Blog

What My Five Favourite Films of All Time Can Tell Us About Storytelling

There’s lots I don’t like about Hollywood, but I love film. I think, in another life, I might have wanted to work on a set, even if only in a small supporting role behind the camera. But then, I love storytelling too, and the fantastic thing about novels and poetry is you need no permission or producer to bring it into being! (Of course, the brilliant independent filmmaker Joel Haver would argue that you don't need those for film, either, but that's a huge topic for another time). 

Collaboration and constraint often breed creativity and solutions, and thus films can offer us a very unique narrative insight. Because the screenplay is inherently more disciplined and “formed” than the novel, there’s much we can learn from our film-industry counterparts (and vice-versa, of course).

In this article, I wanted to talk about my five favourite films of all time, and what they—surprisingly—have in common that we can learn from as storytellers. I want to make two things clear, however, before I begin. Firstly, there is a certain film I love that is notably and auspiciously absent from the list. Namely, The Lord of the Rings. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, I’ve already written so extensively about this film, and the books on which it is based, that it’s probably time for a re-fresh. Secondly, I regard The Lord of the Rings as really being in a category of its own—totally unique and unassailable. So, it wouldn’t appear on a list like this, for it cannot really be compared to anything else! The second thing I want to make you aware of is there will, by necessity, be spoilers for the five films I have chosen, so read on at your own peril if you do not want to know what happens, and want to check out these astonishing films for yourself.

Firstly, I’ll list the films. Then I’ll discuss what links them and what we can learn.

In no particular order:

CALVARY (2014)

Dir: John Michael McDonagh

A “good priest”, Father James, is told, in the confession box, that he will be killed in seven days. This astonishing Irish drama follows Father James’ journey he faces his own calvary.

THE FALL (2006)

Dir: Tarsem Singh

Set in 1915, stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) lies paralysed in a hospital bed. Awaiting an uncertain future, he meets another patient, a little girl called Alexandria, and offers to tell her a story in exchange for her fetching him more painkillers… Roy’s intoxicating tale comes to life in Alexandria’s imagination, and the act of storytelling itself becomes transformative for them both.

SILENCE (2016)

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two seventeenth century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in order to locate their mentor and friend, Father Ferreira, as well as spread the Christian message. However, the Japanese inquisitor, Inigo-Sama, wishes for Christianity to be utterly stamped out from Japanese soil…

KILL BILL VOL 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

The Bride sets out on a quest for revenge against Bill, her master and former lover, after he shoots her through the head on her wedding day whilst she is still pregnant with his child.

V FOR VENDETTA (2005)

Dir: James McTeigue

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, V For Vendetta is set in a dystopian, totalitarian Britain. But a vigilante, identified only by the codename “V”, has made it his mission to destroy the government.

On the surface, these five films may appear wildly dispirit. We have historical dramas, comicbook adaptations, bloody revenge stories, and fantastical meta-narrative. But in truth, all of these films share three things. I’ll begin with the broadest similarity and progress towards the detail.

1) Astonishing Endings

Not just good endings, nor even great endings, but astonishing endings. You may argue that this is entirely subjective, and to a degree it is, but all five of these films have Act 4 revelations that punch your gut so hard you forget which way is up, and then follow that up with an Act 5 catharsis that feels like spiritual healing.

For example, in Calvary, the final shot of the film is the daughter of Father James, our heroic priest, visiting his killer in prison. The killer looks with astonishment, even terror, through the glass window as she picks up the phone in order to speak with him, a single tear rolling down her face. We know, from an earlier, foreshadowing conversation Father James had with his daughter, that she is going to forgive his killer. This is the ultimate and unexpected triumph of good over evil—borderline shocking in its implications. Yet, isn’t that the quintessence of the Christian spiritual method, to triumph and overcome through mercy, to subjugate through submission?

Similarly, in V for Vendetta, the mysterious V is finally slain after heroically defeating Creedy and Sutler, but his ultimate objective is achieved when—in a sublime moment—his body laid upon a bier of explosives and sent hurtling into the tunnels beneath parliament. To the sound of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent 1812 Overture, V brings parliament to the ground from beyond the grave. This would be brilliant cinematically in and of itself, but it is made more brilliant by V’s earlier speech: “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.” We understand the full, symbolic implications of V’s victory over totalitarianism, and therefore feel the weight of the catharsis all the more heavily.

By emphasising the symbolic action of the story, rather than simply the literal, V for Vendetta, Calvary, and indeed the other films on this list, achieve endings which are not simply “resolutions” to the plot, but go one step further to impart thematic wisdom and psychological healing.

So, what is the lesson here? The lesson is “do not be afraid”, in the words of the biblical angels. It is better to reach for something grand, something magnificent, something life-changing than it is to settle for mediocrity. The endings of these films testify that the attempt will be remembered forever after—in some ways, even if you fail. And whilst you may not please everyone, you are going to touch a good many more souls than you would if you just resigned yourself to a “standard” or “genre-trope” ending. Go for broke. Go all out with your ending. Don’t hold back.

2) The Power of “Slow”

Modern films—especially Marvel—unfold at a frenetic pace. Most scenes are barely two minutes long. Wham bam—on to the next thing. This gives us no time to unpack emotional content, or to process what we have just seen. If ever we are left in any ambiguity or doubt about what just happened, normally someone quickly explains it with some expositional dialogue or “witty” remark.

But the directors of these five films I’ve chosen all understand the power of slowing down. Perhaps the best example of this is to be found in Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for his long scenes, which can feel drawn out to the point of excruciation, but that is why his dramatic moments: his surprises, his violent explosions, and his revelations, feel so powerful and so earned. In the final confrontation of Kill Bill Vol. 1, where The Bride faces down her ultimate rival (save perhaps Bill himself) O-ren Ishii, rather than leaping into a fight, Tarantino suddenly slows the pace to a crawl. The Bride and O-ren circle one another, measuring the defences of the other. The majestic Spanish guitar of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood kicks up. This is not only highly stylistic, it’s also highly realistic. Truly great fighters don’t just launch themselves at each other. They size each other up. If Kung Fu is not your thing, watch two boxers in the ring. Not even Tyson Fury, with all his weight and power, just runs headlong at his opponent. He circles, he measures distance, he takes his time to figure out his opponent’s strength and weaknesses.

We have waited two hours, or thereabouts, for this fight between O-ren and The Bride, yet Tarantino knows we will wait just a little longer, making us feel every footstep, every movement of the eyes, every adjustment of the sword grip, to the point where when the two epic warriors finally explode into action it is –let’s use the word we’ve been dancing around here—orgasmic.

Similarly, in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the film spends two hours building us up to the moment where Father Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) must face the ultimate test of his faith, morality, and human dignity (designed with horrifying ingenuity by the inquisitor, Inigo-Sama). Will he allow others to suffer due to his refusal to step on an image of Christ? As Father Rodrigues contemplates stepping on the image, the sounds of his fellow man suffering a constant background, time slows to a crawl. The world falls into deafening silence. We feel we are frozen in a moment, within the very “point of power”, the eternal now. This suspension and slowing down allows us to feel the full epiphanic weight of what is about to happen next, which is a revelation so powerful I will leave it as a surprise for those of you who have not seen the film.

So, what can we learn from this? Slow down. Waaaay down. Most storytellers, whether film-makers or novelists or poets, rush. In my recent interview with Grady Hendrix, which you can find here, he talks about how the aspect of writing he finds hardest is sufficiently slowing a scene down for it to be felt at a deep level by the reader, populating the narrative with enough detail that it comes alive. He concludes by saying, “When I edit, and find a scene that isn’t working, I know either it needs more, or it has to come out.” This is contrary to common ideas about editing I see being spread around, that the ultimate end-goal is to simply shave off word-count. As Scorsese and Tarantino show us, sometimes more is more, but only if you’re prepared to slow the audience down, to force us to stand still and observe with all of our focus and attention. As Thomas Aquinas observed, “Beauty arrests motion.”

3) A Relationship With God and the Divine

This one may prove controversial for some readers, but it’s impossible to ignore it. All of these films both implicitly and explicitly make their spirituality known. And it should be noted, when I say “spirituality”, I don’t mean simply propaganda for a specific religion or preaching any kind of dogma. However, these works explore what it is like to have a relationship with the Divine, how challenging, harrowing, but also transcendent that is.

