Tag Archives: UK

Tiny Bits of Blackness in Paul Edwards’ Now That I’ve Lost You

ntily2bI’m normally not a fan of either flash fiction or its big brother, very short stories, but the collection Now That I’ve Lost You (Screaming Dreams, 2013; trade paperback), by Paul Edwards, has enough high points to make me re-think that viewpoint a bit.

There are 19 stories squeezed into 146 pages here (plus an Introduction and Story Notes), mostly reprinted from lesser-known small press magazines. Stories of such short duration, by their very nature, have zero to little room to develop characters, and yet Edwards for the most part does an admirable job of drawing characters who are distinctive, if not quite deep. For example, there’s the female protagonist of “Dead City Blues,” a survivor of the zombie apocalypse who becomes convinced that a slightly geeky guy from her school is somehow controlling the events. Or the paranoid, over-protective father in “Mine,” whose worldview proves to be far from trustworthy. Or the journal-keeping narrator of “A Place the Night Can’t Touch,” another apocalypse survivor, who’s managed to train one of the hungry horde, and doesn’t like the interruption to her little world when another survivor shows up unexpectedly. Or the conflicted couple at the heart of “Highways,” as expressed eloquently by one of the pair, “We’re at that stage where we’re too frightened to cement what we’ve got, and too frightened to break up.”

Other notable stories include the Lovecraftian “Cure,” in which a lonely man believes he may have found a magic potion to solve his solitude. In the haunting “Anja,” a love-stricken woman determined to get things “right” forces the object of her affections to relive the experiences over and over again. “The Art of Driving” stirs a couple’s experiences with sleepwalking, suspicion, an affair, and driving lessons all together into a somber stew.

The depressed, angst-ridden, and sometimes nihilistic characters that people Edwards’ tales sometimes threaten to become a bit too much, but more often than not, the stories win out. Now That I’ve Lost You is probably not for all tastes, but if brief bits of modern gothic are your cup of tea, there’s much to like here.

Darker Hues with P.B. Kane’s The Rainbow Man

The-Rainbow-Man---P.B.-Kane_thumb2

Due to my personal life getting extremely busy of late, I’ve fallen far behind my typical reviewing pace — while the queue of titles to review has continued to grow.  In the hope of trying to do some catch-up, I’m going to try to write more concise reviews for at least the next couple months…hopefully without sacrificing too much in the way of opinion and analysis.  With that goal in mind… let’s get going…

I’ve reviewed a couple of Paul Kane’s titles in the past — Sleeper(s) and Pain Cages — and now he’s back with a YA thriller under the thinly-veiled pseudonym P.B. Kane, published by Rocket Ride Books.  At a high level, it’s a tale of an interloper who manages to keep his true nature hidden from all but a single, strangely perceptive teenager.

Fifteen-year-old Daniel Roush is that teenager, a kid at a tough spot in his life, with a deceased father, a mother who’s a little too fond of the bottle sometimes, a little brother who’s always trying to tag along, and a male friend (Greg) who shares with Daniel a crush on their mutual female friend, Jill.  Feeling somewhat trapped, and often bored to tears, on the secluded island of Shorepoint, Daniel’s world is turned upside when an amnesiac man apparently washes up on shore.  The stranger — who is given the temporary name of John Dee — is able to assert a subtle but powerful control over seemingly everyone on the island except Daniel. Unable to convince others of what he perceives about Dee, Daniel finds himself more alone than ever as the fate of the island hangs in the balance.

The Rainbow Man is a quick read at 162 pages, but even at that length, the story seems to drag a bit at times.  I’d attribute that primarily to the YA target demographic, which typically yields a tamer plot, as seems to be the case here.  The narrative and the language used seem quite basic, but not to the point of simplicity.  Kane’s initial foray into the YA field is a solid read for that age group, but perhaps not too engaging for adult readers.

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.

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

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.

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.

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.

On Terror Firma with James Cooper’s Terra Damnata

When I reviewed James Cooper’s The Beautiful Red several months ago, I briefly lamented the fact that the stories contained in that collection were for the most part surreal in nature, while I preferred Cooper’s work that features more of a realistic bent.  I’m happy to say that Cooper’s recent novella Terra Damnata, from PS Publishing, is gritty and lucid, and it’s thus perhaps no surprise that I found it to be a gripping read.

