Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

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

First, the blurbs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Arkham Digest Celebrates Its First Birthday!

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dark Regions Press: Black Labyrinth Kickstarter

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

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

Horror Exists Within All of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join us for the ride at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/chrismorey/black-labyrinth-book-ii-joe-r-lansdale

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Holes For Faces by Ramsey Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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