Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Next Big Thing

A series of questions that has been doing the rounds lately: 

What is the working title of your next book?

The working title, and the one that I imagine will stick, is called DAVEY RIBBON.

Where did the idea of the book come from?

Years ago (I think this may have been as far back as 2006), my younger brother and I decided on a brainstorming session for a collaborative effort of dark fiction. We are both cut from similar creative cloth (he a talented illustrator), with myself applying a life-long fixation with the horror genre into the Australian horror community by writing for HorrorScope. It was a session that didn't last long ... but he provided me with a few illustrations that would eventually germinate into what would become DAVEY RIBBON. Mainly, this was my ambitious attempt to pay homage to the stories I grew up with featuring small town mythos. I had already pursued the world-building path with the broader arc of a story called OLEARIA. Now it was time to scale down the canvas - to use a modern American town and its populace as a cauldron on the cusp of Hell. The trick here was sculpting a worthy antagonist - creating a fiend that was almost child-like in its sense of manipulating human beings. 

What genre does your book fall under?

I think the story is probably too subtle for HORROR. Let’s just stick with dark fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part in a movie rendition?

I wouldn’t want to give away the title character with an image... or any others for that matter. The beauty of the written word is that it creates a lens that is entirely at the discretion of the reader. If you had gone to see The Shining before actually reading the book, chances are you would see nobody else but Jack Nicholson’s face strutting around on those pages. For me, that’s utterly limiting.

That said, I could easily imagine Timothy Hutton playing Sean Hunt - and perhaps a younger Max Von Sydow playing Norman Perks. If she was at all interested I’d let Amy Lee of Evanescence play Samara Reagan.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

The story of Davey Ribbon was told in reverential whispers.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Although I’m a big advocate for self publishing, I think this one deserves to have a broader audience. So with that in mind I’ll be seeking a traditional publisher.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Although the story isn’t overly ambitious this was years in the making because I kept putting it aside for months at a time. It was only on the advice of someone very dear to me that I decided to go ahead and finish the story.

What other books would you compare this to with stories in your genre?

The initial seeds were probably planted with King’s Needful Things. But after that it has kind of morphed into more of a ghost story along the lines of the movie Darkness Falls.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

No one thing, really. Just that it was time to try and dig something big out of the sand.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

For those people who have read and enjoyed my shorter works, this is Matthew Tait shifting gears and moving up a notch. Although a lot of the story here can be classified as homage, there is also a lot of recognizable heart from my own life - something that I try to instil in everything I write. It’s the old adage of simple revenge – but it also how myths and legends are told through reverential whispers ... and how they are manipulated over time to be given a form of life itself.

And one last thing ... if it had a soundtrack it would be something composed by Christopher Young.

Passing the baton onto Troy Barnes, Paul Mannering and Brad Hodges. 


Friday, November 30, 2012

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon

Returning to the realm he previously envisioned in The Concrete Grove, English author Gary McMahon creates, via Silent Voices, the second part of a now-trilogy. Although there are off-shoots of the previous tale here, this is a different kind of beast altogether. Whereas the first brought us into the bleak atmosphere of The Grove itself like a hummingbird’s view of it, Silent Voices is more a character study of three individuals (Simon, Marty, and Brendan) who battled its demons as children and - years later and now grown into adulthood – return to the Concrete Grove for a final revelation, closure, or both.

The Good:

Steeping back into Gary’s narration is akin to a homecoming. The prose – while a little less cerebral this time around – moves around the page like dark poetry. There is also an everyman eloquence to the mood: these are hard characters who have been chiselled from austere upbringings: Simon Ridley is a successful entrepreneur, the only one to escape the Grove, but a man who’s unhinged all the same. His friend Brendan suffers the same insecurities we all reach upon seceding into adulthood: keeping up a pretence of happiness when realizing the dream machine of youth has an ‘out of order’ sign attached. And Marty has all the hallmarks of what a neglected childhood can sometimes bring forth: masochism and brutality to hide what lies beneath. When the three of them reconcile to talk about a weekend in the Needle twenty years previous they cannot recall, the resultant outcome is a commanding story of sin and salvation.   

The Drawbacks: 

The second outing of a trilogy is never an easy one; the story is usually a bridge to a final farewell that can be wobbly at the best of times. Somewhat formulaic, Gary has chosen the horror trope: best friends who battled an evil in childhood are summoned as adults to confront the monster again. For me, this is fairly well-worn, and probably peaked during the eighties. There is a lot of story here where simply nothing happens, where plot-devices are pushed aside to make way for characters to brood inwardly and stare out of windows in drab reflection. The climax, when it comes, strives for the cinematic ... but with only one small flashback scene of our protagonists in youth it can sometimes be hard to grasp the aching nostalgia and (horror movie) feel our author is trying to illicit.

