Posts Tagged Fiction

‘Mask of Silver’ by Rosemary Jones

After enjoying Aconyte’s previous adventure in the Arkham universe, I was keen to see what would come next. This series really does seem to be going from strength to strength, and – I’m very pleased to say – takes the work of HP Lovecraft and expands on it in ways that would probably make him retreat to his room with smelling salts.

This tale is one of 1920s-era Hollywood and our narrator is Jeany Lin, a sought-after costume designer and makeup artist for a troupe of horror movie makers. Oh, and she’s half-Oriental. And the female script-writer for their latest movie has a girlfriend. Who is – gasp! – a successful actress! Out of the way, Mr Lovecraft, the twentieth century has arrived!

Right away, Jeany is endearing to her readers. Despite the horrors that she’s seen, she is clever, exceptionally pragmatic and aware of the ‘otherworldliness’ of Hollywood compared to the realities of post-War life. She loves what she does, and the almost Repertory-theatre-like group that she works with make a close-knit family that we’re rooting for from the start.

Famous horror director Sydney Fitzmaurice is taking the group to his ancestral home just outside Arkham to work on a passion project that promises to be the scariest film of his career. Is this just studio hokum or something darker? Of course it’s the latter, but the book takes time establishing the characters and their history together, as well as the unique mood of Arkham itself and its residents. By the time doors start slamming and the cast’s nightmares affect their reality, we can no more leave than they can.

The issues of discrimination are touched upon realistically rather than heavy-handedly, and the general theme of ‘other-ness’ winds through the narrative as the uncanny events begin to ramp up. Jeany has to create the titular Mask, but most of the cast seem to wear their own just to survive anyway. The insidious magic of their location easily works its way into the monstrous movie, and we’re genuinely not sure who’ll make it out alive.

‘Mask of Silver’ is absolutely gripping, and although it’s considerably longer than any Lovecraft tale, it takes its time as needed and I was sorry to see it end. I had my favourite characters, suspicions on who was behind the devious activities, and wish to see more of the Arkham natives – who may well appear in other books in this series (I hope).

I absolutely do recommend this, for the mood of Golden Age silent movies combined with ancient unknowable evils. Magic of all kinds, and regular folks trying to survive in many ways.

I loved ‘Mask of Silver’, and am very much looking forward to the next title in this excellent series.

‘Mask of Silver’ is out now in paperback and ebook editions.

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‘A Dowry of Blood’, by S.T. Gibson

Years ago, I discovered a copy of ‘Dracula’ in my local library. I remember doing virtually nothing for the rest of that day – just curled up on the sofa, engrossed in one of the most enduring tales in English literature.

I’ve loved vampire tales ever since. This was in the days before it was a trend, and what was published had to perform as a novel first, a sub-genre second. So it was that I found Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Fred Saberhagen and others. Adult vampires, not teen dreams.

Years later, Kim Newman published ‘Anno Dracula’, one of his super-meta books that references virtually everything in its field, fictional or historical. Dracula rubs shoulders with Oscar Wilde, Lestat and Jack the Ripper. Everything swirls together in a marvellous characterful universe.

This books feels as if it is naturally part of that world.

As the book opens, we are being addressed by the narrator as she tells her history. She is one of several ‘brides’, to a long-lived warrior vampire lord whose name she vows never to mention.

We follow the little vampire family through the streets of European cities and beyond, exploring anew what it feels like to witness the world changing around you, while remaining stuck, frozen in time exactly as you were when you changed into an almost-immortal night hunter.

The writing is beautiful. I found myself absolutely captivated, swept up in the tale as I was with the original story back in my own past. I felt the same wish for the characters to grow beyond their immortal lives, while knowing they never could. I felt traces of the different versions of the same characters (although to my knowledge, only Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has specifically tackled the Brides themselves before).

We, the reader, know who this is, of course. But it’s one perspective, and somehow a voice we’ve never heard before, despite its familiarity. I became as emotionally involved with the protagonist as I had with those well-told vampire tales gone by, and I realized all over again what was missing from the mass-marketed iterations flooding the bookshops these days.

Please do pick up this book and see for yourself. I’m already looking to buy the physical version of the ebook I have, and will absolutely be reading it again, as well as looking out for whatever this author writes in future.

A huge recommend.

‘A Dowry of Blood’ will be released on January 31 as paperback and ebook. I was kindly provided with an ebook version of this title by the author, in exchange for a fair review.

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‘The Last Ritual’, by S.A. Sidor

Disclaimer: I was so excited to receive this book for review! I’d seen the new Arkham Horror series as Coming Soon for most of the year, and given the popularity of Lovecraft-inspired fiction happening right now (almost as if the world’s gone mad), I was hopeful that such a dedicated selection of books from proven writers would be both true to the Mythos and also original for the 21st Century.

I’m glad to report that this book hits it out of the park on both fronts.

