Review: Best New Horror 4

Nom, nom, nom!

(If you would like a run-through the stories found in the first three volumes of Best New Horror, jump over to my Reviews page for links.)

Best New Horror continues into a fourth volume showcasing twenty-four of the best horror shorts published during 1992. Well, twentyish may be a more accurate description. Not for the first time, the editors have padded the book with a few not-terribly-horrific pretenders, especially in the latter half. Thankfully, the quality of these pretenders helps elevate the book into 4/5 territory.

As to the stories, let’s take a look.

Also collected in Edelman’s “These Words Are Haunted”. Cool cover, taking detail from Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Eating His Son”. Nom, nom, nom! (Again.)

The Suicide Artist – Scott Edelman (3/5 – A man reluctantly tells the reader of a horrible experience of his, aged just six, when a stranger led him away from school. He would like to end the story there but, of course, you, the reader, want to know more. So he continues: detailing the murderous lengths he went to in order to survive the stranger’s clutches; about the tragedy that had seen him left alone at the school gates in the first place; and, a short time later, how he stumbled upon his father’s appalling abuse of Kate, his older sister. The more that is revealed, the greater the bitterness and hostility the narrator feels about it. How dare you want to know more! But you can’t help it, can you? You just won’t let him stop, not unless… I admire what Edelman was trying to do here, exploring how characters in a horror story would feel to have the worst moments of their lives written up for the entertainment of others, and how the permeance of the fourth wall could present an opportunity for a little payback. In Edelman’s introduction, he describes the unease the story would create in his audience whenever he performed a reading of it, and I can fully believe it. This is a piece that begs to be read aloud. On paper, however, its power is lessened. In my case it allowed me to dwell upon on plot weaknesses. Rather than feeling shame at wanting to know more of the story, or quivering in fear of what the narrator might have in store for me, I spent the latter half thinking, “Wow, you were one unexpectedly strong and fiendishly devious six-year old boy, weren’t you?”)

Dancing On A Blade Of Dreams – Roberta Lannes (3/5 – The evil that men do carries over into this sexually-charged story of a juror, Patty, during a kidnapping-rape-murder trial. In the dock sits Garrick, an incredibly handsome man who claims to have been set up by a former friend. One night, as the trial nears its climax, Patty dreams of being driven – shackled, bruised and bloody – to a pristine hotel room where she is chained to a bathtub by her ex-husband, Michael. There she is abused by her ex, all the while craving the smallest morsel of his love. When Patty eventually awakens, she feels incredibly uncomfortable about the dream, for Michael had never once been violent during their marriage. Patty’s stomach sinks when the trial moves onto an eerily-familiar hotel room in which one of the victims was believed to have been held captive. It seems Patty is experiencing the horrific final days of Garrick’s victims in her dreams and, worse still, Garrick knows it. This was okay, and noticeably better than Apostate In Denim, Lannes’ controversial entry in Best New Horror 2. Lannes works some vivid and gruesomely effective imagery into her story, but the ending felt a little tacked-on and didn’t work the more I thought about it.)

Also collected in “The Essential Clive Barker”

The Departed – Clive Barker (5/5 – A short and sweet story in which Hermione, a recently-departed ghost, seeks to connect with her young son one last time. Under the counsel of an experienced old ghost called Rice, the two devise a plan to visit upon the boy while he is out trick-or-treating. Barker works real magic in this story. There can be no other explanation. In the space of a few pages he masterfully creates a pair of wonderful characters in Hermione and especially Rice, and imbues them with a winning chemistry from the off. By the ending – because of the ending – I wanted to know so much more about them. An excellent read.)

 

Also collected in Brite’s “Swamp Foetus”

How To Get Ahead In New York – Poppy Z. Brite (4/5 – Steve and Ghost (from Brite’s novel Lost Souls) are booked to play a gig in New York’s East Village. It’s four in the morning and they step off a Greyhound and into a daunting Port Authority bus terminal. It doesn’t take long for them to get lost in a building seemingly designed to confuse out-of-towners, and they soon fall prey to a resident army of mindless vagrants. So begins a typically strange morning in New York. I liked this story a lot, despite not having read Lost Souls. Brite maintains a light and affectionate touch throughout much of the story, wrapping a rich human zoo around Steve and Ghost as they sample much of the weirdness New York has to offer.)

Also collected in Brunner’s “The Man Who Was Secrett and Other Stories”

They Take – John Brunner (4/5 – Ann and her husband Carlo are summoned to Bolsevieto, a small rural Italian village, to inspect a nearby house and some accompanying land, both of which had been left to Ann by her late aunt. They are unimpressed by what they find. They are keen to leave the village and to sell the place as soon as possible, until Ann spots some unusual tomb-like structures squatting on her land. They should have listened to their instincts. There’s a great sense of place in this story, helped in no small part by Brunner’s command of all things Italian. Horror stalwarts will probably find the bones of this story in numerous others they read, but, all things considered, this is a good substitute for the “dumped on a remote Greek island” story found in the previous three books.)

Replacements – Lisa Tuttle (4/5 – Stuart is horrified by the sight of a wingless bat-like creature shuffling pathetically amid the pavement trash. He instinctively stamps it to death, repulsed, but soon finds another crawling along the kerbside. It’s clear there are more of the hideous little critters out there. Tensions mount when his wife, Jenny, brings one of the creatures home as a pet, seemingly in thrall of it. This story did a decent job of making my skin crawl but was somewhat offset by Stuart being a complete and utter wet blanket. Throughout the story he tells precisely nobody about his predicament, which takes some swallowing.)

Also collected in “25 Years in the Word Mines – The Best Short Fiction of Graham Joyce”

Under The Pylon – Graham Joyce (4/5 – A bunch of kids play beneath a neighbourhood pylon, paying no heed to the warning signs and in spite of the discarded bricks and five-foot-high nettles growing there. Big School is fast approaching for all of them, bringing with it the end of childhood innocence and the onset of puberty, and it seems the pylon is sensitive to the changes playing out below. There’s something about Joyce’s style that never fails to draw me in, a raw honesty perhaps. I loved The Year of the Ladybird (a.k.a. The Man in the Electric Blue Suit in the US), a review of which you can read here, and I really liked this.)

 

Collected in Ligotti’s “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”

The Glamour – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – A man is drawn to a movie theatre one night while walking through an unfamiliar part of town. Being the kind of man who likes visiting movie theatres in the dead of night, this seems rather a fortuitous find. The front of the movie theatre is dilapidated and boarded up, and yet a poorly-lit notice advertises tonight’s attraction: “The Glamour”. When his attention is drawn to an alternative side-entrance to the building further along a darkened alleyway, the man is helpless to resist taking a look. This story has appeared in a few “Best of…” anthologies over the years but was a bit of a misfire for me, sadly, even after a reread. Ligotti’s lush writing is present, certainly, but in places it felt like he was trying too hard. His use of repetition, often a successful and hypnotic trait of his other works, feels a little overdone here, likewise a visceral atmosphere he doesn’t so much accumulate as heap upon the reader once our man enters the movie theatre. Could just be me, though.)

Also collected in Gordon’s “The Burning Baby and Other Ghosts”

Under The Ice – John Gordon (4/5 – Rupert invites his schoolfriend, David, to come skating on the frozen fens near his parent’s farm. David is a little suspicious of the boy’s motives. It’s as if Rupert has an answer to every excuse of David’s for not going. Eventually David gives in and they are picked up by Rupert’s father. David soon finds that Rupert’s parents weren’t expecting company, making him feel even less comfortable. He senses a great unspoken tragedy hanging over the family: conversation with Rupert’s father is practically non-existent, while Rupert’s mother is a shadow of her former vibrant self. To David’s relief, Rupert pulls him away from the house and out onto the ice. With the daylight quickly fading, the boy is keen to show David something out there; something under the ice. Like They Take a little earlier in the book, this story will have a familiar ring to it for seasoned horror fans, but is no less of a good read because of it. Worth a look.)

Collected in Lane’s “The Earthwire and Other Stories”

And Some Are Missing – Joel Lane (4/5 – David is adjusting to life alone following a split from his long-term boyfriend, Alan. A chance intervention outside his new digs introduces David to the shadowy antipeople, and they are not exactly friendly. I mentioned in my review of Best New Horror 3, which featured Lane’s story Power Cut, how I often have to read his stories a couple of times before I get a whiff of what’s really going on. This was one of those stories, due mainly to a final sentence that forced me to reassess everything I’d just read. After a re-read, I’m fairly certain it was thrown in there for precisely that purpose, but your reading of it may differ. Either way, it is still worth a read.)

 

The Little Green Ones – Les Daniels (3/5 – An American writer takes time out from a convention to explore a nearby London cemetery where he is creeped out by a pair of lifelike statues: one of a little girl, the other a little boy. Both are completely covered with an unusually green lichen, a colour that begins to haunt him as he returns home. In the editors’ introduction they explain how this story was inspired by the author’s attendance at a recent World Fantasy Convention held in London. I rather wished they’d hadn’t mentioned this, to be honest, because it made The Little Green Ones less of a horror story and more a six-page gripe about the shitty time he had there. This was an okay read, to be fair, but how this was nominated for a World Fantasy Award back in the day is a mystery.)

Also collected in SRT’s “The Far Side Of The Lake”

Mirror Man – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Jeff is a man staring old age in the face, quite literally. He regularly checks his appearance in the mirror for fresh signs of his inevitable decrepitude, unable to help himself. His marriage to Liz has long been a loveless endeavour, but Jeff is determined not to let the same happen with Susan, their eleven-year-old daughter. In fact, to help him feel better about the white hairs poking out of his ears, he decides it would be a fine idea to take his daughter for a long drive to Providence and to a college reunion due to take place there. There he can show Susan off to all his old friends. Wouldn’t that be fun? (…?) The longer the drive drags on, and the closer they get to Providence, the more it seems Susan is slipping away from him. On the Steve Rasnic Tem Weird-O-Meter™, this story ranks a respectable “Pretty Strange”. Sadly, it doesn’t rank among his best. It’s not for a lack of effort, but it seems my Lovecraftian maxim holds true once more: that when an author dabbles in Lovecraft’s world, they often produce inferior work. Indeed, in the introduction to this story, we learn SRT had a hard time selling it for publication precisely due to its Lovecraftian angle, eventually finding succour in a dedicated Lovecraftian press.)

Mothmusic – Sarah Ash (4/5 – Astar Taziel is a physician who witnesses the devastating effects of boskh – a substance yielded from the dust of a moonmoth’s wings. Boskh has wonderful medicinal qualities when taken in moderation, but beyond that addiction lies. To Taziel’s growing horror, it soon becomes clear that boskh has a payload much more serious than mere dependency. This is a fantasy yarn, traveller, so steel yonself for A Story Of A Hundred And One Spurious Names. Stick with this one, though, because there is a satisfying seam of horror running throughout.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Did They Get You To Trade? – Karl Edward Wagner (5/5 – Another winner from Wagner sees Ryan Chase, a successful portrait artist, seeking inspiration over a few alfresco pints one fine sunny afternoon in London. A homeless man approaches Chase’s table and begs a few coins for a meal. Chase sees something in the man that could inspire a future work and so he buys a round of drinks to get to know him a little more. To his surprise Chase discovers the derelict was once a punk hero of his: the mighty Nemo Skagg of the trailblazing punk band Needle, a man who once had the world at his feet, but is now on his uppers. What could have happened to Skagg for him to end up in this state? Over the course of a staggering amount of drink, we are about to find out. This was nominated for a Stoker award back in the day, but, even after a reread, I fail to see the horror here. Urban fantasy, absolutely. Horror, no. Not that any of that matters because, whatever the genre, this story is a solid-gold treat from beginning to end. Put simply, Nemo Skagg is a magnificent creation. In Skagg, Wagner perfectly captures an angry punk spark and fierce intelligence that can never be fully extinguished by the booze, but in the end it’s Skagg’s humanity that shines through. The final revelation of what happened to the last of Skagg’s money is bittersweet and devastating. I can’t pretend to have read Wagner’s entire output, but I’d be astonished if he had written many things better than this. A reread sees this score upped from a 4/5 to 5/5.)

Night Shift Sister – Nicholas Royle (4/5 – Carl is a record shop owner with a huge record collection, an even bigger crush on Siouxsie Sioux and a photocopied map of somewhere he cannot place. The latter intrigues him. There are no street names to speak of and none of the landmarks are labelled, so where could the map have come from? Wait, there’s a Siouxsie Sioux lookalike over there. Perhaps she will know something. Yeah, the jumps of logic in this story take some getting over, but to be fair this is the best Royle story I’ve read in Best New Horror so far, and it bagged a British Fantasy Award at the time. It was also weirdly fun counting all the spiral motifs Royle stuffed into the story.)

The Dead – Simon Ings & M. John Harrison (2/5 – Echoes of the old New Wave movement can be heard in a story where a woman discovers through her childhood and young womanhood an unwanted and unpleasant rebirthing role she must fulfil. My original review of this story was a single word “Nope” – not entirely helpful, but it rather summed up my thoughts at the time. Nothing in the story quite matches the creep factor of two blokes, however well-respected, hunched over their respective keyboards writing this particular literary gem:

It helps to lick your finger and wet yourself between the legs.

Riiiiiight, thanks fellas. The piece improves upon a second reading, but not enough to improve its score. If you are a fan of fiction from out of the left-field then you might have a better time of The Dead than me. That said, when this story was republished in Interzone magazine back in January 1993 – a publication not entirely unfamiliar with weird fiction – it sank without a trace in its annual Readers Poll. Next story please!)

