Select Page
never trust an englishman with a book…

never trust an englishman with a book…

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an honest-to-goodness page-turner. Like the best thrillers, Alan Baxter’s Bound drops you in the thick of the action from the very first sentence and doesn’t let up until the book is closed. But, unlike a simple airport potboiler, the world it drags you through drips with blood and magic and horror, a shadowed underworld of cage fighters, of Kin, and of dark powers that threaten to overwhelm all who come within their orbit.

On the surface, Bound is a fast-paced, action-packed urban fantasy about a martial artist with magically enhanced abilities, who finds himself both the prisoner of an ancient and malevolent power, and the focus of a brutal supernatural manhunt. Like a classic kung fu movie, the fights are gritty and authentic, the foes of increasingly insurmountable power and ability. But the deeper Alex Caine gets drawn into the book’s central mystery (and, yes, that’s a pun, but no spoilers here), the less he can simply fight his way out, the more he needs to draw on inner resources: his training, his will, and his wonderfully messed up relationship with the beautiful and monstrous Silhouette.

No matter how fast the plot compels you to rip through it, there’s a dark depth to Bound that will resonate long after you put it down. And this resonance comes on the one hand from the book’s central theme of control, and on the other from the fact that Alex Caine is himself a monster. Alan Baxter has penned a truly unique protagonist in Caine, at once superhero and antihero; and perhaps something beyond even that, something darker still. As Caine’s power increases, so too does his capacity to commit unspeakable atrocities, horrors that are far from heroic, that threaten to engulf him and endanger those he loves.

Not for the faint of heart (I’m a calloused horror reader, and at least one scene in this book damaged me), Bound is fantastic storytelling in the vein of Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, but with a merciless black streak. If you like a double-dose of darkness with your sense of wonder, Bound will deliver. At breakneck speed.

So what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a copy now!

last year, when we were young

last year, when we were young

I should have written this review months ago. It was sometime in June that I finished Andrew J McKiernan’s Last Year, When We Were Young and it’s close on September now, and in all that time I’ve been mulling on what I could possibly write that might do justice to this extraordinary collection of stories.

To say it is a diverse collection is both to state the obvious and to understate the breadth of ground—the genres, the ideas, the voices—that these fifteen stories cover. The tales are so varied, you might think that the only thread binding them is the restless imagination of their author. With enviable facility, McKiernan shifts between literary horror, contemporary supernatural, alternate history, steampunk, noir, and the classic, old-fashioned ghost story, without ever descending into the archness of “genre-busting”. This dissociative identity disorder is a great strength of the collection, but it also caused me no small amount of frustration; I came to the end of so many of the stories, enraptured, clamouring for more of the same, only to be dragged off in some entirely other direction. But the stories are so stylish, so effortlessly cinematic, evoking worlds that bloom outward far beyond their handful of pages, that I would soon be sucked in again, only to face the same disjunct at the next story’s end.

While I enjoyed every course of this unusual degustation, there are some clear standouts. McKiernan is an able fantasist, and his vivid otherworlds—the steampunk un-Sydney of Calliope, the Alien-like space nightmare of The Wanderer in the Darkness, and the incomparable All the Clowns in Clowntown—are all intelligent, compelling, and vividly realised genre pieces. But the stories that really shine, that grab you, fiercely, by the heart, are those that sit just askew of the everyday—the dreamlike ache of The Memory of Water, the claustrophobic and unutterably creepy The Message, and, my personal favourite, the all-too-real roadside horror of White Lines, White Crosses.

I said before that the only thread connecting these stories was McKiernan’s restless imagination. That is not entirely fair. There is another strand on which they hang like baroque pearls, that animates them, that breathes real life into the people and places, and that is an earnest, sensitive, honest-to-goodness compassion. Underpinning every one of these stories—no matter the horrors or honeytraps, the betrayals or brutalities that lie in wait for their protagonists—there is a tenderness and an empathy, an open, aching heart.

