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Now Editing Poetry

Hello everyone. In the light of publishing Virtue’s End, and my renewed interest in poetry, I am now offering editing to aspiring poets out there. Poetry is very dear to my heart and I believe there should be more real poetry out there in the world. So, for those sincerely looking to improve their poetic craft, whether writing free-verse or more formal poetry, please consider signing up to work with me.

Work edited by me has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, National Indie Excellence, and Splatterpunk Awards. My own poetry, in the form of Virtue’s End, has been described as “an astounding and daring piece poetry, offered with the utmost openness and sincerity, a rare, meticulously crafted gem in an age of rapid mass consumption” (Christa Wojciechowski), and as “[Sale’s] Magnum Opus. An intricate, multilayered epic poem” (Steve Stred).

The main editing criteria for poetry will be:

  • form

  • diction

  • theme

  • style

  • narrative (if relevant)

The pricing for editing is £50 ($70) for up to 50 lines. If you're interested, please don't hesitate to get in touch using the contact form on this website, or by emailing me directly!

Alternatively, if you don’t have something specific you want editing, but you want to find out more about how great narrative is shaped—about poetic form, writing style, and more—consider signing up to Joseph Sale’s Patreon The Mind-Vault, where you can get access monthly videos (including the Magical Writing podcast and interviews with authors), articles, and digital downloads:

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Review of The Mountains of Sorrow by Iseult Murphy

Iseult Murphy first left her mark upon me with her insightful reviews. Here was someone who wasn’t simply stating an opinion, but actually going a level deeper to incise the work she was discussing with a scalpel and see what was really going on underneath; in short, true criticism. Next, Murphy’s Horror series, currently featuring 7 Days In Hell and 7 Weeks In Hell, blew me away. Here is a story that deceptively lures the reader into thinking they are reading a small-town cosy mystery, when in actuality something much darker is taking place. The story slowly tilts into the macabre until it outright flings you into the abyss, though it is not without threads of beautiful hope.

Now, Iseult Murphy turns her hand to Fantasy—a favourite genre of mine—in The Mountains of Sorrow. This novella is a weird and wonderful mix. It starts by plunging us straight into the action and doesn’t really let up for the duration of its 100 pages. Our main character, Rowan, is a rebel with a mission to assassinate an evil and tyrannical Queen. There is a subtle critique of the modern world in the lore and mythos of Mountains of Sorrow, as the Queen is evil because she uses Star Magic to oppress the populace. Star Magic is a kind of forbidden, dark magic, because it’s technological rather than natural. The Star Magic allows Queen Zelda to create artificial lights that burn the skin, monstrous metal golems that lumber through the palace hallways, and energy centres that irradiate the populace and make them sick. It’s subtly done, a kind of Gene Wolfe double-blind where we realise that what’s being described isn’t what we think it is. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, there’re a lot more surprises in this.

The world-building, contained in such a brief narrative, is very impressive. Rowan is a wood-witch, one of the last of her kind, and so she has an affinity for the earth, magic, and the seven sacred dragons. The dragons are kind of druidic gods who watch over and guide those who are still connected to magic. Each of them can grant different boons. In this way, they operate almost like Catholic Saints; appealing to the right saint with the right cause can lend a magic-user aid. It feels original, and more importantly it’s done well; the naming conventions of the dragons lead me to believe they are partly inspired by Irish lore and mythology. There’s surprising depth considering how little wiggle room Murphy has in a story of this length.

In terms of characters, this story is again an interesting mix. It personally took me a while to warm to the main character Rowan. I found her to be so bitter and depressive that it was hard to feel for her. However, given everything Rowan has experienced, this was probably very psychologically accurate. Argento proved to be an interesting foil to Rowan, and the two work well together “on screen”. Murphy does not fall for the usual traps of a relationship of necessity like this, and if any of you are expecting predictable romance, rest assured you can think again.

There are a surprising number of characters considering the book’s length but perhaps the final ones worth mentioning are two very cute squirrels, Acorn and Oak. The book actually contains beautiful illustrations of these squirrels done by the author herself, and her talent is really off-the-charts. The interior of the book is exceedingly beautiful because of these illustrations, which also make their way into the chapter headings (very much echoing the illuminated text of medieval manuscripts) The inclusion of these squirrel characters is one of the brilliant but also anomalous aspects of the books. Murphy clearly has a love of animals. I know she keeps many pets and dogs feature prominently in her 7 Hells series. Cute squirrels, who are far more intelligent than they seem, would seem to lend the book more of a Disney-fantasy than let’s say Tolkien-fantasy vibe. Indeed, I wondered if this book was meant for children at times. The writing is straightforward; there is no cussing.

However, it seems that Murphy could not resist flexing her Horror-writer muscles at times, and there are some genuinely disturbing scenes in this that are worthy of a Stephen King novel or indeed something beyond. If you are looking for a literary comparison, the nearest would be C. S. Lewis. Lewis also created wonderful and enchanting fantasy worlds for children, but they were not without their share of horror, as anyone who read that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe can testify.

When the true extent of the evil Queen’s machinations are revealed in one stomach churning encounter, I was caught completely off guard, and that made the horror all the more affecting and visceral. I admire Murphy for this. It would have been easy for her to write something pedestrian, something that conformed easily to a genre archetype, but she chose instead to push boundaries, to show us that even in the magical world there is suffering. In fact, this suffering is created by the intrusion of technological “magic” into the fantastical sphere. I will not preach to the choir: you may read into this as you will!

The last thing I want to say about this book is in relation to the title. Firstly, The Mountains of Sorrow clues us in to one of the interesting aspects of this book, namely, that I suspect it is part of a series. This book seems entirely concerned with the element of earth, and that includes not just literal stone, soil, and wood, but also the concepts of family, friendship, and the stability of civilisation. I suspect that Murphy might be planning to showcase the other elements in subsequent books! We can only hope.

