Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels




I've been a fan of Mark Samuels ever since I read The White Hands in early 2013. Afterwards, I went on to buy every book he's written, even hunting down a copy of his long out of print first collection Black Altars. Written in Darkness sees Samuels teaming up with Egaeus Press, a publisher who is putting out some of the finest books weird fiction has to offer.

The nine stories within are sure to please any Samuels fan. As usual with his works, the prose has a certain formality, bringing to mind some old school weird fiction. They are narrated in an erudite manner, which seems to fit the image of the lonely academic, which lends itself to the themes of much of his fiction. In the introduction, author Reggie Oliver used a phrase from Samuels' The White Hands, which sums this up well: “I believe that mental isolation is the essence of weird fiction.” The characters in his stories are isolated, they tend to be loners who don't fit into modern society. They struggle with many concepts and themes: decay, change, technology. 






My favorite stories:

The Other Tenant follows a man with no friends or family, on early retirement due to an illness. He is not a likable man, and is rather honest about only caring for himself. At night he is bothered what seems to be a television program or recording of a very dubious nature that is playing in the neighboring apartment.

Technology, and more specifically the dehumanization due to technology, comes into play in An Hourglass of the Soul and Outside Interference, which are my two favorite stories in the book. In the first story a man is sought out and hired by a new company, and within days is sent on a business trip to a remote area in Mongolia. The pace is fast, and readers are just as flustered as the protagonist as he is quickly whisked away on his trip, arriving only to be taken straight to the job site where he finds something he isn't expecting. Outside Interference stands out for not following a lone person, but focusing on an entire group. It takes place in a recently abandoned office building in an abandoned business park, which makes for an excellently creepy venue. A few slacker types are left behind in a company's move in order to transfer their paper records onto the computer. Things seem bad enough when a blizzard begins and they fear being snowed in, but when the elevator door opens and unleashes what was once their minibus driver it is apparent that the blizzard is the least of their worries. Both stories show a fear of technology and what it can do to people, and the "static zombies" of Outside Interference are rather symbolic of today's smartphone culture.

While the previous two stories both included some corporate, Ligotti-esque horror, it is The Ruins of Reality which, to me, is the most Ligottian story of the bunch. A decayed, urban setting is filled with the desperate dregs of society and when recruitment posters for the mysterious "N Factory" show up around town, they are overtaken by a wary sense of hope. The story is dreamlike and surreal, and what seems like a possible answer to the problems of the people seems to instead be a fate much worse.

In My World Has No Memories a man wakes on a boat in the middle of an ocean. He doesn't remember anything, and can't seem to get his bearings due to malfunctioning of compasses and stars that don't match his star charts. His predicament is frightening enough in itself, but once he discovers a glass jar filled with some of migraine and vision inducing growth, he learns what frightening really is.

My Heretical Existence first appeared in an anthology in tribute to Bruno Schulz, and is a story of a man seeking something more, when he stumbled onto a mysterious, hidden area of the city, and a tavern full of very different people. He then begins his own transformation.






The collection finishes with In Eternity Two Lines Intersect, a story in tribute to Arthur Machen. A man is released from some sort of institution and takes up residence in an apartment of a missing man. He tells the building's owner that he doesn't have to throw away the missing man's effects, that he will take care of them  himself. As he settles into his new home he becomes fixated on these belongings, a church across the street, and an area of woodland on a nearby hill. As the days wear on he finds his thought patterns changing, and begins to wear the missing man's clothes, which fit perfectly. He reads his books. He begins to have dreams and visions, sometimes waking up from dreams clutching an object he was not in possession of before. Reality and dream become blurred as the man has a spiritual awakening, leading others into the woods for a celebration of transcendence.

Overall this is a very enjoyable, if short, collection, and in line with other offerings from Egaeus Press the book is very aesthetically pleasing. Titles are done in calligraphy by Geoff Cox and the book features haunting endpapers. As of today there should still be some copies left, so order direct from the publisher to secure one before you miss out.

