Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

Several years ago, when I first discovered the rabbit-hole of weird fiction and dove into it face-first, one of the first authors/editors I discovered was Jeff Vandermeer. I read Veniss Underground, his bizarre, post-cyberpunk re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. This quickly led to me snapping up every book with Vandermeer stamped on the cover.

It was City of Saints and Madmen that really blew me away. Vandermeer had created a fictional city of wonder, called Ambergris. This mosaic work of fiction was made up of novellas and short stories that all worked together to paint a portrait of a fantastic city with many secrets, most notably the Gray Caps, a mysterious race that resembles a cross between humans and mushrooms. Vandermeer continued the Ambergris saga with Shriek: An Afterword, which despite being the weakest book in the series is still a good read. Shriek is also written unlike any novel I have encountered before. The majority of the book is narrated by Janice Shriek, an art critic introduced in City of Saints and Madmen, as a biography/autobiography of her brother Duncan Shriek (a historian with a Gray Cap obsession) and herself, while Duncan fills in her manuscript with his own commentary in brackets. The result is a layered novel that is told in two different, although intertwined voices.

For some reason, I waited until now to read Finch, although I've heard over and over about how great it was, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Continuing the trend, Vandermeer took yet a different narrative approach with Finch, one that was much more mainstream in it's delivery. Best described by Richard Morgan as "fungal noir", Finch is a hard-boiled detective story like no other. Vandermeer sets Finch several decades after Shriek, in a time where the Gray Caps have risen up to conquer Ambergris. John Finch is a detective grudgingly working for the Gray Caps and keeping many of his own secrets. When his Gray Cap boss sets him on a bizarre murder case involving a dead man and a dead Gray Cap found lying side by side in an abandoned apartment building, Finch finds himself drawn into a plot which will forever change Ambergris.

Finch has excellent pacing, a good amount of action and several shady characters. The story is told in clipped sentences, and although it is told in the third person it captures the stereotypical gruff voice of a hard-boiled detective. It's narrative style makes it the most accessible of the Ambergris cycle, and although it can be enjoyed on it's own it is most rewarding to those who read the first two, as Finch wraps up some loose ends and sheds light on the Gray Cap mysteries which were introduced in the first two books.

Finch is an excellent example of Vandermeer's many literary talents; the style, setting, plot, tone and characters all align to create a fun noir like no other.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane

On November 26, the weird fiction community had a shock when writer Joel Lane passed away in his sleep. I never had the chance to know him on a personal level, but his work was powerful, every story of his left an impression on me. A few days before his passing I picked up Where Furnaces Burn, which won the World Fantasy Award for best collection only a few weeks earlier.

Where Furnaces Burn consists of twenty-six short stories, some new for the collection and others having been published previously since 2004. The stories, which stand well enough on their own, come together to create a rich tapestry of one man's bizarre experiences while a member of the police force in Birmingham, UK.

Joel seems at home taking readers through landscapes of urban decay, and he captures the senses of despair and hopelessness with ease. The unnamed narrator is a flawed man in a decaying marriage that seems destined to fail from the start, and each story represents a different case he has worked on. The majority of the stories play with the sense of "thin places" and some are, in a way, ghost stories, although they are in no way traditional.

All of the stories are short, and the majority are eight to ten pages in length. Although all the stories are cut from the same cloth in terms of tone, they manage to be a diverse lot without a bad one in the bunch. They are all powerful pieces, and I enjoyed savoring them a few at a time.It is also interesting to read the stories in mostly chronological order (not publication order) and seeing how personally involved/obsessed the narrator becomes with some of the abnormal cases he seems to attract, and it's clear that they affect him on a deep level.

Joel Lane will be sorely missed; his voice was one of a kind. By all accounts he was a wonderful gentleman, and I'm sad that I will never have the chance to meet him. While the community mourns the loss of such a talented man, there are many who are honoring him in the best of ways: by reading his fiction and essays. I couldn't recommend this one enough, and readers should also grab The Witnesses Are Gone, a novella that I adore. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Subject 11 by Jeffrey Thomas

Cutting right to the chase, Subject 11 is one of the best novellas I've read all year. Jeffrey Thomas is at his best in this eerie story following a group of ten people (five women and five men) taking part in a mysterious experiment. I'll keep this review short, as the novella is about 90 pages and I wouldn't want to give anything away.

The setting is Ligottian urban decay at it's finest, as the experiment takes part in an abandoned complex of old, decrepit buildings. The ten participants are not allowed to tell their real names to each other, and instead refer to each other by their numbers. The particulars of the experiment are unknown to the participants, they just have to follow a simple list of rules: they can't share their names, they take the pills provided every morning, and once per day they must each enter a "confessional room" where they are free to talk about anything.

Thomas develops this story perfectly, and it's clear from the start that there is something sinister about the experiment. It's hard to put down, and the pacing doesn't let up. The mysteries are enticing, and Thomas brings them together for an ending that is sure to linger long in the minds of readers.

Keeping in line with the other Delirium Novellas, Subject 11 is available as an e-book for $2.99, or a limited hardback for $35. It's completely worth it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations by Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer's debut collection, A Pretty Mouth, is easily one of my favorite reads of the past year. The connected Lovecraftian short stories detailing the legacy of the Calipash family became an instant weird classic. That being said, I had high expectations for her second collection, Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations, recently published by Egaeus Press.

This hardcover is limited to a 250 copy print-run, and contains the title novella as well as six short stories. While the Calipash family fails to make an appearance, a few of the stories are still Lovecraftian flavored, but before digging into the fiction, it's worth taking a moment to talk about the book's aesthetics. Egaeus Press is fast becoming not only a quality outlet for weird fiction, but a publisher that makes beautiful books (here's a look at a previous collection: The Transfiguration of Mr. Punch). Rumbullion is a solid hardcover, with some gorgeous middle-ages woodcut style artwork throughout. Tanzer's love of mixology is present as well, each story being followed  by a drink recipe in order to quench the thirst of imbibing readers. Very cool!

