Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Spectral Press Chapbooks Volumes 1-3

Spectral Press started out this year as a new imprint dedicated to short works of horror fiction, inspired by the classic tales of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while still looking forward for today's brightest writers with new ideas and new approaches to instilling terror in readers. But, with three issues now out, how close have they come to backing up their claims of providing high quality stories?

What They Hear in the Dark by Gary McMahon

I've got a brand new Gary McMahon novel sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, but for some reason I haven't put it at the top of the heap. After reading this story, maybe I ought to reconsider. A married couple buy a big ol' house in the wake of their young son's death. It's a fixer-upper, it'll keep them busy, help them get some closure. But we all know closure is hard to come by, especially when the house you move into has a room that shouldn't exist. The Quiet Room.

I am a sucker for a haunted house story, and this was is one of the best I've read in the last year or more. Rob and Becky, the couple living in the house, offer two stark views of the room and what it means to each of them. Rob hears absolutely nothing, barely his own thoughts, but feels a sinister force somewhere inside the room whenever he is inside it. While Becky has convinced herself the spirit of their dead son is in there. Whether there is something in the room or whether Rob and Becky are projecting pieces of themselves into its void, that's one of the questions that lingers.

The Abolisher of Roses by Gary Fry

I'm unfamiliar with Gary Fry's work, this being my first chance to read his stuff, and it seems I will have to make it a point to find more. His story revolves around Peter, a stodgy businessman, who winds up being dragged by his wife Patricia to an outdoor art exhibit. He'd rather be off cavorting with his mistress, but entertaining his wife's interests from time to time seems to keep the marriage together. But, Peter strays from his wife and the lone path in the gardens out of frustration and discovers artwork that feels too macabre and too personal to belong with the rest of the exhibit.

This was easily the creepiest of the three volumes, as Fry's story gives a bit of the ol' down-the-rabbit-hole vibe, as Peter wanders further into the woods. The guy has such an alienated reaction to the mediocre art he is used to seeing, that when he sees the grotesque and uncomfortably intimate artwork he finds off the beaten path, poor old Peter's sanity has trouble maintaining a foothold. For the mere idea of liberal arts driving a stuffed-shirt conservative to the brink is enough to make me enjoy this one, but Fry goes a wee bit further in scope with this story.

Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner

The men in pinstripe suits aren't the only strange things populating Cate Gardner's imagination. With Nowhere Hall she offers up a building as unsettling and unraveling as Stephen King's Overlook Hotel--The Vestibule.

Ron is having an off day. So off, in fact, he's contemplating a slow walk through busy traffic. But instead of stepping off the curb, he turns back towards the gleaming white hotel at his back, the Vestibule. Drawn to it, both by a want for shelter and the allure of a beautiful woman who steps inside, Ron goes inside after catching a mysterious umbrella that fell into his waiting hand. Inside, the surreal goes up another notch, with the hotel appearing abandoned and brand new at the same time, mannequins seem to come to life, and the hotel's concierge knows more than he's letting on.

Where Gary Fry's story had a bit of the Alice in Wonderland, Cate's story had it by the bowlful. Nowhere Hall felt like the kind of story Rod Serling would have written if he had a poet's heart--and a hit of LSD. It's a sad song sung slightly off-key, which manages to make it all the more haunting.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Book of Elizabeth

The Book of Eilzabeth by Darby Harn (Fair Play Books, 2011) – The cover blurb of this new fantasy novel from debut novelist Darby Harn reads as follows: "The world as we know it has vanished in the blink of an eye. All of human history, washed away. In its place, a new story of humanity, a story without the complications and twists we all know; a story without the Cold War, or Shakespear. Without Christ." Alice, a contemporary teenager from the mid to late eighties, disappears from her current time, her current world, and wakes up here, in a very alien version of our own world. There are massive airships capable of travelling the world and even through space to other planets. Mars, for example, is colonized. The world-building throughout this novel is a display of unbridled imagination.

In this other world in this novel there is an ongoing war. The dominating power ruling the world is hunting down and killing individuals called “echoes.” These echoes are people transported to this new world from various timelines of our own reality. Alice is an echo. She is hunted by a young girl, Miranda, and her elder mentor, Joshua, in the opening scenes of the novel. As the novel progresses we learn that Joshua has begun to question authority and has lost his desire to perform his job which is killing these echoes. He sees them as people instead of as faceless threats to the status quo. This is lucky for Alice, of course.

But these people are ultimately secondary characters. There is another, far more important, echo that the authorities want destroyed. This echo is known as Elizabeth. In our world, she was Queen of England. In this other world, she is a potential spiritual savior. She transcribes the Bible in her early years in this other world to comfort herself in exile. These transcriptions were found and have started a spiritual revolution in a world that had existed without any form of faith, at least not in the religious sense. Her transcripts sow the seeds of an underground revolution.

This is ultimately what the novel is about, more than the characters, more than the settings. This is a novel exploring the concept of how Christianity might transform a world that has existed without it for most of known history. This idea is explored from several angles, it explores the good and the bad that such a powerful religious force might have within a world that is devoid of spirituality. There are no easy answers in the context of this novel.

Some proponents of the New Atheist movement often put forth the suggestion that religion is the driving force behind all wars. While there are many examples of religious disagreements leading to bloodshed, it seems naive and falsely optimistic to me to think that if we rid the world of religion that all wars and bloodshed would automatically cease. The human drive for power and domination would still exist, after all. I thought this notion was explored nicely within the context of this narrative. It's not the religions that are the problem, it's the people. Religions are just an extension of people and often stray from their most basic source truths, in my opinion, but I'm digressing. Yet this digression is intentional in the context of this review: This is exactly the kind of tough question the novel faces and is brave enough to leave behind with a measure of ambiguity in the answers. This is as it should be.

As one character states: "We can never know the truth. ... Only existence. We must accept our lives as they are, or else we will never know our suffering." So, what is the truth? "We can never know the truth." This seems to be the idea at the center of this novel. The only answer seems to be there may be no answer.

While a thought-provoking and mostly entertaining read, the novel does suffer from a few freshman foibles. The narrative thrust loses steam during transitions from one character to another in places. The epic battle scenes sometimes have a little too much going on and lose their focus. Also, another round of copy-editing may have benefited the story as I picked up numerous issues with verb tense and misused words. But these are minor quibbles, and I see these as common issues with first-time novelists. I know that Darby is working on a sequel. My friendly suggestion would be to focus more on the characters, on dialogue, on relationships, because that is where he shines. I understand Miranda will be the main focus of this sequel. I think this a wise choice. Her moral choices and evolving sense of self were the highlight of The Book of Elizabeth. I look forward to seeing what comes next. This is a world I would be happy to return to.

My six-pack review: 4 out of 6 Elizabethan Ales.

Disclaimer: The author of this review knows and has worked with the author of the novel in the past. Free electronic copy provided by the author for review.