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 to 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 slowly gaining 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 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 appearing 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 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 Stephen King composing about the creative process or someone like Greg Chapman, there is something oddly comforting about taking a journey encapsulating the inventive pain some of us know all too well. Simon Ryan is the everyman in every writer – and a character resembling the author’s profile enough that at times The Noctuary leans more toward metafiction. Here, Greg has created the infant seeds of a new mythology, one rich enough for an encore performance.

There are a number of up and coming writers in the Australian echelon deserving of 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. Taking off my professional voice I will state that I know Greg Chapman somewhat, and he is a person 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. 

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 an 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 nomadic spirit. Someone who flits into people’s lives, touches them with magic, and ultimately flits away again … often leaving battered souls in her wake. 

With the opening novella, Yellow Eyes, Rix gives us perfect overture for this atypical protagonist: the story of a childhood spent living on the outskirts of a haunted wasteland (her only company that of a domineering Father), one who has escaped the modern world and deprived Feather a normal life in the process. After escaping this bleak environment, Feather returns to the only world she knows intimately: sand and sea. Here she meets Jimmy Ward, and a close attachment ensues. (The prose here is often littered with bullet-pointed snippets of signs and revelations that give insight into both character's – an unusual form of pacing).

Touch Wood sees the character of Feather shifting into lives in the modern world. Always told from another central character, Touch Wood a small narrative of love espoused in a bar. Although it features a highly unlikable protagonist, it’s blended with both the spiritual and philosophical: the study of particle physics and their relation to the world of being human. 

A central and larger novella, The Magpies introduces us to another character on Feather’s periphery … one who lives in isolation in the Southern European Mountains – a locale where she hopes to find a musical muse. After discovering a dead Magpie on the front stoop, it sends off a chain reaction of feathered ghosts and macabre scenery, ushering her into a confrontation with the muse.

In Book Of Tides Feather again returns to the sea and meets another 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 forcing her to ultimately leave again with a dawning knowledge 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, a hundred different artistic outlooks – each one like a moon to Feather’s Jupiter. Abruptly normal college life bursts into an alternate dimension … one like a portal into that strange sea-world Feather inhabits. It's a confusing 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 syntax.

It’s the final stories, however, that are crowing jewels.  Displaying a less cerebral style which still showcases a sharp sting, we follow Tallis through the streets of LjubLjana. These are bleak and functional spaces ... one that may remind a reader of Clive Barker's early stylings traversing the streets of Liverpool.

Overall Feather is like one of the more slipstream stories one might encounter in high-school, yet bristling at the seams with unconventional horror. It's a book that potentially serves as a strange metaphor for the author's personal character ... at turns both mythic and seductive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Arena Of The Wolf By Jim Gavin

Now becoming somewhat accustomed to the type of book 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 a decade heavily immersed in the landscape of Australia’s dark fiction maestros, many new writers from across the pond have now come into view. Some of these have the bibliographies of seasoned veterans … while 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 a 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 belief for the sake of the story (this is, after all, supernatural fiction), the oftentimes crude handling of style made me acutely aware I was at all times reading a book.

Things pick up in the second half as Jim switches to omniscient narrator. 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 be a chore, yet there were certainly times Arena of the Wolf felt more like a clinical assignment. Overall, however, these are personal predilections. Jim Gavin is only just beginning to carve a niche for himself, and there is little doubt he will eventually find a dedicated readership.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

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, precisely, that drives us to kill our own kind? Basic human nature? Resources? The invention of money? It’s a pertinent question we’re still asking to this very day, and with Bloody War, Terry Grimwood attempts an answer via a powerful thriller where modern England has become the theatre for a new kind of bloodshed.   

The carnage comes to Pete Allman guillotine fashion: one morning he wakes up to find 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: existence has been reduced to a past only read about in history books and viewed in 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 keeping him alive while buildings, landmarks, and even the people he loves burn all hours of the day and night.

