|WE ARE HERE
Michael Marshall (www.michaelmarshallsmith.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
On a visit to New York to meet his publisher, David bumps into a man on the street – the sort of innocent collision that happens all the time on busy city pavements – who follows him back to Penn Station and confronts him. He utters two words, part question, part command, before disappearing again: “Remember me”. When John Henderson’s girlfriend introduces him to Catherine Warren, it is because she believes he can help her. Catherine is being stalked, and when John investigates he discovers that it’s not quite as straightforward as an ex-lover or shunned suitor. As David and John become entangled in this strange new world, a man named Reinhart is rallying troops for a push that could ultimately lead to death and destruction on an epic scale.
There is something comforting, despite the subject matter, about cracking open a new Michael Marshall novel. Perhaps it’s the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that you have no way of anticipating what’s in store next from one of the most original storytellers of recent years. Like his previous novels, We Are Here straddles the boundary between straight crime/thriller and straight horror as Marshall introduces us to a world that exists just on the periphery of our own, a group of people who live in the shadows and who are largely forgotten, or ignored, by the people around them.
In much the same way that Die Hard 2 is a sequel to Die Hard (the same central character finding himself in yet another, unrelated, but equally dangerous situation), We Are Here is a sequel to Marshall’s 2009 novel, Bad Things. John Henderson, who we last saw in the wilds of Washington state has moved to New York with Kristina and is now living and working in the East Village. Beyond that, there are no other major connections between the two novels, though long-time readers will have a better understanding of John’s background than people using We Are Here as a jumping-on point (if you haven’t read Marshall before, though, you should by no means allow this to deter you from starting here). In a move that now seems to be traditional for the author, Henderson’s sections are told in the first person, while the rest of the characters get chapters of their own, narrated in a third-person voice.
The voice itself is engaging and down-to-earth, and much of the story is told in a conversational tone that is sometimes at odds with what’s actually going on. Contrary to what you might expect, this works very well, and serves to tie the different elements of the story (often off-the-wall) neatly together into a coherent whole.
They made their way toward the platform via which they’d arrived at the station that morning. This turned out not to be where the train was departing from, however, and all at once they were in a hurry and lost and oh-my-god-we’re-screwed. David figured out where they were supposed to be and pointed at Dawn to lead the way. She forged the way with the brio of someone having a fine old time in the city, emboldened by a bucketful of wine, clattering down the steps to the platform and starting to trot when she saw their train in preparation for departure.
The nature of these shadowy people referenced by the novel’s title is never fully explained. A number of theories are presented to the reader, in the form of theories held by various characters (are they imaginary friends long since forgotten by the people who dreamed them up? Are they ghosts? Are they something else entirely?), and the reader is left to decide for themselves which they prefer, or which makes the most sense. Regardless of which theory is correct, Marshall has created a complex societal structure and set of rules which govern the actions of the group, giving these people some substance and background that is woven neatly into the fabric of the story.
The return of John Henderson gives us a sense of familiarity and I, for one, enjoy the various interconnections between his books that define the strange world that Marshall began creating with his Straw Men novels. We Are Here also introduces a huge cast of new characters, which is a departure from the small, controlled groups of central characters that we’re used to seeing in the author’s works. With Marshall’s deft touch, though, each stands out as an individual and it is easy to keep track as the story progresses. In Reinhart, Marshall has created one of the most sinister and evil characters you’re likely to encounter in a piece of fiction. Despite the fact that he spends much of the story lurking in the background, his brief appearances are memorable and shiver-inducing.
Another winner from a master of his game, We Are Here is a welcome addition to Michael Marshall’s growing catalogue. Part crime, part horror, part urban fantasy, it should appeal to new and old readers alike with its mixture of dark comedy, horror, mystery and abrupt violence. Fast-paced, tightly-plotted and beautifully-written, We Are Here packs thrills and chills into an intelligent story that, despite its fantastical elements, never loses its plausibility or sense of realism. If you’re already a fan of Michael Marshall then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t read the man’s books before, then We Are Here is an excellent place to start. Either way, you’re in for a treat.
|THE AYLESFORD SKULL
James P. Blaylock (www.jamespblaylock.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.
What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.
Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.
One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.
James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.
The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.
|THE CLUMSY GHOST AND OTHER SPOOKY TALES
Alastair Jessiman, Anna Britten, David Blake, Roy McMillan, Edward Ferrie, Margaret Ferrie, David Angus
Read by Sean Barrett, Harry Somerville, Anne-Marie Piazza, Roy McMillan, Thomas Eyre
Naxos Audiobooks (www.naxosaudiobooks.com)
(Available as a CD audiobook or digital download)
I have, for a long time, been a fan of horror, cutting my teeth back in the ‘80s on anthologies edited together especially for younger readers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Christopher Pike. From there, I graduated to the novels of Stephen King and the rest, as they say, is history. I still have a fondness for those old novels and anthologies and like to revisit them when I have the chance. I was offered a copy of Naxos Audiobooks’ The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales for review and jumped at the offer, seeing a chance to relive those parts of my childhood that cemented in place my love for reading.
The Clumsy Ghost is a collection of seven specially-commissioned short spooky tales written specifically for audio presentation, and to appeal to an audience of 8-13 year-olds. According to publisher Nicholas Soames, the plan was to recreate a genre of ghost stories that appealed to the whole family, in the vein of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
What they have produced is something of a mixed bag; as with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. Some of the entries will appeal specifically to the younger members of the family, while others are aimed at the higher end of the 8-13 year-old range, and one or two appealing to the whole family group – mum and dad included. The title story is a comedic tale about a ghost who decides to haunt a local mansion whose owners have fallen upon hard times. The ghost, a clumsy man in life, discovers that he is no less clumsy in death, and ends up causing trouble for the family, rather than helping them. “Unable to Connect” puts a very modern spin on an old-fashioned tale. A teenage girl hears her mobile phone ringing, even though she has left it at home, and discovers shortly afterwards that her mother has died at around the same time.