In Kill Bill, we are told, “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” This has to be one of my favourite quotes of all time, for it hints at the deep mystery of God, not the romanticised image that we so often see portrayed in an attempt to make Him more palatable. Similarly, in V For Vendetta, we are told “God is in the rain”—as Evey Hammond raises her arms to the thunderstorm raging over the city, and finds that in truth the thunderstorm is raging within, that she has discovered her inner power as a result of V’s esoteric and cruel teachings.

In The Fall, the relationship between the Divine and man is more subtly conveyed, but that does not lessen its impact. It is the little girl, Alexandria, with her innocence and fecund imagination that represents both the Divine and the Divine spark within human beings. As a jaded, cynical, and depressed adult, Roy Walker abuses his creative gift, manipulating Alexandria into getting him pills which he uses to attempt suicide. Even after he is exposed by the failure of his suicide attempt, Roy continues to abuse his gift—and Alexandria’s impressionable mind—by corrupting the wonderful adventure story he was previously telling her with darkness and despair. However, Alexandria’s purity proves Roy’s salvation (“the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”, to quote St. John), for she demands he change the narrative, and finally she breaks him, forcing him to the point of self-revelation, catharsis, and healing. Changing the narrative changes him as a person. The Divine imagination illuminates the darkness of the human condition—and Roy’s paralysis is healed.

All of these stories, to greater and lesser degrees, using different imagery and metaphors, address the nature of the Divine and man’s relationship to it (plus, we might say, the Divine in man). And I would argue—again risking controversy—that there is really no more important theme one could explore. A relationship with the Divine is about far more than faith, in one sense. Critics and cynics often forget that faith is more than merely a “belief”, but also a responsibility, a commitment to uphold tenets (not always successfully, but that is where the human part comes in). Therefore, to believe in the Divine, to work towards a relationship with the Divine, is to improve oneself, not in a snobby, arrogant way (though some fall prey to hubris), but rather as earnest embodiment. These five films all motivate and inspire us to find our own Divine connection and therefore to become better, richer, more loving and awakened human beings (awakened, that is, to the Mystery of Life). This is is Art fulfilling its highest purpose!

So, what’s the lesson? In short, consider how your work might explore a relationship with the Divine. And if you don’t believe there is a Divine, consider what the next best thing might be: Beauty, perhaps. Or Love. The important thing is that it’s transcendent, rather than something that can be described by numbers and facts.

I’ll leave you to meditate on these lessons with a quote from Calvary that I think summarises my approach to storytelling and editing, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues...”

***

Thank you so, so much for reading this far.

For more exclusive articles like this, as well as behind the scenes videos and interactive polls, you can subscribe to the mindflayer’s Patreon https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer.

You can also purchase my book on creativity, The Divine, for 99c on Amazon.

Blog

Review of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers by Ashley Lister

Hello my dear friends, and welcome to the New Year. I hope 2023 is going to be a blessed, productive, and rewarding one for you. Let’s make 2023 the year of magic. And speaking of magic, there are few things more magical than a great book. Today, I am reviewing Ashley Lister’s Conversations With Dead Serial Killers, a black as night horror-comedy with layers of Dantean symbolism to boot.

I’ve written previously that one can tell the merits of an author’s work often by the first line alone. If what I’ve said is true, and not just pretension on my part, then Lister’s work is clearly up there with the greats, because his opening line is an absolute humdinger:

The thing that few people appreciated about Ed Gein was his skill as a seamstress.”

That pretty much sets the razor-sharp, blackly comic, and morally grey tone of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers.

Stylistically, Ashley Lister reads like grimdark Terry Pratchett. He shares Pratchett’s flare for comedic timing (which is exceptionally difficult to pull off in prose), as well as Pratchett’s ability to marry the perfect character to the perfect environment to generate organic hilarity. However, unlike Pratchett, Lister is also a master of gut-wrenching body horror, who has taken more than a few tips out of Clive Barker’s handbook. As a result, you have an interesting juxtaposition of laugh-out-loud humour and scenes that will remain indelibly imprinted on your mind’s eye for their sheer visceral horror.

The premise of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is a stroke of genius. Derek and Clive are two brothers working in business together. Derek is a charlatan medium who does live performances, communicating with dead loved ones. Clive is his “behind the scenes” guy who drip feeds him researched information to make the cold readings sound authentic. However, Clive is also a serial killer (don’t worry, we find this out in chapter one, so it’s not a major spoiler). And not only this, but Derek is about to encounter his first real spirit, who has come back to the land of the living to set Derek straight and help him stop his brother.

Clive is a copycat killer. In other words, he emulates the works of his “personal heroes”, the famous serial killers of the past. He’s an obsessive who’s memorised the name, deeds, and dates of virtually every serial killer across the globe who ever lived. The sheer amount of work and research Lister has put into Clive’s hobby is quite frightening; as a horror author with an obligatory interest in serial killers I considered myself fairly well read on the subject, but Lister not only displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the most infamous serial killers (through the mouthpiece of Clive) but also of killers so obscure you wonder how deeply and darkly he had to delve to acquire such knowledge.

Needless to say, I was hooked from page one. Lister expertly sketches out the two brothers’ more-than-shady characters but also provides compelling insights into why they are the way they are. Perhaps one of the most innovative strokes of brilliance in this is Clive’s motivation: which is simply that the process of brutally murdering people gives him pleasure. Rather than glamorising Clive by trying to make him seem deep, philosophical, or complex, Lister hits home with the simple and ugly truth: most killers are not particularly interesting people, nor particularly complex. Yet, because Clive’s heinous (and primitive) acts are juxtaposed with Derek’s far more complex moral greyness and the spirit Sam’s running commentary, Lister’s story is anything but simplistic. There are times we feel immensely sorry for Derek. Yes, he’d a fraudster and philanderer of the lowest order. Yes, he’s morally bankrupt. And yes, we suspect there is more he’s not letting on. But, he’s also an intelligent underdog battling his environment, and we can’t help but sympathise with his plight.

Perhaps one of the most interesting threads in the book is Derek’s “coming to terms” with the existence of the supernatural. This is done through his encounter with the ghost / spirit, Sam, who also plagues Derek with dreams in which he descends through the circles of Dante’s hell—a place Sam assures Derek he will end up if he doesn’t change his ways. If you’re getting A Christmas Carol, or perhaps even more accurately Bill Murray's Scrooged, vibes from this, you’re not far off. And as is certainly the case in Charles Dicken’s masterpiece, there is an argument to be made that Sam represents Derek’s conscience, perhaps even his super-ego. There are moments in the book where Sam is actually able to “control” Derek and force him to admit things—and expose truths—that he otherwise would never have done or been able to do. I had to wonder at these times whether Lister were not ever-so-subtly using the supernatural device as a metaphor for the human tendency to externalise and compartmentalise our psyche. In this way, we have the full trifecta. Clive represents Derek’s id, his base urges. Derek even confesses that at times he’s found thoughts of violence vaguely arousing, but it’s a precipice from which he’s never leapt, more for lack of courage than moral compunction. Sam is his super ego, as we’ve already established, trying to morally reform him. And Derek himself is the ego lurking in the middle, a morally grey specimen torn between two polarities of psychic force. I’m not suggesting this is the de facto interpretation of Lister’s work, but great writing stimulates deeper thinking, and Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is undoubtedly great writing: intellectually razor sharp, thought-provoking, and passionate too.

If I have one criticism of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers it’s that it ends quite abruptly (in other words, I wanted more!). A startling revelation comes to light, and the novel then ends before I fully had time to digest its import or meaning. I also think that the big softie in me was looking to see more of a transformation in Derek. This isn’t really a criticism, more a matter of personal taste. I’m a sucker for a big redemption arc, and what we get here is perhaps grittier and some would say more real, which is very fitting given the tone of the book. As a last thought, I honestly would love to read a sequel to Conversations With Dead Serial Killers. I think Derek and Sam in particular have a lot more story in them. That’s how you know a book is not just an intellectual creation, but inspired and inspiring. Lister has created something unique, not a genre-hybrid but a stylistic chimera, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.

You can purchase Conversations With Dead Serial Killers here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

If you enjoy these reviews, then please sign up to my mailing list to receive updates whenever a new review goes live.

