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.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Interview: Michael Aronovitz

I recently reviewed Alice Walks, a great contemporary ghost story. Michael Aronovitz was kind enough to answer a few questions for readers.

How did you get started in writing horror fiction? What first attracted you to horror/the weird?

I started writing horror fiction because of Stephen King.  I was never a big reader, but he interested me.  At first, I thought it was just the gripping shock value that kept me engaged.  As I grew older, I reasoned that it was King's "familiar" voice and ability to develop character, but now I realize it was always a bit more.  The horror genre provides the writer the opportunity to take characters and put them in moral dilemmas they would not face in real life.  The supernatural element also opens the door to temporal issues that more standard realistic fiction can not.  Therefore, in the the end, I suppose the horror genre becomes a vehicle for character development, which drives a good read.  Moreover, I like scary shit.  It is fun.  I don't see horror as a "genre," but more a necessary element that moves plot action.  It is a spice.  Remember trying to listen to classic rock on CDs?  It sounded empty, no salt or something, and we all went to the antique specialty shop and bought turntables for our old vinyl.  A story without a horror element is a classic rock CD.  I prefer the I-pod, played on volume 10.  The downside occurs when the artist in question depends on the spice for story.  One can not eat a bowl of salt. 

Alice Walks serves as an excellent example of a ghost story. It not only sets a creepy mood, but the ghost in the story is much more complex and active than the Gothic ghosts of old. What were your inspirations for this story, and how did you go about approaching the ghost story in this manner?

"Alice Walks" was not conceived with the idea that I was going to upgrade the traditional ghost story, nor revive it.  Though I do have a masters in literature, I am no historical expert and I would not feel qualified for such a venture (I am a modernist, thesis work in Hemingway).  I don't outline my fiction, because often the story changes a bit as it progresses and I want to leave room.  On the other side of that coin, I rarely just "go" with no idea in mind.  I usually begin with a horrific yet beautiful image and build a story around it so that visual can take place somewhere in the timeline with meaning.  Before starting I also usually have a point A to B and maybe C, but little more, maybe the ending.  I have only been able to come up with something without any prior planning twice.  The first was "The Echo," featured in my collection "The Voices in Our Heads," Horrified Press, February, 2014, and again one Saturday last winter during break when I wrote a piece of flash fiction titled "The Matriarch" in one sitting.  (Still up on Bosley Gravel's Cavalcade of Terror site for free).  I am currently 30,000 words in on the Matriarch novel, but back to "Alice," I initially wanted to do some sort of play on the "Bloody Mary" legend.  All I knew about it was that one said her name three times while looking in the mirror and she would show up in the background.  The image that formed in my head was a graveyard in the winter time at night, a girl-figure of maybe 14 of greenish tint floating between the headstones in her burial dress.  Then some boys who awakened her throw rocks in a loose religious allusion, causing symbolic blood to flow from her.  Once I figured out a fictional scenario to make that occur, I had the premise for "Alice Walks."

You are, or were, a teacher and some of your works that I have read (Alice Walks, How Bria Died) both heavily involve schools and teachers. How has working in education affected your fiction?

The field of education provides a wonderful influence for my writing.  First, from a standpoint of being behind the scenes, I read student fiction and composition constantly.  This keeps me in tune to what people are thinking and the avenues they use to develop argumentation.  This is important, because a paper is simply an exercise in manipulating one's own logical fallacies into what should be read as a "truth," while exposing the flaws in the invisible opponent's platform.  Fiction requires its writer to prove a reality in a similar manner, just delivered through a different voice.  Also, there is just an endless character bank to draw on in the classroom.  To top it off, anything classroom oriented provides a familiarity we all share, while also yielding fictive boundaries built for suspense.  We all know from our fiction classes that time limitation mixed with a "crucible" of sorts (a literal or metaphorical trap) causes an almost automatic sense of the dramatic.  Well, a classroom is a requirement that is a strange enclosed space where the players are meant to sit still when they really don't want to most of the time.  There's even a bell, as in a boxing ring, letting them know when the drama begins and ends.  What could be more perfect?

What scares you?

