Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Sunday 27 July 2014

Review: The Gate Theory, by Kaaron Warren

Kaaron Warren is an award-winning Australian author, and The Gate Theory collects five of her short stories, all of which have been previously published. It was first released in late 2013, and was the first publication from Cohesion Press, an Australian publisher of dark fiction.

All of these tales are darkly disturbing, and in the very best of ways. Purity kicks off proceedings, and is a great introduction to Warren's labyrinthine powers of creativity. Therese is the unfortunate daughter of a slovenly mother; she does not doubt she is loved, but she lives in a "mud-slapped, filthy, stinking home – with its stacks of newspapers going back as far as she was born, spoons bent and burnt, food grown hard and crusty..." What's more, her elder brother lives in the basement; rarely emerging and pale from a lack of sunlight. When Therese manages a temporary escape from her situation by working in a supermarket, she meets a young man called Daniel and his grandfather Calum. Their fragrant cleanliness absorbs her. Eventually, she accepts their invitation to go to a party; but is she able to find a more permanent escape, and what's more, can she ever be truly cleansed?

Warren is clearly influenced deeply by her surroundings, and That Girl is set in Bali, where she lived for some time; its authenticity cuts like a knife. This story works on so many levels. On the surface, it tells about the origins of a local legend, brought to the protagonist's attention by the inmate of a mental hospital. Beneath lies that individual's own tale of terror; then, the reader is confronted with abuse and cover-up, blurred by both cultural practices and the casual discrimination against women. That Girl is a complex and perfectly-formed piece.

Dead Sea Fruit is concerned with anorexia and all its horrors. The protagonist is a dentist who often treats anorexic girls in a hospital ward. She finds out she can kiss her clients to experience their very essence. "Then I kissed a murderer; he tasted like vegetable waste. Like the crisper in my fridge smells when I've been too busy to empty it." She hears the girls on the ward speaking in hushed tones of the Ash Mouth Man, and of what happens if he is kissed. But has she met the Ash Mouth Man himself? There is a strong supernatural element to this tale, and the ending is beautifully incisive...

The History Thief adds a touch of humour to the mix, in what is the most conventionally supernatural tale here. Alvin realises he must be dead when he gazes at his own body "on the floor of his dusty lounge room". As what might be called a ghost, he finds he has no real substance; but that he can find the density he needs through contact with living beings. However, this means he has to steal their memories. Can he be trusted with the lives of others? This is an effective tale of alienation, with a satisfying twist at the end.

Lastly is my favourite piece, The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall. I often feel that a great title begets a great tale, and that's clearly the case here. The reader is taken on a bizarre journey with Rosie, who is paid to supply examples of rare dog breeds to clients. On this occasion, she is after four vampire dogs; she has to travel to the jungle on a remote island in Fiji to capture them, which is a risky process. Her journey is arduous, and compellingly told – Rosie herself is a very strong character, and she drives the story powerfully. The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall is very much a horror story, concluding with a supremely nihilistic message.

Kaaron Warren is without doubt one of the world's leading writers of dark fiction, and The Gate Theory showcases her talent perfectly. (If you need any more convincing, check out her other superb collection, Through Splintered Walls.) Her prose is powerful, her sense of place is evocative and her imagination knows no bounds. This is the kind of book that you will remember long after you finish reading the last story.

Saturday 26 July 2014

More recommended reads of 2014

I've read so many great short story collections this year that I feel the time has come to list some more. Certainly, it's been a bumper year so far; and there are many more collections and anthologies in the pipeline too.
So, here are some of the books I've been enjoying recently.

Errantry by Elizabeth Hand is a fascinating, literary collection. It contains
among others The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon and Near Zennor;
two cracking stories you really should not miss. Review soon
Worse Than Myself by Adam Golaski was brought to my attention by
James Everington, and his taste is of course excellent. This is a superb
collection of weird tales which will take you out of your comfort zone. It kicks
off with The Animator's House... and doesn't let up. Review soon

Superb Tartarus edition of Nugent Barker's classic collection,
Written With My Left Hand
. Contains the much-anthologised and
influential Whessoe among many other wonderful tales.
I recently reviewed Rebecca Lloyd's excellent Mercy and Other Stories here,
and so it was no surprise to me to find out that The View From Endless Street
is just as wonderful. Full of incisive, intriguing tales, it is a must read. Review soon
The Haunted Grove is a tightly written novella from Tim Jeffreys.
It's pretty compelling; I read it in one sitting. You might do too
Perspectives is an intriguing project; each story
in this collection is inspired by a piece of photography, and the two writers
(Darcia Helle and Maria Savva) take turns to provide their tales.
Some are dark, some less so; all are compelling
Of course, Supernatural Tales are always essential reading; and now
they are available on Amazon (back issues included) it's
even easier to enjoy them. Number 26 is as good as the modern
ghost story collection gets!

