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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.

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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.

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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!

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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. 

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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

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Review of Along The Razor’s Edge by Rob J. Hayes

I discovered Along The Razor’s Edge by chance on Twitter. The cover caught my eye—in fact, more than that, the cover blew me away. I don’t normally comment on the exterior aesthetic qualities of a book in my review, but I have to say: it’s one of the most beautifully designed books I’ve ever seen! The artwork is phenomenal, the choice of font and colour, the way the wraparound flows. Truly a work of splendour. I ordered the hardback, and it sits as a prized artefact on my shelf.

But Along The Razor’s Edge is not simply beautiful on the outside, but within as well. It takes a lot to impress me in the genre I love so well—Fantasy. It’s a sad truism that we often most criticise the things we truly adore, and Fantasy sadly has a tendency to slip into the province of clichés and tropes regurgitated a thousand times. I’m all for the reinvention of archetypes, but each iteration has to become living, has to speak in a new voice.

This is what Rob J. Hayes has achieved. His heroine, Eskara, is like many wronged women of fantasy’s annals, but also unique. Right away, her voice (the novel is written in first person from the perspective of an older, wiser Eskara) captures the attention and imagination. I was enthralled by her energy, fury, passion, and by the juxtaposition of her current self, with all its hard-earned wisdom, looking back on the events and feelings of her youth with a mixture of tenderness, disgust, embarrassment, anger, and even a little humour. Fantasy novels are not easy to write in first person because one has to unveil an entire universe as well as a deep and believable psychological interior. However, Rob J. Hayes manages to achieve both, a quite stunning feat.

Eskara’s voice is direct, and through this directness Rob J. Hayes manages to deploy aphoristic wisdoms that elevate the text beyond simple narrative to something more poetic. Here are some examples:

Anyone could have done his job, but those of little consequence often mistake convenience for importance.”

Fortunes change so quickly with the fall of empires.”

History is often just another word for mystery.”

These insights entertain and challenge us as we follow Eskara’s path.

We begin in the depths of the Pit, a prison into which Eskara has been thrown for fighting on the wrong side of a war. Once a great Sourcerer (and note, that spelling is significant, as you will discover later on in the book), now, she has been robbed of her powers. This is rags to riches one-o-one and its remarkable how quickly we become invested in Eskara’s journey. The Pit is like many hellish prisons from literature: the “scabs” are forced into gruelling manual labour and psychologically and physically tortured by their foremen, who are also prisoners themselves. However, what intrigues is that the Pit is also full of mysteries that the author slowly unveils throughout the story. Rob J. Hayes never bombards us with too much information, but rather allows us to gradually sense how colossal his world is outside the bounds of the Pit.

I would describe this novel as Ross Jeffery’s Tome meets The Sovereign Stone trilogy by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I think the former comparison is particularly apt not just because of the harrowing depiction of prison life (although I should caveat this by assuring sensitive readers Hayes does not quite go so far as Jeffery into the depths of human sadism), but also a study of characters. Eskara, of course, is our main character as well as our narrator, but through her eyes we also observe a host of intriguing personas, some of whom we love, some we hate, and some whom we feel a mixture of both for. Though many of these characters—having earned their place in the Pit—are less than savoury or respectable we find them compelling and invest in their stories.

Though the opening of the book is strong, I would say that the second half of the book is where things really kick off, where the characters start to fully establish themselves, and where the momentum of the story becomes a no-stops crazy train. I know other reviewers have expressed a different view. I personally enjoy more slow and involved stories, though there were one or two moments where I felt the narrative thrust did lose momentum for the sake of filling us in on backstory. This is because Eskara does not relate her story from a single point in time, but also flashes back to her childhood and the early experiences that influence her character. Whenever a story alternates between multiple timelines, it’s natural that the pace slows and a reader instead looks for how these lines are all going to intersect. And intersect they do with stunning force at the novel’s denouement. There is real emotional weight in the final moments of this book, where we sense the utter calamity of what has to be lost in order to find freedom.