Also collected in Fowler’s “Uncut”

Norman Wisdom And The Angel Of Death – Christopher Fowler (4/5 – Stanley is a desperately boring man charged with brightening up the days of those patients at his local hospital with no family or friends to visit them. And how better to entertain the lonely sick than a meticulous run-through of every Norman Wisdom movie, line by line, scene by scene? Just don’t switch off whatever you do, otherwise it might be the end of you! When budget cuts create a bed shortage at the hospital, Stanley is asked to take in a wheelchair-bound patient, Saskia. They instantly hit it off, with Stanley finding in Saskia a tonic to his own loneliness. To top it all, she is a fan of Our Norman. How fortunate is that! Could Stanley be about to turn his life around? What do you reckon? Fowler expertly crafts an engaging and hyperreal villain in Stanley in an entertaining story that is only one contrivance short of perfection.)

Red Reign – Kim Newman (5/5 – This is the novella that inspired Newman’s Anno Dracula series of books, and it’s a corker. I had avoided the Anno Dracula series till now because “vampires, meh…” but I might have to rethink all that. This is Victorian London, but not as we know it. Dracula is Prince Regent, vampirism is spreading unchecked across the land, and a certain Dr Seward is secretly taking it upon himself to despatch vampish ladies of the night. The murders are sending ripples across the warms (humans) and new-borns (vampires) alike. Something must be done. Centuries-old vampire Genevieve Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of The Diogenes Club must work together to root out this so-called “Jack The Ripper”. This brilliant story is worth the entrance fee on its own.)

Also collected in Atkins’ “The Wishmaster and Other Stories”

Aviatrix – Peter Atkins (3/5 – Jonathan Dyson is a nervous flyer. He’s fine once he’s up in the air, but the take-off? Forget about it. To help him get through his latest trip he sinks a Valium pre-flight, secures himself in his seat, and finds himself slipping into a vivid dream world. In it he meets the titular aviatrix who takes him out in her open-top biplane across increasingly strange lands and seas. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jonathan is surprised to find he is able to re-enter his dream where he left off. This was okay, with some great little touches here and there, particularly when Jonathan slips into the dream world for the first time, but let’s be honest – the moment you saw he was a nervous flyer you probably guessed how the story turns out.)

Also collected in MacLeod’s “Past Magic”

Snodgrass – Ian R. MacLeod (4/5 – A smart alternative history that follows John Lennon as he bums around Birmingham thirty years after he walked out The Beatles. His whole selfish existence has been spent living from one moment to the next. His friends and acquaintances are little more than means to an end, which, for “Dr Winston O’Boogie”, is usually to get pissed and get high. Now, with Lennon squarely in his fifties, The Beatles are back in town and Macca would like to see the good doctor again. I liked this a lot more than 1/72nd Scale, MacLeod’s previous story in Best New Horror 2. His Lennon is a wonderfully gobby character: coarse and witty and, despite his many, many flaws, unmistakeably human. This is an engrossing and entertaining read, certainly, but it has found its way into a horror anthology on the thinnest of premises.)

Also collected in Wilhelm’s “And the Angels Sing”

The Day Of The Sharks – Kate Wilhelm (3/5 – Gary and Veronica are heading on holiday to Grand Bahama, stopping over at Bill and Shar’s luxury house on the way. Their hosts are preparing for a party that evening, to which Gary and Veronica are cordially invited. The shindig is self-serving, of course. Gary is an investment councillor and he knows it won’t take long for Bill’s wealthy business-owning guests to learn of the fact and to start tapping him up. Meanwhile Veronica is a woman on the edge of madness. She struggles to hold herself together with tranquilisers after an incident in which she set fire to her workplace. Gary cares little for her these days. He’s playing down time before they can separate. Gary’s much keener to bump uglies with Shar again. Events take a metaphorically gruesome turn the morning after the party. This was okay but, as you may have detected, a lack of likeable characters made it difficult to care what was happening to anybody.)

Also collected in Harrison’s “Travel Arrangements”

Anima – M. John Harrison (3/5 – A writer makes the acquaintance of a curious fella called Choe Ashton, who proceeds to drift in and out of his life. Ashton is an enigma: giddy and in love with the world one moment, then surly and abusive the next. He is, however, never less than interesting. It’s impossible to see the whole of him without parts of one’s vision blurring, for instance. Ashton is prone to disappearing for weeks and months without notice only to reappear as if nothing had happened, and our man is unable to resist his call every time. The anima is another name for the soul and Harrison deftly personifies through Ashton the changeable and restless bugger sitting behind the wheel in all of us. It’s an okay read – less a story than it is a character study – but quite what qualified this for inclusion in a horror anthology is beyond me.)

Bright Lights, Big Zombie – Douglas E. Winter (3/5 – In this Stoker-nominated story, zombies are a thing, New York is struggling to cope with its returning dead and society has banned all video nasties as part of its response. Blurry umpteenth-generation copies of notorious old giallo flicks such as Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig become valuable contraband, and an opportunity presents itself to exploit this demand by producing real-life zombie movies. The story is told in second-person (as fans of Bright Lights, Big City might suspect). Usually this is a red flag for me, but Winter’s playful inventiveness made this one of the better examples.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Magic Terror”

The Ghost Village – Peter Straub (5/5 – This superb novella expands on Straub’s novel Koko and is an early and condensed version of The Throat, the concluding part of his Blue Rose trilogy. We’re back in the heat of the Vietnamese jungle. Death is only a sniper’s bullet away. Tim Underhill and Mike Poole explore a chamber dug beneath a hut in an abandoned village. Something bad happened here, something bad enough to keep the VC away. Text lines the walls and ceiling of the chamber, old rust-coloured blood stains much of the floor and ominous-looking manacles hang limp. A chance meeting in an illegal bar reveals the horrific truth of the place. Like Koko before it, The Ghost Village bagged a World Fantasy Award, and is a terrific closer to this book.)

 

And so ends another monster review of Best New Horror. Thanks for getting this far. I hope you enjoyed it. Sadly, PS Publishing’s anniversary editions of Best New Horror seem to have stopped at book three with little sign of the series continuing. They continue to publish new volumes of the series, however, with book twenty-nine (yes, twenty-nine!) coming in the next month or so. That said, you shouldn’t have too much trouble sourcing a second-hand copy of this book from Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks should you desire, and, as ever, you’ll find eBook editions available across all main platforms.

And so onto book five!

LP

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Review: Best New Horror 3

The cover is a bit naff, yes, but it seems the image was heavily altered prior to publication. Could just be me, though.

After the relative disappointment of Best New Horror 2 compared to the first volume, it’s pleasing to see a noticeable improvement in this third outing. Out go the sci-fi pretenders and bloodless time-wasters of book two to be replaced by some notably darker material – this was the year American Psycho hit the bookshelves, after all. Overall, then, this book scores a fairly solid 4/5.

Best New Horror 3 collects twenty-nine of the best horror shorts published during 1991, and goes a little something like this:

True Love – K. W. Jeter (4/5 – In this pitch-black opener we follow a disturbed woman as she lures a young boy to her house. We discover through frequent flashbacks that she suffered greatly at the hands of her father, satisfying his sexual urges from an early age and weathering his physical and psychological abuse. Now, in her middle-age, her father is little more than a dried-up husk, shut away in a spare bedroom upstairs. It’s a wonder he’s still alive. Perhaps it has something to do with the children his daughter keeps bringing home. This is a story that is unafraid to visit some truly dark places and I was surprised to find it just as horrific on a second readthrough. And yet Jeter never lets the story veer too far into gratuitousness. Instead he infuses the piece with a cold disconnectedness I found almost as unsettling as the plot. In short, this story perfectly sets up the darker tone of this book, though I’d be happy to not read it a third time.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Ghosts & Grisly Things”

The Same In Any Language – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – In another of those “dumped on a Greek island” stories – the third in as many books – we find Hugh, a bookish ten-year-old boy, enduring a Greek holiday from hell with his boorish father. All Hugh wants out of the holiday is to explore the uninhabited island of Spinalonga and to soak up its history. All Hugh’s dad wants is to drink, to piss off Johnny Foreigner and to screw around with Kate, his newfound holiday shag. Worse still, as the days roll on, Kate is trying to act more like a mum to Hugh. Eventually the adults accede to Hugh’s request and they all take a boat trip out to Spinalonga – a former leper colony – as the sun sets in the distance. This was okay, with some interesting and believable relationships developing between the characters, but things went awry the moment Campbell tried to spoon in the horror. The moment his characters stepped onto the island was the moment I started seeing the author’s hand at work, nudging his characters along, making them say and do things that felt a little out of whack, as if he was in a hurry to finish. The story soon feels over-engineered, a bit like Hugh’s dad, and isn’t helped by an unfunny joke ending.)

Impermanent Mercies – Kathe Koja (4/5 – Ellis is a photographer with a mercenary streak. He doesn’t care too much for the subjects on the other side of the lens so long as they can score him the perfect shot. For one such picture, Ellis lines up a young boy, Andy, and his dog, True, between a pair of train tracks. Moments later the hound is tragically killed beneath the wheels of a train. Ellis is later horrified to find that the boy has kept the dog’s head in a box. And that the head can talk. This starts off weird and then gets weirder and darker with each passing paragraph. This reminded me somewhat of the deeply strange and disturbing monologues in Chris Morris’s Blue Jam radio series from the late 1990s (several years after this was published, I should add). I loved Blue Jam back then and I really liked this.)

Collected in Brennert’s “Mai Qui and Other Phantoms”, which you’ll do well to find.

Ma Qui – Alan Brennert (4/5 – Collins is an American soldier trying to come to terms with his violent death out in the Vietnamese jungle. He is not the only one. A few of his squad mates haunt the area as well, having met their ends in the same bloody skirmish. The ghosts of the Vietcong also sit among the trees, a number of them weeping. When a recovery chopper arrives to repatriate the remains of his squad mates, Collins suddenly finds himself alone. Convinced the VC has stolen his body, Collins sets out to find it. He encounters the ghost of a fellow soldier suspended helplessly over a nearby river. In rescuing him, Collins learns of the terrible role he now must fulfil in the afterlife. This is a really good and absorbing read which bagged a Nebula award back in the day.)

Originally published in the shared-world anthology “Under the Fang”

The Miracle Mile – Robert R. McCammon (4/5 – In this bleak tale, which was written as a scene-setter for a post-vampire-apocalypse-themed anthology edited by McCammon, we follow a family as they pick their way through a storm-ravaged American wasteland on the way to Perdido Beach. Kyle and Allie have been coming to the beach every year since they’d hitched up together, years before the world went to hell. For their twelve-year-old son, Tommy, summer has always meant a trip to the place. It’s something they’ve always done. But is this particular pilgrimage being undertaken through sheer bloody-mindedness or is there a darker purpose? What happens when you run out of road in a world full of predators? For the most part this story was fairly standard end-of-the-world fare, being competent and readable but hardly ground-breaking. There then came a moment which genuinely had me saying “Whoa!”, which doesn’t happen very often. For that, an extra point.)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”.

Taking Down The Tree – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Christmas has come and gone for Nick and his family. It’s time for the kids to stop playing with their toys and help their father take down the tree, the cards, the decorations and a whole lot more besides. A short and effective shocker from SRT, and another one that genuinely surprised me on a first read. Good stuff!)

 

 

 

 

 

Also collected in Clegg’s “Lights Out”

Where Flies Are Born – Douglas Clegg (3/5 – Ellen is on the run with her young son, Joey. They are both escaping the violent clutches of Frank: Ellen’s other half and Joey’s father. When their train breaks down and a lengthy delay looks inevitable, Ellen and Joey accept an offer of accommodation from Mama and Papa Neeson. On their way to the Neeson farmhouse the old couple talk of their little ones. Ellen is sceptical, as the Neesons look much too old to have young children. During the night, on the way to the bathroom, Ellen sees one of the little ones in the hallway: a bruised and filthy girl with a large fly crawling over her face. This was okay, with some really creepy imagery, but I didn’t buy into Papa Neeson’s explain-all, nor did I buy into the ending, which felt rather tacked-on.)

Collected in Johnson’s “In The Night In The Dark”

Love, Death and the Maiden – Roger Johnson (3/5 – It’s the late 1930’s and Europe teeters on the brink of war. A man is introduced to a playwright, Margaret, and her attractive assistant, Valerie. For her next work, Margaret wishes to base a play around Elisabeth Bathory and sends Valerie on a trip across an increasingly volatile Eastern Europe to dig up research on the notorious countess. Valerie writes often to our man, describing her travels, but her correspondence soon darkens as her quest develops into a hunt for Bathory’s iron maiden. Though the setup of the story was hopelessly overengineered, once it got going it was a shoo-in for a solid 4/5. Johnson intercuts his story with gruesomely interesting factoids about Bathory’s insane and murderous excess, and the device works surprisingly well. The denouement, however, spoiled it all, coming across as silly and, unfortunately, in a weird way, reminded me of the Fembots from the Austin Powers movies. Not groovy, baby.)

