Tag Archives: Earthling Publications

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.

Michael Marshall Smith’s Everything You Need… and Some Things You Won’t Forget

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I’ve been singing the praises of Michael Marshall Smith’s short fiction for longer than I care to remember and, given how relatively little work he does at shorter lengths, the appearance of a collection of his work is reason to celebrate.  Everything You Need (Earthling Publications; 280 pages; 1,000 signed copies; $45), his first collection since 2003, is one of those infrequent reasons.  The book gathers 17 stories, with six published here for the first time.

Smith has a knack for taking relatively simple situations and casting them as symbolic of more macroscopic issues, and representative of situations that most, if not all, of us will face. Take, for example, “This is Now,” wherein a group of men, longtime small-town friends just beginning to grow a little long in the tooth, reminisce about a night in their youth, when they forced their way into a secured area (the nature of which is both fascinating and frightening) and barely escaped with their lives. Not surprisingly, they’re moved to try and breach that barrier again in an attempt to recapture their youth. In one character’s simple reflection, Smith manages to capture a universal sentiment for everyone over a certain age:

“As I looked now through the fence at the other forest I was thinking how long a decade had seemed back then, and how you could learn that it was no time at all.”

In a way, both “Walking Wounded” and “Different Now” are about definitive moments in relationships.  In the former, a past experience begins to physically haunt protagonist Richard, leading him back to a former residence that was the site of said experience, while the latter centers on a couple’s argument that spirals out of control, leading one to walk out and leaving the other to try and pick up the pieces in a world that has literally been broken by their break-up.

There are a couple zombie stories (nearly requisite these days) to be found in these pages, but you wouldn’t expect Smith’s takes on the sub-genre to be perfunctory, and these certainly are not.  “The Last Barbeque” is related as a description and transcription of a video that  records two men preparing for a barbecue at a strangely-deserted lakeside location, while “The Things He Said” concerns a solitary man in a remote cabin, reminiscing about his father while detailing his rigid daily schedule.  Both are stories are unveiled in layers, with their true nature not revealed until the innermost levels are reached.

It’s possible that one of the reasons I like “Unnoticed” so much is because of its locale, just a few miles from me, but there’s much more to like in this tale of a man who suddenly notices a building in his neighborhood, with a strange automobile from yesteryear (but…not quite) that’s somehow been shoehorned into the building lobby.  Sometimes, when we tend not to see things…it’s safer that way.  The setting for “Sad, Dark Thing” is even closer to my house, and the story is even better, involving a man on a Sunday drive in the Santa Cruz mountains, who stumbles upon what seems to be an extremely low-rent, and half-assed tourist attraction, but which turns out to house an extraordinary, if very dark, find.

Melancholy would be the word I’d use to describe much of “The Good Listener,” although this story of a son tracing his deceased father’s final steps, which include a mysterious missing period of time, is ultimately redemptive.  The son’s thoughts about the gap in his father’s history represents one of Smith’s best passages:

“I’m happy for the hole to remain. I no longer feel the need to fill it. There have always been silences in the world, and that’s the way it should be. There should be gaps. Sometimes it’s in those moments of silence, of dead air, that the meaningful things happen. It’s good we have things listening to all our stories now, keeping track of everything we have been and done.

It’s even better if, like the best listeners, they turn a deaf ear from time to time.”

Speaking of exceptional passages, although “The Woodcutter” is not one of my favorite stories in the collection, it does contain another prime example of Smith capturing a universal truth in a few sentences:

“He knew himself well enough to know that this was a bad idea, however. It was this kind of impulse that had gotten him here in the first place, a tendency to grow tired of one kind of life, of its hierarchies and constraints and rituals, and to think he could flip tracks. It didn’t work… Sometimes when Spike spent afternoons killing time in bookstores he wanted to go up and tap the shoulders of the people earnestly browsing the Self-Help section and tell them this fact, that they should give up on the idea of change and try to make friends with who they were before they did something dumb and fucked up what they had.”

The last story I want to call out is “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night,” a deliciously dark (literally) tale, in which a family of three wakes up in the middle of the night to find themselves trapped in an unfamiliar, pitch-black room, with no exits.

In the publicity notes for this collection, Earthling Press publisher Paul Miller says:

“A decade ago, my press was privileged to publish Mike’s last collection, which was hailed as ‘stellar’ by Publishers Weekly and a ‘major publishing event’ by Ellen Datlow… As strong as that collection was, I believe this one is even better.”

