A nostalgic look at the glory days of the video market and
VIPCO, one of the biggest horror players in the game
(and some personal reminiscences from the reviewer)
Occasionally a non-fiction title comes my way I just know before even opening it, that in the simplest of terms, this is a labour of love; a project the author just had screaming to get out of their system. After completing Video Nasty Mayhem: The Inside Story of VIPCO I was proved to be 100% correct, James Simpson and I are probably around the same age, watched the same trash and hunted down many of the obscure films featured in this book when we were kids. We also both loved video shops and we both spent a small fortune on this stuff. Note I said VIDEO, the distribution company VIPCO, which this book is about, existed in the distant days before DVD, specialising in trashy and violent exploitation films which often had great covers, but behind the jacketing there were often (but not always) crap flicks. But as a child of the 1980s video shop generation, the gaudiness of the cover played a major part in my film selection and so VIPCO was often on my radar.
James Simpson takes us back to that era in this nostalgic, non-academic study of Video Instant Picture Company (VIPCO) which was responsible for releasing many genre classics in the UK, including Zombie Flesh Eaters, Shogun Assassins, The Burning and The Nostril Picker. Although many of these films will have been released on multiple occasions in the UK, all claiming to be more ‘uncut’ that the other, the company had a great eye for spotting films which would be easy to market for profit.
I’ll get the greatest weakness the book has out of the way first; it spends way too much of its 164 (admittedly A4 size) pages giving long, often two pages on each, summarising around fifty of these titles. This takes up too many pages and for many readers these lengthy summaries are unnecessary. Ultimately, if you are the type to find yourself reading this book you really do not need James Simpson telling you what Zombie Flesh Eaters is about. If you haven’t seen this cult classic already this probably is not the book for you. I’m most definitely in this camp; in fact many years ago, I even asked Fulci an audience Q&A at a film retrospective where they showed a version of Zombie Flesh Eaters dubbed into Japanese as it was the only uncut version they could find (that was the early nineties for you!) This book is aimed at a VERY small niche; a very knowledgeable market and too much of it is basic stuff which horror buffs will already know. Ultimately, I’m not sure it revealed much I was not familiar with, but there were lots of clever observations and funny nuggets thrown into the mix. Admittedly, I had not seen The Nostrel Picker (nor is it a classic!) and don’t think I will be seeking it out. Sorry James!
The book brought back much nostalgia for the video shop age and the crazy covers the likes of VIPCO and ColourBox had to sucker in teen viewers such as myself and Video Nasty Mayhem tracks down a few people who worked with Mike Lee who owned VIPCO and looks at the wheeling and dealing behind the company which were big business in the 1980s. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond the control of the author there is no real paper trail for the author to follow as much of the VIPCO documentation no longer exists. James Simpson does join many dots about the company and their eye-opening business practices, and this is the strongest part of the book. The organisation lets it down slightly; as the ‘VIPCO Story’ is interspersed with all the film reviews, which after a while felt like unnecessarily padding. I think much shorter reviews might have worked better, similar perhaps to those used in Michael Weldon’s classic Psychotronic Film Encyclopaedia and included as an A-Z in the back of the book.
A lot of coverage and observations is given to the Video Nasty furore which was a big deal in the UK in the early to mid-1980s, and I’m not sure whether American audiences will be particularly interested in this heavy-handed period of UK censorship brought on by moral crusaders and whipped up stories in the newspapers. This began when video cassettes were a new phenomenon and for a period many were released without certificates and going through the BBFC. Thus, films like Driller Killer were available in the UK and some of the most controversial films were released by VIPCO and the company was forever connected to the controversy. VIPCO made a lot of money from their notoriety and many of these films were to disappear from circulation for many years. Video Nasty Mayhem takes a thorough look at this period and the censorship issues which followed with other titles, such as Last House on the Left, which they failed to secure a release for.
Looking back thirty years, to when I was leaving school at 18 and already well into horror; it is amazing to think that The Exorcist was unavailable in the UK, the word ‘Chainsaw’ was banned and when Fred Olen Ray released Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers on Colourbox the chainsaw had to be an icon in the title! You were not allowed to show nunchucks scenes in films, so Bruce Lee films were still heavily censored, Evil Dead was still banned and your chances of seeing Texas Chainsaw Massacre was zero. Thirty years later, many of these films are now regarded as masterpieces and regularly appear on television and that makes me smile. I recall ‘banned’ (or unavailable) films on video with no certificates costing as much as £140 (in 1990), including Sam Pechinpah’s Straw Dogs and Sonny Chiba’s cult classic Streetfighter. For many years ex-rental ‘big-box’ video cassettes were very collectable, and I recall paying big money for Bad Taste and Intruder: the Final Checkout (sadly, heavily cut) after Colourbox went bust! This book brought back memories for all this sort of stuff, whether it has the same impact for someone who did not live through the 1980s is another question. As James Simpson quite correctly says himself, many of the VIPCO films have aged very badly and many of the releases were not horror, but looking back, it was a fascinating period in the development of home entertainment.
VIPCO also released films years after their initial Video Nasty controversy, a famous example being Cannibal Holocaust in 2001 which had been banned for almost twenty years and released by another company first time around. I’m going to digress for a moment….
Flick back thirty years to 1989 and you REALLY wanted to see Cannibal Holocaust, what were your options? Firstly, some independent shops did not destroy all their Video Nasty stock and still rented these films ‘under-the-counter’ so to speak. I frequented a shop which did this, but I do not know how common the practice was and it was more aimed at the hardcore porn market rather than horror. Secondly, you could buy them abroad and hide them in your luggage when you returned home! Thirdly, there was tape-trading, which I did all the time, tracking down the most infamous titles from Nekromantik to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer which was denied a certificate for several years in the UK. This was an expensive and clunky business; posting boxes of dodgy cassettes across the UK and beyond and the loss of quality in converting from American video format to PAL were all issues. Of course, these days, Cannibal Holocaust sits snugly on Amazon Prime and that makes me shake my head ruefully, James Simpson probably does the same.
