MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

Mirrorland is Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, which seems remarkable given how accomplished the writing is. The prose is beautiful and engaging, at times heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally complex novel. The relationship between the two sisters is nuanced and believable. The story cleverly blurs genres so that it’s not quite as straightforward as a domestic noir novel, and yet not quite as oblique as dark fantasy. To its credit it completely manages to work as both, and yet by so deftly blending them, it elevates it beyond either category. The writing style is confident and authoritative, the plot development well paced, weaving seemingly unimportant details into the story one bit at a time until the reader slowly begins to see the full picture. The characters felt rounded and their back story tragic. There are some nice twists and turns and the narrative is captivating and imaginative. Mirrorland, as a concept, is so vividly recreated it makes me wonder whether there was some element of autobiography at work here. Perhaps I’m not giving full credit to Johnstone’s imaginative power. It’s a rich location, offering plenty of nods to other aspects of fiction, especially the work of Stephen King. I particularly enjoyed the parallels to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and Mirrorland makes fine use of them as both an anchor to the story and as analogies to the girls’ lives. I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Carole Johnstone has written an assured debut novel, one that heralds in an exciting new voice to the genre of dark fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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BLACK STATIC issue 78/79

Just a quick update to let you know that the details of the next issue of BLACK STATIC have been posted by the editor, Andy Cox. You can see the contents here, including information on how to order the magazine (which is technically closer to an anthology now, as it is only fiction and there are around double the amount of stories – 10 in this one).

Here are the stories that will appear –

Upland Wildlife by Rhonda Pressley Veit
Delivery by Tyler Keevil
Subtemple by Ashley Stokes
Of Wrath by Zandra Renwick
These Birdhouses are Empty Now by Jo Kaplan
Thirty-Two Tumbling Teeth by Neil Williamson
Moon-Boy by Jess Hyslop
The Undulating by Stephen Bacon
The Great West Gate by Alexander Glass
A Phantasmagorical Bestiary of the La Brea Tar Pits by Mike Buckley

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BLACK WATER – THE BOOK OF FANTASTIC LITERATURE edited by Alberto Manguel

Published in 1983, Black Water, edited by Argentine-born Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, is a mammoth short-story anthology, collecting together 72 fantastic tales from around the world (many of them translated from their original language). Contained within are disquieting stories, fragments of novels, tales of physical transformation, even traditional ghost stories (if such a thing exists as a ‘traditional ghost story), all of them possessing an element of the fantastic.

I have owned this book for many years and it has had numerous recommendations from people I know and respect, so I’m amazed it took me this long to pick it up. Perhaps the size had previously deterred me – it does come in at 955 pages in the version I have – or perhaps I knew of its diversity and wasn’t confident in my reading tastes matching that of the editor. Nevertheless I’m glad I eventually got round to it, because Black Water is a superb anthology, probably one of the best in the genre of weird fiction.

The stories span a range of centuries and are sourced from such literary luminaries as Franz Kafka, Tennessee Williams, Rudyard Kipling, Ray Bradbury, Graham Greene, MR James, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Alexander Pushkin, Robert Louis Stevenson, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Silvina Ocampo, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, Ursula K LeGuin, Henry James, O Henry, EM Forster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many many others. As with any publication containing such an array of stories, not every tale will work in the same way. However, overall there’s a wealth of goodness here, something that will connect with most readers. Whilst the stories aren’t overtly . It certainly impressed upon this reader a renewed appreciation for writers from the South American continent. There’s a story by Horacio Quiroga which is actually nightmare inducing.

The rather highbrow nature of the fiction, and the age in which some of these stories were written, means that possibly not all modern readers will appreciate every entry – there were some that felt a bit too dry for my tastes or perhaps too subtle for my understanding – but nevertheless there is much to enjoy here and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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THE FOURTH PROTOCOL by Frederick Forsyth

First published in 1984, and set several years in the future, Frederick Forsyth’s ninth novel, The Fourth Protocol, is a complex but superbly written espionage story, set during the Cold War, involving Russia’s interference in the UK’s 1987 general election. With Labour growing in popularity, and a hard-left faction set to take control of the party once they achieve the expected win, Russia’s interest in the election takes on new levels of intensity. Kim Philby, disgraced Russian spy, meets with senior members of the Soviet political system, setting in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the smuggling into Britain, and assembly, of the individual components required to build a small nuclear bomb…

Whilst I can’t agree with his personal politics, there’s no denying that Frederick Forsyth is an extremely readable author. His experience in the intelligence service always comes across as bona fide, lending the novels a level of authenticity that is difficult to replicate with research alone. You genuinely feel you are privy to how things like this go on, even if that isn’t actually the case. There’s an assured tone in all of his fiction. The first novel of his I read was 1971’s The Day of the Jackal, a masterpiece of intrigue and political insight, and I have yet to come across any of his work that I haven’t loved. The Fourth Protocol is no exception.

