Monday, 4 September 2023

TREATISES ON DUST by Timothy J. Jarvis (Swan River Press 2023)

 I received a review copy of this book. 

And a rather lovely book it is, too. As expected with Swan River, the cover is a true work of art. But what of the contents? Well, according to the blurb, Treatises on Dust is not supernatural fiction in the conventional sense. However, as one might expect from a Machen enthusiast, there is plenty to entertain lovers of weird fiction. Several of the shorter pieces can be found on YouTube if you want to sample the book's' feel', and hear the author himself. I particularly like 'Let It Be a Blood Ape on the Prowl'. We've all had days like that.

Friday, 18 August 2023

Saturday, 5 August 2023

BLOOD WOOD by Christopher Harman (Sarob Press 2023) - Review

Blood Wood is a substantial collection of longer stories and novellas by Christopher Harman, a former librarian who lives in Preston, Lancashire. He’s been writing for decades now, but this is only the second collection of his work – the first being The Heaven Tree in 2017 (also from Sarob Press). Surprising? Perhaps. Harman’s work is relatively low-key and makes demands on the reader thanks to his intense, borderline hallucinatory style. Nobody ever just drinks a cup of tea in a Harman story. There is symbolism in every chipped cup, every soggy teabag. These require immersion, acceptance, and a willingness to sink into the world of seemingly commonplace events that soon acquire disturbing and eventually terrifying implications.

Thus in the first story, ‘The Children’, a man with a regular office job moves to a location to cut his commute time. This is as banal as you can get, but from the start you get the sense that things are not quite right with the area. The walk from the new house to the local supermarket takes the protagonist through a small woodland area. Very nice. Maybe see some squirrels. But no. A series of encounters suggest that there is Something in the trees. An old man with a knowledge of local history tells a tale of a woman who was ill-used and whose now-demolished house one stood in the forest. The protagonist finds a doorknob embedded in the earth. A chance discovery? And what lies behind the legend of Mother Grace?

While I wouldn't call Harman an Aickmanesque writer, it is notable that both tend to focus on isolated individuals who are not in sync with their surroundings or other people. Thus in ‘Passengers’ a visitor to a country house tries and fails to connect with the pretty girl at reception. Instead, he finds a very different kind of intimacy when he boards a miniature railway constructed by an old-time tycoon who defies locals’ warnings about a particular feature of his estate. Railways, especially tunnels, are a traditional setting for ghost stories, but this one works far better than most of the tales in this sub-genre.

‘A Better Place’ is another winner, in which a detailed description of mundane events – a car breaks down on a motorway – meshing carefully with local folklore and strange phenomena. Again we have what might be termed a Harmanesque character, somewhat lonely and yearning to make a connection with an attractive woman. Is this why such men (and they’re usually men) are so vulnerable? The supernatural element is very well handled, and the parallels between the modern hoodie and garments of earlier centuries is a neat device.

‘In the Fields’ owes a little (I suspect) to an M.R. James tale involving a kite. The possibilities of drystone walls as a setting for quiet horror are thoroughly explored, and while the story remains enigmatic – or I’m stupid and didn’t get it – the atmosphere of a walking holiday is well evoked. There’s also some solid characterisation, not least of an eccentric chap in a long coat.

‘Dinckley Green’ is unusual in that it begins in media res with the protagonist already in trouble, before flashing back to the time when things went wrong. Or at least, one time. Harman is good at using frail characters, in this case a man who has suffered a serious mental breakdown and is trying to recover. What better occupation that the gentle business of photographic historic libraries? But in the quaint village of Dinckley Green, it seems that the location of the library proved problematic, causing some pushback from earlier occupants of the site…

I mentioned Aickman earlier, aware that for some there is no such thing as an ‘Aickmanesque’ story. However, it’s arguable that in ‘Sleepers’ Harman comes very close. Two hikers in the north of England come to a strange place, discovering a mystery involving the (now defunct) railway. The setup is similar to ‘The Trains’, not least because the protagonist is not getting on very well with his hiking companion. There, however, the parallels end. This one is a stonking example of the railway ghost story which took your humble reviewer in a surprising direction – without a valid ticket.

‘By Leaf and Thorn’ is somewhat lighter in mood, but only just. Here the obligatory lonesome bloke is the deputy editor of a provincial newspaper with a new, thrusting editor. The latter wants to ditch the eponymous natural history column. The eccentric, tweedy lady who supposedly writes the pieces warns that their true author will be miffed. Strange things happen. Here the conflict is clearly between human vanity and arrogance and nature’s power. It’s a recurring theme, but that’s because it’s a good one and unlikely to become outmoded in our time.

Very different in theme and outcome is ‘The Last to be Found’, which is a Christmas story without the slightest hint of warmth or jollity. A house party of a familiar type (imagine an updated ‘Smee’ by Burrage or ‘Blind Man’s Hood’ by Carr) is gathered and stories are told. Not exactly ghost stories. A game of hide and seek is recalled, in which Something Bad Happened and much remains mysteries. A shadow on the wall hints at a strange terror. The situation is recreated, albeit unwittingly, and the situation in the house becomes even less cosy.

