How COVID19 Turned Out to be the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me!

If you’ve started reading this it means you’re either appalled by the title of this blog and want to know what kind of cruel and cold hearted bastard I am, or you too share similar feelings. Let’s begin by placating those in the first camp. At the time of writing this, COVID19 has taken a little over 100k lives globally. Businesses have suffered and thousands of people have lost their jobs. Children’s education has been compromised, and families have not been able to see each for over two months. This cruel and cold hearted bastard you seek, it’s not me. It’s the virus. And, in case there’s any loss in translation, I too am appalled and saddened by what it’s done to the world. However…

Confession first; since as far back as I remember, I have suffered with anxiety. As a child, it manifested mostly as fear; a fear of people, of socialising, of having friends, of not having friends, of being dependent on others, of shadows, or strangers, ghosts, large animals, of not getting a joke, of being beaten for not getting the joke, of being beaten for nothing, of experiencing pain in any guise, of knowing I would die, of knowing that I had so much life to live before I die, of girls, of being considered ugly by girls, of being weak, of trying too hard to be accepted, of not being clever, of knowing there were killers out there, of knowing there were no angels to protect me, of having no money, of maybe one day having too much money and not doing the right thing with it, of not liking things my friends liked, for liking the things no one else liked, but most of all, the biggest fear I had was living in a world where I could not be myself. Save for my fear of girls, which has been diluted due to marriage, nothing much as changed over the years.

I awake most days feeling scared, anxious, fearful. I struggle with social gatherings, especially in the workplace. People don’t really see it. I hide it well is. Most of us do. My defence mechanism, the shield I hide behind, is humour. As a child I adopted the position in the group as the clown. As an adult, I still lean toward being funny, cracking jokes, hiding behind the smile. The truth of it is, only one person as seen me for who I truly am, the person beyond the greasepaint and the amour. My wife is that angel I thought never existed, the one I searched for as a child. She has seen me stripped of all hilarity and feigned cheerfulness. She knows I am not the person she met that night in a club in 1996, and yet she still wants to hold my hand when I’m scared, and listen to me when I’m fretting. She allows me to be quiet, to be alone. She understands. But these moments of being myself are short-lived, for the next day I return back to work and continue being the person I need to be. COVID19 changed that.

It may be strange for people to understand, or grasp my reasons for saying this, but I have never felt so free as I have in isolation. In my home I am around those I truly feel comfortable with; my wife and two beautiful children. They accept every part of me, warts and all. In the two months of our lockdown period, I have enjoyed not having to interact with “other people”, of not having to expend energy being “sociable”. To a person who suffers with anxiety, life is mostly an act, of being a version of yourself that functions around others without them knowing how you truly feel. We get good at it. Sometimes it feels like there should be an award ceremony held each year where an academy board awards us the equivalent of an Oscar. If anyone is reading this with the power to make this happen, don’t. If the genesis for such an occasion is to celebrate the achievements of those struggling in social situations, putting them in a room among other people and getting them to stand on a stage and speak is probably the cruelest thing you could do. But yes, we are the Benedict Cumberbatches. We are the Meryl Streeps. And when the day is done, we go home and shed our skins and become once again the people we truly are.

In a rare moment of wild abandon late last year, I agreed to go to the city with my friends to catch up. It was a little after midnight, our tongues loosened by alcohol, and my friend pulled me to one side and asked why I’m so scared of doing anything. At the time, I couldn’t really articulate the answer he sought. I probably said something lame like, it’s none of your business, and that I’m fine and why don’t we have another drink before ringing an Uber. But now, on reflection, I realise I’m not scared to do something, it’s that I just don’t want to do anything. I am a much happier version of myself when I’m at home. My heart rate is less agitated. My stomach is free of butterflies. For my own health and wellbeing, I am complete when among my family. In truth, COVID19 allowed me to relax. It gave me a moment to coast and appreciate my children practicing dance routines, watching them learn, seeing them grow, (for more about this, see the letter I wrote to my children). I have walked with my angel and watched scary movies with her. I have wrote many words, and lost myself in the pages of books. For the longest duration in my whole life, during lockdown I have been the person I always wanted to be.

But now it’s coming to an end. I will soon return back to work, socialising and engaging in conversation. But my hope is that for all the shit it’s called, and the deaths and the heartaches and damage to the world economy, COVID19 taught me how to be who I want to be. It allowed me time to get to know myself and feel comfortable in my skin. And whether it takes me a week, or ten years, I know I’ll learn from these days and remember when I was myself.