Positives and drawbacks aside, this is an accomplished work of dark fiction. It may not be Gary McMahon firing on every cylinder, but even the author’s bridge work is head and shoulders above many others who work in the same arena. The foundations of story have been set; the cement of the project has dried. The only thing left to do now is take one more (final) journey back into the Concrete Grove ...  and see what lies beyond it.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Red Town Lost by John Shupeck Jr.

Necro Publications continues its Fresh Flesh experiment with a debut novel from John Shupeck Jr. Here the author has woven a tale of four very different stories containing interlocking characters and situations. Like converging train lines that ultimately intercept at the same terminal, each story has the same analogous outcome. 

We begin in nowhere, Pennsylvania - and Dan Suppers is looking for civilisation after breaking down in his car. Soon he stumbles upon the still-smoking and charred aftermath of a large fire, the remnants of an entire small town’s populace. With no survivors to tell the tale, Dan is left to piece together the mystery of Kecksgille’s final moments ... and how an entire municipality ended in a baptism of blood.


Slow out of the gate, Incipientium chronicles a young Mike Rearick and his merry band of friends as they make their way to the local Kecksgille Baptist Church and a night of revelry. But the resultant climax here is more like a reverse-coin Children of the Corn that will see Kecksgille’s adults – guided by the hand of a local priest - rise up against the children in a well-choreographed genocide.


As implied by the title, mental illness takes centre stage in this first person narration. Composed in diary form, we are slowly introduced into the ailing world of young Carl Truitt and the doctors tasked with helping him. Our narrator’s voice is sly, crass, and contains just enough adolescent humour to please any underdog.

River Road:

Chronicles the story of Zachary Bennett who takes the path less travelled in an effort to escape an impoverished existence and parents battling addiction. A mere child when he begins his journey, Zachary Bennett comes to age almost overnight after being pitted against the ‘medicine man’ of his nightmares. A final showdown in heart of Kecksgille rounds off a story rooted in subtext.

Spider Arms:

Another tale of the underdog, Spider Arms centres on Kevin Ritchie, Kecksgille’s neighbourhood teenage punching bag for Jocks everywhere. Cursed with a subtle malady that redefines lanky, Kevin decides – on one fateful day – to fight back. But not in the manner his adversaries expect. Ultimately a routine narrative of revenge.

There are a few other intervals here in Red Town Lost – some clever, others mystifying – while the syntax (at times) can be slightly awkward and comes pre-packaged with run-off sentences and juvenile metaphysics. However, as a working whole there is a quality of strangeness that grows as the story progresses. If some of the plot devices are a little too deus ex machina for some readers, I suspect more light can be shed on them in John’s illuminating and candid afterward.

Red Town Lost is available now from Necro Publications.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Gentle Hell by Autumn Christian

Another slice of stories as part of Dark Continents Tales of Darkness and Dismay series, A Gentle Hell by Autumn Christian showcases a distinctive cluster of four tales – brimming at the edge with what could be termed ‘surrealist’ fiction but devoid of absurdity. Often hard to nail down but somehow more potent for it, this is a body of work very similar to my previous review ... where the story is – at the discretion of the reader – always open to interpretation. The ultimate payoff here is keen insights from the author and elegiac prose.

An almost dystopian alternate reality is the scene for They Promised Dreamless Sleep. Here our narrator reports living in a realm where families consensually hook up to ‘machines’ and are placated in severe and disturbing ways. Shades of 1984 with a domestic twist.

In Your Demiurge is Dead we step into Neil Gaiman territory with the death of a God and the birth of another. Jehovah has washed up – dead – on the Gulf of Mexico. Heralding a new era for humanity is the Triple Goddess. Another domestic setting is instigated with a police investigation into deaths in a large family. Through quirky characters and idealistic insights, we are granted a story that is at once confounding yet absorbing. 

With the The Dog that Bit Her, Autumn delivers what is probably the most unique Werewolf tale you’ll ever encounter. It’s a story about psychological addictions and slavish trust – all given credence by a storyteller who witnesses his wife’s slow decent into what could be termed, unquestionably, a gentle hell.

It is the last tale, however, that is probably the hardest to grant revelation. In The Singing Grass, I imagine artists everywhere will be granted something within the prose to identify with as a writer tries to find her muse. Heavy on metaphor, and (in the end) gore, it somehow serves as symmetry and complements what has come before.

For many, this will be a difficult journey. The often rudimentary formula of ‘story’ has been abolished in favour of flights of fancy that are allegorical or dream like in nature. It is often claimed for horror that it draws on our primitive responses but, as in key moments of this collection, the best stories can owe their power to something closer to the modern surface.

Available now as an eBook. Soon to be available as a paperback from Dark Continents Publishing. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Valentines for the Dead by Corrine De Winter

The winner of a Bram Stoker award for poetry a few years back, Corrine De Winter is a name that has – up until now – escaped this reviewer entirely. A quick perusal of the authors past achievements and we find a lyrical writer who is held in high regard by the collective tribe. In between reading some of the more commercial fare over the course of a year, I like to seek out those elusive gems – fiction that does not fall easily into any well defined category. Valentines for the Dead - for all its intangible qualities - is an innovative collection that more than satisfies this requirement.