The strongest stories in the collection are “The Weeping Tree” and “The Book of Imhotep”. Margaret Ferrie’s “The Weeping Tree” is good old-fashioned horror story, with one scene in particular that will send a shiver up the spine of even the most hardened reader of horror. “The Book of Imhotep” takes us back to Egypt and a battle of wits between a cocky young prince and a long-dead sorcerer.
Overall, the stories are good, if not always excellent. With some, it is clear that they have been written specifically for audio presentation, while others have been written with a more traditional slant, and would not be out of place between the covers of a physical book. These stories provide chills aplenty, but are not designed to give nightmares, and in that they should succeed admirably (admittedly, I’m 36 years old, so the intended audience may see things slightly differently).
The two-disc set provides around two and a half hours of family entertainment the old-fashioned way, with nary a television set in sight. The readers are consistently wonderful – Sean Barrett is the stand-out here – and all well-suited to the stories they read. Naxos are best-known for their wonderful recordings of some of the finest classical music out there, and they have managed to incorporate some of this into the production, so expect to hear music from Debussy, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst others. The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales should be essential Hallowe’en or Christmas listening for families who like to spend time reading together, and should provide children with an introduction to the much wider world of horror fiction.
Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan & Stephen Romano
Mulholland Books (www.mulhollandbooks.co.uk)
Released: 13th October
When we first meet Buck Carlsbad, at the opening of Black Light, he is hard at work, taking down a mark – a ghost that has latched onto a living person. Buck has a gift, which he calls “The Pull” that allows him to suck these marks into himself and eventually regurgitate them into a silver urn, which he then buries in his back yard, effectively sealing them away forever. These marks, when inside Buck, enhance his ability to see the Blacklight, the world in which the dead live, a sort of layering onto the real world of all past versions of that world. Buck has no idea where his gift came from – orphaned at 7, he suspects that his parents were similarly gifted, but he has been unable to find out where they disappeared to, or why the left him to fend for himself.
When Buck is hired by a billionaire businessman to protect the first journey of a high-speed train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that runs through an area of desert that Buck calls the Blacklight Triangle – due to the high instance of ghost activity in the area – he jumps at the chance. Buck has history in the Triangle, and suspects that this train journey may be the best bet he has of finding out what happened to his parents. Assembling a team, Buck boards the train along with an assortment of film and music stars, a camera crew, and the man slated to be the next President of the USA – and his Secret Service detail – and finds himself on a high-speed journey into hell with no-one to trust but himself.
“By writers from the SAW franchise”, the book cover tells us, something which excited me until I realised that Messrs Melton and Dunstan were behind four of the later entries to a series that – in my opinion – lost the plot about ten minutes into the third instalment. So, I started Black Light with a certain amount of trepidation. We’re thrown into the middle of the action, and we discover Buck’s Gift as we watch him use it to ensnare the ghost of a child killer who is haunting his wife. Buck is a character of some depth: he’s an orphan with this strange gift, and the only conclusion he can draw is that one or other of his parents has passed it on to him. He has a strange relationship with a young woman who is head-over-heels in love with him, and an even stranger relationship with his local priest, a man who provides him with the silver urns he requires to “store” his marks. He has a long and troubled history with the Blacklight, a history that cost one man his life, and almost cost Buck his own, but for Buck it’s the only way he is ever likely to discover who he is, and where he came from.
The story starts slowly, introducing the characters, and their various abilities, and the concept of the high-speed train that runs between the Lost Angels Plaza in Los Angeles and the Dreamworld resort in Las Vegas. As we see these things spring into life around us, I couldn’t help but be struck by similarities to the third volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic, The Waste Lands: the Lost Angels Plaza as the Cradle of Lud; the Jaeger Laser as Blaine the Mono; the Blacklight Triangle as the waste lands themselves. Like Roland’s story, there’s an overarching sense of doom as the main players move into position, and the train readies for departure.
From that point on, around about the middle of the book, the narrative grabs the reader by the throat, throttles up a few notches, and drags us along for a ride that moves as fast as the train itself. There is no let-up in the action, and I would certainly recommend trying to read this portion of the book in a single sitting for maximum effect. The authors have a fine grasp of how to move a story along at breakneck pace, and how to keep the reader interested. The story is extremely visual, cinematic in its approach and scope. The book cover adds to this illusion, a movie poster that is eye-catching and intriguing. There are times when it seems we’re reading a film script – or a Matthew Reilly novel – but thankfully they’re few and far between. There is no mistaking that these are very talented writers who have done an excellent job of translating their skills of writing for the screen to writing an engaging and extremely entertaining novel.
Dark, gory and brilliantly-plotted, Black Light combines the elements of a good horror novel, with the stylistic tics of a mystery story, and the pace and tone of the best thrillers on the market. Melton, Dunstan and Romano have created, in Buck Carlsbad, a likeable, if somewhat damaged, character that the reader can identify with and root for. They’ve also created a mythology and backstory that is solid and original. The combination make this one to watch, and a dead cert for a series of novels and films charting Buck’s journey. If you’re a fan of Felix Castor or John Constantine, or are looking for a horror story that’s a bit different from the norm, then Black Light is the book for you.