The fiction within is further proof that Molly Tanzer is a unique voice in the weird fiction community. The title story, Rumbullion, is the highlight. A nobleman struggles to reconcile the bizarre events of an evening party at his house by obtaining accounts from various men and women who were in attendance. Of course, everyone is unreliable, and in the end the reader is left just as confused as the narrator. Tanzer herself described the novella as "Rashomon with fops" and I struggle to find a better description. Rumbullion has moments of hilarity, ridiculousness, and mystery aplenty.

Some of the short stories are better than others, but they all see a recurrence of themes. How John Wilmot Contracted Syphilis continues the theme of noble dandies, and follows lecherous nobleman John Wilmot pretending to be a foreign doctor while struggling with a bizarre supernatural force. Herbert West In Love, a take on the infamous Lovecraft character, is a darkly humorous story in which the protagonist is struggling with his sexuality, akin to the narrator of Rumbullion.

Oddly enough, while A Pretty Mouth and a few stories present in Rumbullion seem centered on fops and dandy noblemen and noblewomen, a prominent theme in the second collection alone is anthropomorphism. My least favorite story in the collection, In Sheep's Clothing, is one of the more bizarre post-apocalyptic stories I've come across, and seems very much a "go green and don't eat meat" propaganda piece, although the end of the story is pretty cool, and is when anthropomorphism first comes into play in the collection. The Poison-Well goes all out, with a small community of animals in which a shrewmouse starts a feud with a mole, making for a hilariously tragic tale. The full-out anthropomorphism continues with Tubby McMungus, Fat From Fungus, a story co-authored with Jesse Bullington and first appearing in Fungi. Tanzer and Bullington pen this funny tale of feuding, merkin-making noble cats, a tale that will not soon be forgotten. The collection closes with Go, Go, Go Said the Byakhee. This Lovecraftian tale is a beautifully twisted take on a far future earth in which at least one Ancient One has risen and works to remake the world in it's image. The people left go on pilgrimages in which they are changed into strange human/animal hybrids, making for one of the best "post-Cthulhu rising" themed stories I've read.

With Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations, Molly Tanzer's humorous wit and wickedly bizarre imagination are on full display, providing discerning readers with a one of a kind weird fiction treat. With a fast-selling print-run of only 250 copies, this is a book that is grabbed sooner rather than later. It can be ordered directly from the publisher.

Also of note: an interview I conducted with Molly Tanzer in February, after reading A Pretty Mouth.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill is an author who just keeps getting better and better. His third novel, The Ritual, won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and helped bring more attention to his two earlier novels, Banquet for the Damned and Apartment 16. Nevill's follow-up to The Ritual, Last Days, was a solid novel despite a lackluster ending. Now Nevill is back with House of Small Shadows, which is doubtless his best work yet.

First, the blurbs:

Catherine’s last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top television production company saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and now things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself – to catalogue the late M H Mason’s wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she’ll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting scenes from World War I. When Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House itself, where she maintains the collection, Catherine can’t believe her luck. Until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle’s ‘Art’. Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but M H Mason’s damaged visions raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she’d hoped had finally been erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge. And some truths seem too terrible to be real.

The Red House: home to the damaged genius of the late M. H. Mason, master taxidermist and puppeteer, where he lived and created some of his most disturbing works. The building and its treasure trove of antiques is long forgotten, but the time has come for his creations to rise from the darkness. Catherine Howard can’t believe her luck when she’s invited to value the contents of the house. When she first sees the elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals and macabre puppets, she’s both thrilled and terrified. It’s an opportunity to die for. But the Red House has secrets, secrets as dreadful and dark as those from Catherine’s own past. At night the building comes alive with noises and movements: footsteps, and the fleeting glimpses of small shadows on the stairs. And soon the barriers between reality, sanity and nightmare begin to collapse . . . 

The cover and blurbs should be enough to get any horror fan salivating. Dolls, puppets and taxidermy are all three creepy enough on their own, together they are a recipe for terror overload. The blurbs do not do the book justice, however, as the novel goes into much, much weirder territory.

Nevill finds success in creating the perfect atmosphere for paranoia. The Red House and the nearby, decrepit village of Magbar's Wood both exude a sense of being forgotten, tucked away into their own secret corner of England. Taking example from all the best haunted house stories, The Red House itself often transcends being simply a setting and becomes a character in it's own right. Populated by the highly eccentric, if not completely insane, niece of artist M.H. Mason as well as her mute, unfriendly housekeeper, The Red House soon becomes a prison for Catherine. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive, from the muted, red lighting to the unpleasant smells. Mason's gruesome exhibits and creepy collection of puppets push an already tense, scary atmosphere into one of pure terror.

Catherine, the protagonist, is a deeply troubled individual. Early on in the book, her past is almost too convoluted, a long history including adoption, severe bullying, her best friend disappearing without a trace, mental health issues involving trances and a multitude of therapists, a humiliating departure from a previous job, and a relationship beset by issues such as an earlier miscarriage. Quite a lot to take in, but it's soon clear that Catherine is about as much of a wreck as they come, and is only barely holding it together. All the complexities of her life are almost overwhelming for the reader, but over time they all come together nicely.

When Catherine is invited to stay at The Red House while she values Mason's collection, things really take off. It's not soon before she feels more like a prisoner than anything, like a player on a stage who doesn't know her lines but can't help but playing out her role. Her predicament bleeds through the pages, so readers feel her claustrophobia and her worries. At times her reactions almost seem to be too much, as she is in hysterics for a good half of the novel, although having the feeling that one is stuck in a living nightmare will do that to most people.

House of Small Shadows is a great example of weird horror with a good blend of the psychological. Troubled Catherine starts to question what is real and what isn't as things become more and more bizarre. There's a certain turning point halfway through the novel where things immediately go into overdrive, and stay there, making the second half a wild nightmare trip with nowhere to turn. Puppets that may be much more, an ancient cult, otherwordly beings, things not being what they seem, this novel has tons to offer. Without a doubt Nevill's best work to date, and one that readers will lose sleep over. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Arkham Digest Celebrates Its First Birthday!