Also collected in Somtow’s “The Pavilion of Frozen Women”

Chui Chai – S. P. Somtow (4/5 – Russell Liebowitz is an oversexed yuppie earning obscene amounts of cash by day and feeding his assorted vices by night. One night in Bangkok (forgive me, I could not resist) he meets up with Dr Stone in Club Pagoda to discuss some business. Stone seeks an investment of several millions of dollars into her medical research programme. Liebowitz is wise to her programme, however, and its notoriety. Stone is equally wise to Liebowitz, knowing exactly how to press his buttons. A beautiful woman takes to the stage of Club Pagoda to perform the titular dance, and our man is hopeless to resist her. Too late, Liebowitz realises he’s been set up. This is quite the mirror opposite of the previous story, in that it was a solid 3/5 until the ending, which was wonderfully bonkers.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Famous Monsters”

The Snow Sculptures of Xanadu – Kim Newman (1/5 – Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and the horror genre is given another airing in this short piece of pseudofiction. Orson Welles rocks up to a dilapidated Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s mansion. There he meets Dr Montague and his team of paranormal investigators. After suiting up seemingly for a blizzard, they step inside. That’s about it, really. The vast majority of the “story” is little more than indulgent showboating from Newman as he sets about blurring real life and several fictitious worlds with dizzying abandon. (You might recognise Dr Montague and his team from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for example.) Cinephiles may get a kick out of this effort, but many others – myself included – will find it the longest four-page story they’d ever read. An argument could be made that this piece – despite its lack of popularity (it was voted one of the worst stories published in Interzone magazine that year) – was necessary, for Newman would soon go on to fuse real life and fictitious worlds with much greater success in later works. More on that in my review of Best New Horror 4.)

Colder Than Hell – Edward Bryant (4/5 – In turn-of-the-century Wyoming, Logan and his wife, Opal, make the best of a bad situation while a long and bitterly cold winter storm rages outside their remote farmhouse. With the blizzard reducing visibility to mere feet, stepping outside for firewood presents a major operation for Logan. Yet Opal seems to have nowhere near as much trouble when it’s her turn. As the storm continues to strengthen so too does Logan’s suspicion of Opal. Was this really the woman he married all those years ago? How can she remain so calm when all hell is breaking loose outside? This was a good story touching on the feelings of an old married couple who were never able to produce children, and how a small germ of resentment spinning from that could develop into something bigger, given the right circumstances – in this case a relentless and oppressive snowstorm. If I had one complaint, it was Bryant’s attempt to hang the horror element of his story on a somewhat artificial-sounding phrase Opal uses whenever Logan sneezes. There are sound historical reasons why people say something like “gesundheit” or “your health” (to ward off disease) or “bless you” (to ward off evil spirits). I can’t imagine why anyone would say “company’s coming”.)

Also collected in Collins’s “Knuckles and Tales”

Raymond – Nancy A. Collins (4/5 – Darryl is intrigued by a new starter in his class: a nervous and scrawny little boy called Raymond. The boy is dropped off by his abusive, man-mountain-like father in a beat-up pickup truck held together “by a length of baling wire, spit, and a prayer”. Raymond doesn’t really engage with the rest of the class and is largely left alone to do his own thing. The boy’s simple nature, bandaged head and gloved hands mark him out for special attention by the school bully, who soon finds to his cost that Raymond has a limit to the abuse he can take. This is a werewolf story (so much is revealed in the editor’s introduction), but one that is ahead of the pack, so to speak.)

Also collected in Grant’s “Scream Quietly”

One Life, In An Hourglass – Charles L. Grant (4/5 – A spot of fan fiction takes us into the world of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. A middle-aged woman named Cora returns to Green Town, the sometime venue of Cooger & Dark’s travelling carnival. Teenage memories of Mr Dark flood Cora’s mind and the plans she had of leaving Green Town with him, and how those plans were thwarted by her mother. But that was then. Cora can feel the carnival returning, and this time she is sure of it. The storm clouds that once foreshadowed the carnival are gathering once more. I’m not usually a fan of stories that come with prerequisites, but this was pretty good, helped by a wonderfully chill ending. It also prompted me to read Bradbury’s novel beforehand, which had been on my to-be-read pile for years.)

Also collected in Morrison’s “Lovely Biscuits”

The Braille Encyclopedia – Grant Morrison (4/5 – Morrison goes all Clive Barker in this Stoker-nominated short as a young blind woman is recruited into a world of sadism and exquisite pain, of abused angels and human books scarred with forbidden knowledge. Dark stuff indeed, but a good read if you have the constitution for it. I bet this is exactly what Louis Braille had in mind back in the 1800’s when he was putting his alphabet together, the grubby bugger.)

 

Also collected in Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill”

The Bacchae – Elizabeth Hand (5/5 – The ozone layer is knackered, and a large-scale project is underway to place mesh-like shielding into orbit to help combat the damage. Everything takes on a sepia tint, which does a lot more than muddy everyone’s vision. Amid mounting stories of women attacking and killing men, Gordon begins to see a threatening change in the women around him, not least in his other half, Olivia. Walking back together from seeing a production of Euripides’ The Bacchae, Olivia seems irritated by everything Gordon says or does. When they are set upon by three male muggers, Gordon is horrified by Olivia’s explosive response. Some (male) readers back in the day passionately decried this as little more than a misandrous gorefest. It is not. Instead this is a smart riff on Euripides’ tragedy, with women all round the world driven to brutal maenadic fervour thanks to a few too many man-made environmental disasters. What results is one of the best stories in the book and reminded me of Raccoona Sheldon (aka Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jnr)’s The Screwfly Solution, but with the genders reversed. The story was republished a few years ago in Nightmare Magazine, and you can read it here: http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/the-bacchae)

Busted In Buttown – David J. Schow (4/5 – A short shocker from Schow which sees Mex, a no-nonsense burglar, escaping the attentions of the LAPD only to find the tables turned on him in an unforeseen and gruesome way. Another winner.)

Subway Story – Russell Flinn (2/5 – A grumpy old fusspot called Whittle harbours a serious grudge against Daniel, a younger work colleague, going so far as to write an incendiary letter to the local newspaper about the youth of today. Yep, that kind of guy. Anyway, when he’s not looking down his nose on society and all within it, Whittle can often be found getting freaked out by the coven of bag ladies hanging around the entrance to his local subway. When Whittle suspects Daniel is following him around outside of work, he leads the lad into the subway. The next morning, Daniel doesn’t show up to work. This was a real curiosity. My original review of this (which I’ve left up on Goodreads) feels like an entirely different story now that I’ve read it a second time. Sadly, this was not to the story’s benefit, as Flinn’s awkward writing style served only to push me further out of his story. (It could be written in character; I haven’t read any other of Flinn’s stuff.) There are still some lovely turns of phrase to be had, but blimey this was a struggle to get through a second time. A rare downgraded score from me.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Medusa – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – Lucian Dregler is a man obsessed with all things Medusa: her mythology, her influence on culture throughout the ages, even the question of her very existence. Dregler is called to a club where he is given a fresh Medusan lead to follow by a friend, not realising it’s a hoax. Or is it? This really ought to be a straight 3/5, but once again I’m won over by Ligotti’s writing, especially in the first half of the story. He is sometimes guilty of creating main characters who are too laser-focused on their interests and are prone to over-philosophising about them – as is the case here – but where he absolutely nails it in The Medusa is in the locations. Within the space of a page I wanted to kick back with a large brandy and a newspaper in the aforementioned club, while his description of a bookshop Dregler later visits almost had me never wanting to leave the place.)

Also collected in Lane’s “The Terrible Changes”. Good luck finding a copy.

Power Cut – Joel Lane (4/5 – A politician called Lake escapes the loneliness of his constituency flat and hits the town for a bit of rough. Lake hooks up with a moody fella called Gary and they head back to Gary’s place. It’s a squalid, bare-bones studio flat littered with newspaper cuttings. The cuttings cover the walls too, and Lake makes the horrible mistake of reading them. Joel Lane’s stories were often good but would require a re-read or two to fully appreciate what was going on, for me at least. This earlyish effort is comparatively straightforward, however, and reads like a pleasingly short Robert Aickman story. Good stuff.)

 

 

Moving Out – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – Nick is an arsehole who likes to play pranks on his other half. So much so, it seems, that she eventually moves away – seventy miles away. She refuses Nick’s help, refuses to acknowledge his offer, even his very existence. Now why would she do a thing like that? This was okay – and better than Royle’s previous entries in the Best New Horror series – but two things held it back: 1) I’d guessed what was going on by the end of page one, and 2) Nick really, really is a proper arsehole!)

Also collected in Partridge’s “Bad Intentions”. Love the cover!

Guignoir – Norman Partridge (4/5 – Frank and Larry are twin brothers working a grim carnival attraction called the Death Car: the very vehicle a murderer, Hank Caul, once used to drive his victims to their slaughter. The car is owned by their father, a man with as much business prowess as a bucket of cold piss. When the Death Car’s fortunes start to wane, Pa decides to bring the car back to the town where Caul carried out his horrific murderers, regardless of how the locals may feel about it. The twins witness Pa handing over a suitcase of money – their life savings – over to a few locals in exchange for a smaller briefcase. The old man believes the case contains the skin of Caul, a sure-fire way of reigniting interest in the Death Car. When Pa realises he has been conned, and that Larry hasn’t returned from getting his end away the night before, and that the Death Car has also gone missing… well, that’s enough to get Frank good and mad and out for answers. This was a rollicking, full-blooded story that packed a whole lot of goings-on into its 8000-ish words, but I wonder if it would have worked even better in a longer form.)

Blood Sky – William F. Nolan (4/5 – Ed hits it off with Lorry, a rodeo waitress, and for the first time in his life it feels like he has found true love. Conversation with her is easy, the sex is great and Lorry’s free spirit holds rather a lot of appeal for Ed. It seems they were made for each other. She jacks in her job and they hit the road together, but it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show. Unknown to Lorry, Ed is the notorious Big Sky Strangler, and his past crimes are beginning to catch up with him. As Ed is increasingly reminded of his true nature, the compulsion within him to kill begins to grow again. I liked this a lot, which was helped no end by Nolan’s easy style and the superb characters he creates. The unpleasant nightmares Ed experiences at the beginning of the story are also a real highlight of the piece.)

Ready – David Starkey (no, not the historian) (4/5 – Mike is deeply disturbed by the sounds coming from the flat next door. It sounds like his neighbour is beating a dog, and at length. This goes on night after night until Mike finally snaps and confronts his neighbour, whereupon Mike is invited in to have a go himself. A deliciously dark story, this, though probably not one for animal lovers.)

Also collected in “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 2”

The Slug – Karl Edward Wagner (5/5 – Martine is forced to set aside her sculpting for a moment to hear a sorry story from a fellow creative (and keen alcoholic), Keenan Bauduret. It seems that Keenan made the mistake of letting a fellow writer, Casper Crowley, into his life only to find the man won’t let go of him. Keenan’s creativity stalls, deadlines slip, alcohol mounts, work dries up, and so Keenan feels compelled to take drastic action and wrench his life back. This is an excellent read, helped immeasurably by Wagner’s superb afterword. To quote: “The imaginative is the choice prey of the banal, and uncounted works of excellence have died stillborn thanks to junk phone calls and visits from bored associates.” I’m putting that on my gravestone!)

Also collected in MMS’s “More Tomorrow and Other Stories”

The Dark Land – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – Michael is a young man who lives with his parents. One morning, with the house to himself, Michael sets about rearranging his bedroom, tiring himself in the process. When he wakes from a short nap he finds himself trapped in a waking nightmare of creeping wood-panelling, of a kitchen that accumulates filth and rotting rubbish at an alarming rate, and of two unpleasant men in suits who seem super-keen to smash their way in through the back door. The front door offers salvation of sorts. Now, if only Michael could reach it. This was a funny one to score, even after a re-read. MMS absolutely nails that uneasy, shifting, segueing experience of dreaming, and this story is undoubtedly well-written, but The Dark Land feels overlong for what it is and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. Still, the story bagged a British Fantasy Award back in the day, so what do I know?)

Also collected in Etchison’s “The Death Artist”

When They Gave Us Memory – Dennis Etchison (4/5 – A successful actor attempts to reconnect with his parents at their coastal home. He finds the old family home empty, up for sale and in a sorry state of repair. The latter of these strikes him as odd, as his parents had always kept a presentable home. Perhaps they had grown too frail to continue living there. It’s been a while since they last talked, what with his work, his lifestyle and myriad other excuses. He finally finds ma and pa living in a cramped mobile home, where he’s alarmed to find he’s not quite the son they think he is. I liked this story a lot, which is saying something considering the god-sized deus ex machina Etchison employs, and despite my twigging what was going on a little ahead of schedule. Definitely worth checking out.)

Taking Care Of Michael – J. L. Comeau (4/5 – An effective flash fiction shocker as a woman takes care of her disabled brother… badly.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

The Dreams Of Dr Ladybank – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – Dr Ian Ladybank finds he can exercise psychic control over two people. One is Snake, a low-ranking biker and wannabe pimp; the husband of one of Ladybank’s patients. The other is a transvestite hooker called Tony, assigned to Ladybank following Tony’s arrest. Ladybank wastes no time in using his newfound power to make both men’s lives a living hell. Matters take a twisted turn when Snake meets up with a hooker called Toni, and tries to coerce her into working for him. This is comfortably the longest story in the book, as long as the three next longest stories combined. Is it worth it? Yes indeed. It’s certainly not afraid to go there, let’s put it that way. But this novella is not without its flaws. Snake is a cookie-cutter badass with some truly cringeworthy dialogue, though maybe this was intentional. My biggest problem, however, lies in Tony. He sure doesn’t talk, act, dress, whore, drive, drink or keep a home like you’d think a sixteen-year-old would. I’ve no idea why Tessier felt the need to make Tony so young, other than an attempt to increase the shock value. Trust me, the story doesn’t need it! Still a good read, all the same.)

