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Review of Spontaneous Human Combustion by Richard Thomas


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

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

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

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

“Ring of Fire”

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

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

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

“Nodus Tollens” 

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

“Undone”

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

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

You can pre-order the collection here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of Cucumbers & Comforters by Nikki Noir


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up Cucumbers & Comforters on Godless.

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Review of Legends of Liberty by Andrew Benson Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Their bayonets cast beams — reverse sundials 

Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span

That cast so many shadows on the globe.” 

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

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

“And wear beliefs as circumstance permits.

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

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

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

“Of petals, perfect in their fair proportions.

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

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

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

You can purchase Legends of Liberty below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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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 The Navajo Nightmare by Steve Stred & David Sodergren

I’ve always loved a good Western. I think it’s partly because the Western genre, for me, is very closely aligned with Epic Fantasy. Instead of swords, our heroes wield glinting silver revolvers capable of magically dealing death at impossible distances. Instead of taverns, there are saloons. Instead of warring fantastical kingdoms, we find the American Civil War. One thread that remains current through both genres relatively unchanged is the obsession with and value of gold. In addition, the great wastelands of the America Wild West fittingly conjure the mystical and fantastical landscapes sword and sorcery heroes often have to overcome on their quest. And speaking of quests, Westerns are rife with them, whether it’s a quest for revenge, as in High Plains Drifter (one of the most underrated films of all time), for some kind of holy grail, as in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or redemption, as in 3:10 To Yuma. In short, I think Westerns and Fantasies are two sides of the same coin, which is why I love them both. 

This intersection of Fantasy and Western is beautifully embodied in The Navajo Nightmare, a short novel by David Sodergren and Steve Stred. There is so much to say about this epic collaboration it is hard to know where to begin. 

Firstly, this book is divided into two halves, the first, “BEFORE”, written by David Sodergren, and the second, “AFTER”, by Steve Stred. I came to this book as a huge, huge fan of Steve Stred. He is not only an amazing author, but one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. However, I was unfamiliar with David Sodergren’s work, and so was intrigued to experience his writing for the first time. His prose blew me away. What could have been a hackneyed account of a dangerous gunslinger losing everything he holds dear, a trope we have seen before, instead became an earth-shaking story of loss, written with passion and conviction. Sodergren’s prose is elegant, and full of quotable lines from the very first, including the killer opening, “As is so often the way with truly blasphemous acts, it all started on a Sunday.” 

Within a few short chapters, Sodergren made me completely emotionally invested in Charles Andersson and his wife, Mary. The two have a son, little Jack, and they live in a yet-to-be-built house just outside of Packer’s Mill. Both husband and wife have demons in their past they’re trying to leave behind, and as we see in both the first and second parts of the book, this is a through-line for the entire story. To what extent can we escape the shadows we think we leave behind us? To what extent can we change? 

Within an equally brief space, Sodergren rips your heart out in a scene that is at once startlingly brutal and callous, yet also restrained, turning the camera away from the worst, which leaves the reader space to feel the horror and pathos of what unfolds. 

Following this calamity, Charles Andersson becomes a changed man, but Sodergren neatly sidesteps the cliché of him simply becoming hungry for vengeance above all else. What’s interesting are the deeper and more destabilising character changes that come over him. He moves from an entirely cool and level-headed man, who never lets emotions cloud his judgement, to one who is irrational, lost in the mists of his own feelings, distracted. It’s this excellent character work that sets The Navajo Nightmare up for greatness. The character work continues as the Nightmare who was once Charles Andersson begins to lose his grip on who he is / was, and reality, until we reach a hair-raisingly climactic shootout worthy of being put to film, or etched onto my brain for all time. 

The second half of the novel is no less potent. Though the two writers achieve a surprising synergy between their two styles, one can feel the difference when Steve Stred takes over. It’s not that one style is better than the other, merely that with Stred’s half of the story we feel a tonal shift. The title of “AFTER” is appropriate, because this is a world post-Nightmare, a cynical world, perhaps, in which everyone lives with the expectation that evil will come knocking eventually. It’s also a shift into that Epic Fantasy mode I described earlier. Sodergren’s part is High Plains Drifter, a mystical horror-thriller shrouded in trauma and the power of the past. Stred’s is Bone Tomahawk: a nightmare mission into a heart of darkness. 

