DARK MINDS – including an original story by GARY McMAHON

I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. 

And it is of  a paperback book that I have just purchased. It is entitled DARK MINDS: including an original story by GARY McMAHON on front cover and on spine of book.

DARK MINDS: An Anthology of Dark Fiction on title page inside the book.

Published by the Dark Minds Press 2011.

There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or years.

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/

Authors: Gary McMahon, Benedict J. Jones, Stephen Bacon, Ross Warren (and the book’s editor), Shaun Hammell, Anthony Watson, Colin Hersh, Jason Whittle, Colin Drewery, Joe Mynhardt, Clayton Stealback, Carole Johnstone. Cover image: Vincent Chong. Interior Artwork: Will Jaques.

Dark Minds Anthology

The Ghost of Rain – Gary McMahon

“…to hear it was to draw closer to something numinous…”

This story is classic McMahon, so utterly McMahon in fact I feel I almost hold his soul in my hand.  One can never complain about a McMahon story. This one deals with a sound-file download that then, via an MP3 player, permeates and corrodes-in-backtrail the life-trodden protagonist with a spiritual tinnitus (my words not the book’s).  Essential reading for the ever-growing number of McMahonites, threatening to swarm in torrents “…raging at the walls...” (22 Mar 11)

Berlin Sushi – Benedict J. Jones

“…victorious soldiers always want the same things.”

A brief but powerfully written story about the shocking brutality of war in post-victory peace, told from the point of view of a 15 year old girl Berliner.  A “feld grau” mezzotint of 1945 subsumed by a visualised carnal-ibal aftermath … as nations as well as men fail to shuffle off their meat-coloured lusts…. (22 Mar 11 – two hours later)

[As an aside – although, so far, there have been no obvious typos, I feel the book’s paragraph/tab and line-spacing aspects have not been perfect.]

The House of Constant Shadow – Stephen Bacon

“He also raised the index finger, creating an obscene V, and waved that in front of her face, ‘ – bacon and eggs.’ “

A football stadium here, almost gratuitously, acts as an intangible metaphor – as the [for me, Cern Zoo image] lion did in the previous story.  This is a very sad story. One where human beings (like animals in a random zoo) wreak pleasure and vengeance by turns, susceptible to all the mishaps of life – the temptations, the comparisons, the crude bodily outlets, bodily misalignments, all of which are so inextricably mixed with a desperate need for love as well as escapism – in an English terraced ‘inner-city’ scenario where Skegness is the only break-point. This is not a Horror Story. It is an effective human story, and that means it is also a horror story beyond any genre. (22 Mar 11 – another 4 hours later) 

The Rat Catcher’s Apprentice – Ross Warren

This story is in the generally excellent “stories told by gentlemen around a log fire in an olde worlde Gentleman’s Club during a storm” tradition – vaguely reminiscent within this tradition but otherwise different to Charles Black’s story The Coughing Coffin with, in The Rat Catcher’s Apprentice, a character called Charles and another with the surname Black. Despite, I felt, some infelicities of style, there is much to admire of the gory and strange in the Warren where the Rat Catcher shows off his métier. A rumbustious shape-shifting tale corseted in civilised garb, with a slightly oblique or obvious ending. The Theatre of the Absurd mixed with the Theatre of Grand Guignol, all watched from the Vault of Evil. Despite a few shortcomings, I enjoyed its panache. (22 Mar 11 – another 4 hours later)

The Anchorite’s Daughter – Shaun Hammell

The pungent rot of dead wood and understory would surround him like a warm breast,”

It’s not often that I encounter a writer whose name is new to me and, immediately, vow to watch out for more work by that author. This story – let me be frank – is a major reading experience, a substantial, almost collage-like, journey through  some of the strongest ‘humanity’ horror (foreshadowed by the Bacon story) that I think I have ever read. It blends extremes like Mike Philbin and/or Bizarro with styles of literary figures like Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell, John Updike….  The language is stunning in many ways and conveys a nightmare or two that will haunt and sicken and nag at the strongest mind-stomachs of seasoned readers in all parts of the Horror genre world.  A new “feld grau” mezzotint thrown into the mezzanine of your mind like “jagged anarchal glass” to cause many gradual-merging colours of emotion to spill out all over you. (It must have been quite a nightmare, too, to prepare this text for publication and I compliment the presentation of it, despite a few accidental infelicities that I feel were not noticed by the editor.) (23 Mar 11)

