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Review of Defining Moments by David Niall Wilson

Defining Moments by David Niall Wilson may be the best single-author collection of short stories I have ever read. Considering that my favourites include Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Richard Thomas’s Tribulations, that is high praise indeed. But Defining Moments is a uniquely intense and joyous reading experience that will stay with me—probably forever.

I admit I was first drawn to Defining Moments by the cover. I was at AuthorCon III in Williamsburg, and my vending table with Blood Bound Books happened to be next to Crossroad Press. I saw this gorgeous hardback special edition—pictured below—and I simply had to own it. The author, David Niall Wilson, who was manning the stall at the time, graciously signed the book for me.

But Defining Moments is not only beautiful on the outside, but also within. From the first story—which gives the collection its title—I was riveted by a Niall Wilson’s narrative voice. His prose combines the narrative intensity of Stephen King on full throttle with moments of pure poetic flair. In other words, despite an unmistakeably literary bent to the writing, it is never at the expense of the reader or story. Thus, gorgeous descriptions of moonlit landscapes or beautiful and mysterious apparitions are juxtaposed against a character’s mundane desires for sex, highs, money, or just plain survival. His narrative hooks are compelling. We are not simply supposed to be dazzled by his writing. We care about his protagonists, what they want, and the ill-advised methods they use to get what they want.

This delicate balance of elements is also present in the themes of the stories. David Niall Wilson clearly has a deep interest in the occult, with story premises based around Tarot cards, past lives, and Crowleyan magick to give just a few examples. However, his stories are never lost in the high-falutin realm of spiritual ideas, but retain their grounding through all-too-real and relatable characters with human concerns and struggles. A case in point is the second story in the collection, “The Lost Wisdom of Instinct”, in which a student of the Tarot, Alex Beauchamp, comes to sort through the papers of his old mentor, Professor Robert Auburn Devonshire, who has recently passed away. Professor Devonshire was working on something big, a breakthrough in understanding of the occult systems of the ancients. Niall Wilson effortlessly conveys a sense of both supernatural power and human loss in this segment reflecting on the Professor’s house:

His spirit seemed to inhabit every corner, every shadow and flicker of light, surrounding them with the aura of mystery and promise of power just beyond the ordinary senses that made every thought, every motion sensual and vibrant, alive with purpose and meaning.”

In addition to the evocation of power and memory, the strange syntax of the sentence, which seems to trip over itself to progress to the end, mirrors the expectancy and fervour of our protagonist, Alex. This is top level writing.

While undergoing the work of reconstructing his old mentor’s theories, Alex finds himself sexually drawn to Professor Devonshire’s widow, Madeline, in ways that are both darkly compelling but also welcomely comedic, in that they expose the human condition:

What the hell was wrong with him? At a decisive moment such as this, all he could think of was what the widow of the one man he’d ever truly respected would look like without her dress!”

The bathetic juxtaposition of petty lusts against the spiritual unfolding that is taking place is comical, but oh-so true to human nature. However, as promised by the title of the story, we shall see that Alex’s petty desires might serve a greater purpose, a “lost wisdom”.

Not only does David Niall Wilson explore highly esoteric ideas, but he also puts interesting spins on familiar tropes, such as vampires and werewolves. Sometimes, he totally reimagines the mythos of these archetypal monsters, but other times, his innovations come at the microcosmic level, such as an ingenious scene where a character with a silver tooth bites down on a werewolf’s arm! It’s an unexpected moment of pay-off that is greater than the some of its parts.

Defining Moments is the perfect title for the collection. The stories, though originally published many years apart and collated into this special edition by Sarob Press in 2007, are extraordinarily cohesive. Each story deals with a character in a moment that will define them for the rest of their lives. In “Cockroach Suckers”, possibly my favourite story in the whole collection, the defining moment comes in the form of an unexpected business opportunity. Two hicks living in The Great Dismal Swamp stumble upon a seven-foot tall wooden effigy of a cockroach, supposedly carved by Native Americans, and they decide to make it into a roadside attraction. But of course, things aren’t what they seem...

All of us encounter these strange opportunities. Something unexpectedly crosses our path, and how we respond to this “something” can determine a lot about us and about our future. In some instances, it is never possible to go back to who we were before. This is the case in the deceptively erotic story “The Gentle Brush of Wings” (which won the Bram Stoker Award, by the way), in which one error of judgement—succumbing to baser urges—leads our protagonist down a path of nightmarish illusion. This story performs sleight of hand upon the reader, using its erotic glamour to conceal something profoundly sinister beneath.

These thirteen tales conjure a world alive with myth and magic—but the most astonishing thing is that it is our own world. Like the greatest spiritual teachers, Niall Wilson opens our eyes to the extraordinary all around us, and makes us believe there is something more to life than meets the eye, that revelation is just around the next corner. We never know when our own defining moment might come. Perhaps it will be with the death of a parent, as in “The Call of Farther Shores”, or when a mysterious stranger walks into our tattoo parlour and begins to tell their strange story, as in “To Dream of Scheherazade”.

The ghosts of several great authors are present throughout Defining Moments. In particular, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge feature time and time again, not necessarily in terms of explicit references (though there are a few), but in terms of how these writers understood the dreamlike nature of reality, the power of fantasy, and the hidden longings of the human heart. David Niall Wilson’s collection is not only a fitting tribute to those greats, but a worthy continuation of their legacy. His work is immersive, thought-provoking, and deeply moving.

As I understand it, the special hardback edition of Defining Moments is basically sold out (I think I quite literally acquired the last copy in the world, if you can believe it). However, the paperback, Kindle, and audiobook are still available on Amazon. I cannot recommend diving into this collection enough. It won't be the last book I read by David Niall Wilson.

Purchase here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of A Story of Sorrow by Daniel J. Volpe

Very few writers can claim to have not only coined the term for a new, emergent genre but also produced an exemplar of the form. However, Daniel J. Volpe is one such writer. In voicing the words “Splatter-Fantasy”, Volpe has opened the doors to a whole new realm of fantasy literature with a dark edge, as well as recategorising many extant works that previously eluded easy attempts at definition.

While Grimdark has been around for a while—indeed, Volpe cites a few masters of Grimdark in his dedications, such as Abercrombie—it tends to focus on blood, politics, and betrayal. There’s plenty of that in A Story of Sorrow. But there’s also something else, something undeniably weird. The closest parallel to what Volpe is doing in A Story of Sorrow is the baroque masterpiece BleakWarrior, a novel described as “Sword & Debauchery” but which fits into the new paradigm of Splatter-Fantasy. What sets these books apart from Grimdark or standard Dark Fantasy works is their ability to incorporate horror into the fantastical and magical elements, to unflinchingly pursue their inquiry into the dark side of existence even into realms beyond the real.

However, as fascinated as I am by this new genre, I don’t want to get sidetracked and neglect to talk about A Story of Sorrow itself.

A Story of Sorrow is a Robert E. Howard-esque episodic series (at the time of writing, there are three entries) that captures the magic of watching old fantasy television programmes such as Xena, Warrior Princess, only Volpe’s world and characters are a good deal darker than even Xena’s blackest adventures. The books are short and sweet (whichagain makes them feel like an hour-long television special, rather than a two or three hour film). And each one is self-contained, though of course if you do read the books in order, a deeper and darker plot begins to emerge, tying together the narrative threads woven through each book.