And make no mistake: this is indeed the territory of a poet. From the opening story Halo a reader is granted prose that shies away from the nuts and bolts of story, favouring instead a lyrical voice told primarily in first person. Although the horror can be a little hard to find at times, Corrine keeps it waiting in the wings – a small turn of phrase giving way to an unexpected twist where all that has come before can be questioned. Whether it’s a child who grows up in a house of thaumaturgy and eventually learns to fly – or a jealous sibling who dabbles in fratricide for eternal love – Corrine has a powerful command of language with just enough obscure story to perhaps warrant a second reading. If I could level a certain criticism here, it would be that each first person tale contains a similar voice – with the run-off sometimes confusing. It was difficult, at times, to ascertain where old territory ended and new characters began.

A few personal standouts would include Youth is Wasted – a modern Frankenstein riff where a child pays the ultimate price for an elderly man’s broken heart. Watercolor is delightfully malign, a domestic Village of Damned that, in due course, brings forth new life from death. But taking out the top prize here would have to be Dead Boys – an original blend of fact and fiction centred on the subject of premature death in the realm of rock n’ roll and the individuals who deal with our flesh after expiration.

A short story collection that is mythic, thought provoking (and with just the right twist of gothic) Valentines for the Dead is an accomplished fictional début from a unique talent.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Grief School

I'm not sure if I've ever posted news about the publication of this particular novelette. It’s been out for a few months now and – going by the reviews – it seems to have struck a positive chord so far. If you don’t want to purchase the eBook, it will be coming out as bonus material when Dark Continents publish SLANDER HALL in paperback very soon. Watch this space.

Any reviews for either Amazon or Goodreads are highly appreciated.

Monday, October 1, 2012

ROPE by Martin Livings

When Stephen King first published The Green Mile in serial format back in 1996, it was my first large-scale exposure to the realm of death row in a fictional setting. Not just death row, but the electric chair in particular. Although I don’t know for sure, I’m betting there are reams of genre fiction encompassing this particular milieu: everything from stark legal thrillers in the mould of John Grisham, to frightening serial killer fodder that is the unenvious playground of imaginations such as Thomas Harris and James Patterson. However it was King’s magical yet realist tale - for me, anyway - that finally pushed capital punishment screaming into a kind of collective cultural awareness. Upon the tales completion I’m sure I’m not the only individual whose curiosity was suddenly piqued by the taboo of modern execution – not only the myriad of methods involved but also the untold stories of the lives behind the curtain: the men and women charged with dispensing unfelt and clinical justice to the condemned.

Martin Livings has, no doubt, had similar thoughts.

Our tale is begun at the turn of last century, with Australia’s Fremantle prison struggling to pull itself out of a national convict past. A nameless narrator shares with us the humble beginnings of being a sanctioned serial killer: that of the hangman.  An apprentice from a young age, he is given the responsibility of fashioning his own noose, a rite of passage, that will see him embrace his calling and ultimately being defined by it.

Life itself is a rope with a noose at each end, just like mine.

A short excursion, Martin manages to cram a lot of character study into a very small space, and it’s personally how I like my paragraphs: weighty with exposition and lean on dialogue. In some ways this is partly reminiscent of The Green Mile, whereby story is ultimately foreshadowed by a fiction steeped in sin that leads to a different kind of redemption.

Martin Livings has been traversing Australia’s dark fiction scene for over two decades now, providing dependable tales with a mature rendering of prose. Although short, Rope still manages to deliver something that is unmistakably the author's.

Rope is the second offering from DARK PRINTS PRESS new line of eNovellas.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Edge by Koji Suzuki

A name now synonymous with dark fiction, Koji Suzuki rose to prominence as the original author of the Ring Cycle books, a sub-set of accomplished horror outings sparking off not only English translations, but a veritable trove of manga and movie adaptations that gave rise to a kind of renaissance in Japanese horror fiction and cinema. Quick to catch fire overseas, this new-found genus soon found an audience across the Pacific with American director Gore Verbinski re-making the original Ringu for English audiences ... an interpretation that to this day remains all enduring with its atmospheric tones and tension-wrought climax.  

It’s an impressive resume, but right off the bat I’m going to inform Hellnotes readers that EDGE is my first introduction to the authors prose – and partly why I decided to take on the book for appraisal. Here, Koji shifts gears in a largely new direction from what we have come to know in his thematic world of J-Horror: poltergeists given a wide birth in favour of terrors more existential in nature ... the fear of nature itself. In the past few decades, science (and in particular fields of study such as quantum mechanics), have offered us a glimpse of an unseen world that lies just under the surface of our perceived senses and this one. Through a universal language like mathematics, we are discovering that this realm is not only more mysterious and complex than we ever imagined, it is ultimately spiritual in nature ... with consciousness itself playing a vast role that is capable of influencing the material world.