The opening third of the novel takes its time in arranging the characters and revealing the various characters involved in the story. Like much of Forsyth’s work, fiction and fact are blended in a compelling way, adding veracity to the events. There’s a nice middle section where the man tasked with uncovering the murky plot, John Preston, visits South Africa to investigate someone suspected on being a foreign agent, reminding us that spy fiction is really just a branch of the crime genre. Preston is a likeable character, not flashy like James Bond, but a little bit more action-based than a character in a John le Carre novel. The final third of the novel is absolutely brilliant, detailing the assembly of the nuclear bomb by a Russian agent based in Suffolk, as John Preston and his British secret service colleagues race against the clock to thwart his plans.

If you enjoy espionage or crime fiction you may well have read this already, as it’s a classic of the genre. And rightly so. It’s an exciting, brilliantly executed novel, full of twists and turns, with a sympathetic central character and a plausible plot. This is highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE TRUANTS by Kate Weinberg

Jess Walker is in her first year at a university in East Anglia, studying an aspect of the works of Agatha Christie. There she falls under the spell of her tutor, Lorna Clay, who happens to be a successful novelist and a Christie expert. Slowly she becomes drawn into a tangled web of secrets and lies with her friends, one that ends in tragedy.

The Truants is the debut novel by Kate Weinberg. It’s an accomplished psychological crime story, with compelling characters and an interesting premise. The love-triangles are carefully constructed and Jess is a flawed but amiable narrator. I did feel a rather unrealistic sense of middle-class angst, one that reminded me of the masterful Donna Tartt novel The Secret History, but without – understandably so – the same quality of writing. The references to Agatha Christie are minimal, and yet this is a nice way of drawing the reader into the story. I suspect it will also have appeal outside of the UK.

There are a couple of nice twists and, although the plot development wasn’t entirely unexpected and unforeseen, the ending was satisfactory enough to tie up the loose ends and offer a fresh insight to what had gone before. Nothing too ground-breaking here, but an entertaining crime novel with a fresh angle on the genre. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN by M John Harrison

I first came across the fiction of M John Harrison in the late 80s and early 90s, in the anthologies edited by Stephen Jones – the annual Best New Horror and his original Dark Terrors series. His writing, on the surface so straightforward and conventional, merely hints at things just out of sight, the weirdness is not in any way overt. And yet his skill is such that, as a reader, you can’t fail to pick up on the disturbing element of the narrative. He manages to conjure a dreamlike quality to his stories. You almost feel like you’re not fully aware of all the facts, like you’ve missed some part of the narrative. Although the sense of paranoia this evokes is not at all accidental…

Shaw lives in south west London. He’s recovering after suffering some kind of breakdown. He’s clearly distanced from everything, and has little contact with his surroundings other than his occasional visits to his aging mum, who has dementia and is being looked after in a care-home. One day he meets Victoria, the daughter of a doctor, who claims she saw her first corpse at the age of 13. He is offered a job by one of his neighbours, and spends his days on a barge doing menial jobs. Meanwhile Victoria journeys up to Shropshire to restore the property that her late mother left. There she encounters a strange set of characters and events, most of which cross over with Shaw’s experiences. It feels like there is a conspiracy taking place, one to which Shaw and Victoria (and us, as the reader) are on the outside.

The book is littered with references to water and fish, and is underscored with a hint of the numinous, although there is a strong suggestion that the events are rather outside the realms of human understanding. There are a couple of scenes that left me feeling unsettled and disturbed, and yet I couldn’t quite explain why. This is largely to do with Harrison’s skill as a writer, and it’s no surprise to see that The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again won the Goldsmiths Prize 2020. Each of his sentences offer something startling, or beautiful, or unsettling, sometimes at the same time.

I loved this book, but its unconventional narrative and lack of explanatory hand-holding, might not be for everyone. I couldn’t pretend to understand all of the motifs and metaphors, and there are no doubt some dots I probably failed to connect, but nevertheless this is an assured novel, brilliantly realised, and a major entry into the catalogue of the very best of weird fiction. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT : THE GREATEST DETECTIVE IN THE WORLD by Mark Aldridge

Such is the size of my teetering pile of ‘to-be-read’ books that rarely nowadays do I approach the end of a book with a feeling of regret. And yet that’s exactly what I did as I neared the end of Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World. It’s a hefty tome anyway – over 480 pages in the hardcover version – and yet I yearned to spend more time within its pages. Published to celebrate the centenary year that Hercule Poirot first made his appearance (in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles) it details the extraordinary presence of Belgium’s most brilliant detective across the various media platforms – from novels and short stories, plays, radio and television, even computer games and graphic novels and the continuation novels penned by Sophie Hannah.