In part 2, Tanner, a gunslinger who seems to have some kind of connection to The Nightmare, is asked to assemble a team by the feisty Linda St. James to track down and end the Nightmare once and for all. This “fellowship” of deadly fighters is a brilliant contrast to the single focus of the preceding part of the novel. There’s Hank, an ex-slave of gargantuan proportions and strength; Cutting Teeth, a Native American skinwalker; Carter, Tanner’s lackey, a young boy with a weird connection to his horse; and Linda and Tanner themselves. The assembly of the team certainly has the feeling of an old-school fantasy novel, or a legendary B-movie like Krull, and things only get better as the group sets off on a perilous journey towards Packer’s Mill.

It soon becomes clear that the team is being haunted by something. They’re tracking down a killer, but in turn being stalked. Each person believes that it is a demon from their own past. Stred cleverly uses this as a mechanism to get each person in the group to narrate their own harrowing backstory. Not only does this enrich the characters, but it also serves as a powerful way to explore the themes of The Navajo Nightmare more deeply. Each person is dealing with a trauma, and each person had committed sins they now have to confront. Each person is themselves a Nightmare, a creation of the bad (and good) choices in their past. 

For those who have read other books by Steve Stred, such as The Stranger, it’s no spoiler to say that one by one each person in the group is picked off. As they get nearer their destination, the truth of what needs to happen to defeat The Nightmare is unveiled. What I loved here is that Stred has no problem giving seeming “B-characters” their moment. This makes his narratives unpredictable and sinuous, surprising just as often as they deliver the gory goods we so want. The conclusion is satisfying and oddly sweet despite how harrowing what came before it was.

The Navajo Nightmare is a must-read for those who love westerns, who love horror, and who love quests into the darkness. This one will stay with me for a long time. 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA


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Review of Scratches by Joshua Marsella

Scratches by Joshua Marsella is a surprising and haunting novella about the lingering power of evil. A mother and son inherit an old house, but something is terribly wrong. It’s a classic haunted house tale, a la Shirley Jackson and many other greats, but Marsella startlingly manages to bring something new to the table. 

I had heard great things about this novella from a variety of people, and it did not disappoint. Marsella writes with great passion about his characters; they are at once archetypal, but also very three-dimensional and grounded. Perhaps one of my favourite lines in the whole novella is when the young boy, Connor, explains to his mother that it’s BECAUSE he’s not easily scared that he likes to read horror comics. This is a character detail that stands out and becomes relevant later on; Connor wants to test his own boundaries. And this is consistent throughout as Connor bravely tries to get to the bottom of the supernatural occurrences happening in the house. 

Just when you think one character is going to become a cliché – for example, the drunken single mom – Marsella twists it and offers you a window into their lives that cannot but elicit real sympathy. Furthermore, there are some genuinely surprising – even shocking – revelations in this book that are deeply unsettling. No easy answers are provided here as we learn the dark truth about Connor, his mother, and the spectre haunting their lives. 

As well as character work, Marsella is very good at dropping in specific details that elevate what could be a generic horror scene to something genuinely saturated with dread. And speaking of dread, the atmosphere of this novella is perhaps one of its most stand-out elements; there is an awful sense of inevitability that pervades every scene, so that even when we’re outside the house, visiting a comicbook store or riding a bike down the street, we know we’re going to be drawn back to it. If I could compare this to one other book, it would be Stephen King’s Cujo. Both King and Marsella’s books deal with themes of how evil finds a way to endure, and tap into the archetypal childhood fear of the bogeyman in the closet. 

Marsella is a potent new voice in horror, and I’ll definitely read his other books!


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The Importance of Diction

As an editor, one of the most common problems I see in prose is anomalous or ill-fitting diction. Before I go onto why diction is so important, particularly in the English language, it’s worth outlining what diction is, as it is often confused with grammar. 

Diction has nothing to do with grammar or syntax. Grammar refers to the specific rules of language that make sentences comprehensible. Syntax refers to the organisation of those words within a sentence. There is a great article over at Let’s Get Published that tackles this subject in more depth. The subject of today’s article, however, is diction, which is about specific word choices. For example, is the word “wife” or “spouse” better to use in a given context? Technically, they mean the same thing (although one has an associated gender). Either word could “do the job” in the sentence, but which is better? That is the true question of diction, and while this may seem inconsequential, as we shall see, it is far from it. Whereas the rules of grammar are largely fixed, and syntax is flexible, there are no rules for diction other than “what is good”. This makes it both hugely problematic and hugely important to address in our fiction. 

