“We’d been in the house two weeks when Tommy pulled the first bones from the garden”
I first reviewed Andy Cull back in January 2018, when I was mightily impressed by his debut novella Knock And You Will See Me, and have had an interested eye on his fledgling horror career over the subsequent three years. His debut novella was republished within his excellent collection Bones, which also featured a range of other impressive short stories. However, these tasters were merely building towards the main event, Remains (2019), his debut novel, which was an absolute knockout and one of the bleakest and terrifying novels of 2019 which I placed easily within my top three of the year. I am sure Andrew Cull has much more in the literary tank, and if you have never come across him before, this is the perfect time to jump aboard as he is undoubtedly a major new voice in horror fiction and this latest release, The Cockroach King, is a quirky introduction to his bag of talents.
If you follow Cull on Twitter, you will already be aware that he often gives proceedings of his book sales to charity and this latest novella, released by Beneath Hell Publishing, will be donating all profits to UNICEF. It is also great to see top reviewers already getting behind The Cockroach King, with Gavin Kendall (of Kendall Reviews) saying “The Cockroach King is one hell of a read. This is Andrew Cull doing what he does best” and Shane Keene (of InkHeist) continues “A chilling heartrending twisted little creature feature. Another must read from a darkly brilliant mind.” Both Gavin and Shane are reliable and very experienced reviewers, and I would echo their thoughts entirely.
Although it lacks the overall fear factor of Remains, which has a level of intensity difficult to match, this latest novella is a tight and very fast read which should be devoured in a couple of sittings. I loved the first sentence so much “We’d been in the house two weeks when Tommy pulled the first bones from the garden” I had it added at the top of the review as a teaser to suck you in! It quickly sets the tone for a very dark story which starts immediately after single parent Cassie and her young son move into their new house on Cedar Street. It goes without saying that their dream home and fresh start, after the recent death of Cassie’s mother, soon turns into a nightmare and it is riveting stuff seeing how it pans out.
If you do not like cockroaches look away now. Nobody likes the horrible little bastards, do they? You will like them even less after reading this novella, even if for the most part they lurk in the background and increase the anxiety of the already stressed Cassie who finds the filthy creatures creeping around her young son. When our daughter was small we lived in a flat with a serious roach infestation and supermarket kill-sprays were not effective enough to eradicate them and I remember checking on my girl one night, and was shocked to see the biggest roach I had ever seen lounging on the pillow inches from her face. It was so large I swear it winked at me before I flicked it away! Eventually a product called Boric Acid killed them off, but not before a lot of stress. Poor Cassie badly needed some Boric in this story!
This high level of stress is fed directly into The Cockroach King, Cassie is short of cash and options, and desperately needs the new home to be a success. But the clever thing about the story is the fact that these cockroaches are only part of the problem, and even though they seem intelligent and particularly aggressive, the story actually revolves around what is going on in the garden, and that takes us back to that outstanding opening sentence.
Everybody wants moving into a new home to be a fresh start, turning over a new page, nobody expects to dig up a former family pet in the back garden. Cassie has her old friend Tommy helping around the house, who deals with the uncovered bones, and they then quickly realise that there is more than one dead animal in the garden. Perhaps many more, and Cassie begins to ask questions of the guy who lived in the house previously. This story strand was terrific and was probably more interesting than the cockroach infestation, but Andrew Cull will keep you neatly on tenterhooks on how the two come together as a few clever clues drop here and there.
As Shane Keene correctly notes this is a “twisted little creature feature” and you will have a fun read in the build up to the big reveal which is cleverly held back until well into proceedings, but along the way there is plenty of good writing to admire. The sense of loneliness and isolation Cassie feels is palpable and is not dissimilar to the protagonist in Remains, who is dealing with a much more horrific bereavement. Cassie’s backstory was convincing and the feelings of protection she has for her little boy was skilfully crafted into a plot which on certain levels was very realistic; where do you go if you have nowhere to go?
I would describe The Cockroach King as a creature feature with heart and it certainly had the potential to be worked into a longer story, one might argue it ended a little too early, and a couple of further twists and turns might have been added into the mix. Cassie was a great main character, there were some solid scares and the blending of the two stories of the dogs buried in the garden and the cockroaches was nicely done with skilful ambiguity. For the most part the reader is unsure whether they are reading a ghost story or not, with the author keeping his cards close to his cards for the great finish in the final quarter. Andy Cull is a great writer, seriously one to watch, and The Cockroach King is a solid introduction to his fiction.
“We’d been in the house two weeks when Tommy pulled the first bones from the garden.”
When Cassie Baker buys the house on Cedar Street, it’s partly because it reminds her of the house she grew up in in the ‘80s. It reminds her of happier times, when her Mom was still alive, before the cancer had taken her. It seems like the perfect place to raise her baby boy, Sam.
That is, until a friend unearths the remains of a dog, buried in a shallow grave in the backyard.
After the bones come the cockroaches…
THE COCKROACH KING is a new novella written by Andrew Cull, the award-winning author of REMAINS and BONES. All profits from sales of THE COCKROACH KING will be donated to UNICEF.