I had such a good time with this series. Simply put, A Story of Sorrow is so much fun, the most fun I have had with a fantasy series in a good long while. Rather than bogging himself down in world-building and magic systems, Volpe understands that it’s the characters who make a great tale.

Enter our hero, the aptly named Sorrow, a former gladiatorial blade-master turned galley-slave. We first meet Sorrow in book 1, Of Flesh and Blood, chained to the oars of a ship being torn apart by a black storm. I knew I would like him when he turns to Hame, one of the slavers who has just lashed him, and remarks, “You would strike a man when he wasn’t looking, but I already knew that… then again, you’re a cunt.” These are Sorrow’s first lines of dialogue. Character established.

The opening sequence sets the tone of the entire series, as the slave-masters desperately try to whip the galley-slaves into saving the sinking ship, and the divine hand of providence wreaks untold fury upon them. Only the strongest wills survive. The rest become “gull shit”.

From there, we meet a cast of horrible but lovable (and perhaps lovable because they are so horrible) side characters: Jagrim, an axe-wielding mercenary with a taste for whores and rot-gut. Gortul, another mercenary, a little more grounded than Jagrim, but just as deadly with his mace. Then there’s the sneaky, slip of a boy, Finleos, who looks a little bit too similar to Sorrow for comfort... And, a personal favourite: Zakkas, who comes from the Land of Burning Sands, wields a scimitar, and is forever taking the piss out of his pale-skinned companions. It’s a classic fantasy set-up of “men on mission”, with lots of crude banter and insults and violent killing, but it’s done with pathos, humour, and heart. You sense that despite the brutality of this world—or perhaps because of it—Volpe cares about his characters and what they are going through, and he makes you care about them too.

And, often times, just when we think we have the measure of a character, Volpe turns matters on their head. A good example of this is Vicar Prentas in the first book. We spend most of the book hating the officious idiot, viewing him through Sorrow’s admittedly biased lens—he has no love of the Church—but at the end of the story information comes to light that changes the way we perceive Prentas and makes us question Sorrow’s unbridled criticism of the Church. Likewise, we grow fond of certain characters, only for them to commit heinous acts that makes us question how far we can sympathise with them. This makes the characters feel alive.

Despite my saying Volpe doesn’t bog us down with world-building, there is a really fascinating world here. Volpe doesn’t try to reveal all of it in one go—a classic error many fantasy writers make—but instead gradually unveils its politics, its religious divides, its magic, and its cities and territories. It’s world full of ruthless cut-throats, seedy taverns, whorehouses where the odds of ending up dead or plague-ridden by the end of the night are extremely high, black magic rites, and fights to the death either for vendetta or amusement. It’s also a world full of mysterious creatures that are just left of the predictable fantasy tropes. In the second book, for example, our antiheroes find themselves being hunted in the mountains by a horrific six-eyed monster awoken in the bowels of a cave. The creature is so old and so nightmarish that it is never even given a name. No one knows what the hell it is, which makes it five times scarier.

The final two things I would like to say about the series are this. Firstly, Volpe really understands the concept of “pay off”. He places a Chekhov’s Guns on the table in his openings, and invariably they fire in the second half of the book in interesting ways. Sometimes, you can see how the plots are going to dovetail, but that isn’t a criticism—the plot becomes inevitable, which gives it riptide power to pull you on, turning pages without breathing. I found myself in awe of the way that certain narratives would converge in order to advance the story, and even more awed when the outcome was not what I expected.

Secondly, Volpe really has a gift for prose. His prose is precise and fluid and—perhaps because he is a horror writer—he has this knack for making certain images suddenly jump out at you. No book is perfect, of course, and there were one or two small anachronisms that threw me out of the fantasy world (I am sorry, but I am a stickler for things like this!). However, these hardly matter when paired with sentences as evocative and gorgeous as this opening line to book 1:

It rode into town on the back of a dead horse, wearing a cloak of human flesh.”

Or, this throat-constricting scene from the opening of book 2:

She clawed, trying to reach his face with her long, dirty nails. Fesha hooked a chain around his neck, pulling forth a shimmering amulet from his shirt. The metal was mirrored finish and, in its reflection, Fesha glimpsed fear in her eyes. It was the last thing she’d ever see.”

Overall, A Story of Sorrow is a really unique approach to writing fantasy—combining old school sword and sorcery with twisted, gut-wrenching horror and delivering it in a slim, episodic format. I found myself totally immersed in the tale and sad when I had finished the third book that there was no more (and also sad because the ending of book 3 is horrific and I mean that in a good way). Here’s hoping that Volpe releases book 4 soon. Until then, I’ll be killing time drinking gut-rot in the taverns of Ayr.

You can find out more information, or purchase copies, of A Story of Sorrow here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of Madness From The Sea: Cthulhu’s Lure by Jonathon T. Cross

One of my favourite things as a reader is discovering books that turn out to be more than they appear. These books often masquerade as something traditionally defined as “low brow” entertainment, but in truth, they are deeper than their shocking titles or covers would indicate. Madness From The Sea: Cthulhu’s Lure is absolutely one such book. Whilst its hentai cover, depicting a woman pulling an orgasm face as Cthulhu’s tentacles envelope her, would indicate a shallow (though thrilling) bit of smut, Cthulhu’s Lure is so much more than mere tentacle-titillation.

The basic of premise of Cthulhu’s Lure will be familiar to fans of Lovecraft. Frances Smith, a young woman living in Boston, keeps receiving erotically charged dreams about a great squidlike entity that exists in a liminal dreamscape, a haunting “labyrinth of stone monoliths”. Unsure what she is experiencing, she does what most of us in the Twenty-First Century would do, and turns to the internet. It doesn’t take long for Frances to develop a cult following. Some of them are weirdos who are turned on by tentacle fetishes. But many are genuinely curious as to the meaning of her dream experiences.

Meanwhile, Donnie, Frances’ husband, is growing increasingly uneasy with his wife’s behaviour and wants to rescue their marriage. As Frances is drawn closer and closer into the labyrinth of her own desires and fantasies, Donnie—with the help of one of Frances’ friends, Hazel—takes drastic measures to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

There is a lot more to say, but to avoid spoilers, I will leave it there.

One thing I really loved about this story is how it genuinely tried to bring a modern twist to Lovecraft’s original tale. Whilst I enjoy modern Lovecraft fiction, in general I find it too often falls into the trap of trying to re-create the original. Cellphone signal is lost. Maps are destroyed. Time travel occurs. Essentially, the writer tries to avoid modern elements to imitate the same style of horror deployed in Lovecraft’s nineteenth-century stories. Whilst this can be fun for a bit of escapism, it ultimately feels contrived, and like an avoidance of the truth.

Jonathon T. Cross, however, takes on the modern world head on. He explores what a return of Cthulhu might look like in the modern age, and how the internet—a space that operates not unlike a shared dreamworld or an astral plane—would pay a huge part in such a resurgence. Whilst there are comedic moments in the story, overall the modern elements don’t take away from the atmosphere of dread but actually augment it, partly because it is all so believable. You may be looking at me like I’m crazy, but the idea of an internet community building exponentially and then bubbling violently over into the real-world, leaving chaos in their wake, is not only possible but probable in the near future.