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 8: Deadly Premonition

Hello my dear friends. Entering Carcosa has returned from beyond the veil. For those who don’t know what Entering Carcosa is, way back in 2018 I started up a series of articles talking about modern epics in unconventional mediums, such as videogames, anime, and anthologic series. There were seven installations in this epic series before I finally called it a day; seven seemed apt as it’s a divine number, and a number intimately connected with the epic. For example, epic heroes have seven key qualities1.

However, I recently had an experience so earth-shattering that I’ve been compelled to reopen the warped gateway to Carcosa and add one additional entry: Deadly Premonition.

For those who know what Deadly Premonition is, you may be scratching your heads; can it really be considered epic? But trust me, if any narrative has earned its place in the halls of dim Carcosa, home of the epic, it’s this unconventional masterpiece by the mad genius SWERY65.

So, what is Deadly Premonition? In short, it’s a 2010 videogame released exclusively for the Playstation 3 (it subsequently was re-released in various formats, including a Director's Cut, which is the version I played). It had one of the most divisive launches of any videogame in history, with players at loggerheads over whether the game was a strange masterpiece or a janky failure. Over time, the game and its creator has developed a cult following, and Deadly Premonition has become legendary in the industry as one of the most unique and original games ever made.

When I settled down to play Deadly Premonition, albeit twelve years late to the party, I knew something of what to expect. Or so I thought. I’d seen clips of the game on YouTube. I’d seen memes made out of some of the game’s more esoteric or gonzo moments. But the truth is, as Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” And, “You cannot be told what The Matrix is. You have to be shown.” I’d been told a lot about Deadly Premonition, I knew a lot about the game, but honestly none of that could prepare me for what I experienced.

For those used to more traditional game-reviews, this article is not going to go deep into gameplay mechanics—although there is a lot to be said about them. This series is about epics and narrative, and so we’re going to keep pretty focused throughout on what makes the story of Deadly Premonition, and how it’s unfolded to the player, so special.

The premise starts off in a relatively familiar fashion. FBI agent Francis York Morgan is dispatched to an isolated town in rural America called Greenvale. A young woman has been murdered in a particularly brutal fashion, and York is something of a specialist in cases involving the murder of young women. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, he’s an expert profiler who understands the psychology behind the killers, especially killers who prey on vulnerable girls; the second reason, of course, is a deep personal motivation which is only revealed towards the middle of the story.

Detectives—which is essentially what York is—are really the equivalent of the knight-errants of classical literature. Knights are men and women bearing special badges of office and talismans of authority, charged with a quest, something they have to go out and seek by whatever means they have available to them. Detectives are no different. They are special individuals granted a badge of office and weapons that allow them to go out and seek the object of their quest. In most cases: the Truth. This is quite an intriguing development of the quest theme because it allows the quest to unfold not just spatially but also chronometrically, aka, across the sands of time. This is very relevant for discussing Deadly Premonition, which is incredibly preoccupied with our relationship with time.

But to come back to knights, in other words, we have an archetypal setup: knight on quest, detective on mission. However, York is anything but conventional, and the quest he is about to see to its dark conclusion is metaphysical, spiritual, indeed, even cosmic.

Let’s explain why York is so unconventional. Please note this is going to involve spoilers, so if you want to go into Deadly Premonition blind, then please stop reading and enjoy on your own terms! In honesty, it’s probably the best way to experience the game. However, if you don’t have a PS3 or aren’t likely to play it, then enjoy my all-too-brief examination.

There are two things about York that make him such a unique and fascinating character. Firstly, there’s his weird and wonderful mind. Our introduction to York sees him driving down a rain-slick highway towards Greenvale. He’s on the phone with one of his FBI superiors. He’s discussing a case, or at least that’s what we think. He describes how the victim is in an abusive relationship.

They both need each-other. It’s called interdependency. Yeah, I know. He does terrible things to Tom. Nasty, even sadistic things. But that’s fine, as long as that’s what Tom wants...”

About mid-way through York’s monologue, you realise he’s talking about the cartoon Tom & Jerry. I laughed out loud at this. But while it’s a hilarious gag, and instantly locates York as a kind of obsessive nerd with glimmers of genius, it’s also a subtle foreshadowing of what’s to come. Indeed, a terrible co-dependent (or interdependent as York terms it) relationship is at the heart of the villainy plaguing Greenvale, and one of the members of this relationship is even called Thomas!

So, York’s whacky mind, which draws comparisons with unconventional sources, is one point of interest about him. But if that were not enough, he also talks to himself. Or rather, he talks to an imaginary friend called Zach. This is perhaps one of the most powerful and important aspects of the entire story. On a surface level, Zach basically seems like a cipher for the player themselves. York calls on Zach for guidance, and as we—the player—are literally “controlling” York in the game, there’s almost a sense of Zach being the guiding hand of the player upon him. This meta-device doesn’t come across as pretentious, however. Instead, it establishes a kind of delicate intimacy between York and the player. Suddenly, you feel very responsible for York, like he is baring his very soul to you. It’s also a good excuse for York to explain complex ideas very directly to the player. Lastly, it’s also played for a few laughs: picture if you will the anxious inhabitants of Greenvale when they realise that their supposed expert FBI investigator has an “imaginary friend” advising him on the case!

If this were all Zach was, it would make for great entertainment. But just over halfway through the story, we realise Zach is something more. Indeed, the revelation of what or who Zach is, is perhaps the most astonishing scene in the whole game. Although, having said that, it has stiff competition, because there are at least four or five other moments of sublimity that indelibly leave their mark. But I’m skipping ahead.

York explains to Emily—the deputy Sheriff of Greenvale and a woman whom he slowly starts to develop feelings for throughout the story—that when he was seven years old, his father killed his mother then put the gun to his own head and committed suicide. York witnessed the whole thing. In the depths of this tragedy, however, York heard a still, quiet voice, like Elijah does in the Old Testament. The voice said, “I am here with you. I will always be here with you. You are not alone.” The voice comforted the traumatised seven-year-old York and became his companion ever since.

I confess the revelation Zach is not merely a narrative joke, but connected to something so deeply traumatic, so deeply moving, so deeply spiritual, shocked me into floods of tears. I thought I understood what Deadly Premonition was: a zany horror game with great dialogue and janky mechanics. But this made me realise Deadly Premonition was going to offer a lot more, it was going to become a spiritual journey.

And indeed, there’s even more to say about Zach. In the final terrifying confrontation with the evil at the heart of Greenvale, where York must face an impossible choice, we realise that York’s memories of the event of his parents’ death are not entirely accurate. He has suppressed one truth because of the pain. The truth is that he was originally Zach. Zach is his real name and his childhood self. His pure and uncorrupted divine self. York is the bitter and hardened armour he has built around it. York is essentially a personality construct, an image Zach has made up that fits his idea of what a “man” or “detective” should look like. Zach is the true version of himself, a vulnerable and scared version, an inner child.

If you're paying attention, you'll realise that this "interdependent" relationship between York and Zach is a mirror of the evil interdependent relationship foreshadowed by the Tom and Jerry joke at the start of the whole story... Premonition indeed. And this, of course, means that unlike the villains, who are stuck in their ways, York and Zach have to change, which leads us to arguably the most incredible moment of. the whole story, a moment that took my breath away.

At the crisis point, the protective personality construct, York, recognises the spiritual danger faced by Zach and Emily, recognises that the inner child might be finally killed if he does not act, and sacrifices himself to protect the inner child. It’s a moment of astonishing beauty and pathos. It not only has massive psychological implications, for don’t we all have these armoured shells we use to deflect pain, and aren’t there always situations that cause us to make difficult choices about them? But it also has Jungian and metaphysical meanings. York is Zach’s projected self, a cigarette-smoking anti-social persona. But he is also a protective angel constructed from a child’s terrified imagination. Throughout this story, York has acted like a guardian angel, shouldering the burden of horror and pain so that Zach doesn’t have to. But in the final moments, Zach must stand on his own and face the very evil that scarred him in the first place. I don’t think I need to use any of the technical terms surrounding epic literature to convey the simple fact that this is epic, cathartic, even sublime.

