Today we welcome author Jon Black to the site with an excerpt from his latest novel Gabriel's Trumpet, published by 18thWall Productions, an award-winning publishing house that specializes in fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. In Gabriel's Trumpet members of two warring factions of psychical researchers (based on the battles that emerged due to the Margery Case scandal) are set on the case of a so-called resurrected man. Gabriel Gibbs, a jazz trumpet player, was murdered in New Orleans two years ago. Now, Gabriel is back … with a gleaming silver trumpet and preternatural musical talent.
it is primarily a mystery with occult and horror elements, there is also some significant Cthulhu Mythos material.
And be sure to tune in tomorrow for an interview with the author
We are also offering a chance to win one of three copies of Jon's book, full details of how to be in for a chance to win can be found below after the excerpt from the book.
GABRIEL'S TRUMPET BY JON BLACK
The Ascending Glory Tabernacle, what remained of it, was a long, narrow box. A covered porch protected double doors at one end. An obelisk-like steeple jutted heavenward at the other. Faded whitewash peeled from weathered boards. Weeds, brambles, and sickly sunflowers grew on its grounds. Only the churchyard remained well tended.
There was no particular reason Marcus needed to see the tabernacle. The building itself had no specific bearing on his investigation of Gabriel Gibbs. The story of Gabriel Gibbs was another matter entirely. This place, and the now vanished clergyman who had ruled over it, were fundamental to understanding the young musician’s life. Perhaps he was becoming a romantic as he aged, but Marcus had needed to see the tabernacle. To make it real to him. Even now, he could almost hear singing coming from inside the ruin. A little too well, in fact. Though the morning had already started to swelter, a chilly tingle traveled down Marcus’s spine. Taking reins in hand, he turned the wagon away.
Leaving the tabernacle behind, Marcus guided Figaro along the dusty rural path known as Old Terraplane Highway. He came to where a rutted dirt track intersected the main road, itself not much more than packed earth barely wide enough for two wagons to pass abreast.
Though he had passed several such crossroads already, a massive, twisted oak set this one apart. As Marcus approached, other differences appeared. Opposite the tree were low mounds capped with grayed and weathered wooden crosses. Graves, Marcus realized. In archaic traditions, which it seemed had not fully died out here, those considered unworthy of hallowed ground were often interred at crossroads. If Gabriel Gibbs had died before the creation of a county cemetery, he might well have been buried here. Who had been laid to rest under those mounds? What stories would they tell? Marcus mused that he was indeed becoming a romantic.
A strange assortment of objects adorned the tree, primarily candles and liquor bottles. But a few more puzzling items stood out. A heart-shaped locket dangled from a branch. A knife protruded from the earth at the oak’s roots. Nearby, a ragdoll slowly moldered from exposure to the elements.
Cleary, this was the crossroad. The one whispered about in relation to Gabriel Gibbs. But what did it all mean? Marcus thought it a pity that Frazer’s Golden Bough never seriously treated the societies of the New World…and that the curmudgeonly Scottish anthropologist thought of folklore as something inhabiting the increasingly distant country of the past rather than infusing the living world all around him.
Minutes beyond the crossroad, Old Terraplane Highway rejoined the main road. From there, a few more miles took him back to Terraplane, the town where his Gates County adventures had begun.
Driving the wagon into the larger town, a chorus of church bells, both great and humble, flooded his ears. Marcus had intended to do some shopping here, but the ringing bells announced an unanticipated hitch in his plans. Stores in Gates County closed on Sunday. Nevertheless, certain items were essential for his activities. With a little looking around, and light fingers, Marcus “liberated” what he needed: canvas tarp, a crowbar, hooded lantern, pick, and shovel. “All in the name of science,” he told himself, hoping no one would suffer too much from his pilfering. Hanging the lantern from the wagon, he loaded the tools in its bed beside Bartholomew’s various deliveries for tomorrow. Not wanting awkward questions, Marcus covered his acquisitions with the tarp.
He traveled eastward to the community of Venice, Gabriel’s birthplace. Arriving late in the afternoon, he found nothing more than a sad collection of tarpaper shacks and a company store serving nearby Venice Planation. When nobody there seemed to recall much about the Gibbs family, Marcus was only too happy to turn the wagon around. Darkness descending, he lit the lantern.
Homeward bound, Marcus again passed the crossroad. By night, the gnarled oak assumed a sinister shape. Wind teased the tall grass atop unhallowed graves and caused the oak’s branches to reach for him. His skin crawled. The Delta had a power, one Marcus also encountered in remote pockets of New England, rendering the mundane damnably suggestive. Little wonder the region was so steeped in folklore. It didn’t make his final task, the real reason for his solo excursion, any more appealing.
His pocket watch showed just after midnight as the wagon stopped beneath a faded wooden sign that proclaimed “Gates County Cemetery, Est. 1898.” Or it would have, had negligence or ghoulish vandalism not absconded with several letters, leaving behind only the “Gat s Coun y Cemeter.”
Marcus hooded his lantern so it cast only a thin, directional beam.
