About Andrew J McKiernan

Andrew J McKiernan is an author and illustrator living and working on the Central Coast of New South Wales. His stories have been published in magazines such as Aurealis and Midnight Echo and in numerous anthologies. He has twice (2009 & 2010) been shortlisted for both Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, as well as a Ditmar Award shortlisting in 2010. His illustrations have appeared in books and magazine as well as gracing their covers. http://www.andrewmckiernan.com

REVIEW: Robert Hood’s Peripheral Visions

peripheralvisionsPeripheral Visions – The Collected Ghost Stories, Robert Hood

Release Date: 06 April 2015
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-925148-65-7
E-book ISBN: 978-1-925148-68-8
Publisher: IFWG Publishing Australia
Website: ghoststories.roberthoodwriter.com

Sometimes, books are more than the words they contain. Sometimes they are art, they are artefacts. Before we’ve read a single word, just the look or the weight can act as a promise and begin the process of drawing us in. Such is the way with Robert Hood’s Peripheral Visions: Collected Ghost Stories, the first collection from IFWG Australia‘s new dark-fantasy and horror imprint Dark Phases.

I have the single-volume hardcover edition. It is 44 stories, 800 pages, 22,000 words, and as big and heavy as a housebrick. It is a beautiful thing to hold and to behold. The cover and internal illustrations — an eerie combination of photography and digital manipulation — by renowned artist Nick Stathopoulos, only add weight to the care and professionalism afforded this volume by IFGW Australia and Cohesion Press (who did the design and layout).

Why so much trouble for a single-author collection? Well, a short biography on Robert Hood might help answer that question… Robert Hood’s writing has been pushing the bounds of science fiction, fantasy and crime for the past 40 years. He has published five YA novels, an adult epic-fantasy novel, fifteen children’s books, four collections of short fiction, he has written plays, academic articles, poetry and co-edited anthologies of horror and crime. He has won seven Ditmar Awards and a Golden Dagger Award, and published over 120 short stories in anthologies and magazines all around the world.

That’s a resumé worthy of respect, and this collection shows it.

What then of the stories?

Peripheral Visions, as the full title suggests, collects all of Hood’s ghost stories published during the period 1986-2015. That includes 41 previously published stories and three written specifically for the collection. The quality varies from good to brilliant, some being more to my taste than others, but not once was I disappointed by a story or its outcome.

Not all tales are ‘Ghost Stories’ in the M.R.Jamesian sense, though the style is well represented, and not all are as obvious as others. Indeed some I would hesitate to call ghost stories at all, but definitely agree with the repeated use of the term ‘Haunted’ in each of the six sections that divide the book — HAUNTED PLACES, HAUNTED FAMILIES, HAUNTED MINDS, HAUNTED YOUTH, HAUNTED VENGEANCE, HAUNTED REALITIES — because many of the characters are haunted not by ghosts, but their pasts and by places and in some cases haunted even by themselves. But all the characters are indeed haunted in various ways and I found this link between the stories much stronger than any offered by the presence of mere spirits from beyond the grave.

Favourites? Surprisingly, I found some of the oldest stories to be amongst those that most impressed me. “Necropolis”, published in 1986, is a tale strong with the nuclear fear of the late Cold War, and “Grandma and the Girls” (1989) comes across as a strange but pleasing blend of Robert Aickman and Flannery O’Connor. The highlight of the book for me was the 2008 novelette “Kulpunya”, where the beauty and horror of Australia’s outback are rendered in exquisite prose more than worthy of the ancient spirits Hood evokes. Indeed, with many of the stories, it is the strong Australian ‘sense of place’ that makes them most satisfying.

There is, predictably in a collection of this size, some repetition in the themes and even the characters we encounter. But overall, there is enough variety to keep the mind enthralled without getting bored or feeling like you’ve read it all before.

Available in a variety of formats — single-volume deluxe hardcover, 2 volume trade paperback, and a digital version — I’d certainly recommend shelling out for the complete hardcover package. The stories are well worth it, and the expert presentation along with Nick Stathopolous’s stunning illustrations, make it something you’ll want to pull from the shelf time and time again.