Video Nasty Mayhem lacks an index but provides lots of pictures and useful information on which version is closest to ‘uncut’ and the best is not always necessarily VIPCO. Incredibly, The Exorcist did not legally surface in the UK until 1999 and if you’re interested in knowing why this book is full of nuggets which answer such obscure questions. It’s written in a fan-friendly style and even if you don’t read it from cover to cover, there is much fun to be had simply flicking through it and dipping into the many sections which can be read as stand-alone articles. It’s also full of films which I’m certain lots of actors and actresses really don’t want to talk about; when did you ever hear Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach musing over Mountain of the Cannibal God? I think I tape-traded that one back in the day….
Of Barker, Baudelaire and Bosch
I have to start this review with a confession that my interest in all things horrific has waned considerably over the past year or so. What would have previously gotten me waxing lyrical has left me feeling somewhat cold and disinterested. I’m not really sure why or when this started but I do know that this year’s ability to spew forth what seems like a continual tsunami of nightmare sights, sounds and experiences from reality has more than compensated for any desire to read or watch fictional horror on my part.
So, I find myself pleasantly surprised that I’m sitting at my keyboard and thinking about how I’m going to possibly describe the experience of reading “Born in Blood: Volume 1” by George Daniel Lea without sounding completely divorced from reality. This is one of those rare books that comes along and is so completely different from anything else you’ve read that you can’t help but sit up and take notice. That however, wasn’t my initial reaction as time for another confession here; my first response was less than enthusiastic.
Upon reflection, I can only chalk that down to my own narrowly defined perceptions of what constitutes horror fiction combined with a general feeling of torpor towards the genre as a whole. The more I think about it in relation to this though, the more I have to concede that my attitude to the book evolved from being rather disdainful to a feeling that what I was reading was one of those rarities I’d previously mentioned; the kind of book that challenges your perception and makes you reassess it from a fresh perspective.
Yes, I know that does sounds a somewhat pretentious statement to make but there’s certainly a lot more to this book than first meets the eye. When I first started reading the book, the style and tone of the book really alienated me. The way in which Lea writes is very much like the abstract nature of dreams and memories; snatches and glimpses of beautiful, strange and disturbing imagery interspersed with snippets of story in a surreal and ephemeral fashion. Whilst this style is intrinsic to the weave of the mythology presented here it does make for a very discordant and disorientating read.
This non linear style of writing coupled with momentary flashes of story lends the stories a highly surreal quality and this proved to be quite difficult to follow at times. The result was that I would frequently feel frustrated and stop reading from what I thought of as jarring shifts and blurs of language and imagery. There was a point however where I had some kind of epiphany and just thought of reading without consciously thinking about it. And you know what? I’m glad I did.
At times Lea’s writing flows like a stream of pure unconsciousness in the midst of a particular fevered dream or hideous nightmare and this translates into a profound sense of feeling disconnected and alienated from the world with which you are being presented. Born in Blood is meant to be a jarring and disorientating read. This is after all a collection that is seeking to elicit the thoughts and feelings you might associate with fractured states of mind and being and that is woven into the fabric of each and every story like a fine thread.
I write that and the thought that immediately springs to mind is how much that sounds like I’m talking about something written by Clive Barker. It’s certainly apt as I was racking my brain trying to think of the last time I read something that had such a profound impact on me and the immediate though was “The Books of Blood.” Whilst it does feel like there are some elements reminiscent of Barker, I could just as easily say that the contents of the book evoke the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or H.R. Giger. Lea’s writing at times flows forth like some deranged heretical poet ranting and raving about religious agony, ecstasy and sacrifice coupled with stunningly grotesque visions of malleable flesh and spirit.
The cumulative effect of all this is that the book does feel like sensory overload and I did stop reading several times. However, the overwhelming aesthetic feel of Born in Blood is to create a distinct sense of otherness and Lea excels at creating this very real sense of disorientation throughout the course of his book. I realise that by this point in the review most of you are probably wondering what the fuck I’m talking about and to be honest I’m not altogether sure myself. There are hints and allusions to a grandiose mythology that drifts in and out of the stories mentioning something called the Loom alongside warring celestial ideologies, metaphysics, questions of identity, sexuality and relationships, tortured flesh and of course lots and lots of blood. I do appreciate that that sounds extremely vague but set within the context of the amorphous and insubstantial nature of Born in Blood’s structure there’s definitely a method to the madness that Lea presents.
What Lea has conjured forth feels very much like a journey into personal apocalypse, almost like a Lament Configuration made flesh; an esoteric object that at first glance doesn’t readily yield its secrets but with persistence eventually spills forth its desires, torments and suffering. I’m not really sure what else I can say about this collection as I still feel strangely lost for words at how well written this collection actually is. The stories here are as hallucinatory and disturbing as they are bedazzling and beautiful and the more I sit here and think about these weird juxtapositions, the further down the rabbit hole I fall.
The one overriding thought I do have though is that it evoke the sensation that what you are reading is a work of art. Art is meant to transport you to other realms and realities and challenge how you perceive and interpret the world around you. I can only speak for myself when I say that Born in Blood: Volume One is one of those rare and revelatory works that jolts you out of a slumber and makes you look at the world with fresh eyes. Quite simply, this is a stunning collection of horror fiction.
