Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Review: Knock Knock by S.P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski's novel Knock Knock was first published a few years back, and introduces the unsuspecting reader to Skillute, a failed logging town in Washington, where "... few events rose in significance above the routine of work, Sunday worship, and the weekend six-pack." It soon becomes apparent, however, that an undercurrent of evil exists just beneath the surface.

Miskowski is a skilled writer, and she intertwines the past and present with ease. The reader is drawn in relentlessly, ever more eager to find out how the actions of the three young girls during the 1960s can cast such a long shadow over the present-day. The local superstition of "Miss Knocks" that they unearth rings true in such a bleak setting; and, when the shocks come, they are very effective.

This is a story steeped in atmosphere, from the dark woods surrounding Skillute to the dilapidated Misty Mart local store. All the characters are well observed and darkly believable. The tension, which builds steadily throughout, is aided by the structure Miskowski uses; each chapter is told from a particular perspective, which is striking and makes the book stand out. Myriad pathways are formed, rich detail is revealed, and connections are made at different stages of the narrative.

I must admit I found it difficult to put this book down – I read Knock Knock in a couple of sittings, and I'm about to follow it up with Delphine Dodd, the next in the Skillute cycle. This kind of tale lends itself perfectly to a follow-up, and I'm pleased that Miskowsky has since added two more novellas, Astoria and, more recently, In The Light.

Lovers of intelligent, literary horror will appreciate Knock Knock as a worthy addition to a fine tradition, and it also manages to brings its own twist to the genre. It is lovingly-crafted and tense to the last page. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

12 of the best reads of 2014

I've been reading and (trying to) write a lot recently, but not blogging much. So, to put that to rights at least for the moment, here is a list and summary of some books I would recommend.

Elizabeth Bowen is perhaps one of the best short story writers in the English language; and
certainly one of the most prolific. I have been working my way through this collection of 79 of
her tales for some time, and enjoying every minute. Her stories are finely-wrought and multi-layered.
Everyone who reads or writes short stories should be familiar with her work. Blog post soon.
Barbera Roden's NORTHWEST PASSAGES has been one of my finds of the year. These are beautifully
written, literary tales of restrained strangeness. Their settings are varied, from polar exploration to
abandoned amusement parks, Victorian households, a Vancouver hotel, a cabin in the woods...
Roden's imagination runs riot, and her flair for creating atmosphere means the reader
will not forget these stories in a hurry! Review soon. Available here.
Superb collection by the recently deceased Joel Lane. I find his work to be relentlessly downbeat,
but quite compellingly so, and full of original ideas and flair. He was adept at the creation of
an alternative world, where nothing is quite as it seems. Immerse yourself in these
monochrome tales of conflict and misunderstanding. Available here.
I have recently bought several of Dennis Etchison's collections that have been made
available as e-books. In THE BLOOD KISS, there is a feast of plenty. Some of the
tales within made me sit back and say, "wow, I wish I could write like that!"
are all superb, and essential reading. (Although I must admit I was at first put off by the
covers used for Etchison's collections. The stories are more subtle than they look).
Blog post and reviews coming up soon. Available here.
My good friend Mark Fuller-Dillon suggested I read some of William Sansom's short stories, and I'm
very thankful he did. This is the only easily-available collection of his I could find, and it's a little
uneven. Not all of the stories are suspenseful; some seem like nothing more than snippets of post-war
life in London; but no less intriguing for all that. Of course, this collection includes THE VERTICAL LADDER,
which is nail-bitingly good – and worth the price of admission alone! Available here.
I love S.P. Miskowski's writing; and this is a tightly written novella which tells a compelling story...
however, I'm now reading the previous installments of the Skillute Cycle (KNOCK KNOCK,
DELPHINE DODD and ASTORIA), so I will wait until I understand how they all fit
together before reviewing. Great reading. Available here.
HAIR SIDE, FLESH SIDE by Helen Marshall is an intriguing collection of beautifully-realised
literary strangeness, consisting in a world of its own making. Helen Marshall's debut collection
is tender, dark, surreal and unforgettable. Review soon. Available here.
I love this collection. I had never previously heard of William Croft Dickinson, but having read DARK
ENCOUNTERS, I can see why it has been referred to as 'Ghost Stories of a Scottish Antiquary'.
These are ghostly tales of antiquarians, historians, arch├Žologists, and scientists, in a style similar to
M.R. James. Perfect for those cold winter evenings in front of the fire! Available here.

