X’s For Eyes by Laird Barron – review

Xs-For-EyesX’s For Eyes by Laird Barron

Journalstone

Brothers Macbeth and Drederick Tooms should have it made as fair-haired scions of an impossibly rich and powerful family of industrialists. Alas, life is complicated in mid-1950s USA when you’re child heirs to the throne of Sword Enterprises, a corporation that has enshrined Machiavelli’s The Prince as its operating manual and whose patriarch believes, Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds, would be a swell company logo.

I’ve been a fan of Barron’s work for a while now, and his fiction can be very dark. There’s certainly darkness here, but there’s a decent amount of comedy and light-heartedness too.

This novella sees rival Men-In-Black-esque corporations, Lovecraftian mythos, twisted characters with convoluted pasts, and a mind-bending plot. It’s some truly bizarre and compelling stuff.

The characters have very little agency, but that’s rather the point it seems. On the one hand, it annoyed me initially as I read, because it seemed like nothing more than a litany of stuff happening to people. But as we observe these people juggled like inconsequential balls by cosmic powers beyond understanding, the larger truths of the story become clearer. Though never clear. And the novella is a perfect length for stories of this kind. All tremendous fun.

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The Ritual by Adam Nevill – review

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The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Pan Publishing

This is a fantastic horror novel, one that is genuinely chilling and disturbing. It’s really two books in a way – everything up to about halfway is one terrible story, then the second half is another, equally horrible story. But both are expertly knitted together at the end.

In all honesty, I preferred the cold, open, chilling first “story” more – four friends lost in ancient woods in Scandinavia, being hunted by… something. Nevill’s writing absolutely shines here and in many ways a novella of this story alone with a different ending might have been close to perfect.

But when the story switches (can’t tell you why or how without spoilers) it becomes an entirely different type of horror story. It’s still brilliant and I enjoyed the whole book, but I’ve seen some reviews where people loved the first half and hated the second half. I can understand that, but I still enjoyed both and the story as a whole by the end was very satisfying. It’s the first of Nevill’s novels I’ve read, and I’ll certainly be reading more.

A tremendous tale of old gods, ritual horror and desperate survival. Highly recommended.

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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.

THE 11th BLACK BOOK OF HORROR – Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

11thblackbook_zpsbsssfok2THE 11th BLACK BOOK OF HORROR

Edited by Charles Black

Mortbury Press 2015

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

The eleventh volume in the successful series edited and published by Charles Black continues to offer new, exciting material to horror fans, always with a distinct trend towards the more graphic aspects of horrific fiction.

The current instalment includes fourteen original tales penned by established authors in the field , whose contributions provide an effective source of shivers and disturbing sensations for many evenings of pleasantly scary reading.

Among the various stories assembled in the book, some have especially pleased your humble reviewer.

First of all I’d like to pinpoint “Two Five Seven” by Thana Niveau, a creepy tale where an old radio becomes the vessel to convey forbidden information about the relative of a little girl.

Another winner is Edward Pearce’s “ East Wickenden”, a sinister piece à la MR James, portraying a greedy man haunted by an inhuman creature seeking vengeance.

Equally worth mentioning is the excellent “Teatime” by Anna Taborska, a vivid horror story featuring a sadistic killer who finally gets his long due punishment.

Other, well crafted and accomplished tales are Stephen Bacon’s “Lord of the Sand” , depicting the well deserved fate of a stern former sergeant who served in Iraq, and David Williamson’s “And the Dead Shall Speak”, which revisits in an unusual way the time honoured subject of the séance by showing how a fraud gets in actual contact with a vengeful spirit.

The other contributors to the present volume are Tom Johnstone, John Llewellyn Probert, Kate Farrell, Stuart Young, David A Riley, Tony Earnshaw, Marion Pitman, Sam Dawson and John Forth.

Long live this hair-raising, delightful horror anthology series!

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Day Boy by Trent Jamieson – review

IMG_4555Day Boy by Trent Jamieson

Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922182838

I’ve been a fan of Trent Jamieson for a long time but even then I was dubious about this book. A vampire story. I’m so over vampire stories.They’ve been done to death (pun intended) and so many people claim to be re-imagining the vampire mythology yet so few actually do. Peter Watts did in Blindsight, for example, but most people just put the same old mythology in different settings.

But Jamieson has created something truly brilliant here. In some ways he has put the same old mythology in a different setting – in this case, a post-apocalyptic Australia – but he’s also tweaked that mythology in certain fundamental ways that makes it fresh and interesting. A lot of it isn’t explained and if I have any problems with this book, that’s it. I’d like to know more about the apocalypse and the rise of the Masters, but given our first-person point of view character it’s understandable that we don’t get that.

In some ways this is a YA novel, then it gets utterly dark and brutal and you wonder if teenagers might be better off avoiding it. Then again, I was reading Stephen King at 12 years old and I turned out fine. (Shut up, you can’t prove anything.) Regardless, this is a book with a massively wide appeal even though it’s solidly genre in so many ways – slightly-YA, horror, post-apocalypse, yet a fantastic achievement in the exploration of relationships, particularly the father/son relationship, that will appeal to any reader, whether they enjoy genre fiction as a rule or not.

The characters are strong, especially the sad and brooding Dain. Through him we get insights into the lives of the Masters, refracted through the lens of the protagonist, Mark’s, understanding. Mark is the Day Boy of the title, tasked with looking after his Master during the day and he lives in a small regional town with a few other Masters, each with their own Day Boy. They politics of the Masters and the intertwined yet separate politics of the Day Boys is fascinating and superbly drawn.

The writing is beautiful and powerful, an assurance of voice that’s rare and hard to maintain, but Jamieson nails it. The mythology of the new world, post-whatever kind of apocalypse that’s never fully explained, is rich and compelling. I have one question that still snags – why are there no female masters? But it’s not a question that in any way detracts from the book, and, according to a comment I read from Jamieson, there is a reason and he hopes to explore that in future books. So I’ll be looking forward to that. I loved this book and consumed in no time at all. Highly recommended!

(And mark my words, this book will win awards.)

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