Tag Archives: Spectral Press

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

Stephen Volk’s Whitstable — A Bouquet To Hammer’s Hero

I’ve reviewed Spectral Press chapbook titles in the past, but Stephen Volk’s novella Whitstable is the first longer work the press has published.  Volk — who’s known for everything from the early ‘90s BBC chiller Ghostwatch to the co-written screenplay for the excellent film The Awakening to the engaging recent novella Vardoger (reviewed here) to his ongoing column in Black Static magazine — here delivers a tale that’s a loving tribute to famed horror actor Peter Cushing.

The story is set in 1971, when Cushing, staggered by the recent death of his much-loved wife, Helen, has become a depressed recluse. While on a rare, melancholy walk, he encounters a boy, Carl, who recognizes Cushing from his role as Dr. Van Helsing, conqueror of Dracula, and beseeches him for help in defeating a real-life monster in Carl’s own house: his mother’s boyfriend, one Les Gledhill.  The following passage summarizes Carl’s desperate plea:

“What’s movies got to do with it?” The abruptness was nothing short of accusatory. “I’m talking about here and now and you’re the vampire hunter and you need to help me.”

Although Cushing initially believes the boy is simply demonizing a man who can never measure up to his real father, he soon begins to suspect there’s something real, and dark, at the root of Carl’s fears.  As he comes to know more about Les Gledhill, a definite picture begins to form, as Cushing reflects here:

He knew many films where the house outside town harboured inconceivable evil, and had starred in quite a few where the villagers marched up to it demanding justice or revenge, but in this picture fear has the upper hand. The family is powerful. The hero, weak. The community knows how old Mr Olderberry “can’t keep his eyes off children”, but the townsfolk choose to keep their heads firmly in the sand. Even the police think it must be the girl’s own fault.

The child’s own fault.

Once the true nature of the situation becomes apparent to Cushing, he resolves to do something about it, somehow, even though he is a frail, damaged man who by his own admission looks easily ten years older than his age of 57.  Gledhill, meanwhile, is gradually revealed to be a truly nasty piece of work, more vile than any of the creatures Cushing has faced in films.

As one of Cushing’s directors says to him, rather pompously:

“You see, Peter, real evil is not so easy to spot in real life … In real life, evil people look like you and me. We pass them in the street.”

Although the crimes at the heart of Whitstable are decidedly ugly, this novella is, as horror fiction goes, quiet and gentle.  It’s a beautiful melding of fact and fiction, clearly told from the heart, but it does move at a leisurely pace, and is likely to be of most interest to fans of Hammer and aficionados of quiet horror, as epitomized back in the day by Charles Grant’s Shadows series.

The 100-copy hardcover edition of Whitstable is already sold out, but the paperback and e-book versions are still available.


Aquatic Views — Alison Littlewood’s Eyes of Water

Spectral Press issues short-run chapbooks on a quarterly schedule, and their latest offering comes courtesy of Alison Littlewood, whose debut novel A Cold Season garnered quite a bit of attention when it appeared earlier this year. Her chapbook, entitled Eyes of Water, is likewise worthy of acclaim — but it’s already sold out from the publisher, so you’ll have to check with a specialty dealer or explore the secondary market if you hope to snag a copy.

Like Michael McBride’s creepy novella “Xibalba” from his collection Quiet, Keeps to Himself (reviewed here), Littlewood’s story is situated on the Yucatan peninsula and features cenotés — deep natural pits or sinkholes that expose the groundwater below — and vast underwater cave systems.

Protagonist Alex receives a tearful call from Kath, the sister of his friend Rick, a diver extraordinaire and general thrill-seeker who has apparently pushed his luck too far and is lying dead in a Mexican morgue. Alex arrives and finds Rick’s body impossibly to identify, due to extreme facial injuries, which the authorities say were caused by strong tides pulling him against the cave walls… but the rest of his body is strangely unblemished. When Alex thinks he sees Rick one night, just beyond the reaches of the campfire light, things start to get really interesting.

Alex is unable to resist the temptation to explore the caves where Rick died, although once he’s entered their depths, he has some second thoughts, to say the least, reflecting on the many people who died there in order to fulfill Mayan superstitions:

“For a moment I thought of sacrifices thrown into the cave, the way they must have watched that same circle of light until they could no longer tread water and sank into the dark. This time, when I caught my breath, it came with a gasp. No. Soon I could swim back to the chair and they would lift me out. I would feel the sun on my face.”

As with McBride’s story, the caves prove to be a suitably creepy setting, especially when Alex re-enters the caves on his own and goes far deeper into the system, leading to an unexpected confrontation and to more thoughts about sacrifices:

“I thought about how we offered ourselves, wondered if, after all, it was some need we had, to throw ourselves before some idea or thing. Maybe, sooner or later, all of us had something or someone waiting to collect. If so, maybe it wasn’t so bad; better than being trapped in the endless dark, unable to go forward, unable to go back.”

Through it all, Littlewood does an excellent job of developing both atmosphere and characters, making Eyes of Water a fast and highly-engaging read. Track down a copy if you can.