It was mid-October last year when I decided to join the world of blogging and create my own review blog. I decided upon the name, paid for the domain through Blogger, and set it up, but it wasn't until October 24th that I had my first post, with my first review following a day later.

When I started out I didn't think the blog would be half as successful as it has been. I have a great core group of readers which is constantly growing, and I've been able to feature many prominent scriveners of the weird on the site. After NecronomiCon in August I was joined by guest reviewer Alex Lugo, whose insightful reviews are very welcome on these pages.

It's been a wonderful year and I hope the first of many. I would like to thank all the fine authors, editors, and publishers who have allowed me to review their books, with an extra thanks to all who have granted me interviews. I mostly want to thank the readers though, as without them I would just be rambling to myself in my little corner of the internet. Remember, it's all for you guys!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

One book I keep seeing come up as an essential October/Halloween read, is Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October, often listed alongside Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. The book is broken into 31 chapters, one for each day of October, and I know some readers make a ritual of reading this book by reading a chapter per day as the month goes by. I started the book a little late in the month to do that, so I tore through it in only two days.

Zelazny is known for being quite imaginative and witty, and this, his final novel, serves as prime example. Many characters from film/literature are present in this Victorian era tale of magic and dark gods, and it's apparent that the author had quite a fun time paying homage to many of his favorites. The premise is simple: once every several years, the full moon falls on Halloween, which means a ritual can be performed to open the gates allowing the Elder Gods to inherit the Earth. Thus, The Game is born, and consists of occult figures who either act as openers, seeking to open the portal, or closers, seeking to thwart the openers and keep the status quo. The Game itself is a bit complex, with many bizarre rules and strange magic rituals. It is not clear who is on what side until later in The Game, and figuring out where one another stands is a big part of it.

Each player has a familiar: Jack the Ripper has a dog, Crazy Jill the Witch has a cat, the Count has a bat, etc. In perhaps the author's boldest move with the book, the narrator is Snuff, Jack's dog familiar, who was not always a dog. Most of the book consists of interactions between familiars, as they constantly trade information, sometimes sharing quite a bit, and sometimes holding back some important tidbits. It's interesting to see these creatures who may or not be rivals, working together throughout the book as the great ritual nears.

Although the book has undertones of horror: Elder Gods who want to inherit and remake the world in their image, vampires and werewolves, dark magic rituals and strange creatures from other dimensions, it's far from being a frightening book. It's a good, fun romp, and readers will enjoy the wit and the guessing of who is on which side right up until the night of the ritual itself. Half the fun is just seeing all the references in the book: Lovecraft's Elder Gods and Dreamlands, The Count (Dracula), The Good Doctor (Dr. Frankenstein), Larry Talbot (The Wolfman), Rostov (Rasputin), Morris and MacCab (Burke and Hare).

A Night In The Lonesome October is definitely a book that deserves to be dubbed "essential October reading". It has also inspired many tributes, most notably Neil Gaiman's Only The End of the World Again, which brings Larry Talbot to Innsmouth in an attempt to foil the Elder God's awakening again.

Being a big fan of the book, Lovecraft e-Zine editor Mike Davis started an annual tradition last year, with issue #18 being a tribute to Zelazny's novel. Zelazny's son Trent provides the introduction, and has given his blessing to make the issue an annual occurrence. The new issue should be available soon!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dark Regions Press: Black Labyrinth Kickstarter

Dark Regions Press is one of the staple small presses of the horror industry. Mr. Morey makes sure to consistently deliver high quality works from a varied stable of authors. One new project has been the Black Labyrinth imprint, which will consist of ten novels/novellas of psychological horror. The first volume was widely praised in the horror field, and Mr. Morey has now teamed with veteran storyteller Joe R. Lansdale and dynamite artist Santiago Caruso to bring readers the second volume.

Only great things can come from the union of long-established Lansdale and rising star Caruso, but the project needs your help. Below is a statement from Chris Morey to readers.

Horror Exists Within All of Us

There have been trends in horror fiction over the past ten years: monster fiction and dystopian fiction. An abundance of apocalyptic stories often related to zombies or another cataclysmic scenario or, of course, monsters; vampires, werewolves, Cthulhu. These trends point to a common underlying thread: the desire for escape from society, normalcy and/or routine.

As fantastic and engaging as escaping from our reality can be, what about really digging into our own personal realities? What about the stories that examine what makes us who we are, the ones that shine a light into the darkest corners of our minds? The human psyche is an incredibly complex and multilayered organism that has been largely unexplored in post-modern horror fiction. This has not gone unnoticed.

Black Labyrinth is our answer. After watching these trends unfold for years, our yearning for true psychological horror fiction only grew stronger. Eventually we realized that the only solution was to publish psychological stories ourselves. Thus the ideas for Black Labyrinth formed; an imprint of ten books purely dedicated to psychological horror. Each book an original novel or novella written by one of the living masters of horror and dark fiction. Each story illustrated by surrealist artist Santiago Caruso. All offered in ebook, trade paperback and premium signed limited edition Black Labyrinth hardcovers.

The first book in the imprint, The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli was met with wide critical acclaim and contained four original illustrations and cover artwork from Santiago Caruso. The hardcovers sold out within one month of publication.

Now we’re running a campaign for Book II in the imprint by Joe R. Lansdale, award-winning author of Edge of Dark Water, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Bottoms, the Hap and Leonard series, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and many other novels, novellas, short stories, comic books and screenplays. Joe is consistently ranked in the top living horror authors, and we’re thrilled to have him in the imprint. But to make this book a reality, we are turning to Kickstarter, and this campaign will be running until Sunday, November 10th 2013. Everyone who contributes to the campaign will receive a copy of the book.

