Rough Music by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Simon Marshall-Jones and Spectral Press never fail to entertain me. With an editor that has his interests steeped in some of the most incredible prose I’ve read in a long while, this press is destined to go the distance in bringing great UK styled horror to the genre at large. The crime is that every chapbook from this press is limited to a run of 100, and not more. These are stories that should be available to more of the horror-centric audience, but they also sometimes tend to approach literary perfection.

Case in point is Unsworth’s Rough Music. This jaunt into a more abstract, yet emotionally charged world of hysteria, love, hallucinations and dreams. What Unsworth achieves with this short tale is nothing if not remarkable, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t reached the hands of more readers out there.

Rough Music: (`n) a loud cacophony created with tin pans, drums, etc., the cacophonous ringing of bells, hooting, blowing bull’s horns, the banging of frying pans, saucepans, kettles, or other kitchen or barn implements with the intention of creating long-lasting embarrassment.

Sometimes, the sounds we head in the dark have resonances that we cannot foresee…”

– from the back cover

Unsworth’s story unfolds as such: Cornish wakes to a full bladder and a faint sound coming from outside. With a feeble attempt to ignore the pain in his bladder, he tries to go back to sleep, fails, and begins his long journey into madness. Throughout the story, we’re made aware of his infidelity, his love/hate relationship with his wife due to said infidelity, his inability to focus on anything productive, and the mysterious group of players that have begun to assemble just outside his house in order to create a huge racket and enact a scene that we find is meant for him, and him alone. His madness reaches a peak, and he invariably makes one of the worst mistakes of his life, leading to the loss of everything he holds dear.

“Emotionally charged” doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of this book. I’ve said in many other reviews that this sort of subject matter makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the idea of a relationship going sour, or the idea that we are all truly alone in our own heads, but it’s just something that takes me deep into head-speak and doesn’t let me out for days. This author basically wrapped all of that in one little tale, bludgeoned me over the head with raw emotion, and then left me in a field with giant headed musicians to keep me company. It’s strange, but it’s vivid, alluring, and wholly mesmerizing.

The music that the narrator speaks of is almost a tangible aspect to this story, making it impossible to look away from the big picture: that guilt truly is the enemy of sanity. Any of you out there who have felt even the smallest shred of humanity while doing something wrong, no matter how tiny, know exactly what I’m talking about. Now imagine that on display for you and only you, and you’ll completely understand what this main character is going through. It’s harrowing, really. I felt for this poor bastard throughout the entire thing, and even when he made the biggest mistake of all at the end.

There’s nothing comical about the spectres that Unsworth presents in this tale, but you can sure as hell bet that they’re weird. It’s almost like the author decided to write a piece of bizarro fiction and instead created a vast expanse of discomfort drawn in the most perfect words imaginable. To say I liked this book would be a total understatement. This is a piece of fiction that I would suggest to anyone dealing with megalomania or any mental condition that makes them think ‘It could never happen to me’. Honestly. I can’t get over how damned perfect and simple this ending is. Everything builds up with a rollicking crescendo of noise and hurt, only to be toppled with the smallest pebble in a quarry of pain. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Unfortunately for most, this story is currently sold out at Spectral. Like I said above (and in my review of King Death), I really wish these were available to a larger group of people, and I hope the publisher decides to expand into ebooks and/or bump up their number of copies produced. Spectral is doing amazing things for the horror genre, and for the literary landscape in general.


King Death by Paul Finch

I didn’t know what to think of this one when I went into it. For one, when I receive one of Spectral’s books to review, the first thing I do is leaf through it to find out exactly how long it is. Not because I want to get it over with, but because I want to know how much time they’re going to take me away for. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the most exciting presses to hit the genre in a long while. The UK style that they bring forth is refreshing, and harkens back to the good old days of hammer horror and the perfection that one could expect with the stories they told.

So when I opened this one and found a glossary… well… I was a little put off. To clarify a little, I’m trying to work my way through A Game of Thrones right now. I’m not (at all) a fan of sprawling epics that require the use of maps, strange languages, and a system of words that I’ll never remember. But the prologue to that book hooked me. Now, back to the story at hand. When I saw the glossary, I immediately thought of Eddings and company, and wondered if Spectral finally dealt me a book that I wasn’t going to like.

I couldn’t have been more wrong if I stapled the damned thing to my chest and hollered about sparkling vampires and the end of the world as we know it.

This chapbook kicked some serious ass.

In 1348, England is stricken by the Black Death. The worst pandemic in human history has reached the kingdom of the warlike Edward III, a monarch who in battle against human adversaries cannot imagine defeat.

