A Killer Among Demons – review by Martin Livings

A-Killer-Among-DemonsA Killer Among Demons

Edited by Craig Bezant

Published by Dark Prints Press 2013

Review by Martin Livings

In his introduction to A Killer Among Demons, editor Craig Bezant states that two of his greatest passions in fiction are crime and horror. Dark Prints Press has previously published well-received anthologies dealing in both of these genres – crime fiction in The One That Got Away and horror in the Australian Shadows Award-winning Surviving the End – but this is his first foray into combining the two, and personally I hope it’s not the last. A Killer Among Demons collects the work of a variety of authors, both local and international, all writing tales of supernatural crimes, ranging from the most personal and human – revenge, murder, obsession – all the way to the apocalypse itself, and even beyond.

The quality of stories in A Killer Among Demons is uniformly high. One fantastic element of every single story in the collection is the sheer invisibility of the writing, which is a staple of fine crime fiction especially. The reader is simply absorbed into the stories, swallowed whole, without being aware of the act of reading. As the much-missed Elmore Leonard once sagely advised, “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it”. This is a rule all ten writers in this collection clearly followed. Different readers will find different favourites – I personally lean away from the more standard gumshoe-style stories towards other more unique viewpoints and plots – but I can’t imagine any fans of crime or horror fiction being disappointed here.

Some of my personal favourites were “Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter, about a justice-meting body-swapping demon which finds itself up against something even worse than itself, Alan Baxter’s nigh-on Lovecraftian “The Beat of a Pale Wing”, which blends dark magical rituals with urban mobsters, and “Angel’s Town” by Madhvi Ramani, a bloodily violent tale of revenge from beyond the grave taken to its logical conclusion. The absolute highlight for me though was Stephen M. Irwin’s “24/7”, the longest – and closing – story in the anthology, which was a damn near perfect horror crime tale in my mind. Again, revenge takes a front seat (literally!) in this story of a man driven (again, literally!) to extremes by jealousy and rage. From mysterious beginning to inevitable but surprising end, “24/7” is a great piece of storytelling, and a fine end to the book.

With only ten stories nestled in its pages, and consisting of a mere 224 pages, this collection is short, sharp and deadly effective, like a bullet with a crucifix carved into it. This book is a must-read for fans of horror, crime and all things in between, and Bezant deserves great credit for gathering the work together and shaping it into a very unique and absorbing anthology.

(A brief disclaimer – Craig Bezant and Dark Prints Press are also the publishers of my collection Living With the Dead. But don’t hold that against them!)

- review by Martin Livings

Perth-based writer Martin Livings has had over sixty short stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His short works have been listed in the Recommended Reading list in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and have appeared in both The Year’s Best Australian SF & Fantasy, Volumes Two and Five, and Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2006 and 2008 editions. His first novel, Carnies, was published by Hachette Livre in 2006, and was nominated for both the Aurealis and Ditmar awards. His collection, Living With The Dead, is available now. Find him at www.martinlivings.com/


Bloodstones, edited by Amanda Pillar – Review

Edited by Amanda Pillar
Publisher: Ticonderoga Publications
Paperback: 295 pages
ISBN: 978-1-9218-5727-6

Inside these covers are 17 stories of unusual creatures, myths and legends, in dark, urban fantasy settings.

Bloodstones is being touted by Ticonderoga Publications as the first volume in an annual anthology of dark fantasy. We haven’t had one of those in Australia for a while, and I’d love for something like it to succeed. I know Ticonderoga have the chops to achieve such a feat, and Amanda Pillar is an accomplished editor.

The focus of Bloodstones is on non-traditional dark urban fantasy, which is to say: no vampires, no werewolves, no zombies. Authors were encouraged to submit tales of more unusual creatures from myth, to delve into cultures and legends that have not been repeated ad nauseum over the years.

Before I even get to the stories, and how they might (or might not) fit this brief, I was sort of held up by the cover. It seems unrelated to the anthology’s theme and that didn’t work to entice me into the book’s pages as a good cover should. Mainly, I would have liked to have seen a cover more immediately indicative of the anthology’s contents.

But, don’t judge a book by its cover! It’s the words inside that count. So read I did, and the stories are indeed an exploration into the unknown. Diverse are the monsters, and quite a few of them I’d never heard of before and hope I never have to meet in the future. There are also plenty of familiar but less utilised creatures from myth on display too. The trick is in how the stories use this grab-bag of monstrosities to tell an effective tale, and in that aspect Bloodstones is something of an uneven success.

The anthology kicks of strongly with ‘The Bull in Winter’ by Dirk Flinthart, a tale of old gods, myths and legends struggling to find relevance in a modern world where film, tv and viral YouTube videos are the vectors for the creation of new myths and monsters. Well written and full of great ideas, ‘The Bull in Winter’ really dragged me in, kept me reading and left me eager to delve deeper into Bloodstones.

Nicole Murphy’s ‘Eurydale’ continues the theme of monsters of legend adapting to the modernity of suburbia. Clash of the Titans meets Desperate Housewives is how I’d describe ‘Eurydale’, and I mean that in a good way because the story works on many more levels than that, even touching on the the issue of immigrants trying to maintain their cultures in a new world.

