Tag Archives: Stephen Volk

Anatomy Lessons with Stephen Volk’s Monsters in the Heart

volkMonstersI’ve reviewed a couple titles by Stephen Volk in the past (here and here), and really enjoyed those books, as well as his regular column in Black Static magazine.  His latest collection, Monsters in the Heart, from Gray Friar Press, is a substantial one, reprinting 13 tales originally published between 2006 and 2012, plus two originals.

The book certainly leads from strength, as the top-of-the-order story, “After the Ape” is a true standout, putting an interesting spin on the story of King Kong and his “human mistress,” Ann Darrow (as played by Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film). The story is narrated from Darrow’s perspective, grieving over the tragic loss of her misunderstood guardian.

Other standouts include the following:

  • “Who Dies Best,” which starts with the arresting line “I watched my mother die again today,” and is set in an alternate reality where widespread economic collapse leads to a legitimization and broadening of the “snuff film” concept, with the financially unfortunate becoming “one-off” actors and dying on screen, in exchange for a payout for their survivors.
  • “In the Colosseum,” wherein a relatively innocent film editor is insidiously drawn into a beyond-decadent clique of film crew and hangers-on, led by a particularly perverse producer.
  • “White Butterflies, a tragic tale concerning two young Kazakhstanian brothers whose quest to scavenge scrap metal from an area where spacecraft debris falls leads them to an unfortunate meeting with what Volks calls “monsters…of the predatory human kind.”
  • “Pied a Terre,” in which a woman viewing a potential work-week apartment for her husband encounters something strange in the apartment, and is forced in turn to face certain facts in her own life.
  • “Appeal For Witnesses,” a longer story involving a cop’s investigation of a crime, which leads to an unsettling discovery about the true nature of some apparent Russian gangsters.

The only negative I found in this collection is the *extremely* varied nature of its contents — so much so that it’s somewhat distracting.  Although Volk claims in his Afterword that the collection has a unifying theme that’s expressed in its title, I can’t say that I agree with what  the author says:

The title of this collection, Monsters in the Heart, refers partly to the deep fondness we horror aficionados have for the famous monsters and fright night fiends created by other writers before us…

Some of the stories herein are about human monsters. Individuals with an evil streak or deeply aberrant nature, or those who are simply physically wrong. Others are about, or riffs on, certain myths and legends, or our modern myths and legends from novels or the big screen. Some are about both.

With stories written for the Sherlock Holmes and Hellboy universes — plus other tales such as a surreal bit about a boy with a giant head that grows to fill an entire room, and a sociological SF story set in a near future where genetic screening has become illegal, to name just a couple — there’s an extremely wide range of fiction here. Normally, I’m all in favor of that, but in this case, as I said, it just seemed a little…off-putting, in what is for the most part a very good collection.  As always, your mileage may vary.

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.


Dark and Dynamic – Black Static #27

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed an issue of Black Static magazine, and it’s high time I rectified that. The issue I chose to examine, Black Static #27, dated February-March 2012, proved to be an excellent choice, featuring five solid-or-better stories and the usual interesting array of non-fiction.

All of the stories have something to recommend them, but the standout is Jacob Ruby’s “The Little Things,” which starts out as a straightforward chronicle of a young girl who’s doing whatever she can to support her homebound mother and her… siblings, but gradually transforms into an exercise in sublime weirdness:

“Of course, there were many things that had fallen off of Mother, far too many to count, each living at least briefly on its own. From flakes of dried skin, hair, and moles to full tumors, everything she spouted came with its own life; what survived, Cassie named — what didn’t became a treat for the rest. Mother was a walking, breathing Garden of Eden, blessed with abundance from God.”

Also worthy of special mention is Simon Bestwick’s “The Churn,” in which the aging Alison Corbett suddenly starts experiencing bouts of dementia and apparent hallucinations as well. The people she should most be able to count on — her male companion Graham and the social services worker assigned to her — instead seem to be aligned against her.  Bestwick’s tale of an unreliable protagonist is fast-paced and intriguing, although I’m not sure if I understood everything the author wanted me to. Lack of complete comprehension was also a factor in Stephen Bacon’s “Cuckoo Spit,” the tale of a daughter visiting her ailing mother and renewing their contentious relationship. The meaning of the title is…interesting, if not exactly appetizing, and I’m not at all clear why it’s intrinsic to the story. Family relationships also figure prominently in V.H. Leslie’s “Family Tree,” wherein young Tyler Burrows tries to keep his mother from embarrassing him too much in front of his school-friends and tries to ensure his strangely absentee father stays out of sight. Ultimately, you could consider it a coming-of-age story of a son in a bizarrely dysfunctional family.

I don’t always agree with what Black Static’s three opinion columnists — Stephen Volk, Mike O’Driscoll, and Christopher Fowler — have to say, but their viewpoints are always interesting.  This time around, Volk offers a retrospective on recently-deceased filmmaker Ken Russell, O’Driscoll reviews the UK TV mini-series Black Mirror, and Fowler manages to effortlessly disparage a handful of films.

Tony Lee’s DVD review column, Blood Spectrum, covers 13 films, with highlights being A Vanishing On Seventh Street and a reissue of Rolling Thunder. Peter Tenant’s Case Notes book review column, meanwhile, includes interviews with Alison Littlewood and Cate Gardner, as well as a variety of reviews. As always, Black Static features exceptional design and four-color printing throughout. Add it all up and it’s another entertaining issue of the best regularly-published horror magazine going.