One of Harman’s virtues is his grasp of folklore – how very specific, local, and messy it can be. In ‘Jackdaw Jack’ the legend of a dodgy village character intertwines with the life of a young woman researching family history. The weird presence of the eponymous watcher is nicely evoked, and the overall feel is close to the folk horror TV classics of the Seventies.

The same can be said for ‘Dark Tracks’ which I had the pleasure of publishing in Supernatural Tales. It’s the quintessential Harman story. Isolated protagonist? Check. Bit of quirky history/folklore/culture? Yep, it’s a disused ghost train. An oddball supporting cast? Oh yes. A growing sense of something strange and menacing? In spades. What I particularly like about this is the way it combines the grubbily commonplace with the sense of Something lurking beneath provincial England. A Lovecraftian gem.

‘Hill Shadows’ is another story set in the North of England, where I reside, though on the other side of the Pennines to Cumbria, where a key event occurs. Two students – one awkward and a bit dreamy, the other an urbane charmer – go to an art gallery that is showing paintings by a deceased artist. The latter had a strange experience in the wilds of the Lake District, one that somehow infected his landscapes with a strange, ominous presence. It has one of those endings. You know the kind I mean. I enjoyed it a lot.

‘Blood Wood’, the final story, is previously unpublished and maintains the high standard of the earlier work. And it was while reading this one that I finally grasped something that had been niggling at the back of my ‘mind’ for a while. It’s the story of a mobile librarian who – as the title suggests – encounters something disturbing on his travels in a rural district. And I suddenly thought ‘Alan Bennett’. Christopher Harman is the Alan Bennett of weird fiction. His lonely, socially awkward characters do not have bittersweet encounters that change their lives, but strange fixations that destroy them. I could be wrong, but it’s as good a place to end a review as any.

If you can get your hands on this book (it’s already sold out), you will not be disappointed, if you prefer the subtle side of the genre.

Another excellent Paul Lowe illustration for the cover!

Sunday, 16 July 2023

Helen Grant - Interview, and new book news!

Thanks to Helen for taking the time to reply to my questions about her life as a writer and her new novel, which sounds fascinating! 

Lots of people write in childhood but then stop. Did you – like many writers – simply keep going?

I did indeed write in childhood – both for my own amusement and for school assignments, which I absolutely loved. At my primary school we had one particular teacher who was really interested in creative writing and would set us quite challenging topics. The supposed punishment for some misdemeanour or other was to write two sides on "an empty room" and I always kind of fancied doing that! And yes, I did just keep going, though the types of things I wrote varied. When I started working, I didn't have a lot of time for writing, but whenever I travelled anywhere (which I did a lot in my 20s) I kept diaries. I still have them: scruffy handwritten notebooks full of remarks like "We are currently camping in a police compound in Loreli in the Baluchistan region, as there are bandits around here." I always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when we moved to Germany and I was at home with two young kids, that I had enough time to do that. By that time, my head was absolutely bursting with ideas. I used to drop the children off at Kindergarten at 7.30am and then work like a demon until noon, when I had to pick them up again. Limited time certainly concentrates the mind. My first published novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was written in those circumstances. I haven't stopped since.

You began as a YA author – was that in part because you wanted to emulate favourite authors you read as a girl?

I have always had authors I admire – M.R.James, obviously, among others – but that was not an influence on my first works being YA. I didn't actually set out to write YA at all; my first book was simply the book I felt moved to write, and when my agent showed it to publishers, Penguin picked it up for their YA range. I've never adopted different styles for my "YA" work and my adult stuff. The thing that probably categorised my first six novels as YA was the fact that the protagonists are all young: teens or even pre-teens. I suppose the other thing is that even where there is gore in my work, I tend to write euphemistically about it; I concentrate on the light flashing on the blade as it descends, rather than the knife burying itself in someone's flesh. That's probably perceived as more suitable for the YA market, but that genuinely isn't why I write that way. If I do emulate favourite authors, it's because I admire the way they express the unspeakable without rubbing the reader's nose in it. M.R.James is an absolute master at this. In "Count Magnus", for example, he tells us, " I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place." So poor Anders Bjornsen has literally had his face destroyed – blood everywhere, eyeballs sitting there in the naked skull – but somehow M.R.James manages to tell us this without being gross. That gets a chef's kiss from me.

Your first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal – did that shock you or were you all ‘yeah, damn right it’s good’?

Ach – in my debut days I don't think I realised how damn' lucky I was to get that shortlisting. I probably wasn't shocked enough. When you consider how many books come out every year, it was an amazing thing to happen, and also super helpful – even now, over a decade later, I get a tiny sales blip whenever the Carnegie is in the news. I don't think I'm a literary genius or anything. Generally when a piece of work is finished, I am pleased with it, but I don't think I'm more deserving than the next person. It's a certainty that there are brilliant, beautifully-written books out there which don't win anything.