I would love to review all of these books, but there are only so many hours in the day. However, do keep an eye out for the ones I manage... and in the meantime, I hope you enjoy some of my recommendations as much as I did.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Review: All Roads Lead to Winter, by Mark Fuller-Dillon

Earlier this year, I reviewed Mark Fuller-Dillon's short story collection In a Season of Dead Weather, which is still one of my reads of the year; so I couldn't resist following it up with this intriguing "science fiction" novella, All Roads Lead to Winter. It's not often that I finish reading a book and say to myself, "Wow! That was quite something," but I did with this one.


This is a supremely incisive tale, almost an allegory for the modern condition. Thomas Bridge is a political prisoner, alone in a remote Canadian prison camp. When he visits his wife's grave, he is visited by Avdryana, a feline female; she is one of the Dwellers of the Night, inhabitants of a parallel Earth who are trying to save humanity from self-destruction. Their liaison lasts the night, and is beautifully described. Here, All Roads Lead to Winter becomes almost a love story; but it is so much more than that. Fuller-Dillon creates remarkable prose, and this simple tale blossoms into a touchingly well-observed account of how alien species may interact.

'Avdryana turned away from the screen and gave him a tilt of her cougar-like head. "When our kind travels, we love to feel the wind on our faces, the cold and the heat on our fur. We are Dwellers of the Night, and we live to feel the rigours of the world. To us, your vehicles are filled with dead textures and dead air; they feel like coffins."'

This novella is driven by punchy dialogue, expertly handled, which is a refreshing change from many contemporary writers who shy away from such complex interaction. I was enchanted by the story of Thomas and Avdryana, and I could not stop reading until Thomas's fate was revealed – his choice made. All Roads Lead to Winter is a wonderful tale, expertly told and perfectly formed. It feels like it must have been a very personal journey for the author. Go and download a copy now; Mark Fuller-Dillon is a rare talent who deserves to be much more widely read.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Review: Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Following on from this author's excellent collection The Dark is Light Enough For Me, Autumn in the Abyss provides the lucky reader with five more darkly perceptive tales, including the substantial title story.

First up is Autumn in the Abyss itself, and it sets the scene perfectly. Obscure poet Henry Coronado disappeared mysteriously in 1959, along with the truth about his poem, Autumn in the Abyss; and our agoraphobic protagonist has become obsessed with finding out the truth. However, the more he discovers, the further he strays from his comfort zone, and the closer he gets to his own oblivion. "Coronado not only confronted these monsters, his demons, he brought them into play with his words. I thought they weren't real. Coronado proved I was wrong." The idea that words themselves can change the world is taken to its literal conclusion in this memorable opening story.

Broken Teacup is next, and it came as a bit of a shock. It's a rough ride, but among the wreckage, Smith manages to keep enough focus on the mental side of the situation to keep the tension well and truly up. We also get to meet the enigmatic Mr. Liu, to whom there seems to be more than meets the eye. In fact, Mr. Liu makes an appearance through most of the stories here, providing a neat link to tie them together. In La Mia Immortalità, Mr. Liu commissions a sculpture from Samuel, an artist who is obsessed with his work to the exclusion of all else Рand his influence ensures the work of art is not quite what Samuel envisaged.

Becoming Human takes the reader on a crazy, dark ride with Detective Roberto "Bobby" Vera, who is confronted with an impossible dilemma; a copycat serial killer who is more than he seems. It's bitter, twisted, compelling, and strangely up-beat; a real accomplishment. My favourite story here must be the final one, Where the Light Won't Find You. A slighter tale, perhaps, but set so atmospherically in a down-at-heel multiplex theatre, it instantly struck a chord. Derek Jenner manages to steal into a bizarre showing of a strange film, Where the Light Won't Find You. While the film runs, he notices there is only one other patron, who has a surprise in store for him... and the strange Mr Liu has an alternative for Derek. Whether he can keep his side of the bargain, though, is yet to be seen. This tale reminded me of Mark Fuller-Dillon's superb Lamia Dance.

These are deep, visceral tales, sometimes of a challenging nature, yet Smith's skill is in the juxtaposition of the humane and the horrific; the reader is persuaded they exist so close together that they are almost one and the same thing. In summary, these are powerful, original stories, written with vivid prose that jumps off the page. John Claude Smith has given us one of the best collection of dark fiction I've read this year, and I look forward to his next journey into the shadows!

Thursday 10 July 2014

Review: Mercy and Other Stories, by Rebecca Lloyd

Rebecca Lloyd is a writer of exquisitely dark tales who I've discovered courtesy of those remarkable people at Tartarus Press. Mercy and Other Stories includes new material from her as well as stories published elsewhere between 2002 and 2014.

