Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Noctuary by Greg Chapman

After the publication of his first novella Torment in 2009, Australian author Greg Chapman shifts gears in a largely new direction and creates, via The Noctuary, a dark and wandering homage to the tales of old that have inspired him on his journey to publication. Dedicated to both E.A Poe and Clive Barker respectively, a reader will find snapshots of both those muses layered throughout the writing style but interspersed with a brand new voice that is slowly gaining a louder momentum and pitch with each new story to come along.

Simon Ryan is a strung out writer looking to escape the mundane world of writing cheesy biographies for pittance. He dreams of finding an audience for his darker work that would validate his talent as a scribe for fiction. A human audience. What he soon discovers is that there is another audience of a different being entirely … one that lives just beyond the curtain of night and waits patiently for the right voice to come along. His name is Meknok, and he resides in Hell.

A demon muse that appears to would-be scribes in physical form, the creature offers Simon a chance to not only pen tales of horror, but to rewrite history itself for the entertainment of Hell’s legions. Soon Simon is battling a force of wills that will not only see him travel back in time to right childhoods wrongs – but he will walk the halls of purgatory itself and come to understand that those who reside there are even more devious in true form than the most sophisticated imaginings of our greatest horror writers.

Like his previous debut, The Noctuary is a short excursion – but it will certainly appeal to all the fledgling dark fiction writers out there. Whether it’s S. King composing about the creative processes or someone like Greg Chapman, there is something oddly comforting about taking a journey that encapsulates the inventive pain some of us know all too well. Simon Ryan is the everyman in every writer – and a character that might resemble the author’s psyche enough that at times The Noctuary leans more toward metafiction. Here, Greg has created the infant seeds of a new mythology – and one that is rich enough for an encore performance.

There are a number of up and coming writers in the Australian scene that deserve serious attention, and Greg Chapman is at the top of my list to break through sooner rather than later. His stories are compulsory mainstream – yet have just enough unorthodox slippage in the narration to appeal to an alternative audience. Subtly taking off my professional voice here I will state that I know Greg Chapman somewhat - and he is a man that cares about his audience and work. A more authentic writer is hard to come by. .

The Noctuary is available now in both print and digital formats from Damnation Books.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Talented author and artist Greg Chapman was commissioned to do a cover of my forthcoming novella SLANDER HALL. I adore it - this embodies a vintage feel and above all encapsulates the verisimilitude.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Feather By David Rix

Feather is an intricate latticework of nine separate novellas introducing the reader to a very original form of storytelling. Set against the backdrop of ocean and sea, David Rix introduces us to his dark and often complicated muse: Feather the wandering girl – an orphaned eccentric who embodies the wandering spirit. Someone who flits into people’s lives, touches them with her magic, and ultimately flits away again … often leaving battered souls in her wake. 

With the opening novella, Yellow Eyes, David gives us perfect overture for this atypical protagonist: the story of a childhood spent living on the outskirts of a haunted wasteland - the only company that of a domineering Father – one who has escaped the modern world and deprived her of a normal life in the process.  After escaping this bleak environment she runs back into the only world that knows her: sand and sea. It’s here that she meets Jimmy Ward and the chorus is taken up The Angels … a small fable bringing love into the equation. (The prose here is often littered with bullet-pointed snippets of signs and revelations that give more insight into both characters – an unusual form of pace).

Touch Wood sees the character of Feather shifting into the lives of a modern world – always told from another central character viewpoint, it’s a small opera of love told mainly in a bar. Although it features a highly unlikable protagonist, it’s blended with the spiritual and philosophical – an amusing cast that prattle on about the study of particle physics and their relation to making up the world of being human. 

A central and larger novella, The Magpies introduces us to another character on Feather’s peripheral awareness … one that finds isolation in the Southern European Mountains – the locale where she hopes to find a musical muse again. After discovering a dead Magpie on the front stoop, it sends off a whole chain reaction of feathered ghosts and macabre scenery, ushering her into a confrontation with the muse. Again Feather is on the outskirts … this time with a healthy package to bring it all into place.

In Book Of Tides Feather again returns to the sea and an unlikely male companion - a ghost writer who sees every tale in the next tide. With Feather’s arrival it brings in a story of death – one that forces her to ultimately leave again and with a dawning knowledge that stories themselves are the enemy.

Another long novella, To call the Sea opens the curtain to Feather attending College. Another rag-tag cast is assembled with a hundred different artistic outlooks – each one like a moon to Feather’s Jupiter. Suddenly normal college life bursts into an alternate dimension … one that seems like a portal into that strange sea-world Feather inhabits. I’ll admit to being confused by this climax – you never know whether to feel palpably perplexed or just enchanted. As a collective whole the tales seem like an epic vehicle for the author’s prose.

It’s the final stories, however, that are the crowing jewels and where David’s talent as a writer is on full display. Displaying a less cerebral style but still showcasing a sharp sting, this is dark and urban gothic at it best as we follow Tallis through the streets of LjubLjana. A tale of bleak and functional spaces -  and one that might remind a reader of  Gary McMahon or even the early stylizing of Clive Barker traversing the streets of Liverpool.

Overall, this is like one of the more magical books one might read in high-school, but bristling at the intersection of Horror and Slipstream. A strange metaphor for the authors character itself – and at turns mythic and seductive.

Feather is available from Eibonvale Press.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Ghosts Can Bleed By Tracie McBride

There are many writers in the Australian echelon that I am familiar enough to know by name but not by craft. Tracie McBride (originally from New Zealand), has spent the last few years cutting an impressive swath into the community with a staple brand of schizophrenic dark fiction tales. Ghosts Can Bleed is the weighty culmination of a hybrid of stories spanning years, with all the pieces here intertwined with short macabre poetry.

