THE MAN IN THE FIELD by James Cooper

I recently read (and reviewed) the latest short story collection by British writer, James Cooper, which was published by PS Publishing last month. I found it to be an excellent book, very worthy of your time. Following hot on its heels comes this novella – The Man in the Field – from American publisher Cemetery Dance.

It’s a extended version of a story contained in the collection, specifically one that was inspired by the writing of Shirley Jackson. I was impressed with the original story and this novella nicely illustrates the differences between varying lengths of fiction. The opening chapter is essentially the version from the collection, ending with an ambiguous yet devastating climax. The rest of the novella expands on the events, filling in much of the characters and taking us off in a rather unexpected direction.

It’s difficult to say too much without giving spoilers, so all I’ll say is that the novella is a very different beast to the short story. Both work perfectly. The novella hints at much more than the story, which was a great example of folk horror. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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SCAR TISSUE by James Cooper

Scar Tissue – from British specialist publisher PS Publishing – is the latest short story collection from British writer James Cooper. It works as both a superb example of the author’s fiction output and also as a catalogue of insightful essays about some of horror fiction’s strongest exponents. Here Cooper presents nine brand new stories of his own, written specifically in – if not quite homage, more influenced by – the same literary qualities of the writers who have most inspired his own writing and fuelled his love of the genre. Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Robert McCammon, Clive Barker, Joe R Lansdale, Ray Bradbury, Daphne du Maurier and Stephen King are all referenced, as well as a whole sub-genre that Cooper declares as a firm favourite – the late 70s sci-fi/horror crossover with psychic espionage.
It’s certainly a novel idea (no pun intended) – one that I haven’t come across before – and it works a treat. As you’d expect from a writer as dedicated to his craft as James Cooper is, the writing is of a high standard.

In A Brighter Garden, a 64 year old Vietnam vet sets to work building a koi pond for a grouchy old Floridian woman. It is 2016 and the world is a maelstrom of political turmoil, gang wars and a declining economy. Intercut with the discussion are scenes from 1971, detailing the 19 year old narrator’s experiences in the Vietnam War and the horrors of being in country. The contrast between the two worlds is startling. I really liked the voice of Clay Newburg, whose youthful naivety is counterbalanced with the world-weary cynicism of him in later life. He is clearly damaged by the passage of time – both physically and mentally – and this is the thematic vein running through much of Straub’s work that is most evident here, when Cooper writes – “The past defines us, no matter how badly we try to escape it.” There’s a hard-edged poetry to the sections set in Vietnam. Cooper’s prose is lyrical and evocative, and I’d definitely relish reading a longer piece of his work set in this environment. The comparisons with Peter Straub are finely drawn, touching close to the American author’s 1988’s novel Koko and his 2000 short story The Ghost Village, and there is a fittingly dark end to this satisfying tale.

Inspired by the short stories of Shirley Jackson – in particular the quite brilliant tale from 1948, The Lottery – the second story in the collection is The Man in the Field, a rather macabre slice of folk horror. One morning a strange figure appears in a nearby field, an event which seems to occur annually. The villagers gather to pay tribute to the man’s sudden appearance and enact a ritual; one with devastating consequences for one of the villagers. Cooper tells this straightforward tale with a nice understated tone, hinting at the sinister appearance of the man rather than overtly spelling it out (although it’s hardly a spoiler to say that by the end of the tale we are under no doubt about the mysterious figure’s intentions). I really liked this story. It comes with a strong sense of the uncanny, and delivers on the promises it makes.

Cooper’s third entry is Morning Glory. This aims to encompass the qualities of Robert McCammon, whose stories embody the rich tapestry and darkness of the Deep South – sometimes in genre terms referred to as Southern Gothic. In the story’s introduction, Cooper discusses his desire to capture the warmth and compassion of McCammon’s writing, documenting the inner struggle of everyday people. In that regard, Cooper ably succeeds.
Morning Glory is a roadside American diner where a priest and a partially-sighted girl stop for refreshments. Deke, the co-owner, begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right about the strange couple. Once a further customer arrives – someone who seems to be in pursuit of the old man and the little girl – it becomes clear that the presence of these three characters in the diner is going to create an eventful morning.
Cooper nails the narrative voice perfectly. The story flows, driven by its well-observed characters and some great dialogue. There’s a reference to The Twilight Zone in the introduction to this story and it’s an appropriate observation because I could easily imagine this as an episode of the classic show. It’s fair to note that whilst the story isn’t the most original, it’s certainly perfectly executed.