Jonathon T. Cross also creates a link between his modern setting and the “old world”. He does this in several ways, but principally through the medium of dream, using the dream-world as a liminal space in which possibilities can coexist, including the communication between entities from beyond the stars and human beings. Whilst dream-sequences can be overused in fiction, the dream-world in Cthulhu’s Lure is a specific and well-used concept that not only serves narrative purpose but also reveals character. Symbolism within the dream is reflected in reality in clever and subtle ways. Likewise, desires expressed in the dream are corrupted and made manifest in the waking world. A dialogue exists between the phantasmal realm of myth and the modern world of crumbling materiality desperately clinging to a sense of meaning. Frances Smith is the middle point where all of this converges: old and new, technological and magical, intuitive and rational, mundane and extraordinary. She is the prophetess of a new age, a red woman sprung from Aleister’s Crowley’s lusty imaginings but instead of being wedded to the Ten Headed Beast she is wedded to Cthulhu.

As I said before, Cthulhu’s Lure is very far from tentacle-porn. In fact, its use of sex bears more in common with Greek mythology than with modern erotica. The concept of a beast or monster mating with a woman to produce theriomorphic offspring is pervasive throughout virtually all the ancient mythologies. Perhaps the most famous example of this is The Minotaur, a creature half-human and half-bull, born of the sexual congress between Pasiphaë and the favoured snow-white bull of Poseidon. Poseidon, of course, is the god of the sea, so there’s already a link, albeit tentative, between Cthulhu and the bull-monster of Greek legend.

Because of the Minotaur’s hybrid nature, Pasiphaë could not nourish the child, and so it became increasingly ferocious and bloodthirsty and eventually turned to devouring human beings for sustenance. The Minotaur is therefore imprisoned in a terrible labyrinth constructed by the genius inventor Daedalus. The Minotaur waits at the heart of the labyrinth, a black secret, devouring any who are sent as offering into its runnels.

Cthulhu likewise waits in the labyrinthine and “sunken” city of R’lyeh, accessible only via dream or by a perilous voyage across the Pacific Ocean. R’lyeh, the labyrinth, these dark and inaccessible spaces represent our unconscious, inhabited by the antediluvian urges that can still be awoken with the right ritual and sacrifice. In the modern world we have seemingly conquered these urges and desires, but we still fear their return, and the time is soon coming “when the stars are right” and these desires—symbolically represented by Cthulhu—will once more walk the earth and hold sway.

The other brilliant thing about Cthulhu’s Lure is that it for all its Lovecraftian and mythological trappings it remains the grounded story of a failed marriage. And despite all the messed up things done by both Donnie and Frances, you still care about both of them, and still sort of want things to work out. Jonathon T. Cross channels Lovecraft, but filters the anxiety, the paranoia, the obsession, and the madness through a totally new lens, producing something that feels like one of the most original takes on the mythos in quite some time.

You can read Cthulhu’s Lure in a single day (I know I did), yet it will take you on a deep journey into a woman’s fracturing psyche and a man’s desperation to save what little he has in life. The last line of the book is a real humdinger. And, I may be wrong, but it looks like there might be further books in the series to look forward to.

Jonathon T. Cross is definitely a writer to watch. You can check out more of his work over at https://www.thatspookybeach.com as well as cool art and other merch.

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Review of In The Shadow of Their Dying by Anna Smith Spark and Michael R. Fletcher

In esoteric philosophy, it takes the combination of two polarised energetic forces in order to produce something new and original. The most obvious example of this is found in conception and childbirth. But the same applies in the intellectual and imaginative realms as well.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is one such original creation, sprung from the union of two giants of fantasy: Michael R. Fletcher, known as the Mad Titan of dark fantasy (what an epithet!), and Anna Smith Spark, Queen of Grimdark.

Having read both of these authors, I have to admit I was uncertain how their styles would effectively combine. Michael R. Fletcher writes in a stark and cerebral manner. His work explores powerful concepts and, at least in my view, seems primarily concerned with ideas. For example, in Beyond Redemption, his world is populated by Geisteskranken, individuals whose delusions are so powerful they manifest in physical reality. Fletcher uses this high-concept premise to explore the dark recesses of the human mind and our relationship with religion and belief. In many ways, his novel read to me like an allegorical tale, in which characters embody particular human delusions or desires or false beliefs. In this way, his work has a distinctly Spenserian vein.

By contrast, Anna Smith Spark’s epic Empires of Dust series is written in a deeply emotive and impressionistic style. Her story is not centred around precise plotting or logically worked out magic systems, but rather on the torrid and tumultuous emotional interiors of her characters; its these emotions, more than anything else, that drive them and the action. I compared Empires of Dust to The Iliad in my original review because, like Homer’s masterwork, it is the furyof Achilles that takes centre stage, not the politics of Troy and Greece.

My fears about how two such differing styles would combine were unfounded, however. In fact, the abilities each author brought to the table augmented and complimented the other beautifully. Fletcher’s sheer bleakness was lifted by Anna Smith Spark’s incredibly lush and stylish poetry. And conversely, Spark’s more abstract approach to narrative—which at times can be hard to follow—was grounded by Fletcher’s more concrete and direct approach, as well as beingilluminated by his jet black humour. Although it must be said both writers introduce comedy into their dark narratives in surprising ways.

But enough meditations on writing style. I should get to the plot!

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a story about three characters caught up in the midst of a terrible and pointless war. Though there are a host of players in the tale, our main protagonists are: the hapless yet cunning Tash, the “third best assassin in Sharaam”; Pitt, the leader of a curious gang of cutthroats and magical beings; and finally, Iananr, a demon bound in service to the King of Sharaam.

Clive Barker once wrote in his masterpiece Imajica that:

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course – thousands in fact – but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center.”

This is certainly true of In The Shadow of Their Dying, for it is these three players that constantly drive the action with their alliances and betrayals, their rises to power and subsequent falls, their changes of heart, and their reversions to their darker natures. Each perspective is unique. Tash is a strangely relateable narcissist who wants people to take him seriously and will do anything to ensure that. Pitt is an experienced manipulator who yet has a weak-spot for one woman in particular. And Iananr is perhaps the most fascinating perspective of all: she is a demon bound to human form, and her mind roves in ways that are utterly alien and almost incomprehensible to us.

In the structuring and styling of the story, both writers play to their strengths. It’s clear Anna Smith Spark handled the chapters written from the perspective of Iananr, using her gorgeously sensuous prose to conjure the unknowable thoughts and feelings of a being that is not truly of the flesh but of the spirit. At times, the writing almost becomes pure poetry, grammar and words bent out of all shape and recognition as they strain to evoke the labyrinthine mind of a creature that is more god than mortal. This is doubly appropriate, because it is with “words-chains”—a spell—that the demon is bound, and the demon is constantly meditating on the inadequacy and yet the hidden power of words.