Horror needs an injection of fresh ideas and original concepts. We’ve explored the end of the world, we’ve explored other worlds and creatures outside of our own perceptions… but what about our own realities? What about exploring our own subconscious and the demons that hide within? It seems to us that the human mind itself is a gold mine for storytelling, especially horror fiction.

Darkness exists in each of our minds, an amoeba that fluctuates in strength and intent. What could be more powerful for a story than letting this darkness consume our character, or having it spill into the “real” world?

We hope you explore these possibilities with us and bring a new story from Joe R. Lansdale; Book II in the Black Labyrinth imprint illustrated by Santiago Caruso. This is a unique project, and one that will be remembered by Lansdale fans and readers of horror and dark fiction.

Join us for the ride at:

Chris Morey
Editor of the Black Labyrinth imprint
Owner and publisher at Dark Regions Press

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Holes For Faces by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a giant in the field. Love or hate his work, there is no denying it. With nearly fifty years of experience under his belt, the Liverpool native has surely made his mark in weird fiction history. Starting his long career with Lovecraft Mythos stories, yet set in his own fictional section of England, Ramsey has thoroughly explored all aspects of the uncanny.

Holes For Faces is Campbell’s latest collection, recently published by Dark Regions Press, and contains fourteen stories from the past decade. Every story showcases Campbell’s talents for hinting at the weird, making the mundane horrifying, and conveying Campbell’s signature sense of paranoia. Campbell’s stories have a certain nightmarish qualities to them, and his protagonists are almost always alone with seemingly no one to turn to who would understand them.

The one common thread tying all these stories together are the themes of youth and age. Almost every story features either a child protagonist, or an older man protagonist, while some stories prominently feature both ends of the spectrum. Parallels are drawn between both ages, aging characters are sometimes treated simply, as if they havee regressed to small children.

The stories prominently featuring age as a theme often take a similar approach, in that the old men and women are usually suffering from confusion. The Address is a prime example. The main character is looking for a station, yet is entirely lost. The people he encounters offer little to no help, either sending him in a direction that leads to nothing, or speaking down to him as if he is a child or simple in the head. The man’s confused search soon becomes something much darker when he comes across what appears to be a school and decides to ask someone for directions. Recently Used is a tragic story, seeing an older man woken up in the middle night by a phone call, only to rush to the hospital to see his wife who is in critical condition. The story is a nightmare of anxiety, much like The Address, as the man rushes through the labyrinthine hospital unable to find the proper ward. Until the end it’s hard to tell whether the man is experiencing something supernatural, or if he is simply not mentally competent. In The Rounds, an old man tries to make his way home on a train, only to become obsessed with a suitcase a Muslim woman leaves behind. Suspecting terrorism the man does his best to keep the suitcase in sight, yet the story soon becomes an endless loop of him going through the same motions station after station, never able to escape. Keeping with the train themes, Passing Through Peacehaven features another older protagonist, who stops at a decrepit train station, where he awaits the next train. The station seems abandoned, although at times he hears a voice over the speakers and catches glimpses of what may be another person.

Campbell also writes youth well. Holes for Faces features a particularly nervous boy, on vacation in Italy with his parents. He already seems to be a bit of a nervous wreck, but when the family decides to take a tour of some catacombs, the boy becomes particularly fixated on holes where some corpses’ faces should be. The rest of the vacation becomes a nightmare, as holes in general start to become a source of extreme anxiety and fear for the boy. Chucky Comes to Liverpool, one of my favorites, plays with the idea of British urban legends about the killer doll Chucky from the Child’s Play films. The youth, as well as a coalition of moms, blame the Child's Play films for inspiring several violent crimes perpetrated by young men and women. The main character’s mother is a member of this coalition, and is doing her part to ban the “video nasties” while her son and his friend, in true fourteen year old fashion, decide they want to see what all the fuss is about. The boy becomes obsessed, then frightened with his obsession, and decides to do what he can to put an end to Chucky, ironically becoming the violent sociopath himself. Holding The Light is bit more straightforward. Two young teenagers visit a spooky tunnel, and take turns walking it in the dark. The Long Way follows a young boy who routinely goes across the council estate to help his paraplegic uncle with his grocery shopping. Things become complicated when the boy sees something moving about in an abandoned house and begins to fear going to his uncle's.

While Campbell covers both youth and old age, some of the most successful stories are the ones that combine both. There is often the continued theme of the old characters being misunderstood and looked down upon by their own children or their peers, usually seen as incompetent to take care of their grandchildren. This is first explored in Peep, in which a grandfather is once again haunted by a terrifying game from his childhood, which interferes with his being able to watch over his own grandkids. The Decorations, the first of two Christmas themed stories, draws strong parallels between a boy and his grandmother. Being of that age where the realities of the world start to become clear, the boy and his mother visit his grandparents for the holidays. It soon becomes apparent that his grandmother is losing it, and she has an obsessive fear of a creepy Santa Claus decoration. The boy struggles, on one hand he shares her fear and believes her, but on another hand he tries to “be a man” and help convince her it's alright. The end is ambiguous, and leaves readers wondering whether the boy truly experiences the supernatural, or if he simply shares his grandmother's madness. In contrast, Behind The Doors features the grandfather as the protagonist, instead of the grandson. The grandfather's bad memories of school return when his grandson brings home an advent calendar from the grandfather's old teacher. The grandfather's obsession with the calendar and the number game that the teacher plays leads him to lose everything. Going with the theme of mentally incompetent elders paired with youth, With the Angels has one of the book's darker endings. Two old women visit their families old house with some grandchildren, but one of the women is not quite up to the task of watching the kids.

Ramsey Campbell's skills are on full display with the collection, and the common theme of youth and old age make for a collection that is solidified in theme. Definitely a welcome addition to the master's bibliography.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Rough Cut by Gary McMahon

The British horror scene is brimming with talent, but even with so many great authors there are a few who stand out from the rest. Gary McMahon is one of those authors. McMahon not only produces a high output of horror fiction (around 7 novels and 6 collections since 2008, as well as various chapbooks and stories published elsewhere, not to mention a few anthologies edited) but the fiction he puts out is consistently good.

