Robert Marasco, ‘Burnt Offerings’ (Valancourt Books, 2015)

9176952.jpgOriginally published in 1973 and adapted three years later for a film in the US, Burnt Offerings is described by Valancourt Books, the publisher of this new edition, as “one of the most original and scariest haunted house novels ever written”. That’s quite a claim, but I’d say it’s just about accurate. It’s certainly original and, in places, utterly chilling. Naturally, such originality proceeds from the fact it’s not a haunted house tale in the traditional vein. 

Ben and Marian Rolfe yearn for an escape from the oppressive, boxed-in nature of their Brooklyn apartment. Marian’s aspirations for higher standards of more genteel living are contained and constrained by the size of the apartment and their means, and when the opportunity presents itself for them to rent a country mansion in Long Island filled with antiques for what seems a meagre asking price, it all seems too good to be true. But Marian feels that fate, for once, is smiling on her. Her innate acquisitiveness compels her to fall in love with the house from almost as soon as she’s walked through the front door. And of course it is all too good to be true: the single condition attached to the family’s tenancy of the old house for the summer, aside from generally acting as caretakers of the place, is that they also need to look after the aged Mrs. Allardyce.

When the Rolfes arrive to view the property, the custodians Roz Allardyce and her wheelchair-bound brother assure them that their mother never leaves her room and needs just three meals a day. They won’t be aware of her at all; they won’t even see her. To Marian, it all seems so straightforward, although Ben is unconvinced. However, the house is a dream-come-true for his wife and any negative reaction to the oddness of the Allardyces’ condition is clearly overshadowed by her desire to live a lifestyle she has only ever read about in the style magazines and covets almost beyond anything else. Ben’s scepticism is won over, at least partially, and they up sticks and move to the house with son David and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth in tow, the promise being that Marian will deal with all of Mrs. Allardyce’s requirements.

That may all sound more or less like the opening of a typical haunted house story but Burnt Offerings is something else, and its horror is a more subtle and insidious thing. The imagery and atmosphere of the book is striking and memorable; its characters similarly well-drawn and credible, with the family dynamic especially convincing in its exploration of dysfunction and conflict. I can’t say too much about how the narrative darkens and develops because I feel that would spoil the story; suffice to say, it had me reading on until I’d finished the book very quickly indeed.

Does the reader ever encounter the matriarch of the house? You’ll have to read it to discover, but the gradual build-up of unease and horror into the novel’s final pages is, for me, masterfully done. What I really enjoyed is that Burnt Offerings’ conclusion is as enigmatic and ambiguous as the opening description of the prosaic city life of the Rolfes is humdrum. The story’s creeping arc of destruction is perfectly handled by Marasco – it moves at a fair pace – and what frightens in this is, arguably, the fabric and hunger of the house itself rather than its closeted, unseen inhabitant. But is she in control of, or controlled by, the mansion; from where does the malign influence emanate? It’s difficult to reach a final view on that, but that’s just part of what makes this novel so enjoyable: it’s a book that has stood the test of time over the last 40 years and will, I’m sure, delight readers looking for something a little different from the typical supernatural tale.

Burnt Offerings is available direct from the publisher, in both print and ebook formats, as well as from the usual other outlets.

[My apologies for the lack of activity on here: life has been busy recently and although I’ve not stopped reading during the time away from here, I’ve not gotten around to collecting my thoughts, despite my best intentions. I will try and post more often as we get into 2016!]

Stephen Volk, ‘Leytonstone’ (Spectral Press, 2015)

LeytonstoneLeytonstone is the second in Stephen Volk’s trilogy of Dark Masters novellas based on notable figures from the world of cinema, following the excellent Whitstable from 2013. That work was a sensitive portrait of Peter Cushing living out the twilight of his life in the novella’s titular town, and portrayed Cushing in a way that could only engender protective feelings towards the well-loved actor. As a Cushing aficionado, I couldn’t help but fall under Whitstable‘s spell and become drawn into its dark narrative.

In contrast, and it’s a contrast of many facets, Leytonstone presents us with a fictionalised account of the very early years of Alfred Hitchcock and is told with a closeness and attention to period detail that’s compelling. But the story here is, if anything, even darker than in the first volume of the trilogy.

As with Whitstable, there’s no supernatural aspect to Leytonstone; instead, there’s real horror born of the human soul, no more apparent than in the way young Fred is depicted. At first, what one assumes is loneliness and isolation is revealed as something more insidious in his character. Any sympathy for this ostracised, unusual little boy falls away. To say there are aspects of sociopathy already at play in the seven year old’s psychological make-up might not be straying too far from the truth.