One of the things I noticed straight away: Tracie does not follow an immediate set of rules, and there are seldom any formulaic trappings. Here we find tropes like werewolves, zombies, and hatchet wielding maniacs completely off the menu – only to be replaced with a cross-breed of fiction heavily decorated with mythic societies and unique alien landscapes.

On Tracie’s Goodreads page, a reader can find a solid synopsis of each individual story presented here, but each tale is woven like a symphony of traveling music. Highlights include Trading up, a kind of reverse-coin story of uncommon-possession - one that can take on departing life-forms … no matter the species. Dreamcatcher is rooted in the ‘now’ of suburbia with a domestic setting, but inter-spliced with noxious nightmares and how bad dreams can be parceled out. Rush Hour is a tour-de-force of Hell itself as Tracie explores the torment of commuting. Marked has all the delicious trimmings of B-Grade Horror with monsters who like to posses tiny-toddlers and then do away with their parents. But the pinnacle here was the title story itself. Ghosts Can Bleed – although a simple account of a protagonist who wanders through limbo – it is at its heart a bleeding metaphor: that in our own everyday lives and rituals we all feel the pull of being invisible.

With a light and breezy prose, this is Tracie McBride saying hello to the world. Stephen King likes to think of stories as fossils in the ground, and this is a collection that has all the earmarks of a writer just beginning to excavate an entire metropolis bursting at the seams with invention.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Arena Of The Wolf By Jim Gavin

Now becoming somewhat accustomed with the type of books Dark Regions Press likes to unleash, I had only a vague idea of what to expect when Arena of the Wolf landed on my desk. After over a decade heavily immersed in the landscape of Australia’s dark fiction fabulists, many new writers from across the pond have now come into the forefront of my scope. Some of these have the bibliographies of seasoned veterans … others are introducing us into a whole new world of mayhem. Jim Gavin falls into the latter category. With Arena of the Wolf he takes a well worn creature mythos and tries to breathe new life into it with something innovative and fun.   

An over the road ex-trucker, Jerry wakes up one day to find himself cursed: not only is he now a bona-fide werewolf, he is also forced to participate in a corrupt rodeo fixture where werewolves are the main attraction. Reveling in a blood sport for the entertainment of thousands, he slowly learns to adapt to the climate of being an unwitting celebrity and killer. For the bosses do provide the odd perks – and as long as there is enough beer and whiskey to placate a werewolves dreams of freedom, then perhaps the life of bestial show-pony isn’t such a bad life after all …

Beginning with first person narration, Jim Gavin takes the reader through a very confusing and oddball story. Here he displays a different kind of writing – a kind of stream-of consciousness twang that takes some getting used to. I will admit that for the most part the prose did not feel comfortable. First and foremost I want to be swept away, but the first part of Jerry’s adventures had me shifting uncomfortably. Although trying to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story (this is, after all, supernatural fiction) – the oftentimes crude handling of the style made me acutely aware at all times that I was merely reading a book.

Things pick up in the second half as Jim switches to omniscient narrator and twists and turns abound. After barely escaping from his circus prison, our werewolf goes on a hallucinogenic journey that transcends into a revenge mission. This is probably where the strengths of the novella lay … in Jim’s ability to pierce the werewolves curse with flight-of-fancy humor and a gargantuan body count to rival any in horror fiction. The gore element is right on the money, as is the author’s ability to have us sympathizing (and rooting), for our wounded protagonist.

There is definitely an audience for this book, but it falls into a category that is hard to define. A novella should not feel like a chore, and yet there were definitely times Arena of the Wolf felt like a clinical assignment. Overall, however, these are personal predilections inherent to this reviewer. Jim Gavin is only just beginning to carve a niche for himself, and there is no doubt that he will eventually find a dedicated readership.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Bloody War by Terry Grimwood.

Warfare. After an entire history steeped in it, as we have made our way from one apocalyptic transition to the next, the reasons behind this mind-numbing dance of death are as mysterious now as they were on the first battlefields of history. What is it, exactly, that drives us to kill our own kind on such an epic playground? Basic human nature? Resources? The invention of money? It’s a question that we’re still asking to this very day, and with Bloody War, Terry Grimwood tries to answer this himself via a powerful and giddy thriller where modern England is the theatre for a new kind of bloodshed.   

The carnage comes to Pete Allman guillotine fashion: one morning he wakes up to find that more than eighteen months have passed in the blink of an eye. War has managed to penetrate his reasonably cozy existence as a reformed Bikie now working a desk job with a loving wife and three growing children. Things are the same but utterly different - life has now been reduced to a past only read about in history books and viewed on documentaries: food is rationed, propaganda is pertinent, and the sky is perpetually darkened by the soot and stain of bombs. In order to blend in, Pete must keep up the charade – his ignorance about the enemy (about everything significant to this new reality), will see his undoing if he attracts the wrong kind of attention. But it could also be his savior - the one thing that will keep him alive while buildings, landmarks, and even the people he loves burn at all hours of the day and night.

This is a decisive and quick novel, the first person narration easy to digest if somewhat insipid in the early parts of the book. Things pick up in the second half as surprising advents force Pete right into the heart of the battle. It is here that Terry’s prose shows the promise we see flashes of early on: a horror writer coming into his own using the canvas of war to showcase blood, tears, and nightmare imagery. Just when we think we know the territory, the author pulls the mat from under us with startling new developments that see no character safe from the bombs raining down. Pete Allman has an everyman quality we can identify with – we root for him as mysteries surrounding the war peel back to see the light of day.