The opening piece is Mercy itself, which explores with subtlety and tenderness the transience of beauty, but not necessarily of love. "We all want to hold on to cherished things, for life is quickly gone." Mercy is short, sharp and sweet, and showcases perfectly Lloyd's remarkable gift for the short story. The Careless Hour is next, a more complex tale with a fascinating premise. The noises from an adjoining house take on sinister significance as the protagonist fears for the sanity of her neighbour, Michael. When he invites a girl, Catherine, for a meal, she hears enough through the thin walls to be concerned; but not enough to understand. The Careless Hour is a tale of half-truths and subtle deceptions, and grips the reader to the end.  

The Meat Freezer is a different prospect. Gary has an unsavoury past, and has been allocated a house on the rough Ackroyd estate in which to return to the community. His strange observations of a trespassing youth whom he thinks of as 'Icarus' forms the backbone of this hard-hitting story; but is it reality, or his past coming back to haunt him? The truth might just be too painful to know. What Comes is almost a haunted house story, but is so much more than that. Cath and Martin are moving into an old cottage, and confronting issues between Cath and Martin's mother, Patricia. She does not approve of the relationship nor the property. However, for a while things are fine, and Martin, an artist, finds inspiration. However, a damp stain over the kitchen door is spreading. As they tackle this problem, something is disturbed within the fabric of the house that reveals darkly powerful local folklore.

The Bath is one of Lloyd's better known stories, dealing with the desperation and pressures in a poor neighborhood. Gavin Bauble lives alone, as it would seem his wife has deserted him; "She wouldn't join in, that's all. No one's better than anyone else in Cotton Street". His home has become a shrine to the past, and is cluttered to the ceiling; but does it house something more precious, something that will have to be released?

Perhaps the most straightforward tale here, Maynard's Mountain is nonetheless compelling, and gently humorous. A poor family is initially torn apart by the careless loss of a winning lottery ticket; so Daddy decides to burrow into the side of the local dump, where the rubbish bag containing the item would have been taken. Eventually this project involves all the members of the family, each with their own tunnel; but if it is found, would this threaten their newly-found closeness? In The Reunion, a dream-like tale of a visit to a stately home (Shuttered House) to visit eccentric parents, I am reminded a little of Aickman's The Unsettled Dust; and this collection is brought elegantly to a close.

These are wonderfully written tales, dealing with life, love, relationships and the loss thereof in a thoroughly believable way, and with a depth not present in many works of short fiction. The way Lloyd interweaves the past with the present is hugely impressive, and adds an extra dimension to her impressive body of work. This has been one of my books of the year so far.

Friday 4 July 2014

Dying Embers official launch

Last Saturday, June 28th, saw the official launch of my debut collection of short stories, Dying Embers. It was held at Gleebooks, in Glebe, Sydney, and was part of a Satalyte Publishing "double-header" whereby Andrew J. Mckiernan's collection of short stories, Last Year, When We Were Young, was launched too.
Kaaron Warren, M.R. Cosby, Andrew J. Mckiernan, Alan Baxter
It was a great experience for me. To say I was nervous would have been an understatement, especially as I did a reading too, something which I had never really envisaged myself doing. However, I owe a huge debt of thanks to the wonderful Kaaron Warren, who introduced both our books so beautifully. She made such well-observed and complimentary comments about Dying Embers that by the time it came for me to speak, my nerves had (almost) disappeared! I am forever grateful.
Many thanks are also due in a big way to the estimable Alan Baxter, who was good enough to be the master of ceremonies for the event, which he did with great panache.

Me reading an excerpt from In Transit,
a short story from Dying Embers
It was great to meet Kaaron, and to catch up with Alan after meeting him at Supanova a couple of weeks back. It's amazing that there is such a helpful, supportive community of writers "out there", and I am humbled.
Me signing one of many copies of Dying Embers at
the launch... admirably helped by my daughter Imogen!
Of course thanks must also go to all at Satalyte Publishing for giving me the opportunity to have a book launch at all! It was such a shame that Stephen and Marieke could not make it to the event, I'm sure they would have enjoyed it very much.
Lastly I'd like to thank James Everington for providing the excellent foreword for Dying Embers. The small matter of geography meant he could not be present, but if it were not for those 6,ooo miles I reckon he would have had a good time too!

Here is Andrew J. Mckiernan's collection, Last Year, When We Were Young; if you like the idea of my collection, Dying Embers, you should try his too; darkly atmospheric tales. Click on the image for link to buy.

Kaaron Warren's fiction needs no introduction from me; she is an award winning author. If you have not read her work, you should do so without delay. Her collections, The Gate Theory and Through Splintered Walls are two of the best books I've read in a very long time. Click on images for link to buy.

Alan Baxter's latest novel, Bound, is Alex Caine book 1, and is a powerful dark adventure. Its launch is coming up soon, so be one of the first to check it out! Click on the image to buy.


James Everington writes great dark fiction, and you should definitely read his latest collection of short stories, Falling Over. It was one of my books of the year last year. Click on the image to buy.