Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest Review by Alex Lugo: Supernatural Tales #24

The Arkham Digest proudly welcomes Alex Lugo as our first guest reviewer.

Alex Lugo, Jeffrey Thomas, Justin Steele. Necronomicon 2013.

I had been in Providence last weekend for this little thing called NecronomiCon 2013. In case you haven’t heard about it, the convention was, quite frankly, the greatest Lovecraftian event of all time. I won’t divulge too many details of that wonderfully weird weekend, but needless to say, I came back with a sack of books weighing somewhere around twenty pounds.

And here I am reviewing a book I received the day after the convention officially ended.
With twenty pounds of seriously powerful shit, from Laird Barron’s latest collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All to Joe Pulver’s mammoth Portraits of Ruin, I needed something of a warm up before diving into the madness I had brought home from Rhode Island. And Supernatural Tales #24 was a surprisingly excellent means of getting me back into the reading mood after the physical and emotional wrecking ball that was NecronomiCon.

Supernatural Tales is a UK magazine known for publishing stories of quiet terror in the vein of Aickman and M.R. James. Its editor, David Longhorn, has quite a roster of fantastic writers under the magazine’s belt: Reggie Oliver, Simon Strantzas, and Peter Bell (all masters in their own right) come to mind as some of the biggest names which have graced the magazine’s pages. However, when reading Supernatural Tales #24, I was not familiar with any of the writers included in the publication, with the exception of Michael J. Abolafia, who was kind enough to give me the copy of the journal. Still, I had not read Abolafia’s tale prior to receiving the journal, and came to read this book completely oblivious and without any preset expectations. In retrospect, this was quite rewarding. Every tale offered a fresh, exciting, and occasionally terrifying experience that kept me guessing in frightful and semi-maniacal anticipation. So if, dear reader, you do not recognize a name or two among Supernatural Tales #24’s table of contents, just…chill out. It’s cool. Trust me. Really.

Supernatural Tales #24 consists of seven stories (and a few reviews by the editor), of which none were of poor quality. However, some were much better than others and I have chosen three exceptional tales out of the seven which I feel stood out from the rest.

In The Wife’s Lament, Lynda E. Rucker tells a deceptively simple tale of a woman who flees her country with a mysterious man on a whim of sexual indulgence and wanderlust. The main character, Penny, who comes to England to live with Ian, her lover of merely four weeks, begins her slow descent into the supernatural upon discovering a mysterious stone-encrusted brooch hidden in the leaves of the neighborhood forest. With deft skill and near-perfect buildup, Rucker plunges poor Penny into a maelstrom of hideous dreams, occulted folklore, sexually powered angst and a growing aura of striking paranoia and otherworldly tension that leave the reader in a state of cringe-worth awe upon reaching Rucker’s utterly vile twist ending. Being that this is the first story in the publication, it leaves a rather profound impression.

Imagine the cold, quiet atmosphere of M.R. James. Combine that with the magnificent spirituality, the unabashed heathenry of Machen’s disturbing, yet transcendental worldview. Now, throw in the forbidden books and witch-haunted locales of Lovecraft, as well as the rich, poetic power of Clark Ashton Smith and perhaps even W.H. Pugmire, and you have the groundwork for Michael J. Abolafia’s Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium. Abolafia tells the tale of a lonely boy, in mourning of his mother’s death, who, wandering through the cellar of his ancestral home, discovers a most curious rosewood necklace, decked with sigils and a rather curious woodcut engraving. His boyhood curiosity soon sends him adrift in the frost-bitten woods that surround his house, where he begins to piece together the fragments of an occulted past, leading him into a state of Machen-esque ecstasy as opposed to the Lovecraftian damnation readers of the weird may come to expect. This tale of underlined necromancy and non-stop attention to atmosphere goes to show that Michael J. Abolafia is bound to become a future force in the realm of the weird.

