May 21, 2015

ROYAL DESCENT

by John Farman (writer) and John Howard (artist)

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I have this recurring dream about Prince William and Princess Kate. I dream that for some unexplained reason they visit the Hebridean island where I live and we get chatting. I invite them for a meal at my house. They come over, we eat curry, drink vast quantities and get along swimmingly. My wife and Kate hit it off over their shared love of fashion and try on each other’s dresses. William turns out to have good taste in wine and a filthy sense of humour so we get stewed in the kitchen and exchange knob gags. I wake up feeling confused and my wife laughs at me for being such a silly sod.

You see, recurring dreams aside, I would never consider myself a royalist. I see the British monarchy as outdated, unnecessary and a financial burden the country should rid itself of at the earliest opportunity. Why I have a recurring dream about having the second in-line to the throne and his spouse over for dinner is utterly beyond me.

I’ve been interested in reading John Farman’s “Royal Descent” since I first heard the germ of the idea from the man himself when he was giving a talk about “School of the Damned”, his horror comic published by Glasgow’s Black Hearted Press. The concept was brutal, simple and aimed to shock. The royal family are forced to fight to the death in a “Battle Royale”-esque contest in order to establish who will gain the throne. I thought the concept was hilarious but doubted I would ever see it in print. Nearly three years later, I’m thrilled to have been proven wrong.

Of course, this isn’t the real royal family, but their fictional counterparts. Princes Harry and William therefore become Hadley and Willard. Princess Anne and Prince Charles become Agatha and Cedric and so on. 

The comic doesn’t just focus on the violent events on the Hebridean island where the royals are stranded and forced to duke it out to see who is the last blue-blooded man standing. Everything that happens on the island is broadcast live on television for the entertainment of the general public. This neat framing device enables Farman to take some very solid satirical swipes at rolling news and exploitative “entertainment” shows such as “X Factor”. The clean-cut studio presenters provide a hilarious emotionless commentary as the royals hack, bludgeon, stab and slash one another to death. Each new royal character we meet is accompanied by a title card detailing their position in line to the throne and their kill-count. Through the vapid commentary, we learn snippets of information about the various crises that have happened in the United Kingdom that have lead to the battle of succession. However, Farman doesn’t info-dump this backstory, but gradually drip-feeds the reader details. For me, this is the cleverest aspect of the comic. This is Britain, but not as we know it; it is at once disorientating and intriguing.

A sharp script is nothing in a comic book if the art doesn’t match up. However, John Howard’s black and white art is marvellously crisp and clear. The combat between the members of the royal family is dynamic and executed with lashings of gore. Just as Farman uses fictional counterparts of the real royal family, Howard’s royals look somewhat familiar but aren’t identical to their real-world brethren. The barren Hebridean landscape, all windswept grass and scattered rocks, is well realised and contrasts sharply with the cluttered scenes of urban decay in the cities.

When skewering cultural institutions, someone is bound to get upset and “Royal Descent” managed to attract the righteous indignation of the right-wing British newspaper The Daily Mail before it was even released. However, criticising “Royal Descent” for being controversial is like condemning water for being wet. The best kind of satire always teeters on the edge of offensiveness. “Royal Descent” is all the more effective by its ability to entertain and shock, to amuse and horrify in equal measures. Better still, it manages to maintain this balancing act throughout. It is not so horrific that we aren’t amused and never so amusing that we don’t take it seriously.

Vital Publishing have shown that they have balls of solid brass by releasing this comic but the risk has paid off. “Royal Descent” is a bloody, brutal, razor-sharp satire that deserves a wide audience. I am very much looking forward to seeing what regal mayhem Farman and Howard unleash in upcoming issues.

Hereward L.M. Proops


Read the author interview here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews John Farman, writer of “Royal Descent”

Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a comic book writer.

John Farman: I was approached by a friend of mine, David Braysher to script a comic he had already drawn, “Black Maria”, I was open to the idea and two months later I was holding a copy in my hand. I still remember the feeling of pride and excitement on looking at the book, From that moment I was hooked. So I guess I owe a big thanks to “Black Maria” and David for that.

Booksquawk: What is it about comic books / graphic novels that you like? Have you ever wanted to write for different forms e.g. screenplays or novels?

John Farman: Having worked in theatre, the differences between the stage and the comic page are fairly obvious. Ambiguity is often the playwright's best friend, my experiences of theatre centre around you building with dialogue driven characters, slowly revealing the plot; this is usually for a cast of 4-5 characters and it can be a very difficult thing to achieve. If you get it right it’s a wonderful feeling. With comics the process is collaborative, only you have far more people adding to the mix, including lighting, props, set design, sound effects, the director, and last but not least the actors themselves. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With comics you are free to write as many characters and locations as you like (you can achieve this in theatre in a creative way, too) with the ability to show whatever you want, there are no budget constraints on your imagination on the comic panel. Pacing is much faster and can on occasion be less subtle than theatre; this includes use of weapons, explosions and multiple simultaneous running narratives, achievable in theatre but a lot less difficult to pull off on the comic page. Finally seeing the final printed work is always a special moment, with the theatre the memories of the various shows always fade, with comics they are there to re-read and reference as you wish. I would say I can see myself revisiting theatre, but comics in terms of writing and the actual reading/viewing experience are my first and true love.

