Tag Archives: Gray Friar

Anatomy Lessons with Stephen Volk’s Monsters in the Heart

volkMonstersI’ve reviewed a couple titles by Stephen Volk in the past (here and here), and really enjoyed those books, as well as his regular column in Black Static magazine.  His latest collection, Monsters in the Heart, from Gray Friar Press, is a substantial one, reprinting 13 tales originally published between 2006 and 2012, plus two originals.

The book certainly leads from strength, as the top-of-the-order story, “After the Ape” is a true standout, putting an interesting spin on the story of King Kong and his “human mistress,” Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film). The story is narrated from Darrow’s perspective, grieving over the tragic loss of her misunderstood guardian.

Other standouts include the following:

  • “Who Dies Best,” which starts with the arresting line “I watched my mother die again today,” and is set in an alternate reality where widespread economic collapse leads to a legitimization and broadening of the “snuff film” concept, with the financially unfortunate becoming “one-off” actors and dying on screen, in exchange for a payout for their survivors.
  • “In the Colosseum,” wherein a relatively innocent film editor is insidiously drawn into a beyond-decadent clique of film crew and hangers-on, led by a particularly perverse producer.
  • “White Butterflies, a tragic tale concerning two young Kazakhstanian brothers whose quest to scavenge scrap metal from an area where spacecraft debris falls leads them to an unfortunate meeting with what Volks calls “monsters…of the predatory human kind.”
  • “Pied a Terre,” in which a woman viewing a potential work-week apartment for her husband encounters something strange in the apartment, and is forced in turn to face certain facts in her own life.
  • “Appeal For Witnesses,” a longer story involving a cop’s investigation of a crime, which leads to an unsettling discovery about the true nature of some apparent Russian gangsters.

The only negative I found in this collection is the *extremely* varied nature of its contents — so much so that it’s somewhat distracting.  Although Volk claims in his Afterword that the collection has a unifying theme that’s expressed in its title, I can’t say that I agree with what  the author says:

The title of this collection, Monsters in the Heart, refers partly to the deep fondness we horror aficionados have for the famous monsters and fright night fiends created by other writers before us…

Some of the stories herein are about human monsters. Individuals with an evil streak or deeply aberrant nature, or those who are simply physically wrong. Others are about, or riffs on, certain myths and legends, or our modern myths and legends from novels or the big screen. Some are about both.

With stories written for the Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy universes — plus other tales such as a surreal bit about a boy with a giant head that grows to fill an entire room, and a sociological SF story set in a near future where genetic screening has become illegal, to name just a couple — there’s an extremely wide range of fiction here. Normally, I’m all in favor of that, but in this case, as I said, it just seemed a little…off-putting, in what is for the most part a very good collection.  As always, your mileage may vary.

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.