Other books by Mark Samuels reviewed by The Arkham Digest: Black Altars, The White Hands, Glyphotech.





Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: Gifts For The One Who Comes After by Helen Marshall




Helen Marshall is an author I have heard of the last few years, but I had yet to read anything by her until this summer, when I sat down with Ellen Datlow's Fearful Symmetries. Marshall's story, In The Year of Omens was one of the highlights of the anthology for me, and therefore had me quite excited to check out her forthcoming collection.

Published by the ever wonderful ChiZine Publications, Gifts for the One Who Comes After contains seventeen stories without a mediocre one in the bunch.

Marshall is a masterful storyteller, penning stories that manage to be creepy and beautiful at the same time. Her fiction hits hard emotionally, bringing to mind the debut collections from Nathan Ballingrud and Livia Llewellyn. The stories explore many themes, among them family, dysfunction, inherited guilt, growing up, and regrets. Her writing comes across as honest, and fearless, qualities which elevate her writing into the topmost tier of weird fiction being written today.

 A few of my favorite stories:

In The Hanging Game a woman revisits her childhood and a dangerous game her and others would play. The game was a sort of sacred rite of passage, and more of a ritual than a game. Inherited guilt also comes into play and the story explores the idea of children paying for the sins of their parents.

Secondhand Magic opens with what seems to be a classic, mid-century, suburban neighborhood, but things take a darker turn when a kid magician gets on the bad side of a spiteful woman who knows how to use real magic. It's a heartbreaking story.

Lessons in The Raising of Household Objects is another story where family is front and center. A young girl narrates a story in which her mother is pregnant with twins and the girl is terrified of the twins and of their imminent birth. The story plays out like a nightmare, an anxiety dream the girl is having, as the story goes further and further into the surreal.

Family is at the forefront again in All My Love, a Fishhook. A man tries to come to terms with the troubled relationship he has with his father and his own son.

The title story is one of the best weird fiction stories of 2014. A town is plagued by "omens," Everyone has their own individual one, which ends in their death. The main character is a young teenager, and is struggling as she wants her own omen and feels left behind as hers refuses to manifest. Another beautiful, dark, sad story.

The Santa Claus Parade has forever changed the way I will view street corner and department store Santas.

The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass is another sad story about a boy struggling to cope with his parent's divorce.

In Crossroads and Gateways Marshall makes use of African myth to tell a fable of love.

Readers take a trip to a creepy South African house in Ship House, another story in which family and inherited guilt take the forefront. This one is also run through with the creepy Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.

Supply Limited, Act Now is a melancholic story of growing up, and follows a group of young boys as they get their hands on a real shrink ray.

More family tension exists in In The Moonlight, the Skin of You, which follows a girl who stays with her father after her mother abandons them. They live in a rugged, logging community, and things change when a mysterious girl arrives.

The Gallery of the Eliminated is about a boy whose father brings him to a mysterious, magical place in the wake of a family tragedy.

Helen Marshall's writing evokes feeling of love, beauty, guilt, yearning, regret, and sadness. She understands the complex family relationships that exists and explores them fearlessly. This is a must have collection for fans of weird literature, and is easily one of 2014's best books.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Giveaway: 2014 Year's End Mega-Giveaway






Year's End Giveaway

Collections: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay
                     The Lord Came At Twilight by Daniel Mills (ARC with variant cover)
                     Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

Novels/Novellas: Far From Streets by Mike Griffin (very limited printing novella)
                             Children of Light by Daniel Mills (very limited printing novella)
                             The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore

Anthologies: Mighty In Sorrow edited by Jordan Krall
                       The New Gothic edited by Beth K. Lewis
                       Schemers edited by Robin D. Laws

Poetry: He Walks on All Fours by Matt Bialer

Nonfiction: When The Stars Are Right by Scott R. Jones (shipped separately) 



To enter send an e-mail to contest@arkhamdigest.com with '2014' in the subject line. Include your snail mail address. Contest lasts for three days, and I will randomly draw the winner Wednesday evening. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore





Scott Kenemore is an author that up until now I wasn't familiar with. He penned a few zombie novels, as well as a humorous nonfiction series, The Zen of Zombies, but it's with The Grand Hotel that Mr. Kenemore leaves the zombie genre to try a different kind of novel.