The story is narrated by famed artist Alden Oakes, and while we are told he is revealing horrific events from his youth, he seems at first to be more of a rich old man simply reminiscing. But soon you’re (appropriately) sucked into the tale and the momentum begins to rise…

We travel from the Old Ways of Europe to the newer – and stranger – happenings in Arkham itself. The town is as much a character as any of the humans, and it’s fascinating to see that while it’s comparatively forward-thinking (particularly with regard to women and people of colour), it’s built on a truly ancient foundation.

It’s difficult to speak about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice to say that the tale is the best sort of rollercoaster matinee adventure. By spending time with the protagonists, we become invested and genuinely caring for their wellbeing in a way that Lovecraft never really had time for. I was also relieved that the author has far more liberal views than HP himself – no racism, sexism or xenophobia here.

Initially, I felt that the book could be shorter, but I quickly realized that it’s precisely as long as it needs to be. While Alden can seem a little Wooster-like with his rank and privilege, he realizes it and tries to use it to help those other than himself. He’s a silly young man, who is forced to grow up and face the very real dangers of his home town (hopefully without pranging Father’s Rolls).

The 1920s setting is both well-researched and appropriate. Prohibition is something that everyone kind of works around; the recent war was its own kind of madness. Arkham is almost an island, tangentially affected by the wider movements of America at large but also looking far beyond, to the stars and the deepest seas, where the mysteries are strangely hypnotic, even attractive.

The characters are so well-drawn that I was casting them in my head (and missing Christopher Lee for one crucial baddie!). This would make a wonderful TV serial, akin to the recent ‘Lovecraft Country’.

I enjoyed my time in this strange land immensely, and am looking forward very much to the next titles in the series. Absolutely recommended.

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‘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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Review: ‘Deus Ex Mechanic’

Deus ex Mechanic cover

‘Deus Ex Mechanic’ is the first full-length novel by Ryann Fletcher. I was kindly provided with an early ARC, but have promised an unbiased review.

This book has had a difficult birth. Originally scheduled to be hitting shelves (and ereaders) last year, it was delayed due to the publisher unfortunately closing down. The author took the brave decision to self-publish… and I’m very glad that she did.

We are taken on the journey of Alice, a humble mechanic in a future where humanity has colonised the galaxy and potentially beyond. We see a little of her life deep in the bowels of an enormous starship – where she’s busy working on the boiler with her trusty wrench. For this is science fiction, but with a generous slice of steampunk thrown in. Shiny and space-age on the outside, messy and basic underneath!

The action begins quickly, as Alice is kidnapped during an explosive incursion by a pirate crew led by Captain Violet. And if you know anything about this book, the sparks that soon fly aren’t just those in the boiler room.

The universe-building is intriguing, and definitely drew me in. There are clear parallels with the benevolent socio-political framework of ‘Star Trek’, with hints of the ‘Warhammer 40K’ fascistic society – but let’s not hide the obvious. This is a loving wink at ‘Firefly’, with a hierarchical ruling political body being quietly opposed by small groups of active pirates and folks just looking to survive.

Alice faces the dilemma of the ‘safe’ captivity of her regular role within the not-Federation, versus the freedom and danger offered by the crew of the ‘Cricket’. It isn’t an easy decision, and the pirates each have their own opinions on their new mechanic. It’s not ‘hard’ sci-fi, instead absolutely its own engaging form of space-opera drama.

The characters soon become like old friends. I was again reminded of ‘Firefly’, with its tiny-but-unique gang of criminals, but the Cricket is definitely its own beast. I found myself mentally casting a TV series as the book went on, because I so wanted to see the action-packed adventures of Violet, Ned, Hyun and the rest.

The story moves along fast, with pleasant pauses in the action to allow breathing room for relationships to develop… before jumping back into Major Peril again! It’s tremendous fun, moving smoothly from one incident to the next, but never feeling rushed. We know why everyone acts as they do, and are keen to see what happens as events unfold.

Also, this isn’t ‘just pin a cog on it’ steampunk. I was so glad that the universe seems organic (so to speak), without any hand-waving technobabble to make the plot progress. Pipes and boilers must be maintained to make starships run. Whole worlds of people rebel against the wider accepted society just by living their lives. Freedom under threat is preferable to (comparative) luxurious captivity. Literal Steam-Punk.

I understand that a sequel is already complete, and am very pleased to say that I can’t wait to see what shenanigans Alice and Violet get up to next. A fantastic first novel. Definitely recommended.

‘Deus ex Mechanic’ is available on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etcetc.

Note: Because the in-person event had to be cancelled, Ryann is kindly holding an online Launch Party tonight on her YouTube channel. I’ll be there!

 

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Dreams and Stories

An early one today. I’ve not long woken from a very engrossing and interesting dream, in which I became aware enough to properly take note of what was happening. It inspired me enough that I want to share.

In the dream, I was in a place similar to an American-style shopping mall… but it was clearly a little different. I went into a bookstore (naturally), which seemed like Borders. Except that every book was a Horror title. And not just ‘Horror’ in genre, but I could feel the dark energy flowing from the book, with blackness seeping from the pages. These were Horror books where the full origins and consequences of the story were very, very real. The terror was tangible, with that heartfelt (stomach-clenching) truth felt in dreams.

I looked around. The other customers were monsters. And not just simple cutesy monsters, in a nice, manageable sense – proper evil, roaming around me.