The long awaited 30th volume of this classic anthology of short horror fiction is finally here and it was worth the wait. Due to the late appearance of the book the stories included therein are chosen among those published in 2018 (not 2019) but it doesn’t matter at all in view of the excellent quality of the featured material.
Well respected editor Stephen Jones has assembled twenty-three stories previously appeared in horror collections, anthologies and magazines in 2018, introducing the volume with an incredibly exhaustive overview of what has happened in the horror area in that particular year concerning both books and movies.
As for the selected stories, I must say that a good number correspond to those that attracted my attention, as a reader and as a reviewer, at the time of their publication.
First of all I’d like to mention the two stories by Peter Bell, a fantastic author of ghostly tales, whose body of work has appeared so far only in books from small, indie imprints ,hence is not as widely known as it would deserve. “The House” is an eerie piece of fiction about three gentlemen following the traces of an elusive, ambiguous ghost story writer, and “ The Virgin Mary Well” is a dark, atmospheric story where ancient,unholy secrets about a mysterious well are unearthed and brought back to the present.
One of my favorite authors, the prolific and eclectic Reggie Oliver ( actor,playwright,writer and illustrator) contributes “Porson’s Piece” ,a great supernatural story featuring a retired professor and philosopher compelled to deal with some unexplained phenomena.
“The Deep Sea Swell” by John Langan is a tense,thrilling story where the ghost of a past sea tragedy gets loose during a storm, while “ Holiday Reading” by Rosalie Parker is a delightful tale suspended between literature and reality.
In the creepy “The Smiling Man, by Simon Kurt Unsworth, violating the grave of a disreputable character brings about serious disturbances in a quiet small village.
Alison Littlewood’s excellent ”The Marvellous Talking Machine” conveys a feeling of dread by depicting a disquieting technical device, while Rio Youers’ very dark and quite enjoyable
“ The Typewriter”revolves around a haunted typewriter endowed with evil powers.
Mark Samuels provides “Posterity”, an Aickmanesque story ( not a simple coincidence...) describing the uncanny experience of a literary researcher exploring the legacy of a deceased writer whose initials are R.A.
In Thana Niveau’s truly outstanding “ Octoberland” nostalgia and childhood horrors blend to create an insightful, unforgettable mix.
Other distinguished contributors are: Graham Masterton, NIcholas Royle, Michael Chislett, Christopher Harman, Ramsey Campbell, James Wade, Ken Mackenzie, Michael Marshall Smith, Tracy Fahey, Daniel McGachey, Damien Angelica Walters, Caitlín R Kiernan, Brian Hodge.
I’ll have two pints of milk, a slab of cheese and your best witch bottle please!
Later in the year James Brogden’s excellent Bone Harvest is released, one of the main story threads is based around rural village allotments and you might be forgiven by asking how on earth a horror novel can be based around this quaint and rather middle-England subject? Tom Fletcher does something similar in his equally impressive Witch Bottle, however, switching topics from allotments to the countryside milkman who delivers milk, fruit, and vegetables to those who live in the wilds of Cheshire, including farms, and villages. As with Bone Harvest you might be curious how a supernatural story can be built around such the humdrum topic of milkmen? However, Tom Fletcher pulls it off with aplomb, with the repetitiveness of the daily deliveries playing a big part in the action and if you make it past the particularly slow first 30% Witch Bottle is both a great and beguiling read.
What is a ‘Witch Bottle’ you may ask? As I had a feeling it was based in historical fact, the novel had me reaching for Google and Wikipedia which revealed:
“A witch or folk healer would prepare the witch's bottle. Historically, the witch's bottle contained the victim's (the person who believed they had a spell put on them, for example) urine, hair or nail clippings, or red thread from sprite traps. Later witch bottles were filled with rosemary, needles and pins, and red wine.”
If you feel inclined, you can visit Ebay for all sorts of modern-day ‘Wikka’ equivalents and spent less than a tenner (which I guess does not include authentic semen or other bodily fluids, but I guess, you never know!) That is not the case in Witch Bottle, in which a modern-day witch creates bottles and protection wards holding supernatural properties and has her new boyfriend deliver these ‘extras’ to her customers whilst on his daily milk run around the rural parts of north west England. As she hopes to keep her witch identity anonymous and separate from her day job, she relies on her boyfriend Daniel, who is the story’s main character and has a host of his own problems, to make these special deliveries. Part of the entertainment is Danny keeping this side-line secret from his work colleagues and does not want anybody saying, “I’ll have two pints on milk, a kilo of cheese and a witch bottle please!”
Witch Bottle has been namechecked in comparison to Andrew Michael Hurley who wrote The Loney, Devil’s Day and Starve Acre, having read all of Hurley’s work, this is a fair comparison and Fletcher more than holds his own. I would not necessarily call this novel Folk Horror, however, there are definitely vibes, and similar to Hurley, location is critical and truly dominates the book as we head along the A595 to Beckermet, Thornhill, Westlakes, Craggesund and other remote locations delivering eggs, bacon, fruit and milk. The location helps develop atmosphere and as Daniel greets his customers, often rural farmers, one gets a true sense of isolation as this might be the only human contact the customers receive all day. And Danny is not exactly a great talker.
