Monday, May 25, 2009

Pressure, (Leisure Fiction), by Jeff Strand

There are countless ways for authors to instill terror, but none so effective as exposing the cruelty hiding in the human heart. Jeff Strand does this – flawlessly - in his first mass market release. In a visceral narrative voice spiced with beguiling wit, Strand shows readers that humans are capable of far worse things than any supernatural monster.

When only twelve, Alex Fletcher discovers an awful thing: his parents don't want him around. After his petty theft from a local drug store, (sparked by a dare), he's summarily shipped off to boarding school at Branford Academy. Luckily for him, he makes fast friends with two of his three roommates, Peter and Jeremy. His third roommate isn't all that bad, but Darren is distant, quiet...always writing in a journal, mostly keeping to himself. However, as he slowly warms up, Alex senses something odd about the withdrawn boy. It unsettles him, but intrigues him, also.

All too soon, they discover Darren's true nature. A manipulative schemer with no remorse or conscience, Darren systematically dismantles their lives. Peter gets expelled, Jeremy is accused of attacking Darren, and suddenly Alex is cut off from help. He waits the school year out for Darren's next move. It never comes. Darren, however, hasn't gone away for good. He's waiting to finish the job. He'll keep coming back, again and again, until both his and Alex's lives bleed together into streams of violence and sinister manipulation.

The novel's tone is pitch-perfect. Strand masterfully captures the teenage voice, then transitions smoothly as the characters grow to adulthood. Also, he presents the reader with far worse horrors: dismissive parents who don't care, rigid schoolmasters bent on conformity at all costs, and unbelieving friends. Perhaps most importantly, there is light at the end of this dark's just a really long, bloody, dark tunnel.

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Cover, (Leisure Fiction), by Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum has been hailed as a writer whose unflinching gaze at man's darkness is disturbingly thought-provoking. Consistently, he's displayed a knack for taking readers to uncomfortable places, daring them to stare harsh reality in the eye. Originally published by Gauntlet Press, “Cover” still finds relevance in today's world. In these pages, Ketchum captures the horrors of war, after a soldier has returned home, a supposedly “safe” place forever tainted by the violence he's endured.

The Vietnam War has left Lee Moravian a hollowed-out shell. A bundle of nothing more than trained impulses, Lee struggles for normalcy. The simplest emotions are atrophied muscles he doesn't remember how to use. When his wife finally leaves him, fearing for her and their son's safety, Lee is left alone to grapple with his ghosts, deep in the quiet forest he calls sanctuary.

A chance arrival of celebrity campers intrudes upon Lee's delicately strung-together world. The stress of solitude warps his mind, dredging horrifying flashbacks to the surface. Reality twists into a haunting reflection of the jungles of 'Nam, and as Lee slowly fades from the present into the past, he prepares to wage bloody war upon his newfound “enemies”.

Though reflecting upon Vietnam, “Cover” is still relevant today. Ketchum aptly portrays the fragmented perspective of a man torn by a violence beyond most humans' understanding. It's a complicated work. It's hard to blame Lee, especially as Ketchum interweaves the veteren's terrible war experiences into the present-day narrative. It's an excellent re-printing choice by Leisure, because in this time of war and strife, amid political and military campaigns driven by agendas and “goals”, it's important to consider the broken human lives that are often dismissed afterward.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Bloody Fine Week With Bloody Authors

**Note: This contest has been extended for one more week.

Shroud Magazine Book Reviews is happy to kick off the first installment of our author spotlight series. This week it's Bloody Books, Horror Reanimated, and the fiction of Bill Hussey and Joseph D'Lacey. Featured in this spotlight are reviews of the authors' recent works, an interview with both authors, and a nifty contest with equally nifty prizes. Up for grabs are signed books, a signed issue of Shroud Magazine, Issue #3, and some other cool things. Two contests are running: one exclusively tailored for Joseph D'Lacey fans, and one for Bill Hussey fans. Please, contestants only enter one contest at a time.