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand why the question of diction is especially important and relevant for those writing in the English language. Don’t get me wrong, diction is important for every writer, no matter what language they’re writing in. However, in English, we have to give it extra consideration and thought. This is because English has more root-languages than any other in the world. English is influenced by: Greek, Latin, Egyptian (yes! the word “hex” is of Egyptian etymology), German, Anglo Saxon (or “Old English”), French, the list goes on and on. In addition, it is the fastest growing language because it can absorb words into its pantheon easily. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider the word “tsunami”. This is a Japanese word, (formed by the hiragana つなみ) yet it has been so thoroughly integrated, few people even realise that this word has been pilfered. By contrast, it is exceptionally difficult for non-Japanese words to be integrated into Japanese. To do so, they have a secondary alphabet (katakana) which allows them to sound out foreign words. However, due to the fact that Japanese does not possess the same range of sounds we do in the Western world (they do not have “L” for example), this leads to awkward approximations. For example, the English word “coffee” is written コーヒー, which reads more like “Kohi” (they do not have the FEE sound). 

Kobo Abe

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting English is superior in any way. Every language has unique properties, strengths, and weaknesses. I adore the Japanese language and find it to be achingly beautiful; what it lacks in flexibility it makes up for in specificity. In Japanese, it is far easier to distinguish between ambiguities because of how pin-point accurate their lexicon is, and I’ve often thought that this is why writers like Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, and Kobo Abe are able to create such razor-sharp, precise prose. However, the purpose of today’s article is to explore diction in English, so I won’t digress! 

As a result of these two factors: the multifaceted origins of English, and its ability to adopt new words with striking ease, the English speaker is confronted with an abundance of synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) – each one deriving from a different root. Unlike many other languages, we are constantly presented with choices as we write. The wrong choice can dampen and weaken our prose. The right one can elevate it. 

But how do we know what is “right” and what is “wrong”?

The answer to this, of course, is that it depends on what we’re writing for a start. However, there are some overriding principles that I think can help. 

1) Consider what’s more emotive

Most writers (and particularly horror writers) resort to Latinate words all too frequently in their prose. Words of Latin derivation tend (but not always) to have either a scientific or abstract quality about them, or else a more “formal” and rigid one. Anglo Saxon or Germanic-origin words tend to be more emotive. The earlier example of wife (from the Old English wif) versus spouse (from the Latin sponsa) is revealing. If your Romance novel character were to shout “My wife!” (or “My husband!” for that matter), that would be fairly dramatic. But “My spouse!” does not quite have the same effect. This is obvious, once we see it in such bold terms, but sometimes when one is writing it’s easy to miss these subtleties or to rationalise a “fancier” word over a plainer one. 

A more subtle example can be found in the difference between an eldritch horror being “incomprehensible” versus “unknowable”. 

Both words seem valid, but we shall soon see one is far superior if we’re trying to evoke fear. The word “know” derives from the Old English cnāwan, and as a result it creates a more intimate and therefore – in my mind – scarier effect upon the reader. If something is unknowable, it is mysterious, unknown, frightening; there’s a simple, almost primitive, quality to the word. Whereas the word “incomprehensible” derives from French and Latin sources (comprehender). It sounds like a diagnosis, and it’s similar to the word “illegible” which we use to describe someone with poor hand-writing. In fact, it sounds like we simply cannot understand the creature on a linguistic basis, which creates an almost comic effect of imagining someone making all the hand-signs of a lost tourist. This is opposed to something we cannot “know”. To “know” is beyond mere intellectual processing, it’s in the heart, the gut, maybe even the soul, and so to confront something unknowable is therefore a far deeper state of uncertainty. Now, I’ve taken this example to extremes, and it is not to say that the word “incomprehensible” couldn’t work, but context is all-important. 

2) Consider your context

I always think that these complex ideas are easier to tackle with specific examples, so let’s look at the example of one of the most famous – and also problematic – writers of all time: H. P. Lovecraft. For those who don’t know, Lovecraft writes what has become known as “cosmic horror”: confrontations with eldritch beings from beyond our sphere of existence or understanding. Lovecraft uses Latinate words all the time, and he has been criticised for this. However, the brilliance of Lovecraft’s writing and why I believe it works (and the evidence that it works is in his enduring legacy) is twofold. Firstly, Lovecraft’s viewpoint protagonists are often archeologists or scientists – in other words, people more inclined to use Latinate vocabulary – so in that sense we accept their verbose word-choices as being more natural to the character. Secondly, Lovecraft uses the Latinate vocabulary to conceal the naked truth in the same way that an artful bit of filmmaking turns the camera away from the monster, or wreaths it in shadow, which makes the horror even more palpable by virtue of absence.