Booksquawk: One of your earlier comics, “School of the Damned” opened on St. Kilda. “Royal Descent” is set on Mingulay. Is there any reason why you keep returning to the Outer Hebrides in your writing?

John Farman: For me the romantic elements of the islands have always appealed, as well as the sense of loneliness and isolation. These are perfect backdrops for my imagination to run wild. Also the actual natural beauty and isolation of the island lends itself perfectly to the various horrible acts of violence that populate my stories. Essentially nature is a hard, cold mistress, and this fits the tone of both books in my island trilogy. I have plans to write a “School of the Damned” annual focusing on the events of St Kilda in greater detail, so more Dracula and Van Helsing on the cards. The trilogy might be a wee while in coming as I have no idea how I’m going to top “Royal Descent”.

Booksquawk: “Royal Descent” doesn’t pull any punches and attracted the wrath of the Daily Mail… Has the newspaper’s reaction helped or hindered sales?

John Farman: To be honest it hasn’t hurt.

Booksquawk: “Royal Descent” is clearly influenced by “Battle Royale” but are there other works of fiction or film that have inspired you?

John Farman: The works of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Henrik Ibsen, John Carpenter, early David Cronenberg. Comic wise the 60’s works of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the 80’s works of John Byrne, Walt Simonson and Jim Starlin. Of the Brits Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, John Wagner and Pat Mills are the main writers I’ve taken most inspiration from.

Booksquawk: Do you have a routine for writing?

John Farman: My routine is a simple one, I usually sit down around 11pm and play a game or two of chess, I find this gets me ready to write, it’s as simple as that. I usually write for around 4-5 hours, this might be plotting, scripting or re-writing/editing. I’ll usually think about the work for a wee while before I write, I see this as priming the ideas before I go in.

Booksquawk: The royal family are forced to fight to the death in “Royal Descent”. Who else would you like to strand on a remote island and force to engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat?

John Farman: I’m actually developing a sequel to “Royal Descent” called ‘A parliament of rooks’ where the surviving member from “Royal Descent” is forced into battle with disgraced politicians from the various parties, plenty of strong personalities here so I think both myself and the audience will have a lot of fun.

Booksquawk: Should the real House of Windsor find themselves in a similar situation, who would you put your money on to come out on top?

John Farman: I think either of the Princes, William or Harry would be a good bet.

Booksquawk: Have you got anything else in the pipeline?

John Farman: I have the sister book to “School of the Damned”, “Tales of the Damned” debuting in May and before that I hope to have my latest title “Purity Ring” out at the end of April. TOTD allows me to feature stand alone stories focusing on key members from the SOTD title. “Purity Ring” represents my first take on an ‘American’ voice and is structured around the middle America and tea party politics as well as a full frontal attack on the Purity Ring movement. I’ve been wanting to write a slasher piece for a while and the Purity Ring movement was for me an obvious choice. I’m also developing a graphic novel called Drumchapel based on my experiences of growing up in 70's/80’s Glasgow, lots of crazy, funny and dark stories to tell. I have two other projects I’m currently developing, ‘Slags’ a Kray-style character in a modern day facility recounting his exploits in the crime scene in the 60’s/70’s. Finally I’m working on a 9/11 story called “The Death of Innocence”, this story revolves around the ever growing list of deaths of first responders who attended the twin towers during the 9/11 attack. I will also be continuing to write the continuing adventures of the inhabitants of the “School of the Damned” with some big changes planned for that universe.


Read the review of Royal Descent here.

May 5, 2015

A PERFECT 10: GREAT SHORT STORIES

Review by Pat Black

Just for jolly – and before I change my mind - here are my favourite short stories.

No particular genre, no specific length.

10. The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

Sometimes, when you finish a big book, you feel a sense of relief. Even if you really enjoyed it, it’s nice to get it over with and start something fresh.

With Arthur C Clarke’s Collected Stories, I only felt regret that I had finished it, and seriously considered starting it again.

Ignoring “The Sentinel” and its cinematic advantage, “The Nine Billion Names of God” is possibly Clarke’s most famous short story. Set deep in the Himalayas, it sees a group of scientists using a computer to calculate the name of god. The 300-year project has been spitting out endless streams of text, using every possible letter combination in existence. The boffins hypothesise that once their machines uncover god’s actual name, the big guy in the sky will consider humanity’s purpose as complete, and get in touch with us.

Written in 1953, the story betrays a key aspect of early computing which we tend to forget now that these devices are everywhere: they are counting machines, to a greater or lesser extent, even if it’s calculating “1” or “0”. The plodding, clunky, systematic nature of the task in “The Nine Billion Names of God” recalls Borges’ Library of Babel, its books stuffed with every possible combination and sequence of letters into infinity. The task seems so meaningless and futile, I’m surprised no-one has produced a computer program to replicate it in our gilded age.

Lots of people find Clarke boring, and denigrate his characterisation skills as well as his slightly tin ear for dialogue. But he packs loads of atmosphere into this one, as his scientists peer out into the stars from the roof of the world.