One tantalising question which Volk seems to posit is whether or not Hitchcock’s remarkable flair as an auteur virtually unequalled in film history is thanks in part, or perhaps even in whole, to a sacrifice in early life that is truly shocking (the veritable ‘twist ending’ for which the director became so well-known). It’s not the boy’s own sacrifice, but one made on his behalf; to protect him; to save him. Wouldn’t any parent do likewise? And does the family’s expiation elevate the subject of the sacrifice to the level of godhood, as the Master of Suspense? The parallels with Hitchcock’s Jesuitical upbringing are interesting, and I found myself reminded of the Christian concept of the sacrifice of the Father of his only Son, reversed here in the sacrifice of the mother for her son. Fascinating concepts for sure.

Throughout Leytonstone there are subtle, fleeting references to some of the great director’s best works, hinting at that question of nature versus nurture and what shaped Hitchcock, including the famously apocryphal night in the local police cells to demonstrate to the young lad what happens to wrongdoers. Is the boy’s innocence at the point at which this happens then overshadowed by his desire to do something that would have merited such punishment? He has been punished having done nothing wrong; why not do something wicked to balance things out? This sequence seems pivotal in the story and the policeman who does Hitchcock senior the favour in providing the boy’s night away from the bosom of his family is a grotesque caricature, but no less chilling as the book’s final frames play out.

The writing here is superb and I experienced a voyeuristic pleasure in reading this fascinating narrative, an aspect which would not have been lost on Hitchcock qua director, I suspect. I particularly enjoyed the home setting and the author’s credible portrayal of father, mother and son, a trinity of souls trapped in a dysfunctional family grouping with hints of an Oedipal bond between Mrs. Hitchcock and her beloved boy. Ironically, the bond between mother and son seems far stronger than between husband and wife. That’s so at least until the ending when the strength of the Hitchcock family’s resolve and its desire for self-preservation is brought to the fore.

Leytonstone comes highly recommended, whether or not you’ve read Volk’s earlier Whitstable (but do seek that one out too; it’s brilliant!). The novella is due to be published by Spectral Press in March 2015 and is available to pre-order now.

Adam Scovell (with Katie Craven), ‘A Screaming Breeze’ (Sphinx Media, 2014)

A Screaming BreezeFor many years, I’ve been both fascinated and horrified by those towering wind turbines you see perched on remote hills, scattered across swathes of empty countryside or punctuating the seascape. I’ve no quarrel with alternative forms of energy; quite the reverse, in fact. But, for me, these towers are the eerie sentinels on the horizon: brooding, menacing, waiting. Something about their quietude (at least as I perceive it) troubles me, their huge rotor blades slicing through the air, endlessly turning. The fascination is such that – wearing another of my hats – I’ve long desired to record the sound of what they do, to stand beneath one, contact microphones attached to the alien shell just to hear inside: would there be a deafening and deadening silence within?

You can imagine my pleasure then in stumbling upon this little volume by film-maker and writer Adam Scovell. A Screaming Breeze is, for want of a better expression, an offshore ghost story, illustrated very fetchingly and atmospherically by Katie Craven. And it’s rather tiny: 15x10cm in size, with small (8pt), dense type across its 26 miniature pages.

The tale’s protagonist, Horace, is a technician for a wind-farm off the Norfolk coast, ferried out to a turbine, left to carry out required checks and maintenance, and then collected again by boat at an appropriate point later in the day. Sounds all rather straightforward. But it’s whilst he’s at one of the structures (and indeed in it and on it) that he experiences a little more than he bargained for. What transpires is unsettling, surreal, dreamlike and – yes – frightening.

I enjoyed Scovell’s story very much. Its setting is unusual and defiantly modern, and yet the atmosphere generated by the isolation of the location conveys that pleasingly familiar sense of dread we experience in the best antiquarian ghostly tales, whether set in decaying mansions or on windswept hills at dusk. Perhaps there’s also the symbolism of environmental concern and activism running through this tale: Horace, like it or not, represents the sometimes unwelcome presence of wind-farms in more ancient landscapes, and of course the sea is older than any of us and infinitely more cruel.

This handsome little book is available (at a price that made me do a double take, so inexpensive did it seem!) from here. I’m tempted to buy some more copies and give them out to friends. A warning to the curious, though: despite its diminutive size, there’s a reasonable length to this story, essentially because of the small font size used. It may cause eye strain, as well as those welcome shivers!

