|Cover Art: Jim Pitts|
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Often, when an author produces a collection of stories, the majority of them have been published elsewhere either in magazines or anthologies alongside those of other authors. Tough Guys is unusual in two respects. First, the four pieces here – three novellas and one short story – are all previously unpublished; second, they are as different from each other as one might expect in an accumulation of unseen stories. The second is unusual as Cole’s previous collection was Nick Nightmare Investigates (Alchemy Press), where all the stories revolved around the same character and the world he inhabited. As a collection it worked extremely well as Cole won the BFS Award for the book.
Although called Tough Guys, there are some tough women here, too. The first story ‘Wait For The Ricochet’ is another about Nick Nightmare. Here we get an insight into some of his background. He gets a message to visit his old mentor, urgently. Zeff is a lifer in Sing Sing, a place where Nick did three years. Zeff is dying but he needs Nick to carry the information about the hiding place of a powerful artefact to the new keeper of the knowledge. Nick cannot refuse. The task might seem simple but there are others who want the information. One of them, Lucien de Sangreville, is aware that it will be easier the extract what he wants from Nick rather than the person it is intended for. The complication is that the person de Sangreville kidnaps to put pressure on Nick, is the one the information is intended for. Thus, Nick has to rescue him before he can complete his mission. He is aided by Ariadne Caradine, a wealthy woman who readers will recognise form previous Nick Nightmare stories. She elegant, charming and deadly, an ideal partner in this caper. The other important and familiar character is Oil-Gun Eddie. It is him, they need to rescue.
‘If You Don’t Eat Your Meat’ is science fiction blended with horror. At some time in the past the Virus decimated the population. In the countryside, winters are harsh and farmers and their families try to survive anyway they can. The rules the city people live by are often set aside. The narrator, Ryan Blackstone is a teenager in one such family on the edge of the moors. The Blackstones have had a feud with the Tregathick for many years, so when one of the cows goes missing, they are the first to be suspected. Ryan and Wayne, the youngest of his brothers are sent to check. Ryan sees the Tregathicks butchering the cow but is spotted. Chased through the snow drifts and desperate, Ryan kills Jed Tregathick. Since the Tregathicks are eating their cow, the Blackstones eat Jed. The feud escalates from there until Ryan flees to the city. This is not a pleasant story and even though there is some sympathy for Ryan, he does his best to alienate the reader.
Another character you can end up not liking is the narrator of ‘A Smell Of Burning’. The narrator wakes up immobilised in hospital. He cannot remember what happened, or why he is there. He discovers that he can leave his body and his astral projection is able to wander the hospital. Then he realises that he can tune into the thoughts of the other patients. For a while, this is enjoyable. Then he realises that there is a scary dark cloud also inhabiting the plane. He plucks up the courage to find the patient it is emanating from and tunes into the history of a very unpleasant pyromaniac.
The final story goes back to a Nick Nightmare kind of territory. ‘Not If You Want To Live’ also has the narrator waking up in an unexpected place when he thought he was dead. He is, but has been recruited as a Redeemer. As Razorjack his job is to return the soul to the body of a person who has just died so they can continue a productive life. He doesn’t know why these people are chosen – that’s another department. After initial training and a number of field missions, Razorjack is given a more complex task. A member of a group called the Adversaries are upsetting the balance. Razorjack has to trap one of them. He is sent back to live in the real world and await a call. A wealthy man, Silvio Fellini, will ask him to Redeem his wife who died from an overdose. Although Razorjack’s memories of his life up until his original death have been deeply buried, circumstances cause them begin to surface.
Adrian Cole is a skilled writer and all four of these pieces are excellently written. I would have liked the first to be longer, but the length is well judged for the other three. This is a book I can highly recommend.
Reviewed by Sandra Scholes
Forget what you remember about football back in the 70s, Richard Staines puts the record straight about how the England B team scored their goals. It certainly wasn’t through the team’s rigorous training and fitness regime – it was through black magic.