These examples all come from the main story of Deadly Premonition, the meat and bones, but the brilliance is that just as much loving attention and detail was paid to the minor characters and side-plots (bear in mind that all good epics must show scale and scope). Indeed, there is a b-character called “The General” who owns a junkyard, and does car repairs. York notes early on that “The General” is actually wearing a Sergeant’s insignia, and begins to suspect that most of The General’s war stories are in fact bullshit. Over the course of the game, you can run errands for The General, and each time you complete one he will fix up your car (which has in-game benefits) and share another war story.

The General tells us three tales. The first is exceedingly comic, centred around soldiers nearly dying from diarrhoea. The second is a little more grounded, in that it details how the soldiers failed to make an attack upon an enemy base in time, which resulted in mass casualties. In both of these stories the General repeatedly expresses his hatred for their squad’s Sergeant, a man called Timothy, whom the General refers to as “cry baby Timothy”. Timothy is one of those officers with very little military experience, elected due to their degree qualifications and little more. Timothy continually exhibits behaviours of cowardice, which enrages The General even in memory. York notes, however, that the General spends a lot of time talking about Timothy considering how much he supposedly hates him… The third story reveals the truth of the matter. The General nearly died from dehydration during one particularly gruelling battle. He collapsed and blacked out. When he awoke, there was water on his face and in his mouth. A body lay next to him, dead. Thesoldier had run back and forth between a puddle and carried water to The General’s parched lips. It was “cry baby Timothy”. He was shot dead saving The General’s life. The General could not psychologically reconcile the man he hated and thought of as a coward with the man who risked his life to save him. Hence, The General’s contrary,cantankerous, and divided nature, and why he wears a Sergeant’s lapel even though he eventually rose to a much higher rank. If this isn’t genius writing, I don’t know what is.

And that’s just one of the many side stories you can find in the town of Greenvale. Deadly Premonition is a treasure trove. Every time I thought I had exhausted a character’s dialogue they gave me more. Every time I ran an obscure errand for a character, I told myself the payout would be trivial, and yet I was rewarded time after time with depth: dialogue, cutscenes, story, and all of it interconnected, all of it adding up, all of it becoming part of this glorious whole. Indeed, in any great story, every microcosm reflects the whole. This is important, especially when Deadly Premonition takes on such deep themes.

And what are these themes? It would be easy to see Deadly Premonition is a bit of an eclectic mess, equal parts Twin Peaks, Japanese anime, and True Detective (although Deadly Premonition actually came out four years before True Detective, and I can't help but see parallels—the opening shot of True Detective's first episode is almost identical with the opening of Deadly Premonition; was Nic Pizzollato inspired?). However, despite the mix of tones and influences, the narrative is remarkably cohesive, and focused on two core themes (which themselves are interrelated). 

The first of these is quite obviously Time. It’s a suitably epic theme, explored by many of the world’s greatest poets and writers. If there’s any doubt Deadly Premonition is fixated on time, consider that one of the climactic showdowns of the game happens inside a clocktower, and indeed, the clocktower is a location we return to time and time again throughout the story, at one point travelling back in time to witness an event from the ‘50s that shaped the town forever. Quite apart from the game mechanics themselves, which forces us to establish a relationship with time via a real clock you have to adhere to (in other words, you have to be certain places at certain times to see things happen – shops open at regular hours, and all the townsfolk obey their idiosyncratic routines), the narrative of the game is brimming with explorations of what time means. The mysterious capitalist (those are the exact words used to introduce him—you have to love the sense of humour) Harry Stewart, for example, tells York that he became rich because he understood timing. It’s not about how fast you do something, it’s about doing it at the right moment. York is constantly—and counterintuitively—slowing down during his investigation, rather than rushing, which infuriates many of the townsfolk and the other police officers. However, his unconventional methods produce results. By moving backward we move forward. This is one of the primal underpinning qualities of an epic, for all the true epics understand the bidirectional relationship with history necessary to create a cultural artefact.

The other key theme of Deadly Premonition is in the title: Premonition. Magic, divination, sixth sense, and all of this occult goodness woven into the quotidian fabric of everyday reality. Whilst undoubtedly SWERY learned a lot from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in this regard, SWERY’s magic has its own unique flavour. Indeed, though York uses rational deduction and psychological profiling, most of his methods of detection are entirely esoteric, which comes in handy, as his enemies are also using supernatural means to achieve their ends. The intermixture of ordinary and occult is no better typified than by York’s coffee, which has an uncanny knack of predicting the future. One senses that SWERY sees the magical in everyday life and understands that every person has their own idiosyncrasies that allow them to have a relationship with the universe. The genius of the writing is the empathy with which these idiosyncrasies are rendered.

But more than this, premonition is also connected to destiny, and a sense of destiny—or fate—pervades Deadly Premonition. York (or should we say Zach) is meant to come to Greenvale. Indeed, the evil at the heart of Greenvale is directly connected to his tragic past and the mysterious scar that warps his hairline. Only York can cure Greenvale’s sickness. The ultimate victory of good over evil—though won at a heavy price—is written in the stars (and shown in the swirling milk within the coffee cup—as above, so below!). The ending of Deadly Premonition therefore feels not only earned but inevitable—and like all great epics, will probably stay with me for as long as I live.

***

If you enjoyed this article, and want to see more, then please consider becoming a Patron, where you’ll get access to exclusive articles, videos, and conversations exploring literature, the occult, and more.

Footnotes

1They are from an unusual place or land, they have an unusual power, they usually have a keen sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost), they possess magical weapons or equipment, they are in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belonged to them, they are often orphaned or not raised by their true parents, and lastly, they possess a tragic flaw or weakness.

Blog

11 MAGICAL BOOKS TO READ THIS HALLOWEEN

Hello my dear friends,

I’ve been silent for a while, but mindflayers never sleep, we simply dream in our dark labyrinths to wait out the aeons until it’s time for us to reclaim the surface world.

As it’s Halloween, which is my favourite day of the year, a magical time of year in which anything is possible, I have 11 magical and horrifying book recommendations for you! Some of these are recently-reads, and some are oldie-goldies. Either way, they’ll ensure you have a spooktacular Autumn and Winter. These are not in a particular order, so without further ado, here they are…

1. Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

Okay, I’ll admit I’m quite late to the Ligotti party, but I’m so glad I’ve arrived. Ligotti combines psychological insight, impressionistic and poetic prose, and cosmic horror in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft to produce his own unique brand of darkness that is as addictive as it is unsettling. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is a collection of short stories—each one allowing the reader a glimpse into the blackest of unknowns, exploring existential questions of love and being. If you’re not a regular reader of short stories (in which case you’re not alone as I prefer longer mediums) I’d still recommend this compelling collection. Venture to the further reaches of the human psyche, to places where alchemy is not merely about the transubstantiation of matter but also of spirit. Glimpse the darkest worlds where only the truly mad can find their home. Songs of a Dead Dreamer is like an acid trip into the heart of darkness, one that cannot leave you unchanged.

SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER

2. Witchopper by Dan Soule

Dan Soule has written many books, all of which I love, but Witchopper is a very special tome. This story explores the relationship between father and son, between light and dark, between faith and chaos, between atavism and restraint, and explores what it means to grow up. It’s a story of post-Edenic loss of innocence told with tremendous passion, fierce intelligence, and fearless honesty. It’s a book not afraid to challenge social mores, sensibilities, or traditional ideas of morality. But at the same time it’s a hopeful story of redemption and love conquering all. The scope of this book is such that no brief review can do it justice, you’ll simply have to travel to the rural town of Southwell, and find out for yourself…

WITCHOPPER

3. All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve reviewed All of Me previously on this site: it’s probably one of the best novellas I’ve ever read. This is a story of Faustian pacts, body-image, and the near-impossibility of self-love. It’s a harrowing and surprising tale that had me riveted from page one to its emotional, moving finale. Whilst it bills itself as body-horror, and there’s plenty of that to go around, the aspect of the book that will stay with me is the powerful psychology explored through its principle characters, a psychology which is as believable and sympathetic as it is unnerving.

ALL OF ME

4. Petite Mort by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes

Over the last year or two I’ve reviewed several works, both long-form and short-form, by Nikki Noir and S. C. Mendes, including a novella they wrote together called Algorithm of the Gods and the short story #DeadSealChallenge. Mendes and Noir are an awesome writing team—their styles blend effortlessly—and some of the ideas they come up with would make a bizarro author jealous. What I truly love about their work is how rich it is with symbolism, so that each sentence, image, or event feels loaded with meaning and purpose. While there is plenty of gross-out for even the most diehard fan of gore, and sex to satisfy the porn addict, the guts and orifices are never pointless titillation but a mechanism to explore deeper themes. Petite Mort is a collection of Mendes and Noirs’ shorter collaborative fiction, including Cucumbers and Comforters (which I reviewed here) and other horrifying wonders. If you’re curious about Mendes and Noir, this is the place to start.