Exorcist Road by Jonathan Janz – a book review

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Blatty’s great novel when someone writers about an exorcism. It’s like a book about a shark terrorising a small island and attempting to block out the iconic composition of John Williams. Janz’s real skill here is two fold: First is pace. Yes, it’s a novella so by its very limitations you can’t afford to meander. You have to keep things very tight. Janz does this by hitting the boards running when Father Crowder attends the house of a 15 year old boy showing signs of demonic possession. We’re then thrown into a literal Hell before we have time to blink. The second is plot. Sure, there’s every exorcism trope thrown in here, but running parallel is a second story, that of the Sweet Sixteen Killer. The town has a serial killer roaming around targeting 16 year girls. Weaving this storyline into the exorcism presents us with a extra dynamic; who is the Sweet Sixteen Killer? And more importantly, are they one of the characters in the house during the exorcism? Now we have a “who dun’it”. This is why Exorcist Road gets four stars instead of three. It’s that extra layer needed to differentiate it from its predecessor. Yes, you could say it’s more a homage to The Exorcist and Legion, whereby again, in the latter we are presented with the Gemini killer, but Janz dodges skilfully the obvious connection by making his story very claustrophobic (pretty much one setting throughout the novella) and exchanging those deep philosophical questions present in Blatty’s work for more wince-inducing gratuitous fun.

Human Tenderloin – an audio short story

A few years back Perpetual Motion Machine published a horror short story collection of mine called Gory Hole. The book consisted of three stories, one involving zombies, another mutant deer, and the last cannibals. It was this story, titled, Human Tenderloin, that first appeared in Menacing Hedge magazine, and probably helped secure the job as their fiction editor, subsequently abdicated to the wonderful Amanda Gowin (seriously, if you’re a fiction writer with a leaning towards dark/magical realism, drop her an email). Part of the acceptance was the opportunity to record an audio version of the story. Below you’ll find that recording. It’s a strange tale about a group of fine dining cannibals who meet every now and then to indulge in rare cuts of the human body. The recording is by myself, with a slight voice modification. I hope you enjoy.

Desires are Nourished by Delays – a short audio story

Some time back author/publisher Max Booth put together an anthology of short stories written in the style of Charles Bukowski called, Long Distant Drunks. There was some talk at the time of putting together an audiobook version. Sadly, it didn’t come off. Below you’ll find my contribution accompanied with an original score by Gordon Highland. Stay safe. Stay indoors. Listen/read books. Let this be your first of the day.

New Book Announcement

Please to announce that the follow up to Bad People will be released this summer via Underbelly Books.

Labyrinth of the Dolls picks up one year after the murders of Stormer Hill, and detective Tom Nolan has just joined West Yorkshire’s Murder Investigation Team. On his first day he is brought in to investigate a series of gruesome murders where the victim is found dressed as a human sized doll, and her eyes removed and replaced with another victim’s. As he begins to chase down the serial killer, named by the media as the Doll Maker, Nolan makes a shocking discovery that unites both the present to his past.

Just to remind you – the Kindle edition of Bad People has been reduced to 99c and 99p. Grab it from Amazon while it’s on offer and get ahead of the game.

Burnt Offerings: Book Review

The premise for Burnt Offerings is formulaic; family moves into a haunted house. Family falls apart. And as with most haunted house stories (The Grip of It springs to mind instantly) the House is merely a catalyst to some underlying issues. Like the metaphorical needle, it forces out the splinter from under the festering skin, exposing its puss-covered and bloody form for all to see. Marasco does well in executing this trope, but man, does he take a long time doing it. At one point, some 70% into the novel, with only a splash of supernatural revealed at that point, I wondered why this hadn’t been called Slow Burnt Offerings (thanks, I’m here all week. Try the fish). In truth, three quarters read more like the first act; Marion Rolf, her teacher husband Ben, and son David (an aside – my mind kept switching their names because Ben always seems like a younger person, and David designated for an older person), all live in a cramped little apartment in the city. Marion finds them a summerhouse to rent. Marion wants said summerhouse. Says it’ll be good for them (foreshadowing). Summerhouse is actually a big dilapidated house owned by two Allardyce siblings (who are probably the weirdest thing in the book and pays homage to Shirley Jackson’s Uncle Julian in We Have Always Lived in the Castle). Marion falls in love with house. Rent is cheap. Caveat – they have to look after mom Allardyce who apparently is low maintenance (foreshadowing 2). We’re then subjected to the following: Marion cleans. Marion discovers lots of antiques. Ben gets horny. Marion doesn’t want to have sex so Marion cleans. Ben gets horny, and a little mad (one can only conclude it’s a consequence of having the horn). Marion cleans some more. She notices the house is fixing itself. Ben is super horny and doesn’t notice this, presumably because his erection is blocking his view. Marion comes obsessed with preparing meals for old’ma Allardyce. Ben so horny now he pretty much sexually abuses his wife. To get over this Marion cleans. Ben hurts son. Questions his sanity. Marion’s hair gets grey so she cleans thinking this will help. It doesn’t. Ben loses his mind. Marion cleans. You get the idea.