I’ve been reading horror for as long as I’ve been able to read. Due to this, it has often become difficult for a piece of horror fiction to actually scare me. I’m simply too desensitized (woe is me)! However, when a tale actually does scare me, it’s usually quite a strong indication of the horrifying power the piece possesses. Sam Dawson’s Man Under scared the shit out of me. Period. This is made even more surprising due to the fact that, of all the stories, I’d say this one was the least supernatural. With the exception of some disturbing dreams and one particularly ambiguous encounter, this story relies more on menacing atmosphere and bloodcurdling imagery than actual supernatural activity. In fact, this is the only story in the publication that could very well lack any actual supernatural presence. The story follows a woman who, after witnessing a deadly train collision, enlists the help of two urban explorers in order to re-visit the train station (a decade abandoned) as a means of confronting (and perhaps validating) the strange images of her nightmares. Over ten pages (but it feels like three), Man Under succeeds in scaring the crap out of readers, not so much by the plot itself, but by the blunt, in-your-face nature of the prose style and atmosphere. There is no build-up, no carefully building tension mounting into a cathartic climax. Dawson assaults the reader with no pause, no warning, like staring at a silent train as it inevitably collides with your soft flesh. It is simply terrifying.

Supernatural Tales #24 is an excellent journal of consistent, disturbing, well written supernatural fiction. Although the aforementioned tales shine a bit stronger than the rest, there really isn’t a poor story in this issue. Highly recommended.

And now that I’m out of my post NecronomiCon fugue, I’ve got a twenty pound bag of books to get to. 

Supernatural Tales #24 can be purchased HERE

Alex Lugo, Richard Gavin, Sam Cowan, Justin Steele. Necronomicon 2013.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Video Interview: Ramsey Campbell

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have a chance to speak with veteran author Ramsey Campbell via Skype. This marks the first video interview for The Arkham Digest, which can hopefully become a tradition.

There were some technical issues during the interview, and we lost connection a couple times, which results in the cuts in the video, and temporary drops in quality. Other than the technical problems, the review went well, and Mr. Campbell and I discuss a number of topics, from his new novella The Last Revelation of Gla'aki (Review here) to seeing his creations appear in games. And without further ado, here is the interview.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Interview at DARKER Magazine

Russian horror webzine Darker recently contacted me for an interview. They were kind enough to dub me a "connoisseur of literary horror". The interview on their page is in Russian, but they were kind enough to allow me to post the interview in English on my blog in case any of my readers are interested.

The original interview, in Russian, can be found HERE.

Over the years of Darkness and DARKER we conducted dozens of interviews with writers, editors, producers, musicians and artists, but there is another category of people that we (and hopefully you) find interesting - it's our foreign colleagues: bloggers, editors and journalists fanzines. Yevgeny Mikhailov spoke on behalf of the magazine with Justin Steele - a connoisseur of literary horror, the owner of the site The Arkham Digest , devoted to horror and "weird fiction"The conversation, as can be seen, is detailed and informative.

Mr. Steele, we are glad to greet you on behalf of all your Russian-speaking fans. Here are the best questions we have gathered.

Thank you for interviewing me. I am truly flattered!

How did you get to like horror fiction? Why does horror draw your attention? Where did the idea for The Arkham Digest come from?

I always grew up as a fan of horror. When I was a kid, I would watch horror films with my father, who love Stephen King novels and monster movies. He had a coworker who was a great horror film enthusiast, and as I grew up he would give our family copies of horror films. He started with the classic Universal monster movies, and as the years went by the movies he would send would contain more mature content. As for fiction, I was always an avid reader, even as a child. When I was really young I remember reading horror fiction aimed towards youngsters such as the Goosebumps series as well as books about true hauntings that I found in the library. As fun as some of these books were, the horror books that most stand out from this period of my life are the three volumes of the Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark trilogy. Alvin Schwartz collected various pieces of folklore, urban legends, and even some old fiction stories, and adapted them into really short stories for children. Some were funny, some were scary, and all were morbid and macabre. What truly made the books stand out were the illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Looking at them now, it's easy to say that these illustrations are frightening to adults. As a child, they were the stuff of nightmares. After that I mostly read literature and fantasy, until college. One evening I discovered Lovecraft and nothing's ever been the same.