There are many wonderful surprises in Along The Razor’s Edge: characters acting in unanticipated ways, backstory revelations that reshape what we think about someone, and mysteries unveiled—story directions we simply didn’t expect the book to go in. There is one twist in particular that chilled and thrilled me and has me wondering where the author will take this in subsequent books.

I should conclude, therefore, by saying my only irritation is that I am now compelled to buy the next entry in the series! But in truth, it’s a pleasure to discover a new and brilliant Fantasy writer. I could spend a hell of a lot of time with these characters and in this world, and that’s really what great Fantasy is all about.

You can buy the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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I F*CKING LOVE NARRATIVE POETRY

There. I said it. It’s been a long time coming, this confession. I guess some of you already knew it, but I have to announce it to the world.

Reasonably recently, I released a book called Virtue’s End, a 70,000 word epic poem written in iambic, taking influence from sources as diverse as Spenser’s 16th Century fantasy masterpiece The Faerie Queene, and T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Unlike the latter of these two sources, however, the poem is grounded in a story with lots of action, drive, even one or two twists, alongside the usual poetic fare of imagery, symbolism, and synaesthesia. I did this because, frankly, I had to. I experienced a mystical epiphany on a trip to Glastonbury, and the outcome of this experience was a transmission—what I believe might well have been a direct channeling of something beyond. I couldn’t not write the book. In many ways, the book was writing me.

But once this outpouring was over, I think a part of me believed I would go back to writing novels like a good little modern author. I’ve never exactly been a “commercial” writer. I write weird stuff for weird people who like multiverses and serial killers who go on fantasy adventures—oh, and telepathic crabs. But, obviously fantasy is a big genre and lots of people read it.

Less so for poetry.

But the thing is, the novels weren’t flowing like they used to. I had this block. Instead of prose, I wanted to write poetry, LOTS more of it. Dissenting voices in my head kept telling me that was dumb. I should stick to more commercial stuff. Hell, I should start writing thrillers and romances and really break into the big leagues…

But the Muse has to be respected, and the Muse cannot be compelled. Something was, and still is, telling me to write poetry.

And now I really am not certain I’m going to go back to novels…

There are many reasons, but perhaps the main one is I am falling in love with narrative poetry.

I love how it can cut to the heart of the matter. One is not burdened with describing every little detail, or making a scene feel grounded by drilling down to the boring mechanics and logistics.

In narrative poetry, you excavate the very core of the story. Who is saying what to whom? Who is feeling what? And what are we looking at? There’s no need for the fluff that pads so much of modern narrative—the epaulettes on a soldier’s pauldron or the exact mechanics of zero-g space-travel—because you’re driving to the centre of meaning, or as close as you can come without going mad. Faery tales and myths do the same thing. The greatest stories in the Bible and other spiritual texts are sometimes merely a few paragraphs of text, sometimes only a few lines

And deeper than this, the condensed and distilled form of poetry means that the language—at least in good poetry—becomes loaded with associations, double or triple meanings, and symbolic power. Through this mechanism poetry reaches the Jungian realm of archetype. 

It is also possible to blend and marry concepts that in a “realistic” prose novel simply cannot be married, because the laws of so-called reality restrain them. Even full-on bizarro novels must make their worlds obey the confines of linear reality, although the best of them at least comment on this fact, such as Alistair Rennie’s epic BleakWarrior.

But in poetry, all bets are off. So long as the feeling and the sense rings true and is comprehensible, then it works. Poems are like dreams in this respect. Upon emerging from their grasp, we recognise their weirdness, but in the throes of deep REM, we care not.

Environments and actors within these environments can be elided subtly by the choice placement of words. Images can ambiguously refer to multiple people or places. For a non-dualist, poetry is a paradise of synergy, a Hieros Gamos that allows us to synthesise wronger and wronged, righter and condemned, flame and burning spirit.