Zits – Nina Kiriki Hoffman (2/5 – Another flash fiction shocker as a sexually-abused teenage girl contemplates what to do with the big zit growing inside of her. This didn’t work for me. It seemed to be trying way too hard to be nasty, as if the subject matter wasn’t nasty enough. In their introduction to this story the editors lament the amount of child abuse stories in horror, so it seems bizarre for them to end the book on one.)

Phew! A fair few stories to tuck into there. Well done for getting to the end of this review! If you are tempted to give the book a whirl then PS Publishing can fix you up with a swanky paperback edition, otherwise you should be able to source a second-hand copy or an eBook version somewhere across the World Wide Internets. If you’d like a whizz through the stories found in books one and two, head over to my Reviews page for links.

In the meantime, on with book four!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 2

“Hello, cheeky!”

Best New Horror 2 was published back in 1991 and showcased twenty-eight tales of horror, the supernatural and the weird, all published during the previous year. As with the first volume, this edition was edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. Interestingly, the original release of this book was stripped of its intended opening story after the publishers got cold feet, fearing that the inclusion of a splatterpunk story would risk the book being pulled from store shelves. The offending story, Roberta Lannes’ Apostate in Denim, was reinstated in PS Publishing’s recent anniversary edition of Best New Horror 2, and is covered below.

Sadly, on the evidence presented in this volume, 1990 was a dry year for quality horror shorts. It’s telling that a number of the stories were pulled from the pages of science fiction publications with only the merest nod to horror. Overall, then, Best New Horror 2 is a straightforward 3/5.

Despite the dip in quality from book one, there are still a few stories that are well worth your time. Here is a rundown of what you can expect to find inside.

Also collected in Lannes’ “The Mirror of Night”

Apostate In Denim – Roberta Lannes (3/5 – A young man called Barry Boag peers through the gaps of Mr Hardesty’s shack, transfixed in a state of sexual excitement as he watches the man cruelly and methodically torture a small boy. When Barry’s voyeurism is eventually discovered by Hardesty, he finds the man quite untroubled by it all. In fact, Hardesty invites Barry around for a more intimate look. This was okay, but it felt as if Lannes was being too eager to shock the reader at times, as if this was the only way to hold their attention. Yes, this is splatterpunk, but, consonant with a number of other works in this subgenre, the shock tactics undermine the story. If I’m honest I found Lannes’ assertion in her introduction (that she did not set out to write a splatterpunk story) got under my skin more than the story itself. Apostate… was published at a time when splatterpunk was all the rage, so don’t give me that.)

The First Time – K. W. Jeter (4/5 – An adolescent boy is invited along on a trip to a Mexican border town with his father, his Uncle Tommy and a few of their friends. It’s a trip the men have taken several times already, often making a weekend of it, and the boy nervously agrees to go along. When they arrive in town, they all crowd into a bar to drink beers and goof off. The boy notices the men disappearing one at a time to a curtained area away from the main bar, returning a short time later reeking of sweat and acting a little differently. When there’s suddenly no room for the boy to sit with his father and his friends, the lad queasily realises he’s up next. This didn’t work for me the first time around as I felt the premise was too far-fetched – I couldn’t accept how the men could keep shtum around the boy regarding the WHAAAAAAA…?!!? that goes on beyond the curtain. Contrary to my initial impressions, however, The First Time did actually improve the second time around.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Houses Without Doors”

A Short Guide To The City – Peter Straub (2/5 – In this mock travelogue we are guided around a nameless north-midwestern city in the US, its districts and demographics, its cultures and landmarks, expressed at times through the flavours and degrees of violence executed therein, and how they may or may not relate to the local Viaduct Killer, whoever he – or they – may be. The literary fireworks in Straub’s long fiction often show he’s an author who is not afraid to experiment. This firework, for me at least, was a dud.)

 

 

Also collected in Massie’s “The Fear Report”

Stephen – Elizabeth Massie (4/5 – Anne is an emotionally and physically scarred woman who volunteers at a rehabilitation centre to help severely disabled patients study and train for life in the outside world. One of her charges, Michael, is a charismatic guy who has no legs, no left arm and whose right arm is missing below the elbow. Michael’s silent roommate, Stephen, has an even tougher time of it. This was one of the better stories in the book and bagged a Stoker Award back in the day along with a World Fantasy Award nomination. I’m not going to go too much into this one as it would rob the story of some of its impact, suffice to say that, me being the sick puppy I am, I couldn’t quite get that scene from Reanimator out of my head while reading this. Also, I couldn’t help but cast Noel Fielding in my head as the titular Stephen, which I fully admit is a bit weird.)

Also collected in Carroll’s “The Panic Hand”

The Dead Love You – Jonathan Carroll (2/5 – Anthea Powell is a woman with a successful career and a heart condition. When she is forced to swerve to avoid hitting a cyclist, she accidentally runs her car into another driver’s vehicle. The owner, an albino by the name of Bruce Beetz, is furious and, after getting short thrift from the police officer handling the incident, Bruce decides to take revenge. When Anthea falls asleep in a hot bath, Bruce leaves a toy car floating in the water. When she wakes one morning she finds a children’s book on her bed called I’M COMING TO GET YOU. Anthea is afraid but also intrigued, for in her dreams she’s discovered Bruce isn’t exactly the guy he makes out to be. A much bigger surprise lies in store for “Bruce”. In my original review of this story, I called it “less a horror story than a fuck-you to the reader”, and, to be honest, after a reread, my opinion of it hasn’t changed. It still reeks of a writer being asked to produce a story for an anthology (which was the case here), picking up some half-finished effort and welding a jarringly different ending to it. This is a bit of a Carroll trope, it seems. I’ll pass on more, thanks.)

Also collected in Ellison’s “Slippage”

Jane Doe #112 – Harlan Ellison (3/5 – Ben Laborde is a man on the run, not from the police but from a small group of translucent people, each of whom were cut off in their prime before they had a chance to live their lives. Tired of being hunted for so long, Ben stops and confronts his pursuers, at which point he learns an unusual truth about himself. When he was on form, Ellison could be a blinding supernova of creativity. This story doesn’t reach those giddy heights, thanks in part to a jarring plot convenience, but there is still more invention on display here than half the other stories in this book put together. Pity it’s not a horror story, really.)

 

 

Also collected in Garton’s “Methods of Madness”

Shock Radio – Ray Garton (4/5The Arthur Colton Jr. Show is a late-night talk radio sensation thanks to its obnoxious and unabashedly right-wing, pro-male, pro-life (and pseudonymous) host. Fronting the show is a man called Andy Craig. He doesn’t share his alter-ego’s views, and is frequently astonished at how his audience and innumerable critics can take Colton seriously. Can’t they see it’s all just an act? Apparently not. The frequent exchanges between Colton and his more rational callers make this an engrossing read, and depressingly demonstrate how little things have changed in the near-thirty years since this was originally published. Though Shock Radio isn’t perfect – Andy isn’t a terribly convincing character, and you’ll likely see the ending coming – I suspect this will be one of the stories in the book that will stick in your mind for a while to come.)

Also collected in MMS’s “More Tomorrow and Other Stories”

The Man Who Drew Cats – Michael Marshall Smith (5/5 – An old man recounts a long, hot summer some years ago when a tall and intense stranger came to the small town of Kingstown. By day Tom would sit out on the town square creating incredibly realistic paintings of animals, keeping the neighbourhood kids rapt as he worked. Come the evening, he would sit and drink with the old boys of town and sometimes open up a little about the tragedies of his past. One day Tom notices one of the children, Billy, is noticeably sadder than the others, and before long he is introduced to the boy’s mother, Mary, and, by extension, her abusive drunk of a husband, Sam. When Tom can no longer stand to witness the effects of Sam’s bloody and bruising violence upon Mary and Billy, the tall and intense stranger acts in the only way he knows how: he paints Sam a picture. This powerful and wonderfully-spun debut from MMS nailed a British Fantasy Award back in the day and is by far and away the best story in Best New Horror 2. Absolutely unmissable. In fact, you should stop reading this and read that instead.)

Also collected in Tem’s “The Ice Downstream and Other Stories”

The Co-op – Melanie Tem (4/5 – In this strange and disturbing slice of life we watch as a young mother, Julie, plays hostess to an assortment of other mothers from around the neighbourhood. As potato salad is messily consumed and as their kids all argue among themselves down in the basement, the group discuss the ups and downs of parenthood. Oh, wait. Did I say “ups”? Sunshine and lollipops this most certainly is not, and the finale will linger long after the reading.)

 

 

 

Also collected in Royle’s “Mortality”

Negatives – Nicolas Royle (3/5 – Brian Linden is driving at night, maintaining a steady seventy on the motorway, bored out of his gourd. He is on the way to meet his other half, Melanie, at a cottage for the weekend. When Brian looks to the passenger seat, he sees Melanie fast asleep beside him. Confused? In order to find out more we wind back a couple of weeks to when Brian’s odd visions began, back when he was made to use an old office computer with a green screen. Though this is a tad dated, a smattering of cool imagery and some neat ideas help make this a better story than Archway (Royle’s entry in book one). The story is guilty of being over-engineered, however, evidenced by a weak ending that doesn’t really work.)

Collected in Ligotti’s “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – In this World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novelette Ligotti turns his hand to a spot of Lovecraft. An academic (and keen clown fanatic) arrives in the remote American town of Mirocaw, eager to learn more about the “Fool’s Feast” that takes place there during the winter solstice. Mirocaw is a strange town set in a bowl whose odd topography makes it seem like the houses overlap one another. The citizens too seem to overlap: alongside people going about their daily lives our man sees several strange and scruffy others vacantly shuffling about the place largely unseen, one of whom bears a noticeable likeness for an old professor of his. Whenever an author dips their toes in Lovecraft they nearly always come a cropper (and I include Lovecraft himself in that). Ligotti wobbles a bit here and there but ultimately turns in a story that manages to retain much of the good stuff found in Lovecraft’s work while at the same time jettisoning an awful lot of the rubbish. In all, a good ‘un, this.)

Also collected in MacLeod’s “Voyages by Starlight”

1/72nd Scale – Ian R. MacLeod (3/5 – A family tries to move on from the eldest son Simon’s accidental death. Younger son David inherits Simon’s room and its effects, including a number of meticulously constructed model aircraft. When David’s father hands him a large model aircraft kit of his own to assemble, David is daunted by the task. It’s the last thing he needs amid the constant reminders from all around that he is not his elder brother and can never hope to be. Spoilers ahoy, folks, but I can’t help it on this occasion. This Nebula-nominated novelette starts off beautifully and then… well… hmm. It may have been better if I could have bought into the premise of a model aeroplane coming to life, attacking David and… (sigh…) still somehow living after being burned to a charred and plasticky crisp. Nope. Sorry. Even after a second read this came across as silly when it really didn’t intend to be.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Cedar Lane – Karl Edward Wagner (3/5 – In this short and curious what-if, multiple versions of the same man recall their childhood at a house on Cedar Lane, each often smelling the stench of burning leaves or experiencing a sharp agonising pain immediately before… well, to say any more would be to give the game away. Here we have another story that is a hundred parts science fiction infused with a tiny soupçon of horror. Even on its own terms, the story is merely okay. A shame, really, as I rather enjoyed At First Just Ghostly, Wagner’s story in the first book.)

 

 

Also released as its own separate eBook (links to Amazon)

At A Window Facing West – Kim Antieau (3/5 – Maggie is a fearless journalist on vacation in Mexico with her other half, Peter, and his brother, Rich. The holiday has thus far been dictated by what Rich doesn’t want to do, which causes friction between the three of them. After a row with Peter, Maggie is woken from her sleep by a scream from outside. She sees two policemen carrying away a woman who is crying for help, but Maggie feels powerless to do anything. Upon their return from hols, the guilt Maggie feels about the episode eats away at her until she can take it no longer. Compelled to investigate, she returns to Mexico. Bad move. This story shares a few genes with Thomas Tessier’s Blanca, published in the first book, and was okay, but you’ll have probably already guessed the ending.)

Also collected in “The Best Short Stories of Garry Kilworth”

Inside the Walled City – Garry Kilworth (4/5 – A journalist in Hong Kong follows hifalutin cop John Speakman, his guide and two junior police officers into a vast makeshift building called the Walled City. The slum had once teemed with tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s poor, but now it lies empty, awaiting demolition. Speakman’s job is to chase out any stragglers. Once inside, our man grows convinced that Speakman has evil in mind for him, but that’s nothing compared to what the building has in store for them all. This is another one sharing a couple of genes with a story from the first book, this time Laurence Staig’s Closed Circuit, which was set in an inescapable shopping mall. I liked this a lot, even if the characters largely played second fiddle to the real star of the piece, the Walled City itself. Kilworth has a whale of a time describing its fetid and labyrinthine – and lethal – innards. Good gory fun.)

