Tag Archives: chapbook

Aquatic Views — Alison Littlewood’s Eyes of Water

Spectral Press issues short-run chapbooks on a quarterly schedule, and their latest offering comes courtesy of Alison Littlewood, whose debut novel A Cold Season garnered quite a bit of attention when it appeared earlier this year. Her chapbook, entitled Eyes of Water, is likewise worthy of acclaim — but it’s already sold out from the publisher, so you’ll have to check with a specialty dealer or explore the secondary market if you hope to snag a copy.

Like Michael McBride’s creepy novella “Xibalba” from his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself (reviewed here), Littlewood’s story is situated on the Yucatan peninsula and features cenotés — deep natural pits or sinkholes that expose the groundwater below — and vast underwater cave systems.

Protagonist Alex receives a tearful call from Kath, the sister of his friend Rick, a diver extraordinaire and general thrill-seeker who has apparently pushed his luck too far and is lying dead in a Mexican morgue. Alex arrives and finds Rick’s body impossibly to identify, due to extreme facial injuries, which the authorities say were caused by strong tides pulling him against the cave walls… but the rest of his body is strangely unblemished. When Alex thinks he sees Rick one night, just beyond the reaches of the campfire light, things start to get really interesting.

Alex is unable to resist the temptation to explore the caves where Rick died, although once he’s entered their depths, he has some second thoughts, to say the least, reflecting on the many people who died there in order to fulfill Mayan superstitions:

“For a moment I thought of sacrifices thrown into the cave, the way they must have watched that same circle of light until they could no longer tread water and sank into the dark. This time, when I caught my breath, it came with a gasp. No. Soon I could swim back to the chair and they would lift me out. I would feel the sun on my face.”

As with McBride’s story, the caves prove to be a suitably creepy setting, especially when Alex re-enters the caves on his own and goes far deeper into the system, leading to an unexpected confrontation and to more thoughts about sacrifices:

“I thought about how we offered ourselves, wondered if, after all, it was some need we had, to throw ourselves before some idea or thing. Maybe, sooner or later, all of us had something or someone waiting to collect. If so, maybe it wasn’t so bad; better than being trapped in the endless dark, unable to go forward, unable to go back.”

Through it all, Littlewood does an excellent job of developing both atmosphere and characters, making Eyes of Water a fast and highly-engaging read. Track down a copy if you can.

Paranormal Hijinks – Ian Rogers’ Trio of Felix Renn chapbooks

It should come as no great surprise that I love horror, and I also happen to love comedy. However, I’m usually not a fan of horror/comedy mash-ups. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I do enjoy horror-comedy when it’s done well, but more often than not I find attempts to combine the two genres fall flat. So when I say that I really enjoyed Ian Rogers’ three darkly humorous Felix Renn novelettes, understand that I’m a tough critic when it comes to these types of tales.

Published by Burning Effigy Press, the series features wisecracking Private Investigator Renn and is set in an alternate reality where portals exist between our world and a supernatural realm called the Black Lands. The first volume, Temporary Monsters, appeared in 2009 and starts things off with a bang as Felix’s lunch with his ex-wife Sandra is interrupted by a vampire ravaging a fellow diner. Renn’s reaction to the vampire provides a good sense of the wry humor on display here:

“I reached instinctively for my gun, then remembered I wasn’t wearing it. One shouldn’t come armed to lunch with one’s ex-wife. I think Confucius said that.”

Although appearances by vampires and other creatures are not necessarily uncommon, the fact that the vampire’s attack comes in broad daylight is unusual, and Felix becomes enmeshed in the ensuing investigation, which takes an interesting turn when it’s learned that the vampire is not some nameless creature from the Dark Lands, but actually a famous actor. Felix’s sleuthing takes him to a local movie set, where one of the stars suddenly transforms into a rampaging werewolf. Although Felix’s non-silver bullets should not harm the werewolf, they do, making two creatures in a row whose behavior does not match their established reputation. Digging deeper, Felix finds that the creatures have essentially been manufactured — “temporary monsters,” in a sense.

By the time we reach the second book in the series, 2010’s The Ash Angels, Felix’s ex-wife Sandra has become his assistant but not much else has changed for Felix, who on Christmas Eve is feeling maudlin and missing the more intimate relationship he formerly enjoyed with Sandra. And like any decent, self-respecting PI, he spends a fair amount of his time drinking, as described here:

“I came to the conclusion that while drinking straight whisky shots could be viewed as unhealthy, this could be alleviated if I had a mixer. A holiday mixer, in fact. Then I wouldn’t be pounding drinks straight from the bottle, I would be indulging in the sort of festive drinking that is permitted, practically encouraged, at everything from office Christmas parties to family get-togethers.

