“Cold Turkey” by Carole Johnstone – A Review

cold turkey by carole johnstoneWhilst I’d be the first to admit that the TTA novella releases haven’t been quite as frequent as I would have hoped (The first was released in November 2012, the second over a year ago in March 2013), you certainly can’t fault the quality.

I reviewed the first two novellas (“Eyepennies” by Mike O’Driscoll and “Spin” by Nina Allan) when they came out, and having been a fan for a number of years of TTA’s periodical publications (Interzone for SF and fantasy and Black Static for horror) I was very pleased that they managed to match the peerless, boundary-pushing quality quality of the shorter stories I loved in the magazine.

Now we’re at novella number 3, by Carole Johstone. Carole has featured in Black Static a number of times, as well as a wide range of anthologies and collections, and I have read her stories myself several times.

And now we have a novella. Called “Cold Turkey”. With a terrifying man (?) in a top hat on the front. First impressions are, you have to admit, distinctly good.

Read on…

“Lurker” by Gary Fry – A Review

lurker by gary fry(DarkFuse, eb $2.99, hb $35.00)

For a man as active as he is in the UK horror scene, it’s truly remarkable that I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Gary Fry before. He seems to be everywhere at the moment, almost unavoidable.

It’s not likely to change in the near future, as Fry launches what looks like some sort of dastardly plan for transatlantic domination, with a nine book (nine book) deal with stateside publisher DarkFuse.

I’m always in favour of horror getting a louder shout, and the kind of reviews Gary has been getting have left me intrigued for a while now. Anyone who the great Ramsey Campbell himself describes as “a master” is clearly not messing around with this stuff.

With his novella Lurker, Fry looks set to kick off a new and prolific phase of his writing career, so let’s open up the bonnet and see what we have here, shall we?

Read on…

“Whitstable” by Stephen Volk – A Review

whitstable by stephen volk(Spectral Press, 140pp, pb £12.50/eb £2.04)

To the very best of my knowledge, I have never read a short story, novella or novel by Stephen Volk. I do, however, know of him  from his columns in bimonthly horror magazine Black Static, as well as his work as screenwriter for the BBC’s seminal Ghostwatch, paranormal TV series Afterlife, and more recently the horror film The Awakening.

So Whitstable is my first encounter with Volk’s prosaic fiction, a hugely ambitious novella from Spectral Press, a small independent publisher which has lately been making big waves with its dedication to publishing high-quality short fiction.

Released to mark the 100th would-have-been birthday of that titanic figure of cinematic horror Peter Cushing, the novella centres around Cushing as the main character, and is a combination of chillingly grounded horror and a sincere homage to the man himself.

Read on…

“Spin” by Nina Allan – A Review

spin by nina allan

(TTA Press, 96pp, £6.00)

I love the novella as a form. Actually, I think I just love good fiction as an art form, and in many ways the novella simply encapsulates my own particular tastes. There’s the extra room to manoeuvre of a novel, but still the tight and refined sense of attentive purpose which so draws me to short stories.

But I get ahead of myself.

Nina Allan’s “Spin” is the second of TTA’s new series of novellas — the astute amongst you will remember that I also reviewed the first; “Eyepennies” by Mike O’Driscoll. “Spin” is set in a strange version of Greece, which seems recognisable, but strays in distinct ways into a fantastically strange world.

Layla, the daughter of dye magnate, leaves home to make her own life and find success as a weaver. But, with the death of her mother — executed for “clairvoyancy” crimes — hanging over her, she struggles to escape the uncomfortable touch of destiny.

There are layers of meaning hidden within this story — hidden to a depth that I don’t seriously believe that I have understood them all. One, on the very edge of my periphery, is a heavy influence of the classical myth of Arachne. But as I said, I know very little about that.

I did, however, still enjoy the story in its own rights.

Allan has created a palpable sense of location here. The prose drips with a hot Mediterranean sweat which gives the whole story a sense of slow and exotic weariness, a real palpable sense of both the weather and the lingering sense of oppression. Layla is very much a woman trapped; by her parentage, by the expectations of the people she meets, and by her own gift for embroidery.

So too the characters hum with a vitality of their own. Layla leads the charge, with an achingly sympathetic urge for freedom and independence — ultimately the architect of a peculiar kind of arrogance which forms her downfall. But behind her is a rich and fascinating cast. Bit parts, mostly, but they all feel complete and whole. Like we are simply passing through their stories, and that greater of them remains untold — but that is a different tale.

Of course, the flipside of such an abstract tone is that it requires closer attention. Twisting avenues of plot and description will see the unfocused reader lost and turned around. Several times I had to re-read passages simply because their labyrinthine complexity had confused me.