Steve Rasnic Tem is one of my favorite authors working today...and he's been working a long time. His brand of dark and often quiet fiction occupies the same continent (to me) as the works of Ray Bradbury and Stephen Graham Jones...lyrical shadowy spaces where emotions walks as strong and sturdy as tangible creatures. And with his most recent collection, Tem definitely parades these creatures.
Every story in this collection is marvelous. All of them emotionally heavy and steeped in themes of loss, regret, grief (triple helpings on that one) and despair. All painted in lush realistically thick strokes and colors. All of them masterpieces. I'm only going to touch on a few stories that I found myself thinking on long after completion.
Opening the door is "Breathing" where in a man struggles to escape the self-imposed confines of his grief only to discover that maybe that was the safest place to be. "Red Rabbit" is one of the most sinister in the collection. It harkens to the weird and unsettling stories of Aickman or Kersh. The less you know the better but this one is fantastic. It will haunt you.
"The Hanged Man" is a terrific sliver of weird wherein a family exists under the cowl of suicide, perhaps. "The Fishing Hut" concerns a lonely older man seeking to fill his time by taking up an old pastime. He finds that he shares the old fishing hut he finds with a friendly man...and another unseen inhabitant. "Domestic Magic" brings us to a special woman and the lengths she goes to for her son.
"The Man in The Rose Bushes" has a Shirley Jackson feel to it, grand and classic and creepy as hell. "The Night Doctor" is well-worthy of being the titular tale. In it a man who has been dogged by the specter of death all his life starts to realize he's due for a visit sooner rather than later. "The Enemy Within" introduces us to a man who becomes obsessed with a corpse found in a canal. "Stick Men" is dreary and terrifying with its wholly original premise.
"Between The Pilings" is a stark slap in the face, it deals with nostalgia and recollection as well as moving on. "The Wake" is yet another unsettling foray into the metaphoric weird. It's unapologetically brilliant and I found myself thinking on it long after I finished reading it. The final story in the collection is "The Monster Makers" and it is another that I won't tell you anything about. Just read it.
Tem is a master and you really are doing yourself a disservice if you've not been reading his work. This collection is a helluva starting point for those of you new to his voice. But I offer that you will find the voice warm and sometimes cracking with emotion. Loving and often lilting and poetic. His voice is singularly his. Let these stories simmer within you after reading. Don't just toss the book on a stack and forget about it. Live with it, with them. As he touches on so often in his work, you don't just let things go.
The Night Doctor and Other Tales is available from Centipede Press
Ambitious and thoughtful literary horror weighed down by excess baggage
I approached Stephen Chbosky’s second novel, Imaginary Friend, with ears pricked for several good reasons. Firstly, this was his first novel in twenty years, a very long time since The Perks of a Wallflower which was given a new lease of life by the 2012 film which was also directed by Chbosky. That film featured Emma Watson in an early post-Harry Potter role, and she returns the favour with a major headline cover quote: “Astonishing… Genius… A Masterpiece…” but, hey, I doubt her humble opinion will hold much sway with genre readers. I was also aware that he wrote Jericho, a post-nuclear thriller which lasted for two seasons between 2006-7 which I recall as entertaining television. Continuing to build an impressive CV, Chbosky then directed the smash hit Wonder based on an excellent kid’s book about a boy with a terrible facial deformity. So, Stephen Chbosky is obviously well-known in Hollywood, but let us be frank, he is a nobody in the horror world. With that in mind, I’m curious whom the novel, which has been picking up decent reviews in the mainstream press, will be pitched at. So, I approached Imaginary Friends with considerable interest….
I did enjoy this beast of a book but it was seriously let down by its 700 page length, maybe the editor was afraid to pull a big Hollywood name to task, but Imaginary Friends was way too flabby and if 200 pages were culled it might have been something special. On one level it could pass for one of Stephen King’s more bloated offerings, but if streamlined through the Jonathan Maberry playbook, I’m thinking of the superb Glimpse which has absolutely no flab whatsoever, it would have been a much stronger. I use that comparison as some dream elements are reminiscent of Glimpse. There is a great novel hidden within these 700-pages, but many readers will not have the patience to persevere and will be put off by its girth. I will also be interested to see how much interest it does pick up within the horror community; it certainly sits at the literary end of the market so might attract a non-traditional horror readership also.
The story opens with single mother Kate Reese arriving at a small Pennsylvanian town with her young son Christopher, who dominates the book and is a little boy you’ll want to get behind. She has no job and cash is in short supply, Kate is also escaping an abusive relationship from a man who in the past has tracked her down. However, the town of Mill Grove gives Kate a positive vibe and she soon lands a job in an old folk’s home. Kate has high hopes for her son, but he constantly under-performs at school and finds himself in the remedial classes, feeling he has let his mum down. Much of the early parts of the story involve Christopher and his tough time at school, he obviously has a special need which goes surprisingly undiagnosed. However, he is an observant little boy and realises his mother is struggling and soon he is being bullied at school for the poor quality of his clothes. These elements of the story were skilfully handled, and you’ll cheer up when Christopher makes friends with a bunch of other likable misfits, but at times you could be forgiven for forgetting you were reading a horror novel.
After a while Christopher vanishes and reappears after six days, having no recollection of where he was. When quizzed by the police he repeatedly refers to ‘the nice man’ who may be a figment of his imagination, or some type of supernatural entity. Much of the success of Imaginary Friend depends upon the plot shrouding the true intentions of ‘the nice man’ and the ripple of supernatural developments which follow him. Although it is written in the third person and there are many other characters it is most definitely Christopher’s story and as he is only six years old is a very trusting soul.