On The Wing – Jean-Daniel Breque (3/5 – Robin is a twelve year old boy who takes a solitary swim at an abandoned quarry. He reflects on two close friends of his, and slowly comes to realise they may not be friends at all. They never seem to come to the quarry any more, and back when they did they would play all kinds of mean tricks on him. When Robin learns that his friends may have taken to visiting the quarry after dark, he sneaks out for a midnight dip, where things take a sinister turn. This was okay, but I found some of the passages clunky (possibly lost in translation). The story also felt rather mechanical, with several scenes existing mostly to set up the next scene rather than to tell a bit more of the story, a bit like a train laying down its own tracks. That said, the ending, however disconnected it felt from the rest of the story, is wonderfully creepy.)

Firebird – J. L. Comeau (4/5 – By day Julianna is part of a tight-knit police team jokingly named “The Nut Squad” on account of the dangerous whack-jobs they so often have to take down. In the evenings she maintains a rigorous ballet regime to help keep her mind and body sharp. By night she is haunted in her sleep by the horrifying events of her first assignment. When, one evening, at the end of their shift, the squad are sent to join other teams at an incident in progress, they are all immediately set on edge. They arrive at a tenement block where a number of officers struggle to hold back a thoroughly freaked-out crowd. When Julianna looks up to one of the upper windows she sees the lunatic from her first assignment – a man she had gunned down and killed. This full-blooded story rattles along at a fair old pace, almost like a Kathryn Bigelow movie from back in the day, and it’s a belter. In the space of 10,000 words you have damn near everything you would get from a novel ten times the length, and Comeau doesn’t pull any punches. Definitely worth a read. In fact, you can read the full thing for free on Comeau’s website: http://www.countgore.com/Firebird.htm)

Also collected in Schow’s “Seeing Red”

Incident on a Rainy Night in Beverly Hills – David J. Schow (4/5 – Jonathan Brill is a wealthy psychiatrist to the stars, taking in a stormy evening from the safety of his study. He is visited upon by a panicked old friend, Haskell Hammer, who begs for shelter not just from the storm outside but the men in white vans too – never a good sign. Haskell soon spins a strange and possibly deluded story of how he got to be in this position; a story of what it really takes to make it in Hollywood. In my original review of this story I said I liked it a lot up until the cheap-ass ending. Weirdly on a second reading the ending felt a little better – if still rather unearned – but I found it was the middle that sagged. It’s still worth a read, either way, scraping a 4/5.)

Also collected in Brite’s “Swamp Foetus”

His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood – Poppy Z. Brite (4/5 – Howard and Louis are two young men living in modern-day gothic splendour who devote every living moment seeking something – anything – that can truly satisfy them. From hard drink to strange drugs, from degrading beautiful women to bedding androgynous young men and eventually each other – nothing fills the void. In their pursuit of ever-newer and evermore-debauched experiences they take to robbing graves and raiding mausoleums, acts that eventually draw them closer to what they crave the most. But at what cost? This story has become a modern horror classic since its first publication, and who am I to argue? Brite’s elegant writing and pitch-black humour elevates this above most stories in the book.)

Also collected in Newman’s “The Original Dr Shade and Other Stories”

The Original Dr Shade – Kim Newman (4/5 – Greg Daniels is an illustrator hired to help resurrect the old Dr Shade character for the launch of the Argus, a new hard-right British newspaper. He is introduced to Harry Lipman, an elderly man who last wrote the character back in the 1950s. The men soon hit it off, developing a Dr Shade more suited for the modern era while at the same time honouring the derring-do stories of yesteryear. But Greg and Harry fail to recognise the changing mood of the country. A new fascism is fast taking hold, catalysed by the upcoming launch of the Argus and the seeming resurgence of the original Dr Shade – a brutal and significantly more controversial iteration of the character. Within the first page of this story I knew this was going to be a winner. I loved the British comics scene back in my younger years. If it had panels and speech bubbles, I was all over it. This is a mighty fine and uncompromising read, and definitely one you should seek out.)

Madge – D. F. Lewis (2/5 – In a story barely ten words longer than this mini-review, Lewis sketches out the titular Madge, whose gift of song holds the locals of a fishing village in her thrall. But on this particular storm-laden evening she carries her song into new and unheard verses, crooning of the one she loved. After taking one of the local men to her bed she explains the unsettling purpose of her song. Lewis is remarkable in the field for having comfortably over 1,000 of his stories published, the majority being short shorts like this. I’m not the greatest fan of flash-fiction-length stories, however, as I seldom find them a satisfying read. Despite the quality of the writing, this one didn’t sway me.)

Alive in Venice – Cherry Wilder (3/5 – Following a family misfortune a young teenage girl, Susan, accompanies her brother and sister-in-law on their honeymoon in Venice. She knows enough to give the newlyweds some space, and thus spends a lot of her time in a writing room of the house. A large tapestry hangs in the room, behind which Susan finds a large door. A key hangs on a hook nearby. When a strange series of items are left in the room beneath a decorative ventilator, Susan grows convinced there may be someone behind the door beckoning her through. Wilder’s The House On Cemetery Street was probably the best story in the first book, but here she stumbles. This story was okay, but it felt more like a series of things happening than anything you could get emotionally involved in.)

Also collected in Frost’s “Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories”

Divertimento – Gregory Frost (3/5 – Teenagers Peter and Susanne are brother and sister, with Peter the eldest by a couple of years. Not that you’d believe it, for Susanne looks to be in her eighties while Peter is rocking a mid-forties look. A timebomb had once detonated in the family home, killing their parents in the blast, ageing them to dust in an instant, while also greatly ageing the two siblings. The bomb left behind a unique temporal rift allowing the children to look back through time to witness a previous occupant of the house: one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This story was okay with some really cool ideas, but let’s be honest – it’s another science fiction story that has been crowbarred into a horror anthology on the thinnest of premises.)

Also collected in Wilson’s “The Barrens and Others”

Pelts – F. Paul Wilson (4/5 – A poacher and his son strike it lucky when they find their traps have snared several large raccoons, each possessing the thickest and most luxurious coats they have ever seen. The poachers brutally kill the poor animals still clinging to life before bagging them all up and taking their prizes home. After a hard slog skinning and preparing the pelts, Pa leaves his son to clean up. The lad catches movement in the corner of his eye. Did one of the pelts move just then? In this Stoker-nominated story, F. shows everyone here how horror is done. This is a bloody good read and was made into an episode of Masters of Horror some years later.)

 

Also collected in Sutton’s “Clinically Dead and Other Tales of the Supernatural”

Those of Rhenea – David Sutton (3/5 – Elizabeth is holidaying in Greece, soaking up the sun and taking in the sights. Though promising herself no romantic entanglements, she finds herself knocking around keen photographer and fellow holidaymaker, Steve Convenient-Infodump. They break away from an island tour of Demos to do their own bit of exploring, but end up missing the boat back to the mainland. Darkness falls, and the two discover why no-one ever stays on Demos overnight. This was okay, but seasoned horror fans will have seen the skeleton of this story in a hundred others before it. The story is so flat that when the horror eventually makes itself known you are almost numb to it.)

 

Also collected in Wolfe’s “Starwater Strains”

Lord of the Land – Gene Wolfe (2/5 – A man known as The Nebraskan rocks up to a rickety farmhouse to chat with an old timer about, among other things, a dark shape the old boy saw once aways down the road; an emanation he calls a soul-sucker. The old timer’s granddaughter, Sarah serves them lemonade as a means to loiter nearby and listen in. Later, when The Nebraskan agrees to stay the night, Sarah passes him a note warning him not to utter a word of the old timer’s stories to her father. This was Wolfe’s tribute to Lovecraft, so it should come as no surprise that he produces inferior work as a result. Originally, this hot mess had me nodding off several times. On a reread, things don’t improve any. The story is uneven to say the least, and hits so many bum notes (dull backgrounding; dialog written as it is spoken, and, of course, Sarah simply has to make a pass at our man) it becomes a real chore to get through – and it’s only 14 pages long. Of course, your mileage may vary, as you can see in a relatively recent discussion of this story on Tor.com: https://www.tor.com/2017/02/22/urban-legends-of-ancient-egypt-gene-wolfes-lord-of-the-land/)

Also collected in SRT’s “The Far Side Of The Lake”

Aquarium – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Michael is hired by Victor Montgomery to catalogue the chattels of his hotel. As he works through the many artworks and items of furniture, Michael is reminded of the childhood he spent in an orphanage. His mind starts to deteriorate and hints of darker memories begin to surface when Michael finds certain items of furniture with strange and unsettling adornments. This was okay, but I’ve read better from SRT. Here it felt as if he was trying too hard to keep things weird, from a rather unnecessary attempt to wrongfoot the reader about Michael’s age, to how Victor looks more like a baby in a suit the more he talks, to, most obviously, SRT’s frequent attempts to relate things to an aquarium.)

 

Also collected in Wilson’s “The Cleft and Other Odd Tales”

Mister Ice Cold – Gahan Wilson (4/5 – Mister Ice Cold is doing the rounds, the chimes of his ice cream truck sending children into a frenzy with the promise of iced confections to come. While Mister Ice Cold is busy serving the ranks of children queueing outside, a young boy sneaks into his van and makes the mistake of looking in the one compartment Mister Ice Cold never seems to open. Gahan Wilson is a creative polymath; he is perhaps better known as a cartoonist, with a long career contributing to publications such as The New Yorker, but he is also a very good short story writer. Though you could accuse this short short of being a little predictable, you cannot question Wilson’s masterful delivery. Mister Ice Cold has only one line in the story, and it is brilliantly chilling. If you’ll pardon the pun.)

Also collected in Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill”

On The Town Route – Elizabeth Hand (4/5 – Continuing the ice cream theme, this story sees Julie slumming it in her digs, having given up on her studies and seemingly the whole concept of going outside. Her boyfriend, Cass, drags her out to ride along with him in his knackered old ice cream van. Along the route, she watches the urban landscape give way to nature and the houses become more ramshackle. She meets all of Cass’s regulars, including a headstrong young girl called Little Eva, and Maidie and Sam, her somewhat unusual parents. When tragedy strikes on the way back home, Maidie unexpectedly intervenes. I liked this story a lot, even if Julie has little other role than to be our eyes and ears. There’s a slacker vibe to the story that I loved, and Hand creates a wonderful sense of a hazy countryside summer. A really good read, though I would argue Mister Ice Cold would have been a better closer to the book.)

And that wraps up this monster review of Best New Horror 2. Thanks for getting this far! If any of these stories float your boat then PS Publishing offers a chunky 25th Anniversary edition of the book, otherwise it shouldn’t be too hard finding a second-hand copy on the interwebs. You can also find Best New Horror 2 for purchase on most popular eBook platforms.

Till book three, then – TTFN!

LP

Review: Best New Horror

The long-running reprint anthology series Best New Horror was launched in 1990 with this book, edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. It followed the launch of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s successful series Demons & Dreams: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror a few years earlier, and, in much the same vein, aimed to present a comprehensive overview of the horror genre during the previous year.

This inaugural volume sets the mould for all subsequent entries in the series. It opens with a short summary of the book, movie, magazine and comic book releases during the previous year, as well as an appraisal of the health of the horror genre. (These summaries would soon lengthen with each successive book in the series, sufficient to consistently earn negative reviews from some readers miffed at having 60-80 pages “stolen” from the book they’d just bought. Personally, I don’t mind these summaries, though I agree they make for rather dry reading. I tend to skim over them to reach Jones’s closing comments, which are always worth a read.) This is followed by the main attraction: a line-up of the best horror stories published during the previous year – twenty on this occasion. To round off the book there is a necrology to remember those we lost from the realms of horror fiction, film and all the media in between.

I’ll ignore the opening and closing sections of the book and focus instead on the stories. That’s why we’re here, after all. As any seasoned reader knows, short story anthologies can be something of a curate’s egg, but there are a number of stories here which make Best New Horror worth a read and just about secures a 4/5 score.

These stories were all published in 1989 and run as follows:

Also collected in McCammon’s “Blue World”.

Pin – Robert R McCammon (3/5 – McCammon takes us inside the mind of Joey Shatterley as he psyches himself up to give the world exactly what for in the only way he knows how… by shooting up a local McDonalds. Tsk, nutters, eh? But before he can proceed with this most vital work Joey must first prove himself ready. For that he needs a pin and a certain part of his anatomy… and a whole lot of nerve. A short, sharp shock to open proceedings. Icky, but a bit by-the-numbers.)

 

 

 

 

The House on Cemetery Street – Cherry Wilder (5/5 – Lucy and Joachim are teenage siblings returning to Germany from America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They arrive at their old house and reacquaint themselves with the family elders they had left behind. They are a proud lot despite the relative poverty, tragedy and guilt that had befallen their lives. When Lucy starts seeing a dark-clothed figure among the tombstones of the neighbouring graveyard, it triggers a series of other visions and bizarre noises throughout the house. It seems the house wants rid of its darkest secret. This story takes a while getting there, but the ending will stick in your mind for a long time to come. Probably the best story in the book.)

Also collected in Gallagher’s “Out Of His Mind”

The Horn – Stephen Gallagher (4/5 – Three stranded drivers hunker down in an abandoned roadside recovery hut, sheltering as best they can against an increasingly bitter snowstorm. The snow is thigh-deep outside and rising, the wind is merciless and visibility is almost zero. The phone is out, and the electricity supply soon follows suit. It becomes obvious they cannot remain in the hut, and so one of them agrees to venture out to a jack-knifed road train further up the motorway. From there he will sound a horn for the others to follow. If only it was that simple. I loved reading Gallagher’s stuff when I was in my teens – around the same time that his TV mini-series Chimera was successfully scaring the bejabbers out of me – and he remains immensely readable nearly thirty years on. Good gory fun!)

