Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Interview: Daniel Mills

Last week I posted a very positive review about Revenants, the first novel by author Daniel Mills. I had many good things to say, and the writer who first captured my attention with impressive short stories I read in various anthologies went on to further gain my respect. Daniel himself has also proven to be quite friendly, and has agreed to an interview in which he discusses some of his inspirations for becoming a writer, his own weird favorites, and which of his work will see print in 2013.

JS: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? What were the major driving forces behind that decision?
DM: The short answer? High school.

In my younger teens, I wrote a string of terrible science fiction and fantasy stories largely inspired by Lovecraft, Le Guin, and Robert Jordan’s
Wheel of Time series. These were written largely to amuse myself, as I recall, and otherwise stave off the boredom of summer vacation, and it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I stumbled, unwittingly, into my vocation.
In addition to my love of fantasy and science fiction, I had long nurtured an interest in Japanese history and culture, which prompted me to pick up Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle shortly after my sixteenth birthday. Murakami’s style was unlike anything I had encountered before and I eagerly sought out his other novels, all of which impacted me emotionally in ways I had scarcely imagined possible. Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of the World, in particular, struck me as a masterpiece.
If I had read something like The Wheel of Time to "escape" from your typical high school angst into a world of strange and beautiful possibility, then reading Murakami awakened me to the same possibilities as they existed in my own life and in the world around me. It was around this time that I began to write what I thought of as my first “serious” stories, eventually producing a string of some two- or three-dozen Murakami rip-offs during the next year.

Pretty dreadful stuff, really, and it was only later, in my senior year of high school, that I discovered authors like Yasunari Kawabata, Juan Rulfo, Herman Hesse, and Breece D’J Pancake--writers who inspired me not only
to write but to write well and to find my own voice.

JS: All of your fiction that I've read so far has been historical in context. Period pieces if you will. What is it about previous time periods that appeal to you as settings for your stories?

DM: For me, I suppose, the appeal is largely twofold.

Firstly, I read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. I adore the antiquated diction: those long, slowly unraveling sentences that turn and meander and almost seem to hesitate before going for the throat. Writing period pieces like “Dust from a Dark Flower,” set in the late Eighteenth Century, allows me to indulge my love of baroque language without appearing hopelessly anachronistic.

Secondly, I was brought up from an early age to appreciate the strangeness and complexity of our country’s history. To use one example, my ancestors were British loyalists who fought on the losing side of the Revolutionary War and fled to Canada before returning to the US decades later. My own family spent much of my early childhood traveling to Rev. War reenactments in New York and Northern New England, where we played the roles of British soldiers and camp followers. Naturally enough, I came to see the Rev. War as something rather different from the “struggle for freedom” we hear so much about. And yet it is this mythology that persists -- “print the legend” and so forth.

Setting my work in the past affords me the opportunity to engage directly with these cultural legends (for example, the myths surrounding our nation's founding) while working -- as Lovecraft did -- to invent a mythology of my own. 

JS: From your writings I can only assume that you're a fan of Lovecraft, and other weird fiction. What Lovecraft stories do you consider to be stand-outs, or that are personal favorites of yours? What about other classic writers of the weird?

DM: Indeed, I’m afraid I’m something of a shameless fan-boy where Lovecraft is concerned. While I am, of course, aware of his shortcomings -- his early work, in particular, is terribly inconsistent and colored by his racial attitudes -- I have been reading his stories since I was fourteen and regularly reread his entire body of work every few years.

"The Rats in the Walls" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are perennial favorites of mine as are early tales "The White Ship," “Nyarlathotep," and "The Music of Erich Zann." I also have to mention "The Picture in the House," the opening paragraphs of which present a remarkably succinct summary of New England's dark history while capturing something of the region’s enduring appeal:

“But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteem most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”

Among other classic authors of ghost stories and the weird, I am especially fond of the work of British authors Robert Aickman, EF Benson, MR James, JS Le Fanu, Oliver Onions, and William Hope Hodgson -- and it would be remiss of me not to mention American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert W Chambers, author of The King in Yellow.
I could talk at great -- one might even say "excruciating" -- length concerning any and all of the authors above, but I will limit myself to recommending, unreservedly, the work of Robert Aickman to any who have not experienced it. Simply put, there has never been a finer practitioner of the weird tale. 

JS: Out of all the stories you have written, do you have any that you are especially fond of, or one's that have special meaning to yourself?

DM: Among my short fiction published to date, I am perhaps most fond of "The Hollow," which appeared last year in Phantasmagorium #4, and of "The Wayside Voices," which was published in Issue #30 of Black Static magazine. Both stories contain some of my favorite writing to date, striking a balance between the lyrical sparseness of the prose in Revenants and the antiquated stylings of stories like "The Photographer's Tale" or "The Naked Goddess." 