The story picks up pace upon Christopher’s return, not only does he have a soothing voice in his head, he also seems to be more intelligent. Many of these sequences were very nicely put together, before long Christopher has moved from remedial books to Robert Louis Stevenson and the teacher believes he has been cheating in his maths tests. Even weirder, he has a much greater awareness of the lives of the people around him and can pick up subtle nuances on, for example, a teacher drinking too much. However, eventually it does begin to drag, and the end takes way too long to arrive, with a build-up which becomes repetitive because of the way in which it is stretched out. Ultimately, it spends too much time moving backwards and forwards from the dream/nightmare to our world, instigated by Christopher building a weird tree house in the woods.
The novel featured many other characters which the author takes time developing as they all have loose connection to Christopher. My favourite was the good Catholic girl Mary Katherine, who discovers the boy after his spell missing and feels guilty about just about everything, from fooling around with her boyfriend to driving too fast and is soon sucked into the main plot in another fascinating way. Fascinating as some of this was, it added much to the length of the book.
It does not take a brain surgeon to realise ‘the nice man’ is not what he seems, but the connections to the ’50 years before’ which opened the story was nicely handled and the retribution which comes with it. Imaginary Friend had some outstanding scenes and I will be interested to see how others interpret the ending. On one hand it might irritate some, on the other it could be read as a reinforcement of faith and there is nothing wrong with that. Certainly, it has a dollop of ambiguity, but I thought it worked well. This is a very ambitious book, but there is not enough plot to spread over 700 pages without it repeating itself. I took a break from it on two separate occasions, reading much shorter works, so it could retain some freshness and not develop into a slog.
I'll admit to being massively apprehensive when asked to review this volume's predecessor, Garden of Fiends. Short story anthologies that revolve around specific themes are often problematic, even moreso when those themes are so contentious as chemical addiction.
It was therefore a sincere pleasure to discover that the stories within Garden of Fiends were universally sincere, heartfelt and resounded with a powerful legitimacy, a sense of earnestness that clearly derived from the writer's own experiences, either in their own lives or through those of friends and family. The anthology proved not only a superbly affecting read, but a profound one, that treated its subject with respect and acknowledged the complexities inherent to the situations it drew.
That, more than anything, is an essential factor when it comes to exploring such subjects in fiction; the writer's inclination to not rely on reduction or stereotyping, to put aside factors such as judgement, personal morality etc and explore the circumstances for what they are, in all of their hideousness, delirium, profundity and trauma.
Garden of Fiends succeeded beautifully in that regard, leaving its spiritual successor, Lullabies for Suffering, with something of a legacy to live up to.
From the first page, it's clear that this is a product of quality. Once again, there's a severe immediacy to the writing, a sense of legitimacy that, given the often squalid, abusive situations drawn, makes for some highly disturbing moments. It's very clear that the writers universally draw upon -often traumatic- personal experience to fuel these stories, which renders them far more than merely “horror stories about subject X.”
The phenomena and experience of addiction is explored from myriad different angles, often within the pages of the same story: those suffering from addiction, those traumatised by its ripples or after-effects, those forced to witness the slow decline it brings about. The stories delve deep into the circumstances and situations that facilitate chemical dependency, often with a level of intimacy that is quietly shocking. There is no attempt to judge or justify, here -another very impressive element-, rather, the anthology provides the reader windows into other lives; lives that they may or may not find familiar, lives that are often in states of flux or disintegration, that are even, in some notable instances, at their nadirs.
The purpose here is not to be didactic or judgemental; this is no screed against the addicted or the broken, nor is it a shrieking piece of activisim against societies that facilitate and allow for them: the anthology is universally more complex than that, and far stronger for it. It invites the reader in, regardless of what their political persuasions or personal biases might be, gently drawing them into worlds that are fractured, dirty, dark and disturbing, but worlds that are their world; the world just down the street or the house next door, in the apartment above or below. Whilst the reader might find themselves internally railing against some characters for their apparent weakness or stupidity, for their lack of resolve or concern, the stories actively refute those kinds of judgements by attempting to convey how powerful, how manipulative and cunning addiction itself is, many characters going so far as to personify it as a conscious and malevolent force within their lives.
The stories as a whole refuse to rely on simplicity or stereotype; there are no cartoon distortions of addiction or of its fallout here. Rather, there are accounts that sometimes are so uncomfortably detailed and earnest as to feel firsthand, more like confessions or journals than stories, wrapped up with imagery and inspirations that are at once familiar to horror fans yet reinvented for this particular milieu.
As a result, the anthology is phenomenally distressing on a number of levels, arguably even moreso than contemporaries that focus on more traditionally mythic or narrative subjects. Here, we see through the eyes and experience through the ravaged senses of the addict, we taste the depths of emotion and condition that drive people to addiction or keep them sealed in cultures and psychological states that facilitate it. We walk in the shoes of those who have come to the ends of their lives in their own minds; who are steps away from suicide, who self-harm in numerous ways and means to provide themselves some release from undeniable, rapacious despair.
More than anything, these stories focus on the emotional and psychological circumstances that facilitate addiction: the stories are generally complex and considered enough that they acknowledge drug culture and addiction as expressions of something deeper, of both personal and societal sickness. Mental health is an enormous and recurrent theme, here: despair, depression, suicidal tendencies and more all recur throughout, as do subjects such as parental neglect, child abuse etc.