Breaking Up – Alex Quiroba (4/5 – In this dark and sexually-charged story we closely follow Max Griffin, who is dumped by his girlfriend, Nancy, and whose mind immediately starts to unravel, taking him further and further down a succession of rabbit holes before snapping him back to reality: he slashes Nancy’s throat and watches her struggle to stem the bleeding; he takes his car for a spin and crashes and burns; he attends a porno theatre and unwillingly becomes the main attraction… all ridiculous flights of fantasy, of course. Right? There have been a fair few stories with unreliable main characters or narrators over the years, but this is one of the better ones, helped somewhat by its short running time – it’s in and out before its Cormac-McCarthy-wannabe lack of punctuation begins to annoy.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Waking Nightmares”

It Helps If You Sing – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – From the window of his high-rise flat an old man called Bright observes the neighbouring blocks and how they are growing increasingly dark, as if fewer and fewer people are living there. He hears the muffled strains of a hymn here and there, always the same one, playing at different times of the day, sometimes overlapping. When Bright arrives home one day to find two androgynous religious zealots waiting for him by his front door it seems he’s about to discover the truth for himself. This was a disappointing show, sadly. Though there were some nice touches in places, the story was slight and came across as having been written after Campbell had closed the door on the umpteenth Jehovah’s Witness that week.)

Also collected in Staig’s “Dark Toys and Consumer Goods”, though hard to find

Closed Circuit – Laurence Staig (4/5 – In a twisted future (at least from the perspective of 1989) Mrs Anderson and her two young children park up at the Consumer Comfort Shopping Mall in order to get some shopping done. Once inside they find other shoppers in the mall fervently keen – some might say insanely keen – on doing likewise. When the high-pressure selling gets a bit too much for the kids to handle, Mrs Anderson tries to hustle them away without buying anything, which proves a mite trickier than it sounds. There’s a strong whiff of The Twilight Zone about this story… no bad thing in my eyes. Hmm, an inescapable nightmare set in an endlessly huge building… I can’t imagine for a second why this one resonated with me!)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”.

Carnal House – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Another dark and sexually-charged story which sees a man called Gene receive a phone call from Ruth, an old friend from college. She wants Gene to come over, which he does, like he does every time Ruth calls, leaving his seriously-ill junkie girlfriend, Jennie, once more to fester in front of the TV. Ruth is forever hungry for Gene to make love to her, not for his affection but simply to feel something… it’s been such a long time since she’s felt anything at all. When I first read this I wasn’t overly impressed. I generally like SRT’s work – even when he goes full-weird – but something about this didn’t click. I can only imagine I was tired or not quite paying attention, because the story was noticeably better upon a second read.)

Also collected in Newman’s “The Original Dr Shade and Other Stories”

Twitch Technicolor – Kim Newman (3/5 – Michaelis Monte is an artist who makes a living remixing old movies for his clients, not only colourising them but outright altering entire scenes, updating them with gore enough for modern audiences, even editing in actors who were never in the film to begin with. The wonders of future-modern technology! Monte has been losing staff (and rivals) hand over fist, often in gruesome ways ironic to the movie they were working on. He hasn’t given much thought to why this would be. Perhaps he should. As will often be noted during his appearances in the Best New Horror series, Newman has an oceans-deep knowledge of everything cinema, which is rivalled perhaps only by his enthusiasm for the medium. It’s not for nothing that he co-edits the Necrology section in each book with Jones. But sometimes this can be his undoing, and this, for me, was one of those times. Perhaps the story read better back in 1989 than it does today.)

Also collected in Frost’s “Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories”

Lizaveta – Gregory Frost (3/5 – In the searing heat and amid the brutal pogroms of early-twentieth-century Russia, Lizaveta Ostrov tells a soldier a disturbing tale of her life before becoming a whore. Lizaveta had once been a schoolteacher, and had taken up a post in a small village near the Kazakh border. Her predecessor had done a poor job of educating the children of the village, and had mysteriously left without a word. Given the baleful presence of one particular child in her class, perhaps Lizaveta should have done the same. The build-up of this story is really good, and rather reminded me of one of the stories-within-a-story found in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but Frost throws it away at the end. It’s almost as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. A shame.)

Snow Cancellations – Donald R Burleson (4/5 – Jamie listens to the radio as he watches the snow fall outside. He’s nine years old and he’s waiting to see whether school will be cancelled that morning – which obviously happens. When his mother fails to secure a sitter for him, Jamie is entrusted to look after the house while she’s at work. Jamie calls his schoolfriend, Kevin, and together they listen as the snowstorm claims one place after another. A fun read.)

Archway – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – In this unrelenting misery-fest we follow a near-destitute Bella as she loses her job and, not long after that, her marbles. She repeatedly hears laughter from all angles, sees cracks in her walls that seep pure blackness into the room, and, in pretty much every other sentence, she glimpses a menacing figure wearing a grinning white triangular mask. Not the best form to go tackling a labyrinthine social security system then. This seemed less a horror story than a rant about how shitty life was on the breadline in late-80s Britain, and the ending was nasty purely for the sake of it. Not great. Thankfully, Royle’s subsequent entries in the Best New Horror series greatly improve on this first appearance.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Strange Design of Master Rignolo – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – Messrs Nolon and Grissul meet one night at a park bench. Grissul is keen to show Nolon a most peculiar and unearthly thing he’s seen in a nearby field. Nolon, on the other hand, is more keen to take Rignolo up on a rare invitation to view the reality-bending artworks the master artist has spent so long perfecting. Little do they suspect the two may be linked. I love reading Ligotti’s work. The dreamlike quality of his writing and the impasto-thick atmosphere he builds; the offbeat characters he creates and the utterly odd situations he places them in – they all mark Ligotti as a true one-off, but this rather slight story left me wanting to like it more than I did.)

…To Feel Another’s Woe – Chet Williamson (3/5 – Adams is an actor auditioning for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. While he and his fellow New Yorker luvvies await being called, he is warned to stay clear of a fellow hopeful, Sheila Remarque. It seems while her star shines ever-brighter, her previous squeezes have all come away from their relationships with her a shadow of their former selves. This was okay, offering a decent sense of the actor scene, but this deliberately bloodless vampire story didn’t stick in my mind for long, even after a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Robert Westall Volume One: Demons and Shadows”

The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux – Robert Westall (5/5 – Geoff Ashden is an antiques dealer who also sits on the board of a local school. When the upper-crust Miss Molyneaux applies for the job of teaching the notorious class 4C, Geoff casts the deciding vote to hire her, mainly because he fancies her. Miss Molyneaux soon has class 4C wrapped around her little finger with her practical, unvarnished teaching style. When a school outing to a largely abandoned church results in some unusual graffiti, the schoolchildren are immediately blamed, but the unsettling sight of a bald-headed man loitering in the background suggests all may not be what it seems. Westall was a celebrated children’s author back in the day and it’s no surprise that the schoolchildren here get all the best lines. The Last Day… is genuinely funny, it’s scary when it needs to be, and it closes with the best line I’ve read in years. This is a superb read.)

Also collected in Lumley’s “No Sharks in the Med and Other Stories”

No Sharks In The Med – Brian Lumley (3/5 – Geoff and Gwen are newlyweds holidaying in coastal Greece. They are driven from the airport by a man called Spiros, who is less-than-shy in his affections for Gwen. As the holiday progresses, so too do Spiros’s attempts to wangle himself into Gwen’s pants. When a drunken confrontation sees Spiros go too far, he apologies and offers the newlyweds a trip out on his boat to a small secluded island a few miles from the shore. Nothing wrong with that, right? This comparatively lengthy tale could have made a half-decent mid-80’s Tales of the Unexpected, but I struggle to call it horror.)

 

Also collected in Lewis’s “The Last Balcony”

Mort au Monde – D. F. Lewis (2/5 – David wakes in a state of confusion to find the door to his room open and a sense of searing red eyes watching him. His beloved Marianne sleeps a few occupied rooms further down the hall, and when David checks in on her, her red eyes and a disturbing grunt from elsewhere in the room send him scurrying back to bed. Perhaps the intervening rooms are no longer as quite occupied as he first believed. Lewis was a highly prolific writer at the time, mainly writing hundreds (and hundreds) of moody ambiguous shorts like this. Though this was well-written, I can’t count myself a fan. I have to be in the right frame of mind for things like this, and that doesn’t come around very often.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

Blanca – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – A burnt-out American travel writer arrives in the titular (fictitious) region with the express intention to kick back and relax with a Maigret novel or two. This is a region with a heavy police presence, mostly plain-clothed, but he’s comfortable with that. He makes the acquaintance of a local man, Basma, a Lebanese immigrant, who shows him around town. That night our man experiences a vivid dream in which he looks out from his hotel room and witnesses an indiscriminate round-up of terrified citizens by soldiers on horseback. The next night he witnesses the same scene, only fully awake. Is he experiencing a series of timeslips, or is something more sinister going on? This was another story that left me a little flat the first time around but improved on a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Ian Watson”

The Eye of the Ayatollah – Ian Watson (3/5 – The Muslim world is in uproar. Death to the Satan-author, they cry, wherever he is hiding! Immediately following the chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah, an injured soldier, Ali, is shocked to find he carries the cleric’s eyeball in his hand, optic nerve and all. Even weirder, the eye is still infused with life. It seems the eye of the Ayatollah retains a keen desire to hunt out the Satan-author. This story was published shortly after the genuinely chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini and does a good job of conveying the carnage that took place. From then on, however, the story gets a bit too silly to be taken seriously. Perhaps this read better back in 1989 amid the hullaballoo surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, but in 2019 it’s a little jarring.)

Also collected in Wagner’s “Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane”

At First Just Ghostly – Karl Edward Wagner (4/5 – Cody Lennox is a best-selling horror author who is visiting Britain partially to attend a writer’s convention, but mainly to drink himself into oblivion. Lennox soon catches up with a few fellow professionals, who ably assist him in this regard. But during this, his latest visit to Blighty, things take a very peculiar turn. Lennox finds calling cards dotted around the place, his luck is in time and again on the fruit machines, and it seems a whole other, seemingly supernatural, side of London seeks his acquaintance – not least a legendary figure calling himself Kane. This novella was nominated for a Stoker award back in the day, and it’s not hard to see why. There is a broad seam of humour running throughout this story which makes it immensely readable. Though this was a Kane story, you don’t need to be too familiar with the character to enjoy it. (I hadn’t read any of Wagner’s Kane stories before this.) The one thing that held the story back is something it genuinely cannot help. Lennox is a thinly-veiled version of Wagner himself, and shares the author’s prodigious capacity for drink. Wagner died five years after this was published, due largely to complications brought about by his alcohol consumption. He was 48 years old. It’s hard to read a character express concern about Lennox’s wellbeing in this story and not feel this was the author’s inner voice speaking. Such a shame.)

Bad News – Richard Laymon (5/5 – When Paul retrieves his morning paper and leaves it lying on the coffee table, the last thing he expects is for a disgusting creature to worm its way out from the folds and to chase him all round the house trying to eat him and his family. For as much as Laymon divides opinion among the horror community – I’m in the “like” camp, for my sins – I’m sure everyone can get behind this one. It’s funny, the horror starts almost immediately, it escalates rapidly and it never, ever lets up! As a closer to the book, this is an absolute scream.)

And that concludes this review of Best New Horror. If any of these stories whet your appetite then you should be able to find a second-hand copy of this book without too much difficultly. If you’d prefer a nice clean copy then PS Publishing offer a swanky 25th Anniversary edition. Finally, if digital is your thing, then you can find Best New Horror for purchase on several popular eBook platforms.

Till the next one – TTFN!

LP

Reading Best New Horror

If, like me, you are partial to a spot of short horror fiction, then the chances are you’ll have come across Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror series.

Launched in 1990 by Robinson Publishing in the UK and Carrol & Graf in the US, and continued in recent years by PS Publishing, this long-running reprint anthology series presents an annual selection of the best short horror fiction published during the previous year.

The Best New Horror family photo. I really ought to buy some bookshelves…

Each volume opens with a detailed summary of all things horror released during the year and finishes with a necrology that honours those the genre lost. In the three-to-four-hundred pages in between, Jones showcases a broad variety of stories, written by old hands and future stars of the genre, frequently demonstrating that there’s much more to horror fiction than mere zombies and werewolves and vampires (though they do inevitably get a look-in every now and again). No one subgenre or theme is allowed to dominate, and it’s arguably this tight editorial control that has played a large part in the series’ success, particularly considering the horror genre’s poor health throughout the decades.

Some time ago I undertook to complete my collection of Best New Horror with an aim to eventually reading them all in sequence and perhaps get a sense of how the horror genre has changed over the last three decades (albeit through one editor’s eyes). Thanks to some second-hand bookdealers and the power of the internet, this proved neither too tricky nor too expensive. So long as you are willing to take a chance on quality, you shouldn’t struggle getting a copy of each volume.

If the thought of holding a book that may have once been owned by someone who habitually forgets to wash their hands after going to the toilet horrifies you, then you should be able to find eBook editions across a variety of platforms, usually priced between £2.50 and £4.00 each. If you’d prefer to hold a crisp clean copy in your hands, then PS Publishing have selected volumes of the series available in a variety of formats from around £12 each.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll review each book in sequence, offering up a brief summary and mini-review of the stories found therein. I’ll also provide links where I can to author’s collections in which you can also find the story. Over time this should build a pretty comprehensive overview of the several hundred stories published across Best New Horror for anyone who may be tempted to dip into the series.