After the mysterious disappearance of her father in 1994, freelance reporter Saeko Kuriyama feels divorced from life. When unexplained phenomenon begin to take hold of Japan – namely that of individuals and families vanishing into thin air overnight – Saeko feels drawn to the mystery as though it could be her personal calling. Reminiscent of disappearances such as the ghost ship Mary Celeste in 1872, the vanishings begin to spread over the entire continent in what soon becomes a disenable pattern involving fault-lines. When drafted by a magazine editor to explore the vanishing of one Fujimura family, Saeko teams up with a local TV station and a psychic to investigate the case. Together they slowly peel back the layers of a genuine unknown to find something far more sinister than a motley crew of missing persons ... it is an anomaly that is rooted in natural causes – a profound disturbance in being itself.  

For a novel originally composed in another language entirely, the translation here comes off clean. With only one typo apparent, Koji’s syntax is free-flowing and smooth. There are some metaphors that just beg to be read out loud, and the overall structure of the writing is intelligent and heart-felt. I suppose one criticism that could be levelled in this case was the distinct lack of action – and there are a lot of scenes where characters (and in particular Seako) spend numerous passages merely ruminating about underlying philosophies, coming to final conclusions that are only guessed at but then given verity merely by deduction. However, when dealing with the subject matter - that of quantum horror – it seems Koji has purposefully taken this path. EDGE, for all its wonky science, is a moody journey. When delving into the climax, a reader can almost hear a cinematic soundtrack at the heart of the story ... a sensation that was not unlike experiencing some of the finer aspects of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.    

An ambitious novel to take on, I can see that there will be a few disgruntled readers with the topic at hand, and the blurb attached to various websites and the novel itself is overly misleading with how the story pans out. Personally, however, the focus here is a theme I’ve always held a fascination for: that of ancient civilisations and the advanced world they left behind. Our known recorded history – the one that we were collectively taught – seems inherently flawed with new evidence coming to light that seems to raise more questions than answers. Through astute personal observations and modern physics, Koji tries to find the answer to those mysteries, and ultimately delivers a unique reading experience that is reflective of the current cultural climate.     

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Vaudeville by Greg Chapman

2012 has been a fruitful year for Australia’s Greg Chapman. After cementing himself as a kind of polymath writer and artist in the wake of his successful graphic novel collaboration Witch Hunts, Dark Prints Press has seen fit to publish Mr. Chapman’s Vaudeville as part of their new novella series – latching onto an already bourgeoning eBook market and giving new voice to a this timely and passionate author.

After the suicide of his father Dominic one year previous, young Anthony Moore returns to the mysterious woods on the outskirts of his home town Keaton where the baffling act took place – for closure, for revelation – for the off-chance that perhaps the forest will yield its secrets to the grieving family left behind. A doting father and a loyal husband to Anthony’s mother, Dominic’s decision on that fateful day left a wake of repercussions that not only scarred a family but left an entire town disconsolate. Keaton Woods, home to a history violence, does more than reveal its secrets to Anthony ... it exposes the malevolent spirits who dwell within the trees – a travelling troupe of performers caught between Hell itself and dying to give Anthony just one last performance.

Perhaps one the shortfalls of Greg’s first novella Torment was a distinct lack of metaphor within the composition – but here the author (much to my delight) piles it on thick. We can see the writer’s confidence emerging to create images that are vivid, asides that are incisive, and prose that is elegant. The greatest hook with Vaudeville is probably its cavalcade feel – that sense of carnival tied with innocence whose roots are to be found in tales like Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The caravan of ghosts (whose names I will not reveal), are entertaining and wily – providing just enough sense of mischief and malevolence to keep them scary. What we have in the end is almost a coming-of-age tale that leads to a conjuring of Black verses the White – embodying the theme of an ancient evil who feeds on the souls of the living to survive.    

Vaudeville is available now as an eBook from Australia’s Independent Dark Fiction Publisher Dark Prints Press.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Working Stiffs by Leitner

Necro Publications, 241 Pages

This is the fourth book in a series called Fresh Flesh from Necro Publications. For a reading experiment I began all the titles at once ... and the tale that held my attention for the longest duration would be the one that would receive the first appraisal. Lucy Leitner’s Working Stiffs, a comedic take on the zombie sub-genre, stood out among the rest.

One thing that needs to be said: the cover illustration doesn’t quite do Lucy’s work justice – make no mistake, this is an adult novel. The comedic elements are pertinent – but it still manages to do the same thing George Romeo tried when he directed his first film: hold up a dark mirror to our society with socially relevant commentaries.  