This is a strange one. SEELING NIGHT; A PSYCHOMANTEUM is a deeply flawed book, but nonetheless
a fascinating read. Yes, it needs decent formatting and editing (at least in the e-book version I have), but
there was something about the linked stories which kept me hooked. The main character is well-wrought,
and some of the scenes have stuck in my head. If something left-field appeals, read it with an open mind! Available here.
BEFORE AND AFTERLIVES by Christopher Barzak is a loosely intertwined collection of weird
tales set in a small American town. Eerie, thought-provoking and dark; well worth a read. Available here.
Supremely weird, creepy stories from Michelle Kilmer. LAST NIGHT WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING
is one of those books that makes you shake your head and wonder at the writer's imagination.
Nicely illustrated, too. Available here.
A great collection of the weird by Susie Moloney. THINGS WITHERED was one of those books I had
wanted to read for some time, and then thoroughly enjoyed. These are engrossing tales of the unusual behind
the fa├žade of everyday life; of the strangeness which is glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Available here.

As usual, I will do my best to review as many of these books as I can.... but there is never enough time in the day. In the meantime, I'm pushing on with the writing. Happy reading to you!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Anthologies and excuses

I must apologise for not creating any blog entries for some time. I've been preoccupied with writing, looking after kids and house renovations. However, there are several items of good news... the first is that the writing is going well. The second is that a short story of mine has been included in an anthology. The third is that a short story of mine has been included in an anthology!

TURNING THE CUP, a ghost story concerning tasseography, is appearing in HAUNTED, published by Boo Books and available now for pre-order here. Just in time for Hallow'een!

Also, my short story STRIKE THREE will be appearing in the Dark Lane Anthology Volume One, published in conjunction with Noodle Doodle Publications, coming up later in the year.

I'm also well ahead with a number of other short stories, one about a strange kind of photography, one about a weird workplace, one about a rip tide on a beach which is not what it seems... And more. These may or may not be destined for a 'themed' collection some time next year.

Anyway, that's it from me for now. I'll post updates about how things are progressing.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Review: The Brittle Birds, by Anthony Cowin

Mathieu is haunted by a pivotal incident from his youth, in which his brother Dominic pushed him into a stream. While retrieving his catapult from the icy water beneath a bridge, he sustained some injuries which changed his life. But were those injuries caused by the legendary Hohokw bird, which supposedly lived under the arches of the bridge? The Brittle Birds is a short horror story by Anthony Cowin, published by Perpetual Motion Publishing. It's a story of the lasting effects of childhood trauma, and the coping mechanisms of the brothers as they grow older and realise there can be no escape from the past.


The brittle birds of the title gradually infiltrate Mathieu's life. He sees them everywhere, even under a microscope in a "chilly chemistry lab" when he's at school. Eventually he becomes convinced that they threaten his very existence, and that of those all around him. It seems that this obsession will be his undoing, yet the reader hopes against hope. This is a very well written short story; Cowin successfully builds tension, using the metaphor of the unearthly birds as harbingers of doom. In just the right amount of well-chosen words he conjures a tale which is both deceptively simple yet more than the sum of its parts, and its assured prose lends it atmosphere in spades. Each reader will make something different of this intriguing story, and its ambiguous, open ending will leave you deep in thought.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The ghost of Crookhaven Lighthouse

A while back we took a couple of weeks' break, down the NSW coast at Currarong. Unfortunately, I managed to get rather ill while down there (pneumonia caught from my daughter, but that's another story...) However, as I recovered, we went on a few walks. One such foray was to Culburra Beach, a small, rather remote village. From there we walked north, towards Crookhaven Heads, past the entrance to the Shoalhaven river. In winter, this is a wild, wet and windy place. We didn't see anyone else on this walk, apart from a couple of sea fishermen way out on the rocks off the heads.

The track from Culburra Beach to Crookhaven Heads is rough and remote
We followed the track into the headland, across increasingly rough ground. Eventually we climbed between trees, and we were intrigued to spot a sign telling us there was a lighthouse further along. It could be said we were in the middle of nowhere by then (or perhaps I should say "the back of beyond?") so we were fascinated to encounter a clearing, in the middle of which stood the Crookhaven Lighthouse.

