Three Whispers of Wickedness chapbooks (D-Press)

Reviewed by Djibril

These chapbooks, printed on plain copy paper in black and white, and folded into A5 stapled booklet form with card covers, are a triumph of low-budget publishing, with quality content rather than glossy presentation. The simple format should not be taken as a sign of low standards: the editor D has done a good job, both in selecting authors to showcase in this way, and in effective proofing and typesetting. Any aspiring horror writer could do far worse than to make their début in this imprint.

Mark Howard Jones, Night Country, illustrated by Marcia Borell

This title contains four short stories that range from the flippant, through disturbing, to quite obscure; there is, in my view, a clean fifty-fifty split between excellent and the passable. Artwork is basic, but effective, having the appearance of watercolour or charcoal work that has been scanned in monochrome and printed or xeroxed; the portrait of the flaming-haired girl accompanying the third story stands out as the nicest piece.

The first story, ‘A Blue Room With One Window’, is a short piece with little plot: a young lodger awakes to find himself breathing water, panics, then comes to terms with his new ability until he learns that it has a downside. This has the feel of a fantasy, or perhaps rather a nightmare, with shades of Kafka; but the twist struck me as a little glib, even flippant. A fair, light-hearted opener for the collection.

Next comes the darkest story here, ‘Cicatrice Mistress’, an extremely disturbing story about art and magic, domination and death, blackmail and betrayal. The villain of the piece reveals that the protagonist, the painter Jake, has a secret about as dark as you can imagine, which makes it challenging for the reader to find someone to sympathise with. There is blood and horror aplenty in this inventive and chilling tale.

‘Burning Sian’ is a denser piece that I found difficult to interpret. It contains seemingly disjointed thoughts and conversations of the titular Sian, whose head appears to be on fire (this burning must be psychotic or metaphorical, if not metaphysical, since it seems to go on for years); one other character includes a painter named Jake, who may (or I suppose may not, since he has no identiying features) be the same character from the previous story. I wonder if the broken paragraphs are meant to reflect the narrator's madness or represent some kind of prose poem?

The final piece is another dark and unsettling story, ‘The Song of Sorrow’, with an ambivalent protagonist and a readership drawn in and implicated in the horror. Ant is a teenage schoolboy, with a repressive father bordering on violence, and no interest in classes. Rather he is obsessed with history and with reading, a pursuit that his father quashes. We can not help but empathise with this boy, but then have to watch with a growing sense of unease as we learn of his flawed understanding of morality and his obsession with human sacrifice. We cannot condemn him as a monster, therefore, when he starts to lose his grip.

I shall certainly watch out for Mr Jones' writing in the future.

John Dodds, Gameplayers, illustrated by Laura Cameron Jackson

This book contains three stories, all of fairly even standard and quality, none of them either deeply fantastic or terribly dark. Artwork is clear and unpretentious, not particularly imaginative, and not too distracting from the text. Two of the four drawings are of a bunch of keys, for some reason; the cover image featuring a combination of chess pieces on a snakes-and-ladders board is technically very good.

‘Freeloader’ is the story of three housemates whose life is disrupted by the arrival in their home of Brady, a seemingly chameleonic figure whom they seem to know but cannot place. While not immediately offensive, Brady insinuates himself into their lives and tensions soon mount all around him. Neither the characters nor for that matter the readers can quite pin the blame for what happens on the freeloader, but he does seem to make a habit of getting something for nothing out of people. A spooky tale, and one which will fill most people with an uncomfortable sense of familiarity.

‘Levitation’ could almost be described as a domestic suspense thriller with supernatural overtones. Katya is a Polish-born but fully naturalised immigrant, now widowed, who sells dried flower arrangements to gift shops and looks after her cantankerous, semi-paralysed mother who plays solitaire obsessively and is addicted to Coca Cola. Since childhood Katya has had the almost magical ability to imbue dead things with life, but she seems reluctant to use her gift to ease the loneliness and emptiness of her life, for all her mother's urging to remember the "old ways". Warm and subtle, this story is moving and convincing in equal proportions.

The final story, ‘Crossing the Border’, would be a road movie (if it were a movie); the story of Harry, who is on the run with his uncomplaining wife, leading her from state to state, country to country, where he steals and gambles for a living until it is time to move on. Incapable of making a decision, all of Harry's choices are made by a tossed dice or a flipped coin, until the reappearance of his dangerous partner in crime who announces that the time has come to walk back into danger and collect their ill-gotten loot. Harry's choices have suddenly gotten much harder, but with them his ability to see his options suddenly clarifies. Perhaps not the most original concept for a story, but one nicely written and effective.

Three very competent and readable stories.

John Saxton, Bloodshot, illustrated by Carole Humphreys

Another wide mix of stories in the pages of this volume, ranging from the not-quite-sublime to the frankly ridiculous. The drawings illustrating these stories are really quite accomplished, both atmospheric and very skilfully drawn, although the depth of detail is sometimes more imaginative perhaps than the texts themselves demand.

The first piece is perhaps the best: ‘The Shape at the Window’, a story which begins with imaginery beasts formed from dark shadows around the room and at the window, by a man who is sleeping on the couch because his wife is in too much pain upstairs. The couple is consumed with grief and depression, each tortured by their own guilt and shame, and by monsters more real than the reader at first realises. A gripping, although somehow amoral, story.

‘Amelia's Labyrinth’ is a familiar-feeling story set at a posh boys' boarding school in the early twentieth century. Shortly after the disappearance of a student in mysterious circumstances, George, a new boy at the school—the son of a newspaper editor who carried the story—finds himself in a peculiar bower in the wooded grounds with his new friend, a beautiful, strangely persuasive boy. Of course the woods turn out to have something to do with the missing boy, and George finds himself at the middle of it all. A nicely handled story with believable elements, but embedded in too clichéd a setting for its own good.

‘The Achilles Impulse’ is the first of two classically labelled stories which do not live up to their grand titles. The title in this case refers to a pretty, blonde, eight-year old girl who has a knack for manipulating the weaknesses of those around her, fulfilling their dreams in such a manner as they would never have wished for. The scene is peopled with stereotypes and cardboard cut-outs of teachers, too crudely drawn to ellicit much sympathy.

The last story in this collection, ‘Troilus Timon and Tiberius’, is the tale of three tadpoles in a glass tank in a school classroom. It is as silly as it sounds, and sadly the whole feeble climax hangs on a cheap ethnic stereotype, which is predictable from the moment a boy is called by a recognisably French name. I'm not sure what this piece is even doing in such a volume.

Some good writing in this collection, but a couple of pieces too flippant for my taste.


These chapbooks and more can be obtained from Whispers of Wickedness at http://www.ookami.co.uk/

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