Pittsburgh, and the Zombie uprising has come to giant corporate entity Pro-Well Pharmaceuticals. Led by the charismatic ex-meth dealer Marshall Owens, Pro-Well has taken the dregs of society off the streets to amass assembly line workers that will not question authority and work with the efficiency of mindless automatons. But soon the plan backfires when the injected serum becomes an unstoppable virus that renders the employees with an appetite for human flesh. Pitted against the horde are an eccentric group of misfits and mavericks – higher echelon employees who will now consider the normal drudgery of a nine-to-five work day the pinnacle of paradise.  

Working Stiffs is not the kind of work I would usually seek out – and depending on who you talk to the Zombie sub-genre is now becoming a somewhat jaded niche market that is in danger of becoming entirely over-saturated. But I found the lack of familiarity here to refreshing: not being an expert on the rules I could casually slip into the story without playing jury or arbitrator to a dark fiction work that overall seethed with clever observations and biting sarcasm. The diverse characters here are the crowning achievement, and it was easy to envision each reader who takes the journey finding someone to identify with. There’s Hank, the jaded misanthropic queer who’s addicted to the call of happy hour, an enigma that ‘no one really understood but everybody knew not to fuck with’ - Janice the anointed Goth who joins Pro-Well to ensure enough job security to save up for her burial plans. There is a football-obsessed janitor who forges lifelong bonds with local icons he has never met - and an ex-army General who slowly leads the ranks of the dead into an epic showdown with the scarred CEO who started the whole mess ... a chief executive who still dreams of a future enforcing thousands of hobos to work under slave conditions to make male pattern baldness a thing of the past.  

Relevant and sharp, Lucy Leitner has concocted a humorous but above all engaging allegory of working life – a pleasing romp with enough extravagant metaphors to keep any Zombie aficionado entertained. With three books in the Fresh Flesh series still to see to, I look forward to more high calibre outings from Necro Publications.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shadows of The Past by Richard Schiver

There is an unquestionable pattern to my dark fiction reading habits, whereby I will usually alternate between the prolific and the up and coming – giving awareness to the new voices whose book descriptions are a catalyst to take an entire novel-length journey. This, the debut novel from Richard Schivar, will pique constant reader’s curiosity just enough: here we are presented with uncomplicated plot strands and Lovecraftian overtones evocative (perhaps) of something fashioned from the early pen - or pseudonyms - of Dean Koontz.

Jaded police detective Sam Hardin is trying to pick up the pieces of his life after the untimely death of his wife Anna. Now a single father to a teenage girl and a brain damaged four year old boy, he finds more succour in the bottle and immersing himself in police work than attending to family. When a series of bizarre murders at an abandoned warehouse lead to the uncovering of an ancient ceremonial dagger, Jack suddenly finds himself thrust into the realm of an ancient God who not only inhabits human form, but has personally marked his son for possession, thus beginning a new reign of terror on earth and the termination of the human species. 

A novel that begins with promise, Shadows of the Past quickly dovetails into a confusing mish-mash of somewhat clichéd characters and uneven scenes that are never fully realized or resolved. Sam Hardin is a rogue cop with a giant chip on his shoulder. His depression, regret and perpetual lamenting a propos of past decisions slowly begin to grate on the reader, shedding light on a protagonist who isn’t exactly likable and sometimes hard to believe. His nemesis in this madness, Jack Griffith, stumbles upon the ancient blade on a routine night whilst working the storm-drains ... and it is here that things become even more perplexing, culminating in a confusing sequence where even Stephen King’s Pennywise makes an entirely unwelcome cameo. Richard goes on to use the description ‘fathomless black eyes’ roughly two dozen times over the course of two hundred pages. The final showdown, an epic stand-off between Sam Hardin and Jack Griffith in the snow, has the distinct flavour of formula – a prescription for pulp (horror) fiction throughout the eighties and early nineties.

Even though puzzling at times, there were enough adequate and redeemable moments in the novel to show a writer in the early stages of ambition. Richard Schivar has a flare for stylish prose and – although the author has a propensity to repeat the same word two (sometimes three) times in a sentence –  occasional flashes of brilliance gave me insight into someone who will eventually find the rhythms of coherent structure over the extended length of a novel.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

Come Into Darkness by Daniel I Russell

Since the publication of his debut novel in late 2010, Western Australian author Daniel I Russell has continuously moved forward to create a paradigm of horror fiction with great gifts of invention stamped throughout every outing. In what is perhaps his most prolific year yet, 2012 has given rise to both Critique and The Collector respectively. Here we have a dark fiction author that is never afraid to push boundaries, does not shy away from the visceral, and is still developing a voice that becomes more unique with each successive tale.

Mario Fulcinni has seen it all. After years working in the adult film industry he’s ready to try out new pleasures that belong to a different school of thought – something to dull the pain of a lifetime of fruitless pursuits and unsatisfying addictions. At the urging of an agent he attends Metus House, a mysterious mansion that promises the tour of a life time. The house’s mystery only adds fuel to pyre, and soon Mario is swept up by an aging debonair escort (Worth) who shows Mario a realm where horror, terror, and fantasy will all be used to define fundamental human states.