By contrast, it’s clear Fletcher leant his hand to Tash’s chapters, his grimdark sensibilities rendering our assassin in delightful shades of morally grey. Tash is a loathsome human being, but strangely compelling. Comedy is interspersed with bloodshed and morally reprehensible acts in an almost Shakespearean fashion. The ultimate fate our assassin ishilarious and darkly fitting.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is only a novella, so the plot is neither grand nor sweeping. All the action takes place within the city walls of Sharaam. But this serves to up the tension and enhance the focus even further on the characters; in this way, the book feels almost like a play, and fittingly Tash wistfully reflects upon his own life as a play being written by a great playwright. Spark and Fletcher have created a darkly vibrant world despite the fact we only see a taster of it. They also take a few old tropes of the fantasy genre and remake them in gloriously inventive ways. Despite the plot not being the main focus of the story, there are a few wonderful surprises in store that will catch you unawares.

If I have one minor criticism, it is at times scenes are repeated from a different character’s perspective a few too many times for my taste, especially for a novella of this size. But this is a minor quibble, and the murky atmosphere of the story is sustained throughout.

In The Shadow of Their Dying is a gore-soaked, betrayal-filled, grimdark delight that yet hides a strangely spiritual core. It asks the question of what ties truly bind us to a life of misery, war, bloodshed, and addiction, and whether those ties might really be an illusion, and what might happen if we could free ourselves of those ties. The answers are not predictable, nor expected. And the characters we think are capable of redemption may, after all, be doomed to repeat their mistakes. And the characters we believe are irredeemable may yet surprise us.

I, for one, hope that we see another book from these two masters of the craft. A few threads have been left which could be used to weave a larger narrative. But even if we don’t see more, In The Shadow of Their Dying is a perfectly blendedshot of dark fantasy that burns the throat on the way down, and leaves an aftertaste as beautifully bitter as it is sweet.

You can purchase the novella here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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New Release: Servants of the Dark Gods!

The silhouette of the king on his knees, he holds two whips for self-flagellation in the middle of a Gothic cathedral with bright sunny stained glass windows , his back is wounded and bleeding 2d art

Hello everyone,

I am pleased to announce my new book SERVANTS OF THE DARK GODS will be released in May! See below the cover reveal!

This collection, set in The Book of Thrice Dead multiverse, pulls together six of my best and most horrifying short stories, three of my most popular dark novellas (including The Meaning of the Dark), and includes a new original short story entitled “Spring Offensive”.

Many of these stories have been out of print for several years, so it is a delight to see them in print again! These stories contribute to the wider lore and origin stories of the principle cast of The Book of Thrice Dead, so those familiar with this series will meet some old friends—and learn some surprising truths.

The stunning cover design was done by dear friend and awesome writer Dan Soule. The art is Warm Tail.

Furthermore, I am delighted to announce that the incredible Lezlie Smith, of The Nerdy Narrative booktube channel, has written a stunning Foreword for the collection. Honestly, it might be better than the stories themselves!

Here is a short extract:

For those familiar with Sale's work, this collection offers a tantalizing glimpse into the origins of characters, tracing their paths through the web of existence to the precipice of villainy. For newcomers, it serves as a portal to worlds beyond imagination, where every story is a gateway to discovery and self introspection.”

You can view the Amazon pre-order page for more information:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon CA

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Review of Legends of Liberty Volume 2 by Andrew Benson Brown

In today’s blog we shall continue the trend of reviewing amazing sequels!

In 2021, I reviewed Volume 1 of Andrew Benson Brown’s mock-epic masterpiece Legends of Liberty. Three years later, the much-anticipated continuation will be released March 1st.

The first volume of Legends of Liberty was a masterstroke, blending history with myth, the absurd with the all-too-true, and the blatantly untrue with the sublimely comedic. Volume 2 continues in this vein, effortlessly picking up where we left off at the end of Volume 1.

In brief, Legends of Liberty follows a number of major figures from American history, along with one or two that time seems to have forgotten. We have Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, George Washington, and, on the other side of the pond, King George, Lord Howe, and Thomas Gage.

What is fascinating for historian and casual reader alike is how Benson Brown treats his characters. He viciously satirises them but at the same time handles their stories with compassion and surprising sympathy. For example, his portrait of Benjamin Franklin, or “Lightning Ben”, is of an obsessive who, for all his nerdy attention to scientific details, misses the one truly important thing in his life: his family.

Like all great writers, Benson Brown does not shackle himself to one mode or tone, and often punctuates his wit and humour with real pathos. The stanza below explores Ben Franklin’s return home to find his wife has passed away:

A priest bears crosses with his prioress:

Their souls, in distant abbeys, window-gaze.

A captured lion craves his lioness

And languishes until his cage his raised—

But when, returning to his shaded lair,

He finds the cubs are grown, the mother gone,

His youth departed, cautious of each snare,

His hunting instinct loses taste for fawn.

The priest, likewise, can only pray and nod

When his abstracted nun departs to be with God.”

Quite apart from the sentiment and imagery, which are beautiful and poignant in and of themselves, the control of language—in terms of meter, diction, and rhyme—are totally astonishing. In fact, it is hard to think of any other poet in the English language working today who demonstrates such technical prowess without succumbing to the lure of virtuosity. Benson Brown’s restraint and control render this passage even more moving. Coleridge said that poetry is “The right words in the right order” and Benson Brown’s epic seems the embodiment of this sentiment.

But not only does Benson Brown triumph in these extended images and passages that shape big narrative moments. He is also he master of the pithy and aphoristic witticism, the seemingly throwaway “one-liner” that speaks an entire century’s worth of words:

When morals lead to maxims, lend them:

Those prone to citing rules are liable to bend them.”

The poem is full of similar insightful and funny couplets; they illuminate the story by making the historical and mythological events feel incredibly down to earth. For all the we grandeur of these figures from history (and myth) we recognise in them hypocrisies and human flaws that allow us to access the narrative more fully.

Poetry is often accused of being intellectual and abstract, but Legends of Liberty proves this a false accusation. Legends of Liberty is a poem grounded in the humdrum details of everyday life and ordinary people making the best decisions they can in bad situations. But this everyday and ordinary life also borders realms more weird, fantastical, and dreamlike.

In this way, the evils of King George are explained—and rendered almost sympathetic— through supernatural means: he has been possessed by the Devil, who takes the form of a cockcroach and whispers into King George’s ear. This is an imaginative and ingenious literary device that threads history with layers of biblical significance. Benson Brown further mythologises his version of history with allusions and similes that draw upon the old masters. For example, the ruthless John Burgoyne is described in terms that evoke both the demon Moloch from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

The third man, John Burgoyne – a dashing idol

Of ladies, scourge of children he’d had ripped

Untimely, from used wombs he wouldn’t bridle,

In marriage (no Macduffs, these babes in crypts) –”

The contrast with Macduff, the hero of Macberth, is savagely ironic. As, unlike Macduff, who is born via Caesarian but lives to save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny, these children are denied a future by Burgoyne's viciousness. 

Again, though Benson Brown’s poem is a mock-epic—and laugh-out-loud humour abounds—he does not limit himself solely to comedy. This is particularly evident when we reach the bloody details of the Battle of Bunker Hill:

Monomaniacal, Lord Howe made red

Rain down: the sun burned darker, hotter, rayed

Its heat; the planet Mars, enlarging, rowed

Against the starry ocean’s course and reigned

In the red sky, a pumpkin moon; the raid

Uphill accelerated: runners rode

Over the red-stained stumps, all bent like reeds…”

The repetition of “red” and the alliteration of “R” serve to onomatopoeically hammer home the brutality of the conflict. The cosmic imagery of Mars—the planet of war—overhead, altering its celestial path, is juxtaposed with the broken, severed limbs on the ground.