Clarke occasionally showed religious flashes in his stories, leaning more towards Buddhism than the Christian tradition of his homeland as he grew old in Sri Lanka. But this tale evokes a decidedly Old Testament sense of awe and dread as we turn our faces towards an almighty presence completely relaxed at the prospect of turning out the lights.

9. Cathedral by Raymond Carver

During my dim and distant undergraduate days, I recall a lecturer reading out this whole story to a class and suffering some kind of breakdown near the end of it. “I make no apology for this,” the guy said, wiping the tears away, “I’m not ashamed. This story affects me like no other.”

Whether this was a literature-induced breakdown or, as I now suspect, the poor guy had a panic attack, I’ll never know. What I do know is, I mocked the lecturer for his emotion, braying pitiless laughter as I recounted the incident later on to anyone who would listen. I was just sixteen years old, and a fool. Education is indeed wasted on the young.

Carver is justly hailed as a great late-20th century American voice. His characters and the problems they face are prosaic; the execution of his stories is anything but.

“Cathedral” sees a wife inviting a blind friend home for dinner. The husband, who narrates the story, is jealous to start with, after the wife reveals she once allowed the blind man to touch her face.

The sequence of events is, “blind man comes for dinner; they have dinner; they get stoned; they draw pictures”. But a sublime communion starts to develop between the three as they embark on a great feast, consumed by a fit of the munchies. “We ate. By god, we ate.”

Epiphany lurks on these pages, an insight into that higher plane where great art can send us. I think that’s what the lecture was about. The story was certainly on a higher plane to my 16-year-old self; it whooshed far overhead.

Perhaps now, more than 20 years since I first encountered “Cathedral”, I can understand why a soft-spoken Australian man, or anyone, might crack up in the reading of it.

As a weird post-script to my Raymond Carver experiences, I remember someone once setting up a “Raymond Carver tribute” near a run-down garden in the shadow of some Glasgow tower blocks. This bizarre collage sitting in the middle of a residential street even made the BBC Scotland news. My recall is hazy but I think it might have been the work of an art student on some project or other.

But I like to imagine that it was the tearful lecturer.

8. The Monkey’s Paw by WW Jacobs

A beloved stand-by of scary anthologies the world over, this is the classic Edwardian horror. No dark fiction collection feels complete without it. That would be like the Eagles not playing Hotel California, or more appropriately, Iron Maiden eschewing Run To The Hills.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is an English variation of the Aladdin folk tale from the 1,001 Nights, but it has become famous in its own unique way.

You surely know it. The old general visiting the couple and their son, a domestic situation as mild and homely as hot buttered toast… then the horrid object in the title, the three wishes it bestows, and the terrible price that must be paid for them.

But more than that, there’s the simple fear of the unknown. What in god’s name is behind that door?

7. Weekend by Fay Weldon

As jarring as any horror story, Weldon’s “Weekend” looks at the trampled, taken-for-granted world of an exhausted wife and mother. She’s a functionary of her household’s lives, an essentially unloved factotum. Her status and existence is threatened when a friend of her husband comes to visit for a weekend, bringing along with him a younger girlfriend - a trade-in deal on his own long-suffering wife - and all the potential horrors she represents.

I’ve seen this misery inflicted on tired, ground-down women so many times, and you’ll certainly recognise elements of the mother at the centre of the drama. I’ll quote my own words, from one of our reviews from a few years ago: “Weldon sustains a terrific pace, and portrays the tragedy of a woman who has become a doormat, part of the furniture, an uninteresting fixture. It was the most disturbing story in the book, and it didn’t rely on bloodshed, sex or death to draw this reaction.”

6. Abject Misery by James Kelman

A Glasgow man gets through his day as best he can. He’s down to the fluff in his pockets. He’s not thinking too much beyond what’s happening there and then. There’s not a great deal in the way of good luck to be had. But he laughs in the face of his misfortunes, as only those at the bottom can.

The title is a misnomer, as this story indulges a certain insouciant glee in the face of poverty - poverty of means, poverty of ambition, poverty of circumstances. But as Kelman’s fellow Glaswegian (and mine) Paolo Nutini sang: nothin’s gonna get him down.  

5. The Tower by Marghanita Laski

In a tournament I devised one feverish Sunday afternoon on these very pages, I judged “The Tower” to be the greatest horror story ever written. It might be the best one you’ve never heard of. It features an English woman visiting a tower in rural Italy. She comes across a spooky painting. Then she makes her way downstairs…

This story works hard to be weird and unsettling. What’s her husband’s problem? And who is the guy with the evil eyes in the painting? On top of this, it has a perfect finish, leaving us with a horrible last-line shock.

“The Tower” blends subtle dread and nasty surprise to an extraordinary extent, frightening us despite not a drop of blood being spilled. It’s quite hard to find; the JA Cuddon-edited Penguin Ghost Stories is your best bet. But it’s well worth the search.

4.  Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

I had no idea before researching this story that it had won quite so many awards, but it didn’t surprise me.

Part of Brian Aldiss’ Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, this story sees a linguist handed the ultimate challenge: to help translate an utterly alien language after humans make contact with beings from beyond the stars. Through this task, the linguist painstakingly unravels our assumptions about speech, communication and its written representation, building something completely new and reaching a fresh understanding about existence while she’s at it.