Or perhaps I should say, the ghost of what once was the Crookhaven Lighthouse. I've since found out that it was first built as a wooden structure in 1882, then demolished in 1904 when the current building was commissioned. It is now in a dilapidated state, severely vandalised. It's a shame, as in Australia lighthouses are generally restored and looked after well; however, due to its remote location, Crookhaven Lighthouse has always been vulnerable. It was fully renovated in the 1990s, apparently, but you'd never guess. Without an on-going plan for upkeep, it quickly deteriorated once more. All the glass and the reflectors have been broken or removed. Inside, there is access to the miniscule living quarters, but not to the spiral stairs which still wind up the tower.

We noticed an oppressive atmosphere about the place, no doubt partly due to it being such a dreary and overcast afternoon. In the past, the headland was cleared regularly, allowing the light to shine out across the sea; but in recent years the scrub has been allowed to grow unrestrained, surrounding the lighthouse from all sides. In the 1990s, a clearing was established around the building itself, but nonetheless the impression the visitor gets today is that of isolation and decay. Strangely, the sea, so nearby and so loud on that occasion, could not be heard from around the lighthouse at all.

We left the lighthouse and followed the track further along, into the trees and down the other side of the promontory. There was a lookout there, from which we enjoyed a spectacular view. It was clear why a lighthouse was needed in that area. We could see basalt ridges spreading out threateningly just below the surface of the water, for a very long way – who knows what hazards are hidden from the seafarer's view? Once we'd made our way back up to the lighthouse, it had started to rain, so we barely said goodbye to the sad old building as we hurried back towards Culburra. Perhaps one day soon Crookhaven Lighthouse will be restored and looked after properly. I'm sure it could become a tourist attraction and bring some benefit to the area. Right now, however, it's just a ghost of its former self.

There's an expansive view of the treacherous coastline from the lookout
The lighthouse in its original state, 1908

Friday, 15 August 2014

Review; The House of Three, by Lily Childs

32 Cherry Street has come up for sale, deceased estate; and Sarah is happy to be able to purchase what once was her childhood home. However, is she prepared for the memories it will bring back, or the spirits that may be released? The House of Three is a stand-alone short story from Lily Childs. It is a ghost story in the traditional sense, yet in a modern, suburban setting.


Sarah and her brother Johnny go to view the Victorian terraced property, which they had not seen for twenty years. As they explore the dilapidated house, they realise that absolutely nothing has changed in all that time; and the familiar smell of roses forces their minds back all those years. Once the house belongs to her, she persuades Johnny to return, and they explore it together... and that's when the voices start. "They seemed to want to sooth her, as they did for the year before she was forced from her childhood home – a ten-year-old, an orphan."

Once they discover from the local paper how the house's most recent occupant died, their doubts begin, both about the house, and also about their own childhood memories. Their differing fortunes since adoption force them to reassess their lives. Once they have made a grim discovery, in a bedroom which was strictly off-limits to them as children, they understand that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Are their fears imaginary, or are they forming something more tangible – something with the power to threaten their very existence?

Childs has created an intriguing scenario here, with authentically flawed characters who are unable to escape the power of their shared past. The House of Three is a short but satisfying read with a powerful ending. Perfect late night reading for lovers of a good ghost story!

Review; Drive, by Mark West

I didn't mean to sit up late in order to finish Drive, the new novella from Mark West, published by Pendragon Press. I really didn't. However, once I started to read, I found it difficult to stop. It's not often I get caught up in the moment with a book; usually I get drawn in slowly, soaking up the atmosphere. Yet here I was, quite unable to put the thing down, compelled to find out what happens next.

West's writing style, which I am familiar with from several excellent short stories (The Bureau of Lost Children springs to mind, from Ill At Ease 2 which I reviewed here) is perfect for this style of breathless adventure. David finds himself in the nondescript urban sprawl of Gaffney, attending a course for his work. He offers Natasha a lift back to her flat, and becomes haplessly embroiled in a night of pursuit, escalating violence and terror. Although Drive is not a supernatural tale, the setting of a deserted town in the early hours of a weeknight works well enough to suggest dark stories of the past, such as Don't Get Lost by Tanith Lee. The protagonists become drawn deeper into a furious chase through the sodium-lit streets, trying to escape from a mysterious and threatening Audi.

"The Audi pulled up alongside and David glanced over. The driver was looking straight ahead, his hood pulled up so that all could be seen was the tip of his nose and his pursed lips. There was a person in the back, also wearing his hood, slumped low and almost out of sight".

A sense of impending confrontation pushes things along at breakneck pace, and by the time the satisfying conclusion arrived, I had to read something a little more relaxing before going to sleep... Drive is a great tale, atmospheric and exciting. Perhaps this could be the first of a series? Recommended for all lovers of a high-octane read!