The Difficult Third Collection: James Cooper

Review by Peter Tennant,

Black Static #63

It’s part of music industry folklore that artist’s will find their third album to be the “tricky” one, but fortunately that rule doesn’t seem to apply in the case of literature. And by way of proof I give you HUMAN PIECES (PS Publishing hc, 342pp, £20), the third story collection by Black Static irregular James Cooper. It contains twelve stories, but in the absence of any publishing history in the PDF I read I can’t say if any are original, but I did recognise four from the pages of Black Static and another that appeared in Crimewave. Cooper is a writer who wears his horror genre influences lightly, with Stephen King a particular inspiration, while themes of parental abuse and dysfunctional families populate nearly every story.

With two boys called Jim and Will, ‘Forever Boys’ gives a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, only the threat to family isn’t an external one for Cooper’s protagonists, but rather the evil comes from within courtesy of an abusive father. Underlying all this is the need for freedom and belief in the miraculous, while for Jim there is a rite of passage in learning how to responsibly use whatever power he has been gifted. It is a fantastic tale, one that offers no easy solutions to the problems posed by its narrative steps. Emma in ‘The Pig Farm’ is the victim of a dysfunctional family, abused and bullied by her two brothers, punished by her father for looking like the mother who died, punishment that takes the form of placing her on the Scarecrow at night to be found by the Weeping Farmer, a tormented spirit continually searching for his missing daughter. Again Cooper paints a terrible picture of abuse, with an attempt to understand if not justify the motives of those involved, and a feeling that really the supernatural aspects of the tale, whether true or not, are perhaps the only light of hope in this tragedy waiting to happen.

‘S.K.’ is pitched in epistolary form, a man writing letters to Stephen King explaining how reading his books to his dying son helps them cope with impending loss. It’s a heartfelt and moving story that celebrates the redemptive aspects of horror fiction and the power of literature to move us and help make some sense out of the nastier aspects of our lives. A teenager suffering from Renfield Syndrome keeps a dog prisoner in a haunted house so that he can feed on its blood in ‘Stray Dogs’, but while overtly horrific the true thrust of the story is about feeling alienated and how making a friend can transform a life. It is a sad story, one that shows us how our finer feelings can both elevate and demoralise us.

‘Night Fishing’ put me in mind of Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ with its central premise of four friends whose fishing expedition is disrupted by the discovery of a dead body, but Cooper takes the story off in a different direction entirely, with the body simply a catalyst for tensions simmering away beneath the surface among the four men. You could make a case for it being the adult remix of King’s novella The Body, with the corpse finding them instead of the other way round, and the camaraderie they have shared since childhood disrupted by one of those “frozen moments when”, according to Burroughs, “everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. There’s a bit of contrivance to my mind, in that all the men have secrets that so neatly dovetail, giving an overview of toxic masculinity, but the narrative voice and Cooper’s portrayal of his characters makes it work, grabbing the reader right from the start and carrying us to the inevitable tragedy of the end, or poetic justice if you would prefer.

The actor ‘Cushing’ becomes the focus of an unhappy and tragedy haunted family’s woes, with scenes from various films neatly intercut with the unfolding drama, throwing light on what takes place. It is a subtle and unnerving piece, one in which art imitates life a little too close for comfort, almost like the Addams Family given a twenty first century coat of cultural paint. Released from gaol, Boyd finds a way to atone for the mistakes of his past in ‘The River Remembers’, the story one that conflates family drama and gangster work, but while never less than entertaining, with perfectly realised characters and setting, it is perhaps the least interesting and original of what is on offer. In another setting it might shine, but not here. There’s another abusive son and stepfather relationship in ‘Man’s Ruin’, but Tommy is gifted a magical tattoo by his Grampa that empowers him to strike back. Human anger drives the story, giving us characters we can believe in and sympathise with, while the outré element seems almost incidental, albeit the thing that turns the plot round, and the humour in the relationship between Tommy and Grampa adds yet another dimension to the narrative.

‘Two Houses Away’ is a subtle and beautifully written ghost story of sorts, one that shows the lengths grieving people will go to for release from their pain and the power of love, while at the same time emphasising that you shouldn’t go poking your nose into things that don’t concern you. In ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ another Tommy returns to the scene of the crime to tell Mrs. Guddici the true story of what happened to her son Jed. At heart the story is about how we are haunted by the past and the need to restore some sort of balance in a universe that feels uncaring and indifferent. It’s an emotive piece, one in which Cooper doesn’t set a foot wrong as he gives his characters a depth not usually found in such outings. Mostly dialogue, ‘Coffee. Black.’ is an enigmatic piece with a conversation between two men at a late night coffee shop that touches on matters of faith and belief, horror fiction and real life terror. It’s suggestive and all the more effective for being left so ambiguous, with the reader invited to create motives and backgrounds for these strangers from the hints Cooper has supplied.