Although it was not a long novel, the length of time and detail spent on the milk rounds might test the patience of some readers, myself, I rather enjoyed it. The business, owned by ‘Bean’, is forever a small step away (or so she says) from bankruptcy and the team of milkmen are forever under the cosh to deliver on time, hold onto orders, have enough loafs of bread in their vans, decide whether the milk has curled or if extending the credit of a customer who is a few pounds short is acceptable without incurring Bean’s wrath. And whatever the milkmen do their boss is rarely happy, pleading poverty, and threatening them with pay-cuts. I enjoyed the compelling balance between the trials of rural working-class life and the supernatural which is kept on the quiet, where cash and conversation is in short supply, but a belief in the old ways exists, even if never spoken about.
The use of the undiagnosed supernatural was truly superb; lots of people (including Daniel) start seeing ghosts and without going into detail, most accept this as relatively normal and turn to the witch bottles as a way of protection or release. Ghosts are big business in rural Cheshire and so the side-business sees immediate success, if it was not for the fact that the witch bottles are sold via the internet, the book has a feeling of being set much further back in time, perhaps the seventies. Even though it took a while for this main story strand to find its legs I wish it had been developed further, but in the end, it seemed to be side-lined before the book concluded and I found this to be frustrating as it was one of the strongest elements of Witch Bottle with the witch herself being written out of the plot before her story seemed truly concluded. Whilst the milkmen are out on their routes they often bump into another organisation, Fallen Stock, which collects animal carcasses which was another fascinating part of the plot, but again I was not convinced the way it was ultimately connected to the witch bottle story. Ultimately the ending seemed a bit rushed in bringing the threads together, which was not necessary in a relatively short novel and what had previously been relatively ‘quiet’ horror became jarringly loud and I am not sure it gelled together.
A deep sense of loneliness permeates throughout Witch Bottle, much of it centres around Daniel and his problems regarding repressed guilt, loss, grief, fear, and his estranged family. Various aspects of this is covered in flashback, which has a deliberately disjointed style which mirrors his state of mind which worsens when he also begins to see a ghost and becomes tied to a witch bottle. If you are a fan of broken central characters, hiding in dead-end jobs, then Daniel is hard to beat and spending time in his head is not a comfortable experience, nor is it meant to be.
I love atmospheric and slow-burning horror novels which are top heavy with an undiagnosed sense of the supernatural, and even though I have highlighted a couple of shortcomings, I found Witch Bottle tremendously entertaining and am very happy to recommend it. How often are you going to read a grittily realistic horror novel with a milkman as a central character? “I’ll have three pints and a half dozen eggs please!”
A deeply atmospheric literary horror novel about the nature of repressed guilt, grief and fear.
Daniel once had a baby brother, but he died, a long time ago now. And he had a wife and a daughter, but that didn't work out, so now he's alone. The easy monotony of his job as a milkman in the remote northwest of England demands nothing from him other than dealing with unreasonable customer demands and the vagaries of his enigmatic boss.
But things are changing. Daniel's started having nightmares, seeing things that can't possibly be there - like the naked, emaciated giant with a black bag over its head which is so real he swears he could touch it . . . if he dared.
It's not just at night bad things are happening, either, or just to him. Shaken and unnerved, he opens up to a local witch. She can't t discern the origins of his haunting, but she can provide him with a protective ward - a witch-bottle - if, in return, he will deliver her products on his rounds.
But not everyone's happy to find people meddling with witch-bottles. Things are about to get very unpleasant . . .
Witch Bottle is literary horror at its finest, perfect for fans of Andrew Michael Hurley's The Loney and Starve Acre.
This story could’ve been full of schoolboy sniggering and crude gross-out humour, and it certainly does have a comic element, but it’s also a serious and moving character study of someone facing one of the most awful medical predicaments available to humanity, without ever making a victim of her or lapsing into self-indulgent doom-mongering.
Philosophers have often pitted their wits against the mystery that is horror. What exactly is horror, and why do the things that scare and appal us have this effect? In the nineteenth century Freud developed the concept of the Uncanny - which can be briefly defined as the intrusion of the unfamiliar into the familiar world around us - as a model to explain human fears. Later on thinkers such as Julia Kristeva contributed the theory of the Abject, another way of approaching horror that focusses on the dividing line between the inside and the outside of the human body, and the feelings of disgust, anger and dread that arise when the substances expelled by the body refuse to just quietly disappear. Georges Bataille, meanwhile, extended the concept of the abject beyond the human and into society as a whole, as a way of critiquing the dynamics of othering, of the tensions between “us” and “them”. All these themes are more relevant than ever, and Comma Press has now followed up its 2008 anthology The New Uncanny with The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease (edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page).
