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Review of When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars by Steve Stred

I’ve heard several authors and critics say that When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars is Steve Stred’s best book, and it is easy to see why: the Canadian horror-maestro pulled out all the stops for this one. This compact novel contains psychological horror, mind-warping unreliable narration, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, and demonic possession. It also contains some of Stred’s most beautiful and evocative prose to date. For example, during a disconcerting flashback scene—though we question the reliability of the narrator—the character Richard is described as “speaking through the mud of a dream.” This image is not only exquisite in its own right, perfectly describing that slow, hypnotic speech that can come from shellshocked or traumatised individuals, but it also stands emblematic of the whole story. When I Look At The Sky is a dream, of sorts, told in a dreamlike fashion: jumping between perspectives, wrong-footing assumptions, and leaving much unsaid. The effect of this is total disorientation, a nausea of the mind that makes us feel like we, too, are being assailed by dark forces in daring to read this profane work.

The story premise centres around psychologist Dr. Rachel Hoggendorf and her newest patient David Stewart. David appears to be an extreme case of multiple personality disorder ah la M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. He talks to himself, even interviews himself, and is constantly reciting lengthy letters (allegedly from memory). However, things take a dark turn when it is revealed that David knows information about Rachel that no one else knows, a trauma from her past that went unwitnessed and unconfessed. Could he, therefore, be a genuine case of demonic possession?

From this starting point, Stred takes us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. We dive simultaneously into David’s past as Rachel tries to piece his increasingly fantastical story together, and in turn, through David’s reverse interrogation, we find out who Rachel really is. This leads to a horrifying turning point in the novel which I cannot say more about for fear of spoiling the story, but suffice to say, Stred’s disorientation tactics pay dividends. Ultimately, one of the key themes of When I Look At The Sky seems to be whether we can ever truly know who we are. What defines us? Is it our actions? Is it our memories? Is it our commitments—what we choose to make contracts with?

But what if we are not in control of our actions? What if we cannot trust our memories? And what if we have no choice but to make a pact to survive? Stred explores people who are at the edge of sanity and desperation, who throws themselves upon powers they neither know nor understand. This is what it means to exist in this world of flesh and blood. To use Stred’s own words, “flying forward into the chaos of discovery.”

Another thematic exploration of When I Look At The Sky is the relationship between evil and madness. Unlike most writers, who equate madness or mental disease with evil, Stred takes a far more nuanced and subtle approach. The evil force in his novel is, in fact, extremely wilful and intentional. It is thinking very clearly. However, contact with the intensity of this evil tends to drive people insane. The insanity is not the cause of the evil but the byproduct of it, much like Lovecraft’s protagonists, who go insane because of their inability to comprehend the eldritch deities of the cosmos.

When he looked Father Selinofoto in the eyes again, he saw an evil burning deep within the pupils, an evil that caressed some part of his subconscious.”

Stred frequently uses fire and flame imagery to describe hatred and evil. Whilst it would be easy to think that this is simply a cliched “hell fire” reference, I actually think Stred is doing something far deeper. Evil burns—uses up—those it inhabits. Those who are “possessed” or taken over by these demonic forces are battered and broken and burned out. They are simply tools to be used until they break and then are discarded. In this way, madness actually becomes an escapism—a refuge—from the forces of evil.

I was a slave to both sides. A man stuck barking at the moon for reprieve.”

The moon, of course, has always been a symbol of madness—hence the word “lunatic”. The moon has two sides or “faces”: one we can see, and one we cannot see. It is therefore the perfect symbol for Stred’s story, which is all about trying to find the hidden face beneath. Everyone in this story has a hidden face. At times, characters may seem to change their motivations suddenly, which can be jarring, or even make you think Stred has made a mistake. But upon reflection, I think Stred is really drawing our attention to the duplicity of man’s nature. Interestingly, the moon appears prominently at two key moments in the narrative, both of which herald a cataclysmic change in the psyche of a main character.

The last thing I want to mention is perhaps surprising: in this novel, more than any other he has written, Stred demonstrates a fantastic sense of humour. There are several moments in the novel where, in order to break the tension or highlight a particular irony, Stred made me laugh out loud. He recognises that there is an inherent element of absurdity in the Lovecraftian genre, and uses humour to at once underscore that but also lull us into a false sense of security.

Nothing’s making sense here, Carl. I would rather be prudent and make sure I don’t end up babbling about space monster cocks in my ass.”

