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FANTASY, HORROR, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of All of Me by Iseult Murphy

I’ve long been a fan of Iseult Murphy. She writes with extraordinary clarity, intelligence, and wit. Best of all, she always ventures deep into her characters’ psyches. These are not two-dimensional plot devices, but living and breathing beings with vast emotional interiors.

All of Me is unquestionably the best book that Iseult Murphy has ever written. It not only shows massive growth as a writer but also reaches the highest level of art: transcendence.

One doesn’t need to know Iseult Murphy to be able to tell that All of Me is written about an issue that is deeply personal to the author. The compassion Murphy shows for her protagonist, Margaret, a 390 pound woman struggling with self-love and self-image, is palpable and heartrending. This doesn’t mean Margaret is spared, however, from Murphy’s ferociously sharp observations on the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of humans struggling to desperately improve themselves. Though she describes this book as "body-horror", and there's certainly an element of that, I think the real horror is in the human mind, which Iseult Murphy excavates expertly. 

Murphy’s development of her theme is masterfully expressed in the repetition of the phrase “Eat the elephant one bite at a time”. There is triple perhaps even quadruple entendre in this. Margaret is mockingly called Miss Elephant by her coworkers due to her weight. Yet, in the original saying, the elephant represents the big problems in life we have to break down into little bite-sized chunks in order to overcome. It’s also ironic that Margaret uses a metaphor for eating in order to describe the gruelling and slow process of weight-loss!

Margaret is desperate to lose weight, to change. And one day, someone makes her an offer that is simply too good to be true. Eating the elephant is laborious, painful, and taking too long. What if there was a quicker way to shed the weight? Desperate people will do desperate things. Margaret accepts the offer, a Faustian pact, and this is what truly kickstarts the narrative into the next level, because Margaret gets a great deal more than she bargained for.

I don’t want to give too much away—though what comes next is on the back-cover of the book—but suffice to say Murphy enters Freudian territory in which suddenly three facets of Margaret become independent. There’s Dot, who functions like a merciless and rational ego. There’s Peggy, who is always trying to look after other people but at the expense of all else, a kind of super-ego. And then there’s Daisy, eternally frightened, and only capable of eating her problems away, the primitive id. These three “aspects” also represent more personalised facets of Margaret. Dot is Margaret’s hardworking attitude. Peggy is Margaret’s caring side. Daisy is her defensive mode. By blending the individual and personal with the archetypal and psychological, Murphy achieves a compelling interplay. The fates of these “three” women who are really one matter to us, we care about each of them, even when they start doing despicable things.

Murphy writes the whole book in first person, heading the chapters with names so we know who is speaking. The genius of this is how it relates to the plot. We are reading about one woman divided into three, so it makes sense that the book is first person and not third. Yet, at the same time, Murphy reflects the differences between the characters with subtle changes in the narrative style. They all feel like they are part of the same person, yet we also begin to see the deviations between them. The skill it takes to do this is jaw-dropping.

Structurally this book works like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. At times, it is unputdownable narrative. Each chapter ramps up the weirdness, the tension, and the stakes. Yet, despite the increasing strangeness, Murphy somehow manages to keep the whole thing grounded. Even when we receive a certain revelation about who a character truly is—which is masterfully done—we still remain in the realm of the believable. Perhaps this is because the novel remains so psychologically true.

Murphy uses her central plot device to explore so many ideas: the effect of low self-esteem on our lives, solipsism and how self-criticism can be a form of poison, our defence mechanisms (whether they be eating to avoid problems or attacking those we perceive to threaten us), and what it truly means to love oneself.

The ending of All of Me is my favourite ending Murphy has ever written and deeply moving. This is where the “transcendence” element comes in, because I felt like the book not only emotionally stirred me but also caused me to reflect upon my own life and desire to improve it. In fact, Murphy’s denouement ranks up there with the finale of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is some of the highest praise I can offer.

All of Me is an amazing horror novella—one of the best I have read in a long time—and in truth it deserves to be on the Richard and Judy best-seller list. At once horrifying, funny, empowering, and viciously self-deprecating, it’s a true expression of the human spirit in all its glory and shame, and something that you absolutely have to read.

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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:

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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…