For fans of Joseph D'Lacey: Because Joseph's first two novels have strong social cores: meat production and waste disposal, the challenge for Shroud and Horror Reanimated readers is to pitch a vivid, striking, powerful, even disgusting new "social horror" for Joseph to write, something along the lines of: "Animals experimented on by corrupt cosmetics companies mutate into miniature, cannibalistic Zsa Zsa Gabors that terrorize the populace" (Obviously, this one is taken.)

Post your brief plot synopsis in the comments of our interview with Joseph and Bill, and at the end of this week - Sunday - the best three plots will be chosen. The comments will be concealed until the closing of judging. The prizes are as follows:

1st place: Signed copy of "Meat" and "Garbage Man"
2nd place: Signed copy of either "Meat" or "Garbage Man"
3rd place: Signed copy of Shroud Magazine, Issue #3, featuring an original short story by Joseph D'Lacey

For fans of Bill Hussey:

Because Bill's two works have featured mythology, folklore, and religion in such powerful ways,
the challenge for Shroud and Horror Reanimated readers is to imagine a story dealing with some favorite mythological, religious, or folklore construct. All of these genres can be blended in your pitch. As with Joseph's contest, post your brief plot synopsis in the comments of our interview with Joseph and Bill, and at the end of this week - Sunday - the best three plots will be chosen. The comments will be concealed until the closing of judging. The prizes are as follows:

1st place: a signed copy of "The Absence" and "Through A Glass Darkly"
2nd place: a signed copy of either novel
3rd place: a signed promotional poster

Note: all prizes will be shipped view parcel post or international airmail, and are subject to all the delays and schedules related to such shipping. Good luck!

“The Garbage Man”, (Bloody Books), by Joseph D'Lacey

In a follow-up to his visceral and socially aware debut “Meat”, Joseph D'Lacey has crafted another fine tale that utilizes the trappings of horror and suspense to deliver a socially conscious message, this time one that touches us all: Mother Earth and the environment. Though of a different tone than Meat, “Garbage Man” is a thriller that should make everyone think twice about what we dump into our precious soil.

Mason Brand is a disillusioned celebrity photographer weary of society's ills, tired also of making his fame off of them. After retreating from society for a time, Brand comes into contact with an elderly couple that lives close to the earth. They teach him how to commune more deeply with the natural world humans take for granted, and Brand begins to sense a new purpose for his life. Healed but still scarred, he eventually re-emerges from his isolation, though he remains on the fringe, leading a solitary life next to the Shreve District County Landfill.

Soon, Brand becomes convinced that Mother Earth is whispering secrets to him, secrets he's not ready to hear or accept. Something grows in the fetid stews of sewage simmering beneath the landfill, and when an evolutionary leap brings new life to Brand's doorstep – something born of man's refuse – he believes a breathtaking new future is in store for mankind. As Brand nurtures this new life, however, he realizes with dim horror that in this new future, man is the ultimate recyclable, meant to be consumed and reused.

Though it seeks to provoke thought about the important topic of pollution, “Garbage Man's” narration is different than “Meat” - quicker, more adventure-laden. The novel's denouement is a fast-paced race for survival, rather than a treatise of pollution's ills. Also, there are more likable, three-dimensional characters here, folks readers can root for, people who might actually live down the street from us. As important a novel as its predecessor, “Garbage Man” delivers a vital message spiced with mass-market appeal.

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Through A Glass, Darkly, (Bloody Books), Bill Hussey

Bill Hussey's debut is a work of startling imagination. With a haunting narrative voice and vivid imagery, Hussey paints a melancholic – yet beautiful - tapestry that readers won't forget. His is a welcome voice to horror, because like Robert Dunbar and Gary Braunbeck, he writes with a literary sensibility that elevates horror to an art form. Indeed, this is much more than horror; it's an epic tale of good versus evil, sacrifice, and the enduring goodness of the human soul, despite its flaws.

Inspector Jack Trent lives alone. While many struggle with their “demons”, Jack has real demons in his head. They show him things. Make him dream. Lead him to astounding leaps of logic that make him a legendary police investigator. They also show him potential outcomes, visions of the future.