Sally, the final girl from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is the protagonist of ‘Texas’, Cooper deftly delineating the aftermath of the atrocity, the way in which she still has to live with the horror of what happened and try to make sense of her own survival (more than an element of survivor guilt is present here). Scenes from the film, consultations with a psychiatrist, and a visit to the farmhouse (now a tourist attraction) combine to create a compelling and absorbing picture of what it means to be a survivor and the mechanisms that are needed to cope, adding a wonderful new dimension to the classic horror film. There’s more than a touch of King’s Secret Window about final story ‘End of Creation’ in which a writer who gambles away a story idea to a friend gets seriously bent out of shape when that friend makes a success of it. There are times when the story gets a little close to over the top, but Cooper just about manages to rein things in and give us a compelling and unsettling account of a personal descent into madness, while posing some interesting questions about the nature of creativity and originality along the way. It was a strong end to a collection that didn’t put a foot wrong, with some of the best stories in genre writing from an author who, while focused squarely on matters horrific, never loses sight of the human pieces.

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Sneak Peek Extract: The Dragon’s Child by Janeen Webb

ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR, the Year of the Dragon, Lady Feng made a mistake.

A cool, sophisticated Hong Kong businesswoman, Lady Feng had just concluded her habitual retreat. As she emerged from hibernation she risked assuming her true form—the form of a Chrysanthemum Dragon. She took the chance. She needed to stretch her claws. The rush of air against her golden scales felt wonderful after those long weeks cooped up in her cave, weeks spent gestating and laying her eggs, watching over them as she checked and re-checked the treasures of her rich hoard to stave off the boredom that threatened to engulf her. Today, she was free.

Below her, the humans who lived in the remote village near her mountain lair were celebrating the turn of the year. Lady Feng dipped and soared, caught up in the moment, appearing, to the people in the procession below, as just one more pretty paper shape among the high-flying red and gold kites with their trailing streamers. She flew lower, and the people were overjoyed to see her: a real dragon had come to bless them. They drummed harder, danced faster.

Lady Feng flew even lower. In dragon form, she was thinking like a dragon. Just for an instant, her instincts took over: her control slipped. Intoxicated by the heady fog of incense, exhilarated by the drums and cymbals and firecrackers, the beautiful golden dragon permitted herself a small snack: a tender morsel, no more than a tiny mouthful. She knew she shouldn’t, but the snack was simply there to be had, resting in its wrappings like an offering on the steps before the Moon Gate, looking so silky soft, smelling so milky sweet. Before she knew it, she had dived: her jaws had snapped shut, and warm blood was filling her mouth. It felt good, so very good, as the juicy meat slipped down her cave dry throat.

But then the screaming started. Humans, she remembered too late, were unaccountably attached to their offspring. There were curses and shouts, and someone actually started shooting at her.

‘Avert!’ She raised her right claw, and hastily invoked a spell of warding.

The shot went wide, but it clipped a hind claw. Lady Feng barely escaped with her fine gossamer wings intact. She dropped from the sky to land behind the nearest building, where she changed back into her cramped human form to blend in with the frightened crowd. There was blood on her pale face and on her fine gold-patterned silk blouse, but she radiated calming thoughts, turning aside the minds of the people around her. A lot of villagers had been injured in their panic to escape the terrible dragon that had so suddenly, so inexplicably swooped upon them from the heavens, and with Lady Feng’s protective glamour fogging their minds, the tell-tale blood spatters passed unremarked.

Later she tried to make amends. Really she did. She limped back to her lair. At nightfall, when the sobbing young parents had subsided into sleep, she returned to the Moon Gate of the little temple with one of her own offspring, the smallest of her four precious eggs, its golden crackle-glazed shell glowing in the lantern light. The abandoned baby sling was still there. Lady Feng tucked her egg into it, swaddling it in the cotton padding to keep it warm.

A child for a child: it seemed only fair.

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Sneak Peek Extract: Les Vampires by Tim Major

Introduction

“My young friend, I know nothing about the Vampires, only that everyone fears them.” 

LES VAMPIRES (1915–16) is a mystery. It is justly famous, yet relatively rarely watched. Its imagery is iconic, but misleading: the famous image of a female vampire bat preying on a victim involves none of the main characters, and the serial features no mythological vampires. It is commonly classed as one of the longest films in the world, at around seven hours long, but this, too, is a misunderstanding given its serialised release, with ten episodes over nine screenings. Finally, while LES VAMPIRES was a contemporary success its reels narrowly avoided being destroyed in the 1930s, and the film wasn’t distributed in English-speaking countries until 1965.

So, like many modern viewers, I came to LES VAMPIRES with uncertain expectations. What I knew of the serial had been gleaned from stills in cinema history books, and from that terrific promotional poster image showing Musidora / Irma Vep entangled in a red question mark. I’d become interested in Victorian and fin-de-siècle crime fiction about rogues and gentlemen-thieves, progressing from E. W. Hornung’s A. J. Raffles, to Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, to Marcel Allain’s and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas. This in turn led me to Louis Feuillade’s first great crime serial, FANTÔMAS (1913).