All of this is saying nothing of the notes Andrew Benson Brown has written to annotate his poem, which are almost funnier than the poem itself, or of the incredible attention to detail he has put into designing the poem. Every page features relevant artwork, usually a historical piece that has been manipulated to live up to the poem’s surreal intensity. The text snakes and warps around these images, so that both text and image work together to create something worthy of an art installation. It’s truly mind-boggling the effort and attention this must have required and it seriously augments the poem’s readability and enjoyment even further.

As I said in my last review, even if you are not normally interested in history or poetry, I cannot strongly recommend Legends of Liberty enough. There is so much in both Volumes 1 and 2 to delight you, whether it be the surreal comedy of Thomas Jefferson, having met the ghost of Dante Alighieri, tarzaning butt-naked into a conference of delegates from Virginia, the rap-battle-level dressing down of some of history’s most significant institutions, or the pathos of the human stories that beat at the heart of this “divine comedy”.

You can check out the series page for Legends of Liberty here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of The Stone Door by Steve Stred

After he went down there, an unspoken hush fell across our streets, like a fog that settled one day and decided not to leave.”

The Stone Door is the unexpected but highly welcome sequel to one of Steve Stred’s best-ever short novels, The Window In The Ground. The Window In The Ground will always remain one of my favourite Steve Stred stories for the simple reason that it so deftly explores two primary (and interrelated) aspects of human nature: curiosity and innocence.

In the original novel, curiosity almost seems to be allegorically embodied by the eponymous window in the ground—the anomaly that sits at the edge of a quotidian, rural town. At first, the image might strike you as ordinary, but the more you think about it, the more you detect a sense of wrongness, and the more your mind begins to conjure questions: why is it in the ground? is there anything on the other side of it? who put it there? The ending of The Window In The Ground answers some of these riddles, but not others. To reveal too much of the mystery is, of course, to destroy it. But be that as it may, the original premise held such power, I was delighted to discover there would be a sequel.

Following on from the events of The Window In The Ground, The Stone Door takes us farther out to new dimensions of fantasy and horror. Like the first book, The Stone Door is written in an intimate and confessional first-person style. Stred is truly a master of making even the most esoteric concepts feel grounded, often using narrative voice to achieve this. However, in this book, we follow a different character from the first, one who remains nameless, and who watched from the sidelines as the events of book 1 unfolded. Now, they have to deal with the aftermath of what occurred.

This new character is similar to our former protagonist. Older, and yet also likewise naive, he wishes he could do something about the horrors that have been unleashed on the town due to the actions of “the boy”. But his father is controlling and has preordained a life for him working at the mill. Luckily, our protagonist has a rebellious streak, coupled with a fantasy of desire for the mysterious “girl next door” Sue Ellen, who turns out to be the very person who can lead him towards his true destiny.

The Stone Door’s early chapters are full of subtle omens that imply an impending doom for our town and townsfolk:

We kept our eyes on each other’s for as long as we could, young love and all that, but the moon was high, its illumination forever changed, and my blood had never run so cold.”

Stred takes the “slow burn” approach and steadily builds a sense of unease and “not-rightness” which is barely defined, more felt, and he impresses this upon us with the sinuous language and the use of images (such as the moon and blood in the above quotation).

Like the first book, The Stone Door explores innocence and curiosity. Stred also unpacks more of the relationship between these two primary facets of human thinking and being. He shows that curiosity is a trait of innocence, and yet ironically curiosity often leads to the loss of innocence. Our protagonist is drawn to things he doesn’t understand, and to the beautiful Sue Ellen who is certainly more than she appears, but the nearer he draws to these mysteries, the nearer he draws to a flame that will burn away his naivety. Can his sanity survive this awakening to the truth? Are human beings meant to understand what lies on the other side of the window in the ground, or the stone door, which represents an even deeper mystery?

Reading this short novel reminded me of Blue Velvet by David Lynch. Lynch’s masterpiece hinges upon the power of curiosity to draw the innocent Jeffery into that mysterious room on the seventh floor, and thus into a world of darkness he never new existed, but which has always been there just below the surface, much like the coprophagic, atavistic beetles we see in the film’s opening scene, roiling in the dark underworld beneath the American Dream. Stred similarly propels his narrative with a sense of curiosity that draws its protagonist—and the reader—deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. As in Lynch’s film, there is a sexual dimension to The Stone Door, and it also contains surreal moments that, on the surface of things, don’t seem to make much sense. The story is not a traditional type of plot, motivated by achieving objectives, it is a subconscious unfolding that is conveyed to us through a language of symbols: doorways, dreams of sex, forest pathways, stone circles, characters from mythology, fairy-tale cottages, and worlds parallel to our own that are dangerous yet beautiful. Time is slippery. Perception is not to be trusted.

Some will take issue with this approach, and it seems Stred anticipated this, for our protagonist reflects on the nature of the mystery he is embroiled in:

“Sometimes in life, like in the great books you’d read, not all the answers would be there. A person either let it go and accepted things for how they were, or filled in the blanks on their own.”

The reality is that we cannot know all the answers—at least on this side of the veil—and even if we could, they would likely destroy us. In this way, The Stone Door is not only about innocence and curiosity, but also about the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of life and death itself.

And isn’t that often the case? When you arrive at a point in your life, an apex, or a cliff hanger at the end of a chapter in your favourite book, where you’ve gone too far, invested in it too much, that there’s no coming back?”

The book comes out 1st March, 2024. You can pre-order the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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Review of Writing and Rising From Addiction by Brian Bowyer

Every once in a while, one encounters a truly special book. Usually, this book connects with us on an individual level. It feels as though the work was written for us, and that the writer plucked the emotional turmoil out of our minds and fashioned an antidote in the form of alchemical narrative. Not only this, but these special books are usually difficult to place in terms of their genre. They don’t fall into easy categories. In fact, they transcend them.

Writing and Rising From Addiction by Brian Bowyer is one such special book. I have never read a book like it and I highly doubt I am ever likely to read a book like it again. It bears the qualities of a story that simply had to be told, lest the author combust from the internal pressure of the story trying to escape. What is even more astonishing about this book is that it is autobiographical, and whilst the events related seem fantastical—impossible by today’s standards of officious “realism”—the level of detail and the earnestness with which they are conveyed leave me in no doubt that it is all true.

Writing and Rising From Addiction covers the first forty-three years of Brian Bowyer’s (highly eventful) life, from his earliest memories right up until a climactic moment of transformation in his forty-third year. Clocking in at 535 pages, it’s epic in chronological and geographical scope as well as emotional depth.

I must preface everything I’m about to say with this: this is not a book for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a cosy autobiography about a middle-class journey to Hollywood success, then this is not for you. Right from the first page, Bowyer lets us know we’re in for a rough ride, and the darkness of addiction takes hold of his life at an obscenely young age. This book deals with childhood abuse and trauma, violent crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Every trigger warning applies. But if you’re brave enough to peer into the abyss, you’ll discover the diamonds within.

Clive Barker was an early influence on Bowyer, and one can see similarity in Bowyer's life and work with Barker's paranormal realities, where the fantastical and ordinary abut one another!