However, along with their gifts they offer a curse also: they invade others through touch and closeness. After accidentally losing his mother to “Them” as a boy, Jack becomes withdrawn, always afraid to subject others to “Their” attentions. Even after years of rigid discipline, he's unable to sustain his relationship with Dawn Howard, a fellow officer. Smart, witty, tough, she seems the perfect companion. It's not to be, however. As he and Dawn draw closer, he feels “Them” awakening, and he's forced to end things between them.

They must still work together, however. With perhaps the worst timing ever, they're given a case that threatens to destroy both them and their loved ones. A young man has gone missing from the village of Crow Haven, and as he digs deeper into the mystery, Jack unearths an ages-old evil that lives off of one thing: fear. Our fears. As Jack and Dawn follow the rabbit-trails further into the wilderness, the demons in his head stir, showing him frightening visions of his failure. At the end of winding path through the forest, Jack sees his destiny, and its darkness threatens to consume him.

Hussey deftly mines mythical and religious lore, crafting a work that's meant to be consumed leisurely in order to appreciate its full value. This is horror artistically rendered, and while some may consider it a slow burn, readers with classical backgrounds with appreciate it for its rich story. Though taste is a question of aesthetics and there's plenty of room in the horror genre for all sorts of voices and styles, novels like these show horror's ultimate potential: the terrible yet awesome juxtaposition of humankind's greatest dreams and worst nightmares.

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The Absence, (Bloody Books), by Bill Hussey

Once again plumbing the depths of folklore, Bill Hussey crafts another winner with “The Absence”. As with “Through A Glass Darkly,” Hussey's prose is lyrical and flowing, but “The Absence” moves at a quicker pace than its predecessor. It's story doesn't lose any strength, however, and in many ways is more poignant: it's hard to pin down the ultimate villain. That's not to say there's no resolution, but rather to highlight one of its key themes: there's darkness in everyone, and though we fight it as best we can, often it consumes us in the end.

Seven months ago, the Nightingale family suffered the worst tragedy a family can endure: the loss of a beloved parent, Janet Nightingale – mother and wife. Worse yet, it happened in a car accident in which the eldest son Joe was driving. Joe believes he's responsible for his mother's death, but he carries his burden silently, alone.

Richard Nightingale grieves for the loss of his wife, but really – he lost Janet long ago. An alcoholic carrying on a four year affair, Richard lost Janet to something he cannot define or understand, and worst of all, he can never tell Joe or his youngest son Bobby. To them, he's an uncaring, alcoholic father who's been cheating on their mother. Bobby struggles with strange desires he can't accept, and like his brother and father, they limp along on their separate, solitary paths.

They're disconnected, dysfunctional, and falling away from each other: the perfect targets for evil. There's a secret buried in Janet's past, and it comes for them when they're willed a mill house and summer home from an unknown, distant relative. For Richard, it's a last chance to try and save his family. They pack up and travel to the countryside to spend the summer at Daecher's Mill restoring the house, as well as themselves. However, something ancient and malevolent awaits them in the mill's wet shadows. It knows their secrets and savors their fears. Before the end, it will show them their worst nightmares come true.

“The Absence” brims with raw, unbridled emotion. As in his first novel, Hussy's narrative is rich, vivid, and engaging. The domestic strife of the Nightingales is real and troubling, and when mixed with Hussey's keen knowledge of myth and folklore, an engrossing story is born. There is hope here, but also the foreboding sense that a dark destiny awaits the Nightingales, one they can't escape without dread sacrifice. The only question is: who will pay?

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview With Joseph D'lacey & Bill Hussey: The British Horror Invasion

For many reasons, it's completely appropriate to interview both of you at once. You're both the brains behind Horror Reanimated (, you both wield unique, genre re-defining voices, and I think it's fair to say you're the “corner stone” authors of Beautiful Book's Horror Imprint, Bloody Books). That, and you're both fabulous gents, (as an American, did I use that correctly?), who are personable, down-to-earth, and willing to share your experiences. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts with us.