Two thirds of his subjects now perish. Woods become wild again, farmland goes to rack and ruin, villages, towns and castles are left empty, inhabited only by ghosts.

Little wonder that fear of the supernatural reaches an all-time high. Little wonder stories ignite about witches and demons spreading the plague, about ‘King Death’, an awesome harbinger of doom from whom there is not protection.

Cynical opportunist Roderic doesn’t believe any of these. With reckless indifference, he sets out to enrich himself…

-from the back cover.

Now there’s a load for the mind, right there. What we’re looking at is basically the story of a knight, or squire, who has not succumb to the plague, and is using every bit of his knowledge to gain more and more riches for himself, no matter the cost. He runs across a young boy in the woods who believes that he, Roderic, is the fabled ‘King Death’, and leads him to his castle – a place that is completely devoid of life – under the promises of sparing his life and granting him untold riches. What Roderic finds there, though, is a knife in the back and the chance to meet the real ‘King Death’, himself.

The fact that this book basically came out of nowhere is always a plus with me, as a reader. The imagery was incredible, and every facet of the story was told in a manner that didn’t speak down to the reader, even though it was set in a time period that necessitated a glossary. It’s not difficult to figure out what everything is when put into context, and it’s made simpler by the fact that the whole of the story is very cinematic and easily imagined as a scene in one’s head rather than a story told on paper. And I say scene because this story is basically one long scene pulled out of what feels like an epic tale.

Finch has the flow and style of reminiscent of the heavyweights of our horror history that immediately called forth the stories of Campbell, Blackwood, and Hodgeson, if only for his ability to craft an intensely dramatic, yet stripped down scene. I know a lot of people may disagree with me, but this kind of stellar writing doesn’t happen often enough in UK horror to make me think of these authors. King Death really is a treat to read, and it bothers me that it’s not widely available.

Now, to speak about the press for a second, it’s important for me to mention how damned perfect these pieces are, and how much you’re going to want to get out there and get your hands on these stories. Maybe together we can convince them to release more than 100, or even release them as ebooks. Go take a look at my reviews for Nowhere Hall or Abolisher of Roses. Even What They Hear In The Dark. These are amazing stories featuring incredible artwork and produced by one of my absolute favourite small/specialty presses. With King Death, Spectral has cemented themselves in my head as a press capable of heading up a revolution in UK horror. Keep an eye on these, folks. They go fast.


A Laymon Kind Of Night by Mark Allan Gunnells

As a huge Richard Laymon fan and completist, I find it hard to pass up anything having to do with the author I admire so much. His work is fun, fast, far from realistic, and provides pretty much the most satisfying beach or bus read the horror genre has ever seen. But that’s my opinion. Not everybody is a Laymon fan, and not everybody appreciates the tongue in-cheek, often crass stylings of the gone-too-soon master of pulp horror fiction.

When I saw this little collection/chapbook for sale on Amazon while doing a ritualistic check for never-new Laymon fare for the Kindle, I was intrigued. The synopsis was interesting, and the author’s name was somewhat familiar. Seeing the title, I wondered if this was going to be one author’s tribute to the late, great author. While this is an interesting, entertaining standalone collection of 3 stories by Gunnels, channelling the spirit of the titular author to some small degree, it falls short of the homage I’m sure it was meant to be.

A late night walk home through a city teeming with danger… a nosy neighbor who discovers more than he bargained for… a take on Body Snatchers with vans instead of pods… Journey into the shadowy realms of human behavior where our darkest impulses are exposed to the light.

The first story up is the titular, A Laymon Kind Of Night, which focusses on a standard, if not clichéd, take on a typical female Laymon character, but with more faults than redeeming value. In the story, Tina has just recently discovered the works of Richard Laymon and quickly becomes obsessed with the author’s bibliography. What this has to do with the story, apart from being a blatant nod to the author, I don’t know. When her co-worker has a bad piece of fish for lunch and ends up not being able to close the bookstore they work at, Tina finds herself going home very late and completely out of her element in a shady part of town. With every situation she faces, whether it be taking the bus or walking down the street, Tina finds a commonality between her present experience and some of Laymon’s most depraved plots, regardless of how far-fetched the idea may be.

