Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Recommendation: Peel Back The Sky by Stephen Bacon

PEEL BACK THE SKY by Stephen Bacon (trade paperback edition)Stephen Bacon is an author I've been meaning to read more of for awhile, after enjoying his stories in the Ill At Ease and Anatomy Of Death anthologies. I find it can go two different ways when you read a collection by an author you've only read a few pieces by; sometimes they are revealed as a one-trick pony, with deadening repetitive prose and similar story lines providing ever diminishing returns as you struggle through a whole book’s worth of their stuff.

Fortunately, Peel Back The Sky proves to be the second kind of experience, where the stories have enough thematic connections to make this a coherent collection, but enough individuality to stand out from each other. There’s a wide range of different supernatural and horror ideas explored, all told in Bacon’s quietly controlled prose. There are some MR James style ghost stories and old-fashioned chillers, but for me the best pieces here are where Bacon allows himself to move away from the more traditional tropes. The Trauma Statement is a very dark and original story about collective and personal responsibility, and how much we might tolerate the misfortune of others, whereas Catch Me If I Fall is so darkly comic that it wouldn't be out of place as a League Of Gentlemen sketch. Another fine piece, Concentric, is different again: horror on a vast scale as an oceanographer is called out to investigate a hole in the ocean… The grim nostalgia of Last Summer is another highlight, in part because of its evocative account of the dying days of a mining community in the Thatcher years.

Perhaps best of all is the head-messing I Am A Creation Of Now, which is one of those stories that upon finishing you immediately want to reread. A chilling exploration of such ideas as self-deception, non-linear time, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Regular readers will know how much I like ambiguous stories about fractured reality; well this is one of the best such stories I've ever read.

Ultimately this is a collection where readers are likely to have their own favourites; there’s not a bad story here and the range of styles means there’s something for dark fiction fans of all stripes. Thoroughly worth your time.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Recommendation: No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill

NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE BY ADAM NEVILL REVIEW PictureCharacters making stupid decisions in horror books/moves just to further the plot. Discuss.

It's something every horror fan is aware of - that moment when a character in the book you're reading does or doesn't do something that would save them. It's maybe a particularly acute problem for haunted house novels, when the solution is so blindingly obvious that you want to shout at them: "just leave!"

Adam Nevill's new haunted house novel, No One Gets Out Alive, gets around this thorny issue by having a main character forced by circumstance into knowingly making such bad choices. Steph is very much a product of her time: cash-strapped and living in rented accommodation without the safety-nets of parents or secure employment. At the start of the book, she moves into a room at 82 Edgware Road, and is soon confronted by ghostly voices and a particular unappealing landlord. But the reader understands she literally has nowhere else to go. Rather than being frustrated by her staying in the house, the reader feels an anxious empathy with Steph's plight. It just one of many ways this book quietly subverts genre norms, especially around how female victims are presented.

For the first few hundred pages or so there's a certain repetition to the book, representing the repetition and limited horizons of Steph's life. As well written as it all is, readers who are aware of Nevill's other work might sense he is keeping much of his powder dry during this first third of the book.The ghostly goings on continue without real escalation, and the reader, like Steph, might be lured into a false sense of comfort...

Then the trap closes.

In a simply breathtaking chapter, it suddenly becomes clear that Steph has squandered her last chance to escape the house, and the way it happens so quickly leaves both her and the reader almost stunned in the face of it. In the middle third of the novel there follows some of the most intense, emotionally brutal events in a horror that I've read for a long time. I won't give away too much, but suffice to say there's both human and supernatural horror here, and both are equal gripping and frightful. Nevill is always great writing about characters trapped either literally or metaphorically (see The Ritual and House Of Small Shadows) but even he has rarely put a character through the wringer as much as he does with Steph here.