PETITE MORT

5. We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Those who know me knows how much I adore Grady Hendrix. He is an incredible writer who manages to combine the humour and humanity of life with a rich texture of darkness. Of his many books, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is undoubtedly my favourite. However, one book by Grady Hendrix that is often overlooked when I see discussions about his body of work is We Sold Out Souls. This is a fundamentally occult tale that explores conspiracy theories, Faustian bargains, and the intimate connection between rock ‘n’ roll and the dark powers. Balanced against feisty heroines is the ever-present malignancy of the dark eye, which is at once Sauron-like but also something altogether less fantastical and more disturbing. Several scenes in this book are so vividly described they will never leave you (if you’re claustrophobic, then you’ll probably want to tap out of this one), and the plotting is elegant and cunning in how it dovetails. This is a story of the pitfalls of success, the injustice of the world, and the timeless struggle between good and evil.

WE SOLD OUR SOULS

6. Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

I reviewed this book fairly recently, but you will have to forgive me for recommending it again, because Brian Bowyer is simply a genius. Flesh Rehearsal shares some similarities with We Sold Our Souls, it’s a book about heavy metal, occultism, powerful women, and the darkness dwelling in human hearts—but it’s also surprisingly a book about love.In many ways it’s a deranged novel, written with feverously intense prose that cuts to the heart of matters with the precise brutality of a sacrificial blade. Flesh Rehearsal embodies the wisdom of John Ruskin, “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”

FLESH REHEARSAL

7. Incarnate by Steve Stred

Almost every single book by Steve Stred would be appropriate for Halloween reading, but I think Incarnate is one of Stred’s most disturbing and accomplished books. Incarnate is particularly potent because it takes on so many horror tropes—holidaying in a remote location, a haunted house, a séance gone wrong—and yet remakes them into new, weird, and wondrous forms. Just when I thought I could predict what was going to happen, Stred throws a curveball. And the unconventional way Stred approaches writing horror scenes—sometimes narrating from bizarre or unexpected perspectives—casts a deeply unsettling spell over the reader. Stred is one of the few authors who can make me feel dread, and Incarnate succeeds in doing just this. If Shirley Jackson had lived to write a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, this might have been it.

INCARNATE

8. Inside Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Continuing the theme of haunted houses, Lee Mountford’s introductory novella to his Haunted series is a sublime masterclass in epistolary or “found footage” horror. Written from the perspective of a paranormal investigator obsessed with an ancient, malevolent house, Mountford inveigles us in the occult and disturbing history of Perron Manor to the point where we begin to lose our sense of reality. The aim of all good verisimilitudinous horror tales is to destroy the reader’s perception of the truth and make them believe, against all odds, in the reality of the tale, and Mountford succeeded so well in this I actually googled “Perron Manor”… Do you need any more encouragement?

INSIDE PERRON MANOR

9. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In recent years, I’ve largely found myself preferring indie and self-published books to traditionally published ones—they take more risks and they explore unchartered territory—but there are exceptions to the rule, and Susanna Clarke is one of them. Piranesi is a phenomenal book that explores occult ideas, including the dissolution of the Self, the presence of other planes of existence, and much, much more. The horror here is subtle—a horror of not knowing one’s own mind, of doubting reality to the utmost extent. The tale is told in a style that is hauntingly imagistic, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. There are a number of surprises in this story, but even if you work out the true nature of things, the journey to get there is so thrilling, so heroic, so mysterious that you will want to re-read it again the moment it finishes.

PIRANESI

10. Oblivion Black by Christa Wojciechowski

This may seem an odd choice, as it is less fantastical and overtly “horror” than the other selections on this list. But likePiranesi, the horror in Oblivion Black is subtle yet no-less present. Oblivion Black is at its heart a novel about addiction and beauty, and how the two interrelate. It explores the story of a recovering heroine addict who takes up a job modelling for a legendary sculptor—erotic tension and unspoken desires ensue. However, beneath the sculptor’s charismatic facade lies darkness and trauma, just as our heroine, Ona, stills feels the draw towards her addictive past. Both are liberated by the creation of art, but even art can be corrupted when it is made with ill-intent. Oblivion Black is shocking, provocative, seductive, beautiful, and horrifying all in equal measure. And it’s sequel, Hierarchy of Needs, which I had the pleasure of beta-reading, is even more so. Don’t miss out.

OBLIVION BLACK

11. Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin

Four years ago, I wrote a ridiculously long article about Melmoth The Wanderer. My feelings about the book have not changed since then, I still regard it as the underrated masterpiece of Gothic fiction. What stands out about this novel is the style in which it is written, which is at once poetic and precise yet also labyrinthine and haunting. Maturin ensnares the reader in the runnels of Melmoth’s mind until we begin to think like the deranged anti-hero who threads his way through the complex layers of this book’s framed narrative. Imagine Inception written by Mary Shelly and Christopher Marlowe and you have a sense of the warped genius of Melmoth The Wanderer. Everyone should try reading this book at least once—though be warned those who succeed may end up mad!

MELMOTH THE WANDERER

Well, that’s my 11 recommendations for this spooky occasion. Have a terrifyingly joyous Halloween my dear friends. And stay classy!

***

Thanks for reading this epic-sized blog! If you’ve come this far, then I can only profusely thank you for your dedication. If you want to support my work, including the production of more detailed content like this, then you can head on over to my Patreon where I post monthly content, from essays to behind-the-scenes videos to exclusive cover reveals and beta-reading opportunities. 

Blog

Review of Flesh Rehearsal by Brian Bowyer

Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly a work of dark genius. I say this knowing full well the word genius is frequently overused in contemporary discourse, and often awarded to work that is simply shocking or experimental, as though this were the only barometer of worth. However, Brian Bowyer’s novel is the real deal, a morbid beast of a book that explores existential questions such as what happens when we die, that comments on modern culture and our obsession with violence and sex, and, most surprisingly of all, shows how true love can stand in the face of darkness.

I often start my reviews by saying there is so much to unpack that it’s hard to know where to begin, but this is especially true of Brian Bowyer’s novel. His style is economic, which doesn’t mean that Bowyer doesn’t occasionally flex his poetic muscles for a passage of wonderful (or horrifying) description, but ultimately his preference seems to be cutting the bone—pun fully intended. This means that whilst the novel is a lean three hundred and sixty pages, more happens in the first fifty than in most trilogies.

One of the great distinguishing trademarks of the Russian novelists, particularly Tolstoy, was their use of action. Tolstoy’s prose is full of verbs, of doing, of movement. This creates a sense that the characters are dynamic and alive. Yes, there is introspection, but even the introspection feels active somehow. It’s as though all the characters and even places are caught in a kind of eternal stream, a ceaseless motion. Indeed, Tolstoy actively comments on this at times, calling this ceaseless movement “God”. Bowyer’s Flesh Rehearsal is similarly active. His verb tenses are almost never passive. All his characters are constantly alive and in motion, which gives the narrative an unstoppable momentum. Once I was hooked into the characters, and got a sense of who they were, I couldn’t stop reading.

This is a nice segue into the characters, who are—not to put too fine a point on it—fucking bananas. Firstly, there’s Gretchen and her sister Abby (a sly nod to Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism or pure coincidence?), who have suffered a lifetime of abuse at the hands of their father. These are arguably the most grounded characters in the book. We sympathise with their plight and we want the best for them. But we also recognise that, due to their upbringing, there’s a darkness in them too. And this darkness is expressed in strangely theatrical soliloquies about the nature of black holes, and death, and evil. In another book, these might feel out of place, but Bowyer’s masterstroke is really his setting, a setting that contextualises these surreal moments and makes them feel earned.