In the midst of these dense philosophical concepts there’s a personal drama taking place, as the linguist gets close to one of her fellow scientists. She also addresses her daughter in the narrative, speaking to her in the second person…

Gradually, our assumptions of time and experience are challenged, our knowledge boosted, and our philosophical understanding of the universe turned upside down.

Great literature is like taking a long drink after a hike on a hot day. This is a very special story, and, if printed out and rolled up, could make a perfectly weighted weapon with which to clobber people who don’t consider SF to be serious literature.

3.  Solid Objects by Virginia Woolf

The prime example of a great story in which nothing of note happens.

A parliamentary candidate diverts his energies from campaigning towards finding treasures in his daily life – “treasures” meaning things like broken china, pieces of glass worn smooth on a beach, flakey iron bars. Like the people in his life, we wonder what the hell this man is doing. Doesn’t he realise there’s an election coming up?

Woolf shares her protagonist’s sheer delight in what AS Byatt called “the thingyness of things” in the introduction to The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. She describes the man’s objets trouve with the attention to detail and brio of the great visual artists. Woolf revels in her main character’s carefree, childlike joy in discovery - and because of that, so do you.

I wouldn’t say this year’s Westminster election hopefuls should be made to read “Solid Objects” before polling day, but I might be more prepared to vote for one who had enjoyed it.

2.  The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

Uncle Ernie could be such a sourpuss.

Here, the classic Hemingway protagonist slowly dies of gangrene in a tent; while he goes grumpily into that good night, he can’t help but take a swipe at his fretting woman.

Despite its grim scenario, this story is joyous, a rampage through the untold stories that fizz inside us all. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” portrays storytelling as the stuff of life. It shows how the recollection of experience becomes fuel for our own tales, which then go on in turn to inform experience for others. As it bursts into sudden, startling bloom, “Snows” has a freewheeling sensation you wouldn’t normally associate with Hemingway’s famously staccato, sometimes stolid delivery.

The author’s reputation has taken a dreadful beating in recent years, with his machismo – and in particular his bloodlust, as he blunderbusses rare and beautiful animals out of existence – badly out of step with the modern world.

“What was the leopard doing so far up the mountain?” Probably trying to avoid being shot by you, mate.

At times, Hemingway seems the most horrid boor, like that friend you know to say goodnight to before he’s had one too many pisco sours. He’s almost certainly who you’d want to take on in Literary Fight Club.

But “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a monumental achievement, and stands tall to this day.

1.    The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury
       
Two lighthouse keepers stare out into thick fog as the great beam slices through the night. Somewhere out there, a monster lurks.

What a classic premise. There are many ways Bradbury’s monster mash could have gone to schlock – and indeed, the lighthouse gets a thorough monstering by the end. But it’s the sense of loneliness that makes this tale, as chilly as the fog that enshrouds the mysterious creature as it returns to the surface, hoping to find what it has been searching for all its life.

We feel sympathy for the monster’s terrible predicament, its loneliness, and perhaps, in our heart of hearts, its ultimate rage. Whoever said unrequited love is the best kind obviously never got on the wrong side of a randy sea monster.

But “The Fog Horn” could be history’s greatest love story; it’s certainly history’s greatest monster story. So for that reason, I reckon it’s the greatest story, period.

I hope the monster found what it was looking for, out there in The Deeps.

Pleas in mitigation:

:: I’ve only ever read one John Updike story, one James Thurber story and two Graham Greene stories. I have never read anything by John Cheever.

Where the women at?

:: It should be a fifty-fifty split between the boys and girls, really, and I was thinking about slicing it that way. But I must be honest about which stories I enjoyed best.

Katherine Mansfield, Maya Angelou, Ali Smith, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood and Flannery O’Connor could have appeared here, but didn’t. That’s to say nothing of Anais Nin: the Elvis Presley of erotic writing.

Perhaps this says more about publication and critical regard being more heavily weighted towards men throughout history. Or maybe I simply haven’t read enough women.

But I fully accept: three out of ten’s a fail.

Hey, why didn’t you include..?

:: I had to be brutal. On another day I might have put Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Roald Dahl, William Trevor, MR James, JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Alan Sillitoe, James Joyce of course, EF Benson, HG Wells… the list is practically endless (and all male so far!)... Argh, how could I forget about Saki?!

But here’s a comforting thought: there’s so much more wonderful work still to discover, and yet more still to be written. In ten years’ time, my top 10 could be totally changed.


I’ll meet you back here in 2025.

April 21, 2015

AMERICANA

by Helen Burke

Review by Bill Kirton

I’ve written before about the apparent artlessness of Helen Burke’s poetry. The need for that qualifier ‘apparent’ is especially evident with regard to this particular collection. She eventually made it to the USA, a country her father (whose happy spirit lurks in so many of her poems), longed to have visited, and she seemed to see things there through the eyes of a child on a first visit to Disneyland. That’s not meant to belittle the place or the poetry in any way – on the contrary, the joy, the surprise, the delight she experiences on encountering some of the people, seeing some of the sights, being part of the throb and bustle of Chicago and New York is fresh, uplifting, life-affirming.