Secondly, The Mountains of Sorrow feels very apt indeed. Sorrow permeates this story. Rowan has lost her mother. Argento has lost his family. The magical dragons seem to be leaving this world of wickedness and technologic gods. The “mountains” of sorrow are the psychological mountains that we must perilously climb in order to overcome our despair. What is so brilliant, however, is that Murphy’s ending is spiritual, redemptive, and hopeful, which, in our current era, is exactly what we need.

You can purchase The Mountains of Sorrow at the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of #DeadSealChallenge by S. C. Mendes & Nikki Noir

“Here we go. On three.” Looking at the infected penis on the cutting board, Gary fought back a grimace. He held the cock steady with his gloved left hand. His right hand held a cleaver. “One...two—”

If the opening lines of #DeadSealChallenge don’t grab you, few things will. Of course, they might disgust you as well, but S. C. Mendes and Nikki Noir have a habit of being able to hold your gaze even when showing you the most depraved scenarios and people. As storytellers, both writers exhibit a leaning towards the cinematic, and their ability to focus a camera unflinchingly is one resulting trait of their collaborations.

#DeadSealChallenge is a surprising short story, told Tarantino-style. We begin in media res, when everything has royally gone to hell. Through an interview with one of the principle characters, we begin to flash back and piece together the missing elements of the story. I say the story is surprising not just because of the strangeness of some of its concepts—bizarro authors eat your hearts out—but also because I’m frankly amazed at how much the two authors have crammed into a tale that can be no more than 6,000 words. #DeadSealChallenge touches on male insecurity, influencer culture, YouTube success, the depravities of the dark web, hashtag crazes sweeping the world, the monetisation of human shame, and the problems of fame, especially that unique brand of fame: “internet celebrity”. It’s difficult to say the main characters are likeable, but they are certainly believable, and you willingly follow them down the rabbit hole to see if they really can pull off their elaborate and highly immoral scheme.

#DeadSealChallenge explores the nature of viral media—and please bear that phrase in mind, because it might be relevant in more ways than one! I’ll say no more, lest I spoil a delicious surprise for horror lovers!—whilst itself being a viral piece of media that I have no doubt will infect the internet. When reading work by Mendes or Noir, one always has to be sensitive to the double meanings of things. A virus can infect the mind, body, or an online presence. A seal, in this context, is meant in the sense of the animal; but it won’t hurt you to also consider what happens when we break a different kind of seal… Seals keep things shut in, after all. Whilst Noir and Mendes clearly love writing about extreme topics, their work never descends into extremity for the sake of it, or shock for shock’s sake. Read between the lines and new meanings emerge; this is what makes their collaborative work so rich.

If I have one criticism, it is the same criticism I always levy at collaborations between S.C. Mendes and Nikki Noir: that I could stand to read 60,000 words, rather than 6,000! This story and concept has more places it can go. So, allow me to start a new hashtag:

#DeadSealChallengeII.

Let’s make it viral, folks!

You can purchase #DeadSealChallenge on Godless.

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Review of Incarnate by Steve Stred

Steve Stred is one of the most prolific writers alive today, to such an extent that his latest full-length novel release, Incarnate, caught me by surprise—in more ways than one. Bearing a cloven hoof upon the cover I wondered, at first, if it was connected in any way to his epic Father of Lies trilogy, but on further inspection, the book is standalone, and although the cloven hoof is not a red herring, and there is certainly a demonic presence in the tale, there is much in Incarnate that is new for Stred’s writing, and in all the right ways. 

Stred has a trademark minimalist style that allows you to fill in the blanks. His prose is intentionally straightforward, no-nonsense, which allows him to create believable and credible worlds and people. I always know I’m in a Steve Stred novel from word go because the family or friendship dynamics are spot on and well-thought out, without any need for painstaking exposition. This is the case in Incarnate, where Ryan, along with his parents Craig and Nora, form a family unit that is instantly relateable and likeable. They decide to make a stay at a house that, as local legend would have it, has been haunted due to a séance gone wrong. If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, please stay with me, because while many of these ideas and elements are well-worn, Stred makes them new, and offers a number of surprises. 

The demonic presence, known as The Watcher, and who soon comes to terrorise our happy family, is no generic demon, but an insidious being with uniquely disturbing methods for hunting. Though there is an element of the “haunted house” tale here, it bears far more kinship with Shirley Jackson’s legendary masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House than any shlocky TV re-run. Stylistically, Stred has reached new levels, this being his most fluid, evocative, and supple prose. Consequently, the house holds a fascination that works upon the minds of Ryan and his family, and subsequently upon us. Stred furthers this fascination by deploying an ingenious meta-device of including excerpts from an old book written about the house, a book which seems to be speaking to its reader directly, in order to further inveigle us in the history and “mind” of the house. This was one of my favourite elements of the story, and the mystery of the author of the book becomes a compelling thread woven through Incarnate. 

As I said before, however, Stred often uses familiar tropes, but he always handles them in unique ways. For example, most horror authors utilise claustrophobia to heighten their horror. For example, they set their story in a cramped underground basement, a collapsed cave, a locked room, a prison cell. The horror is concentrated by virtue of the concentrated space. Notice, too, that those previous examples are largely urban. Stred, however, as someone who I know from interviews and his afterwords, clearly has extensive experience as an outdoorsman, shifts his horror often to nature and expansive, large spaces. We see this in much of his work, such as The Stranger and The Girl Who Hid In The Trees (the latter was the first book I read by Stred) in which great forests form the backdrop for the horror. Stred seems to know that whilst we dream horrors will come and find us in the dark recesses of the city, real horror actually dwells out there, in the wilderness, where no one can hear us scream. Of course, there are many famous horror stories that do use rural spaces, including classic Slashers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Friday The 13th to an extent. However, often they rely on the incompetence of city-folk entering this rural space to generate mishap and tension. Stred pits extremely competent and intelligent people against the wild, and they still get royally messed up by it. 