First of all, why don't you each tell us about Horror Reanimated and it's purpose for being, it's goals. On the website's sidebar, I see many categories, everything from book to movie reviews, publishing news, and then some very interesting ones: The Function of Fear, The Infection Spreads, The Plague Pits, and Writing Chat. Tell us a little about each.

Joe: Thanks for inviting us, Kevin. It’s nice to be referred to as gentlemen – doesn’t happen very often…

Bill: Never, in my case. Except in sentences like – ‘Security, can you please escort this ‘gentleman’ off the premises…’

Joe: Indeed. Well, with Horror Reanimated we wanted a way of drawing attention to ourselves as well as exploring and celebrating the horror genre. We also needed a method of releasing news that was unique – something different from the many online communities we’re already part of. With the help of our third curator, Mathew F. Riley, Horror Reanimated was born from the filth of our minds. Two other geeks, Simon Appleby and Lee Casey, were instrumental in the site’s design.

The Function of Fear is meant to be where we place posts which discuss the nature of horror and the reason for its existence. The Infection Spreads tends to be where we put items which suggest horror is widening its influence.

Bill: That’s right. And with our occasional Writing Chat series we wanted to share our own experiences of writing. Not in a preachy way – I don’t think either Joseph or myself would claim that there’s a wrong or a right way to write – we just wanted to discuss what works for us. I’ve always been a big fan of The Paris Review interviews with writers like Doris Lessing, Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, Georges Simenon and Raymond Chandler, in which these great artists discuss how they work. What we hope to do with Writing Chat is to give the same intimate glimpse into our working day. So we discuss the conception and planning of the idea behind a novel, its theme, the research process, as well as including a few handy practical tips we’ve picked up down the years.

With the Plague Pits we invite any author we have interviewed to submit their worst example of horror to our Room 101. There have been some interesting choices. I still can’t get over Sarah Pinborough consigning the original Wicker Man to horror oblivion!

Bloody Books – an imprint of Beautiful Books – is a recent entry into the horror “game”. What prompted Beautiful Books to start a horror line, and how successful has it been so far?

Joe: Bloody Books was dreamed up by Simon Petherick (Owner/Editor of Beautiful Books) and Adele Hartley (Organiser of the annual Dead By Dawn film festival). The idea followed on from a few drinks, as I understand it. Their first publications were the Read By Dawn anthologies.MEAT was their first novel. Their success, in my view, has been to enter the market alongside mainstream publishers and flourish.

Bill: Absolutely. It’s a real credit to Simon and everyone at Beautiful, how successfully they’ve pushed the horror imprint. I’ve talked to many well-known horror writers at conventions over the past year and there has been universal praise for how Beautiful have promoted the horror line. Simply getting our books on shelves in the major retailers has been a huge success.

Also unique are your particular voices. Joseph: in “Meat”, The Garbage Man” andid social consciousness. Bill, your prose in “Through A Glass Darkly” and “The Absence” is lyrical and artistic, and both novels are rich in mythology. Could each of you take a moment to share what you most desire to communicate in your works:

Joe: The most important thing for me is telling a good story – people frown on that expression, don’t they, but you know what I mean. Entertainment. A satisfying read. That’s what I want to give. If I can do that and enjoy the process, which I do very much, then I hope people will come back for more. It also means I’m using the gift I was given, doing what I was made for. There’s great satisfaction in that.

The fact that some of my tales deal with modern ‘issues’ makes them topical and of the zeitgeist. I don’t set out to browbeat readers with a message. That would be suicidal, I think, in terms of a career. However, I learn a lot when researching my themes and the writing of them changes my mind about things. If the same thing happens to a few readers as well, I’m very comfortable with that.

Bill: I have to agree with Joseph. Good storytelling is an under-appreciated skill. I believe that it is an art-form in itself, and a deceptively tricky one to pull off. My aim in this regard echoes Joseph’s – to hold the reader’s attention for four hundred pages, to grip them and draw them in to the extent that the hours slip by unnoticed. That’s the goal. I thank you for saying my prose is lyrical, and I do try to write as well as I can, but, for me, the story comes first – good writing is that vital cherry on the cake of a cracking story.