Dean Koontz once observed that, “I can forgive a writer a lot if they can wield a warp and weft of mood”. Flesh Rehearsal oozes mood. Every page is laden with Gothic dread. Though the novel is set in America, and the main action of the plot takes place in L. A., it is not the L.A. you can visit, it is the secret “dark side of the moon”, the side hidden from the conscious mind, an underbelly blacker than sin and certainly magical. Though Flesh Rehearsal is grounded in our world and real suffering and emotions, it is also unashamedly mysterious and supernatural. Bowyer taps into the sense that all of us, even staunch atheists, have had, that there is a world beyond our own just out of reach, and this life is just a “flesh rehearsal” for it. Occasionally, this world encroaches upon our own, and sometimes it drives men and women insane with what it reveals.

The strange characters inhabiting this dark fantasyland therefore feel like they are in their natural habitat. Out of the six main characters, four of them turn out to be either murderers or serial killers. The majority of these reveals aren’t big narrative revelations, by the way, it’s just part and parcel of living in this deeply fucked up world. One of the characters may or may not be gifted with superhuman powers—such as unnaturally long life and supernatural strength—as a result of appeasing the “gods of death”. Another is a prize-fighter who specialises in death-matches. But she also has a sensitive side and writes graphic novels.

Several of these characters are in a heavy metal band called Noctourniquet.

Let that name sink in.

As you’re hopefully beginning to realise, there’s little I can really do to prepare you for reading this book. It’s an experience as much as a narrative, a headlong plunge into abyssal black waters from which you may not emerge the same as when you went in. But having said that it’s an experience, the narrative in the Flesh Rehearsal is incredibly strong, governed as it is by the characters and their desires. Boiled down to its barest, barest parts, the book might be said to be a love-story. It’s girl meets girl, both of them damaged, but each of them capable of healing the other. The sweetness of this love-story is, I think, the secret to the book’s success, for without it the darkness of the world would surely overwhelm us.

And speaking of darkness, the second major component of the book is a thread that is deftly woven throughout the novel of a serial killer called The Lobotomiser killing women across L.A.. As I’ve already mentioned, there are several serial killers in this book, and we follow quite a few of them, but The Lobotomiser is distinguished from the others for the sheer awfulness of his murders and vile desecrations. Some scenes in this book will turn your stomach and make you nauseous—you have been warned.

The Lobotomiser is the king of the killers, and L. A. is his playground. We start with a very distant perspective on him: rumours and news reports, gossip and glimpses, but slowly we move closer and closer until we finally realise who The Lobotomiser is. The way the revelation is handled is sheer brilliance—Bowyer gives us just enough to know, to work it out for ourselves, and as a result it raises the hairs on the back of the neck. The novel reaches its climax when The Lobotomiser crosses paths with one of our star-crossed lovers. The tension of these concluding chapters is frankly deleterious to one’s health—we know exactly how bad it’s going to be if The Lobotomiser gets what he wants (seriously, it’s worse than you think). The stakes are real, and this makes the narrative electrifying.

But if this summed the narrative, then I still probably could not give Flesh Rehearsal the hard-earned descriptor of “genius”. There is another thread running through the narrative, however, the story of a twisted and conflicted Gollum-like man called Ludlow, and this is what takes it to the next level. Ludlow was undoubtedly my favourite character in the story: a drummer, a drug-addict, and a schizophrenic wrestling with reality itself. His chapters feature a wondrous intermixture of pitch-black humour and hair-raising terror. He is a dreadful person yet we also pity him because he does not seem to be in control (hence my comparison to Gollum, it is as if he has two sides).

Clive Barker once wrote in Imajica, “in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there [is] 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.” Ludlow, to my mind, embodies this third actor or player, this dynamic element that cannot be predicted but we know will serve some greater narrative purpose. This purpose is fully realised at the end of the book where, like Gollum, Ludlow’s evil comes to serve good—it sends chills down my spine just thinking about it. And perhaps the most spine-tingling aspect is that Ludlow finally gets to have a moment of control, where he chooses—character development at its finest. 

Whilst Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly gonzo—one might even say borderline bizarro—it juxtaposes hyper-violence, drug-use, serial killers, vampires, and steaming-hot lesbian erotica with moments of profound pathos. I'd like to hope the world is not as dark or full of killers as Brian Bowyer’s version of L.A., yet artists use lies to tell the truth, and we see in it a mirror of the human condition and the struggle of being alive.

Stephen King once described H. P. Lovecraft as horror’s “dark and baroque prince”. After reading Flesh Rehearsal, I have to conclude that the title has a new bearer.

You can buy Flesh Rehearsal at the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

If you enjoyed this review, then you can sign up to my newsletter to receive updates of when new reviews go live.

Blog

Review of Reconstructing A Relationship by Micah Castle

Reconstructing A Relationship is perhaps one of the most surprising stories I’ve yet reviewed on themindflayer.com—at once a grisly modern re-telling of Frankenstein and an exploration of abusive relationships. Though short—of novelette length at around 58 pages—author Micah Castle manages to take the reader on an incredible journey.

I will say that reviewing this novelette almost feels like a disservice, because readers will be rewarded by going into the story knowing as little as possible. I didn’t read the blurb or look at any reviews—my only clue was the front cover—and I found myself transported. If what I’ve said so far is enough to whet your appetite, then go right ahead and dive in without any further context. You can thank me later.

But for those who need a little more, which is perfectly understandable, strap in for a wild ride.

Firstly, I’ll comment on the writing style. Micah Castle writes real sentences. That might sound pretentious, but it’s possibly the most truthful way I can say it. Some of the images in this story will send shivers down your spine. Yet, he doesn’t sacrifice character for the sake of lyricism; the narrative voice remains distinct and relevant to the character we are following.

Structurally, Reconstructing A Relationship resembles a two-act play, two complimentary dramatic movements divided by a midway perspective shift. Part 1 of the story focuses on Terry, a southern American woman who has lost the love of her life in a car accident. Terry is on a mission to reconstruct her relationship: literally. At first, we’re not entirely sure what Terry is up to—we know it’s suspect from the brooding atmosphere of the prose, from the paranoid way she behaves, but we can’t quite put the pieces together (if you’ll pardon the pun). Very shortly, however, it becomes clear she’s building a new body for her lover, Drew, and she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to find the parts she needs. Victor Frankenstein famously plundered graveyards for the materials needed to create his monster. But Terry has no qualms about finding fresher samples...

Terry’s immoral pursuit of the means to resurrect her dead lover creates a brilliant conflict in that we simultaneously feel sorry for Terry and how deeply her loss has affected her but are also appalled by her actions; we admire her ferocious determination but we also know she has completely lost her mind. Micah Castle’s prose uses free-indirect discourse to put us right inside Terry’s head, and we can’t help but feel sympathy for her, despite the fact she’s insane. We chalk up her mania to desperation and grief.

But then comes the midway perspective shift.

I can’t say too much about this, for fear of ruining the story for you, but suffice to say our perception of what is really going on changes dramatically—our assumptions fall out from under us and we are left with some truths even more grisly than the body parts and organs that have littered the pages of part 1. Whilst body horror pervades the entire story, part 2 takes us deep into psychological horror as well, exploring intense themes including abusive relationships. Refreshingly, however, Castle’s storytelling never feels like it is gratuitous for the sake of it or that he is trying to shock the reader—the situation is simply shocking in and of itself. What’s even more impressive is that he manages to retain characterisation. Too many horror novels, at the nadir point, turn their characters into two-dimensional cartoon villains who get off on sadism—abandoning all personality in favour of a purely “evil” archetype. Castle’s villains, however, are governed by genuine motivations, and though we hate them we still feel sorry for how wretched they’ve become.

In part 1, we turn pages because we are so invested in Terry’s mission and whether or not she will succeed; the narrative propulsion is astounding. I imagined that with a perspective shift it would be difficult to sustain such giddy narrative momentum, and yet the author not only achieves this, but the momentum actually increases, as does the overwhelming horror. I could not stop turning pages until I had devoured the rest of the book in one sitting.

What perhaps pleased me most about this story was its ending. There has been a recent fetish for horror novels that end so bleakly that the entire preceding narrative feels utterly pointless—again for the sake of shock value. Micah Castle understands, however, that having passed through such darkness we must emerge into light. The final moments of the narrative are hair-raisingly uplifting, a cathartic emergence from suffering and trauma into the possibility of freedom. This ending shows the novelette to be unashamedly allegorical—which is why I found it to be not just emotive but also healing.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

As always, if you enjoyed this review and want to be notified when another goes up for more great book recommendations, then you can sign up to my mailing list here.

