Tag Archives: British

Up All Night With Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s)

sleeper(s)  smaller versionThe publicity materials for Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s) (Crystal Lake Publishing; 184 pgs.; $9.99) compares this short novel to work by John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, two highly-regarded authors of classic UK-based disaster fiction.  And the allusions don’t stop there — Kane name-checks both Wyndham and Kneale in the text, and events take place in the village of Middletown, which certainly seems to be a play on Wyndham’s Midwich (from The Midwich Cuckoos).

All of this tends to raise one’s expectations a bit — it did for me, at least — and although Sleeper(s) is certainly lean and fast-paced, it ultimately feels a little too formulaic for me to pronounce it to be up to the standards of Messrs. Kneale and Wyndham.  Following the Prologue, the story begins with an ominous first line:

“The disorder presented itself as a mild form of fatigue at first.”

From fatigue, the fast-spreading illness quickly escalates to a sort of sudden-onset narcolepsy, to put it mildly. Before you can say “sweet dreams,” the entire town of Middletown has fallen into apparent comas. The town is quickly quarantined and Dr. Andrew Strauss, a brilliant scientist, is called in by the government to lead the investigation into the affliction.  Strauss is an eccentric character who, it turns out, has been dreaming for years of a specific woman, who’s suddenly telling him (in his dreams) that “it’s time…come quickly!”  The good doctor is quickly convinced that the woman of his dreams awaits him somewhere among the sleepers. Strauss is accompanied by his assistant, Bridget Clarke, who has an obsession of her own — namely Strauss himself.

Attempting to direct Strauss is a cadre of American and British military brass, with UK Major Radford acting as the strung-too-tight wildcard, although his fellow high-ranking officers General Fitzpatrick and Colonel Huxley (the latter being leader of the U.S. forces) are no day at the beach, either.

But all is not as it seems with the dozing villagers of Middletown.  When the expedition team ventures into the land of Nod, they discover that the sleepers, who are now covered with a cobwebby substance, are capable of waking. But when they awake, they show no signs of the individuals they were previously, instead moving like mindless meat puppets controlled by a hive mind.

That sense of a “by-the-numbers” approach that I mentioned earlier applies at times to both plot and character development, as virtually every event is designed to drive the plot forward, with little to no time for subplots, red herrings or the like; and several of the characters seeming rather flimsy and stereotyped — like the aforementioned Major Radford, whose general theatrics and love of war seem over-the-top, and British soldier Timms, whose hatred of the U.S. in general, and one American soldier in particular, likewise feels forced.

Sleeper(s) features wonderful cover art by Ben Baldwin and a nicely-crafted Introduction by David Moody, who closes with this:

“Read Sleeper(s), then ask yourself, do I have as much control over my life as I think I do? Are you really your own master, or are you just a pawn.”

Personally, I’ve read other work by Kane that I’ve enjoyed more than Sleeper(s), but if you’re a fan of fast-paced disaster fiction, this novel may well be a good choice for you. It’s not a winner in the way of Wyndham, but you could call it a near-miss kneeling at the altar of Kneale.

 

Mark Morris’ It Sustains Has True Staying Power

it-sustains-signed-jhc-by-mark-morris-1707-pBritish author Mark Morris has been at it now for longer than I care to think (a comment on my age, not his talent), with nearly 20 titles published since his debut, Toady, appeared in 1989.  His latest, It Sustains, from Earthling Publications, sports an Introduction by Sarah Pinborough and a gorgeous cover illustration by Edward Miller; more importantly, it’s a taut, coming-of-age novella that winds up going places you probably won’t expect.

Fifteen-year-old Adam is living a fairly normal, happy life in the small village of Stretton Mere, where his father and mother own and operate the Maypole pub. That idyllic existence is destroyed when a group of drunks, angry over their expulsion from the pub, return to the scene looking to cause some damage but wind up killing Adam’s mother.

The meaning of the book’s title is revealed in the following passage, describing a half-hearted, or even mocking, message from one of Adam’s mother’s killers.

Just before the funeral we got a card from Danny Thorpe, white with a silver dove on the front — In Deepest Sympathy.  Inside the card he had written: ‘So sorry to hear about what happened. A terrible loss.  But ultimately it is love, not grief, that sustains.’

Seeking a new start, or at least fewer painful memories, Adam’s father moves the two of them several hours away, to operate another pub.  But placing many miles between them and their tragedy not surprisingly fails to blunt the emotions of their recent tragedy. In the following scene, Adam hears his father, who’s been pretty hard on Adam, while seemingly staying strong himself in the face of the tragedy, unburdening himself of his pain in private.

…I hear sobbing.