But it was within Oliver Assayas’ lively, strange film IRMA VEP (1996), about a French director unsuccessfully attempting to remake LES VAMPIRES, that I first saw a snippet of the serial itself. The fictional director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, demonstrates the magnificence of LES VAMPIRES and its greatest asset, the criminal Irma Vep played by Musidora, by screening a clip from Episode 6, ‘The Hypnotic Gaze’. Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is suitably impressed – and I was stunned. I was determined to watch LES VAMPIRES at the first opportunity.

Rather than consuming the serial in one go (see my earlier point about the length of the film – who would want to?), I worked through it in fits and starts. I watched episodes late at night, often the same episode twice in one sitting. I watched them early in the morning with my newborn first child. I packed DVDs to watch on hotel TVs when I worked away from home. I treated each new episode as a gift to myself, to be withheld and then savoured. Filmmakers and critics often talk of the ‘journey’ experienced by film audiences, but over seven hours the journey – and the relationship with characters – is more profound. Moreover, the tone of LES VAMPIRES takes a few episodes to ‘bed in’, after which point its tangents and about-faces become less jarring and more welcome.  The viewer is trained, gradually, to watch the serial and anticipate its internal logic.

Since watching the serial for the first time, I see its influence in more and more unlikely places. The hotel setting of Ingmar Bergman’s masterful THE SILENCE (1963) evokes the hotel in ‘The Hypnotic Gaze’, with its corridors that twist back on themselves, the deserted streets outside. Jacques Rivette’s CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974) not only features its leads wearing replicas of Musidora’s silk bodysuit, but also adopts Feuillade’s dreamlike tone and circuitousness. David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017) retains the episodic structure of LES VAMPIRES and also its obliqueness and the requirement of surrendering to its woozy logic.

After watching the serial the first time around I wished I had taken notes. So, when Neil Snowdon offered me the chance to write about a cult film as part of the Midnight Movie Monographs series, I was eager to choose LES VAMPIRES. It may not be an outright horror movie, and it may not have been a cult film at its time of release, but nowadays it exists in a strange hinterland: it is an accepted canonical classic that remains ‘under the radar’ for many cineastes. Writing this book allowed me not only to revisit the film and linger on its peculiarities – not least by writing tangential stories loosely inspired by each of the ten episodes[1] – but also to explore some of the context of the film that hadn’t occurred to me on first viewing. Why are the streets of Paris deserted in the film? Because not only was France gripped by the Great War, the front line was just outside Paris and artillery might strike the city at any time. Why does the leader of the Vampire gang change so regularly? Because male contributors to the film were regularly called away to fight on the front line. Why is Musidora always so compelling to watch? Perhaps that’s the most complex question of all…

I’ve watched LES VAMPIRES in its entirety countless times while writing this book, and I’m happy to report that it only improves with multiple viewings. It remains equally magical whether monochrome or tinted, whether accompanied by an orchestral score or a soundtrack of, for example, Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, whether viewed on a widescreen TV or relegated to a window within a laptop screen (though I can only imagine the amplification of its magic when projected onto a cinema screen).

I think, perhaps, LES VAMPIRES may have become my favourite film. If nothing else, I hope that my enthusiasm for it is infectious.

Tim Major, York, January 2018

[1] One of them was written many years ago, though, and references a different film, in a nod to Feuillade’s incorporation of unrelated, previously-filmed material.

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ONE MORE KILL by Matt Hughes

Sneak Peek Extract:

ONE MORE KILL by Matt Hughes

For seven years, I’d thought of myself as a dead man walking. 

     Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but that was how I felt. Before those seven years of real-life zombiehood, I had spent more than twenty years as a US Army Ranger. The basic job of a Ranger is killing, so most of my Army years had been taken up with preparing to kill people or teaching others how to do it, interspersed with some brief periods actually devoted to taking lives. 

     But besides making me into a highly effective killer, the military had also made me a creature of routine. So once a month, during those dead-man-walking years, I would take the subway downtown to the VA center and wait in a big room full of plastic chairs and half-filled with people who didn’t talk to each other much, though some of them talked to themselves. I would wait until my name was called, then go into a small room where a youngish, moonfaced MD named John Oliphaunt – everybody called him Doc Ollie – took a few ccs of my blood. He slipped the vial off the needle and held it up to the light and said, “Well, you’re still a red-blooded American boy.” 

     Which was what he always said. And I always answered, “Then why didn’t the Army want me anymore?”

     He wrote a few words and numbers on an adhesive label then stuck the paper to the little container. “We’ll call you if there’s anything . . .” and left the rest of it hanging. Right where it had been hanging for every month of those seven years.