One of his earlier chapterbooks, Rough Cut was published in 2006. The book's blurb is as follows:

Jude, the son of Vanna St Clair - the voluptuous star of a series of controversial British horror films in the 1970s, who died forgotten - is offered the opportunity to write her biography, a warts-and-all expose of the seamy side of the British film industry. But this proves no ordinary book, and Vanna is no ordinary subject. When Jude discovers the existence of "Charred Image", a fabled lost film - the last project Vanna worked on with director Derek Reef, her lover - his life is changed forever. Jude is led on a dark journey that leads to the Daleside, a brooding derelict mental asylum, the location where the footage was shot. Only there can he finally lay his ghosts to rest. As phantoms tumble off the silver screen, Jude realises that life, unlike most movies, doesn't always have a neat and happy ending. Sometimes the roughest cut is the deepest.

Rough Cut has a bit of everything to offer horror fans: evil supernatural entities, a stalking psychopath, grisly deaths, and a tense atmosphere including a derelict mental institution. McMahon excels at writing realistic, damaged characters. Jude has a certain darkness about him, and already seems to know much about the seedier side of his mother's life. Writing her autobiography isn't something that excites him, but at least he can make sure she receives the respect he feels she deserves. Once he accepts the job offer, it soon becomes clear that there are darker forces at work, forces that put not only Jude, but also his friends in danger. 

McMahon's story is pretty dark, but not without a certain thread of hope throughout. In tight prose McMahon gives readers a reason to fear the dark, derelict places of the world. Definitely worth seeking out a copy. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Giveaway Winner: Cuttlehead Cthulhu Sculpture by Joe Broers

I did the drawing tonight using after assigning each e-mail entry a number in the order the e-mails came in. All e-mails that didn't follow the entry rules (ie. not putting name and address) were deleted first. The winner was actually a local, and one of my students (hooray for no shipping costs!). A big congratulations to James Bowden!!!!! Stay tuned for other great giveaways!

Review: The Yellow House by DJ Tyrer

Back when I started this blog, nearly a year ago, I began by reviewing A Season In Carcosa, an original anthology in tribute to the King In Yellow works by Robert Chambers. I’ve long had a special fondness for these stories of madness and decadence, and over the years I’ve tried to hunt down any works related to this “Yellow Mythos”.

Jordan Krall’s Dynatox Ministries, under the Dunhams Manor Press imprint, recently released The Yellow House by DJ Tyrer. This novella sized chapbook serves as an excellent example of a longer piece that plays with the themes of the Yellow Mythos.

The Yellow House seems to draw inspiration from many corners of the weird fiction realm. It has a Gothic feel, and takes place in a giant, secluded manor, a setting reminiscent of all the best ghost stories. Instead of ghosts though, this story takes a surreal trip into madness and sexuality.

As the title suggests, the setting serves as the story’s centerpiece. The Yellow House, as the manor is called, is vast and labyrinthine. The narrator, Sylvia, arrives at the house where she is met by a strict and unfriendly housekeeper and a wicked caretaker, who appear to be the only adults in the mansion. Sylvia is restricted to the first two floors of the house, with meals set in a room at appointed times. Her only companions are her cousins: twins Camilla and Castilla, who initially receive Sylvia with undisguised disdain.

The house is strange in many ways. The girls are not allowed to roam any of the upper floors (of which there is a ridiculously large amount) or go outside. Sylvia notices a lake sheathed in mist next to the house, a lake that she failed to see on the ride up the drive. As Sylvia begins to tire of doing nothing, she starts making expeditions onto the upper floors, where many, many strange things await. When one of the twins warms up to her, Sylvia starts to explore her sexuality with her new friend, all while making excursions ever further upwards in the house.

The entire piece has a pervasive sense of dislocation. The story opens as Sylvia is coming down the drive towards the house. The outside world is never seen, and it’s as if the house and its environs comprise their own little world. Sylvia has a strange sense of déjà vu at times, as though much is familiar although she can’t fully recall any visits to the house or with her cousins. The house also seems out of time. Early on it is alluded to that Sylvia is staying at the house to be safe from the Great War. This would seem to indicate the story taking place near one of the World Wars, however in her first conversation with the twins Sylvia compares The Yellow House with the house in the film The Haunting, which was released in 1963. The twins say they don’t go to the cinema, and there doesn’t seem to be anything else in the house that would indicate the time period in which the story takes place.

There is a lot of mystery in The Yellow House, and readers who like to have everything tied up neatly by the end may be disappointed. I, however, am NOT one of those readers. I found that Tyrer succeeded in creating one of the most perfect King In Yellow stories I have had the pleasure of reading. The Yellow House is a masterful piece, with a surreal tone and the perfect atmosphere to go with it. It is definitely a story I can see myself reading multiple times.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Interview: The Brothers Thomas

As a follow up to my review of The Sea of Flesh and Ash, I'm proud to present readers with an interview conducted with both of the Thomas Brothers.

First things first, I'd like to thank both of you for the interview.

Jeffrey: As well you should...we’re the freakin’ Thomas Brothers.

Scott: Thanks so much for the honor of doing this, Justin! 

The Sea of Flesh and Ash was an interesting project, having two writers pen tales based on what they took away from the artwork that was used as the cover. What did you take away from the cover art when it was time to write your story?

Jeffrey: The image is called Dreams are Dark, and the artist is Travis Anthony Soumis, who has done numerous covers and interior illustrations for my books. Back in 2004, Sean Wallace at Prime Books asked me and Scott to each write a short novel inspired by this image, which Sean very much admired. (Publishing delays ultimately caused the book to be moved to Terradan Press in 2011.) What I got most from the image was a sense of the dream-like, as the artwork’s title suggests...the woman lying prone with her head pillowed in the surf, her arms open wide, and a gateway to a mysterious realm manifesting before her. Very evocative and poetic, so that was the tone I sought for my novel.