A wire fence marked off the cemetery grounds. To one side stood a small gate. Directly underneath the cemetery sign was another, wider gate. The “corpse gate,” as such features had been known until just a few generations ago, served those who only needed to use it once. Except, perhaps, in the case of Gabriel Gibbs.
After cleaning his glasses several times, Marcus removed the tarp, revealing the crowbar, shovel, and pick in the wagon’s bed.
To determine if a man documented as dead had returned to the living, Marcus had resigned himself, it was very useful to know what, if anything, his grave contained. Not allowing himself time to think, he set about the repellent task.
As he carried his tools from the wagon, noises behind Marcus brought him to a halt. Horrified, he watched a figure emerge from the bushes. Of all the people he might have expected to encounter here, Aunt Mancie was not on the list. In the lamplight, the Gibbs family matriarch appeared far more vigorous and hearty than on her rocking chair.
“Aunt Mancie, what are you doing here?”
“How come you never asked me about Gabriel?” she challenged him. “You figure the crazy old woman doesn’t know anything?”
He hadn’t realized it at the time, but her words held much truth. Marcus had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Doesn’t matter now,” she said. “I reckoned sooner or later you’d turn up here.”
“If I wanted to see if someone was alive or dead, I’d look here,” she said plainly. “And, if you’re opening my grandnephew’s grave, it seems only proper that a family member bears witness.”
“You didn’t tell the others?”
“They might have stopped you.”
“You’re not going to?”
“Truth is, I’m curious, too.”
Digging up a grave was among the hardest, dirtiest things Marcus had done. Taking a break to catch his breath, Marcus looked at his unexpected companion. “Aunt Mancie, do you believe it’s possible for people to come back from the dead?”
“Almost anything you can say is possible. Whether it’s likely is another thing entirely. And, please, when we’re not on the porch you can forget about the ‘Aunt’ Mancie nonsense.”
Hours later, he bent over the exposed coffin of Gabriel Gibbs, holding his crowbar. Standing over the hole, Mancie cradled the pick as if on guard duty. Guarding against what? Marcus didn’t ask. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to know.
Holding his breath, he wedged the crowbar underneath the coffin lid and pushed down. The lid swung open smoothly, offering no resistance, as if it had been forced before. Discovering it to be empty, Mancie and Marcus exhaled in unison, whether out of surprise, relief, or a mixture of both.
Not only was the coffin unoccupied, its upholstered interior remained unsoiled. As a physician, Marcus was familiar with death and what accompanied it. A body had not lain here, or not lain long enough for decay to leave its mark.
“Mancie, would you pass me the lantern?”
Taking the light from the matriarch, Marcus illuminated the coffin’s interior. His careful examination revealed dark hairs and a small fingernail ripped from its owner during some epic endeavor. Breaking out? Breaking in? That was the question. But someone had been here. If not Gibbs himself, then whom? And to what purpose? Marcus pocketed the samples, hoping his companion would not notice.
That’s the question confronting Dr. Marcus Roads, physician and investigator for the Boston Society for Psychical Research, in this Jazz Age supernatural mystery. Gabriel Gibbs, a jazz trumpet player, was murdered in New Orleans two years ago. Now, Gabriel is back … with a gleaming silver trumpet and preternatural musical talent.
Marcus’s superiors task him with a high-stakes investigation. Is it really Gabriel? Or is someone (or something) claiming to be him? From tracing the musician’s origins in the tragic Mississippi Delta community of Pilate’s Point, Marcus follows in Gabriel’s footsteps through New Orleans and into the mysterious deep bayous. Ending in Harlem at the height of its Renaissance, Marcus searches its streets for his ultimate goal: a face-to-face encounter with the trumpeter whose life threatens to consume his Marcus’s own.
The latest work by award-winning novelist and music historian Jon Black, Gabriel’s Trumpet simmers in the music and musical scene of the 1920s. Having walked in the same footsteps as his characters, Jon vividly brings to life the great locations of America’s Jazz Age, putting readers right in the action alongside Marcus as he struggles to answer two questions…
Who, really, is Gabriel Gibbs?
And what is the truth behind Gabriel’s Trumpet?
To enter the giveaway just follow the instructions on theis tweet
Sean Doolittle is the author of seven novels, including Kill Monster, his latest. His books have received the International Thriller Writers Award and a Barry Award, among other honors. His short fiction has been reprinted in The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXII and Best American Mystery Stories 2002.
I’d be very reluctant to present myself as a horror writer—not because I’d want to avoid that label, but because I know the true horror aficionado does not (and should not!) suffer dilettantes gladly.
To the extent that I’m known as a writer at all, I’m primarily known as a writer of crime thrillers. But in truth I started out, as a late teenager and all through my college years, writing horror stories.
Some writers can’t remember a time when they didn’t want to be writers. I myself vividly remember that light bulb moment when I first thought: “I want to do this. I’m going to do this. How do you do this?” For me, the light bulb was the short story collection Night Shift by Stephen King.
Oh man did I want to give others even half of what King gave me in that book. Ok, that’s a half-truth. I also wanted to learn how to keep giving it to myself.
