The Instructional Manual For Swallowing by Adam Marek is not your average book. It doesn’t quite fit anywhere, which is why you need to read it.
As I’m always searching for strange and wonderful short stories that match, and surpass, the likes of Etgar keret, I was really excited at the prospect of Robotic insects, a restaurant for zombies, and a woman pregnant with 37 babies. In truth, I was damn near peeing my pants. Marek didn’t disappoint, well, not too much. The first story really blew me away. 40 Litre Monkey tells the tale of a pet shop owner who measures all his animals by their volume. It was funny, sad and very surreal. My expectations were raised, and although the second story in the collection, the one about the pregnant woman with 37 babies, didn’t quite hit me squarely on the chin as the first, I could tell Marek had a gift for pulling you from the page.
The subsequent stories that followed had a little more weight to them, which is probably why they dragged me to real world very quickly. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s just that based on the first two stories, I was convinced Marek would be my guide to the dark places in his mind. Instead, he decided it would be best all round to “coast” for a while before throwing back the curtain. Ramping it up with stories about a man fighting both testicular cancer and a monster tearing up the city, a boy who can extract cutlery from his body, and the title story which illustrates how the body might function if it was controlled from within by a person, makes Marek an author to keep your eye on.
Sure, with any short story collection, there are going to be lulls. Fortunately, there are not many here. From one story to the next, you’re caught between laughing, reeling back in surprise, and dropping to your knees with wonder. As the blurb perfectly illustrates, as you turn the first page you enter the “surreal, misshapen universe of Adam Marek’s first collection, where the body is fluid, the spirit mechanised and beasts often tell us more about our humanity than anything we can teach ourselves.”
Jean Teule has created a sublime and satirical look at the dynamics of family life set against the backcloth of mortality. Balancing precariously on the precipice of life, the desperate and lonely folk of Teule’s future world seek a means to end their pathetic lives, and find it within a small shop aptly titled, The Suicide shop. Having been in the Tuvache family for generations, morose and embittered father Mishima, and his dutiful and equally morbid wife Lucrece, have forged a business designed for one purpose – death. Teule’s detail given to the means of achieving this is nothing short of genius. From the Alan Turin frieze to the belladonna, from the digitalis petals to the corporate branded breezeblock, every conceivable and ingenious method of ending your life is catered for at the Suicide Shop with hilarious detail. Imagine if Jean Pierre Junet had remade the Adam’s Family, and you’re nearly getting there. And while funny, ingenious and awe-inspiring, it’s through innocence and sanguinity that Teule interweaves a buoyancy to the book that lifts your heels. It is the youngest of the Tuvache family, Alan, that Tuele uses to express the innocence of life that is at times suffocated by the outside world, the forces beyond our control, and callousness of evolution. Alan is the light flickering in the vast abyss of nothingness. He is hope incarnate, and much to his family’s annoyance, Alan offers salvation to the unsalvageable. I don’t want to go too much into the detail of how this is achieved, but at the end of the book you’ll feel several pounds lighter, and yet your chest will be aching.
A quick and wonderful read that needs further attention. Please, before you die, read this book!
The writing community is much like a tennis academy on the first day. You’re all a little nervous and curious to who is better, but equally, you don’t want to give up too much too soon. You try and play it cool, you talk mechanics, influences, and maybe venture into your past achievements. But then comes the point you have to walk onto court. That’s when you see who has the grit. Gone is all the small talk and bravado. There’s no hiding now. Following this tennis analogy, one writer I had the pleasure of getting to know was
Peter Tieryas. Peter has natural talent; a strong arm, hard serve and endurance. I knew from his first collection Watering Heaven, Peter was special. Whereas most writers are all serve and no game, Peter was the full package. Case in point…
His novel, Bald New World, begins with a strange phenomenon where the entire population wakes up one day to find all their hair has fallen out. From that moment on you’re thrown into a world of espionage, wig-wars, faith-blind zealots that make Marathon Man seem like child’s play, telekinetic cricket fighting, and a friendship that stretches beyond life and into death. The world which Tieryas creates is rich in detail, from the grand architecture of the future to the smaller statements on the influence of mass advertising on modern society (I particular liked how a taxi cab fare could be subsidised if you are willing to watch adverts for the entire journey, and the coat that diminishes with the seasons). But like Watering Heaven, Tieryas’s brilliant short story collection, the real strength of this book lies is the intertwining themes of acceptance, love and an enduring quest for fulfilment. They say every author writes themselves into the characters of their books. Nick is a character who feels detached emotionally due to his past, and yet through his in laws he truly understands the meaning of family. I mention this because it adds a layer of emotion that fleshes out the character. Nick is not contrived in design, therefore you believe him in, and through all the pain he endures, you want him to survive. This is the test of a great writer, to give a little bit of themselves to the world, even if it’s uncomfortable. I don’t want to dilute this book by comparing it to another. It stands alone and will measured that way for years to come. The storytelling and amazing detail added from Tieryas’s furtive imagination lend themselves perfectly to the silver screen. A fantastic read for anyone whose frustration in modern literature as reached the point where they’re pulling out their hair. There is a new world of great storytelling with us, and that world is bald.