Next up is the Clive Barker-inspired The Unholy. Cooper’s reverential introduction serves as a wonderful launch-pad into this story of transformation, both physical and metaphorical. Bare-knuckle fighter Hopper is recruited by wealthy Richard Embleton into helping him locate a mythical creature who may hold the key to prolonging his life. There are allusions to arcane religions and the demonic aspect of the story feels fresh. Their trek into the Norwegian mountains in search of the demon lends the tale a grand scale, and the denouement is satisfyingly dark.

Roadside Revival is based on the genre-bending, sometimes humour-infused fiction of Texan author Joe R Lansdale. Several disparate characters converge at The Burning Heart Motel, all with differing intentions. The Texan heat seems to apply pressure to these already-damaged individuals. The writing is punchy and direct, but tinged with a lyrical simplicity. Here we encounter vengeful Hank, intent on recovering his kidnapped wife Evelyn, the shady Reverend Faithful, a revivalist preacher whose past is being investigated by undercover FBI agent Dale, two murderous brothers called Vinn and facially disfigured police officer Gantz. When they come together in one of the motel’s rooms, it makes for an explosive ending, one drawing finely on Lansdale’s style of writing and plotlines.

Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia-tinged fiction is the next story referenced in Cooper’s Childhood, Inc, which beautifully balances the trademark science-fiction and bittersweet recollection of bygone days. Our narrator takes the opportunity of using a Cuff with which he travels back to his childhood in an effort to experience it one last time. Only things don’t go exactly as planned. Cooper bravely peels away the thin veneer of nostalgia, suggesting that by romanticising the past we sometimes fail in being honest. He nails the feel of the story and the time setting. This was one of the highlights of the collection.

The Birdwatcher is Cooper’s continuation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, in which Nat Hocken deals with the aftermath of the birds’ seemingly indiscriminate attack of humans. Rather than tackle the story as a further instalment, Cooper evokes the psychological impact of what such an assault might trigger, hinting at mental illness in Nat. There are several avian phrases and references cleverly folded into the prose, reminding us of the symbiotic nature of humans and birds, highlighting what a devastating thing this would be if those seemingly innocuous creatures that we take for granted suddenly turned on us.

The Stephen King inspired Ordinary Day might surprise a few, who are expecting a stone-cold horror classic, but this manages to blend the latter-day crime-focused King (as opposed to the supernatural horror that the casual reader might assume) with the immensely readable narrative voice that powers most of King’s fiction. It’s a wonderfully dark tale, hard-boiled and perfectly paced, with a grotesque undercurrent involving several well-drawn characters. This was probably my favourite story, one that I wished could have gone on longer.

Rounding off the collection is The Lift, which melds together the conspiracy-theory paranoia of the 1970s and the psychic espionage stories of that time, but adds a contemporary twist to the proceedings. Thomas Kessler is a street hustler, but one with a psychic ability that sets him apart from the usual pickpockets and bar conmen. When that ability comes to the attention of T-Branch, a shady government department intent on exploiting it for their own means, Kessler is tasked with infiltrating the mind of John Burke, an incarcerated man whose identity has fractured into separate personalities. Using a technique called cognitive lifting, T-Branch instructs Kessler to extract Burke’s primary personality and return it to the surface of his mind. The Lift has a scientific grounding that sounds vaguely plausible, and Cooper manages to pull off the unexpected.

Scar Tissue is an ambitious project, one that’s very worthy of your time. The book contains interesting essays from Cooper (in which he discusses his inspirational starting points) and it’s fascinating to see how the author implements those qualities into his own writing; however – as with any short fiction collection – the book stands or falls by its stories, and it’s here where Scar Tissue wins; they’re all diverse, expertly written and infinitely entertaining. This book comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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FIVE STORIES HIGH edited by Jonathan Oliver

I’ve been reading the anthologies of Jonathan Oliver for several years. He has a great eye for talent and his books usually have a diverse and fascinating array of contributors. Five Stories High breaks from the standard format to include five novellas from some of the best speculative authors of today, all loosely set within the framing story of being linked to the same building.