Through King I discovered Robert Bloch (author of Psycho and scores of great short stories). I had the lifelong honor of dining in a group setting with that latter master at a small, intimate SciFi/Fantasy convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I’d driven my terrified 21-year-old self in an attempt to learn more. Bloch’s obituary came just two years later; I’ll always cherish the opportunity to sit at his table, absorb his kindness, and listen.
Through King and Bloch I read more Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, discovered more modern writers like Brian Hodge, Joe R. Lansdale, and David J. Schow. And through traveling to industry gatherings such as the World Horror and World Fantasy conventions in the early-mid-90’s, I began to piece together my first sense of something wonderful: a writing community.
I remember eagerly awaiting each new stapled-together edition of a mail-subscription market guide called Scavenger’s Newsletter. I remember scouring Scavenger’s for small press magazines and anthologies where I could submit my first wobbly attempts at short fiction. Thank you so much, Janet Fox, wherever you are.
I’ll always remember the editors of those outlets who took their valuable time to offer tips, advice, and commentary on my work. Editors like Kathleen Jurgens (Thin Ice); Peggy Nadramia (Grue); Mark Rainey (Deathrealm); Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance); Ann Vandermeer (née Kennedy, The Silver Web); Wayne Edwards (Palace Corbie); Thomas F. Monteleone (Borderlands); and so many others. In retrospect it must have seemed so clear to them what they were dealing with: a young writer without much life experience struggling to learn the craft.
But they did it. They didn’t have to do it, they just did it out of sheer awesomeness. Also, I expect, out of love—not love for me personally, but a love for the genre. And for doing their part to make it as rich and interesting as it could be.
A few eventually accepted work from me. Some may not even remember me now. Others—legends like Ellen Datlow and the late Karl Edward Wagner—offered key votes of confidence that helped keep me going when I needed help most. I consider all these people my earliest mentors in the world of writing and publishing, and more importantly, true heroes of horror.
Thank Cthulhu I was able to publish those early stories before the Internet. Looking back on most of them I see what all those editors must have seen: a wannabe with only the vaguest hint of his own voice, copping riffs from others, looking for a place to fit in.
Eventually the place I seemed to fit best turned out to be crime/suspense fiction. But years later, along came an overpowering urge to dump all my toolboxes on the floor in one big pile and write Kill Monster, my latest book.
I don’t even know if I should claim Kill Monster as a bona-fide horror novel, despite the marketing label. To me it feels like a spiritual cousin to movies like Tremors and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy. It’s a creature feature that, I hope, uses some of the things of horror, and the pace of a thriller (along with a few light comments on middle age, parenthood, getting knocked down, and getting back up), to deliver one thing above all: fun.
I know I had fun writing it. Probably the most fun I’ve had writing anything in a long time. I know many writers, myself included, who might be tempted to say: “That means you’re doing it wrong.”
But so be it! Like the mighty Cornetto, sometimes horror—whichever flavor it might be—gives you exactly what you need.
A golem created to assassinate a criminal in 1856 is reawakened in the present ... intent on targeting his victim's innocent descendants.When treasure hunters excavate the long-lost wreck of the steamship Arcadia from a Kansas cornfield, a buried creature awakens - a mindless assassin of accursed earth, shaped like a man though in no way mortal, created to kill a slave trader in 1856.
With the original target long dead, the monster sets its sight on the man's closest surviving descendant . . . a burned-out IT technician named Ben Middleton. Nothing could have prepared Ben for the horror now aimed directly at his lackadaisical life. But he isn't only being chased by the monster, and it's not just his own life in danger.
Ben must pull himself together to not only save himself, but his estranged teenage son, Charley. Yet who are the mysterious people chasing him, and how do you stop a 150-year-old monster with no 'Off' switch?
Exploring The Labyrinth
In this series, I will be reading every Brian Keene book that has been published (and is still available in print) in order of original publication, and then producing an essay on it. With the exception of Girl On The Glider, these essays will be based upon a first read of the books concerned. The article will assume you’ve read the book, and you should expect MASSIVE spoilers.
I hope you enjoy my voyage of discovery.
11. Shades (with Geoff Cooper)
Something of a milestone in this project, the first of many Keene titles that are collaborations; in the case of this novella, the story is set in a town that features heavily in the work of Geoff Cooper, according to the authors’ note at the start of the book. I also understand the Levi, one of the principal protagonists of the book, is a recurring figure in Keene’s own Labyrinth mythos (and if I’m right about that, good, because he is, on the evidence of this outing, a fascinating character).
Shades is, at heart, a coming of age story, in which a 12 year old boy from a deprived background, with a neglectful alcoholic single mum, is taken under the wing of an older, wise mentor who tutors the child in the ways of magic.
In and of itself, this is a story template that has transcended cliche to become an outright archetype, of which the Harry Potter multi billion pound franchise is only the latest incarnation. Still, looking at Potter and this work side by side does tease out some fascinating differences that I think help shed light on why Shades is such a superb novella. So let’s do that.