Is this a political novel? It is if you have been following current world advents and have numerous questions surrounding the validity of those advents. In this respect the book resonates on an emotional level that almost induces anger. Who are we really fighting in any war? Who are the real leaders? The lines are not black and white anymore, if they ever were, and Pete’s personal journey is like a reflection for humanity as a whole. Although the majority march blindly to the war drums in any crusade, there is hope, for there will always be those who step out of the throng and entice others to follow. With a healthy smattering of George Orwell’s 1984 merged with the cat and mouse chase of celluloid excursions like Blade Runner and Minority Report, Terry Grimwood brings modern warfare all bloody and shrieking right into the dark heart of Western Society.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

Solaris Books, 2011

Exactly why Gary McMahon’s profile has managed to avoid my radar until now remains a small mystery, but I imagine the reason is overly simple: his persistent talent has now come more sharply into focus among the mainstream. He has a rich and solid publication history in the small press - and it was only a matter of time before his longer works gained a more mass-market niche. Whatever the reason, I am glad this initiation has taken place. With The Concrete Grove, Gary McMahon has placed himself at the forefront of innovative dark fiction. Not just for this reviewer personally, but to the greater collective tribe as a whole.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage that resulted in her husband’s suicide, Lana and her fourteen year old daughter Hailey have moved into a large housing estate in a decrepit and crime-addled part of England. Here, poverty reigns king. And so do human beings like Monty Bright who take advantage of the projects most vulnerable, ruling residents with an iron-clad fist as though the outside world simply does not exist. Drab and soulless, The Concrete Grove is like a physical representation of modern man: a structure that reflects our ultimate failings. When Hailey is rescued by local jogger Tom after a small accident, his introduction into her small family might just be the catalyst needed for hope to return.

But Tom has problems of his own, and his newfound attraction to Lana will not only hamper his efforts to care for his paraplegic wife Helen – it will also be the tipping point that will see him question his own sanity: for The Grove is like a dark amplifier, taking an individuals most potent desires and deforming them. For Hailey it’s a fascination with the adjacent Needle, a towering and vacant monolith that might just be crux of their mutual foreboding - something that could spell either salvation or doom. And for Monty Bright and his lackey’s, it’s like a doorway into a darker realm … one that just needs a little push to open all the way.

One thing that needs to be stated right off the bat is the beautiful way in which Gary handles his prose. Regardless of how appealing a reader finds the plot, the syntax in The Concrete Grove is like sublime poetry or dark, elegant music – lines of verse that just screamed to be read out loud because mute they go to waste. At times the dialogue is so sparse as to be non-existent, but I’ve always favored this type of style as a whole. It’s gothic, it’s industrial, and throughout the many scenes and images neon lights stutter and flicker with the grand maul reckoning of fly-races on an ancient black and white screen.

With many reviews now floating around appraising this desolate excursion, I’ve found it somewhat hard here to accurately describe what makes this novel stand out. If you need something with a happier disposition, by all means latch onto something else. But if you’re looking for that species of horror where the line between antipathy and desire is somewhat frail, and where the borders between worlds can be just as narrow, then The Concrete Grove is place you’ll want to visit again and again.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review: Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry

Few writers over the past decade have made quite the triumphant impact on dark fiction’s shores than one Jonathan Maberry. In a relatively short space of time he has cut a gigantic swath through the zombie sub-genre, setting up quarantine to make it his official home and having something new to say each time. As a purveyor of horror fiction for most of my remembered life, I am now at pains to divulge the sad fact that Dead of Night is my first incursion into his world.

But what a world it is.

Of course, his epic profile has not escaped my attention – and he seems to be from a league of extraordinary gentleman (a clique that includes authors such as Kevin J Anderson and Scott Nicholson) who work tirelessly at every nuance of the publishing frontier. A writer’s writer … but also a fanboys dream who will take the time out of a brutal schedule to speak to the masses on social media and at programmed advents. So when the call came through that a stand-alone zombie extravaganza was in the offering, it seemed like the perfect time to put my hand up and survey the dark places Jonathan inhabits.

A retired Russian spy now working covertly as a penitentiary doctor, Dr Herman Volker has devised the ultimate vengeance on humanity’s greatest human monsters by concocting a substance that prolongs life even while the body rots. Using his position in the prison hierarchy he injects this serum into condemned serial killer Homer Gibbon with the sure knowledge that his body will see burial on prison grounds. But the body does not. Leading Homer Gibbon to awaken in a state that defies comprehension: dead, hungry, and utterly contagious …

Desmodia Fox is a loose canon. A proper small town cop in all the right places but lacking essential people skills that have seen her labeled a ‘bitch’ by anyone unlucky enough to brush past even her peripheral awareness. Only her partner J.T can see the diamond in the rough - but when the Zombie apocalypse finally breaks out in Stebbins County, Desmodia’s willful moxie will be the ultimate fighting weapon in the clash to keep everyone they know human.

Right off the bat this is a slick ride, the tone of the author effortless and full of humor. Chapters are even interspersed with the svelte voice of a radio announcer (making me think of Pontypool), as a ferocious storm bears down on the community. The action is jumped up and hot-wired, the language busting with the textured grain of an exploitation flick. A second plot-strand featuring news reporter Billy Trout (an ex-flame of Dezmodia’s), and his co-worker is where the reader will find the most interesting character portrayal with keen, witty dialogue reminiscent of those that walk among us.

But all of this would be meaningless without our main power-players: the infected. Here they stroll through the pages with every vital ingredient that makes the gut churn. It’s the reaction of our humans that make them truthful: in their genuine revulsion to the parasites we encounter a species of Zombie original in concept as the primary concoction of Dr. Volker continues to do its work. A mass metamorphosis then ensues that will bring about a different species … but it’s the original that is still the most terrifying: being trapped within the prison of undead flesh while still aware of everything that was once you and praying for a second, more secure embrace of the afterlife.

For me, there is only one pet peeve here, and it’s a quirk pertinent to dozens of books and movies in the genre: for our characters to only embrace the word ‘Zombie’ within the final stage … as if all the literature and celluloid that has come before has never existed. However, this reviewer is hardly the Zombiephile on these Australian shores, so I’m hardly in a position to judge. With Dead of Night, Jonathon Maberry gives us a stand alone Zombie novel that exceeds all previous expectations. This is how the world ends. Not with a bang … but a bite.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ghosts In A Desert World

Today marks the publication of a revised edition of Ghosts In A Desert World as an ebook. It is currently available at Smashwords and will soon be available in the Kindle store.