Latinate words, as I mentioned before, tend to be abstract. For example, “amorous”, “inexorable”, or, a Lovecraft favourite, “gibbous”. Because they are abstract, this can be used to create a kind of impressionistic effect, whereby we get some sense of what the monster is, and this impression works upon us more deeply than a specific or intimate description. Lovecraft’s abstractions and Latinate vocabulary serve him well because it creates the double-blind of his protagonists shying away from fully describing what they are seeing, which fertilises the imagination of the reader. I should make a point here that this is very different from just resorting to the odd Latinate word. This is utilising diction to its fullest to create a mimetic effect. 

So, whilst I’ve advocated to avoid too many Latinate words, they can work if deployed in the correct context, and that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn about diction: consider your context. 

H. P. Lovecraft

3) Consider the associations

A really good example of this can be found in a project I’ve been working on recently with a collaborator. We were creating an ice-mage in a fantastical world. I coined the term “Gelumancer”. My collaborator said he’d prefer the term “Cryomancer”. Now, on the surface, this seems pretty arbitrary. Does it really matter? But words have associations, and when you use certain words, they carry those associations with them for better or worse. Just consider how the word “twilight” is impossible to say nowadays without thinking of sparkly vampires and muscle-bound werewolves. My gut instincts as a writer told me that Cryomancy was the wrong choice. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but then it hit me; I pointed out to my collaborator that Cryomancy is too sci-fi: cryogenic freezing, cryo-sleep, cryotherapy (an actual thing), cryo-weaponry (see Borderlands). Cryo is a scientific word. This is an epic fantasy. Gelumancy is the one we want. Incidentally, this is another one of those weird incidents where the rule-of-thumb is reversed: Gelu is the Latin word for “ice” or “frost”. Cryo is from the Greek kruos. So, as said before, sometimes the Latin works, and you have to use your instincts and the wider context to fathom it out. Unlike with grammar, there are no hard and fast rules. Every word, whatever its origin, is unique and must be deciphered in relation to its wider string of associations and meanings. 

4) Consistency is key

One final point is that diction needs to be consistent. To again revert to the example of Lovecraft, his stories have a very consistent tone which is, in part, created through the use of consistent diction. If you are going for a scientific, Latinate diction because your character is an anthropologist or a bio-weapons engineer, then make sure that this is maintained throughout. If, however, your characters are down-to-earth, and one of them suddenly uses the word “incandescent” in the midst of a heated argument, it will destroy your narrative and the suspension of disbelief. One of the reasons I love the Sick trilogy by Christa Wojciechowski is that whichever character she is writing, she remains faithful to them in terms of her diction; and as we shift between different characters, we feel the shift from one vocabulary to another.

I am in danger of going on too long, but as you can see from even these few examples, diction is vitally important. Often when we read a book and feel like the prose lacks a certain punch, it is because the diction is weak or ill-considered. Inconsistent diction gives the impression the author has no narrative voice. The wrong diction – such as scientific language used unironically in an emotional scene – will jar your readers and ultimately throw them off. 

By looking more closely at the etymology and associations of words, and thinking about the context of our scenes and stories, we can make better word choices and increase the power of our writing.

I should emphasise that I am not saying you need to be a linguistics expert to do this! Usually, gut instinct and tapping into your feeling state is the best way to work out what word is working, and one can only improve these instincts through practice! So, get writing my dear friends!


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Review of Iseult Murphy’s 7 Weeks In Hell

7 Weeks In Hell is the sequel to Iseult Murphy’s outstanding slow-burn horror gem 7 Days In HellYou’ll notice, from the naming conventions of those two titles, a reference to the 28 Days Later series, and this is apt, because 7 Days In Hell and its sequel are zombie narratives with a difference. During the early 2000s, there was a proliferation of zombie novels, games, graphic novels, movies, and of course one particularly mega TV series, which led to what might be described as “zombie burn out”. However, when done well, I believe that the zombie subgenre still has a lot to offer, and Iseult Murphy’s zombie-narrative is certainly anything but conventional. 

7 Days In Hell was also a “creepy town” tale, in the vein of The Wicker Man or perhaps more appropriately H. P. Lovecraft’s A Shadow Over Innsmouth. We follow twin sisters Vicky and Irene on a much-needed getaway from the horrors of the modern world in the remote town of Basard. However, they soon discover that something is deeply amiss. What seemed a cosy tale, akin to a murder mystery, quickly escalated beyond all my expectations – going into the realm of the dark occult – and leading to a catastrophic finale. The final image or “stinger” in 7 Days In Hell was simply hair-raising, and made me impatient to read the inevitable sequel. 