First up, there’s no Hogwarts here; the fact of Danny’s burgeoning magical awakening does nothing to affect the reality of his day to day; attending school, negotiating his somewhat one-sided friendships with the gang of kids he pals around with, and attempting to manage his alcoholic mother. Sure, Levi’s gruff friendship and tutelage provides a welcome respite for the kid; an oasis of relative calm where he‘s free to explore his newfound abilities, but still, his material social reality is fundamentally unchanged. Indeed, as the narrative develops, it’s made worse, as his newly expanded reading material brings him to the attention of one of his teachers who is not what he seems, an attempt to use his newfound powers to cure his mother’s alcohol addiction goes seriously wrong, and his friendship with his gang is destroyed when one of their member, having been possessed by the reanimated soul of a career criminal, attempts to rape a classmate, and Danny doesn’t just intervine, but also informs on his friend to the authorities
This last is an especially heartbreaking moment; Danny does what is unambiguously the right thing, in both preventing and reporting the attempted rape, and yet the impact on his social group is instant, seismic, and permanent; the breach of boy’s omerta an unforgivable sin. By this point in the book, we’ve already gotten a sense of how fragile Danny’s position in the group is, and how one sided and conditional the friendship of the other boys is; still, I found myself genuinely upset as that friendship deteriorated, and as Danny realised just how precarious and conditional that friendship had always been. It’s a canny and utterly plausible account of the teenage boy pack mentality, and Keene and Cooper tell it with both empathy and an unflinching, pitiless honesty.
But all this it to illustrate a wider point about class. Put simply, Danny and Potter are both, at the start of their stories, blue collar kids with troubled home lives. However, while the Rowling version of the story swiftly becomes a narrative of wish fulfilment, as Potter discovers his parents were heroes, he’s actually fantastically rich, and he’s off to stay at the coolest boarding school in the world, for Danny, his material reality remains as difficult to navigate as ever; only now, he had the added complication of having access to a power, tied to his emotional state, that has enormous potential but over which he has only tenuous control.
Keene is an unapologetically blue collar writer; that’s a product of his own background, but also reflects the audience he explicitly states he is writing for, and that focus is also reflected in his characters. There are no secret millionaires here, no secret destinies (with the possible exception of Terminal, the ‘Author’s Preferred Text version of which has become a matter of intense interest for me). On the rare occasions we do meet the megarich, such as in City Of The Dead, they are presented as almost alien in their pathology.
Keene plays his own personal politics pretty close to his chest, and he’s obviously perfectly within his rights to do so; still, I find this aspect of his work both interesting and suggestive; certainly the other artists that I immediately think of with a similar focus; King and Springsteen, also produce work that is small p political with a focus on the working class, and that is part of what shines about their work, to me. And look, cards on the table, I think all art is, inevitably, political, especially prose novels. When you write about people, with infinite choice in who and what you write about, decisions like this matter; and that Keene is concerned to present stories about a group otherwise much underrepresented, and frequently maligned elsewhere in popular fiction, is, in my view, very much to his credit.
Not to mention, it plain makes for better stories; or, at least, better horror stories. Horror, after all, is at base about what scares us, and loss of agency is surely one fear that is close to universal. By focussing on blue collar protagonist, Keene reminds us that this particular horror is never far away from someone who live paycheck to paycheck without health insurance, for someone entirely reliant on a spouse for financial and/or caring support; or for that matter for a twelve year old boy with an alcoholic mother and fragile, one sided friendships.
With that in mind, Keene and Cooper understand the introduction of magic to such a situation is a double edged sword, if not an outright timebomb, and would be even without an evil antagonist in the mix. Danny’s wrestling with the fact of his newfound power, both in terms of it potential impact and its limits, are at the emotional core of this book. We get to see this conflict both from Danny’s point of view and also that of his mentor, Levi, who is one of my favourite characters in this entire project, to date. Levi understands all too well the problems Danny is facing, and the dangers of his increasing awareness of his power alongside his immaturity; but Levi also understands the inevitability of Danny’s discovery, and tries his best to provide wise guidance and council, to try and steer Danny towards a less destructive path. At the same time, the power of the villain he’s up against means Levi has to be brutally pragmatic about both Danny’s power and his weaknesses, and the way the final conflict plays out shows both Levis deep wisdom, and a level of cynical realism that is painful… no least because his assessments are ultimately proven correct.
It’s clear from the narrative that Danny features as an older character in other work by Geoff Cooper, and my only (very) minor complaint is a sense that there’s a wider story that I’m missing out on that is only hinted at here. That said, the narrative overall stands on its own terms admirably, given that it’s incorporating mythos elements from both authors, and it feels consistent in both story and voice.
More than that, this feels like one of the most accomplished works in this project so far. The magical system is well described and instinctive, the villain and his plot well drawn and admirably creepy, and the novella zips along with trademark Keene pace and incident. Above all, though, it’s a vivid portrait of small town blue collar kid desperation; that feeling of being out of control, with more responsibility that you can handle, and where the stakes for failure are unreasonably high. Shades feels like a significant piece of work in the Keene cannon; pulling together many of the themes that have preoccupied the author to this point, and elevating them in a taut, well written narrative that wastes not a single word in telling a rich and moving tale of childhood magic, as well as introducing, in the person of Levi, a fascinating and deep portrait of the Wise Man/Wizard/Mentor archetype. The novella pulls off the impressive trick of creating a character that feels simultaneously mysterious and known; archetypical, even mythic, and yet real, flesh and blood, tangible. I enjoyed Shades a great deal on its own terms, but I’m thrilled to find out what Keene and Levi have in store for me as this project continues.
