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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

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Review of Carolina Daemonic Book 1: Confederate Shadows by Brian Barr

The first Carolina Daemonic novel, Confederate Shadows, is one of the most esoteric and layered books I have ever read. There is so much going on in this story it is going to be hard to adequately break it down, but I feel I must, because this is a book you definitely don’t want to miss. 

Firstly, I’m going to get a few sundry items out of the way. If you buy the paperback of this, the formatting is slightly weird. There are no page numbers, no text justification, and the margins are way, way too big. Personally, this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me, but I know some people will find it a bit hard on the eyes. I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to overlook this minor niggle, however, and see the gem that this book truly is. You see, Confederate Shadows confirms something that I had begun to suspect when reading Barr’s other novel Serpent King:

Brian Barr is an actual genius. 

This word has a tendency to be overused now, and wheeled out for any hack who can string a sentence together, but Barr is the real deal. He’s doing things with fiction that no one else is. I should also qualify that genius does not equate to perfectly chiseled (and often boring) prose. In fact, it is precisely the reverse. To use an appropriately occult term, it is a state of “Ipsissimus”, of complete and realised selfhood. Confederate Shadows is a work of genius because it is absolutely and unashamedly what it is, traditional rules of storytelling or editing be damned. It’s written with ferocious passion and energy. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the basics. 

Confederate Shadows is perhaps best described as an occult, alternative history novel set in the year 2020 (a year of ill-omen both in reality and in the novel, as it happens). In this alternative timeline, the South won the American Civil War(and the States has become known as the Confederacy), the British Empire was never toppled (and is called Victoria), and China retained its Emperor, having never become a communist nation. Slavery was abolished, but in the 20thcentury not the 19th, and racism and political tensions abound. 

I remarked on Barr’s world-building skills in my review of Serpent Kingbut here it is perhaps even more impressive. Barr constructs a universe that is at once strange and alien but also strikingly similar to our own. Using his alt-reality, Barr is able to make commentary on a variety of contemporary concerns from racial discrimination in the workplace, to industrialisation (in Barr’s alt-universe, steampunk technology has revolutionised the world, and the only reason slavery was abolished was because slaves were no longer needed with the implementation of robot workers), corporate greed, monopoly, and the weaponisation of race- and class-divide for political and corporate gain. The richness of texture in this universe is incredible, and Barr does not shy away from tackling some of the most complex philosophical issues of our time, often via the mouthpiece of his unusual and fascinating protagonist Titus Hemsley. 

Titus is a mesmerising focal character. He possesses incredible analytical powers. He is at once a man of science, a high-level robotics engineer, but also interested in the occult and the darker side of magick. Others perceive him as “uppity” or arrogant, and we can see from his speech patterns how educated he is. He’s black, bisexual, and perceives the world through a unique lens. What’s fascinating about Titus is how he doesn’t subscribe to the traditional divides. He’s little interested in blaming white people for the evils of the world, because he understands the truth: that all people, black, white, Asian, whatever, are pawns being used in a terrible political and corporate game, and that by fuelling these hatreds, the corporates are getting closer to delivering their coup de grace on human freedom. The prescience of this novel is frankly frightening considering it was written before 2016. 

But Barr never falls into the trap of preaching one philosophy. In fact, he displays a Shakespearean capacity for representing multiple conflicting viewpoints, and without resorting to proposing a definitive “right” way. In this vein, we also meet Titus’ old colleague (we’ll stick with that descriptor to avoid spoilers): Reuben. Reuben doesn’t agree with Titus’ view at all, brutally describing him as an “apologist”. As we follow Reuben’s story, we begin to develop a great sympathy for Reuben’s plight, and see that he also has valid reasons of thinking the way he does. 

We also follow the intriguing courtesan Wei, sent by the Emperor of China as a “gift” to the president of a large American conglomerate that is currently at the centre of a racial controversy. Wei’s perspective is a complete shift of gear, and while it would be easy to see her as a mere plot device to give us a window into the events transpiring inside this conglomerate, she ends up on one of the most interesting character arcs in the entire story. When writing about such sweeping political and theological issues, as Barr is, it can be easy to lose the characters, the human individuals at the heart of it all, but the brilliance of Barr’s work is that this is precisely his point. 