I think poetry, therefore, provides a new frontier for writers and readers alike. Especially poetry that uses form. For form creates beauty. And on the subject of "beauty", poetry is often considered snobby and intellectual, but the irony is that poetry—able to access the direct feeling state—is the exact opposite of intellectual. In many ways, it is pure feeling. 

It is no surprise to me that some of my favourite books over the last two years have been narrative poems. The first of these is my father’s epic poem, HellWard, a masterful homage to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In this epic, my father describes his battle with cancer in Bournemouth Royal Hospital, which leads to a near death experience, and a descent into hell worthy of The Inferno.

A more playful—but still epic—narrative poem can be found in Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Liberty Vol. 1, which rewrites American history whilst, using fiendishly inventive language and imagery, making a satirical commentary on our present day.

Lastly, I had the pleasure to read Michael Pietrack’s upcoming fable, Legacy. This story seems like it’s written for children, but the honest truth is adults will have a lot to learn from it too, and the storytelling and imagination on display here are simply magnificent.

What are your favourite narrative poems? They can be as obvious as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or something completely obscure. Let me know!

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Review of The Mountains of Sorrow by Iseult Murphy

Iseult Murphy first left her mark upon me with her insightful reviews. Here was someone who wasn’t simply stating an opinion, but actually going a level deeper to incise the work she was discussing with a scalpel and see what was really going on underneath; in short, true criticism. Next, Murphy’s Horror series, currently featuring 7 Days In Hell and 7 Weeks In Hell, blew me away. Here is a story that deceptively lures the reader into thinking they are reading a small-town cosy mystery, when in actuality something much darker is taking place. The story slowly tilts into the macabre until it outright flings you into the abyss, though it is not without threads of beautiful hope.

Now, Iseult Murphy turns her hand to Fantasy—a favourite genre of mine—in The Mountains of Sorrow. This novella is a weird and wonderful mix. It starts by plunging us straight into the action and doesn’t really let up for the duration of its 100 pages. Our main character, Rowan, is a rebel with a mission to assassinate an evil and tyrannical Queen. There is a subtle critique of the modern world in the lore and mythos of Mountains of Sorrow, as the Queen is evil because she uses Star Magic to oppress the populace. Star Magic is a kind of forbidden, dark magic, because it’s technological rather than natural. The Star Magic allows Queen Zelda to create artificial lights that burn the skin, monstrous metal golems that lumber through the palace hallways, and energy centres that irradiate the populace and make them sick. It’s subtly done, a kind of Gene Wolfe double-blind where we realise that what’s being described isn’t what we think it is. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, there’re a lot more surprises in this.

The world-building, contained in such a brief narrative, is very impressive. Rowan is a wood-witch, one of the last of her kind, and so she has an affinity for the earth, magic, and the seven sacred dragons. The dragons are kind of druidic gods who watch over and guide those who are still connected to magic. Each of them can grant different boons. In this way, they operate almost like Catholic Saints; appealing to the right saint with the right cause can lend a magic-user aid. It feels original, and more importantly it’s done well; the naming conventions of the dragons lead me to believe they are partly inspired by Irish lore and mythology. There’s surprising depth considering how little wiggle room Murphy has in a story of this length.

In terms of characters, this story is again an interesting mix. It personally took me a while to warm to the main character Rowan. I found her to be so bitter and depressive that it was hard to feel for her. However, given everything Rowan has experienced, this was probably very psychologically accurate. Argento proved to be an interesting foil to Rowan, and the two work well together “on screen”. Murphy does not fall for the usual traps of a relationship of necessity like this, and if any of you are expecting predictable romance, rest assured you can think again.

There are a surprising number of characters considering the book’s length but perhaps the final ones worth mentioning are two very cute squirrels, Acorn and Oak. The book actually contains beautiful illustrations of these squirrels done by the author herself, and her talent is really off-the-charts. The interior of the book is exceedingly beautiful because of these illustrations, which also make their way into the chapter headings (very much echoing the illuminated text of medieval manuscripts) The inclusion of these squirrel characters is one of the brilliant but also anomalous aspects of the books. Murphy clearly has a love of animals. I know she keeps many pets and dogs feature prominently in her 7 Hells series. Cute squirrels, who are far more intelligent than they seem, would seem to lend the book more of a Disney-fantasy than let’s say Tolkien-fantasy vibe. Indeed, I wondered if this book was meant for children at times. The writing is straightforward; there is no cussing.