My first thought was that, no, this is not a better collection than that previous collection, More Tomorrow and Other Stories… not even close, really, because Smith was still in his short fiction heyday ten years ago, and has mostly concentrated on novels since then, and the lack of focus on short fiction would have to be evident in this collection.

But.

But.

As I skimmed back through these stories and reviewed my notes in order to write this review, I had no choice but to acknowledge that this is in fact one helluva collection. I still don’t think that I can declare it better than More Tomorrow, but it’s definitely in the same league.

In short, Michael Marshall Smith is one of our very best authors of short dark speculative fiction, period. It’s a shame that he doesn’t write more at shorter lengths.  Bracketed with fantastic art by Vincent Chong and capped by Smith’s highly engaging story notes, Everything You Need is definitely something you need.

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.

Thelma and Louise are Hot, Sexy and Dead in Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child

Does the world really need another vampire novel?  Or, to quote the cover copy from Glen Hirshberg‘s new novel, Motherless Child, “”Another vampire novel? Really?”  Well, my initial thought was, “no, probably not.” But if there were any authors out there who  could change my mind, it’s likely that Hirshberg — frequent occupant of Year’s Best compilations and a long-time favorite of mine — would be near the top of the list.

Motherless Child, Earthling Publications’ Halloween title for 2012, is indeed a fresh take, mixing road novel with buddy story (and female buddies, at that) and adding a healthy dollop of good old-fashioned horror.

Natalie and Sophie are small-town, low-income, twenty-something single moms who mostly manage to maintain smiles as they roll with the punches.  One night at a club, they encounter the Whistler, whose much-rumored underground performances had previously seemed purely mythical. Once the Whistler has the club’s patrons under his sway, his true vampiric nature comes out to play.  And even hough he has been trolling humans for a very long time, the Whistler falls for Natalie like a starstruck teenager, quickly becoming intent on making her his personal possession.

“God, but he loved her already.  Would show her the wonders of the nightworld as they fled forever down its face, leaving their ghostprints for the water of the world to swallow. Leaving no trace but melody.”

After the Whistler has started the gradual process of converting Natalie and Sophie to the vampire life, Natalie realizes that the hunger pangs they’re feeling, and the dark nature of what they’re becoming, will force them to leave their babies behind for good, for the children’s own safety.  It’s an awareness  that brings with it infinite sadness, as expressed in one of the novel’s many well-crafted passages:

What was she crying about? So many things: the trailer; her son’s bassinet wedged between the fold-down table and the sink; her mother the lawn gnome; these people moored in this nowhere place on the outskirts of this 200-year-old void of a city like lost boats at a buoy in the middle of the ocean; that sawing in her ears; her best and oldest friend’s face, so bright, so familiar, hovering over her son, smiling and aggravating and beautiful as ever. She let the tears come, put a hand to her heart.”

When Sophie and Natalie hit the road, it’s hard not to think of Thelma and Louise — but it’s to the author’s credit that no sooner did I draw the parallel in my head than he pointed out and made light of the similarities himself.

The Whistler’s plan to make Natalie his undead mate (or, as he calls her, “his Destiny”) necessitates driving a wedge between her and Sophie, a manipulation that he expects will bring him satisfaction, but ultimately disappoints, as related in the following, another of Hirshberg’s finer exercises in phrasing:

“What stunned him most of all…was the lack of pleasure he felt, as his Destiny twitched on her feet and her mouth opened and real loneliness, the kind people dread and dream of all their sorry, scrabbling lives, rushed into her for the first time.”

The two friends’ attempts to leave their old life, and the Whistler, behind are foiled when their children are threatened, pulling them back into conflict with the Whistler, as well as  a former cohort of his.  The resulting finale is carefully-orchestrated yet unquestionably moving.  This is largely a story about a mother’s love — but quite likely not the particular mother that you were expecting.

For the most part, Hirshberg hews to traditional vampire mythology, although there are a few exceptions, most notably a scene of Sophie serenely skinnydipping with obsequious alligators that is both unique and creepy.  Minor quibbles?  Only a couple. The Whistler’s obsession with Sophie is never really explained in any satisfactory way.  And the book almost feels too brief, wrapping up too quickly, a rare complaint in these days of doorstop-sized treekillers, but a feeling that’s nonetheless hard to shake.

As implied, Motherless Child is a brisk novel, clocking in at just 236 pages, and moving at a crackling pace.  From its striking cover art to its somber last page, it’s a vampire novel that deserves your attention.  Really.