Her advice to the wannabe visitor is ‘Pack nothing except the hopes and dreams you stand up in’. She’s in awe of some huge cakes in a shop that ‘loll about the counter like disgruntled teenagers’ and could ‘double as a country’. When a waitress takes a photograph of her and says she isn’t smiling enough, it’s because the size of the hot dog she’s been served has ‘overwhelmed’ her.  ‘It should,’ she says, ‘be on a leash’.

Like her priceless evocations of specific characters – the doorman outside the hotel where John Lennon was shot, Joleen the room cleaner, the man on Wickenden Street, the customers in his record shop, and many others – her reactions to places and events capture the essence of archetypal America – at least, as viewed through British eyes. The iconic Empire State Building is the setting for a very funny incident involving an elevator, a policeman (or woman) and a cider doughnut. And through her expressions of surprise, joy, wonder at these experiences, through the wide-eyed pleasure of the child creeps the wisdom of the poet, the intuition that there are forces at work which elude easy typification. America keeps surprising her, she loves using its terminology, its vernacular, but she’s aware that these are surfaces under which there are depths.

Nowhere is this more apparent than In Emily Dickinson’s Garden. Burke is a long-time admirer of the American poet. Visiting her house and garden brings a childlike delight, but one which is expressed in terms of a far from childlike aesthetic. She imagines that Emily is the white butterfly which lands on her arm, or a ‘cheeky raccoon’, and she and Emily:

‘sit awhile amidst the honeycomb of air,
Quiet as bees and impossible as mermaids. Our sea spun hands
And the honey of our song is all around.’

That’s not what I call artlessness.







April 7, 2015

DREADFUL TALES

by Richard Laymon
436 pages, Headline Feature

Review by Pat Black

You know how I got all sniffy about Richard Laymon a while ago? “He’s a bit much, pervy sex, dodgy about women, blah blah”?

Remember how I said I wouldn’t go back to him?

I’m back.

Dreadful Tales was released in 2000, a year before Laymon’s death. It’s a collection of his short stories, and offers a flavour of his work from the earliest point of his career in the mid-seventies, right up until the end.

It’s mainly horror, with a sprinkling of crime (the genre the author tried out first before taking a bath in the red stuff).

For reasons that will become clear, Richard Laymon’s detractors tend to really, really hate him, but by and large he is widely admired within his genre.

When I was a teenager I could not get enough of his books. Readability is key; his prose is easy to get into, and slips down as smoothly and as pleasantly as a glass of wine after work… Albeit, with a bit of a coppery aftertaste.

This book is a fair representation of what you can expect from Laymon’s work - the good, the bad and the ugly - and marks an effective testing ground for his novels.

Which can be incredibly nasty.

We start with the knowing set-up of “An Invitation To Murder”. It follows a writer drumming their fingertips in a sticky apartment on a summer’s night. The author has to pen a tale about a 22-year-old woman being murdered. There just happens to be a 22-year-old girl next door, and her stereo is awfully loud. The author cannot concentrate on the story... What happens next, d’you reckon?

“The Grab” is classic Laymon, and was widely anthologised before appearing here. It sees two college boys check into a roadside bar, where patrons are invited to take part in a unique competition.

Behind the bar, sunk into a fish tank, is a severed head. It has a diamond ring in its mouth. All you have to do is reach into the tank and take the ring out its mouth, and the jewelry belongs to you.

Most participants bottle out, but one of the guys in this story has had work experience in a mortuary, and isn’t bothered by the seemingly simple matter of dead meat. He pays his ten dollars to the man behind the bar, and rolls up his sleeve.

Oops.

With “Saving Grace”, we encounter Laymon in unsavoury mode, and it’s probably best to address that early on. Two teenagers out on their push-bikes in the middle of the forest happen upon a man who is doing something unpleasant to a girl he has trussed up in a tree. The lads charge to the rescue, and render the attacker unconscious before tying him up and freeing the girl.

She’s naked, which does not escape the boys’ notice.

Things take on a moral dimension of sorts when the girl reveals she intends to halt her tormentor’s apparent career in capturing, torturing and murdering women by killing him, right there and then, with his own hunting knife. The boys, appalled, try to talk her out of it.

And then she offers something in return for their complicity.

This one has a climax you will see a lot of in Richard Laymon. Shocking endings are part of the horror writer’s stock-in-trade, but it’s the plain, unexpected, unadorned nastiness that really grabs you here.

“Saving Grace” also features some of the stuff that makes me squeamish about Laymon – not the blood and violence, but the sex. This is genre fiction, buried to the hilt in the pulp milieu, and sexual content is to be expected. But its representation here makes me uneasy. A woman who is having her nipples tortured with a pair of pliers one minute (without her consent, I should add) probably wouldn’t be inviting two teenage boys to kiss her breasts as some kind of kinky bribe moments later.

Whether you find that scenario titillating or not is entirely up to you, of course, but such material is the province of sillier self-published fiction these days.

I often wonder why it is that sexual content sometimes seems more shocking than violence. It’s mainly down to cultural conservativism, something most of us suffer from to some degree. But this “selective veiling” instinct makes little sense, as in most modern civilised societies violent behaviour is aberrant and abnormal, while sex isn’t.

