Book Rec – The Martledge Variations by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Where to start with this one… I love Simon Unsworth’s fiction. His portmanteau collection Quiet Houses was a formative book for me as a writer. His mixture of ghost story sensibilities and the more explicit descriptions of Clive Barker, struck a chord with me. Check out my review of Quiet Houses over at This Is Horror for more details.

Ever since then, I’ve craved more of Richard Nakata, the reluctant ghost hunter at centre of Quiet Houses. And I’m not alone. Unsworth teased us with a story about Nakata in Diseases of the Teeth, his excellent collection from a couple of years ago. However, to hear that Nakata would be back for another book was genuinely music to my ears.

Which brings us to The Martledge Variations, a new three-story collection from Steve Shaw’s brilliant Black Shuck Books (buy the books, buy all the books). Again, Nakata is at the centre of the piece, linking the stories together in a web of his own making. This is a more cautious, thoughtful Nakata who is wary of his previous mistakes and notoriety. He’s empathetic and vulnerable. An interesting man who continues his arc from Quiet Houses,  a few years down the track.

The individual stories in The Martledge Variations are all well crafted. In “The Dancers”, Unsworth leans on a real life experience of smashing a piano (I’m jealous) to bring us a tale of a haunting, but also a tale about the haunted and the damage such an experience can do to a person. The Smiling Man is the creepiest of the three and has its origins in local folklore. Here, the spirit is malicious and a serial lech. He’s bloody gross. Lastly, The Meadows features an amorous young couple that experience something sad and frightening in the darkness of a secluded park.

Martledge itself is a charming little town, if not one that is plagued by a few wayward ghosts. Unsworth prefaces the book with a brief history ripped from the past of Chorlton, the town he grew up in. At first I was a bit skeptical of the history lesson, but it worked. I’ve always said that one of Unsworth’s skills as a writer was his sense of place, how he uses places as a character using its influence on others, and it holds true here.

It’s interesting to see how Unsworth’s style has evolved across all of his books. His superb Tom Fool books show a vocabulary of the grotesque that is up there with the best of them. Whilst this is toned down somewhat here, he comes up with some truly intriguing flourishes of description. Unsworth knows how to build a horror story and his delivery of those killer lines of description that bring the reader a chill are always spot on.

The Martledge Variations is one of the Black Shuck Shadows series. Pocket sized books showcasing between three and six stories by a particular author. I’ve picked up a few of these, including the one from Phil Sloman which I will be digging into soon. My only criticism of The Martledge Variations is that it left me wanting more, obviously that’s no bad thing for a writer and I can take heart from the fact that Unsworth has always stated his love for Nakata as a character. Hopefully a return to Martledge won’t be too far away…

Pick up your copy of The Martledge Variations in paperback from Black Shuck Books or on Kindle.

 

Book Rec – Overnight by Philip Fracassi

 

I’m often way behind on my reading, aren’t we all? It took me a horrendously long time for Philip Fracassi’s wonderful collection Behold the Void to make its way to the top of my teetering “to be read” pile. But when I picked it up, holy shit, did it blow me away! “Fail-Safe” and “Altar” immediately went on my list of stories that I would’ve cut my own legs off to have written. Behold the Void is one of those books that grabs you by the face and doesn’t let go.

So when Overnight dropped from the wonderful people at Unnerving, it blew all other books out of the water and I simply had to read it straight away. And it didn’t disappoint. Overnight is a sleazy morality tale about a security guard on a film set that is drawn into a morally dubious arrangement with the “biggest fan” of the film’s lead actress.

The story is crammed with Fracassi’s usual superb wordsmanship and fully-rounded characters. It carries a sense of dread from the start and the set-up provides numerous avenues for the story to run down. For the record, it did not end up where I thought it was going! Another bonus.

Overnight is a quick read but one densely packed with detail and suspense. I won’t reveal more about the overall storyline for fear of spoilers but I would say, the story really delivers on a great premise.

Get yourself a copy on Kindle over at Amazon. Or better yet, get it in a lovely hardback edition straight from the source at Unnerving.

Good Things – Awards Season

This is just a quick post to mention two good things that have happened in my writing world of late. Firstly, against any of my expectations, Imposter Syndrome,  that I co-edited with James Everington has been short-listed for Best Anthology at the British Fantasy Society Awards.

The long-list came out ages ago and it had slipped from my mind so to see the book make the final cut is fantastic. It has to be said that this anthology is where it is due to the fantastic quality of the stories sent in by our wonderful authors. Thanks must also go to my co-editor James, Ross and Anthony at Dark Minds Press and Neil Williamson who designed the cover art. As well as all of the readers who picked up a copy. Here’s hoping we can scoop the trophy in October!

The full anthology category is listed below. There is some fantastic competition and congratulations to all of the other nominees.