So, whilst the horror is centred around the house, Stred makes the house the epicentre of a wild and dangerous world that borders ours both literally and metaphysically. There is an incredible, double-meaning line in which he invokes this liminality, “…only those who’d travelled these lands knew and understood.” By “these lands” he means the forests and lakes and wild spaces, but he also means the worlds beyond our own, the world from which creatures like The Watcher have emanated. Stred makes us aliens to our natural world and shows us our impotence against it. 

What further intrigued me about Incarnate, however, was the use of dream. This links thematically, of course, with contacting others worlds and planes. Often, in horror, dreams are used as a cheap scare to shock the reader during quieter moments. And whilst Stred does wrongfoot us one or two times, he also uses the dreams to further this idea of the house, and The Watcher, possessing their victims, and taking over their minds. In one stunning sequence, Ryan is dreaming he is in the woods, and the dream ends with a moment of transcendental horror, “Ryan knew what he was looking at. It was his window. The window of his bedroom. Within the window was the silhouette of a boy, of himself, one hand out in front, palm on the glass.” This moment is so incredibly well-written it cannot help but make the hairs stand on end. Ryan is the Watcher in his dream. We are left to wonder at the deeper meaning of this. 

As a final point, the climax to Incarnate is one of the best Stred has written. It is at turns moving, horrifying, sad, and uplifting. In fact, bizarrely, it is possibly one of Stred’s most optimistic endings, though, if you are new to Stred, I should warn you that it is certainly not happy in the traditional sense! 

You can get your copy of Incarnate here: 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

In addition, I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Steve Stred about his writing. The interview will become available exclusively to my Patrons on November 12th, here: https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer Sign up at any tier level to get access to this interview, plus other interviews with occult authors, such as S.C. Mendes! 

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POETRY ISN’T PRETENTIOUS, IT’S PASSIONATE

Our popular culture is plagued by the idea that poetry is elitist and pretentious, and to be fair, it’s easy to see why. Modernism and modern art have tried to change the very basis upon which Art is founded: aka, they have shifted the focus from manifesting the divine within the human sphere towards the realisation of an academic idea or commentary. But where Art is only about ideas, it dies. Enjoyment of Art should not be predicated on contextual knowledge. Yes, all Art exists within a context, that cannot be avoided, but the greatest works resound throughout history and transcend the boundaries of the time period, language, or culture in which they were birthed. I do not need to know what it was like for Dante Allighieri to live as a fourteenth century Italian to appreciate The Divine Comedy. His work speaks for him. This is because real Art must be felt, experienced, and lived. It is transformative. 

There is a notion that many of the old English writers of the canon, such as Milton, were crusty academics that had no appreciation of what real life was like, yet when we read his work, we find something very different, we find something vital and alive. Milton is, I think, one of the most profoundly misunderstood writers of all time. For a start, his gift for ironic humour is rarely discussed. Paradise Lost is intentionally and spectacularly funny in places, especially when Satan is backtracking over his own warped and impossible trains of thought (Anton Lesser’s magical audiobook reading of the poem particularly highlights this element). But more than humour, Milton’s writing breathes with a tremendous, baroque passion. This passion causes the very form of the poem to bend and even break underneath the weight of his emotion. Indeed, in the very first line, “Of man’s first disobedience…” he disobeys the iambic pentameter of his own line. This could be read as a clever poetic technique, and perhaps it is, but I prefer to see it as a manifestation of the true meaning of the poem coming through. I dare anyone to read the opening to read Book 3 of Paradise Lost—in which Milton begins to realise he is going blind and calls upon God to help him finish the poem—and not be shaken: “but thou / Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;”

This is where poetry differs from prose, and why we still need poetry in a world flooded with memes and literalism. I should say, before I go on, that I am not one of those elitist poets who believes in the superiority of poetry. How could I be? I am a novelist too, and I love novels! However, after years of rejecting and suppressing my inner poet, and then facing and unleashing this inner passion, I am forced to conclude that poetry offers something prose does not and never can, which is a way to stir the deepest tides of the human consciousness with merely a few lines. There are many reasons that the resultant outpouring of feeling can be so powerful. Rhythm is one. In other words, great poetry can affect the mind in the same way as music using alliteration, meter, and other formal techniques. This way, poetry can imbed the meaning of the words far deeper than prose. Don’t get me wrong, prose has rhythm too, but poetry cuts deeper. 

The second way is via rhyme. Rhyme is commonly misunderstood. For many modern commentators, rhyme is a pointless exercise, the poet simply “challenging” themselves, but this is a masturbatory view. The real purpose of rhyme is to link two ideas that would not normally be linked. When words rhyme, we begin to infer an association, however off-the-wall. For example, if we rhyme love and dove, we link the concept of human “love” with “peace” as the dove is a symbol of peace. Those two words have been rhymed far, far too often, so it is no longer an interesting rhyme to use, but you get the idea! We can also use para-rhyme (which includes vowel-rhyme and consonantal rhyme). For example, rhyming love and live is a consonantal half-rhyme. Rhyming wound and noon is a vowel-rhyme. This gives us access to a huge, huge range of possibilities, and given the English language has the fastest growing vocabulary in the world, and the most words, we are unlikely to exhaust the possibilities any time soon! 

Of course, bad poetry uses predictable or monotonous rhythm, and cliched and unoriginal rhyme, which destroys the potency of the verse. But the existence of bad formal poetry does not mean we should throw all formal poetry out, just as my inability to kick a football straight does not mean we should ban football as a sport. 