JS: Do you have any moments early in your life that influenced your love for horror and the weird?

DM: I don’t know that I can pinpoint the precise moment my interest in horror fiction began. Looking back, it seems as though it has always been with me.

God knows I was a nervous enough child. I remember hiding behind the couch while my father watched The Thing, freaking myself out by reading Schwartz & Gammel’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or just lying awake in terror after stumbling on the so-called Diary of Jack the Ripper (complete with black-and-white crime scene photographs) in an otherwise innocent stack of library books. For years, as I recall, I didn't dare to go downstairs at night but waited until my mother switched on the lights before venturing from my bedroom.

When I was six, we were forced to put down one of our dogs. We buried him in the woods and marked the site with a wooden cross made from two-by-fours. At night, our surviving dog, who was rapidly losing his eyesight, would stumble about the ground floor of the house, bumping into furniture. Being nervous and impressionable, I was quick to ascribe these noises to th
e spirit of our first dog, returned from the grave to trouble the living. In the mornings, before school, I used to go outside to make sure that the grave-site remained undisturbed: the cross still upright, the dog still buried.

None of this is terribly remarkable, I know, but I think such small incidents as these served to instill in me a kind of belief in the darkly numinous, if you will, the existence of things unseen -- what Richard Gavin dubs "The Eldritch Faith" in his brilliant novella of the same name.

JS: When it comes to modern horror/weird fiction, do you have any current favorites (authors, stories, books) in the field that you would dub essential?

DM: To my mind, Richard Gavin's 2012 collection At Fear’s Altar marks the most recent addition to the evolving canon. His novella The Eldritch Faith, mentioned above, signifies the fullest realization of Gavin's considerable talents to date, exceeding even those high standards set by the preceding tales, which range in tone from the truly horrifying "King Him" to the slow-burn creepiness of "A Pallid Devil, Bearing Cypress."

Other essential volumes of recent years would include Simon Strantzas' second collection Cold to the Touch from 2009, which contains numerous small masterpieces such as "The Sweetest Song" and "Pinholes in Black Muslin," as well as Reggie Oliver's The Dracula Papers, Vol I from 2011, an epic picaresque of a novel that somehow manages to contain elements of Gothic horror, cosmic dread, and pure adventure (for lack of a better term) in prose that is by turns poetic and witty, beautiful and hilarious.

Two other volumes I'll mention are Mark Samuels' collection The White Hands from 2004 and Quentin S Crisp's Morbid Tales from 2005, both published by Tartarus Press. There is much talk nowadays of a “Golden Age” of weird fiction and these volumes by Samuels and Crisp were some of the earliest to earn such superlatives. Morbid Tales opens with the novella The Mermaid, which serves as a perfect introduction to Crisp's diverse and heavily stylized body of work, while Samuels’ The White Hands contains a number of classic tales, including the title story, "The Grandmaster's Final Game," and "Apartment 205."

JS: What do you hope to accomplish with your fiction?

DM: I believe I've already mentioned the ineffable, the numinous: that wordless “other” reality that exists outside of our world and also within it, that reveals itself to us in the briefest of glimpses. Such moments of revelation can be experienced through poetry or nature, music or relationships, the rigors of religious practice.

We’ve all experienced such a moment, I think, whatever name we may have used at the time to describe it. As for me, I’ve always sought -- and found -- that kind of revelation by reading, whether that was my first experience of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when I was sixteen or my recent reading of The Eldritch Faith at age twenty-seven.

Really, I suppose that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my own work: to create a kind of beautiful framework using language and imagery, a window through which the reader might obtain a vision, however brief, of the transcendent -- a world “Larger Than One’s Self” as Aickman has it.

JS: Do you have any advice for unpublished writers out there?

DM: Oh, that one’s easy: read. Read as much and as widely as you can and also be sure to familiarize yourself with the genre you hope to work in. Seek out journals, anthologies, single author collections. Explore the catalog and aesthetics of the various publishers out there. Not only will you come to understand the particular tastes of many editors -- essential if you're submitting your own work -- but you will have an excuse (as if one were really needed) to read and experience some truly magnificent work. What is more, by familiarizing yourself with the current scene, you will obtain some idea of where and how, exactly, your own vision might fit in with those of contemporaries. This in turn will make it far easier for your work to find a receptive editor and eventually an audience.

With the advent of Web 2.0 and the ubiquity of social networking it is now easier than ever to seek out and acquire small press work from all around the world. Social media also provides an unprecedented forum in which to connect with other readers and writers in your chosen field, nearly all of whom
you will find to be gracious, kind, and approachable. Writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s true, but I think you’ll find that it’s equally important and rewarding to reach out to your peers. You’re almost certain to find a sense of connection there, even a kind of kinship. I know I did.