This is certainly not a humorous horror novel in the vein of Grady Hendrix or anything like that. But there are moments of unexpected levity, such as the above, that serve to make the scary bits even scarier.

Ultimately, When I Look At The Sky is a harrowing descent into the psyches of two people coming apart at the seams. It is a schizophrenic book that undermines all certainty and forces us to confront the unknowable aspects of our nature, including forbidden desires. In truly Clive Barker fashion, one character remarks: “I’ve done all I could, taken my desires as far as they could go.” When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars takes us as far as we can go, into depths of horror midnight black that yet reveal shining constellations of meaning.

You can purchase When I Look At The Sky, All I See Are Stars at the below links:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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BEST IN SHOW: THE TOP FANTASY & HORROR WRITERS OF OUR TIME

There are lots of articles ranking the very best books in a particular genre, and there are also lists ranking the best writers and books of all time. Whilst a sense of hierarchy (this thing is more perfectly executed than that thing) is important in criticism, it should never come at the sacrifice of palette. The old-fashioned saying “Different horses for different courses” rings true: we go to certain genres and writers for specific experiences, whether we know this consciously or not. And so, I wanted this ranking list to work a little differently to most. Instead of saying who is the “best” (because of course we will all have different definitions of what constitutes “the best”), I wanted to showcase writers who excel at delivering particular experiences. Picture it like this: rather than looking at who is sitting on the biggest pile of gold, I instead wanted to point you towards the writers who possess very niche, gleaming treasures… I also exclusively wanted to feature living writers. I love the classics, but there are so many hugely talented authors working today.

Of course, this list—like all lists—is entirely subjective, but it might just help you to find the right writer to scratch a particular itch, a particular artefact you’ve long sought in the paradoxical desert of over-saturation. In addition, there are a good number of phenomenal authors who did not make this list, authors like John Durgin, Richard Thomas, Iseult Murphy, Brian Barr, Eric LaRocca, Anna Smith Spark, and more... The reason they did not make this list is no aspersion upon their literary abilities, and simply a reflection on the aesthetic focus of this article and the limitation of space!

So, without further ado, here are the best in show, my choice fantasy and horror writers and the particular delights they offer up. They have such sights to show you!

The best to make me believe in the supernatural… Lee Mountford

I had the privilege of meeting Lee Mountford in 2022 at the Self Publishing Show in London, a conference for independent authors run by Mark Dawson and James Blatch. He is one of the most kind-hearted and humble souls writing today. However, not only that, but his fiction is truly unique. He has taken the “haunted house” formula to another level of intensity, combining gothic verisimilitude with supernatural intensity. Lee Mountford’s Perron Manor, which is part of his Haunted series, will immerse you in the dark history of the eponymous house, a history so intricately interwoven with real history that you will find yourself Googling “Perron Manor” to see if such a place really exists. The mantle of reality cloaking Mountford’s work is, quite frankly, terrifying. With a torturer’s artistry, he makes you believe one small thing after another, until finally we reach a crescendo and come face to face with supernatural horror in its purest form—and are forced to believe that too.

It is shocking to see how quickly esteem can turn into infamy.”

Inside: Perron Manor

The best to make me care about f*cked up people… Christa Wojciechowski

Christa Wojciechowski is one of the most original writers working today. Her work is equal parts psychological horror, erotic thriller, and something altogether more mythopoeic. There were therefore a number of reasons to include Christa Wojciechowski on this list, from her startling and dark eroticism (which is so much more than pornographic, but almost spiritually harrowing) to her scalpel-sharp command of prose, but ultimately I settled on what may be her greatest gift: making me care about objectively awful people. Christa Wojciechowski has a unique gift for creating characters of rich psychological depth, and rendering those psychological interiors in ways that don’t feel expositional. Her characters are often broken, wrestling with addiction and vice, and many of them do terrible things in the name of love or in an attempt to survive, but somehow we still love them, forgive them, and care about them. Christa Wojciechowski has made me weep for abominable people, people who—were I in my right mind—I might wish were locked up. This is her dark genius, and I hope more people get to experience it.

If he only knew how good I was at tapping into veins, every one except the one of truth.”

