roughly halfway through the book, there are hints of a devastating past episode, involving Adam and his ex-wife, that threatens to undermine everything we think we’ve learned about Adam. To say more would be to risk a spoiler, so I’ll just note that the revelation — or is it a red herring? — is given a gradual and very effective reveal.

Meanwhile, something supernatural seems to be stirring next door. And through it all, Adam’s point of view doesn’t exactly brighten:

“Bad news usually comes to us in the times when we least expect it, when we start to think that things might turn out okay. These are the most dangerous times, when we start to glimpse the light of a new dawn, when we allow that light to warm us and make us think that good times are just around the corner.”

and:

“I knew there was more tragedy to come. All I had to do — all I ever had to do — was stand and wait for it to find me. I sensed the dark movement around me; just one of a myriad dark movements, all working in unison. The machinery of night was moving up a gear. If I didn’t act, I would be crushed by the darkness.”

All these well-turned passages that I’ve quoted serve as building blocks for a novel that’s richly atmospheric without sacrificing pace…but despite all that, there are a couple cracks in the foundation. If I had to guess they’re the result of rushing to finish the book and meet a deadline, and they certainly aren’t fatal flaws, but I couldn’t help but notice them.

First, there are two descriptions of how Halloween is viewed in the UK, both from Adam’s perspective, some 40 pages apart, which seem very much at odds with each other:

“…Halloween was a growth industry these days: there was a whole Americanization of the day happening, to the extent that it was even called a holiday. When I was a child, it was a low-key affair… It was all different now: decorations in windows, pumpkins on sale in all the shops, expensive costumes, and the call of Trick or Treat drifting through the towns and villages of the country.”

vs.

“Halloween wasn’t a date I’d ever given much thought… This wasn’t America: despite increasingly desperate attempts by the supermarket chains and toy companies, on a cultural level Halloween was still a relatively low-key celebration. We simply didn’t make that big a deal out of Halloween in England.”

Given that this is, after all, a novel in a series of books about Halloween, such an inconsistency jumped out at me.

Second — and this one is harder to describe without having to declare “spoiler!”, but here goes — a reference is made to the car of a character who later…disappears, but then no further mention is made of that car, which would very much need to have been disposed of, to avoid the scrutiny of the authorities. Failing to at least mention how the car was dealt with stood out like a sore thumb.

But these problems are minor in the overall scheme of things. The Bones of You is compulsively readable, and every bit as dark as you’d want a Halloween horror novel to be.