Editorial: Firstly, it's great – and rare – for an indie writer's work to crossover, receiving public appreciation, and use, in another sphere. Therefore, huge congratulations to Eric Stener Carlson who's achieved this. Ray Russell of Tartarus Press, wrote: 'A metal band in Switzerland–Rorcal (they tour in Europe and Japan) are huge fans of books by Eric Stener Carlson. They have composed an album inspired by the seven scary stories from his excellent Muladona, (also on Tartarus) and invited the author to record some passages from the book. The result is the album Muladona.' Secondly, a personal plug. My first full collection of strange stories, No-One Driving, is due for publication in paperback and ebook this November. Ahead of this, in September, the sainted Tim Jeffreys is publishing the title tale in Dark Lane Anthology 8. http://darklanebooks.blogspot.com/
On Dark Wings by Stephen Gregory, Valancourt Books
Poor taste isn’t something which can be justifiably levelled at Valancourt; for, here again, we are presented with a seasoned, well-practised author whom I’d just recently discovered. Despite being labelled a ‘horror’ author, Gregory’s particular brand leans more toward the subtle and uncanny, where small, psychological breakdowns ultimately impinge. In prose, the antithesis of, say, Stephen King, in using as few words as possible to intimate so much. Bluntly; Gregory turns out to be very much my cup of tea.
Featuring the original 1983 tale ‘The Cormorant,’ expanded into Gregory’s first novel three years later, consequently adapted for the big screen in ‘87 and reissued by Valancourt in ’13. Six further novels followed; most recently 2015’s Plague of Gulls. You will have gathered by now that Gregory’s field of interest is strictly avian; reflected in this long-awaited first collection of fourteen short tales. The prose is concise, polished, and a joy to the eye, describing encounters less supernatural than chilling in their ominous descriptions of small but scalding existential threats. Favourites include;
‘The Boys Who Wouldn’t Wake Up’ where an aged headmaster at a boys’ school – vacated for the Christmas holiday - feels the annual encroaching guilt from a wartime tragedy he believes he could’ve averted. By far, the most touching tale with an especially satisfying use of ghosts. In ‘The Theatre Moth’ an Am-Dram script-writer / actor is plagued by a phobia she’s unable to control.
‘The Drowning of Colin Henderson’ follows the ocean-driven journey of a crewman, swept off deck during a storm and described from a birds-eye perspective, beyond the death up to his discovery. ‘The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe’ features the harboured ‘gift’ of a disabled boy finally revealing itself as something rather less benevolent than darkly self-serving.
A minority of the remainder feature no supernatural element at all, but still render a subtle serendipity. If you’re a fan of the taut approach of implication rather than lurid delineation, then you’ll find Gregory a master.
Children Of The Crimson Sun by Karim Ghahwagi, Egaeus Press (Keynote Edition V)
Karim Ghahwagi describes himself as a music video director, photographer and author of both Danish and Libyan descent, born in the United States, but spending most of his life in Europe. He divides his time between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. Basic biographical details, but perhaps useful in understanding the territory of his fiction.
The title tale opens the fifth in Egaeus's occasional Keynote series, in 16th century Malta, where a young emissary is sent – on behalf of his Abbot – to investigate the unique and ‘distressing spiritual condition’ of a local fisherman’s daughter. Having recently turned Catholic penitent, a genuinely weird tale ensues of hidden motive and questioned faith as unforeseen forces conspire to expose personal revelations as to the emissary’s true purpose. A slow-burner of a tale that harbours depths that reward with re-reading. Some of the geographical and historical detail in the opening pages, perhaps more anticipatory of a full-length novel, eventually give way to a compelling tale of amoral purpose.
This close-to-novella length title tale is paired with the slightly shorter, ‘A Haunting in Miniature.’ Posted to an obscure village in the Czech Republic, Izabel Jelinek – representative of the Moravian Church – seeks an interview with the local Commissioner to discover the cause of a series of alleged ghostly sightings in the area. Her researches lead her to the local Napoleonic Wargaming Society; a select club of historical re-enactments by painters of model soldiers. This scene is (also) beautifully rendered as we are introduced to its longest serving member, Maximillian Novak, and the silent commitment of its members and the club members’ room is delineated. Ultimately, it is the spirit of an abandoned soul, to which Jelinek can relate, that provides the denouement and quietly effective it is too.
As with the protagonist of the previous tale, Jelinek’s true motive - and identity - at first appears ambiguous, until the relationship is – by the climax – joined. Again, local history has returned in the form of an unwitting victim and their harboured past.
Their Dark And Secret Alchemy, Edited by Robert Morgan, Sarob Press
Three longish short tales – Richard Gavin’s ‘Ten of Swords: Ruin,’ Colin Insole’s ‘The Dead of Maridunum’ and Damian Murphy’s ‘The Axis of the Lodestone’ – highlight three of my current favourite authors.
Richard Gavin’s tale opens on two sisters’ – Desdemona and Celeste - waking in their temporarily abandoned, sprawling lakeside house to a day of what they perceive to be unpredictable, but inevitable, omens. When the younger, more curious, Celeste steals into their parents’ bedroom, she seeks, and finds, a hidden velvet pouch, shaking its contents onto their bed; a series of Tarot-type cards. Picking the cards ‘Ruin’ and ‘The Queen,’ Celeste, memorizing the ceremony once performed by her more expert mother, steals out alone to bury them in the family vault, much to her elder sister’s chagrin. Demanding she returns them before their parents’ get back, Desdemona fears the damage has already been done through her sister’s playful ignorance. Their absent parents – practising experts in the Occult – return to the house to arrange an evening meal as a particular ceremony requiring specific tenets. Unaware of Celeste’s earlier disturbing of fate, the family descend into the consequences of extreme horror.
I particularly enjoyed the formative scenes with the ambiguity of era. Gavin clearly intended this, since its indefinability increases in significance towards the tale’s end as portals are disastrously breached. An impressive opener. Gavin’s sixth collection of ‘fear and sacred converging’ will be due 2020-21.
Colin Insole needs no introduction from me. Having swiftly become one of the finest exponents of English folk horror he has, simultaneously, remained beneath its radar. This should – and must – soon change. Of his latest entry, suffice to say that it is so densely plotted – ranging in time from the 14th century to the 1960s’ - that if it were not for the sinister omnipresence of the ubiquitous trickster-clown, the reader could drown beneath the history. Since this ‘history’ is so knowledgeably utilised, you are ensured to remain afloat.
Murphy’s first collection – Daughters of Apostasy, previously reviewed here – struck an excellent balance between the trajectory of plot, description and pace. With Murphy’s prose here, much product knowledge of his subject is on show, but – from midway - somewhat at the expense of the latter where description's the main focus. Its strongest suit is in the omnipresent enigma of the distant landed boat and the gradual revelation - to the discovery and unexpected significance - of the two-faced God. Greater forward momentum in its middle third may well have attained the tale a fifth star. On a personal note, it’s pleasing that, in a 2017 interview, Murphy cited Insole, John Howard and George Berguno as favourite authors, to which I wholeheartedly concur. You can’t go far wrong with such good taste.
Collectively, Their Dark and Secret Alchemy showcases three of the best exponents of their genre.