     After that, I would leave the VA Center and go on with the rest of my routine. I had been running a small travel agency in mid-town Manhattan since the Army had cut me loose on a medical discharge. So on this day like any other day, I rode the subway back, got off at the stop near the deli where I usually bought lunch, picked up four sandwiches and took them back to the office. Marj, who pretty much ran the business for me, looked a question at me when I handed her her ham-and-Emmental on pumpernickel. I shook my head and shrugged, told her, “Same old, same old.”

     Another cliché, yes. But there could be nothing new in my life, so there was no reason to find new ways to say the same old things.

     Shelley Cooper and Rosaline Amberson, my other two employees, were at their desks in the travel poster-decorated open area out front, both on the phones. I gave them their lunches, got smiles and nods of thanks, then went to my own little cubicle in the rear. I ate my roast beef on whole wheat and washed it down with black coffee from the carafe beside the sink. There was paperwork to do, so I did it. When I finished, I tidied my desk, got up and told Marj I was going for a walk. 

     “Be back before closing?” she said.

      I didn’t know. “If I’m not, close up, okay?”

     “No problem.”

     I went out into the fall sunshine. A few blocks east and I turned onto Eighth Avenue and went up to Columbus Circle then continued on to Central Park West. It was a toss-up whether I’d go into the park or stay on the sidewalk until I got to the Museum of Natural History. I’d had a thing about dinosaurs when I was nine or ten; it was the only part of my childhood I cared to revisit.

     But today it was the park. I walked about with no particular destination in mind, turning from one path onto another at random, thinking about nothing much because I had nothing much to think about. From the day of my discharge until my present age of fifty-three, I’d been like the man in the old Ian Tyson song: just getting up every day and walking around. Sometimes I’d sit on a bench to watch the passers-by, the tourists and the New Yorkers. They were all strangers to me. I had only ever made one friend in my life and, after he’d sold me the travel agency and arranged for me to take over the lease on his apartment, he’d headed south to play golf, drink whiskey, and let himself be chased by widows.

     When it started to get dark, I walked home. It had been a routine day, just like the one that came before it and just like the one after. But the one that came next changed everything, forever.

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Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

Sneak Peek Extract: Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages

“Aaahhh-eeeeeeee-aaahhhh-eeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeee-aaaahhhhh!”

A long, ululating cry pierced the quiet of the jungle.

“That’s Tarzan!” Boy said. “He’s going for a swim!” Boy grabbed Cheeta’s paw and they raced through the wiry grass until they came to the bank of the mighty river. A fallen tree lay across a branch of a taller tree, overhanging the water. As nimbly as any young ape, Boy scampered up the steep angle to stand beside his father, leaving Cheeta below to watch.

Tarzan stood high above the slow-moving river, naked except for a triangular loincloth low on his hips, his knife sheathed at his side. He was a magnificent man, his thick hair long and dark, his skin the color of honey. He was poised and ready to dive, every inch of his smoothly muscled body as sleek and lithe as an animal’s, showing at a glance his wondrous combination of enormous strength, suppleness, and speed. His deep, brooding eyes scanned his realm.

The ape-man might be ignorant of the ways of civilization, uneducated, childlike in his puzzlement about the tools of the white man. But this was his world, and in it, he was the most cunning, the most intelligent, the most respected—and most feared—of all the creatures. King of the Jungle.

“Umgawa!” he said to Boy. And without another word—for he was a man of few words—Tarzan took another step out onto the limb, flexed his powerful legs and—

“Cut!” yelled the director.

Johnny Weissmuller relaxed. He looked down into the crystal clear waters of Wakulla Springs for a moment, then cuffed little Johnny Sheffield on the shoulder, and the two actors climbed down the ladder hidden from the cameras on the far side of the tree. On the ground, his assistant helped him into his white terrycloth robe, its edges stained brown from his full-body makeup. Weissmuller was as tan as any man in Hollywood, but Tarzan had to be flawless.

“Boy go for swim?” he asked.

Sheffield shook his head. “I’ve got to do my schoolwork. Union rules.”

“Swim tomorrow,” Weissmuller said, and ruffled his blond curls.

A colored boy rowed them across the water to the movie encampment with its folding canvas chairs, tents, and trunks of equipment. Weissmuller slouched into the chair stenciled BIG JOHN, and watched as Little John ran across the manicured lawn and into the Lodge for his lessons.

Cameras were mounted on a floating barge in the middle of the river. Beyond them, two stunt doubles now stood on the tree branch, and at a signal from Thorpe, the director, they dived headfirst into the deep, clear water. One of them faltered and made a huge splash.

“Crap!” said Thorpe. He turned to the swimming coordinator.

“We have to shoot that again, Newt. Tarzan doesn’t splash, for crissakes.”

“Can do.” Newt Perry waited for the two Tallahassee lifeguards to swim over to the platform. “He wants it again. Make it a clean entry, this time.”

The smaller of the two boys grinned. “At fifty bucks a dive, I’ll go in any way he wants.”

“Just dry off and get back up there. The sun’s almost below the trees.”