Barr is also not afraid to give us insight into the villains of this story, in particular the eugenics advocate Tobias. It would be so easy to reduce Tobias to a caricature of evil. He is Titus’ rival, from university, and the two share an intriguing backstory that becomes deeper than you could possibly imagine, including a shared propensity for magic. They now work for rival robotics corporations and represent entirely different viewpoints. But whilst Barr certainly shows us what a piece of shit Tobias is, he never makes him beyond sympathy. In fact, there is one tender flashback scene in which we feel tremendously sorry for how pathetic, lost, and repressed Tobias truly is. We yearn for him to make different choices, knowing he cannot. 

This introduces another key theme of Confederate Shadows, which is repression, sexuality, and magick and how they all interrelate. The opening scene of the book – a masterpiece of character-writing – puts us in Titus’ headspace as he searches a bar called the Thirsty Rooster for some easy sex. He’s looking at both the women and the men with opportunity in mind, and we sense that Titus is a bit of a sexual animal despite his intellectual prowess. Later in the book, we meet another character, whom I won’t name for fear of spoilers, who expounds that the perfected or “übermencsh” human being is one who has been robbed of the sexual impetus (and organ), because it diverts and distracts energy. 

Sex and magic (or magick) have always been interlinked. Barr even goes so far as to mention the sacral chakra (the second chakra that sits just below the belly button, at the dantien, and glows with orange light). This chakra is concerned with both the sexual and creative impulses, and throughout history it’s evident that most creative powerhouses also had ravenous sexual appetite. There is some debate between different magical schools of thought, however, as to whether the control and suppression of sexual drive is a boon or drawback for the magical practitioner, and Barr also addresses this occult debate, exploring whether sexuality is a healthy and human balance to the higher potency of magic and idealism – or a hindrance. Titus embodies this balance, in many ways, though he also recognises that his lack of focus has been a bane to him in the past. 

In some ways, the entire novel might be construed as an exploration of the role of sex in human endeavour: we open with Titus looking for sexual opportunity, Titus’s backstory is innately tied up in sex and shame, his rivalry with Tobias is further illustrated by their differing sexuality; many of the villains have problematic and repressive attitudes towards sex, and Wei, the heroic courtesan, represents another mode of transactional (and passive) sex, and the toll it takes on the human psyche. Further symbolism abounds in that her name may be a reference to the philosophy of Wu Wei, popularised in the West by Alan Watts, which advocates “non-volitional action”, or rather, achieving through submission to the cycles of the universe. It’s also a homonym for the English word “Way”, which has occult and spiritual meanings. This is just a taste of the depth to be found in this book. 

And while we’re speaking of occultism, Barr displays very deep knowledge of both the mystical Qabalah (sometimes variously written Kabbalah or Kabala) and other magical systems, including the Qliphothic magic of the Reverse Tree. One need not understand these systems to enjoy the story, but it is refreshing to read a book that is grounded in very real magical (or magickal) traditions; it gives Confederate Shadows and its alternative history just that bit of edge. 

It has been said of the bizarro author Carlton Mellick III that “Every Mellick novel is packed with more wildly original concepts than you could find in the current top ten New York Times bestsellers put together” (VERBICIDE) and I think the same is true of Barr. Just when you think Confederate Shadows has revealed its biggest secrets, it pulls the rug out again; just when you think you’ve seen the weirdest thing it has to offer, it shows you something stranger; just when you think all the characters are on the table, it introduces a new player. For fantasy and sci-fi junkies like myself, this book is like a tapestry of top-tier concepts that are somehow seamlessly sewn together, from steampunk robotics totrans-human body augmentation to Nigerian magic cults to Egyptian necromancy and even genetic modification reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000’s sexless Space Marine warriors (I have no idea if Barr is familiar with this universe, but interesting parallels abound – perhaps it’s more the root Nietzschean philosophy he’s drawing from?).

