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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Vessel by Adam Nevill”

On “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

A truly classic piece of horror fiction that speaks directly to the fears and anxieties that made Lovecraft the man he was.

Continue reading “On “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft”

FR: The Witch Farm

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.

Early in 2021, the BBC launched a series of podcasts written and presented by someone called Danny Robins. At that point, Robins was already a playwright and he had helmed a series of episodic podcasts called Haunted. Though well-produced and centred on the UK, Haunted was not all that different to any of the hundreds of paranormal podcasts that remain scattered across the internet: You had an attempt at re-creation, you had interviews with people who may or may not be disturbed, and you have the familiar paranormal framing device of pretending the whole thing is some kind of open-minded scientific investigation whereas in fact it’s just an excuse to tell ghost stories. Haunted was not a huge success but Robins’ connections and the series production values were enough to turn some heads at the BBC and so Radio 4 commissioned what would wind up becoming a bit of a break-through hit in so far as lots of the people who listened to The Battersea Poltergeist would not otherwise listen to a podcast with paranormal themes.

 In hindsight, it is pretty obvious why The Battersea Poltergeist became a global success: The production values were superb, the dramatizations included serious acting talent, and Robins himself was an engaging active host who pushed the series relentlessly on social media. However, over and above the formal successes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I think the series real success lays in the way that it reached beyond the merely paranormal to the psychological forces at work within the family. To this day, I frequently think of the way that the girl who was once at the centre of the hauntings seemed to just ‘grow out’ of ghosts and went on to live a normal life while the professional ghost-hunter spent years returning and returning to the house in the hope of re-establishing contact with what was manifestly nothing more than a pre-teen girl’s need for attention. I actually wrote something about The Battersea Poltergeist last year and my feelings about the series have only grown warmer with the passage of time.

Robins launched another podcast named Uncanny for Halloween 2021. It returned to the episodic structure of Haunted and failed to re-capture that broader audience. To be honest, I listened to the first few episodes and rapidly lost interest as the format of dramatic re-creation, interviews, discussion, and frequent online calls to action seemed to overwhelm the content and served to compress each story down to the point where everything felt really insubstantial and rushed. I also found the constant musical stings and Robins’ attempts to drive audience engagement quite irritating.

For Halloween 2022, Robins has ditched the stand-alone episode format of Haunted and Uncanny in favour of the more sustained examination of a single case that worked so well on The Battersea Poltergeist. However, despite again boasting some real acting talent and showing signs of evolving the formula, I don’t think that Robins’ The Witch Farm is anywhere near as fun or as thought-provoking as The Battersea Poltergeist. It all feels a bit too… well… glib for my liking.

Continue reading “FR: The Witch Farm”

On “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of Thomas Ligotti which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bit of housekeeping before I talk about the story: When I decided to start working my way through Lovecraft’s fiction in chronological, I was able to do so because all of Lovecraft’s fiction is available in the public domain and because a load of nerds had already done the work of determining which stories was written when. This was simply not an option for me when it came to writing about Ligotti.

Ligotti first started getting published in the early 1980s and his work is nowhere near the public domain. This poses two distinct sets of problems: Firstly, despite being a canonical horror author, Ligotti’s works have a nasty habit of dropping out of print and even when they’re brought back into print, it is often under the auspices of small presses that seldom print more than a thousand copies. This means that physically getting hold of Ligotti’s work is not always as easy as you’d think. Secondly, while Ligotti has a devoted fan-base and his personal website dates from the era when the internet was still about people with similar interests coming together to share resources, there simply has not been time for obsessive nerds to do the kind of sorting-and-ordering work that has already been done for writers like Lovecraft.

As a result of these two practical considerations, I’m going to proceed by working through books and collections in rough order of publication. When stuff becomes too hard or too expensive to get hold of, I will skip it and hopefully circle back around once I am able to gain access to it. This will make it a lot harder for me to attend to the development of ideas and mentality in the way I have been doing for Lovecraft, but it seems appropriate that I adopt a different set of methods anyway seeing as Ligotti is still very much alive.

Despite being the first story I’m going to cover, “The Frolic” is arguably one of Ligotti’s better known works in that it has both been adapted for the screen and referenced in a number of other works. The story first appeared in the March 1983 edition of Fantasy Tales (a magazine edited by David Sutton and Stephen Jones) before being re-printed in Ligotti’s first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1986 by Silver Scarab Press before being re-published in 1989 by Carroll and Graf who took the opportunity to revise and expand the stories to what is now considered to be their correct, author-preferred form. It would be interesting to know what exactly changed between the two editions but the Silver Scarab Press version of the book is now insanely expensive and nobody appears to have done the work of cataloguing the changes. The Carroll and Graf edition of the book also formed the basis for the Penguin Classics single volume edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, which is the edition that I happen to own.

Continue reading “On “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti”

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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Hole by PYUN Hye-Young”

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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page”

REVIEW: Sigil & Shadow

Like most milieus, the RPG scene is subject to the winds of fashion and one of the areas in which changes in fashion are most visual is the balance struck between what is colloquially known as crunch and fluff. For example, while original D&D may have had a setting that was implied both by the rules and by the inspirational source material, there was no ‘official’ setting in which D&D campaigns were supposed to take place and so people built their own dungeons, their own towns, and eventually their own worlds. Fast forward a few decades and the balance between crunch and fluff had shifted so radically that people in the 00s would often buy RPG books and read them like novels, knowing full well that the books would never translate into actual game sessions.