‘A Small Bad Thing’ by Penelope Love introduces us to the Malaysian Toyol, a malevolent child-like goblin created by black magicians to steal money and jewellery, the small things. Delving deep into how the ‘small things’ can also affect a relationship, Penelope Love leaves us no doubt by the end as to who the real monsters are.

Jenny Blackford’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ is delicious with description, combining the dark and fertile imagination of children with the myth of the Faerie Queen. Pete Kempshall tackles the issue of misusing government welfare (specifically the ‘Baby Bonus’) in dark and gruesome ways in ‘Dead Inside’, and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by MLD Curelas brings us a banshee battling the waning power of belief.

‘Sanaa’s Army’ by Joanne Anderton is a powerful tale of art and decay, and how things new and beautiful (and sometimes dangerous) can be created from death. Richard Harland’s ‘A Mother’s Love’ brings the dark-side of Santiera from Cuba to the Western Suburbs of Sydney, and Christine Morgan reawakens ancient Egypt into the modern day in ‘Ferreau’s Curse’.

Thoraiya Dyer’s prose in ‘Surviving Film’ is, as usual, both beautiful and unsettling. Her merging of cinematic history and ancient myth is short, but also possibly the most fully realised and complete of the stories in the anthology. Like Flinthart’s ‘The Bull in Winter’, it stands high above the other tales in the collection.

That’s not to say other stories mentioned, or those yet to come, aren’t good. Indeed, ‘And the Dead Shall Be Raised’ by Kat Otis is ripe with new and unnerving ideas, imagining tours of the world’s most famous cemetery as conducted by the dead themselves… but don’t stray off the path and don’t stay after dark. Karen Maric weaves a bittersweet tale of love and loss set amongst the clash of old in new in the fast moving world of modern China in ‘Embracing the Invisible’, and Dan Rabart’s ‘The Bone Plate’ is a dark, modern-take on the ancient myth of deriving power from those you slay.

In ‘Cephalopoda Obsessia’ Alan Baxter shows us — with about 1/50th the words it took China Mieville — why we should definitely still fear the awakening of the Kraken. Both Erin Underwood’s ‘The Foam Born’ and Vivian Cathe’s ‘Skin’ stay with Baxter’s nautical theme, but in very different and effective ways: ‘The Foam Born’ updates the myth of Aphrodite’s birth into something much more sinister, and ‘Skin’ re-examines the myth of the Selkie from a new and disturbing perspective.

Stephanie Gunn’s ‘The Skin of the World’ takes us deeper yet, away from the suburbs and those who’d ply their coastal fringes, peeling away the layers to reveal a darker world beneath. ‘The Skin of the World’ was, for me, a perfect end to Bloodstones. Like the places revealed, the story has a depth had that me wanting more, feeling there was more going on in this world than a single story could reveal. Very pleasing then to read in the author’s introduction, that ‘The Skin of the World’ is only a small part of a much larger series of stories and novels, of which I’m certainly keen to read more.

As I said, overall I found Bloodstones to be something of an uneven collection. There certainly aren’t any bad stories, just a few that I felt didn’t quite meet the brief, as outlined in the blurb and in Seanan McGuire’s Introduction. Some stories worked for me more than others, and a lot of that just comes down to personal preference. Others readers are sure to get different mileage, and on the strength of just a few stories alone (Dirk Flinthart’s, Thoraiya Dyer’s and Stephanie Gunn’s especially) I would certainly recommend Bloodstones for readers looking for more in their horror fiction than just sparkly vampires and overripe zombies.

Lexicon by Max Barry – review

lexiconAt an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets”, and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.

This is the description of Lexicon, the latest novel by Melbourne-based author, Max Barry. And it is a masterpiece. The story focusses primarily on two characters – street-smart teen runaway, Emily Ruff, and confused and innocent victim, Wil Parke.

Wil is brutally kidnapped by men who claim he is the secret weapon in a war between strange people with powerful magic, though he knows nothing of what is going on. Emily is recruited for her naturally persuasive skills after a poet watches her conning punters with a find-the-lady card game on the street.

The story is told in a mosaic of history style, following Emily’s education and introduction to the powerful and mysterious organisation of poets, alongside Wil’s present-day battle alongside the strange and enigmatic Eliot.

Barry’s handling of the timelines and the seemingly broken way the story is told is masterful, but that’s not the real genius of this book. For me, it’s in the connections Barry draws between modern privacy and data collection concerns and ancient ideas of persuasion and magic. He dissects language as a tool and as a weapon in fascinating and, frankly, quite frightening ways. The ideas behind the powers of coercion and the very real possibility of an organisation like that of the poets in this book are sobering.

There are a few small issues I have. Without spoilers, things like where the word in Broken Hill came from and how it was managed by the lab techs was probably the biggest issue for me. That’ll make sense when you read the book. And read the book you absolutely should. Aside from a few unanswered questions and small flaws in the internal logic of the story, this is nonetheless an ambitious and really quite astonishing achievement. One of the best books I’ve read in ages, I highly recommend it. I’ll certainly be looking to read this author’s other work now.