However, it seems that Murphy could not resist flexing her Horror-writer muscles at times, and there are some genuinely disturbing scenes in this that are worthy of a Stephen King novel or indeed something beyond. If you are looking for a literary comparison, the nearest would be C. S. Lewis. Lewis also created wonderful and enchanting fantasy worlds for children, but they were not without their share of horror, as anyone who read that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe can testify.

When the true extent of the evil Queen’s machinations are revealed in one stomach churning encounter, I was caught completely off guard, and that made the horror all the more affecting and visceral. I admire Murphy for this. It would have been easy for her to write something pedestrian, something that conformed easily to a genre archetype, but she chose instead to push boundaries, to show us that even in the magical world there is suffering. In fact, this suffering is created by the intrusion of technological “magic” into the fantastical sphere. I will not preach to the choir: you may read into this as you will!

The last thing I want to say about this book is in relation to the title. Firstly, The Mountains of Sorrow clues us in to one of the interesting aspects of this book, namely, that I suspect it is part of a series. This book seems entirely concerned with the element of earth, and that includes not just literal stone, soil, and wood, but also the concepts of family, friendship, and the stability of civilisation. I suspect that Murphy might be planning to showcase the other elements in subsequent books! We can only hope.

Secondly, The Mountains of Sorrow feels very apt indeed. Sorrow permeates this story. Rowan has lost her mother. Argento has lost his family. The magical dragons seem to be leaving this world of wickedness and technologic gods. The “mountains” of sorrow are the psychological mountains that we must perilously climb in order to overcome our despair. What is so brilliant, however, is that Murphy’s ending is spiritual, redemptive, and hopeful, which, in our current era, is exactly what we need.

You can purchase The Mountains of Sorrow at the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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

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

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

Brian Barr is an actual genius. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confederate Shadows Amazon UK

Confederate Shadows Amazon US

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Review of 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. 


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. Your Mindflayer overlord compels you…

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Blog

The Year In Review: 2020

Firstly, a very happy holiday season to you all: whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah just past, the Solstice, or one of a myriad of other occasions I have failed to mention, I hope you have the best one possible. And, very importantly, I hope that the New Year which awaits you in 2021 is truly awesome and brings all you want and deserve. 

I hope you can forgive me for reiterating what millions have already stated, but this year has been tough. Really tough. And in all kinds of different ways: financially, emotionally, hell even physically. For many, it’s been far worse, and some have even lost their lives. However, I’m ever an optimist, and I must be grateful that despite everything many of my friends and loved ones have held on; I am still able to do creative things, my business is still running, and I’ve managed to survive.

Not only that, but some truly remarkable things have come to pass despite all the setbacks and weirdness of life in varying degrees of lockdown; and I’m not just talking about things I’ve done! As an editor and indie publisher, it’s amazing to see great writers and artists and creatives of all sorts achieving their goals through the pain and uncertainty that’s afflicted us all. I wanted to do a round up of some of those things and perhaps even share some plans with you for the future! 

