Archive for October, 2020

‘In Darkness, Shadows Breathe’, by Catherine Cavendish

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

Spooky hospitals seem to be their own trend in recent horror. From ‘The Ward‘ to ‘American Horror Story: Asylum‘, we’ve seen so many protagonists fight their way free of institutions that are supposed to be helping them. Perhaps timely in this crazy year?

This book takes the best of such tropes and combines them into a modern gothic tale that gripped me immediately with its spooky atmosphere, despite being set in a very mundane world – at least at first.

We initially follow Carol, a down-to-earth supermarket worker who’s flat-sitting in a posh apartment complex. But it’s adjacent to a hospital that was refurbished from a building with a much darker purpose… and soon this very 21st-century lady is being drawn back in time.

About halfway through, the action jumps to Nessa, a patient in the hospital undergoing a pretty intense operation. From the easy familiarity of Carol’s life, we suddenly find ourselves with a woman going through a traumatic fight with cancer. It’s a bit of a jarring leap, but we quickly find out what they have in common – besides strange dreams (memories?) of a filthy secret corridor echoing with screams.

I don’t want to give any more away, but a thread of uncertainty runs through the book as to whether our protagonists are hallucinating due to medication, going actually mad, or somehow really experiencing supernatural horrors that are tied up with the hospital’s history.

I enjoyed the start of this book. A brief prologue reminded me of Dennis Wheatley somewhat, before settling down into ultra-normality. Once we relate to the character, strange things start to happen, making it easy to ask what we would do in her situation. So far, so good.

The writing is beautiful and an absolute pleasure to read, with the transition from modern renal ward to Victorian squalor (or reality to Otherworld) being almost tangible.

However, the leap from one character to another is sudden and, for me, rather awkward. Nessa’s cancer treatments are focused on quite closely, and that’s a very different type of horror. When we see Carol again, I was left wondering what happened during the time we weren’t with her – because something certainly had.

The book demands a bit of work on the reader’s part, I think, to keep up with what’s going on in several deliberately confusing scenarios. Hospital staff don’t seem to act rationally, and the dreamlike quality of the ghostly scenes draws you along. It all seems to be heading for some sort of dramatic crescendo, as you think the characters have broken free to safety…

And then the book stops.

I don’t think this is a cliff-hanger, but it was shocking in the worst way. Nothing was resolved, I was left wondering what would happen next, and the commitment to both Carol and Nessa’s battles seemed wasted. It’s almost as if the author wanted a ‘Seven’-like twist, but couldn’t quite manage it.

I did enjoy the majority of this book, but it left me wanting more. I found myself making up ‘head-canon’ for the characters, because I genuinely did like them and I wanted more than the author gives. The final part of the novel appears to have vanished.

Do check this out if you like a bit of modern gothic on a dark winter night. Personally though, it left me feeling that the protagonists had checked out of the story early, as well as the hospital.

Available to pre-order on Amazon, for release mid-January 2021.

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‘Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire’, ed: Nicole Givens Kurtz

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

‘Slay’ is a vampire anthology unlike any I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few! It focuses on black protagonists, with stories divided into sections based on which country they take place. This is neither all-white or all-UK/American, and is refreshingly contemporary.

This book arrived just as I was about to start a month of hospital treatments, so it became my companion every day. It’s a good-sized book, but I usually read a story or two at a time – because I often had to pause between each tale to think on what I’d just read!

The majority of these stories are excellent, really A+ writing for their original settings and memorable characters. These are far more than black caricatures; most protagonists have fully-realized histories, motivations, families and friendships sketched excellently over their limited pages. This book has a lovely undercurrent of community, with each tale managing to share space in both the supernatural world and that of the real.

At first, I actually began to not quite believe my eyes – was this an anthology with no ‘bad’ stories? The first third were all remarkable, and I’ve made notes of their authors to follow up.

But then I found a couple of chapters that seemed to have (oddly) missed out on an editor. The storylines seemed interesting, but I couldn’t get past the errors or writing style. This may be an issue with this being a review copy, but it was a shame nonetheless.

Stephen King once said that while novels were akin to a relationship, short stories were a loving kiss from writer to reader. These are kisses that I’ll remember fondly and gladly revisit.

Huge thanks to the editor who made this all happen, and the authors who shared their worlds with this jaded old vampire fan – and reminded me why I love this genre all over again.

Definitely recommended.

‘Slay’ is available now, from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Wishes at Samhain

Years ago, when I was a first-year University student in London, a friend and I travelled into the city to explore. Most of the day was spent in the magical otherworld of Camden Market, but then we decided to head out to Highgate Cemetery.

We were disorganised Goths, though, and in those pre-Internet days, had no way to check times… so when we arrived, it was closed.

To this day, I have never been closer to it than this:

Years later, I’m working at home during a time when the world seems utterly crazy, and I think back to that day.

I think of those people stuck at home due to lockdown – or physical illness, social anxiety, any number of social ills. 2020 has been a year of confusion and fear. Those innocent happy days have been a pleasant memory.

I find myself wondering if/how I can recreate such times. I’m older and (possibly) a bit wiser. The world is still out there. We must tread with more awareness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m pondering what I can do, if/how I can overcome the challenges of 2020.

Samhain is imminent, so this seems timely. ‘Pagan New Year’ means looking back, but also forward, for me. I feel – I hope – that I’m moving from what can I do to combine again with what do I want to do. And then how can I achieve that?

Those University days were lessons in themselves, as we tested our boundaries, away from home for the first time in a strange, new place. I feel as if we’re doing that again this year, but within the new confines of safety measures. This isn’t play; this is serious. We’re isolated for the sake of the wider community (and news reports show how difficult many people find that).

I’ve always been aware of the needs of others, often to the detriment of my own (that’s another story). Testing my own wants, putting toes into the water of ‘Yes, this is something that I genuinely would like to do’ seems revolutionary, and immensely freeing.

I’m actively battling the depression, armed with recent hospital treatment and backed my loving family and friends. I feel hopeful and determined. Even in this year like no other, steps can be taken to move forward.

I would like to go walking in the woods. To explore the secret places, down tiny roads and hidden tracks.

I would like to spend time with those past, in cemeteries or historic buildings. Perhaps the catacombs under Nottingham or the stone circles of Derbyshire Peaks.

I would like to find a decent camera to record these moments, and practice my photography to capture and share.

And back home, as the cold days draw in, I would like to explore my creativity. Maybe to design something with yarn, to actually learn to sew…

I would very much like to add more words to the beginnings of my fiction. To write, so that I can take up challenges that come my way.

I would like to not be scared to do. To be as nervous but excited as I was on that long-ago day. To see where my feet – and my mind – take me.

Let’s make our wishes on this 2020 Samhain. Apart, yet together across the technological community. A deep breath, acknowledgement of limits but still honouring our dreams.

What are We Doing?

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