S. J. Moore, ‘Untitled Ghost Story’ (Salt, 2014)

Untitled Ghost StoryHow could I resist a publication with such an ironic title? You’re right: I couldn’t. In fact, I purchased this a few weeks ago (it’s been available for a couple of months now), but have only now got round to reading it. On starting it last night, I finished it in one breathless session.

Untitled Ghost Story is a short novella by S. J. Moore, published by Salt in its Modern Dreams line. This is Moore’s first foray into supernatural fiction from what I can gather; he already has a series of well-regarded Arthurian fantasy novels behind him, the Children of the May series, although I suspect the writing here covers some very different territory to those books.

The Modern Dreams series is an ebook-only range focused on ‘gripping urban drama’. I confess that wouldn’t normally be the first thing I would reach for, but Moore combines the after-hours grit of a working-class pub and some salt-of-the-earth characters, with a real sense of the weird and a disturbing undercurrent that reaches its apogee in a very convincing and distressing denouement to the book.

Our story centres around Gav and Steve, both working to close up the Ben Lomond pub in Jarrow, a (now) post-industrial town in the north east of England.

Jarrow was of course a focus of the shipbuilding industry in the north east, and the book is threaded with the emotional baggage attached to that: pride in the hard work and hardship endured when shipbuilding was at its peak, and the sadness and anger at its decline and eventual disappearance, as well as the politics behind all of that.

It takes a few minutes to get into the swing of the dialogue, and indeed some of the narrative, which is in the Geordie dialect. Once you’ve grown accustomed to it, it works well. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for those who are really struggling with it, but I don’t think you will if you give this a chance. And interestingly, in this context, it’s not used for comic effect as it can be in M.R. James and the like. Make no mistake: these two men are not dusty antiquarians, nor the tugging-of-the-forelock yokels those antiquarians frequently encounter.

Untitled Ghost Story also has the accolade of having the most swearing I’ve ever read in a piece of supernatural fiction (and in many other contexts, probably, writers like Irvine Welsh aside…) – but it works in context. Yes, Gav is crude and foul-mouthed, but it serves to make him more credible and to bring his insecurities and prejudices to life for the reader. Would a working-class man, an assistant manager in a down-at-heel pub in a distressed town, talk any other way than Gav does in the book? I don’t think so. At the start, he is difficult to like. By the end of this short work, I cared about him, and I cared about Steve, the pseudo-intellectual student who’s working in the pub to pay his way through his degree and the writing of his dissertation, ‘Unknown Ghost Story: The Working Class as Demon in English Weird Literature’. Steve, naturally, thinks he has uncovered a previously untested angle in his research; Gav, naturally, couldn’t care less.

There’s a veritable sense of place in this novella: the Ben Lomond is a real pub in Jarrow and it obviously has considerable history. Perhaps you could go there and experience the events of the later part of the book; but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone… What follows the closing up of the pub at the start of the book is a heady cocktail (quite literally, in places) of hesitant and guarded reminiscences of school days (Gav and Steve were, it seems, peers), drink and drugs, relationships and the inevitable problems with relationships, acute cultural differences, politics, Marxism and much else. Spurred on by drink and Ecstasy donated by Gav, Steve becomes a walking, swaying, encyclopaedia of the historical and the theoretical, unburdening himself to his fellow worker with impunity. It’s only a matter of minutes into the book when you realise he and Gav are very different.

Ultimately, Steve can’t handle the combination of booze and drugs and has to leave, but not before there’s an odd accident with the bottle fridges behind the bar. Gav is furious; Steve is confused to be blamed. The former eventually sends the latter away and starts to clear up the mess on his own: there and then, Gav seals his fate and is assailed by a presence we never quite get to see. I found this final sequence of the book truly terrifying and the timing and narrative flow is striking: the pages turn and turn at a fair speed. I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would genuinely spoil it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Untitled Ghost Story for its keenly-wrought sense of pace, the very black humour, the realism of the awkward dynamic between Gav and Steve and for the unseen and unwritten horror of its conclusion. This last is expertly handled by Moore. He understands that too great a revelation can ruin a piece like this, and the bare hints the reader is presented with leave an altogether more chilling picture. This book is a rare thing: properly a work of folk horror, I think, but contextualised not in the commonplace rural setting but in the heart of a depressed area of high unemployment and low morale, and with a real historical basis at the core of its horror. I enjoyed this ‘gripping urban drama’ immensely.

The novella is available, very inexpensively, for Kindle (UK/US) and apparently in ePub and Nook formats, although I wasn’t able to find a link in a quick search online.