It’s not much, little more than a whimpery hitching of breath, but it is this very thing — this stifled, exhausted quality — that makes it seem so desolate.  It is sobbing without hope, without release; it is sobbing in the knowledge that it won’t make you feel even the slightest bit better afterwards — and it is that that makes it scary.

Haunted by memories and regret, Adam begins to be plagued by unsettling dreams and visions… and the irretrievable loss of innocence, as captured here:

…what he has now been reminded of, in the cruelest way possible, is that life is temporary and fragile, that each day we step out onto thin ice that will eventually, inevitably, splinter beneath us, and that, contrary to what we are told as children, there are no happy endings.

At the same time, he faces far more commonplace complications for someone his age — a growing attraction to schoolmate Adele, and confrontations with bullies, followed by initiation into their “gang,” and brushes with the law.

It Sustains is a powerful tale, full of sadness, despair and unexpected plot developments…but the final plot development may be just a little too unexpected.  Meaning that there’s no justification or rationale presented for a twist that seems decidedly different from what’s come before.  Not that I want or expect rationalization for everything — I have plenty of appreciation for ambiguity and the unexplained — but in this case, the change was sufficiently out of left field to leave me feeling off balance.  Nonetheless, the surprising finale of It Sustains serves to detract only a bit from the substantial strengths of this fine novella.

Examining The Fairer Sex in Richard Davis’ The Female of the Species

Shadow Publishing’s collection of Richard Davis’ short fiction, The Female of the Species And Other Terror Tales, is the type of book that I love to see from small presses — a gathering of never-before-collected tales by an overlooked writer from decades past.  Davis is perhaps best known for his editing work, and most notably for editing volumes 1-3 of The Year’s Best Horror Fiction (the series later edited by Gerald Page and Karl Edward Wagner), but he was a writer as well, and quite a good one.  Shadow Publishing’s owner, David Sutton is the perfect person to resurrect the author’s work, as he knew Davis back in the day, and in fact purchased a story from him for publication in the 1971 anthology New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural.

That 1971 date falls smack in the middle of Davis’ fiction-writing career: all 11 stories he published are gathered here, and they originally appeared between 1963 and 1978. Also included is an interview Sutton conducted with Davis in 1969; the text of a speech Davis gave on horror fiction at a 1971 convention; an article that Davis wrote about Late Night Horror, a short-lived BBC for which he was Story Editor; and a bibliography.

Despite all the wonderful ancillary material, the main draw is obviously the fiction, and there’s a lot to like in that department, starting with the title story, which is related via the narrator Jim’s journal entries, a series he’s started while his beloved wife Viola is traveling to visit her brother.  Unfortunately, Viola’s plane crashes, leaving Jim devastated and lonely…until he adopts a kitten, who quickly bonds with him.  What ensues is perhaps a tad predictable, but it’s effectively told, resulting in both suspense and chills.

Jim was a loner even before Viola’s death, and a similar social outcast, although female in this case, features in “The Lady by the Stream,” the story of a middle-aged spinster’s growing obsession with a young boy in her neighborhood.  There’s nothing supernatural to be found in this story, but it’s probably the most disturbing tale in the collection.  The following story, “The Inmate,” also documents a disturbing relationship, this time between the wife of a wealthy man who’s created his own private animal preserve and one of her husband’s animals…namely a gorilla.  Unlike its predecessor, though, “The Inmate” is a bit too sensationalistic — likely a result of the fact it was tailored for its appearance in the often over-the-top Pan Book of Horror series — to ultimately be successful.

The other three tales I want to mention all prominently feature young boys and their fathers.  In “The Clump,” a cheating husband is on holiday with his family, visiting a small Caribbean island.  The husband is so busy scheming to kill his wife that he pays no attention as his son wanders into a forested area of the island that’s the subject of local superstition…for good reason.  The father in “The Nondescript” is much more attentive, and helps his son Bob to identify just what it is that he’s found in the attic of the old home they’ve just moved into.  The attic find is an eponymous nondescript — a fake creature, created by attaching the shaved torso of a monkey cadaver to a fish tail, employed during the 18th and 19th centuries by hucksters to extract money from the gullible.  Unfortunately for Bob and his father, there may be a real-life inspiration for their taxidermic terror.  The father in “Guy Fawkes Night” is selfish and overbearing, and after his actions lead to the death of his son’s beloved dog, the son is determined to exact revenge, which he does in frightening fashion.

There are one or two subpar stories, most notably “A Nice Cut off the Joint,” which has logic holes you could drive a truck through, and I don’t care for the cover art by Caroline O’Neal, but every other aspect of The Female of the Speciesis top-notch.  It’s a shame Davis, who died in 2005, didn’t live to see the appearance of this collection, but readers who appreciate 1960s- and ’70s -era horror should rejoice, for there’s much to like here.