This is the sort of book that could fuel many a high-minded philosophical line of enquiry. However, my first question on opening it was “Who’s going to do the one about shit?”. The swiftness with which this enquiry is answered is greatly to the editors’ credit: Bernardine Bishop starts the party with ‘Stool’, about the emotional turmoil of a woman fitted with a colostomy bag who is also beset by an apparently haunted toilet. Many an author would struggle to sculpt a decent story out of such dark matter, but Bishop is not just any author. Her innovative premise is decked out in style, and the descriptions of allotment plants tended by the main characters weave in and out of the narrative in a way that is surprisingly beautiful. This story could’ve been full of schoolboy sniggering and crude gross-out humour, and it certainly does have a comic element, but it’s also a serious and moving character study of someone facing one of the most awful medical predicaments available to humanity, without ever making a victim of her or lapsing into self-indulgent doom-mongering.
This unusually candid portrayal of an older woman’s psyche is just the first hint of the very strong flavour of feminism that pervades the anthology. This is very fitting, since western civilisation tells women that their bodies are particularly disgusting and holds them to a higher standard of cleanliness and youthfulness than men. The beauty industry and its capacity to generate and amplify female suffering comes under attack in Lara Williams’ desperately sad “() ((“, while a women undergoing an uneasy pregnancy becomes obsessed with echoes of a subterranean body of water in “The Reservoir”, a dreamy, street-lit piece by Meave Hughey that is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and Joel Lane by turns.
And then there’s “The Universal Stain Remover” by Gaia Holmes, my favourite story in the anthology. This delve into the private life of a gold-standard professional house-sitter who specializes in leaving houses cleaner than she finds them is a veritable symphony of ground-in dirt, be it domestic, physical or psychological (surviving domestic abuse is a major theme). It notably tackles menstruation, a process that, if those sanitary towel adverts and their trickles of blue water are anything to go by, fills a certain portion of society with even more disgust than excrement or vomit. And this isn’t one of those simplistic return-of-the-repressed stories where some suburban neat-freak is merely submerged by chaos, either. The heroine has a more complex relationship with dirt than that, and the story’s most important message is the importance of identifying all the different types of filth in your life, then deciding what types of scum should be embraced and what types just need a good hard dose of Cillit Bang. It also has a very satisfying ending.
A number of the tales here are oriented more toward the social abject. Saleem Haddad’s ‘An Enfleshment of Desire’ features a hero who leaves his comfortable life and long-standing boyfriend in New York to became swept up in the terrifying but euphoric Lebanese “thawra” uprising, and in the process finds himself engaging in a spot of intense philandering. This is an absorbing story with a setting that is, to say the least, unexplored by Western fantasy writers, and it was interesting to read about how homosexuality is perceived in the Lebanon. The whole thing is at times a bit self-consciously deep – it’s the kind of story where people say “Annihilate me” during sex – but overall it’s a vivid and nuanced look at how self-discovery and self-destruction often seem inseparable.
Further to the West, Sarah Schofield has a political spectre from Britain in her crosshairs with ‘Rejoice’. It’s the sort of high-concept story it’s hard to describe without spoiling, so I’ll just say that it’s very effective and sinister as long as you know a little bit about UK political past. And if the country’s future is of more interest to you, look no further than “Wretched” by Lucie McKnight Hardy, a Gary McMahon-esque vision of a surveillance-sodden, post-austerity future that seems horribly close (or in fact already here if you’re poor and/or disabled.)
Elsewhere we find more explorations of the way modern technology has been enlisted in the war on the Other. “It’s a Dinosauromorph, Dum-Dum” by Adam Marek addresses virtual reality and, by implication, the way the digital world and its artificial images of physical perfection are foisted on us all while the ugly, the old and the disabled become increasingly invisible. This could’ve been a very preachy number indeed but it has the brisk pacing, originality and capacity to frighten of a classic cyberpunk story.
Meanwhile the rural abject is successfully invoked by two of the more “literary” authors in the anthology, Margaret Drabble (the wistful, eerie ‘The Leftovers’), and Gerard Woodward (the compelling beekeeping hipster relationship drama ‘The Honey Gatherers’). In fact, one of the things I liked best about this book is the blend of mainstream authors and genre writers. I am often underwhelmed by the attempts of literary authors to write fantasy and horror fiction - these efforts often seem watery and wrongly convinced of their own originality due to an incomplete knowledge of the genre in which they are slumming it. That’s not the case of any of the contributions here, and overall this a thoughtful but fun anthology that will hopefully unite readers from across the literary spectrum.
Review by Daisy Lyle
SOMETHING HAS FALLEN AWAY. We have lost a part of ourselves, our history, what we once were. That something, when we encounter it again, look it straight in the eyes, disgusts us, makes us retch. This is the horror of the abject.
Following the success of Comma’s award-winning New Uncanny anthology, The New Abject invites leading authors to respond to two parallel theories of the abject – Julia Kristeva’s theory of the psychoanalytic, intimate abject, and Georges Bataille’s societal equivalent – with visceral stories of modern unease. As we become ever-more isolated by social media bubbles, or the demands for social distancing, our moral gag-reflex is increasingly sensitised, and our ability to tolerate difference, or ‘the other’, atrophies. Like all good horror writing, these stories remind us that exposure to what unsettles us, even in small doses, is always better than pretending it doesn’t exist. After all, we can never be wholly free of that which belongs to us.
FEATURING new fiction by Alan Beard, Bernardine Bishop, Ramsey Campbell, David Constantine, Margaret Drabble, Karen Featherstone, Saleem Haddad, Mark Haddon, Gaia Holmes, Matthew Holness, Meave Haughey, Adam Marek, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Mike Nelson, Christine Poulson, Sarah Schofield, Paul Theroux, Lara Williams and Gerard Woodward.
Part of Comma's Modern Horror series.
Purchase a copy direct from Comma Press by clicking here
CHRISTINE POULSON & LARA WILLIAMS AND THE NEW ABJECT EDITED BY SARAH EYRE & RA PAGESARAH SCHOFIELD AND THE NEW ABJECT EDITED BY SARAH EYRE & RA PAGESALEEM HADDAD AND THE NEW ABJECT EDITED BY SARAH EYRE & RA PAGERAMSEY CAMPBELL AND THE NEW ABJECT EDITED BY SARAH EYRE & RA PAGE
Prepare for a dangerous journey into yeti country….
If there is an author due a totally stellar 2021 then Dave Jeffery must be close to the top of the list. This versatile and classy writer is well overdue discovery by a much wider audience, and I hope Frostbite 2: Labyrinth and the soon to be released (not to mention excellent) A Quiet Apocalypse: Cathedral both help the cause. Although both books are being published very close together, they are distinctly different beasts, with Frostbite 2 a pulpy Himalayan yeti action story with a science fiction spin, and Cathedral a gripping dystopian nightmare, set some years after an apocalypse. I’ve already read Cathedral and am happy to vouch for its quality and although the latest Frostbite yarn does not hit the same emotional buttons, nor does it try to, it remains fast paced and easy to read fun. The plot is truly preposterous, and then some, but that is part of its b-movie style charm. If you have ever watched the cult horror film Dog Soldiers, switch the werewolves for yetis, and you are heading in the right direction for what lies ahead in the freezing snow drifts.
Frostbite was originally published in 2017 and Labyrinth continues the same tight story, picking up the action on Mount Machapuchare immediately after the conclusion of book one. It would be relatively easy to just directly into this continuation without having read its predecessor as the narrative fills in the various gaps, however, completists might want to head back to the beginning and there is nothing wrong with that, as Frostbite was an outstanding action, over the top, horror novel. Neither is particularly long, so if you are new to the series reading them back-to-back might be the preferred tactic.
By way of brief recap, the original concerns a special ops team who are sent to rescue an anthropologist who is feared trapped on a sacred mountain in the Himalayas, a place where the locals fear the mythical yeti roams dishing out bloody retribution on anyone who is dumb enough to stray into its territory. Unfazed by local superstition and folklore, the team see an opportunity to make some easy money at the expense of their employer’s gullibility (nobody believes in yetis right?) and once they make it onto the frozen mountain all hell breaks loose and the body count increases and the crazy plot switches up the gears. But hold onto your hats, the truly bat-shit crazy stuff is saved for the long-awaited sequel, which throws plenty of new stuff into the story mix.
Frostbite 2: Labyrinth picks up the action on the mountain, with the story continuing with the same characters Knowles, Sully and Johns, as well as plenty of other new dudes who are given extensive back stories which help pace out the action (even if you are certain this character is going to end up as dogmeat). There were some outstanding action sequences, including a cool one when a helicopter is brought down and others within the caves of the mountain as various characters are stalked and picked off, threatened by avalanches or have their guts spilled in the deadly snow. Throughout the story the weather is atrocious, and you will be reaching for your winter warmers and a wee snifter to unchill your bones in no time.
There was a muted, but crucial, science fiction strand in Frostbite which is impressively developed into the main storyline in Labyrinth. To be honest, I had forgotten about this and had to doublecheck it featured in book one, but it adds much to the plot, making this considerably more than a trashy yeti story. In fact, the yetis start fighting with these other ‘false yeti’ bastards (and the rest) in some particularly cool scenes which have serious bite and are amongst the strongest in the book. It is because of this storyline I would recommend reading the predecessor first as it is dropped into the plot very early in this sequel and could be a tad confusing if you have jumped straight into Labyrinth.
Dave Jeffery wisely realised that he had to make his yetis something more than vicious killing machines and does this with great aplomb in this second instalment. How, you may ask? I did say this story has strong science fiction elements and he creates a way in which the yeti can communicate with the main character Knowles and thus becomes something more than a brutal nameless enemy. This was very cool, and I quickly found myself rooting for the yeti, and when three other yetis were introduced things got better and better as two of them were the equivalent of teenagers. I loved the teen yetis and the brief glimpses of yeti culture, how they are named for example, which was interwoven into the story. In fact, I would have preferred to have found out more about the yetis, rather than the backstories of the mercenaries. The nameless bad guy monster from book one quickly develops a face and ‘Sully’ had serious game and the banter between him and Knowles was entertaining stuff, and they were both top notch central leads.