My theory is that because stabbings, flayings and decapitations are, I should hope, unfamiliar experiences to us, they seem more cartoonish, and therefore easier to digest in our entertainment. More outrĂ© sexual content has an edge, because sexual pleasure is a familiar experience, even if it’s something you experience alone. But when both sex and violence are presented simultaneously, well… that isn’t normality for most people. Problems are known to occur.

However, let there be no lectures here.

“Barney’s Bigfoot Museum” looks at other classic Laymon preoccupations – adventures in the US woodland, and the monsters, human or otherwise, who live there. I’m still sort of traumatised by The Woods Are Dark’s Hills Have Eyes-style rapists and cannibals, but here we face a more familiar foe – Bigfoot. This story sees a man recount a hunting trip gone wrong in which a baby Sasquatch has been bagged by one of the gunmen.

Mommy, it turns out, isn’t very happy about this.

Fantasy violence with monsters I was happy with, but in “Herman” we’re back on dodgier ground. The central premise of the story – that a teenage girl has an invisible guardian angel who takes brutal revenge on two would-be rapists – is a good one, and the final flourish is especially memorable. But the content and the way it’s delivered is pornography, pure and simple, and I was not comfortable with its sexual sadism. If I was editing this volume, I would not have accepted “Herman”.

“The Champion” puts us back in the zone of good old-fashioned, culturally acceptable violence. We’re back at another roadside bar, where a big man pulls in, aiming to grab a beer and a steak. Unfortunately he’s picked the wrong night to head out, and he is forced to take part in a life-or-death, knives-and-knuckles struggle with the person in the title. This monthly event is a form of sport and leisure for the roadhouse’s clientele. The main character is a tough guy, and handy with his fists, but he has sworn off violence owing to bitter experience. He refuses to fight – which makes the outcome doubly gut-wrenching.

This story also makes me thankful the concept of “roadhouses” hasn’t quite caught on in the UK. At best, we have country pubs, where people will head with their families for a spot of roast beef and bickering on a Sunday, while the main rowdiness happens on the roads later when rural drunk-drivers charge home with almost complete impunity. On the rare occasions I’ve heard of out-of-town pubs and nightclubs in this country, they have without fail been total and utter bloodbaths which make “The Champion” seem like less of a cheap thrill and more of a realistic concept.

“The Maiden” re-establishes Laymon’s favourite writing subject: randy teenagers. Here, the main character, a bit of a dork with a less-than-winning-way with the ladies, is taken on a road trip by two other boys from his high school after he has insulted one of their girlfriends. Most of us would sniff out some trouble, here, but the boy, on the promise of a hot date at the other end, goes along. He is then invited to swim across a lake supposedly haunted by the ghost of a girl who was raped and murdered on her prom night fifty years previously. The boy must reach an island in the middle of the lake where his “date” is waiting for him.

You wouldn’t in a million years, of course, but this boy does. By that point, you’ll be so sold on the atmosphere that you’ll happily pitch plausibility across the surface of the water and watch it skip.

“A Good Cigar is a Smoke” has more of a crime feel to it as an abused wife decides to take action against her horrid husband and his loathed cigar habit. It’s surprisingly more in step with feminism than much else you’ll read in Dreadful Tales, and as a result is not your typical Laymon tale.

“I Am Not A Criminal”, however, is so Laymon it hurts. A husband and wife take a drive into the forest (tick). They pass a hitchhiker holding a strange sign (see title). They decide to pick up the hitchhiker, but not before the wife takes her clothes off, utterly gratuitously (tick). The hitchhiker, it turns out, was not being truthful with his signage, and soon the husband and wife’s lives are in danger (tick) while their unwelcome guest helps himself to handfuls of the wife (tick). I won’t spoil the rest, but your expectations will be challenged before the end. It is absolutely classic Richard Laymon, in every respect. Much of its impact, both in terms of sex and violence, comes from the fact that Laymon is brilliant at portraying normal middle class American lives, and then wrenching them out of their comfort zones.

“Oscar’s Audition” was another crime tale. An ex-con fresh out of jail is offered an opportunity to make some easy money by robbing a convenience store. It seems as easy as stealing sweeties from a baby… and, when the twist comes, you realise that it was.

“Into The Pit” was a brand new story written for Dreadful Tales, and takes us back to the era of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. We follow the son of a similar tomb raider as he befriends an Egyptian boy, who introduces him to the pleasures of the local ladies of the night. One pair of twins in particular hold our attention… before their angry father catches the main character in the act, and hurls him into a pit, where several other fellows appear to have suffered the same fate. The boy tries to find a way out, but the mind can play tricks even in the dark of your own bedroom, never mind in a pit stacked high with desiccated corpses.

“Spooked”, I adored - a quick, nasty tale where a girl is menaced by an unseen presence hiding under her bed.

“The Good Deed”, I did not. Reminiscent of “Saving Grace”, it featured another pair of randy teenagers happening upon a naked girl held captive out in the forest. I wondered if Laymon shifted gear halfway through this story, realising that he’d gone too far with it, before trying to add something slightly more wholesome. The concept is a good, simple one. A girl is left locked in a cage. Whoever imprisoned her could come back at any moment. Can the boys rescue her before the culprit returns to do whatever they had planned?