The Arkham Digest came about after a few years of reading review blogs and thinking that I would like to have one of my own. There are so many blogs focusing on fantasy and science fiction and even less on horror. Taking it a step further, there are hardly any which focus on weird fiction. I've always loved reading, and I love talking about books after finishing them, so naturally I thought a blog would be a good outlet. The last thing I came up with was the name, which was actually a suggestion of a friend. I knew I wanted Arkham in the title, and he suggested Digest. I thought it had a nice ring to it.

Do you have a favorite definition of horror fiction? Is it about scaring (and, occasionally, nauseating) people, or maintaining an eerie sense of wrongness, or something more complex?

I always saw horror as a broad term, and I feel that all of what you say can apply. For me though, a work of fiction is considered horror if it hits me on a primal level, be it a nauseating shock or just a sense of wrongness. I find the latter preferable.

Where do you think the line between the weird fiction and horror is? Do you see a difference between them and even if so, is the difference important?

I think “weird fiction” usually falls under the umbrella term of horror. To me, weird fiction has always been fiction that crosses the boundaries of genres. For example, take a look at Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. Is it science fiction? Is it horror? It has elements of both, and I think that's one of the things that has always distinguished weird fiction from more general forms of horror, that ability to break conventions. Weird fiction is concerned with the indefinable, and for me it stands out compared to more typical horror tropes such as ghosts, vampires and zombies.

It is noticeable that you prefer authors as Ramsey Campbell, Richard Gavin, Thomas Ligotti, John Langan and others writers of quiet horror. They all hardly belong to mainstream horror, and some readers, younger ones in particular, tend to complain that these writers are somewhat boring, their texts being ponderous, sluggish and, more often than not, unintelligible. Too weird, in brief. :) Why did you fall for them in the first place?

I think this quote by Stephen King sums up my feelings about this quiet type of horror:

The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”

I think these authors, and many others I enjoy, excel at capturing this feeling of terror and dread. Oftentimes I feel that the subtle and unexplained is what stays with me the longest after reading. The slasher might give me some moment to moment suspense, but the suspense fades quickly after reading. The more quiet stories that hint at more awfulness than they portray are the stories that keep me awake at night thinking about them.

Everyone has an idea of what they think lovecraftian fiction is. What it means for you? Why do you think that Lovecraftian literature is so popular today?

For me, the best Lovecraftian fiction transcends pastiche and works instead with the themes that made his fiction great. Especially his themes of cosmic horror, forbidden knowledge, madness, and an indefinable otherness. This cosmic horror is about what's beyond the veil of reality, and it's usually not pleasant.

Over the years it seems that Lovecraft's influence has just continued to grow and grow. I think some are initially drawn to it looking for something different. After so many vampire and zombie stories readers may want to experience a different kind of horror. It also helps that Lovecraft's influence is seen in many popular horror films and novels. Stephen King cited him as a great influence, and as the best-selling horror author of our time his word would help bring new readers in. And looking at film, some of the best horror film contain Lovecraftian elements. Alien, John Carpenter's The ThingEvil Dead...the list goes on and on.
Do you have an example of something you would consider a quintessential weird and horror story?

Choosing just one example is rather difficult, so I'll go with a tale that captures the Lovecraftian brand of weirdness while standing on it's own as a great example of the genre. The Last Feast of Harlequin by Thomas Ligotti does a great job of capturing Lovecraft's sense of dread. Lovecraftian scholar S.T. Joshi has said that this is the best non-Lovecraft Mythos story.

Can you name your top five modern horror novels and why?

I've always felt strongly that horror shines in the short form, be it short story or novella. These shorter pieces are more concentrated, whereas the novel length horror work has many pitfalls it must avoid in order to be successful. Not to say there are not good horror novels out there, but for every good horror novel I can name fifty good horror stories easily. Because of this, I'm going to deviate a little in my answers and include short story collections as well.

The Croning by Laird Barron is an example of weird cosmic horror at the novel length which is excellent. I'm a huge fan of Barron's work, and The Croning ties together several of his short pieces into his very own mythos. I would also recommend Barron's short fiction collections as they are all brilliant, and to appreciate the novel even further one should read the connected short stories.