What this story is missing most is the well structured chaos present in all of Laymon’s work. No matter how outrageous or ridiculous the plot is, the author is almost always able to make some sort of justification for his subject’s actions. One of the best things about Laymon is the formulaic aspect to all of his novels, but A Laymon Kind Of Night reads more like a generalization of the man’s work than it does an homage. Everywhere Tina turns she faces something potentially horrible, imagining potential rape scenes here and there by some perverted member of society. Be it a young Mexican man offering her some help, a sleazy looking bus driver, a homeless man (any hard-core Laymon fan knows that he often wrote very terrible things about the homeless in his stories), or a man masturbating in the back of a porn shop (this is what I meant my far-fetched); Tina feels, or imagines the potential for danger coming from every direction. In the end, when an honest man tries to come to her aid, Tina is so deluded that she reacts murderously in an effort to protect herself. With an out of context, weak twist ending, the story misses the mark. Gunnells surely delivers a great short story, but ultimately a sub-par Laymon tribute.

This story should have maybe been a middle or closing tale and not the title of this collection, as it’s severely misleading and, in my opinion, may do more harm than good for those who haven’t had a chance to read Laymon’s work. A Laymon Kind Of Night might read like a fun standalone story, but not as a feature dedicated to the work of Richard Laymon. It unfortunately undermines the great pulp sensibilities that Laymon is so well-known for, in favor of a perverse trip into a “what if” scenario that only hints at the power it could have held. If one were to read this without any prior knowledge of Laymon’s body of work, they may assume that his fiction was completely throw-away fare designed for perverts and creeps.

The Snoop is up next, picking up yet another Laymon type of feeling, but this time adding what I can only define as a Ketchum-esque attitude. Anyone familiar with the work of Jack Ketchum knows that his pieces are more often than not quite brusque and, for lack of a better word, brutal. With this short story, Gunnells channels everything he should have in the previous one, and maximizes the creep factor towards a great little tale that would sit well in not only a Ketchum tribute, but a Laymon one as well. It’s my understanding that this story wasn’t written to incite fan reactions from either camp, but the author does a phenomenal job at this unconscious shout-out to the greats of our modern genre. This is the story that should have led off the collection, hands down.

In first person narrative, the reader is introduced to a pretty much normal American male who is asked to watch his neighbor’s dog while he’s away on vacation. The narrator admits to a love of going through other people’s belongings, and tortures himself by waiting an hour after his neighbor leaves before entering his house to start snooping. Gunnells uses a great sense of the mundane to set the stage for an air of creepiness and unsettling weirdness. The narrator searches through the house for anything that would be of interest to him, or might reveal more information about his neighbor, but comes up with nothing above average… which sort of telegraphs the ending immediately. But that’s part of the fun with this story. Eventually the narrator takes a visit to the basement and finds a very disturbing scene. The story ends with the author amping up this disturbing revelation, thus satisfying the reader and his or her expectations for this tale. The Snoop is a great short story, and a hell of a lot stronger than its predecessor. I’d read more of Gunnells’ work based on this story alone.

The last story in this small collection is Van People – an absurd little take on The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but also a bit of a new direction in the author’s literary canon. In this one, Gunnells showcases a well honed ability to write dialogue, narrowly saving the tale from being a bland re-imagining of a phenomenally original story. While I have to say that the use of vans instead of pods is both interesting and ridiculous, it ends up being a fun tale steeped in a more Goosebumps-for-grownups kind of way, but not without its many faults.

Three friends – a gay man (Travis), a soon-to-be father (David), and a sterile single man (Kevin) are hanging out in a backyard, talking (*note – the author had to add the sterility part as a point of contention to further the story… as the reader finds out a little later). The conversation turns to fatherhood and the characters’ back stories revealing the above mentioned tidbits of information, but really offers no hint as to what is about to happen. They do talk about David selling his mustang in order to purchase a van, and the stage is set for a rebellious, if not maligned, conversation about one losing one’s balls by upgrading to a family vehicle. At this point, the story shifts and David inexplicably deserts his friends in the cruelest and most confusing of ways. He berates his former friends, makes threats and homophobic remarks towards Travis, and generally shuns them on relatively unknown terms, thus explaining the whole Body Snatchers theme right then and there.

Travis and Kevin continue hanging out until Kevin has to go out-of-town on business. Upon his return, he finds Travis and David hanging out in David’s backyard. He attempts to regain their former friendship, but is met with rudeness and a shallow ignorance that was once delivered by David alone. Completely confused, Kevin retreats to his house, attempts to go on with his life, and eventually becomes prey to a whole society of people buying vans and treating him like street trash. The reader has, by this point, already figured out that the author replaced pods for vans, and that the entire coup was being staged from the van dealership in the first place. But, pushing on, Kevin decides to do something brash and attracts nothing but the end of his life as he knows it.