Confederate Shadows is not a conventional novel. Barr doesn’t care about sticking to one genre, nor does he care about his reader’s sensitivity – he’s a horror writer at heart, I think – so get ready to see some truly fucked up Barker-levelshit. There are many unsettling concepts in this novel (not just gore, but more deeply disturbing due to their religious, political, or moral implications) that I can’t spoil. One of the most impressive things about Confederate Shadows, however, is that unlike many books dealing with weighty political and ethical themes, Barr does not enforce an artificial morality upon the narrative (thus reducing the story to an allegory at best and a preaching fable at worst). Sometimes good people with the best intentions die suddenly and violently and the abhorrent misogynists survive. Bad things happen to women, men, straight, gay, black, and white people without any deference to some kind of political agenda. Barr isn’t holding your hand, he’s holding up a mirror. 

Brian Barr is one of the weirdest and I think most important writers alive today. He is almost certainly the most underrated writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. So please, I beg of you, go and buy his book. Or even better: buy all of them. I’ll certainly be picking up book 2 of Carolina Daemonic: Rebel Hell. Barr is the voice of one calling in the desert; we need to start listening. 

Confederate Shadows Amazon UK

Confederate Shadows Amazon US

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Review of Brian Barr’s Serpent King: Shadow & Light

In our modern world, we have many advantages, but one major disadvantage is sometimes knowing too much. By this, I mean that it is more and more difficult to surprise a modern reader, gamer, or film-viewer because each of us sits at the heart of a constant information flow. Speaking with a good friend of mine the other day, we were both lamenting how the advent of YouTube, whilst useful, has led to video-game worlds feeling smaller and more predictable. Gone are the days of trying to find a cure of vampirism in Oblivion and not knowing even the first place to start. Now, all the info is available online. Of course, one could resist the temptation to look, but there is not that same sense of communal excitement at the possibilities of the unknown, except, perhaps, when you encounter a Dark Souls title. Those games still manage to hide a wealth of secrets even as they are being plumbed to the nth degree. 

Dark Souls isn’t the only exception. There are other great works out there that surprise and awe us with their lack of conventional storytelling, and the way the keep their cards close to their chest. Serpent King, by Brian Barr, is one of those artefacts; it is a powerful and imaginatively vast novel set in the far flung galaxy of the Dracos Constellation. 

The narrative predominantly follows Razen Ur, a Commander General in the Nagan Empire, and his son, Zian Ur, born in mysterious circumstances, and gifted beyond natural means. Yet to say this is to deny the scope of the book, which also involves the mysterious priesthood of the Plumed Serpent, the occult gatherings of the Shadowsnakes, the internal politics of the Imperial Family and the Emperor of Naga, and the colonisation of the outer worlds of the Dracos Constellation. Barr describes this novel as “science-fantasy”, which fairly accurately invokes the superb blend of science-fiction action and world-building, mixed with an undercurrent of something far darker and more magical. 

In this novel, it is snakes, not monkeys, that have evolved to intelligent, bipedal form: the reptilis sapiens. In this way, there is also an element of “alternative history” about the book, a depiction of how evolution might have played out a different way, and what civilisation would have looked like if that were the case. Although inhuman, Barr’s cast of characters are disarmingly sympathetic, and that is where the power of this novel comes in. The Nagans are clearly a metaphorical representation of empire-building cultures, particularly the Roman, British, and Spanish empires. Yet, whilst Barr exposes and satirises the xenophobic thought patterns and brainwashed jingoism of these cultures, he also shows more morally upright, sympathetic, and “human” figures caught in the midst; these aren’t bad people, they are individuals with loves and losses doing their best under an oppressive regime. This really shows how dangerous and potent writing can be, because before long, Barr had me sympathising with Razen Ur, the relatively humble Commander General of the Nagan fleet. Razen is troubled by his impotence, a human concern if ever there was one,and unwilling to shed any more blood than necessary during his conquests. He is a devoted husband, and a kind father. Yet, he is also a mass-murderer who has brought more worlds to heel than any of his contemporaries in the military. Barr allows the moral ambiguity of all of this to breathe, which makes his work rich and compelling. 