Description: From apartments haunted by ghosts both internal and external, and horror museums masquerading as doorways, to towns where vehicular manslaughter is a way of life, and highways are a preying ground for monsters, GHOSTS IN A DESERT WORLD is a collection of 13 macabre tales designed to chill you the core.

Interweaving dark and oftentimes socially relevant themes, with the spiritual and philosophical, GHOSTS IN A DESERT WORLD will make you think, even while leaving you afraid to turn the lights out.

"In particular I liked the author's handling of the blood work. I keep saying it and no one is listening: good horror writers have an inborn ability to limit their own prose without rubbing a reader’s nose in the visceral. Matthew Tait, on the evidence in this collection, is a good horror writer" – Scary Minds. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review: The Gaki and Other Hungry Spirits by Stephen Mark Rainey

My second title from Dark Regions Press in as many weeks, this is the kind of collection that I knew would appeal to my personal macabre predilection even before plunging into the first tale. A glossy novella, The Gaki and other Hungry Spirits is short and sweet but interspersed with stories lean on dialogue and heavy with sensory description. Here, Stephen has tasked himself with bringing to life the hungry ghosts of Japanese Buddhism. And although each story is decidedly different, there is still a pertinent theme running though the whole like slivers in a larger current.

With our first outing The Gaki, Rainey gives us the first person narration of David, a questing soul who seeks out a cabal of kindred spirits who gather by the banks of the Cooper River to keep their pious burnings alive. It is here that David encounters that wandering spirit … and the consequences of being marked by one. It’s a fitting opener, displaying intelligent writing with Lovecraftian suggestions for the modern audience.

Stories that stood out: Festival of the Jackal (Off Broadway) – this is the sort of prose that bites with subtle comedy, our protagonist making astute observations about the mire of the modern world before a chance encounter with some New York demons alters him into something more primitive and bestial (but somehow more attractive), than any 9-5 suit-wearing ass-clown. Similar to other stories here, it’s like a cross-pollination of Bret Easton Ellis meets the message of Clive Barker. Terror from the Middle Island (in collaboration with Durant Haire), takes us back to the Territory of Wyoming over a century ago and a priests homecoming to the site of a massacre that claimed the life of his grandfather. Not only does the Reverend stir up old ghosts, he encounters an ancient deity not of the cross but still worthy of devotion. Other outings like Demon Jar, Abroyel, and Free Sample all bear the marks of a mature dark fiction author with credible prose.

There are many collections today with a hit and miss ratio; disparate tales shoved together that obviously do not belong in the same package – but I found none of that contrast here. A seamless collection, the only criticism I can level at it is the often uncertain endings that might leave a few readers with a furrowed brow – as if Mark wanted to stretch them to novel length but cut them down guillotine fashion before they could mature. However, don’t let such subtle things sway you. With The Gaki and Other Hungry Spirits, Stephen Mark Rainey has given this reviewer more than enough reason to seek out his other work.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Disappeared by David B Silva

This was my fist foray into the fiction of David B Silva, an author now somewhat of a veteran in horror circles. Without hearing even a sliver of the story The Disappeared was chosen by this reviewer purely for its enigmatic illustration. If there is one thing we all know the small press does well it’s displaying aesthetic covers with imaginative paintings vastly more appealing to the dark fiction enthusiast than their large publishing equivalents. What we have on offer here is a big thriller stepped in the sinister world of unexplained medical mysteries and shadowy government corporations hell-bent on secrecy.

Ten years ago Teri Knight and her husband went through the crippling effects of losing their only son Gabriel after he ventured to the local park one day and never returned. With no eye-witnesses and no clues pertaining to his mysterious vanishing, this lack of closure or any answers at all results in their divorce and Teri is sentenced to a life of estrangement and despair. On one rain-swept evening many years later Gabe suddenly returns home in the company of an unknown woman. But this Gabe cannot be her son … for the boy at the front door hasn’t aged a day. He is eternal, frozen in time – and now Teri has to suspend her disbelief if she is to unlock the revelations at hand. Enlisting the help of an old ally (Walter) who also collaborated in the search effort for Gabriel previously, Teri begins to unravel an intricate web that sees a family physician at the centre of the nightmare – and also discovers Gabe isn’t the only child who fell victim to a conspiracy where science tackled the dark heart of mortality and tried to find a solution for one of humanity’s oldest follies: death itself.

Written during the nineties, this is the kind of formula pertinent to novels of that era. Running like an undercurrent through the prose there is a distinct Dean Koontz flavor … reminiscent of one of the many books he penned under the pseudonym Leigh Nichols. (Think The Key to Midnight or The House of Thunder). Taking off my professional voice for a moment, I will just admit that I enjoyed those novels immensely. They don’t pretend to be anything than what they are intended: maps of intent where the good guys are good and the bad ones are simply nasty. There’s an everyman quality to the method that’s pure entertainment … and the story at the heart of The Disappeared has a safe and homely feel like a good recipe.

There are small weaknesses – mainly that of the perplexing reaction of a family doctor when confronted with the presence of Gabriel for the first time – his inability to notice something different about the child and voice this concern to the mother is something that is never fully addressed. Another plot strand involving an individual that Walter is tracking doesn't quite come to fruition in just the right manner and leaves a lingering question mark. (Although I have a feeling these are small narrative puzzles that a second reading could possibly cure).

