Reality Bites edited by Alex Davis

Reality Bites edited by Alex Davis

This anthology is a short sharp look at reality TV.  I’m pretty sure we’ve all wondered what would happen if zombies invaded the set of a reality TV show and eaten the vapid hosts or contestants. This book pokes fun (with a sharp stick) at the depths reality TV will sink to in the future. How else will they continue to get higher ratings and the advertising revenue that brings? The public will become inured and leave in their droves. This book asks the reader whether there is anything an executive would not do for ratings.

This book was structured in a way to intimate TV episodes rather than written stories. I liked that. I could almost hear the camera lenses whirring behind me. The six stories somehow managed to feel unrelated but at the same time inter-connected. There was the obvious link of them all being reality shows but there was more to it than that. In every story there was a character that seemed trapped, alone and desperate to escape the faux-reality they were part of. It was this link that intrigued me.

There is no way I’ll be able to watch The Voice in the same way tomorrow night and I love that. Will Rita Ora open her bag and admit to being a trained killer by killing the zombie hordes attacking the set?

 

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When is horror not horror?

Billy's Monsters by Vincent Holland-Keen

 

In the run up to the release of Billy’s Monsters here is Vincent Holland-Keen answering the very question I had when reading this book. Was it a horror book? Did my warped little mind make it scarier than it was for other readers? Enough of my prattling. On to the good stuff from.

‘Are your books scary in any way as there seems to be a lot of talk about monsters?’

Someone asked me this not so long ago after I explained I was a writer and that my next book was called ‘Billy’s Monsters’. It’s a fair question. The answer should be simple, but horror isn’t as black, white and bloody as genre labels like to suggest. Before I elaborate on that idea, I need to confess a few things:

  • I’ve never read anything by Stephen King.
  • I’ve never seen The Exorcist.
  • I’ve never suffered a drug-induced, hallucinogenic nightmare featuring flesh-eating toilet paper and urinals resembling various right-wing politicians spewing pus-laden piss over blood-stained tiles while ranting about immigrants, wind-farms and Miley Cyrus’s fashion choices. Seriously, it’s true. I don’t even drink coffee.

So, I’m not a horror aficionado. When I was very young, the only recurring nightmare I had involved volcanoes. Then I saw a TV show where a team of disaster troubleshooters faced down an impending eruption thanks to fire-proof asbestos suits. My next volcano-themed dream ended with a quaint stall that might have been selling mobile phone cases in another context, but here was selling the aforementioned asbestos suits. After making the necessary purchase, I walked off into the red fog pervading the scene and haven’t had a nightmare since.

Though there was that one time I dreamed a guy broke into my flat and almost gutted my stomach with a knife, but I handled it, so I don’t think it counts.

My worries came before I went to sleep. I did worry there might be monsters under the bed. I did worry the little people from the original ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ might be living in the cupboard in our hallway. But mostly I just worried about getting to sleep, because of course trying to get to sleep never works; insomnia being the subconscious mind’s not-so-subtle reminder that it’s the one really calling the shots.

And anyway, I figured if there were monsters lurking in wait, that meant you could talk to them. Telling the vampire in the airing cupboard that the little people in the hallway had been making fun of him again robbed both parties of their power to scare, just like seeing the monster in a horror film diminishes its menace, regardless of how gruesome it may be. As Veronica says in my novel ‘The Office of Lost and Found’ when shown a picture of the monster that’s been terrorising a young Billy: “He’d be scarier with more spikes on his face and chainsaws for fingernails.”

The unknown can be anything; the known could always be worse.

But there’s a paradox here. Existential dread only gets you so far. A vague, unspecific threat is not nearly as dramatic as an immediate and specific one. A monster that may or may not be lurking in the shadows is a wholly different proposition to a monster seen in broad daylight with dagger-like teeth a moment away from chomping off your most intimate of articles.

At this point, the line begins to blur between horror and suspense. Dangling the threat of terrible consequences creates suspense, which in turn can drive characters to action. Those terrible consequences could be a wife discovering her husband’s affair, or a man having his face eaten off by a demon. Both could be deemed horrific by the characters in question, but typically only the latter gets classed as horror.

I just searched Google for ‘Jurassic Park genre’. It came back with the words: fantasy, thriller, action film, science fiction and adventure film. But the movie is laced with sequences that would be considered out and out horror if this wasn’t nominally a ‘Steven Spielberg family movie’. Perhaps the first appearance of the T-Rex qualifies solely as thrilling because a dinosaur eating a lawyer off a toilet is comic rather than horrific.

To cite another Spielberg film: Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. It ends with gratuitous shots of melting faces, but most people don’t consider that a horror either.

That’s why I said at the start that horror isn’t as black, white and bloody as genre labels like to suggest. But I lied about the answer to the question.