Before we begin, here’s a brief overview of how I score things in my reviews:

1/5 – The story had nothing going for it, or it wasted my time, or it pissed me off, or all of the above. Few stories earn this score as I can usually find something in a poor story that partially redeems it;

2/5 – Overall the story was a disappointment because it was weak or too clichéd, or it was blatantly over-engineered, or – worse still – it wasted the potential of a great idea or central character;

3/5 – The story didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but nor did it leave me feeling like I’d wasted my time. On occasion this score might also indicate a story that had some great points but also some equally naff ones;

4/5 – The story left me feeling entertained or enlightened in some way or impressed by a certain aspect of it. There may have been the odd fly in the ointment here and there, but the overall quality of the story made up for it;

5/5 – I don’t often score things a 5/5, but every now and again there will be a story where the quality of the writing is extraordinary, where a real sense of place is achieved, where meticulous attention to detail has really paid off, or, generally, where I get to the end and can’t help but say “that was bloody brilliant!” When that happens, 5/5s follow.

To keep things simple, the average score across each story in a book will decide its overall score. Will there be a book that scores 5/5, I wonder?

Let’s begin with book one and find out, shall we?

LP

Review: The Silence

A live televised caving expedition in Moldova takes a disastrous turn when a team of potholers and scientists opens up a large and hereto sealed underground ecosystem, releasing from it a swarm of vicious bat-like creatures that promptly feast on their liberators. The now-unmanned cameras keep on rolling, beaming the harrowing footage to a few horror-struck Discovery Channel viewers across the world.

Two such witnesses to the carnage are Ally and her father, Huw, whose stories we then follow as the world rapidly goes to hell. Ally is an easy-going fourteen year old girl getting on with life with her mum and brother in a quiet town in south-east Wales, not letting a thing like her lack of hearing hold her back. Huw, on the other hand, is holed up in a bed and breakfast on the Cornish coast, working lonely weekdays away from home. Both can scarcely believe what they have seen, and yet both are rocked by the footage.

At first the creatures escaping from the cave aren’t deemed much of a threat. As Ally scours the internet and social media for context, she finds many commentators dismissing the footage in one way or another. Surely it’s a movie trailer, right? Right? Well, sucks to be them, then. Shouldn’t have gone down there in the first place. Why should I care? I mean, Moldova is pretty far away, isn’t it?

Then the news stories bring home the terrible truth as towns, cities and countries begin to fall. The creatures are astonishingly quick, immediately attracted to the slightest noise around them, their appetites voracious. They have no eyes, their flesh is a sickly yellow, and their teeth – oh, man, so many sharp pointy teeth. Worse still, in this new ecosystem teeming with unsuspecting walking meat, and with no predators to speak of, the creatures swarm like locusts and breed like wildfire.

Both Ally and Huw know deep down that the situation is serious, perhaps even the beginning of the end. But what can they do? Should the whole family up sticks and run? Even if they did, where would they run to? And could they outrun the coming swarm?

Maybe. Maybe not. All they know is that in order to survive they will need to be very, very quiet.

A couple of years ago I tore through Tim Lebbon’s fairly lengthy end-of-the-world novel Coldbrook and thought it was a riot. Picking up a copy of The Silence, however, I was struck by how similar the premise seemed. It was as if someone had replaced the flesh-hungry zombies of Coldbrook with flesh-hungry du Maurier-esque birds, then reset the apocalypse simulation and hit the play button. Even so, I had enjoyed Coldbrook more than enough to buy The Silence without a second thought, and, y’know what? I’m glad I set my cynicism to one side, because The Silence is excellent.

There is a lot to like here. The pacing of the book is spot-on. The vesps – little, hungry buggers that they are – overwhelm Europe at a frightening pace, and yet, at the same time, Lebbon manages to keep the horror away from Blighty’s shores for as long as possible, ratcheting up the tension brilliantly as Ally and her family struggle to cope in a land fast losing itself to panic. The writing is smooth as silk and, like Coldbrook before it, I tore through The Silence in only a few sittings, probably leaving scorch marks on the pages.

Not only is the pace expertly judged, but so are the reader’s expectations as the story develops. As bizarre as it sounds, I swear Lebbon is telepathically linked to the reader. There were a number of times I found a nagging thought developing along the lines of “surely if everything was going to hell, then such-and-such would have happened/run out/gone off by now” only for that very thing to happen within a couple of chapters.

There’s also a nice bit of symbolism threaded through The Silence, if you go in for that kind of thing – perhaps nothing too subtle if even I’d spotted it, but pleasing all the same. (I’ll keep shtum on that one, in case you’re tempted to have a read.)

But the biggest triumph of The Silence is Ally. She is one of the best-written characters I’ve read for a while, matched only perhaps in my recent reads by Jamie Morton in Stephen King’s Revival and the hapless hikers of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual. It’s quite cunning, really, in that it’s Ally’s normalness that defines her. Any prejudices taken into this book melt away within a few chapters. While we’re never left in any doubt that Ally cannot hear, it seldom seems to matter. She’s just getting on with it, signing with friends and family who know how, and lip-reading those who do not, no biggie, no dramas.

There were niggles and downsides to The Silence, but these were fairly minor. For example, Ally’s chapters within the book noticeably outshone those that focused on Huw. I don’t quite know why, but I never really connected with him. Perhaps it was his tendency to gush with love at the slightest sight, sound or whiff of whichever family member was nearest him. Then again, I am a bitter and cold-hearted sod, so bear that in mind.

I also felt there were small inconsistencies in what it would take to attract a nearby vesp. The slightest whisper could set one upon you, but in other scenes you could gather up a bag of odds and sods with the things peaceably perched almost on your shoulder. Nothing truly jarring, and perhaps easily overlooked.

One plus point, and a rare one for a Titan Books first edition, is that I found no typos in the book! Huzzah! It’s such a shame, then, to find they’ve gotten Ally’s name wrong on the cover. Hey ho, I guess you can’t have everything. (By the way, the copy-proofing offer still stands, guys.)

So, in summary, should you give The Silence a whirl? Absolutely. Read it as if you were watching a movie, and be sure to check your fingertips for burns as those pages fly by. It’s not quite a 5/5 from me, but, equally, it seems harsh giving it only 4/5. Heartily recommended.

Interzone Reader’s Poll 2014: my picks

Following a crafty break from t’internets, your least-humble servant has returned to pollute the information superhighway with his usual brand of excessive verbiage and questionable wisdom, this time focusing on the reader’s poll currently doing the Interzone rounds. “Interwhat?” you might ask. Interthis…

Click to jump to the TTA Press website

Interzone is a long-running UK magazine dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and each issue is filled with commentary, reviews and short stories from around the world that tend towards the literary end of the spectrum. A long-standing tradition of the magazine has been to invite its readers to vote for the stories it has published during the previous year. Readers can vote positively or negatively, however they see fit.

So without further blathering, here are my top 5 Interzone stories of 2014:

Marielena by Nina Allan (Interzone 254)

Another knockout story from Nina Allan, whose novella “Spin” won a BSFA award last year. (And rather good it is too. You can read my review of it here.)

Noah Wahid seeks asylum in the UK but he is finding the Border Agency painfully slow to deal with. He is a passionate man whose fire is frequently stoked by those who add nothing to society, whether they’re a jeering pack of feral youths or a filthy bag lady. Nobody he meets seems to appreciate what they have, especially when compared to the chaos and violence he has fled, and all the while his mind is tormented by glimpses of his love, his muse, his demon, Marielena. She taunts him for running away, she mocks his newfound pauper’s existence, she fuels the growing anger and frustration he feels inside.

But then Noah learns that not everyone he meets is a perfect fit for his prejudices, and discovers there are some among us who are just as alien to their situation as he.

A reliable indicator of a good story is a count of how often one checks their progress while reading it. I don’t recall doing this at all while reading Marielena, it’s that good. The writing is excellent, but then fans of Nina Allan’s work already know that. Noah Wahid is a wonderfully complex character. He is an eloquent, well-read man who has fled a regime intolerant of intellectuals, and the reader gets a real flavour of his plight. Noah’s arc (sorry) is also perfectly judged, with the reader rooting for him one moment and finding their sympathies tested the next. I found Marielena a fine counterpoint to the island mentality that pervades the UK and the current heat of Islamophobia we find rippling across media outlets the world over, and it is my standout read of Interzone’s 2014.

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James Van Pelt (Interzone 253)

A man visits his father in a care home and is reminded of happier times when he was a boy and his father was a UFO obsessive, going so far as to build a comically simple detector in his closet. His father would stand by the telescope he had built in the back yard, not looking through it but straight up into the stars. There was never any doubt in his father’s mind that UFOs existed, but now that mind is being cruelly eaten away by Alzheimer’s. When the man takes his father for his next doctor’s appointment, he makes a fateful decision to stop by the old family home.

I really liked this story. Up to a point My Father… can be read as an affective meditation on how all fantasy eventually succumbs to reality. You might read a novel, but then you’ll eventually put it down. You might meet a Martian Moon Maid at the Cinderella City mall, but eventually she will clock off her shift and go home. You might become lost to Alzheimer’s but even then something very real and final will release you from it. As the story alternates between past and present, we therefore witness real life overtaking the fantasy worlds of both the boy and his father at much the same time, and, when this happens, how soon they then drift apart.

I especially liked the ambiguous ending of this story, and how, by turns, it can be seen as a happy outcome or an equally alarming one. This is a story that somewhat belies its daft-sounding title, and one I would very much recommended you check out.

Ashes by Karl Bunker (Interzone 251)

Neil is handed a small box containing the ashes of Lucia, his former partner, and is immediately reminded of their adventures together. They would travel the war-ravaged world, seeking abandoned new-tech sites created by rapidly-advancing AIs, trying to figure out what they were building and why. The AIs responsible had all disappeared, each of them reaching a stage in their development sufficient for them to suddenly “wink out”. When Neil learns of a new-tech site in which Lucia had grown interested before falling ill, he knows he has found an appropriate location to scatter her ashes.

I’ve chosen Ashes for the sheer number of ideas fizzing beneath the story’s surface. It’s an excellent example of unobtrusive world-building. In the space of 5,300 words not only do we have Lucia’s wake and Neil’s journey to scatter her ashes, but also a history of the AIs and how they helped the human race destroy themselves, an interesting philosophical debate as the remaining AIs attempt to discuss “winking out” without doing so themselves, a believable world littered with new-tech sites and the mysteries surrounding them, and so on and so forth. It all made Ashes a really entertaining read.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer (Interzone 251)

Some way into the distant future Fari blasts asteroids for a living for the Baselle Mining Corp, a deeply-religious company that values women far less than they do men. She excels at her job, mixing it with her male colleagues with consummate ease, earning their respect if only a fraction of their wages. Indeed she is one of the best slaves… er… employees of the Corp, which poses an awkward anomaly for the new hard-line Rep in town. When the Rep takes it upon himself to push Fari’s buttons, Fari pushes back and then some.

Another from Interzone 251 (2014’s strongest issue by a distance) Fly Away Home is a straight story that engenders some complex emotions in its readers. Baselle is an amalgam of many existing cultures that routinely piss on women’s rights, but it’s this hesitancy to single out a particular culture that stops me just short of calling Fly Away Home an important work. (Of course, given the number of brainwashed lunatics we are led to believe walk in our midst, this is perhaps understandable.) Nonetheless it is a great and thought-provoking read and well worth checking out.

Wake Up, Phil by Georgina Bruce (Interzone 250)

Laura Harrison works for an interplanetary company called Serberus, a company fighting a bitter war against a rival called Callitrix. Laura is a level two employee working on the third floor. She drinks Serberwater, eats Serberus Low Cal meals and tows the Serberus line. When she is called up to the eleventh floor she is nervous. Few people return from the eleventh floor. Once there she is instructed by Doctor Thrum to lose a few pounds with the help of a diet pill called Serberitum. When she does her life is transformed. She now works for Callitrix on the thirteenth floor. Or does she? And what’s the deal with her neighbour Phil? Why is he looking after an identical copy of himself?

I don’t normally seek out stories that take the reader down the rabbit hole, but there was a playfulness I really enjoyed about Wake Up, Phil as Laura found herself flip-flopping between Serberus and Callitrix. The story also makes a pleasing and subtle dig at the march of globalisation in depicting a future where war is fought by companies, not countries. This is a fun story that’s definitely worth a read.

Honourable mentions

The following stories also tickled my sci-fi fancy, and are worth checking out. Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa (Interzone 250); Ghost Story by John Grant, Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa (both Interzone 251); The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson, A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey (both Interzone 252); The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussoff; The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson (both Interzone 253); A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell; Dark on a Darkling Earth by T. R. Napper (both Interzone 254); Must Supply Own Work Boots by Malcolm Devlin; The Calling of Night’s Ocean by Thana Niveau; Finding Waltzer Three by Tim Major; Mind the Gap by Jennifer Dornan-Fish (all Interzone 255).

Boos and hisses

I wouldn’t be so mean as to mark down any particular story. They were all clearly good enough to appeal to someone, after all, and Interzone would be a poorer magazine if it published the same kinds of story over and over again. That said, there were stories here that won’t sway me from my reading prejudices any time soon. Stream of consciousness still makes me want to chew out my eyeballs, and I have yet to read a story that has been successfully written in the second person. Maybe in 2015? Maybe.