The movement between these two extremes of fashion and design philosophy is so pronounced that people entering the hobby at one point in its history can often be quite surprised by approaches taken in the past. For example, someone raised to expect a balance of fluff and crunch similar to that built into the World of Darkness games would most likely be appalled by the dryness of a GURPS manual while someone used to the focused design philosophies of 21st Century story games would probably be appalled by the amount of useless background and setting-cruft that filled the pages of RPG books from the late 1990s. Fashions change, people change, and perceptions of games change with them.

As someone who first encountered the scene in the early 1990s, I have come to expect a certain amount of fluff as a means of providing GMs with some sort of steer when it comes to the kinds of adventures they might want to run with a particular game. A game doesn’t need to do a lot but it does need to tell me what kind of stories it is intended to help me tell and provide a few setting details to help inspire me to write my own adventures.

While Sigil & Shadow was first published in 2021 by Osprey Games, the book’s acknowledgements make it clear that the game started life in 2014 as an attempt to create a contemporary occult RPG from the distillation of two distinct systems, one devoted to fantasy and the other devoted to espionage. I mention this as Sigil & Shadow is a book so dry that it feels like a weird hybrid of 1970s writing and 2020s desk-top publishing.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Sigil & Shadow”

WTD: Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

The website TV Tropes often talks about tropes originating in particular properties and then being codified by others. What they mean by this is that while some ideas have been around literally forever, their cultural presence can often be traced back to one particular use of said idea that proved so hugely popular and influential that everyone wound up using the idea in the exact same way.

I am still not sure how I feel about the assumptions and social-mechanics informing the TV Tropes website, but I do enjoy the way that these kinds of discussions often wind up feeling like people discussing the lineages of race horses, pedigree dogs, or Royal houses. Even serious literary scholars codify and legitimise cultural scenes by trying to come up with lists of literary ancestors, influences who did the same thing in another place and another time. But if we can talk about ancestors, can we not also talk about orphans?

For example, we can talk about occult detectives and how the sub-genre was ‘sired’ by Sheridan Le Fanu and then ‘codified’ by Bram Stoker but can we not also talk about the extinction of that particular cultural line? Consider for example the way that the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film turned up at a time when the Occult Detective series was almost completely dead on its arse. In fact, the sub-genre had so little salience at the time that both the film and the TV series spent a lot of time dunking on traditional Occult Detectives in the form of the Watchers. One could even say that the central meta-textual theme of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular feminist take on the idea that stories about Occult Detectives are lame compared to stories about teenaged super-heroes and it’s time for the dusty-old detective dudes to step aside. Thus the Occult Detective sub-genre was broken down for parts and separated from its roots in Horror and Crime Fiction so that its ideas could be cannibalised and resold under the guise of Urban Fantasy. In other words, Buffy was a series that made orphans… it was so popular and so influential that it made the Occult Detective genre disappear and made it impossible to tell those kinds of stories without magic swords, lightening-bolts, and bantering heroes in trench-coats or leather trousers.

Kôji Shiraishi is a director with the power to make orphans. Best known in the West for his films Noroi and Occult he tells Occult Detective stories with such a clear and timely vision that it is difficult to imagine telling similar stories without at least acknowledging that sensibility. In fact, at this point, the only thing preventing him from launching a new golden age of Occult Detective stories is the fact that his films and TV series are almost impossible to find in English. I was lucky enough to stumble upon full subtitled run of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi uploaded to YouTube but they now appear to have disappeared again.

Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is everything you want from both Japanese horror and an Occult Detective series: It is weird, it is visually striking, it is mind-bending, and (like many of Shiraishi’s other films) it ends with a spiral down into conspiracy theories, cosmic horror, and really quite unpleasant depictions of mental illness. This is the Occult Detective genre stripped back to its basics and made new again.

Continue reading WTD: Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi

ZC: TNHC Zine, Issues I and II

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool. The rest of the series can be found here.

It is fascinating to me (as someone who has long had an interest in the worlds of science-fiction, horror, RPGs, punk rock, and photography) to see how the world ‘zine’ is used in different sub-cultures.

For example, the annual Hugo awards have long had a category honouring the year’s best fanzine and this category has long been a site of conflict: Nowadays, fans get unhappy when professionals use their clout to get nominated in fan-related categories. Before that people who published amateur digital magazines with distinct issues got unhappy when people started getting nominated for their blogs. I suspect before that there was an issue regarding whether or not your amateur magazine had be available in the form of a physical copy.

In the worlds of roleplaying games and photography, people have been quick to reach for the term ‘zine’ to describe self-published work because ‘zine’ has counter-cultural credibility but the steep prices of these zines combined with their larger print runs, expensive papers, and upscale production values suggest that when people in RPGs and photography talk about publishing a zine, they are actually talking about putting out a chapbook. The TNHC zine is named for The Nottingham Horror Collective and while it is printed on nice paper and has really quite incredibly high production values, the brevity, casualness, and personal nature of the articles all speak to a zine-making tradition that is a lot closer to what the worlds of punk and SFF used to call a fanzine.

Continue reading “ZC: TNHC Zine, Issues I and II”

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.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Woom by Duncan Ralston”