Here, David B Silva has concocted a workable thriller that harkens back to the suspense of a more culpable time in human history. My first title from Dark Regions Press – they have created a slick and worthy edition to hold in the hands. This is just the beginning, and I look forward to becoming acquainted with David’s impressive dark fiction resume in the future. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: The Ward

Psychiatric Wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been the ideal vehicle for countless films and books over the years as the perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings like Gothika, Session 9, and major studio releases like The Butterfly Effect setting a benchmark, the trick now is to try and dig something new out of the sand. Currently in vogue with directors is using the human mind like a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where layers can be stripped away and revelations granted with each subsequent piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the fray.

Oregon, 1966: After setting fire to an abandoned farmhouse, Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed to the North Bend Psychiatric Ward. She has a tenuous grasp on anything except her name … although remains confident in her unwavering sanity. At first the lack of details here are frustrating, but we keep watching because of the sheer uncertainty of it all. Slowly, Kristen is introduced to her fellow inmates: an all female clique of misfits and mavericks who give off subtle clues pertaining to Kristen’s predecessor and the ward’s history of a haunting. Throw in an ominous, unlikable nurse with a penchant for needles and a cryptic but likable Doctor and suddenly everything’s on the plate for a workable thriller.

The drawbacks? There are many - most notably the clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the plot fable is nothing more intricate than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. This is old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), but as much as we pine for that yesteryear the sad fact is the world has ultimately moved on. In this era, snaring the attention of the collective tribe and keeping it there requires a lot more than merely paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires: the musical score itself is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of films like the original The Amityville Horror. Key jump moments are prevalent and accomplished with great effect. The entire hospital is mined like a character itself, with slick cameras speeding through the corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.

After a lengthy delay of over a decade in celluloid John Carpenter returns to the genre he helped fashion and create. With a hit and miss ratio in latter years that has produced ambiguous results (milestones like In the Mouth of Madness but also fatally flawed outings like Ghosts of Mars), this is a bittersweet homecoming and one eagerly awaited by those that have traversed his career since the very beginning. If one goes into this with expectations that the man still has something groundbreaking to say - you will be sorely disappointed. But overall The Ward, for all its shortcomings, can still act as a worthy piece of Saturday-matinee entertainment.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review: Samhane by Daniel L. Russell

Originally from the United Kingdom, author Daniel I Russell moved to Australia in late 2008 to set up shop and carve his own niche in the local dark fiction community. This, his debut effort, is the accumulation of a lifetime spent studying the terrain and mapping the territories. And the resultant outcome, Samhane, is like a cross pollination of the best the genre can offer infused with Daniel’s everyman lyricism and sometimes comic aim. 

We begin our journey with Donald Patterson, middle age horror writer with a day job who aims for something loftier and dreams of the big-time. Initially, this opening was a mild turn off, for at once the protagonist’s headspace seems to be that of the authors. Many writing instructors – some more than others - will be quite vociferous putting across the message that you must distance yourself from your own work. However, it goes without saying that if every published writer heeded such counsel a huge chunk of them would not have graced us with their best. Although not transparent upon publication, it eventually became apparent that of course Jack Torrance embodied the personality of Stephen King. The same could be said of his central characters in Misery, The Dark Half, and countless others. Here, Daniel is writing about what he knows … and that’s the ineffable truth that horror lovers across the globe like to see the inner workings of a creative mind laid out bare on the page.

After purchasing a new laptop on eBay from an ominous merchant (Roger), Donald comes across something on its hard-drive that may well be a snuff film. This tainted piece of evidence plunges him into a world where the vendor suddenly realizes his error and will do anything to secure its return … including kidnapping his wife Beverley and holding her for ransom in the far-flung English town of Samhane. There follows an odyssey of torture, sex and clout whereby Donald discovers the existence of a cult who uses the streets of Samhane as a playground to attract the benedictions of a long-forgotten deity.

There are two-plot strands here, with the second revolving around a father and son team (Brian and Sam) in the lucrative business of dispatching supernatural baddies. Holing up in Samhane to work at the behest of the Mayor, they have their work cut out for them as the town is suddenly inundated with ghouls, morphing human worms and female water-wraiths. Eventually the strands collide in an epic showdown of avant B grade style horror with Lovecraftian overtones.

What I loved here, from beginning to end, was the delicious cavalcade feel. Samhane is a cauldron on the cusp of Hell, and this is a formula that has its roots firmly entrenched in the genre and never gets boring. Needful Things by Stephen King displayed a similar mechanism: the streets and people being reigned in by a mysterious entity that sits nonchalantly in the shadows merely enjoying the show. Popcorn horror, but horror of a species that reminds me of why I got into reading in the first place. There are slight drawbacks (I would have liked to see the cast expanded further and at times the third act finale feels somewhat ponderous), but as a working whole this is splatter narrative at it’s finest and a debut that could teach even veterans in the field a thing or two about entertainment value. Hopefully with works likes this, Australia will see a renaissance of cinematic horror in fiction that will enable similar works to be taken more seriously in the mainstream.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: Torment by Greg Chapman

Greg Chapman is one of those breed to have made good use of services provided to emerging Australian horror writers. After joining the local association in 2009 he was selected very quickly into the mentoring program under the auspices of author Brett McBean. (Anyone familiar with my reviews lately will know this to be quite a coup). What is apparent to blossom out of such a relationship is Greg’s obvious love and genuine fondness for the genre - the act of writing and finding an audience for his work is not something recently acquired or new. And this is a good thing. Something the publishers also saw on display.   

One thing that I feel is important to mention here: reading Torment was one of my first experiences with the device known as the Kindle. After a life time of musing on cover illustrations and dipping my nose into paper pages for that unique aroma, these quirks were no longer available to me. But this is not the place for an active discussion on the disparity between the two. Merely that I was initially apprehensive about a potentially great book by an Australian being let down by a new medium and a follow up review that would be much impoverished. Thankfully this is not the case: the device was more than adequate to the task and there was nothing about Torment I felt lacking.