Oblivion Black

The best to make me peer into the abyss… S. C. Mendes

I first encountered S. C. Mendes by chance. I was a big fan of the publisher Blood Bound Books and therefore monitored the books they released. They had put put a novel entitled The City, authored by Mendes. I confess, I did not pay it much attention at first, but then I heard online rumours in the form of cryptic reviews, rumours that the novel was not entirely what it appeared to be. One rumour used the phrase “lizard people”. Needless to say, my curiosity got the better of me. Nothing could have prepared me for The City. It is elegantly written and terrifyingly brutal, a vision of total horror that yet conceals in its gory excrescences a pearl of wondrous hope. It is a book of psychological layers, of Dantean ingenuity and spirituality, and not for the faint of heart. In short, The City was and is a totally life-changing book. There are many “extreme” horror authors out there, but I find much of their work lacks the spiritual power that a true hell descent mandates. Mendes will make you peer into the abyss, but not because he is a fetishist or likes violence or depraved sexuality, he will make you peer into the abyss because he has been to hell and returned to the land of the living to share with us its dark lessons.

The City seemed cold this time, but it no longer felt foreign. The carnival atmosphere was like a discarded lover: the terrain was familiar, but its company was unwanted.”

The City

The best to make me care about a relationship under duress… Dan Soule

Dan Soule is the literary James Herbert you did not know you needed in your life. His books take classic horror concepts, such as a mummy or an alien invasion, and transform them into heartfelt, modern, and epic narratives. His greatest talent, however, is his ability to describe relationships—whether a friendship, family relationship, or a romantic entanglement—that you immediately become invested in. Dan Soule understands that “no man is an island” and every individual is bidirectionally entangled in a network of relationships that continuously modify and define them. Balancing Dan Soule’s elegant relationship work, however, is the horror itself, which often threatens to tear the relationship apart, or else to warp it so out of shape that it is no longer recognisable or wholesome. The stakes of Dan Soule’s books are therefore always higher than high because we care so much about a particular bond. Dan Soule uses this tension to grip his readers by the throat. 

Dawn was still a distant shore for all those souls cast adrift on the night.”

Savage

The best to make me afraid of the woods… Steve Stred

I’ve been a fan of Steve Stred for a long time. There are so many things I love about his work, from his brutal, direct prose-craft, to his grounded and believable characters, to his interesting takes on religious and occult themes. However, there is one thing Steve Stred is becoming known for above all others, and with good reason: making people shit-scared of the woods. Many of his stories take place in the forests and wilds, yet the theme never seems worn out. As a competent outdoorsman, Steve Stred knows his way through the wilds, and he uses that knowledge to create terrifyingly believable works of horror that make me never want to see a tree or go for a night-stroll through the forest ever again. I may sound like I am being flippant, here, but we all know it takes consummate skill to imbue a familiar and beloved location with a sense of dread. Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws made an entire generation of people, multiple generations in fact, terrified of the water, and is rightly praised for this incredible feat to this day. Steve Stred is to the forest what Spielberg is to the sea, a maestro who can tap into our deepest fears.

His dreams that night were filled with visions of the trees swaying in the wind.”

The Stranger

The best at world-building… Carlton Mellick III

This might seem like a highly controversial choice. Surely, the title of best world-builder should belong to a classic fantasy author or someone writing alternative history novels. To my mind, however, Carlton Mellick III is simply untouchable when it comes to creating a world that is internally consistent and believable, yet also fantastical and totally surprising. Whether he is exploring the internal anatomy of a fallen kaiju (The Big Meat), a world of modern conveniences and metropolises populated by faeries, elves, and nymphs (Full Metal Octopus), or else a futuristic universe in which the population crisis has been solved by “combining” people (Biomelt), Mellick always delivers. His skill is in making the world-building an integrated part of the storytelling. There are no info-dumps: characters and their actions reveal the world’s mechanics organically. His concepts are outlandish—they don’t call the genre bizarro for nothing—and yet he makes them feel more grounded and realistic than the most pedestrian literary fiction novel. We believe not only that such a place could exist, but that all the people living in it are real too, and are products of this unique (and sometimes disturbing) world. Mellick has so many talents as a writer. He remains one of the only writers capable of making me cry when reading what is ostensibly tentacle porn. Yet, his world-building methodology is worthy of attention for anyone looking to write their own fiction and learn from a master.

At least his wings haven’t been clipped. At least he’s still beautiful, even if his beauty is only allowed to shine when he’s safe behind closed doors.”