Ha.  I can tell you what does not scare me.  Ghosts, monsters, haunted houses, and graveyards. Horror books and horror movies do not scare me either.  The things that scare me are far more personal.  Mediocrity.  Apathy (from others...meaning I write and no one listens).  Making mistakes that leave stains.

What are your personal favorite horror/weird fiction novels/stories? How about films?

This is an easy one.  Favorite books: The Stand, Christine, Hannibal, Night Shift, Misery, parts of Dreamcatcher.  Favorite films: Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Halloween 1.  Favorite TV Show: Trilogy of Terror (just the Karen Black segment).

With one collection out (Seven Deadly Pleasures, Hippocampus Press) and one novel (Alice Walks, Centipede Press) you have already built a reputation. What can readers expect from you in the future?

This is going to be a big year for me.  I have "Alice Walks" available through Centipede Press currently, and my old collection "Seven Deadly Pleasures" through Hippocampus.  In February of 2014, my dark collection "The Voices in Our Heads" will be released by Horrified Press in the UK, and Hippocampus is shooting for as early as April, 2014 to publish my dark apocalyptic novel "The Witch of the Wood."  My hard hitting "true crime" leading to the supernatural piece "The Matriarch" will be completed most probably by Christmas. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Interview: Ross E. Lockhart

Ross E. Lockhart made quite a name for himself as an editor for a small press before breaking off and starting his own small press, Word Horde. Tales of the Jack The Ripper is the first anthology Ross has published with his press, and it's been garnering several positive reviews, my own included. Ross stops by The Arkham Digest to chat about the Ripper anthology and what can be expected from his new press.

First things first, I'd like to thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Thanks for having me, Justin.

How did Word Horde come to be, and how did you settle on such a catchy name for your press?

I'm so glad you like the name. The name Word Horde was the result of my daydreaming while listening to a recording of Beowulf. There's this great line in which Beowulf unlocks his "word-hoard"--the treasure-chest of his vocabulary and storytelling skill--to impress a group of warriors. Somehow, that kenning got twisted around in my head and I found myself contending with a gang of words. That metaphor--words as warriors--really resonated with me, so I tucked it away in my own word-hoard waiting for the right opportunity to use it.

Earlier this year, I started Word Horde out of necessity. As you know, until December of last year I worked as managing editor for--what did the New York Times call them?--a "tiny specialty press" out of San Francisco. Without going into too much detail, that was a company with a lot of problems, and while I was able to fix a great many problems while there, there were fundamental problems that were, frankly, unsolvable. Once we parted ways, I knew I wanted to start my own publishing company so that I could continue doing the work I love, editing great novels and stories and anthologies, but I also realized that I wanted to structure my company in a way that treated authors, editors, artists, and designers fairly and with respect. I wanted the creatives I worked with to feel like they were part of something bigger. Part of the Word Horde.

Why did you choose Tales of Jack The Ripper to be your first project? What do you find alluring about the Ripper and his murders?

As boogymen go, Jack is a rock star. Everybody knows about Jack, but nobody knows who he really was. Everybody has a mental image of this heinous killer--mine includes a touch of Lon Chaney in London after Midnight--and yet, a century and a quarter after five women were brutally murdered, the case remains unsolved. Moreover, Jack has inspired so many authors to expand upon the mystery that the lines between fact and fiction aren't just blurry, they're practically invisible. John Francis Brewer's The Curse Upon Mitre Square may have been the first bit of fiction to explore and exploit the murders, but it definitely wasn't the last. Authors from Marie Belloc Lowndes to Robert Bloch to Harlan Ellison to Maureen Johnson to Alan Moore have taken their own stabs at this subject. With Tales of Jack the Ripper, I wanted to give some of my favorite storytellers a chance to peel back the layers of this mystery and expand on Jack's literary legacy.

Is Word Horde going to focus mostly on short fiction, or do you plan to include novels in your lineup as well?

I'm concentrating on anthologies and short works in the short term, but I would like to include novels--the right novels--in the Word Horde lineup some day. Fiction works best for me in bite-sized pieces. I feel that Poe, in "The Philosophy of Composition," nailed it: "If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression -- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed."

Are you open to any sorts of submissions or pitches at this time? If so, what kind of work would you like to see?

