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 favor 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.

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 me. Following a quick perusal of past achievements we find a lyrical writer 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 not sliding 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, favoring instead a lyrical syntax told primarily in first person. Although the horror can be difficult 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, it would be that each first person tale contains a similar voice; with the run-off sometimes confusing. It was challenging, 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 centered on the subject of premature death in rock n’ roll's realm ... 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 d├ębut from a unique talent.


Monday, October 1, 2012

ROPE by Martin Livings

When Stephen King first published The Green Mile in serial format back in 96, the story was my first large-scale exposure to death row in a fictional setting. Not just death row, but in particular the electric chair. 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 mold of John Grisham, to frightening serial killer fodder, the tortuous playground of writers 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 cultural awareness. Upon finishing the book, I’m sure I’m not the only reader whose curiosity was suddenly piqued by the taboo of execution – not only the myriad methods involved, but also the untold stories of those behind the curtain: the men and women charged with dispensing unfeeling 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 small space, and it’s personally how I like my paragraphs: weighty with exposition and lean on dialogue. In some ways Rope is partly reminiscent of The Green Mile, whereby story is ultimately foreshadowed by sin that leads to a different kind of redemption.

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