But she emerges from it, and in another subversion of standard genre plotting, Nevill spends the final third of the book detailing the aftermath of the events at 82 Edgware Road, with some nice digs at tabloid reporting. This section has the feeling of an extended coda, and whilst the horror does re-intrude back into the narrative, it doesn't reach the same dizzyingly terrifying heights as before. Again, this seems to be for deliberate effect rather than a misfire: Nevill wants the reader to see how Steph has been changed by what happened to her, strengthened but also scarred. Some trauma is permanent.

This is a long novel, all of it somewhat claustrophobically shown from one perspective. Some readers might take issue with that, and with the pacing of the narrative mentioned above. But in the issues raised (around inequality and victim-hood and the media) and in its questioning of genre norms No One Gets Out Alive is very intellectually satisfying, and yet it still proves to be one of the most scary and emotionally hard-hitting horror novels of recent times.

Nevill's finest book to date? Tastes will differ, but for my money yes.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Recommendation: Stories of Your Life And Others - Ted Chiang

I wrote this quite a while for someone else's site, but the hectic life of a publisher meant it got lost between the cracks I guess. And as this is about one of the best books I've read in recent years, I didn't want to let my words go to waste. So here I am, talking about Ted Chiang's collection of short stories Stories Of Your Life & Others.

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Most so-called science fiction would be better named technology fiction - it tells stories about the possible uses of the physical sciences; about the amazing or dreadful things that we could do with science, and about how society and individuals might respond.

But science is more than cool technology - it's ideas. It is a way of looking at the world, and as such it is related to logic and mathematics and small-p philosophy, even to religion. Of course some people would say that science is the correct way of looking at the world, which is a tremendously reassuring argument if their job is to keep aircraft in the sky. It’s a somewhat curious one though, if their job is to write or comment on imaginative fiction…

Several of the fictions in Ted Chiang's brilliant collection Stories Of Your Life And Others take as their starting point 'untrue' ways of looking at the world: Biblical cosmology in The Tower of Babel; golems and Victorian science in 72 Letters; fundamentalist Christian beliefs in Hell Is The Absence of God, in which angels periodically descend to earth and Hell is sometimes visible through the ground. What distinguishes these stories from fantasy is both the rigorous, logical way Chiang develops his ideas, and the fact that the characters in the stories are like scientists, trying to understand the rules of their world. This is science fiction about the process of science as much as the result.

A second group of stories in the collection are about the limitations of science, as we currently understand it: The Evolution of Human Science suggests a future where science has advanced far beyond the ability of humans to actually comprehend; Division by Zero is about what it would mean, both to science and an individual, to find out that mathematics is inconsistent (which Godel has proved we can’t rule out).

If all this sounds too highfalutin and dry, then rest assured there are aliens and assassins and meta-humans; there are people with super intelligence or their ability to see beauty medically removed. The human dilemmas in the foreground of the stories are beautifully interwoven with the sci-fi ideas behind them, and it's this that makes the collection so special.

On first reading, the title story seems the stand-out; it takes as its starting point the science fiction staple of first contact with alien beings, but uses it to tell an all too human story about loss and memory. Its main character is a linguist who is attempting to decipher the alien's language, which is radically different to any human language. In between we do, as the title promises, learn the story of her life: her marriage, her divorce, the death of her daughter. She begins to understand that the aliens' language it is based on a radically different way of viewing time and cause and effect to our own, and this perspective gives her, and us, a radically different view of the story of her life she has been telling. Again, emerging from the story's scientific speculation is not arid theory, but a quietly devastating conclusion that left me thinking about it for days afterwards.

Simply put, this is one of the best science fiction short story collections I've ever read. Too often, intellect and emotion are presented as opposites but in Chiang's beautifully controlled stories the opposite is true. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Recommendation: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