Absolutely. I am doing prep work and beginning to send out invitations for a third Cthulhu Mythos volume, though I'd like to partner with a larger publisher for that project. Word Horde projects I am now reading for include a Giallo anthology (stories inspired by the Italian crime genre and the films of directors like Argento, Bava, and Fulci), and I have plans for anthologies paying tribute to some of my favorite filmic and literary genres (weird war stories, swashbucklers, etc.). I prefer to work with authors on an invitation basis, rather than issuing an open call, but I'm always interested in hearing pitches from authors interested in wrangling an invitation to the party. The more the merrier!

What can readers expect from Word Horde in the future? Are there any projects you can talk about at this time?

Readers should expect great things from Word Horde. I'm not quite ready to reveal all our cards, but I would encourage readers to bookmark or sign up for our mailing list or like us on Facebook. That way, you'll not just find out about new books and projects as they happen, you'll also get plenty of behind-the-scenes information.

Once again, I thank you for your time!

Thank you! I had a great time. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Alice Walks by Michael Aronovitz

Barring religious and mythological texts, the oldest form of horror tale is that of the ghost story. Mankind has always been fascinated with spirits and the afterlife, and every culture not only has their own idea of what happens to us after we die, but every culture also has their own idea of ghosts.

Ghost stories in Western culture became popular in the Victorian era, with writers such as Le Fanu. The turn of the century saw a rise in spiritualism, and an even bigger rise in the ghost story. M.R. James, Oliver Onions, and Algernon Blackwood all helped foster the ghost story even further.

Now, early on in the 21st century, ghosts still remain as popular as ever. I can’t even turn on the TV without finding it riddled with ghost-hunting shows, or shows like Paranormal Witness, where people share their experiences while actors recreate key scenes. Horror cinema is much the same, with ghost films seeing another rise in popularity due to movies such as Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. Publishers seem to be jumping on this opportunity as well, in the last two-three years alone I could easily name five or more anthologies all dealing with hauntings and ghosts, helmed by many of the big-name editors including Ellen Datlow, Stephen Jones and Paula Guran, and there’s definitely no shortage of novels dealing with the subject either.

Readers may wonder why I’ve included such a lengthy opening talking about ghost stories without getting to the review. The reason is simple: it has to be understood that the industry is flooded with ghost fiction. Some use time-worn tropes but are written well enough that they are worth reading. Some take the concept of ghosts in radical new directions, making for a fresh take on the genre. Michael Aronovitz’s Alice Walks does a bit of both.

I came across this book on a recommendation by my friend CM Muller. It didn’t hurt that the book was published by Centipede Press either, as Centipede Press is pretty much synonymous with quality. I went through this book rather quickly, and putting it down to head into work was a struggle. 

Alice Walks takes place in a Pennsylvania suburb in the 1970s. The book’s narrator, now an older man suffering from health problems in modern time, is passing his story on to his son. Michael, the narrator, relates the life-changing events that took place during the winter of his own fourteenth year, when he and two friends go playing around in the cemetery his father works and awaken the spirit of a girl their own age that rather recently died. Things escalate from there.

Aronovitz does a masterful job at conveying character and setting. His characters are believable, and he easily puts the reader in the shoes of Michael, who is a rather average fourteen year old boy. The emotional weight that Michael feels every day in his household, due to his father’s shameful suspension from a teaching career over dubious circumstances, has a very authentic feel to it.

When it comes to the ghost, Aronovitz also does something fresh. Alice is a very interesting ghost as far as ghosts go. Many times ghost stories can lose their sense of terror by the end, when the ghost usually becomes a sympathetic figure. The reader finds out that the ghost responsible for all the spooky moments was a murder victim, trying to gain closure and finally be at peace. Aronovitz does something much different with Alice, who goes from evoking terror, to being a sympathetic figure, and then back to evoking terror. Alice’s motivations are different from the norm, and this keeps the story very interesting, as the reader never knows what to expect.

Alice Walks is a shorter novel, and Aronovitz has a strong sense of pace, never allowing the story to slow down or become overburdened and bloated. This sense of focus, combined with an excellent sense of character and setting, as well as an original take on the ghost, make for an excellent debut and marks Aronovitz as a writer to watch. Being a Centipede Press book, the novel's price tag is heftier than average, but it’s worth every penny.

The novel can be bought HERE.