But that isn’t how this story pans out. When the girl in the cage is released, the only thing I could reasonably predict her doing is banging these two creeps’ heads together, before getting in touch with the police… And not doing what she does. But that’s just me.

Maybe it would turn you on. I don’t know. It isn’t real, I guess. All made up. Not to be taken seriously.

“The Direct Approach” was more crime-oriented, but I enjoyed its turning tables as a woman is accosted by a salesman peddling assassination services.

“Good Vibrations” is more porny in atmosphere, but it is unusual for Laymon – and slightly more palatable as a result – because it follows the focal point of a young woman who decides to go sunbathing at the beach. She is ogled by a young guy in a pair of strange sunglasses, who offers to put suntan oil on her back. Things proceed as you might expect, until… they do not. “Good Vibrations” is one of the better stories in the anthology featuring more overt sexual content.

“Phil the Vampire” was a cracker, where a private eye is contacted by a fretting wife jealous over her husband’s contact with other women. This isn’t an unusual scenario for the gumshoe, until the wife tells him her husband, Phil, isn’t sleeping with the women. He’s feeding on them - or rather, what’s in their veins. Phil is a vampire, she says. And what she wants from the private eye is not a stakeout, but a stake in.

“Paying Joe Back” was another outright crime story, but with a devious twist in the tale as a vengeful woman visits the bar her quarry frequents. There’s a loaded gun in her purse.

“The Fur Coat” was plain nasty, and the most horrifying story in the book. Thirty-six-year-old Janet has barely left the house since her husband died unexpectedly – so when she takes herself to see Cats, which they had both loved, she feels she owes it to herself to dress for the occasion.

It’s a tough night for Janet, but she gets through it, mainly through the memories kindled by her luxurious fur coat, a treasured gift from her late spouse. However, Janet has reckoned without two animal rights protesters stationed outside the theatre. They are armed with cans of spray paint. And worse.

“Blarney” follows a criminal couple on the run to a castle in the Los Angeles hills (don’t ask). A strange Irishman stationed there attends a tourist attraction called O’Herlihy’s Stone, right next to a two hundred-foot drop onto sea-swaddled rocks. Kissing the stone will confer eternal youth upon the kisser, the Irishman tells the couple. The man in the double-act isn’t so sure about this, but the woman is game.

Ah, to be sure now, there’s a catch.

“Dracuson’s Driver” starts off quite pervy, then gets worse. The night desk clerk at a motel has a long-established habit of spying on his female guests when he places them in one particular room, allowing the discerning voyeur to peek through their bathroom window. When a gamine chauffeur shows up at the wheel of a hearse, looking for a room for both herself and her coffin, it seems like a slam dunk for this sad, seedy, doomed wanker.

This one takes you where you expected it to from the moment you read the title, but it’s the journey that disturbs, rather than the destination.

“Roadside Pickup” was another belting tale, looking at the plight of a woman whose car has broken down along the same lonely stretch of moonlit road where her younger sister was murdered in exactly the same scenario, years before. They never caught the killer.

When a sports car pulls up alongside her, the woman wonders: it couldn’t be… him… could it?

“Wishbone” takes us back out into the woods (tick), where a couple are hiking their way through their honeymoon. Near where they pitch their tent, the woman discovers a skeleton hanging from the branches of a tree. It’s clearly been there a while, but even so, she’s a little discomfited, especially when her jerk of a husband decides to throw rocks at it, to prove that there’s little to be gained from superstition.

Hmm.

“First Date” sees a boy and a girl coming home from seeing a movie (look, you can probably do the ticking yourselves from here on in). The girl guesses that the boy has dark tastes, like her. So she suggests they go to a graveyard.

Clothes get removed. Blood gets spilled. But against all the odds, “First Date” was actually kind of sweet.

“Stickman” was not sweet, but thankfully it isn’t seedy, either. It sketches another carload of teenagers heading out somewhere rural and getting themselves in trouble. In this case, they’re out in the cornfields, where the local urban myth figure of the “stickman” scarecrow is said to roam.

A bet is made, and the mouthy girl in the foursome strikes out through the swaying corn towards a scrawny, hat-wearing figure in the middle of the field. Things don’t end well.

And finally we have “Mop Up”, a novella that follows a small squad of soldiers on clear-up duties in a plague-ravaged US city. The virus – released from Iraq, take note – turns people into sex-and-violence-crazed lunatics, or “droolers”. The virus is transmitted by bites, or through the saliva. A widespread cull takes place, with soldiers shooting the droolers before burning the bodies.

While “Mop Up” owes an obvious debt to George A Romero, the most striking thing about it is how germane this story – penned in 1989 – seems in comparison with modern-day zombie/crazies narratives such as The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, or survival horror video games like the Resident Evil series, even though it predates them by at least a decade.
The story hints at scenes of sexual depravity, but at least when they occur in this instance they are intrinsic to the plot – or at the least, they get a free pass thanks to the disease’s symptoms. It was a blistering finish to the collection, packed with action, and it depicted a world – and a plague – I wanted to know more about.