Far Cry 4: Game Review

Far Cry 4 Limited Editon packshot_0Finished Far Cry 4 (Xbox360 version) yesterday and, ultimately, it is a disappointing game.

First-person open world games are my favourites, and some entries in the Far Cry series are right up there alongside S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as amongst the best.

In a way, Far Cry 1 started it all — allowing you to approach missions any way you wanted, with few set paths. Far Cry 2 took this to a new level, opening up an enormous map of a (fictional) section of Africa, allowing the player a great deal of latitude in playing the game the way they wanted to. Far Cry 2 also took itself quite seriously and, despite it’s numerous bugs and annoyances, was a dark tale with strong messages on ethics in war. I think Far Cry 2 is still my favourite of the series.

Far Cry 3 was gorgeous to look at, and took the open world nature of FC2 to an entirely new level. Unfortunately, the POV character was lame and the story even worse. There were also constant attempts at humour, and I mean ‘attempts’, and a silliness to many of the characters that meant it lacked the gritty seriousness of FC2. There was no real moral, and the ethics questionable. I played it through though (twice!) because the scenery was so good, and I just loved the open nature of the missions. Ultimately, though, I was hoping for more with FC4.

Far Cry 4 started out well. The new setting (Himalayas instead of a tropical island or African savannah) is even more gorgeous than previous games, and the verticality of the mountains make a very different game. And the wildlife! Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants, Eagles, Honeybadgers (damn those honeybadgers!)… they’re all there and they’re all dangerous. Very exciting! But the story? The POV character’s motives for getting involved in all this are near non-existent. You’re just expected to become a bloodthirsty killer, mowing down natives in another near Third-World country, for the flimsiest of reasons (if there actually WAS a reason). And the ending was VERY anti-climactic. After pouring over 45 hours of my time into this thing, I expected some sort of pay-off at the end. Unfortunately, it just sort of fizzes out.

So, the verdict? It looks amazing and there have been many improvements — getting the wingsuit so early really opens up the world, and the single-seat ‘Buzzer’ helicopters were a great addition. I still loved just wandering the world, climbing mountains and traversing valleys, watching Eagles snatch pigs from the fields and bears fight with tigers. I loved stealthing into an enemy compound and taking guys out silently, without anyone ever knowing I was there… and if things turned to shit, I always had enough heavy weaponry to blast my way to victory. It was AMAZING!

But the story? It sucked so bad that it spoiled a lot of the experience. I’m glad I played it, but I probably won’t be going back to Kyrat. Hopefully, FC5 will return to the much more serious (and adult) style storyline of FC2.

Score: 7/10

Suspended in Dusk – edited by Simon Dewar

Dusk - New CoverSuspended in Dusk
Edited by Simon Dewar

Books of the Dead Press (http://www.booksofthedeadpress.com/)

E-book: ISBN 978-1-3117783-8-3

Suspended in Dusk is the latest anthology from Books of the Dead Press, and the first for Australian editor Simon Dewar. Featuring 19 tales from a mix of new and established authors, and an Introduction from Bram Stoker Award winning Jack Ketchum, Suspended in Dusk hits its mark more often than not.

It’s always nice to have a note or introduction from the editor at the beginning of an anthology; a place where they lay out their thoughts and goals, their targets. Simon Dewar does this quite well. He tells us that the stories are all about change, and the time between those changes, much as dusk is “the time between the light and the dark”. Some of these changes are metaphorical, while others take the theme more literally.

To the stories! I might not mention all of them, only the ones that really stood out for me. This isn’t to say there are any bad stories in the anthology; that certainly is not the case. Any reader of horror will find plenty here to enjoy, and those tales that weren’t quite for me might be exactly what another reader is looking for.

First up is “Shadows of the Lonely Dead” by Alan Baxter. A beautifully written and emotional tale about a hospice worker with a gift for easing the suffering of the elderly as they slip into death, and the greater ramifications that has on her life outside the hospice.