Let’s start just by giving you some stats. This year I have… 

  • edited over 300,000 words!
  • facilitated the publication of five brilliant books by new authors:
    • The Age of Wellbeing by David Green: a comprehensive examination of the state of wellbeing in the modern world, and what we need to do to improve it.
    • Hecctrossipy Book 1 by Bia Bella Baker: an amazing YA fantasy novel that will transport you to an intricate and mind-blowingly detailed new world. Get ready for more than a few surprises!
    • What Do They Really Know? by M. S. Morgan: a brilliant review of UFO sightings made by RAF personnel in the UK over the last fifty years by a senior investigator. Unlike many books of this nature, he takes a completely impartial and unbiased view of the evidence, using his experience as a detective to reveal some surprising truths.
    • From Liverpool With Love by Joan Collins Owen: a heartbreaking story of love in the face of encephalitis. This biography of an amazing woman and her fight to hold on to the man she loves will have you crying, make no mistake!
    • A Thing With Feathers by J. John Nordstrom (coming Feb 2021 from The Writing Collective): this is an amazing tale of romantic-era love in the modern world, at once funny, literary, human, and heartrending.
  • written over half a million words of non-fiction and fiction (some ghost-writing)
  • launched a Patreon (The Mind-Vault) that has over 2 hours of videos on it now, plus about 30,000 words of fiction and commentary; I update it every month with loads of stuff. Right now there are videos on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an extract from a VERY dark novel I abandoned, and a video on some upcoming projects for 2021.
  • joined a writer’s mastermind group, Let’s Get Published! 
  • co-created a new course with Christa Wojciechowski on how to use the five-act structure to improve your fiction (which is available to anyone who signs up to Let’s Get Published)
  • announced my new novelDark Hilaritywhich is coming January 31st 2021, as well as an exciting new project, Desecrated Empiresan RPG and world-building experience like no other, which is coming later that same year!

And I sometimes wonder why I’m so knackered! I’ve also read some amazing books this year. Here are a few highlights… 

A brilliantly written tale of black magic, spirituality, and loss that can’t but rend the heartstrings. I also marks the beginning of an exciting new series. Definitely one to check out if you like creepy-town tales and well-developed characters. 

This deft horror is subtle and creeps up on you. Stred is swiftly becoming one of my all-time favourite horror authors, who knows how to turn on the skin-crawling creepiness. 

This really surprising novella is The Matrix meets something infinitely more twisted. This is not just a sci-fi, but also a psychological thriller, in that the technology in this book serves to highlight the perversion of human minds. Noir and Mendes build an incredible world here and just give us a toe-dip into it. Definitely looking forward to more from them. 

Headcase is a wild and funny romp through vampires, werewolves, demons and other monsters living in our modern world. Expect buckets of gore, one-liners, and a hell of a lot of sex magic. This is really fun and I can easily see this gaining a cult following. 

Dungeon Party was the big surprise of 2020 for me. It is one of the most psychologically rich books I’ve read in a while. It follows a group of nerds who love playing D&D together, until one of them is spurned by the DM, and decides to go rogue. There are very real-world consequences for this and the interaction between the game-world and fantasy world are profound. If you liked my book Save Gameyou’ll probably really enjoy this. I found the resolution to be slightly too neat but the climax that comes before it is really awe-inspiring. The wild-card of 2020! 

Okay, I’m massively biased on this one, but my father’s epic narrative poem is unbelievably good, and I’m not the only one saying it! If you like Dante, visions of hell so vivid they scour the brain, commentary on the state of the modern world, and also a personal journey from cancer to recovery, then you will love this. There’s only one word for it — masterpiece.

  • Tome by Ross Jeffery

I don’t need to say much about Tome, because Ross Jeffery is making waves with his fiction. Tome is my favourite thing he’s written and a truly remarkable book that combines so many elements I love: prisons, dark magic, cosmic horror, Christian theology, and finally a little dose of The Exorcist. It’s a tour de force but not for the faint of heart. 

The Ash is one of Soule’s best books yet, a horror with bromance that features a stellar cast of characters, some despicable, some virtuous, and all entertaining as hell. The Ash is all about a policeman trying desperately to find his way home during an apocalyptic event, but like Odysseus, he keeps getting diverted. This homecoming tale (a voyage and return if you will) is really quite powerful. 

I have probably missed off a few people. If you are one of them, I sincerely apologise. It has been a busy and confusing year!

There are also many books I’ve read which I can’t speak on yet, but the reasons for my secrecy will be revealed in time! Suffice to say, I had an incredible trip to Glastonbury and raided the bookstores there for some fascinating esoteric tomes which I think are going to feed into some new writing. 