At Fear's Altar is Richard Gavin's fourth collection, and I would say that it's his best work to date. Gavin's writing often seems that he is channeling some greater power. He truly understands weird horror, and this collection proves that he is a modern master.

Mark Samuels is a British author who excels at capturing that classic weird tale feel. His first collection, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales is a must-have for weird fiction fans. Samuels blends classic weird fiction with Ligottianism for some truly enjoyable stories.

Joel Lane's novella The Witnesses Are Gone, concerns a man searching for hard to find works of a mysterious director. It's dark, creepy as hell, and may be Lane's best work yet.

Other recent novel length works I have enjoyed both come from British authors. Adam Nevill's The Ritual and Last Days were both great fun. Gary McMahon's The Concrete Grove was also a great horror novel, and is the first of a trilogy. I've heard great things about the other two, but have only read the first one myself, and would highly recommend it.

Is there a social mission peculiar to horror fiction? Can a horror novel turn into something more than entertainment?

I think many horror authors use the genre as a way to explore their own fears through fiction, and likewise many readers see it as a safe way to explore their anxieties and fears. I think works of horror can absolutely become something more than entertainment. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a horrific novel, yet it also touches on beautiful themes such as hope, and the love between a father and son. Nobody walks away from that book without being changed somewhat.
What do U.S. publishers think of the genre these days? What trends are you seeing in horror fiction today?
It seems that horror fiction is still a niche market. It is mostly ruled by the small press, although some of the big publishers occasionally put out some horror fiction. I'm surprised horror fiction isn't bigger, considering how popular horror films are.
When it comes to trends I think sometimes it's good to look at horror films and see what's popular. There has been a recent surge of zombie fiction, which goes hand-in-hand with the surge in zombie film and TV (The Walking Dead). Weird fiction seems to be in a Golden Age currently. Lovecraft's works are more popular than ever, and there are many excellent writers working in the genre today.

What do you think of e-books? Is there a place for horror fiction in electronic publishing? Do you have a Kindle?

I absolutely think there is a place for horror fiction in the realm of e-publishing. It is especially apparent with publishers like DarkFuse, whose main catalog is only offered in e-book format. I think this allows for a good business model, publishing novellas at a very affordable price, as well as offering subscription plans. With that being said, I personally don't care for reading books in the electronic format. I vastly prefer hard copies, so therefore I don't own a Kindle or Nook.
Right now Undertow Publications is seeking to raise money to fund the start of a new anthology, Year's Best Weird Fiction. Do you think crowdfunding is going to become more of the norm when it comes to publication of weird and horror fiction?

Crowdfunding sure has become popular, and I see it especially with indie video games and movies. I honestly haven't seen too much of it for works of fiction yet, besides the above mentioned title and an Ellen Datlow anthology. I think there are definitely benefits for small publishers, as they can gauge interest through their campaigns. I don't think it will become the norm however, I can't see weird and horror fans buying all their books by pre-ordering through Kickstarter and IndieGogo campaigns.
How would you explain your readers choice of a genre to a layman?

Weird fiction was a term that came about before genre conventions. Lovecraft defined weird fiction as supernatural stories that differ from the common ghost or Gothic story. Weird tales concern themselves with the indefinable. 
Do you ever write weird or horror stories?

A few years ago I wrote a few really short pieces, but nothing good enough to share with anyone. Other than that I haven't really attempted any fiction writing of my own.
Has anything supernatural or weird ever happened to you?

I can't really think of any interesting supernatural events occurring directly with me, but I do have an amusing anecdote I'll share. When I was in first or second grade, my great-grandmother was still alive. She always used to tell us kid's creepy stories, some of which I encountered later as pieces of folklore or “true” ghost stories from around the world. She was in her early 90's, and lived alone in a two story house. Because of her age, for the last few years she only used the downstairs of her home. One day my uncle Mike was at her house, and was going to put something in her attic, and he found a silky black scarf on the floor upstairs. He made a joke about it, but my great-grandmother didn't find it funny. She swore that it belonged to a witch, and that if he touches it then something bad will happen to him. Of course he laughed it off and went and took it away. That night he woke up with severe pain and had to go to the hospital. It was kidney stones or something with the gall bladder. I still remember wondering why a witch hated my great-grandmother and was coming to her house to creep around upstairs and leave booby-trapped scarves lying around. I guess I will never know. 
What are Justin Steele`s hobbies and interests apart from horror?