JS: The last couple years seem to have been quite successful for you as an author. Several stories have seen publication along with your first novel. Anything you can tell us about current/future projects?

DM: 2013 will see the release of three anthologies in which I’m honored to have stories. The first of these, The Grimscribe’s Puppets (ed. Joseph S. Pulver, Sr), presents a series of short tales in tribute to the great American horror writer Thomas Ligotti, including my own short story, entitled “The Lord Came at Twilight.”

Ligotti’s now-classic tale “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land” will be reprinted this summer in the upcoming anthology Mighty in Sorrow (ed. Jordan Krall), a collection of stories in tribute to the music of Current 93, in which my short story “Whistler’s Gore” -- a tale told almost entirely in epitaphs -- will see publication.

Finally, I would like to mention the anthology Shadows Edge from Gray Friar Press, which is being edited by Canadian author Simon Strantzas (author of Cold to the Touch, mentioned above) and will contain my short story “The Falling Dark.”

Also keep an eye out for new work in upcoming issues of Supernatural Tales and Shadows & Tall Trees. My contribution to the latter -- entitled “The Other Boy” -- draws extensively on my own childhood experience of Revolutionary War reenacting, thus making it one of my most “personal” pieces to date.

JS: Thanks once again for taking the time to answer some questions. I look forward to following your career!

DM: Thank you, Justin. A pleasure speaking with you.

A great interview. More about Daniel Mills can be found on his blog: HERE.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Interview: Orrin Grey

Recently I reviewed Never Bet The Devil, the first collection of stories from author Orrin Grey. I found the stories within to be vastly entertaining, and I had quite a time reading them. I also had many good things to say about Fungi, the anthology Grey co-edited with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the publisher of the wonder Innsmouth Free Press. 

After the review I asked Orrin if he'd be interested in doing an interview for The Arkham Digest, to which he readily obliged. 

Here's the interview:

JS: Your first collection is quite an impressive one that I vastly enjoyed reading. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

OG: You're very welcome! Thank you for asking me.

JS: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? What were the major driving forces behind that decision?

OG: I've honestly wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My mom has one of those "school days" books where you post in class photos and report cards and stuff, and there's a line for every year about "what do you want to be when you grow up?" and from about third grade on all mine ever says is "writer."

JS: You are obviously a fan of Lovecraft. Which of his stories would you peg as stand-outs or favorites? How about stories by other Lovecraftian writers over the years?

OG: Picking a favorite Lovecraft story is always a dicey proposition, but when backed into a corner I usually go with "The Shunned House," even though in some ways it's not very Lovecraft-y. (It's even got a kind of happy ending!) It involves weird fungus, which I've got an obvious soft spot for, and the big reveal at the end is one of my favorites in fiction.

As for other Lovecraftian writers, while I'm drawn to writers who are working in what I think of as the Lovecraftian tradition (guys like Laird Barron and Richard Gavin, to name just a couple), I don't tend to enjoy out-and-out Mythos stuff as much. That said, I really loved T.E.D. Klein's Lovecraftian stories, especially "Black Man with a Horn," which is emphatically in the Mythos.

JS: Never Bet The Devil & Other Warnings is dedicated to Mike Mignola. I myself am a big fan, and even have an art print of Hellboy hanging in my office. What was the first Mignola you read, and what about his work appealed to you the most? Have you ever considered writing for the comics?

OG: Small world! I've got a print of Hellboy in my office as well. I wonder if it's the same one?

The first Mignola that I ever read where I really was aware of his work and who he was would have been the first Hellboy trade, Seed of Destruction, way back when it was new.

Trying to pin down what appeals to me about Mignola's work is pretty difficult, since I love pretty much everything about it, from the art to the writing to the myth-building. The biggest appeal, though, is probably his approach to the supernatural, which is similar to earlier writers like Lovecraft or M.R. James. I've written extensively about my approach to the supernatural, and how it's shaped by Mignola's, but the short version is that he keeps the supernatural strange and unusual and doesn't layer too many rules onto it. 

Another thing that Mignola does that I really try to do is that he proudly acknowledges his influences. Mignola is my big hero, but I've found my way to a lot of other influences and favorite creators by way of his author's notes and interviews and things, which is something that I try to pass on myself in my own author's notes and the like.

I have definitely considered writing for comics, it's something I've always wanted to do, and I've actually got an eight-page story coming out in a new comic magazine called Pandemonium that's due out from Kaleidoscope Entertainment sometime soon.