WiHM7 review #3: The Road by Amanda J. Spedding

WiHM7 review #3: The Road by Amanda J. Spedding

I thought I was getting off lightly this week.

When The Road To Golgotha, Cohesion Comics’ first double A-side release, turned up on my doorstep I figured it would be a breeze. There’s less to read. There’s pictures. Easy.

Nope.

Amanda J. Spedding’s tale The Road is simple only deceptively. On the surface, it tells of a woman’s descent from the earthly realm to the dark centre of the Underworld, to a union with the devil himself. Beneath that, however, is a quest for identity, an inverted hero’s journey, in which the protagonist must endure ritual trials, overcoming demonic manifestations of her deepest fears in order to reach her full, most frightening potential.

Riley’s story begins at the train station of a reimagined Erebus, gateway to the modern Underworld. She is in search of magic, real magic, like the kind she used to read about as a kid. She is fleeing her mother, her country upbringing (the mythological significance of both becoming apparent at the story’s climax), and is prepared to endure anything to find that hidden power, to claim it for herself.

The true beginning of her story is lost, both for the reader and for Riley, left behind in that other world on the surface. We are left to imagine what kind of rite or initiation would be required for passage on the Midnight Train—although, given the destination, we can assume it to have been somewhat final. But there is to be no nostalgia, no looking back.

At Erebus she is challenged by a series of increasingly otherworldly beings (who may or may not be manifestations of Charon, Cerberus, Lethe and others), whose relation to the recognisable, modern world becomes more and more tenuous as Riley descends. With each encounter, Riley’s responses become more proactive, more violent, as she is transformed from cautious neophyte to bloodthirsty antihero.

By the end of her journey, she has shed not only all of her clothes, but all of her worldly inhibitions. Killing becomes for her an art, in which she sees the beauty of dismembered limbs, the poetry of jutting bone, the wonder of gushing blood. It is through unrestrained violence that Riley gains agency, is finally liberated. In choosing a new, magical name, Riley is reunited with her uncle–husband, the god of the Underworld, becoming her own forgotten god-self.

Like Spedding’s award-winning Shovel-Man Joe, or the more recent The Whims of My Enemy, The Road is a story of transformation, a journey from the strictures imposed by personal history and society to the liberation of the deepest, darkest potential of the self.

In Shovel-Man Joe, it is Carmody’s status as fallen woman that singles her out for the scorn of her fellow passengers, yet also marks her for survival, making possible her decisive final gambit. The Whims of My Enemy tells of a different kind of fall, as Jael struggles to hold in check her inner beast, to survive a journey on the brutal Death Train without committing murder. The Road, by comparison, is a Crowleyan initiation rite, in which the debasement of conventional morality is a worthy aim and a vital step on the path to the Will (to appropriate Crowley’s own terminology) and the highest level of magical attainment: the realisation of our own dark divinity.

These are stories of women making choices that readers of a more conventional, conservative bent may baulk at, choices that empower through sexuality, through violence and dark magic. They are tough stories, with tough characters who punch and smash and gouge their way through living nightmares without flinching, without turning away. They are emotionally and morally complex stories, sleight-of-hand stories that distract us with vivid depictions of brutality and gore, while nurturing seeds of true horror in the dark hearts and opaque decisions of the protagonists.

You can connect with AJ at her website or on Twitter @AJSpedding. Even better, you can buy The Road to Golgotha (which includes His Own Personal Golgotha by G. N. Braun and artwork by Monty Borror) from Cohesion Press.

 

WiHM7 review #2: The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall by Kaaron Warren

WiHM7 review #2: The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall by Kaaron Warren

Kaaron Warren’s 2015 collection, The Gate Theory, is a slim volume. I’m glad. Since I first read its six stories late last year, the images and feelings they evoked have clung to me like a persistent dream. Or a haunting. Any more would have been too much.

