REVIEW: Ladies’ Night by Jack Ketchum

First published in 1997, Ladies’ Night was the tenth Jack Ketchum novel to see print but the second to be written. Ketchum’s introduction mentions that the original form of the novel was far longer than the 166-odd pages that would eventually see print nearly two decades after it was originally written. While I assumed this meant that Ketchum had written the novel and stuck it in a drawer, his Wikipedia page alludes to the shorter version of the story being a re-working of an unreleased Balantine Press manuscript. This suggests that the decision to stick this novel in a drawer might have come from the publishers rather than the author himself.

While the fate of the original version of Ladies’ Night is ultimately both immaterial and ancient history, it is interesting to think that Balantine Press might wave through a novel as gloriously violent as Ketchum’s debut Off Season only to draw the line at Ladies’ Night. Maybe the original form of the narrative was too long and maybe 1980s Ketchum was too prideful to make the sorts of cuts that he would eventually wind-up making prior to the release of this much truncated version. These are both distinct possibilities… Or maybe Balantine Press flinched from the choice of subject matter as Ladies’ Night is essentially a version of Night of the Living Dead in which only women are affected and men are forced to violently put them down.

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REVIEW: The Dark between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

A French literary critic whose name currently escapes me once argued that all genre storytelling resembles a jewel necklace in so far as it can be seen as a series of eye-catching jewels held together by a tiny thread. There are no structural differences between genres; the only things that change are the colour of the jewels.

Under this view, the character of each genre is determined by the appetites to which the various jewels appeal: A work of erotic fiction is a series of sex-scenes strung together to create a story. A work of science-fiction is a series of speculative set-pieces strung together to create a story. A work of horror is a series of terrifying interludes strung together to produce a story. A work of traditional literary fiction is a series of psychological interludes strung together to produce a story.

If we accept this characterisation of genre story-telling, then it makes sense to distinguish between a story’s affective payload and the technical proficiency with which it is delivered. It follows from this that there are two primary failure modes for genre story-telling: Firstly, there are stories that have the wrong affective payload for their designated genre. Secondly, there are stories that are so technically flawed that the audience never gets to connect with whatever it is that the author wants to show us.

While Fiona Barnett’s debut novel The Dark between the Trees is too well-structured to be an example of the latter, I do have serious questions as to the nature of its affective payload. Which jewels are supposed to be catching our eye? The publishers seem unsure as despite its dark cover and a blurb that speaks of witches and sinister forests, the book is not being marketed as horror. Instead, much like Francis Toon’s excellent Pine, The Dark between the Trees is being marketed as something called a Gothic Thriller.

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REVIEW: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Kiernan is a horror writer who denies that they write horror.

They don’t just deny that they write horror… they angrily deny it and then decide to accept horror-themed literary awards and allow their work to be published in magazines and anthologies with impeccable horror credentials. I mean… between you and me… if your work is getting re-printed in Lovecraft-themed anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi then I don’t think you get to be sniffy about whether or not you write horror. You might not only write horror but you’re writing horror.

Unlike Margaret Atwood, who famously denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was science-fiction on the grounds that it didn’t contain any space squid, Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label seems rooted less in economic self-interest and literary snobbery than in the nature of their relationship to the tropes that horror writers tend to deploy.

Caitlín R. Kiernan is an author that found their voice remarkably quickly. Go back and read their first novel Silk and you will find a story about the boundaries of madness, identity, sexuality, fantasy, and self-delusion that deploys horror tropes to represent the emotional landscape of fragmenting, marginalised selves. A similar set of themes and motifs recur in Kiernan’s most celebrated novels The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl but while Silk can feel diffuse and gestural, The Drowning Girl feels not just raw but downright uncomfortable.

I believe that Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label lies in the assumption that horror tends to be about monsters in a rather abstract and untethered way. Kiernan’s books are full of monsters, but the monsters are neither abstract nor untethered as Kiernan uses them as a kind of vocabulary for articulating their innermost thoughts and ideas. The real difference between The Drowning Girl and a lot of Kiernan’s earlier work was the clarity, legibility, and rawness of that self-articulation.

After The Drowning Girl, Kiernan seemed to drop back from the psychological coal-face. The raw brilliance of their past two novels was replaced by a series of extraordinarily ill-tempered YA urban fantasy novels in which the protagonist was continually bemoaning their presence in the story, as though the author felt obliged to produce the work but would rather have been working on something else.

First published in 2017 as the first in a series of three novellas, Agents of Dreamland marked Kiernan’s welcome return to longer-form adult writing but rather than a continuation of the work done in The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl, Agents of Dreamland feels like a step sideways and an attempt to reconcile the experimental and personal impulses that inspired Kiernan’s greatest work with the somewhat less raw and more conventional impulses that inspired the creation of early successes like Threshold.

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REVIEW: The Vessel by Adam Nevill

After an absurdly long fallow period, literary horror is showing signs of a return to commercial success and cultural visibility.

As you might expect of a cultural milieu that is only just starting to re-imagine itself as a thriving creative community, critics and literary historians have looked back to by-gone eras of commercial success in search of insights into what went right and what went wrong. For example, see Grady Hendrix’s Paperback from Hell for a wonderful overview of the publishing industry’s increasingly desperate and doomed attempts to ride on the coat-tails of Stephen King.