                                                    My Hellboy Print

JS: Seeing as you have interests in comics and horror films, especially older ones, what are some you would recommend as being comics/films that any fan of the weird absolutely must read/see?

OG: Oh man, this list could get long in a hurry. I'll try to keep it short. As for comics, the obvious answers are Mignola's Hellboy stuff, Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, and anything and everything by Junji Ito. The less-obvious but still completely true answers are Gary Gianni's Monstermen, Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin stuff, the Italian Dylan Dog comics, and Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's Beasts of Burden, all of which are absolutely fantastic, but have flown under a lot of peoples' radar.

As for movies, we could be here all day and barely scratch the surface. I love horror movies pretty well across the spectrum, and will watch just about anything that promises to have a ghost or monster in it. I'm especially fond, as you say, of older fare, and I write a regular column about them over at Innsmouth Free Press. I could agonize forever and kill way more space than we've got trying to come up with a list of essential viewing for this answer, but I'll arbitrarily limit myself to three that a lot of people probably haven't seen, and try to leave it at that.

1. The Old Dark House (1932), which is my favorite of the Universal monster movies, even though it doesn't feature any monsters.

2. Matango (1963), an unlikely Toho adaptation of William Hope Hodgson's seminal fungus story "The Voice in the Night." If I could convince everyone to see any one movie they've probably never heard of, it'd likely be this one.

3. It! (1967), not the Stephen King one, this one involves Roddy McDowall and a golem, and has an exclamation point in the title, so you know it's quality.

There aren't any Hammer movies or Vincent Price movies on that list, because I could never pick just one of either. They're all good.

JS: You recently edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia. While co-editing an anthology is there a lot of overlap on the stories chosen, or do you find that opinions can greatly differ? Were there some stories that one of you had to "make a stand" to have included or were all the stories selected unanimously?

OG: I imagine it would vary a lot from anthology to anthology, but for Fungi opinions didn't differ all that much. There were some stories that Silvia really wanted, and some that I really wanted, but for the most part we agreed pretty easily. There are definitely stories in Fungi that I would have been willing to go to the mat for, but luckily it didn't really come to that. The hardest part of the selection process for me was that we had a lot more great stories than we had room to include, so we had to make some pretty tough choices there.

JS: When it comes to modern horror/weird fiction, do you have any current favorites (authors, stories, books) in the field that you would dub essential?

OG: This is another one that could get pretty long if I let it. Can I just say "everyone in Fungi?"

Seriously, though, I did try to make sure I got a pretty good sampling of some of my favorite current weird fiction writers into that anthology. Laird Barron, John Langan, Richard Gavin, Simon Strantzas, Molly Tanzer, Jesse Bullington, Daniel Mills, Ian Rogers, I would consider all of them essential reading. I've also only recently discovered Mark Samuels (I know, I'm behind the curve on this one) and have fallen in love with his stuff. I think Sarah Monette should be better known than she is among fans of ghost stories, because her Kyle Murchison Booth stories (most of which are collected in The Bone Key) are some of the best stories of the type being written today.

JS: With your fiction what do you hope to accomplish?

OG: As usual, M.R. James said it better than I ever could: "The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained."

The "pleasing" part of James' "pleasing terror" is important to me. I have a lot of fun writing these stories, and I hope the reader has fun reading them, too. If they get a shiver up their back to go along with it, then all the better.

JS: 2012 was a good year for you, seeing the publication of your first short story collection followed closely by the publication of Fungi, which you co-edited. Anything you can tell us about current/future projects?

OG: Well, I'm still recovering from 2012 (if we were recording this, there'd be a laugh here), so the immediate future is a bit more up in the air. I've got a few stories coming out various places in the next year, and I'm writing still others. I'm hoping to have enough ready to put out another collection before too long, but that's not the kind of thing you want to rush. One of the only forthcoming projects I can really say much about at this point is that I'll be writing the introduction for a forthcoming reissue of J.B. Priestley's 1927 novel Benighted from Valancourt Books, which I'm very excited about because Benighted is the novel that The Old Dark House was adapted from, and it's been out of print and hard to come by for quite some time now. Even though it doesn't have any real speculative elements, I think that fans of weird fiction will find it well worth checking out, even if they're already familiar with the movie.

JS: Thanks once again for taking the time to answer some questions. I look forward to following your career!

OG: Thanks once again for having me, and I look forward to having a career to follow!

More about Orrin Grey can be found on his website:

Monday, January 28, 2013

Film Review: Absentia (2011)

It's been awhile since I've had a film review on here, and after watching Absentia I simply could not wait to review it.