Next up: Jacks Magic Beans
10. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui
Valley girl cheerleader Buffer Summers (Kristy Swanson) discovers her fate as a vampire slayer in this campy underrated flick that spawned a franchise. The movie scored a 35% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I urge vampire fans to give it another chance. Yes, it’s cheesy, but that’s part of the appeal. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui delivers a fun comedy horror that delights in its absurdity. If you love vampires, but don’t want to be terrorized and left with nightmares, this is the movie to watch.
9. Revenge (2018) Directed by Carolie Fargeat
A mistress is swept away to a remote home with her lover and his friends. But soon, she finds herself in a dangerous situation. Raped and left for dead, she discovers the will to survive and get revenge in this bloody action horror film. Fargeat holds nothing back and creates a brutal gore filled “pay back” movie where the villains get exactly what they deserve.
8. American Mary (2012) by The Soska Sisters
This list wouldn’t be complete without the Soska Sisters, and what better film to showcase their directorial skills then American Mary. Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a medical student who delves in the world of body modification in order to earn a little extra cash. What we get is a gore filled delightful horror movie with feminist undertones. This is not for the weak stomached! But if you’re a fan of blood, consider donating some of your own. The Soska Sisters are advocates for many causes including blood donations, which they create a PSA about every February in celebration of Women in Horror month.
7. Pet Sematary (1989) by Mary Lambert
Doctor Louis Creed buries his family’s cat in the land near an old pet cemetery. When the cat returns to life, it has changed into something nefarious. When Creed’s son dies, he buries his boy in the same ground, despite warnings. Mary Lambert has a long resume, directing several horror films including Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005) and The Attic (2007), it is for Pet Sematary that she is perhaps most well-known.
6. The Invitation (2015) by Karyn Kusama
This dinner party has a lot more than food on the menu. A man believes his ex-wife and her new husband have something nefarious planned in this eerie thriller horror movie directed by Karyn Kusama. You may know Kusama as the director of Girlfight, which won the Award of the Youth at the Cannes Film Festival. She creates an unsettling atmosphere in The Invitation with high tension from start to finish.
5. Raw Julia Ducournau
Sixteen-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) is an aspiring veterinarian, attending school where her parents attended and older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is currently a student. Everyone in the family are vegetarians. Justine participants in a hazing ritual where she is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney. This awakens a yearning for fresh meat. But as her lust for meat develops, she transforms from an awkward shy girl into a confident sexually charged woman. Julia Ducournau is a French film director and screenwriter, and she shines with this movie. Raw won several awards including the 2016 Cannes Festival FIPRESCI award and the 2016 SITGES Film Festival Citizen Cane Award for Best Up-And-Coming Director.
4. American Psycho (2000) by Mary Harron
This psychological horror movie based on Brent Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel has been disturbing audiences for almost twenty years. Christian Bale stuns as Patrick Bateman, a New York executive whose vanity and greed manifest into blood lust. Director Mary Harron holds nothing back. Her perspective on Bateman as a vile creature trapped in a dog-eat-dog alpha male world creates a haunting and repulsive villain.
3. The Babadook (2014) Directed by Jennifer Kent
It’s been six years since the death of Ameila’s (Essie Davis) husband, but her grief and anger still linger. She struggles to connect with her young son, who is certain a monster from an eerie children’s book entitled “Mister Babadook” is out to kill him. As his hallucinations grow, so does the tension between mother and child until Ameila begins seeing the very monster her son has been warning her about. Jennifer Kent’s brilliance shines in this unnerving horror flick that delves into the very real emotions of loss, despair and rage. She brilliantly weaves together the figurative nightmare of a ‘boogeyman’ with the internal nightmares which include losing a loved one, struggling with motherhood, and the long-lasting effects of postpartum depression. This is a brilliant and terrifying movie worthy of all the acclaim.
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Is feminist horror a genre? If so, this movie leads the pact. Skateboarding vampire (Sheila Vand) feasts on men who disrespect woman in the Iranian town, Bad City. Set in black-and-white, director and writer Ana Lily Amirpour paints a hypnotic story world that is both beautiful and eerie. There’s a graphic novel vibe combined with horror and a dash of spaghetti western. Yes, it has subtitled, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll be sucked into the gorgeous cinematography and unique vision.
1.Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019) by Issa López
This beautiful and heart-breaking horror fantasy will stick with you long after the credits role. A group of orphans must survive their trauma as well as the drug cartel that killed their parents. With three wishes at their disposal, they undergo a spell-bounding journey that devastates and captivates from the first to final scene. Writer and director Issa López twists a tragic and haunting fantasy with real-world horror. If you enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth, you’ll sink into Tigers Are Not Afraid.
BONUS: Be on the lookout for Nia DaCosta who will be directing Jordan Peele’s Candyman coming in 2020!
Nico Bell is a horror author and book reviewer. She's had several short stories published, and her debut novel Food Fright is available March 2020. You can find her at www.nicobellfiction or @nicobellfiction on twitter and instagram.