Poetry is a large and daunting field, despite the fact that people are eternally claiming “no one reads poetry” anymore. The truth is: people do, as the many YouTube channels dedicated to the study of poetry attest. The world is hungry for it, but some people may not know exactly what it is they are hungry for, because the field is so rife with politics and loaded with historicity.

Not only this, but great poets introduce new phrases into common speech all the time. We are forever loaning the words of poets, even if we don’t know the names of those poets. Percy Shelly said that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Whilst the statement is lofty, when it comes to language, it’s hard to deny its truth. And this brings us to one of my favourite quotes from Alan Moore: “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” This, perhaps, might be the very definition of poetry itself! The thing about truth is it’s like the sun. We can’t look at it head on, because it would burn our eyes out. However, poetry, unlike prose or any other medium, can reveal the truth more obliquely. The seeming “weirdness” and veils of poetry allow us to glimpse the truth without being blinded. There is a powerful link between poetry and magic which is too deep to go into here. 

So, where to begin? No two poets are the same, though some have much in common, and ultimately we have to find the poet or poets who speaks to us. Arguably my favourite poem of all time is Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, by Robert Browning, which is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written in my eyes. You can watch me doing a reading of it here. It is not too long and the language and feeling is awe-inspiring. Its meaning cannot be easily précised, but think about what the hero confronts at the end: is it death? despair? self-annihilation? guilt? Then consider how the hero faces it. Hair-raising stuff!

I also personally adore the work of Edmund Spenser, but many find him a little too formally rigid for modern tastes, and the size of his poems makes him difficult to get into. I find he is worth the effort though! My own upcoming work, Virtue’s End, is heavily inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

If you are looking for contemporary writers, though I am completely biased, I would have to recommend my wonderful father’s epic poem, HellWardas a starting point. The poem deals with his battle for cancer in the ward of a hospital which, as the title would suggest, is not all that it seems. Though epic poems can be daunting, the great thing is that they have narrative propulsion, which makes them a good starting point for someone who is new to poetry, or just looking to test the waters. We can follow the narrative and if some of the imagery or references go over our head, that’s okay, because we’re on a journey. After a while, we sink into the rhythm of things and realise our bearings. Another incredible modern epic poem is Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Libertywhich is a historical mock-epic set during the American war for independence. I previously reviewed this dazzling, hilarious, and moving work here.

Poetry is not for everyone. Except, I actually think it could be. That’s because real poetry isn’t understood with our left-brain, that is clouded by biases and intellect and judgement, it’s absorbed somewhere deeper, in the very soul, perhaps—though we have to open ourselves up to it. Any time we respond to a painting, piece of music, or literature with that unfettered, even explosive, emotional reaction, we are getting to the heart of what great Art—and poetry—is about. Archibald MacLeish once wrote, “A poem should not mean, but be.” In a world of ever more divisive opinions and politics, real poetry asks us not to decipher or argue, but to enter that immediate, present, and timeless being and feeling state. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows.” 


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Review of Spontaneous Human Combustion by Richard Thomas


Spontaneous Human Combustion is Richard Thomas’s fourth short story collection, featuring 14 tales ranging from cosmic horror, to science fiction, fantasy, and into realms beyond any simple definition. Richard Thomas has a unique style of writing, a trademark syntax that I can spot a mile away, though at the same time he is also chameleon-esque, changing the style and flavour of his prose in order to suit the aesthetics of his story, or to further highlight a theme he is exploring. This is perhaps why he is such an adept of the short story form in particular (though I do adore his novel Disintegration in particular). 

Stephen King describes short stories as “a kiss in the dark” and Richard Thomas exemplifies this transitory (and sometimes transcendental) experience, in which the very brevity of the form becomes the source of its power. We can only connect with the divine momentarily. Yet, to do so can be life-changing. In this way, Richard Thomas’ short stories more closely resemble poems. They do not always operate on the plane of conscious understanding. They are not meant to be comprehended through rational intellect, but to touch something lying beneath that. I found some of the stories in this collection to be moving without really understanding them in full. This collection also took me twice as long as it should have done to read because I was drawn inexorably to re-read virtually every story in the collection (and was rewarded every time with new insight)! 

I am fairly sure that this collection will be divisive in multiple ways. Some people will hate the poetic styling. Some will love it. And beyond this, there is unlikely to be any consensus on what the best story in this collection is. The range on offer here prohibits an easy narrowing down. As I mentioned earlier, Richard Thomas touches on virtually every speculative genre known to humankind, and combines them in often unexpected ways. Secondary world fantasies give way to dystopian science fiction. Lovecraftian horror is mixed with hope-punk. One senses a mind behind all these stories striving relentlessly for originality, to forge something new and not rely on tropes or easy wins. In the extensive and enlightening Endnotes at the back of this collection, Richard Thomas often mentions “challenging himself”, and one can feel that these stories are an almost Barker-esque attempt to discover something beyond the mundane, to “[explore] the further reaches of human experience” (Hellraiser). There is an experimental nature to this which is by definition inexact, but can produce startling alchemy. 