A story of novella length, Come Into Darkness is still crammed full of everything we’ve come to expect from Daniel. Light on prose, heavy on dialogue, this is biting narrative simplicity and easy to digest. Room by room, Mario is exposed to a past, present, and future that’s like a Faustian pact with the Devil. Through the trail of suffering, Mario and a fellow traveller will witness their sins come to life.

While not as ambitious as Critique, this story is still layered with enough subtext to find a method in the madness. For those averse to extreme horror (such as the imagery presented in the SAW franchise), there will be more than one scene to evoke feelings of horror – perhaps even revulsion. Yet we still find elements of sophistication here, and enough emotional import to gently remind us of an old truism so pertinent in horror fiction ... that Hell itself is repetition. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times

Graphic Novel Review – Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times
Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton and Greg Chapman
McFarland, 2012

Having a somewhat passing acquaintance with a creator behind Witch Hunts, I was well aware of this graphic novels conception and genesis some time ago. The long road to publication saw a mutual desire by all three participants to bring something unique to table: an original slant detailing a part of history now mired in myth but no less potent for that: the Witch Hunts and Burning Times of the middle ages ... a collective mass-hysteria that encompassed every shade and continent of the known world at the time.

We begin our journey with an overview, and see how – with just a few short stanzas of the Bible – the world of men and organized faith perverted their religion, ushering in a whole new world of macabre justice almost unfathomable in the details. From the humble beginnings of rural towns in Europe, with local populaces at a perpetual loss to explain negative weather patterns, illness and death - they sought a scapegoat in the name of witchcraft and sexual liaison with Satan. The reality, of course, was that such parlays were so rare as to be non-existent – and the only way to extract confessions and play out their bloodlust was to implement obscene torture. This physical agony including everything from ‘trial by water’ to medieval devices that crushed legs, extracted fingernails, and choked an unwitting victim to the point they would invariably declare guilt. Once the philosophy was set in motion (proliferated by such witch-hunting bibles as the Malleus Maleficarum), no one was immune to the outbreak, ensuring that brother would rise up against brother and the methods of execution became even more acute.

The biggest attribute of Witch Hunts probably comes in the form of its education. Even if you have an intimate knowledge of the burning times and in particular events like the Salem Witch Trials, there is bound to be a nugget of information within these pages that will come as a surprise. Moreover, the book is philosophical at heart, and you will be asking yourself the pertinent questions. Such as: is it possible that an intelligent species has to go through such a brutal and arcane process to achieve eventual enlightenment? And how, exactly, does a book that millions preach contains benign moral code undertake such a perverse reversal where acts of profound evil are committed in its name? The revelations contained within will entice you to seek out your own - and there are a plethora of names, dates, and situations that just beg for further research on a personal part.

Whether you are a graphic novel fan, a horror aficionado or even a scholar of history, Witch Hunts is a must-have compendium of art – a project that the illustrator, Greg Chapman, seemed born to. With these black and white illustrations, we find a level of sophistication in his resume previously unseen. And in a digital age of electronic prose and art, Witch Hunts is the perfect physical purchase to compliment a library. Glossy, defined, and above all enlightening, all three authors have outdone themselves creating a dark epoch of human history and making this an experience that far exceeded my expectations.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tankbread by Paul Mannering

Tankbread – Book Review.
Paul Mannering.
Digital edition.
Review by Matthew Tait.

Zombies. They are everywhere in the genre at the moment. And like them or not, the undead are here to stay. The trick in fiction, of course, is to try and dig something new out of the sand - an original vision to complement what a certain director named George started all those years ago. Right off the bat, Paul Mannering has accomplished this with the setting: Australia. Not only is this the land of my birth, but its environs are almost unexplored in horror territory. It is only just now that we are seeing what this country is capable of producing – not only it’s hinterland potential ... but also the writing talent that resides both here and in New Zealand.

Narrated in first person, TANKBREAD reads like the culmination of a life-time spent studying the horror terrain. Our raconteur is amusing, sarcastic, and has just the right amount of ‘everyman’ quality to appeal to a broad spectrum. A title that raises questions, we soon find out the cryptic meaning of the word: zombie food. In this apocalypse, the survivors’ have figured out a way to appease the dead ... by cloning humans so they can feed. Not many of them know how this particular evolution came about – just that it is. By mollifying the dead with meat, not only do they leave humanity alone, they also employ them. There is just enough truce and co-dependency to warrant a world that’s survivable.

At times the book suffers the syndromes inherent with first novels. Paul’s voice doesn’t resonate particular confidence at the beginning ... but he gains it as the tale moves on. When our protagonist hooks up with a Tankbread female named Else action figures predominately. You know you’re in Grindhouse territory when they escape on a motor-cycle from the Sydney Opera House and ride off into the sunset with a shotgun in tow.  There follows a mission: to fix Else. Based on a hint, a suggestion, they will encounter a missionary of nuns, pig rearing eccentrics, and a plethora of the undead. Paul’s descriptions in that area are visceral ... and more than once I was reminded of a certain author called Brian Keene. 