Full Metal Octopus

The best to take me on a dark adventure… Rob J. Hayes

Rob J. Hayes is swiftly becoming a favourite author. I bought the first book of his War Eternal series based on the cover alone, but what I found within surprised and delighted me: a compelling, unique fantasy narrative that manages to hit all the fantasy tropes I love so well whilst making them new. The War Eternal is a five-part series (I am currently on the final book) that follows Eskara Helsene, a sourcerer (the spelling is significant) who is imprisoned for being on the losing side of a war. There are so many things to praise about this series: the narrative voice is astounding, the world-building is fascinating and well-handled, and the dialogue between its rogue’s gallery of characters will put a smile on your face and strike to the heart in equal measure. But, what I love most about The War Eternal is the story vivifies a feeling I had not experienced for a long time reading fantasy: that I was on a mythical, dark, but wondrous adventure. Whether we are journeying to the site of a terrible war between magicians, through an underground city of the Djinn, or to the floating city of the Rand, or to the bustling, phantasmagorical cities of Polasia, Rob J. Hayes’s story instills that sense of wonder and adventure that so enchanted me as a child reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on. In my view, this sense of adventure is sorely lacking from so much of fantasy these days, which tends to focus more on battles and politics (for those who enjoy these, however, there is plenty to be found in War Eternal). So, if you’re ready for an adventure, I highly recommend his masterful series.

They had always intended me to be a weapon used against the Terrelan Empire, but what if I was more? What if could be more? What if, instead of being a weapon used by one empire against another, I was a weapon to be used against a God?”

The Lessons Never Learned (Book 2 of The War Eternal)

The best to surprise me… Brian Bowyer

As a student of the five act structure, an editor, and someone who has spent a lifetime working with narrative and fiction, I find that I am rarely surprised these days. This isn’t as bleak a picture as it sounds, as I find a great deal more pleasure in the journey of a story as a result of my studies. For example, if the identity of a killer is going to be revealed, I usually find I’ve worked out who it’s going to be, so instead of focusing on the “surprise” of the reveal, I tend to focus on how the reveal is executed. It’s a different mindset, but yields just as much enjoyment. However, as you've probably gathered, everything I’ve just said gets thrown totally out of the window when we discuss the work of Brian Bowyer. When reading a novel by Brian Bowyer, I can safely say at no point do I ever know what is going to happen in the next paragraph, let alone in the next chapter. This isn’t because his books are full of random and meaningless events. His stories have a dreadful, inexorable logic to them, pulling you towards some moment of revelation or horror—or sometimes even heroism—that is totally unexpected yet hair-raisingly cathartic. Perhaps the greatest example of this is his novel Flesh Rehearsal, where a character on a dark and twisted arc suddenly arrives at a moment of transcendental redemption almost too epic to put into words. Bowyer surprises his readers at every turn—and yet you sense that he is not trying to surprise you. His work isn’t strained, or preposterous, or conceited, simply totally and utterly alive. Be warned, if you want to read Bowyer’s work, you are going to be faced with horror so demented and twisted it will turn the stomach of even a hardened veteran, but the horror is often worth it for the—here’s that word again—surprising glimpses of hope, love, and faith that emerge from the darkness.

They spoke of him on the radio again—he who was currently between names—and he didn’t like it. He turned the radio off. Much better. Now, the only sounds in his car were the rumble of the engine and the music of his tires on the road… He drove out of the hills into the city. With a couple of hours to kill, he decided to look for someone to sacrifice to the ancient gods of death.”

Flesh Rehearsal

The best to make me afraid of having sex… Nikki Noir

Nikki Noir is a truly original voice in dark fiction, combining eroticism, the occult, cosmic horror, and more besides. Her Black Planet series is a powerful coming of age story that plunges us into the depths of human depravity and supernatural evil, a tale of innocence in the face of cataclysmic corruption. One of the most brilliant aspects of her writing is the way she uses the erotic elements of her stories to cloak the dagger she is about to drive into your heart. She lulls us expertly into a false sense of security, titillating us with scenarios that are all too believable perhaps because they mirror the darkest human yearnings, only to then ambush us with scenes so horrifying they seem to have leapt from a John Carpenter movie. Nikki Noir is the sadomasochistic seductress of the written word who has frankly traumatised me into periods of abstinence.

Riley rose from Jordan’s crotch, letting the gore drip from her mouth, still praying to the dark quarters of the universe. Hopefully, the watchers were as satisfied as she was.”