As I have said before, the experience will be highly personal, and no doubt there will be little agreement on which are the most potent stories in this collection, but I will highlight my own personal top four to give you a flavour of the book:

“Ring of Fire”

I would be criminally remiss not to mention this story, as it is the longest in the collection, practically a novella. It was first published in Seven Deadliest Sins, an anthology of seven novelette / novella-length works that centred on the eponymous Seven Deadly Sins, so I had read the story once before (my review of this collection can be found here:https://storgy.com/2019/05/29/book-review-the-seven-deadliest-edited-by-patrick-beltran-and-d-alexander-ward/). “Ring of Fire” is a little bit like a Lynchian Möbius strip, a circle that doesn’t quite complete, a mystery that forever unfolds but never quite solves; at the same time, it’s a tremendous character-arc. It is a slow burner, in which the seemingly explainable and mundane scenes we’re privy too are steadily re-contextualised until we realise that nothing has been “normal” or “explainable” from the start. It is also carries an indescribable sadness to it, as each repetition, each “circuit” of the Möbius, seems to lead us not towards salvation but deeper into the elliptical loops of the psyche. It’s worth mentioning this is not the only story in the collection that involves repeated scenarios or looping narrative. There are several “Groundhog Days” contained in Spontaneous Human Combustion. Some are literal, some spiritual, and others more subtle, but the idea of being stuck in a loop that either cannot be broken, or can only be broken by our most extraordinary efforts—with great sacrifice—is arguably the defining image of the entire collection, and a metaphor for the human condition. 

“The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” 

This is another story that I’d read once before; it was first published in Storgy’s Shallow Creek anthology, one of the weirdest and most underrated collections of fiction ever put to print. You can also read my review of that collection here: http://themindflayer.com/review-shallow-creek-storgy/. Richard Thomas’s story is the last story in the collection, and for good reason. It is a total mind-f*ck of chthonic proportions. It centres on Krinkles The Klown, who is a kind of Pennywise for Shallow Creek. But rather than going for shock-horror and killer clown antics, Richard Thomas instead tries to peel back the laters of Krinkles and show us why he is so strange (interestingly, there is another story in Spontaneous Human Combustion about a clown taking off their makeup—I sense a theme emerging!). I do not normally enjoy narratives that leave so much in the reader’s hands, but what I loved about “The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” is that Richard Thomas give us a series of choices, and we realise that this is exactly what Krinkles has faced: a series of choices, bargains, and decisions that have led him to the edge of the abyss. The story can be seen as bleak, in some ways, but is this how Krinkles sees it? Richard Thomas shows us that perception is everything in this tale. What we choose to see in the mirror is the reality we inhabit. The story has two strange parallels: Twin Peaks, especially Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (in which the macrocosm of the Lynch-universe is seemingly unveiled)and secondly, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. In terms of the second comparison, not so much the retro late-seventies vibe, more the contact with something entirely other, and the sense of obsession, panic, and euphoria such contact can bring. 

“Nodus Tollens” 

This story was a huge surprise. It is almost an outlier of the collection, in that it is written in a more prosaic and down-to-earth style. Richard Thomas himself described it as his most “King-like” story, and I would have to agree. As much as I love Richard Thomas’ impressionistic bent, it was refreshing, indeed electrifying, to see him tackle a story in a more grounded way, and as a consequence the story stands out. The title, Nodus Tollens, is a phrase invented by John Koenig on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which means “the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore”. Thus, what starts as a simple hand of poker quickly becomes a cosmic game in which sin must be unburdened. 

“Undone”

This story was the biggest surprise in the collection. When I first started reading it, I was uncertain whether I would enjoy it. Essentially, and I don’t think this is not giving away too much, the entire 1,500 word story is written in one sentence. Usually, I would regard this as pretentious; howeverRichard Thomas pulls it off, for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that the frenetic, relentless nature of the single run-on sentence is used to encapsulate the relentless nature of a terrifying, heart-pounding chase. This clever mimesis justifies the technique and elevates the intensity of the narrative. The plot of the story is simple, or seems to be. Two people are running from something unspeakable. What emerges at the end of the tale, however, is a moment of transcendence, of contact with something ineffable and divine. It is weird, grotesque, beautiful, harrowing, and spiritually uplifting. There are shades of China Miéville here. Never in a million years could I have guessed this would be my favourite story in the collection, but it is. 

Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy reading (to be fair, in general I do not find collections easy to read due to the stop-start nature of digesting a series of stories); however, it is a rewarding and powerful experience on so many levels. Richard Thomas pushes the envelope of what is possible in fiction, and strives to show us something truly sublime. Perhaps the collection is best summarised in Richard Thomas’s own words from his story “Undone”: “everything I could never be, nothing we have been before”. 

You can pre-order the collection here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Books

Review of Chasing The Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar


Chasing The Boogeyman is a unique horror novel that transgresses the boundaries between fiction and reality. Set in the humble town of Edgewood, where the author Richard Chizmar grew up, the novel follows the account of the author’s early life as the shadow of a serial killer threatens the peace and prosperity of his once-innocent home. As the killer, known as “The Boogeyman” for how he seems to disappear without a trace, begins to kill young women, Edgewood is plunged into darkness and suspicion. This novel might be described as a meditation on evil and on how that evil changes all who come into contact with it, however obliquely. 

I was fascinated by the premise of this novel – with Richard Chizmar as the narrator and central character of the story. I had attempted to write my own meta-fictional account of my battle with suicidal depression in 2017. Whilst I did finish the book, I ultimately do not deem it publishable; the book was more of a therapy than a story, and while there is nothing wrong with that and it was important to write, I ultimately did not want to subject other people to it. I mention this only to explain why I had—shall we say—an almost personal interest in how Richard Chizmar would approach writing about himself, and the potential traumas of his childhood or young adulthood. Suffice to say, there were more than a few surprises in store with this book. 