Whilst it would be easy to dismiss the choice of writing about an empire of bipedal snake-people as simply a flight of fancy, or perhaps a “cool” sci-fi idea, I think there is a lot more going on. Snakes, firstly, are almost universally a symbol of knowledge. Interestingly, one of the recurrent motifs throughout the novel is that of two entwined “proto-snakes” (snakes that never evolved from their slithering form) around a caduceus. In the real world, this symbol is emblazoned on every Western ambulance, hospital, and medical centre. The emblem has its roots in Hermetic principles: the two wings crowning the caduceus symbolise the winged feet of Hermes / Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Of course, Biblically, snakes also represent knowledge, for it is the serpent that persuades Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit that brings “knowledge of good and evil”. Interestingly, the sub-title of the book is “Shadow and Light”. Things in shadow are darkened to us, things that are in light are revealed. Shadow often represents “evil”. Light, “good”. There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Naga, the Empire of the “Reptilians”, therefore, is not just a cipher for the empires of human history, but could well be construed as an extended metaphor for the battle between good and evil, for secret knowledge, and for a path through the middle all of these contrasts, a path that only people with a certain mindset, and certain tools, can tread. 

Having previously been impressed with Barr’s re-imagining of the King In Yellow mythos of Robert W. Chambers, I anticipated some occult elements in Serpent King, and I was not disappointed. There are layers beneath even the simplest interactions in this story. Hints that seem innocuous are actually gateways to greater narrative truths that Barr deftly hides from us until later stages. I do not know what Barr’s influences were, but many scenes remind me of the occult practices outlined by Kenneth Grant and, though he is often purely regarded as a fictional writer, H. P. Lovecraft. Beneath the civilised surface of Naga and these “cold-blooded” reptilian snakes, who are all about duty, honour, and logic (and have even named one of their choicest weapons “logic bombs”), is something far more emotional, dark, and irrational. Whilst it would be easy to construe the Reptilians as a kind of nod to the Illuminati conspiracy theories of lizard-people ruling the stars, I think Barr has done something even cleverer: he has shown that deep down we’re the snakes, traitors to our own warm-blooded nature, hiding behind a veneer of science and reason, when the reality of the universe is very different indeed. 

In many respects, Serpent King is also a coming-of-age story. Much of the book follows Zian Ur as he is tutored by different masters, demonstrates his supremacy in the fighting ring, and finally is appointed to a high rank in adulthood; all while his father, Razen, continues to conquer in the name of the Emperor off-world. The coming-of-age elements are so well done, that one can easily forget how many other facets to this novel there are. And, one becomes fondly attached to the places and characters Zian interacts with as he grows up, to the point of nostalgia in later parts of the book. 

Zian is also a fascinating character, and Barr manages to reflect how different he is from all the people surrounding him simply through dialogue and action alone. This is partly achieved through the sheer contrast between Zian and his father Razen; the two are endlessly juxtaposed. Whereas Razen makes for an incredibly human and empathetic portrait; Zian is much harder to understand. We fear what Zian is capable of, but we also root for him. Barr goes into great detail about the slow but satisfying process of how Zian unlocks his full potential, and again, clearly demonstrates a knowledge of how occult practice works, and how certain practices can lead to an expanding awareness and deeper insight. This culminates in an incredibly satisfying evolution and climactic battle in which Zian must use all that he has learned to survive. The ending of this novel is apocalyptic, sad, arguably bleak, but also strangely satisfying. I’m not sure I can think of a comparable ending in any other book I have read, which is saying something. 

Serpent King is weird, and wonderful because of it. It will transport you to another universe, make you care about an empire of snake-people, and then dash your expectations to smithereens. It is a book of magic, with hidden meanings, but above all that: it is a compelling story of awakened potential. 


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