In Watering Heaven, Peter successfully peels back the rind of life to exposure the sweet, and sometimes bitter, fruit that lies beneath, where chance meetings blossom into love, dialogue is so slick you fear your eyes may slip while reading, and the ordinary is a catacomb for a surreal beauty metamorphosing within. Being a keen fan of the short story, I found Water Heaven one of the best collections I have ever read. What Tieryas does in this collection is offer questions about love that many writers dare not ask, and those that have ventured close, have done so clumsily in comparison. His ability to exposure our insecurities and thoughts is nothing short of genius. Yes, if love is the thread skewering these stories together, then loneliness is the needle punctuating each. In truth, it felt less like a short story collection and more a novel. The narrator had many voices, the stories different but united, merged and blurred but unique too. It was truly inspiring to read. I could break down the stories and give my favourites, but to do so would dull the magic and perhaps force you to gravitate to some more than others. What you need to do is go into this book blind, and discover through the skill of the writer, all the colours of the world; light will merge from darkness, the prosaic will be rendered strange and wonderful. Existential, smart, magical and dipped into beauty, a collection that will forevermore stain the fabric of great literature.
Jackson’s worlds are small. They inhabit a very tiny space and involve people, mostly female protagonists, who live in small towns and go grocery shopping, a lot. They are mostly insecure too or paranoid, and these microscopic worlds that add to a claustrophobic atmosphere making Jackson a writer worthy of the praise she has garnered over the years. Whether her views stemmed from her own personal life following a nervous breakdown and severe acrophobia matters not, but there seems a continuity to her characters that can’t be overlooked. Having read the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I was surprised at how timid some of her characters are. They shrink away from the outside worlds to live isolated or within their own minds, sometimes both. And that continues to be a theme in some of these stories too, weaving in issues of mistrust, small mindedness and cruelty. Humanity is always stripped away to reveal the uglier side. The Lottery, which I had heard so much about, and had gained a reputation as being one of the terrifying stories committed to paper, may leave more harden Horror aficionados a little deflated. It’s foreshadowing is second to none, as is the tension built throughout. But the ending, while handled skilfully, may leave some wondering why it had built such a grand reputation. Of course, at the time of its release in the New Yorker, circa 1948, you may understand why they lost a lot of their subscribers and had letters of complaint, but in today’s world the story wouldn’t warrant such accolades. As I finish Chuck Palahniuk’s book on writing, he points out that The Lottery represents the horror of army selection. That there is a construct to which people (soldiers) are selected only to lose their life. As a reader, this true horror resonated, and so the ending of The Lottery echoes in the mind, especially in a post-war world.
The Haunting of Hill House will be the one most will associate with Jackson. Even if you’ve not read the book, the likelihood is you’ve watched the Netflix show or maybe even the original movie. I was suitably impressed with Jackson’s ability to build tension in that book and give so much depth to the main protag, Eleanor. While my expectation, based on the title, was that this would be a ghost story, I found that the ghosts were more the black cloth to something else, which for me was to exasperate themes of grief and trauma. A love it when a book does that. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, dealt with similar issues, but done with much more subtlety. The innocence of Mary Cat lured me into a false sense of security, and while I considered this book much scarier than Hill House due to the weight of the backstory (I won’t go on too much about that in case it spoils the journey), it had more depth. Beautiful, weird, and as always, goose-skinning.