The closest parallel I can give to Chasing The Boogeyman is in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In the Divine Comedy, Dante inserts himself into the epic narrative, and goes on a journey into Hell guided by his mentor Vergil. It’s worth noting that many contemporaries of Dante actually believed he had been to Hell: the vividness of his descriptions, as well as the force of his personality, suggested an authentic mystical experience. Indeed, Dante was inundated with letters from occult readers asking that he teach them the “black magic of Hell” in order to assassinate corrupt officials. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, anyone who has actually read The Inferno or indeed The Divine Comedy as a whole will testify that there is a strangely convincing reality to the whole experience. Dante gives us ageography and psychology of Hell that feels cast-iron; Hell and its circles are very specifically mapped in a way that seems compellingly “real”. There are many NDEers who testify that the Hell they entered on death resembled Dante’s work! This total verisimilitude has endured for 700 years. 

Likewise, Chizmar’s narrative in Chasing The Boogeyman seems frighteningly real. We believe every word, every interaction, even though Chizmar warns us at the start of the book that elements are fictionalised. The book takes after true crime narratives and provides photographs of various people and places in Edgewood, and this furthers the sense of absolute reality. Verisimilitude is especially important in horror, hence the existence of epistolary novels (such as classics Frankenstein and Dracula) and found-footage horror movies; we have to believe in order to feel fear. And this is so: the “reality” of Chasing The Boogeyman augments the spine-tingling dread pervading the narrative. 

But if we step back from how “real” it all feels and just look at it as a novel, for a second, there is brilliant work here. Chizmar’s first person narrative is compelling. He never allows the narrative to be carried away by cleverness or too much introspection. There are moments where he allows the symbolism of the text to soar. For example, Chizmar describes his father as the wizard from Fantasia in his workshop of mechanical wonders, and the two of them watch a storm roll in over the town of Edgewood with a mixture of dread and awe. This moment evokes mythic archetypes, an almost Arthurian confrontation with oncoming evil. Yet it is not so poetically done that it loses the grounding of the story. 

The account is gritty enough but Chizmar also leaves lots to the imagination. This space for the reader’s imagination to go wild is perhaps the greatest strength of the novel; Chizmar shows incredible restraint and control in “holding back” from the desire to give us all the answers or to spell out the whys and hows. Thus, we fill in the blanks with the worst possibilities, and because of this, the Boogeyman becomes genuinely scary. To illustrate: there is a scene in which a young girl tells their parents that a monster was tapping at their window, and their concerns are dismissed as idle fantasy. We don’t think anything of it, until a moment later where we put two and two together and realise it was the boogeyman—he was right there, we literally just missed him—it makes the heart plummet through the bottom of one’s stomach. 

The character of the Boogeyman is fascinating. They represent a duality that runs through the whole novel: a night and day cycle that seems to represent the alternation between the conscious and unconscious mind. When darkness falls, the unconscious, in all its horrid splendour, comes forth. So, the killer has a “conscious” identity, someone in the town going about their business, though we don’t know who—and this forms a big reveal at the end—but the Boogeyman himself also has a personality. Sickeningly, we almost—almost—begin to admire his cunning and skill: how does he keep getting away with it? why can’t they find him? Chizmar does not shy away from admitting his own fascination with the macabre began to lead him down this dark rabbit hole, and this is perhaps the truer “descent” of the narrative, as we are drawn inexorably towards an admiration of total evil. Thankfully the ending is redemptive of this. 

And speaking of endings, as the killer takes more lives, we sense an awesome and hair-raising confrontation approaching. Whilst we don’t get anything so overtly dramatic as, for example, the ending of Stephen King’s underrated masterpiece Joyland, like Dante, we do get a confrontation with pure evil, a moment where we look the Devil in the eye at the nadir—the inverse apex—of existence. This final “interview” is harrowing reading, brilliantly written, and clearly inspired by the likes of Bundy and Gein. One also senses a Tolkien-esque philosophy behind the narrative: that evil is ultimately a form of nothingness, an absence rather than a presence, where meaning, love, and understanding are void. 

Chasing The Boogeyman is described as “meta-fiction” but it is deeply unpretentious. It is a harrowing journey into the circles of a modern Hell, leading to a confrontation with darkness. It is masterfully written, and the plotting is so watertight that not a single droplet of blood spills. Chasing The Boogeyman will leave you questioning what and who is real, and will have you checking your window is locked more than once during the long night. 

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Review of Cucumbers & Comforters by Nikki Noir


Horror and eroticism are both challenging to write well, and it is even rarer to encounter a writer who can do both whilst also throwing a bit of humour into the mix. Nikki Noir is one such author, and her novelette, Cucumbers and Comforters (available exclusively from Godless) manages to titillate, horrify, and make you laugh out loud in equal measure. 

The story follows Jen, a lonely teenager who is convinced she has seen one of her only friends, Dale Oberman, by the river. Dale is a younger kid with a learning disability who loves listening to stories about Kappas: Japanese water demons with a penchant for cucumbers. The only problem is that Dale Oberman is supposedly missing, and no one will believe that Jen’s seen him. 

Things only get worse when people start to get eviscerated. One by one, they’re found arse-up and guts leaking out of their hole. It’s gruesome stuff, and Nikki Noir pulls no punches when it comes to the frightening process by which these victims are turned inside out, although, in very Clive Barker fashion, she often misdirects us with a sexual encounterfirst. Noir writes like an erotic sadist in this regard, toying with our expectations; will we receive gruesome horror or an erotic thrill? We are never quite sure, and it is this duality, alongside the surprisingly layered plot, that keeps us on tenterhooks until the final page.

It’s clear that Cucumbers and Comforters was fun to write and is intended to be taken partly in jest. The image of a humungous cucumber on the front cover, and the blurb that tells us demons “want your ass”, is as tongue-in-cheek as it gets. But as with all great spoofs, there is a serious undercurrent, and I believe that’s the case here. Jen is an empathetic figure. We can all relate to her troubles with acceptance and her savage treatment by peers and adults alike. And Jen is not the only outsider. Dale Oberman is another, due to his learning disability. And Shaggy, Jen’s unlikely weed-smoking ally in the investigation, is a third. Nikki Noir handles these characters with surprising tenderness and we feel for them as they are disbelieved and maligned by the less sympathetic characters of the story. Beneath the ass-plumbing demons is a tale of how unlikely friendships form and become a comforter against social evils.