Black Planet

The best to make me feel awe… Clive Barker

Most of the authors on this list are independently published. That’s because I genuinely read more independently published fiction these days. I find indie fiction is where the really interesting writing is happening, where authors are experimenting, taking risks, and painting unique landscapes upon the canvas of the human mind. However, that is not to say I only read independently published fiction, and credit has to be given where credit is due, such as to the great master Clive Barker. For many horror and fantasy writers, Clive Barker is where a love of the genre began, and it’s easy to see why: his prose is angelic, his imagination one of the most fecund to have ever found expression via the pen, and his ability to challenge preconceived notions of desire, morality, and beauty are frankly, to quote the great man himself, “legendary even in hell”. However, if I had to pick one faculty of Barker’s writing which most draws me to him, I would say it is his capacity to instil awe. In our modern world of cynicism, scepticism, and desensitisation, awe is a rare and beautiful thing. Yet, Clive Barker’s stories, whether short or long, almost unfailing evoke it. Barker writes like one who has tasted the magic of the world, fully imbibing it, so that it has become a part of his very being. Reading his work, we can taste a little bit of this magic too.

All his adult life, he’d asked why. Why God? Why meaning? Why love? Now he realized his error. The question was not why; it was why not?”

Everville

Thank you for taking the time to read this (very lengthy) article! I hope you enjoyed reading about these amazing writers, and that it played havoc with your TBR pile. Please do share this so others can discover the amazing work these writers are doing, and maybe find their new favourite author in the process! And lastly, if you have a particular author who offers up a particularly rare gem of experience you would like to suggest, please do leave a comment and let everyone know! 

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Review of Incarnate by Steve Stred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can get your copy of Incarnate here: 

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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

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Review of Father of Lies: The Complete Series by Steve Stred

Father of Lies: The Complete Series is arguably Steve Stred’s magnum opus. This occult, brutally dark window into the lives of those practicing forbidden magic in the shadows is at once harrowing and totally absorbing. Like a bad acid trip, it keeps us enthralled with vision after vision yet desperate to escape its clutches. 

Based on Stred’s real life experience of joining a cult of a dark web, this quadrilogy and its accompanying essays, interviews, and insights into how the series developed is as disturbing as anything Stred has ever written, which is really saying something. In each successive instalment, Stred takes us deeper into the lore and world of Father, the leader of a cult attempting to ascend into the Black Heavens and achieve immortality alongside godlike demonic entities. We follow both the poor misguided souls hoodwinked into the cult’s masochistic belief system, and the deceitful leaders trying to engineer their own deification. Though this book draws together many ideas and themes that are recurrent in Stred’s work, including animal-human hybrids, the threat of wild or remote spaces (particularly forests), and the evils of secret organisations, it also goes one step further into the Crowleyian territory of sex magic. 

Stred both pulls no punches, graphically describing scenes of sexual molestation and rape without a scintilla of restraint or euphemism, yet also uses coded symbolic language to hint at the magical significance of the terrible acts performed by the cult members. For example, the motif of the “horn and hoof” is a clever symbolic cypher for the penis (horn) and vagina (hooves are cleft, and therefore frequently represent the female principle). Interestingly, the dark god Abaddon, whom the cult frequently calls forth, has male genitalia but cloven feet, thus embodying the esoteric concept of the divine androgyne, an entity that combines male and female principles. It is not my intent to bore you by deciphering every image, but I wanted to demonstrate how deep Stred’s work is; like the eponymous figure of the Father of Lies, Stred deceives us by writing in a direct and simple prose-style that belies the real depths lurking beneath the surface of his work. 

Stred treads a knife-edge in more ways than one with this series. He exposes the lies of cult-leaders and how they deceive and hypnotise their followers, yet he also doesn’t deny the possibility that dark magic exists, and convincingly paints scenes of harrowing supernatural agency. Despite the almost relentless savagery of the narrative, there are moments of beauty or warmth breaking through the black night like stars. The friendship between Detective McKay and Professor Bianchi is a surprisingly tender affair that makes it all the harsher when it is wrenched apart. 