I also want to write about characters that you end up caring about. There’s a lot of great horror being produced at the moment but, at the same time, there’s a good deal of stuff that contains flimsy characterization. This, to me, is ridiculous in the ‘arena of scares’. If you want people to feel truly frightened, you must give them characters they identify and sympathize with. Not only is it more engaging, it heightens the scares… And yes, mythology is very important to me. I want to communicate a depth of ideas and mythos in these stories – to draw a reader in, to make them feel that this horrific world has depth and substance and weight. I liken it to what Lovecraft did in his stories – hinting at the sheer heaviness of the horror that waits just beyond the veil.

On the “About” page on Horror Reanimated, the following quote is posted: “...talking about the resurgence of horror...” This seems to be all the talk these days – that either horror is “dying”, or it's re-surging through the small press, or is reinventing itself. Where do both of you stand on this?

Joe: I felt that horror went through a downtime in the 80’s and 90’s and that it’s on the rise now in mainstream culture. That may be purely my minute perception of it. Does anyone really know how popular horror is at any one time in history? How can we measure such a thing? Did Kafka know he was writing horror when he wrote ‘In the Penal Colony’ or ‘Metamorphosis’? I doubt it, but horror it was and still is. What about the tales of snake-headed women or one-eyed giants in Greek and Roman mythology? Or the demons in the oral traditions of so many cultures? What interests me is that the genre never goes away; that kernel of darkness, fear and revulsion resides in all of us. It’s always been there. We love to talk about it on Horror Reanimated!

Bill: Horror - stuff which is recognized as horror - has its cycles, like any genre. I think crime writing at the moment is going through a harder time than it has in the last twenty years. The thing with horror is that it did go through a particularly tricky period in the late 90s when, to be blunt, the market was saturated with a lot of rubbish. As I just said, I think there are some really strong voices in the arena at the minute – Sarah Pinborough, Conrad Williams, Mark Morris etc. But when publishers get the jitters horror goes off into other avenues and is labeled as something else – what was The Historian except a literary horror story? Whatever you end up labeling it, horror will never die.

Why do you think horror gets the “knock” it sometimes does? What needs to be done to elevate the genre, or is fine as it is? OR – are all opinions just opinions, and what horror writers REALLY need to do is ignore all this and write what they feel lead to write?

Joe: It’s intellectual snobbery and nothing more. The horror of yesteryear is the literature of today. So no, don’t elevate our entertainment for the sake of elevation. Take the elevator to hell and do your worst (creatively speaking). With luck, what you come up with will always be loved by fans of the genre.

Bill: Horror is knocked by people who don’t read and don’t understand horror. It’s the whipping boy of the genres. I think the perception is that, because it’s a bold, brutal sort of writing, it can never have the sensitivity to examine the really important questions. Absolute bollocks. Horror is, at its core, about sex and death – life, mortality, the great unanswered questions. It can be, and often is, profound. Why else would Stevenson and Dickens turn to it? Why would Lord Bryon have challenged his company at the Villa Diodati to write a spook story if he thought the genre unworthy?

As far as writers trying to elevate the form – bad, bad idea. Never consciously try to ‘elevate’ your writing, you’ll end up producing pretentious rubbish. Tell the story you want to tell and, with practice, you’ll hopefully get better at doing that.

Joe, you're currently working full time and writing on the side. What are the challenges in doing that, and has the “writing gig” fulfilled your expectations so far? When do you envision yourself moving to full time writing, or when would you like to, at least?

Joe: Actually, right now, I’m working part time and looking after our baby when my wife works. I haven’t written in a disciplined way since the birth and it troubles me. In the past, I wrote in the mornings and between patients at my acupuncture practice. I’d love to go full time but I need to see a definite and prolonged recompense before I can take the risk. The sooner, the better! My experience is that expectations lead to unhappiness. I’ve had years of frustration an disappointment in getting this far – every writer knows what I’m talking about – but knowing I’m answering my calling and enjoying the process of creating fiction is a simple pleasure I’d be lost without.