Johnny watched from his chair. Even with the canvas umbrella, he could feel the heat of the sun on his back. Time for a cold one. He waited for the cameras to roll again and watched as two men carried a big wooden crate around the side of the hotel, struggling to keep it upright.

With a grunt, they lowered it to the ground next to a big wire cage outside the prop tent. Weissmuller could hear angry screeches from inside the box.

“What’s in there?”

“Monkeys.” The man opened the cage door and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Two more crates up there. Turtles and some kinda birds. Parrots, I think.”

He pulled on a pair of heavy gloves while his partner used a crowbar to open the lid, splintering it. The gloved man grabbed the nimble little animals by the scruffs of their necks as they clambered out, and tossed them into the cage.

“How’re you going to ship them back?” Weissmuller pointed to the ruined crate.

“Don’t have to. One jungle’s the same as another. We’ll just let ’em go when the shoot’s over.” He closed the cage, rattled the handle to make sure it was latched, and headed back toward the hotel.

“Quiet on the set!” the assistant director yelled through his megaphone.

Johnny turned back to the action above the river.

The next dive was as slick as a whistle, almost as good as he could have done himself. He flexed his shoulders. He hated the idea of a stunt double, but the studio demanded it. At two grand a week, he was too valuable to risk. He glanced at the thirty-foot diving platform over the deepest part of the springs. Thorpe had been away yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and Johnny had spent an hour diving off again and again, happy as a kid. The other guests at the Lodge had gathered around, applauding.

That was okay, too.

“We almost done?” he called to the assistant director after he’d yelled Cut!

“Yeah. Losing the light.” The man walked over, looking at his watch. “I should remind Thorpe he’s got dinner with Mr. Ball in an hour. Coat and tie for the dining room.”

And a direct line of sight across the lawn to the platform. No diving tonight. “Okay.” Weissmuller stood up, towering over the other man. “I’m going to change, drive into town.”

“Thorpe says—” He paused. “—He says to keep it in your pants and go easy on the booze. You’ve got close-ups tomorrow. Ten o’clock call.”

Johnny shrugged. “Tarzan have fun.” It wasn’t his idea to film in a dry county. He stepped over the tangle of cables and headed for his room in the Lodge. His robe open, his feet bare, he padded quietly across the terrazzo floor of the lobby, almost as silently as if he were the king of this jungle.

Twenty minutes later, showered and shaved, his long hair slicked back and tamed with Brylcreem, he stepped out of the elevator and looked around the ornately tiled lobby. He’d been told the hand-painted designs on the cypress beams of the ceiling were Moorish, with a little art-deco Mayan, like Graumann’s, but they reminded him of the barns in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where he grew up.

He smiled and strode down the hallway to the front door. It would have seemed unlikely to any observer that the man in the crisp, short-sleeved tropical weight shirt and knife-creased linen slacks had been swinging half-naked through the primeval forest an hour before.

“Black Packard,” he said, tossing the keys to a colored boy.

“Yessuh.” He brought the convertible around, chrome winking golden in the last of the afternoon sun, and held the door open.

Johnny Weissmuller nodded his thanks, flipped the boy a coin, and got behind the wheel. He slid his sunglasses from under the visor, put them on, and angled the sleek car out on to the highway that led north to Tallahassee. Twenty miles between him and the admiring young co-eds of the Florida State College for Women. A good night to be a movie star.

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Best New Horror #28!!!

We’re ready for action with BEST NEW HORROR #28, in both trade paperback and regular hardcover states and surely-to-goodness sporting the best yet cover art of total depravity and downright unpleasantness.

Check this for a line-up, believers:

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Horror in 2016 – The Editor
  • Pale Tree House – Angela Slatter
  • The Light at the Centre – Maura McHugh
  • En Plein Air – J.T. Glover
  • India Blue – Glen Hirshberg
  • Walking with the Cross – Peter Bell
  • Bedtime Story – Richard Christian Matheson
  • The Symphony of the Normal – Darren Speegle
  • The Ballet of Dr. Caligari – Reggie Oliver
  • Who is This Who is Coming? – Lynda E. Rucker
  • The House That Moved Next Door – Stephen Volk
  • Princess – Dennis Etchison
  • A Home in the Sky – Lisa Tuttle
  • On These Blackened Shores of Time – Brian Hodge
  • The Enemy Within – Steve Rasnic Tem
  • The Court of Midnight – Mark Samuels
  • Far from Any Shore – Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • The Fig Garden – Mark Valentine
  • White Feathers – Alison Littlewood
  • Over to You – Michael Marshall Smith
  • In the Dark, Quiet Places – Kristi DeMeester
  • Mare’s Nest – Richard Gavin
  • The Red Forest – Angela Slatter
  • Necrology: 2016 – Stephen Jones & Kim Newman
  • Useful Addresses

We’ll have to hold off for a while until the signature sheets for the limited edition have made their way around the world . . . but you know the drill on that score: we’ll get as much done as we’re able.