At its heart, Terra Damnata is a tale of anguish, loss, and regret, as personified by two very different couples who’ve both endured the tragic deaths of adult children.  It’s been less than a week since Arthur and Beth Woodbury lost their daughter Cherise to a drunk driver, but before they’ve even begun to come to terms with that event, they’re forced to deal with a bizarre intrusion upon their grief by millionaire Rupert Appleton, whose son Daniel was likewise killed by a drunken driver, several months previously. Since Daniel’s death, Rupert’s wife Hester has become obsessed with the idea that the unmarried Daniel will be spending eternity alone.

“She’d stumbled upon an old Chinese tradition where relatives of the dead would shower the grave with archaic objects to supposedly make the deceased’s afterlife more pleasant. When she started to leave some of Daniel’s childhood toys inside the vault, Appleton had sat in his darkened conservatory and cried.

Hester had also unearthed another ancient tradition, this one slightly more bizarre. Apparently some Chinese families of dead bachelors would buy corpses of unmarried women and bury them with their sons in posthumous wedding ceremonies, thus ensuring both spirits a smooth passage into whatever awaited them on the other side. Hester had become so enchanted by this idea that it seemed to Appleton a more effective outlet for the woman’s grief than five years of therapy. He’d agreed to buy Daniel a bride, someone his son might have connected with had both parties still been alive, if for no other reason than to satisfy his wife’s flailing spiritual belief. Yes, it was desperate; yes, it was obscene, but he was doing it, Appleton said, simply because he could.”

Arthur and Beth are, of course, initially inclined to rebuff Rupert’s overtures, but there are complicating factors that force them to reconsider. Arthur has a gambling addiction that has not only burned through the family’s savings but also led him to build up a substantial debt to casino owner Norman Foley who, not surprisingly, is an evil man who’s prepared to bring real harm to Arthur and his wife if the debt is not repaid. Faced with the loss of everything they have, and the real threat of physical violence, the Woodburys are forced to accept Rupert’s offer.

In possession of a check that will pay off his debt and leave him with plenty left over, Arthur’s first move is to return to the casino tables, a reaction sure to make most readers cringe in anticipation of a character intent on self-destruction. But Arthur is not a simple character, and all is not as it seems. Throughout, Cooper’s prose is rich yet precise, creating lasting images such as the one conjured by this description of Arthur’s return to Foley’s casino:

“There was a rich, hedonistic cloud of cigar smoke circling the room and six roulette tables spaced evenly along the posterior wall. Behind each table was a meticulously-dressed croupier, each one bearing the solemn demeanour of a pall bearer, understanding implicitly that each client was engaged in a personal duel, not against the House, but against chance itself and whatever demons their desire had conjured up.”

After Arthur’s re-entry into the world of gambling, he finds that he’s not finished with experiencing tragedy, either. To say much more would be to risk a spoiler, but suffice to say that Norman Foley has a central role in the proceedings. Terra Damnata is seemingly the perfect length, and the perfect style, for Cooper to show his stuff, and he certainly delivers the goods.

A Taste of England — Charlotte Bond’s Hunter’s Moon and Paul Kane’s Pain Cages

UK writer Charlotte Bond has shown promise with some of her short stories, in markets such as Dark Horizons and Spinetinglers. Hunter’s Moon, a 114-page novella from Screaming Dreams, is her first longer work and it unfortunately does not build on the promise shown in her short fiction. Hunter’s Moon focuses on four twentysomethings, two male and two female, who were friends in college, have since stayed in touch, and are now embarking on a vacation to a remote rental cottage in the French countryside. Faster than you can say “that sounds like a standard set-up for a horror movie,” unsettling warning signs begin to emerge, including strange sounds from the attic, vivid shared dreams, and waking “hallucinations.”

The nearby ruins of a castle, once owned by the cruel torturer Lord Moreau, who “worked his serfs to the grave and commanded them with fear,” seems to be the nexus, although only Jenny and Reece, two members of the group who possess some varying degrees of psychic abilities, seem to realize the connection — and the very mortal danger that threatens the foursome. Speaking of said group… it’s their characterizations and annoyingly repetitive interactions that largely serve to detract from the story’s strengths. The aforementioned Jenny and Reece are nominally the heroes, and their unspoken attraction to one another initially simmers just beneath the surface before eventually turning lukewarm and then stone cold (from the standpoint of the reader’s interest). The other two members are Eleanor, notable both for her self-centered, manipulative ways in general and in particular for her desire to get Reece’s attentions and affection; and Steve, whose desire to bed anything that moves is matched only by his frequent and inane attempts at humor. Not that Steve has a license on ill-timed and awkward humor…late in the story, a stripped and bound Reece says to Jenny:

“I always hoped you [sic] see me n-naked, but n-never like this,” he joked.
“We’ve no time for idiotic remarks, Reece.”