Scott: I thought that the image, which I found to be quite beautiful, was dreamy and sensual, and mysterious and begged a story that evoked those same qualities. I liked how the sea was a part of it, the sea being the closest thing we have to an unexplored dimension here in our tangible world.  

What were your own personal inspirations behind the stories?

Jeffrey: My story was very much inspired by my intense love for two things: the city of Salem, Massachusetts, and for a woman who was the proverbial love of my life, with whom I shared a four-year affair that ended very sadly. She changed the course of my life radically, and sparked my obsession with Vietnam and its people, which has informed a lot of my writing since.

Scott: The house I was living in at the time inspired me in ways. I was living in a lovely Georgian Colonial built by a wealthy tanner named Benjamin Read in 1774. Sitting in my writing room with a paneled fireplace wall across from me certainly stirred my love of New England and old houses. So, it makes sense that antique architecture and New England locations figure notably in the novella. The Benjamin Read house was, in ways, a model for the spooky inn that each of the three major characters in my story ventured to.   

As brothers, do you frequently send each other your work to critique, or seek advice from each other?

Jeffrey: Years ago we absolutely did that -- it was part of the whole process -- but as time went on and our personal lives diverged more widely, I guess we stopped soliciting the other’s feedback during the writing stage, instead reading each other’s books after they’d been published. But we remain each other’s strongest supporter and biggest fan.

Scott: In our younger days we shared our creative passions and inspired each other a great deal, but we became more individualistic over time when it comes to projects. Jeffrey used to proof my stories and share his reactions to them, but now we only see each other’s work once it comes out in print, and even then I am shamefully behind on keeping up with his numerous books!

Have you talked about doing any other collaborations?

Jeffrey: We haven’t discussed another collaborative project, but I should think it could happen. I think it’s safe to say the only obstacle is the other projects we’ve committed to -- I’ve said yes to more story requests than I can realistically fulfill! I’m at work on two novels right now that are collaborations in themselves, but with author friends.

Scott: Jeffrey and I each wrote individual stories for the book Punktown: Shades of Grey and The Sea of Flesh and Ash, obviously, but in terms of an actual collaboration, such as both of us working on a single story, there’s only been one published. The piece originally appeared in the Delirium Books tome Nether: Improper Bedtime Stories, which contained the content of my book The Shadows of Flesh and Jeffrey’s Honey Is Sweeter Than Blood. That story, called "Oranges and Apples", later appeared in an anthology from the same publisher, a book called In Delirium. Jeffrey modified our story somewhat for that, adding some material to it, and the work was renamed "Apples and Oranges". It would actually be very cool to bring the Thomas brothers together again at some point!  

What authors/books have made the most impact on your own writing over the years?

Jeffrey: Often the writers who have had the strongest effect on me are not normally associated with horror -- writers as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Yukio Mishima, Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Martin Cruz Smith. Though they have all written what could easily be termed horror stories. Undoubtedly the two horror novels that had the most impact on me in my teen years, and which remain my two favorites to this day, are Blatty’s The Exorcist and Matheson’s I am Legend. But discovering Lovecraft in the mid 80s was a revelation all its own. And then there’s my inspiring younger brother, Scott Thomas.

Scott: Jeffrey’s work has inspired, awed, and influenced me from our earliest writing days, of course. The other two authors that I feel have had a great deal of influence on me are M.R. James and Dylan Thomas. I would heartily recommend the collected short stories of each of those brilliant fellows!  

Are there any weird/horror authors or books that you would recommend as being essential reading?

Jeffrey: The obvious answers are, well, too obvious: Lovecraft, M. R. James, Ramsey Campbell, etc., so I’d prefer to say it’s essential to explore the work of up-and-coming or more obscure authors who deserve more attention, and have a lot to offer the reader who hungers for something different. I often crow about W. H. Pugmire, Ian Rogers, Livia Llewellyn, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas. I’m belatedly discovering the brilliant Laird Barron, and I was floored by the collection Zoo by Japanese author Otsuichi. I think an essential recent anthology, to give readers a fantastic cross-section of  the contemporary weird fiction scene, is The Grimscribe’s Puppets, edited by Joseph S. Pulver, from Miskatonic River Press. The book’s Thomas Ligotti tribute theme is almost incidental. Standouts for me were the stories by Paul Tremblay, Mike Griffin, and Cody Goodfellow, but overall it’s a consistently strong anthology -- better than most horror anthologies I’ve read, which tend to have a greater percentage of misses. I’m in it, too, but truly that’s beside the point.

Scott: For living authors I’d say Jeffrey Thomas and Wilum Pugmire. Jeffrey’s original collection Punktown, and his darkly brilliant Beyond The Door, spring to mind. I think Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an important work in the realm of ghostly fiction, and everyone ought to experience Lovecraft’s works, and certainly those of Poe.

Again, I thank both of you! It was a pleasure!

Jeffrey: How could it not be? We’re the Thomas Brothers, for Chrissakes!

Scott: Thank you so much, Justin! 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Giveaway: Cuttlehead Cthulhu Sculpture by Joe Broers

Thanks to the wonderful Joe Broers, I have one Cuttlehead Cthulhu sculpture to give away to one lucky reader! The sculpture stands about 4" tall, and is a great way to add some eldritch horror to your desk or bookshelf.

Entering is easy. Just send an e-mail to with CTHULHU as the subject. Make sure to include your name and snail mail address. I'll choose one lucky winner this coming weekend by random draw. Multiple entries will result in disqualification. Make sure to like The Arkham Digest Facebook page for more updates!!!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: The Sea of Flesh and Ash by Jeffrey Thomas and Scott Thomas

Brothers Jeffrey Thomas and Scott Thomas have both been publishing weird fiction for over two decades. The Sea of Flesh and Ash is a wonderful collaboration where both brothers bring their talents to bear, each publishing their own novella based on the book's cover image. While the piece of digital art gives each brother a starting point, their stories could not be more different.