Meanwhile, we’re delighted to announce that BEST NEW HORROR #29 is now open to submissions of materials first published in 2017. All the details can be found, here.

Deadline is January 2018.

Sneak Peek Extract: Black Wings VI Edited by S.T. Joshi

Sneak Peek Extract:

Introduction by S.T. Joshi 

THE INFINITE MALLEABILITY OF LOVECRAFTIAN MOTIFS, as exemplified by the contents of this volume, calls for some discussion. Why has H. P. Lovecraft’s work been such an inspiration to writers of weird fiction over the past century or so when other meritorious writers—ranging from the “modern masters” identified by Lovecraft himself, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and M. R. James, to such recent luminaries as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell—failed to do so?

The history of Lovecraftian pastiche would make an interesting study in itself, and I have attempted to do so in my treatise The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (2015). That book shows that, once writers put aside the mechanical imitations—which in many cases extended merely to the invention of a new “god” or new “forbidden book,” even if the overall theme of the story was anything but Lovecraftian—practised by such writers as August Derleth and Brian Lumley, a new era emerged. Writers now began searching more deeply into what exactly went into the making of a “Lovecraftian” story—and came to the conclusion that a multiplicity of motifs could be drawn upon, in contexts Lovecraft himself would scarcely have recognised, with the result that writers could infuse their own personalities into a work that nonetheless draws upon themes pioneered by the dreamer from Providence.

The central message of Lovecraft’s work, to be sure, is cosmicism—the depiction of the infinite gulfs of space and time and the concomitant insignificance of the human race, and all earth life, in the overarching history of the cosmos. In his earlier stories, Lovecraft used the figure of the “god” Nyarlathotep as a symbol for this cosmic menace. Archaeological horror was also a powerful means by which Lovecraft conveyed the essence of cosmicism, and Ann K. Schwader (“Pothunters”), Lynne Jamneck (“Oude Goden”), Don Webb (“The Shard”), and Stephen Woodworth (“Provenance Unknown”) have followed this methodology.

For Lovecraft, the sense of place was supremely important. Here was a man who spent every spare penny in exploring havens of antiquity from Quebec to Key West, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina. He enlivened his native New England with an entire constellation of imagined cities where anything can happen; and in this volume, Tom Lynch’s “The Gaunt” takes us to Lovecraft’s Arkham, while Aaron Bittner (“Teshtigo Creek”) duplicates Lovecraft’s regional horror in North Carolina, while veteran W. H. Pugmire (“To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks”) etches new lines of terror in his carefully crafted Sesqua Valley in the Pacific Northwest. Darrell Schweitzer does much the same thing in the rural Pennsylvania setting of “The Girl in the Attic.”

Alien creatures—whether it be the fish-frog entities from “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or the inbred gorilla-like monstosities of “The Lurking Fear”—are ever-present in Lovecraft, signalling his fascination with the anomalies of hybridism and the potentially loathsome mutations of the human form. It is this motif that animates such variegated
tales as William F. Nolan’s “Carnivorous,” Nancy Kilpatrick’s “The Visitor,” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Mister Ainsley.” Jonathan Thomas’s “The Once and Future Waite,” an ingenious riff on “The Thing on the Doorstep,” suggests unthinkable transference of soul and body, while Jason V Brock’s “Satiety” not only plays a clever riff on the half-plant, half-animal entities in At the Mountains of Madness but makes pungently satirical references to recent controversies about Lovecraft’s status in contemporary literature.

Caitlín R. Kiernan takes Lovecraft’s “forbidden book” theme and turns it into a means for probing the psychology of fear in “Ex Libris.” In their various ways, Mark Howard Jones’s “You Shadows That in Darkness Dwell” and Donald Tyson’s “Missing at the Morgue” make use of Lovecraft’s recurrent theme of other worlds lying just around the corner from our own. David Hambling’s “The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage” performs the nearly impossible by fusing the locked-room detective
story with Lovecraftian elements.

This volume includes not one but four poems in the Lovecraftian idiom—a testament both to the renaissance of weird poetry in our time and to the felicitous adaptability of Lovecraftian motifs in the realm of verse. Ashley Dioses, Adam Bolivar, K. A. Opperman, and D. L. Myers have all distinguished themselves as poets of technical skill and emotive power, and their verses exhibit the quintessence of terror while adhering to the strictest standards of formal rhyme and metre.

There is no reason to believe that Lovecraft’s dominant role in the creation of contemporary weird fiction will end anytime soon, and the future should reveal still more innovative treatments of the themes and imagery he fashioned out of the crucible of his imagination.

Available for pre-order.

Black Wings VI edited by S. T. Joshi

Synopsis:

This sixth volume of S. T. Joshi’s acclaimed Black Wings series demonstrates as never before how infinitely malleable are H. P. Lovecraft’s weird conceptions. The twenty-two stories and poems in this book run the gamut of modes and genres, but each of them is fueled by elements large and small drawn from Lovecraft’s inexhaustibly rich corpus of writing.