So much for Dreadful Tales. Although this might seem as much of an advert as the testimonials on the inside and back cover – from such sources as Stephen King, Dean R Koontz, The Times and The Telegraph – I have to warn you, quite sincerely, that Richard Laymon’s work features some disturbing material over and above the traditional dark fiction themes of horror, death, madness and dread.

Several stories feature a perverse sexuality which will cross a line for many. Taboos are broken. It’s for the thick-skinned and the broad-minded. Some subject matter is not easy to stomach, nor is it easy to justify.

And yet, I must admit that I enjoy Laymon’s work, and have done for more than 20 years. He is quite brilliant when it comes to atmosphere, suspense and shock. He is at his best – taut as a drum – with situations like:

The babysitter puts the child to bed… The child is scared of the “bogey man” out in the garden and takes ages to fall sleep… Back downstairs, the babysitter watches a scary film, but switches it over, creeped out. Then the security light goes on in the garden. The babysitter looks out. But no-one’s there. She checks the doors are locked. Then there’s a power cut. The phones go dead. She peers out into the garden, frosted with moonlight… And sees a man climbing over the back fence.

He nails that stuff. Absolutely kills it.

When Uncle Dick’s in gear, it’s a smooth ride. However, when he writes about pervy and occasionally criminal sexual situations, I want to be dropped off at the next service station. I guess I could just be a prude.

This dissonance is hard for me to reconcile. “The Grab”, “The Fur Coat”, “Roadside Pickup”, “Spooked”, “The Champion”, “Phil the Vampire”, “I Am Not A Criminal”, “Stickman” and “Mop Up” are first-rate genre fiction.

He just can’t stay away from unusual sexual scenarios and deviant behaviour, though. If you imagine Stephen King had a maladjusted, permanently sweaty younger brother who also liked to write, but was the sort of guy you avoided at parties, that fits the bill for Laymon’s work.

He has another short story collection, Fiends. But I definitely won’t be reading that. Nope.

No way.


March 25, 2015

THE HEADMASTER'S WIFE

by Thomas Christopher Greene
286 pages, Thomas Dunne Books
Kindle Edition

Review by J. S. Colley

I picked up this book after finishing Gone Girl. Flipping through the first chapter, I thought, Oh, no! Not another jackass character doing jackass-y things. I didn’t know if I had the stomach for it; but I had heard, on good word, that this was a worthwhile read, so I trudged on. As the hackneyed phrase goes, I’m glad I did.

This is a masterfully crafted novel. The way the story unravels; how the reality of the first half of the novel is revealed in the second—all wonderfully done. Greene is able to hold the same poignant tone throughout. Any writer who wants to learn how to avoid passive voice should study it, and readers will recognize that they are in the hands of a skilled author.

The Headmaster’s Wife does have similarities to Gone Girl in that things are not always as they seem and it’s a story about a husband and wife, but the similarities end there. Even though the characters in the former do and think things that exemplify less than our ideal image of human behavior, the reader is not left with the same I-need-to-take-a-hot-shower feeling after turning the last page, as many reviewers seem to have experienced after reading the latter.

What makes this difference? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s the same thing that distinguishes an excellent beach read from a piece of literary fiction—sometimes the variances are so nuanced they are hard to define. In both novels, we get a sense of how shallow, self-centered and indulgent we humans can be. But The Headmaster’s Wife is more. It’s a complex, nuanced and poignant look at love and marriage, life and grief; that what we do, or fail to do, early in our lives affects us until the end of our days.

She considers the past. She measures it and weighs it and holds it in her hand like a plum…moments that happened years before. She turns them over and over in her mind, things she has not thought about in years, and she can see now how obvious it all is. Every small event begets another one, each one built off the other until you have a chain of events that all lead to…this…

What it all comes down to is the fact that there is no avoiding life. Even in the pampered world of the academic, it still intrudes:

Not to have to worry about shopping or meals or where they would live? All that would be taken care of. Teaching—even running a boarding school—is another form of arrested adolescence. Even in their responsibilities, they are all playing Peter Pan, the real world something that happens outside these ivy-covered walls.

A perfectly scripted life, in other words, with regimented days and seasons defined as much by the rhythms of school as by the weather.

This makes one wonder if entrusting our children’s higher learning to lifelong academics is the right course to take. Part of an education should be how to live in the real world, but how can that be effectively taught by people who have never experienced its difficulties—or its own brand of rewards?

As with any good novel, this one makes you think about things other than what’s happening in the forefront.

But I digress.

The title of this novel is misleading (just as in Gone Girl) because this novel is not all about the wife; the husband plays a major role also. In fact, the first part of the three parts (“Acrimony,” “Expectations,” and “After”) of this novel is his story, as told to the authorities who found him disoriented and wandering the park.

In “Acrimony,” we learn that, like his father and his father’s father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the headmaster at Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. As he’s being questioned, Arthur’s story unravels, but what begins as one thing morphs into something quite different.  

In the second part, “Expectations,” we get his wife, Elizabeth’s, more reliable side of the story; and in the last (and much shorter) section, “After,” we see the sum—the aftermath—of the two other parts.

Part love story, part mystery and part tragedy, this is a remarkably crafted novel. It is, ultimately, a poignant look at how we deal with grief.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.