To be honest, had I not assumed Burnt Offerings would be akin to Shirley Jackson/Michael McDowell (gothic, creepy) then I may have stopped reading it a lot sooner than I did. But I believed, due to its success (there’s also a movie too with Karen Black, Oliver Reed , Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart) that this was going to pay off. In truth, the whole Mrs Allardyce mystery was definitely the spookiest part of the book. Marion’s fixation with the carved door, beyond which is the old dear and a strange humming noise, piques enough interest to force you to continue. The pay off is largely offset by that assembled by your own imagination, which is always more scarier. You want to know if the old lady is alive or is the book going to go all Robert Bloch. You want to know if (how I wished for this) that the house consumes the lives of those within until they become part of it, and in that room was an older version of Marion! I know! She turns the chair around and boom! She’s looking at herself, all greyed hair and livers spots. Okay, she got grey hair pretty early on, but yeah, liver spots and dentures. Whether you think the payoff is worthy of the 90% build up, that’s for you to decide. But for me, there could have been more goose skinning. It gets three stars mainly for the writing, which is skilful and full of rich and believable dialogue. Marasco is a great writer, and I understand this was his only foray into the horror genre, and maybe had he continued to hone his skills in that area, there could have been something very special out there. As it is, we have Burnt Offerings, a book that really should have been a novella.

5 Days of Books: Adrian Barnes

Adrian Barnes, author of the novel NOD, lost his long battle with cancer in early 2018. I was introduced to his work by Kevin Duffy who had the great foresight to publish NOD through Bluemoose Books (and more recently through Titan), and instantly fell in love with it. I made contact with Adrian several times via email before his death, and even though he was very ill, he was kind enough to offer his time. Clever, talented, and a great loss to literature. Last I heard, 20th Century Fox had picked up the rights for a TV adaptation of NOD. Hopefully that’ll come off. As for the book…

Nod is a novel that only comes around every five to ten years. It takes that long for a writer to create a piece of fiction that actually has something say and is unique. Nod is that book. It tells the tale of Paul who finds himself an unlikely prophet after his manuscript on the etymology of words becomes a surrogate bible to a city who cannot sleep.

Vancouver is the backcloth to this insomnia epidemic, one that has gripped nearly every one of its inhabitants, save for a few individuals, like Paul, who go by the collective noun Sleepers. The Awakened are zombie-like insomniacs shuffling around the city, wanting sleep, slowly going crazy and dying, or killing themselves just to fall into eternal darkness. One of these Awakened is a local vagabond called Charles, known by Paul, who comes into possession of the manuscript, and as such, sees himself as a sort of apostle, a person who believes within the construct of its words and phrases hides hope, a kind of instructional manual for a new world. Charles convinces the Awakened that this disease is only to purge the world of society’s flotsam, and that soon, there will be a uprising, a new beginning, and the Nod manuscript will govern their lives forevermore. The destruction and breakdown of civilization is only part of the story, a necessary sacrifice to deliver a narrative rich with religious, ethic, and philosophical dichotomies, in particular, “good and evil”. The desire of sleep is the catalyst to behavioural explosions where being morally positive is consumed by the morally negative.

Adrian Barnes has successfully delivered a very simple dystopian story here; a nation in the throes of panic, frenzy, poverty, collapse and psychosis. But underneath lies a much richer, and cleverer, narrative where Paul, a self-confessed misanthrope, becomes a reluctant messianic saint, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others. Barnes’ ability to craft beautiful similes that immerse you in this crazy world is hypnotic, and the manipulation of words, turning them into nouns for characters, is akin to the adroit hands of Antony Burgess. The writing is sublime in places, funny in its social observations, and yet strong enough to stand up to many other literary books that frowned upon this type of genre. In truth, Nod could have easily been a novel written by Jim Crace, or for that matter, the transgressive-guru Chuck Palahniuk.