I've been hearing good things about this independent film that was released in 2011. I also noticed reviews on certain websites that pointed out that the film has quite a few Lovecraftian elements. This pretty much sealed the deal for me, and moved Absentia to the top of my to-watch list. And it sure didn't disappoint.

Writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan has made quite an impressive horror film. Although it's not his first time directing, it is, to my knowledge, his first time going all-out horror. It's also one of the few movies I've heard of which received quite a significant amount of it's funding through Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign brought in around $25,000, which was about a third of the total budget. When it comes to filmmaking, a $70,000 budget is not very much at all, but Flanagan makes it work.

The film follows two sisters, Callie and Tricia. Tricia's husband Daniel has been missing for seven years, and the film opens with Tricia replacing old missing person posters with fresh ones. She is obviously still struggling with the fact that he disappeared with no warning, leaving her without closure of any kind. Tricia is pregnant with someone's child, and is about to have her husband declared legally "dead in absentia", so she can finally move on. Her sister Callie, a free-spirited girl who has struggles with drug addiction, shows up to offer her sister emotional support.

Tricia also carries a lot of guilt. Although her husband has been missing for the better part of a decade, she still has trouble with the fact that she is carrying another man's baby. Nightmares and waking visions of her husband, who often appears pale and angry, plague her constantly, and only seem to grow as she goes through the legal process of declaring him dead.

Callie tries her best to help her sister, but starts having troubles of her own when she decides to run through a tunnel across the street. The tunnel appears solid, with no side passages, simply cutting through a hill and coming out in a park. Although it may appear innocent enough, there is something sinister and inhuman at work, which becomes steadily more apparent. Callie has an encounter with what appears to be a weak, creepy homeless man in the tunnel, and things go downhill from there.

For the sake of not spoiling the movie, I'll cut my plot synopsis short there.

Absentia is a horror film that leans more to the slow-burn side of horror filmmaking. I say that lightly though, because there are some early scares, but mostly the film injects tension early and let's it steadily increase as the film progresses. Flanagan executes this style perfectly, with the help of a talented cast. Doug Jones was the only actor I was familiar with, and he had only a small role, but the rest of the cast delivered. My biggest issue with independent horror films is often the lack of acting talent, but that lack is not present in Absentia, and both the actresses and actors all do a convincingly good job.

Some readers may be curious as to what aspects of the film are Lovecraftian, so I'll do my best to not spoil anything. What's happening in the tunnel is otherworldly. There is not ghosts, there is not vampires or any other typical horror movie monster. Instead viewers are treated to something that has an unfathomable thought process, something that is difficult for us to understand. How it operates is mostly a mystery, as well as it's motivations. The aspects seem vastly alien, and seems like something straight from the pages of a Lovecraftian horror story. Also, most of the horror is hinted at, and only glimpsed, which makes it all the scarier.

As much as Absentia is a horror film, it also works as an exploration of what it's like to lose someone, and how people deal with the grief that follows. As a horror film it works spectacularly, and I was surprised at how enjoyable I found it to be. If you're a fan of slow-burn horror flicks, films with some Lovecraftian concepts, or just a horror movie that does something different, then Absentia should be on your to-watch list.

Also, for readers with Netflix, Absentia is now available on Watch Instant, so watch it and comment, as I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: Revenants by Daniel Mills

Daniel Mills is a writer who is fast becoming a favorite here at The Arkham Digest. In previous reviews of A Season In Carcosa and Fungi, I found both of his stories (MS Found Dead in A Hotel Room and Dust From a Dark Flower) to be among the finest in either anthology. Also recently I picked up a copy of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 23, and seeing that Mills had a story published in there I read it straight away. The Photographer's Tale was everything I had come to expect from the author; another unsettling period piece with wonderful prose. In the last couple years Mills has hit the scene running, and has been putting out stories that read like they've been written by a weird literature veteran.

As much as I've been enjoying his short fiction, imagine my delight when the opportunity arose to review Revenants, his first novel. As Mr. Mills pointed out to me in correspondence, Revenants was published last year by Chomu Press, and while pulling in some good literary reviews, it seemed to lack some exposure within the genre community. That's a shame too, because Revenants deserves to be read by any fan of weird, historical fiction.

Revenants is a story about Cold Marsh, a colonial town in 1689 New England. Typical of most towns of the time, it is strictly Puritan. The novel follows a few characters and their experiences when a third young lady, Ruth, mysteriously goes missing from the isolated town. The story mostly follows a few characters: Ruth's father James, her betrothed Edwin, Edwin's father William, Ruth's mother Constance, and the reverend Isaiah Bellringer. Each character is flawed, and has his/her own secrets. Many of them are filled with regret, and what they perceive as their past sins (some rightly so) haunts them.