Torment as a novella is a tried and true formula: after a childhood incident sees her mother perish at the hands of clergyman father Douglass during a ritual exorcism, Jessica McKinnon returns home to rural Scotland years later as an adult with husband David and son Alex in tow to exorcise some demons of her own – namely, to find out the reason her father killed himself and subsequently bequeathed the house to her. But ‘tried and true’ is a recipe that works – and we’ve seen those writers at the top (a good model would be John Saul) try it dozens of times: After being witness to an act of horrific debauchery as a child, our protagonist returns to the house on haunted hill to confront ghosts of the past. Readers will have something to identify with, and for a debut author who is genuine unknown, this is a definite hook.

There are problems associated with it, but nearly all of these run the gamut of what the plot means to this reviewer on a personal level. The age of ‘biblical baddies’ (as I’ve previously referred to them), traversing the earth and wreaking havoc now seem as irrelevant to horror fiction as they do in real life. At times the syntax can be somewhat plain (but not unexpected in a debut), and having characters exclaim dialogue instead of simply stating ‘said’ is another pet-peeve that can push a reader rudely out of their chair. But don’t let any of these things steer you away or deter you (there are no doubt more than enough avid fans of The Exorcist and tales of possession still haunting the bookstores) - and simply enjoy it for what it is: as a more than entertaining yarn from an Australian author with grand potential and many more tales to come.

Both print and digital copies can be ordered from Damnation Books. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Concrete Jungle by Brett McBean

In this, the first of a trilogy, Mother Nature has decided to recycle the earth and spade it under with a fresh Eden. Caught in the tumult are a small cabal of luckless survivors who are trapped in a Melbourne shopping centre car park late one night near closing time. Paul is a dead-beat Dad on the fringe, making a last minute pit-stop to buy a present for a birthday he almost forgot. Beth and emo daughter Candice have stocked up on movies so Candice doesn’t get bored grounded at home. Harold is a survivor of World War 2 … a man who will soon endure jungle horrors far worse than he ever had to face on the battlefield. And Bruce is just a desperate loner who sees the cataclysm as the perfect excuse for a man to return to a more primitive existence where morals and the rule of law simply do not exist.

Upon Concrete Jungle first being released I will admit my enthusiasm wasn’t high. The cover illustration from a distance seemed to suggest this was mid-range Brett or something of filler in between longer projects. But it’s a judgment that I now regret … and goes to show there is talent in this country that consistently produces quality work. Moreover, I highly doubt Brett lends his voice to anything half-heartedly or merely churns out something at the behest of an editor. Concrete Jungle might well be The Day of the Triffids told from the unique scaffold of Brett’s imagination, but it’s still a narrative with biting simplicity and more than enough lure to hook a reader.

Standing at a short and sweet 160 pages, this is a species of horror without conscience. On more than one occasion I’ve mentioned the similarities Brett has with an author like Richard Laymon - and it’s still evident here, but imbued throughout with refreshing Australian verisimilitude and references. A few errors jumped out. In one particular stanza the author describes the smell of meat cooking ‘glorious’ but goes on to say mere paragraphs later the smell of cooked rat was ‘mildly appetizing’. But viewed as a whole the writing and editing is crisp with short, choppy chapters not bogged down with weighty or numbered sections. Characterization is right on the money – you will care whether these people live or die. And in the modern horror novel, that will be something ultimately on the menu. Welcome to the jungle.

The Australian small press Tasmaniac Publications just keeps improving its product, and a reader will find the interspersed illustrations by Keith Minion and Steve Crisp more than adequate for the tale. There is a whole universe to explore with Concrete Jungle, and we are provided with two other tales set in the same wilds. Local writer and reviewer Tim Kroenert gives us an utterly funny but dark underscore with Lullaby – it’s the tale of misfit musicians and fans who just happened to be at a concert when the green hell broke loose. Also included is The Cage by Nate Kenyon – Nate takes a look at what prison life would be like for guards and prisoners alike in this post-apocalyptic forest. Another one with droll results. Thankfully with this review I can happily point out copies still remain and the sequel Neighborhood Jungle is available to pre-order. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Scary Kisses

Already garnering a lot of high praise in the community, Scary Kisses is a dark fantasy anthology that was released in early 2010. It features a huge chunk of authors from the entire Australian speculative league and the impact of its success has guaranteed a sequel of sorts with the upcoming More Scary Kisses. Beginning with the title of each tale, let’s have a look at all the stories individually:

The Anstruther Woman by Nicole R. Murphy

Set among wilds of the Australian outback, this is the story of a small community who bands together under the threat of an unknown assailant attacking livestock. Rumours abound of the elusive big-cats haunting the rough country. Ally, local wise woman and head of the Anstruther farm, works together with local legend Tynan to solve the mystery. What I liked here was the almost gothic flavour Nicole imbues into the story - although set in Australia it has a decidedly New England feel.

Fade Away by Ian Nichols   

After a sea change to an island off the mainland, Emily is haunted by something like a transparent lover. We are then greeted with revelations pertaining to a convicts past. A small ghost story with an unsettling ending of immortality.

Bread and Circuses by Felicity Grey

Probably the most notorious story to come out of Scary Kisses, Bread and Circuses is a brutal and unrelenting excursion. To be honest, after all the hype, this reader’s first reaction was: It’s only a simple Zombie tale? But simple stops after the first page. This is the narrative of Susan, a star-crossed lover living amid the hell of a bored and jaded community of cemetery survivors. It unfolds at a rapid clip with the duel themes of love and death parked behind the gates of a Zombie horde. The prose is a bit like the authors nature: wicked, unflinching and with a subtle hint of dry humour underneath. The title here is Scary Kisses … and there is a literal kiss at the end of this one seldom brought about in horror fiction.

Black Widow by Shona Husk

This wouldn’t be a Paranormal Romance compilation without a subset of vampire stories. Black Widow tells the story of an incarnate vampire who is made flesh as a prostitute in Las Vegas and begins the hunt afresh. Simple but fun.