This is a decisive and quick novel, the first person narration easy to digest if a little insipid early on. In the second half, things ratchet up as surprising events force Pete right into the heart of the battle. It is here where Terry’s prose shows the promise we glimpsed early on: a horror writer coming into their own with the canvas of war to showcase tears, blood, and nightmare imagery. Just when things feel familiar, startling new developments arise that see no character safe from the bombs raining down. Pete Allman is a sympathetic protagonist. We root for him as mysteries surrounding the war are peeled back and exposed. 

Is this a political novel? It is if you have been following current world events and have numerous questions surrounding the validity of those events. In this respect, the book works on an emotional level. Really, who are we 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 war drums in any crusade, there is hope, for always a faction will 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 film excursions like Minority Report, Terry Grimwood brings modern warfare all bloody and shrieking into the dark heart of Western society.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

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: a persistent talent has now come more sharply into focus among the mainstream. With a rich and solid publication history in the small press, it was only a matter of time before Gary's longer works gained more mass-market appeal. 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 tribe as a whole.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage resulting 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 reflecting 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: the beautiful way in which Gary handles 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 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 optimism in your horror, latch onto something else. But if you’re looking for that species of the genre between antipathy and desire, where the borders between worlds can be narrow, then The Concrete Grove is place you’ll want to visit again and again.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry

Few writers over the past decade have made quite the triumphant impact on dark fiction 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 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; Jonathan seems to be from a league of extraordinary gentleman (a clique including authors such as Kevin J Anderson and Scott Nicholson), who work tirelessly behind the scenes of the publishing frontier. A writer’s writer … but also a fanboy who will take the time out of a brutal schedule to speak to the masses on social media and at programmed events. So when the call came through that a stand-alone zombie extravaganza was in the offing, it seemed like the perfect time to put my hand up and survey the dark places of Jonathan's world. 

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 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 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 ... and when the Zombie apocalypse finally breaks out in Stebbins County, Desmodia’s willful moxie will be the ultimate fighting weapon in a 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 bursting 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 development with keen, witty dialogue reminiscent of those who walk among us.

But all of this would be meaningless without our main power-players: the dead. Here they stroll through the pages with every vital ingredient to make the gut churn. It’s the reaction of our humans that make them truthful: in their genuine loathing of the parasites we encounter a species of zombie original in conception as the primary concoction of Dr. Volker continues to do its work. A mass metamorphosis then ensues bringing about a different species … but it’s the original that remains the most terrifying: being trapped within a 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 character's to embrace the word ‘zombie’ only within the final stage … as if all the literature and celluloid to have come before has never existed. However, I'm hardly the Zombiephile on these Australian shores, so lore isn't exactly my sticking point.

With Dead of Night, Jonathan Maberry gives us a stand alone Zombie novel exceeding 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

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 I knew would appeal to my predilection even before plunging into the first tale. A glossy novella, The Gaki and Other Hungry Spirits is short, sweet, and interspersed with stories lean on dialogue yet 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 seeking out a cabal of kindred spirits who gather by the banks of the Cooper River to keep their pious desires alive. Here David encounters a wandering spirit … and the consequences of being marked by one. It’s a fitting opener, displaying smart writing with (Lovecraftian) overtones for a modern audience.

Stories that stood out:

Festival of the Jackal (Off Broadway). Contains
 the sort of prose that bites with subtle comedy, our protagonist makes astute observations about the mire of modern living before a chance encounter with 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 others before it, Festival of the Jackal is like a cross-pollination of Bret Easton Ellis meeting 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 mark of a mature dark fiction scribe with credible style.