Ultimately TANKBREAD is a tale that’s worth your while; zombie aficionados will gobble it up. Paul Mannering is a writer who knows his world. Someone, I anticipate, who will find a dedicated readership. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Monster Book for Girls

Monster Book for Girls – Book Review
Monster Book for Girls
Edited by Terry Grimwood
Exaggerated Press, 2011

Somewhat familiar with what Exaggerated Press has to offer (Terry Grimwood’s own Bloody War was one of my highlights of 2011), I approached Monster Book for Girls rather hesitantly (if not curiously). The title itself seemed to raise more questions than answers: was this a horror collection aimed primarily at a female audience? Or did this book fit somewhere more into the realm of those campy pre-war throwbacks that came filled to the brim with adventure stories, where characters cavorted the pages with sporty finesse and Hardy Boys exploits?

The answer lies somewhere in between. When the call went out for new poetry and prose inspired by those five words, the guidelines were wide open with no specific genre required. And this certainly reflects in the tales with the end result being a kaleidoscopic mish-mash that is at turns horrific yet at times mundane. But underlying it all the pertinent theme here is one of female thaumaturgy, a girl story book where the battles encompass human monsters, monsters of the imagination, and everything in between them.

Highlights include the post-apocalyptic world of Turning by Shay Darrach.  With Sarah’s ‘to-do’ List, Samantha Porter gives us a short and malign comedy with a domestic twist. Stuart Young’s Breaking the Spell is a revenge ditty with YA styling’s that’s droll relief from the tales that proceeded it. Getting Warm by Gary McMahon fits at the other end of the spectrum – a delightfully adult story where Gary explores the insights of disparate victims in the aftermath of a true crime. 

And rounding off the odyssey is a novelette by another of my favorite new writers to come along in recent years: Spiral by David Rix. Here, David gives us what is a poignant personal journey but infused with subtle supernatural themes. Like his book Feather, the unique prose outstrips everything else, and we hear the sound of writer who is only just now gaining momentum on a world stage.

Imaginative cover illustration and probing title aside, there were times when I did find Monster Book for Girls a somewhat laborious task, often putting the book down for extended periods of time. However, the apathy here can be attributed to the books distinct lack of horror (something that was spelled out at the very beginning), so there were no overall surprises when encountering fiction that felt cryptic and seemed to go nowhere. More predilections came into effect with the interlaced poetry – although still cleverly adhering to the Monster theme this is a realm of writing I’ve never found overtly appealing. Taken as a working whole, however, editor Terry Grimwood has accomplished what he envisioned at the start: create an eclectic and intriguing meeting of literary minds and astounding interpretations. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Darkest Shade of Grey by Alan Baxter

Book Review - The Darkest Shade of Grey
The Darkest Shade of Grey
Alan Baxter
The Red Penny Papers, Kindle

The Red Penny Papers is a journal (electronic) of fantastic fiction publishing novellas in a serial style reminiscent of a bygone era.  Merged in this fashion with a webfiction factor and you have an appealing disparity of new technologies with a penny dreadful twist – a welcome hybrid of the modern with the historic. With The Darkest Shade of Grey, Alan Baxter has concocted a tight and stylish supernatural thriller daubed in the ethereal tones of film-noir.

David Johanssen is a broken man.  After a devastating encounter with an Ouija board many years previous he has slowly succumbed to a species of insanity, losing his entire family in the process. Now his days are regulated to imbibing huge quantities of alcohol and trying to keep his job as a small time reporter intact. It doesn’t help that he has begun to see the auras of those that surround him – colours and ill-defined shapes that reflect a world burgeoning with chaos and mystery. When a homeless hobo drifts into his life espousing the cryptic message of another realm, David is soon drawn into the dark underbelly of a different world entirely – a world where deities play among the masses and salvation is just a fairy-tale for mortals.

Right off the cusp we’re introduced to Alan’s breezy style, and it’s one that most readers of speculative fiction will find easy to digest (if not find overly eccentric at times). There’s an everyman quality to the syntax with subtle humour smirking from just around the corner of every paragraph. Our protagonist is flawed but ultimately good: a motif that works – especially within the confines of noir – because it taps into the constant reader’s receptivity. With novella length stories becoming more admired at every turn in the publishing industry, The Darkest Shade of Grey is just the right length to fit nice and snug into a serial arrangement or have a permanent home on an e-reader device.

The only quibble I had with the tale (and it’s minor) has to do with personal predilection. When Gods and Demons stampede across the pages of dark fiction, I have often been disillusioned when they inhabit human form. A perfect example of this would be the dovetailing plot-strands of the latter episodes of the TV series Supernatural. Angels shift into our realm, and when they do, the effect can become juvenile (or comedic) and frequently overshadows any emotional impact we might have expected in the climax. 

