Tag Archives: Simon Bestwick

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.

Dark and Dynamic – Black Static #27

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed an issue of Black Static magazine, and it’s high time I rectified that. The issue I chose to examine, Black Static #27, dated February-March 2012, proved to be an excellent choice, featuring five solid-or-better stories and the usual interesting array of non-fiction.

All of the stories have something to recommend them, but the standout is Jacob Ruby’s “The Little Things,” which starts out as a straightforward chronicle of a young girl who’s doing whatever she can to support her homebound mother and her… siblings, but gradually transforms into an exercise in sublime weirdness:

“Of course, there were many things that had fallen off of Mother, far too many to count, each living at least briefly on its own. From flakes of dried skin, hair, and moles to full tumors, everything she spouted came with its own life; what survived, Cassie named — what didn’t became a treat for the rest. Mother was a walking, breathing Garden of Eden, blessed with abundance from God.”

Also worthy of special mention is Simon Bestwick’s “The Churn,” in which the aging Alison Corbett suddenly starts experiencing bouts of dementia and apparent hallucinations as well. The people she should most be able to count on — her male companion Graham and the social services worker assigned to her — instead seem to be aligned against her.  Bestwick’s tale of an unreliable protagonist is fast-paced and intriguing, although I’m not sure if I understood everything the author wanted me to. Lack of complete comprehension was also a factor in Stephen Bacon’s “Cuckoo Spit,” the tale of a daughter visiting her ailing mother and renewing their contentious relationship. The meaning of the title is…interesting, if not exactly appetizing, and I’m not at all clear why it’s intrinsic to the story. Family relationships also figure prominently in V.H. Leslie’s “Family Tree,” wherein young Tyler Burrows tries to keep his mother from embarrassing him too much in front of his school-friends and tries to ensure his strangely absentee father stays out of sight. Ultimately, you could consider it a coming-of-age story of a son in a bizarrely dysfunctional family.

I don’t always agree with what Black Static’s three opinion columnists — Stephen Volk, Mike O’Driscoll, and Christopher Fowler — have to say, but their viewpoints are always interesting.  This time around, Volk offers a retrospective on recently-deceased filmmaker Ken Russell, O’Driscoll reviews the UK TV mini-series Black Mirror, and Fowler manages to effortlessly disparage a handful of films.

Tony Lee’s DVD review column, Blood Spectrum, covers 13 films, with highlights being A Vanishing On Seventh Street and a reissue of Rolling Thunder. Peter Tenant’s Case Notes book review column, meanwhile, includes interviews with Alison Littlewood and Cate Gardner, as well as a variety of reviews. As always, Black Static features exceptional design and four-color printing throughout. Add it all up and it’s another entertaining issue of the best regularly-published horror magazine going.