Bowyer’s literary style is one of minimalism, of great empty spaces that the reader can populate with their own responses. Only rarely does Bowyer interrupt the narrative flow to tell us how he felt at a given time. He presents us with events in the cold and methodical way of a pathologist establishing the cause of death. I am not sure this book have been written in any other style. There are no frills or self-indulgences to distract us from the journey. And there is likewise no cushioning to soften the heartbreak. And this book will break your heart. Some of the things Bowyer has endured go beyond torture—they are nearly unspeakable. Yet speak about them he does. 

I am not going to go into great detail analysing specific events in the story, as to do so would be to destroy the wonderful surprise of discovery. I guarantee you will not be able to predict even half of what happens in this story, and even when you do have an inkling of what is about to occur, it is normally by Bowyer’s design, a careful foreshadowing that lets us know storms are gathering on the horizon. But, despite not detailing specific events, there are some devices and themes I want to highlight that contribute to making this book so special.

Firstly, Bowyer understands that in order to tell your own story, you have to establish yourself as the epic hero of yourlife. I’m not saying here that Bowyer is egotistically bigging himself up. On the contrary, he lays his faults bare and then some. He confesses to crimes that are genuinely shocking. Indeed, he walks right up to the line of possible redemption. But, he grasps that even though this is an autobiography, it’s also a story like any other, and he is the protagonist, just as we are all the protagonist of our own lives. And what a remarkable protagonist he is: equal turns absurdly resilient, ingeniously creative, seductive, magnetic, cruel, kind, blind, and despite everything utterly, utterly likeable. You desperately want things to turn out well for Bowyer, and every time they don’t, and life throws him another catastrophic curveball, you feel your heart riven in two. To speak bluntly: the shit this man has endured is worthy of a hundred Hollywood movies, though no one would ever believe it had all happened to one person.

Pulp Fiction was a huge influence on Bowyer, and at one point he seemed poised to take over Hollywood himself.

Secondly, Bowyer is to be praised for unashamedly discussing the numerous supernatural occurrences in his life. Some of these are so startling that they will raise the hair on your arms. If you’re a horror reader and have enjoyed Bowyer’s other books, never fear, this autobiography has plenty of supernatural horror to keep you awake at night. Although, it must be said, the occurrences are so numerous, one has to wonder whether Bowyer himself is the magnet for all these strange apparitions and hauntings. His energy and vitality—despite drug and alcohol abuse on a scale that is difficult to comprehend without reading the book—suggest a supernatural power working through him. And indeed, that power works upon us via his book as he keeps us hypnotically glued to the page, hanging on every word.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is how Bowyer weaves in both his love of books, and the writing and publication of his own novels, throughout the narrative. As a big fan of Bowyer’s novels, particularly Autumn Gothic and Flesh Rehearsal, I was fascinated by Bowyer’s journey as a writer. He discovers a love of reading in the most unlikely of circumstances, and from there always has a book in hand, at one point amassing a library of nearly five thousand paperbacks. As you might expect, the books he is reading and writing—and the music he selects, as he is also a talented songwriter and guitar-player—always seem to have a strange relationship with the events in his real life. Fiction is imitating life, to a degree, but it is also occurring the other way around, with his life taking on dimensions of the fiction he devours and creates. Bowyer is deftly able to explore the notion that stories, just like drugs and alcohol, can become another method of escapism, and there is a peril in that of a different kind. But unlike drugs and alcohol, there is also a hope and a healing to be found.

Ultimately, Writing and Rising From Addiction is a unique work, an autobiography that reads like a modern gothic novel, an epic that remains intensely personal, a true story that stretches credulity to its utter breaking point, a moment in history that yet feels like an eternal archetype. I devoured hundreds of pages in single sittings. It is utterly compelling just as it is disturbing. At times, the journey feels so bitterly dark you wonder whether you will ever find the light—only to emerge like Dante at the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, startled and awed, the black of hell falling away from your eyes. Writing and Rising From Addiction is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in horror, writing, addiction, magic, and love. It is a testament to the human spirit and the courage necessary to follow the ineffable paths set before our feet by powers mightier than ourselves.

You can get the book at one of the links below:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

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Review of The War Eternal by Rob J. Hayes

I recently had the pleasure of finishing the fifth and final book in Rob J. Hayes’ dark fantasy series The War Eternal. For many of you, Rob J. Hayes needs no introduction. He is an independent author taking the world by storm with his epic fantasy and sci-fi novels. I read (and reviewed) the first book in the series, Along The Razor’s Edge, last year, and it was compelling enough to entice me to read the next book in the sequence. Initially, I wanted to review each book as I read along, but given the number of fantasy series that are either unfinished or don’t stick the landing, I decided to restrain that impulse and read through to the very end, then write a review of the whole thing.

Suffice to say, Rob J. Hayes absolutely sticks the landing. The War Eternal is epic not just in the modern sense of a loose genre-cleping, but in the true, original meaning of the word. As a diehard fantasy fan, The War Eternal reminded my slightly cynical older self exactly why I had fallen in love with the genre in the first place, and showed just how powerful the genre can be in the hands of someone prepared to push its limits.

There are a few key aspects of this series that make it really special. One of which is character. Good novels and great ones are often separated by two major factors in my humble view: structure and character. We’ll come onto the structure of The War Eternal in a little bit, but for now I want to zoom in on the characters, who are truly this series’ strength. Rob J. Hayes has a bit of a magical way with getting you to like his characters, even when they behave like idiots, or worse when they behave despicably.

First and foremost, there’s our first person point of view narrator, the protagonist, Eskara Helsene. Eskara is an amazing protagonist for a number of reasons. She is incredibly powerful, which opens up a huge range of possibility for a storyteller (though it can also be daunting, and in the wrong hands the power takes away the tension of the novel). Eskara is full of those little hypocrisies (or some people prefer to call them idiosyncrasies) that make people who they truly are. My favourite example of this is to be found in Sherlock Holmes. Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes totally miss the point of the character by making him an atheist. Turning Holmes into a ranting Dawkins-esque killjoy makes his character mono-dimensional and rather less interesting than having him stand at the absolute pinnacle of logical intelligence yet also hold room in his heart for the idea of a higher power, which is how he is presented in the original Arthur Conan-Doyle stories (it’s actually good-natured Watson, the surgeon, who has doubts).

Eskara is similar to Holmes, in this regard, only she is the other way around. Eskara is not only continually confronted with living proof of the gods, the afterlife (or at least that the soul exists after the body is gone), demonic entities, and other worlds, she even wields necromantic power connected with these realms, so has experienced them more fully and cogently than, say, an ordinary person without magical attunement. Yet, she refuses point blank to “believe” in anything more than the body. She is a creature of the flesh, without a religious bone in her, and time and again she chooses the flesh over the spirit, the body over the heart, despite being a sort of epicentre for the conflux of these energies and spiritual forces. Put another way, The War Eternal feels like the tale of Joan of Arc if Joan constantly denied the spiritual forces at play in her life. This might sound frustrating, and one or two times it is, but it’s also funny, perceptive, and a wonderfully original way to explore a fantasy world. The eyes of a complete rationalist render a lot of the fantastical elements—the creatures and places, the magic-system and metallurgies—concrete. Ovaeris feels like a place you can touch, taste, smell, hear—a place that really exists because of this logical consistency.