The plot follows the men as they split into groups and strike out into the dark wilderness in search of Ruth. Their individual past deeds haunt them as a mysterious force in the woods grants each of them separate visions, causing all of them to have a crisis of a faith. The plot takes a bit to get started, taking it's time to establish the characters and their relationships between each other. When everything finally comes together in the end, and certain revelations are made, the novel ends exactly the way it should.

The character's themselves are difficult, and Mills is accomplished at making each of them interesting, if only a few of them likeable. William Brewer is perhaps the most likeable throughout the book, and the only one who seems to truly seek redemption for his past sins. James has made some wrong choices, but his downfall is mostly the way he handles dealing with them. Edwin is perhaps the character who elicits the biggest change as we see him make some of the same mistakes some of the elders have in their past.

The weird elements of the book tend to be more subtle, and while there aren't many scenes of hair-raising horror, the mood and tone of the book remain eerie and melancholy throughout. I found the biggest horrors of the book to be the people themselves, and the Puritan way of thinking as opposed to the weird elements. The attitude of the townsfolk and how easily some of them are led is quite scary, and Mills drives the point home throughout the novel.Their stifling, rigid attitude about sex especially, which is so completely different from today's view that modern readers such as myself find it downright disturbing. The ease in which the people of the time would do terrible things at the behest of their firebrand religious leaders is an aspect that I find especially terrifying.

Revenants has a good, if simple plot, and interesting characters, but where it truly shines is the language Mills uses. The back cover describes the book as "a poetic meditation on the colonial landscape of New England, the hills and wilds of a vanished country." This description is accurate, and Mills is quite at home taking his time describing the landscape. He paints a beautiful, eerie portrait of a town in isolation, surrounded by deep, dark woods and stagnant, rotting bogs. In reading it I could picture it perfectly, could even smell the forests, and I enjoyed his evocation of place just as much as seeing the plot come together.

Although the book tends to move at a somewhat slow pace, and seems to take awhile for the plot to kick into gear, I enjoyed every page. Some might find it a bit too slow for their liking, maybe a bit longer than it should be, and skimpy on the weird supernatural elements, but I found that these few small criticisms are just that - small nitpickings and nothing more. This novel didn't need to be as overtly weird as his short stories, because the important things are the characters themselves, how they dealt with regret, and how they got along through a dark time in history. Never have I seen the harsh coldness of colonial times depicted so strongly.

Revenants is a moody novel, and is all fog and melancholy. Anyone looking for a strange, literate, gloomy and atmospheric book will find a lot to like. I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone with an interested in colonial period pieces. There is just enough weird and horror there to satisfy genre readers, and not too much there to scare off non-genre readers. With this novel Daniel Mills further cements himself as a great new voice in the world of the weird. I for one can't wait to see what he does next. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: Never Bet The Devil & Other Warnings by Orrin Grey

The first thing apparent while reading any story from this book is how much fun Orrin had writing them. His interests are apparent, without even having to read the About Author page. His love of old horror film, the occult, comic books, Lovecraft, and Mike Mignola's works is readily apparent.

Some of his stories have a comic-book or B-movie feel to them, making for easy, fun reads. And fun is the key word here, because although these stories are horror, and deal with horror elements, they lean toward the fun end of the spectrum as opposed to the terrifying (see: Hellboy, Beetlejuice).

Another wonderful thing about this book that warrants mention is the inclusion of author notes. At the end of each story are notes from the author which explain the inspirations and ideas behind the stories. I've always loved when short story collections or anthologies included something of this sort. Sometimes it offers clarification on some story concepts, but often I just find it interesting to see what the authors thought process was when creating a certain story.

Never Bet The Devil & Other Warnings is Orrin Grey's first collection, and contains ten stories. The shortest one is one page, while the longest one is novella length.

The title story, Never Bet The Devil, is a short description of a twist on a common carnival contraption. It was written for a contest to get into an anthology of fictional bizarre items, and serves as a nice way to set the stage for the collection. If anything it makes me wish to see the item in a story!

Count Brass, the second story of the collection, toys with the trope of the musician selling his soul to the devil. A woman keeps encountering the name Count Brass in reference to her musician grandfather, and starts to figure out that maybe he didn't come across his musical success in a legitimate manner. My favorite part of this story was Count Brass himself, as Orrin took a common figure and really made him physically unique.

One of the best stories of the collection, and one I encountered previously in The Book of Cthulhu II, is Black Hill. Black Hill tells the story of an oil field atop something that is much more complex than simple oil.  Orrin took the idea of oil being made up of organic matter, and really ran with it, adding a liberal dose of cosmic horror into the mix.