There are many collections today with a hit and miss ratio; disparate tales shoved together haphazardly ... but I found none of that contrast here. A mostly seamless collection, the only real criticism I can level is the occasional guillotine/style endings that (may) leave a few question marks. However, don’t let such subtle things sway you. With The Gaki and Other Hungry Spirits, Stephen Mark Rainey gives you 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, I chose The Disappeared purely for its enigmatic cover. If there is one thing we know the small press does well, it’s cover design vastly more aesthetic to the dark fiction enthusiast than their large publishing counterparts. On offer here is a thriller stepped in the sinister world of 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 results in divorce, Teri 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 door hasn’t aged a day. This one is eternal, frozen in time – and now Teri must suspend her disbelief if she is solve why. 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 with a family physician at the center of the nightmare. She'll also discover Gabe isn’t the only child who fell victim to a conspiracy where science tackled the dark heart of mortality: death itself. 

Written during the nineties, this is the kind of formula pertinent to that era. Running like an undercurrent through the syntax is an undeniable Dean Koontz flavor … reminiscent of one of the many tomes penned under the pseudonym Leigh Nichols. (Think The Key to Midnight or The House of Thunder). Taking off my professional voice briefly, I will admit I enjoyed those novels immensely. They don’t pretend to be anything than what's on the page: maps of intent where the good guys are good, and the bad ones are simply nasty. The method is pure entertainment … and the narrative at the heart of The Disappeared has a safe and homely feel like a good recipe.

There are weaknesses – mainly the perplexing reaction of a family doctor when confronted with the presence of Gabriel for the first time in years: his inability to notice anything different about the child is something never fully addressed. Another plot strand involving an individual Walter is tracking never quite come to fruition and leaves a lingering question mark. (Although I have a feeling these are narrative puzzles a second reading could possibly cure).

Here, David B Silva has concocted a workable thriller harkening back to the suspense of a more innocent time in history. My first title from Dark Regions Press, they have created a slick and worthy edition to hold.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Ward

Psychiatric wards. Mental Asylums. Institutions. Call them what you will – they have been an ideal vehicle for countless mediums over the years; a perfect playground for the horror genre to stretch its wings. With outings such as 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. What seems currently in vogue: using the human mind as a stunning chess board or Russian Doll piece (Shutter Island, Identity), where metaphor's can be stripped away and revelations granted with each successive piece removed. Here, legendary director John Carpenter has tasked himself with adding something new to the sub-genre.

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

The drawbacks? There are many ... most notably The Ward's clunky, unrealistic dialogue and script shortcomings. No matter how much energy is vested in trying to create something epic here, at its core the narrative is no more ambitious than a stand-alone episode of Supernatural. While this is an attempt at old school horror (as testified by Carpenter himself), snaring the attention of the collective tribe requires a lot more than paying homage to the thrillers of old. That said, this is still a grand step up from a film like Vampires; Mark Kilian's musical score is a beautiful, child-like drone reminiscent of The Amityville Horror. The hospital itself is beautifully mined like a character, with slick camera rigging speeding through corridors and dowdy colors being used to reflect the chrome world of an asylum.

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

Friday, June 3, 2011

Samhane by Daniel I Russell

Originally from the United Kingdom, Daniel I Russell moved to Australia in late 2008, setting up shop and carving his own niche in the community. This, his debut effort, is the accumulation of a lifetime spent studying the terrain and mapping the territories. The resultant outcome, Samhane, is like a cross pollination of the best the genre can offer infused with Daniel’s every-man tone and occasional comic aim. 

We begin our journey with Donald Patterson, middle-aged horror writer saddled with a day job who dreams of the big-time. Initially, this opening was a mild turn off ... for at once our protagonist’s head-space mirrors the authors. Many writing instructors – some more than others - will be vociferous you must distance yourself from your work. Though it goes without saying that if every published writer heeded this counsel, a huge chunk of them would not have graced us with their best. Although not outwardly transparent upon publication, it eventually became evident 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 reader's across the globe like to see the inner workings of a creative mind dissected on the page. 

After purchasing a new laptop on eBay from an ominous merchant (Roger), Donald comes across something on its hard-drive that could potentially be a snuff film; tainted evidence plunging him into a world where the vendor will do anything to secure its return … including kidnapping wife Beverley and spiriting her away in to the far-flung English town of Samhane. There follows an odyssey of torture, sex, and clout at the hands of a cult who uses the streets of Samhane as its playground to attract the benedictions of a long-forgotten deity.