Gehenna – Anthony Watson

“Men fall to the ground, some gently, as if simply lying down to sleep, others jerking violently…”

They keep coming. This is an impressively accomplished and memorable vision of Passchendaele, the trenches, the deaths seen from the Wilfred-Owenesque vantage point of those dying – but, above all, it fulfils a worthy goal of Horror Literature, here another ‘humanity’ horror in perfect metaphor provided by history, i.e. with the language of strong images, it conveys a Fable (as Berlin Sushi also conveys a Fable from another 20th century War), conveys it aptly as it does for us when the news today is full of Gaddafery and human shields etc.: a Fable obliquely akin to the Swiftian one in  ‘A Modest Proposal‘ where Swift recommends the Irish should eat their babies to attack the Famine problem from both ends of its evil. “Man’s inhumanity to man provides our succour.” (23 Mar 11 – ninety minutes later)

Last Laugh – Colin Hersh

“Life isn’t unfair, it’s just life. It is what it is.”

Cumulatively within the context of this book so far, this story possibly represents the noumenon that is humanity horror fiction (a new genre?). It is a fiction-enabled monologue that would otherwise have been impossible, i.e a monologue by a stroke-stricken grandfather who has lived his life (including yet another different 20th Century War), who cannot communicate or move, peed off (in more ways than one) by the way his family treat him: it is so compelling I felt I was, am him (especially as my turn is nearer in time than many other people reading this story, I guess!). As in the previous story, it is a poignant visualisation of seeing death coming while you are still conscious but helpless… [I had my own visualisation just a few days ago].  He is left too long in the sun. I hoped that the “cloud brothers“, even “asocial clouds“, from the Hammell story, or the rain from McMahon’s, would rescue him…  However, I’m not sure about the ending of this story (that I shall not impart). It may work, it may not. I am in two minds. I’d be interested to hear other readers’ views on this specific point.  Maybe it was the author’s own ‘last laugh’ to fool or foil my expectations of another (better?) ending? (23 Mar 11 – another hour later)

The World Shall Know – Jason Whittle

“They should be vigilant in ridding the world of the Jew, and the talking ape, and the sodomite,”

Another Fable in the mould of ‘A Modest Proposal’: a SFtopia where ‘Scriptures’ and/or a previous plague involve anyone whose temperature exceeds 103 degrees being decapitated.  A world of cynical self-satisfaction – but a world containing those who struggle to transcend the unwelcome Alternateness of an Alternate World and its Fantasy.  And the only way to transcend such Fantasy is perhaps ironically by means of Horror.  I am continually impressed by the standard of the stories in this Small Press Horror publication where its stories – many of the authors of which I’ve never heard of before – are generally exceeding (by far!) all my literary as well as Horror genre hopes when first approaching this book. This story included.  Again, though, I’m not sure of its ending. (23 Mar 11 – another 3 hours later)

Blood Loss – Colin Drewery

A story of a ruthless debt collector in a gangland bordering, I guess, on the type of ambiance in the English streets portrayed in the Bacon story, also conveying a vision of encroaching death by the one dying, as in some of the other stories above. But here with a twist intrinsic to the Horror genre. This story has a style of language and plot that is not normally to my personal taste, so it was good to find it a workmanlike, sufficiently enjoyable page-turner – leaving me intriguingly with an abiding intangible image or metaphor (to compare with the lion and football stadium earlier): a floating “orange orb”… (23 Mar 11 – another 90 minutes later)

Vengeance of Hades – Joe Mynhardt

“A cold, rotten grip seized him, its blunt teeth tearing into his neck.”

A knifegun-gory companion-story to the previous one, and here another classic Horror leitmotif eventually takes centre stage – contributing, from yet another angle, towards this book’s ever-growing gestalt of the death process as seen by the dying.  Humanity as Horror, in people’s actions and reactions to their own humanity and its loss.  Here in a workmanlike and eventually poignant style. I’m again in two minds. Two dark minds. [And one or two typos.] (24 Mar 11)

Under a Setting Sun – Clayton Stealback

“‘Eluses are you here?’ he whispered.