Outside of the writing sphere, my mother, Linda Sale, has also been hard at work creating a shopfront for her beautiful artwork (some of which features on the front covers of many books!). You can check it out here.

I would also like to take this moment to thank each of my Patreon subscribers, who have kept me going not just with their financial contributions but also with their feedback, encouragement, and creativity. These Thralls and Cultists are: Kelly, Edward, Tom, Christa, Erik, Iseult & Michelle. You are AMAZING people. Thank you.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the truly incredible reviewers who have supported my work with such tenacity. Without them, I would truly have given up long ago. These awesome people include but are not limited to:

Kendall Reviews

Dan Stubbings

Meghan’s House of Books

Thank you all. You rock.

So, that’s my year in review. I’m curious, what have you done this year that you’re really proud of? We’ve all achieved things this year, even if it’s just holding on and surviving. Let’s share our success stories and celebrate that we came this far, even through adversity!

Blog, Games, Publishing

NEW BOOK & COVER REVEAL: DESECRATED EMPIRES

Hello everyone,

I hope you’re safe and well during these weird and unpredictable times. I’ve been hard at work in the creative laboratory, and I can now announce my next project, Dead World: Desecrated Empires, produced in collaboration with fabulous writers Robert Monaghan and Edward Kennard. In addition, we also have a fabulous artist, my own mother Linda Sale, producing some incredible illustrations! Here is a teaser of one I love:

Arcturus, The Black Hand, one of many intriguing characters to be found in Dead World!
by Linda Sale

But what is Desecrated Empires? I’m glad you asked!

Desecrated Empires is the ultimate RPG experience and must-have book for lovers of dark fantasy world-building. Set in the twisted and foreboding universe of Dead World, Desecrated Empires allows you to craft taut and immersivenarrative experiences using its unique, strategic rules-system. The “Era of Empires” story-arc, characterised by blood and betrayal, introduces a sophisticated “Competitive Team Play” model that will unleash the full cathartic power of your role-play campaigns. Take control of an adventurer and create your own unique legend, build a campaign as a Dungeon Master using Desecrated Empires’ omnifarious world-building toolkit, or utilise the special mechanics and tactical nuance of Desecrated Empires’ combat to command armies, build empires, form rebellions, lay sieges, and wage cataclysmic wars in a mythical world. 

Features: 

  • 11 Races (including esoteric or maligned races, such as Featherfolk, Plantfolk, and Undead); each Race hasmultiple unique origins that create further variation
  • 14 unique Classes, each of which offers a radically different style of play, from classic brute Warriors to masters of manipulation such as Illusionists
  • Every Class can choose one of two paths, empowering players with even more choice, and meaning there are 200+ potential adventurer Race/Class combinations
  • A progressive Skills system that allows adventurers to learn further crafts outside of their Class, including Blacksmithing, Alchemy, and Arcana; these aren’t static but also progress as you level and learn. 
  • A unique combat system that eschews the clumsier elements of role-play combat in favour of more strategic and tactical gameplay; imagine the precision of an RTS game inserted into a world full of lore and epic stories. 
  • A Bestiary & Diseasary with 100+ entries, each with beautiful descriptions and in-depth mechanics, including many monsters and characters entirely unique to Dead World’s strange universe. 
  • Detailed lore-descriptions of every item, from the humble “Rope” to legendary artefacts such as the “Bloodthirst Cowl”! 
  • With succinct and precise rules-wording, get your Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual all in one explosive volume! No need to buy multiple books. 

Here is the epic cover-reveal!

We anticipate Dead World: Desecrated Empires being ready in early 2021! We’ll keep you updated on our progress. Over 97,000 words are written so far, but we have even further yet to go. The whole thing is going to be beautifully produced and brimming with lore and magic!


To get announcements like this even earlier, you can subscribe to my Patreon. In addition, all of my Patrons gain FREE copies of my Kindles / eBooks, including this one!