The February Dragon by Angela Slatter and L.L Hannett

This writing duo has been behind many stories in the past – and it’s easy to see why the collaboration continues. Set entirely in the world of Sepphoris, you have to hand it to the writers for condensing and world-building in such a short space. In this realm, Casco is a startling hybrid of human and Dragon living in the confines of a feudal House. Her talents as an artist see her as prize possession, and soon an unwanted marriage ensues. Primarily a love fable, this is the story of a young woman willing to cross the borders of the human to be with the creature she truly desires.

Growing Silence by Matt Tighe 

One that left a confusing imprint. On the second read-through I ascertained the story is perhaps the poetry of a serial killer … one whose local environs and their silence are like a metaphor for the white noise of his mind.

The Hidden One by Astrid Cooper

It’s always a good thing when a tale resonates on a personal level. Tez is a midnight cleaner in museum of Egyptian artifacts in Adelaide. (I have actually worked in a Museum – and, of course, I reside in Adelaide). With a fellow employee acting as a kind of guide and mentor, aspiring writer Tez sees her world flip upside down when the wizard Ammon awakes from his slumber. Regrettably it slides somewhat into a furor of Hollywood clich├ęs and weak special effects – but ultimately a small piece of entertainment and worthy of its inclusion.

A Darker Shade of Pale by David Bofinger

Much like the previous story Black Widow, this is another vampire tale – this time with an adventurous female model in the middle. Not exactly revelatory or filled with anything new, but it delivers what it intends to be.

The Valley by Martin Livings

Another confusing one that is oftentimes bleak; I will admit to not knowing exactly what was transpiring here. It’s a kind of sojourn featuring a man caught in a netherworld on the cusp of Heaven and Earth. He seeks redemption. The narrative seems to be a modern take on an old fable, but one I cannot put my finger on. I imagine it has a different meaning for different readers.

Cursebreaker: The Welsh Widow and the Wandering Wooer by Kyla Ward

With a word count running into novella territory, readers will be split in two minds with this one. On one hand it is a completely original gothic parable of a Doctor and a Cursebreaker sent to the estate of a blighted family whose wedding celebrations take a macabre turn. At times whimsical and hair-raising; at other times simply impenetrable and hard to nail down, a reader can’t help but be swept away by it all. One thing I do know: author Kyla Ward has lived previous lives.

Heat by Donna Maree Hanson

Probably my least favourite of the collection, Heat is mainly for the romantics out there … but it also has a smattering of high-toned sex. Once again we deal with the paranormal of Vampires.

Phaedra by Bruce Golden

After the often intense previous stories, Phaedra was the perfect balm to take a break from it all. Simply a story of a voluptuous cartoon that breaks out of her realm and into the real world of our protagonist to fulfill his sexual desires. Light on substance but very easy on the eyes.

Date with a Vampire by Annette Backshawl

One of the better vampire stories here, Annette has constructed a homely tale filled with pop culture and internet references that almost makes it meta vampire fiction. An entertaining girl meets vampire allegory.

Pride and Tentacles by D.C White

Symmetry is served with this perfect little ditty as the creatures from Lovecraft’s mythos get together as a bookclub to talk about some of the more popular romantic genre fiction. With this, we go out with a grin.

Long-time readers of HorrorScope might be somewhat surprised to know I found a lot to like here in this gargantuan sub-genre that is often maligned. But sometimes we must take a step back out of comfort zones and peruse what lies on the other side of the fence. One thing that probably doesn’t get mentioned enough in the reading experience is the typesetting and font. Scary Kisses is my first Ticonderoga publication and it has both these boxes ticked to make for a dark but nimble read.  

Both Scary Kisses and More Scary Kisses can be ordered from Ticonderogo Publications.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: An Eclectic Slice of Life

(Note: Mirrored at HorrorScope). 

With the review that appears just below this one, Gillian Pollack has kindly illustrated for the reader where the genesis for this collection sprang from. From 2007 onwards editor Craig Bezant has sorted through his kaleidoscopic tree of stories to bring us the best Eclecticism E-Zine has to offer in a broad and wide ranging print edition - the first from his newly hatched small press Dark Prints Press.  Featuring a cover illustration of finely stacked antique books, this nostalgic approach reflects the new metamorphosis from computer to paper. A kind of reverse de-evolution that will please an all-new readership of Craig’s dark little e-zine.

The collection is composed of three parts: Dark Little Oddities, Fantastical Twists, and Obligatory Dramas.       

We kick off with Iron Efficient by Simon James - a worthy opener and one of the standouts in the collection. At its centre a small domestic revenge tale, the author uses a familiar setting and objects to highlight the need for change in an abused woman’s life: one of those guilty pleasures where the antagonist gets his just desserts. Simon also has another highlight here with Pieces – an absolutely confusing mishmash of story but it can be read for the highbrow prose alone. In what is one of the only forays into science fiction territory author Joseph D’Lacy contributes Drone … a beautifully rendered post-apocalyptic landscape of primitive human transmutation but in a magical and revolutionary setting.

Fantastical Twists present some of the first stories I’ve read by South Australian Jason Fischer. Both Houndkin and The Ward of Hours take on mythological creatures set against eccentric backdrops – one in a hospital ward that lies at the nexus of time. The prose is mature and effortless … and it’s easy to see the argument for his success. The segment also presents one of the more bizarre but attention-grabbing stories: Prodigal Son by Mark McAuliffe. This is the tale of Tony Andrews, who returns home to his mother after a life of crime seeking forgiveness and shelter. But what she has in store for him is something rarely encountered in fiction.