Mark Matthew's Lizard takes a rather unusual approach to the subject matter in that it flits between the perceptions of different protagonists at various different times throughout their lives, particular attention paid not to the addicts within the story but the children that suffer as a result of their conditions. Focusing specifically on a girl born to Heroin-addicted parents, the story explores notions of misery spawning misery, of cycles that don't end. Here, the children of addicts become something other; the damage done to them opening up cracks to other states and places, making them monsters comprised of hurt and trauma that even they themselves cannot control. The ultimate implication is that the damage done to children as a result of addiction is profound and ineluctable; not something that can be cured or papered over. Rather, it becomes a potentially cancerous part of the individual, perhaps swelling into something monstrous if allowed to go untreated. The story is perhaps one of the most distressing in the collection, in that it explores addiction from the eyes of children, who lack context for such things but have nevertheless incorporated them into their experience of reality as they might school or TV shows. The hideous normality of what many would consider to be abuse, neglect and atrocity is part of the story's true horror. The more supernatural elements that occur, by contrast, seem almost tame (a very deliberate juxtaposition).
The choice to write the story from various different perspectives could have been an alienating one. As is so often the case, it may have robbed the story of clarity or focus. Instead, the contrast between the various different narrators and protagonists helps to embellish and emphasise the situations of the others; were it not for the threads that drawer addict's own points of view (Bethany, Amy), then the story would have been too punitive and unsympathetic; an almost-revenge narrative. However, because of characters such as Bethany, Amy et al, all of whom have moments to express their own drives, desires, motivations, the story is far more complex than that; this is not a shrill cry of “think of the children,” nor is it an emotional manipulation designed to condemn addicts for their conditions.
Instead, the story takes a view of the phenomena of addiction through myriad fractured and kaleidoscopic lenses, from those suffering addiction itself to those harmed by their behaviours, their neglect and abuses. It's an uncompromising, distressing and often very, very uncomfortable piece of work that arouses anger and sympathy in equal measure, and is designed to deliberately confuse the reader in that way: it would have been so easy to draw the parents of the eponymous Lizard simply as monsters. But that isn't what they are. What they are, and which the story takes great pains to explore, is extremely sick, extremely broken human beings whose perceptions are so warped by their addictions, they engage in behaviours that are monstrous, particularly with regards to their daughter.
The decisions to expand the scope beyond the immediate emotional -and, in this instance, physical- damage done to children who grow up in households where addiction is normalised, to follow Lizard through to adulthood, is also a dangerous one, but one that helps the reader gain some insight into how resonant and profound these traumas are. Despite being a fairly successful, self-composed woman at this point, the traumas still inform so much of who she is, how she responds to the world, and it is horrific, powerful and heartbreaking.
By contrast, the anthology also contains stories such as Kealan Patrick Burke's Sometimes They See Me; an entirely different take on the phenomena written from the perspective of a young woman who is not only an inveterate addict but, at the beginning of the tale, at the end of her life. By her own perceptions, she has run out the clock and run out of patience with her existence, the constant need and warring with herself, the hungers and disgraces that define her every waking moment. Encountering a young man on the edge of the same bridge at which she finds herself, she finds some ephemeral reason to forestall the moment, but forestall only. She is aware throughout her activities with the young man -largely expressions of last-moment despair and abandon, in which nothing either of them do truly matters- that she is nearing the end, that the pair of them are simply having one last hurrah before they finally burn one another out. But, as they flit through their varying escapades -sex, drink, getting high, visiting art galleries-, something begins to occur to her and to the man himself; existential revelations that turn their worlds upside down, yet also do nothing to change the circumstances in which they meet.
This is an entirely different approach to the subject of addiction than Mark Matthew's Lizard takes; rather than focussing on the second-hand fallout of the phenomena, this is experiential and intimate; it describes in lurid and often distressing detail the sensations of satisfying a craving, the ecstatic highs, the crippling lows, the gnawing agonies of denying it, the slave- mentality that stirs and swells as a result. It also dares to trawl the emotional depths of the condition; that point at which the fight becomes too much, in which surrender is the only option. There are no pat answers or “Miracle on 34th Street” salvations here; this is not a fable or cartoon in which there are always answers to problems, in which all things can be solved.
It's a story driven by depression first and foremost; by an existential surrender in which all pretence of a life or identity is abandoned. That is where the protagonist finds herself from the first instance, and the state into which the reader is delivered from the first word; a life that has all but unravelled, whose incumbent no longer wants it or sees any point in sustaining it.
That is an unusually brave beginning; one that even those who have no direct experience of addiction will be able to empathise with, especially those that suffer from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety etc. Likewise, given the natural lassitude and lack of engagement that such a situation necessitates, it would have been very easy for the story to lose dynamism or impetus; for the depressive state of the protagonist to inform its ethos. Instead, Burke's prose is elegant enough to paint a rainbow in varying and hideous shades of black, purple and dark grey; the story describes utter, suicidal despair in such a manner that it acknowledges the often florrid states of mind and emotion that accompany it, the heights of revelation that can occur when one has reached the very nadir of one's existence and realised what filth lurks at the bedrock.
Monsters, by Caroline Kepnes, is another different take not only on the fallout of addiction, but on how addiction itself squares next to various other forms of damage, trauma, cruelty and abuse inflicted upon children and young people by society at large. Like Mark Matthews' Lizard, this story is written from numerous different perspectives, from that of the lowly Vince, a young man who was brought up by an addict Mother, whose resultant emotional immaturity has left him self-loathing, psychologically self-abusing, uncertain, socially incapacitated, to Ariel, a girl whose sexual abuse by her Father and emotional neglect by her Mother has left her seeking validation in numerous strange and disturbing ways, as broken in her own way as Vince, despite the absence of specific forms of addiction in her life.
The story is a fascinating take, in that it dares to suggest that, despite the obvious problems of addiction as a phenomena, it is at least on an equal footing in terms of its potential fallout as other societal ills that culture pays far less attention to or deals with in less judgemental, didactic terms. One of the over-arching themes of the story is the consideration of damage that parents do with the slightest of their actions and decisions regarding their children, whether it's the issues Vince faces with his Mother (a deeply distressing relationship in which the child has been effectively forced into the role of the care-giver, despite his reluctance and resentment of it) or the patently vile neglect Ariel faces from her Mother, who is more concerned over damage to her social reputation than the emotional well-being of her daughter.