Frostbite 2 is not a deep and meaningful novel, it wears its heart on its sleeve and delivers action, death, lots of blood, some great kill scenes and entertaining banter between the characters. You might not shed a tear as many of the mercenaries meet their maker and you might even find yourself rooting for the hairy beasts. It also has a cool ending which will have you wondering when part three might be with us. Let us hope we do not have to wait another three years.
Finally, Dave Jeffery previously wrote a very cool werewolf novella called Tooth and Nail and so if there was ever any literary demand for a werewolf-yeti monster mash-up I know which author I would suggest write it.
Priya Sridhar’s Offstage Offerings is the seventeenth title in Unnerving’s Rewind or Die series which aims to capture the spirit of the video nasty in print, promising monsters and bucket loads of gore. Offstage Offerings jumps right in with a prologue which sees a clandestine tour of the Haunted Basilio Theater end in bloodshed when the tour group stumble upon a gang of gargoyles. It’s a frantic and striking opening which makes good on the promise of the series, but unfortunately the rest of the novella fails to repeat the success of this early encounter.
In chapter one, we meet our protagonist, Vivian. She’s a likeable character, and the best developed of a particularly large cast. She’s working as a counsellor at the Haunted Basilio, leading a group of kids as they try to put on a theatre production. She’s the most relatable character, with her own dreams of making it in theatre, anxieties about working with kids, and having to hold down another job serving ice cream just to get by. Her relationship with her best friend is well-presented too, their love of shark movies offering a touch of humour.
While the gargoyles we’re introduced to in the prologue make sporadic appearances throughout the tale, it is without the excitement of the opening. Instead, the novella becomes more of a mystery as Vivian tries to understand some of the peculiarities of the theatre. Why are some of the areas out of bounds? Why do kids keep dropping out of the programme? And what is that awful smell of rotting meat. While all of these questions offer intrigue, they’re not allowed to develop for quite long enough to really build any suspense.
Offstage Offerings features a huge cast, with other counsellors and the children that are part of the programme, but the relatively low word-count doesn’t offer enough room for all of these characters to be developed. Some of the quirks of the children come across well, such as quiet Marceline and her fondness for sharks, and troubled Terrence, who has a more interesting backstory. Focusing on fewer characters and giving us more time to get to know them would certainly have paid off.
We’re led down a few plot cul-de-sacs, some of which are of real interest. The insistence of Marian, the boss, on performing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame seems to be leading to some interesting parallels, but it never comes to fruition. And when we learn of Marian’s role in the horror and her motivation, again it feels like there was more to come.
The setting is one of the stronger points of the novella. The Haunted Basilio Theater, with its secrets in the basement, the creepy costume room, and all of the locked doors certainly contribute to the atmosphere of unease and mistrust that Sridhar develops. Coupled with the gargoyles, creatures which feature all too rarely in tales of terror given how sinister they are, Sridhar has an effective aesthetic in place.
When the conclusion comes, and the mystery leads us back to the gargoyles again, their appearance is all too limited and the resolution is too easily earned. Even after this, when it seems a threat still lingers and we could be in for a dramatic ending, it fizzles out all too quickly.
After the bloodshed and mayhem in the prologue, the rest of the novella is simply a little too sanitised. It has so much promise with a great setting and fabulous malevolent creatures, and some aspects of the plot offer real intrigue too, but alas, Offstage Offerings gets lost in too large a cast and loses focus on the creatures for too long, and therefore fails to deliver.
Vivian starts her summer counseling gig at the Haunted Basilio Theater, hoping all the ghosts are harmless. At first, the kids under her wing are more trouble than any random winds rustling the costumes or funny noises from rats. Then her mentor gets the boot, and the kids vanish into the dark recesses. The pigeons on the roof are hostile. The boss says 'don't ask questions,' but Vivian wants answers. She just needs the courage to enter locked doors with the right keys.
More thriller than chiller set on the remote Suffolk coast
Neil Spring returns with his sixth novel, The Haunted Shore, following on from the success of The Ghost Hunters (2013) which was successfully transferred to TV, The Lost Village, and others. Although Spring’s 2013 debut received great praise, I found it a bit of a slog and lost track of his work after his second novel, before deciding to revisit him a fresh look with this latest effort. Although The Haunted Shore was a decent and perfectly serviceable read, it reminded me of the reason I stopped reading him in the first place; an overwhelming feeling of familiarity of having been here before, with little in the way of scares. Also, the supernatural element is very low key and kept so far on the backburner I would question whether this novel should be shelved in the horror section of a bookshop, as it is much more of a thriller, with ‘chiller’ overtones which could be happily read by thriller fans who do not care much for horror.