Whichever book you choose, or short story, know that in the hands of Shirley Jackson you’ll find a small world where within lives big themes, and plenty of ghosts. A true pioneer in the field of horror and a must for anyone who loves reading scary stories.
That’s right. It’s that time again to begin whoring myself out to all and sundry in the hope it’ll increase book sales. Thanks to all at Kendall Reviews for giving me space to wax lyrical about all things horror related, and of course, Bad People.
It’s Women In Horror Month, and I can’t let it slip by without mentioning two great writers and their books. Please, if you get the chance, pick a copy up of either one. You won’t be disappointed.
The Bone Weaver’s Orchard by Sarah Read
Sarah Read’s debut novel about Charlie, a young boy attending a Yorkshire boarding school in the early 1900s, establishes Read as a writer you need to pay attention to. Weaving together just the right amount of tension and chills to keep you engaged, and the lights on, we find ourselves plunged into a school where ghosts roam the halls, children go missing, and a history more disturbing than someone called the Ragged Man. While the following comparisons should be taken as merely themes, not facsimiles, the book at times reminded me of the Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage (only for its feel) and strangely, Harry Potter too. That I’m even drawing these comparisons in a testament to Read’s ability to craft prose that is as atmospheric as it is effortlessly composed. If you like your stories gothic, haunting, and beautifully constructed, then please check out The Bone Weaver’s Orchard.
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter can write. Jesus, can she write. The Book of X, her debut novel, is beautiful. Telling the story of Cassie, a girl born with a hereditary disorder where her stomach is wrapped into a knot, we are plunged into a world where meat is harvested from quarries, male prostitutes can be amputated if you can’t afford the cost, and jealously forms in the body as granite. More wonderful than this is seeing this world through Cassie’s eyes. Part Amy Hempel, part Margret Atwood at times, I was instantly captivated by her voice, and long after reading, heard it resonate in my mind long into the night. If Bridget Jones was written by William Burroughs, this would it. Dark, hypnotic, surreal, heart-breaking, honest and sublime.
Horror has been with me from a very early age. I found several copies of The House of Hammer comics in my parent’s bedroom when I was around seven years old. I would sit in the bathroom reading titles such as Shandor: Demon Stalker and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, their paper scented with cigarette smoke and something old, like the smell of thrift shops or the bottom of drawers. It was a strange awakening, a time of great discovery. But the one comic I became obsessed with was Dracula, so much so my parents bought me a small plastic model of Christopher Lee, complete with cape and fangs, in the hope I’d eat plum tomatoes, a ruse that paid off when they sat me at the dining table one evening and served them up as “sheep hearts”. That Dracula had a penchant for sucking the life out of young women wasn’t really a cause for concern back then. Remember, I was seven. His ability to remain immortal, fly, and sleep during the day was what appealed to my fragile little mind. Didn’t every seven-year-old want those same powers? Hell, I’d challenge anyone over seven years old who wouldn’t want that. And so that’s where it began. Comics and plum tomatoes. I moved on to Frankenstein’s Monster shortly thereafter and could often be seen shielding my eyes from the cooker’s gas ring when entering the kitchen. Howling at the moon was commonplace, as was a fear of crucifixes. But it wasn’t really until the age of ten that I was exposed the gorier side of horror.
Being in double digits permitted me certain privileges you might say, mainly experiencing choice scenes from horror movies my father had acquired in the local pub. This was around the time of Video Nasties, when pirates were less Kirk Douglas and more bootleg versions of The Exorcist. The VHS tapes in our house never had official stickers. There was no Warner’s Bros hologram on their spines. If you were lucky, someone from the pub would have scribed the title on a Scotch label so you knew what to expect when the tape was popped into the top loader. Titles like Microwave Massacre, Driller Killer, and I Spit on your Grave, being just a few I remember strewn on the carpet near the TV. There were other movies, mostly bizarre, low budget imitations of Friday the 13th that my father actually rented from the local video store, their covers involving an axe-wielding maniac pursuing half-dressed teenagers in woodland areas. He would watch these movies at night while I slept, make a mental note of the tape counter (for those of you too young to know what that is, go look it up), then the following morning sit me down in front of the TV.