‘Are your books scary in any way as there seems to be a lot of talk about monsters?’

The answer is simple, because the question leaves so little room for manoeuvre. Yes, there are ways in which my books could be considered scary in the same way that Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park could be considered scary. Or Alien or Hellraiser or Evil Dead 2.

Billy’s Monsters does contain bona fide monsters, murders and psychological torment. But it also has thrills, spills and a fair few jokes. I don’t know whether it’s a horror, a thriller or even a very peculiar romance. You might read it and cower behind the sofa, laugh uproariously or toss the book aside with a contemptuous snort, because that’s the truly horrifying thing about stories; what you take away from them is often more about those whispering voices in your head than the silent words on the page.

Billy’s Monsters by Vincent Holland-Keen

Billy's Monsters by Vincent Holland-Keen

This cover is from an advance copy and it may look a little different in production. I hope it doesn’t. I’d really like to see it as clean and beautiful as this in the flesh. When I first looked at the cover if was bright and had pretty patterns. Now I’ve read the book there are shapes and the suggestions of nasty things lurking just outside of my vision. This would make a great bus stop poster.

I am a fan of Holland-Keen’s work. I can remember sending him a tweet asking when the follow-up to The Office Of Lost And Found (well worth a read) was going to be released. It was nice to see references to TOOLAF in this book. There is something about this book that makes me think of Dirk Gently but I can’t quite work out why.  This book is all about the spaces in-between. On one level it was about the gaps between worlds but on another it was about the readers imagination filling in the shape and scale of the monsters. This was an important point for me. The fear in this book came from what I carried in my head and that was directly reflected in the story. Simple yet clever.

Boy meets girl, dresses like an idiot and spouts some cheesy cliches and then wanders off to save the world. That pretty much explains the entire book but does it no justice at all. The humour throughout this story works really well and prevents it from becoming too sombre. Although suitable for young adults there will be a lot of grown-ups like me (stop laughing) that enjoy this book and I can see this book being passed around within families.

Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

I have been as guilty as others in the past of not giving enough credit to the artists  involved in Graphic Novels. That is almost impossible in this series. Gabriel Rodriguez has done such an amazing job of visualizing the story that it was impossible to picture things in any other way. I loved the embossed cover and the great use of colour that really made the key pop. If anything though the quality of the art got better when I looked inside. When I read a book like this I tend to do it twice. Once looking at every picture and word in every frame. Once I’ve finished that I sit back a bit and just look at the flow of the pictures and the narrative they represent. That was where this book really stood out for me. The little extras at the back of the book showing the stages of a cell being layered were fascinating.

This is the second in the Locke & Key series. The first book left a huge amount open questions that I couldn’t wait to be expanded on. Not many of them were answered and I now have a longer list of questions. Somehow this manages not to irritate me as I thought it would. Although I was aware of the larger story arc there was an abundance of quality writing to keep me thoroughly engaged and wanting more.

This book focused on Dodge and all the nastiness he represented. There were very few positives in this book. It was really dark and brooding. By the end of this part of the story it was very hard to imagine how anybody involved could survive Dodge’s machinations. The bounds of reality were stretched back upon themselves in this book and I certainly will not be putting any keys near the back of my head. I’ve already bought the third book and will be reading it very soon.

 

Locke & Key welcome To Lovecraft by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke & KeyI saw this cover from half way across the shop and made a bee-line towards it. A flashing neon sign saying buy me would have been less likely to draw me in. A creepy looking house with an interesting looking key what wasn’t to love? Having Welcome To Lovecraft in the title makes it pretty clear what kind of story lies inside.

For me the mark of a good Lovecraftian tale has always been the way that normal horrors are blended with paranormal ones. For large parts of this story it was easy to forget that there was any supernatural elements involved. I got lost in the story and characters. So much so that I barely even noticed how long I was just staring at some of the stunning artwork. There is one page in particular where the young Bode draws his school holiday. It is perfectly rendered. Every aspect is how I have seen similar things from my kids. The obvious differences being the lack of horrific murders and out of body experiences. Even if you don’t want to read this book I’d recommend looking at that page. The rest of the artwork was also enthralling. After I finished reading this book I went back through it ignoring the words and just looking at the pictures.

This story was dripping with pain and anguish. The deeper story was only hinted at but I just have to find out more.

I have to buy the second part of this story. It has really tickled my fancy.

Burning by Joan De La Haye

Burning by Joan De La Haye

Sometimes with a novella like this the cover art is an afterthought and feels discombobulated. Not only does this cover look good and relate to the story but the back cover is the rear of the tarot card pictured on the front. Time, effort and skill went in to this cover and that made me want so see inside.