Wednesday, 12 July 2023

THE BLACK PILGRIMAGE 2 - Further Explorations in Supernatural Fiction, by Rosemary Pardoe


New from David Sutton's Shadow Publishing comes the second volume of writings by Ro Pardoe, one of the greatest experts on supernatural fiction and related matters. Like the first Black Pilgrimage, this is a collection of short, non-fiction pieces from various sources. Ro edited Ghosts & Scholars magazine for four decades, and as you'd imagine there are a lot of interesting items from that. She is also one of the founders of The Everlasting Club, a ghost story-oriented Amateur Press Association (APA), contributing a regular column entitled 'Lady Wardrop's Notes'. There are also book introductions - of which she's done a lot! - and book reviews. 

Much of this material is of course focused on M.R. James and related matters, such as the role dogs in his stories (canines feature more often than cats, surprisingly), but the sheer range of interests is exhilarating. I didn't know there was a writer called John Harrison (no relation to M. John Harrison). Then there's the question of whether M.R. James could have read any of Lovecraft's fiction. It turns out that he might well have encountered 'The Horror at Red Hook' (oh dear) and 'Pickman's Model' (phew). We may never know for sure, though.

And I defy anyone not to want to read  an essay on 'The Mad World of Lionel Fanthorpe and Noel Boston'. For those who don't know, Lionel Fanthorpe wrote a vast number of tales for a magazine called Supernatural Stories (and a ton of stuff for other publications) under a bewildering variety of pen names - Pel Torro, Bron Fane, Trebor Thorpe. Like Carmilla, he rearranged the letters in his real name to create these alter egos. Unlike Carmilla, he later joined the Anglican clergy. All very odd and good clean fun.

It's not just books, of course. Broadcasting features strongly, notably the Pilgrim series of radio dramas by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. There's also an interview with the author from the magazine Wormwood, which rounds off a splendid book. I love eclectic, amusing volumes I can dip into at any time, especially when I'm at a loose end or feeling down. This is one of the best examples of that kind of book.

Monday, 10 July 2023

CAGED OCEAN DUB by Dare Segun Falowo (Tartarus Press 2023)

Our humanity both unites us and divides us. The question is always one of balance. In this debut collection by a rising star of Nigerian fiction, stories range in genre from social realism (sort of) to science fiction by way of weird tales. These stories are sometimes bloody, often magical, and rise to remarkable heights of stylistic power. I learned a lot and was often puzzled - both good reactions to a new author, I find. So, what is going on?

The book is divided into three sections - 'Hungers', 'Ghosts', and 'Heralds'. Among the first group of stories is 'Oases'. a terrible, intense account of a refugee family trekking across the Sahel, bringing home the perma-crisis that besets so much of our world. 'Eating Keolin' is a horror/fantasy about a pregnant woman whose world is disrupted by colonial forces that are countered by Amazonian women and leopards. 

'October in Eran Riro', a novella, tells of an internal migrant - that most Victorian of characters - but in a distinctly Nigerian way. October is a girl whose family falls from middle class prosperity to penury overnight, and who - after both parents are dead - finds her way to the eponymous restaurant. Strange people and strange rituals are described in detail, which is both hallucinatory and oddly matter-of-fact. Magical realism, of a kind. 

Among the Ghosts is 'Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa', in which a beautiful model purchases a magic mirror from a roadside hawker. A conventional theme, certainly, but again Falowo takes their reader in new and strange directions. 'Vain Knife' is also a highly effective tale of horror, in which the Devil prompts a put-upon son to stab his tyrannical mother. Things do not go as planned, to say the least. 

The last section, 'Heralds', consists of science fiction stories. These reminded me a little of the New Wave science fiction of the late Sixties/early Seventies. That was an explicit reaction against the tropes and 'realistic' prose conventions of Golden Age sf - the works of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein etc. I don't know if Falowo is reacting against something similar in Nigerian fictional traditions, but I wouldn't be surprised. The result is startling, demanding, and never less than interesting. 

'Biscuit and Milk', a tale of interstellar travel, is exuberantly inventive, offering a future struggling with ecological collapse but also worth living in - quite an achievement. The short and powerful 'What Not to Do When Spelunking in Anambra' is a clever, surreal variant on the idea of alien influences discovered here on earth. 

Caged Ocean Dub is a remarkable debut. Falowo's style is poetic, dazzling, and perhaps a little heady for readers used to firm restraint and the (very artificial) conventions of realism. There is power here, and strangeness, and a sense of cultural tectonic plates shifting. None of which are bad things. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2023

Sneaky peek at the next issue


Cover by Sam Dawson - 'Owl and Henge by Moonlight' sort of thing. Really good!

But what of the contents, hmm?

New stories by: 

James Machin
Steve Duffy
S.M. Cashmore
Tina Rath
Mark Nicholls
Tim Jeffreys

TREATISES ON DUST by Timothy J. Jarvis (Swan River Press 2023)

 I received a review copy of this book.  And a rather lovely book it is, too. As expected with Swan River, the cover is a true work of art. ...