Best Anthology
· 2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
· Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
· Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
· New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
· Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Pick up your copy of Imposter Syndrome here: – (UK | US)

In other news, my contributor copies of Stories of the Dead: A Tribute to George A. Romero have arrived, and they look absolutely stunning. The book is a charity anthology and contains stories from great writers such as Rich Hawkins and Anthony Watson. My story “Grounded” leads off the TOC and I’m really proud to have been involved. It’s been a fantastic experience working with Duncan Bradshaw and David Owain Hughes on this book. Pick up your copy here.

 

Book Rec – The Fisherman by John Langan

It’s been a little while since I updated this site, largely due to holidays but because I’ve been busy with editing my novel and writing a few short stories.

Today’s recommendation is the The Fisherman by John Langan. Yes, this book is unlikely to be a new find to anyone already involved in the horror community. It has won a Bram Stoker Award as well as being named This Is Horror Novel of the Year in 2016. However, sometimes a book is just so good that you need to tell people about it, even if those people have already heard about it.

The truth is, I’ve owned this book for a while and have been very excited about reading it. We (future wife and beautiful daughter) recently went away to Cornwall on holiday which featured a week of lazing around, seeing sights and stealing reading time. I’d been saving The Fisherman for just such an occasion. A chance to sit (lie down) and relax and appreciate some words. I’m glad I waited.

The Fisherman is firmly entrenched as one of the best books I’ve read. Everything about this spoke to me. I’d previously read a few of John’s short stories and been impressed by his work. This book has made me want to track down the rest and read them immediately.

The Fisherman is the story of two widowers, Abe and Dan, who bond over grief, work and a love of fishing. However, when they decide to seek out the infamous Dutchman’s Creek in the New York State area they live in, things take a turn for the sinister.

The real skill shown in The Fisherman is not only the awe-inspiring horror that Langan produces, which includes some epic Lovecraftian moments. Or the account of the creation of reservoir in the middle of the book that showcases a couple of genuinely scary moments. But the true highlight of the book is its central relationship between the two men. Langan’s portrayal of their grief and their slowly flourishing friendship is incredibly touching, as is the description of Abe’s brief but fateful marriage. Grieving and its psychological impact has long been a wealthy mine for horror writers but Langan never cheapens this emotion  or uses it in a way that undermines the characters for shock value.

There is a poetry to Langan’s prose throughout the book. He has a subtle, colloquial way of writing that feels as though someone you have known a long time is telling you a story. The Fisherman is a staggering achievement, one that all horror readers (and writers) should devour immediately. I’m sure most have, but if like me, you have this one on the shelf unread, correct your error today. It’s amazing.

Get the book straight from the source at the Word Horde website.

Dan

Podcast Rec – Mysterium Tremendum (Pseudopod)

Continuing my series of recommendations of things I have enjoyed recently, this week’s recommendation is a freebie and comes from the marvellous Pseudopod.

Pseudopod have been around for over ten years and have showcased some of the best short horror fiction around. They have featured stories from Orren Grey, Thomas Ligotti Simon Bestwick and many other brilliant writers. The podcast is presented by Alasdair Stuart.

The episode(s) I am recommending here are the first time Pseudopod have hosted a three-part story. Mysterium Tremendum was written by Laird Barron and featured in his 2010 collection Occultation. It is the story of two couples, Willem and Glenn and Dane and Victor, who go on a camping and hiking holiday in the Pacific Northwest. While they are there, they stumble across The Black Guide, a sinister book that begins to shape their trip from that point on.

I’m always reluctant to give too much away regarding the plot of a story but it has to be said, Barron does a great of establishing not only horror nice and early but his characterisation is superb. He delivers characters that are gay but do not conform to cliche, nor are they used as a mouthpiece for a particular political stance. This take on sexuality is refreshing, and much needed across all genres.

The horror in the story is layered and peeled back slowly. A creeping sense of dread grows with each episode before culminating in a nightmarish final episode. One of Barron’s many strengths as a writer is his skill with description. His work does not shy away from detail, not necessarily gore, but the horrific detail of creatures or situations. Barron gives a full, frank picture of the horrors faced by the characters in this story and dares them (and us) to look away,

The story is narrated by Jon Padgett, a fantastic writer and Ligotti scholar. His narration is both dramatic and accessible. Lending emphasis in the right places and dialing down the drama where necessary to allow the words to speak for themselves. Being a good narrator is a skill (check out the wealth of reviews on Audible slamming audiobook narrators) and Padgett is among the best I’ve heard.

Check out this three-part epic production over at the Pseudopod website.

Round Here

This week I completed a significant achievement in my writing. I finished a novel.

As I said in my post, The First Cut, I’ve always struggled with imposter syndrome and not feeling like a “real writer”. Today I feel like I’ve made a breakthrough. I’ve always written stories and since I was a kid, I’d imagined myself writing a novel in the future. Yet the older I got, the more out of touch the achievement seemed. A combination of work commitments and general life stuff always made that ambition seem impossible.