I don’t read much erotic fiction. Partly because I can feel myself blushing as I read the raunchy bits but mainly because I’d rather read about gruesome murders. The bonus for me in this book is that the sex scenes are all part of the setup for the murders. For me this story is a bit like a sparkly vampire story except instead of mooning around after abs of steel the women are making best use of those bodies and instead of a little love bite there is the whole essence sucking death thing going on. So maybe not like a sparkly vampire story. Much better than that.

This story is set in South Africa and it was interesting to see a Wicca coven portrayed in much the way I would expect over here. I don’t know if that was a deliberate affectation or whether those aspects of paganism exist in South Africa. I’ll certainly be trying to find that out later.

This book was outside my comfort zone. I try to read things that I wouldn’t normally read once in a while. This book has left me thinking that I wouldn’t mind reading horror stories with a more erotic slant in the future. This book doesn’t take long to read and it will leave you wanting more.

Potatoes edited by Stewart Hotston

Potates

This cover screams for attention. From the ludicrous name to absurdity of the cover art. Potatoes do not grow in skulls, do they? This cover should be terrible but there is something in the layering of the photography and illustration that somehow makes the reader look at it for much longer than they should. This made it the ideal cover for this book. How on earth can anybody take an anthology about and even titled potatoes seriously? It was never going to happen.

Why potatoes? You’ll have to buy the book and read the introduction to find out.

I had a pre-conception that this book would contain a series of stories that replaced an object in the story with a potato. Thankfully this was not the case. Nearly all of these stories were obviously written with potatoes as the post important thing about them. From twisting morality tales to first contact with a new sentient race this collection has a diverse array of imaginative stories to tickle those taste buds.

I found this book quite inspiring. A good story-teller can turn any story in to an enchanting tale and this is a great example of that. It is cheaper than a frothy coffee and much more interesting.

 

Worms edited by Alex Davis

Worms edited by Alex Davis

I have never seen worms as being at all scary before. Tonight I really don’t fancy opening the composter in case there are worms on the surface. I’m still not sure about the cover of this book. Is that a single worm with two mouths or two worms. If two are they going to fight for their food? It is the kind of cover that makes me stop and look again and that is a good thing.

This anthology starts off with possibly the best title short story I’ve ever read. How can you beat Zombie Worms Ate My Hamster? On one hand it is really simple but there is as just something about the way that the words hang together that makes me want to say it again. Zombie Worms Ate My Hamster. After reading that title I had high hopes for that story and K.T. Davies did not disappoint. It was fun and disturbing in equal measure and a real pleasure to read. It was a great way to start a book and was my favourite story.

Each story within this collection feels different. They interpret how worms can be scary in very different ways and yet there is a nice flow between the stories. For less than the price of a frothy coffee it is a great way to spend a lunchtime or two.

Deep Like The River by Tim Waggoner

Deep Like The River by Tim Waggoner

Deep Like The River by Tim Waggoner

The artwork for this book is by Daniele Serra. That is always going to be a good start. There is an impressionist feel to his work that seems to add hidden depths to already creepy images. This cover shouldn’t seem all that creepy to be honest. After all it is just a woman in a canoe right? There is something there. Something I can’t quite see. Something bad. A perfect start for a horror story.

Most of the way through this book I thought I knew what the ending was going to be. I thought it was going to be rather predictable and not very imaginative. I felt that until the very end where somehow it manages to end in a much better way than I’d imagined and without a clunky twist. I do love it when that happens.

This is a simple yet powerful story that plumbs the depths of denial and regret at the heart of the mourning process. At points I was disgusted by the main character Alie but throughout the story I pitied her and wanted her to find some kind of peace.

At around eighty pages it is a nice length for a story like this. This will certainly not be the last book I read by Tim Waggoner.

Autumn in the Abyss by John Claude Smith

Autumn in the Abyss

When I first saw this cover for some reason it reminded me of Slayer’s album Seasons in the Abyss. Not directly but something about the palette. There is however a story in this anthology about an artist that really does put me in mind of that album cover. Needless to say I was drawn in before I’d even opened the book.

I really enjoyed all of the stories in this anthology and the way that despite being very different they are intrinsically linked. Mr Smith skirts on the very edge of what I find readable in this book. The way he writes about a sadistic sexual torturer and his evolution to something darkly spiritual is harrowing and more than a little disturbing without becoming torture porn.

For me the there is one story in this collection that really resonates. The first story in this book really set the scene. The author’s voice comes through clearly and kept me engaged throughout. The main character suffers from Agoraphobia. The way the story is written puts the reader right inside that condition. The tension reading this story was palpable. This is one of those rare stories that can induce a physical reaction from the reader.

This book was worth every penny and I fully intend to read more by John Claude Smith.