Van People is at both times a frustrating and interesting read that really does show that dialogue is the most important part of a story… in some cases. Gunnells utilizes the emotion in the voice of his characters to express exactly what he wants them to, even when colliding with an idea that refuses to settle in the reader’s mind as even remotely rational. Personally, the whole premise felt like a clichéd attempt at some sort of machismo aimed at the youth of today, but served up in the wrong decade. I imagine this story would sit well with the blue-collar youth of yesteryear, but it just doesn’t sit well in this day and age.

It’s a little bit of a stretch to say that this book is a collection of truly original short stories, as they all serve as tales honoring certain authors or aspects of the genre, but it’s worth the read if you’re so inclined. I wouldn’t suggest this as a piece of fiction meant solely (or at all) for Laymon enthusiasts (the self-described “Laymonites”, or so I’ve heard) but for anyone interested in campy, fast paced horror fare centered around the human condition, it’s a fun little read at a good price.

Vanishing Hope by Tobin Elliott

Jesus… I wasn’t expecting this one from Burning Effigy Press – a micro press that I pride myself on having most, if not everything they’ve published. When Monica announced on Twitter that she would be releasing a book from a completely new and unknown author, I was very intrigued. After all, I’ve enjoyed just about everything that’s come out from this press. And I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy this chapbook. What I’m saying is… I wasn’t ready.

And I don’t think you are, either.

And that’s what makes Vanishing Hope so goddamned good.

The book knows your dark places. It knows your weaknesses. It knows your innermost desires. It feels your pain and knows how to twist it to its own needs. It knows how to become our best friend.

All the things we can do together…

Talia is nine years old. The book is ancient. Talia hates her life. The book explois hate. It shows you all the things you can do to those you hate. All the ways you can hurt them. Talia is powerless. The book is power. Now the book has found Talia.

With that synopsis, the reader only gets the slightest hint of the darkness yet to come. It seems as if you know the grand idea as to what’s coming down the pipe, but really… you don’t even know the half of it. This chapbook is incredibly visceral, agressive, and supremely effective at making the reader uncomfortable, all in a good way. In all honestly, this is an incredible story written by an incredible author, published by a fantastic press that is willing to take a chance and do something daring, and something you really don’t want to miss.

Vanishing Hope is the kick in the ass that the small press publishing world needs and, more importantly, something that I, as a reader, have been looking for all over the place. This is fresh, new, and unabashedly raw. It makes no apologies for what it is, and begs for no forgiveness either. What it does do, however, is provide the reader with a glimpse at the new blood of the genre. With our current sociopolitical and economic climates, we really only had to wait so long before someone penned a tale that matched the feel that is permeating the streets these days. What Elliott has achieved with Vanishing Hope is just that – a literary release of aggression and pain that forces the reader to face some incredibly uncomfortable situations head on.

Elliott excells at matching the ebb and flow of the main character’s feelings, starting out with a tone that feel somewhat innocent and unthreatening, all the way to the climactic scenes of the chapbook where her mental state and aggressive nature can only be described as frenetic and utterly pissed. It’s virtually impossible to retain any internal composure when reading this little story, and it seems that when Elliott wants to drive a scene home, he does so in the highest gear possible.

The main character, Talia, is a beautiful child, but exhudes a terrible mean streak that Icertainly hope my kids don’t harbor deep down inside themselves. It’s terrifying to think that something so small and innocent could be so damned malicious. The fact that Elliott took a chance with this piece of fiction and created this circumstance from the perspective of a child, well, that’s one for the books, folks. I haven’t seen something this daring since Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.

At the end of the chap, way back there in the author bio, I found a shimmering ray of hope. It seems that this chapbook is essentially acting as a prelude to a full length novel featuring this subject matter, and even gives a quick little peek at who the major players may well be. Personally, I’m excited to see what Elliott can bring to the table in terms of longer fiction. His ability to capture the reader’s attention and use their emotions against them is phenomenal. I hesitate to call Vanishing Hope a “sleeper hit”, but really… you didn’t see this coming. Guaranteed.

Vanishing Hope was officially released just prior to the 2011 Festival of Fear. Elliott can be contacted at his website, and on Twitter. Burning Effigy Press can be contacted at their website and on Twitter, as well.

In related news, I’ve got 2 signed copies of Vanishing Hope to give away. Go hit up and “like” our Facebook page and hang tight. Leave a comment in the thread featuring this review, and we’ll see if we can throw this your way. I’ll let the winners know by the end of the week.