There are also scenes of wonder, though they are often coloured with horror too. There are women who glow with supernatural fire to those with true sight. There are acts of surprising (if misguided) courage by the downtrodden. And there are dark gods, who demonstrate their horrifying power in opulent and brain-searing ways. Perhaps the most awesome scene of this nature in the whole series is from the third novella, Sacrament. Blood begins to shower from the sky, and a character strips down to the nude, opening their mouth to swallow the rain. We are told, “His eyes widened as the portal opened, and his mind stepped into the stars.” It is moments like these that push this story into the transcendental sphere. 

Father of Lies is not an easy read. It is not for the faint of heart. And it is more than just the subject matter, which at points will even the hardiest person’s stomach turn, making me say this. It is also the oppressive mood of the narrative that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading. It is the sensation of being watched, of having read something you are not supposed to. Cliche though this is, one cannot help but feel Father of Lies embodies the Nietzschean idiom: Stare too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares back into you. 

Coupled with this, Stred plays with our perceptions of right and wrong, distorting them to egregious heresy. This feat is no better embodied than in the character of Abaddon who, though a demon, is oddly sympathetic, and even remorseful at times. In this way, Stred seems to appropriately echo Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece Doctor Faustus and the demon Mephistopheles, who, though he tempts Faust to damnation, is yet an empathetic and strangely human character we relate to. Stred gives us sympathy for the Devil, often because the humans are so much worse. 

Anyone who knows me or who has been on one of my writing courses will be aware that I normally don’t go for bleak. I prefer eucatastrophe, redemption, and bittersweet. None of those are to be found in Stred’s work. Or if they are, it is in a twisted way. However, Stred does what he does so well, he makes an exception of my rule. There are so many wonderful indie authors in the horror field, many of whom I adore, but Stred has perhaps earned his place quite rightfully as the King of Horror, if only for his sheer courage to venture into the blackest depths where other writers fear to tread. 

You can purchase the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Review of The Navajo Nightmare by Steve Stred & David Sodergren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CONNECTING THREAT AND CHARACTER: THE SECRETS OF COMPELLING STORY

 

The other day, I finished reading a book called Cold Storage by legendary screenwriter David Koepp, the man behind the original Jurassic Park, among other significant screenplays. It was a good book, but not a great one, and that got me thinking about why, because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what was out of place with the narrative, or if indeed anything was out of place at all and it wasn’t simply a genre mismatch with me. Cold Storage was certainly more thriller than my usual fare.

To briefly summarise: Cold Storage is about a new genus of fungus, cordyceps novus, a mutating semi-intelligent infection that can take over human bodies the way ophiocordyceps unilateralis can turn ants into “zombies” that harbour fungus-spreading spores. The threat is very real here, and following a few devastating scenes at the start of the novel expertly rendered by Koepp in truly cinematic fashion, we believe just how bad things could get if cordyceps novus got into the wider populace. There is even a whiff of zombie-apocalypse here, albeit subtly toned down; think more The Last Of Us or The Girl With All The Gifts than let’s say, 28 Days Later.

But cool as it was, I didn’t find myself caring very much about it, despite how well researched and inventively conceived cordyceps novus was. The other problem was that I didn’t care much about the characters either, and that really bugged me, because objectively I could say the dialogue was pretty good. Koepp’s screenplay background was showing its worth here, and the characters each had interesting hooks in their backstories that made me want to know more. I couldn’t understand why solidly developed characters and an interesting threat weren’t working in combination, and then of course it became clear. The problem was, the threat and the characters did not meaningfully connect. The characters were intriguing, but they were not characters whom I felt were unique to the story. In other words, these characters could have inhabited any story. I didn’t understand why they were inhabiting this one.

I think to understand this better, we have to look at examples of where this worked well. One recent novel that immediately springs to mind is Dan Soule’s Neolithica. Soule does a brilliant job of connecting the threat, that of an ancient bog body unearthed in the north of England which then comes back to necromantic un-life, with the main through-line of the protagonist Mirin. Mirin has just lost her husband, and is terrified of losing her child, Oran, as well. The bog-body or mummy is also a young boy, though he is warped by his interment in the earth and the dark things that happened to him before he was mummified. The mummy is actually referred to as “the boy” throughout the story. We can immediately see the parallels with Mirin’s fears and that “the boy” almost represents a Freudian return of the repressed. Mirin’s fears of a dead child are embodied in the literal dead child that now comes to ravage her hometown. Because the threat and character through-line connect so strongly, the story takes on a profound and powerful life. We understand why Mirin is the only person who can resolve this problem, why she has been “chosen” to face this ordeal. This is as much about her psychological battle as any supernatural one, and the story is all the stronger as a result.