Indeed.

There is some real tension built in the latter stages of the story, as Moreau seeks to fully return from beyond the grave, but the deadline for his would-be re-emergence seems strangely contrived, and the dialog in the climactic scene is painfully melodramatic. All in all, Hunter’s Moon is occluded by some rather unfortunate clouds.

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Like some other authors I’ve reviewed recently, Paul Kane has proven impressively prolific during his career, with 16 titles produced in the last 10 years, to say nothing of a couple non-fiction titles and several anthologies he’s edited. His name is not as well known to US readers as some of the other fecund folks I’ve covered — such as Tim Lebbon, Michael McBride, and Ronald Malfi — no doubt largely due to the fact he’s British and many of his titles have appeared only from UK-based publishers.

Kane’s new collection, Pain Cages, is an exception to that, appearing courtesy of US publisher Books of the Dead Press. Pain Cages focuses on longer works, gathering four novellas, two of which are original to this collection. In his Introduction, Stephen Volk says that after reading this book “…you’ll realize ultimately that though the rough path through Paul Kane’s world involves a lot of pain and anguish, the pain isn’t what the journeys are about. Not really.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Volk says, because although the path through Kane’s work is indeed sometimes rough (in terms of both the characters’ journeys and, occasionally, the writing), and certainly describes no small amount of pain, the stories are fundamentally far more than mere exercises in sadism or vicarious shivers.

Take, for example, the eponymous title story, which appears here for the first time and leads off the collection. The protagonist, Chris, awakes in darkness, trapped in a cage with no memory of how he got there, nor the other unfortunate souls in adjacent cages, one of whom is being tortured and killed. As time slowly passes in his small prison, Chris finds out precious little about his captors or how he arrived in these circumstances, and his fellow captives are similarly clueless, but the reader gradually learns of Chris’s backstory via interspersed flashbacks. When Chris finally escapes his cage, the sights that await him as he seeks a way out of the facility initially seem a little over-the top metaphysically, but the denouement is unexpected yet perfectly appropriate

The other original novella, “Halflife,” is not nearly as accomplished, chronicling the fates of a former pack of teen werewolves, who’re reuniting due to the realization that someone may now, all these years later, be stalking them one by one. Reprint “Signs of Life” is sort of the dark literary equivalent of the mosaic approach that has proven so popular in films of the last decade or so, including the likes of Magnolia, Crash, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and oh-so-many more. In Kane’s take on the approach, the perspective switches between several strangers on a train, each with a distinct and interesting backstory, and the focus is naturally on how their destinies ultimately intertwine and collide. It’s a well-done story, but I found the numerous astrological interludes, clearly intended to be a key aspect, to be distracting and failing to add anything to the work.

The collection closes with a very strong reprint, “The Lazarus Condition,” which begins with something of a “Monkey’s Paw” feel to it, as Matthew Daley suddenly shows up on his mother’s doorstep, despite the fact he’s been dead for seven years. Mrs. Daley and the police refuse to believe the interloper is truly Matthew, and his “ex-widow” joins that camp as well, leaving Matthew friendless and alone until he finally convinces a a nurse, who has first-hand knowledge of his case, to help him. Along the way Matthew’s story becomes even stranger, as he displays first a supernatural knowledge of others’ backgrounds (and, especially, sources of guilt) and later further extraordinary abilities, leading up to a confrontation with the man who killed him. It’s an engaging tale, and despite the presence of reanimated corpses, it’s about as far from a traditional zombie story as one can get.

There’s an impressive array of laudatory quotations fronting Pain Cages, from the likes of Clive Barker, Christopher Golden, Graham Joyce, and Sarah Langan, and while I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the most adulatory of those remarks, I can certainly concur that Kane’s insights into the human condition shine through the often cruel and harsh world that he depicts.