Back in 2016 and 2017 Ginger Nuts writer Nigel Parkin regularly contributed poems about horror films to SHOCK TILL YOU DROP. He relished the task of creating appropriate responses to as wide a range of films as possible; one week he would be expressing deep critical appreciation in odes to great classics, the next he would be vividly describing absurd moments of extreme lunacy in delirious tributes to high trash. Next year he will be publishing a collection of these poems. He is also working on a new series, many of which will make their first appearance on this site. As a taster to his work we are going to give some of the originals a fresh outing, starting today with a dramatic monologue in the voice of Mrs Voorhees, perfectly timed for Friday the 13th!
So come with us, gaze into the waters of Crystal Lake, and prepare for a fresh encounter with one of horror cinema's great psychos...
Mrs Voorhees by nigel parkin
This rictus grin has stayed on my face these
Past twenty years, like the shining surface
Of that lake in the moonlight, hiding all
The darkness beneath, the choking, the screams,
The wild thrashing and angry, urgent cries
Of someone sinking in the black water
Of time, breathing in years of grief
Until their lungs burst, head swells, eyes bulge, fixed
And frozen and fossilized by my rage.
That lake. Look. Look at its face. Calm, smiling,
Drawing you in, saying, ‘Trust me. I’ll look
After you,’ before grabbing you, dragging
You down, pulling, tearing, pounding, crushing,
A force of destruction, single-minded,
Taking great delight in the art of death.
It took my Jason, taught me all I know
About killing, about how to handle
The need to kill, how to go about it.
I carry the lake with me, its secrets,
Its hunger, its power, its heart, the still
Beating heart of my boy. He’s inside me,
Waiting, ready to rise up from the depths,
Calling instructions in a broken voice
From my weed-wrapped soul. ‘Kill them all, Mommy!’
Yes, Jason! Oh yes, I will! I’ve begun!
That girl this morning, who was she kidding?
Did she think it looked modest to cover
Her chest with that orange top underneath
The unbuttoned shirt? Modest, my ass! Hell!
It was there to catch eyes! To tempt! To lure!
She was heading to the camp for one thing,
The thing that brings them all, that got you killed!
Well I’ll stop them. Just like I stopped her!
You liked hearing her beg me didn’t you?
I heard you chuckling! And when I showed her
The knife I heard your sweet, gleeful whisper –
‘Go on, Mommy! Do it! Open her throat!
I want to see blood!’ I did it for you
Didn’t I, darling? Tonight there’ll be more.
So, my beautiful, restless, rotting boy,
Come. I’ll give you a night to remember…
Adaptations of Clive Barker's written works have, historically, tended towards the problematic. From the aborted 1990s BBC adaptation of Weaveworld to the numerous unfinished Hellraiser sequels, from efforts to adapt Imajica for TV to the purportedly enormous deal with Disney to produce a film franchise based on Barker's Abarat novels, the last three decades are littered with failed efforts to bring Barker's unique brand of surreal horror and fantasy to screens both large and small.
Even those that reach completion often suffer so much in the way of uncertainty or pure poor luck, the results are far from worthy of the source material: relatively large-scale projects such as the cinematic adaptation of The Midnight Meat Train serve to make a story that is compellingly econimical in its prose, brilliantly nauseating in the elaboration of its imagery, grey and prolonged; an example of the very worst of cinematic sins, in that vast swathes of it can only be described as dull, dull, dull.
Compared and contrasted, we have smaller-scale affairs such as the film adaptations of Dread and The Book of Blood, both of which spectacularly fail to capture the ethos and philosophy inherent to the original short stories.
Part of the problem of adapting Barker's work derives from its tendency to eschew or deliberately lampoon tradition. Whereas the likes of Stephen King's fiction is innately cinematic and therefore more readily adaptable to visual media, Barker's stories tend to be far more abstract, literary and ideological in terms of both their narratives and imagery, which makes rendering them in filmic terms highly problematic. Even the least of his stories boasts elements that are far beyond genre template or easy categorisation; subjects and images that are wholly abstract and problematic to render in visual terms. For example, how does one take the William Blake-like flights of metaphysical fancy rendered in Weaveworld and make them abslolute, as a visual image or effect? Given their highly abstract and idiosyncratic natures, one might argue that the effort is misguided; they are not meant to be rendered in such terms but to remain in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, where they are fluid and unique within the imaginations of each individual reader.
The Scourge, for example; a force of metaphysical annihilation that believes itself to be Uriel of the Principalities (the angel that stands guard at the gates of Eden), is variously described in Barker's prose as an immense figure of light and fire, a metaphysical engine of burning wheels upon which numerous fiery eyes blossom. It is, by its nature, an inconstant and impossible-to-render entity; it shifts and transforms depending on its circumstances and the preconceptions of those who see it. Rendering such an entity in the absolute terms of a TV or cinema special effect would necessarily limit its potential and power by applying parameters to the image.
Nor is this an uncommon phenomena in Barker's writing: liminal, transforming and inconstant entities are almost de rigeur, barely a tale told in which there is not some form of transformation, both abstract and actual, metaphorical and physical. Entities split and peel out of themselves, mutilate and re-write one another, slough off the tatters and filth of their former selves and emerge as something entirely other. This is before we even begin to get into the highly abstract, surreal conditions Barker often paints; the other-realms and states of being that often defy easy description and defeat assumptions of state altogether, in the manner of Lovecraft describing the non-euclidian dimensions in which his various demi-gods and deities reside.