Steve Stred similarly does a brilliant job of this in his horror novel The Stranger. The main character, Malcolm, is a racist, with an ingrained hatred for Native Americans. However, he and his family end up haunted by a supernatural being known only as The Stranger. This horrifying entity embodies the protagonist’s fear of the “other” perfectly, yet ironically The Stranger is in fact a god and one with the land he protects. It’s the human beings that are the unwelcome “foreigners” or “strangers” to its creation, a commentary on how Americans, and indeed many Western peoples, are all, in some way, strangers to their own land; violent interlopers, if you will.

We might also look to Christa Wojciechowski’s genius Sick trilogy to see how threat connects with character. In Sick book one, Susan tries desperately to keep her terribly ill husband, John, well, even resorting to desperate criminal activity to obtain painkillers and other medications, but his sickness is constant and overwhelming. On the surface, sickness itself seems to be the threat, but look a little deeper, and we begin to understand that perhaps Susan needs John to be ill as much as he needs her to look after him, and the two are in a parasitic relationship that is self-reinforcing. The real threat is not sickness, but getting better.

To look to a more classical example, Homer’s Iliad centres around the myopic, arrogant, selfish, narcissistic, brutal Achilles. The threat in the narrative is Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojans and perhaps the only combatant on their side who can match Achilles at arms. Hector is a brilliant threat, because he connects with Achilles on so many levels. The two are mirrors of each other. Both are princes. Both are unwilling participants in the war. Hector only fights because he feels familial obligation to defend his brother Paris (though he daily advises Paris to give up Helen, whom he stole in the first place, and therefore save thousands of lives). Achilles is refusing to fight because he fell in love with a Trojan woman, Briseis. But even before then, he only came along to the war because of the false promises of Odysseus, so was never fully committed to the cause anyhow. Both men have two key people they are passionately devoted to. In Achilles’ case, the young boy Patroklus, his best friend and lover, and Briseis, his other Trojan lover. In Hector’s case, his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax.

Yet the two are not only mirrors but polar opposites. Achilles is thuggish and dishonourable, defiling corpses and throwing tantrums. Hector is noble and spares the defenceless. Achilles’ two “loves” are both sexual in nature (even if we read Patroklus in the crustiest classics professor way as a “best friend” and not homosexual lover, there is still a scene where he and Achilles both share women in the same bed together – so the relationship is sexual, whether or not the two themselves share intercourse). Hector’s loves are familial, however: son and wife.

But perhaps most importantly, Achilles is a demigod, born of Thetis, the Nymph. Hector is mortal. In this way, Hector almost represents Achilles’ own fears of mortality, the fragility of life. Achilles believes himself invulnerable, but he has also been told by Thetis that he will die young if he goes to war. The story of Homer’s Iliad, without the context of other epics in the Trojan saga, is of a man being humanised by confronting death. In the end, after Achilles kills Hector and defiles his corpse for days on end, he finally is moved to tears by the grief of Old Priam, Hector’s father and Lord of Troy. He comes to understand that his own sense of loss for Patroklus is shared by others, who are suffering and have also lost love ones, and indeed, Achilles himself has caused much of this suffering. He returns Hector’s body to Priam, and the gods work a miracle whereby Achilles’ cretinous defacing of Hector’s corpse is undone, so that the hero can be given a proper funeral. It’s perhaps Achilles’ first noble and empathetic act.

Of course, it’s also possible to read The Iliad the other way. Or rather, from the Trojan perspective. Hector is the noble hero, and Achilles is the “threat” or “monster” that waits for him. Achilles represents Hector’s own repressed emotions: rage and sexuality, all of which have been subsumed by endless duty to his father, to his brother, and to Troy. Such deep readings, some might even say falsely anachronistic in their use of psychology to analyse a text that predates Freud by nearly 2,500 years, are only possible because of the way Homer connects the threat and his character.

So, as writers, we need to learn from this. If we want to create meaningful stories, we have to make sure that our characters inhabit a tale that was made specifically for them. The threat has to be not only relevant to the characters or protagonist, but part of them. The threat is self-generated. We each create the horror that we must one day face. In that way, perhaps the most archetypal example of this I can give is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What monster has your protagonist birthed, and how does it return to dog their steps?

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Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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