I was somewhat apprehensive about approaching the last section – Obligatory Dramas - and for the most part my concern was well-founded. Having not read many dramas (short fiction or otherwise), at all over the past few years I didn’t see the need for any to be included in an anthology that was primarily speculative. Or why, exactly, they were obligatory. That’s not to say all the stories were poor. But I kept waiting for a punch-line that simply didn’t happen. For example, the story Audrey’s Fall could merely be described thus: A woman who might have a brain tumor goes to the hospital. And that’s it – there is no other redeeming merit to it. The Shopkeeper by Eril Riley is a painful slog about a Ukraine immigrant living in Melbourne. His dog perishes and he buries it. As an honest reader giving my reaction, I would have to describe some of these as ‘A bunch of stuff that happens’ with no literary payoff. That said, there were some gems nestled amongst it – namely Lost in the City by Julia Bannigan and The Workman’s Pandora’s Box by Myra King.  

In the aftermath of putting this debut book down I can candidly state An Eclectic Slice of Life as a whole is a worthy publication. Perhaps not as dark as some of you may expect but I have the feeling visceral horror is not what our editor is aiming for. With this and the e-zine (of which small amounts of poetry are included), the stories aim to shift the reader into another foggy realm … perhaps not a terrifying one, but certainly lopsided and jilted at the edges. This is only the beginning for Dark Prints Press, and it will be interesting to see where Craig takes us with his forthcoming publications Surviving the Dead (March 2012), and The One That Got Away (February 2012).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: The Devil's of D-Day

This is the kind of review that deserves the title ‘from the vault.’ Somewhat tacky, but useful in the dismantling of an older work. After previously tackling numerous new releases, I found a brief window to embark upon something smaller. Oftentimes a reader, much like a writer, might feel the need to take a step back in between longer projects. (In King’s world think The Body and Apt Pupil in between longer works like The Dead Zone and The Dark Half). For my own part exploring the vast catalogue of the Graham Masterson factory has always been something on the agenda.

Over thirty years after the infamous D-Day landings, Dan McCook returns to Normandy as nothing more than a cartographer for a book about World War Two. In his travels he encounters two men who whisper of battlefield ghosts and point the way to an abandoned allied tank. Deciding a picture might be good for the book he locates the rusted hulk and bumps into a farmer’s daughter (Madeleine) who illuminates the rumors of hauntings that have affected the area … with the derelict tank a central-crux for the malign anecdotes. After consulting a local priest on the tank and its history, Dan McCook then decides it’s high time to solve the conundrum and open it up. Suddenly he is swept up into an ancient world where thirteen demons who inhabited the realm as flesh desire to walk again …

Graham’s first person narration is clear and home-spun. We have here a prolific author who was born to write (I can’t put it more simply). There’s an everyman quality to it, layers of prose injected with a rare quality that is reminiscent of James Herbert without the English nuances. At the time of publication I doubt it was meant to feel nostalgic, but traversing through Normandy under bleak skies and snowy environs with the Devil of swords, daggers, and razors as a constant companion the reader will feel just that. One of the hazards with this kind of book is the supernatural material; one might find that during this modern era the threat of Satan and Demons (biblical baddies) parading around in fiction just isn’t scary. But we remember the story was conceived at the time of The Omen and The Exorcist. Knowing this, a reader can happily suspend belief and get lost in the tale.   

At times the climax is somewhat ill-fitting; Graham describes wonderful, hellish creatures almost Lovecraftian in their finery, but then has them espouse language like uneducated humans. All that aside, the images are harrowing and graphic; the dues ex machina involving a certain character ultimately one that pays off. Highly recommended for those wanting to take a trip down horror's memory lane.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: The Haunting of James Hastings

Following up an astonishing debut is never an easy thing. Whether under the guise of music or the auspices of horror literature, proving to the masses that lightening can strike more than once can fill the creative heart with dread. It was two years ago now that Christopher Ransom delivered to us The Birthing House … a kind of wandering homage to the ghost story’s of old – but bristling with new enthusiasm and a modern take. Although riddled with some of the pitfalls of a first appearance – it still managed to be a beautiful nativity-fabled gothic that gives it a pride of place on any bookshelf.

Some authors like to wear many hats, but it was apparent that with his sophomore effort Christopher is setting up shop and carving out his own niche of the modern ghost story. After a quick perusal I knew that what we have here is more of the same - but that was fine by me. Sometimes writers (like musicians), will stick to a formula that sets them apart. It becomes a kind of territory … a backwater where the imagination can frolic.

James Hastings is a body double for the widely successful hip hop artist Ghost, an obvious literary reverence or echo to the real life Eminem. (This aspect was a mild turn-off at first, but we give the writer the benefit of the doubt and see he is more than capable of holding up a mirror to our own world in a brutal and somewhat enlightening way). After the death of his wife Stacey in a small but mysterious accident, James – like his alter ego Ghost – goes on a sabbatical to deal with his grief. Soon his neighbors come to his attention, and after purchasing a telescope, a spying game then ensues. After the death of his next-door-neighbor after a heart attack, a new resident moves in. She is young, alone, and bares a striking resemblance to Stacey. A relationship is then forged, and James goes on an odyssey of pain and learning – tempered by the haunting reality of Stacey’s ever too real presence. Not only in his house … but in the eyes of his new neighbor Annette.

As avid readers of dark and speculative fiction (I assume you all are), most of us know the correlation between music and fiction: they feed each other – both giving rise as influences so the other exists. And that’s what we have with The Haunting of James Hastings: a striking hybrid of gothic romance novel and a CD box set choc full of lyrical extras. Like his previous book, it does take the cue from novels like Rebecca and Bag of Bones, but I found at its heart a beautiful illustration of domestic married life and how emotions can be woven into the brick and mortar of houses. As a fan of first person narration only second, Christopher’s homely voice is so easy and accessible you won’t even know that it is. A decidedly male voice … but one that resonates with this reviewer.  

The Birthing House had a climax that seemed to raise more questions than answers, but you’ll find the revelations ladled on in The Haunting of James Hastings to be just as hair-raising and surprising than anything an early M. Night Shyamalan could dream up.