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Review of Unmasked by Candace Nola

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As many of you know, poetry is my secret mistress. Whilst I will always love prose and the novel, there is a power in poetry that cannot really be equalled. I have written about this a few times before, and there are many reasons as to why this is the case, but the two reasons that stand out to me are the following:

1) poetry combines several core artistic elements: imagery, music (in the rhythms and meter and in the rhyme), and narrative.

2) in the words of Candace Nola, “Poetry is the purest, deepest expression of self.”

This quote comes from the introduction to Candace Nola’s recent poetry collection Unmasked, and I can’t help but heartily agree with her. Purity and depth are two of the defining characteristics of great poetry. And, in writing great poetry, one is able to plumb the depths of one’s self: not the shallow ego-self, but the true and secret self. As the title of the collection suggests, in removing the ego-masks we wear, and baring our souls, we dig deeper towards the truth of this real identity concealed behind the societal dross and pain of human experience.

Unmasked is an awesome collection that surprised me in a number of ways. Despite the fact that Nola says in her introduction that poetry is also “raw emotion”, many of these poems are shaped, and possess beautiful form. This level of form and restraint allows us access to the visceral emotion and translates it into something beautiful.

A good example of this can be found in the very first poem, “Endure The Broken”. The final couplet is a masterful example of balance between form and emotion.

The void has consumed me, with darkness, with rage.

Let the blood run freely as a I die on the page.

The rhythm of this couplet is complex, but in essence it is anapaestic, a highly unusual choice. Most English poetry is written in iambic, which follows a measured rhythm almost like a heart beat, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum. Anapaests, however, flow more rapidly: de-de-dum, de-de-dum, de-de-dum. Like a horse galloping, or a river babbling. Candace Nola’s choice of meter here perfectly matches the symbolic meaning of the couplet. The blood runs “freely” with the pacy fluidity of the anapaestic rhythm—you can almost see the river of arterial blood flowing out from her pen. Sound, image, and meaning combine in a perfect alchemical formula where pain is transmuted into beauty.

Not all of Candace Nola’s poems are so formally wrought. Some border on prose with poetic elements. However, even in these looser forms, Candace Nola demonstrates a natural feeling for language and for combining striking imagery with mimetic, sonic effect. In her poem, “Masses” this is demonstrated brilliantly in the final stanza:

“Without you, I’m no longer here. My heart, my soul, no longer beat. I searched for you daily, in the depths of the masses, seeking myself in each heartbeat that passes.”

The italics here are my own, in order to underscore that though there are no line breaks, there is a hidden structure concealed in the prose paragraph. You can hear it—both the rhythm and rhyme-scheme—when the poem is read aloud. But visually it is hidden. This is brilliant because the final image of the poem is all about seeking both love and oneself in the masses that pass us by—how we lose the beauty and meaning in a world oversaturated, overcrowded, and overcluttered.

Throughout the collection, there are memorable quotes and images. One that particularly sticks in my mind is from the humbly titled poem “I’m Fine”.

Take the gun. Embrace the steel.

Let the bullet heal.

Heal” is a totally unexpected rhyme with “steel”, and the surprise juxtaposition causes the darker, deeper meaning behind the poem to hit with, well, the force of a bullet from a gun. It’s worth noting here that Unmasked will be a challenging read for anyone who has experienced, or is experiencing, depression or suicidal thoughts. There were a few moments where I had to put the collection down, because it reminded me of the intensity of those feelings, and how difficult it had been to see a way out. In this way, Candace Nola has truly captured a snapshot of her life. Emotions are temporal. They come and go like clouds. Yet, Nola has enshrined them forever, which is the potency of art.

However, all is not doom and gloom. The final poem, “Phoenix”, as the title suggests, offers us a transcendental uplift from the darkness and depression. Before I print the final poem in full, so that you can experience it for yourself, it is worth noting that this collection contains thirty-four poems, which is the same number of cantos to be found in Dante’s Inferno. Coincidence, or is perhaps Nola framing Unmasked as her own dark descent through hell and upwards into the divine phoenix of rebirth?

Born of ashes. Born of dust.

Born of blood, of rage, of scorn.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix fly. Phoenix die.

Cold, heartless, cruel desolation.

Child of hatred. Child of war.

Terrorized soul forced isolation.

Flames of ice. Hatred borne.

Phoenix rise. Phoenix dies.

Ash from flame. Desire wanes.

Burning wings, glowing brighter.

Red gold molten fire.

Slow burn, torrid desire.

Nuclear rage, mushroom cloud spires.

Phoenix flies.

Phoenix cries.

Tears of fire pouring down.

Burning out, destroy the ground.

Phoenix rage. Phoenix splayed.

Ripped open, beat and bound.

Phoenix cries.

Phoenix dies.

From the ashes, embers glow.

Phoenix still.

Phoenix grows.

In conclusion, Candace Nola is a fantastic poet, and I would definitely like to see more of her poetry alongside her novels and novellas.

You can purchase Unmasked on Amazon:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of Incarnate by Steve Stred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can get your copy of Incarnate here: 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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

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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: https://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 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! 


If you enjoyed this review of this occult novel, then appropriately you can sign can sign up to the Mind-Vault as either a “Thrall” or “Cultist”, and get access to secret knowledge from beyond the stars. This March (2021), there is going to be a detailed workshop on “Character Motivation”. Don’t miss out! Your Mindflayer overlord compels you…

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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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Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.

I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.

This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.

We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.

You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…

Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.

Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?

In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.