Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

Trouble in Paradise: Kristin Dearborn’s Sacrifice Island

sacrifice_islandThe blurb for Kristin Dearborn’s novella Sacrifice Island (DarkFuse, 2013) grabbed my attention, leading me to add the book to my reviewing queue:

Jemma and Alex are paranormal investigators, writing a book on hauntings around the world. When Jemma begins researching a cryptic diary written by a young woman who committed suicide on a supposedly haunted island in the Philippines years earlier, they think they’ve found their next chapter.

It doesn’t take long for the pair to learn that the island harbors long-buried secrets, while savagely mutilated bodies turn its cerulean seas bloodred around them.

An ancient legend…

For the spirits here are demanding, and Jemma must confront her own demons while attempting to save herself and Alex from taking a permanent vacation to Sacrifice Island.

Intriguing, no?  It’s not revealing too much to say that the creature of Sacrifice Island is an aswang, a mythical vampire-like creature from Filipino folklore. I have a couple movies in my collection that feature as aswang, but have never gotten around to watching them, so I was looking forward to my, er, aswang introduction on Sacrifice Island.

As mentioned in the blurb above, Jemma and Alex travel to the Philippines to investigate the legends involving Sakripisiyuhin Island, or Sacrifice Island, as it’s called. It quickly becomes apparent that Jemma has some unusual quirks — fervently avoiding the touch of others, burying herself in layers of clothing — and that the two of them have a relationship with some undisclosed backstory… in particular, Alex seems to have feelings for Jemma that go well beyond their business relationship.  Jemma also has an unusual psychic skill, but I’m going to refrain from going into detail on that in order to avoid a spoiler.

Arriving in the town of El Nido, they’re greeted by Terry Brenton, a UK expat and widower who owns a local hotel and figures prominently in the plot. Nearby Sacrifice Island was once a tourist attraction, but after a string of suicides, it’s become abandoned, and shunned by the locals…although it’s not completely deserted, acting as home to something that demands sacrifices, as the island’s name implies.  Once Jemma and Alex visit the island, events begin inexorably leading toward a confrontation with the aswang.

There is some awkward dialog at times, and a few minor continuity problems, as seen here:

She started to walk back, but then realized it was too hot. She had to flag a trike down after all.

None of them stopped and she started to cry. Finally one did stop. It took three tries to spit out the name of the place.

“You okay, lady?” the driver asked, his English broken.

“Fine, thank you.” She turned away. She knew she’d overpaid, but she didn’t care.

Relief washed over her as she retreated to her cabin, shut the door behind her, locked it. She drew all the curtains, and only then did she step out of her layers of clothes.

But those weak spots are somewhat balanced out by strong pacing and some nice descriptive passages, as seen here:

The afternoon sun baked through Terry’s light cotton shirt and linen trousers. Sweat pooled at the small of his back and inside his trousers … He’d had to wait a day, to make sure Mr. Lucky fed her, to make sure she wasn’t hungry when he came. He arrived at noon, when the sun shone strongest and the creatures of the night were at their weakest.

Sacrifice Island is also aided by the “fresh” nature of some key aspects: the off-the-beaten-path locale, the unusual creature, and the offbeat nature of Jemma’s psychic ability.

The aforementioned relationship between Jemma and Alex is the most intriguing aspect of the novella but it’s frustrating as well — the reader tends to tire quickly of his simpering behavior and her rather icy and controlling actions.  All in all, Sacrifice Island is an entertaining way to spend a couple hours, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Twilight Ridge’s Top Five Books for 2013

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Here it is, the obligatory “best of 2013” post.  It is, of course, limited to the books that I actually read during 2013, a group that — in a clear sign of my dedication to Twilight Ridge — almost exactly equates to the books that I reviewed here on this site.  I read only a small handful of additional titles beyond those that I reviewed.  Without further hand-waving, here’s the top five:

  1. Carl Shuker, Anti Lebanon
  2. Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters
  3. Michael Marshall Smith, Everything You Need
  4. David Nickle, The ‘Geisters
  5. John Langan, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky

Runner-up: Michael McBride, The Coyote.