As a ‘theme’ it’s quite a relaxed one. It’s obvious that the stories contained within the book are from the genre of ‘weird’ fiction, but the theme allows enough variation as to prevent the novellas feeling restricted by this. There’s a nice range of writing on offer – Maggots by Nina Allan, Priest’s Hole by KJ Parker, Gnaw by Tade Thompson, The Best Story I Can Manage in the Circumstances by Robert Shearman, and Skin Deep by Sarah Lotz.

The building, Irongrove Lodge, is mentioned in the interspersed notes, which offers some insight and background into the history of the dwelling. These snippets, too, help to create a rather unnerving foundation upon which the stories sit. The novella has always felt the perfect length for a horror tale, and the stories in this anthology maximise their potential. Whilst it’s fair to say that not every contribution worked for me, there’s still plenty here to enjoy. Nothing too outright scary, these are tales that probe around in the recesses of the subconscious, and I found myself thinking about them long after I had put the book down. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Part murder ballad, part ghost story, part true crime, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived takes you on a gripping journey from the small-town murder of a teenage girl in the 1970s to the recent real-life shootings in Whitehaven, West Cumbria. Are the crimes linked? Fifteen-year-old Barry Dyer may have the answers, but when events impact so horrifically on a town and its people, it always pays to tread carefully when revealing the truth… Quirky, disturbing, and haunting, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived is a moving and tender exploration of a teenage outsider in a small community, as well as being a finely wrought portrayal of the neglected industrial settlements of West Cumbria, where nuclear plants, thermometer factories and chemical works contrast vividly with the desolate beauty of the Lake District. David Peace meets Murakami in award-winning writer David Gaffney’s compelling mash up of Twin Peaks weirdness and peri-urban noir.

This is a very strange book to review, least of all because to reveal too much about the story would deny the reader of some of the wonderful elements that this novel manages to cram together. I’d read a couple of the author’s short stories before, so I was expecting to get some quality writing; however what did catch me by surprise was the perfect blend of 70’s nostalgia, macabre plotting and laugh out loud dialogue. It’s bonkers and surreal and yet completely realistic in a dreamlike kind of way. What more can I say other than to urge you to read it? Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Several months after Claire’s husband leaves her for another woman, her friend Amy convinces her to join a local ‘singles’ group at a nearby pub, in an effort to kick-start her social life. For the past months she has been living with her 15 year old son, trying to adjust to being on her own, and her confidence is low, so the invitation to join the group seems to come at the right time for her. The other members of The Hadlington Friends appear to be in similar circumstances and at first Claire feels a sense of belonging and an affinity with her new-found pals. However she soon begins to notice a strange hooded figure crossing paths with her regularly, and a man in a car whose presence begins to unnerve her. Someone is scrawling sinister graffiti on walls near where she lives. Someone with a very dangerous mind and a deeply disturbing motive…

Only Watching You arrives hot on the heels of Mark West’s previous thriller, Don’t Go Back, which was published earlier this year. West, whose success in writing is previously across the horror genre, yet again demonstrates that he is equally adept at working in different genres. The qualities that made Don’t Go Back work so well are evident here too; fast-paced prose and direct storytelling, with well-balanced chapters, populated with engaging characters. West has a keen ear for dialogue, and it’s difficult to remember that these characters are fictional, so grounded in reality is his writing. Actually, this particular novel has quite an array of different characters – especially the ones introduced from Claire’s visit to the singles group – and the author does a fine job of making each one distinct and separate, so you never feel confused about the different names that crop up. This is particularly important because – and this is no real spoiler to anyone who reads even just casually in the thriller genre – the malign and sinister figure stalking her is actually someone much closer to her than she realises. West skilfully misdirects us with the plot developments and the manner in which he shuffles the characters around, until we think we know who is behind this campaign of harassment, before he propels things into a different direction for the final act. The denouement is tense and suitably macabre, again highlighting how the author’s writing shares a cinematic quality, and he pulls all the strands of the novel together perfectly.

Whether Mark West ever returns to writing horror is a question no one but himself can answer. But it’s certainly not an understatement to say that if he doesn’t, the horror genre’s loss is most definitely the thriller genre’s gain. Recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, edited by genre stalwart Paula Guran, collects together 19 stories (in which we get a decent variation on the book’s theme) about mummies – Egyptian and otherwise – including three new tales. There is a mouth-watering array of authors on display, including Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Newman, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Lansdale, John Langan, Helen Marshall, and Angela Slatter.

Of all the genre tropes – or themes to base an anthology on – mummies is probably the one that I have the least interest in. Much as I’m interested in history, the Egyptian era feels a little too distant to appeal, and I’ve never found the mummy films particularly frightening or engaging. So I went into the book with low expectations and not a great deal of enthusiasm. And to its credit, the book was a pleasant surprise, containing several great stories and wide enough variation to prevent them theme from becoming boring.

The book opens with a very interesting introduction from the editor. Guran sets out her intentions and gives us a fascinating overview of the history of the mummy, both in fact and fiction. She even illustrates how the transition occurred from fact to fiction, and what triggered the public’s interest in Egyptian mummies. The introduction also sets out Guran’s justification for choosing the stories, and her attempts to offer tales not just focused on Egyptian mummies, and she also generously provides an overview of other mummy anthologies and offers recommendations for further reading. However it’s fair to say that there is a rather uneven quality to the stories. Some simply did not work for me at all. But I’d put that down to my tastes, rather than the stories themselves, because there was nothing particular wrong with them, and they were originally published in auspicious magazines and anthologies. My favourites were from John Langan, Stephen Graham Jones, Helen Marshall, Joe Lansdale, Kim Newman, Norman Partridge, and Steve Duffy. The book is worth it for the SGJ story alone. It’s difficult to say that this collection is an essential entry into the already extensive genre anthologies that are published each year, but the stories that really worked for me really worked, and there were only one or two that I had previously read, so you may enjoy this is you’re looking for something quite different to the usual fare.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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DON’T GO BACK by Mark West

The sudden death of Kate Marshall prompts old schoolfriend Beth Parker to face a difficult return to Seagrave, the coastal town in which they grew up. Since she departed for university, Beth has moved on. Now married and trying for a baby, her life has eventually recovered from the darkness that blighted the group of friends fifteen years ago. But the funeral proves to be difficult, and revisiting her old haunts only exacerbates the feelings of unease and the memories that she has tried so hard to suppress…

Mark West is one of those authors whose writing has a deeply cinematic feel. There’s a lovely pacing to the prose, with nicely balanced chapter lengths and an engaging plot. Whilst West’s previous output has been mainly in the horror genre, Don’t Go Back works both as a mystery and as a suspense thriller, with the storyline broken into two distinct timelines – the ‘here and now’ as Beth returns to Seagrave, and flashbacks from fifteen year previously, where West hints at something catastrophic happening to the group of friends, Beth, Jenny, Kate and Wendy. Slowly the events that led up to the event are revealed, with a couple of nice twists and unexpected character developments.

The town of Seagrave feels real. I loved its pier, the beach, the arcades and cafes. The author does a good job of plonking us directly into the action from the start, and the characterisation of the central group of girls is realistic and believable. As the plot develops, there is a terrifying inevitability to the darkness that is slowly encroaching upon Beth and her husband Nick. It’s one of those novels that you fly through, partly because the plot is brisk and the writing fast-paced, but also because the story demands your attention. You want to find out what happens to these characters. In addition you want to find what happened to them fifteen years ago. It really is a cracking read and I have no hesitation in recommending this superb novel for fans of suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrillers.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE 12.30 FROM CROYDON by Freeman Wills Crofts

I’ve been a fan of the British Library Crime Classics series for many years, whose purpose is to bring to modern readers long-forgotten classics or overlooked gems from the golden age of crime, generally thought to have been between the wars (although there are titles in the series from earlier and much later in time). This is a highly recommended collection of books, for those looking for something from a more sedate, bygone age of writing.

The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts is an inverted murder. That is to say that it’s quite the opposite to a ‘whodunnit’, which is the standard fare of these kind of novels. In an inverted murder we know right from the start who the killer is, as often the story is told from the murderer’s point of view. The plot usually involves a degree of suspense, of a cat and mouse aspect to the investigation, and generally there is an element of psychology woven into the story. These are all fine qualities in crime fiction, and it often acts as a refreshing change to the more intricately-plotted yet bafflingly complex narratives of the whodunnit.

This particular novel details the financial troubles and romantic yearnings of Charles Swinburn, who one day decides that the answer to his problems is to murder a member of his family, in order to inherit a sum of money which will give him a future more hopeful than the bleak one it promises to be. We follow his plotting and the intricacies of how he commits the murder, and then see things very much from his viewpoint as the police investigation takes over and he comes under the scrutiny of Inspector French.

There is a great deal of suspense created by the format of the novel, and the pacing is well formed. There are a few twists and turns. For a novel originally published in 1934 it is rather well-written and will definitely appeal to a modern reader, although the final two chapters are a bit heavy on exposition, as the detective explains the elements of the story that put him onto certain paths with the investigation. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful read, and adds another welcome credit to the Crime Classic series. As such, it comes recommended for aficionados of crime fiction from the golden age.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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THE MIXER by Michael Cox

The subheading of this non-fiction book is ‘The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines’ and had been on my radar for a while, having heard good things about Cox’s other books. I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint, working as both a nostalgic overview to the first twenty five years of the English Premier League, and also as a summation of how football has evolved in that time, picking out the various players and managers whose contributions helped shaped the game.

The book is broken down into 25 chapters, each one roughly categorized by the key events of a particular year in a decidedly chronological order, beginning with the inception of the Premier League – and with it the money and razzmatazz that Sky TV brought with it. It’s easy to forget such facts like out of the 242 players who started a Premier League match on that opening weekend of 1992, only 11 were foreign. It’s easy to forget how changing the back-pass rule in 1992 (making a goalkeeper forbidden to handle a ball played back to him from one of his own players) took the safety play out of the way and made the sport infinitely more exciting. There are many items of trivia in this book, and they help illustrate how English football evolved from being rather staid and old-fashioned to eventually become one of the most-watched leagues in the world.

There are chapters focusing on players like Eric Cantona, the SAS (Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton), Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Michael Owen, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, as well as iconic managers and tacticians like Sir Alex Ferguson, Kevin Keegan and his ‘we’ll outscore you’ policy, Arsene Wenger’s influence in bringing modern methods of diet and conduct to English football, the long-ball game of Sam Allardyce, etc.

If you have an interest in football tactics and team formations, this is a fascinating book. It also works as a way of reliving the key moments of the sport over the last quarter of a century. I found myself recalling incidents I had forgotten and remembering the names of players that had since slipped my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to catching more of the work of Michael Cox. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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THE WINTERS by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele is a ‘retelling’ of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, originally published in 1938, and updates the story to a contemporary setting, this time relocating the grand mansion (Asherley instead of Manderley) to a private island in the US instead of a secluded estate in Cornwall, England. Most of the elements are intact, although there are adjustments to reflect the more modern attitudes of today and the use of contemporary technology.

I should start by saying that I think Rebecca is one of the greatest suspense novels of the twentieth century, and as such sets an almost impossible standard for any author to emulate. And I can’t say that Gabriele does a bad job of updating the story, it’s just that the whole thing feels so much weaker than the original. I found the first quarter of the book to be an unbelievably hard slog. It seemed to tick every clichéd romance stereotype I could think off, as the recently widowed but wealthy man sweeps our heroine off her feet and plunges her into a sumptuous world of manor houses and a lavish fantasy lifestyle. Max Winter’s daughter, Dani, is a fresh take on Mrs Danvers, delivering a recognisable reason for the cold resentment that festers between the characters. Gabriele’s writing is mostly workmanlike, rarely rising to anything near the elegance of du Maurier’s prose, but manages to tell its story adequately and with a decent pace. The novel undoubtedly improves once the characters leave the Cayman Islands and relocate to Asherley, with the spectre of Rebekah taking more of a backseat than in the original. The conflict between the narrator, Max Winter and Dani is handled well, with a subplot involving Dani’s backstory further adding a fresh twist to the proceedings.

The ending will offer few surprises to those who have read Rebecca, although there are a couple of nice twists relating to the new plot strands that the author has created. However the final chapter felt flat, heavily reliant on exposition, and almost tagged-on to the rest of the novel. Overall, this book didn’t quite work for me. As a ‘domestic noir’, it offers enough to keep most readers entertained, but there is nothing ground-breaking here, and by inviting comparisons by it being inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic, it is always going to seem a pale imitation.

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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