‘Yes, I am,’ hissed Des Lewis (with “enormous face“). In many ways, this substantive text is an outrageous vision, one with crude, wild, sometimes gauche, yet admirable, enthusiasm for Horror clichés, yet the whole story definitely embodies tangible evil amid a Hellish, Boschian, Lovecraftian vision that follows an exorcism gone wrong.  It works for me.  It works for this book. It works within this book and this book’s now identified gestalt eschatology. In other ways, it is a companion to the Hammell story, i.e. two points-of-view protagonists in collage or synergy and a configuration of a dual soul (two dark minds) culminating in the Stealback with an image that would work for both stories: “Hanging above the church, a wild vortex had opened up, spinning colours of the most vivid purples and reds around its circumference.”  [‘Vivid purples’ contrasting with my own stoic, sullen ones?] “Never converse with a demon; that was one of the golden rules.” Wow! (24 Mar 11 – four hours later)

Bury the Truth – Carole Johnstone

“We are all of us afraid of death. It is the human condition.”

Yet, the Hersh would have us know that “Life isn’t unfair, it’s just life. It is what it is.”  [And in both the Hersh and the Johnstone there is someone with a catheter…]  Those two quotes are important to this book. In fact the Johnstone – something I could never have predicted till I just finished reading it a few minutes ago – is the genuinely perfect coda to this book’s gestalt.  I am astonished. But in the last two years or so I have become a fan of Carole Johnstone’s fiction, so I already expected something special with this story. And it is. But it is even more special thanks to someone’s skills in ‘building’ this book, whether the result was intentional or not.  An imperfect book (I wouldn’t have wanted it perfect). It is perfect for what it is, for what it tries to be in all innocence. And the Johnstone is your vision of what your own death process is like as a delivery, when the mid-wife is yourself (my words, not Johnstone’s), with insidious things like Their or Them or They — all in upper case like God with His ‘He’ and ‘Him’ — waiting to share your witnessing of your own death in and out of character.  A League or Company of those in the Dantean know… The Johnstone is extremely frightening, yet fulfilling, as a separate story. I need say no more, I feel. Other, perhaps, than that there was a “blank television screen” in the Stealback, and when I finally myself steal back from life to death I expect first to experience the static, then the hiss of McMahon’s rain. (24 Mar 11 – another hour later)



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10 responses to “DARK MINDS – including an original story by GARY McMAHON

  1. Pingback: My Real-time Reviews of Books by Other Writers | DF Lewis's Real-Time Reviews

  2. And in the Stealback: “…their orange-yellow glow looked to be poisoning the very air around them.”
    Cf: the Drewery’s floating “orange orb”

  3. McMahon’s Rain is a symbol for the death process as witnessed by those dying. When does the witnessing cease and the nothingness begin, though?

  4. Thank you for an amazing, and thought-provoking review of our book. Death as seen through the eyes of the dying does seem to be a motif throughout and one that – I have to admit – came as a surprise. Sometimes you have to step outside to see the bigger picture I guess. Interestingly, the two stories set during wars (my own and Ben’s) have animals wandering through them briefly, dragging metaphors behind them…

  5. Hammell’s broom is another of those intangible metaphors peppering this book…
    This book has really made me think!

  6. Have you noticed that those last two comments are timed at exactly the same moment? In other words, mine was not intended as a reply to Anthony Watson’s! And thanks, Anthony. It was a great read and still nags at me. 🙂

  7. And having now checked – yes, I should have drawn a parallel indeed between the lion in ‘Berlin Sushi’ and the horse in ‘Gehenna’. As time passes, these two stories become, even more, a very powerful pair of war stories. Classics.

  8. Shaun Hammel

    Thanks for the excellent review.

  9. colin

    Thanks for the great review. I’m sorry you didn’t care for the ending. I can’t tell you why I chose to go the way I did on that other than the characters involved seemed do deserve it. I should have given them less concern and catered more to the reader though. Oh well. Lessons learned and all that…

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