Book Review: Visions from the Void, edited by Jonathan Butcher

“Though subject matter and genre, tone and style vary, each story seems to be connected in some way. By the writer’s commitment to the project, by the intent of each author to produce something distinctive and captivating.”

 

Putting out an anthology these days—especially a horror/dark fiction anthology—can be a risky venture. How do you make yours stand out from the crowd? How do you do something different from the dozens and dozens of anthologies being released every month? In the case of Burdizzo Books’ latest publication, the answer would seem to be something almost unique. Editor Jonathan Butcher’s father, Les, is, according to the introduction, somewhat of an artist. And a thought long lingering in the younger Butcher’s mind was: What would his father’s art inspire in a group of writers he knows? So, he set about asking them, and from this came Visions from the Void.

The first story to kick of the anthology is ‘Shut up and Dance’ by Kayleigh Marie Edwards. It’s a tale of sisterly rivalry, an open-air festival, and a mysterious side-tent outside the festival grounds. A tent where the music never stops, and revellers must keep partying, even if they don’t want to… It’s a really nice concept, a kind of twist on “Lord of the Dance” type stories, with some lovely imagery and a strong central idea. It does take a few pages to get going, and then seems to rush its ending, but nevertheless, it’s a well-conceived opening story. Following this, is Adam Millard’s ‘Checkmate’, a time-twisting tale of a cop and his nemesis. In the middle of a domestic argument, Jack is called by his boss who informs him that his long-standing and unidentified foe, Dante, is nearby and wants to talk. The rest of the tale is a tense dialogue that threatens to turn Jack’s world upside down. This is a great piece of fiction, with the kind of snappy prose Millard excels at, and a fantastic central concept. The only downside is that it’s over all too soon; it would make a great novella. Next we have ‘Ten Minute Warning’ by Emma Dehaney, a very short and sharp take on the nuclear apocalypse. Though it’s over almost before it’s begun, there’s still enough here to intrigue. It’s a dark little psychological piece, though the feeling lingers it could have been expanded on some more. John McNee gives us ‘Uncommon Time’, a darkly delicious tale of old rivalries and possible dark god worship. Old band-mates from an all-female group reunite at one of their houses. Bitter memories and long-held suspicions and grudges are brought to the surface as the three accuse and counter-accuse. This one is lovely, just lovely. The writing is fantastic, the waspy, snappy dialogue pitch-perfect, and the mounting dread palpable. It even manages to confound expectations with the ending. Wonderful stuff.

Paula D. Ashe’s ‘Exile in Extremis’ is an astonishing epistolary tale, utilising emails to tell its story. She expertly teases out the details as a conversation progresses between the editor of an online magazine (with one brief aside from the CEO) and a freelance journalist. To say too much would be to spoil, but nevertheless this is the real deal. A dark tale that twists and turns, compelling and controlled, with a devastating and unexpected ending that will stay with the reader. A contender for the best story here, though it has some fierce competition. Then there’s Kit Power’s ‘The Prickles’, quite possibly the most experimental piece in the book. It is, essentially, a series of recollections by its unnamed protagonist, the only connection that every situation gave them the sensation of “The Prickles”. And though the tale is mostly one long stream-of-consciousness, it is very well-written, compelling, and has some lovely imagery. Unfortunately, without a conventional narrative to hang these images on, it’s a difficult one to engage, and may well divide readers. A shame, for there is the sense that these vignettes hold much personal meaning to the writer, and could, perhaps—subjectively speaking—have been delivered in a more powerful way. The next story is by the editor himself, Jonathan Butcher, one of the longer works on offer. Following fictionalised versions of the author and his father—at least, we hope they’re fictionalised—we are introduced to ‘The Jazziverse’. It’s a fast-paced, lively tale—befitting the jazz that infuses it—and rattles along with huge measures of fun and cosmic horror. Great stuff. Then there’s ‘Third-Eye’, by Lydian Faust, a dark tale that mixes science fiction and an almost fairy-tale/mythological type of horror. It takes in high-school politics, jealousies, and outcasts, and drives towards a twisted, bloody conclusion. There is the sense that a tiny bit more foreshadowing would have made the ending more impactful, but it works fine nonetheless.

David Court spins a noir-flavoured yarn in ‘Brother, can you Spare a Paradigm?’. It’s a fantastic and witty tale, with some real inventiveness, and offers up an intriguing protagonist while building an original world/mythology. One would hope there are more in this series, so engaging is it. The only small mis-step is that the writing shifts—unintentionally, it would seem—between present tense and past tense, but even this isn’t enough tot detract significantly. Another great story. Changing up the tone is J. G. Clay’s ‘The Cruellest Gift’. It’s a dystopian vision of a grim British future where the only freedoms—artistic, political, expressive—in the country are located in “Limbostans”. The prose is stunning, absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful poetic turns-of-phrase, and gorgeous, expressive imagery. Twisting two initially separate narratives, Clay expertly reveals this world through the eyes of the two main characters, bringing them together in a rush of dread and violence. It’s an amazing piece of work, grim and oppressive, yet possessed of insight and a fragile beauty. It’s a story with something to say, and it is said very well. Flipping the tone yet again is Duncan P. Bradshaw’s ‘It Sucks When You’re all Seeds and no Feathers’, a bizarre tale of a pumpkin-boy born to avian parents. Though the concept is utterly outlandish, the imagery completely bizarre, it strangely works. That is down to the writing, which is lively, engaging, and yet does not sacrifice clarity for silliness. There’s a measure of sober restraint even in the early passages which have little flecks of humour. But as it progresses, it becomes more serious, ending on a note of devastation, heartbreak, and fragile hope. The final story is by Matt Cash, entitled ‘Grotto’. A family decide—at least, the father does—to visit a shell grotto located beneath an old man’s house. The two sons, a teenager and one slightly younger, and even the man’s wife, are less than enthusiastic; that is, until the concept of human sacrifice is raised. But then boredom sets in again with the ongoing history lesson. The story moves into conventional horror territory soon enough, with an entertaining tale of monsters and old gods. Two highlights in this story are; the wonderful central image of a “secret” stone staircase beneath an ordinary house; and a hilarious passage where the teenage son urinates onto the sacrificial alter. A decent, pulpy piece to end the book on.

Jonathan Butcher has assembled a great line-up of writers and stories here, and while not all will be to everyone’s tastes, there’s is more than enough variety to satisfy. The central concept of writing stories inspired by Les Butcher’s artwork—included with each piece—is very original and intriguing. As are the explanation notes from each author following their contributions. Though subject matter and genre, tone and style vary, each story seems to be connected in some way. By the writer’s commitment to the project, by the intent of each author to produce something distinctive and captivating. Some of the stories are firmly in the pulpy end of the spectrum, some would be right at home in the likes of Black Static or Shadows and Tall Trees, yet each one fits with its companions very well indeed. This is definitely an original, stand-out-from-the-crowd anthology and well worth purchasing.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Burdizzo Books.
Paperback: 226 (pps)
Release Date: 1 June 2018

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