Anna Reith’s “Taming the Stars” takes us to the dark and gritty side of Paris, with a story of a drug deal that goes horribly (and gruesomely) wrong.

“At Dusk They Come” by Armand Rosamilia invites us to a small town at sundown for a well written take on the old tale of ‘doing deals’ with the nefarious.

Rayne Hall brings us “Burning”, a Southern Gothic flavoured tale with a conspicuous absence of the supernatural, but all the more horrifying for it. As in real life, “Burning” shows us that people — especially those isolated by the ignorance of their own world views — are much worse than any monsters we can imagine.

Chris Limb’s “Ministry of Outrage” reveals the truth behind corporate and governmental conspiracies in a tale that is all too scary for its plausibility.

S.G.Larner give us “Shades of Memory”, wherein religion reigns in post-apocalyptic Queensland and the locals of a small town, who want no part of it, have some ghostly superstitions of their own.

“Outside In”, a strange Quantumpunk-Noir by Brett Rex Bruton, is one of the most interesting pieces in the anthology. The story begins: “I swing my feet from beneath the warmth of the covers and down on the cold, hard copy of the opening paragraph.” I stared at that — “hard copy of the opening paragraph” — and wondered if it was some kind of strange typo, an editor comment inserted by accident. But no, it isn’t! It is slips like this, in the walls of reality between story and reader, that really made this story stand out for me. Very original.

“Would To God That We Were There” is the creepy science fiction story I’ve been trying to write for years. I even have 10yr old opening paragraphs that are near identical. I never knew where to take the idea, but it seems that Tom Dullemond did, and he does a wonderful job of it.

The anthology finishes on a high-note too, with Angela Slatter’s “The Way Of All Flesh”. I love a post-apocalyptic story that doesn’t focus on the actual apocalypse, but instead on the people who are trying to get on with their lives. “The Way Of All Flesh” accomplishes this brilliantly, subtly, and in the end, very disturbingly. It’s a fitting end to a collection of so many fine stories.

As I said earlier, I haven’t mentioned every story; only those that really shined for me. A few of the other stories just weren’t too my taste, or I found personally a little predictable. Be that as it may, there isn’t a badly written story here. In every case the prose is well constructed and, in a few stories, quite beautiful.

Overall, Suspended In Dusk is a very good collection. I think there’s something for everyone’s taste — vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies and plenty of nefarious humans — and I’m sure others will find things in certain stories that I didn’t. And the mix of authors, old and new, means you’re certain to be introduced to someone you’ve never heard of before: which I think is the most exciting part about reading any horror anthology.

 

‘Home and Hearth’ by Angela Slatter – Review

homehearthHome and Hearth
by Angela Slatter

Spectral Press (http://spectralpress.wordpress.com)

This review will be short, because ‘Home and Hearth’ is short. That’s not to say the length in any way diminishes its strength or impact. Instead, the growing sense of dread seems concentrated, distilled to achieve maximum effect.

‘Home and Hearth’, by Angela Slatter, is the 11th title in Spectral Press’s Chapbook series. It concerns a family. A mother and her child and the absent father who has abandonded them. Caroline is a newly-single mum. Her teenage son, Simon, has returned home after being found innocent of a horrible crime, and like all parents Caroline feels a strong need to protect him. It is a base instinct; the knowledge that we’d do anything for our children, no matter what. That our love for them is unconditional. But what happens when that instinct is questioned? When the evidence mounts that our child may no longer be who we think they are?

‘Home and Hearth’ is a story that preys on readers through their empathy. Simon is as distant as any teenager can be, but Caroline’s love and fear are both realistically (and somewhat heartbreakingly) rendered right up until the confrontational end. And, if you’re a parent, that ending will probably hit you hardest of all.

Well paced and beautifully written, Angela Slatter has created a small and unsettling masterpiece with ‘Home and Hearth’. Highly recommended.

Bloodstones, edited by Amanda Pillar – Review

Bloodstones
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.