Dennis Parry, ‘The Survivor’ (Valancourt Books, 2014)

The SurvivorI received a copy of The Survivor a few months ago as a gift from Mark Valentine, who has penned the new introduction to this, Parry’s third novel originally published in 1940. Mark has written a little about the book on the Wormwoodiana blog.

This handsome reprint is by Valancourt Books and the publisher describes it as ‘a classic story of the supernatural’. That’s an intriguing way to describe this novel, or at least the use of the adjective ‘classic’ is unusual. The Survivor doesn’t strike me as being typical in the sense I’d normally understand the term ‘classic supernatural fiction’: it’s not particularly Jamesian or like anything by, for instance, de la Mare, Machen, le Fanu or Blackwood. The ‘supernatural’ aspect to the story is placed upfront, and quite clinically described by Parry from relatively early on in the narrative; the remainder of the piece takes on quite a different kind of fictional clothing, akin to a period thriller with a race-against-time theme, I think. The events which unfold don’t particularly frighten or chill in that classic sense, and I didn’t really have that delicious sense of creeping dread I get from rereading those authors I’ve mentioned above in the context of classic supernatural fiction. However, I don’t really think that’s Parry’s intention with this novel. I’ll grant you, The Survivor’s revenant is not to be underestimated for the manipulative and cruel way it strives to destroy the family at the heart of the story. The novel’s conclusion also struck me as rather bleak and uncompromising.

The book’s story of spiritual takeover by a ruthless though brilliant doctor, James Marshall—for a tale of vengeful possession is what The Survivor is at its core—is told very well and with great gusto. I imagine parts of this must have been rather shocking for an audience in the 1940s, although to my more modern eyes, I confess some of the cultural references and the eccentricities of the family date the book a little, unsurprisingly perhaps since the ambit of the story is also one of parodying social mores and of railing against certain societal norms.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a negative reaction. I enjoyed The Survivor a great deal and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it: Parry’s writing is dense and articulate, particularly in the early descriptive passages of the winter- and epidemic-stricken fens, and his characterisation is splendid. James Marshall, the powerful, complex, flawed doctor at the centre of the narrative will remain in my memory for a long time as a larger-than-life and close-to-sociopathic ‘villain’, but who has, for all that, flashes of humanity (at least while alive!). There is something cinematic about his brand of cynicism and manipulation.

Mark Valentine makes the point in his introduction that The Survivor is a rarity precisely because it is a successful novel-length tale of the supernatural (how many others can you name?). And I think he hits the nail on the head by positing that “[Parry] has written a modern and ironic ghost story.” I think that’s a truer set of descriptors for this book, rather than classic supernatural fiction per se.

On the strength of the writing here, which is sharp and witty and dosed with a cruel irony, I would like to read more of Parry’s work: there’s no doubt he was a fine prose stylist. This is the first time The Survivor has been republished since its original outing in 1940. Parry had written ten novels by the point of his untimely death in a car crash at the age of 42 and seems to have been largely forgotten after that, which is a pity. An obscure author then, but this is a novel which I’m glad has been brought back to public notice by Mark Valentine and the good people at Valancourt. They state on their blog: ‘If you like intelligent, interesting, out-of-the-way fiction, give Dennis Parry a shot — you might be very pleasantly surprised.’ I think that’s a very fair summation of The Survivor, and one I’ve very happy to echo here.

Timothy J. Jarvis, ‘The Wanderer’ (Perfect Edge, 2014)

The Wanderer

The Wanderer is the debut novel by Timothy Jarvis. I read it a couple of months ago and the book’s blend of Shielian ‘last man’ fantasy and time-twisted, oneiric horror has stayed with me ever since the last page. This review is a much-expanded version of a short post I felt I had to put on Facebook shortly after reaching the end of this brilliant, brilliant book.

Jarvis himself has described The Wanderer‘s charms as ‘Highlander meets Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors, meets M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. With booze.’ Even if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, with a write-up like that, how could one resist? And there is booze. That part of his mini-write-up isn’t tongue-in-cheek at all.

Let me start by saying that I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone with even a passing interest in weird fiction and fantastical literature of the last 120 years or so. The Wanderer is simply superb: a highly original, deeply unsettling and utterly gripping novel, the imagery of which will, I’m sure, clutch at your innards for some time to come. It’s in part a portmanteau piece, with different character-led narratives that are interconnected in quite a fiendish way – and there is indeed a fiend at the heart of this novel, as grim and cruel and relentless as the psychopathic Mr. Punch himself. Jarvis describes himself as a writer of antic fiction, which is borne out here in large measure. But the nature of this beast is not just antic, but corybantic also – it’s supremely literate, but also frenzied and shocking and rending in equal proportion.