The Sea of Flesh by Jeffrey Thomas comes first, and takes place in modern day Salem, and features a cast of intertwined characters, the main two being Lee and Dot. Dot is a young Vietnamese woman working as a waitress in a seaside restaurant, who begins to experience a strange recurring dream, which is only brought on by sleep or orgasm. Lee is a man in an amiably failing marriage, who begins dating Mai, Dot's mother and a nurse at Lee's dying mother's nursing home. Although Lee hasn't met Dot, they begin sharing the same dream experience.

Jeffrey does many things well with this story. The dream realm he creates is creepily mysterious, and more is seen with each visit. What the author does even better is in creating a tragic drama for his realistic characters to play out. While Lee and Mai are happy together, Dot and Mai are plagued by Mai's abusive husband Trang. The dream realm visits parallel the unfolding situation, leading to a poetically tragic ending.

Scott Thomas takes a different approach with The Sea of Ash, offering what reads like a more classically inspired weird tale. The narrator is a retired man with an interest in esoteric books, who is following in the footsteps of two historical "arcane adventurers" that he has become enamored of. The narrative switches back and forth from the present day enthusiast, to the two men whose footsteps he is following: Dr. Pond, a doctor returned home from the Great War and Simon Brinklow, a British man exploring New England in Colonial times. Scott manages to weave together the three threads to create an intricate story about alternate dimensions, and the three men's obsession with finding out more about the strange phenomena. The Sea of Ash is more lighthearted in tone than Jeffrey's tragic The Sea of Flesh, being more of a fantasy with some creepy moments as opposed to a tragedy, but doesn't suffer for it. If anything it makes it even better of a counterbalance to Jeffrey's story.

Weird fiction readers will most likely be familiar with The Brothers Thomas. I've been a reader of Jeffrey Thomas for awhile now, but this marked the first Scott Thomas story I've read, although I've been hearing great things about his work, and this story backed up everything I have heard. This book could be a great chance to see what both authors are about, and is a great example of how art (in this case, the piece of art used for the cover) affects and inspires everyone differently.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Best Horror Of The Year Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow

When news of Night Shade's near demise came, I found myself checking every day for news, dreading the possibility of some books not seeing publication. Foremost on my mind were Laird Barron's The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Peter Rawlik's Reanimators, and Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year Volume Five.

I've been a longtime fan of Ellen Datlow. I think she has good taste, and almost always puts out solid anthologies. When Night Shade started publishing a Best Horror of the Year series with her at the helm, I picked up the first volume and have been faithfully following ever since. Some volumes are stronger than others, and some detractors point out that some stories would be better labeled as “dark fantasy” than horror. Label wars aside, a Datlow anthology always promises to be an interesting read.

The Best Horror of the Year series was saved along with Night Shade, and Volume Five saw publication recently. The anthology consists of Datlow's annual and in depth Summation of horror fiction and non-fiction of the 2012 year, followed by twenty-eight stories and poems.

I enjoyed this anthology, and loved how for this go-around the stories she chose were all rather short, which allowed for her to offer a vaster selection than usual. The stories within ranged from amusing, to outright horrifying.

Some favorites include:

Jeffrey Ford's A Natural History of Autumn is a modern take on a creepy monster from Japanese folklore. The story has some twists and turns, and made quite an impression on me, leading me to order a couple of Ford's collections upon finishing it.

The Callers by Ramsey Campbell has the author's brand of “comedy of paranoia” taking center stage. A young boy staying with his grandparents finds himself running away from some angry peers. Taking refuge at his Grandmother's bingo night seems like a good idea at the time, but quickly becomes anything but a good idea.

Proving he is one of Britain's strongest voices in horror, Gary McMahon has two excellent stories in the anthology. Kill All Monsters follows a weary woman on the run with her dangerous man and their daughter. The woman finds herself torn between fear and love for the man, who believes some everyday people are actually monsters that only he can see. He is constantly driven to rage, and compelled to kill these “monsters”. The story does a good job of leaving thing just ambiguous enough. I couldn't help but be reminded of the film Frailty, which saw a father/son team killing people who they thought were demons in disguise. As much as I enjoyed Kill All Monters, McMahon's second offering, Some Pictures in an Album, is the stronger of the two, and one of the scariest stories in the anthology. The majority of the story is made up of descriptions of pictures as the narrator flips through a photo album. The photographs begin to come together to paint a horrific picture, and as soon as I finished I found myself turning back a few pages and reading it again. An excellent exercise in building dread.

Jay Wilburn's Dead Song is a story that I found really intriguing. I didn't find it to be scary until the end, yet the story paints a unique picture of a semi-post-apocalyptic America. During the zombie apocalypse, certain people traveled through the dangerous land to certain parts of the country in order to record regional music. The narration of the story is a voice-actor doing a recording for a documentary about one of these music hunters. It's definitely an interesting premise, although at first I felt it was a bit repetitive with the descriptions of all the fictional musical styles of this time period. This wore off though, as I found myself getting into the "mud music" mystery.

Margo Lanagan's stories are always a delight to read. Bejazzle follows a man during an unhappy point in his marriage. Starting with a bizarre encounter with a strange, semi-Goth girl cult on the train, the story sees the man and his wife attending a party on a beach, where the man is tempted to cheat on his wife.

Bruce McAllister offers up a nice coming-of-age horror story set in a small Italian village with The Crying Child.

Nathan Ballingrud's Wild Acre is just as powerful a story as it was the first time I read it. The author is extremely talented at bringing to life flawed, emotionally damaged working class men and women. In this one a man is wracked by guilt at failure to save his friends.

2012 saw the release of Richard Gavin's At Fears Altar, one of the best single-author weird fiction collections in recent years. Choosing one story from the bunch for inclusion in a Best Horror of the Year anthology must have been a task, and although the majority of the collection found it's way onto Datlow's long honorable mentions list, The Word-Made Flesh was the story she settled on for the anthology. Richard Gavin is a well studied scribe of classic weird fiction, and his talents are on display in a story following a man trying to help his friend contend with a power that is way more than he can control.