To confess: I avoided reading The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall for a long time after first picking up the book, almost entirely due to its kooky, hooky title (which, of course, makes perfect sense once you finish the story). As is so often the case with things we avoid, it is now hands-down my favourite story in the collection, embodying so many of the things I love about Warren’s writing: the spare, vivid prose; the descent from a dark everyday to an even darker fantastic; and, above all, the skewed perspective of a narrator who is, at best, amoral, contaminating the reader with their toxic point of view.

Gaze Dogs is the story of Rosie McDonald, a morally destitute rare dog dealer, who takes a commission to find and capture vampire dogs for a corrupt doctor. She goes with her sister-in-law, Gina, animal psychologist and psychic, to the island of Viti Levu in Fiji, where they discover that the vampire dogs and their giant yellow alpha can be found at the lowest, darkest point of an interconnected series of waterfalls.

The descent through the nine waterfalls is like a journey into hell. From the brightness and gaiety of the tourist picnic spot at the first, past ponds where the fish are precooked by volcanic currents, past giant toxic mushrooms and pools bloated with the roe of a submerged leviathan, lower and lower, to the realm of the bloodsucking vampire dogs and their mythic, demonic leader.

In spite of all the horrors and grotesqueries that we witness—from the hawkers selling beetle carapaces the size of turtle shells (that made me think of the black meat of the giant centipede in Naked Lunch), to the dreadful confrontation with the great yellow alpha—the darkest corner of this tale lurks within Rosie herself.

Rosie is not afraid to lie. She pretends that her husband is the boss and she just his gofer, a self-serving deception that both comforts her male clientele and divorces her from any sense of responsibility. In reality, her husband is a paraplegic in a care home, victim of a savage biting attack by one of their dogs. You get the impression that all of Rosie’s perceptions are warped by denial. At one point, describing her husband’s condition, she says, ”Bobble head, I’d call him if I were a cruel person.” A sentence that perfectly captures her desire to both do the thing she knows to be bad and distance herself from it at the same time.

Throughout, Gina acts as a sort of external conscience for Rosie. She feels deeply the pain of all the animals they encounter, is physically and psychically oppressed by her empathy. But this strength of Gina’s, which Rosie has clearly used to great advantage throughout her career, will prove to be her undoing in their encounter with the alpha at Nine Waterfall.

How Rosie responds to Gina’s predicament is, to me at least, the central horror of this story. You can assume a certain level of moral bankruptcy in someone in this line of work, but her detachment from what she does is almost sociopathic. Almost. While she is not afraid to lie, cheat or deceive, you can’t help feel that Rosie’s not all bad; there is a sense of slippage, of veering off the path one bad decision at a time. At the story’s beginning there is still some hope that Rosie may be able to redeem herself in some way, to cleave to some remaining fragment of inherent goodness. “You’re not so tough,” says Gina, as Rosie stuffs wide-eyed gaze dogs into her jacket. But when we find out what they are really for, all hope of redemption is lost. And Rosie has still further to fall before the story’s end.

One review quoted on the back of the collection describes Warren’s prose as “elliptical”. I wonder how long they searched to find that wonderfully specific word. It is the perfect adjective for prose that is both precise and ambiguous, concise and amorphous. We are led by measured steps along a clearly defined path, feeling all the while that we are in safe hands. Yet, outside the range of our narrow lens, all is in shadow. And, in the shadows, dreadful things are lurking.

Gaze Dogs, like the other stories in this fine collection, captures the elusive quality of a dream: the strong, darkly surreal images, but also the resonant feeling. So often—in stories, as in dreams—the feeling dies away and only the image remains, a husk that has lost reference to its once-valuable contents. The power of Warren’s stories is to hold onto both simultaneously, giving us the image–feeling complex in all its potency, and nightmares all the more frightening for being only half glimpsed.

You can connect with Kaaron at her website  or on Twitter @KaaronWarren. Or, even better, you can go ahead and buy The Gate Theory from Cohesion Press.

WiHM7 review #1: Fence Lines by Joanne Anderton

WiHM7 review #1: Fence Lines by Joanne Anderton

It was hard to choose which story to review from Joanne Anderton’s award-winning collection, The Bone Chime Song. So many, gnarled, unusual tales, so many weird, memorable worlds, each rendered in spare, vivid prose. Fence Lines drew short straw for being one of the most recent stories in the collection and one I hadn’t yet read.