The story is perhaps amongst the angriest in the collection, seething with a note of -entirely justified- bitterness that takes on an almost activist note at times: unlike Lizard, which is ostensibly similar in terms of theme and structure, Monsters roundly condemns certain characters for their actions and broadens the scope of those criticisms to a much wider attack upon certain cultural hypocrisies. Most notably, the story utterly and absolutely condemns the narcissistic cruelty of Ariel's Mother, who is, the story implies, her own form of addict; one consumed by delusions of status and personality, and as damaging, in her way, than Vince's Mother (if not moreso).
Interestingly, for all of the anger boiling beneath the surface, this is also one of the few stories that contains a note of potential redemption. Whilst it makes plain that trauma cannot be undone, that the imperfections of parents reflect in the neuroses their children, Ariel and Vince do find the possibility of salvation in one another, having survived the traumas and tribulations of their childhoods, though not having transcended them. The story ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, the fury and condemnation of its previous chapters ebbing, leaving behind a residue of sorrow for these hurt and blighted children, who may yet find ways of being wiser than their parents can ever dream.
These are just a handful of the tales the anthology contains; a sample of myriad ways in which the writers perceive and explore the subject of chemical addiction. Each and every one of them does so in a sincere and highly personal manner, with a fidelity that seethes off of the page, often to such a degree that readers of particular sensitivities or life experiences might find their readings particularly traumatic.
The over-arching point here is to arouse emotion and consideration; it would be redundant, given the core subjects, to apply trigger warnings; the anthology is about trauma in its every aspect and manifestation, and examples of practically any and all you might imagine might be found here. Even those of us whose associations are mild will find ourselves gritting our teeth or wincing at particular moments or images (as is entirely the intention).
This is in no way a condemnation of the anthology; if anything, it is a heartfelt recommendation. Any piece of media that dares approach these subjects and does so with this degree of respect, consideration and passion deserves notice, especially when it has the power to move or disturb us.
Far from being trite or token, disrespectful or simplistically judgemental, this is what horror fiction is ideally for; a means by which we might confront not only our own inner-demons, but those of society itself.
Uncomfortable? Certainly. Disturbing? Absolutely. And all the more worthwhile for that. But also beautiful, enlightening, revelatory. Everything that good fiction should be, in a manner that elevates both its chosen genre and the status of discourse on its core subjects.
It’s carnival night in the seaside town of Stanswick Sands and tonight blood will stain the beach red.
Punch and Judy man, Martin Powell, returns after ten years with a dark secret. As his past is revealed Martin must face the anger of the hostile townsfolk, pushing him to the very edge of sanity.
Humiliated and stripped of everything he holds dear, Martin embarks on a campaign of murderous revenge, seeking to settle scores both old and new.
The police force of this once sleepy town can’t react quick enough as they watch the body count grow at the hands of a costumed killer.
Can they do enough to halt the malicious mayhem of the twisted Punch?
I recently bought a copy of Punch by J.R Park and whilst the short tale has been out since 2014, it is new to me. I wasn’t attracted by the garish cover, more the name on it: JR Park wrote one of the best novels I read last year – Mad Dog - so handing over my money was a no brainer. I later found out the film rights have just been bought for this, which is great news and also means I possibly bought the last copy to be sold before the announcement. Doesn’t mean anything, but still sort of cool (ok, maybe not that cool). Apparently, the person who has bought the rights, first discovered the novel by reading about it on this website. It seemed a good idea to me to write a new review to hopefully help it attract some new readers who might otherwise have missed it.
I knew nothing of the plot of Punch when I started reading, and I would suggest that any interested reader has the same approach. Basically, it’s a man returning to his hometown. Shit happens, people die. You can have that for the movie poster. I’m trying not to give away any spoilers here, however small.
Punch is not at all similar to Mad Dog (and if you haven’t read that, you really, really should) in concept, but both books share that they are brutal and uncompromising reads. It seems that Mr Park delights in creating characters just to do despicable things to them, which he does with frequent - and entertaining - abandon.
That is not to say that this is all mindless violence and gore, quite the opposite. Park takes his time building the story of Martin Powell and his life in Stanswick Sands. The scenes concerning Martin’s attempts to reintegrate are really well done, and sympathy builds for him throughout this first half. Some have criticised the first section for being slow, but I really enjoyed it and thought it anchored the carnage of the second half in an all too real world.
The whole book is around 200 pages long and it flies by. Sometimes, the dialogue tags can be overdone where a simple ‘said’ would have sufficed, but this is really nit-picking. As soon as Park switches gears and the body count mounts, you won’t be able to put this novella down. Highly recommended, unless you prefer your horror quiet to blood soaked.
(some spoiler filled musings below – do not read unless you’ve read the book!)
Spoiler filled thoughts:
Ok, so you’ve read the book, now you can read this bit. Park does such a good job of creating sympathy for Martin that it took me ages to lose it. I think it was probably when he kills Jo that I finally stopped feeling sorry for him – which is about four deaths in! The ending is every bit as devastating as the end of The Mist (film) and for similar reasons.
Should Martin have died at the end? Probably. Pippa? Definitely – it was all her fault after all, but the way the novel closes on her grim discovery is a masterstroke and means that this strong novella will live long in the memory. Now, even as I’ve written that last sentence, I’m not sure how much I believe it. Yes, Pippa’s lies led to Martin’s downfall and imprisonment, but he seemed – in the earlier sections at least – happy to be out and to be content to try and live his life. It was the reaction of the residents, and Polly, that really pushed him over the edge and that wasn’t her fault.