The Grand Hotel is a dark fantasy novel with elements of horror and humor sewn throughout. The frame story is narrated by the night clerk of a mysterious, labyrinthian hotel. The man, much like The Grand Hotel, is much more than he appears to be, and it's this mystery that forms the skeleton of the novel, although it's the meat on the bones which is truly interesting.

When a tour group arrives, the clerk takes them on a tour of the hotel, meeting several hotel inhabitants along the way. The bulk of the book is comprised of these episodes, in which different hotel guests, each eccentric and special in their own way, narrate their personal stories. These stories vary in content, but almost all involve the supernatural in some way. The stories are akin to fables, and the clerk makes a game out of the tour with a young girl in the tour group, asking her after each story what the true point of the story is.

Some of the stories are stronger than others, but overall will fail to pierce the armor of the hardened horror reader. Some are weird enough to be memorable, but others are rather forgettable, and the hotel's guests are the same way, although they are often more interesting than their stories. One old lady spends her time alone in a ballroom with a variety of tuxedo'd mannequins on wheels in which she dances with, although her story doesn't live up to this interesting set piece, and is instead a forgettable yarn about a young nobleman and a mysterious gypsy girl she was friends with. A former television chef tells a story about a haunted Scottish castle where his ghost-hunting cooking show had it's last show. The narrative voices used for the stories seem a bit forced as well. While Mr. Kenemore may have been going for a more natural feel with how the speakers tell their tales, I couldn't help but find myself straining to immerse myself in the individual stories.

Kenemore's novel mixed dark fantasy elements with some whimsy, and while it can be an entertaining read it doesn't hit it's potential. Many of the twists in the frame story are spotted early on, leading to a lackluster conclusion. Kenemore did make interesting use of the Indian collection of stories Vetala Panchavimshati (or Baital Pachisi) which gives an interesting bent to the novel, but not enough to make the book a standout. I'm not saying the novel is bad, because I don't believe that's the case, and I see a lot of potential in Mr. Kenemore. The novel is worth a read, but there's nothing there that warrants a revisit either. Regardless, I will be paying close attention to Scott Kenemore's future books.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill





Adam Nevill has fast become one of the big names of horror fiction. His first novel was published in 2004, and since his second novel in 2010 he has delivered one horror novel per year, with short stories appearing sporadically. Last year I reviewed House of Small Shadows (my favorite of his six novels) and then conducted an interview with Mr. Nevill this past august after the book was released in the US.

No One Gets Out Alive is his latest, and longest, novel. It wastes no time getting to the action, and the terrors of 82 Edgehill Road begin in the very first chapter. The book tells the story of Stephanie, a young woman who has been hit hard by the recession. Her mother died young, and she was raised by a father and a mentally ill stepmother, and after her father dies she tries to stay on with stepmother but the arrangement doesn't work. She has left her last boyfriend, and finds herself truly on her own. Jobs are scarce to the point of nonexistence, and a temping agency barely manages to get her any gigs, so the girl is forced to confront poverty head on and take a ridiculously cheap room in a shady, rundown house. This is where the book starts. Stephanie wakes up to all sorts of noises: plastic crinkling under her bed, sobbing girls in adjacent rooms, a muttering female voice from the fireplace, and the presence of someone in her room walking over to her bed. One night in the house would be enough, but due to financial circumstances she has nowhere else to go. Things go from bad to worse, and only keep going downhill.

