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.


Abolisher Of Roses by Gary Fry

In January 2011, Spectral Press dropped a great little chapbook on the genre called What They Hear In The Dark, by Gary McMahon. With that publication, Spectral Press peaked my interest, and satisfied my need for an emotion and evocative story.

This time around, Spectral is offering up an intense, emotional, and psychologically-challenging read with Abolisher of Roses, by Gary Fry – cementing themselves as a press to watch, and delivering yet another incredible piece of short fiction.

It’s not always the guilty who have the darkest secrets…

Peter has been married to Patricia for nearly thirty years. He’s a practical man, the owner of a thriving factory, and the father of two fine lads.

He also has a secret mistress.

One day, his wife takes him along to an outdoor arts exhibition involving some of her paintings, staged in a dark, deep wood.

But his are not the only secrets in this marriage, and as Peter strays off the only path through the woods, he soon realizes that Patricia has more than a few secrets of her own…

A powerful piece is always a great treat, and this story is just that. Psychologically gripping, Abolisher of Roses makes the reader take a look at infidelity and relationships from a different angle. The relationship presented in this chapbook, between a husband and wife, is a perfect example of the idea that sometimes out past indiscretions can catch up to us and make us pay in the strangest of ways.

What the author does here is phenomenal. The story starts off at a walking pace, coaxing the reader into thinking that they’re looking at a sleepy little tale, only to amp up the pressure like a slow cooker, and eventually throttling the reader into a forceful introspection of their own deeds. Fry decidedly plays with the imagination in a wonderful way, offering very subtle instances of creepiness that will haunt the reader long after the story is finished.

The characters are well played out, the setting and surrounding ambiance are delightfully transgressive, and the overall feeling is a mixture of a semi-sedated, creeping terror and the outright finger-in-the-face kind of accusation that makes this read feel like a roller coaster ride to certain doom.

Fans of UK horror will definitely love this story, and those who are unfamiliar with them will be in for a treat. This is definitely something to grab and throw yourself into.