There are two-plot strands, 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 when the town is abruptly inundated with ghouls, morphing human worms, and female water-wraiths. Eventually the strands collide in an epic showdown of grindhouse horror with Lovecraftian overtones.

What I loved here, from beginning to end, is the delicious cavalcade feel. Samhane is a cauldron on the cusp of Hell, and this is a formula with its roots firmly entrenched in the genre. Needful Things by Stephen King displayed a similar mechanism: the streets and people being reigned in by a mysterious force that sits nonchalantly in the shadows. Popcorn horror, but a gentle reminder 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 the third act finale can feel somewhat ponderous), but as a working whole Samhane is a lofty splatter debut that could teach veterans in the field a thing or two about entertainment. Hopefully (with works like this one), Australia will see a renaissance of cinematic horror fiction ushering in similar works into the mainstream.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Torment by Greg Chapman

Greg Chapman is one of the breed to have made good use of services provided to emerging Australian horror writers. After joining the local association in 2009, he was selected quickly into the mentoring program under the auspices of author Brett McBean. (Anyone familiar with my reviews will know this to be a coup). What is apparent to blossom from such a relationship is Greg’s genuine fondness for the genre: the act of writing (and finding an audience) not something recently acquired or taken lightly. Something publishers (no doubt) also saw on display.   

One thing I feel important to mention here: reading Torment was one of my first experiences with the Kindle device. After a lifetime of dipping my nose into paper for that unique aroma, such quirks were no longer available. However, this is not the place for an active discussion on the disparity between the mediums ... merely an acknowledgment I was initially apprehensive about a potentially great book being let down by a new experience. Thankfully, this wasn't the case: the Kindle device proved more than adequate for 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 a clergyman during a ritual exorcism, Jessica McKinnon returns home to rural Scotland years later as an adult with husband and son in tow, there to exorcise some demons of her own: namely, to find out the real reason her father committed suicide and bequeathed the house to her. For me, ‘tried and true’ is a recipe that works – and we’ve seen many writers at the top (a good model would be John Saul) attempt a similar thing dozens of times: After being witness to an act of atrocity as a child, our protagonist returns to the house on haunted hill, there to confront ghosts of the past. Readers will have something to identify with, and for a debut author, this is a definite hook.

There are minor problems, but nearly all these run the gamut of what the premise means on a personal level. The age of ‘biblical baddies’ (as I’ve previously referred to them), traversing the earth and wreaking havoc can sometimes feel as medieval in fiction as they do in real life. We also have syntax that can be straightforward (not entirely unexpected in a debut), and having characters exclaim dialogue is another negligible pet-peeve. But don’t let any of these things sway you. Simply, enjoy Torment for what it is: a more than solid yarn from an Australian author with grand potential and many more tales to come.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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 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 a 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 overly 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 I now regret … and goes to show there is talent here consistently producing quality. Moreover, I highly doubt Brett lends his voice to anything half-heartedly or churns something out at the behest of an editor. Concrete Jungle might well be The Day of the Triffids told from the unique scaffold of the author'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 with refreshing Australian verisimilitude and syntax. A few errors jumped out. In one particular stanza the author describes the smell of meat cooking ‘glorious’ but goes on to say paragraphs later the smell of cooked rat was ‘mildly appetizing’. Viewed as a whole, however, the writing and editing is crisp with short, choppy chapters denied being weighted with 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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scary Kisses

Already garnering a lot of high praise in the community, Scary Kisses is a dark fantasy anthology 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 writer's 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 a 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 for sure: 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. One thing that probably doesn’t get mentioned enough in the reading experience: typesetting and font. Scary Kisses is my first Ticonderoga publication and 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

An Eclectic Slice of Life

In the previous review, Gillian Pollack kindly illustrated for the reader where the genesis for this collection sprang from. From 2007 onward, editor Craig Bezant 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 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 among 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 was 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).