There is also an exploration of the modern fascination with asses, anal, anilingus, and scatology. Women want it. Men want it. And the “demons” certainly want it. Interestingly, it is only when the line is crossed, that a character actively seeks out this once-taboo sexual gratification, that the Kappa demons seem to arrive on the scene. I doubt Nikki Noir is writing a prudish warning against anal intercourse given the startling eroticism of much of her work, but I think there is certainly an advisement that we should be careful what we wish for. 

This leads to the final thing I want to talk about: which is the theme of desire and punishment through Cucumbers and Comforters. Jen desires to be accepted. But there are other characters, and I won’t say who or what for fear of spoilers, who desire less wholesome things, and they are prepared to go to great lengths to pursue these desires. But does pursuing our desires without regard for others have a consequence? At what point do our desires destroy us? 

Whilst I eagerly await a return to the balls-to-the-wall occultism of Nikki Noir’s Black Planet series, Cucumbers and Comforters is a brilliant novelette that is deeper than a book about ass-obsessed demons has any right to be. 

Pick up Cucumbers & Comforters on Godless.

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Review of Legends of Liberty by Andrew Benson Brown

Time moves in cycles—an ouroboros, if you will—and it is exciting to observe trends that seemed dead and gone forever return due to the cyclical nature of reality. We’re currently experiencing a complete resurgence of the Slasher genre, and a renewed interest in Horror overall. The existence of streaming services such as Shudder, and the popularity of modern films such as the Fear Street trilogy, are testament to this revival. What this says about our modern world, I leave to you, but certainly the narratives we invest in tell us something about who we are.

To be fair, Horror has always had a way of hanging on, and surviving cultural movements (even when banned or prohibited). It is one of those genres that never fully goes away, because human fear never truly goes away. It is far more impressive when a genre such as classical poetry makes its grand return. 

In the wake of modernism and post-modernism—the deconstruction of spiritual beliefs and national identity—and the advent of free-verse, classical poetry has been out of fashion for the last half-century. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore the deeper reasons why here. However, what we can explore is how the genre is seeing a slow, steady, but powerful resurrection. 

In 2020, my own father James Sale published an epic written in terza rima called HellWard, echoing the form Dante used to craft his magnum opus The Divine Comedy. HellWard, whilst classically influenced, is based on my father’s very real personal experience of battling cancer. This is very revealing on a number of levels. It shows that poetry has never been the province of solely the elite, because real poetry, the poetry that influences culture in unimaginably potent ways, is always about true, human, relatable experiences (finding our way home, to our own soul (The Odyssey), or losing a loved one (The Iliad)). In writing HellWard, my father found a way to translate Dante’s sojourn into hell into a contemporary experience of fighting cancer tooth and nail. He has synthesised real trauma with myth

HellWard is the first instalment of The English Cantos, which will similarly mirror Dante’s tripartite model exploring hell, purgatory, and heaven. Whilst I am obviously biased, I am genuinely in awe of this book, and how it has captured the imaginations of so many. There have always been poets, either self-publishing their work or otherwise; this is not necessarily indicative of a revival of anything, especially when so much modern poetry reads like solipsism. But a popular, classically formed poem emerging in the maelstrom of Covid-19 and other catastrophes, now that begins to resemble the beginning of a movement! 

On the heels of HellWard comes Legends of Liberty, a new mock-epic poem written by Andrew Benson Brown. Benson Brown’s poem styles itself after Lord Byron, particularly Don Juan, and whilst the “mock” elements are certainly laugh-out-loud, there is no denying that the poem is serious at its heart and has some important things to say about modern society, the way history is taught in schools, literalism, where Western civilisation lost its way, and much more. Whereas HellWard is written by a Brit, Benson Brown speaks for an American audience, although his truths are universal. He deals with Thomas Jefferson confronting his sins in the inferno, with the battle for America’s independence from the British, and how new technology has shaped the landscape of war. However, Benson Brown never falls into the trap of giving a tedious, preachy history lesson, as many so-called poets do. His scenes have a surreal quality which at times is used for hugely comic effect, and at other times, to evoke mythic grandeur: 

“Their bayonets cast beams — reverse sundials 

Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span

That cast so many shadows on the globe.” 

There is so much to unpack from three lines like this. The image of the bayonets catching the light mirroring the ancient spears of the Greeks in The Iliad, but he does not stop at merely aping the original, but reverses the image, whereby we come to associate the weaponry with the oppressions of Western empire. We move from the “beams” of the bayonets, aka light, toward the “shadows” cast across the whole world. 

Benson Brown has a gift for aphoristic wit, a compact statement that seems to encapsulate the entirety of a gigantic concept. This is essential for writing mock-epic, which is often as much a commentary as it is a narrative, for example: 

“And wear beliefs as circumstance permits.

They’re diplomats by trade— we call then hypocrites.” 

This is where poetry shows its strengths. Form is not a restriction, it is a tool that can produce mimetic effects upon the reader when deployed by a master wordsmith, which Benson Brown assuredly is. In the words of Kurt Seligmann, form is “not resented as a coercion but rather welcomed as a liberation from the tyranny of chance.” The genius of rhyming “permit” and then half-rhyming “diplomat” (which “tricks” the brain into thinking the verse is done), only to then complete the couplet with the rhyme “hypocrites” amplifies the comedic effect by virtue of misdirection. The fact that permit and hypocrite is a “perfect” rhyme also conveys cleverly that “hypocrite” is the true term for the type of person he is describing. 