The Devil In The Box is another entertaining story. A man obsessed with a cult painter acquires most of his art collection, his old house, and a mysterious box said to be the artist's inspiration. The story is told from the point of view of his partner watching their relationship disintegrate.

Another stand-out story for me was Nature vs. Nurture. The story takes place in a world where ghouls are a reality, and they are hunted as animals. When a young one is found, the narrator shows mercy and takes it in, attempting to raise and train the creature. It's a great story.

The Barghest was my least favorite story of the collection. I think the narrative style used in the story weakened it, although the plot and story ideas were pretty solid. I always struggle with a story narrated by someone talking to someone else and explaining things that the listener already knows, while constantly pointing that fact out ("But you already knew that, didn't you"). I thought the concept of being able to be "infected" with lycanthropy from the skeleton of such a monster was really cool, and I wonder why it hasn't been explored more often.

One of my other favorites of the collection is The Seventh Picture. As a film love myself, I always love a story that mixes horror/the weird with film, and Orrin does it so well here. The story itself is told in the found-footage format, and follows a documentary film crew as they explore the abandoned mansion of an old horror film director in search of knowledge on his incomplete, missing final film. Orrin's film buffness is on display here, and where I found the narrative style in the previous story lacking, I found it to be completely on point with this one. Also this story was the closest one to pure horror in the collection. The story should be of special note to fans of Chambers' King in Yellow stories.

On the heels of the creepy The Seventh Picture follows the light-hearted The Reading Room, another great story. The age old concept of using a book to summon something from beyond is turned on it's head here, as the protagonist must keep reading books in order to keep the same something imprisoned. As clever as this twist is, the love story that is the backbone of this story makes for a nice counterpart to the dark Seventh Picture. Would be a great story to kick off an anthology of weird romantic comedy.

Nearly Human is another top-notch story built around another clever idea. The story serves as a nod to old haunted house stories, and comes together quite satisfactory in the end.

As good as all the other stories are, it's the powerhouse novella at the end that stands above all the rest. The Mysterious Flame is an impressive homage to Mignola, and an immensely entertaining read. The story itself is rather pulpy, and would seem completely in place in a comic book (for the record, I'd love to see a comic version done, so someone please call Mignola in to illustrate it). Orrin weaves a tale of a golem searching for more and the obsessed lich who's out to capture him. The story is the most complex in the book, shifting viewpoints between Barnabus the golem and Joy, a young girl who somehow got stuck as the lich's human "servant". The story features plenty of action, humor, and some genuinely creepy moments. Definitely the highlight of this fine anthology.

Orrin Grey should be very proud of his first collection. The stories cover a nice variety of weird territory, and do so in a very light, pulpy, and fun manner. This reviewer plans to keep an eye on this author, because if this collection is anything indicative of things to come, then we readers are in store for some spectacular things.

As a side note, Orrin Grey has not only begun to establish himself as a writer, but also as an editor. He co-edited Fungi with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which I dubbed "my choice for original anthology of the year".

Friday, January 18, 2013

TOC for The Grimscribe's Puppets edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.

The first book I reviewed on The Arkham Digest was A Season In Carcosa. Joseph S. Pulver joined forces with the wonderful Miskatonic River Press to bring readers a brilliant tribute anthology, focusing on the King in Yellow stories created by author Robert M. Chambers. Pulver has always been very passionate about anything to do with the saffron-colored monarch, and his love and respect for the material was evident in the stories he selected. Overall the anthology was brilliant.

The partnership of Pulver and Miskatonic River Press did not stop there, and sometime within the next few months readers are going to be treated to another anthology that I can not wait to get my eager hands on. The Grimscribe's Puppets is another anthology, this time in tribute to Thomas Ligotti. Any serious reader of horror or the weird should be familiar with Ligotti, who undoubtedly is one of the very best the genre has ever had to offer. Some find Ligotti's works to be too depressing, but his brand of "philosophical horror" should not be missed by any. His works often display surrealism and typically eschew in-your-face violence, preferring to build up atmosphere and tone. Some of his tales show a heavy Lovecraft influence as well, so fans of Lovecraft in general should be familiar with some of Ligotti's stories.

Recently the table of contents for The Grimscribe's Puppets has been released, and a quick glance is all that's needed to know that this should be a good one. The majority of authors on this list have already proven themselves time and time again. The one name I'm sad to not see on the list is Laird Barron, who had a great story in A Season in Carcosa. I'm not that bummed though, because with names like Llewellyn, Mills, Cisco, Goodfellow, Gavin, Strantzas, Thomas, Langan, Files and a few others, there is a lot to look forward to here.

