Gary McMahon has an uncanny knack for getting inside the heads of his characters and creating highly believable personalities. Set in the shell of a house under refurbishment and in the shell of a marriage destroyed by tragedy, there is literally no clutter to distract Rob, or the reader, from his thoughts; namely the death of his son. More than just a metaphor for this disquiet is a strange room that inhabits the centre of the house, a room where no sound can exist. For Rob and his wife, Becky, this room becomes the focus for their hopes and fears. McMahon is careful not to employ sentimentality as a device to move us, but rather the sheer realism of Rob and Becky’s relationship hooks us in to their story.
The room offers different things to both characters and this helps to intensify what is already a very internal horror. Despite the fact that a room of abnormal qualities exist within the walls of the house, one gets the idea that this is not a supernatural story in the traditional sense. Rather it investigates the personal hauntings of two people affected by grief. How do each of them deal with the tragedy and where will their obsession with the room take them?
What They Hear In The Dark taps into a commonly used and very contemporary horror, one that is even more relevant since the riots. Disaffected youth; ‘the criminal generation’; Hoodies! Hoodies are the modern bogeyman; seething adolescent menace hidden within the shadows of their track suit hoods. The youth of today are vilified and misunderstood and it is very easy for politicians to right off a generation as if they were somehow just ‘born bad’. My shoulders tense up when horror writers use this particular bogeyman, McMahon is no ordinary horror writer though and knows precisely that this social paradigm is far from simple. Rob is, in many ways, average society as the room, or his mind, distort these figures into the grotesque monsters they are often believed to be. But why did they kill his son? Not out of hate, but because they were bored. Now that is horror.
I was left at the end with that vague feeling, I often get with short fiction, that something was unfinished. On the whole though this is another superbly crafted story by McMahon and concentrates on his strength of dissecting very real, emotional conflict.Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner reviewed by Corina Harrington
Nowhere Hall is a challenging read, but it does offer rewards for the persistent reader. The problems begin almost immediately as you are thrown into a sea of confusion. You are literally plunged in head first and come out on the other side gasping for air, wondering how on earth you managed to be so deceived?
When I emerged I felt similar to those occasions I’ve woken with the sense of ‘knowing’ that I’ve had a dream, only to be left with vague memories and glimpses of broken images frustratingly hidden behind a heavy veil in my mind, preventing me from remembering anything conclusive. All of this meant it was difficult to stay focused on the underlying storyline. There are subtle shifts in direction that had me wondering if I’d missed something in an earlier paragraph. Every time I was sure I had the right idea of what the author had in her mind, when writing, I found I was off course and having to reconsider. Often I needed to retrace my steps in order to get back on course. I didn’t mind this at first, I found it interesting to be taken on such a mysterious tour, but it had me expecting a twisted climax at the end, something to cement it all together. Yet, when I reached the ending, I was still asking myself ‘well, what was that all about’?
Despite this there was something rather enjoyable about being plunged into a gloomy, nightmarish world, that made you feel you were trapped somewhere between the living and the deceased. The shadows taking on a life of their own, altering the scenery, deceiving you over and over. It put me in mind of a bewitched labyrinth, and it was this notion that kept me wanting to read on, to track the footsteps of this character making his way through the seemingly impossible maze to discover the destiny of his unfortunate soul. Yet, it was this same notion that immediately disappointed me at the conclusion, because I just didn’t feel like I’d discovered anything, I only had more questions.
When granting myself a little distance from the story, I decided that actually, although it’s a difficult read, what with the reluctance to allow you to connect with the character and the lack of grounding at the end, not forgetting the impossible storyline throughout, it was really quite clever. I was able to appreciate the intention of the author, her desire to leave you asking questions destined never to be answered. After all, we never truly know what it’s like to be caught between worlds, forever trapped in the ‘labyrinth’ that seems intent on preventing us from finding our way into the ‘afterlife’, and those who do know the truth, well they can’t get back to tell us all about it, can they?Abolisher Of Roses by Gary Fry reviewed by Kai Savage
I like all forms of short fiction if well told, but for me the real skill of any writer of short fiction is the ability to create ‘story’. Seems simple and obvious enough, but short prose and short film is littered with well created worlds, atmospheres, moods and characters that inevitably end up falling on their face because of a little thing called plot. And as simple as it may sound, creating a well rounded story in only a few thousand words is not an easy thing to do. Anyway you don’t need me to tell you this, what you do need me to tell you is that Gary Fry is capable of just that. Maybe the prose is not quite as emotive as that of McMahon’s in my previous review, but the story is solid and satisfying and for me that’s almost aways a winner.
Again it features a couple, again it is the males story and again there is discord in this relationship. In Fry’s story though we do get a lot more inside the head of the female character and this is crucial to the outcome of the story. Peter is self absorbed, conceited and a marital cheat, he believes he has the right to buy his way through life. We already know that, if this is a moralistic story, he’s going to come to a sticky end so I’m not ruining anything by telling you this. The skill comes with the realisation that that there is ambiguity at the end, but not the kind that leaves us feeling something is missing or that we didn’t understand.
If Fry has a weakness within this story it’s possibly dialogue, with some of the conversation feeling a little stilted and unnatural. It’s a minor thing though and the characters are two that we recognise very well indeed. We may well know a couple like this, but if we are more honest, we are able to see very common and simple marital issues put through the lens here. The setting is also easy to identify with and Fry is able to put that to good use allowing him to concentrate on decorating it with some truly disturbing imagery. The woodland, where his wife, Patricia, is exhibiting her art work, becomes a maze and each exhibit becomes a way-post on Peter’s journey to self-enlightenment.
It would appear there are two main approaches to short story telling within genre fiction. The method that utilises mood and atmosphere will invariably, if done well, concentrate on character over plot. Genre is both forgiving and conducive to this approach, but it is not without its risks. In order to create mysterious and unknown worlds the writer will often usurp our expectations, twisting the psychological realities of both protagonist and reader. When a reader connects with a story of this nature, the experience can be almost cathartic. A total immersion in the created world. However these stories are the ones that alienate more readers than they win over. The second approach is the more standardised convention of ‘story’, where plot is king. This does not mean, of course, that within a well written story of this nature character is ignored. Often though the story is set with a world that we can immediately relate to. If not the real world, then one with rules that do not challenge us too much. These stories tend to win over the majority of the readership, their downfall quite often being their lack of apparent edginess. A feeling that we’ve read something similar to this before. Familiarity is something that many readers look for in stories and is one of the reasons this form is more popular. It is not often that a story of this type really blows us away though.
Where Spectral Press succeeds is that it provides us with high quality samples from both of these conventions. Stories that satisfy our desire for completion as well as ones that will challenge us. Importantly Spectral Press selects writers from the genre community well know for their lyrical, atmospheric or provocative prose. Whatever the nature of the story, you can be pretty damn certain that you will be in for a high quality read. It’s also important to point out the beautiful presentation of the chapbooks themselves, something that is often over-looked amongst small press. A highly recommended imprint, both as a great introduction, for the uninitiated, to some of the more talented names in the community and, of course, for the satisfaction of a great read.