But Benson Brown does not only use the rhyme scheme to comedic effect. As I said before, the poem is serious at heart. There is a sense of mourning lost values and ideals, exemplified by how many heroic American figures are now forgotten, save for in obscure annals and Benson-Brown’s own poem (these obscure sources are extensively referred to in the poem’s copious notations, often witty, amusing, and informative). This sense of loss is perhaps no better exemplified than in the incredibly dense couplet:

“Of petals, perfect in their fair proportions.

What nature nurtures, time adopts, and chaos orphans.” 

From here, we have the full journey of a human life encapsulated. A petal, like a child, is made perfect. Nature nurtures it, which in itself is a clever play on words, referring to the endless debate as to whether we are more influenced by “nature” (our genes and biology) or “nurture” (what we are taught and experience). Benson Brown’s line here seems to appropriately suggest both play their part. In growing up, the child is taken under the wing of Time, entering the ouroboros of existence, before being orphaned by “chaos”. There are a number of meanings here for “chaos”. In one sense, we all become orphans eventually, as our parents must die. But in another, we are orphans in the sense we have to find our own way through life’s “chaos” and complexities. This is only scratching the surface of meaning.

Even if you are new to American history, or indeed to poetry, I highly recommend you read Legends of Liberty. It is witty, humorous, moving, and unlike anything you have read before. Classical poetry, much like Horror, is coming back from the dead in the hands of skilled writers like Benson Brown. The least we can do is give it a warm welcome. 

You can purchase Legends of Liberty below:

Amazon UK

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Review of Father of Lies: The Complete Series by Steve Stred

Father of Lies: The Complete Series is arguably Steve Stred’s magnum opus. This occult, brutally dark window into the lives of those practicing forbidden magic in the shadows is at once harrowing and totally absorbing. Like a bad acid trip, it keeps us enthralled with vision after vision yet desperate to escape its clutches. 

Based on Stred’s real life experience of joining a cult of a dark web, this quadrilogy and its accompanying essays, interviews, and insights into how the series developed is as disturbing as anything Stred has ever written, which is really saying something. In each successive instalment, Stred takes us deeper into the lore and world of Father, the leader of a cult attempting to ascend into the Black Heavens and achieve immortality alongside godlike demonic entities. We follow both the poor misguided souls hoodwinked into the cult’s masochistic belief system, and the deceitful leaders trying to engineer their own deification. Though this book draws together many ideas and themes that are recurrent in Stred’s work, including animal-human hybrids, the threat of wild or remote spaces (particularly forests), and the evils of secret organisations, it also goes one step further into the Crowleyian territory of sex magic. 

Stred both pulls no punches, graphically describing scenes of sexual molestation and rape without a scintilla of restraint or euphemism, yet also uses coded symbolic language to hint at the magical significance of the terrible acts performed by the cult members. For example, the motif of the “horn and hoof” is a clever symbolic cypher for the penis (horn) and vagina (hooves are cleft, and therefore frequently represent the female principle). Interestingly, the dark god Abaddon, whom the cult frequently calls forth, has male genitalia but cloven feet, thus embodying the esoteric concept of the divine androgyne, an entity that combines male and female principles. It is not my intent to bore you by deciphering every image, but I wanted to demonstrate how deep Stred’s work is; like the eponymous figure of the Father of Lies, Stred deceives us by writing in a direct and simple prose-style that belies the real depths lurking beneath the surface of his work. 

Stred treads a knife-edge in more ways than one with this series. He exposes the lies of cult-leaders and how they deceive and hypnotise their followers, yet he also doesn’t deny the possibility that dark magic exists, and convincingly paints scenes of harrowing supernatural agency. Despite the almost relentless savagery of the narrative, there are moments of beauty or warmth breaking through the black night like stars. The friendship between Detective McKay and Professor Bianchi is a surprisingly tender affair that makes it all the harsher when it is wrenched apart. 

There are also scenes of wonder, though they are often coloured with horror too. There are women who glow with supernatural fire to those with true sight. There are acts of surprising (if misguided) courage by the downtrodden. And there are dark gods, who demonstrate their horrifying power in opulent and brain-searing ways. Perhaps the most awesome scene of this nature in the whole series is from the third novella, Sacrament. Blood begins to shower from the sky, and a character strips down to the nude, opening their mouth to swallow the rain. We are told, “His eyes widened as the portal opened, and his mind stepped into the stars.” It is moments like these that push this story into the transcendental sphere. 

Father of Lies is not an easy read. It is not for the faint of heart. And it is more than just the subject matter, which at points will even the hardiest person’s stomach turn, making me say this. It is also the oppressive mood of the narrative that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading. It is the sensation of being watched, of having read something you are not supposed to. Cliche though this is, one cannot help but feel Father of Lies embodies the Nietzschean idiom: Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back into you. 

Coupled with this, Stred plays with our perceptions of right and wrong, distorting them to egregious heresy. This feat is no better embodied than in the character of Abaddon who, though a demon, is oddly sympathetic, and even remorseful at times. In this way, Stred seems to appropriately echo Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles, who, though he tempts Faust to damnation, is yet an empathetic and strangely human character we relate to. Stred gives us sympathy for the Devil, often because the humans are so much worse. 

Anyone who knows me or who has been on one of my writing courses will be aware that I normally don’t go for bleak. I prefer eucatastrophe, redemption, and bittersweet. None of those are to be found in Stred’s work. Or if they are, it is in a twisted way. However, Stred does what he does so well, he makes an exception of my rule. There are so many wonderful indie authors in the horror field, many of whom I adore, but Stred has perhaps earned his place quite rightfully as the King of Horror, if only for his sheer courage to venture into the blackest depths where other writers fear to tread. 

You can purchase the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA