Guest Post: Darkness and Light

“Out of the Darkness, in collaboration with Together for Mental Wellbeing, challenges some of the most exciting voices in horror and dark fantasy to bring their worst fears out into the light. From the black dog of depression to acute anxiety and schizophrenia, these stories prove what fans of horror fiction have long known – that we must understand our demons to overcome them.”

“Horror isn’t just about the chills – it’s also about the healing that comes after.”

Dan Coxon, editor at Unsung Stories, contacted me about a new short story anthology the press will publish later this year. A quick glance at the list of contributors and I was immediately interested. The theme that draws the stories together is mental health, which feels particularly appropriate given the way people have been required to live during the global pandemic. I asked Dan if he could provide a guest post explaining how the book came into being. Funds for the print run are being raised via a Kickstarter campaign that has some impressive rewards for those who pledge their support. All royalties and fees from this collection are being donated to the mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. Over to Dan.

Out of the Darkness is an anthology of short stories about mental health, but with a twist. The authors we’ve invited are all in some way writers of horror, dark fantasy and the uncanny – strange stories, sometimes scary ones. Our aim wasn’t just to publish a book – we also wanted to start a conversation within the genre fiction community, and help those suffering from mental illness to find support and understanding.

I first started work on Out of the Darkness in the winter of 2019/2020. Covid-19 was still unheard of, and the idea of a global pandemic was something for the thriller writers. But before any of this happened – before the cracks in our world were exposed – we were already facing a mental health crisis. According to a study in 2019, it was estimated that one in four people in the UK would experience mental health issues every year, ranging from schizophrenia to mild depression. On a global scale, that figure rose to 792 million. Over 70 per cent of people suffering from mental health problems would receive no treatment at all.

You don’t need me to tell you that things have only got worse since the coronavirus pandemic. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that 10 million people will need mental health support in the UK as a direct consequence of Covid-19. We’ve all been struggling to one degree or another, whether it’s due to isolation, anxiety, job-related stress or bereavement. 2020 was a year of widespread suffering, and suddenly my little anthology felt more important than ever.

Some of the stories in Out of the Darkness were written before Covid-19 hit; some during the pandemic. What binds them all together is more than just the topic of mental health, though. It felt particularly important that they should engage with the topic in a productive and positive way, rather than dwelling on negatives. The aim was to encourage conversations and help those suffering from mental health issues, not send them spiralling into even deeper despair. None of the authors involved have sugar-coated their stories, but they do suggest a light at the end of the tunnel, a way of coping with and living with mental illness, rather than succumbing to it. Together we’re moving out of the darkness.

Having said that, the authors involved vary widely in their backgrounds. Some – Simon Bestwick, Eugen Bacon – are best known for their horror and science fiction. Others, such as Gary Budden and Aliya Whiteley, are better known for writing weird fiction – fiction that unsettles and challenges the reader. We even have two Booker Prize longlisted or shortlisted authors, in Alison Moore and Sam Thompson. What brings them all together is their interest in the strange and the unusual, and their willingness to explore different mental states through their writing.

Out of the Darkness is available for pre-order now via our Kickstarter campaign, which, in addition to the regular paperback and ebook editions, includes an exclusive, limited and hand-numbered hardback edition. More importantly, we’re supporting the charity Together for Mental Wellbeing with the book – all the author’s royalties and my own fees as editor are being donated to the charity. Backing us on Kickstarter doesn’t just get you a fabulous book – it also puts some money where it’s most needed. Because if we all pull together, we can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

Dan Coxon

Do please consider supporting the Kickstarter – details here

Updates may be found on Dan’s Twitter

 

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: 2084

2084 is an anthology of fifteen short stories specially commissioned by the publisher, Unsung Stories, and supported by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It offers

“15 predictions of the world, 67 years in the future.”

The authors have created a variety of dystopian societies that it is distressingly easy to believe could come to be.

In each of the stories technological innovation has created a shift in the way people live, not necessarily for the better. Monitoring of everyday activity by the state and for entertainment is widely regarded as expedient. An elite retain control and breed fear in the proletariat as a means of suppression. These stories bring up to date the underlying message behind the book’s inspiration, 1984 by George Orwell. As the editor, George Sandison, writes

“There are warnings in this book – we would do well to heed them.”

The first story, Babylon by Dave Hutchinson, takes as its theme immigration. The protagonist, Da’uud, is seeking to gain entry into a Europe that has

“encysted itself behind concentric borders and buffer zones, the better to protect itself and its citizens from the likes of him.”

Da’uud carries with him a device, developed by and then stolen from North Korea. The chilling purpose of this is a powerful reminder of ingrained prejudice, all too obvious today.

Here Comes The Flood by Desirina Boskovich is set in a sealed city on the American coast that is struggling to remain functional. Climate Change has resulted in more displaced people than the authorities are willing to accept so these DisPers are kept outside, abandoned to die. Those inside are entertained by publicly broadcast trials of the elderly who are blamed for the current situation.

“Did he buy goods shipped halfway across the world? […] Never a moment’s consideration for future generations as he enjoyed the spoils, savoured the loot: the belching, farting jet planes; the human greed-machines on their hoard of ill-gotten treasures, their water gulping industry, their cheap plastic trash. Did he own a vehicle? Yes? Disgusting.”

Despite the bleak prospects for the city, young couples still apply to the population lottery for permission to procreate.

Glitterati by Oliver Langmead offers the perspective of one of future society’s elite. Its protagonist’s raison d’être is to be seen. Simone spends his days keeping abreast of current fashions, the most important part of his working day being his arrival at the office where he may walk the red carpet, be photographed and applauded. He deplores the lives of those unfashionables he catches sight of on his daily commute.

“The uglies. The unwashed, unmanicured masses. […] It pained him to see them down there, milling around without the first idea of how dreadful they appeared; how their untrained aesthetic snses were so underdeveloped that they could barely comprehend their own hideousnesses. To think they did actual labour! […] It was unfathomable that people existed like that.”

When Simone mistakenly wears the wrong colour for a day he worries that he will suffer demotion. Instead he finds himself trend-setting, which brings new pressures to bear.

The Infinite Eye by JP Smythe looks at life from the viewpoint of an illegal, living in a camp and looking for work. He applies to a start-up which pulls together surveillance from traffic cameras, drones, security systems, photos and videos shot by tourists. The developers had intended to use AI but were concerned about handing over control. Instead they plug people into their network to observe and act as needed.

“You’ll be eyes for the cameras, for the drones. Assisting the police in catching people, finding crimes that are happening or going to happen, apprehending illegals.”

“Inhabit this camera, and watch, the software told me. Wait until there is something worth paying attention to. Then switch to a drone, follow the incident.”

The man is good at this job, but the violation he cannot observe is the one that involves himself.

Several of the stories explore a world where a new generation of robotic helpers become sentient, where there is an overlap between man and machine. The use of AI in electromechanical devices is imagined in many forms: workers, warriors, children. Abilities are enhanced whilst numbing the senses that may balk at required actions.

Shooting An Episode by Christopher Priest offers these enhancements in the form of armour, the numbing a collective conditioning. The population in this story are kept entertained by constantly running reality shows which they may interact with, affecting outcomes. That real people die goes unregarded, those at the sharp end generously compensated to do whatever it takes to increase ratings. The protagonist may be sickened but if they do not do their job someone else will. The demands of the players for action dictates the form of this evolving reality.

March, April, May by Malcolm Devlin looks at a ubiquitous social media, The Space, where individuals’ feeds are personalised and curated by algorithms. Certain behaviour by users is expected, negativity disapproved. One friend in a group refuses to conform.

“April used The Space as she damn well pleased. At least, she did until she disappeared.”

There is discussion about where she may have gone, who she really was, if indeed she existed. There is disquiet about the role played by The Space, but this is laughed away.

“It’s only The Space, we say. The idea is preposterous. It would be like rebelling against a kitchen appliance.”

Nobody really knows what happens to those who contravene the terms of service. It is not a subject for discourse, negativity being unwelcome on The Space.

Each of these stories builds on topics raised today, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed.

The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling. A collection that deserves to be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories. 

Book Review: You Will Grow Into Them

You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin, is a collection of ten short stories exploring the shadows that lurk beneath the surface of everyday lives. Set in a variety of times and imaginative places, each multi-layered tale offers the reader a glimpse of personal demons, psychological and physical, and the blindness many choose to affect to avoid engaging with other’s pain. Although extraordinary in places, the narrative conjures trials that are all too recognisable. Vividly constructed, these stories resonate with insight, however weird they may at times seem.

The collection opens with Passion Play, in which a teenage girl is asked to appear in a televised reconstruction of the last reported sightings of a missing friend. Although feigning care and concern, the adults take no time to discover her views on this exercise, assuming she will want to help. Told from the girl’s point of view, the undercurrents of fear that pervade a teenager’s life become manifest.

In Two Brothers, twelve year old William awaits the return of his older brother Stephen from his first term at an exclusive boarding school. Forbidden from mixing with the local children, William looks forward to resuming the games they have created together throughout their lives to date. The Stephen who steps down from the train has been changed, a transformation more complex than William first realises.

Breadcrumbs is also a story of transformation although it is more fairy tale in style. Fourteen year old Ellie is home alone when her tower block home, and the city below, are brought to a standstill by an apparent freak of nature. As all around and within are impossibly altered, she must choose to accept and merge with her surroundings or risk everything to break free.

Her First Harvest is set in an alien time and place but also explores the theme of choosing to fit in. A young girl attends her first ball in a metropolis, far from the country home she agreed to leave. There are those who wish to possess her. She seeks pleasure, recognising the transcience of this moment in the life she must surely face.

We All Need Something to Hide deals with the cost of trying to fight society’s unacknowleged demons, and the lengths to which some will go to protect the image desired by those they love.

In Dogsbody the world has been rocked by the sudden appearance of werewolves. Unable to explain why, they are first locked up and then registered and monitored as they attempt to reintegrate with society. Some propose they be culled, fearing a monstrous return. The blighted must live with the knowledge that this may someday happen, defined now by their affliction.

Songs Like They Used To Play explores reality and memory in a wondrously imaginative way. Each person’s life experiences are shared and remembered in edited highlights, with viewers filtering to their own bespoke screens.

The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him considers aspiration, the benefits and costs of taking action in a controlling state.

“they are precious things, children. You fill them up with your hopes and fears and you send them out into the world as though such thoughts will sustain them. But they are their own souls and ours is but one influence upon them. It is sobering indeed to see how willing they are to open themselves to others.”

Set in a small town, The Bridge explores what is valued and the effect of loss. A young couple move into a house vacated by a widower who spent his time constructing a detailed model of the streets where they now live. The husband is intrigued by the detail, and then the omissions. The wife recognises the danger it represents.

The End Of Hope Street is, in my opinion, the oddest of the tales but only because it was the one story I struggled to interpret. It is a story of neighbours, neighbourliness, and of houses that turn against occupants with deadly results.

Whilst reading this collection I was blown away by the quality of the writing and by how much each story got under my skin. They are subtle, empathetic, yet eerily strange; disquieting in places with the accuracy of the human condition portrayed through a darkly playful lens.

I recommend you read this book. It has the power to move, and to challenge the way each reader perceives the everyday.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: Pseudotooth

pseudotooth

Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway, is one of the most unusual books that I have read in a while. It explores the effects of trauma and the crossover between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider what they would define as real when ‘pseudo’ events have an impact on everyday life.

The protagonist is seventeen year old Aisling who has been raised by her mother, Beverley, after her father left his pregnant, teenage girlfriend in the care of his maiden aunt, Edythe, and disappeared forever from their lives. They have had little to do with any family members since Aisling was a young child. Beverley, a secretary, is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived and is struggling to deal with the health issues Aisling is currently facing.

For the past couple of years Aisling has suffered blackouts and seizures. She has submitted to a plethora of tests and spent time in psychiatric care but still no cause can be found. When a doctor suggests her condition may be psychosomatic Beverley loses patience. She cannot cope with the way her daughter looks – emaciated with messy hair, grubby clothes and no apparent desire to improve her life or appearance – and after so long trying to find a solution wishes to move on with her own life. Beverley’s boyfriend has asked her to move in with him. When the doctor suggests that Aisling may benefit from a change of scenery Beverley arranges for her to go and stay with Edythe at the old rectory where the now elderly lady has lived all her life.

Aisling wishes to please her mother and desperately wants to get well. She is frightened by the effects of her illness, exhausted from her inability to sleep restfully, drained by constant nausea that prevents her from holding down food. She packs little for her stay in rural Suffolk – the diary where she writes down her dreams as her doctor suggested, and a volume of poetry by William Blake whose dark words bring her comfort.

Edythe treats her great niece with contempt. She values cleanliness and order as on a par with godliness, the personal problems she believes Aisling has allowed to fester as something that can be sorted with strict rules and determination. Edythe’s brother, Robert, is also being cared for at the rectory. He is kind to Aisling but the secrets he shares with her about the old building’s past start merging with her dreams.

Aisling’s dreams have for some time featured a young man named Feodor. Her diary recounts in detail his often violent history. When a shadowy version of him appears to her whilst awake, around the time she discovers a priest hole in the rectory cellar, her world’s collide. Another young man, Chase, who she met briefly in the rectory garden, emerges as a dream time friend. She becomes a part of his world, a post apocalyptic existence where those deemed unfit and undesirable are made to disappear.

The trauma that triggered Aisling’s illness is touched upon but she has dissociated events, tried and failed to wash the stain of them away. Although she is aware that the world she is currently inhabiting is a dream she is unsure how to return to waking life in the rectory, or even if this is something she wishes to achieve given the happiness she has discovered here. In confronting the dangers faced by Feodor and Chase she learns more of terrible events that took place in the rectory, which Edythe cannot allow to be talked of for fear they besmirch her memories of her revered father. It becomes clear that Aisling’s demons have also been suppressed.

Although vividly portrayed and well written it took me some time to engage with the plot. Many of the early sections of the book are bleak, Aisling’s situation painful to contemplate. By halfway through the pace had picked up and I raced through the final third eager to know what came next. The adventure is fantastical, but then dreams are subject to a different concept of reality, whether dreamt awake or asleep.

This is an unusual fantasy adventure grounded in the dark realities of mental illness and escapist imagination. It is a sometimes challenging but ultimately worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: Metronome

metronome

Metronome, by Oliver Langmead, is a fantasy adventure story that takes the reader inside the world of dreams. Its protagonist is William Manderlay, a retired sailor and musician living in a care home in Edinburgh. He and his friend Valentine, a distinguished old soldier, spend their days coping with the indignities of ageing. When Manderlay talks of the vivid dreams he increasingly suffers his friend ascribes them to a muddle of memories, over-stimulated imagination and indigestion.

Manderlay’s dreams take him back to his youth, to happy times spent with his late wife, Lily. Often though they then descend into nightmares, to pursuit by beings he believes to be lepers or huge creatures that cannot feasibly exist. He is aware that he is dreaming but this does little to diminish his distress.

In one such dream he meets a strange young soldier who introduces himself as March. He is a Sleepwalker, a nightmare hunter capable of disintegrating the monsters Manderlay must face. He gives Manderlay a compass and explains how he may traverse this world through doorways that will take him to the Capital. There they arrange to meet.

The dreams Manderlay walks through include other dreamers who he is instructed not to assist. If the dangers they face become too difficult to bear then they will wake and be gone from this world. The same would happen to Manderlay, but if he is to help March defeat the increasingly disturbing nightmares then he must remain asleep.

What follows is the unfolding of a quest to reach an island beyond storms where a Nightmare King has been imprisoned. Manderlay holds the map to this place in the music he makes. Competing Sleepwalkers and other beings are determined to reach it to fulfil their own ends. Battles must be fought with weapons forged through wit and faith.

As with the best fantasy stories the strength of this tale is in the underlying interpretation left to the reader to decipher. The layers and depths wind and intersect through a plethora of fantastical locations and creations. The imagery evokes the contrasting colours of challenge, order and reworked experiences. In dreams it would seem the barely possible may be achieved.

Such an unusual narrative is hard to explain but this is a highly readable adventure leading to a satisfying conclusion. Its originality is such that it adds to the appeal without descending into the absurd. Although I wondered at times how elements would interweave the puzzle was completed without contrivance. An enjoyable and fulfilling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: The Arrival of Missives

arrivalofmissives

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley, is set in a small West of England village in the aftermath of the Great War. The families of the village have lived here for generations, each taking an interest in their neighbours’ lives and playing the role expected of them in occupation and village life.

The protagoinist, Shirley Fearn, is the only child of an increasingly successful, landowning farmer. She has been raised to be of interest to someone who would be willing and able to take over the family farm. Shirley has other ideas. She believes herself in love with the village schoolteacher, Mr Tiller, a badly injured veteran of the war. Her ambition is to gain her own teacher’s certificate from the nearby training college in Taunton, to marry Mr Tiller and then teach by his side.

When Mr Tiller learns of her plans he shares a secret that she must never divulge. He believes that Shirley can avert a catastrophe, but to do so she must trust him and do exactly as he asks. Shirley finds herself caught up in a personal conflict between helping her idol and following her own desires.

All her life Shirley has been expected to comply with the wishes of others. Her parents will contemplate no other future for her than that of the wife of a farmer on the family land. Shirley is headstrong and articulate, yet finds her voice ignored as the men of the village make decisions regarding her future. She receives little support from her mother who has learned to cope by hiding how she feels and pandering to her husband:

“He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.”

Shirley is a fascinating character, a young woman with opinions and desires who wishes to wrest control of her life from those who are convinced they know best. She observes that men’s plans rarely consider women, yet all men are born of a woman and therefore their participation over time is required.

The village May Day celebrations bring matters to a head as Shirley exercises the small power she has been granted. In the aftermath she comes to realise that her destiny is still being controlled. She acts to thwart the plans of the men intent on dictating the course of her life. She is unwilling to submit to village expectations, to comply with their skewed demands.

I enjoyed unpicking the surreal aspects of the story which came clear by the end. The denouement is intensely satisfying.

This is just the sort of book that I enjoy reading with its complex, recognisable characters whose well intentioned prejudices still resonate. I am grateful that, through the ages, there have been women like Shirley willing to step out of line.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.