Tagged: novella

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.

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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.