To steal a line from the book, “Life’s a scab, and it’s our nature to pick at it until it bleeds.” Nod is very much the same; once you begin picking at its narrative, it will mark you forever.

5 Days of Books: Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell is probably the greatest horror writer you’ve never heard of. He is the author of the novels, The Elementals, Cool Moon Over Babylon, The Amulet, Gilded Needles, and the Blackwater series, which is what I want to talk about today.

BLACKWATER was my first McDowell book, and I began it with no preconceived idea of what to expect. I had no expectations, nor was I privy to the fact McDowell had been dead for nearly twenty years, and that he had, in the late 1980s, penned the first draft of the Beetlejuice screenplay, which, through subsequent research, was a lot darker than the movie we know today. To me, McDowell had always been dead, and like the many ghosts born from the Perdido over the course of his book, he had wandered into my life, made bright the lights around me, and chilled my skin. And for that, I’m grateful.

The story is best described as a supernatural soap opera. I’m not saying that to dumb it down. This isn’t a book that can be dumbed down. But it is a story about family, beginning in the year 1919 and rounding off in 1970. At the start, the Caskey family had garnered a reasonable wealth through their sawmills, and things seemed to be going well until a great flood submerged most of the small town, including its homes, business and even people. And it’s here where the story begins. Oscar Caskey and his black servant, Bray, take a small boat into the town; there they find Elinor Dammert waiting to be rescued, though I use the term very loosely, in the upper floor room of the Osceola hotel. Elinor is not like other women. She is different, mysterious, and instantly wins the heart of the guileless Oscar. The only person who doesn’t take to Elinor is the matriarch Mary-Love, the head of the Caskey clan, and certainly a force to be reckoned with, as are most of the Caskey women. The truth is, women rule the roost in Perdido. They are the strongest characters, and by far, the most interesting. McDowell’s gift in shaping these woman, from Mary-Love, to her daughter Sister, to the servants, Ivey Sapp and her daughter Zaddie, and more importantly, Oscar and Elinor’s estranged daughter, Miriam, is beguiling to observe. It’s fair to say the women of BLACKWATER are violets unwilling to shrink for anyone, least of all the men.

“Oscar knew that Elinor was very much like his mother: strong-willed and dominant, wielding power in a fashion he could never hope to emulate. That was the great misconception about men… there were blinds to disguise the fact of men’s real powerlessness in life. Men controlled the legislatures, but when it came down to it, they didn’t control themselves… Oscar knew that Mary-Love and Elinor could think and scheme rings around him. They got what they wanted. In fact, every female on the census rolls of Perdido, Alabama got what she wanted. Of course no man admitted this; in fact, didn’t even know it. But Oscar did…”

It’s worth noting, the Caskey men are not anvils to bear every harsh word or mighty strike of each women’s doings. They are not victims of domestic violence, nor do they whimper or cower. But they do serve a purpose, and that is to make sure they do the things asked of them by the women, or at least agree to what the women are asking of them. The Caskey men’s strength is their understanding they will never be as shrewd, calculating, all-knowing and persistent enough to undertake such tasks as counter arguing. They know when best to remain quiet, and know that no matter what happens, be it handing over their children to curry favour with a senior member of the family, or amassing wealth beyond their comprehension, all of these things were conceived, implemented and executed by a woman, and done for the greater good.

The supernatural aspect, that at times gives most horror stories a run for their money, is delivered with enough bite you feel it’s teeth sink into you, and long after the moment passes, stare incredulously at the impression in your skin that refuses to fade. These moments are few, but when they come along, they shake the very pages. I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and I can say that what McDowell does in a couple of pages takes most authors fifty. Elinor’s character, in particular, has a past that stretches beyond the norm, and while not exactly chilling, there are moments you spend with her that renders your jaw slack and skin goosed. Each bloody end to a life, each resurrected spirit, they’re all crafted beautifully and interspersed appropriately so the reader does not feel gorged on gore, but instead, thirsty for more. I cannot praise McDowell enough. I cannot find fault in his prose, nor thumb my nose towards any character he gave flesh to. It’s a beautifully sad, haunting and awe-inspiring piece of fiction that will stay with me for such a long time.