Clever stuff, Mr Park. This really is a fantastic novella.
David Watkins is a horror writer based in Devon in the UK. His most recent novel is The Devil’s Inn (4* - Joe X. Young, Ginger Nuts of Horror). You can contact him on Twitter via @joshfishkins or Goodreads
“I don’t want to die in a pub in Devon…”
There is a pub in the heart of Dartmoor where a fire has burned every day for over one hundred and fifty years.
It is said the fire never goes out.
It is said that if it does, the Devil will appear and claim the souls of all inside.
Tonight, seven strangers are stranded there during a fierce snowstorm.
Tonight, the fire will go out…
Praise for David Watkins
"...gut twisting scenes...” 4* Joe X Young, Gingernuts of Horror
"..a damn entertaining read.." - DLS Reviews
"Great horror! I couldn't put the book down" 4.5*, Pamela Kinney, Ismellsheep.com
The third instalment of the superb ‘Earl Marcus’ hillbilly noir series confirms that Hank Early deserves to mix with the giants of crime and mystery fiction
Over the last couple of years Earl Marcus has fast become one of my favourite Fictional detectives and Echoes of the Fall is the third in the series set in the small town of Riley in the mountainous regions of north Georgia. I look forward to his reappearance as much as my all-time favourite detectives John Rebus and Harry Bosch. The area the novels is set is known as the ‘Five Fingers’ named after five mountains which dominate the surrounding landscape. I would strongly recommend you read the novels in the correct sequence; beginning with Heaven’s Crooked Finger and then In the Valley of the Devil, before embarking upon this latest Earl Marcus adventure. Book three could still be read as a standalone novel, but greater enjoyment will be had by picking up the character development and many references which knit the three books together and the wider story arc which threads through this wonderful series.
Although they are not horror novels, the series does have a vague undiagnosed supernatural touch, particularly in the first two books, but ultimately they are outstandingly atmospheric thrillers with a unique sense of time and place. I’ve never drunk whiskey in the back-water honky-tonk bars described in these books or visited locations like ‘Backslide Gap’ or ‘Ghost Creek’ but this series transports directly into this other world and vividly breathes life into them. Few series use their locale better than Hank Early does, which at times is simply breath-taking and places a significant part in the success of the series. If we are talking sub-genres the Earl Marcus Mystery series could probably be called ‘Hillbilly Noir’ and ‘Appalachian Noir’ which is very popular in America at the moment and these books should be ranked amongst the very best of the genre.
Earl Marcus is a private detective who, after many years away, once again lives in his childhood hometown of Riley, and at the beginning of the novel is suffering from both personal and alcohol problems which are loosely connected to events from the previous novels. The trilogy frequently refers back to Earl’s unhappy childhood, whose father was a charismatic Pentecostal preacher who led his own church. His father’s shadow dominates the series, particularly book one and there are frequent flashbacks to his formative years as a teenager. Much of Hank’s personal problems are connected to issues with his father and his inner demons are never far from bubbling to the surface, which is another recurring theme and an aspect of his character which makes him incredibly engaging.
Many of the established characters return in this third outing; his best friends Rufus Gribble, who is blind and squats in the ruins of his father’s old church and Ronnie Thrash who both help Earl with his personal problems and his detective work. Ronnie, who is a neighbour of Earl, also has nice character development when he starts a band called the ‘Bluegrass Mountain Cult’. Although book three is predominately written in the first person from Earl’s point of view, it expands upon this and gives Rufus a much bigger role as he is facing his own inner demons, including terrific flashbacks to when he was a teenager which is connected to the major wider story arc of Echoes of the Fall.
The mystery begins when Earl discovers a dead body in his front yard and due to long running issues with the local sheriff he does not report this to the police. Instead he begins to investigate, and realising the dead man was coming to him for help and the mystery deepens. Initially Earl does not believe he can involve his friends in this case and after finding a letter in the dead man’s pocket with a cryptic message about God and rebellion the trail leads to the Harden School, a reform institution for boys. Because of spoilers, I do not want to say much more about the plot.
Fans of the series will be delighted to see further familiar characters pop-up; the dangerous redneck politician Jeb Walsh makes a seedy return, but this time out Earl’s girlfriend policewoman Mary Hawkins plays a much smaller role. Other new superb characters are added to the series including the scary ‘Hill Brothers’ who make an outstanding first appearance in a little honkytonk bar which is built almost into the woods. I sure would love to visit that place!
Although Earl is written in the first person, Rufus is written in the third and the flashbacks to his teenage years were a major highlight of the novel, which also reveals the circumstances in which he was blinded. The vague supernatural touch returns, once again, with the ‘Shadow Girl’ or perhaps she is only a figment of Rufus’s conscience?
Echoes of the Fall is an exceptionally well-developed mystery thriller and fans of the previous two novels are going to gobble this book up. Earl Marcus is a brilliant, complex and flawed main character, but due to the circumstances of this novel some readers may lose some sympathy for him, as many of his problems are of his own making. Religion was a major theme in Heaven’s Crooked Finger which also features in this new book, perhaps if Earl is to return for a fourth outing (and I hope he does) it is a subject worth avoiding and the series could do with moving in a fresh direction?
It would be nice to see the Earl Marcus books receive a proper release in the UK, they can be bought from Amazon, but at the time of writing they are unavailable on Kindle, which is a great shame.