Blog

Review of Bishop by Candace Nola

Bishop is my first experience with Candace Nola, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book either narratively or stylistically. The cover at first resembled a werewolf story to me—and I confess to having a weak-spot for werewolf narratives!—but upon closer inspection I realised it’s not a wolf, but a bear… This is a significant aspect of the story, in more ways than one.

Bishop is a novella, and its pacing reflects that. The opening chapters unfold at breakneck speed. Nothing feels rushed and yet we immediately get a strong sense of place—the frozen desolation of Alaska—and the hardy people within it. Our focus at the start of the narrative rests on Troy. His sister and niece have been missing for five days in the wilderness, and he’s determined to find them. In his desperation, for time is of the essence in these survival scenarios, he turns to a local legend—the mysterious man Bishop—to guide him into the wilds and find his missing family.

As soon as Bishop, the eponymous character of the story, is introduced, the story goes to another level. The strongest suite of the novella is by far the burgeoning relationship between Bishop and Troy. Bishop is a stoic man of few words, who seems more part of the landscape than human society. Troy is a caring and thoughtful man, altogether quite sensitive. Bishop is incredibly physically strong to almost superhuman levels. Troy has a busted knee from a hiking trip that went wrong. Yet both are determined and courageous in their own way. I found myself becoming heavily invested in their strange friendship, and the respect they gained for one another, and this is especially impressive to achieve in such a short space.

Set against this “buddy story”, for lack of a better term, is the story of the two women, Casey (the niece) in particular, who are trying to survive cut off from the rest of the world, hunted by something that seems like more than simply a beast of the forest… Casey is a plucky character, resourceful and driven. She’s no mere damsel in distress, and nor is her mother Erin, however what pursues them is beyond their experience, an evil that is deeply unnatural.

There is some cool world-building and lore here when we discover what is chasing these women and why. Without giving too much away, I could have stood to have read even more of it. I felt there was a fascinating backstory tantalisingly within reach, but it does not fully come to light. However, what we do see is interesting, and even more so when it is matched against Bishop’s narrative. Bishop is an enigmatic character, and sometimes giving enigmatic characters backstory can diminish their power, but not so here. We’re shown just enough to understand a little more about the man, but not so much as to break his spell.

I was also impressed by how Candace Nola was prepared to make narrative sacrifices. To overcome evil, we have to give up something. Something is lost so something is gained, it’s rule 101 of narrative climax (I’ve stolen this principle from Tristine Rainer and her fabulous book Your Life As Story). Candace Nola understands this and the scenes revolving around this loss are some of the strongest in the book. Her characters feel like they have real emotional interiors and give credible responses to trauma, and again, this is hard to do at the best of times, even more so in a novella-length piece.

I do have one minor criticism of the novella: I think Bishop could have done with further editing. There are quite a few typos in relation to how long the novella is. That said, Bishop shows a writer with tremendous talent, and hopefully that talent will get the nurturing it deserves in future efforts.

You can buy it at one of the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

As always, if you enjoyed this review and want to be notified when another goes up for more great book recommendations, then you can sign up to my mailing list here.

Blog

Review of The Guild by S. C. Mendes

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of S. C. Mendes, and even got the fantastic opportunity of collaborating with him on a few projects, such as the Magical Writing podcast. Whenever an S. C. Mendes story drops I always stop what I’m doing and head on over to read it as soon as possible.

The Guild is a culinary-themed standalone novelette that still has all the ingredients you expect from an S. C. Mendes story: layers of mystery, occult principles, graphic horror and sexuality, and deep symbolic meaning.

The plot centres around Jordan, a young guy down on his luck, one who will be painfully relateable to many readers. Desperate for money, he answers a Facebook Ad that seems too good to be true: eat one meal and get paid $300. Simple right?

The problem with things that sound too good to be true is that they often are.

There isn’t much more I can tell you about the plot without giving things away. Suffice to say this story is a curious rabbit hole that is full of grisly surprises. Mendes knows how to weave a mystery, and because of the occult principles underpinning the book, which we’ll get to in a minute, the revelations never devolve into absurdity, even though they are downright weird.

Whilst the opening of this book is truly nasty, possibly a little too extreme even for my tastes (though Splatterpunk fans will be delighted), the overall tone and feel of The Guild is a subtle horror, an interplay between a low-key body horror (that terrible knowing, where you’re sick but can’t figure out what’s wrong), and psychological horror: being caught in a dependency money trap and unable to claw your way out.

Mendes definitely pays homage to the work of Lucy Leitner, not just with the odd sly reference to stories such as Get Me Out Of This Shimmering Oasis, but also in terms of his themes and setting. It’s clear Mendes has a healthy scepticism for the wellness fad and the New Age movement, but at the same time he understands the principles on which this movement was built. In this way he uses his narrative to kind of deconstruct the corrupt modern facade of wellness and New Age medicine whilst at the same time unveiling the secret truths behind principles such as “vibrations”.

And let’s talk a little bit about vibrations for a moment, shall we?

Without giving too much away: Mendes builds his worlds and characters from the ground up. They’re anchored in real human experience. It’s because of this he can tackle such esoteric and eyebrow-raising principles as “vibrations”.Behind the faux-gurus promising you wealth and happiness if only you can raise your vibration is the very real occult idea that the whole world is a symphony of many vibrations. In essence, the universe is sound, and everything material is music vibrating at such a frequency as to seem “real”. This accounts for the way that reality seems so strangely plastic, why we can have instant connections with certain people, and why others will remain forever alien to us. The ancient Hindus called this Nada Brahma.

Whether you view this as a cool bit of fantastical world-building or a secret glimpse of the true nature of reality is up to you. Mendes never preaches, he only teases. His books are laden with more conspiracy theories than a reddit forum, but whilst he points out their innate absurdity, he also recognises they—like vibrations and other occult ideas—are based on granules of truth (after all, MK Ultra turned out to be real). Mendes is one eternal wink at the camera, a writer with the wisdom to know that you can never be quite sure what’s real; after all, our world is totally absurd. This is what makes his books so interesting.

And despite this kind of esoteric truth-drop, the story never loses sight of the people navigating the very real problems of the modern world. Nor does Mendes sacrifice character for the sake of giving us a tour of his (albeit intriguing) mind-palace. Jordan’s actions are completely believable given his circumstances, and we buy into his plight. He’s isn’t a goodie two-shoes, far from it, but we can tell that beneath the anger and self-pity is someone who is genuinely trying to do the right thing. We root for him.

Similarly, Mendes’ “villains”, or shadow-figures, are always more than machiavellian moustache-twirling archetypes. They have real motivations, which they often conceal, and it’s up to the reader to try and pierce the veil of obscurity and see their true intent. Mendes knows that the true purpose of villains is often to teach us. Jung said the Shadow Self was ninety-percent pure gold, and that’s because of the insight the shadow offers us if only we tune in to what our darker selves are trying to tell us about reality. To put this in more simple and grounded terms: people with messed up views on the world can often show us what we really don’t want to admit is true. Thanos had a point: the world really is overpopulated. No two ways about it. Of course, his proposed solution is barbaric and evil, and we condemn it. But he’s still shown us a truth.

Mendes echoes this well-known truism with his sophisticated villains. And the climax of this novelette sees our hero, Jordan, come face to face with revelations about who he is, and his world, that re-contextualises everything we have just read.

The Guild is a top-class standalone horror novella that will delight fans of S. C. Mendes and readers new to him alike.

Get it on Godless

Like my reviews? Sign up to my newsletter to get regular updates on when my reviews go live!

Blog

Review of Inside: Perron Manor by Lee Mountford

Inside: Perron Manor is the prequel novella to Lee Mountford’s six-book Haunted series. I’m not normally a fan of the classic horror ghost-story, unless I’m reading the Gothic masters, but Lee Mountford’s novella blew me away.

Inside: Perron Manor is an exercise in verisimilitude, a literary technique—most often deployed by horror writer—to make a manuscript seem like an authentic document. The most famous example of this is Horace Walpole, who originally claimed that he found the manuscript for The Castle of Otranto in an ancient church in Europe and translated it from medieval Italian; he didn’t even claim authorship. Readers believed him and the book sold like wildfire. In reality, The Castle of Otranto is a cleverly written epistemological Gothic novel, and eventually Walpole came clean about that fact. However, it just goes to show how badly readers wanted to believe the legend. We can see an echo of this process in modern “found footage” films and CreepyPasta, a site where the more anonymous the author makes themselves in the process of the telling, the better. Consider how Paranormal Activity caused waves of controversy for not having a credits list at the end of the film; if no Directors or Actors were cited… surely that meant it was real?