They are designed to engage the reader by urging them to test the limits of their imaginations; to abandon what parameters that faculty operates under and transgress into new contexts. Visual media, by its very nature, is the antithesis of that: it provides the image, it imposes the character, the state, the condition upon its audience and informs them that such is such and will always be thus. This is in direct antithesis to what Barker attempts in his fiction, the parameters he pushes with his florid and poetic descriptions of states and entities and phenomena that exist outside of the realms of human experience and understanding: they are designed to be transcendent, idiosyncratic, to the point whereby they consciously utilise the preconceptions and imaginative conditions of certain characters to inform themselves (inviting the reader to do the same by proxy).
Likewise, Barker's characters are strange within the genre of horror: they are, like the entities and phenomena they encounter, metamorphic: very often, they begin with certain assumptions of themselves, of reality and end having those assumptions blasted apart, leading them to states and conditions they could scarcely imagine. This form of internal evolution is easy enough to render in prose (albeit difficult to do so effectively), as characters have internal monologues, can be described as experiencing this or that, but is massively difficult in visual media, in which such devices can often be leaden and expositional.
That is not to say such cannot be rendered visually by deft enough hands and sufficiently inspired creators, but the general state of TV and cinema is such that doing so is highly problematic, almost impossible outside of the realms of highly niche experimental and art-house arenas.
You can therefore understand the pervasive ambivalence regarding the announcement of a TV series based on Barker's early works, The Books of Blood.
Amongst Barker's earliest published experiments, The Books comprise several volumes of short stories, each exploring Barker's peculiar views and philosophies on various subjects (this is a rare, rare instance in which you will find Barker stories that comment directly on politics and social subjects) and/or consciously lampooning certain genre-assumptions of the era, making them amongst some of the most deviant, outre and downright transgressive published works available. Even now, some thirty years later, the stories read like the work of a man who is operating on levels of perception and imagination that make most of us that operate in similar playgrounds look like we've been hibernating throughout. They are so far and removed from equivalent tales, the works of Barker's contemporaries, that their classification under simply “horror” often becomes problematic.
These are, sincerely and without compunction, meta-narratives; they seek to explore not only subjects such as politics, philosophy, existentialism, but serve as commentaries upon the nature of stories themselves. This is extremely rare for popular or even cult horror stories of the era, which tend to be more traditional in their forms and philosophies and is still rare even now, especially given how beautifully and trenchantly Barker dissects genre fiction, mythology, oral tradition, all the while allowing gallons of vitae and buckets of viscera to spill from the pages.
These elements are more readily expressed through written fiction than they are visual media; as concepts, they are difficult to communicate, without a particular serendipity regarding the creators involved, the freedom they have to express themselves. Barker's stories are so powerfully deviant, so unassumingly profound in terms of what they have to say and how they say it, they demand creative teams who understand them in their most intimate details and powerful implications; not someone who simply sees potential for a gore-laden visual feast of horror (which the books can be, if read on a purely surface level).
The natural restrictions and pressures of a TV format often result in the hamstringing of written works in the interests of studio agenda, political bias, moral restrictions etc etc. Barker, as a writer without any such pressures, was allowed to simply let his imagination run wild. Hence, we have images such as can be found in The Age of Desire, a deconstruction of both horrific and erotic fiction that blends the two principles until they become indiscernible. This is Barker's commentary on male sexuality and the sexualised nature of our discourses; how desire without restraint and application is not only destructive but also naturally its own bane; the fire that burns itself out by consuming too rampantly. The story is graphic both in terms of its sexual elements and the horrific subjects it presents (not least of which are various forms of rape). Concerning a fairly non-descript protagonist who blithely volunteers to be a guinea-pig for an experimental treatment designed to be both the ultimate aphrodisiac and a cure for impotence, he finds his perceptions slowly warping such that all things become unbearably erotic, the impulse to fuck overriding all reason as he finds himself assaulting not only any human being within reach (regardless of sex, gender; any and all condition), but also inanimate objects such as crevices in brick walls etc (the latter resulting in some notably Barker-esque ruminations on what species of troll-children he and the wall might sire together).
The story, by its nature, needs to be graphic on all levels in order to effectively communicate itself. Within the constraints of the printed page, that is possible. However, how would one render the same in a televisual format without incurring censorship, moral condemnation etc? The fact that much of the nudity on display here is uncompromisingly male makes that even more problematic, given that, despite Game of Thrones and its ilk, culture at large still expresses enormous neurosis concerning the rendering of male anatomy.
Beyond that, any adaptation also has the simultaneous problem of capturing the story's wider implications and resonance whilst clothing itself (a ha) in the aesthetics of horror and eroticism. This is exceptionally difficult, especially when dealing with such controversial material. A significant wedge of the audience will react superficially; with horror and revulsion to the images on display, which is a difficult reaction to then use as a means of pushing them into deeper or further realms of consideration (Barker himself has managed this on certain occasions with his own adaptations, such as the original Hellraiser and Nightbreed).
By their natures, the stories within The Books of Blood present screen-writers, story-boarders and directors hosts of problems. At a base level, many of the stories require the rendering of creatures and phenomena that are fantastical, monstrous and bizarre; subjects that are very difficult to realise and then to balance in terms of their on-screen ethos: certain images certainly have the potential to either be horrific or utterly absurd, to the point of diluting their horror and profundity to the state of gory comedy.
Take, for example, one of the most infamous: The Body Politic, a bizarre story in which the hands of humanity rise up against the tyranny of the body entire, murdering their host anatomies in various inventive, almost slapstick fashions before hacking themselves free with whatever implements come, well, to hand. Far from being some form of psychosis, the hands demonstrate that there is some supernatural element occurring as, when free of their host bodies, they continue to mass and wreak havoc, becoming a swarm of liberating vengeance that sweeps across humanity's kingdoms, inspiring bizarre and murderous revolution until the impetus of the uprising is blunted by the very man with whom it starts.
This story functions on numerous levels: the initial concept is so bizarre that it borders on absurdity, and Barker knows it. Occasionally, there is grim humour to be had here, as well as some truly terrifying implications (the effort to make the reader paranoid about their own bodies is written large at the story's conclusion, in which Barker invites them to consider what other elements of their anatomies might be secretly plotting rebellion, what that would look like). There is also an undercurrent of political commentary, in that the hands consider themselves slaves to an oppressive regime that mistreats and routinely abuses them. The two that spark the rebellion even refer to one another as “left” and “right,” both of whom evince qualities and characteristics derived from their relevant political wings, and only through a confabulation of the two does revolution occur.
In televisual terms, the danger is for all such nuance to be missed or abandoned in favour of the more superficial, visual elements of the story which, whilst striking, are in danger of being more grotesquely humorous than horrific, especially shorn of any greater commentary or wider significance.
Then there are tales such as In the Hills, The Cities, which, apart from featuring the extremely unusual gay narrators, also includes concepts and imagery that are so bizarre as to be potentially ludicrous:
Whilst on a travelling holiday through some unspecified, Eastern European country, the pair encounter an extremely strange tradition: two towns that, once every so many years, bring their citizens together, every man, woman and child, to form immense, communal giants that stride around the countryside, enacting a mock-battle before disincorporating again. In this instance, however, one of the towns accidentally murders the other, resulting in the polyglot “giant” to go mad, striding around the countryside aimlessly in torment, without purpose or direction.
Again, the story includes a rare political and socio-cultural commentary from Barker on the nature of communities, cultures; their innate and enshrined lunacies, but also includes scenes of horror on a near-genocidal scale (everyone that comprises the fallen giant dies in its toppling, an entire community wiped out in an instant, their broken, mutilated corpses scattered across leagues and miles).
The danger here is very similar to that of The Body Politic; rendering the central image with enough majesty, sufficient magnificence, without it becoming absurd to the point of hilarity. Barker walks a fine line throughout these stories between both of those abysses, occasionally dipping into one or the other before returning to the median point. The story has the potential to be unlike anything we have ever seen on television, to provide the viewer with imagery they can scarcely imagine or assume, but in that also lies the danger of alienating with strangeness or inspiring laughter rather than awe.
Arguably, of all Barker's works to adapt, The Books of Blood include the most easily rendered subjects: many of the stories here, whilst highly abstract and ideological, are also more grounded in a sense of reality than later works, which dive wholesale into the surreal metaphysics that has become synonymous with Barker's name:
Stories such as Dread, by contrast, are somewhat more sedate in their imagery and subjects (Dread itself being that rarest of species: a Clive Barker tale that has no supernatural elements whatsoever), but incredibly trenchant and profound in terms of their commentary. As the recent, small-budget attempt to convert Dread into a cinematc format demonstrates, there is a tendency for the profundity and implication of the written word to be lost or deliberately glossed over in favour of standard set-pieces, shocks and visuals, which reduces the tale to little more than a by-the-numbers slasher flick.
Rendering the original story in all of its complexity, its psychology, is a thankless task: exposition is often death in visual formats, except in very, very rare circumstances (Quentin Tarantino films, in which the dialogue smoulders with subtext, for example). Yet, to communicate the themes and deeper resonance of stories like Dread, some degree of subtle communication is necessary. Only the most deft and eloquent of visual storytellers will ever manage it.
And that's the rub when it comes to adapting works such as The Books of Blood: potentially, the project might become the horror equivalent of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, redefining what audiences expect of televisual horror in the same manner as that show does science fiction. However, the potential for the opposite to be true is just as profound: in the wrong hands or simply over-pressured or interfered with by external influences, they could end up being risible messes, as schlocky, dull, absurd or overly abstruse as the film adaptations of Rawhead Rex or The Midnight Meat Train.
For my part, I pray to every demon, dark demi-god and undefined, extra-dimensional thing that might hear for the project to succeed. This could be the work that puts Barker's name back on the map, that potentially spawns an entire slew of new adaptations (and maybe even original works).
Meat hooks crossed, ladies and gentlemen.