The collection closes with two of it's most powerful stories. Lucy Snyder's Magdala Amygdala is grotesque, and there were moments when I literally had my hand to my mouth, cringing. The basic gist of the story is that there is a disease that people react differently to. One type of patient gets a thirst that can only be quenched by blood, while Type 3 patients can only properly get their nutrients from brain matter. The main character is a Type 3, struggling to live with her craving. A must read that will please even the most jaded horror fans. Closing the collection is Laird Barron's Frontier Death Song, a metafictional story featuring some of Barron's fellow authors as characters (a fictionalized version of Stephen Graham Jones is the story's antagonist). The story features many of the author's trademarks: a strong noir voice, tough guys facing overwhelming horrors, and high octane, no holds barred violence. I greatly enjoyed this yarn when it first appeared online, and was glad to see that Datlow chose it for the volume.

Overall, another fine addition to Datlow's annual series.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Alex Lugo Reviews Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley by W.H. Pugmire

Before I even read the master himself, I was made aware of the existence of Lovecraftian fiction when I stumbled upon a copy of Del Ray’s Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in a local bookstore. Initially I found the very concept of Lovecraftian fiction to be a bit absurd. How dare someone other than Lovecraft write within the confines of the Cthulhu Mythos? What thief would attempt to profit from what seemed to be poorly masked fan fiction? And most importantly, how in the hell can a writer have a slither of originality if they write using the characters and creations made decades ago by Lovecraft?

W.H. Pugmire.

It was W.H. Pugmire who made me realize the worth and the power of Lovecraftian fiction. He showed me that to be a successful writer of the weird, one needed to be even more innovative than the typical writer, for the weird fiction writer needs to transcend the world of Lovecraft by adding extensive layers to the mythos, layers that must be entirely the author’s own, all the while complimenting Lovecraft’s original worldview. It is a contradictory, painstaking balance that is needed in order to write Lovecraftian fiction without becoming an imposter. Those who do this are masters of a vast and complicated equation that is as befuddling and confusing as it is simple and overt; in other words, Lovecraft gives these writers the tools of creation, but it is up to the Lovecraftian to use these well-worn tools to ground their own worlds onto a completely separate and scathingly personal plane. Pugmire was the first to show me that such a feat can be accomplished. And he is one of the best at doing so.

In August, I had the great pleasure of meeting W.H. Pugmire for the first time. We had communicated through Facebook and e-mail for several years and it was a pleasure to finally meet him. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his book Weird Inhabitants of Sesqua Valley, a slim volume of consistent, stellar tales. I tend to rush through short story collections, but with this one I took my time (around two weeks), relishing as much as I could from every story. All ten of the stories are truly phantastic. Pugmire evokes a rich beauty in all of his stories, even when describing the most ghoulish and outlandish of situations. With all of Pugmire’s work, I feel a strong sense of contradiction ebbing constantly. Beauty and terror. Love and hatred. Madness and acceptance. Death and transcendence. Homage and originality. Contrast after contrast. And they all build a stunning portrait of a world in which the normal is abhorred, the strange is worshipped, and ascension awaits for every outsider and zealot, whether it be through agonizing resurrection or gentle oblivion. This theme is most prevalent, I feel, in this collection, due to its heavy focus on characters, as the title suggests, and their varied fates. Here in this book are the usual madmen and women we’ve grown accustomed too: Simon Gregory Williams, William Davis Manly, Adam Webster, Cyrus, Nelson, and Maceline. But of even greater interest are the outsiders in these tales, the wayward souls called to the valley in dream and in fervent mania. Whether they be a small press publisher searching for the remnants of a mysterious poet, or Richard Upton Pickman himself, all reach a crossroads of sorts. A place of transcendentalist fervor, a logical next step in their Lovecraftian plunge into the dark seas of infinity. But unlike Lovecraft, these protagonist do not meet their ends by horrific feats of indescribable violence (well, perhaps with the exception of “Totem Pole”) or blabbering madness. With the help of Sesqua’s strange inhabitants, they follow a seemingly logical path into the great inky darkness which they seek; they meet and become one with the horrors Lovecraft himself could only hint at.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is The Million-Shadowed One. It concerns the conjuring of an impish, mute, semi-corporeal creature of both Dunwich and Sesquan origin. Fading in and out of reality, much like the Whately twin, the childish thing seems doomed (or blessed, as is Pugmire’s contradictory nature) to eventually slip out of the realm of mortality, to be one with Yog-Sothoth’s dimensional realm. On this slow slide into tragedy, Pugmire portrays this impish thing as a being of immeasurable wisdom and indomitable love. There is no horror in this story, nothing essentially scary or frightening. It is quite simply a tale of a little boy, an orphaned soul in a world which cannot accept it. Pugmire wrote this upon learning that the book’s illustrator and introducer, Jeffrey Thomas, had a son whom was diagnosed with autism. I have a younger brother who is autistic, and I feel that the way in which Pugmire presented this lost, beautiful soul so perfectly captures the essence of those afflicted with mental illnesses. The uncompromising love, the tangible inability to be accepted; Pugmire, through a Lovecraftian lens, tackles a concept so breathtakingly beautifully and sad. And this tale is only my personal favorite, not what I feel is necessarily the best of the bunch. Quite frankly, the nine other tales in this collection are of equal quality to this one.

Any fan of Pugmire who doesn’t own this book is doing themselves a grave disservice and should pick this up immediately. If you are looking for an introduction to the Queen of Eldritch Horror’s work, look no further. Pugmire has been blessed with many high-end, but very expensive editions, and this affordable paperback can truly be appreciated by any fan of weird fiction. And that includes those who are trepid. Those like me, long ago, who once believed that Lovecraftian fiction could yield nothing of worth.  This book will prove such a statement, horribly, tragically wrong.

For Mr. Pugmire; an immense and immeasurable applause.