Cosmicism is central to Lovecraft’s imaginative vision, and it oftentimes is manifested in tales of archaeological horror. In this volume, stories by Ann K. Schwader, Lynne Jamneck, Don Webb, and Stephen Woodworth treat this motif in varying and distinctive ways. Lovecraft’s work is also infused with a profound sense of place, as he himself was attached to the familiar locales of his native New England but also travelled widely in search of new vistas to stimulate his imagination. Here, stories by Tom Lynch, Aaron Bittner, W. H. Pugmire, and Darrell Schweitzer summon up the landscapes of diverse realms in America to tease out the horrors embedded in them.

Alien creatures are featured in many of Lovecraft’s greatest tales. In this volume, William F. Nolan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Steve Rasnic Tem, Jonathan Thomas, and Jason V Brock summon up multiform monsters inspired by Lovecraft’s notions of hybridism and alien incursion. The forbidden book theme is deftly handled by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and the notion of other worlds lying just around the corner from our own is the subject of stories by Donald Tyson and Mark Howard Jones. Finally, David Hambling cleverly adapts Lovecraftian concepts to the locked-room detective story.

In commemorating the incredible efflorescence of weird poetry in our time, this book presents poems by four leading contemporary poets—Ashley Dioses, K. A. Opperman, Adam Bolivar, and D. L. Myers. Each of their works fuses skilful use of rhyme and metre with compact evocations of Lovecraftian themes. H. P. Lovecraft’s work is likely to continue inspiring writers for many generations, and this volume presents a vivid snapshot of what can be said in this idiom by sensitive and talented authors.

Here’s the full line-up:

Introduction – S. T. Joshi
Pothunters – Ann K. Schwader
The Girl in the Attic – Darrell Schweitzer
The Once and Future Waite – Jonathan Thomas
Oude Goden – Lynne Jamneck
Carnivorous – William F. Nolan
On a Dreamland’s Moon – Ashley Dioses
Teshtigo Creek – Aaron Bittner
Ex Libris – Caitlín R. Kiernan
You Shadows That in Darkness Dwell – Mark Howard Jones
The Ballad of Asenath Waite – Adam Bolivar
The Visitor – Nancy Kilpatrick
The Gaunt – Tom Lynch
Missing at the Morgue – Donald Tyson
The Shard – Don Webb
The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage – David Hambling
To Court the Night – K. A. Opperman
To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks – W. H. Pugmire
Mister Ainsley – Steve Rasnic Tem
Satiety – Jason V Brock
Provenance Unknown – Stephen Woodworth
The Well D. L. Myers

Now available for pre-order.

Sneak Peek Extract: DARK PLACES, EVIL FACES Edited by Mark Lumby

Introduction by Shaun Hutson 

Horror is one of the most popular genres in literature and always has been.

I know some of you are probably wondering how I’ve come to that conclusion as most bookshops these days don’t even have a horror section and those that do keep it tucked away somewhere as if they’re ashamed of it. When I talk of horror I am not referring to the kind of insipid dross that has invaded the shelves in the past ten years like Twilight or any other “teenage love story with a supposedly creepy background.” I am speaking of real horror. Real “scared to turn the light out, nightmare-inducing, bowel-loosening, spine-tingling” horror.

Throughout my 30 odd years of writing horror and seeing the book business from every angle imagineable, I cannot recall a situation like the one we have now. Horror is hugely popular in the cinema (much of it generic and plain poor admittedly) and has been for years but, for the first time I can remember, this trend has not spilled over into literature. Normally cinematic trends are reflected in the book business but many publishers seem resolutely determined to ignore horror if they can. I cannot understand this reluctance so it’s refreshing when someone tries to redress the balance. That has been done admirably in this collection of stories you are about to read.

Horror lends itself brilliantly to the short story medium and the authors of the tales contained in this anthology have produced work that illustrates this perfectly. Short stories are a difficult skill to master. By definition they need to be tight, punchy and to the point. You can’t spend page after page trying to convey details and characters. This all has to be done with economy and brevity and you will find that has been achieved beautifully within this collection.

My first introduction to written horror was via short stories. The Pan collections of horror stories were among some of the earliest horror stories I ever read. They were the natural successors to writers like
H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Edgar Allan Poe and M. R. James and many other well known and classic exponents of this art. And make no mistake, short story writing is an art.

You have to grab the reader as quickly as possible and you have to keep your grip on them. The worst fault an author can have, in my humble opinion, is to over-write. Stick to the point. Get your ideas across in the least amount of words possible. Don’t waffle. The short story allows a writer to do this but it also makes demands on the writer that a novel does not. You can take three or four pages in a novel to describe action or characters. You can’t take that time in a short story. Everything has to happen quicker and yet still retain that smoothness so the reader doesn’t back out of the story. It is a task that many shy away from but one that the authors of the tales in this anthology have embraced.