Although main character Lizzy, who narrates in the first person, is far from likable and has many flaws she is also quite appealing because of the inner demons she is battling with. As the entire book is seen from her point of view, she spends a fair bit of time moping and feeling sorry for herself. Why? She is an online gambling addict and after a huge spending splurge goes horribly wrong, she dips into her work credit card fund and finds herself in a huge amount of trouble. After a call from her elder brother, who says she must take more responsibility in looking after their frail father, heads back to her childhood home on the Suffolk coast where the remainder of the novel is set. Some of the scenes where Lizzy feels the addictive pull of the online casinos were amongst the strongest in the book, especially as she has nobody to turn to and is trapped with her painful secret.
Spring has used real locations in his earlier fiction to good effect and sets all the action in the (real) remote hamlet of Shingle Street which is a scattering of houses on the north Suffolk coast. I like these types of coastal rural spots and the author had me searching on Wikipedia to see what Shingle Street genuinely looked like. It is described as a cold, bleak and windswept place, which Lizzy does not have particularly happy childhood memories of and is only returning due to desperation and escape. The descriptions of the shoreline and the atmosphere created are amongst the strongest features of the book, although after a while they become slightly repetitive, but still helped develop a convincing sense of time and place. Considering that Lizzy is in a mess and her mental state is fragile, the reader is never quite sure of the various odd things she begins to see and hear, such as strange figures on the beach, the quiet ambiguity with the potential supernatural works well without any genuine fireworks.
The location becomes even more prominent because of the fact that Lizzy’s father lives in a converted boathouse and has spent years developing the surrounding buildings, to the extent that it became somewhat of an obsession. However, now in his eighties and frail, with spiral staircases this is obviously no longer a safe location for him to live. Hoping to hide from her creditors, or naively looking for a fresh start, Lizzie turns up at the boathouse only to find that her father has a housekeeper/carer who she immediately takes a dislike to and seems to be unnecessarily abrupt and aggressive. The complex family dynamics, much of which is unsaid and from the past, are a key part of the story.
The majority of the novel centres on the antagonism between Lizzy and the newly discovered carer Hazel and this was not the strongest part of the story, as it was blatantly obvious there was something dodgy going on, even if it was not for the reason you might initially think. Hazel’s character was lifted straight out of any of a hundred gothic horror novels, a dour and strict figure who was so unfriendly any sensible employer would have given her the sack in 24-hours flat. Lizzy’s brother Colin was a further weak link; what exactly was this guy’s problem? He said very little, did not seem to like anything or anyone or keen to help Lizzie with any of the problems which arose. Ultimately, I just did not see the point of having this character in the story as he contributed so little and was a boring closed book.
Once the mystery element of the story begins to kick forward, and Lizzy begins to shake herself out of her maudlin mood, The Haunted Spring picks up some pace and has some decent twists and turns which take it into some slightly unexpected directions. Ultimately though, this was not enough to genuinely hold my attention, but I am sure other readers might enjoy it more than I did. If you are after a thriller with some supernatural overtones The Haunted Spring is a solid read, particularly if you have been enjoyed Spring’s other work. Just do not expect many scares or a full-blown horror novel, it is a much quieter read with a convincing atmospheric location and intriguing connection with local Suffolk history.
'A spooky and unsettling tale about strangers, love and deceit' Sunday Express
'A creepy tale' Daily Mail
'Imbued with addiction, loss, regret and the fallibility of memory . . . a perfect read for the Halloween season and beyond' Starburst
'Perfect chiller-thriller for autumn nights' Lancashire Evening Post
When Lizzy moves to a desolate shore to escape her past, she hopes to find sanctuary. But a mysterious stranger is waiting for her, her father's carer, and when darkness falls, something roams this wild stretch of beach, urging Lizzy to investigate its past. The longer she stays, the more the shore's secrets begin to stir. Secrets of a sea that burned, of bodies washed ashore -- and a family's buried past reaching into the present.
And when Lizzy begins to suspect that her father's carer is a dangerous imposter with sinister motives, a new darkness rises. What happens next is everyone's living nightmare . . .
From the bestselling author of The Ghost Hunters and The Lost Village, The Haunted Shore is a terrifying tale of suspense that does not let up until the last page is turned.
Praise for Neil Spring:
'Neil Spring is a Agatha Christie meets James Herbert' Stephen Volk
'A deft, spooky, psychological drama based on a true story' Daily Mail
“There is London Cognita, and London Incognita, and I know where I belong. It won’t be long now.”
In his debut collection The Hollow Shores (2017), Gary Budden established himself as a crucial new voice in Weird fiction. Budden’s stories mix landscape writing, punk aesthetics and a profound understanding of how the uncanny manifests in the quotidian to create a powerful and unique voice. London Incognita (2020) is a more than worthy follow up, a confirmation of Budden’s particular talents and one of the key works of Weird fiction released this year. Whilst The Hollow Shores roamed across the south of England and even into Finland, London Incognita sees Budden focus his gaze on the Capital, engaging with the long history of London Weird to produce a timely and critical weighing of the city’s soul.