Writing full time, Bill, or sharing time with a career, also? If the later, same question as Joe: when do you see yourself writing full time? Has writing been all you imagined it would be?

Yup, I’m working and writing. There is a perception that, once you get a book on the shelves, you’re set for life and you can devote all your time to writing. Afraid not. Most of the professional writers I know need another income stream – you just don’t make enough to live on. It is the dream to write full time but I can’t see it happening in the foreseeable future. Not unless I sell film rights to Spielberg.

As far as what I’ve gained from writing, I’ll just say this. Writing is hard, hard work. And no, I don’t care if you’re a nurse or trainee doctor, I work just as hard as you. I put in a full week’s work at my day-to-day job – then I come home in the evening – every evening – and put in up to another seven or so hours. When I’m editing a book for deadlines I don’t have a day off for months. BUT – I wouldn’t have it any other way, and this is the first time I’ve ever grumbled about ‘the work’ in print. To know that a stranger has picked up your book and enjoyed it is such a huge reward it makes all those hours worth it.

Do either of you see yourselves getting involved in other creative endeavors, such as graphic novels, screenplays, etc. Joe, I know you've had several short stories published, and Bill, I read in your biography that you've written some plays. When you're not writing, what occupies you creatively?

Joe: I love all kinds of writing but have concentrated very hard on prose in the long and short forms for several years. Previously, I’ve written a short graphic novel script, tons of poetry, children’s stories and verse and spent time learning screen writing too. I plan to do more of all of these in the future.

Bill: I concentrate mainly on novel writing. I have great fun with my plays – and have just finished a Sherlock Holmes play, ‘Reichenbach’, for a local drama group – but it is a sideline. I’d love to write a graphic novel as I’ve been a comic book geek since the age of five. I’m also thinking about taking up the guitar, but have a horrible feeling that I’d be the most unmusical person ever to pick up a plectrum!

What's next for both of you?

Joe: There are two novels I’m itching to write. The first is a grotesque psycho-killer tale with ‘circus’ elements. The second will be another ‘socially conscious’ affair – too early to talk about either in detail, I’m afraid. I have a novel under consideration with Bloody Books right now and I’m working with a screen writer to see if we can create interest in the film rights simultaneously. Whenever I have time, I’m writing short fiction just to keep my eye on the ball until I can create a new writing schedule and crank out some serious words. Meanwhile, John Costello’s screenplay version of MEAT is at second draft stage and looks great.

Bill: I’m on the point of starting my third adult horror novel, which I think is going to be a bit of a departure from the last two. Can’t say too much about it because it’s very sketchy at the moment, but you can expect an epic battle between a little girl with a special talent and a creature known only as ‘the Raggedy Man’…

In other news, I’m working on a very exciting new project with Horror Reanimated guru Mathew Riley. It’s tip-top secret at the moment, but if it comes off I think it will delight and enrage the old school horror community in equal measure. We were asked to put together this idea about a month ago, and it was such an honour to be involved… Anyway, that’s all I’m saying for now…

Finally, I’ve just finished the first in what I hope will be a series of Young Adult horror books. As we speak it’s going through its first editorial with my agent. I had such fun writing this book – it’s a breathless, action-packed adventure in the Anthony Horowitz vein. Again, I can’t say too much… Oh, all right, Shroud Magazine can have the exclusive - the first book is called ‘Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide.’

Finally, if you were both running for President...or Prime Minister...and you were asked by voters what your Zombie Uprising Prevention Plan was, what would it be?

Joe: Mine would be the socially aware approach: Nuke the fuckers and anyone standing too close.

Bill: Look, I’ve said this before: I’ve watched enough Romero movies to know that there’s only one thing worse than being torn apart during a zombie uprising, and that’s surviving a zombie uprising. So my plan is simple: load a shotgun and suck on both barrels! Is that what the voters want to hear…?

Thanks for taking time to be with us, guys.