The Caskey family opened their door to me. They allowed me to walk their halls, console myself in their chairs, eat at their tables, sleep in their beds and attend their many funerals. They looked after me like I was one of their own, and for that, I’m indebted and humbled. Now it’s time for you to knock upon their door, pull up a chair, and savour their hospitality while listening to the song of their ghosts.

Lolita Book Review

No one should read this book. For anyone to tender just one moment reading what is part memoir, part defence of a murderous pedophile, should really question their own morals. So why is Nabokov’s tale about Humbert Humbert, self professed pervert who seduces his wife’s twelve year old daughter, so enduring and revered? Simple. It’s not the beauty of the relationship offered, but of the words written, proving that done well, any story, however awful, debauched and lurid can elevate it to something quite unique. Sure, there are moments you wish to drag your eyes from the text, and question why it is you continue to turn the pages, but Nabokov’s ability to sew within the fabric of this filthy yarn such humour you can’t help but smirk, and such eloquent prose it renders you light headed, is what drives you forward. Too, there is nothing within the text that is overtly gratuitous, something that perhaps handled by a less adroit writer would have resulted in the manuscript being condemned by all and sundry. In truth, moments of tenderness, of love, is subtle in its execution. And so what on the surface of it is a bizarre narrative of a dirty old man grooming a nymphet, becomes more a story of obsession.

That society and law cannot condone such a relationship is the strain needed to build jealously and paranoia in the story. Lolita, Dorthy, Dot, or her many other names, while complicit in the reality of their relationship, is still a girl of twelve, and as such wishes to live, to frolic, to eat ice cream and engage in idle chitchat with boys of a similar age, and it’s this gulf of immaturity that eventually proves to be the catalyst to their demise. You are pulled, sometimes kicking and screaming, into Humbert’s mind and thought process, and for him this sickness for young girls is driven by aesthetics only, so as Lolita exercises her want to be young, so the seams that bind their partnership begin to tear. It is Greek in tragedy and biblical in inequity so it comes as no surprise that a book of this ilk ends in death, but who’s is down for you to find out.

It is not a book you should read. It not a story that should be celebrated. And yet, for those who love the written word, it’s hard not to enjoy Lolita for the simple reason that however weird the world we are presented, or however wrong the subject matter, there are somethings that when done well can leave us spellbound.

5 Days of Books: Paul Tremblay

There’s not much I can add that hasn’t already been documented about Paul Tremblay’s work. He’s the bestselling author of A Head Full of Ghosts (currently being adapted to screen by Scott Cooper), Cabin at the End of the World, the upcoming Survivor Song, and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. As the aforementioned titles prove, he writes powerful, enduring horror that grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go until you turn that final page. But what sometimes gets missed is that he’s also one of the coolest, and nicest guys in the literary world today. I’ve known him, from a distance, for many years, going back to around 2004 (?) when we both frequented a forum aimed at celebrating the books of Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger and Stephen Graham Jones. By then he was already ahead of us fledging writers, having a couple of books published through the Canadian press ChiZine. But what I recall even now is that when he contributed to conversations, or was solicited for stories by those of us brave enough to assemble anthologies (see The Booked Anthology, Warm and Bound, and The New Black) he always came across as self effacing and generous. Though Paul is currently carving his name next to some of the upper literary echelon, he still hasn’t let go of that attitude, and in a world where the merest whiff of success has some become a pastiche of Ron Burgundy, this is a rare commodity that will only bolster his popularity.

The books photographed are some of his more well know. Though many gravitate to A Head Full of Ghosts as his finest, my heart is nestled more in the pages of A Cabin at the End of the World. A claustrophobic, intimate story, Paul

explores the nightmare of isolation and intimidation with such detail you feel as much a part of the horror as those undergoing it. I’m still processing what happened to eight year old Wen, and her two dads, Andrew and Eric, even some three years later, but I can safely reassure you Paul has tendered a situation more scarier than monsters, demons or ghosts that occupy the head. Their world is real. Their nightmare can happen. And it probably will happen. To talk more about what exactly does happen will spoil the story. It needs to be read with a blank slate. You need to pick up knowing very little, save for the understanding you will be delivered into a world where you’ll doubt motives, faith, humanity and truth.

A slight aside, had it not been for, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I don’t think I would have wrote Bad People. That book inspired me to want to do something similar, to merge the line between thriller and horror. It served, alongside the works of Thomas Harris, as a kind of handbook to Bad People, so I’ll always be indebted to him for that. His new book, Survivor Song, will be released in July.