London Incognita takes its name from Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure (1924), which Budden quotes in the epigraph, referring to the lesser known, hidden London that exists behind the London Cognita of Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street. The stories in this book are linked by this idea of a hidden, obscure London, one that exists outside of the consensus reality of tourists and suits, inhabited equally by the dispossessed and the mythological, glimpse through the corner of the eye. Budden’s stories give us a streets-eye view, from the perspective of punk musicians and writers, recovering junkies, the ghosts of abused women, urban explorers, bailiffs. Characters on the margins, those who are able to read the signs of London Incognita, or have accidentally caught haunting glimpses. Revelation and transcendence await those who can decipher the signals, but there is always a high price to pay.
Budden’s spare writing brilliantly captures the landscapes he describes – areas of London fallen into ruin, abandoned high rises and construction works, dingy back alleys, the miles of lost or abandoned tunnels and disused underground stations snaking under the city. He is very much aware of the city as a palimpsest – London is always being physically and psychically written and rewritten, both by the waves of redevelopment and collapse, gentrification and decay, and by the lives of those who live, dream and die in the city. He is a master at capturing the oddness of everyday life. The Weird for Budden exists as something glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, a presence or lack felt during walks through the city, memories, fixations and fears given momentary form. London Incognita is haunted by those who go missing, who disappear through the cracks of the vast indifferent city. It is harrowed by the repressed drives, the urges society finds unacceptable, the sicknesses that lie beneath respectable facades. The Weird comes from us, we inhabit it.
London Incognita is a work in dialogue with the long tradition of the London Weird, one which Budden is very much aware of. His characters seek out those representations of the city that resonates with the alienation and strange beauty that they experience in their day to day lives. Machen is a strong influence and recurring reference point, but so is Michael Moorcock’s Mother London (1988), with its mysteries sacred and profane hidden in everyday lives, and the hints of gnostic mysteries lurking just round the corner in M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart (1991) and Signs of Life (1996). Budden is aware of how these overlapping fictions contribute to the mythology of London. His characters are obsessed with these stories plus fictional ones invented by Budden, which build up an image of London as a place haunted, where the violence of the present and the past can erupt into revenants spectral or more physical. London Incognita’s invented mythology, from Malachite Press and its roster of authors such as C. L. Nolan and Hecate Shrike, as well as landscape punk band Scart and their chronicler Melissa Eider who publishes short stories in her fanzine Magnesium Burns, all help to create a palimpsest, mosaic narrative. Excerpts from fictional novels and short stories occur and recur like the shifting cast of loosely associated characters. Thus, London Incognita, like London itself, exists as a collage of memory and myth, fact and fiction, all adding up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
One could argue whether or not London Incognita is a collection of linked stories, or a mosaic novel. It certainly feels to me like a work with a more unified purpose than The Hollow Shores. The stories here, many of which have been published independently, all can stand by themselves. But taken together, we get a look at London across 50 odd years of history, through the eyes of various members of the Eider family. Brothers Danny and Gary Eider’s obsession with their mythological, hidden side of London in the 1970s eventually consumes both of them, in the Shirley Jackson Award-shortlisted ‘Judderman’. Decades later, in 2019, Melissa Eider, their great niece, puts together an exhibition for the 20th anniversary of Magnesium Burns, which chronicles the mythology she has explored in her own version of London. Whilst Danny and Gary experience all the evils of the city as the malevolent judderman, Melissa imagines the commare, a vengeful female spirit who stands for all the women who have suffered and died in London, a part of London Incognita hidden from Danny and Garry because of their gendered assumptions at the time. The thematic links across all these stories is London’s lost and forgotten, the unseen and the avoided. Budden’s book explores how the story of London cannot be told without telling the stories of these people. As such, underneath its explorations of the uncanny and unsettling is a very real human core of grief and loss. It is this that gives Budden’s work its heart, and its political thrust, as we share Budden’s anger at a society where austerity and solipsism has led to so many people becoming abandoned and forgotten. This fierce engagement with the real life effects of late period capitalism and neoliberalism runs through London Incognita and makes it such a powerful and troubling read. Budden is a writer at the top of his game who reflects the world around us back at us in profound and provoking ways, and I eagerly await his next project.
London Incognita chronicles a city caught in the cycle of perpetual decline and continuous renewal: the English capital, groaning under the weight of two-thousand years of history, as seen through the eyes of its desperate and troubled inhabitants. A malicious presence from the 1970s resurfaces in the fevered alleyways of the city; an amnesiac goddess offers brittle comfort to the spirits of murdered shop-girls; and an obscure and forgotten London writer holds the key to a thing known as the emperor worm. As bombs detonate and buildings burn down, the city's selfish inhabitants hunt the ghosts of friends, family and lovers to the urban limits of the metropolis, uncovering the dark secrets of London.
WEIRD HORROR FOR WEIRD TIMES: DAN COXON & GARY BUDDEN IN CONVERSATION
BOOK REVIEW: ONLY THE BROKEN REMAIN BY DAN COXON