I love fiction in general, so I'm always reading something even if it isn't horror. I've also always been a rabid film and music fan. When I'm not at home reading I'm usually working, out with friends, or playing with my two little dogs. I also love board games (Arkham Horror!) and video games (PC).
And in conclusion, something encouraging for Russian horror and weird fans.

Russian, American, British, French, whatever... we are all united as horror fans, which transcends our nationality. We all bring our own unique worldviews to the genre, which makes for many interesting ideas and interpretations. Keep reading friends!

Thank you once again for having me! It was a delight!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: John Dies at The End by David Wong

In years past, I never liked to take my Lovecraftian fiction with humor. I would sit down with a new anthology, looking forward to reading all the creepy stories, and then I would come across one that traded the scares for laughs, and more often than not I would skip it. I always enjoyed horror comedy films, but when it came to my Mythos fiction, I wanted pure horror.

Now, years later, I've grown past that expectation. Now I can appreciate some of the humorous stories that I once would have turned my nose up towards. But even so, it wasn't until I picked up John Dies at The End that I found a mash-up of Lovecraftian horror and comedy that worked perfectly well for me.

Author David Wong (pseudonym of Cracked editor Jason Pargin) originally released his horror comedy epic piecemeal via the internet. A cult fanbase quickly grew, and eventually Pargin was offered a book deal with Permuted Press. This printing only increased the book's popularity, and it has since been printed by an even bigger publisher, and even turned into a feature film directed by Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep).

What makes John Dies at The End successful is Wong's ability to seamlessly blend comedy and horror. The comedy may not be for everyone, as it relies on foul language, and sometimes immature jokes. It's as if director Kevin Smith took his low-brow brand of humor and channeled it towards writing a tale of interdimensional creatures threatening an unnamed Midwestern town.

The book follows narrator David Wong and his best friend John. They are both slackers in their early twenties, and are perfect foils for each other. David is a troubled young man, and suffers from a deep-rooted pessimism. He is unwittingly pulled into each situation the duo finds themselves confronted with, and would like nothing more than to live a normal life. John on the other hand, is ever the optimist. When the duo are both dosed with the "drug" called "soy sauce", which gives the ability to see what others can't, John couldn't be more excited about their new life. He fully embraces their new abilities, and seeks out the bizarre situations that David would rather just ignore.

Most of the novel follows a frame-story structure. After a prologue detailing one of David and John's random encounters with the supernatural, the book moves to They China Food!, a grungy little Chinese restaurant where David is meeting with a reporter to tell his story. His story is split into two books, which contain roughly three main plot lines, all connected. The first half of the novel is about how David and John first end up going down the interdimensional rabbit hole. The "soy sauce" drug allows users to open up, and grants them second-sight. When some of the drug gets around town, and David accidentally doses, they find themselves on a bloody trail towards Las Vegas. While it seems like this first half could be a book by itself, the second half sees them a few months into the future, with two connected stories. The first involves a sports anchor on the local news accidentally (or purposefully) dosing on soy sauce, which then open the door for the servants of Korrok (a big, nasty, powerful being from an alternate dimension). The Korrok storyline is continued into the third and final act, which involves a local girl's disappearance, a mysterious dimensional traveler, and a trip into Korrok's realm.

Wong's book plays with several paranormal themes, such as Shadow People, Rods, and conspiracy theories. Many of Lovecraft's themes are also present, such as beings from other dimensions, vast and malignant alien creatures, and transference of consciousness.

To sum up my feelings on the book, I read two hundred pages in the first day. Two days later I was finished. It was the fastest I've read a book all summer, and it's been a busy enough summer that I haven't been getting nearly enough reading done. The book is great fun. It's chock-full of humor, action, suspense, and horror. I've already started the sequel, and I can't wait to see the further adventures of David and John.