I very rarely read trilogies these days, as there seem to be so many stories spun out to three volumes (or more) for purely commercial reasons. And I can’t remember the last time I read a series of books all the way through without pausing to read something else – it was probably over a decade ago. But I'm glad I made an exception for Jeff VanderMeer’s masterful Southern Reach trilogy, comprising of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance.
I'm talking about all three books here, so SPOILERS.
These trilogy centres around Area X, a mysterious wilderness that has been quarantined behind an intangible border after what has been described to the world as an environmental disaster, although Area X is in fact too clean, impossibly free from traces of human contamination or pollutants. The Southern Reach agency are responsible for trying to understand Area X, which they primarily do by sending expeditions across the border. The expeditions reveal little about Area X, often because those who return seem... different. Diminished, lacking even the memory of how they got back. The first book, Annihilation, tells the story of one such expedition to Area X, the members of which are just described by their functions – The Psychologist, The Biologist etc. Despite appearing to be just a natural wilderness, there's plenty of strangeness in Area X: modern technology doesn't work consistently, there’s a howling thing in the reeds, and a ‘topographical anomaly’ they decide to explore…  It also becomes clear that the Southern Reach agency is almost as opaque and sinister as Area X itself, and this is taken up as the main thread of the second book, Authority which tells of a new director of the Southern Reach. Authority takes place almost entirely in the offices of the agency (although Area X does intrude in the form of notes by the previous director, and interviews with a returnee from the expedition from the first book…. and in other ways). This was probably my favourite book in the series, with the uncanny story set off against John Le Carre style intrigue and mixed motivations.
The third volume brings together characters and events from the first two books, as well as adding some back-story about people who lived in Area X before it changed. There are answers and some neat character arc summations, but suffice to say Area X remains almost as much as an enigma at the end of the trilogy as at the start. One of the central ideas of these books is how little we can know or understand about the truly alien. And that could be alien, capital W genre Weirdness… or simply the weirdness of the natural world around us, which we can’t comprehend even as we destroy it. There’s a strong environmental thread running through these books; too often in fiction this is clumsily handled and it’s to VanderMeer’s credit that here it emerges seamlessly from the narrative and characters. Aside from anything else, it’s nice to read some genre fiction so engaged with the natural world; these books have some wonderfully evocative descriptions of landscapes, the sea, birds and plant-life. VanderMeer’s prose manages to be both taut and concrete whilst building the dream-like, paranoid atmosphere of Area X and the Southern Reach. Some readers may not like at the lack of clear answers, at the nameless characters sometimes as opaque as the mystery they are investigating. But for those looking for an lyrical and unique blend of science-fiction, spy-thriller, and uncanniness would be well advised to make the journey to the Southern Reach and Area X forthwith...

Monday, 20 October 2014

Falling Over reviewed for the British Fantasy Society

"There are times when you read a new author’s work and you simply sit back and admire. This is one of those times." 

Got to say, when you read a review as good as this new one from Phil Sloman on the British Fantasy Society website, it makes all the days when the writing is like pulling teeth seem worthwhile. Made my day.

Have a read here, if you're so inclined.

Falling Over ebook (UK | US) & Paperback (UK | US),

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Coming Soon - The Outsiders

Very pleased to say that my story, Impossible Colours, will appeared in a collection of Lovecraftian fiction from Crystal Lake Publishing called The Outsiders.

All the stories are set around a gated community in England called Priory, and the other writers are V.H. Leslie, Ray Cluley, Stephen Bacon, Gary Fry, and Rosanne Rabinowitz. So I'm alongside some of my favourites of the current crop of horror writers, and it doesn't get much better than that does it?

The cover art is fantastic as well.

The book is due out early 2015 I think; more details on the Crystal Lake site.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Story Behind The Book Volume 3

A quick one to say that my non-fiction piece about some of the inspirations for my most recent collection of short stories, The Story Behind Falling Over, has been published by those good folks over at Upcoming4Me in the book Story Behind the Book : Volume 3 - Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction.

All the proceeds from the book go to the charity Epilepsy Action, and it includes pieces by a whole bunch of ace writers including Christopher Fowler, Eric Brown, Garry Kilworth, Steve Rasnic Tem, Ian R. MacLeod, Pat Cadigan, and a whole lot more. What's not to like?

You can buy the book from Amazon UK (Kindle | Paperback) and US (Kindle | Paperback).