[In the latest installment of Hell's Shelves, RM columnist Alan Kelly reviews a trio of short-form horror tales.]
British magazine This is Horror is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Since its first incarnation as Read Horror, it has grown at an accelerated pace to encompass film, music, graphic novels, entertainingly in-depth retrospectives, an annual awards ceremony, and even its own original short fiction. The latest arm of the fiendish, multi-platform horror ship is its new Premium Chapbook line. The chapbooks will be published quarterly and are available for order on the company’s website.
The premiere This is Horror chapbook, Joe & Me, is from the apocalyptically-minded David Moody, author of Hater and the Autumn series. In Joe & Me, Moody manages to craft a tense and character-focused story bolstered by an engaging plot and an impending, pervasive sense of dread.
Moody knows how to push boundaries within the familiar apocalyptic genre framework by focusing on relationships between the main characters: a father, his scientist wife and their kid. This is an effective approach in Joe & Me, with Moody wisely choosing to keep the research/military/viral outbreak subplot at the tale’s outskirts. This could’ve been a disaster as a short story, but Moody holds the reader’s attention and never wastes a single word. The writer keeps us in the dark for most of the tale, gradually building suspense and allowing us to emotionally invest in his characters before he blindsides us with a tragic, heartbreaking climax.
The Respectable Face of Tyranny
The award-winning independent publisher Spectral Press is evolving. The company’s new Spectral Visions series will publish hardback, novella-length, supernaturally-themed fiction that takes its cues from Algernon Blackwood and MR James, with forays into lofty Lovecraftian territory. Spectral Press has already lined up both new and established writers — Alison Littlewood, Robert Sherman, Angela Slatter and Paul Kane are all on the roster – to deliver unnervingly weird tales.
First out of the imprint’s oven is Gary Fry’s spooky slice of speculative fiction The Respectable Face of Tyranny. Josh, nearly bankrupt and emotionally locked down following a bitter divorce, is living in self-imposed exile in Whitby, a purgatorial stretch of coast in Britain, with his petulant teenage daughter, a mother in the final stages of dementia and far too much time for obsessive brooding. A combination of loneliness and disconnection lead the protagonist to explore the bay. What at first appears to be the perfect sanctuary for Fry’s troubled character soon becomes anything but. Encounters with strangers who resemble dead relatives and visions of psychedelic apparitions threaten not only Josh’s fragile sanity, but also the only thing of value he has left – his daughter.
Though the story is frustratingly (albeit purposely) incongruous, Fry’s novella can be read as an illuminating parable of socio-economic, familial and psychological disintegration. The claustrophobic language, monstrous manifestations and bleakly descriptive prose offer the reader an atmospheric kick that will please both fans of traditional ghostly fare and those who like their fiction with a sinister, slipstream vibe.
Cemetery Dance Publications
Cemetery Dance Publications continues its novella series with a poignant new illustrated tale from the wild imagination of Lambda award-winning author Lee Thomas. Torn is a magnificently written, high-octane, action-packed crime/survival horror/monster mash-up. It’s also a sharp-toothed social commentary on how small-town America defines its demons; the writer’s ingenious use of the werewolf metaphor to address murky sexual politics is an inspired move, and one that never feels preachy, agenda-driven or heavy-handed.
Torn is set in the ominously named Luther’s Bend, a postcard-perfect, family-oriented community where nothing bad ever really happens – that is, until a suspected sex offender abducts a young girl and the local sheriff, Bill Cranston, is called out to investigate. Cranston, a guarded man with two young daughters and a self-pitying, alcoholic lush for a wife, is unnerved after witnessing a lycanthrope-like creature kill and eat one of his unfortunate colleagues. When the police apprehend the naked Donald Sykes, Cranston attempts to interrogate the man. What follows is a battle of wills between the two characters, and a cryptic warning: When the sun goes down, the citizens of Luther’s Bend are going to find themselves in a whole world of trouble. Thomas really ramps up the tension with a nerve-shredding showdown between the police and a pissed-off pack of merciless werewolves who have picked up Sykes scent and are hell-bent on violent retribution.
The themes Thomas explored in his post-war serial-killer novel The German – double lives, group hysteria and the shadowy terrain of secrecy – are again touched on here, with considerable depth and a poignant, poetic flair. Each chapter is accompanied by disquieting pictures from uber-talented genre artist Vincent Chong, which adds a surreal, otherworldly, fairytale aspect to the story. Highly recommended!
Alan Kelly is the author of the pulp fiction novel Let Me Die a Woman and the European Liaison for the Viscera Film Festival. A horror and alt.cult fanatic, he has worked for many print and online magazines, including GCN (Gay Community News), This is Horror, Planet Fury, Film Ireland, Butcher Queers, and Bookslut. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland and is hard at work on his second book.