In the style of Hollywood sequels, the settings and sweep of 7 Weeks in Hell have a much larger budget. We’re now in the urban city of Galway, where Vicky has moved in order to get away from her family and inner demons. One of the main focuses of 7 Weeks In Hell is the fallout, both psychological and otherwise, from those events in Basard. In many ways, Vicky isn’t even sure that what happened was real, and her slew of counsellors and consolers support this belief that she’s mentally unstable. Iseult Murphy accurately and sensitively portrays the paranoia and anxiety of a traumatised mind as we follow Vicky battling against her memories, her desire to act, but her terror of what will happen if she steps outside into the real world. 

Mixed in with this psychological framework is an undercurrent of spiritual commentary on the modern world, a sense that the “zombies” are only a metaphor for what we become when we abandon our most human aspect: our spiritual self, our soul. These zombies are not so much infected disease-carriers (one cannot be infected via a bite), they are supernatural slaves, serving the bidding of a dark master. They only go frenzied and eat flesh when their master loses control of them, which brings me to the most interesting part of the novel, or at least the part that captured me the most: the Dark One. This character – whom I can’t reveal the name of as it would be a spoiler – is a fascinating study in evil, and they go on an immense and surprising character arc. Not only that, but we see the introduction of a new foil to them, a protege, if you will, who proves to be almost worse than the original. The toxic and frightening dynamic between the two felt like entirely new narrative ground for the series. The previous novel did not explore the perspective of evil in such depth, but Iseult Murphy here plumbs the thought-processes, and even some of the magical mechanisms of occult practice, in order to fully convey the horror – and let’s be honest, the fascination – of total evil. There are more than a few shades of Clive Barker emerging in Murphy’s work, particularly The Great and Secret Show.

7 Weeks In Hell is a step up from its already impressive predecessor in so many ways: the character development, writing style, the scale and scope, and the deeper philosophical commentary running through it which seems to hit home a lot harder than the first book, perhaps due to the city setting. Whilst 7 Days In Hell was surprisingly disturbing, catching one off-guard, Iseult Murphy manages to pull the rug out from under us yet again, with a disturbing turn of events towards the close of the novel that has almost unthinkable implications, as well as parallels with the corruption of Hollywood and TV culture. Iseult Murphy remakes old tropes, and wields these tropes in service of her themes with precision elegance. 

Iseult Murphy once wrote of one of my own novels “There is a sadness that pervades this book” and I believe the same could be said of her novel. Repeatedly, characters reflect that it is the better-person, the better-friend, and symbolically the better part of themselves, that has been lost, and the survivors are there to carry on the story: but they don’t know how. There is a sense of grieving throughout, and hardship, and loneliness; only loyal and lovable dogs alleviate the latter somewhat. This is not a hero narrative. It is a book where evil is a reality of life, and it must be faced and resisted, though this increasingly becomes difficult. One gets the sense of a mind subjected to tremendous pressure and temptation, strong enough not to give in, but not strong enough to send the darkness back from whence it came. There is something haunting in that, and over and above the zombies, this is the true horror of the book. 

I would say that this is an almost flawless book, save for the ending, which – without giving it away – leaves a bit too much to the reader in my humble view. However, anyone who has read my blogs or books will know that I am very particular about my endings, so it may simply be that it didn’t conform to my taste or expectations. Ultimately, the journey of this novel is quite incredible, with many surprises in store for even jaded readers; I’ll be first in line to get a copy of book 3! 


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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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Review of Nikki Noir’s Black Planet

A new extreme horror author has exploded onto the scene, and her name is Nikki Noir. I first encountered Nikki Noir via her non-fiction work. I found her essays over at Redrum Reviews, reflecting on horror and its cultural significance, extremely illuminating. I then went on to read a novella / short novel Noir had collaboratively written with S. C. Mendes. I am a huge fan of S. C. Mendes, as he wrote the conspiracy theorist’s wet dream: The City, a detective novel that involves a secret city, lying just beneath the world we know. Their collaboration, Algorithm Of The Gods, was like The Matrix mixed with a grim-dark universe. It probed human psychological depths through the mechanism of virtual reality (a subject which is very close to my heart). It was a complete slam dunk, faulted only by not being longer! At the back of Algorithm Of The Gods, Noir included an extract from her ongoing series Black Planet. After reading merely a few pages, I knew I had to read the entire thing.