That was how I went out in search of eggnog and almost got myself and several other people killed.”

Felix’s quest for nog leads him into another supernatural encounter, although this one is more of a grim ghost story than the monster mash found in the first volume. This episode starts when Felix chances upon a possible crime scene — centering on a “snow angel” that’s actually made of ash — and has an impromptu meeting with members of the Paranormal Intelligence Agency, a governmental group that exists to try and keep natives of the Black Lands from intersecting too frequently, or too violently, with our world. Before all is said and done, a villain from Temporary Monsters resurfaces and several characters in this story, including Felix, are supernaturally influenced to attempt suicide. It’s probably not the feel-good Christmas story of the year, but it is a lot of fun.

Black-Eyed Kids, the most recent chapbook in the series, appeared in 2011 and it’s Rogers’ most accomplished work so far, featuring not only the familiar and welcome comedic touches but also the darkest and most chilling threat yet, in the form of the children referenced in the title. This time around, Felix is hired by a jealous husband to tail his wife, who he suspects of cheating. But while Felix is sitting outside the woman’s apartment, she’s murdered, half of her body goes missing…and the supposed husband is nowhere to be found, all of which leads to Felix’s failings being pointed out by a PIA member:

“‘I think the most unusual part of your story,’ Kovac said, ‘is that you were hired by a man named Barry to keep an eye on a woman named Mandy, and you never figured out he was using false names.’

‘That fact has been firmly established,’ I said curtly. ‘Moving on.’

Kovac remained silent for a long time. His face was impassive. I couldn’t tell if he was deep in thought or if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open.”

It turns out that the Black-Eyed Kids are seldom-seen, mostly-rumored denizens of the Black Lands, with a very special purpose — they come to our world for revenge, to hunt and kill humans who have made it a point to do the same to Black Lands creatures. Much to Felix’s chagrin, he’s now in their cross-hairs, and spends the remainder of the story trying to survive.

Ian Rogers tells three very entertaining stories here, especially so in the case of Black-Eyed Kids, which I heartily recommend.

Mortality Monopoly — Joel Lane’s collection DO NOT PASS GO

UK author Joel Lane has produced some extremely impressive work in the last few years, most notably his novella The Witnesses Are Gone, which I reviewed for Cemetery Dance, and his collection The Terrible Changes. Lane’s new chapbook mini-collection, Do Not Pass Go (Nine Arches Press) is interesting because it collects urban crime fiction, as opposed to the surreal and haunting nature of the works I mention above.

The five stories in Do Not Pass Go include four reprints dating from approximately 2002-2007, and one original tale, and they’re all shot through with darkness — it’s no accident that the titles of three of the stories feature the words, “black,” “blue,” and “blues.” Speaking of titles, let’s start with the wonderfully-named “This Night Last Woman,” wherein a regular at a pub’s karaoke night meets a woman he hasn’t seen before and goes home with her, with the expected results…up to a point. When the man later finds that he was seemingly the one one among a string of the woman’s dates to *not* be victimized, he can’t rest until he knows why he was spared…and the reason she gives him is enough to send him straight to the pub, for a very long time.

“Black Dog” draws its title from a heap of asphalt that “looked like a huge  sleeping dog”, and which turns out to be a tarry blanket over the body of a murdered woman who was beaten and then suffocated beneath the paving material. There are more twists and turns to be found in this tale than in the others, and they’re nicely torqued. “Blue Mirror” and “No More the Blues,” meanwhile, are strongly focused on music — one on a failing band and the other on a hard-core fan — and while they both feature well-wrought atmospheres, they strike me as the two slightest tales in the booklet.

Conversely, the last (and most recently-written) story, “Rituals,” is probably the best, detailing the repercussions when a gang looking to use an abandoned building as the venue for a beat-down winds up stumbling on a gay porn filmset in flagrante delicto, and protagonist Finlay accidentally shoots and kills one of the actors.

Sadness, remorse, regret, lost chances and missed opportunities… these are the overriding emotions to be found in Do Not Pass Go. It’s probably a good thing that this is a mini-collection, because a book-length gathering of tales such as these might be enough to spur suicide…but I mean that in a good way. This is truly modern noir, with a distinctly British feel.