Monday 20 June 2022

Phoenix, by Steve Byrne - Redux Reviews 1

Welcome to the start of a new thread where I'll revisit reviews of books by friends and writers I admire, to highlight the works for readers who might have missed them the first time they appeared.

We'll begin with Phoenix, a novel by Steve Byrne I originally reviewed in 2013.

Vietnam 1967.
Something monstrous has risen from the ashes of war…
When the US marines enter the hidden village of Mau Giang, they unleash an ancient darkness from within its temple walls. A fearful secret kept for generations by the native Montagnard tribespeople. 
Abraham Curtis travels to Vietnam to visit his sister Jenny, an aid worker in Saigon. Together they join a humanitarian convoy into the Central Highlands, where Jenny is to adopt a child orphaned by the conflict.

But the influence of the breached temple is spreading its contagion across the combat zones of Vietnam like gangrene through flesh, and soon it will destroy Bram’s world. Pursued by a bloodthirsty cult, he must search for his missing sister through the war-torn wastelands, his only companions deserters, rebel soldiers and a woman who may not be quite human.
Across the world, protestors line the streets. The battle lines are drawn - war and peace, hawk or dove. Is this the apocalyptic coming of the Man of Blood, prophesised by Nostradamus, or a delusion brought about by Post-traumatic Stress? On panic filled streets, during the Fall of Saigon, Bram will find his answer.
Forget truth. Forget innocence. There are only casualties.

Bram Curtis is in Saigon in 1967, to visit his sister Jenny who works in an orphanage.  He’s left England, disillusioned and wants to try and find himself in this new country - listen to Hendrix, smoke pot and see what life has to offer.  When he discovers Jenny is planning to adopt a young girl called Lai, he gets roped into the aid convoy to go and reach her, headed by the urbane General Hoan.  After things take a decided turn for the worse (like Hoan himself) and Bram becomes embroiled in the Tet Offensive, the narrative jumps to May 1970 as he searches for his now-missing sister.  His pursuit leads him further in-country and into the orbit of the mysterious - and potentially dangerous - Qui, taking us up to 1975 (there’s a much later coda too), when he must finally confront the Man Of Blood, a supernatural entity that is teased throughout the novel.  
Since my entire knowledge of Vietnam is limited to memories of lessons at school and movies from the 80s and 90s, this isn’t the kind of novel that I would have picked up generally but I’m glad I did in this case.  Starting with a bang and never really letting go of the pace - and it’s a long novel - Byrne relays the story of Bram, a drifter who discovers a cause that consumes his life, with real style.  Vietnam is almost a character in herself, with Saigon painted in rich and detailed depth, from the heat and humidity, the texture of skin and sweat and the hundreds of things that are happening in the streets at once, creating a riot of tactile, broiling humanity.  Later, moving in-country, you get a real sense of both the claustrophobia and humidity of the jungle, of the architecture of the churches and the battered and bruised earth, making it occasionally hard to read it’s so well done.  
The book is filled with vivid characters - and this extends to the most minor of roles, not just Bram, Jen, Hoan or Qui - and yet none of them are guaranteed safe passage to the end of the novel, with some of the deaths (as quick and dirty as you’d expect in a war situation) being quite shocking.  Combine this with a dispassionate eye towards the brutality of war - what is seen and what is perpetrated - and you have a narrative that demands attention.  The supernatural elements are used sparingly but are well written and blended easily into the narrative, so you’re as unaware as the character if you’ve witnessed them or not.  Byrne doesn’t skimp on the set pieces either and there are plenty of them, all superbly constructed and choreographed, never overlong and intense enough to make you feel part of them.  The same is true of the last act, a gruelling journey Bram must take into his own heart of darkness that you can’t tear your eyes from, even down to the gut-punch final few lines.
Steve has clearly done his research in all areas - the locations, the equipment, the theatres of war, the culture and the language - and it shines through perfectly, with nothing coming across as heavy handed or expositional.  Everything the reader learns  - about Vietnam or the horrors - comes through the character, with no obvious info-dumps.
This is a wonderfully constructed novel, tightly edited and with a cracking pace and it deserves a big readership.  Highly recommended.

The book can be found on Amazon here as a paperback and here as an ebook whilst Steve Byrne's website can be found here.

Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) & I go back a long way, first corresponding in the late 90s when he produced a newsheet called The Inner Circle.  I didn't actually meet him for several years, finally plucking up the courage at one FantasyCon to introduce myself with "are you the Steve Harris who did The Inner Circle?”

Since then we've developed a great friendship, which often involves us talking for hours at Cons about all things horror.  At FantasyCon 2012 (in Brighton, which I wrote about here), he told me about Phoenix, which he was publishing through his own imprint PunkLit and I jumped at the chance to read it.

The first Crusty Exterior gathering - London, April 2015
from left to right - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve and me

Monday 6 June 2022

Planning & Editing: A guest post by Richard Farren Barber

My fine friend Richard Farren Barber has a new novella out from Crystal Lake Publishing called Twenty Years Dead (it's very good) and to help celebrate it, he's contributed the following guest post.

After twenty years in the ground, the dead briefly rise. At his father’s grave, this is Dave’s last opportunity to discover why a man would abandon his wife and young son. Against the protests of his mother and his girlfriend, Dave is determined to learn what happened all those years ago. Sometimes you have to risk everything, but the dead don’t give up their secrets so easily.

Twenty Years Dead is a novella of quiet horror, which explores families and their secrets.

Come listen when the Dead speak...

* * *
You'd have thought after thirty plus years (gulp) I'd have a handle on this writing malarkey. Write. Edit. Publish.


And sometimes that's exactly how it works. My most recently published novella is Twenty Years Dead and that was a straightforward delivery. The first draft was written in 4 weeks and then it took a few more weeks for editing before it was ready to go out.

Not so much the current novella. It's not hideously complex but I've already had to pull it apart and restructure it, shifting around scenes, deleting chapters and adding new material. And still it’s very, very wrong.

It’s not necessarily the chronology of the story which creates complications – in both cases the story follows a conventional storyline, but sometimes it’s clear from reading the first draft that something has gone awry. For me it’s often about character motivation, or development. It’s often the case that something just doesn’t feel right.

There's a part of me which loves the dissection: it’s very satisfying taking something apart, figuring out how it actually works and how it should work. But here's the thing; once you start messing with the order of your first draft it quickly unravels. It reminds me of times as a child when I took apart a toy only to discover I couldn't put it back together again. After a few hours of focussed play you find yourself with a handful of plastic pieces and a knot of wires and rubber bands.

(Quick aside for those brought up in the seventies: The Casdon tabletop football game used a *lot* of strings to make those players move. Who knew?)

You put your story together in what you think is the right order and suddenly characters gain knowledge they can't possess, or reference events which have not happened. It's amazing how complicated simple things can become.

When I'm sitting there staring at my disembowelled story there is a temptation to shove all the guts back in and just hope no-one notices. Even when the major structural work is done and all the scenes are in the right order the details continue to trip me up. It can be something as miniscule as realising you’ve referenced a building which no longer exists, or by introducing characters in a different order they need to change their view on events.

I often find myself wondering whether any reader would spot the inconsistencies or whether I'm self-flagellating. I suspect someone would, but in truth I don't know. But I’d know, and I think that’s the only thing I can offer as a writer: integrity.

Every time I am editing a story I wish I planned my tales better and I promise myself next time I'll write a proper outline. Outlining seems like the Holy Grail as a writer. When I begin writing a new story I usually have a very clear vision of the beginning and an understanding of the end but the middle tends to be hazy. Some of the characters in Twenty Years Dead were known to me from the outset while others bloomed into existence as the pages racked up. For me, that discovery during the first draft is one of the real joys of writing; I just need to find a way to do it before I start page one.

* * *
Me & Richard in Nottingham during a Crusty Exterior
meet-up in April 2019 I wrote about here
Richard Farren Barber was born in Nottingham in July 1970. After studying in London he returned to the East Midlands. He lives with his wife and son and works as a manager for a local university.

He has over 80 short stories published, seven novellas: “The Power of Nothing”, “The Sleeping Dead”, “Odette”, “Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence”, “Closer Still”, “All Hell.” , and “Twenty Years Dead.” His two novels are: “The Living and the Lost” and “The Screaming Dead” (Co-authored with Peter Mark May).

Richard can be found online at the following links: