A Great Review for Emergency Weather + Two Books I Really Enjoyed Reading

A good review is always nice to get, and especially when it’s unexpected. That’s why I was so pleased to see this review of Emergency Weather by Alyson Baker, and especially to see the praise she had for the plotting:

The plotting of Emergency Weather is brilliant. Allie’s harrowing attempt to reach Dunedin Airport, and Stephanie and Miranda’s nightmare tramping trip prepare the reader for what lies ahead. The three main characters weave around each other in passing before eventually ending up in the same place – a memorial service held after a climate catastrophe. The death toll is 43: “a good number for action: large enough to be shocking, small enough that the people killed could be distinguished in the public mind, could be seen as individuals rather than statistics.”

That is what Emergency Weather is about: how can people be motivated to act?

Want to buy a copy of Emergency Weather? Try your local independent bookstore or order direct from The Cuba Press!

PS: If your local library doesn’t stock it, please recommend it to them!

Two Books I Really Enjoyed

Light Keeping by Adrienne Jansen

Light Keeping is an understated novel of quiet power. Set against the ruthless cost-cutting that led to the replacement of lighthouse keepers with automation, it follows a family of lighthouse keepers as they navigate both personal tragedy and institutional indifference, with the latest generation trying to escape the long shadow of the past.

Adrienne Jansen does a great job of intertwining the personal upheavals of her protagonists’ lives with the vagaries of coastline, sea and weather. The boundary between land and sea on which the lonely lighthouse stands is blurred by both disaster and hope, as Jess and Robert struggle to keep the light in view.

Remains To Be Told: Dark Tales of Aotearoa, edited by Lee Murray

Remains To be Told is a very strong anthology of dark fantasy stories and poems from Aotearoa – and I’m not just saying that because one of my poems is including in this anthology! Editor Lee Murray has pulled together a group of authors known for their horror and dark fantasy work, including Neil Gaiman, and others better known for work outside the field, most notably Owen Marshall.

Many of the stories focus to be found in rural Aotearoa – this anthology shows that “New Zealand Gothic” is alive and well, yet it also has a strong and welcome focus on indigenous stories and indigenous mythology. If you want to experience what lies under the surface of the tourist promotional photos and Instagram influencers’ images of unspoiled nature and carefully curated tourism images, this is the anthology for you.

Book Review: The Spectrum Collection, edited by John Prescott – and some thoughts on how horror fiction works


Dark Continents Publishing
is a new publisher of Dark Speculative Fiction, which they define as “Dark Fantasy, Horror (supernatural, Urban, and whatever other twist you can think to put on the genre) Science Fiction with a dark side. Basically, if it makes people squirm, it may well be for us.”

They are not open to unsolicited submissions until 1 May 2011, but they already have several books available, and one of them is a sampler of their current authors’ work, The Spectrum Collection.

Here is what the introduction has to say about The Spectrum Collection:

Welcome to the Spectrum Collection. People have asked us what “Dark Speculative Fiction” is. With this collection of stories from the authors of Dark Continents Publishing, we offer our definitions of that little phrase. Basically, we all write horror. Over the years however, we’ve all developed our own take on horror. You’ll find all our contributions here. From Sylvia Shults’ post-apocalyptic vampire story, to Simon Kurt Unsworth’s story of a cursed home, to the zombie stories contributed by myself and Adrian Chamberlin, you’ll find all the nooks and crannies of the horror world that make up our brand of literature. Our Dark Speculative Fiction. You’ll even find some bloody good poetry by Tracie McBride, Maureen (Mo) Irvine, and John Irvine. Carson Buckingham, Serenity J. Banks, and John Prescott round out the chills with their stories guaranteed to pump up your adrenaline.

So how does The Spectrum Collection live up to these claims? I found that my adrenalin was pumped up quite often, and there were definitely chills, but also that quite a few of the stories didn’t offer that adrenalin and outlet or those chills anywhere to go. In more prosaic language, while almost all the stories were well written, created a nicely scary/spooky atmosphere, and set up a premise that promised excitement and/or fear, a number of them didn’t resolve in a satisfying way.

I’m not a big reader of horror, but I’ve read enough to know that there are two kinds of horror story that work for me: the Stephen King kind, in which the author creates one or a small group of characters the reader cares about, and then puts them in grave jeopardy; and the H. P. Lovecraft kind, in which the characters are much less important and the horror comes from the revelation that vast and inimical cosmic forces wish us all the deepest harm.

(Of course, there are crossovers: Stephen King wrote several Lovecraft pastiches, including “Rats in the Walls”, and “Crouch End”, which memorably melds Lovecraftian horror with the unease of an American adrift in London. For that matter, the great Jorge Luis Borges, whose work often has an element of cosmic horror, acknowledged the influence of Lovecraft on his work and wrote a story dedicated to Lovecraft, “There Are More Things”, published in The Book Of Sand (1975).)

The Lovecraft style is well suited to short stories, because it’s hard to keep up an air of cosmic menace for a whole novel without it tipping over into bathos or silliness. The Stephen King signature style, on the other hand, is better suited to long narratives – of at least novella length – to give time to build up the characters before putting them, and the reader, through the wringer.

Another significant difference between the two styles is that the Stephen King approach usually ends with the survival of one or a few of the characters we care about, while the characteristic Lovecraftian ending has the narrator frantically scribbling the final words of the story as the three-lobed burning eye/giant space octopus/shambling gelatinous horror oozes across the threshold to end story and narrator alike.

Most of the stories in The Spectrum Collection are closer to the Stephen King approach than the H.P. Lovecraft approach, and as none of them are very long, that means that each author has taken on a very challenging task. I felt that a number of the stories did a good job of setting up the characters and the situation, and then fizzled out, either not advancing the story to a satisfying conclusion or coming up with an ending that I’d seen too many times before.

The two stories that made the most satisfying whole for me were “The End” by Serenity J. Banks, and “The Bodymen” by Adrian Chamberlin. “The End” is what Cormac McCarthy’s The Road might be like if retold from the cannibals’ point of view – but it’s not as obvious as that little synopsis makes it sound, and within a general atmosphere of doom and dread, the story still goes to places I didn’t expect.

“The Bodymen” has a tremendous setting for a horror story, a crematorium for dead animals. I once worked for a few weeks at a freezing works coolstore, and I can tell you that they are not great place to be alone at night if you have a vivid imagination. (I still haven’t written my own story based on that experience…). Adrian Chamberlin does a great job of taking his already spooky setting and piling up the horror on top of it. I found the plot a bit confusing in a couple of places, but I was still creeped out by the overall effect.

Other stories I enjoyed included “Wild Goat Curry” by John Irvine, which is short but nasty, and “The Elms, Morecambe,” by Simon Kurt Unsworth; while I think the author could have done more with the premise of this ghost story, the atmosphere of pain and regret is well described.

In the poetry, Tracie McBride’s “Tooth Fairy” isn’t one you want anywhere near your child’s pillow, and “My Sister Doesn’t Live There Anymore,” by John Irvine, is a strong narrative poem.

So, in summary: there are some very strong pieces here, plus some that are underdeveloped, but nevertheless plenty to suggest that the authors represented here, and Dark Continents Publishing, are worth watching out for.

Recent New Zealand Speculative Fiction: “Returning” and “The Game”

As well as reading New Zealand speculative fiction collection A Foreign Country over the holidays, I also read two New Zealand speculative fiction novels: Returning by Pat Whitaker, and The Game by Lee Pletzers. Here’s what I thought:


I enjoyed Returning, and it kept me gripped throughout: I always wanted to know what would happen next. I thought the novel had an outstanding first third, went off the boil for a while in the middle, and returned to form with a strong and moving ending.

Returning is the story of Arthys, an alien exiled on Earth, and his attempts to return home. As such, it’s not dissimilar to some of the books of my favourite hard SF author, Hal Clement. The first section in particular is a gripping evocation of the alien protagonist’s coming to terms with his bizarre new environment and his limitations within it.

Returning is, broadly speaking, a science fiction novel, but it also has elements of romance, alternate history and war novel. Keeping all those aspects in play requires the chutzpah and epic scale of a Thomas Pynchon or a Neal Stephenson – it’s very hard to do in a novel of less than 250 pages, and the attempt to do so is what, for me, made the middle section of the novel less successful.

That’s where the war and alternate history aspects of Returning come to the fore, and although the material of these sections is interesting in itself, I felt that the amount of exposition required overwhelmed the narrative for a while.

The good news is that the novel comes back to its original virtues in its final section, to reach an ending that is both moving and appropriate.

This is the first of Pat’s books that I’ve read; Returning leaves me wanting to read more.

The Game

Lee Pletzers is a horror writer; I reviewed his earlier novel, The Last Church, in 2009. Like The Last Church, The Game is horror with some science fiction elements.

The Game is about a virtual reality computer game that sucks its players in more completely than its creator intended – and sucks him in, too. The entity controlling the titular game has a nasty imagination, and as in The Last Church, various characters suffer highly unpleasant fates.

One of the things that irked me about The Last Church has been fixed in The Game: the proofreading is much better. (That might sound like faint praise, but as a writer, badly-proofread books really annoy me!) And, while the basic idea isn’t new, the plot is well worked out.

But, based on both The Last Church and The Game, I think that Lee Pletzers could take a lesson from Stephen King. King’s best horror novels work because of the care he has taken in creating believable main characters. When bad things start happening to them, we care.

In contrast, The Game has a lot of characters, operating independently or in small groups – as you do in a game – to whom a lot of bad stuff happens. Lisa, the daughter of the titular game’s inventor, is as close as the novel comes to a central character, but I never felt deeply engaged in her struggles and her fate.

So my recommendation for Lee’s next novel would be to scale back the number of characters, breathe life into a few of them, and only then put those well-established characters under threat. That would be a horror novel to get my pulse pounding.

Book Review: The Last Church, by Lee Pletzers

The Last Church is available from Amazon.com. Other availability details are on Lee Pletzers’ website. The Last Church is published by Black Bed Sheet Books, RRP US $20.95.

New Zealand horror writer Lee Pletzers’ The Last Church does the job of a good horror novel (or, I suppose, any novel): it keeps you turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next, and hoping that at least some of the characters – not to mention the world – will make it out alive at the end of the story.

And the fate of the world is very much at stake. I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just say that there’s a man with a plan for the future of the world which isn’t what most of us would wish for; that this man has, or embodies, demonic assistance; and that a diverse coalition of characters with less power but equal determination come together to stop him — or, at least, to try.

Along the way, quite a lot of the characters meet gruesome fates. And some of them are very gruesome: The Last Church doesn’t stint on sex, violence, and in some cases sexual violence. You have been warned.

It took me a while to get into the story. There is a large cast of characters to start with – before the main villain and his henchpeople start to whittle them down — and the story jumps between several time periods. I had trouble keep track of everything and everyone for about the first quarter of the novel. Also off-putting were quite a few proofreading and grammatical errors: mostly minor things, like missing apostrophes, but until I got into the flow of the story I found these distracting. I know only too well how hard it is to eliminate all such errors, but another proofreading run would benefit future printings of the novel.

As I read, I wasn’t always convinced that characters’ motivations for their actions were sufficiently well established. The principal villain is a nasty piece of work, but he has a goal, and his actions are consistent with that goal. On the other hand, to my eyes at least, the behaviour of his “dream woman” and subsequent consort seems inconsistent; or, put another way, I didn’t feel I had a clear enough understanding of her character, so that her actions sometimes seemed arbitrary rather than well-founded.

But it would be a mistake to dwell on the negatives. The Last Church is scary, gruesome at times, and increasingly gripping as it approaches its climax. If you like horror with a side order of apocalypse, The Last Church is worth a visit.