They looked at me, the tiny human standing among them. They acknowledged me, like any other person in the regular world while shopping. And they moved on.

Was I in a nightmare? The familiar world of the bookstore, which used to be a haven for me in the bustling corporate nastiness of a shopping centre, transformed into a trap? Should I start running?

I found my way outside and asked someone. He smiled at me.

“Well, it’s you, isn’t it. I mean, look at you!”

I looked at myself. Seemed normal. I explained that I couldn’t see what he saw in me. He smiled again, and showed me.

Slowly, a vision appeared, of myself… clad in smooth black armour, almost like an insectile carapace, flowing around me, holding gracefully around my limbs as I moved. It was as impossible as the rest of the surroundings – but I was fearsome. I felt strong.

The monsters left me alone, because I was prepared.

The lucid nature of the dream leads me to believe that it was rather more of a shamanic experience than I thought, at first. I woke feeling refreshed but also inspired, to investigate what I had learned.

I’ve always loved horror books. Even those that aren’t ostensibly horror, when I first started to explore the library – Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, or the slightly more subversive children’s books (before Young Adult became a genre). Roald Dahl knew that kids like to scare themselves silly. When you’re young, you’re in a world that seems insane, with irrational rules and unknowns around every corner. You learn to survive, a fact reflected in all of those stories of brave young heroes doing their best. Look at the Narnia stories, with each of the four children facing their own challenge (I was also disappointed that poor Susan finally succumbed in the last book, to boring adulthood).

At University, my dissertation thesis was on the American Horror Novel. I haven’t been able to read a Stephen King novel since, but that’s due to overload. I still love seeing where the genre goes, as it reaches out into the fears of a new generation. The exploration of how we can survive.

My knowledge of Horror as a ‘type’ seems to have armoured me – but it wasn’t a preventative, a physical block. My armour flowed with me, so that I could deal with what was to come on my terms. I was the reader; I was prepared (as best I could be). But there was also a certain advantage gained from the knowledge that I deeply, truly love the stories that I’m engaging with.

Those folk who want to ban or censor so-called ‘dangerous’ books have always rather misunderstood what they’re dealing with. If your favourite book is ‘Carrie’, you’re not going to emulate the events of the novel – the book is a catharsis, helping you to deal with bullying, for example, through the extreme conclusion of the story. It’s relatively simple, but still a fairytale (unless any readers have telekinesis, in which case we might be in trouble).

The man who shot John Lennon had been reading ‘Carrie’. What does that mean? Not a great deal, I’d say. Based on sales, he was one among many millions.

Genre fiction is often sneered at. ‘Horror’ is sidelined, never receiving any mainstream awards. As if we’re scared of it? Or we just don’t know what to do with it, in its extreme, fantastic nature? A little like ‘Metal’ music, if you don’t understand its passion, it’s easy to denigrate.

Stephen King knows this. In his wonderful book about horror, ‘Danse Macabre’, he suggests that each of us have our fears, genetically carried through our human/animal line from our ancestors since their cave days (I’ve seen this in psychological books as well, interestingly). That fear is like a gorilla – it can run rampant, sending us into rage or madness as we lash out. Most of us have learned to cage the gorilla, so we can function in society. Some haven’t, and they’re the ones who get locked away.

The danger, King says, is those people whose cage has become rusted shut. They haven’t let the gorilla out to play enough, or even acknowledged it, in a conscious manner. Those people believe that they have conquered their fears. They haven’t. The gorilla is just waiting for the right moment… but the sad thing is that by locking it away, they are missing out on – hiding – a part of themselves.

Whether you deal with your fears by imagination (books, movies, video games) or extreme physical action (rollercoasters, bungee jumping), we have to face our fears sooner or later in life. And chances are, we’ll actually be able to manage. The fear of the fear is usually worse than the fear itself – so many stories tell us that. ‘Alien’ showed that the monster we couldn’t see was scarier than the physical creature that we could. Once the baddie appears in front of us, we can deal with it (somehow). Even if it seems insurmountable, we can do something, once we confront it with eyes open.

The baddies in story are often more interesting than the heroes – because there’s more to explore, more that we want to know. The recent Joker depiction by Heath Ledger was terrifying because his motivation was pretty much nil – that’s not a horror device, that’s sociological. That character could have existed in any genre of tale. The Destructive Force of Nature… who looks like one of us.

Our love of story is a very human trait, almost a need. We carry it from our ancestors, and use it to tell tales that would be familiar to them. The Vampire, the Werewolf, the Thing without a Name – each generation carries these on, finding its own Bards. But also the Hero and the Heroine (not at all in a submissive sense)… and Us. The reader, outside the tale looking in, but also so very much engaged with what’s going on. It’s just a matter of how we relate and understand.

How we tell our own stories. And how prepared we are to deal with the events that are yet to come – not hiding, but engaging, seeking understanding, and taking right action. On our own terms.

Sometimes we do need to hide, like our scared animal ancestors. But sooner or later, we have to stand. It’s good to know your own self, your strengths and your fears, when that time comes.

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