The story is set in an unnamed post-apocalyptic world, in which the mysterious fence lines of the title are all that stand between sanctuary and the horrors outside, the flames and toxic ash, the deathless ghouls among the fires. From this scorched backdrop, Anne, her young son Tom, and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law, emerge seeking refuge within a desolate sugar plantation, maintained by Kara and her dying mother.

Kara grants them safety behind the fence lines, if they are willing to work for it. The plantation is coming to the end of a “cycle”, and the harvest and gruelling refinement of the sugar is too much for just one person. From the beginning, there is tension and distrust between the two women, neither willing to let down their guard, and the new arrivals, conditioned by fear—having survived for years in the burning world—are reluctant to believe in the possibility of safety, afraid to sleep with both eyes closed.

Soon, though, Anne and Tom are gaining strength—the hard work, the sleep, and the mysterious properties of the sugar are bringing them back to life. But as the cycle comes to its close Kara begins to change, and the true nature of the plantation and the fence lines that protect it is revealed. The cost of safety will be high for Anne and her family, but what they receive in exchange will last longer than their bodies.

Anderton paints the world of Fence Lines with deft strokes, leaving just enough to the imagination to bring both the mysteries of the plantation and the horrors of the world outside to vivid life. The apocalypse and its perpetuation—the flames that never stop burning, the foul ash that infects all it touches—are only ever alluded to, yet the sense of relief we feel behind the ghostly fence lines is palpable. Although the plantation produces only a single crop, it is a world still *alive*. And though the work is blistering, back-breaking, harsh in the extreme (you could write a whole essay on Fence Line’s inversion of the horrors of colonial sugar plantations), it is a holiday compared with the moment-to-moment fight for survival in the world beyond.

The story’s central mystery is unveiled with precision, like the mist that slowly clears to reveal the fate of Tom’s grandfather. Although, by increments, we discover the truth of the fence lines, they are never described visually by either protagonist, leaving them mysterious and other-worldly even after the story’s close. Similarly, the grotesque transformation of Kara’s mother and of the intimate connection the two women share with the plantation’s crop—the true meaning of the “cycle”—is present from the very beginning of the story, yet comes into focus only in the final scenes. When at last we get the big reveal, it is delivered not as a twist but as an inevitability.

At the heart of Fence Lines is a story of transformation and rebirth. The sugar is a heretical communion, the literal body of an eternal woman who is both the mother of herself and her own daughter, all one in the sprouting cane. The refugees are nourished by her, they are sustained, long enough to perpetuate the cycle before they too are drawn to join the fence lines. The world outside is an embodiment of hell: the flames never die, and neither do the creatures within them, those once-humans, irreversibly transformed by the ash and smoke. By comparison, the plantation is a kind of heaven, a physical gateway to a happier afterlife, in which those who enter—who the fence lines, motivated by their own hunger, allow to enter—are granted an eternity in the service of the cane goddess.

But Fence Lines is not some trite religious metaphor. It condenses and distills themes that run through the other stories in Anderton’s collection. That transcendence is bound to the body and its transformation: the cane bursting from within the dying mother and sprouting beneath Kara’s skin parallels Mah Song, with its Akira-like tech-gods and the painful bodily modifications of its chosen ones; there are reflections, too, in the life-giving properties of art in Sanaa’s Army, or the covert self-mutilations of the narrator in Always A Price. That magic and sacrifice are intertwined, inseparable: like Casimir’s buried atrocities in The Bone Chime Song, the creature in the alley in Always A Price, the very literal sacrifice of the Mah Song.

Reading this collection you can’t help but feel that, while the world may be filled with horror and darkness, and though events will likely not work out the way we want them too, there is a core of goodness at the heart of things.

You can visit Joanne at joanneanderton.com. Or, even better, buy The Bone Chime Song direct from the Fablecroft shop.