Predilections aside, this is an accomplished little tale from a writer whose evolution has been interesting to watch. Also featured is a mini- author interview where Alan talks about the genesis of David Johanssen. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Fourth Fog by Chris Daniels

Taking on a novel where one has zero preconceived notions can be liberating. Almost no information about the author exists online - and there is relatively no news about said book. One of the reasons I do this is to discover works like The Fourth Fog ... a book quite unlike any other in the genre.

Newlyweds Ben and Tula have moved into area ‘C’ and a new apartment complex. Ben is a book editor surrounded by a mish-mash of clearly unlikable individuals. Tula works as a nurse ... but their home is far from the welcoming sanctuary they envisioned. Soon, an infestation of flies take root as something in the ceiling perishes. Yet the flies appear to be something far more sinister than the common house fly: they have purpose and intent – a malign, elusive quality. Not only that, but Ben has become increasingly dependent on a popular drug called HAL. But is this the sole cause of the small but meaningful signs of increasing paranoia around him?

To call this novel ‘bleak’ is an understatement. But I have an inclination that is exactly what the author intends. Beginning with a mere domestic setting, there is a slow build-up of palpable dread, enhanced by Ben’s slow downward spiral into confusion and melancholy. It reaches boiling point when the supernatural elements – which are never overtly defined – are shoved into the mix with gross management but ultimately superior handling. Although the backdrop and plot are pertinent, the whole bizarre thing seems to be a vehicle for the author’s unique prose and depressing (yet droll) social commentary.

With a tag line consisting of: A Horror Novel for the Ages staring God, Terror and (you guessed it)! KILLER FLIES ... The Fourth Fog is more than recommended for those seeking something unique. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Panic Button by Frazer Lee

Based on a recent British Horror film of the same name, Panic Button is the kind of excursion that taps into every nuance and trope of modern horror cinema. Thankfully this fictitious outing can be just as harrowing – taking the theme of contemporary social media and hammering home our fears and insecurities concerning the medium until the reader feels frantic with it.

As a reviewer I’m always looking for something different: uncharted waters to critique – a novel based on a semi-successful film I have yet to view seemed to fit that bill. After the reading experience I could go back to the tales genesis on screen and see how well the author lifted its contents ... much like an excavator will slowly brush away the dirt to reveal a fossil.

Our story is simple but compelling: four young people win the trip of a lifetime to New York, courtesy of the world famous social networking site On board their private jet, they are invited to take part in some in-flight entertainment – a new online gaming experience. But this is a unique game. Trapped at 30,000 feet they are forced to play for their lives and the lives of their loved ones by a mysterious captor who bears the social network insignia – and they are about to learn that having an online profile exposed to the whole world can have deadly consequences...

Here we go back to my first paragraph:  this is definitely reminiscent of many recent horror outings. We have the SAW franchise; we also have films like CUBE and the tacit terrors produced by fare such as FINAL DESTINATION, RED EYE, and the original TWILIGHT ZONE. But what we also have on offer is the potential for a beautiful character study ... one that’s mined to such great effect in films like THE HOLE (2001) and HARD CANDY. Most of all the appealing thing here is the theme itself: at its beating heart PANIC BUTTON seems to be a book about a subject barely touched in the annals of cinema ... social networking.

The team is heralded. There’s Jo Scott the recovering alcoholic. She’s left her daughter at home in the care of her mother to experience this chance at freedom.  Max Nichols - a man as mysterious as his online persona would suggest. Gwen has the ‘hippy chick’ aura but more than a few of her own demons. And rounding out the small cabal is Dave ... a sly and obnoxious joker that the others will have to watch like a dormant snake. Proceedings take hold and we are then lifted into the air with the four toasting their lucky success. But for the next few hours their only companion will be the grinning alligator facade of the All2gethr mascot  ... and it isn’t long before he lets the games begin: a harrowing series of brutal psychological questionaries that will pit each contestant against each other in a series of dares where the losing price is death. Not only for them but for those on the ground who mourn their departure.   

This is not exactly a ground breaking book ... but Frazer Lee does an excellent job pulling out all the stops when they are needed. The games induced by Alligator are subtle yet equally horrific: I daresay you’ll want to keep reading with morbid fascination as each of our contestants lives are exposed with fascinating clarity. You’ll also see yourselves in these people: seemingly ordinary individuals but each with a plethora of secrets and demons just waiting to be brought bubbling to the surface. The real horror, when it arrives, more than competes with anything the original creators of SAW could dream up. And underlying it all, of course, are the social and ethical questions we as a society have come to ask ourselves on a daily basis: just what WILL be the price of social networking? We now live in an age that would have been unthinkable merely decades ago. There are always dues ... and the price of this one – when it arrives – could be almost too much to bear.

Now, to watch the film.