And here is the table of contents:

“Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Lord Came at Twilight” by Daniel Mills
“The Secrets of the Universe” by Michael Cisco
“The Human Moth” by Kaaron Warren
“Basement Angels” by Joel Lane
“No Signal” by Darrell Schweitzer
“The Xenambulist: A Fable in Four Acts” by Robin Spriggs
“The Company Town” by Nicole Cushing
“The Man Who Escaped This Story” by Cody Goodfellow
“Pieces of Blackness” by Michael Kelly
“The Blue Star” by Eddie M. Angerhuber
“20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” by Jon Padgett

"The Holiness of Desolation" by Robert M. Price
“Diamond Dust” by Mike Griffin
“After the Final” by Richard Gavin
“Eyes Exchange Bank” by Scott Nicolay
“By Invisible Hands” by Simon Strantzas
“Where We Will All Be” by Paul Tremblay
“Gailestis” by Ally Bird
“The Prosthesis” by Jeff Thomas
“Into the Darkness, Fearlessly” by John Langan
“Oubliette” by Gemma Files

Are any readers Ligotti fans?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

British supernatural horror seems to be booming these days. Names like Adam Nevill, Simon Bestwick, Reggie Oliver, and Gary McMahon spring to mind. Nevill has been a favorite of mine and his fifth novel comes out this year.  Bestwick won me over with his short fiction and then had a hit with his first novel The Faceless which was published last year. Gary McMahon was another author who first snagged my attention with some of his short fiction and has been keeping busy, with an impressive output of novels in the last few years alone. 

McMahon has done something that is not too often seen in the field of horror fiction, and has delivered a horror trilogy. The Concrete Grove was published in 2011, and was followed by Silent Voices and Beyond Here Lies Nothing in 2012. They have all been well received, so I finally picked the first one up off my shelf and gave it a read. 

The Concrete Grove is a fine example of urban horror. At times I think it’s better described as “dark urban fantasy”, but the horrific moments are plentiful enough to classify it as horror. McMahon opens the novel with a bang, the first chapter easily grabbing the reader’s attention and setting the mood for what to expect throughout the book. 

The novel follows a few different characters, all of whom have issues. McMahon does a great job making believable characters that each have their own flaws and weaknesses. Some aren’t even all that likeable. The story follows Hailey and her mother Lana, who are forced to live in The Grove (a council estate, known in America as “projects”) after their husband shames the family before committing suicide. To provide for her daughter Lana has made some shady decisions of her own, placing her in debt to Monty Bright, the local crime-lord/loan shark. Into this dubious mix enters Tom, who becomes entangled in their lives when he comes across Hailey one night and offers her some assistance. Tom lives outside The Grove, but sometimes his nightly jogs take him through the outskirts, which is how he becomes involved. Tom is a lonely man trapped in a loveless marriage to an overweight, paraplegic wife. This has meant years of acting as a caregiver and putting aside his own happiness, and the strain on him is finally reaching the breaking point.

Tom soon becomes obsessed with the beautiful Lana and they begin a relationship, as Hailey grows more distant and involved with some sort of “entity” or “force” residing in The Needle, a decrepit, condemned tower block in the center of the estate. Tom also has the distinction of being the most convincing character, and McMahon expertly paints a portrait of a man struggling with guilt and desire. His plight seems a bit more realistic and every day than Lana’s, which seems to make him all the more believable. Hailey is intriguing, but probably the least likeable character of the bunch.

McMahon’s biggest accomplishment with The Concrete Grove lies in his ability to turn the setting into a character in its own right. The filth, the gloom, the oppressive feel of the Grove itself is established from the first page. It feeds on all the negativity, poverty, and crime. It feels real, and even without the supernatural elements it is a horrific place. All the more so because places like this actually exist, and as someone who was raised in a place that’s more rural than anything the thought of having to live in such a decayed, dirty urban area is enough to make me cringe.

As to the horrors of the novel, I’m glad to say they are many and they are varied. The supernatural beings are creepy enough, but perhaps the weakest of the novels many terrors. The breakdown of the characters and their dark thoughts strike a deeper chord, and are what intrigued me the most, but perhaps most horrific of all were the horrors perpetrated by characters themselves. Monty and his thugs are vile, wicked, sadistic and disgusting. Setting usually plays a major role in horror, and as I’ve said previously McMahon does an excellent job with creating an oppressive, gloomy setting.  All of these horrors blend together smoothly and seamlessly, working in concert to hit all the soft spots of the reader.

Overall McMahon has written a novel that’s successful on many levels, and that it’s the first of a trilogy (it appears each book follows different characters) about The Grove itself is quite exciting. The plot wraps up nicely, but McMahon has only scratched the surface of The Grove, and seeing more of its mysteries unfold is something I am eagerly looking forward to.