As wonderful and satisfying as this narrative may be, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been a number of failed attempts to re-ignite popular interest in horror literature and most of them ended in failure. Multiple generations have discovered and re-discovered King’s work but the industry has always struggled to find a second or third author towards whom King’s readers might be channelled.

About fifteen years ago, Adam Nevill (a.k.a. Adam L.G. Nevill) was the next big thing in literary horror. It turns out that fifteen years is a long time.

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REVIEW: The Hole by PYUN Hye-Young

There is a tendency for journalists to write in the passive voice. This is most obvious when journalists are writing about atrocities and crimes perpetrated by those allied to or acting on behalf of the status quo: The police never kill an unarmed Black man just as the Israeli military never shoot peaceful protestors. Instead, the unarmed Black men are always killed after someone calls the police. Similarly, Palestinian protesters wind up dead after a tense encounter with the Israeli defence forces.

The problem is that active voice implies not only cause-and-effect but also guilt and responsibility. To say that the police killed an unarmed man implies that the police took out their guns and murdered a man who posed little to no danger. Similarly, to say that the Israeli military killed hundreds of peaceful protesters implies deliberate cold-blooded murder. It’s not that these things do not happen (because they manifestly do)… it’s just that saying that they did can be both legally and politically embarrassing.

This critique is not new, people are well aware of the tendency to report the actions of institutions in the passive voice, but what of using the passive voice to describe the actions of a single person? What about a life described entirely in the passive voice? Are we responsible for our actions or do things just happen to us? This is a question raised by the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award. Written by the South Korean author PYUN Hye-Young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

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REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page

The Spirit is a short (but not particularly lean) novel about two ostensibly very different men coming together to hunt Bigfoot. In terms of genre topography, the novel owes less to traditional horror and more to the kinds of films that used to be made by people like Walter Miller. Think Deliverance, Rambo: First Blood, or Southern Comfort and you have the precise vibe of this novel. This is a book of low budgets, simmering male rage, and just enough insight to lend a sense of gravitas and poignancy to what could so easily have wound up feeling like a load of ludicrous nonsense.

The Spirit was first published in 1977 and is one of a number of weird-and-wonderful novels to have been re-discovered and re-released after receiving a positive mention in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. I mention this as awareness of the book’s publication history is really useful when trying to understand what it is that this book set out to achieve. Indeed, while The Spirit can definitely be understood as a Bigfoot horror novel, the book is a lot more interested in the men doing the hunting and how Bigfoot mythology is shaped and re-shaped by the needs of different sets of people.

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REVIEW: Woom by Duncan Ralston

I decided to write about Woom in an effort to think my way through certain tensions that exist within my knowledge and appreciation of horror. Woom is a short novel with a reputation for being rather extreme in both its themes and its imagery. It is this extremity that attracted me whilst also giving me reasons to pause.

 I would be surprised if mine was the first review of Woom to start in such terms as we are living in times when even the people who are not bothered by extreme imagery and transgressive themes feel obliged to bracket their appreciation with a variety of caveats and pre-emptive apologies designed to ward off the evil eye of social media. My issue is not that I feel guilty or worried about expressing an interest in transgressive media; it’s more that many previous attempts to find works of extreme and disturbing horror have often left me feeling rather bored.

Part of the problem is that, as a child, my parents showed no interest in moderating my access to media and so I’m pretty sure that I started encountering works like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I was even a teenager. While this meant that, by the age of 18, I was pretty much impossible to shock, it also meant that a lot of genre horror wound up sitting in a mental drawer marked ‘adolescent’. In fact, it wasn’t until my interest in art-house film lead me to the works of people like Gaspar Noe that I re-discovered an interest in horror-inspired imagery and associated transgressive themes. The problem with this approach to extreme imagery is that if you re-discover transgressive imagery in the context of films with a degree of psychological and thematic sophistication then it’s kind of difficult to stay interested when that imagery leads you into trope-driven narratives involving cannibals and serial killers.

While I would never say that literary extreme horror is nothing but stories about generic cannibals and murderers, that approach to extreme horror is far more common than the approach taken in something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next-Door, where the extremity of the visuals are rooted in a set of themes and psychological observations that make the darker parts of my brain light up with pleasure. Even recent well-received works with extreme imagery like Nick Cutter’s The Troop left me rather bored as hundreds of pages of disgusting shit is actually quite tedious when the book manifestly has very little thematic heft. All of which to say that I approached Ralston’s Woom with a degree of trepidation as I wanted it to be disgusting but I also wanted it to be smart.. And I must say that Ralston definitely manages to pull it off albeit not in a way I had either expected or hoped for.

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REVIEW: Some of Your Blood (1961) by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is an author whose work is starting to fade from view. Once a big wheel down at the SFF factory, his name may continue to ring out but that name has become unmoored from any particular works of fiction.

This is partly a product of the way in which media franchises dominate the cultural landscape and partly a product of the fact that Sturgeon was a writer operating at a time when normal people still paid attention to short fiction. If you want to get into Sturgeon here in the 21st Century, you can choose between PDFs of a small selection of not-particularly famous short novels and a seven volume anthology set aimed at collectors and academics. To be honest, I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a teenager and the only reason I hit upon this novel is that it was being made available for free on Audible. So Yay Jeff Bezos and Boo SFF publishing as this is one of the most enjoyably psychological horror novels I have read in a long time.

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