But we are not done with hypocrisies and paradoxes. Eskara, despite her rationalism, is also a creature of wild rage and overwhelming emotion. At times, she is prepared to make the ultimate, logical sacrifices for the greater good. At other times, she is willing to throw away a planet to meet her emotional needs. She wars (and note carefully that choice of words) with depression and anger throughout the story. Louise Hay once said that “Depression is anger you do not feel you have a right to have.” Rob J. Hayes absolutely nails the psychological reality of this. Everything we are told about Eskara (or maybe it should be said: that she tells us about herself), leads us to believe the things she has endured would have shaped her in this way. There is a logic even to her illogical actions. She, too, feels totally real.

And one last thing to say about Eskara, and this tying into the world-building. Not only is the world Rob J. Hayes has created a unique fantasy world that yet incorporates enough of the great tropes you love (deserts full of bustling cities, portals to other worlds, taverns full of horny bards, and multiple gibbous moons) to give you those feel-good chills, but it is also a mirror of Eskara, our protagonist. In other words, the outer world mirrors the inner world. The shifting landscape of Ovaeris is, in many respects, reflective of the shifting landscape within Eskara, and as the threat to this world mounts and increases in power, we begin to realise just what this threat allegorically embodies, and just what is really going on inside Eskara.

But Eskara, whilst the undisputed star of the show, is not the only phenomenal actor in this series. As with any great fantasy story, we need a cast of mad adventurers to accompany our protagonist on their journey. There’s Tamura, a crazy old martial-artist who only speaks in riddles. Hardt, a gentle giant with a dark past. Imiko, a thief who becomes a little sister to Eskara. Later on, we meet Eskara’s daughters, one of whom becomes the focal point of book 4: Sins of the Mother. These are fairly major characters, however. Rob J. Hayes also understands that the minor characters need their moments to shine too, whether they be smooth-talking merchants, Polasian sword-masters, or garn battle-masters. I haven’t told you about the garn yet. They are awesome. Absolutely fucking awesome. That’s about all I can say without writing an essay on them.

There is one character I have left out, a quite major omission, and that is Ssserakis. There is not too much I can say about Ssserakis without giving away major spoilers. In ludicrous summary we might say that he is the yang to Eskara’s yin, the certainty to her doubt, the wrath to her emotional weakness, the pride to her cripplingly low self-esteem, a constant, beautiful foil for our protagonist who really embodies the Jungian idea of a “shadow self”, a version of us composed of all the facets we have rejected. Without Ssserakis, the story would still be good but not reach the heights of greatness that it does. Suffice to say, the way Ssserakis and Eskara’s characters develop together, their fates entwined, is truly a masterpiece of storytelling that evokes the brilliance of Tolkien’s trio: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum.

Speaking of fate, and character arcs, brings us to structure. Overall, The War Eternal is pretty watertight, though it’s quite clear that the story was originally planned as a trilogy, for the first three books form an arc that is relatively complete in and of itself. There is a time jump at the start of book 4 of several decades, and the Eskara Helsene we meet at this point has changed considerably, at the very least on the outside, but perhaps a little on the inside too. This time jump means that certain characters have moved more to the background of the story, which may displease some fans, and I admit I was sorry to see a couple of my favourites relegated. However, this relegation is in service to the true heart of the story, which we discover—and is explored most fully—in the final book, aptly named Death’s Beating Heart.

Because you see, The War Eternal has meaning on many levels. Yes, there is a literal “War Eternal” in the story that is being fought between rival factions of petty gods. But that is really just scratching the surface. The true War Eternal is being fought within. At this point, I have to admit that I cannot truly review this series in an unbiased way.

In 2017, I became suicidally depressed, though in truth it had probably been building towards this point in my life for a while. I knew, for the sake of my wonderful partner (now wife), for the sake of my family and friends, I had to fight against this depression, and fight I did. But the thing about depression is it cannot be killed. It is not an external foe who can be slain with a sword or hammer. It can only be kept at bay with a titanic effort of will and daily vigilance. Of course, these days, I am happier than I have ever been. I have a wonderful daughter who fills my life with pure, unadulterated magic. I have the best wife in the world. My mother and father are living angels (they even bought me book 5 of Rob J Hayes’s series as a 30th birthday present, so it feels even more right to mention them here!). I am surrounded by the most crazy and amazing friends anyone could wish for (and who make for the perfect inspiration for a band of fantasy adventurers). So depression feels very, very far away.

But…

I am not so arrogant as to relax my vigilance—not for one second. I am not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me, but simply to convey what it is like, and also to explain that whether Rob J. Hayes had experienced depression himself, I do not know, but he writes about depression with tremendous compassion and insight. And the ending of this series reaches a truly sublime apogee in which all the struggles I have just discussed are intertwined with the epic fantasy narrative, with the world-building and magic-system and the lore, in such a startling and symbolic way that, I freely admit, I broke down and wept.

The War Eternal isn’t perfect. Nothing is. I could put my editor hat on and nitpick diction here or structure there. But these are pointless, pernickety niggles. The beating heart of The War Eternal is what matters, and it is a powerful heart indeed, a heart that cannot fail to move you, whether with humorous aphoristic insight, with roiling emotional drama, or with what approaches a spiritual synthesis at the end. The War Eternal is a book written by a burgeoning master-storyteller who really has something to say about psychology, religion, life and loss, and about who we are as human beings fighting the War Eternal for the salvation of our own souls.

***

You can check out Rob J. Hayes’s War Eternal series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CHS34BX5

Rob J. Hayes is also running a Kickstarter for phase 1 of his new 9-book sequence The God-Eater Saga, which I highly recommend you back: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/godeater-phase1/3-epic-fantasy-novels-the-god-eater-saga-phase-1

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FANTASY, HORROR, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Recently, I had the good fortune to see my novel The Claw of Craving reviewed over on Monster Librarian. The fantastic reviewer, Murray Samuelson, opened the review with a really profound and intriguing observation:

Some of the best horror novels of the 80s and 90s weren’t really horror at all. They were, at heart, fantasy books with a dark core, with James Herbert’s Once, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and Ronald Kelly’s Fear being standout examples.”

In my view, he is absolutely right, and has hit upon a truth that leads us to thought-provoking questions about our contemporary and genre-obsessed era. In my view, it’s undoubted that some of the best “horror” novels of the twentieth century were, in fact, epic, sprawling fantasies that contained dark or horrifying scenes. But more than that, I would argue the connection between fantasy and horror has existed for a much longer time. We need only think of the nineteenth century gothic novels, with their dazzling supernaturalism and magic alongside scenes of cannibalism and terror (I’m thinking of Melmoth The Wanderer here), to realise that horror and fantasy are inextricably linked despite occupying separate shelves in Waterstones (or Barnes & Noble, if you are a friend from across the Atlantic!).