Inside: Perron Manor continues this rich tradition and pulls it off with spectacular aplomb. The novella poses as a non-fiction book written by paranormal investigator David Ritter. Ritter is an obsessive who is drawn to Perron Manor, a house of infamy and legend on the outskirts of a crumbling little village called Alnmouth. Many writers have similarly tried to create their own verisimilitudes: posing their novels as investigative journals, or a collection of letters, or a tape-recording, but Lee Mountford (or should I say David Ritter, I am already getting confused about what’s reality and what’s fiction) succeeds where they fail because of his research. Simply put: he’s done his homework. Whilst taking us through the troubled and cursed history of the house, Ritter (I mean Mountford) illuminates each time period with a deft brush. Tiny details only a medieval history buff would know give this authenticity, to the point where I was looking up place and character names to double check which were real and which weren’t. Mountford (or is it Ritter?) so deftly interweaves real history with his own fiction that it becomes impossible to extricate the two, and that’s where the horror begins to settle in. Horror works best in the liminal spaces of ambiguity, where reality is dissolved and rationality destroyed. An author who can skillfully destabilise his readers will achieve far greater heights of terror.

I’ve read a lot of Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror in my time. I’m certainly not against the spilling of guts. But I admire an author who can turn the camera away and give me a different kind of fear even more than one who can twist my insides in disgust. Lee Mountford has taken to heart the age-old lesson that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. He never oversteps the mark, which many horror authors do, where the plot then descends into parody, and even at the tense conclusion of the novella what is waiting for Ritter never quite steps into the light… Coupled with this intuitive sense of when not to show us something, or when to let the silence speak, is a concise descriptive power. Many of the “scares” in this book are classic horror fare: faces in windows, shadows at the end of the bed, and yet Mountford will often offer up just one subtle little detail that sets his image apart from the generic. For example,

Skin was dark and mottled. I could see bone through her cheeks. No lips. Just teeth and black gums. No eyes, either.”

This description (delivered by one of Ritter’s interviewees) is understated, yet extremely vivid. The fact it sounds like dialogue lends further potency to it. The detail I think is most unique here is actually the “no lips”. I can totally see those ape-like gums. But, in terms of scare factor, he saves the best until last: “No eyes”. It’s an iconic, almost archetypal image, that is made more powerful by what went before. We can’t help but picture Sam Neil in Event Horizon. Chilling.

The main purpose of this novella is to give us some of the background of the house in order to set us up for the main event of Book 1 in the Haunted series. It would be easy for this to therefore feel like an info-dump, but despite the fact Ritter (or Mountford? Help!) does take us through a long stretch of history (the house has deep roots), we don’t feel like it’s purely informational. Ritter has his own arc, though I suspect it’s not fully done with by the end of the novella—we’ll see him again in subsequent books, I’m sure. And the way the history of the house is layered feels more like the layers of a human mind, its Unconscious component stretching back into the dismal savagery of antiquity, and its Conscious component haunted by what lies in its id.

Inside: Perron Manor is a quick and thrilling read for anyone who loves haunted house fare but wants something with a bit more edge. Lee Mountford is an extraordinarily talented writer, and I may just have to read all 6 books of his series.

You can buy Inside: Perron Manor here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

If you like my reviews, then you can sign up to my newsletter to receive regular updates of when they go live: http://themindflayer.com

Blog

Review of We Can Never Leave This Place by Eric LaRocca

Philip Pullman once wrote, “Swiftness is a great virtue in a fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.” (Daemon Voices). Though he was speaking about the classical fairy tales collated by the Brother’s Grimm, he could well be describing Eric LaRocca’s new novella We Can Never Leave This Place.

Dreamlike is a particularly apt word for the story LaRocca conjures in this brief but memorable fable. Despite the surreal nature of the narrative, the characters, and the setting, we feel that there is this dreadful and compelling internal logic to what is transpiring, much as we do when in the throes of the dream (and it’s only when we wake up that we realise how strange and impossible everything that occurred truly was).

Everything is slightly off in We Can Never Leave This Place. The house in which our fifteen year-old-protagonist, Mara, and her mother live seems like a house, yet a pipe breaches into the living room spilling raw sewage. It’s a constant feature of the landscape, a reminder of something festering at the hearts of our main characters. Then there are the weird “monsters” who, one by one, are brought into the house under the mother’s orders. There’s Rake, a spider. Samael, a snake. And other creatures from your worst nightmares. But so well-realised is the mood and setting of the novella that we don’t find the introduction of these anthropomorphised animals absurd, but rather unsettling. We question what they represent. And we question whether we are actually being filtered through Mara’s perception. She sees them as monsters, so they are described that way, and maybe she isn’t delusional; after all, what she sees seems to be the truth of who these people really are.

LaRocca is apparently a playwright and this is evident in the way he uses “the stage”. For example we know there is a war going on outside the house, but we never see it. We hear the booms of bombs dropping and the rattle of gunfire. Characters sometimes come in and tell us about what’s going on outside. But we don’t step outside. Many playwrights are, of course, limited by what they can portray on stage but of course this limitation can also be used advantageously to create a pressure-cooker of drama, which is what LaRocca achieves here. The title of the novella becomes more and more ominous as we sense that we truly cannot leave this place.

Some of the scenes in this novel might be considered obscene or disturbing by some, but I feel this is less about LaRocca being a horror-writer and more about the fairy-tale genre; fairy tales are full of brutalities that many would shy away from showing to adults let alone children in our modern world, from incest to mutilation and torture. LaRocca’s tale touches on all these things, but it is the psychological aspect that is far more harrowing: particularly the mother’s treatment of her daughter, Mara.

LaRocca’s characterisation of the mother will no doubt raise hackles. She is so cruel she does indeed seem the fairy-tale archetype of the “wicked queen” or “cruel step-mother”. Sadly, the savagery is all-too-realistic and representative of what abusive relationships are like, and whilst LaRocca doesn’t shy away from showing us her despicable actions, he also shows us why she is the way she is.

Perhaps my favourite element of this story—strange though this is to say—are the small, precisely chosen details (the mark of a truly skillful writer). For example, Mara owns a little, red pet bird called Kali. Kali is the Hindu Goddess of Bloodshed and Ruin (often depicted as red due to being covered in blood); she is also connected to the Arts and creative output. This is because the blood-symbolism is twofold: menstrual blood (which is connected to creativity for it’s the womb that creates life) and blood shed in battle. Naturally, all of this interlocks with the themes of the story: war, creativity, childhood, birth, and story itself. Mara is a writer, so the fact she owns a bird with this name implies that little Kali is her inner creative spirit.

Likewise, Samael, the name of the serpent character in the story, is the Talmudic or Hebrew name for Satan. What’s interesting is that LaRocca delivers on this association but also twists it slightly. I can’t say more for fear of spoilers!

I was also impressed by LaRocca’s diction and similes. Many horror writers forgo similes and struggle to write them well. Part of the issue is that in horror there is more of a burden placed upon the writer not to break the spell of terror, or anticipation, and one accidentally comedic or lazy simile will do just that. LaRocca, however, is a precision engineer. His similes are taut, often surprising, but never break the “warp and weft of mood” (to quote Dean Koontz) that is the very foundation of good horror.

Here is perhaps my favourite: “My father’s hand had been severed. The white of his exposed bone—a gorgeous pearl jeweled in a sleeve of tendon.” Virtually every word of this is luminous. The juxtaposition of the grisly body parts with beautiful, luscious imagery recalls the work of Clive Barker. Notice too how the em-dash works to simulate mimetically the slashed wrist! 

No book is perfect, and I do have one or two quibbles, particularly in terms of structure and pacing (those who read my work will know this is a bit of an obsession with me). But overall, it’s a vivid, nightmarish, beautifully written story that—and this is some of the highest praise I can offer—will stay with you for a long time afterwards.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

Like my reviews? Sign up to the newsletter here to get regular updates on when they come out.