Structurally, the book reminds me of Nevill's third novel, The Ritual. There was a turning point in The Ritual where the book seems like it could end, only to do a 180 and become almost a completely different horror novel. The book was highly praised, and some fans loved the subverting of expectations while some were put off by the drastic turning point. I was in the former camp. This novel has a similar structure, and when the horrors reach a crescendo and the novel seems to be over it continues for another 200 pages. While there were moments I felt like the latter portion could have been a bit shorter, I thought that overall it worked well and took the story to new heights.

Also like The Ritual, No One Gets Out Alive deftly blends realistic horrors with the supernatural. The hauntings of 82 Edgehill Road are scary enough in their own right, but the true horrors of the house come from Nevill's darkest characters yet: landlord Knacker McGuire and his cousin Fergal. The proprietors are the scum of the low class: uneducated, shady, predatory, angry, selfish, violent. They're criminals, who hide behind flashy clothes, manipulating and taking advantage, and ultimately resorting to extortion and violence when things don't go their way. The author did an excellent job depicting these characters realistically, and the books most intense, terrifying moments involve them.

The horrors of poverty are center stage, as well as the horror of being alone, with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. The book is also a look at female victims and survivors in horror. Nevill has some poignant things to say about modern society and their reaction to female victims as well, which is in itself another powerful avenue of horror.

The supernatural doesn't take a backseat to the realistic horror either, but instead works in tandem with it. No one believes that she saw ghosts and worse, leaving her with few friends, and even the ones she has don't believe her, thinking her mentally and emotionally broken. This leaves her mostly on her own, facing a horror that's become a part of her.

Adam Nevill has come a long way since publishing his first novel, and his growth as a writer has been apparent over the course of his novels. No One Gets Out Alive is one of his best yet, and truly reaches for new heights of terror. That Nevill managed to sustain dread throughout a novel of this size is a true accomplishment, as this book throws horror at the readers from the very first paragraph and doesn't let up until the end. If you're a fan of horror and Adam Nevill isn't on your radar, you're doing something wrong. The novel is set to hit shelves in the UK on October 23rd and will be released in the US April of 2015.



Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: The Mission by Ted E. Grau





I’ve always been partial to the Weird Western. My love of the weird, horror and fantasy has always been strong, but I didn’t truly appreciate the Western until I came across the gritty Spaghetti Western films directed by Sergio Leone. These films hit the sweet spot. There was the frontier setting, wild and lacking any controlling institution, bandits and vigilantes running rampant. Every man carried a six-shooter at the very least, forging his very own path through the dust and grime. These were tough sons-of-bitches, dealing with tough situations. Danger is a constant. The violent setting of the American West is horrific, so throwing supernatural horror into the mix just serves to up the ante. Lovecraftian and cosmic horror in particular has always seemed to be well-suited to the Western environment, giving an author a desolate, wide-open setting to place his horrors, making man feel quite alone before the horror even takes the stage.

T.E. Grau’s The Mission serves as prime example of what can be done when these two genres collide. The novella starts off with a typical Western plot; a group of Army men are on the hunt for a couple of Native Americans. Grau shows what can be accomplished when combining the West with the horrors of Lovecraft, as the men make some strange discoveries.

The tension of the group is already thick when the novel begins, with some members clashing over racial differences and just skimming the boiling point. Once the stage is set, the already palpable tension ratchets into overdrive for the remainder of the novella. As the group is beset by strange occurrences, such as finding an out of place town where a town shouldn’t be, the Captain does his best to stay cool and keep his group from tearing each other apart.

Some of The Mission brought to mind The Men From Porlock or Blackwood’s Baby by Laird Barron. All three stories are period pieces featuring groups of tough guys coming face to face with horrors beyond their comprehension. Grau nails the rough tone required to portray these types of characters, making for a story that has already moved high up on my list of favorite Weird Westerns.

The Mission was published by Jordan Krall’s Dunhams Manor Press, an imprint of Dynatox Ministries, as a very limited chapbook. orders.