Hank Early is a seriously talented author who also writes as John Mantooth. The styles are so different you would never know it was the same person. I reviewed The Year of the Storm, which was first published in 2013, but rereleased last year:
It’s always a pleasure to pick up someone’s book and then be pleasantly surprised at what you find lurking within. Such is the case with Andrew Freudenberg’s debut collection from The Sinister Horror Company, “My Dead and Blackened Heart.” Contained within this nicely balanced collection are fourteen tales that deliver solid blows to your emotions interspersed with short and sharp punches to your gut. There are certainly a few stories in here that will leave you emitting glottal noises and trying to rid your mind of the indelible images stained in your memories but the real lasting impression is of Freudenberg’s skill at lulling you into a false sense of security.
Freudenberg’s stories often sneak up on you like a ninja, catching you completely off guard and defenceless against his precision strike. I think this mainly stems from his subtle and nuanced observations about family life and relationships that add heft and weight to proceedings as he explores the emotional siblings of physical pain and torture. These recognisable aspects of his characters and their relationships certainly add a welcome counterbalance to the occasional jets of arterial blood and viscera that he splatters the pages and your memories with.
However, there is very little inkling of what lies in wait for you from the introductory story of a sole survivor marooned at the site of a mining disaster in “Something Akin To Despair.” Yet, as we follow the survey of the utter desolation faced by the survivor, it becomes clear that humanity is a very hard thing to find in the depths of space. This can best be considered as a bit of a soft introduction to the collection and its prevalent themes yet still packs quite a wallop. The feeling of being lost and separated from the ones you love is explored further in “A Bitter Parliament.” In this, an estranged couple seeking rest and rejuvenation in the country find more than they bargained for lurking close by, watching and waiting. This story certainly does have an odd folklore type vibe to it which is heightened by the claustrophobic atmosphere as Maria and Dan find themselves increasingly feeling like strangers in a strange land.
It’s with “Charlie’s Turn” that Freudenberg delivers one of those unexpected sucker punches I was describing. This story just has this really chilling and malicious undertone that slowly ratchets up as Charlie and his brother find that child’s play has very different implications in the adult world. It is certainly a deeply affecting tale that highlights Freudenberg’s skill in grasping the subtle dynamics of familial relationships and twisting them from something familiar into something sinister and menacing. The need to protect and defend those around you from the harsh realities of life is demonstrated in “Pater in Tenebrae” as a family in the midst of an apocalyptic event discover sometimes the enemy isn’t outside but within. It’s another story that will slowly creep up on you without warning with an ending that’s as ambiguous as it is chilling.
The next story in the collection, “Milkshake” doesn’t so much punch you in the guts as shred them. A gleefully grim slice of pure thoroughbred horror, this will have you looking at pigs in blankets forever more with roiling stomachs. The sheer visceral horror inherent in this story is nicely contrasted with the quiet horror of “Nose to the Window” as a family decide to spend some quality time together in the face of possible annihilation. It’s certainly a beautifully observed and poignant story about what’s important in life and death and for me is one of the strongest stories in here.
Losing that which we hold most dear and what we would be willing to sacrifice to recover it is at the heart of the aptly named “The Cardiac Ordeal.” Faced with the horror of his missing daughter, Shane receives a mysterious offer that will lead him down some very dark paths in pursuit of Emma. It’s another well observed and written story that, much like the preceding story, lulls you into a false sense of security before quietly sliding the knife in and twisting. Damaged people are certainly at the forefront in “Meat Sweets”, the cousin of “Milkshake,” as we take another stomach churning ride into the world of factory farming. Though it shares similar DNA with its kin, this particular story is a far more twisted and malformed relation that delivers another bowel shredding bout of extreme hued horror.
The sins of the flesh and how they come back to haunt or indeed hunt you, form the basis of the next two stories. The first of these is “Scorch” about a homeless young couple who seek shelter in an abandoned house only for them to discover that there are far older tenants in residency. It’s a well written ghost story but I have to be honest that it didn’t particularly fire me up and I did feel a little under whelmed considering how good its predecessors were. Unfortunately, that feeling wasn’t quite abated by “The Teppenyaki of Truth” as a tourist in Las Vegas, Turner, unexpectedly finds himself the guest of honour at a very special celebration. The themes of loss, grief and how you deal with your past and memories run riot through this bloody tale of revenge and retribution yet I did feel somewhat unengaged in the story.
How we remember ourselves and our life forms the basis of “Before the Meat Time,” another zombie flavoured tale to chew on and savour. Keeping in with the theme of family that runs rampant throughout this collection, this sister story to “Pater in Tenebrae” reveals that the only real difference in life or death is what type of meat you consume. Recollections of your past and how that can corrupt your present reality is further examined in “Hope Eternal.” In this, a demobbed soldier with post traumatic stress disorder desperately searches for his daughter amongst the ruins of a bombed out London during the Blitz. As he discovers though, chasing after ghosts is all very well and good if you want to achieve some semblance of peace but it’s a different situation altogether if the ghosts of the past are hunting you.
The lingering trauma of war and the effects that can have on your own perception inform the frankly bonkers, “The Last Patrol.” Easily the most deranged story in tone this initially had me thinking it was some kind of Mad Max styled story before slowly realising its set in a circus and told from the perspective of three fairly damaged clowns dealing with their own personal battles. The final entry in this collection, “Beyond the Book” continues the haunting theme that has echoed throughout the last few stories by having a good poke at social media interaction and what the nature of memory is in a digital age. Much like this collection started, it closes with a moment of quiet, reflective horror that is just as punchy as its loud and violent siblings.
All in all, “My Dead and Blackened Heart” is actually rather good. Although there were two stories that didn’t quite grab me as much as the others, this is a solid collection of thoughtful and well written stories that will either grab your heart and squeeze or kick you where it hurts. A good job well done, I’d say.