Parallel Universe Publications are fond of putting out story anthologies they think readers will enjoy as they are original and, at times funny. This one, like many on their list have a well-rounded sense of humour right down to the cover art of England Coach Vince Grinstead, some footballs that act as chapter breaks and some quotes on the back cover that are hilarious for those who know who Dennis Wheatley, Genesis and Yes are. The stories form part of a collected works that seems to be of instances, moments that deal with what Staines sees as the real history behind the World Cup in 1970 and other major matches several years after.
What I liked about the stories was the fact they initially transported the reader back to the seventies with mentions of Double Diamond, Brut aftershave, fish & chips and, Satan help me, Pan Books of Horror – remember them? I do. Staines has been clever though, he has charted the journey Vince has gone on from glory to failure and back again by the only means necessary to get his B team to victory. In No Such Thing as a Friendly, Vince takes us through what really happened on the 14th June 1970 while the England “A” team were in Mexico during the World Cup. While the “A” team are living it up in civilized country, the “B” team are in Goboya, an island on the coast of South America with barely a cold pint in sight. A Game of Two Halves has Vince tell the true story of what happened on April 1974 in a match between the USSR Representative XI and their team. Just in case there was any problem winning, they decide to make sure the “B” team are up to the challenge. Here, Vince puts the black into magic. The Ref’s Decision is Final sees Vince down on his luck, his job lost and he is drowning his sorrows in The Smuggler’s Arms. Here, Sir James Bassingron-Smythe makes him an offer he can’t refuse – to take the “B” team back to glory against the Scots. Get Your Fritz Out For the Lads carries on from the previous story where the Scots had smashed the windows of their coach and roll up to a spooky old mansion, hoping to phone for help. It’s one of the best clichés in horror, and one which Richard handles very well.
With a series of comedy horror stories laced with black magic dabbling and fun japes, he has also added the pop culture references of the times. It is a must read for those who remember the good old times of football.
Reviewed by Sandra Scholes
There is strange fiction, but rarely do we get to find a writer who challenges what we think about horror as a genre. Johnny Mains stories read like a list of people you wouldn’t want to meet in real life. The third collection of short horror stories, Johnny Mains has his supporters right at the back cover of the book who all pretty much think of him as likely to be sectioned at any moment, yet for him to get to this third collection means he has talent. Johnny has written with other authors, ‘Paintings’ with Simon Bestwick and ‘The Curse of the Monster’ with Bryn Fortey, ‘The Girl on Suicide Bridge’ was nominated for the Best Short Story category of the British Fantasy Awards 2015, and in Johnny’s ‘Author’s Mumbles – Part 3’, he shares with us how he gets his ideas and the writing process he went through that led to its being published. Not since reading musings from Neil Gaiman’s works have I noticed the sheer endurance writers need when their writing is either rejected or changed, or according to the writer, over edited until it doesn’t resemble what the writer intended.
Blossom is one of these stories that is short and starts out with a man who thinks he has the perfect life with his wife and children until a mystery illness shatters the illusion. Johnny intended the story to be a Robert Aickman tribute, but it turned out very different in the last draft. I felt it was one of the stronger ones where the antagonist gets his just desserts, and rightly so. ‘The Case of the Revenant’ is Johnny’s way of paying homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, preferring to write about Holmes as Watson can be a little boring sometimes. Set in Austria, Holmes investigates an unsolved case where a family has been murdered. I got the impression Johnny had always wanted to write a Holmes story as so many writers have tried to pen at least one in their lives, though this ends in a much more sinister way than expected.
There are ten short stories here, so I can imagine another anthology coming out at some point soon. Unlike other writers, Johnny makes sure you see the monsters, their evil intent and malice at the very end, rather than a vague image or suggestion of them. Not all the characters have their monsters in their heads and not everyone in the stories are as nice as they appear. Admittedly, there are one or two stories that are deep enough to cause an emotional response (‘Blossom’, ‘A Forest of Lonely Deaths’ and ‘The Girl on Suicide Bridge’).