That’s that, then

So those are my picks for the Interzone 2014 reader’s poll. If you aren’t familiar with the magazine then I hope to have given you a flavour of the kinds of stories you can expect to find inside. It’ll be interesting to see how close (if at all!) my choices match the magazine’s wider readership.

Laters taters,

LP

Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

Note: This review contains spoilers for “The Name of the Wind”.

“The Wise Man’s Fear” is the follow-up to 2007’s “The Name of the Wind”, with the third and final part of the trilogy allegedly due in 2015.

In the first book we were introduced to a man called Kvothe. His is a name known across the Four Corners of Civilisation thanks in part to his exploits over the years, and thanks also to the exaggerated and sometimes untrue legends that have been told and mistold about him (some of which Kvothe wilfully started himself). But now he’s in hiding, living life as an innkeeper with his understudy, a demon fella called Bast. When a passing scribe called the Chronicler unearths Kvothe’s true identity, he deems it high time his life story was committed to paper in his own words.

By the end of the first book, covering the first fifteen or so years of Kvothe’s life, he had developed indomitable skills in the magical art of sympathy, generally been brilliant at anything he put his mind to, was banned from the University’s library, ultimately expelled from the University (and quickly readmitted – a bit of a cheat if you’ve read the blurb to the first book), met Denna (the supposed love of his life), lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna, found Denna, lost Denna (you get the idea), and, in a flash of emotion, managed to call the name of the wind – one of the main reasons he had come to the University in the first place.

In the real world, however, something is not quite right. Kvothe seems no longer able to muster up the slightest bit of magic, and, as “The Wise Man’s Fear” progresses, it’s clear he is no longer the skilled fighter of legend either. Is he keeping himself in check, or is he all talk and no trousers? Meanwhile his understudy, Bast, has revealed himself to be a bit of a bad ‘un, threatening Chronicler (somewhat unnecessarily) to bring the old Kvothe from out himself.

Okay, so that was the first book in a very small nutshell. For the first 300 pages of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, see above as it’s essentially more of the same. (No bad thing.) After that we then hit a huge 700 page tangent which basically covers Kvothe’s Gap Yah. It’s perhaps better to be armed with this knowledge before heading into this 1000 page novel, because otherwise, once things shoot off in a different direction, you might start asking yourself whether Rothfuss is ever going to get back to the story.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy. A life story in which you know what to expect speaks of a dull life indeed. What is more definite is that the trilogy forms as much a character study of Kvothe as it does his life story. We are introduced to the man in the rather pompous “You may have heard of me” speech (see the blurb at the top of my earlier review), and then the remainder of the trilogy is spent substantiating each of those claims while at the same time fleshing out his character.

So in this book we see Kvothe turn from a boy into a man, into a killer of men, and he also does his best Anjin-san impression (a wink to any Shogun fans out there). Oh, and he finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, finds Denna, loses Denna, yada-yada-yada. Meanwhile, during the interludes in his story, we see more evidence that Kvothe may be something of an unreliable narrator, especially as he is given to making up some of his own legends.

So is “The Wise Man’s Fear” any good? Yes it is, but it’s not quite as good as “The Name of the Wind”.

Again the writing is first-rate, although a writerly tic seems to have crept in that I’m sure didn’t appear in the first book (i.e. the whole “grinned a malicious grin”, “screamed an ear-piercing scream”, “sneezed a snotty sneeze” kind of thing), but this is a minor quibble.

The attention to detail and the characterisation is, for the most part, excellent – the exception being Denna, whose repeated appearances of little consequence in the story begin to test one’s patience.

But there are some larger faults to overcome. Once Kvothe’s Gap Yah begins, the flow of the novel becomes choppy, tangential and uneven in a few places, and, while some of this is acknowledged intra-story, I’m not sure they are all deliberate plays on the erratic and elastic nature of storytelling. For example, having ingratiated himself with a very rich and powerful man, Kvothe is then suddenly tasked with leading a band of mercenaries to hunt down a bunch of bandits. Why would the man choose a kid to do that ahead of, oh, I don’t know, virtually anybody under his command?

The story then sags when Kvothe essentially drops everything to get his end away with Felurian, a powerful faerie famed for bonking men to death. The subsequent chunk of story, in which Kvothe struggles to learn the language and the fighting skills of the Adem, also grinds on by. While I can understand why those sections were there, I swear I could hear the story groan under the sheer weight of Too Many Names. If it wasn’t a shopping list of Kama-Sutra-esque acts of nookie, such as the fluttering hand, the harrowed hare, or the chuckling chaffinch (okay, maybe not that last one) it was a litany of fighting styles lifted from some beat-em up’s list of special moves. Some fight scenes therefore became comically abstruse and rather dry, and, as a result, very nearly broke the spell weaved over me by the first book.

Once free of this saggy midsection the story picks up strongly and for me to blather any more about it would spoil the fun.

In short, it’s only a 4/5 from me, but, despite it’s faults, “The Wise Man’s Fear” is still a fair distance ahead of the pack and, for most of those 1000 pages, it is a solid, enjoyable read. I can’t wait to tuck into the final book.

Review – The Name of the Wind

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

For a while I wondered what all the fuss was about Patrick Rothfuss. I’d picked up a copy of “The Name of the Wind”, read the above blurb and thought, “Meh. It’s a fantasy novel about a braggart.” I then picked up a copy of “The Wise Man’s Fear”, read the blurb and thought, “Again, meh. More of the same.” The covers: “Meh. A shadowy cloaked figure. Well, shit, I’ve never seen that on a fantasy novel before.”

And yet there was something. Since its publication seven years ago the paperback of “The Name of the Wind” has undergone over twenty printings in the UK alone. The thing has been a solid seller. I also saw just what he meant to those who had read his work. (Boneman, if you’re reading this, you won me over!) At a recent convention Rothfuss was one of the most laid-back and approachable people there. So I picked up the novels again. I began to wonder how a 700 page novel could span only a single day (“The Name of the Wind” is subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One”). Heck, the follow-up 1000-pager spans the whole of day two…

Long story short: dammit, I became interested, and so it wasn’t long before I bought them both.

If the above blurb left you somewhat in the dark (as it did me), let me say what you’re looking at in this novel (and its sequels) is a man’s life story told in his own unhurried words. The first day’s storytelling forms the bulk of “The Name of the Wind”, the second “The Wise Man’s Fear” and so on. As Kvothe tells his story, so we see the making of the man and the legends that have grown around him. Once you know that, the above meh-worthy blurb starts to make sense.

So is it any good? Good lord, yes, and the key to its success, for me, is the word “unhurried”. It’s a crying shame when you read a decent-sounding story and see it slavishly adhere to some bullshit action-action-action axiom, as if the author is thinking to themselves: “If I don’t blow some shit up or kill someone off soon my publisher’s marketing department says the average reading demographic will switch off and… and… and…”

Thankfully there’s no such nonsense here. Thanks to the narrative device of Kvothe telling his life story, combined with Rothfuss’ determination not to rush things, “The Name of the Wind” has a real kick-off-your-shoes-and-gather-round-the-fire storytelling style, and once you find yourself lost in its world, you won’t want to leave.

In this first novel we find Kvothe living under an assumed name, seemingly content to live his days as an innkeeper while secretly tutoring his student, a demon called Bast. To many he was Kvothe the bloodless. He was Kvothe the Kingkiller. His story is told and mistold across the land, and now, for some reason, he is in hiding.

When a passing scribe unearths Kvothe’s true identity he convinces the man to tell his story, and so we begin.

“The Name of the Wind” covers Kvothe’s first fifteen years. As the son of troupers, the child Kvothe is an astonishingly quick learner, helped in no small part to his exceptional memory. (Hence the lengthy, vivid account of his life story, I guess!) When the troupe takes in an arcanist, Kvothe’s mind is lit up by the old man’s knowledge and the workings of a type of magic called sympathy. By the time the old man leaves the troupe, Kvothe’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and so he sets his heart on studying at the University and soaking up its vast library of books.

But a great tragedy befalls the troupe at the hands of a legendary monster called the Chandrian and Kvothe is consequently forced to eke out a living begging and stealing in a large town called Tarbean. Broken, alone, and filled with a desire for revenge, Kvothe the boy is forced to rebuild himself anew.

As this is someone’s life story, “The Name of the Wind” is told in a fairly linear fashion. To further describe the story would therefore spoil the fun. Needless to say you won’t be disappointed if you decide to amble through its 700 pages.

And amble you should. Rothfuss takes his time when it comes to writing, and so it would be a crying shame to blast through the story in one sitting. No, this is a story in which to enjoy a good, long wallow. Soak up the brilliantly-drawn characters and the bustling ambience of each scene. Admire the incredible imagination at work, the attention to detail and the wonderful prose. (The first page is so beautifully written it quite rightly bookends each novel.) In short, read it in the same spirit it was written and enjoy.

This is easily a 5/5 from me, and sets a very high bar for any future fantasy I read. Heartily recommended.

Review – The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes is the first book in a trilogy from the popular and prolific penmonkey Chuck Wendig, with the second book, The Hellsblood Bride, due at the start of 2015.

In it we are introduced to Mikey “Mookie” Pearl, a soldier for The Organisation – a powerful crime syndicate that keeps New York’s assorted gangs in check, and which also happens to be the only thing standing between New York and the hellish underworld beneath. Mookie is a big man, which comes in handy when smashing goblin heads together. How big? Well, if you were to gaffer-tape Arnie, Stallone, Van Damme and Lundgren together into a single hulking, sinewy mass of muscle, then you’d be in the right ballpark. So, yeah, Mookie’s a big fella, and he’s about to hit upon a series of big problems.

His teenage daughter, Nora, forever pissed off with her Dad, is making waves in the criminal underworld in the guise of her alter ego, Persephone, and she is determined to either bring Mookie to heel or to bring him down. Things take a turn for the worse when The Boss of The Organisation reveals he is dying, a revelation that, if made public, would invite a power play that would destabilise the uneasy treaty between New York’s assorted gangs. And then there are the growing attacks from assorted horrible creatures from below, from goblins only too happy to lay eggs in your warm bits to wraith-like phantoms that stab thoughts and memories from their victims.

Then things go all to hell when The Boss’s heir apparent meets a particularly gruesome end, seemingly at the hands of Persephone…

For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wendig and his writing, let me try to describe it. Imagine a barbecue upon which there sizzle a tasty array of quarter-pounders, sausages, a couple of corn cobs and one of those big mushrooms. Then imagine someone comes along and slaps a whopping forty-eight ounce steak on the grill, dwarfing everything else on it, and marinaded in the most insanely hot chilli sauce. Once cooked they then drench it with even hotter chilli sauce and serve it up with a side order of another forty-eight ounce steak.

That, folks, is Chuck Wendig. We’re talking big. We’re talking strong flavours. And while The Blue Blazes is about as subtle as a pyroclastic flow through a primary school, it is nonetheless ridiculously entertaining. It’s like reading a long-lost Paul Verhoeven film created somewhere between Robocop and Total Recall. Bold is the word here, from the characterisation to the dialog and set pieces, and such unashamed comic book styling forms a large part of the book’s charm.

But there’s more. The jokes hit home when they need to. The action is riotous and blood-thirsty. The horror is icky and uncomfortable when it needs to be. Wendig’s New York and the sprawling underworld beneath it are well-realised and strangely believable.

The structure of the book is spot-on too, with each short chapter prefaced with an excerpt from a pioneer’s journal to help the reader keep up and to also flesh out the immediate story ahead. It all helps make this a mighty smooth read and the pages fly by so quickly you risk friction burns on your fingertips.

And yet for me it is not a five star book. Why? Well, there are a handful of reasons.

First and foremost there are some fairly big plot holes to pass, perhaps requiring Burnsy’s All-American quad bike and a helluva run-up. It may be that I missed a page reading so fast, but I think these niggles hold true. (A cynic may suggest the speed of the book helps distract the reader from seeing the holes – I wouldn’t be quite so snide.)

First: Nora, as Persephone, giving the criminal fraternity what-for – I can get behind that. What I struggle to believe, however, is that nobody in New York’s underworld knows Nora is Mookie’s daughter. Mookie is a high-ranking operative in The Organisation. I don’t care how careful he has been, it would be highly improbable for him to hide his family from his “other” family.

Second: the story seems to break its own rules. The Blue Blazes is a drug-like mineral rubbed onto the temples to enhance a user’s strength, stamina and perception, like some kind of computer game power-up. When “Blazing” a human’s third eye is also opened to view the world anew and to see some people for what they really are: children of the underworld, for example, or maybe one of the maligned half-and-halfs. Think John Nada putting on the shades in “They Live”. But this additional property of Blazing, not to mention its addictive qualities, seems to be largely forgotten around halfway through the story. Humans just get to see those gruesome buggers whether they’re Blazing or not, and the Blue no longer seems to have any adverse after-effects.

Finally, and this isn’t really a plot hole, there’s Nora herself. Frankly someone should have thrown her down a well and filled it in with concrete afterwards. While her existence and actions were integral to the plot, her “annoying teen with Daddy issues” act was a bold flavour too far, and the conflicting insights into her mind felt at times like she was panel-beaten to fit into the story.

While I found these niggles irksome, they didn’t really derail me from the story. If you are willing to let these kind of gremlins whizz on by at a hundred miles per hour and to go along for the ride I would heartily recommend The Blue Blazes. It’s enormous fun and I look forward to book two.

4/5