There is a danger that a short horror story can end up as just a prolonged sick joke and I must confess that is sometimes one of my failings when it comes to this medium. Everything builds to that one single pay-off line sometimes. If it works, it works beautifully. If it doesn’t it’s clumsy and contrived and horror should never be contrived. It should flow, straight from the mind (possibly warped and twisted) of the writer onto the page and into the consciousness of the reader.

That is what the writers of these stories have done so well. I’ve been asked many times during my writing career what the purpose of horror really is and I’ve always said the same thing. It should be to scare the hell out of the reader. People don’t pick up a horror story because they want a good laugh (not even the really bad ones!). They choose horror because they want to be scared. They want to be shocked. They want to be challenged. It’s a genre where there are no limits. No restraints on your imagination as a writer or reader. Anything goes.

You can be transported to some dingy old house, a dungeon in a faroff castle, a tomb in a long-forgotten cemetery, an abandoned hospital or prison, a menacing waxworks or some underground tunnel somewhere and you look forward to that trip. You relish the horrors the author has in store for you. You want to be forced to see things you’d never normally see outside your worst nightmares. You relish those images. You savour the horror.

And you love it because it’s all experienced from the safety of your armchair or your bed. You can put the book down when you’re finished and just forget about it. Unless the author has done a particularly good job and then that story stays with you. That image haunts you. That turn of phrase remains stuck in your brain like a splinter in your flesh. But that’s what we all want from horror. We want it to disturb us. To stay with us.

Over the years I’ve had letters from people telling me that my work has given them nightmares, forced them to sleep with the light on and even, in a few instances, caused them to throw up. I always take those comments as compliments. If I’ve got the ability to disturb someone so intently with what I’ve written then I must be doing something right. If you picked up a humorous book you’d want to laugh. If you read a romance you might want to cry so, if you pick up horror, then be prepared for whatever may come your way. It goes with the territory.

So, if you’re sitting up in the middle of the night after reading this collection of stories don’t curse the writers, thank them. They’ve done their job properly. They’ve scared you and they’ve made you think.

You might hate them a little bit for keeping you awake but what the hell. It’s a small price to pay.

Now available for pre-order.

Mark Lumby chats about his new charity book, DARK PLACES EVIL FACES.

Dark Places Evil Places was originally going to be a collection of my own stories. It was a project to make money for myself. But around the time the idea came into my head, my wives friend got the big ‘C’. My wife had taken 6 months out of our lives from myself and our children to care for her and help her through chemo. She was doing so much and I was doing nothing. So I decided to make DPEF into a charity book, and Macmillian was close to my heart as they had cared for others who had lived and died within my family. True, it could have been any cancer charity; they’re all worthy; they all do great things. But, to me, Macmillian was the obvious choice.

But it would be tough to do it all myself in the time scales I had wanted to achieve. So, I put an open call out for submissions on social media and through my own blog site. The response I received was overwhelming. I also knew specifically the authors that I wanted in the book, the big names. ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get’ is my philosophy. So, I asked and they contributed.

I also had author friends on social media whom I had heard great things about, so I approached them also. The result was, to me, a fantastic, yet strange combination of writers. At that time, the book was only going to be digital, although I did have my sights on something more. It was all about raising as much money as I possibly could and I felt that the profits from an ebook wouldn’t be enough. That was until I asked PS Publishing, and they helped me to put all this together, to create both a book and ebook. They have been extremely generous and I couldn’t have wished for anything better.

How I chose the authors? My choices were not based on collecting the same type of storytelling; I wanted to mix things up and show totally different styles. I didn’t want a theme—personally I don’t like theme based collections. I didn’t want to read one ghost story and then another. That’s why, when reading this anthology, you will find that not one story is relevant to another.

I had the authors; I had a publisher. I didn’t have great artwork. This is when I contacted Tomilav Tikulin. He had been involved in creating many amazing Stephen King covers. This was the type of imagery I wanted for Dark Places. I asked him if he could come up with something for me. He agreed to be involved and gave free range of a selection of artwork I could choose from. It didn’t take long to realise which one!

The title choice was an instant one. Because this was a collection of horror stories, Dark Places, Evil Faces seemed fitting, although some might argue that the title is a bit cliche.

Then, in January 2017, my determination to compile this anthology took on an extra lease of life. My mum was diagnosed with cancer. It was stage 4 and had reached her liver and bowel. Now, this book was all about her. It had become extremely personal and I wanted to strike cancer where it hurt.

As much as this anthology is about my mum, it’s about everyone else, too. It’s for their brothers and sisters, mum and dad’s, and friends. It’s about my sister who also got Cancer this year. And I’m sure that the authors involved in this anthology have been hit by the trauma it causes, whether it being themselves or watching someone else go through the pain and grief.

Now available for pre-order.