“See that spike, son?” he’d say pointing the wires remote at the old boob tube. “It’s going to go straight through her eye! Watch!”
A week later: “The elevator cable is going to snap and slice this man into two! Woah!”
Fast forward: “See the woman in the boat on the lake? Yeah, it’s nice and peaceful isn’t it? Wait. Wait. Bam! Look! That’s Jason!”
My father wasn’t overly concerned that these scenes might scar me. He didn’t consider that there may be long-term side effects to seeing young virgins being decapitated in just their underwear, or a man chainsawing his own hand off because it was possessed by evil spirits. To him they were no different than watching a magician cut a lady in half, or the fireworks that lit up the night sky on Bonfire Night. They were there to be marveled at. He would say to me that all things can be explained, Craig. The head exploding in Scanners was latex filled with fake blood and pig guts. The reporter getting decapitated in The Omen was just a mannequin. If I ever questioned a noise in the night, a bang or the sound of a ghost, he would say it was just the pipes under the floorboards contracting as they cooled. The ghosts I heard in my bed were wind pushing through the windowsill. All things can be explained. By the age of eleven, I watched a copy of Evil Dead because I had an earache and my father thought it might cheer me up. By the age of twelve, my favourite movie was Dawn of the Dead. When I turned thirteen, we both sat in awe at the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London, and subsequently jumped out of our skin when that Nazi monster jumped out from behind the curtain and stabbed Nurse Price to death.
I often reflect on my childhood and wonder why my father felt it appropriate to subject his only child to so much horror. I realise now that he had inadvertently taunt me something that would resonate in my own writing: if daylight gives form to the formless, and allows us to see everything for what it is, darkness offers ambiguity. It is the place where anything can exist—monsters, evil, demons, ghosts. In darkness our minds exaggerate the smallest of noises. We feel the presence of things that are not there. We are never alone. But more importantly, in darkness we are the greatest storytellers.
There are two kinds of scary; Jump scary, and Fruit Cellar scary. Allow me to explain. The Jump is pretty self explanatory and limited to movies. Think about the hapless blonde wearing very little while walking backwards away from a weird noise, usually one emanating in a woods. The camera is composed in such a way the hapless blonde is positioned right of the camera frame, allowing for, yes, you guessed it, the axe-wielding manic to fill camera screen left. As she backs into him we get the Jump. See also American Werewolf in London when David sees himself in the bed in the woods (or the false wake up after his family is slaughtered); Exorcist III and the nurse on the corridor scene; Carrie and the hand emerging from the grave… you get the picture. These scenes, if done right can cause the Jump, but most are formulaic and rely heavily on the introduction of loud music as an auditory poke in the ribs. The second kind of scary is the better of the two, in my humble opinion.
I’ve seen lots of scary movies and many merge into one. But there is only one that sticks out and created a visceral reaction in me. That sensation began as a brief shiver followed by an overwhelming churning in my stomach that made me feel a little sick, not because the scene was so gruesome, but that the scene was so well executed that as it unfolded in my mind I struggled to accept the horror before me. That movie was Psycho. I was about fifteen at the time. It was already an old movie and I was reticent to watch it because the only cool movie in black and white was Night of the Living Dead. In truth, It felt drawn out, dated, and more a Sunday afternoon flick, not a Friday night movie. By the time Norman Bates was introduced, I was close to going to upstairs to re-watch Dawn of Dead or Scanners for the billionth time. Then came the shower scene. Sure, it wasn’t as graphic as some scenes I was used to, but the shadowed lady behind the shower curtain whetted my curiosity enough to continue watching.
I figured out long ago that modern audiences are conditioned to the twist. Even if a twist isn’t mentioned, there is the assumption one is on the horizon, lurking like a…erm, twister? So when Lila Crane and her sister’s boyfriend Sam are informed by Sheriff Chambers that Norman’s mother died many years ago, that part of my brain kicked in. By then I’d seen (or assumed I’d seen) her hacking up people at the Bate’s Motel, so my mind rearranged this information as quick as a Rubik’s cube champion until all the pieces fitted nicely together. My mind was telling me that Norman must be the killer. The mind was happy with this, and as a result I sat there with bloated chest and wide grin that the fifteen year old me had discovered the horrible truth. But what Bloch/Hitchcock did next confused my brain. The Sheriff created a contradiction to the fact, an opposing problem. I forget how the line goes, but it went something like, “If you’ve seen Mrs Bates, then who’s that buried in the cemetery?” Now my brain has a dilemma; does it settle on the simpler and more viable explanation that Norma Bates is the killer, or does it embrace the possibility there’s another killer and therefore a better twist? It went with the latter. It wanted to be smarter than the writer and the director, and certainly wanted to pageant this Sherlockian deduction to my family with much aplomb. Norma Bates is alive. She and Norman killed another woman and put her in the coffin to allow Norma to kill freely and without ever being culpable for the murders because hey, she’s dead. There, my brain was happy again. Then everything changed in that goddamn fruit cellar.
Spoiler alert! If you’ve never reached the end of Psycho and want to know what the hell happens in the fruit cellar then I suggest you don’t read any further but instead go watch the movie.
Still with me? Okay.
At the point Lila Crane sees the back of Norma Bates’s head in that fruit cellar, to the point where she reels back in horror at seeing the withered and shrunken features of a corpse, and Norman comes rushing in with the kitchen knife dressed like his mother, well, it must be less than ten seconds, but in that ten seconds my brain had to process the horror and the realisation that I was wrong. In those ten seconds, my brain played back that whole movie. It recalled the conversations Norman had with his mother. It remembered the scene where Norman lifted his mother out of her bed and took her downstairs under duress. It recalled the shower scene, the stabbing of the private detective, the woman in the window. It did all that in ten seconds and caused a sensation in my stomach that has never left me. All the Jump moments, they are short-lived experiences. They are as fleeting as an immunisation jab, but the Fruit Cellar moment was the vice crushing pain of a heart attack. Bloch/Hitchcock tricked me.
That fruit cellar technique is the benchmark, the bar set high. The Jump is not possible in writing. The reader is in control on the moment. There is no music. No clever camera composition. The reader can chose to slow down and re-read a sentence if they wish, thus losing momentum. Writing will never solicit the same response you get from a Jump moment in a movie. But the Fruit Cellar moment, that can be done. An author can offer subterfuge, deception, or as in Bloch’s case, the answer before the reveal. That’s clever writing. And readers want this. They want to be tricked. They want to be Sherlock. But more important, they want to be thrilled too, and if that means they get the ending wrong, then so be it, because it makes for a better experience. I have written several shorts employing this method, and a novel (I won’t say which one), and in each attempt there was always something missing, something I could have done a little better. More slight of hand perhaps, more smoke and less mirror. This is what pushes me to the next novel, and the next, and until I get my Fruit Cellar moment, I’ll never rest.
10 things I’ve learnt about HP Lovecraft having never read his work before:
1. His stories are mostly told using the apostle perspective, by that I mean the main character is never the narrator, and as such gains a mysterious quality that adds to the whole myth/supernatural-ness.
2. Save for the Cthulhu, narrators can rarely articulate the horror or creatures they behold. Often things like, “words cannot explain what I saw or smelt”, is used, as if the eyes and olfactory senses have yet to comprehend whatever it is they see, smell or have witnessed.
3. His stories blur then edge between horror and science fiction. Lovecraft seems to enjoy exploring alien life forms and where they reside (outsiders – or the outside world).
4. His vocabulary is extensive, and will leave you reaching for the dictionary.
5. He’s obsessed with the occult, witchcraft, ancient rituals and magic, either black or not.
6. Mostly ambiguous is the horror, explanation to what that horror is, or indeed, what is truly happening, is left until the very last few sentences.
7. He likes detail, in particular the architecture of buildings and their location, as well as the genealogy of a family.
8. Arkham isn’t just a setting in DC comics.
9. He’s lazy when it comes to the titles of his short stories.
10. He wrote in a time when you could name your cat a very racist term and think nothing of it.