But in the last year or so, I’ve started to take my writing a lot more seriously. Check out the podcast I guested on over at This Is Horror for further details around this. But, I realised that life wasn’t going to present me with time to write, I had to take it. So I did. This novel was written in stolen hours. It was largely written in the library opposite my office, where I spend most of my lunch breaks. It was written in silence as my daughter slept. It was written as notes in the back of notebooks that I typed up.

This novel is proof to myself that I can do it. That I have the discipline to finish a long project and the chops to make a coherent story along the way. Today I feel like I have earned some validation as a writer. It’s a good feeling.

So, the novel. The book is titled Round Here. The title comes from some lyrics by one of my favourite bands, Counting Crows. Check out the studio version from their amazing album, August and Everything After. The first chorus has a line that inspired me : –

“Round here, we always stand up straight.

Round here, something radiates.”

Round Here is set in a small town in northern England blighted by a spate of teenage suicides. As distraught parents close ranks, Natalie Hounslow returns home to help her parents keep her sister, Cate on the rails. As she explores her hometown, Natalie realises there is something far worse than death waiting for the residents of Upheath.

There is no publisher attached yet, primarily because I am yet to approach one, but today is a day to celebrate. The book is done. I’ve achieved one goal, now it’s on to the next – publication.

Book Recommendation – Six Stories

As well as spreading the word about my own writing and publications, I wanted to use this site to discuss books, films, music – whatever I’ve been enjoying lately. They’re not reviews, as such, more a quick run down of what I’ve been reading or listening to so that people who read this site can check them out for themselves.

Seeing as the site is just getting going, I wanted to take the opportunity to get promoting other books as soon as possible. Luckily, I have just finished reading a cracking book so I can get the ball rolling with something memorable.

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski is a book I saw recommended by the fantastic Alasdair Stuart of Pseudopod fame in a column that he wrote at Tor.com about childhood cruelty and Moors settings. A cheery mix huh? The column is a great read, I’m yet to read Chalk but it’s pretty high on the list.

Six Stories is a tale of murder and teenage bad behaviour, with a sprinkling of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. The story centres around the murder of a teenager, Tom Jeffries in 1997, and those who were either there or associated with him at the time.

I’m a big fan of books that are told in an epistolary style and Six Stories is presented in the form of an ongoing true crime podcast. Each week, the host of the titular Six Stories podcast, Scott King, interviews someone connected with Tom Jeffries and unravels another layer of the mystery around his death.

The skill in Wesolowski’s writing is two-fold. His characterisation is superb, with each podcast guest having their own truly unique voice. The characters in Six Stories are all full realised and have quirks and motives that are believable and logical. Be it, a hidden agenda or overt unrequited love, each interview makes the reader feel a different emotion.

The layering of the story throughout the novel is also exceptional. Each interview reveals details, contradictions and motives that build towards a tense, deserved climax to the story. Whilst not overtly a horror novel, there is a touch of folk horror here. Repeated references to a local myth crop up throughout, and whilst the supernatural element is a minor part of the story, the passages where it features prominently are among the most powerful. A quick browse through Wesoloswski’s back catalogue reveals a love of horror, something that is evident in the strength of his Nana Wrack myth in this book. (Note to self: pick up The Black Land)

The Six Stories series continues with Hydra, another investigation from podcast host Scott King and hopefully there are plans afoot for future installments.

You can find out more about Matt Wesolowski’s work at his author site, his Facebook or on Twitter where he is @concretekraken 

Buy it now – Amazon (UK|US)

The First Cut

 

For a long time, I have talked a good game when it comes to my writing. I’ve sat in on the This Is Horror podcast with some brilliant writers and discussed the craft of writing, but I’ve done relatively little in terms of getting my own writing out there. I’ve always been writing, tapping away at the keyboard and producing stories. That has never been in question but until now, I’ve never believed I am a writer.

For me, writers were always professionals, people like Stephen King who spend all day churning out books that sell millions of copies. They weren’t people like me, sitting at home writing stories to amuse myself. Or so I thought until a conversation with my good friend Michael David Wilson and stumbling across a quote from Chuck Palahniuk which validated everything we had discussed. It was (and I paraphrase) –

“Do you write every day? Yeah? Then dude, you’re a fucking writer.”

And that was all the encouragement I needed.

As it stands, I have a number of credits to my name as both a writer and an editor. I’m incredibly proud of all the books that I have been involved in.

My aims for the future are to get as many stories and books out there as I can. I am currently in the final editing phase of producing my first novel. I’ll post about that separately over time. I also have a number of short stories out for submission so hopefully I can use this site to broadcast some good news from time to time!

As well as posting about my own writing, I will be using this site to post about the writing of others. I’ll be posting about things that inspire me, books and films I’ve enjoyed as well as things I’ve learned about writing, editing and publishing over the last few years.

Thanks for stopping by and here’s to the next time.

Dan