Black Planet is currently a four-part series, although it’s clear that Noir intends to write more. You can get all four existing volumes together in a gorgeous paperback edition here.

Black Planet is not a book for the faint of heart: it features black magic, gruesome sex rites, and cosmic horror. There is a lot going on in these four volumes, but to attempt a rough summary: forces, perhaps from another dimension, arrive within the small American town of Shale, Arizona. These forces begin to worm their way into the population. Whilst the immediate temptation would be to draw comparisons with something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I actually think it has a little bit more of the flavour of The Shining; there are profoundly dark powers at work, and they begin to affect everyone within their reach. Some are more easily influenced than others, and they become the instruments of these powers.

What particularly intrigued me about the book were its Thelemic influences: the magick (with an intentional ‘k’) of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant, and other such mystics. Noir deftly utilises these influences to create a sense of something awful and beyond understanding, but without falling into the trap many occult writers fall victim to of lacing their work with impenetrable and aloof symbolism. She tells a compelling yarn of human addiction and desire, in which characters feel (arguably rightfully) wronged by the modern world, and have resorted to dark paths to success and freedom from their current state. This is embodied in the opening volume (“Corpse Paint and Rabbit Hole”) in which a disillusioned webcam model, Claire, and her boyfriend slash “manager”, Brian, are sucked into the whirlpool ofnecromantic arts. Noir perfectly encapsulates the feeling of spiritual and physical awakening in a hair-raising sexual encounter in the midst of a violent storm, in which the transcendental experience of an orgasm amidst rains of lightning becomes emblematic of something else.

But despite the fact there is a lot of sex in Black Planet, Noir isn’t writing just to titillate us. More often than not, strikingly erotic scenes are suddenly undercut by intense horror. One teenager’s sexual fantasy suddenly becomes a process of bodily invasion – where the penetrator becomes the penetratee. This is reminiscent of the harrowing descriptions in Jack Parson’s Book of the Antichrist in which he finds punishment for his hubristic pursuit of the magical arts at the hand of demonic entities. Noir is playing a dark and delicious game with us, showing how easily we might be allured by our fantasies – to use a crude phrase: led by the dick – only for her to then turn it on us, which is, of course, the universal testimony of anyone who has dabbled with the dark arts, or drugs for that matter. First, all seems wonderful. Then cometh the fall. 

Each volume of this four-parter has a slightly different flavour. There are characters who run throughout the entire story, but we see less or more of them depending on the focus of a particular volume. This creates quite an unsettling and unconventional narrative experience. At times I felt like perhaps the net had been cast too wide, and I wanted Noir to focus more on a tighter cast of characters – but she also managed to pull off some incredible plot dovetails that were very satisfactory. In addition, characters whom I had very little interest in at one stage, suddenly developed and became fascinating later on. She practices “less is more”, and knows that readers need space to flesh out characters with their own imaginative fuel. Noir doesn’t overprescribe them. 

Amidst all the darkness, however, there is also innocence, and one of the most moving aspects of the novel is the fact that this innocence can be preserved, even where there is trauma and violation. Haley and Tyler are two siblings, good kids, who have to endure the maelstrom that is steadily enveloping Shale. They only really have each other. Throughout the novel we see both of them go through hell, and a good deal of character development. Haley moves from someone who is uncertain about her future, to someone who will do whatever it takes to protect her brother, and her evolving resourcefulness is well depicted. She doesn’t jump from frightened girl to Sigourney Weaver overnight, but we see the steady progression and how each new experience transforms her attitude to the world. This kind of character development is hard to achieve, and in a novel with this many moving parts, even more so; Noir is to be commended for this triumphant effort. 

Lastly, Black Planet has an ending, but it’s clear it’s not the ending, and we’ll be following Tyler and Haley again some time in the future. Anyone who has read my work will know I’m very big on endings, and whilst I’ve no qualms with a slightly open-ended approach, especially where there is clearly more story to be told, I would be interested to see Noir tackle a more “final” and conclusive ending in subsequent books or future volumes of Black Planet itself. That said, this is perhaps my own personal preference, and nothing more. 

If you’re looking for extreme horror (and it really is extreme folks), something dark that deals with what lies just beyond our civilised sphere, then I cannot recommend picking up Black Planet enough. Nikki Noir has immense writing talent, and I cannot wait to see what she does next. 


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