If we consider the conceptual nature of “fantasy” and “horror” this connection becomes not only more interesting but also self-explanatory. A “fantasy” is something we dream of, something that carries with it positive connotations of hope, magic, and illumination. There is also a sexual and desirous undertone, which is where the danger comes in, for a fantasy is often something taboo in society, something we must confine to the realms of dream lest it be enacted in reality at terrible cost… As you can see, we’re already veering into the territory of horror. What is horror but the nightmare to fantasy’s dream? Horror is the unveiling of that which lies in the subconscious psyche of its readers. The early gothic masterpieces, despite predating the establishment of psychological theory by some way, have an undeniably psychological bent to them, an inherent understanding that ghosts, whilst they may be literal, truly stand for the aberrances of our memory, the hauntings of guilt and shame and regret and love lost that manifest in a tangible way in our livesin ways that feel like horrible magic. But are we not now veering back into fantasy?

Horror and fantasy might be seen as two sides of the same coin, though I think it is more accurate to say they are a yin-yang, a ceaseless dance of “opposites” that in reality form a oneness. Desire creates fear creates desire creates fear in an endless cycle that leads us deeper into the mysteries of the human soul.

So, when did this bifurcation occur? When did we decide that horror and fantasy were separate entities, and that too much of one “spoiled” the other?

The honest answer is, of course, no one knows for certain. I am sure that an academic could research and reason out a fairly probable conclusion. But no answer can reflect the great complexity of forces that shapes human thought over decades or centuries. Tolstoy wrote despairingly about the folly of attempting to do such a thing, so I will not try. The truth is, over time, things change, and one thing that changed was that around the mid-twentieth century, fantasy began to acquire a new aesthetic and identity that was more aligned with the bright and colourful covers of Dungeons & Dragons modules than with the magic-strewn brutality of The Nibelungenlied. Our image of what fantasy is became altogether more aligned with Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That isn’t to say writers weren’t writing dark fantasy—they always have been and always will—but the fantasy in the public eye, and what critics and readers considered fantasy, was becoming dragons, treasure hoards, elves, dwarves, and heroic battles.

Let me be clear, I love all of those things with unapologetic and childlike abandon.

But I also have a darker side. As an eighteen year old, who knew he wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand and meeting Randall Flagg for the first time, and having my tiny mind blown, realising that the mythic grandeur of old tales could still be told upon a modern canvas. I was awed equally by the dark magic that lived in the hands of this leather-jacket wearing madman, and by the cruelty of which he was capable; the gloves were off. No cutaways or convenient concealed armour. Here, I had a taste of fantasy and horror meeting in the middle. But it wasn’t until I was much older, in my late twenties, that I would experience Clive Barker for the first time, and realise what was truly possible when fantasy and horror collided.

Fantasy and horror complete each other. Fantasy without horror feels trite and shallow (and also highly predictable), whereas horror without fantasy feels nihilistic and obscene. Some people do enjoy books about relentless torture without hope, but I think they are in the minority. For most of us, the horror of someone’s skull being kerb-stomped into smithereens must be tempered by the awe and wonder of a spirit materialising in the hour of need; the beauty of a first magical kiss must be properly seasoned by the bloody hand of a cowled killer. This interplay is, to my mind, what I find sorely lacking in many novels, both horror and fantasy, but the fantastic news is we are now seeing a glorious revival of this genre marriage.

Of course, I cannot cite every example, because no one can read everything out there in the world, but here are just a few of recent books I’v encountered embodying the best of fantasy and horror:

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie is perhaps one of the greatest fantasy novels I have ever read: occult, metaphysical, labyrinthine, daring, bloody, mystical, yet bizarrely and paradoxically hopeful. It is one of the most hyperviolent and hypersexual stories I’ve ever encountered, and yet it wields its violence and sexuality not for the sake of shock value, but to probe the absolute limits of the human condition and human sanity. BleakWarrior is a non-dual meditation on the interconnectedness of all things, explored via the medium of a darkly fantastical world whose rules can be bent and broken by those with sufficient madness and will. It is Highlander with occult philosophy and a triple R rating.

Daniel Volpe’s A Story of Sorrow is a splatterpunk fantasy that pushes the brutality of a dark, medieval world to its very limits. Volpe’s characters are callous and bloodthirsty, his magic is twisted and disturbing, and yet within this harsh framework is a vitality of human spirit, even a sense of adventure. Though A Story of Sorrow is really only a brief toe-dip into Volpe’s world, I am excited to see where his story goes. It has an episodic feeling which is very much aligned with fantasy’s roots, yet is clearly all building to a crescendo which will transform our woebegone hero from a killer into something more. Then again, perhaps I’m projecting my optimism onto a story that is, ultimately, one of sorrow…

Full Metal Octopus by Carlton Mellick III is filed under bizarro, but at heart is a fantasy novel that contains scenes of nightmarish horror, especially for those with claustrophobia. The novel follows a precocious fairy, Eliot, living in the slums of Grub Town—a city located in Mellick’s fantastical version of America—who gets involved in a gang war on a mythical scale. The adventure features tentacle sex, death-by-vaginal-constriction inside lamia strippers, and yakuza elves. The tone oscillates between enchanting romance, pure weird, and a desperate bid for survival in the bleak reality of a world that stands allegorical of our own whilst losing none of its dark magic. The ending made me ugly cry. It’s a tour de force that, for all its modern perversions, exposes the true, enduring power of magic and fantasy and its connection with the timeless hope that lives in the human spirit. Truly a masterpiece.

The Serpent King by Brian Barr is an occult, science-fantasy epic that contains scenes of abject horror intermingled with startling, dazzling magic. Set in another galaxy, one in which serpents rather than apes have become the dominant, sapient species of their planet, The Serpent King charts the rise and fall of the galaxy-spanning Nagan empire and the quixotic sorcerer Zian. Brian Barr has one of the most fecund imaginations of any writer working today, and his unique blend of science-fiction and fantasy offers up a feast of world-building and sociological commentary that cuts to the bone of contemporary struggles. In addition, Barr’s understanding of occult principles lends grisly verisimilitude to his magic. The Serpent King is equal parts Illuminati conspiracy, a satire of that very premise, and a terrifying bloodsoaked tragedy, all combined by the finest of dark alchemical magics.

Iseult Murphy’s The Mountains of Sorrow may seem like a cute tale about a wood-witch and her squirrel friends, but do not be deceived. The Mountains of Sorrow contains harrowing scenes worthy of a canto in Dante’s Inferno. The evil queen, Zelda, may sound like a princess from a popular video-game series, but she is anything but: Zelda is a cruel, terrifying antagonist whose masterplan is so callous and gruesome it leaves one reeling. Murphy uses the fantasy setting to brilliantly underscore her horror themes by way of contrast. For example, juxtaposing the beauty of the natural world and those who defend it with those who worship technological idols, and the sacrilege of the human flesh and spirit that is the only possible result of such idolatry.

I also want to add a forthcoming book to this list. I had the privilege of reading Stolen Pallor by Sean Eads and JoshuaViola, a book soon to be published by Blood Bound Books. This novella is a darkly fantastical horror that explores the meaning of art. Set in a modern world that parallels our own, yet is also just different enough to enchant us, we are soon drawn down the rabbit hole of strangeness until we reach what seems the very precipice of hell itself. This book feels like Fincher’s Seven and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser conceived a warped lovechild. It has such sights to show you.

Well, I think that does it for now. Thank you so much for coming this far. If you can think of any books that do this well and haven’t been mentioned, or would like to chat about the ones I have included, please let me know in the comments! As always, my love to you, brave explorers of these subterranean realms!