The novel’s dark premise is difficult to summarise without giving away important plot details, so I won’t do that here as it would spoil the flow of this unique book. The Wanderer is a complex, layered narrative with a central theme that becomes apparent only when the reader is quite far into the story, too far in to climb back out, perhaps: I will only say that once the novel’s revelations are laid bare, the earlier sections of the narrative take on an altogether more chilling aspect and the tension reaches a level of cloying tautness as the story hurtles towards its conclusion. Herein you’ll encounter a missing author of strange stories and his final manuscript, with the same title as this book, be it fiction or otherwise; immortality as the cruelest jest of all; a horrifying game of hunter and hunted across the millennia; a dying planet; an awkward camaraderie of characters that is shattered in chilling ways; and much more, all of which slots together ultimately like a complex puzzle. As Jarvis has noted, the novel has a flavour reminiscent of Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, a book I love for its grandiloquent strangeness and singularity, although I know it doesn’t find favour with everyone, but this novel goes beyond anything Shiel attempted.

The horror of The Wanderer is visceral in places, too – and I use that word both figuratively and literally so fevered is the author’s imagination – yet that only helps to cement the strangeness of the narrative as it jumps to the far-distant future and back with casual disdain for standard frames of temporal reference.

This is an intelligent, ludic work, beautifully articulate and poetic, with respectful yet impish reverence given to the best writers of strange stories over the last few decades. It’s also surprisingly and delightfully grim in all the right ways. I wouldn’t say it’s Aickmanesque per se but I got from it some of the grotesque otherness of Aickman’s finest, most genre-defying pieces.

The Wanderer has been my novel of the year so far, and there’s only a few weeks left of this one so I can’t see it being bettered; in fact, I haven’t read as cohesive and compelling a weird fiction novel in a very long time. The fact that it is a debut makes it all the more revelatory and I cannot recommend this book enough. Even with the teetering pile(s) of titles on my to read list, I sense that I’ll be revisiting this one very soon to see what I may have missed along the way the first time.

It should (in a perfect world!) be available from all good bookshops. The novel is published by Perfect Edge Books, and you’ll find their details and some information on how to buy The Wanderer here.

Philip Hemplow, ‘Ashes’ (self-published, 2014)

AshesI’d read a number of Philip Hemplow’s previous novels before now, notably The Innsmouth Syndrome and Sarcophagus and I’d enjoyed both of those works, as they take well-traversed Lovecraftian paths and twist them subtly to work in a contemporary setting. As Hemplow’s work has progressed over time, it’s been pleasing to note that the subtlety of the Mythos overlay has been even more deftly employed in later works. Which brings us to Ashes.

This is the author’s most recent work and it’s a very effective modern-day supernatural chiller, with historical threads, set in and around the Yorkshire Moors; the historical aspect comes from a callback to Elizabethan times thanks to the device of an centuries old, age-damaged diary found at the heart of the broken 16th Century house around which the story revolves.

The novel has shades of Lovecraft too, it seems, but those shadows form so faint a skein over the proceedings that they’re barely there at all and don’t intrude on the narrative or overstay their welcome. For those who know something about Carcosa, there will be that added frisson of recognition and excitement, but unlike some Lovecraft-inspired fiction, you don’t need to be steeped in the work of the Old Gentleman, and his admirers and imitators, to get the most from the novel. What is there adds piquant flavour to an already good story and perhaps the names to invoke here should be Bierce and Chambers; only distantly, through the lens of the centuries, do we catch a glimpse of that place where the black stars hang.

The principal characters are women (as they are in the other two books mentioned above), and they come across convincingly on the page. For reasons that become clear early on, the main protagonist, Patricia, is not a particularly likeable person and the author captures her mounting anxiety rather well as the story progresses.

The numerous excerpts from the Elizabethan diary add a layer of authenticity to parts of the story which could easily have fallen flat if not handled properly. But handled appropriately they are: the story is well-paced and Hemplow keeps the tension running high right up to the rather startling conclusion. Granted it’s perhaps a little obvious what is going to happen in the end (at least in part), but Ashes is a taut, well-written and highly entertaining short novel – I read it quickly (in the course of two or three days) and with real zest to learn how the story would conclude. With its focus on the razed Gaunt House, soon to arise from the titular ashes as the sympathetically restored Phoenix House, the book is, in a sense, a haunted house tale but that would be to read it too narrowly, I think. It’s much more than that and I’d encourage you to seek it out if you like deftly-handled modern tales of subtle horror.

The book is available electronically here (UK) and here (US), and you can also follow Philip on Twitter here if you’re so inclined.