Professor Mark Aldridge is a Christie expert and has written previously on the subject, but this is an assured book. It takes a chronological approach to Poirot’s appearances, and is jam-packed with fascinating trivia and never-before-published correspondence. Each of the entries is illustrated with wonderful cover art or delightful photographs to add that bit extra. The level of research is outstanding. Aldridge provides for each section a spoiler-free synopsis (something that’s easier said than done) and yet is still enthusiastic and detailed enough to make it engrossing. There are snippets from various reviews of the time so we get to see how each novel was critically received, and it’s interesting to follow Christie’s evolution as a fledgling writer into one of the world’s bestselling authors. Through snippets of letters to her agent, her character and private thoughts – including her tenacity in dealing with her publisher, and her strong views on her own creations – are revealed, which feels like it gives us a real insight into her life. As someone who read the entire Agatha Christie output many years ago, it certainly made me what to revisit her work.

This really is a delight for the Agatha Christie fan. I cannot find anything at all to detract from it. In fact, such is its quality, that a follow-up – featuring Miss Marple and Tommy & Tuppence and the stand-alone novels – is crying out to be written. Here’s hoping that this Poirot book sells in large quantities. If quality is any measure, it certainly deserves to be a best-seller. As this is easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in quite a while, whether you’re an Agatha Christie fan or just a casual crime reader, this title comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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FAMILY MATTERS by Anthony Rolls

For several years the British Library have been publishing their Crime Classics series, containing titles from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction and beyond. Some of them are quite well-known, others more obscure.

This particular novel, Family Matters, originally published in 1933, is rather unconventional in comparison to some of the others, in that it’s an inverted mystery – we know from the start who will die, and which other characters would like him dead, but what we only find out at the end is which suspect was actually guilty. What this structure loses in its intrigue it by far makes up in its characterisation (a common criticism levelled at ‘whodunnits’, as revealing too much is a giveaway of the solution). The characters, it has to be said, are pretty unpleasant, and I felt I cared little for any of them. The first quarter of the novel is a bit of a slog, and had this been my first Crime Classic I might have abandoned the book, but I’ve read enough of the series to trust in the titles selected, and so I persisted. I’m glad I did. Whilst this isn’t going to convert anyone to an avid follower of the series, it’s different enough to hold a charm. Not recommended to the casual crime fan – especially one more used to the fast pace of a contemporary crime novel – but for those of us who don’t mind a rather more ponderous and languid read, it’s an entertaining enough way to pass the time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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THE UNDULATING

Just a quick update to let you know that I have written a new short story, my first in a few years. It is called The Undulating, and is 6400 words. It’s one I particularly enjoyed writing – especially as it kept me occupied during lockdown towards the end of 2020 – and (to me at least) it feels like a special story, coming so long into a period when I genuinely never thought I’d write again. It will be published in Black Static magazine in a month or two. This marks my fourth appearance in this great publication. More information as I get it.

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RIPLEY UNDER GROUND by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote five novels featuring the murderous anti-hero Tom Ripley, starting with The Talented Mr Ripley in 1955. Ripley Under Ground is the sequel, published in 1970. It picks up with him living in a small town just outside Paris, married to Heloise, a well-to-do French woman. It’s been six years since the events of the first novel, and Ripley has lost none of his capacity for deceit. He’s heavily involved in art forgery and thinks nothing of masquerading as the deceased artist in order to continue the pretence (and avoid the fraud being revealed). Things take a turn for the unexpected, and Ripley has to take drastic measures to conceal his role in the crime.

I really enjoyed this novel. Highsmith is a master at psychological suspense, and does a great job of involving us in the central character’s cold-blooded sense of self-preservation. It’s remarkable really how she gets us rooting for such an obvious bad-guy. But there’s something innately likeable about Tom Ripley. He’s quite the charmer. This novel feels quite a bit more relaxed and is written with more confidence than The Talented Mr Ripley, although in fairness it was written further into Highsmith’s career, when her craft was clearly honed to perfection. The plot itself is faintly ludicrous, but she manages to pull off the more unlikely aspects of it by grounding the twists, giving them an aura of inevitability. It flits between France, London and Salzburg, the latter being the location for a particularly gruesome scene involving murder and its aftermath. Overall this is a great read, with a fascinating central character and enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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