But to call this anything but excellent would be a lie. I loved it because it excited me, and I found myself so easily consumed by it. With beautiful settings and compelling characters, Allan writes a subtle smudging of real-world lines, blurring fantasy and reality into a heady and intoxicating cocktail.

“Eyepennies” by Mike O’Driscoll – A Review

“Eyepennies” by Mike O’Driscoll

(TTA Press, £5.99)

I remember when the first TTA Press novella came out, in 2010. I reviewed Gary McMahon’s The Harm back then, and was excited at the prospect of a series of such novellas. Over two years later I was beginning to lose hope. But here it is, the first in a series of five new novellas.

And what a start it is. Mike O’Driscoll will be known to some as a columnist from TTA’s Black Static magazine, writing about the nature of horror. This is the first piece of his fiction (I think) that I’ve read, and it gives me a whole raft of new respect for his non-fiction.

Told in a fractured, non-linear style, Eyepennies follows a musician called Mark, who after surviving a near-death experience faces feelings of depression, darkness, and a sense that he didn’t come back from the other side completely right.

This is classic psychological horror, and it’s beautifully written. The prose is a dream, and rolls poetically off the page into images and metaphors that O’Driscoll paints effortlessly and with such clarity that even the abstract nature of the subject matter cannot cloud.

The plot is loosely — and chillingly — based around the life and death of the real-world musician Mark Linkous, whom O’Driscoll credits in the introduction, and those allusions give the novella a sense of realism without feeling at all disrespectful. It creates a darkly beautiful picture of the cracks running through a life from the impact point of a trauma.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It’s one of those works where you keep reading section after section, even after having promised yourself that you’ll put it down and go to sleep. It gets into your mind and will stay with you even after you do finish it (and with the length of it at around 20,000 words, it’s something that can be read in one sitting), seeping into your thoughts.

Mike O’Driscoll has weaved an excellent novella, and weaved it well. It’s well written and the characters leap off the page with a flair that brings them  to life. If this is setting the scene for the four TTA novellas to come, then I’m feeling just as excited about the prospect as I was in May 2010.

“The Harm” by Gary McMahon – A Review

(TTA Press, paperback, 64pp, £5)

The first thought that struck me when Gary McMahon’s new novella slid through the letterbox was how pretty it looks. I know the old adage says don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but with Ben Baldwin’s cover art it’s extremely hard not to. And the size of it seems perfect for a bit of light reading (even though it’s immediately apparent that the subject matter will be anything but light). At 64 pages, it’s perfect for a quick dip into McMahon’s disturbing imagination, and as a fan of the novella, I hope that this marks the beginning of a new series of similarly sized publications from TTA (and Andy Cox has given every indication that such was his intention).

The novella itself is divided into four sections, focusing on the three victims of sexual abuse, and the sister of one of them, and the introduction immediately indicates the tone that the novella will take. I’m going to try to avoid giving away too much in this review, but anyone who is familiar with McMahon’s work will understand his tone. For those who aren’t, he managed to capture the psychological tone of such masterpieces as the old Silent Hill games. McMahon effortlessly blends the psychological traumas of his characters with a genuinely frightening supernatural force that stalks them. Such is the level of McMahon’s skill that the overwhelming sense of mystery leaves the reader unsure whether what befalls the characters is some supernatural force, or just the manifestation of the abuse they suffered.

The message of the fiction is probably the most important thing here. Certainly McMahon’s afterword indicates such, explaining his motivation and intentions with the story, and yet still leaving a modicum of mystery over the whole thing. And that is the most impressive part, from my perspective. Although what happens and what it means is stated with perfect clarity, the reader remains unsettled and curious as to the nuances of meaning.

But the plot, and the bizarre things which happen to the characters, are the unsettling part. As the novella states at the beginning, it is concerned with “the results of the harm“, and I’m quite sure that much of the novella is subject to the interpretation, and as with the finest traditions of psychological horror, the meaning will rearrange itself within McMahon’s clearly defined parameters, to touch the particular exposed nerves and fears of the reader.

Overall, this novella is triumph of genre fiction, demonstrating precisely how complex and effective such literature can be. It uses the fear that horror specialises in as a vehicle for commentary on the human condition, and in particular the very current issue of pedophilia. In terms of editing, it was up to TTA’s usual high standards, with the only fault I could find being a missing period at the end of the first sentence of the second part, a stumble, but not enough to trip the story up. If I have to criticise it, my only grounds can be the first thing I praised; the length. I read it on the train from Brighton to London, in just over an hour, which is a perfect length for a quick read, but does leave the reader wanting more. So if you’re unfamiliar with McMahon’s fiction, with it’s bargain price and easy length, this is a perfect read. And if you are familiar with him, this whole bloody spiel was probably completely unnecessary.